Hope for Survival as an Arts Center

lexington poster 18 x 24[2] copyLEXINGTON, MO. — About 50 miles east of Kansas City, a town known for two Civil War battles and a cannonball lodged in a courthouse pillar is arming itself for a fight for survival.

This time the weapon of choice isn’t artillery but art.

[Back in January], Lexington beat out four other Missouri towns competing for two years of help from University of Missouri faculty and students to launch an art-driven revitalization effort. The competition was a first for the MU Extension service. If the pilot is successful, the effort could be replicated in other towns.

“This would not be art for art’s sake,” said Chris Campbell, a Columbia native who moved to the Lafayette County seat from Los Angeles two years ago after marrying the county prosecutor. “The strategy is to use the arts as a vehicle for economic and community development.”

Those leading the charge — Campbell, Mayor Jerry Brown, the MU Extension, a handful of artists and a 17-year-old high school sculptor — envision the town teeming with artists from Kansas City, St. Louis and elsewhere. They see artists sculpting, painting and designing in basements, lofts, warehouse studios and galleries. They see visitors filling the streets for art fairs and music festivals that attract business owners and young families looking to live in a vibrant, culturally rich town.

Right now, though, Lexington’s streets are mostly empty.

An occasional customer wanders into one of the few women’s fashion boutiques, antiques shops and restaurants on Main Street. Around the corner, three burned-out buildings await a wrecking ball. Rows of quaint storefronts stand empty. In the three-square-block downtown, 10 buildings are vacant. Like so many other small towns, Lexington seems to be gasping for breath.

“If we do nothing now, Lexington will slowly deteriorate, and we will have a sign one day that says, ‘This was historic Lexington,’?” said Brown, the former president of Wentworth Military Academy, just a few blocks off the town square. His wife, Georgia Brown, owns two of the 10 or so boutiques and shops on Main Street.

“I think our job is to educate people within a hundred-mile radius that we are here,” Georgia Brown said. “There are so many opportunities for the arts to work here.”

Lexington sprouted in 1820 atop Missouri River bluffs. As late as the 1980s, as many as 6,000 lived here.

Today it’s home to former U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton and about 4,700 other people. Jerry Brown says their average age is about 55. The per capita income is $22,000, but the town’s past is rich.

Beneath the loess soil and the tombstones in Machpelah Cemetery rests almost 200 years of Lexington history. “Everyone from statesmen to bankers and outlaws are buried there,” Campbell said.

Jesse James and his gang rode through a few times and stopped to do a little banking. As late as the 1960s, a half-dozen brothels operated.

Those are the kind of tales tourists might hear during a walking/driving history tour that the arts project advisory committee is planning as part of its revitalization program.

The committee, with the help of MU students and faculty who have photojournalism, art and design skills, expects to develop a CD and smartphone app that would correspond with a map tourists would use to visit Lexington’s historic sites, including the field where the Battle of Lexington was fought and the Oliver Anderson house with its preserved bullet and cannonball holes.

About 160 antebellum homes still stand in defiance of time, but recent years haven’t been kind to Lexington.

Through the 1990s, it fared better than many small towns. It had a booming antiques business, with more than a dozen stores. Its biggest employer was the Dunbrooke Apparel Corp.

But the Dunbrooke plant closed about 10 years ago, and the recession that started in 2008 reduced the number of antiques stores to five.

It was about that time that a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education concluded that when young people leave for college, jobs and life in the bigger city, they take with them their hometown’s future.

If a town can’t hold on to its young or at least lure them back after college, it dies. The higher education journal reported last year that in just over two decades, more than 700 rural U.S. counties have “hollowed out,” losing 10 percent or more of their population.

“Most of the time what I hear from the students here is that they just want to get out of Lexington,” said Marlin Roach, principal at Lexington High School, which has lost 25 percent of its student population over the last dozen years.

Young families aren’t moving to Lexington “because it is hard to be in a bedroom community when work is an hour away,” said Brad MacLaughlin, superintendent of schools. “The kiddos who go off to college, unless they’re nurses or teachers, they don’t come back.”

Seth Ritter, a junior at Lexington High School and the youngest member of the town’s arts advisory committee, admitted that at one time, “I thought about leaving here.”

But that has changed since the town won the MU Extension community art contest, he said.

In a chilly old brick building a few blocks from the town square, Seth admired stacks of rusty metal farm tools and neat piles of driftwood and river junk — raw materials for his art.

A sculptor and welder, he recently got use of the former grocery as his studio in exchange for watching over it for a family friend.

“I’d love to see this all turn into an even bigger picture with art classes for youth and adults, and artists and galleries all over town,” Seth said.

Brown thinks the community art project, coupled with a new hospital, is the prescription for the town’s cure.

Lexington tried in November for a $4 million bond issue to build a new hospital and lay infrastructure to support hoped-for hotels where Missouri highways 24 and 13 cross, but it failed by a narrow margin. City officials still expect they’ll get their new hospital in the near future.

“We are down to very few chances for survival if we lose this hospital,” Campbell said.

A rich coffee aroma wafted from Patricia Worth’s River Reader bookstore and cafe… in one of the Queen Anne buildings on Main Street.

Community arts committee members drifted through the caf… door about 10:30 a.m. on a cold Tuesday in February and sat around a table toward the back. A group of women set another table with placemats and salads for their book club meeting later that afternoon.

Worth opened her bookstore in Lexington nine years ago.

“I fell in love with the place,” she said. “I wanted to open my shop where there was already some retail. This was perfect.”

Worth is the kind of business owner the art committee wants more of. She was first in town to rent studio space to a local artist, Jacque Chinnery, who fell in love with Lexington while on a day trip from Johnson County, Kan. She works in the coffee shop basement.

Talk of the Missouri Extension pilot project has already churned up movement among artists in Lexington.

“This program will enhance what we already have in this town,” said Maggie Bonanomi, a quilter and textile artist who came to Lexington for a workshop in 2002. “I decided I loved it here and bought a home.”

Bonanomi joined the arts advisory committee and this month bought a building where she’ll open a shop.

Art is already evident around town. Drawings of historic Lexington buildings cover City Hall’s lobby walls. Handmade lampshades hang from the ceiling of the women’s clothing store that Joann Ritter owns on the edge of downtown. The costume design artist and former Columbia College professor exhibits her work there, including a dress made of Taco Bell wrappers.

The local art, the river location and the history are reasons MU Extension chose Lexington for its pilot arts project. “Lexington was the most ready to start a project,” said Lee Ann Woolery, community arts specialist for MU Extension. “And having youth on board makes the project sustainable.”

Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting would be the committee’s chance to convince the eight-member council. The meeting began with a resident’s complaint about a 60-cent-a-month increase in the cost of garbage pickup.

Then Campbell made his pitch for civic backing for the arts project.

“Several of us are trying to open up Lexington and trying to bring the rest of the world to us,” he said. Borrowing words from other project supporters around town, Campbell said the arts program would strengthen the community from the inside out and spread.

“It’s positive momentum, something for people to talk about and we need that,” he said.

Brown agreed it will take time for the entire town to embrace the idea of art sparking economic development.

“There are some longtime residents who remember the way things were,” Brown said. “But it will never again be the way it was. Change is coming. The way I figure, either you are going to direct that change or just let it happen to you.

“I think we should direct.”

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(c)2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) Reprint from Kansas City Star