By Megan Liz Smith, Betsy Smith, Tana Kelley and Emily Kummerfield
Boonville, Missouri is a vibrant tourist destination. Situated along the Missouri River, attractions like the Isle of Capri Casino and the Warm Springs Ranch, home of the Budweiser Clydesdales, draw thousands of visitors to the small community.
A hundred years ago however, Boonville was well known for its higher education.
Since 1844, Boonville had been home to the Kemper Military School. It was open until 2002, after it was forced to close due to low enrollment.
The loss was felt by many citizens. “We sort of lost our identity– for a lot of people Kemper is what Boonville was associated with,” said Kate Fjell, assistant to the city’s administrator.
The City of Boonville purchased the property for $500,000, hoping a single entity would purchase the entire campus. After many years of waiting, people realized the city would have to focus on renovating each building one at a time.
“That’s about all the city has the financial resources to handle,” said Fjell.
Although closed, the campus maintained a presence in the Boonville community. The Booneslick Heartland YMCA was already housed on the Kemper grounds. It moved into the Johnson Fieldhouse, the former gymnasium and shooting range in 2000 before the school closed.
“When we do renovations in there and fix things up, we’ll find old case shellings from the firing range,” said CEO Matt Schneringer. “But it serves our needs, it serves the needs of the Booneville Community.”
The Kemper campus is also a rich source of local folklore. Mary Barile, a writer and storyteller from Boonville, recalled one legend of a murder victim from the 1980’s who is seen running on the jogging track late at night.
“I’ve had several people tell me they’ve experienced it and they didn’t realize what they were seeing until they went back and realized nobody was there,” said Barile. There has (have)been reports of more hauntings on campus as well.
Utilization of the campus grew with the city’s partnership with State Fair Community College. The college first moved into the Library Learning Center building, right before the school closed. When the college wanted to expand, a federal grant from the Economic Development Administration allowed renovation of the Science Hall building.
Some buildings however, like the iconic Kemper Administration building, were beyond the possibility of renovation and contained contamination. But in order to begin the expensive clean-up, Boonville would need help.
Like an estimated 450,000 other sites in the United States, the Kemper Administration building was considered a “brownfield,” or a site whose development is complicated by some type of real or possible contamination.
“It’s just that there’s a stigma associated with that property. There’s something wrong with it. That’s the definition of a brownfield,” said Christine O’Keefe, environmental specialist with the Department of Natural Resources and case manager of brownfield sites. “As long as that stigma is there, then people don’t want to approach the property and buy it.”
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources oversees brownfields clean-up and redevelopment through the Brownfields/Voluntary Cleanup Program (BVCP). A certificate of completion is issued to the site after clean-up meets state standards.
To spur initiative for developers to clean-up sites, the Missouri Department of Economic Development began the Brownfield Remediation Program, which issues tax credits up to 100% for the remediation costs of a brownfield site.
However, the Kemper building was not eligible for the Remediation Program. Although it fulfilled the requirement of acceptance by the BVCP, it did not fulfill such requirements such as non- public ownership, nor would it create 10 new jobs or help to retain 25 existing ones by a private commercial entity.
But the Kemper site was eligible for other state programs and Boonville would not be left alone to manage the cost. The EIERA, or the Environmental Improvement and Energy Resources Authority, gives assistance for brownfield clean-ups through the Missouri Brownfield Revolving Loan fund. One stipulation of assistance is oversite of the clean-up through the BVCP.
The maximum grant the EIERA can issue is $200,000. It also has its own requirements, which rely heavily on who owns the property.
“We try to clean up sites that probably wouldn’t be cleaned up unless it were for our involvement,” explained Kristin Tipton, the director at the EIERA.
Often clean-up in rural communities is more challenging, explained Pat Curry, project manager in the Extension Community Economic and Entrepreneurial Development (ExCEED) program with University of Missouri Extension.
“They’ve got a serious resource problem in many rural places when they’re dealing with things like brownfields,” he said. “So often Brownfields just sit in rural communities for long periods of time, sometimes decades with no remediation at all.”
Boonville successfully applied to the EIERA for funds to abate the asbestos in the Kemper Administration building. Afterwards, the building was torn down due the city’s assessment that it was beyond further renovation.
“It was the most iconic, so it was a really hard decision for us to do,” said Fjell.
Boonville plans to turn the site into a park with historical markers of Kemper Military School and the admin site.
The city is now in the process of removing contamination in the Kemper barracks building. The building has been accepted into the BVCP program, and is currently receiving bids to remove the asbestos. So far the estimates are over $400,000, but with assistance from EIERA, the city can cover the rest of the cost and proceed with its plans to turn the site into greenspace for the park.
“The city does take our historic preservation and our legacy very seriously, so we’re committed to keeping Kemper,” explained Fjell, “we want to rehab it and we can.”
And with assistance from state resources, small communities in Missouri have the prospect of transforming their towns. Some, like Boonville, also have the chance to preserve their past.