From Chamber of Commerce of Consolidated School District # 1 to South Kansas City Chamber of Commerce
On May 27, 1931, three Hickman Mills’ businessmen filed an application with the state of Missouri through the circuit court of Jackson County, Missouri for incorporation of the Chamber of Commerce of Consolidated School District No. 1. The new Chamber would serve the consolidated school district south of Kansas City and would be located in Hickman Mills.
This forerunner of today’s South Kansas City Chamber formed a “body politic and corporate” whose purpose was “furthering and promoting the general welfare of the community…to promote, improve, and contribute to the development and extension of the business and social interests of said community in lawful ways…acquire and disseminate, valuable, commercial and economic information and encourage greater interest…of manufacturing and trade industries and attractive homes as factors in the growth and prosperity of the community…etc.” The signers of this document would all become active members of the newly incorporated Chamber: James I. Keeney, President; R. D. Barry, Secretary-Treasurer; and T. T. Moore. Although it is not clear how long they had been meeting before incorporation, these men obviously had a plan that had been in the works for some time. The Chamber would seem to have been an existing entity even before its official incorporation.
The early Chamber held dinner meetings at the Community Church. The meal, served by the church ladies, was usually fried chicken with all the accompaniments. Chamber members were hard workers; they deserved a good meal. After spending a long day running their businesses, tending their farms, and volunteering for the fire department, the men of the Chamber (and only men were allowed to be members then) spent hours trying to make things happen around Hickman Mills. Meeting minutes of 1934 indicate that Chamber members paid dues and elected officers according to Roberts Rules of Order. They lobbied for gas lines, managed a water district, worked for the welfare of the poor in the community, and installed stop signs at the dangerous intersection of Hillcrest and 110th. They worried about illegal dumping, unsanitary outhouses, and ugly road signs.
The next year they worked to get bus service to the township, started a Boy Scout troop, and had a Fireman’s ball to raise money for a fire truck. By 1939 they had seen that Hillcrest Road was repaired, built a water tower, sent Christmas baskets to the needy, worried about septic tank problems, and obtained hospital group insurance for members. They also found a way to stop robberies in the community, by encouraging local farmers to tattoo their poultry and livestock. Remember, this was a very rural community.
In the Forties, in the midst of World War II and with many of their sons and daughters risking their lives overseas, the Chamber debated whether or not to get Civil Defense training. They planted trees in honor of the boys in the service, collected tin cans for the War effort, and toured the bomber plant at Lake City Arsenal.
In the Fifties, the Chamber proposed incorporation of Hickman Mills as a fourth class city. Members wanted a police force, sewers, municipal offices, and a real fire department. Bus service improvements were still needed, as were fire hydrants, street lights, and traffic signs at dangerous intersections. Optimistic that the incorporation would pass, Chamber members changed the name of the organization to Hickman Mills Chamber of Commerce. But efforts to incorporate failed.
On May 20, 1957, a devastating tornado hit Ruskin Heights, Martin City, Grandview, Hickman Mills, and the surrounding countryside. According to the Kansas City Star, the 15-minute whirlwind took 44 lives, injured 531 persons, and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes. Rebuilding became the by-word, but there was new growth as well. By 1959, the J.C. Nichols Company had built Red Bridge Shopping Center and Kroh Brothers had erected the mall at Ward Parkway at the site of the former St. Andrews Golf Course.
The Sixties brought dramatic change. In 1961, Raymond W. Peterman, a Chamber officer and Vice-President of the Hickman Mills Bank, wrote, “Until about 1954 the community of Hickman Mills was a quiet, peaceful roadside village. About that time a housing development was started which now consists of some 3,000 houses… Population has mushroomed to around 18-20,000 people…Principal industries in the immediate area are Bendix Aviation, Western Electric, Stephens & Associates, and Torotel…Within its bounds [are] the Truman Corners Shopping Center, Ruskin Heights and Wal-Mart, and Loma Vista Shopping Centers…a 10 minute driving time from Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base.” In South Kansas City, lack of public transportation was still a problem and the Chamber continued to worry about the poor in the community. Members were also concerned about the establishment of a go-cart race track at Highway 71 and 111th street and established not only a zoning committee but also a committee on safety. A representative was sent to the Richards-Gebaur Community Council as the Air Force base took on new challenges. In spite of the Chamber’s opposition, Hickman Mills was annexed into Kansas City in 1961. In some ways, however, the Chamber continued to operate as an independent community. Maintaining its identity, the Chamber developed and printed 4,500 copies of a booklet to boost and sell Hickman Mills as a good place to live.
Plans to commemorate the site of the original Hickman’s Mill were also initiated in the 1960s. A walnut gavel was made out of wood from the mill and was used at Board meetings. The Chamber also decided to erect a historical marker to recognize Order #11, a ruling by Civil War General Ewing mandating that citizens of Jackson County, Cass County, and nearby communities swear allegiance to the Union or get out of town.
Although women occasionally joined the men at Chamber meetings, the January 1962 minutes were the first to mention a woman as a member. Her name was Mary Elizabeth Smith, owner of Smith Secretarial Service, and she served as the chair of the Publicity Committee. The Chamber was no longer an exclusive men’s organization.
In 1966, the organization once again changed its name to reflect its changing responsibilities: it became known as the South Kansas City Chamber of Commerce of Hickman Mills. The organization also hired a secretary to run the Chamber office, rented a typewriter and office space, and took out advertising in the Kansas City Star.
In the Seventies, the Watts Mill shopping center was built and a South Midtown Freeway (today’s Bruce R. Watkins Drive) was being designed. Both I-435 and I-470 were approved. Bannister Mall and the new St. Joseph Hospital were completed, as was the Rodeway Inn at 115th and South 71 Highway, the first high-rise in South Kansas City. Many of the Chamber meetings were held there, but some members complained that the portions of food were too big. The membership continued to be concerned about the community of Hickman Mills: vandalism in the high school, the need for a new police station, and re-zoning for local business. The area was expanding rapidly. In 1977, Mary Elizabeth Smith was elected as the first woman President.
In the Eighties, Marion Laboratories’ new building was constructed on Ward Parkway by Kroh Brothers. The Chamber had its name changed on incorporation papers to read “South Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.” Membership grew to 350. The Chamber’s 1984 annual report tolled the number of businesses in South Kansas City at more than 3,790 companies employing over 46,000 people.
Then came the Nineties. Chamber boundaries were changed to coincide with those of the Sixth District to better coordinate local business with city government. And the Chamber established focus groups and a membership survey to better understand concerns and needs of the members.
In 1993, the Chamber developed “Leadership South Kansas City” to help people learn more about what was going on in the metropolitan area. Through a series of workshops, tours, and lectures, Chamber members gained insight into the critical issues facing the Greater Kansas City area, learned how these issues affect their businesses, and how to become part of the solution.
In the ‘90s, the Chamber Offices moved from Red Bridge Shopping Center to 9201 Ward Parkway.
Norine Accurso, former Executive Director of the Chamber, gave an overview of Chamber history at the 1996 Annual Meeting. She observed, “If we had to summarize the reasons for the Chamber successes it would be (1) South Kansas City Chamber of Commerce members had political clout and were directly tied into the political and decision-making system and, (2) there were major ‘causes’ or projects that drove the agenda for the Chamber.” Barbara Engel was elected Board President in 1996 and took the reins as Executive Director from Jan Martinette in 1997, helping to keep both political clout and major projects at the core of the Chamber. She led the Chamber forward into a new century with creativity and unfailing energy.
The new millennium of 2000 initiated more change and growth. The Chamber offices moved again, this time to 5908 East Bannister Road. A web site is polished – www.southkcchamber.com – and The Chamber is totally digital.
A Community Improvement District, CID, was put into place in July, 2003, giving 26 property owners around Bannister Mall opportunities for growth. The District, called III Trails, covers 260 acres of land from 87th to 95th streets and was the first of its kind in Kansas City. This economic development tool uses sales and property taxes to spur improvements and create new business growth.
In January, 2005, more than 70 Martin City merchants joined together and applied for support as a CID. Their request was approved and the South Kansas City Chamber Executive, Barbara Engel, serves as District Manager of this program. Plans include landscaping, street improvements, and marketing to revitalize Martin City and its businesses.
In 2005, The Chamber created The Kansas City South Foundation to implement the charitable works of the Chamber. Now leaders in South Kansas City could gain access to grant funding for community development.
In October 2006 the Chamber Engel retired and the Chamber hired Vickie Wolgast as the new Executive Director to carry forward with Chamber operations.