VIENNA — In 2019, a small group of individuals first began to gather and brainstorm ways to improve their hometown of Vienna. It was the Vienna Betterment Project. The group is diverse but many …
VIENNA — In 2019, a small group of individuals first began to gather and brainstorm ways to improve their hometown of Vienna. It was the Vienna Betterment Project. The group is diverse but many of them are young professionals who enjoy the rural, small town lifestyle. One of their primary goals was to find ways to improve the community and find ways to help it prosper. And, they were and are willing to do the work to make it happen. But, they need cooperation and help, from businesses, residents, organizations, and persons with a stake in Vienna’s success.
In 2020, the group came forward and acted, filling the vacant positions on the Vienna Chamber of Commerce (VCOC). Now, in 2021, this group has taken on the task of restoring the Maries County Fair, an important city and county heritage. They are seeking to become a member of the Missouri Main Street community by applying for a grant to help move the efforts forward.
Last week, a group of over 30 interested persons gathered at the Eagle Fitness facility on Mill Street for a community presentation. This was followed by a tour of buildings on the courthouse square. VCOC Secretary Kelly Barnhart, Dr. Joe Barnhart, and Vienna Alderwoman Brenda Davis all spoke positively, passionately and eloquently about the community and its potential.
Kelly introduced Missouri Main Street Connection employees Ben White, a Program Outreach Specialist, and Keith Winge, a Community Development Director. Missouri Main Street Connection provides communities with the knowledge and tools to economically and physically revitalize their downtowns. They work to ensure the downtown districts in Missouri’s cities and towns remain essential elements to their sense of community, their cultural heritage and the state’s economy. Downtown revitalization is encouraged through economic development within the context of historic preservation. White said they can make things happen over the two-year grant program. They want community input. If Vienna is selected for the program, they will work together.
Kelly and Dr. Joe both spoke to the gathering about concerns the group has recognized. The small class sizes of incoming Maries R-1 kindergartners is a concern as it relates to the district’s population, which in turn impacts the school district’s funding. Another is Vienna may be bypassed by US Highway 63. The goal of the group is to keep Vienna on the map. There are jobs in the area as Quaker is always looking for more employees. A problem in Vienna is the lack of housing, especially rental units. Thousands of cars drive through Vienna each day and if Highway 63 is realigned and it very well could come to pass, they need strategies to make Vienna become viable moving forward.
Missouri Main Street is preservation-based economic development. Kelly read a quote about downtowns. “Downtown is important because it is the heart and soul of any community. If you don’t have a healthy downtown you simply don’t have a healthy town.”
There are a lot of vacant buildings on the Vienna courthouse square. Kelly Barnhart said, “We can do it” and make Vienna the best version of itself. Missouri Main Street has worked with over $1 billion in public and private investment and can help the community use tested tools and strategies to work toward revitalization of the courthouse square and to improve economic vitality.
To do this will require organization, leadership, outreach and collaboration among all of the groups within the community to include property and business owners, residents, organizations, and local government. A starting point is to look at the town’s economic base and study how to market the town’s positive assets and features.
The courthouse square is the heart of Vienna, she said. It’s important to the quality of life in the community. It could be better and more vibrant with places to eat and to gather. It’s also important to maintain the history of the town. They may lose some buildings but its important to move forward to form a thriving community and a place where their children will want to stay and make a life here, too.
More visitors to the community is a goal. There are 10 vacant buildings on and near the square. If those 10 buildings, were occupied and employed two people, that’s 20 more jobs, and new tax revenue for the city and the county. One of the vacant spaces used to be the location of the infamous Tom Coffey’s Swap Shop. Coffey was a Vienna benefactor and philanthropist who gave support and money to the American Legion for the legion hall, the Vienna Senior Center, donated the land for the industrial development park, began the Maries County Fair, helped the historical society, and gave the first $20,000 for the fire department. He supported baseball and bowling teams and the Maries R-1 Band. His shop had hundreds of old clocks and lamps.
Dr. Joe talked about the town’s population from the 2010 Census of 730 people. Thousands drive through Vienna each day. There are nearby towns in each direction. These are considered resources.
Kelly said a resource is the Gasconade River which is “minutes from Vienna” but there is a lack of a public access to the river. River tourism has potential and is untapped at this time. Dr. Joe spoke of emerging agriculture tourism, an important part of the Vienna community which is deeply ingrained within it. Also mentioned was fishing, boating, hunting and timber. Kelly spoke of Vienna being in a “wine belt” area, also which is currently untapped.
The world has been changed by the pandemic. Kelly said it has made a rural lifestyle more desirable. But, the community needs good internet service to keep young professionals in the town. There is a good population of young people living in the community with the median age in Vienna of 38.1. She said this means young adults are staying in Vienna or coming back after college. There is a spike in the number of persons living here ages 25 to 29. They think there is a correlation between this group in the town’s population and more babies born.
Dr. Joe said there is not a lack of desire to live in Vienna but little opportunity to do it. More housing is needed. A contractor currently is building a four-plex and the units already are rented. “There is a demand here,” he said. Kelly said there also is opportunity for that younger age group to become Vienna’s next entrepreneurs.
City government’s commitment
Vienna South Ward Alderwoman Brenda (Thompson) Davis spoke to the gathering about the city government’s commitment to the community. Davis said she grew up seven miles out of town and the Vienna community extends to the area all around it and not just in town. It’s a larger population than just the city.
The city council has made a commitment to transportation as it has an improvement plan for city streets and each year includes money in the budget for it, generally about $60,000 annually. The city’s streets are in decent shape and none of them are in a degenerative state. The city also sought out and was awarded grants for the sidewalk project to Maries R-1 School, the sidewalk project along Ballpark Road and the sidewalk project along Vienna-Rolla Road, which they would like to extend all the way to G&W Foods to connect that area to the downtown.
The council also has committed to public safety. There’s hardly any crime in Vienna because the city has more than one police officer and is in the process of hiring a third one. Again the city used grants to pay for more policemen hours. A half-cent public safety sales tax will add an additional $50,000 to the public safety budget to pay for three police officers. She said when Vienna residents shop locally, “You are paying yourself” through the sales tax.
There is a commitment to sanitation. Vienna had a contaminant in its water and $2.4 million was invested through a grant and a loan to build a treatment plant and rebuild and upgrade the water distribution system. The city has invested $80,000 in sewer system improvements to two new lift stations. The city includes trash services with the water and sewer bill which helps to keep prices low and the city clean.
The city has exhibited a commitment to health, wellness and community beautification. The city maintains the ballfields at the park. A grant was received to build Tackett Trail and it’s utilized “all the time, is a safe place and has taken down the numbers of people walking in the street.” New trees were planted at the park, again with a grant through the Missouri Department of Conservation. A demolition grant was used to remove uninhabitable structures in town. “Nobody wants to see run down homes,” she said.
At the park a T-ball field was added to take off some of the pressure on the baseball and softball fields. The ballfields are busy all season. The school can host a district tournament with the addition of permanent ballfield fencing.
The city made upgrades to the pavilion, tennis and basketball courts, grandstand and new expensive playground equipment paid for with a grant. The city has annual contracts with the Maries County Fair Association and the Vienna Senior Center. They keep the senior center rent low because “we understand how important this is to the community,“ Davis said. Now the council members are talking and looking for extra money for a new bathrooms/concession stand facility at the upper grandstand.
Vienna has demonstrated keen interest in economic success. The city accepted the industrial park property from the Vienna Community Development Corporation, and negotiated with Hippos, LLC to bring market-value jobs to the community. When possible, the city might provide aid with housing development. It joined the VCOC as an active member, trying to develop that relationship.
The city has made a commitment to its city employees with competitive wages, retirement and health insurance benefits along with sick leave, annual leave, bereavement leave and state holidays.
Missouri Main Street
Near the end of her presentation, Davis said with its commitment to the future, the city council committed $6,300 to community rejuvenation through the Missouri Main Street Connection. The city will work in cooperation with the chamber to identify avenues for the betterment of the Vienna community. She talked about the graduating class sizes at Maries R-1. The class sizes used to have 70 to 80 seniors, then it dropped to about 48. Now it’s closer to 35. They want to try to reverse this trend and give people a reason to come back to Vienna to live and prosper.
Dr. Joe said the school campus looks good and is the pillar of the community. The school’s money is based on the number of students and impacts the teachers’ pay, which the school board wants to provide for them. The patrons of the district want a great school and they want the kids to create good memories like their parents had. Much has been accomplished at Maries R-1.
Kelly said the VCOC has had successes. Membership has increased, bylaws were established, website traffic improved, a welcome center was established, they had six ribbon cuttings, and reinstated its MO Secretary of State Certification.
In Vienna new businesses have been developed with Fifth Element, Junkers Junction, and the renovated old MFA building.
There remain challenges to overcome. Many of the downtown buildings are aging and vacant. There are eight just around the square and four that are 50 percent vacant. Currently there is no allocation of funds or budget to do anything about it. There is public perception and time and they must prioritize the challenge among other undertakings. Yet, there are still opportunities.
She named some of them. Where can people stay when they come to Vienna with no hotel space available? Maybe do something similar to Airbnb. River tourism has big potential as a resource. People will come and spend money in Vienna.
What does the community lack? How about a coffee shop, bakery, ice cream shop, retail and gift shopping and a variety of restaurants?
Persons in their group have been brainstorming. Kelly named opportunity ideas such as antique trails, agriculture tours, tapping into the community’s agricultural strengths to sell local products. Visit a working ranch. River tours with kayaks, float trips, canoes, fishing tours.
This group striving to bring revitalization to Vienna wants to work with Missouri Main Street Connection, Inc. Missouri Main Street has helped bring about $999,999.932 in public and private investing, 834 new businesses, 4,109 net new jobs, and 444,113 volunteer hours. Missouri Main Street partners with the Department of Economic Development, USDA Rural Development, and the State of Missouri.
Community outreach projects she mentioned are school programs to infuse community in the young people. Or an architectural scavenger hunt to teach the importance of history and heritage. Beautification work also would provide a sense of ownership. Kelly suggested growing tulips or petunias in a greenhouse to plant around town in the spring. They could form a entrepreneur/business club where projects might become actual businesses.
An empty space on the square could become an incubator project area to start a business. Startup incubators provide a nurturing environment for new entrepreneurs to convert their ideas into a business model and eventually into a working business.
There were many ideas presented such as mentorships and education to be a resource to help new businesses. Some businesses may need help learning how to sell virtually. Kelly spoke of pop-up shops, which are businesses that do not have a store-front that is given a chance to try out a physical space.
Existing business can do events such as Small Business Saturday, promote shop local initiatives, do a Flip the Switch or Light up the Square event. They want to continue to promote local businesses through the chamber. Another idea it to celebrate business anniversaries.
They want to work with property owners to assist with creating building inventory marketing material, and assist with tax credits and grants for facade improvements and more. They could create a QR code in a window front captioned “What would you like to see here?”
Kelly said the goal it to increase the occupancy rate of business spaces in Vienna. She said, “We don’t want to change our stripe, we just want to do our best stripe.”
Following the presentation, there was a walking tour. It was a hot, humid evening and cold bottles of water were provided. Sites visited were two HSMC museums, the Felker House and the Maries County Museum. Then they walked to the courthouse square. Standing in front of a newer brick building at McDaniel Corner, John Viessman showed a drawing of the square and its buildings before the great fire of Vienna which burned several structures. They toured the empty and for sale Tom Coffey Swap Shop building and the empty Gold Nugget Rare Coins and Jewelry building as well as the vacant Crismon building. The chamber has a welcome center on Fourth Street they toured, too.
It was an informative and uplifting evening. They presenters worked hard to put it together. A town logo was developed. It says, “Vienna. Where roots grow deep.”