Kemper Military School, Boonville, Mo., was founded in 1844. The "West Point of the West" boasts humorist Will Rogers; James Stowers, founder of American Century Investments and the Stowers Institute for Medical Research; Donald Tyson, former CEO of Tyson Foods; congressmen, senators and governors; and brigadier, major and lieutenant generals as alumni. It survived the Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and Vietnam War.
But it didn't survive the 21st century.
Declining enrollments brought about Kemper's closure in 2002. Ten beautiful, neocolonial buildings, including red-brick academic halls, a gracious president's home and large residence halls, sat vacant.
The 46-acre campus had played a large role in the city's identity as a popular 19th century Missouri river town destination. (The town has more than 400 antebellum and other architectural sites on the National Register of Historic Places, including Kemper). Boonville, already hit hard by plant closings, had lost its sole institution of higher education and hundreds of cadets as well as positions for instructors and administrative support staff. The city's population had to commute to Fayette, Marshall, Sedalia or Columbia for higher education.
The city did not want to see the campus abandoned, so it purchased Kemper in 2003. But over time, the buildings fell into disrepair, roofs sagged and portions of the campus were surrounded by high wire fencing. Worse, a large tower atop the administrative building collapsed in 2010.
Although the city had converted some campus green space to football, baseball and other playing fields and leased a building to the Boonslick Heartland YMCA, it wasn't enough to save Kemper.
So Mayor Julie Thacher reached out to Jim Gann, a Boonville resident and director of technology business development at the University of Missouri SBTDC. Using funding provided by the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA), Gann began working with the area stakeholders on a plan. He started by facilitating a series of community stakeholder meetings and conducting research into historic preservation, realistic tenants (a luxury hotel, for instance, would probably not succeed; the city already has two) and community needs. Boonville has a casino, but no institutions of higher learning or vocational education.
After preliminary visioning, Gann continued discussions with city residents, concerned stakeholders and higher education. He sought advice on getting buildings up to code for education, recreation, hotel and housing.
An innovative proposal emerged: offer Kemper and its redeveloped facilities to higher educational institutions as an open, plug-and-play campus. The former Kemper library building, Math Hall, could be renovated quickly; the city-maintained playing fields offered well-maintained athletic facilities; and the YMCA boasted a full-sized pool, gym and childcare.
Gann facilitated negotiations with several higher education institutions to use the campus. State Fair Community College of Sedalia was attracted to the campus and its location, and through a series of meetings with college administrators and city officials, a partnership emerged to open a new State Fair Community College campus on the Kemper grounds. The city agreed to lease the refurbished library, and a full slate of classes began in the fall of 2012. This new campus and the program are expected to draw hundreds of students, many of them local residents, and create up to 100 part- or full-time jobs.
This is just the beginning. Gann and the city are considering further proposals, such as food, entertainment and lodging entities; courses in slot machine maintenance and other casino-related industry-driven courses to build a more prepared workforce for the casino; and a new associate's degree in historic preservation, a priceless hands-on opportunity for students to restore the remaining buildings and gain real-world experience while attracting more tenants.
While there is still much redevelopment to do, more improvements are in the works, and new tenants are being reviewed for suitability and best fit to fully rejuvenate the campus, maintain its historic appeal and attract more investment.
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This story was featured in the March 2013 newsletter.
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