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Centralia tries to balance need for growth with small-town feel

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 | 4:32 p.m. CST; updated 4:58 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 17, 2011
Breakfast is served all day at JR's Diner in Centralia. Owner Jodie Roberts prides herself on the restaurant's friendly atmosphere, which she says is reminiscent of the small town charm of Centralia itself.

CENTRALIA — Before each Centralia Panthers football game, Coach Erle Bennett admonishes his players:

"Remember who you are and where you come from."

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They don't come from New York or Chicago. But they are from Centralia.

And they're proud of it. 

Since its founding, Centralia has been a small-town, family-centered community. But in the past decade, national corporations have increased their presence. Subway and McDonald's. Sonic and Pizza Hut. Break Time and O'Reilly Auto Parts. These aid the economy and create growth, but none of them, the head of the Chamber of Commerce said, are owned by Centralia residents. As they come in, Centralia residents worry that the feeling of community will be forced out.

The battle lines between the need for growth and the desire to keep the community atmosphere are obvious. The chain branches stand at the ready on Missouri 22, north of town. The family-owned businesses take their defensive positions downtown.

This isn't just a fight for a city. It's a battle for the soul of the nation, battered and bruised by addiction to instant pleasures like fast food, next-day shipping and instant messaging.

The Centralia residents who own these small businesses pause when thinking about the chains. They want the growth they can bring to the city but not the loss in local business. Yet residents refuse to admit defeat.

The city, founded in 1857, burned down three times and was looted once before the early Centralia residents finally set up for good. They didn't give up then, and they won't now.

The walk along Allen Street downtown is like that of small towns across the Midwest. Antique stores and flea markets are scattered among diners, realty agencies and law firms. Farmers, families and football fans drive or walk by. The park gazebo is empty, surrounded by fall leaves and quiet streets.

The town square is somehow familiar. It reminds you of home, childhood. The way you feel when a loved one asks you how your day was and really cares about the answer. The wet prickle of jumping into a pile of leaves. The warmth of sitting under a blanket while the wind rages outside.

Idyllic, yet not ideal for everyone. The city has grown by 6.7 percent in the past decade. The three other major cities in Boone County — Columbia, Hallsville and Ashland — grew by an average of 59.7 percent.

Centralia, with a population of 4,027, is still the second largest city in Boone County, but Ashland, with growth of 98.3 percent, looks like it will pass Centralia soon.

Relying on A.B. Chance Co.

Centralia has survived some rough times. Twenty years ago, it was in a terrible economic slump. In the early 1990s, the Boone County Commission began providing annual grants to the Centralia Chamber of Commerce to foster economic growth through promotional brochures, videos and a website. The town's main employer had just been sold, downtown businesses had trouble staying open and agriculture still reeled from the 1980s farm crisis.

Since 1907, the city had been supported and developed in large part by A.B. Chance Co., which manufactured land anchors used to stabilize telephone poles and other utility equipment. At one time it employed more than 1,000 people in Centralia. That number has fallen to 680 and 189 of those live in town.

Jack Chance, A.B. Chance's grandson, worked at the company until it was sold for the first time to Emerson Electric in 1975. That sale, Jack Chance believes, caused most of Centralia's economic and cultural turmoil. Emerson cut employees and ended a requirement that managers live in Centralia.

"It took a lot of higher-income, higher-educated people out of Centralia," Jack Chance said.

That, in turn, meant lost revenue, lost business and a loss of many residents willing to serve on the School Board or City Council.

Hubbell Power Systems bought the company in 1994. Today, eight Hubbell managers live in town. When the Chance family owned the company, it hosted employee picnics, gave workers free turkeys for Christmas and celebrated their birthdays.

"That helped solidify the family of Centralia," Jack Chance said.

Still, the influence of Hubbell and A.B. Chance are visible. Warehouses and factory plants display the name of one or the other. The largest event in Centralia is the annual Anchor Festival in June, where the Anchor Queen holds court.

Without Chance, there would never have been a city. Without Hubbell, there would be only a shadow of what Centralia is now.

Mayor Tim Grenke, who moved with his wife back to her hometown of Centralia in 1997, recognized the importance of the company. "We're at the mercy of whether A.B. Chance is doing well or not," he said.

Small businesses provide character

Hubbell might help keep the city alive, but  small businesses define its small-town character.

On the downtown square, J.R.'s Diner is illuminated by a sign boasting of its day-long breakfast service. Two Cousins and Old Farm House antique stores smell of potpourri even from outside. Three flea markets are packed with discarded items waiting for new owners. Angell's Western Wear offers leather clothing even for infants. From store to store, country music weaves its heartaches through the air.

At four years old, J.R.'s Diner is the longest running family restaurant in recent memory. Owner Jodie Roberts worked for nine years in other restaurants, including Centralia Wings, but she said they all shut down because they were mismanaged or violated health codes.

She is determined to make her diner different. Not only does she refuse to use canned foods, she knows nearly everyone who comes in. She makes a point to hug and find out the names of new customers. 

"It's like a large, large, large family," she said. She knows these people. She knows what they want to drink and eat, where they work and the names of their kids. She isn't worried about the chain restaurants affecting her business because of her knowledge and her food.

"We make real food," she said. "Ours is a real hamburger."

While most chains lie along the highway, Mike Kinkead, co-owner of Kinkead's Pharmacy, open for more than 60 years, merged his downtown store with a Radio Shack in 2003.

"We're meeting the needs of people that don't want to go to the big stores and fight the big crowds," he said, adding that his success "comes down to service. We're close and local, and people tend to choose us."

Across the street, Carlan's steak house has been open for only 10 months. Rhonda and Harlan Hatton and Harlan's brother Bud Hatton own the restaurant, where the walls are bare except for the black stenciled "CARLAN'S" and a menu of steaks, sandwiches and other fare.

Harlan Hatton is a Columbia police officer, but he and Rhonda have lived in Centralia, her hometown, for about 10 years. Wary of the city's history of losing restaurants quickly, they paid for the restaurant in cash. The lack of decor, Hatton said, reflects responsibility. They don't want to invest in a lot of "bells and whistles" unless the restaurant succeeds.

Rhonda Hatton said business is good, in part because Carlan's complements J.R.'s. Roberts serves breakfast and lunch, while the Hattons serve lunch and dinner. Carlan's won't serve breakfast for a few years. Not until J.R.'s has time to adjust. 

McDonald's doesn't close for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  

Impact of agriculture

Many of the people eating at these diners are farmers. The land around Centralia is blanketed by fields of corn, soybeans, wheat, milo and quietly grazing cows, sheep, donkeys and horses. This is a small town in Missouri — farming is central to its economy. 

When grain and livestock prices are high, farmers spend more, Centralia Missouri Farmers Association Manager Jim Gesling said. 

Matt Stephens, business manager at Forrest Chevrolet, estimated more than half his clients are farmers. A good year for crops usually means an uptick in truck sales. 

"They're involved," Gesling said. "They support the town monetarily with taxes. When they have a good year and a good crop, they shop in town."

Although Hubbell said small businesses and agriculture are all essential, none of them could keep it going alone. It's the interplay among the three that drives the town's progress.

Centralia for life

The mayor shovels people's snow. During the blizzard last winter, Grenke broke out his shovel and cleared driveways for senior residents.

"My father-in-law asks, 'In what other town in America does the mayor shovel your snow?'" Grenke said. "Big cities aren't like this."

While Jack Chance saw the decline in the family feeling after the sale of the Chance company, the city has seen that feeling gradually return over the past decade.

Bennett, the high school football coach, said he asks players to remember where they come from so they'll make their town proud.

"When they're wearing that uniform, they represent our school and our community," he said.

Football games in Centralia are more than games. They are social events. Residents often reserve their seats with towels at practices and tailgate before kickoff.

Centralia residents take interest in everything related to their kids. Tax bonds and lease purchasing agreements passed by voters a few years ago provided money to build a new recreation center for $2.2 million and to update the local pool and playground equipment, which cost $765,000.

The city also built a new school for third- through fifth-grades and added decorative street lights downtown. That work was done before the recession. 

"I think the Centralians by and large had a pretty good feeling about the future and growth in the community and that we were constantly progressing," City Administrator Lynn Behrens said. "A little of that might have evaporated with the recession, but we're still growing."

These days, Hubbell is stepping up more. It has arranged to teach high school students, through classes or internships, welding and engineering techniques that are necessary at the Hubbell plant. That should help the town with what Jeff Grimes at the Centralia Fireside-Guard calls a "brain drain" of youth.

Meanwhile, Lorry Myers, treasurer at Centralia Regional Economic Development Inc., is working to bring in new adults. She runs a tour called Live Centralia for new Hubbell and school employees. Her job is to persuade them to live in town. Hubbell requires new workers to take the tour.

"An hour in the car with me is pretty powerful," she said, "because I love this place so much. ... I just want to sell them on the town" and show that "we're not old-fashioned. We're not stuck. We're embracing new things while maintaining history."

Doing both is difficult. Centralia residents have set out to prove that modern life is not incongruent with community values, that they can grow like other cities in Boone County without becoming them — fully modernized, ignoring history or losing that family atmosphere that causes people to wave to strangers on the street. 

Centralia Regional Economic Development works to lure small businesses that will employ 10 to 20 people. Agency President Barry Stevens said small businesses tend to employ Centralia residents over outsiders. In the past 10 years, the number of business licenses has averaged 155. The number dropped from 150 in 2010 to 140 in 2011.

One way several people in the community hope to attract visitors and development is by opening a hotel or bed-and-breakfast. With nowhere for wedding parties or high school reunion attendees to stay, the city loses potential revenue.

As development continues, Myers wonders what the town's message will become. 

Ashland, Centralia's nearest counterpart in population among Boone County cities, is widely known as a bedroom community.

Grimes, manager of the city's 143-year-old paper, explained the view of most Centralia residents on the difference: An Ashland couple might have one person working in Jefferson City and the other in Columbia. They chose Ashland because it's close to both, but they might move for better jobs or more money. 

A Centralia couple, on the other hand, might be a school teacher and farmer deeply rooted in a town they've called home all their lives.

They probably aren't going anywhere. 

They know who they are, and where they come from, even if they don't know what they will become.


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Comments

Al Larr November 19, 2011 | 12:49 p.m.

Excellent article. I'm going to drive to Centralia and have breakfast some day. It sounds like a neat place, kind of like my hometown in Northwest Iowa.

(Report Comment)
Connie Love December 1, 2011 | 8:19 p.m.

I recently saw the write up about Centralia, Mo. A wonderful small town trying to hold it together. One shop left out of the article was Material Girl Quilt Shop. The shop is located off the square, 213 W. Sneed Street across from the fire station. This shop is the drawing card for quilters to drive to Centralia. It is a small shop, but quality fabrics. My hat goes off to Meredith, the owner, for venturing out in a bad economy to start a quilt shop. The shop does have classes for those interested in quilting. Earlier this year Dawn Heese, a Columbia quilter & designer, did a trunk show and an appliqué class at the shop. A Christmas Open House is being held December 10th, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Regular hours are Monday – Friday, 9-5 and on Saturday, 9a.m. -1 p.m.

I also might mention how much the quilters loved the teas held by the Historical Society in Centralia. It would be wonderful if the Historical Society and Material Girl Quilt Shop could coordinate a day in Centralia for tea and shopping. The two go together very well. Centralia has something going for it. Keep up the good work.

(Report Comment)

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