The Spirit of Innovation


November 14, 2017 | Main Spotlight | The Spirit of Innovation: Arts and Entrepreneurship Breathe New Life into Kansas City | By Donnie Rodgers, Jr., Downtown Lee’s Summit Main Street

Cultural Corner, Chillicothe; courtesy of Missouri Main Street Connection
The Kansas City story is one of inspiration and big ideas. We invite you to visit in March and experience this inspiration firsthand. Experience the creative crossroads of America where citizens have embraced the arts and entrepreneurship to help breathe new life into old spaces. Kansas City has reclaimed and re-envisioned much of its urban core. The arts were a driving force that took hold in the Crossroads Arts District, creating at first a destination for artists and galleries and leading to a monumental shift of drawing young professionals back into the heart of the city. This new life has brought new uses and new ideas to buildings that once were facing only a future wrecking ball.

What better way to experience this story than through mobile exploration? A crucial part of the Main Street Now Conference, mobile workshops offer attendees a visual experience to the educational material from sessions. Read on for our preview of some of the many exciting excursions planned for you in and around the Kansas City area. Download the full 2018 mobile workshop schedule.

Old Schools, New Uses

Plexpod; courtesy of Missouri Main Street Connection
As populations shifted in Kansas City, many of the older schools in the core of the city saw a major drop in enrollment and were often deemed inadequate and outdated. As newer schools were built on the edge of a community to follow the growing populations, many of the city’s older schools were completely abandoned and eventually deemed surplus property. Many of these old schools sat vacant for decades until Kansas City’s creative spirit transformed them into new uses for the 21st century.

The former Westport Middle School at 160,000 square feet is today one of the world’s largest co-working facilities that opened in 2016. Dubbed Plexpod Westport Commons, what was once home to middle school students is still home to growing minds as it connects entrepreneurs in collaborative and innovative spaces including Google Fiber, maker space, coffee shop, galleries, event space and more. Much of the original details of the 1920s school building remain including lockers and chalkboards.

The Switzer Lofts have created new homes in what was once the long vacant West High School, West Junior High and Switzer Elementary in the up and coming Westside Neighborhood on the edge of the Crossroads Arts District.  Spanning five different buildings constructed between 1896 and 1952, this $24 million investment by the Foutch Brothers created 114 new market-rate lofts. Many of the original features were saved and reincorporated into lofts that are in high demand with the growing creative class.

Webster House; courtesy of Missouri Main Street Connection
In the heart of the Crossroads Arts District, and right next door to the world class Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, is one of the city’s oldest schools. Constructed in 1885, this historic Romanesque style school house is today known as the Webster House and has become one of Kansas City’s most unique shopping and dining destinations. The first floor is home to a retail store that specializes in a unique mix of antiques, gifts, apparel, accessories and home décor. The second floor houses one of Kansas City’s most acclaimed farm-to-table restaurants with spectacular views of the city. The Historic Webster House was restored in 2002 and was an early contributor to the revitalization of the Crossroads Arts District.

Big ideas aren’t just limited to the city. Local communities in the Kansas City metro area have an equally impressive story to tell.

The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread 

Silver Moon Plaza, Chillicothe; courtesy of Missouri Main Street Connection
Chillicothe, a 2018 Great American Main Street Award semi-finalist, has been the home to innovation since the city was the first to introduce the world to sliced bread in 1928. Main Street Chillicothe has led the transformation of their historic downtown and county seat with a paint brush. Home to over 20 murals, depicting the heritage of the community, the arts have helped lead to the creation of Silver Moon Plaza and the Cultural Art Guild & Gallery and many new businesses. 

Main Street Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Liberty 1; courtesy of Missouri Main Street Connection
Being the second oldest city in Missouri doesn’t mean Downtown Liberty is lacking in innovation. With its freshly finished $5 million-dollar streetscape, Downtown Liberty has an influx of young entrepreneurs breathing new life and new uses into historic spaces. New businesses such as Hammerhead Coffee and Nickel & Suede are great examples of the growing market for locally produced goods.

Downtown Excelsior Springs, historically known for the healing properties of its spring waters, was once the tourist destination for everyone from Presidents to gangsters. The historic grandeur of the community has begun to spring to life once again with the successful major renovation of the historic Elms Hotel and Spa and the addition of new housing and senior living in the former Oaks Hotel. Creative uses abound, a former jailhouse is now a bed and breakfast to support the rebirth of Excelsior Springs as a tourist destination.  

Excelsior Springs; courtesy of Missouri Main Street Connection
There are so many more stories that could be told about the spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship and the arts in Kansas City. We hope you get a chance to experience all this and more in March when we welcome you to the 2018 Main Street Now Conference in Kansas City. Early bird registration rates through January 12!

About the author: Donnie Rodgers, Jr. is the executive director of Downtown Lee’s Summit Main Street in Lee’s Summit, MO, a community of more than 90,000 residents right outside of Kansas City. He has spent his professional career working in Missouri downtowns and Missouri Main Street programs and was part of the first cohort of recipients of Main Street America Revitalization Professional credentials. He holds a masters in community development and a bachelors in architecture.