How Excelsior Springs revived its historic downtown and avoided the fate of declining rural towns
The Missouri tourist town once faced the same stress as many rural areas, with a declining population and abandoned buildings. But a conscious effort to fix the downtown's infrastructure and beautify public spaces has turned the economy around.
Downtown Excelsior Springs, Missouri, literally drips with history.
In the 1880s, a farmer discovered the healing properties of the reddish-brown waters of Siloam Spring – claiming his daughter was cured of her tuberculosis after drinking and bathing in the waters. Word quickly spread and a town blossomed around the spring, as did more than 40 wells, each delivering a different slurry of minerals.
Excelsior Springs soon became something of a health care tourism destination. Presidents and gangsters, as well as everyday folk, would travel from all over to stay in town, drink from the wells and soak at the spas.
As modern medicine evolved, though, tourism slumped. Fewer people sought the mineral treatments that put Excelsior Springs on the map. In the late 1980s, the wells had to be capped for sanitary reasons because the original pipes were made of wood.
Excelsior Springs faced the same fate as many rural towns, a declining population and abandoned downtown buildings.
But that didn’t happen.
Today, Excelsior Springs has revived its tourist industry. The wells are still capped, but the city now quenches a thirsty audience with local wineries and breweries.
Broadway Avenue, in the heart of downtown, is packed with restaurants and shops. On the weekends, it’s hard to find a parking spot.
Now with a vibrant downtown, the city is looking to revitalize other parts of town, adding more sidewalks, public transportation and improving the quality of life for more than 10,000 residents.
A conscious effort to resuscitate the heart of Excelsior Springs may have just saved it from dropping off the map. At the very least, it’s created one of the cutest little downtowns in the Kansas City area.
'You forget what you have around you'
From behind the register at Willow Springs Mercantile, Daphne Bowman chatted with visitors about their time in town as they paid for their goods.
It’s one of her favorite parts of the business. She loves to hear what other people enjoy about the place she calls home.
“Sometimes when you live in an area, you forget what you have around you,” Bowman said.
Of course, Bowman hasn’t always called Excelsior (pronounced with just three syllables by locals) home.
In 2003, Bowman and her husband took a chance and bought a condemned building downtown.
The buildings along Broadway Avenue were crumbling and mostly vacant at the time, but the Kansas City couple had a vision of a thriving historic downtown.
Twenty years and a lot of hard work later and the Bowmans are living their dream at Willow Springs Mercantile — a restaurant and shop for regionally sourced wine and liquor. Bowman says it’s “like a candy store for adults.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it became clear that some folks were interested in revitalizing downtown. The city decided to fix up the sidewalks and the streets downtown. Bowman and her husband renovated their building and in 2005 opened the mercantile, then as an antique store.
From there, Bowman said it was about “selling the vision” to the town and to other potential business owners.
Bowman and several other early revitalization business owners decided to work together to encourage development and support.
“Let’s market us. Let’s market what we have together as a group,” Bowman recalled of time. “It was a slow growth, organic movement.”
This was the beginning of the Downtown Excelsior Partnership, which recently became an accredited Main Street program.
At that time, 75% of the buildings downtown sat vacant. Half were still vacant when Executive Director Lyndsey Baxter first joined the partnership in 2015. Today, just 11% of buildings downtown are vacant.
“The district is only as strong as we all are together,” Baxter said of the collective effort.
The partnership, which also encompasses the visitors center, is a nonprofit, funded by community members and run mostly by volunteers.
It follows the Main Street approach, which supports downtown revitalization with four pillars: economic vitality, design, promotion and organization. It helps businesses succeed by adding things like planters, awnings, façade work and murals as a form of beautification to downtown.
The partnership’s promotion branch plans 85 events a year, many of which take place between Thanksgiving and Christmas. These events help raise money for the partnership and keep a steady stream of traffic coming to all businesses in town.
“That’s assisted with getting businesses to locate here (and) that’s assisted with helping cash registers ring for our businesses to have economic vitality,” Baxter said.
The partnership’s 2022 annual report touts $6.9 million in taxable retail sales, which it notes has more than doubled since the city started the Community Improvement District (CID) for the downtown area, about 10 years ago.
A CID allows for the collection of a special tax in a certain area to go towards public facilities and improvements within the district. The city recently formed another CID on the west side of town to improve its walkability and connect it with downtown.
Towards the west end of Broadway Avenue, the shops start to thin out as traffic flows onto Thompson Avenue, the other side of downtown.
“That’s still one of our blighted areas,” Baxter said of the block. “We know we still have work to do. I don’t think it ever ends.”
Keeping it historical
It’s impossible to tell the story of Excelsior Springs without mentioning the Elms Hotel and the Hall of Waters.
The Elms Hotel and spa, located just off of downtown, down a tree-lined drive, has been a driver of tourism for many years.
The historic hotel, now run as a Hyatt, started in the 1880s. It gave folks a place to stay while they sought treatment from the healing mineral waters in town.
Throughout its history (which includes two fires and reconstructions) the Elms has drawn in big-name visitors including gangster Al Capone and President Harry S. Truman.
Indeed, part of the desire to revitalize downtown was driven by the Elms. Folks who came to stay at the hotel wanted other things to do.
Each time the property changed owners or was renovated, more businesses opened downtown to meet the increased traffic.
Now, many who come to town will stay in an Airbnb and are drawn attractions in town outside of the Elms, though it’s still a marvel.
Looking out over downtown is the famed Hall of Waters.
Constructed in an art deco style, with carvings and paintings referencing Mayan water deities, it points to the uniqueness of Excelsior Springs.
Inside, the water bar has been preserved. Over the years, visitors to Excelsior Springs would show up to the water bar and order a concoction of mineral water prescribed by their doctors. The bar, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows, featured taps to all of the mineral waters found in the various springs.
This iconic part of the building was near collapse in 2020 when it was awarded a $500,000 Saving America’s Treasures grant from the National Parks Service. Structurally sound again, it now serves as the city’s visitor center.
There’s also a small museum in the building where folks can walk through parts of the old spa to see things like a “needle shower” and old soaking tubs.
The building is still at risk of deterioration and folks in town are working relentlessly to secure funding.
Another group aims to restore the mineral wells. They hope one day soon visitors will be able to once again taste the waters that made Excelsior Springs famous.
Many of the historic buildings in town have been restored and converted to serve a new purpose. The historic Snapps Hotel, later renamed Oaks Hotel, is now an apartment complex for seniors. The Clay County Bank, which boasts “invaluable” murals, now serves as the Excelsior Springs Museum and Archives.
Perhaps one of the more entertaining things to see at the museum is the collection of postcards and old signs advertising the “cleansing” effects of the mineral waters.
This weekend, Excelsior Springs will celebrate its 40th Waterfest, an annual gathering of arts, music, vendors and food in downtown Excelsior Springs.
“I’m trying to bring the awareness of our mineral water wells back to the public’s attention, because I think people just come down here and they have a party, but they kind of forget that we’re celebrating the heritage of Excelsior Springs and what makes us unique,” said Brian Rice, director of the Excelsior Springs Chamber of Commerce.
Broadway Avenue will be blocked off to cars and packed with two stages and close to 90 vendors. Last year, Rice said there were about 8,000 people in attendance. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Waterfest would draw closer to 12,000 people.
“It’s like a 20-, maybe 30-minute drive,” Rice said, hoping to entice Kansas Citians to visit.
Rice saw downtown as a place to hang out when he was a kid in the 1970s. Then he saw it nearly die out in the 1980s and be revived in the last 20 years.
“It’s (tourism) very important, it’s a huge part,” Rice said. “I can’t give you a percentage, but in my mind, I’m picturing 30-40% of our income is based on tourism. And what I’m proud of this time is that it’s not solely dependent on The Elms.”
The Elms helped keep tourism alive through the town’s rough patches. But Rice is excited to see Excelsior’s current tourism driven by more than just the hotel.
“They get us our worldwide and our national attention because everybody knows The Elms, everybody knows the Hall of Waters,” Rice said. “People see that and that’s the attraction that gets them here. But it’s all the businesses downtown here … that puts the soul in it.”
Weddings and winery tours are the newest addition to Excelsior’s offerings. The town now has four wineries and several wedding venues, which have drawn a lot of traffic.
In 2004 the Chamber bought an old trolley car to offer tours around the city. Now there are three trolleys and a shuttle that are constantly reserved for weddings, reunions, girls trips and various occasions.
The Chamber of Commerce sits on Thompson Avenue.
This section of downtown was slower to redevelop than Broadway. Most people, including Rice, tag Dubious Claims Brewing Company as the spark that got it going.
The brewery “totally changed the atmosphere of Thompson,” Rice said. “That was our first real brewery here in town … It (was) that tipping point, and then suddenly it’s a place to go, more people want to come, more businesses want to come.”
Dubious Claims – the name comes from an old Kansas City Star article which warned of “dubious claims” about the healing mineral water – opened in 2018. Its owner, Neil Wilkerson, laughed humbly when hearing that so many people had mentioned his brewery as instrumental to the town’s development.
He sees Excelsior Springs as a “Mayberry.”
Like the fictional Andy Griffith town, Wilkerson said Excelsior Springs shows up to support one another.
When Dubious Claims first opened, a group of people showed up to help Wilkerson move heavy brewery equipment. He also has hosted heavily attended fundraisers for various causes in town. When business got tough in the early months of the pandemic, folks “kept him afloat” by ordering takeout.
That’s kind of the spirit of those who took the plunge and opened a business downtown.
Ryanne Wilkins opened her fashion boutique, Style By Ry, on Broadway after years of believing she’d only be able to succeed in a larger market, like Kansas City.
“I was just really inspired by our downtown,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins said well-established shops in town were anchors to her when she first opened. Now she gets to be an anchor for new stores that crop up.
Linda Pasalich and her husband bought the building across the street from Wilkins in 2020. They had no idea what it would become, but knew they wanted to do something downtown with their retirement.
A year and a half ago they opened their doors as Other Trails, a coffee shop with baked goods and other treats.
“We felt like there was a need for a coffee shop in the center of town,” Pasalich said.
Neither knew much about food or coffee service before, but as life-long runners and bikers, they weren’t deterred by a challenge. So, they learned what they could and opened their doors to a line of people ready to support the new shop.
“Everybody just really works together,” Pasalich said. “There’s some pride in seeing the community revitalized.”
The west side of town has grocery stores, most of the housing, the schools and the modern amenities. Rice said there are still some folks in town who don’t come down from “the mountain” (downtown sits in a valley). Even so, the town is just as happy with the expansion and revitalization as the tourists are.
“I think there’s a lot of residents in Excelsior that don’t realize … if (downtown) hadn’t taken off, if this hadn’t done what it has, it would have been bad,” Rice said.
He fears the population would have dwindled and taxes would have been much higher to keep up the town.
It’s no time to lay off the gas.
The next step is to increase accommodation. Rice said many people are interested in moving to Excelsior, but there’s not enough housing.
Increasingly, he meets people who come to town, not expecting to care for such a rural place, but ending up loving it here.
He recalled an interaction with the top executive of the hospital in town, who wasn’t sure if she’d stay in town when she moved. Now she’s on the chamber board and helping out with Waterfest.
“She says it’s just contagious — talking to people who live here and how excited they are to live here,” Rice said. “She’s just a big fan now.”
Courtney Cole, co-founder of the Excelsior Citizen, contributed to this article.