Don Reimal stood at the microphone, looking at a packed room at Wednesday’s Independence Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
Then he spoke.
“Bittersweet – but it is time.”
Reimal leaves office in April after 12 years as a City Council member and the last eight as mayor. He used Tuesday’s state-of-the-city address, most of it a narrated Powerpoint presentation, to look over the changes in the city since he was born here in 1941.
“Independence is steeped in history,” the mayor said. “We have a future full of possibilities.”
The city that in 1948 covered just 3.3 square miles would grow, through annexation, to 78 square miles today, and it would grow from about 16,000 people to 112,000 in three decades.
Some of that story is told through the decline and renewal of the Square. The Blue Ridge Mall opened in 1958, housing larger versions of stores already open on the Square.
“The stores on the Square couldn’t compete and closed,” Reimal said.
There were other challenges for the Square, notably an urban-renewal plan in the late 1960s that closed off Liberty and Main streets in front of the Courthouse. Also, a low wall went up around the Courthouse, which inadvertently led to rainwater getting into the basement and causing large, costly problems. And businesses suffered.
“You had to walk farther for fewer and fewer businesses,” Reimal said.
But changes for the good, over time, have come too, as the mayor outlined it. Liberty and Main flow through the Square, there is more parking, there are more businesses, and the Courthouse – minus the low wall – has been restored and is back in use.
“The County Courthouse and the Independence Square have been reconnected to the community and Jackson County,” he said. “After all, we are the county seat.”
The mayor also listed several improvements and new projects of recent years: renovation of the Memorial Building, conversion of the Palmer School to the Palmer Senior Center, two clinics in the northwest part of the city, the city’s IndeBus service, new homes and rehabbed homes in northwest Independence, the opening of Adventure Oasis Park in 2005 and the Independence Athletic Complex on Salisbury Road in 2008, and the new Burlington Coat Factory store on the site of the old Blue Ridge East theater.
He mentioned a few things lost along the way, such as Stephenson’s restaurant.
“And Jo and I had our first date there over 50 years ago,” he said.
Reimal said one of his first challenges as mayor was dealing with the potential loss of the Mid-Continent Public Library’s genealogy library on U.S. 24. Officials convinced the library system to build on Lee’s Summit Road.
“I presented the plan, and it saved the library from going north of the river,” Reimal said.
On a broader scale, the mayor mentioned the massive growth of restaurants and retailers in the city’s southeast corner from 1993 to 2003; the construction of the Little Blue Parkway, opening a wide area to future development; and the transfer of several western Independence and Sugar Creek schools into the Independence School District in 2008.
“Sometime success doesn’t come easy,” Reimal said. “But it doesn’t mean we should give up.”
Looking out over audience, the mayor thanked everyone for the chance to be mayor. He started to go on but choked up for moment. After a standing ovation, he spoke again.
“It has been a pleasure and a privilege to be your mayor.”