NEWBURG — The shuttered storefronts and weed-choked vacant lots make it clear that prosperity long ago passed this once-bustling railroad hub.
So when an engineering professor at nearby Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla offered his help — not to mention his students' bright ideas and free labor — in sprucing up the town, civic leaders couldn't say "yes" quick enough.
The city of Newburg, population 484, now owns the historic Houston family boarding house and 28 acres along the Little Piney River that officials have said they hope to turn into a soccer park and rail museum.
Project management lecturer Karl Burgher and his students have since lent their expertise to Salem, St. James, Steelville, Potosi and other cash-strapped Ozarks towns. In the fall, they will work with Dixon and Owensville.
"They needed economic development," said Burgher, who previously worked with the town as a hazardous waste consultant. "People needed help, and I had a bunch of really smart students."
Modern Newburg shows few signs of its halcyon years, when the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway ferried thousands of troops and lumber from surrounding forests to Fort Leonard Wood during World War II.
Civic leader Marvin Helms said he remembers when the town had five grocery stores and needed traffic officers to control gaggles of pedestrians. The population was more than three times its current size, he said.
"When the railroad about left, everything died," Helms said. That was in the early 1960s.
The retired Air Force officer calls Burgher "the best thing to ever happen to Newburg." Helms and other town leaders have said they now hope they can tap into federal stimulus money or other grants to turn some of the students' ideas into reality.
In St. James, the students devised plans to renovate a community hall and the municipal swimming pool. Mayor Dennis Wilson lauded their youthful energy, which he said didn't seem deterred by the funding woes that local politicians confront.
"We will utilize the work those kids did," he said. "It was tremendously helpful. But they haven't dealt with the realities of how do we find money to pay for (these projects)."
Graduate student Michael Orlando of suburban St. Louis worked with Rolla city officials to help enhance the college town's downtown district with more sidewalks to make it friendlier to pedestrians. He attended city planning meetings and neighborhood events and quickly realized textbook lessons don't always translate into bottom-line results in the real world.
"Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't," Orlando said. "Everyone that I knew was extremely excited to have us. It spread around the city."
Burgher cautions the communities he works with to not become too dependent on the college students. Once they leave, it's up to the town folk to forge ahead with their own plans.
In Newburg, Helms and other members of a community revitalization group held a "mud run," in which trucks and other vehicles race in the mud, to raise money for the rail museum and park projects. They said they realize that Burgher and his students only planted a seed.
"If the community doesn't take ownership, then you're just spinning your wheels," Helms said. "The rest is up to us."