In Shawnee, fields yield many dreams

In one rite of summer, neighborhood kids get together, head to a park and play pickup games of baseball.

In the Johnson County suburb of Shawnee, 10-year-old Hunter Thompson repeated that ritual with his neighborhood friends this past summer. Only the pickup game was roller hockey.

Hunter and his friends took their roller blades, hockey sticks and a ball to Listowel Park in eastern Shawnee, where hockey boards have been set up on old tennis courts. Roller hockey is an unconventional but growing sport — many colleges have teams now — and Shawnee is one of only a few places in the metropolitan area with an outdoor public rink.

An abundance of recreation offerings like this helped lift Shawnee to the No. 8 ranking in The Kansas City Star’s analysis of suburban quality of life. It’s one of the ways this growing city of 56,000 seeks to be a little different from other suburbs.

“Why offer the same things as every other city?” asks Neil Holman, Shawnee’s parks and recreation director. “We try very hard to offer new things.”

Suburbs are often viewed as bland and boring, and some might say Shawnee is. It has limited nightlife. When Money magazine compared about 1,100 communities across the country earlier this year, Shawnee and its environs had one-third fewer restaurants and bars than average.

But that’s not what local suburbanites generally want from their cities. The Star conducted a poll this year to ask suburban residents across the metropolitan area what was most important to their quality of life, and safety and education came out on top. Not far behind were parks and recreation fields.

The Thompson family certainly endorses that priority. Hunter plays several sports, but given a choice, he asks his mom to take a bunch of friends to Listowel’s hockey rinks. Sometimes even his mom, Jimi Thompson, clips on her roller blades and plays goalie for the boys — much to her son’s delight.

“It’s fun to shoot at my mom because she can’t stop them,” Hunter crowed one day. “I beat my mom every time.”

Overall, Shawnee is a fairly middle-of-the-road suburb in many ways. The Star compared local suburbs in almost two dozen statistical measures, and Shawnee was better than average in elementary school reading scores, but worse than average in elementary school math scores. It was way above average in housing permits with its explosive growth out west, but way below average in housing appreciation this decade.

The city doesn’t exactly stand apart in its look and feel, either. Shawnee Mission Parkway as a commercial strip doesn’t look much different from Missouri 350 through Raytown or Metcalf Avenue through north Overland Park. And the ranches and split-level homes in Shawnee’s older neighborhoods are similar to those found in suburbs from Merriam to Blue Springs.

Yet, Shawnee is just different enough to stand out in a few ways.

Its newer subdivisions have been built on rolling hills out west, offering a picturesque landscape not found in most new areas of Johnson County. Its Old Shawnee Town preserves and re-creates some of the city’s 19th-century structures, and it continues to serve as the community’s main gathering place for festivals and events.

“The way you carry on a community’s heritage, even as you’re growing as a city, is by continuing to have a number of community events at the center of town,” says City Manager Gary Montague.

Then there are Shawnee’s recreation offerings.

The Star compared local suburbs in a tally of 10 facilities and activities, such as an outdoor pool complex, an indoor recreation center and a public golf course. Shawnee had nearly all 10, tying for third place among all suburbs in this category. Plus, it’s next to a lake, is connected to the county’s streamway trail system and is home to two museums, including one for children.

Beyond those staples, though, the city offers a variety of offbeat programs and events. There’s a manners class and a financial management workshop for kids. There’s belly dancing and barbecue cooking classes for adults. There’s also an annual Tour de Shawnee charity bike ride.

Biking, in fact, is an emerging niche for this suburb. Whenever the city’s parks department surveys residents about what they want, the top responses include more trails and street bike lanes.

Shawnee is 10 miles into a plan to add 34 miles of bike lanes on some of its side streets. On just about every sunny day, cyclists with their multicolored helmets can be seen pedaling in the 4-foot-wide lanes along Midland Drive-Blackfish Parkway. The city, with its wide streets, is considered so friendly for bicyclists that it was the first local suburb named “bicycle friendly” by a national biking association.

Everett Vaughn can relate to that. He lives in northern Shawnee, right near one stretch of bike lanes. And a couple of times a week when he heads out on his skinny-tired road bike, he’s glad he has the extra room when cars whiz by him.

“I really appreciate what Shawnee’s doing,” says Vaughn, a semi-retired salesman. “I think they are certainly doing more than other suburbs.”

Population: 56,178.

History: After being displaced in the east, Shawnee Indians began arriving at the site in 1825. The town was originally called “Shawneetown.”

Local hero: Wild Bill Hickok, at age 18, was named constable of Monticello, a small town at about 71st Street and Monticello Road, now within city limits.

Local anti-hero: Before William Quantrill and his guerrillas raided Lawrence in 1863, they burned down Shawnee in 1862. Did you know: When the City Hall tripled in size in 1990, a time capsule was buried containing, among other items, a bottle of homemade wine and a McDonald’s Happy Meal – minus the food.