COLUMBIA — The Heibel-March building waits like a ghost at the corner of Range Line Street and Wilkes Avenue. Built in 1910, it recalls a pre-supermarket era when corner groceries fed Columbia.
While hopes of a new life have whispered through the vacant building’s crumbling walls and ceilings for the past eight years, its future is uncertain. For now, the former grocery’s windows display only the still dust of deterioration and the remnants of unfinished projects.
“Coming soon” signs nailed to the building promise “The Corner.”
Since 2000, a group of area residents — the Corner Action Committee — has been working with Central Missouri Community Action to restore the building for use as a community center and neighborhood gathering place. But insufficient funding and dwindling interest have ended the work. On Sept. 19, the Columbia City Council authorized the group’s request to return the building to the city and stop the eight-year project.
“I think there’s a high level of disappointment because this project really has remarkable potential for being a community center and a focal point for the neighborhood,” First Ward City Councilman Paul Sturtz said.
But Sturtz also thinks the building has great potential.
“I don’t think anyone should throw the towel in,” he said. “It’s not a secret that the building has been floundering, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be something there with the right developer, either."
The project’s history is complicated. Nestled between Eugene Field Elementary School and Columbia College, the building sits on valuable land. In 2000, the city planned to demolish the building and incorporate its lot into Field Park. When neighbors protested, the city agreed to sell the building and lease the land to Central Missouri Community Action, then known as the Missouri Counties’ Human Development Corp., with the understanding that the building would be returned to the city if the work was not finished within five years.
The city has since granted the group two extensions to complete its work on the building. In 2005 and 2007, CMCA received tax credits from the Neighborhood Assistance Program and seemed well on its way to raising the estimated $250,000 needed for a complete renovation. In 2007, a group of artists and children began a mural dedicated to the neighborhood’s history on the building’s north wall.
Despite these high points, CMCA Executive Director Darin Preis said volunteers were unable to raise the money and the community support necessary for the project to come to fruition. When the Columbia Board of Education made plans to host early childhood education programs at Field Elementary, CMCA re-evaluated its involvement in the Heibel-March building. After long deliberations, Preis said, the group’s board of directors decided the project was distracting from its commitment to fighting poverty. The organization announced that it would leave the project in March. Without financial backing, the Corner Action Committee was no longer in the position to continue the renovation.
“What a waste,” said Dan Cullimore, the project manager in charge of the Heibel-March building with the Corner Action Committee.
“There’s a real need for neighborhood-based recreation facilities,” Cullimore said, adding that he thinks the decision to centralize all city recreation programs at the Activities and Recreation Center was a mistake.
Mostly, though, Cullimore wants to see the building used again. “It’s a wonderful old building. I don’t really care how it gets used. I think it would be a shame to see it demolished.”
That’s one thing that everyone involved can agree on. The building has been listed as one of the city Historic Preservation Commission’s most notable properties since 2005, and no one wants to see it torn down.
At the Sept. 16 council meeting, Sturtz recommended the city put out a request for proposals.
“The building needs to be thrown into the bigger community,” Sturtz said in a later interview.
At the meeting, other council members agreed the building is valuable but worried about its condition and limited street parking. The council also discussed making arrangements with the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.
Commission Chairman Brian Treece said that group would like to see the building restored and has asked that the city create a fund for restoring notable buildings. Although a date has not been set, the commission’s request will be discussed at a later council meeting.
“That property would be deposited into the revolving fund, and we could talk to a developer about it,” Treece said. “Any excess money would be put into other buildings.”
Treece emphasized the building should be preserved if at all possible.
“The building is one of the last few remaining corner grocery stores. “I think it’s important to preserve that,” Treece said, adding that the store would be well suited to another retail operation, community center or office space.
Sturtz agreed. “I have all sorts of great schemes for what could be there.”
One idea Sturtz offered is that the building, which is zoned for commercial use, could house a program under the model of the 826 National program. This after-school tutoring program, which began in San Francisco and now has seven national chapters, runs simultaneous retail and tutoring operations. The retail stores, which sell whimsical items such as pirate, robot and spy kits, support the educational programs.
“There are various ideas out there,” Sturtz said. “It’s really going to take someone with not only a good idea, but a lot of resources.”
As for the Corner Action Committee, Cullimore said the group is on hiatus. He said he lacks the energy to create a new project but is willing to work with someone who can.
“I think there are a number of possibilities,” he said, “and as far as I can say, speaking for the CAC, we’d all be very interested in working on whatever project happens.”
“I really appreciate the members of this community (who) were so committed for so long,” Preis said. “It is disappointing to all of us that this did not come to fruition.”
For now, the Heibel-March building sits empty, its door boarded over. About a month ago, Preis said, someone shot the door four times and shattered the glass. During a recent visit, Preis tried to get inside, but his key to the front door spun and spun in the lock without catching.
Preis shook his head.
“We’ll have to look into that.”