Published July 14th, 2023 at 6:00 AM10 minute read
ATCHISON, Kansas — Aviator Amelia Earhart, ghoulish houses, a Lewis and Clark history and Benedictine monks. This rustic river town, with a population of just 10,600, has more than a few historical attractions that put it — and keep it — on the map.
It could probably coast on that history — selling tickets to the Sallie House, welcoming students to Benedictine College and encouraging groups of Amelia enthusiasts to tour her birth home — and be fine.
But local leaders decided they didn’t want a town that was just “good for being in Atchison,” as one local put it. They wanted establishments and attractions in town that were good, full stop.
The town embraced change by removing dated structures and building up a culture in its downtown district.
“You want people to be proud of where they’re from, not like ‘I’ve got to get out of here,’” said Christy Harris, the director of the Cultural Center For the Arts.
Downtown Atchison is still in the early years of its revitalization. But its people are confident in their ability to continue improving the Atchison quality of life.
Valuable change happens when folks aren’t afraid of “breaking out of old ways and trying new things,” Harris said.
Harris is part of the Atchison Art Association, which operates two galleries and facilitates public arts projects across town.
Public art, she’s found, is a less intimidating way to initiate changes and shift perspectives in town.
“You don’t have to do anything — the art itself changes people and how they view their community,” Harris said. “The art will achieve its effect.”
It certainly adds to the vibe. A mosaic by the farmers market turns a gray parking lot into a curated space. The same can be said for decorated bus benches and murals along buildings.
Little by little these small projects lead to a better public opinion of the area. Put simply, it makes Atchison feel alive.
The Cultural Center was born out of this reaction to art in town. Harris said the goal of the center is to facilitate “experiences that connect us.”
The Art Association continues to highlight local art at Muchnic Gallery, while the Cultural Center brings outside art into the community in an interactive form.
The center’s current gallery highlights natural destinations across Kansas. The pieces are done in the style of Works Project Administration (WPA) National Parks Posters, but feature various parks and landmarks in Kansas.
Visitors see a map next to each piece of art that shows the distance to the destination from Atchison, along with features of the area and flags showing visitors who have been there versus those who want to visit soon.
“The more people that we attract to our community, and the more people that we support to become the best version of themselves, and then they stay and bless our community with that — that’s really what causes this huge upswing of growth,” Harris said.
In 2021 the City of Atchison decided to do away with its pedestrian mall downtown. The pedestrian mall, a legacy of outdated urban redevelopment theory, featured concrete awnings and blocked the street from cars. It was a fixture folks were accustomed to — it had been there since the 1960s. But its removal was instrumental in expanding downtown.
Justin Pregont was the assistant city manager during the pedestrian mall removal and continues to contract with the city to help write grants and facilitate economic development.
“Real estate comes before business,” Pregont said, quoting a popular economic developer site Revitalize, or Die. “If you have crappy real estate, you’re going to have crappy businesses who want to occupy that real estate.”
Atchison was a case in point. The blocks that didn’t have the pedestrian mall had more investment and growth than the 500 through 400 blocks where the mall stretched.
“(The street) provides a better platform for investment, that platform for investment then, over time … leads to better property tax revenue and better sales tax revenue, occupancy of upper floors, that kind of thing,” Pregont explained.
Pregont has leveraged local funding and historic tax credits to renovate historic buildings (in Atchison and beyond) into downtown apartments. He helps other local developers find similar resources to build up Atchison’s downtown.
“You need a heart to pump blood through the rest of the community, to me that’s downtown,” Pregont said. “I have just always tried to connect resources and people and programs and opportunities to the right stint.”
Pregont noted that no development project is successful without a dedicated team of people.
“Economic development work is not done by a bureaucrat,” Pregont said. “It’s done by someone who’s taking a lot of risk with their time and their effort, and occasionally, their emotional health, to try and make something work.”
One such project Pregont helped with is now a downtown focal point. The renovated Fox Theatre is a high point (literally) on Commercial Street. Its shiny marquee is evidence that the now removed pedestrian mall was killing curb appeal.
Travis Grossman, Theatre Atchison’s director, led fundraising and renovations of the space, which totaled $2.6 million when it opened in 2019.
Grossman is always looking to improve his town and its destinations, especially those that connect to the arts.
The Royal Theatre in Atchison opened in the early 20th century as a vaudeville stage and eventually as a movie house. It went through openings and closings through the decades, was bought by Fox, which rebuilt it to be “fireproof” and eventually closed in 2014 as it had fallen into disrepair.
Community leaders reached out to movie conglomerates like B&B Theatres and AMC, asking them to invest in Atchison and restore the theatre. No one took a bite.
In 2017, Theatre Atchison, a nonprofit focused on bringing theatre arts to town, bought the Fox Theatre with plans to renovate the space into a modern, three-screen movie theatre.
Grossman said the town was incredibly supportive of the renovation (both in spirit and monetarily) as it began to take shape.
“We announced it and by gosh the town was on fire,” Grossman said.
It wasn’t just about building a movie theatre.
“The goal was not just to be an economic driver, but to give (the community) something they could be proud of,” Grossman said.
As more amenities came to downtown, Grossman said it solved a “quality of life issue.”
“Everything younger adults want in their town, we’ve got now,” he said.
When the theatre opened in 2019, it sat in the middle of the pedestrian mall on Commercial Street.
Instead of encouraging walkability, the mall created a dreary looking downtown where everyone parked behind buildings and came in through the back doors.
Grossman wanted the pedestrian mall gone, which sparked a lot of community conversation. Within a year the outdated concrete awnings were removed, and Commercial Street stretched two blocks further.
Folks were using the front door again, so Grossman invested in some façade work and a bright new “Fox Theatre” sign out front. Gradually, businesses left and right started to do the same.
“It worked,” Grossman said. “It helped bring some life back into our downtown.”
Purveyor is another Commercial Street destination that quickly has become a focus of community pride.
Ashley Gill, the shop’s co-owner, calls it a modern-day general store. Its wares are intentionally sourced from small batch, sustainable or fair-trade producers to create a mindful shopping experience.
“It’s something unique for people, just the types of products that we do carry and being able to bring those big city finds, if you will, to a small town,” Gill said.
Purveyor will celebrate its first anniversary next month, and it hopes to see continued growth in the downtown district.
“We’re really excited for the revitalization that is happening in Atchison,” Gill said. “We are seeing a lot of new businesses and we’re just really happy to be a part of it.”
Atchison gained Main Street accreditation in 2021, as Locally Atchison. With Main Street support, the group helped lead the removal of the pedestrian mall.
Jill Thorne, Locally Atchison’s director, said the organization hopes to increase the number of retail shops downtown and renovate the last part of the pedestrian mall on the 400 block.
“When you didn’t have a lot of foot traffic because of the pedestrian mall, we ended up with a lot of services, a lot of attorneys,” Thorne said. “We’re working towards finding that good mix.”
Thorne shares the Sante Fe Train Depot with the Atchison County Historical Society Museum and Visit Atchison. She sees folks from all over coming to Atchison for its various tourist attractions. Usually, visitors come for the haunted or Amelia Earhart attractions, or for Benedictine College.
The tourism sites and downtown work in tandem. Visitors want to grab dinner or coffee after visiting the attractions. Investments in attractions, like the sparkling new Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum that opened this spring, bring an influx of visitors.
Mark Zia sees religious landmarks in Atchison as an overlooked opportunity for the downtown and tourism focus.
Some of Atchison’s early settlers were Catholic monks and nuns, who in the 1860s formed St. Benedict’s Abbey, Benedictine College and St. Benedict’s Church. The river town has strong Catholic roots and still offers Catholic education to students from elementary school through doctoral programs.
Just last year Zia opened Pace E Bene, a Catholic bookstore that also serves espresso and gelato, in downtown Atchison.
“It just didn’t seem right that a town with this many Christians didn’t have (a Catholic bookstore),” Zia said.
Zia, who is a theology professor at Benedictine College, calls this his “midlife hobby,” but feels like the store fills a need in town.
He also thinks it could spur a different type of tourism to Atchison.
“It’s appropriate that there be a Christian focus at the heart of the town,” said Zia, adding that he dislikes the focus put on Atchison’s haunted attractions.
He hopes to soon convert the corner building attached to Pace e Bene into a permanent religious exhibit.
“It would make it a destination,” Zia said.
Religious or not, the churches and college campus in Atchison are visually stunning and worth a visit.
The student population in Atchison makes up a small portion of downtown visitors. Zia said this is in part because underclassmen at Benedictine College are not allowed to have cars on campus.
Zia’s shop has drawn some of the students down to Commercial Street to shop for books or to study with a cappuccino. He thinks it would be worth investing in public transportation that ran from campus to other parts of town, like downtown.
“If there’s something that could be worked out, I think it could benefit a lot of the businesses,” Zia said.
The businesses, organizations and nonprofits downtown don’t always take a formal approach to collaboration, but they are all working towards the same goal.
“Even when people are on different paths … we’re all doing the same thing and elevating the community,” Harris said.
This weekend, between 25,000 and 40,000 people will crowd the Atchison riverfront to celebrate Amelia Earhart with an airshow and “concert in the sky.”
The two-day Amelia Earhart Festival has taken place almost every July since 1997. Festivities include book readings, live music, craft shows, food trucks, guest speakers, the dedication of the Pioneering Achievement award and a musical firework show.
“It’s just a fun weekend to celebrate Amelia and celebrate our community,” Jacque Pregont, the festival coordinator, said. “This is a fantastic small community and it’s an opportunity for us to put on our Sunday best … and welcome people who come from out of town to visit.”
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.