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Food tower could be symbol of rebirth for tornado-ravaged community

WEST LIBERTY, Ky. — A 200-foot-tall "food tower" — a vertical greenhouse that would grow fruits and vegetables for sale — might be the signature structure that this tornado-ravaged community seeks as a symbol of its rebirth and as a draw for visitors.

Everyone admits it's a bold idea. But it captured local residents' imaginations when it was among the projects presented by University of Kentucky architecture students at a recent "town hall" meeting.

"It's the craziest thing, but by its essence, it's also the most interesting thing," said West Liberty retiree Brent Engle. "Maybe it's too outrageous for a lot of people to think of such a thing."

But Engle said he liked it because "it's an 'in your face' to a tornado." People in the audience applauded and whistled approval of Engle's assessment.

Ian Pangburn, a third-year student in UK's College of Design, was just relieved that people were intrigued by his idea for an urban farm.

"I'm excited to see what happens in the future," Pangburn said.

Other ideas presented by the UK students included a boutique hotel, a bike park and trail, a farm-to-table restaurant, a cultural heritage center, a recycling center, a theater and a fresh food market.

Whether any of these ideas actually come to fruition is not the point. The point is there's a lot of talk about West Liberty's future three years after the March 2012 tornado obliterated the downtown and left a mile-wide path of destruction.

That's a testimony to residents who, though grieved and saddened by the loss of six lives and familiar landmarks, see the rebuilding effort as an opportunity to set West Liberty apart from any other town in Kentucky.

"Where there is no vision the people perish," said small-business owner Dorcas Burton, quoting Proverbs 29:18. She said the ideas presented by the architecture students "may not all be attainable, but it gives you a starting point. It gives you a vision of what can be."

How that vision came to be can be traced to a little girl's empathy, and to the collaboration of local people with students of Gregory Luhan, associate dean for research in UK's College of Design and the John Russell Groves Endowed Professor of Architecture.

When the tornado hit West Liberty, Luhan was in Boston making a presentation at a conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. His then-9-year-old daughter, Miller, saw stories about the tornado in the newspaper, and when Luhan returned home, she told him, "Dad, we need to go to West Liberty."

She then went to her room and retrieved "two big bags of toys and stuffed animals that she wanted to give to the people of West Liberty," Luhan recalled.

So father and daughter went to Morgan County, and as they handed out toys to children, Luhan met various bankers and other leaders. From that visit Luhan got the idea to pair UK's expertise with the rebuilding effort.

Later, while on sabbatical in 2013-14 as a visiting associate professor of practice at Texas A&M University, Luhan and his students there held weekly meetings with West Liberty leaders via Skype. The students from College Station, Texas, also traveled to West Liberty to meet with residents.

Those discussions spoke of reinventing West Liberty as an ecotourism hub for the region's recreational attractions, such as Cave Run Lake.

When he returned to UK after the sabbatical, Luhan had students in Lexington develop prototypes for West Liberty that centered on how the community could take its strengths — agriculture, natural beauty, a keen sense of place and history — and turn them into something that would benefit local people and visitors.

"I think what everyone is looking for is a valuable concept that West Liberty can build back better and build back in a sustainable way," Luhan said. "This wasn't about us coming in with ideas. This was about working with the community, to get them to see things in different ways."

The students' ideas reflected global ideas — better food and health, energy efficiency — scaled to a hometown dimension.

Allyson Smith proposed a recycling center. Residents would drop off paper, plastic, cardboard, aluminum and glass at volunteer fire departments and other locations, and those materials then would go to a center to be made into secondary products for reuse.

Alexis Peneff noted that sorghum, a locally raised crop, could be used in making insulation.

"It could be used in all of your buildings and it is just as sustainable, if not more, than regular insulation that you can get," Peneff told the more than 120 people in the audience at the April 30 town hall meeting.

And then there was Pangburn's audacious idea for what he called an "urban farm."

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