ORIGINALLY WRITTEN LAURA CAMPBELL
To Sue Klassen, the city of Florence holds a world of opportunity, and she says it’s the eyes of an outsider that allow her to see what other residents miss.
“I just see so much potential here,” said Klassen, who has served Florence as postmaster for nearly three years and as mayor for just three months.
“We’ve just got to move forward just a little bit at a time,” she added.
Growing up just north of Marion, Klassen graduated from Centre High School and from beauty school in Salina.
The former beautician lived in Hillsboro for 18 years and did short stints in other Marion County towns before moving to Florence three years ago with nine years of postal work under her belt.
But while she no longer works as a hair stylist, Klassen still has an artistic eye, and now she’s turned it toward Florence.
To Klassen, the beauty of the town lies in its rich history, and the many old buildings that now lie empty around town are the key to bringing that past back to life.
“There’s so much history here,” said Klassen, whose work for the city includes the historical society.
“We’ve got it here sitting under our noses,” she added. “We’ve just got to do something with it.”
From the old opera house above the grocery store to the vacated bed-and-breakfast and school buildings, Klassen said each of the landmarks could be revitalized by the right person.
And attractions like those, she said, are just what Florence needs to draw in some of the 28,000 vehicles on U.S. highways 50 and 77 that daily pass by the town.
The “crossroads of the nation” could be transformed “if we could get a fourth of those people to come downtown for a reason,” she said.
“If we want to make money, we’ve got to bring people from outside in, to drop some cash and go home,” she added.
But Klassen said it’s difficult to motivate long-time residents to share her vision of what could be.
“For some reason it’s like we can’t get people to see what a treasure they’ve got,” she said.
“My biggest wish for this town is to figure out how to get three-quarters of the people more involved.”
Right now, Klassen said about 60 residents do most of the city-improvement work, several of them with her on the PRIDE committee, which she chairs.
Recent PRIDE projects include the addition of planters and benches along Main Street, she said.
But Klassen said real change could take place if other residents put in year-round the kind of effort she sees at the town’s popular Labor Day weekend events.
“You wouldn’t believe what happens in this town Labor Day weekend,” said Klassen, who is also Labor Day chair. “It’s like a totally different town.”
Florence residents have plenty of reasons to take pride in their town, including the water-the best in Marion County “bar none”-and its three excellent restaurants, Klassen said.
She said the town needs its mayor to be “a positive face to move forward” in light of these unique qualities.
It’s for this reason that Klassen involves herself in so many aspects of city life, she said.
“Pretty well anything that’s a positive force in town, I try to make it my business to be a part of,” she said. “I just think we have to keep going forward.”
Klassen’s work with the chamber of commerce, the Leadership Marion County class and economic development board has helped her make valuable connections for the town, she said.
“To me, it’s all about networking-being in the right place at the right time, meeting the right person,” she said.
“We’ve got the potential for business, we’ve just got to figure out how to talk to the right person to get them here to show them what we’ve got.”
And because “first impressions are going to count,” Klassen said she wants to fix up the streets and sidewalks of downtown to make it more attractive to businesses that might want to locate there.
“Everybody likes the Americana stuff,” she said. “We’ve got the perfect Main Street to do it with.
“We’ve got the facades on all the buildings,” she added. “It’s just like walking back in time.”
The city also has plans to redo Veterans’ Park, one of six parks in Florence, she said.
“We’d really love to add some trees and paths and make it a really nice downtown park,” she said.
Other dream projects include the construction of a community center and the establishment of a city foundation for the financial benefit of future generations.
Already in the works, Klassen said, is the certification process to plant some 2,000 seedlings for a walnut tree farm on the town’s 18 acres just east of the dike.
“Of course, I won’t ever see it, because they won’t be ready to harvest until 2045,” she said. “But that’s something for future generations. That’s something that will be here.”
Klassen said future generations also need a way to better understand and appreciate Florence’s roots as a railroad town.
She suggested installing a series of ceramic trains, like the figures present in other nearby towns.
“What we’d like to do is put the trains on a stand that’s got a plaque that, from one to the next, talks about the history of the train in this town,” she said.
Klassen finds it ironic that Florence’s heritage as a railroad town made it a “wild town” forbidden to her as a kid.
“Who would have ever that years later, I’d be mayor of a town I wasn’t supposed to go in,” she said with a laugh.
While her own son and daughter live in Wichita, Klassen has found Florence a fun place to be.
“I love it to pieces,” she said. “People are so nice and friendly.”
Klassen knows how to enjoy “to pieces” whatever she’s doing in the area- whether it’s golfing, boating at the Marion Reservoir, fixing up her house or hamming it up with two local women in a karaoke-style trio called the Ditzy Chicks.
The last activity led to a recent five-day trip to San Francisco to perform with Judy Mills and Sara Neal at a high school graduation.
“It was absolutely a hoot,” she said. “It was just back to good old-fashioned fun and silly humor.”
But helping Florence realize its potential is still one of Klassen’s biggest passions, although she realizes that her dream projects would be a financial drain on the people of the town.
“Like so many small towns, money is the problem,” she said. “How much can you keep asking the people in town to give?”
And this particular year is already strained, she said.
“Financially, we’re struggling a little bit right now,” Klassen said. “We’re paying for debts that started back in 1993, and now it’s time to pay the piper.”
So now is a time to dream big and start small, she said, all with a positive attitude that begins with her and spreads outward.
“The mayor needs to be a positive face and a voice for the people,” she said.
Klassen said she hopes to be a mayor that not only speaks for community members but also listens to concerns they voice to her.
“They can even yell at me, and I’ll listen to what they have to say,” she said. “And maybe it’s something that we can work out together and move forward from there.”
Klassen said the day-to-day responsibilities of caring for the town’s residents makes for more work as mayor than she expected.
“It’s like a business and a family all at the same time,” she said. “I have 600 people, and any decision that I make is going to affect all 600 of these people.
“So I have to look at the big picture, not just a quick fix to anything,” she said.
Overall, Klassen is realistic yet optimistic about the time, money and energy needed to achieve her goals for the community, she said.
“It’s going to be a lot of work, but I think we can do this.”