Independence's Tourism Division staff has moved from the space the city had been renting in Jackson County's Historic Truman Courthouse to the Independence Chamber of Commerce a short block away.
The move not only consolidates the Tourism Division under one roof – the city had opened a satellite location for its visitors welcome center in the Chamber offices last summer – and saves some money, but also comes after dealing with continuous maintenance issues in the Historic Truman Courthouse.
Specifically, humidity and water infiltration issues made Tourism's portion of the building less than hospitable for months. The building reopened to the public in 2013 after a $7.5 million renovation, and also houses some county offices, the Jackson County Historical Society and a collection of George Caleb Bingham paintings.
Conditions, City Manager Zach Walker said, have been “unacceptable for employees and for visitors.”
“We've been talking to the county about it off and on since October and recently met with them,” said Eric Urfer, director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department. “They're taking a look at some issues, but conditions have not improved.”
Urfer said the water issues only started last year and emphasized they're just one reason Tourism is moving completely, along with consolidation and budget savings.
“We were looking to relocate for a number of reasons; the moisture issue kind of spurred that,” Urfer said.
Mayor Eileen Weir said the move is unfortunate but understandable, and she is concerned the building could revert to being to an inactive place if the county doesn't address maintenance, noting the community's large investment less than a decade ago.
“It wasn't long ago the Courthouse was locked, boarded up and not accessible to the public,” Weir said. “I was reluctant to lose our presence in this building, because when people come to Independence and see this big beautiful building in the middle of town, that's where they go and expect somebody to be there to answer their questions or give directions.”
Weir said this should warrant a larger community conversation “to set the expectation that the building remains accessible to the public.”
“Otherwise,” she said, “we're going to be taking an enormous step backwards in our community and city.”
An amended lease that the City Council approved earlier this month adds four office spaces, a portion of the lobby area and a storage closet for Tourism use. The city's rent with the chamber will go from $600 to $1,500 a month.
Last August, the city opened a small, satellite visitors center in the chamber offices on Truman Road and rented one office space, hoping to take advantage of the fact some visitors already thought that's where the visitors center was. Urfer said Tourism has had a 13 percent increase in visitors since adding at the satellite location.
In the 2018-19 fiscal year, the city's budget listed $22,000 in combined rent, including 11 months at the chamber. This year, it's $16,500.
Jackson County Chief Operating Officer Gary Panethiere did not return messages seeking comment about the Courthouse maintenance issues. County Legislature Chair Theresa Galvin, R-Lee's Summit, said she only learned late this week the city's Tourism Division had moved out and had not heard of maintenance issues in the building.
Galvin said it would be a shame to see that continue to be a problem for other occupants.
“We just got done redoing it,” Galvin said.