Parsons, Kansas

Kansas | 2006 Great American Main Street Award® Winner | Posted: 6/5/2006

For Parsons, Kansas, the path to success began with several road trips and the reopening of Main Street, which had been closed for 30 years due to an urban renewal program that turned it into a pedestrian mall. Established in the late 1800s, this railroad town had flourished until the 1960s when highways led to residential and retail changes for the community.

A misguided urban renewal program attempted to reinvigorate Parsons but instead failed as it blocked off vehicular traffic, demolished 47 buildings, and added incompatible modernistic concrete awnings to 19th-century vernacular architecture. Property values plummeted and the subsequent reduced equity precluded owners from maintaining or improving their buildings. Businesses fell into decline; storefront entrances served as storage areas, and window displays featured boxes.

During the 1980s, a few attempts were made to organize local community leaders to help the business district and rehabilitate its buildings; it wasn't until 1999, however, that the tide would change. Community volunteers worked with the city to start reclaiming what had been lost and preserving what was left of the 17-square block corridor. A taskforce formed to address local industrial, economical, educational, and residential needs as well as examine how to remove the pedestrian plaza and bring back Parsons' traditional downtown. In April 2000, the catalyst for the mall's destruction hit town in the form of an F3 tornado, which not only damaged the mall, but 20 other businesses and 100 homes. 

A New Beginning

In the aftermath of the disaster, the city charged the taskforce with the recovery efforts. The team launched into action to identify temporary locations for businesses and provide families with emergency assistance. When the dust settled, the community was ready to rebuild and create a vibrant downtown once again. The taskforce went several road trips to revitalized communities throughout the state and in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arkansas, so that it could recommend a plan that addressed both physical and economic challenges downtown.

Many of the successes the team discovered were in Main Street communities; therefore, in 2001 Parsons applied to and was accepted as a Kansas Main Street City. The city provided $30,000 to cover startup costs and Downtown Parsons, Inc., was born. It assumed the taskforce's responsibilities and organized its volunteers into the four standing committees. The group immediately sought not just to unify previously disjointed community efforts but to engage and integrate other public and private entities. 

The same year that Downtown Parsons, Inc., (DPI) was incorporated, the city also submitted a successful application for more than $2.1 million in CDBG funds, which leveraged $1.6 million in local financing to reopen Main Street. The modernistic detailing that had obscured historic facades was removed, streetscape and beautification improvements were made, historically appropriate streetlights were installed, and a district gateway was erected. By November 2002, downtown business and property owners had already invested nearly $8 million in new construction and rehabilitations, even before Main Street was reopened.

Inspiration and Incentives

The tornado also inspired a few key façade improvements in the private sector. The mirrored mylar covering on the Team Bank building had been damaged. For the first time the public got a glimpse of the beautiful architectural fabric that lay underneath. The bank president decided to take the mylar off the second story as well as remove the granite covering on the first floor.

Another group helped protect the integrity of the downtown by acquiring and consolidating vacant properties in order to control appropriate redevelopment. The Parsons Community Development Corporation served as the conduit for funding from local banks to build two commercial buildings in the district on a site where the twister had demolished the structures. So far, on those vacant lots, the corporation has developed new office space to bring 50 new jobs to the district, and more projects are on the way.

Various incentive and assistance programs have been created to help business and property owners reinvest downtown. "In 1999 [before the revitalization], looking for locations off Main Street was a good business decision," says Peggy Weidert, owner of The Mustard Seed bookshop. "Now, however, with the efforts made to restore and renovate Main Street, I don't think there is a bad location downtown!"

The Main Street program understood that healthy businesses were needed to sustain the local economy, in addition to getting the streetscape in order. By surveying residents, the program identified holes in the products and services available downtown. DPI used this information to recruit new businesses as well as help existing business owners adjust their current offerings to meet consumer demand.

DPI also created a Retail Recruitment Grant to award new businesses $5,000 toward locating downtown as long as they provided $10,000 in matching funds and created at least one job. The Main Street program also leveraged the Rural Development Small Business Loan Program, a revolving low-interest loan pool of $150,000, in addition to Kansas Main Street's Incentives without Walls program, which offers loans up to $15,000 with a three-to-one match of equity from an additional bank loan.  

Pivotal Partners

The city has been a pivotal partner in this effort by offering a 95 percent property tax abatement to building owners who make substantial structural improvements; in partnership with local banks, the city created an interest subsidy program to reduce interest rates by 3 percent over three years for all forms of capital improvements. It also set aside $175,000 to offset the costs of storefront rehabilitations as well $100,000 to be used in a $300,000 loan pool to create four new upper-floor housing units.

Three local banks – Team Bank NA, Parsons Comm-ercial Bank, and Labette County State Bank – have been integral in the infusion of funds. They pledged nearly $1 million to build more than 7,000 square feet of new construction and created a loan pool at a rate 1 percent below prime to match city incentives.

Together, these financing options and partnerships have created more than 100 businesses citywide, with 27 in the district, and more than 350 citywide jobs, with 60 in the district. Before the revitalization, downtown had an 80 percent vacancy rate; today that number has dropped to 5 percent on the ground floors and 1 percent among the upper stories. To guide appropriate infill and rehabilitations, the Design Committee offers consultations and architectural renderings to property owners.

More than 65 percent of all downtown property owners used incentives to improve 26 district storefronts. Some downtown stakeholders have been able to not only take advantage of several programs, but participate in the Main Street program as well.

Tisha Mitchell decided to move back to Kansas after a stint in California. Falling in love with the spirit in Parsons, she bid on a historic building and tapped the façade and second-story incentives, in addition to the city's low financing offering. "Two years later, I have fully utilized my building. I am now residing in a lovely renovated loft surrounded by a thriving downtown," says Mitchell. She has rented the commercial space below to a bridal shop to contribute to a healthy retail climate, and she serves on DPI's Board of Directors as well as being co-chair of the Promotion Committee.

The Place to Be

Thanks to the city and the Main Street program, more people like Mitchell can live downtown. As a result of the aforementioned incentives for property owners, there was an investment of $600,000 to create six new upper-floor housing units and a 91-unit high rise was rehabilitated. In addition, $300,000 in CDBG monies was used to rehabilitate 20 substandard homes located on the periphery of the commercial district, and a new Senior Citizens Center was constructed with private donations to make downtown the place for seniors to be.

And there is plenty for residents to do downtown. They can dine at one of 10 restaurants, catch a flick at the state-of-the-art cinema, soak up some culture at the rehabilitated Carnegie Library, which now serves as a venue for small theatrical productions and art exhibits, or attend events at the restored Municipal Auditorium.

Downtown Parsons, Inc., has engaged its business community so effectively that more than 90 percent of local retailers participate in the holiday shopping special events and 80 percent of business owners participate in the four annual window decorating contests. It is easy to get a feel for the merchants' support of the program as they use the district's logo and tagline, which was developed with local college design students, to help promote the district's image.

As another benefit of membership, the local radio station gives merchants 30 minutes to discuss their business and describe how the Main Street program has benefited them. DPI hosts a bi-weekly radio show, which started out as 15 minutes a month but was expanded to two half-hour slots due to its popularity, to communicate with the community.

Parsons' revitalization is ongoing. Today, the Parsons City Commission has committed $228,345 toward phase two of the revitalization effort, which will expand streetscape improvements into the streets adjacent to Main Street. A Transportation Enhancement Grant for more than $1 million will contribute to this project.      The community is also preparing to meet the challenges of a new Wal-Mart Supercenter and new strip malls  by recruiting niche retail downtown. Other goals include developing infill projects for two Main Street lots that have remained vacant since the tornado as well as continuing to build on their upper-floor successes.

Many people believe that despite the damage the tornado wreaked on the town, it also sparked enormous positive change. "I know it awakened within the citizens a long-dormant spirit," says Ann Charles, the editor and publisher of the Parsons Sun. "Their angry response to the tornado provided them with the courage to dream of a city, of which they would not dare let themselves dream before. And it has become a reality with a bright and still-growing future."

"After 40 years of decline, accelerated by a misguided urban renewal project, Parsons has rediscovered its downtown, which is today an inviting and vibrant community hub. It is an exciting time for merchants, property owners and residents alike."

Richard Moe, president
National Trust for Historic Preservation

Revitalization Statistics

  • Year Formed: 2001
  • Budget: $57,100 (FY June 2004 to July 2005 – 40% from public funding and 60% from private funding)
  • Total Businesses in District: 78
  • District Size: 17 square blocks
  • Housing in District: 158 units
  • Total Investment in Revitalization: Public – $3.3 million; Private – $5.4 million
  • Net Jobs Created: 60
  • Net Businesses Created: 27
  • Building Projects: 3 historic rehabilitations; 23 façade improvements; 9 new construction projects; 2 infill construction projects