ASHLAND: A sleepy town on a sudden growth curve

Friday, January 10, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:18 p.m. CST, Saturday, January 11, 2014
In the last 10 years, Ashland has become the largest "suburb" of both Columbia and Jefferson City, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

Ashland used to be “that place by the airport.” It was a farm community, a place to buy acreage just outside Columbia, a place to be from.

That began to change in the early 2000s, when land values and the relative proximity to both Columbia and Jefferson City turned it into a center of growth. It evolved into something many people hadn’t envisioned: a bedroom community.

This is a fascinating time in Ashland’s development. In the last 10 years, it’s become the largest “suburb” of both Columbia and Jefferson City, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

But Ashland’s development, nearly doubling in size between 2000 and 2010, hasn’t been painless. There are challenges to its infrastructure, both in real terms — traffic jams, stretched municipal services — and economic terms — creating a viable downtown.

There are also identity issues. Can a small town retain a small town feel, even with housing churn like it’s never seen before?

A class of Missouri School of Journalism students spent several months looking at Ashland — its traditions, its growth, its challenges and its residents.

There are some interesting findings:

  • Ashland has grown so fast that it has epic rush-hour traffic jams — and Missouri taxpayers will pay more than $1 million to alleviate them.
  • The town’s lack of commercial properties means fewer dollars to spend on municipal services, such as recreation for youth. A local nonprofit has stepped in, running the local pool, baseball and softball leagues and even a cross-country team. These activities are funded by fees the children pay to play — and weekly bingo games.
  • Broadway — Ashland’s main street — has seen a number of businesses come and go, but population growth has several entrepreneurs trying to make a go of it by opening businesses that appeal to a local audience.

The result is not an exhaustive look at Ashland. It’s a snapshot of a moment in time when a sleepy little town awoke to discover it was more than it had been, but not yet certain what it would become.

SPECIAL REPORT: Read and watch more about Ashland — its traditions, its growth, its challenges and its residents.

Judd Slivka is an assistant professor of convergence journalism at MU who supervised the Ashland project.

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