Kimberly Zerkel: Downtown Joplin’s youthful sparkle

April 23 — I’ve never been one to deny my age. Although my big sister and I exchange more blows and jokes with each passing birthday, I’m much happier at 38 than I was 10 or even 20 years ago. But after a year of living in downtown Joplin, I can’t help but feel a bit old. Indeed, living downtown today means being surrounded by bright and energetic 20-somethings.

Literally surrounded. The walls of my downtown apartment are shared almost exclusively with students from Missouri Southern State University, Ozark Christian College, and most importantly, Kansas City University School of Medicine. I am someone who works from home, so the median age of my neighbors initially made me nervous. But I found they’re a quiet, hard-working bunch, not prone to blasting music or throwing late-night parties; I’m more likely the offender in this regard. The only noise in my building is from construction at the end of the hall. Landlords, barely able to keep up with demand, are working long days to complete new studio or one-bedroom apartments in time for next semester students who have already claimed their places.

I became too familiar with this request when I started my own apartment search. Some of the historic buildings I applied for already had a waiting list for housing, which in many cases had not yet been completed. A year later, interest in downtown rentals continues to grow. According to the Downtown Joplin Alliance, more than 200 new apartments are on the way in buildings like the Olivia, YMCA, Muir and more. With KCU dental students coming soon, it would be wrong to anticipate any sort of downward trend – and wise to book your future apartment as soon as possible.

Prior to the arrival of this burgeoning student population, downtown Joplin was already a mix of commercial and residential life. Residents of Joplin have called the downtown senior and assisted living facilities home for decades. Thousands of families in Murphysburg, North Heights and East Town are separated from downtown amenities by a mere block.

Yet, following the failure of the Memorial Hall bond issue – a voter turnout failure more than anything else – some would have us believe that our downtown is no longer a place of interest. Its restaurants could relocate, its stores could be replaced with online counterparts, and its historic buildings could be demolished. Unlike the authors of these complaints, however, some of us actually live here. Downtown Joplin is our neighborhood. City Hall and Memorial Hall are our backyard.

The increase in the downtown student population not only negates this so-called loss of interest, but gives our local businesses something to be optimistic about. I see it as I pass an old factory converted into downtown lofts and join the queue at my favorite local cafe. Once again, I am surrounded by young people. Students and their laptops occupy nearly every table in most downtown cafes like this one, where the Wi-Fi password is as coveted as an espresso drink.

Cafes like this didn’t exist when I studied here over 15 years ago. What other businesses will come as more students travel downtown?

My young neighbors confide in me that they are hoping for a grocery store. (Are you there, Trader Joe? It’s me, Kimberly.) Or a pharmacy. Gymnasiums. Charming hotels to visit the family. More places to eat and drink, or extended hours in the places they already love.

Curiously, no one asks for parking anymore.

What I would like is for them to stay. I wish their experience here was special enough that they would call Joplin forever home – something I plan to do myself. But it’s as much our responsibility as it is theirs.

I believe we need to move past recent setbacks, such as the failure of the Launchpad project at the Old Public Library, and create stronger connections between our downtown neighborhood and college campuses. A growing student population is already here, ready to support our community and our economy while they are there. How do we retain them? How can we bring more — especially those who can’t afford daily lofts or lattes — to the table? How can we create sustainable opportunities for them which, in turn, will benefit everyone?

I ponder these questions on my laptop and take a seat at a corner table to wait for my matcha. If I knew better, I would have invested in a building or a cafe myself. But as a writer, I’m notoriously bad at math.

I am an excellent dreamer, however. From where I’m sitting, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the potential ahead.

Kimberly Zerkel, writer, recently returned to Joplin after a decade in Paris and several years in San Francisco. Contact her at [email protected]

David H. Henry