ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The mantra that bad publicity is better than no publicity might work in Hollywood, but it doesn’t fly in Florence-or in most small communities in Kansas.
“No way,” says Sue Klassen, who is employed as Florence’s postmaster but puts in almost as much time as chair of the PRIDE committee that was launched last fall in this Marion County town of 600 people.
In fact, Klassen and her committee of 18 volunteers are working overtime these days in an attempt to overcome the crush of media attention Florence endured last month in the wake of misconduct allegations against its chief of police.
“Florence has a lot of very positive things and a lot of positive people,” Klassen said. “To focus just on this negative thing is just doing the town so wrong.”
Whether those allegations ultimately are proven true or false, Klassen sees this latest ordeal as a personal challenge.
“I keep saying every time something negative happens in town, I feel like it’s a personal fence somebody’s thrown in front of me,” she said. “So now, I’ve got to jump over that fence until somebody throws up another fence.”
Klassen knows she and her committee have their work cut out for them given the “first impression” that Florence made in central Kansas in the wake of the extensive television coverage.
“That’s the scary part,” she said. “The people who didn’t know Florence before, when you say ‘I’m from Florence,’ they’re all going, ‘Oh, I heard about you on the news.’ Well, that isn’t what we’re like at all.”
Klassen said she’s convinced the way to turn the tide of the broader public opinion is to start locally-and that’s why she feels the work of the local PRIDE committee is so important.
“We have to take pride in what we’ve got and see that we’re working for the same goal,” Klassen said.
For more than 30 years, PRIDE has operated statewide as a cooperative effort of the Kansas Department of Commerce, K-State Research and Extension and the private sector to rally volunteer initiatives to improve the quality of life in local communities.
In Florence, restoring pride starts at home. Literally.
“My mandate is to get people to think about their town and try to make it look better,” Klassen said. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money to clean up your yard, trim your trees, keep your grass mowed, pick up the trash-and if you see extra trash lying around, to pick it up, too.”
In fact, if residents of Florence buy the paint, the PRIDE committee will paint houses, too.
“I’ve asked the people on our PRIDE committee and they said they would do it-just so we can get the town looking better,” Klassen said.
“I’m thinking that’s a wonderful opportunity for anyone who wants to get their house painted,” she added. “We have a lot of people who don’t work and they could go full-time on this.”
The committee has initiated other ideas, too.
“Some of the things we want to do around town is build rock benches, new trash receptacles, maybe some banners, plant some trees around town-just try to get people to think about the town, take pride in it and clean it up.”
When the city council decided it couldn’t afford to have its street signs repainted professionally at $25 a sign, Klassen and a fellow committee member accepted the challenge of repainting the signs themselves.
“You can paint a lot of signs for $100-it’ll just take time,” Klassen said with a laugh.
In December, the PRIDE committee began publishing a monthly newsletter called “Florence Crossroads,” and has more than 40 paying subscribers.
The publication covers everything from recent births, business developments and city council meetings. A recent issue even took on rumors floating around town.
“Local news is all you’re going to get,” Klassen said. “We’re trying to get people to learn about their own community and be involved in it and not wait until after the fact and say, ‘You know, I didn’t read that in the paper.'”
The creativity of the PRIDE committee is limited only by its ability to pay for the projects it dreams up. The committee receives no governmental support and must raise every penny it spends.
To date, the committee has raised several hundred dollars through a kickoff chili feed last fall and by selling concessions at a recent youth basketball tournament.
Later this month, Friday, March 13, the committee is sponsoring its first official fund-raiser in connection with St. Patrick’s Day and the community’s Irish heritage.
“I can’t wait until March 13,” Klassen said. “We have special entertainment coming in because we’ve tied it to St. Patrick’s Day.”
She declined to reveal the surprise, but did say the entertainment included traditional Celtic music “and other surprises.”
Klassen said the key to PRIDE’s success is volunteers. In that regard, she’s been gratified by the response of fellow residents.
“People around town have been very enthusiastic,” she said. “They are very willing to jump on board and help. We have such a good, positive thing going on here.”
A number of people have stepped forward for specific projects.
“We already have one gentleman who has volunteered his labor to put together our stone benches for downtown,” she said.
“Of course, we haven’t gotten anybody to give us the stone yet,” she added with a laugh. “We’ll be working on that next.”
Klassen’s enthusiasm for her PRIDE work is infectious-and surprising, considering she didn’t even live in Florence until last June.
Getting involved in her new community came as naturally to her as breathing.
“I have a Type A personality-I’m a doer by nature,” she said. “And I love to do this. This is just the height of my day. When I’m not working with it, I’m thinking about it.
“That’s why I like this size of town,” she added. “Here, I’ve got a good-paying job but yet I have enough time that I can do other stuff. I spend a good deal of the day on the phone.”
As the postmaster, Klassen works in a community nerve center. She said she listens to any resident who has something to say.
“I don’t care if it’s good or bad-I want to hear it all,” she said. “We’re not all on the same wave length and we don’t have to be-as long as we’re working for the same goal.”
And that goal is to make Florence the best community it can be-not only for the folks who live there but ultimately for those who visit.
“People can drive through town and know we’re not a town with a lot of money,” Klassen said. “But they will definitely get the sense that we’re proud of what we’ve got.
“They don’t want want to see what they’ve got crumble.”