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Cautious approach to reopening local historic sites

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net

The Independence’s city-owned historic tourism sites have been closed since mid-March amid the pandemic, though Mayor Eileen Weir assures residents that the city will reopen them at some point and is not looking to unload the “treasures” in any way.

“There’s never really been any discussion about doing that,” the mayor said, referring to the National Frontier Trails Museum, the Bingham-Waggoner Estate and the Vaile Mansion. “We’re not looking to divest ourselves of any of those assets.” 

Jan Bradbury attaches decorations inside the Vaile Mansion in preparation for the 2019 Christmas season tours, the last time the Vaile and the Bingham-Waggoner Estate in Independence were open for public tours. The city remains intent on reopening its tourist attractions when it’s safe.

Weir and Eric Urfer, director of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said last fall a large part of the reason for closing tourism sites through 2020 was to avoid asking volunteer staffers to put their health at risk. The museum particularly has had three full-time positions, which were left open in the city’s 2020-21 budget, but all three sites rely heavily on volunteers.

It’s also possible, depending on how the covenants are worded, the city might not have that ability, Weir said, as “some of these were deeded to us or gifted to us.”

The Vaile Mansion on Liberty Street, for example, was given to the city in 1983 by the DeWitt family. The city has operated the Trails Museum for 30 years, but only a couple years ago did the state of Missouri convey building ownership to the city.

Furthermore, they’re key to the city’s history, and that history is a large part of the city’s identity, the mayor says.

“These are treasures to our community in normal times,” Weir said. “They’re not gigantic moneymakers for the city, but they’re important for our marketing and the story we tell. It’s good exposure, and people enjoy them.”

“There’s plenty of regrets we could point to, and points of history where we failed to adequately preserve, and we have learned that lesson well. These are important to our city and our brand.”

Weir said she’ll always remember former Mayor Dick King, from his time of the Jackson County Historical Society board of directors, saying, “We don’t have to manufacture our history in Independence; it’s authentic.”

Besides visitors to the Harry S. Truman sites, the city can also make a tourist appeal to visitors of the Mid-Continent Public Library’s Midwest Genealogy Center.

“The genealogy library is a huge contributor to our tourism,” she said. “We have one of the greatest places in the country to come and research that.”

While there have been no large capital projects, the city has done the regular upkeep and some deferred maintenance on the tourist sites – “They’re absolutely not sitting to rot,” Weir said – and the mayor says there’s little financial incentive to sell, as the largely volunteer staff helps mitigate operating expenses.

“We have an incredible corps of volunteers that allows us to do that,” Weir said, “and all the sites have friends organizations or auxiliary nonprofits that do fundraising.”

The city qualified for about $1 million in federal CARES Act funds for specific tourism marketing, helping to offset far less revenue from the local transient guest tax that provides nearly all of the city’s tourism division budget.

The pandemic closure came just as Trails Museum was in the midst of celebrating 30 years with a variety of events, and later the traditional Christmas decorations tours at the Bingham-Waggoner, the Vaile and the Chicago & Alton Depot on the Trails Museum grounds got shuttered.

The city had just moved and refurbished the Pioneer Spring Cabin on the Trails Museum grounds in 2019, and the city has just put out a request for proposals on possible refurbishing projects for the old mill office building that’s also on the grounds, next to the railroad tracks. The Trails Museum is built into the salvaged remains of the former Gates-Waggoner flour mill that burned in the 1960s.

Weir said that when the Truman Home and the Truman Library & Museum get the go-ahead to open, that could lead to the city reopening its historic sites.

“If they were to signal those could open, it would be a sign things are improving, but don’t think they’ll be very hasty in reopening those sites,” Weir said. “Maybe we would be able to open on some limited capacity in the spring or summer. I wish I had a crystal ball.”

“We depend so heavily on our volunteers to give the tours and take care of the properties, and we just did not want to put our volunteers at risk.”