As the nearly 37-year-old retaining walls that surround the historic Jackson County Truman Courthouse come crumbling down, an 86-year-old man sits at Clinton’s Soda Fountain on West Maple Avenue.

John Hayner peers out the window every morning as he chats over coffee with his Optimist Club buddies. He’s not a professional planner or engineer. Really, he wants no credit for a role he once played.

He was just a man who helped administer the urban renewal program that included the original construction of the walls in the summer of 1972, he says. Those were times of change, just like today.

“I think it’s a healthy thing,” Hayner says. “The people at that time thought it was something good, and they wanted the change. Now the people who are here think it’s a good thing for them to come down, and I’m all for it.”

Mayor Don Slusher appointed Hayner as administrator of Independence’s urban renewal agency in 1970 “to expedite a satisfactory conclusion,” Hayner says.

“He (Slusher) had first appointed me to be a municipal judge, and he asked if I would agree to change in the appointment to help them out,” says Hayner, who practiced general case law in Independence, “because that was more urgent at the time.”  

Born in 1923 at the then-Independence Sanitarium and Hospital, Hayner has lived his entire life here. The outstanding change – in his mind – is the memory of “the bustling center business district” that was the Independence Square during the 1920s and 1930s. Families shopped for most of their needs on the Square – clothing, groceries, prescriptions, haircuts, dry goods.

“The streets were crowded. The stores were crowded,” Hayner says. “They parked and walked for blocks to get to the stores.”

But post-World War II brought the advent of shopping malls and front-door unlimited parking, Hayner says. The urban renewal program in the late 1950s mandated change with the goal to “modernize and beautify.”

Independence residents gave the city a green light to participate in the federal urban renewal program through a special election referendum in November 1958. The federal program was designed primarily to rehabilitate blighted areas that could be economically restored and to continue clearance and redevelopment of areas that could not be saved, according to a Feb. 23, 1959, Examiner article.

In July 1972, the first sections of the walls that encircled the Jackson County Courthouse were constructed at varying heights from 3 to 5 feet from the sidewalk. The Overland, Kan.-based Black & Veatch Corporation supervised the construction.

The Urban Renewal Administration of the Home and Housing Finance Agency administered the federal loan and grant aids to more than 500 U.S. communities to plan and to executive the urban renewal projects.

The second phase of the Jackson County Truman Courthouse renovation project started March 16 and includes removing retaining walls that have caused water to be trapped around the foundation’s walls for years. The concrete stairs and slabs also will be replaced, as well as the limestone entry stairs on all four sides.

The Square provides familiarity for Hayner, and he welcomes the change with open arms, saying, “This is as it should be; the present businesses on the Independence Square and the present public officials are the ones who should choose the appearance of the Square, just as it was done in prior years.”

“Whenever there’s a project up there, it brings a new enthusiasm,” Hayner says. “I hope they will continue making changes. I would hope it continues to have some vitality and success for all those who are doing business up there.”