McMullen: Combat the crumblin'

March 21, 2011

As far as many cities are concerned, 151 years really isn’t very old at all — though it might make some feel better to know that Sedalia has been a city longer than Kansas has been a state.

But the city of Sedalia is starting to show its age both above and below ground.

Our sewer system is in a relatively serious state of disrepair, but fortunately we have taken steps to fix the subterranean infrastructure of Sedalia. Unfortunately, the money for those repairs had to come directly out of our pockets in the form of a sewer rate increase.

It had to be done — but we also seem to have real problems with some of the buildings that make up that magical place that the sign near Eddie’s Drive-in calls “Historic Downtown Sedalia.”

On the night of Dec. 24, 2009, the structures at 114 and 116 South Osage Avenue collapsed (the direct involvement of Santa Claus and his roof antics remains to be uncovered) and a few days afterward I wrote a column in which I insisted that something should be done if we really did care about saving the original historical structures in that part of town.

Downtown buildings had collapsed and partially collapsed before that, but I couldn’t help but think that maybe they had just been flukes. I couldn’t help but think that maybe the majority of our downtown buildings were well-maintained and that there were only a rare few that were in a state of neglect so severe that their collapse would be a real possibility.

But on St. Patrick’s Day, the structure at 202 W. Main St. was the latest piece of Sedalia history to come tumbling down. It seems as though holidays are not so kind to our buildings.

And now I am even more sure that while there are some parts of downtown that are well-maintained, there are more that are not and there is a real chance of more collapses happening in the future.

I would say that it is time to decide just how much we care about keeping these original buildings in an upright position, to decide just how much we care about downtown Sedalia — but it is easy to see that the decision has already been made. We’ve invested thousands fixing the streets and streetlights and it is clear we have made a commitment to revitalize downtown Sedalia at almost any cost.

But in order to bring one of the oldest parts of town back to prominence, the first thing we need to focus on is saving what’s still actually there. We need to make sure it isn’t allowed to get worse before we can make real progress in making it better.

No, downtown Sedalia isn’t a domino death trap where a building could collapse on you at any second, and the chances of any given person being in a position to be injured by falling debris is slim, but even if one of the multiple downtown buildings that have been reduced to giant, glorified storage units does manage to go down without hitting anything or anyone else it’s still a net “historical” loss.

Are we OK with our old downtown buildings collapsing? Is it the rude march of progress telling us that what we really need is more modern structures? Just how important is that historic moniker?

We can have a hip, modern downtown Sedalia with new buildings and good times or we can have interesting historical showpieces. If we don’t do anything about it, we’re not going to be able to have it both ways. When it comes to buildings, the old and the new can coexist just fine, but the old ones need a little extra consideration and I don’t think that they are getting it. I bet there are multiple downtown buildings that are already too far gone to be structurally saved and eventually won’t be able to support their own weight.

If the buildings that contained Sedalia’s past are important to Sedalia’s future, then we need to examine them. We need to make sure that we’ve taken the proper preventive measures. If you own a piece of old Sedalia, give it a once over, or a twice over. Go and talk to the owners of the buildings next to yours to make sure that they aren’t having any problems. Stop the person who only drops by his property once a month to stack something in the back if he has taken a moment to seriously consider the structural integrity of his investment.

The last thing a city space like downtown Sedalia needs is more collapsed buildings. People won’t step foot in your ground-level business if they legitimately fear that the other stories might pay them a visit. Don’t take anything for granted and don’t stubbornly assume that any building that has seemed fine for at least 100 years is going to be fine for 100 more without making sure of it.

I guess we will be fine though, because most of the events we hold downtown are held on blocked-off streets or lawns anyhow. Maybe one day we’ll just have a big rubble park with a whole lot of space to use.