Waynesville was settled in 1833 on the banks of the Roubidoux Creek and incorporated as a city and county seat in 1843. Our history encompasses the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, World War II and the building of the “Mother Road” across America.
Waynesville is the county seat of Pulaski County, and the 1990 county courthouse dominates the center of the square. Route 66 runs through town, as does the Roubidoux Creek, home to a Blue-Ribbon Trout Stream. The 1903 Courthouse is one of two original Missouri courthouses that sit directly on Route 66 and is found in the National Register of Historic Places.
Waynesville has for years relied on the rise and fall of Fort Leonard Wood and our economy is dependent on our military neighbors. Built in 1940-41, Fort Leonard Wood is the largest training post in the Midwest and now houses the Engineer, Military Police and Chemical Corps schools. It has seen bustling days, as well as days of military cuts. We have seen a thriving post in World War II and endured talk of moth-balling Fort Leonard Wood after the Korean War. The Vietnam War once again revived the post during the 1960s and 1970s.
But by the 1980s, as the Vietnam War had ended and military drawdowns were taking place, downtown Waynesville was largely abandoned. It was neglected, as were many downtown areas around the country suffering from the move to suburban shopping. In the 1990s, the city saw even more of a decline when Jim’s Market, the downtown grocery store closed with the opening of a new, modern supermarket in West Waynesville. With the burning of the Western Auto store, the demise of downtown was becoming a reality. A few long-time businesses held on, but things were bleak in downtown Waynesville.
There were several attempts by citizens to improve the appearance of downtown, but those efforts were never supported by the city government. The downtown area was dark with very little street lighting. Our sidewalks around the square were broken and falling apart. There was no handicap accessibility, and remnants of 24 rusted sign poles jutted out of our old buildings and sidewalks on the square. Moss grew on the facades of some of the buildings, a tree was growing through another building, and there were many empty storefronts. One prominent building was caving in and was a hazardous building.
In 2003, after retiring from teaching, I ran for city council in Waynesville. My main motivation was improving the downtown area. With little experience in local government, I did know grants were available and after I was elected, Mayor Cliff Hammock and I had a meeting.
Mayor Hammock, a Waynesville native, had always loved the downtown square. He was also concerned about downtown and agreed to support obtaining grants. I spoke with him, as he is enjoying retirement in Florida.
“I hated seeing all the neglect and deterioration of the square and I wanted to make it better. Councilwoman Hardman provided the interest and momentum I had needed to develop community and business interest in getting a renovation project started.”
Together, we formed the Downtown Beautification Committee, aimed at improving the appearance of the historic downtown square and revitalizing the area. Councilman Pat Howe and I served as the committee’s representatives to the Waynesville City Council. With 10 original citizen members, our group began a plan to revitalize the downtown area. Eventually our committee boasted over 30 members. Mayor Hammock remembered, “The majority of the businesses supported the concept and wanted to make things better. Our biggest impediments were members of the Council and some of the administrative staff. They were reluctant for change and I didn’t understand it. I needed a more progressive Council to move forward. With the election of Councilwoman Hardman, she willingly took the torch and ran with it.”
One member of the group worked tirelessly and supported every effort. Mary Miller was a downtown businesswoman and member of a local business family that has operated on the square for over 68 years.
“I always said if I won the lottery, I would use the money to fix up our downtown. No one or no group had been able to modernize the downtown until the Downtown Beautification Committee and I feel a sense of pride knowing that I was able to participate in making our quaint downtown more aesthetically appealing. Our group focused attention on cleaning up the square. But our grant was just the start, soon other businesses began restoring and renovating their businesses.”
Our first step was to apply for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for new sidewalks and vintage lighting for the square. This grant was dependent on matching investment and support from existing businesses and they came through, with the exception of two businesses.
Opposition on the city council slowed our early progress. Three council members consistently voted against anything related to the downtown project, including the 2005 budget, which included a $500 payment for a grant writer. They seemed to be content with the current state of affairs in Waynesville. The opponents tried every way to block the project, but in the end, with many votes of 5 to 3 and even 4 to 4, with Mayor Hammock breaking the ties, the plan began to move forward.
One supporter of the project was Councilman Dan Deering.
“After moving to Waynesville in the 80s, it was obvious that our city needed attention. But major, costly repairs were hard for small businesses to absorb. The downtown grant opened the door for that needed assistance, with new sidewalks and lighting.”
The opposition was at times very vocal and negative, Councilman Deering described our efforts to move forward, “Like with any group or committee, change walks a slow path. Diplomacy and patience, along with a lot of people working behind the scenes were vital parts of the success of the downtown project.”
Layla Earl was eventually hired and compiled our grant material, spending hours writing our story. I spoke with Layla about her involvement and her experience helping change the downtown cityscape.
“I was thrilled to be involved in saving, restoring, and making accessible the true treasure that the courthouse square and the Roubidoux bridge are.
“The project was remarkable and I couldn’t believe I was a small part of it. It’s astounding to look at the area and know what we did to allow it to stand and thrive again. Grant writing is detail oriented. I was fortunate as a grant writer that our subject was so special. The history of the downtown square made writing this grant a joy.”
With the volunteer help of local engineer, John Mackey, we began the process of applying for and planning for this grant. A survey for the grant revealed that over 70% of the buildings on the square were abandoned or neglected. We found many absentee landowners and tried to make contact. One of our first victories was finding the owner of the old Vert Art building and obtaining permission to remove a blue, soiled mattress from the front window of the abandoned building. The city also removed the 24 rusted sign poles from the south side of the square.
For our efforts, in 2005 the City of Waynesville was awarded CDBG monies in the amount of $250,000. Using the matching capital investments by downtown businesses, the total completed project was over $400,000 of improvements to existing businesses and infrastructure around the square. Mayor Hammock reacted to the results, “I am proud of my involvement and progress the city continues to make.” Councilman Deering added, “The progress that resulted made us all proud. I’m thankful to have had a small part in that success.”
The city council began to take on a different look, also. The opponents of improving the downtown were being replaced one by one with new faces and new attitudes. The next step in our improvement plan was a zoning change from commercial to mixed zoning in the downtown area, which allowed apartments to be built, thereby creating a demand for businesses and services. Our group also began a memorial bench program. Working with our financial institutions, we purchased a town clock. We finished our vintage lighting project in 2015, and now the downtown area is well lit.
Business owners, developers and builders began to respond to the interest and support shown by the city and by its citizens. Several local businesses began to invest in their buildings. Eircil’s Jewelry, Security Bank of Pulaski County, Gifford’s Law Office, Miller Realty, Pulaski County Abstract and Prugh’s Law Offices were some of the early projects that began to change the cityscape of downtown Waynesville. There have been many more since 2005.
Two of the early investors in downtown were Jake and Ursula Lebioda. Ursula told of their interest in revitalizing the downtown area.
“Jake and I saw the potential in this quaint downtown. We were a young couple in our 20s, working our first project. We wanted to create a place where people could park their car, eat, shop and explore. Later, we added apartments to encourage downtown living. We were thankful for the opportunity to be involved in the revitalization of the downtown Waynesville Square.”
Tom and Pat Campbell were also early investors on the downtown square, adding new buildings and renovating older ones.
Partnering with the Pulaski County Tourism Bureau, a focus on Route 66 began in earnest. With visitors from all over the world, Waynesville has appeared in videos and print media as an interesting stop on Route 66. The recognition and certification of the Trail of Tears encampment in Laughlin Park, which borders the downtown area, was part of our effort. In 2007 we were certified as a site on the National Historic Trail and in 2015 we completed our park exhibits and signage. Remembering our past was, and is, important to the city.
In 2022, businessman Tim Berrier led an effort to install a Route 66 emblem on the downtown square and it has become an iconic stop for photos by “roadies” of the “Mother Road.” Efforts continue to make Waynesville a popular stop along Route 66.
Our citizens, city councils, mayors, the city staff, businesses, and developers and builders took on the challenge and led the revitalization of downtown Waynesville. The comeback of downtown Waynesville is a perfect example of citizen involvement.