Small Missouri Town Reclaims Its Downtown -- and Its Pride

Clarksville's success earns it a National Trust for Historic Preservation award

Tiny Clarksville, Mo., has a population of 480, one four-way stop, and no traffic light. This old-fashioned river town 80 miles north of St. Louis hugs the Mississippi River to its east and is hemmed in by rolling hills on the west.

Not long ago, most travelers along two-lane Highway 79 rolled up to the four-way stop sign in the middle of this nine-block town and sped through downtown Clarksville without a glance. But that is changing.

Just ask Mike Greenwell, who opened Greenwell's Furniture here in 1989. ''Six years ago, we were ready to lay down in the street to get somebody to stop,'' says the burly, bearded woodcrafter. ''People would just drive by. Now they point, stop, and back up to park and come in.''

Clarksville is one of five communities receiving Great American Main Street Awards today from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The award, which brings $5,000 plus plaques and road signs, recognizes successful efforts at combating downtown decay and the abandonment of small-town commerce.

The historic town of Clarksville was settled in 1817. During its heyday in the 1870s and 1880s, factories lined the waterfront and nearly 1,500 people lived here. But the town's population fell throughout the 1900s, and the economic changes of the past several decades have steadily eroded the downtown commercial district.

''People got to traveling further for their shopping,'' says Clarksville's mayor Bertha Mae Taylor. ''In the late '60s and early '70s, the downtown area began to deteriorate.''

''At one time, we had our own newspaper, two drug stores, three grocery stores, a shoe store,'' recalls Louise Jenkins, who was born in Clarksville and has lived most of her life here. ''But when the people who owned and operated these stores grew older and retired, there wasn't anybody interested in replacing them.''

''It was just such a gradual thing,'' she says. ''One thing just kind of leads to another, and you wake up one day and realize that all this has happened.''

''It's like a tree dying,'' Mr. Greenwell says. ''You don't really notice until it's dead.''

In 1988, most of the commercial buildings in Clarksville stood boarded-up and left without utilities. ''You could have bulldozed the entire town,'' Greenwell says. ''It was more or less a ghost town.''

But then a small group of residents got together and began fighting back. One of their first projects was transforming an abandoned parking lot at the four-way stop next to City Hall into a park.

''We thought that as people came to the four-way stop, if they saw something pleasant they might hesitate a moment and drive through town,'' Ms. Jenkins says. Volunteers did all the work, and donations paid for six park benches scattered around the newly landscaped square.

Next the group conducted a historic survey of all the buildings in town and formed Historic Clarksville Inc., a nonprofit organization designed to provide an impetus for downtown revitalization. In 1991, the group succeeded in getting the downtown district placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Using private donations, Historic Clarksville began buying abandoned real estate in hopes of spurring redevelopment. In two years, the group purchased 14 buildings -- nearly half of the downtown commercial buildings.

''Nobody had any interest in these buildings, and they had no value,'' says Ralph Huesing, a founding member of Historic Clarksville and owner of an antique store in town. ''We purchased our first building for $459 -- just paying back taxes.''

In 1989, the first two buildings were completely restored and occupied by two new businesses. Working with an annual budget of $150,000, Historic Clarksville is gradually restoring the rest of the buildings and renting them to new businesses.

Today, commercial real estate in Clarksville is in high demand. Four unrestored buildings sold last year to private investors -- one for as much as $18,000. In 1988, 86 percent of the downtown district was vacant. Now every building that has been restored is occupied. Sixteen new businesses have opened, providing 35 new jobs.

There's been a dramatic turnaround in a relatively short time. ''We could fill six buildings right this minute, including second stories,'' Mr. Huesing says. ''We have leases that we signed six months ago for next May on buildings that are expected to be restored by then.''

It didn't take long for Clarksville to reach full employment. ''In the beginning, the idea was to give opportunities to people living in town,'' Huesing says. ''But we quickly exhausted that and people are now coming from neighboring towns.''

Clarksville's revitalized downtown is attracting mostly artisans, antique shops, and craft stores. The town is aiming at a tourist market. ''A town of 480 can't sustain the kind of businesses that were once here,'' Huesing says.

Fourteen shops now line the streets, including three antique stores, two furnituremakers, a blacksmith, a quilt shop, and a signmaker. There's one gas station in town and a bait shop to serve the many fishermen that flock to the area in the summer.

In 1936, a federal lock and dam was built on the Mississippi directly in front of Clarksville. This not only brought a temporary increase in population at the time of construction, it now provides an annual draw to the community.

Bald eagles swoop down on the open water surrounding the lock and dam each winter, attracting nature lovers who peer across the river with binoculars and telescopes to catch the birds in action.

Clarksville has hosted a two-day event known as Eagle Days for 17 years. It began with 50 people gathering along the river and has gradually increased through the years. Last year, the event drew 7,000 people.

In 1987, the town built a Visitor's Center with sweeping views of the lock and dam. ''Without the lock and dam, Clarksville wouldn't exist today,'' Mayor Taylor says. ''It brings in a lot of tourists.''

And the growing number of shops in town are helping capture more of those tourist dollars. Clarksville has two bed-and-breakfasts and a 24-room motel, but it has a desperate need for more restaurants. There are three places in town to eat lunch now, but nothing is open for breakfast or dinner. ''Do you ever stay anyplace that doesn't have a restaurant?'' asks Norman Barber, owner of the Clarksville Inn.

To help fill the restaurant void, Chris Lefebvre is opening the Mississippi Landing Espresso Cafe this month. Although she lives in the city of Louisiana, 10 miles north of Clarksville, Ms. Lefebvre decided her business prospects were more promising in smaller Clarksville.

''What really made the difference was knowing there is a need for us here,'' Lefebvre says during a break from moving into the renovated 1887 bank building overlooking the river on Front Street.

''It also helped to get so much support from the local people,'' she says. Lefebvre purchased antique tables from local shops, and the town's resident sign painter is designing the cafe's signs.

As the commercial life returns to these once-deserted streets, Clarksville is beginning to function as an integrated small-town community once again.

''It's especially nice to have your work all around you,'' says signpainter Mike Brewer, who opened his Wilderness Spirit Artistry Shop a year ago. His handpainted-sign business caters to small-town shops trying to capture a historic feel. When potential customers come to visit, Mr. Brewer tells them: ''If you want an example of my work, just walk out the door and look around you.''

The people of Clarksville have no illusions about attracting industry here again. But they are carving out a new future based on Clarksville's rich history.

''We started off being interested only in historic preservation -- saving old buildings and making things look nice,'' Huesing says, adding: ''Then we realized that if you just fix up buildings, you can end up with an empty museum town. You have to think in terms of the economic development of the community.''

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