By LESLIE COLLINS
December 26, 2012
It’s been called a cornerstone, an anchor in the community.
Saint Paul School of Theology, 5123 E. Truman Rd., has deeply impacted the Historic Northeast and will leave behind an indelible legacy.
“They’ve been such a wellspring of good will. It’s hard to describe the magnitude of the loss, really,” said John Weilert, president of the Elmwood Cemetery Society, 4900 E. Truman Rd.
Earlier this year, the school that’s called Northeast home for 47 years announced it was relocating to the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan.
School officials cited a dwindling budget and decreased student enrollment as the reason for the move.
“It’s not easy moving a 54-year-old school. There will be some growing pains for sure,” Saint Paul’s Director of Communications Heather Chamberlin said during a previous interview.
Perched on a hill, Saint Paul’s 217,000 square-foot campus overlooks the downtown Kansas City skyline and includes nine buildings, with the first building dating back to 1904 when the campus operated as the Kansas City National Training School for Deaconesses and Missionaries. Amenities include three residence halls, a chapel, library, office building, a social, dining and meeting facility, among others. Chamberlin said Saint Paul will begin offering classes at its new location in the fall of 2013.
“I was devastated when I first heard the news because I felt like Saint Paul School of Theology has been a cornerstone of our neighborhood for many, many years,” said Jacky Ross, president of the Blue Valley Neighborhood Association.
Over the years, the neighborhood association used the campus facilities to host a variety of events and meetings, she said.
“It’s (Saint Paul) just been part of the community. I just hate to see them leave us,” Ross said.
“It leaves a big hole in our Truman Road Community Improvement District (CID),” said Dick Bassett, district director of the Truman Road CID. “If you told someone to go to Saint Paul, they knew exactly where to go. Everyone knew it; everyone liked it. The people who work there are just tremendous. It’s going to be a really big loss.”
Saint Paul impacted the community in numerous ways, including providing jobs to area businesses and residents, Bassett said. Not all of those employed by Saint Paul will be able to transfer to the Leawood campus, which will affect the local economy, Bassett said.
Catty-corner to Saint Paul is the Elmwood Cemetery, which the school partnered with on countless occasions.
“They’ve been a great resource for us,” Weilert said.
For events, the Elmwood Cemetery Society would borrow chairs and tables from the school, but Saint Paul’s giving spirit went far beyond furniture, he said.
Years ago, a woman from Ghana, Africa, died and her family wanted her buried in Elmwood Cemetery. The family needed a minister to officiate the service and Elmwood told the family to talk to Saint Paul.
“Saint Paul found a minister and not only was he from Ghana, he spoke the exact dialect of the family, and that meant so much to them,” Weilert said. “It’s sort of symbolic of how much Saint Paul has helped us over the years. They’ve been a blessing to everyone in the neighborhood.”
When the Youth Symphony of Kansas City needed a space to conduct practices, Saint Paul opened its doors and the Youth Symphony still holds practices at the campus, Weilert said. Saint Paul also helped Elmwood volunteers remove graffiti and pick up trash.
“Saint Paul would pitch in and do things for us and never say anything about it. They’d just do it,” Weilert said.
On several occasions, Elmwood volunteers would notice a good deed and have to ask Saint Paul if it was responsible, because Elmwood wanted to extend its thanks, he said.
To find a new tenant for the campus facilities, Saint Paul has formed a Truman Road Campus Committee, which has the sole task of searching for potential organizations to take over the buildings on campus.
According to Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr., chair of the Truman Road Campus Committee, Saint Paul is open to all options, whether that’s selling or leasing or allowing more than one organization to call the campus home. Although several organizations have toured the campus, Saint Paul has yet to find a solid prospect, Chamberlin said.
“I would hate to be in their shoes of trying to sell it because it’s so unique,” said Tom Turner, executive director of the Bishop Sullivan Center that’s located near campus. “It’s got a little church, it’s got classrooms, dorms, my goodness. Who does that appeal to and who has that kind of money?”
Turner pointed out the number of vacant schools in the area which closed during the Kansas City Public Schools’ (KCPS) “right-sizing initiative” to balance the budget.
“Those buildings sit for a long time,” Turner said. “Sometimes they’re still empty. Look at McCoy school – that’s just one building. Here, we’re talking about an entire campus.”
A number of area residents, including Bassett, envision another school taking over the campus.
“It would be a great UMKC (University of Missouri-Kansas City) branch. It could be another community college. It would be a great location for the Parkville campus,” Bassett said.
If a viable buyer isn’t found before Saint Paul vacates its Northeast campus, residents say they worry vandals will destroy the buildings.
Truman Road Corridor Association Director David Biersmith used the example of McCoy Elementary School, which closed in 2010. On Nov. 28, 2011, �Block Real Estate Services listed the site, and to date no one has offered to buy the building. According to a KCPS “re-use strategy” document, McCoy has suffered multiple break-ins, vandalism and small fires. Thanks to vandalism, the boiler system was compromised to the extent that the gas line had to be turned off at the street. In addition, McCoy is a regular target for graffiti and dumping, the document stated. An uptick in illegal activity at the school was reported in 2012, despite KCPS’ round-the-clock patrols of the vacant schools.
“If we can’t even keep the bad guys away from that small piece of property, what the heck is going to happen to this large campus?” Biersmith said. “What worries me is we’re returning the biggest asset we have on Truman Road by far and turning it into the largest liability we’ll ever have.”
“Once people find out the buildings are empty, I can see people breaking in trying to steal copper or whatever they can get to make a few bucks,” Ross said. “We’ve been fighting graffiti here for years. If they (vandals) get a big, new campus, I’m sure they’d go right after it.”
East Patrol Community Interaction Officer Jason Cooley agreed that vandalism is definitely a possibility.
“Criminals watch the news, too,” Cooley said.
If criminals learn the campus will be vacant with no buyer in sight, they’ll take note, Cooley said.
“What is nice now would not remain nice for long. That’s about as blunt as you can put it,” Cooley said. “If it’s not paid attention to, you’ll see graffiti move in, you’ll see broken windows, property damage, and then of course every piece of copper in any of those buildings would be removed.”
Once a property is blighted, it attracts more crime to the neighborhood since it creates the image of apathetic neighbors who don’t report crimes, Cooley said.
To keep the buildings free of vandalism would require round-the-clock security, Cooley said.
Saint Paul told Northeast News it would provide campus security in the interim of finding a buyer, but did not provide specifics. Saint Paul also stressed it would not leave the campus derelict and would continue to maintain the grounds until an organization purchased the campus.
Vacant buildings can negatively impact a community, Cooley said.
“Things like that can affect the mindset of a community,” he said. “Historically and traditionally speaking, what are the foundations of a community? Church and school, and you just had two of them walk away from the community within a two-year’s time frame. That can have a psychological effect on a community in a negative way. We don’t need more excuses or reasons to lose hope; these folks have a rough enough time down here as it is. So, what do you do?”
As for finding a new tenant, it’s difficult to fill the shoes of Saint Paul.
“Saint Paul has been a real anchor in our community,” Weilert said. “We’re going to miss our good friends at Saint Paul a lot.”