By Jeff Fox
A plan to consolidate services for visitors to the Truman Home in Independence is in works. It’s not certain to go through, but it could significantly alter the number of tourists who come to the nearby Square, full of shops, restaurants and symbols of the city’s rich history.
“We’re thinking it’s going to completely change the complexion of the Square, and the economy of the Square,” said Nina Anders, owner of Scandinavia Place.
The National Park Service wants to buy the Higher Ground hotel, 200 N. Delaware St. That would become a visitors center, replacing the one that’s been at 223 N. Main St. on the Square for many years.
The Park Service is taking public comments on that plan, specifically a plan to add that half-acre across the street from the Truman Home to the Harry S Truman National Historic Site. That would clear the way for a new visitors center.
“This is a really great opportunity for the park,” said Carol Dage, superintendent of the site.
Mayor Eileen Weir said she “absolutely” would prefer to see the Park Service stay where it is but said the city can’t tell the federal government what to do and said there are ways to make the most of the situation.
“It’s been a wonderful arrangement for them to be there. … It generates a lot of economic activity on the Square,” she said.
She added, “I do understand the concerns.”
The Park Service change is not imminent, but the bureaucratic process is underway – and some of those involved differ sharply on how the conversation even got started.
Truman Home drew 45,000 visitors last year. The home, at 219 N. Delaware St., was in Bess Truman’s family for years, and Harry and Bess lived there from the time they got married in 1919 until he went to Washington as a senator in 1935. They came home frequently, especially Bess, and they lived out their years there after leaving the White House in 1953. There are still people in town who remember seeing Harry Truman on his daily walks in the neighborhood.
Visits to the home are in guided tours and in groups of no more than eight. That’s to control stresses and strains on the building and to keep visitors in its public spaces. There’s a set path through the home. For instance, you can peek into the Trumans’ study – wall-to-wall books, among other things – but you can’t go in.
There’s one other thing you can’t do there – buy a ticket. A visitor has to go to the Park Service office on Main Street to pay the $7 admission and be given a time for a tour. Sometimes there’s a wait.
To Anders, the experience of years is clear: Visitors with a little extra time will often explore the Square, grabbing lunch or stopping in a shop like hers.
Dage puts it another way: Visitors tend to go straight to the home and are considerably annoyed at being directed elsewhere – even if it’s only four blocks away – to get a ticket. Also, parking on the Square is often a challenge, particularly with an RV, she says.
“One of the things for us is that we would like to serve the public better,” she said.
The current Park Service building itself is a point of disagreement. It’s the city’s old Fire Station No. 1, just off Truman Road, near the 1859 Jail and Marshall’s home. The Park Service leases it from the city.
The main floor has a space to sell tickets, a small room for films or speakers, a space to pick up brochures for other national parks, and room for a handful of Truman items. Offices are upstairs.
The Park Service wants more space to more fully tell the Truman story before visitors tour the home. It has artifacts it would like to display.
Anders’ understanding is that the building has three main problems: no elevator, a crumbling facade and mold – millions of dollars of work. Weir acknowledged the concerns and said the idea of the improvements – with some city money – has come up.
“But we’d have to plan for that, which as you know takes time,” she said.
Dage said that’s not in the cards.
“The improvements are so costly that I don’t think that option’s a good one right now,” she said.
There’s some sharp disagreement on how this came about.
Dage goes back to conversations in March 2017 in which, she says, the city said the firefighters would like to have the building for a museum of their own. Currently, the non-profit Independence 76 Fire Company uses the backside basement of the structure that housed the old fire station for its vintage fire vehicles. The city said it eventually wanted its building back, she said.
“But no pushing,” she added.
Weir flatly rejected that.
“We did not kick them out,” she said.
She pointed out the benefits of tens of thousands of visitors to the Square.
“Absolutely, it would be my preference to keep them (the Park Service),” she said.
But she also said the city can’t tell the agency what to do.
“I mean, it’s up to them,” she said. “We can’t make them stay.”
Local leaders can make the best of it, she said. A fire museum might be popular with kids just as the Truman Home tends to be more popular with moms and dads.
“I think it could be where it’s a net gain for tourism,” she said.
Weir alluded to the conversation among many community leaders for the past year or so to find ways to improve the connections between the Square and other places that draw tourists -- and could draw more with the right approach. That conversation has included Englewood, the National Frontier Trails Museum and, notably, the Truman Library, which is considerably farther from the Square than the Truman Home.
Other cities get visitors to move around a little, she said, and visitors here can be encouraged to walk the four blocks from the home to the Square, she said.
“I do think it’s doable,” she said.
The Downtown Redevelopment Coordinating Committee has been looking at those kinds of issues and is scheduled to report to the City Council in September.
Anders led the discussion this week during a gathering of people looking at forming a Friends of the Truman Home group, which could raise money and advocate for the home in ways a federal agency legally cannot. One in the group suggested the City Council be asked to look into this and intercede – but Anders said the council doesn’t seem to be in their corner.
“I think the city’s going to let it happen,” she said.
She added, “So we’re going to lose 20- to 40,000 visitors coming to the Square alone.”
Dage said earlier this year that the Park Service was looking to move, and those involved said several sites on and around the Square were considered.
It settled on Higher Ground, which the Park Service would buy. A legal notice says adding that 0.57-acre site to the Truman Historic Site would “create a multitude of efficiencies” and enhance the visitor experience “by establishing a central location for all activities, expanding educational opportunities, increasing safety, and improving parking availability.”
Higher Ground has about 20 parking spots, and Anders questions whether that will work out.
“I’m not sure the people on Delaware realize the parking they’re going to have,” she said.
For now, the plan is open for public comment. Dage says she’s gotten three comments – two in favor and one, as she put it, negative with questions.
Any change could be some way off. Dage said she’s been given no timeline, and outlined a lengthy process. Comments come in through July 20. She gathers those and forwards them to the Park Service regional office in Omaha, which sends a report to national headquarters in Washington. Then the Park Service turns it over to the Interior Department. Then officials run everything past the area’s congressman, Emanuel Cleaver II, as well as Missouri’s two U.S. senators, Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill.
GIVE YOUR OPINION
Comments on adding the Higher Ground property to the Harry S Truman National Historic Site are being taken through July 20. Send them one of two ways:
• An email to email@example.com.
• Drop them off at the office at 223 N. Main St., Independence.