After sitting empty 50 years, efforts by preservation proponents to find a new future for Joplin’s Union Depot have intensified.
Members of the Downtown Joplin Alliance’s Endangered Properties Program are working with a local commercial real estate firm and advisers from two universities to find a fresh start for the historically designated building.
It’s important to get something done with the 112-year historic train station now more than ever, Lori Haun, director of the Downtown Joplin Alliance, told a group of about 80 depot supporters who gathered last week to brainstorm possible uses for the building.
“We are working through the Endangered Properties Program to focus on the buildings downtown that may have the shortest life span,” Haun told the residents. “We’re trying to figure out how to intervene for this building before it’s too late.”
The concrete building was assessed as structurally sound recently but could deteriorate in a few years without maintenance or repair work.
Kansas City architect Louis Curtiss designed the depot and used chat from local mines for the concrete. He became famous for curtain wall and concrete construction that was considered fireproof. Construction started in 1910 and the depot opened in June 1910 as a crowd of 2,500 people cheered the arrival of the first train into the station.
The last passenger train, operated by the Kansas City Southern Railway Co., was the Southern Belle that left Joplin on Nov. 11, 1969.
“It is a unique landmark for Joplin,” resident Michael Blair said of the depot building after the public input meetings. “There were a lot of themes that came out. Whatever we do, it needs to support itself,” and not have government assistance to stay in business, Blair said.
Blair said he thinks its important to make the building a focal point and to better connect the depot to the downtown, which now sits hidden off Main Street behind other buildings.
Help from universities
The DJA sought help from two university groups to gather information and provide renderings of what the depot could look like if it is refurbished.
A group of students and faculty from Kansas State University helped gather local information and community comments about best uses for the building during a Feb. 10-12 visit to Joplin. In addition, architectural students from South Dakota State University’s School of Design were here to put together information that could help them produce renderings of what the depot could look like if restored.
Their conclusions and renderings will be included in a package of information about the depot that can be provided to those who express interest in the depot for a project.
Blair said students told him that they received a lot of requests for help with historic buildings like the one from the Downtown Joplin Alliance. The students narrowed the submissions to three “and Union Depot was their No. 1 pick. That is telling on how cool that building is,” Blair said.
Another Joplin resident who attended the Feb. 10 community forum is Fred Landreth, a Joplin real estate agent.
Landreth remembers the former Connor Hotel, which collapsed in 1978 amid preparations for it to be demolished by city orders. The once lavish downtown hotel that hosted guests from New York to Hollywood had been vacant except for flocks of pigeons that nested in the building’s upper floors for several decades.
“We’ve lost so many historic buildings here over the years,” Landreth said. “I understand the (depot) building is relatively sound but it won’t last forever and I don’t want to lose that beautiful structure.”
He said it was interesting that so many participants in the public input session had similar ideas about potential uses such as a hotel and ways to tie the depot into the local trails system.
“I hope they can get that building secured and get something in it the community can use,” Landreth said.
Bringing back train rides
Among the most popular ideas given at the community input session were to use the depot for some type of tourism or destination venue such as one that would bring train rides back for passenger service, excursions or even have a children’s ride there.
Use of the depot property as a hub for walking and biking trails and connectivity to other trails won the support of many who attended the session.
There was much agreement that there should be multiuse functions for the building. Those could include a food hall or food court with indoor and outdoor seating, retail spaces and art studios. In addition, a boutique hotel had support.
Other suggestions included creating a venue for different types of popular music or local music performances and patio dining with outdoor lawn games. All of those uses could be part of a downtown hotel at the depot, one resident said.
Haun said there were many common threads in the ideas of local residents.
“I think it’s really cool how parallel how all the concepts were out of nine different groups,” Haun said. “It very obviously should be public-facing, it should be multiuse space, it should be something that draws people to it and makes it a destination.”
“People are obviously very passionate about it,” Haun added. “People are excited, they were happy to be here, and nobody said ‘tear it down.’”
The suggestions that train travel be provided again will take some research.
“I don’t how feasible that is because there are a lot of components here we’re not in control of but it’s worth asking questions,” Haun said. “Much like Kansas City’s Union Station, it could be a lot of things as well as a train depot.”
The university advisers met with other focus groups when they were here last weekend and surveyed residents who visited Empire Market.
They will be back in March to work on some other reports and conduct a gap survey, which is a downtown analysis to identify what services and amenities are missing in downtown.
“They also will look at the feasibility at whatever has risen to the top here,” Haun said. The advisors will evaluate the various suggested uses and analyze questions such as “will it make money, what does the cash flow look like and how do we put those pieces into a functioning business plan?”
In addition, some preliminary drawings of what the building could look like after renovation will be presented to show those involved in the project what direction the advisers are headed based on the Joplin feedback.
All of that will be completed and provided to the alliance in April.
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