Lindsay Hutchison’s year started with a whirlwind of activity.
The 38-year-old mayor of Peabody – both the first woman to hold the office and the youngest in the city’s history – had less than a month to get 29 residents signed on to a grant application to provide money to preserve her community’s historic downtown district.
With that financial boost, Hutchison and members of the Peabody Main Street Association could then rely on the biggest strength of any small community – its people.
She and the Main Streeters had known for some time that their beloved buildings were in need of overdue repairs, many requiring major work and major cash. Throughout the month of January, she and the group used social media to mobilize residents in support of a large grant to help spur revitalization.
“Sometimes people that aren’t from a small town don’t believe that word of mouth can work that well,” Hutchison says of the process to get downtown property owners included in the application.
“The method to my madness, if you will, is: We’ll apply to all the free grant dollars we can, and hopefully spark an interest in the community, to help people see the potential of what our city could be again.”
Hutchison says most residents wanted to see growth in Peabody, but they had differing opinions on how to utilize potential grant funds. She says Main Street board members made every attempt to clear up confusion and frustration – a good exercise in understanding other points of view.
Hutchison got the 29 property owners on board by simply offering them an opportunity to “ask for free money.
“Most people that own historic property in a town like Peabody can’t afford to turn down that kind of offer,” Hutchison says.
As with a lot of smaller towns on the Great Plains, the past few decades have been challenging for Peabody, which has lost about one-third of its population since the 1990s. A low point came in 2009, when Baker Furniture and Carpet moved out of a downtown space after a 125-year run, leaving six empty buildings along Walnut Street, says business owner Morgan Marler. A treasured antique store was also going out of business because its owner was retiring.
The Main Street Association triaged the damage at the time by buying the vacant buildings. Marler was able to secure a grant to repair their roofs. But more financial help, and more community volunteerism, would be needed to achieve the level of downtown restoration locals aspired to. The town’s historic downtown district representsa core asset – and a major point of pride – to the community.
Hutchison, who attended a Kansas Leadership Center training program last year, says she felt inspired to join the Peabody City Council in 2018 after she noticed a distinct lack of involved leadership in the town – in her words, an attitude of “nobody wants to lead.”
“The thing that really opened my eyes during that (Kansas Leadership Center) process is: We aren’t going to have more money if we don’t have more people who care about the community,” Hutchison says.
Welcome to Peabody
A quiet community of about 950 residents, Peabody is situated in a sloping valley just south of U.S. Highway 50 in southern Marion County, about 45 minutes north of Wichita. Large, well-loved Victorian homes with neatly manicured lawns line brick-paved Walnut Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, that’s shaded by large old cottonwood and oak trees.
The road changes from brick to asphalt at the intersection of Second Street and Walnut. A wheeled informational kiosk stationed in the middle of that intersection marks the unofficial entrance to one of the largest historic districts in Kansas. On this date, American flags waved from every other light pole and in downtown storefronts. On one shaded porch, an elderly couple took in the day.
“Peabody has roughly 40 properties within one historic district that’s registered with Kansas and the national historic registry,” says Jonathan Clayton, director of economic recovery for the Kansas Department of Commerce. “It’s a beautiful downtown, but it hadn’t kept up with modern construction standards. It kind of made the town look run-down and forgotten about.”
Clayton has worked for the department for three years. In Peabody’s case, his job was to guide property owners through the process of applying for and securing grants amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Funding for the Building a Stable Economy, or the BASE 2.0 grant program, comes from the American Rescue Plan Act and is intended to primarily serve infrastructure improvements, especially for facilities that may have suffered a downturn in maintenance or delayed renovations because of the pandemic.
Clayton says he provided residents with the steps for completing the application, including getting estimates for needed repairs to downtown buildings and then settling on a reasonable grant amount to ask for.
“The Main Street Association invited every single property owner in that district that’s commercial, … owners and tenants, to participate and did a collective application process,” Clayton says. “Everybody gave us a list of what their building needed, whether it be a roof or HVAC or new doors or whatever.”
Clayton says the community went right to work getting quotes and estimates for repairs.
“It became a very detailed jigsaw puzzle,” Clayton says. “All told, the wish list was about $4.5 million.”
The Main Street Association board then whittled that amount down to $2.79 million. Hutchison recalled that she and other Main Streeters spread the word about their initiative quickly, to the point where the conversation about historic preservation spanned the entire community.
“The nice thing is that, at most every property downtown, somebody has a connection at least to someone,” Hutchison says. “Even if people don’t always get along, working together always happens in Peabody, and it’s always impressive how we can make that happen, how everyone can see the benefit for everyone involved.”
Small but aspiring for awesome
Linda Martinez, a Peabody native and career hairdresser who returned after many years away, has owned and operated the Mane Street Beautique at 110 N. Walnut since August 2011.
But she sees change in her future. Over the next two years, she plans to switch her business from one that deals in hairdressing to one that deals in salad dressing.
“My goal is to turn my salon into some kind of eatery,” she says, “more healthy stuff.”
Martinez says she won’t be competing with the restaurant across the street, Pop’s Diner, housed in the historic Dr. C.A. Loose Building. Customers at Pop’s can catch up on their neighbors’ goings-on over a plate of “garbage” – a breakfast menu item consisting of ham, hash browns, onions, peppers and tomatoes – or they can choose from other popular dishes. A hand-drawn chalk menu along one wall features the weekly specials.
Martinez says she won’t have any fried food or soda pop on her menu to keep her bistro “totally different” from Pop’s and the city’s other restaurant, The Coneburg Inn. Martinez and her husband also own The Wringer Laundromat in Peabody, which is contained in the same building as her salon.
Martinez says one of the challenges she continues to face is getting locals to see what’s around them.
“Just because we’re small doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not awesome.”
A historic community
Martinez doesn’t have many structural issues with her building because it’s relatively new compared with others surrounding it. The original structure at 110 N. Walnut burned down in 1945 and was completely rebuilt.
The storied history of downtown Peabody can be felt through one’s shoes in the sidewalks along North Walnut. The C.A. Loose Building is one of several examples of Italianate architecture (a popular 19th-century building style inspired by 16th-century Italian Renaissance designs) that line Walnut, and one of 46 structures that make up the downtown district, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. The majority of buildings in the district, stretching from Division to First streets, are also on the Kansas Register of Historic Places.
The town’s other historic landmarks include the W.H. Morgan House, the old Peabody Library, Peabody City Park and the Peabody Township Carnegie Library.
“This is one of the most beautiful libraries in the region,” says Rodger Charles, the executive director of the Carnegie Library. “Peabody’s is the first free public library in Kansas, established in 1874. We’ve been a Carnegie since 1914. The tables and chairs I have in my library right now came with the building.”
Charles arrived in Peabody in 1996, a transplant from El Dorado, to serve as pastor of the First Baptist Church. He became a librarian in 2007 and has been the executive director of the Carnegie Library since 2011.
“I haven’t traveled far,” Charles says, adding that he’s completed a lot of maintenance work on the library building since he came on board.
Over the years, the library has made several infrastructure improvements. In 2007, central heating and air-conditioning was installed upstairs. Tech upgrades followed. Charles considers the addition of a wheelchair lift in 2016 a huge leap forward. A new roof and remodeled restroom to comply with the American Disabilities Act came that same year too.
“There’s been so much done,” he says, “and every year we’ve made steady progress on working on the building.”
Charles says there’s plenty still to do to restore more of the library’s grandeur. His hope is to increase access to the library without sacrificing the structure’s historic integrity.
“The people that come in don’t notice the technology; they’re noticing the historic parts of the building,” Charles says. “We can marry the modern with the old; they can co-exist, they don’t cancel each other out.”
Waiting pays off
Clayton, along with Hutchison and other Main Streeters, ultimately had about two weeks to submit a finalized grant application – including contractor bids, construction estimates and permissions from all necessary parties – to the state.
Hutchison recalled that it “seemed like a panic” as they prepared the application, which ran hundreds of pages, but when Jan. 31 came around and the application was submitted, “Everybody then just had to wait.
“That two months, three months of waiting, is hard because everyone gets really excited, but the energy in town stayed higher with the anticipation of grant dollars that can really support our community.”
Their waiting paid off – literally.
In early May, they learned that Peabody would be receiving $1.5 million in BASE 2.0 grant money.
“That’s a third of what was needed and half of what they asked for,” Clayton says, “but everyone got their No. 1 request (for renovations and improvements) fulfilled.”
Clayton says there’s still “a lot of work to go” before that money is allocated.
“There’s lots and lots of documentation,” Clayton says. “Every property owner has to sign an agreement with the board (of the Peabody Main Street Association), and they have to have an understanding of the allocation and procedures. Everything must go out to bid if it’s $5,000 or more. So, now we’re in the middle of the bidding process for work to be done.”
Now that the grant is approved, Clayton can take more of a hands-on role to provide guidance to property owners for documentation and seeking bids.
“It’s all the federal rules mixed in with state rules and regulations,” he says, “so everything has to be public and visible and open and fair.”
Clayton says property owners got half their money in early June to fulfill the “easily tangible” needs, with construction projects beginning by mid-June. The other half of the grant funds will come next year. In a matter of serendipitous timing, Clayton and his husband are selling their home in Kiowa County and moving to Peabody to become a permanent part of the community.
“We had pretty much decided that we were going to move to Peabody,” Clayton says. “My husband has a storefront business in Mullinville that we’ll be moving to town.”
Peabody property owners have two years to complete their documents and bids. Clayton says that process will absolutely be completed on time.
The $1.5 million pool of money will change downtown in small but noticeable ways. Martinez will receive about $15,000 to convert her salon into a bistro, covering much of her electrical costs.
Charles will receive $12,500 for the Peabody Township Library.
“We’re trying to get as much work done above ground so people can see a change being made in Peabody,” Charles says. “As long as we keep that positive energy, great things are going to happen.”
“It’s just what we do”
Like many Peabody residents, Morgan Marler’s roots run deep. She’s the owner of Flint Hills Gypsies, a downtown antique store, and is also the water and wastewater supervisor for the city of Hillsboro. Her father got a job at Peabody High School in 1976 as the band instructor, and except for the time she spent in college, she’s remained part of the community since.
“My parents were involved with the Peabody Main Street Association since the 1980s, when it began,” Marler wrote in an email. “They were lifelong volunteers in the community, and always tried to involve my sister and I in community events and volunteer work.”
Marler’s hope is that a new generation will be able to revive and sustain that spirit of volunteerism.
“We realized long ago that we just have to do it ourselves. I was part of that in the 1970s and ’80s. My parents had me doing projects in the community, side by side with them. It’s just what we do.”
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2023 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.