By Don Bradley
Belton is getting ready for its 150-year celebration, but it’s the last 25 the town wants to talk about.
That’s because for much of the last half of the previous century, Belton’s image throughout the metro area was that of an overflow military town with cheap apartments and trailer parks. Then Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base closed, the economy tanked a couple of times and somehow Belton emerged from it all with a population jump, a national chain retail and dining boom, new industry, housing and signs of a trendy downtown.
“People who say they haven’t been to Belton for five years, I tell them, well, then they haven’t been to Belton,” said Diane Huckshorn, executive director of the Belton Chamber of Commerce.
“They are in shock when they come.”
Huckshorn is co-chair of the town’s 150th Birthday Celebration that runs Aug. 24-28 and will feature a carnival, parade, live music, contests, food and a train shuttle. Most of the festivities will take place in the old downtown district, which after years of commercial development along the Missouri 58 corridor is now seeing its own renaissance.
“A lot of towns have seen their downtowns die or torn down, but now you can’t get a building down here,” said Michelle Mellinger, who owns a dance studio on Main Street.
“We still have a ways to go but I’m just super proud of what’s going on here,” said Cara Steele, who came to town as part of an Air Force family as a child and last year along with her husband opened the Broken Hatchet Brewery on Main Street in a former library building.
One of their beers: Dewey Decimal IPA.
The Broken Hatchet name pays tribute, albeit ironically, to Carrie Nation, the hatchet-wielding temperance leader who smashed up a few saloons on her way to becoming one of Belton’s better-known characters over a century and a half along with self-improvement guru Dale Carnegie and Emmet Dalton of the bank-robbing gang.
A more current figure is country music singer Tate Stevens, whose name is on the water tower and will perform a free concert on the Saturday night of the celebration.
Not that everything is perfect in the city of about 24,000. North Scott Avenue, once the prime commercial strip, looks much the same as before the revival. And like any other city, Belton remains constantly challenged by economic and residential growth. But the more progress that comes to town, the more the old image goes away.
“When I worked in Kansas City, I used to get razzed because I lived in Belton…all those trailer parks and nothing to do,” said Mayor Norman Larkey Sr., who still lives in the house he grew up in. “We still have some trailer parks, but we’ve cleaned a lot of things up and now we’re working on bringing more residential development to town.
“I remember what this place used to look like. It’s a lot different now.”
Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base, which opened in the post-war 1950s and closed in 1994, was probably the biggest factor in Belton’s evolution. Early on, hundreds of military personnel and their families needed housing.
“The town had to build so quickly there was no time for long-term thinking,” Huckshorn said. “But from out of all that, Belton came up with a forward-thinking vision. Not only did they have the vision, but they went after it and now it’s our time to shine.”
Wednesday, August 24 – Sunday, August 28
- X-Factor Winner Tate Stevens Concert
- Belton’s biggest fireworks extravaganza
- All-day carnival at Memorial Park
- Festival on Main St.
- Train shuttle between Park and Main St.
- Best Beard Contest
- Miss Belton Contest
- Pie Contest
- Car Cruise
- Carrie Nation 5K
- 9 Food Trucks
There’s a lot more. Visit www.belton.org/Events-directory for the activity-packed celebration.