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A New Process to Honor our Veterans

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | May 1, 2017
The Veterans Banner project is easily one of our favorite projects at Emporia Main Street.  Approximately 250 veterans have been honored through this process with photos collected, banners produced and biographies recorded.  It seems that every week we have a request for a banner and updates for banner sponsorship process.
The banner process for Emporia Main Street really got started five years ago.  Ron Slaymaker dropped by photos of active duty enlisted military soldiers featured on pennants outside of a military base.  We immediately began discussions with IM Design Group to adapt the idea to focus on veterans. However, since staff time and resources are limited, the idea remained in the planning stage.  The following year, Dr. Kevin Coulson dropped by a picture from another military base featuring the same sort of active duty pennant, and we decided that Main Street had to figure out a way to push forward with the program.  We couldn’t simply focus on active duty personnel, and pennants simply won’t in the Kansas wind.  We attempted partnerships to facilitate the process, and we ended up working exclusively with the members of the Freedom Fest Committee that raises money for local veterans initiatives.
The first year of banner sponsorship was a little nerve racking.  Becky Smith and I sat in the office on the first day of the sponsorship process wondering if anyone would show up.  We hoped that we could obtain at least 40 banner sponsors to cover a good portion of the downtown (with banners intermingled with existing seasonal banners).  City staff was supportive of developing upgrades to the existing metal banner posts (they were snapping off and weren’t supporting existing banners), and our outstanding public works crew was set to place banners downtown.  Again, we hoped for at least 40, and we ended up with 104 banners sponsored.  During the sponsorship process, the families of veterans shared stories of sacrifice and heroism, and Becky stated “we need some way to record these stories!”.  The veterans biography booklet was born.
Becky Smith is one of the toughest people I’ve ever met.  She is constantly working and volunteering, she is a cancer survivor that constantly counsels others dealing with illness, and she is a driven individual.  As she compiled the biographies submitted, the project became very emotional (we were blowing through Kleenex at a pretty good rate), and when the banners were placed for the first time (again, thank you public works) the view was stunning.  Families gathered.  People drove slowly downtown.  Walks along Commercial Street increased significantly.  It was a beautiful sight.  The calls for additional banners were overwhelming.  We had to figure out how to expand the project to accommodate additional sponsors.
Remember, we were kind of making the process up as we went along.  IM Design did extensive research on banner materials that could withstand Kansas wind.  We needed to guarantee a certain time frame that banners could fly, and we ended up settling on three years.  We didn’t account for damage to banners, and the first year we had three banners vandalized (slashed with some sort of cutting tool).  Emporia Main Street decided early on that this project wasn’t a fundraiser and that we would simply charge the approximate cost of banner design, production and shipping, so we lost a little money year one (not including staff time).
Year two, we hoped that people would show up and support the project again.  They did.  We actually had people show up at 10:30 p.m. the night before the banner sponsorship period and wait all night in line for one of the 55 slots available.  Year three brought important partnerships with ESU (spearheaded by Mark Runge) and Westar Energy to expand poles available to display banners.  The City of Emporia played a critical role is securing hardware, with support from public works and facilities management (Ed Rathke and Mark McAnarney were  big supporters when we got the project off the ground).  We had people line up at 3:30 in the afternoon the day before the banner sponsorship opening, and the line of individuals wrapped around fifth avenue onto Commercial Street.
So, this is where we are at now: we decided to extend the life of the banners to four years (again, we were guessing how the banners would hold up in the Kansas wind).  After the fourth year, we will give each banner sponsor the option to “re-up” for another four years with a new banner, and they can take their existing banner. The existing banner sponsors deserve a first right of refusal because they took a shot at an unknown process.  We have very limited spots available this year (12), so, instead of having people line up, we will have individuals submit this year’s banner form (CLICK HERE or visit the Emporia Main Street office), and we will host a lottery drawing on July 1st at the Emporia Main Street office which we will live stream on our Facebook Page.  If your veteran is selected, you will have the opportunity to sponsor a banner.  We will select a few “alternates” if one of the selected forms cannot provide the photo, payment and other information necessary to complete the process.
The support received for the Emporia Main Street Veterans Banner project created a movement.  At last count, this project was emulated in fourteen states and eleven cities across Kansas.  Fort Riley leadership asked for specific information about the project, and we’ve received notification that national military and political leadership is aware of the veterans banner project and Emporia’s role in its formation.  We are working on a “next phase” of veteran recognition that we are very excited about, and we look forward to working with the banner project for years to come.
In summary-
-If you currently have a banner, your banner will fly like normal this year.
-If you want to obtain a banner this year, CLICK HERE for the form (or visit the Emporia Main Street office) and submit your completed form for the lottery drawing on July 1, 2017.
-After the banners come down (sometime in November) we will clean the banners and contact banner sponsors in their fourth year of banner display to determine how they would like to proceed.  Based on responses from banner sponsors, we will decide how many banner sponsorship slots will be available in 2018.
Thank you all for your continued support of Emporia Main Street and the Veterans Banner Project.  Emporia Main Street participates in a material role in over forty events per year, a host of business opening/expansion activities, design related projects and community pride based initiatives on a yearly basis, but we can’t conduct these projects without your support.

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.