By Dennis Minich
For many years, residents of Harrisonville have asked for something to be done to restore the vitality of the Square area. Last week, residents got their first chance to get involved in a program to do just that, and many were on hand to share hopes and dreams. They were then challenged to make it happen.
The Love the Square organization hosted a town hall meeting Nov. 27 at the Beck Event Space, where Keith Winge, the Community Development Coordinator of the Missouri Main Street Connection (MMSC), presented plans showing how communities throughout the state have restored vigor and brought business back to dying downtowns. The MMSC started through a national organization in the 1970s, and has evolved from an offshoot of a state agency to a stand-alone corporation.
Winge said in the past 11 years, MMSC has helped produce $695 million in private investment and $145 million in public investment which has helped produce 627 new businesses and created 3,270 new jobs in about 150 communities statewide.
Winge said every case is different. “No place in the world looks like downtown Harrisonville because every city is unique. But one thing all downtowns can have in common is growth (sic). Baby Boomers and Millennials like the unique atmosphere that a downtown area can provide,” he said.
The looks of the downtown area can also help an area grow.
“Downtown is like your front door. It is the first thing people see,” he said.
He added what people see can often be an influence on whether they want to live in a city or not. If it is vital and exciting, they might think this could be a great place to live.
While some in the crowd said they would like the square to “be like it used to be”, Winge pointed out that will not be the case.
“There will be change. It won’t be like it was, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a great downtown. You get to embrace change,” he said.
He told of a four-point approach MMSC uses to give direction to the programs.
One focuses on the buildings and infrastructure already in place, another is the economic which reviews what businesses would be suitable and would help energize the area, the third is the civic, a consensus-building of what people want downtown and finally the social element, what people would like to come downtown, what can attract them.
“You can already see what others have done and learn from them,” Winge said. “We call it rip off and duplicate. But it is also important to remember a key is self-reliance. No one is going to come riding into town on a white horse and save Harrisonville.”
He also emphasized it can be a long process.
“You don’t want to plan too far in advance, maybe one or two years. It is incremental steps. We have cities 30 years in and I don’t think any of them would consider themselves in the final phase, which is the maintenance phase,” he said.
Those in attendance were then divided into groups to brainstorm on ideas they would like for how Harrisonville could reform the square. Ideas included: identifying the footprint; how to draw people to the square; address parking; how to diversify businesses; events like an Easter program, family dinner and a movie nights, bluegrass and barbecue festivals; and finally, how to spruce up the area through greenery as well as holiday displays.
This summer the coalition gave the city a $25,000 grant to start the process. Winge’s presentation represents the first step in the program. He will be returning to town several times in the next year to help get the program started.
“People want to buy small and buy local. We need to find the way to help support the local businesses. We can make it and we can make it last, but we have to have a plan,” he said.