Wholesome change coming to high-profile River Market corner

07/22/2013 4:15 PM

07/22/2013 9:50 PM

It’s a beautiful day in the River Market neighborhood.

The University of Missouri Extension, champion of all things healthy living, is relocating to a historic building at 105 E. Fifth St. right across from the entrance to the City Market. And it’s taking the space once occupied by one of downtown’s nastier nightclubs, the Skybox.

“I feel like Betty Crocker is coming to the neighborhood,” quipped Dana Gibson, a longtime leading citizen of the River Market.

The Skybox was a recipe for mayhem during its approximately two years at that corner.

The club opened in the late summer of 2006 and the following year police were called there 128 times. In October 2007, its liquor license was revoked for 21 days after a shooting, several assaults and a large-scale disturbance. But that was just a warm-up to the following year.

Just one hour after the start of the New Year, two women got into a brawl inside the club and when the fight spilled outside, a man was stabbed to death. It was the first homicide of 2008. The place closed a few months later.

“It was the far-edge of extreme partying,” Gibson recalled. “There were nightly fights and altercations, and unfortunately shootings and loss of life. It was terrible for the people who lived and worked down here, and it was right across from the City Market.”

The space on the lower level of the five-story Oldham Hotel building sat empty for five years. Then last summer, the MU Extension folks found it. The program is currently at Pioneer Community College, 2700 E. 18th St.

“We were looking for an opportunity to be in a vibrant and active community in Kansas City,” said Rachel Gordon, director of the family nutrition education program. “We wanted a physical presence where we could reach our targeted audience.”

The MU Extension already had been operating a demonstration kitchen at the City Market for eight summers. The location across from the entrance was a chance to become a permanent fixture.

“There’s a real interest in urban farming and urban agriculture, and the City Market is a great hub of food and agriculture in the city,” Gordon said.

The extension service will use the basement, first and second floors, and the operation will include a demonstration kitchen and two large classrooms along with administrative offices. The facility will be open weekdays and when classes are held during the evenings and weekends. Parking will be at the City Market.

Construction began earlier this month and is expected to be completed in late August. MU Extension has signed a five-year lease with MC Realty, the landlord of the building.

The Oldham Hotel opened in 1916 and is part of the Old Town Historic District which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to architectural historian Cyd Milstein. Its upper floors are currently occupied by smaller office users.

Come September, a joint once notorious for brawling and police calls will instead be hosting classes on nutrition, horticulture, financial education and community development.

“I think we all appreciate the irony and look forward to bringing a new service to the River Market with a more positive connotation,” Gordon said.

For downtown, the transformation of the corner from urban headache to community asset resembles what happened at 1111 Grand Blvd. last year.

That’s when the Ambassador hotel opened in space formerly occupied by Club Chemical, another problem nightclub that had the dubious distinction of being linked to the first homicide of 2004.

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