Published October 18th, 2023 at 10:33 AM8 minute read
BALDWIN CITY, KANSAS — Downtown Baldwin City was “sleepy” when the town’s current mayor, Casey Simoneau, moved there about 20 years ago.
“I maybe went downtown once a month, maybe twice a month,” Simoneau said.
Then local folks stepped up. They renovated buildings, which new businesses happily occupied. Local leaders built a micro-park, hosted community events and downtown Baldwin City — just 20 minutes south of Lawrence, Kansas, — was transformed.
“Now it’s kind of the central focus of our community,” Simoneau said.
Most folks in the region know Baldwin City for its famous fall festival. But the quaint city is also a college town with connections to Margaret Thatcher, a stop along the Santa Fe Trail, claim to the first armed conflicts of the Civil War and now, home to a charming and vibrant downtown.
When Simoneau became mayor of Baldwin City six years ago, roughly 30% of downtown storefronts were vacant. Today, they’re 100% occupied and would-be vacancies are filled before the old businesses move out.
“It was essentially … putting our money where our mouth is and investing in our downtown to make the spaces available,” said Simoneau, who invested in several building renovations himself. “That’s what really drove our economy.”
In addition to its now populated sidewalks, the revived downtown has increased tax revenue each year for the past several years.
“I think we’ve proven a concept that can work,” Simoneau said. “If you invest in a small downtown and have organizations … that bring in people from outside the community, it will not only impact the feel of your community, but it’s going to impact the economic side of the community.”
About 10 years ago, the city condemned a building on the edge of downtown and planned to level it. Motivated locals convinced the city to give them the building and promised to renovate the two-story brick space to avoid an empty lot in such a visible spot.
Dave Hill, owner and president of Mid America Bank and president of Baldwin City Economic Development, was one of the project’s leaders. The renovation resulted in several commercial spaces downstairs and four loft-style apartments upstairs.
“It’s very desirable, we have no problem with keeping it full,” Hill said of the spaces, which have been steadily occupied the past decade.
Aside from a streetscape project in the early 2000s that widened sidewalks and added some beautification to the district, this was the first big renovation project downtown had seen in a while.
The project quickly became the cornerstone for a slew of downtown renovations.
“A lot of stuff here was run down, and it wasn’t very marketable to sell or rent,” Hill said. “So, we just started buying it and renovating it.”
Hill and other investors/renovators in town found that once a space was fixed up nicely, tenants and businesses flocked.
Hill also advocates for and helps local businesses leverage programs like historical tax breaks, or tapping Network Kansas business resources so they can pursue their dreams.
Baldwin City is working to denote downtown and Baker University’s campus as historic districts. This would allow many of the buildings that were erected in the 19th century, and are indeed historic, to qualify for beneficial tax breaks.
Hill shares similar stories of renovation and investment along U.S. Highway 56, which cuts across Baldwin City just north of downtown and houses the banks, doctors’ offices and restaurants.
“Our downtown is really attractive and utilized,” Hill said. “But we have to keep it that way, and the way you keep it that way, is (to) keep improving your buildings, and keep doing your activities.”
Every year the Maple Leaf Festival brings 30,000-40,000 people downtown for craft booths, food, music and fall festivities. That’s huge for a town of less than 5,000 people, but it’s only one weekend a year.
Simoneau realized that Baldwin City had a real need for a place where folks could gather. Sullivan Square filled that need.
“We were not a disjointed community, but we definitely weren’t a tight-knit, close community where everybody came together,” Simoneau said. “This space really has created an opportunity for us to come together as a community.”
The small greenspace nestled in the heart of downtown emerged in 2020 from an empty lot as an event space with a covered stage, sound system and plenty of room to gather.
The park is booked most weekends in the warmer months with events that bring in Baldwin residents and folks from surrounding areas.
Matt McClure, the director of the Baldwin City Recreation Commission, calls Sullivan Square the “crown jewel of downtown.”
“It has changed the game as far as events that could happen downtown,” McClure said.
This summer, the Rec (as the commission is called locally) hosted movie nights, concerts, a barbeque contest and several other events at the park. Next weekend, following the Maple Leaf Festival, the Rec is putting on a gravel bike race and a beer, wine and spirit festival in Sullivan Square.
The park has done a lot to bring the community together and downtown is certainly better, but there’s still work to be done.
The city is in the process of restoring the brick streets downtown.
And over the last five years, Simoneau raised money and convinced the city to renovate a historic building in town and make it a community center.
“We still had a gap, not only during the winter months, but for youth,” Simoneau said. “There’s no place in our community where our kids can go after school if they’re not in some sort of sport.”
Sullivan Square, like many of the business and landmark names in Baldwin City, hearkens back to part of the city’s history.
In the late 1800s, Baldwin City elected Lucy Sullivan as mayor along with an all-female city council.
The women ran on a platform to build a bridge across the East Fork Tauy Creek because they were tired of soiling their petticoats crossing the muddy waters on their way into town.
Sullivan Square sits on what used to be Sullivan’s homestead, and the “Women’s Bridge” these vocal ladies fought for, is west of downtown on High Street.
Marta Jardon dug into Baldwin City’s history when she moved onto land outside of town that had been in her husband’s family since “territorial times.” Now she’s secretary for the Santa Fe Trail Historical Society of Douglas County, Kansas.
“History is what I do,” Jardon, who spent most of her career as a nurse, said with a laugh.
Jardon recounted a brief history of Baldwin City and explained the “symbiotic” relationship between the city and its university.
The north side of Baldwin City was once Palmyra, a small town along the Santa Fe Trail. When Palmyra formed Baker University, it bought land to the south (where the campus is located today) and then sold the lots around the university to businesses to pay for the campus.
Eventually, the Palmyra businesses moved to the growing hub around campus and Baldwin City was established. Baker University and Baldwin City would not exist without one another.
“Baker supports the town, the town supports Baker and always it has been,” Jardon said. “It’s not a Baker is here and we’re there — we’re together.”
The campus touches the north edge of downtown, making it easy for visitors to take a stroll through Kansas’ first four-year university and its related downtown.
Visitors coming to Baldwin City from Kansas City will likely enter on U.S. 56, which runs along the historic Santa Fe Trail route. Before they hit town, Jardon recommends a stop at the Black Jack Ruts, just off the highway.
A short trail takes folks through a stunning tall grass prairie and to several sets of “Wagon Ruts.”
These aren’t some puny scratches in the dirt from a by-gone wagon. These ruts are massive (five to six feet across and almost as deep) and show the lanes where entire wagons would have traveled.
Visitors can also listen to a self-guided audio tour by scanning a QR code at the start of the trail.
The historical society will host two bus tours this Saturday at the Maple Leaf Festival and share stories of various parts of Baldwin City and Santa Fe Trail history.
Jardon wants to make more of the city’s history visible to Baldwin City visitors and residents. Someday she hopes to have a historic homes tour and an online catalog of archives the society has gathered.
“People here are proud of their town,” Jardon said. “They like the history in it — they may not know it all — but they’re proud of it.”
The city is also home to the oldest quilt show in Kansas and in 2019 was named the Quilt Capital of Kansas. The proclamation sits in the window of Sharon Vesecky’s shop, Quilter’s Paradise.
Vesecky is the featured quilter at the 50th annual quilt show this weekend. Quilts will be on display Saturday and Sunday at the Baldwin Elementary School Intermediate Center.
The show will also have several antique sewing machine demonstrations, one of which is the same style that brought electricity to Baldwin. As the story goes, the city thought electricity was a fad and didn’t want to invest in it. Then Baker University professor William Bauer wired one woman’s sewing machine. The women voters in town caught wind of the contraption and approved Bauer’s attempts to electrify the town.
“I think that’s cool and I think that makes sewing and quilting important to this town,” Vesecky said proudly.
Dana Mullis, co-director of the Baldwin City Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber hopes to complete a tourism guide for the city by next summer to showcase Baldwin’s many points of interest.
“I think (tourism) is something that a lot of people in town would like to grow and get more people back to Baldwin, not just at Maple Leaf,” Mullis said.
Above all else, it seems folks in Baldwin City are eager and willing to make their city the best it can be.
“Baldwin City has a lot of really great people who are creative and who want to see things happening, and they want downtown to be buzzing and full of life and fun things to do and businesses to patronize,” Mullis said. “It just seems like there’s always something going on.”
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.