Keith Winge recently brought a visitor by to discuss how our journey in revitalizing our downtown could provide insight to recovering from the Puerto Rico hurricane. What does rebuilding after the Puerto Rico hurricane and rebuilding downtown Excelsior Springs have in common?
The conversation made me reflect on the journey Excelsior Springs has been traveling for quite some time and reminds me how long it can sometimes take to reach your goals. For those who remember or for others who know the story, Excelsior Springs was quite the thing back in the day. A favorite place to visit and a welcoming destination for travelers to stay and enjoy all that Excelsior Springs had to offer. That is, until the 1960s, when it came to an end, literally overnight.
In 1980, I was invited to interview for a job with the City of Excelsior Springs; I had just graduated from college and my dad volunteered to drive me to my interview. It was nice to have company on the trip. Dad dropped me off at the Hall of Waters and said he was going to do a little shopping, we would meet up in an hour or so. After the interview, he said, he couldn’t find any shops, maybe this wasn’t the downtown, he instead went to Ray’s for coffee and to chat with the crowd; probably getting me the job in the process. I only mention this because of the comments made by an outsider and because when you live in a place, you sometimes stop seeing the problems that you see everyday.
During the next twenty years, downtown revitalization was a constant priority at City Hall, we knew the health of your city is reflected by the health of your downtown. I was told by a community leader, stop throwing good money after bad… making a point that downtown was dead, let. It. go. The city did however continue to invest in upgrading the infrastructure, new sidewalks, sewer line replacements, bridge replacements, brick streetscape enhancements, trees, improvements to the Hall of Waters, etc. However, there was no private investment, as it turns out, because there was so much vandalism, there was no way to protect a person’s investment.
So, we started to study the problems: 1. landlord v tenant fights were common over who damaged the apartment; 2. high incident of police arrests in downtown for alcohol and drugs, fighting, domestic violence, loitering, vandalism, etc. As we would learn, the problem was limited to just a few people who were repeatedly draining the system; they would appeal their municipal court charges and receive little to no penalty and be back in downtown to rinse and repeat. We had to get smarter, so we prepared a new option; at court, the offender could choose probation, which carried a suspended imposition of sentence, holding at bay jail time and cash fines. The repeat offender, always picks the easiest path, probation it is, and of course would be promptly arrested again….but this time actually ended up in jail to do the time.The pesky behavior downtown would occur on the sidewalks and as the police would start to drive by, the offenders would jump in parked cars; so we eliminated parking on downtown streets.
To address the property conditions, we instituted rental inspections and occupancy permits to ensure before every new tenant moved in the property was in safe and sanitary condition and if the property was damaged during the tenants occupancy, landlords would informally let each other know the problem tenants. The problems started to move to other cities, and as a few property owners began to test the waters and replace their broken windows; it seemed maybe, just maybe.
Early versions of Main Street programs did not have any downtown property or business owners, largely because they owned cheap storage space and there was little market to sell the property for anything; only interested citizens who saw a vision of what downtown could be joined the effort; and they set out to lift up the area using the Main Street Principals. By 2000, one pioneering soul made an investment in a block on Broadway, and set businesses in place. It is a rare person who can do both; but that was the jumpstart that was needed. Changes were also occurring with festivals, and the Oaks secured the right developer to manage a new housing project and then Excelsior Street was redeveloped. These pioneers were joined by a few others and together they began to carve out what has become a successful downtown.
Today, we have so much to be proud of. DEP is the new kid on the block, bringing downtown business and property owners together with members of the community to live, work, invest and play downtown, and doing it at a much higher level than was possible before. Now almost 20 years after that one pioneering soul started us on our journey; much has changed; most significant is our attitude. I’m in awe of the transformation. So goes the downtown, goes the rest of the community. This story, our story tells about incremental change that was able to build upon itself until it reached the point where there was enough positive development, it became visible to the community at large and beyond. This transformation was possible because of the contributions of so many people over a period of thirty years. Today, I often hear people who haven’t been here for awhile say, Excelsior Springs really looks good. It is SO CLEAN. The internet has made it possible for people to live anywhere. Economic Development begins with becoming a place where people want to live.