ST. CHARLES – Independence city officials and civic boosters returned Friday from a two-day bus trip to St. Charles with an excitement akin to last year's Bentonville, Arkansas, trek.
With this year's Leadership Exchange trip, sponsored by the Independence Economic Development Council, people had a tangible reason for some of that excitement – New Town.
While construction on the first houses has started for the New Town at Harmony just east of Little Blue Parkway in Independence, the bus group got an eyeful of what builders hope it will look like in more than a dozen years.
Friday's bus tour started with New Town St. Charles, the “New Urbanism” community which officially began in 2003 and now has about 1,600 dwellings of various size with more than twice as many residents and about small 40 businesses – and continues to grow at more than 100 dwellings a year.
“It takes vision, and a lot of patience, and a lot of people to develop something like New Town,” said Tim Busse, one of the architects behind the St. Charles community. “What you have here is the ability to fast forward about 13 years.”
Greg Whittaker, manager of Homes By Whittaker, which started New Town at St. Charles and is doing the same in Independence, said he hopes to have sell 24 contracts for homes this year and 50 the next year.
Tom Lesnak, president of the Independence EDC, said during the group debriefing that New Town Harmony can help spur a hoped-for population boost in a city that's been sitting in the mid-110,000's for years.
“We've got to grow our population, and that's why New Town is so exciting,” he said. “We need to work with developers for new homes and renovations. We've been stagnant for several decades. We can't continue to support city services if we don't grow.”
Michael Lally of the engineering consulting firm Olsson Associates, encourages the city to do what it could to promote New Town
“It can be a gamechanger for Independence,” he said.
Along those lines, local Realtor Daniel O'Neill added, “We need to figure out how to share the image of New Town – what it's going to be in five years, in 15 years.”
Said Mayor Eileen Weir, “New Town is exciting, and I don't think the community has a clearer vision of what that's going to be, it's been a long time coming.”
In promoting New Town, historically significant areas and other aspects of the city, Weir said the St. Charles visit showed that Independence has room to improve.
“We have got to tell our story in a better and broader way,” she said.
Whereas last year's Bentonville trip spawned the idea for the recently approved Farmers Market, Weir said she next wants to tackle residential improvement in western Independence.
“To me, the next frontier is housing in western Independence, housing in the Independence School District,” she said.
While non-profits have fixed up some homes for owner occupancy in small pockets, Weir said later that the city should put more of a lasered focus on the issue. First, a more comprehensive study of the housing stock would be needed.
“We can't just go in and tear down stuff, and then leave vacant areas,” she said.
Doug Cowan, president of Community Services League, said the city has created some good forward movement with recent initiatives and needs to continue that push. A proposed redevelopment and renovation plan could help some western Independence neighborhoods.
“The window's still open; we've got to take advantage of that momentum,” Cowan said. “We've got to move the 24 Highway/Fairmount Plan forward.”