HESSTON, Kan. (AP) — A year since a gunman killed three people and wounded 14 others at a lawn equipment factory, residents of the plant’s central Kansas town say they’ve not forgotten the carnage but are moving on.
Many in Hesston credit the town’s resilience after the Feb. 25, 2016, bloodshed at the Excel Industries plant to the non-violent tenets of the locally predominant Mennonite faith, which kept Hesston from becoming embroiled in debate over gun control that has followed other mass shootings.
But one of the chief reasons for Hesston’s pressing on is that many of the town’s 4,000 residents didn’t know anyone directly tied to the tragedy, largely because many of the workers at the factory where riding lawn mowers are made commute to Hesston to work, the Wichita Eagle reports.
Excel ramped up its production a few years ago, growing from a few hundred employees to about 1,000. A similar number of workers come and go every day from AGCO, the farm equipment manufacturer that’s the town’s other major employer.
“Hesston is kind of an odd community in that … more than half of the people who work here don’t live here, and there is a disconnect between the residents of the community and that workforce that comes every day and leaves every day and in many ways we never know and never knows us,” said Keith Schadel, Hesston United Methodist Church’s pastor.
When it comes to luring the commuters to live in town, part of the problem is Hesston’s housing costs. Hesston’s mayor says it’s nearly impossible to find a home for less than $150,000 in town, forcing many of the factories’ production workers to live in Newton, Wichita or a dozen of other nearby cities.
Hesston has shut down its only mobile home park, among the few places in town that the local factory workers could afford. Hesston hopes to convert the land into affordable housing, so that those who were pushed out can return someday.
“I don’t want it to seem like I’m minimizing the situation because I didn’t know the people who were hurt, that doesn’t make it a better situation for me or for anyone in Hesston,” Mayor David Kauffman said. “It just makes it feel more distant because there wasn’t a personal connection. Hopefully, we’re building more of that now.”
The gunman, Excel worker Cedric Ford, was killed by Hesston Police Chief Doug Schroeder.
An ex-girlfriend of Ford who gave him the guns he used in the mass shooting was sentenced in November to a year on supervised release. Sarah Hopkins had pleaded guilty to not alerting authorities that a convicted felon unlawfully possessed firearms.
Brad Burkholder, Hesston MB Church’s pastor, said the shooting underscored ways in which Hesston had expanded. He hadn’t realized how many people were working at the plants, many of whom come from different backgrounds than his congregation.
“God has called us to love one another. It doesn’t matter what skin color or socio-economic status, we’re called to care for one another,” Burkholder said. “That’s what I challenge our church to be. I think we do a pretty good job, and I think we continue to learn what it means.”
“What does this mean when they don’t live here?” he added. “I do wonder how to connect with them, or if they want connection outside of work. I mean, what’s a typical day? You pull up, you go to work, you clock in. It’s not like you hang around and get to know the people in the town where you’re at.”