In Liberty, success comes from its heart

A black Labrador retriever wearing a wide, frilly clown collar. A mutt draped in a red-white-and-blue scarf. And they were joined by a smattering of other animals, like a yellow duck riding in a red wagon.

All were part of a parade of pets. It was a scream, a hoot — and one of the reasons Liberty residents treasure their downtown square.

This sense of community helps explain why Liberty earned the No. 6 ranking in The Kansas City Star’s first-ever analysis of suburban quality of life.

This quaint and cozy Northland city offers a balance of old and new, of small-town charms and bigger-city services.

“It’s a balanced community,” said Stephen Hawkins, Liberty’s mayor for the past eight years before retiring this year.

“An analogy I always used was, going back to some older days, “The Ed Sullivan Show” on TV had an act where a guy spun plates on poles, and he could get a dozen going at once,” he continued. “The task was one of continual monitoring, of attending to the plates that were wobbling and get them going again.

“That’s what cities do to stay good places to live.”

Liberty may have lots of plates spinning, but one in particular stands out in the minds of its residents. A survey asked citizens what they thought best represented the town of 28,500. Their top answer was not schools or William Jewell College or Northland growth. It was the downtown square.

To them, the square is much more than a collection of small shops and offices in historic facades around an old courthouse. It’s the city’s gathering place, the center of community life and the hub of its small-town feel.

“It’s the thing that makes Liberty unique,” says Clay Lozier, who owns buildings in the downtown.

This suburb was fortunate enough to be born with a heart. Its challenge has been to keep it beating.

‘This is the place’

Liberty’s square is exactly that, a square block of streets with diagonal on-street parking and rows of narrow, two-story buildings with ornamental facades, some dating back to the 1870s — or around the time Jesse James’ gang robbed a bank there, which is now a museum.

Most suburban bedroom communities weren’t developed with a downtown. There’s no square in Prairie Village or Leawood or Blue Springs. But suburbs are increasingly spending tens of millions of dollars to build one from scratch.

This newfangled downtown, called a “town center,” often includes new sets of civic buildings, retail shops and apartment lots in a clustered, walkable setting, almost Disneyesque. Around Kansas City, Lenexa is trying to develop such a center, as is Gladstone.

These suburban downtowns “provide a physical sense of place and identity that helps tie the varied neighborhoods and community interests together,” Samuel Staley recently wrote for the Reason Public Policy Institute think tank.

In Liberty, the community often does come together there.

Take the pet parade. In the middle of it were Tom and Kathy Skolak, strolling with the scarf-draped mutt.

They had walked to this event from their Victorian home just outside the square, in a neighborhood dotted with 1900-era architecture like gabled roofs and wrap-around front porches. The middle-aged couple had been transferred to Kansas City without knowing the area, but as soon as they saw Liberty’s square, they decided “this is the place,” as Kathy put it.

“When you have a focal point area like this, it brings the community closer,” she said.

Regaining a heart

For much of its 183-year history, however, Liberty was square. It didn’t stray far from its pioneer roots, staying small and insular, merely an outpost in western Missouri’s farming region. Into the 1960s, it still had no traffic lights. City leaders prided themselves on offering a contrast to rapid suburbanization. They kept growth steady, even when Kansas City’s Northland finally took off.

This approach has resulted in a well-rounded place to live.

In The Star’s comparison of suburbs in nearly two dozen statistical measures, Liberty is about average in local tax burden, yet invests heavily in streets and in recreation. Liberty has the top collective elementary school test scores in the metropolitan area, while offering more ethnic diversity than parts of Johnson County.

For a time, though, about the only thing Liberty couldn’t control was its heart.

As the city grew outward, so did its retail base, away from the square. Years ago, the square included a couple of drugstores, a couple of appliance stores, a few clothing stores, a hardware store and a dime store. But those types of stores ballooned into big boxes and fled to the antiseptic, six-lane thoroughfares on Liberty’s outskirts.

As one of Liberty’s spinning plates, the square was wobbling. Its four primary blocks lost nearly one-third of their retail tenants between the early 1990s and early 2000s.

“It’s our way of life now, to go to the Wal-Marts and Targets and Borders,” said Jane Hooper, who opened and closed a mystery bookstore on the square this decade.

Other small-time downtowns withered from this shift, and Liberty’s could have suffered a similar fate. Attorneys offices and title companies vied to move on the square, to be just across the street from the county courthouse. Instead, Liberty leaders had a different kind of transfusion in mind.

Staying busy

The square’s merchants association has turned into a booster club of sorts. It sponsors weekend events. It recruits restaurants from other suburbs. It lobbies the square’s building owners to replace vacancies with modern boutique businesses rather than offices.

It’s all part of an attempt to recast and reinforce the square’s role as the community’s identity.

Today, a visitor can taste a turtle at Classy Chocolates, catch a poetry reading at the Corbin Theatre and grab a cup of custard at Scoop’s. In addition, a visitor could have attended a Mardi Gras parade in February, a pet parade in April, a food fair in July and a fall festival in September, among other things.

Such draws aren’t flashy or particularly edgy, but they’re not found anywhere else in the city, and they keep residents in the habit of coming back to the square.

“If there wasn’t more going on, if there wasn’t more to draw people there, we’d lose our square,” said Don Altis, owner of Scoop’s and merchants association president.

This approach seems to be working. In a poll of residents last year, conducted for City Hall by the ETC Institute, about half the respondents said they visit downtown Liberty at least once a week.

The Skolaks from the pet parade are among those regular visitors.

On another summer Saturday, the couple came by again, this time for a classic car “cruise night.” Every diagonal parking space on the square was taken. There were vintage Mustangs, souped-up Chevy Bel-Airs, plus pickups decked out in colors like lime green and burnt orange. Loudspeakers set up in front of the old courthouse played TV theme songs from long ago.

The Hardware Cafe had a two-hour wait for dinner. The line at Scoop’s was out the door. Couples strolled down the middle of Main Street pushing strollers or holding hands or walking dogs. Tom Skolak broke away from his wife and checked under the hood of a Thunderbird. Kathy Skolak continued on and ran into some neighbors from her street.

It was like a scene out of TV’s Mayberry.

“We can walk around, have something to do, chat with people we know,” Kathy said. “It’s home, a nice comfy cozy feeling.”

Population: 28,528.

History: Founded in 1822, Liberty is the second-oldest incorporated town west of the Mississippi River. Liberty Landing on the Missouri River was a starting point for many settlers headed west.

Famous visitors: The jail, built in 1833, housed Joseph Smith, first president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and six of his followers during the winter of 1839.

Infamous visitors: In 1866, the Clay County Savings Bank became the site of the first successful daylight bank robbery, allegedly committed by Jesse James and his gang.

To learn more: The City of Liberty Preservation Office and Historic Liberty Inc. are presenting a free series of monthly seminars about Liberty’s history on the first Saturdays of the month through February. For information, call 792-6000, Ext. 3036.