Guest Letter to the Editor: Clay Center doesn’t deserve its current controversy

Courtesy of The Washington County News

Clay Center doesn’t deserve its current controversy.

It hurt my heart to see the vitriol that was generated by a few people in Clay Center during the construction of the new stadium complex at Clay Center Community High School. Now, that poison seems to have seeped into the school board race and the newspaper has taken an active role in making sure the discord metastasizes throughout the community.

It really didn’t need to go that way. Clay Center is way better than this.

During my short time away from the newspaper business when I worked in Clay Center, I grew to greatly admire what I came to know not only as a generous and caring community, but also innovative… able to accomplish things well beyond standard for a town their size.

I even wrote about it a couple times in my own editorial pages, how Clay Center had discovered the special sauce for smaller, rural communities to become vibrant and move forward doing great things together. I’m pretty sure I even annoyed a few people as I constantly talked about everything going on “in Clay.”

I was so pleased to have been able to actively observe what I still believe has been a historic shift to a bright new chapter for this town – a time that Clay Center residents will refer back to for years, as a period where great things happened and set the town on a strong new course. They broke the mold of the majority of small towns in Kansas that were slowly depopulating and declining.

I told anyone who would listen that Clay Center should be held up as a model for other small communities looking for ways to preserve their identity through economic and cultural development, because you don’t have to go very far west to see the alternative – towns of similar size crumbling and dying.

This success only happens when many people put their focus on pursuing the needs and wants together with friends and neighbors. Almost every town has potential, but it isn’t easy to meet that potential. Clay Center found a way.

Later, I felt fortunate to use my fundraising experience to help with a campaign to build the new multi-purpose stadium complex next to the high school. I wasn’t naive to think there wouldn’t be growing pains with the effort. I recognize the love of tradition and nostalgia, especially in small towns with residents who are multi-generational in the community.

Despite that, the support for the new stadium was unprecedented. In just a few months, the campaign goal of raising almost a million dollars was met. But we shouldn’t have been surprised, because as this idea was tossed around the community early in the process, we knew the amount of support was going to be huge. I knew Clay Center would get behind this project because ultimately, it was focused on what was best for the kids.

The new complex was ready for football season this fall. After covering the first half of the Hanover at Clifton-Clyde season opening football game, I drove quickly to catch the second half of Clay Center’s football game on opening night at the new stadium. I parked in the middle school parking lot and as I walked up the hill, the smell of traditional Friday night concessions wafting in the air, the crowd roared in response to a big defensive interception by the Tigers. Both teams were ranked in the top 5 in their respective classes, and the energy was palpable. The crowd filled the home stands and Wamego had a huge crowd in the visitor stands. Visitors made use of the efficient layout of the complex. It was wonderful.

During the drive over, I had listened to a previously recorded interview on KCLY during halftime, which featured a couple senior football players who were so excited to play on the new field in the new stadium in front of the home crowd on opening night. The Tigers put a cherry on top by winning this big matchup. Throngs of supporters poured onto the field afterward to congratulate the team. Smiles and celebration abounded. It was beautiful. Right from the start, new memories were being made for this next generation of Tigers.

For me though, it was just more of the same for Clay Center. I recognized this place. This was just a continuation of the true heart of the Clay Center community I had gotten to know.

What is not recognizable to me is what I’ve seen presented in the pages of the Clay Center Dispatch over the past year.

I love my industry and the role it serves in the community, but the Clay Center community is deserving of better than the vitriolic situation that has been created by the newspaper. I do not understand the reasoning behind the tactics employed in the coverage of school board meetings, school activities, the initial stadium effort or the editorials written on anything related to the topic.

Typically, a newspaper takes a leadership role in helping guide discussion on impactful community events through thorough coverage and thoughtful insight. Instead, the newspaper took a situation that could have been used as yet another step forward for the community and devolved it into a quagmire of conspiracy and mistrust. This ongoing style of coverage seems to aspire to stoke division and discord instead of trying to build understanding and unity.

After threats of lawsuits and calls for resignations, the most recent trend used by the newspaper has been to focus on the race for several school board positions by piling any and all grievances under headlines touting “transparency” which has historically served as a catch-all complaint when people disagree with something that has transpired.

It’s the sort of word that is employed to sow suspicion of subversive behavior without having to actually prove anything inappropriate has actually happened.

The newspaper and its slate of endorsed candidates seem to be pursuing a darkness that doesn’t actually exist. Be wary. Don’t fall for it. Steer clear of any who would attempt to manifest this darkness into existence. This caustic approach does not fit the Clay Center I know.

To all Clay Center and Clay County residents – it’s time to put the division behind you and unify around the positive direction your community has experienced over the last several years. You have been part of something special and it is up to you to keep it that way.

-Dan Thalmann, owner/publisher Washington County News

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