'No town should die': Star of CNBC's 'The Profit' answers small town's plea for help

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Posted: Monday, March 24, 2014 12:00 am

Truth is that not long before that cold night in January, the 300 or so townsfolk who gathered inside Horton High School's auditorium had never heard of the man standing on stage all but damning the future of their tiny Kansas town.

“If you don't fix downtown, you will not have a town,” the guy said. “You will not.”

What's his name again? Marcus what? Lemonis?

All they knew is that he was supposedly rich, a successful businessman out of Chicago and now the protagonist of a reality TV show, CNBC's “The Profit.” In the show, Lemonis uses his own money to enter into deals with struggling small businesses to turn them around.

What they also knew is that through a convoluted set of circumstances involving an embarrassing story out of Horton that had gone viral on Facebook and Twitter — World War II veteran, 88, tossed into jail for not repairing crumbling downtown building — the TV host had tweeted out a message offering to pay for the repairs.

Mayor Tim Lentz responded on Facebook that the repairs were already being taken care of, but he asked Lemonis about the struggle to bring life back to what he called Horton's “dwindling” and “dying” downtown.

“I'm sure you get many requests for help,” Lentz, 42, wrote on Jan. 3. “Hope to hear back from you on how to make this small town thrive again.”

Lemonis responded two days later: “Would love to come take a look.”

Now the question being bandied about in Horton, population 1,776 and dropping, is whether a prescription for change from the prophet of “The Profit” can affect the fortunes and future of a community that, like thousands of tiny towns nationwide, has been in slow decline for 100 years.

Lemonis, 40, says he has no financial interest in Horton, and he insists that his desire to help Horton is not a publicity grab. Town merchants and the mayor seem inclined to believe him.

“This has nothing to do with the show,” said Lemonis, who is chief executive of Camping World, a national supplier of recreational vehicle parts and other camping goods. “CNBC is not part of it; they're not even aware of it.”

Lemonis' seven-hour tour of Horton on Jan. 22 was not filmed, nor is it part of a coming episode. Lemonis flew from Chicago into St. Joseph, Mo., and drove 50 miles past fields of crop stubble into town alone that day. He is expected to come back for at least a week in May.

In a telephone interview, he repeated what he essentially told the people of Horton. Adopted out of an orphanage in Beirut by an American-Lebanese family, he is someone who believes in the power of reinvention. He spent time as a child in Youngstown, Ohio, and watched the city become nearly “a ghost town” when the steel industry collapsed.

Concerned about how the death of small businesses hastens the death of small towns, Lemonis said the message from Horton's mayor made him wonder whether Horton could become “the lucky experiment” for revitalization.

“It is a microcosm of what goes on in this country,” he said.

To the people of Horton, he was more emphatic.

“This could be one of the coolest rebirths in modern day,” he told the crowd at a two-hour meeting that was recorded and placed on YouTube and has since been viewed by nearly as many people as the town has residents. “It could be an amazing opportunity to show people that the American spirit isn't dead and it doesn't always have to do with money.”

What he said was at times brutal, the mayor acknowledged.

“Very cold, very blunt. Very 'you look like (expletive) and this is where we're at,' ” Lentz said.

Perhaps it is because the message came from an outsider with no local ties or because he is a businessman on national television, but whatever the reason, downtown merchants led by the mayor are moving forward with a “Reinvent Horton” campaign inspired by the advice of the reality TV personality.

“I'd never heard of the man before he came,” said Sheila Gibson, 71, a Horton resident for 45 years who works at the downtown thrift store. “There were a couple hundred people at that meeting. He just built their enthusiasm.

“Sometimes it takes an outsider to do that.”

Many factors play into whether a small town dies, survives or thrives, said sociologist Robert Wuthnow, a native of Lyons, Kan., and a leading scholar on small-town America at Princeton University.

Among the factors that he said work against Horton: It's not on an Interstate, it has no college or junior college, its neighboring towns are larger, and its population has been in steady decline since its peak of about 4,000 in 1920.

Factors for its resilience, he said, include its low housing costs and its location within an hour's commute of Topeka, Kan., and Atchison, Kan. And although the town's population has dropped, it has dropped slowly.

“Unless a tornado sweeps Horton from the map,” Wuthnow said, “I don't see it ever disappearing.”

When Lemonis arrived in Horton, the first thing he did was hop into the mayor's truck and tour the area.

What he found was a town that appeared stable with a $4.8million operating budget and two major manufacturers. Horton has a hospital and a police department, a fire department, schools and an electric utility. It has a recently dredged 129-acre lake for recreation and a secondary water source. Not far off are two tribal casinos that bring traffic through the town, but rarely into it.

A prime concern was Horton's beleaguered “downtown,” 35 storefronts in a two-block area. There was a time when it bustled.

Black-and-white photographs of Horton in its heyday line the walls inside Lentz Express, a convenience store and Phillips 66 gas station owned by the mayor.

One photo from the turn of the 20th century shows 11 circus elephants lumbering tail to trunk down Central Avenue as hundreds of people watch.

Another shows a throng at a patriotic parade.

A great many of the buildings in those photos no longer exist. Vacant lots remain. Of the existing storefronts, 11 — nearly a third — sit empty.

But it's in the old downtown that Lemonis said he saw the town's future. Also hanging inside Lentz's convenience store is a print of an idealized, almost Disneyesque version of a small-town Main Street with spotless bricks, shimmering signs and awnings.

“Turn Main Street back into something that is very historic, very memorable and very Hollywood-like, so it has the feel of the 1920s,” Lemonis told them.

His prescription included other advice, some of it potentially contentious, such as a recommendation that Horton put ego aside and merge with nearby towns to consolidate services.

Most controversial locally was Lemonis' suggestion that the city itself become the owner of all the buildings downtown.

He suggested that the city buy them all at a cost that he estimated would be no more than $1 million, then use $500,000 in city funds to fix up the buildings and rent them to art galleries, bake shops and organic produce stores.

“You decide what your town needs,” he said. “It has to be a reason to get on a bus and drive to this cute little town that went back to the 1920s.”

As an incentive, he offered to kick in $150,000 of his money — as a gift, not an investment — if the city is able to raise $1.35 million. He also promised to help start a crowdfunding campaign to raise money.

“I will put my time and my money on the table right here,” he told the people of Horton, “to prove a point: Charity starts at home. And to prove a point: No town should die.”

Reaction to Lemonis' ideas has been mixed.

Lentz said the city has already received significant blowback from some building owners who don't like even the possibility that the city might take over their private property.

Lentz said he realizes the idea is radical and also wonders whether it is politically feasible.

One opponent, Jeremy Stone, 31, who moved from Kentucky in 2009 and bought one of the downtown buildings for $5,000, said he is so against the “Reinvent Horton” movement that he has put his building up for sale to relocate his business, Do It Right Heating and Cooling.

First, he said, he doesn't want his modern business housed in a faux-1920s area.

“I was born in 1982,” he said. “This is 2014.”

Even the mayor acknowledges that revitalizing a desolate downtown may take more than cosmetics. The small-town culture also needs to change, as several businesses take only cash or checks, closing off sales to those who shop with credit or debit cards. Store hours can be irregular, with some shops opening late or closing early at their owners' whims.

Throughout much of the town, however, the desire to change has been positive.

One weekend after Lemonis left, some 300 residents gathered downtown to haul brush, wash windows, fell scrub trees, empty vacant stores of abandoned merchandise and even slap new siding on one building.

“I think maybe we needed someone to come from outside and kick us in the butt and motivate us a little bit,” said Tom Reed, 51, owner of the Electric City Emporium, a five-and-dime. A new sign sits in his window: “What Once Was Can Be Again.”

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