COLUMBIA —There was hardly a soul in sight in the atrium of the Parkade Center Wednesday just a few minutes before a St. Patrick’s Day event was scheduled to begin. Then a construction worker walked down the hall, followed by two women in kilts.
Music playing over the mall’s sound system competed with the whining of power tools. A few green balloons floated toward the atrium’s ceiling.
A small crowd began to gather at one end of the atrium — almost by accident, it seemed. They were mostly mall tenants, but a few other spectators made their way in from outside. Parkade’s Managing Director Ben Gakinya worked the crowd, promising that the main event would begin soon — though the squeak and moan of bagpipes being tuned close by made that clear.
Finally, five pipers from the Boone County Fire Protection District Pipe and Drum band appeared in their black, blue and green plaid, sporting belt buckles and kilt pins with their individual family crests. They played for about a half hour to polite applause.
It’s the second year Parkade Center has hosted bagpipers for St. Patrick’s Day. But it’s just one of the many events Gakinya has brought to the center as he pours his energy into revitalizing Columbia’s oldest mall.
“It used to be such a draw,” said Gakinya, who has run the place since 2008. “You talk to someone from Hallsville, and they have memories. They get starry-eyed thinking about what Parkade used to be.”
The large mixed-use building was once an area attraction, but fell into decline in the 1970s because of absentee ownership and the rise of Columbia Mall. In the late 1970s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture moved in and is now the facility’s largest tenant.
That will change when Moberly Area Community College opens its consolidated Columbia campus for its 2,000 area students in the fall. The renovation taking place to accommodate the college accounts for the sound of construction coming from the mall’s east side.
“I’m anticipating an aneurysm,” Gakinya said, joking. “I think we all are. But it will be something crazy, hectic and fun for Parkade Center.”
Cherry Street Artisan has a stand in the mall and is open three hours a day, though owner Laurie McAllister expects to stay open longer when the college students arrive.
“We expect that with the college, this place will have a student union feel,” McAllister said. “That’s our hope at least.”
Gakinya is planning more events for the spring months, including Earth Day and Memorial Day celebrations and a Ford Mustang showcase.
“I want it to be a place for unique opportunities for the community,” Gakinya said. “I don’t want to create just another commercial space. I think we have enough of that now in this town.”
It was Parkade’s holiday art bazaar two years ago that gave Gakinya the idea for the St. Patrick’s Day bagpiping. That’s where he met Heather Foote, a local artist and pipe major for the bagpipe band.
Foote said she was overbooked one weekend, splitting her time between the art show and a bagpipe band event across the street.
“I had to wear my kilt, and I had to tune up my pipes while I was working at my table,” Foote said.
Gakinya said he heard Foote playing the bagpipes in the atrium and thought it was an interesting sound, so he approached her about participating in the event.
The band plays for a variety of groups and events in mid-Missouri: parades, air shows, fundraisers and festivals, to name a few.
Fellow band member Gail Fitzgerald described public reception of bagpipes in the area:
“You either love bagpipes or you don’t. My husband’s one that doesn’t, so I practice in my bedroom with the door shut. The people who come out to hear generally are people who really like it, and there’s not much opportunity to hear bagpipes around central Missouri.”