Their stories are similar.Joplin native Mark Williams recalls as a child shopping downtown with his mother at busy stores: Ben Franklin, Kresge’s, Ramsey’s.

“It was the place to go before the mall,” he said.

After college, Williams moved away and lived in cities with bustling urban centers.

“Then I came back to Joplin for a holiday, and the grass downtown was two feet tall, there were dead pigeons in the windows, and the windows with no dead pigeons were boarded up,” he said. “There were metal facades on 90 percent of the buildings, and every other shop was vacant.”

That was about 1995.

Longtime resident Lori Haun worked in downtown Joplin after graduating from college.

“There was nothing here. It was barren. No one living here, no one shopping here,” Haun said.

That was 2000.

Joplin native Callie Hudson recalls as a teen taking her driver’s test in a largely vacant downtown — “It was easy to negotiate because there was not a lot of traffic, just a couple of restaurants and no pedestrians.” She described the downtown at the time as “dilapidated and sad.”

“The things that were there were on their own. You might have a business flanked by abandoned or vacant buildings. It wasn’t a destination spot.”

Now fast forward 15 years.

Today, Joplin has its own community living downtown — an estimated 700 to 800 residents between Second and Ninth streets, and a block or two on either side of Main Street. That’s according to a survey the Globe compiled of downtown landlords and property managers that found 459 units downtown, ranging from the 130 apartments in Messenger Towers to individual residences above some downtown shops.

John Joines, CEO of Economic Security Corp. of Southwest Area, said they use a rate of 1.5 to 1.75 people per apartment for the three downtown buildings they manage. Most of the landlords and property owners said they are full.

Downtown life

“What I’ve noticed in the last few months is there’s been significant movement of people who are trying to live, work and play all in downtown. They’re residing there, working there, consuming meals, doing shopping, doing as much as possible,” said Hudson, who two weeks ago became director of the Downtown Joplin Alliance.

“They’re walking most of the time. I have many friends who don’t move their car very much at all.”

One is Megan Turner. She and her husband, Brad, rent a loft apartment in the 800 block of South Main Street.

Haun and her husband, Jeremy, were the developers for the loft where the Turners now live, part of what they call Eureka Flats. After the 2011 tornado, the Hauns spent more than $500,000 renovating the circa 1890s building in order to help preserve Joplin’s history.

Haun said she is proud to have preserved part of Joplin’s history.

“Since we began working on our project, we’ve lost three buildings downtown,” Haun said. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone and you can’t ever get them back.”

The Turners began renting the contemporary, two-bedroom, two-bathroom loft from the Hauns a year ago, having moved back to Joplin from bustling Nashville.

“We like the urban setting,” Megan Turner said. “We walk everywhere. It’s like a community where you know everyone.”

Instant Karma and Palace Pizza a few blocks away are on the couple’s short list for restaurants, and in the Haun’s retail space below, operated by a neighbor, Hurley’s Comic Books provides socialization and entertainment.

The couple frequents night spots such as Infusion, where other neighbors tend bar, and on Saturdays, Megan enjoys browsing at Sophie or getting a massage at Salon 529.

She uses her car primarily to get to and from classes at Missouri Southern State University, and the occasional trip to a grocery store.

“That’s really the biggest thing we need here, is a market or grocery,” she said.

The Turners pay $850 a month for rent, plus $10 for parking, and say they are happy to do so.

“We will be moving in a couple of years to Seattle, and I already know we could never afford anything this nice there,” she said. “I’ve researched and they go for $3,000.”

Like the Hauns, Williams also has invested in developing loft apartments in downtown Joplin. At Main Street Place Lofts in the 500 block and The Lofts at Six-11 in the 600 block, he consistently has 100 percent occupancy in 28 units.

“Lofts are trendy, everyone is curious about it,” he said. “But it’s big, it’s a necessity in bigger cities because people don’t want to make the drive 40 minutes each way between home and work. That’s catching on in smaller urban areas, too. People love walking to work, love riding their bike to the pub, walking to the bank, and everything is within eight blocks.”

“We have two event centers, two restaurants, six retail spots, two hair salons all in one block,” he said. “There’s a hardware store a block over and a dozen restaurants.”

Hudson said that the vacancy rate for downtown Joplin buildings has closed up, going from 75 percent in 2011, before the tornado, to 25 percent today.

“When you increase the density, the tax base starts to increase without the sprawl,” Williams said. “You’re also preserving 100 years of energy and work that has gone into these buildings without building new cheap metal buildings on the outskirts. You’re maximizing usage because there is daytime business activity that then flips to nightlife for clubs and dancing.

“It just takes one person to prove it can be done, then everyone jumps in,” he said.

Hudson said she believes 2015 “will be a pivotal year for downtown Joplin.”

“It feels like we’re on the cusp of something really important,” she said, noting that the average attendance at last year’s Third Thursday events in downtown Joplin was 5,000 people.

“DJA has done really well on the awareness piece — bringing people downtown who wouldn’t otherwise have come here — but now I feel it’s time to evolve and move beyond that. Now they’re aware, but what does that mean?” she said.

The nonprofit Downtown Joplin Alliance, governed by a 17-member board and supported financially by individuals and businesses, also recently hired Zach Bozeman to head up Third Thursday. Events kick off in March.

Kick-starting

Another downtown developer has been Economic Security Corp., which negotiated deals to renovate the once-crumbling Frisco Station in the 600 block of South Main into 57 senior housing units. The Frisco was a former railroad depot that was built in 1913 and served as a depot until 1955. By 1987 it was vacant. In 2001, ESC teamed up with a Springfield development firm, Carlson-Gardner, to preserve the six-story building and convert it to apartments. It opened in 2003.

The city provided $150,000 in seed money, and other investors, grants and low-income and historic state tax credits pushed the $10 million project along. The day it opened, it was paid for.

“It absolutely kick-started everything,” said Joines, CEO of Economic Security. “It was the catalyst for the downtown renovation and resurrection. It ignited the fire.”

Renovations on the ESC’s 46 units at the Zahn and Ridgeway buildings on nearby South Wall and Byers Avenue soon followed. All three properties are always full, Joines said.

Unlike the Frisco, which had been commercial and retail space, the Zahn and Ridgeway were former apartment buildings.

At about the same time, Jeff Neal bought the circa-1893 Columbian Building at 418 and 420 S. Main St. after returning to his native Joplin from California.

“It was a poster child for urban blight,” Neal recalled. “It was five years away from a wrecking ball.”

In 2005, he began $1 million in renovations.

Although ultimately the Columbia Traders restaurant/market in Neal’s building closed, the lofts above did well. And, the project started for Neal a domino effect that took him to more than a dozen downtown buildings.

“Between Fourth and Seventh, odds are good we’ve worked on every building you can point out,” he said.

Economic impasse

Hudson said that despite the many positives, hurdles remain. First and foremost, some properties have liens on them — in some cases for a decade or more — that can make it cost prohibitive for buyers.

Haun, for example, wants to buy a vacant lot on the 800 block of Main near her lofts; it appraises for $5,000. The owner, Hudson noted, lives in Florida and does not maintain contact with Joplin.

“There was a dilapidated building there, the city demolished it 20 years ago and charged her $13,000, which hasn’t been paid, and that’s more than twice what she could sell the lot for,” Hudson said. “It is not serving a purpose, nor is the city getting any property taxes or any kind of return.”

She began working with city officials last week on possible solutions.

“My response is, it’s unacceptable. It’s the opposite of economic development. It’s economic impasse,” she said. “I’m researching innovative ways other cities have overcome this, creative ways to resolve it. To make the properties useful. To drive the economic vitality of downtown Joplin even further.”

She plans to create a database that tells the story behind every vacant building and lot that remains in downtown Joplin.

“We want to be a conduit for investors, business people, developers who want to expand and can’t get over the hurdle,” she said.

Residents, developers and retailers alike — including the Turners, Haun and Williams — say they would like to see a pharmacy as well as a market or grocery store set up shop.

Neal said he also would like the city to refocus on downtown.

“We were doing very well up until the tornado,” he said. “Downtown development has slowed since then, and for obvious reasons. The path of destruction had to be the priority.”

He pointed to the city’s facade grant program as “something that’s gone by the wayside” but would be valuable to continue. He credited the program as being key to the restoration of dozens of downtown buildings, including his Columbian Building project, which received $25,000 from the city.

“After that, Hackett’s Hot Wings, Evergreen & Amber, Cell Phone Medics — all those were city facade grants,” Neal said.

He also would like to see the city fund the Downtown Joplin Alliance as “an important element in downtown revitalization.” The council agreed in 2011 to stop funding nonprofits, and this will be the last for DJA to receive city funds.

Last fall, Trisha Patton, then the executive director of the DJA, sought $50,000 from the city, but the council had been weaning DJA and another organization off city funds and in 2015 allocated only $4,000 for the group. Patton resigned a few weeks later, saying a new leader was needed who could further build the organization’s revenues.

“The decision is significantly influenced by the fact that we do not have a sustainable funding mechanism,” she said of her resignation.

The council had suggested that the DJA create a taxing district downtown, such as a Community Improvement District, that would generate tax revenue for events and programs, but Patton indicated there was not enough support for that among property owners.

Downtown also is the right place for the Joplin Public Library, said Neal, citing plans to build a new one near 20th Street and Connecticut Avenue, with nearby retail, lofts and even a multiscreen theater also proposed.

“If you look at the inventory of strip malls around town that have vacancies ... the more vacant properties we build right now, then what you essentially do is you’re cannabalizing. You’re stealing renters from someone who is already renting. You’re not gaining anything significant for a massive investment of new resources,” he said.

“We have a huge investment of resources in our downtown already — buildings that have withstood the test of time for 100 years. No doubt the Gryphon, which we helped restore, will be there for another 100. The greenest building is usually the one already built.

“If you have a strong, vibrant downtown, you have a city more attractive to young professionals, and, even older professionals, that you want to draw to town,” Neal said. “If people list cities that are spectacular, from Memphis to Kansas City to wherever, the common denominator is the strong downtown, the amazing architecture.”

Downtown Joplin Association

Callie Hudson and Zach Bozeman have recently been hired by the Downtown Joplin Association.

Hudson is a longtime Joplin resident who graduated from College Heights Christian School. She worked in marketing at EaglePicher and was director of development for the Joplin Salvation Army.

Bozeman was a volunteer and program manager with Rebuild Joplin for 21/2 years and is a native of the St. Louis area.

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Andra Bryan Stefanoni is a staff writer for The Joplin Globe. She has been a reporter and editor at The Pittsburg Morning Sun and the former Girard Press, has written for state and national magazines, and has taught journalism.