Route 66 in the News

A Mother Road Town on the Upswing

2013-05-30 08:47:25

GALENA, Kan. - When Kathy Anderson and her husband, Danny, decided to open a coffee and sandwich shop in their retirement, they looked no farther than Main Street in downtown Galena.

“Galena was my first pick,” she said. “We didn’t consider any other spot. I knew that Route 66 was full of travelers, people who toured Route 66 constantly. I knew I wanted to be here.”

Such a choice would have been unlikely — almost unthinkable — 25 years ago, said Mayor Dale Oglesby, who has held the office about that many years.

“It was like an abandoned mine town — but it wasn’t,” he said. “People still lived here.”

Galena had been tagged by the United States Geological Survey as the most polluted city in the state, and it had 800 recorded mine shafts and 3,000 mine features. Remnants of the mining boom, they were a scar on and under the landscape that did nothing for the town’s image.

Galena, in a sense, was sinking. Literally.

When the decades-old Green Parrot Bar was nearly swallowed by a mine shaft in 2006, attracting media attention from the likes of The New York Times, it nearly took with it the dreams of city leaders to attract investors.

“We had gotten the top cleaned up, but there was no money here,” Oglesby said of the initial cleanup done years before. “It looked as if they walked off and left them.”

The city also faced infrastructure issues, inadequate sewer and water systems, and a crumbling downtown, and many wanted to walk away, Oglesby said.

“They wanted to walk away like the Picher (Okla.) buyout,” he said. “People came to the council. I hit the ceiling. It’s hard to look around and say, ‘We suck.’”

It was a contrast to 38 years ago, when Kathy Anderson began her career in banking downtown: There was a dime store, a hardware store, a beauty shop, two drugstores, an eatery, a library, and the fire and police stations, among other things.

“There was activity, and there were people,” she said. “But a lot of the businesses either sold, people retired, or people quit and left. I did see the town somewhat disappear. We built a new bank on Seventh Street, and I didn’t pay attention to downtown.”

About a decade ago, a group of residents and the Chamber of Commerce had begun to breathe life back into the town.

“They decided to put a park in where there were no more buildings, Pappy Litch Park, on land that had been donated to the chamber,” Anderson said. “They bought up old dilapidated housing and demolished it, cleaned the streets and the entrances to town.

“I thought, ‘Wonderful. It’s a town full of nice people. Let’s make it look better.’”

To ensure that the efforts weren’t for naught, though, the city had to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from local, state and federal sources to find and fill those mines that run under an estimated 60 percent of the city. It was a challenge, Oglesby said, but worth it.

A downtown streetscape project followed, including charming light posts, planters with automatic waterers, and speakers that broadcast music for shoppers and walkers.

“We started noticing 50 to 60 vehicles some days, or several tour buses, going through Galena,” Oglesby said. “And we said, ‘We’ve got to get them to stop.’”

The icing on the cake, he said, was the opening of the new hospital at the east edge of town in February. That created 80 jobs and significantly increased the town’s traffic count.

The hospital is a unique arrangement: The city owns the operations, which are managed by Four States Management Solutions. The building is owned by the doctors of Orthopaedic Specialists of the Four States, who lease the building to the city. The hospital is governed by a board appointed by the City Council.

It also is unique in its interior design — think Big Cedar Lodge in Branson, Mo. — and its amenities, which staff members say are holistic in nature and include spa-like treatments for patients.

With four operating suites and 16 inpatient beds, it offers orthopedics, pain management, gastroenterology, gynecological surgeries and imaging, including CT scanning, ultrasound and X-ray. It also includes a satellite location of Joplin’s Red Onion Cafe.

Even before it opened, hospital CEO Joseph Caputo announced a $3 million expansion: A 20-bed wing is under construction and set to open later this year. The expansion was privately financed, according to Oglesby.

“It has provided exponential growth as far as our economic base,” he said. “It has been life changing — the biggest thing since lead and zinc were discovered here.”

It also has attracted new businesses.

“Part of my decision to invest was the hospital,” Anderson said. “Our decision was based on not only missing our interactions with the public, but the fact that we knew the hospital was coming in, and there would be people — employees, patients and patients’ families — who would be coming to Galena, and we wanted to be one of the first to do something to help revitalize Main Street for that purpose.”

She and her husband opened the Streetcar Station Coffee Shop on July 30, 2012, and after nearly a year in business are happy with their decision.

She pointed to her efforts Wednesday to get a photograph of a sign going up over a new business across Main Street from her shop as evidence of the town’s growth.

“I stood out there trying to get a picture, but there was too much traffic,” she said. “Cars kept going by, and I couldn’t get one. And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is Main Street in Galena.’”

The store going in across the road is a former service station that owner Rick Shockley is preparing to make a tourist attraction and antiques store.

Next door at 513 S. Main St., retired teacher Sherri Wilkins opened the restaurant Xtreme Wingz & More on April 1.

“I had always dreamed of opening a place,” she said. “I was born and raised here, and wanted to open here.”

Researching the history of the city’s early days in the late 1800s, Wilkins learned that it had once been busy and bustling.

“That excited me,” she said. “I wanted to see that again. And I saw people start doing things. I saw people taking pride in Galena again, finally. Now they are reflecting that same energy and enthusiasm I read about in the late 1800s.”

The resurgence also attracted business partners Mark Struwe and Keith McCoy, of Joplin, who this summer will open Belleview Brewing at 119 Sixth St.

“Galena offered us the best deal we could find,” Struwe said. “A building was for sale, and we got a really good deal on it. Everyone has been very welcoming, very accommodating. We’re really happy to be part of the resurgence of Galena.”

Oglesby said Thursday, shortly after visiting with a tour group from South Africa at Cars on the Route, that the city now sees groups coming through from Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan — and they have a reason to stop.

“We had so many negatives for so many years,” Oglesby said. “I think we’re seeing a 6 to 12 percent increase in business in recent years. Seven or eight properties have been sold. It’s had the desired effect.”

Gov. Sam Brownback visited three times last year. On Thursday, the most recent dignitary to visit was U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, who toured the hospital.

“Everybody needs a win,” Oglesby said. “My feeling is, if we can do it here, it can happen anywhere.”

~Andra Bryan Stefanoni, JoplinGlobe.com

 

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