LaHarpe takes stock

By SUSAN LYNN
Register Editor

LAHARPE — Monday night LaHarpe residents faced facts — good and bad.
About 12 residents met in the first of three meetings with a handful of Thrive Allen County members to brainstorm about LaHarpe and what it will take to get the small town to their ideal by the year 2020.
A review of the town’s assets was a helpful exercise in reaffirming why the town remains a viable community of about 650 people; the third largest in Allen County.
Talking points included LaHarpe’s:
* Access to high speed Internet;
* Affordable real estate;
* Strategic location on U.S. 54;
* Favorable incentives for new development and upkeep of residences;
* Nice park and softball fields;
* Attractive cemetery;
* Increased efforts by citizens to raze blighted homes;
* Conservative, but progressive, governing body;
* Quiet, peaceful community;
* Neighborly people;
* Good volunteer fire department; and
* Annual LaHarpe Days.
“These are all things you should be proud of,” said David Toland, executive director of Thrive and who lead the evening’s exercise.
Towns don’t just happen. They are made of a collective will to prosper. And to make LaHarpe turn around its precipitous decline of population will mean addressing some ugly problems, such as:
* A “dead” Main Street, said Savannah Heard. “Nothing speaks louder of a town’s decay than boarded up storefronts,” said Harry Lee.
* No sidewalks; “We have six blocks of unsafe sidewalks in our downtown,” said Gerald Clay. “They’re a hazard.”
“Actually, we have sidewalks. They’re just buried,” said Lee of old brick sidewalks now covered by two inches of earth.
* Lack of community involvement. Last night’s attendance was a good example of what could be interpreted as widespread apathy. Only two of the five-member city council attended the meeting; the mayor was also missing.
Donald Knavel said many locals “just want to be left alone. They want to mow their yards, maybe, and that’s it.”
Lee said this attitude is negatively affecting LaHarpe youth and cited the lack of adult volunteers as to why the town’s youth are not being bused to the swimming pool in Iola — a service extended by Moran to neighboring communities on Tuesdays and Thursdays; Elsmore and Savonburg participate in the excursions. Only one adult is needed to accompany LaHarpe youth the two afternoons.
* Play equipment at the park is “really old,” said Heard, a turnoff to kids.
* Lack of communication. “There’s no universal way to get out a message,” said Lee, be it through a newsletter, television, radio or Internet, or the Iola Register. Shirley Dinkins complained that the city’s newsletter is not mailed and must be picked up at city offices. Lee, a city council member, said that is because of expenses. A city Web site would help, residents said.
* The city lacks a police officer who not only will enforce laws but also act as a public code enforcement officer and animal control officer.
Since the departure last winter of officer Darren Kellerman to the Allen County Sheriff’s department, the city has been without local law enforcement, though it does receive protection from county officers, Lee said. That does little to placate LaHarpe citizens who have seen a rise in code violations, including stray animals, unkempt lawns, illegal vehicles on streets and piled-up trash.
Without a citywide trash service, it’s up to LaHarpe residents to dispose of their trash, a situation that can and does lead to “Six months’ of garbage in the back of a pickup truck,” said resident Rosalie Straiton.
A motion to hire trash service for residents “failed for lack of a second,” at the most recent meeting said Councilman Clay.
Lack of local law enforcement also has Dinkins worried about LaHarpe’s image, especially pertaining to illegal drugs.
“Is there a drug problem here?” Dinkins said, referring to rumors.
“Yes, we’ve had suspicions,” Clay confirmed, but no worse than other communities in the region.
All agreed that local law enforcement was needed.
“Not having a code enforcement officer is a distinct disadvantage,” said resident Gene Burrows.
“It will give us a cleaner, safer town,” Straiton said of the position.

A PREDOMINANCE of rental homes in LaHarpe has citizens worried that the lack of home ownership also pertains to citizens wanting to personally invest in their town’s future.
Lee countered that in some efforts, such as a cleanup day, a “tremendous turnout” comes forth, but admitted it involved the same core of citizens who routinely participate in LaHarpe doings.
Many of the rental homes are in disrepair, Straiton said, and are rented without being forced to comply to city code.
Since the 2000 census, LaHarpe has lost 6.8 percent of its population. This downtrend is reflected in “not enough people coming to support our shops,” Dinkins said. “Main Street lacks a critical mass.”
To reverse that trend will require a collective will. To head the effort, residents elected Heard, by far the youngest of those present at the meeting Monday night. Heard, 24, runs TLC Greenhouse.
For the effort to work, “twice the people” need to attend the next meeting, said Toland, which is tentatively scheduled for July 27, again in the former elementary school.
Thrive’s role in the turnaround effort is to help locals identify priorities and then locate resources to bring those projects to fruition.
“It’s a messy process,” Toland said, “But one that can result in definite actions, definite results.”