By Michael Humphrey
The home to a presidential library and the trailhead for America’s western expansion – not to mention the fourth largest city in Missouri – really shouldn’t be considered a “hidden gem.”
In many ways, however, that is the story of Independence, Mo.
The spotlight often shines on St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield/Branson and the Lake of the Ozarks, while the hometown of Harry S. Truman can still be a pleasant surprise, even for Missourians.
Of course, there’s a good reason for that – Kansas City.
“When you are located this close to a metropolitan city, there are good things and there are challenging things,” says Stephanie Roush, Independence tourism director. “If we were in a smaller area, we’d be the only game in town. But it also gives us a chance to partner with Kansas City and extend our resources.”
Kansas City could say the same about Independence, which has two of the most internationally significant destinations in Missouri. The Truman Presidential Library & Museum regularly hosts dignitaries from around the world. And the Community of Christ Temple and World Headquarters brings a Nobel Peace Prize laureate to the area each year.
So you can certainly understand why Independence would assert its value with the slogan, “Some Meetings Are More Important than Others.”
City leaders put bricks and mortar behind those words five years ago with The Hartman Convention Center and Hilton Garden Inn. The center not only added 11,000 square feet of meeting space but sparked a whole new shopping and dining district along I-70 on the eastern side of the metro area.
With just that, Independence would be one of Missouri’s most important meeting destinations. But there are plenty of smaller gems planners can mine to create unique and exciting meetings and events.
“Of course the Truman Library and the Hilton Garden Inn are essential to make us competitive for meetings,” Roush says. “But we have several venues that fit very nicely with smaller groups and several where creativity can really flourish.”
Long before Truman put Independence on the map, the Queen City of the Trails was a bustling burg for westward wanderers. Travelers of the Santa Fe, California and Oregon trails all got their starts there and left behind a rich history of pioneer days. It’s the perfect backdrop for planners looking to add a little Wild West to their meeting or event.
The National Frontier Trails Museum places your event amid covered wagons, western murals, and numerous relics of the restless American expansion.
But there’s no roughing it for the meeting planner. The museum comes ready for meeting with a 1,900-square-foot flexible theater room that can hold a banquet of 90, or 120 in theater or reception mode. The room is usually used to show an introductory video for the museum – and comes adorned with a fascinating mural that maps the westward push. But it is easily transformed into a meeting room.
“We’ve had everything from receptions to reunions to historical meetings here,” says museum director John Mark Lambertson. “We’re very flexible and we want people to experience the museum as well as use the room.”
So the exhibits are open and staff members are ready to provide tours – even after hours. Plus, there’s room to expand.
“We’ve had about 300 people here for one event,” Lambertson says. “So it was a matter of spreading out the crowd with tents outside, people in the gallery, showing things back in the library, in the front courtyard and in the gift shop as well as in the theater.”
And there’s a chance to get a taste of life on the trail.
“They have access to a couple of caterers that can do trail-related meals,” Roush says.
“We also partner with Pioneer Trail Adventures,” Lambertson adds, “which is an operation that has wagons that can be pulled by horses and mules. So they can do tours. One caterer also has a chuck wagon, where he can do an outdoor dinner on the grounds. And of course, people love that.”
For a more genteel look at life in pioneer days, you need only cross the street to the 19 acres of the Bingham-Waggoner Estates, which date back to 1855. The grounds, adjacent to the Santa Fe Trail, are graced by a 26-room house and a carriage house, both of which are available for meetings.
“George Caleb Bingham lived here during the Civil War,” says volunteer tour guide Kathy Decker. “And he painted ‘Order No. 11’ while he lived here.”
At that time the house was a simpler 6-room structure. The Waggoner family, who founded the Waggoner-Gates Mill, bought the house in 1879 and transformed it into a mansion. Hand-painted ceilings, turn of the century furniture, opulent rugs and rich wood will send you back to another age.
“The Waggoner family lived here until the last one died in 1976,” Decker says. “And 95 percent of the things you find in here belonged to the Waggoner family.”
It’s a venue used for receptions, tours and meetings, like many other historical settings. The difference is you won’t find ropes, glass and “do not touch” signs all over the house.
“Every room is settable,” Decker says.
That includes the stunning dining room. Red mahogany details dominate the room, a stately fireplace sets the mood and a restored 12-leaf mahogany table, leather chairs and a gas-electric chandelier create one of the most elegant dining experiences a group ever had. The table seats up to 22. Additional tables in the surrounding area can seat another 40.
“We have table pads and linens to finish the look,” Decker says.
The servants’ quarters on the third floor and the nearby carriage house are two other possibilities for more casual dining experiences. The carriage house will seat up to 50 people for a banquet.
The house will hold 150 for a reception, but Decker says groups can grow from there if they are willing to use the spacious grounds.
“We can set up tents and there’s not much limit to the numbers then,” Decker says.
Main Street America
While the trails tell one American story, Independence Square tells another. The old-fashioned downtown houses some of the oldest buildings in the metro area – including the 1827 log courthouse and 1859 jail – but its nostalgic aura reflects the 1920s through the 1960s. And so Truman’s shadow falls across it on corner after corner.
Clinton’s Soda Fountain marks where Truman held his first job. The Independence Square Courthouse houses Truman’s restored office and courtroom. His home sits just off the main business district in the square.
But nostalgia is not all Independence Square has going for it.
“This has become a vibrant and exciting district again,” Roush says. “It has experienced a genuine revival.”
One example of that revitalization is the Truman Memorial Building. Truman originally led the campaign to have the community center built in memory of those who died in World War I. Dedication ceremonies were held on July 4, 1926.
The building was renovated in 2002 and continues to serve the residents of Independence as a polling place, recreation center and war memorial.
But planners will be interested in a wide variety of rooms that can hold 10 to 325 people, and a 4,700-square-foot auditorium with a capacity of more than 1,000 spectators.
The rooms also range in ambiance from old-style boardroom – the Roger T. Sermon Parlor which seats a dozen comfortably – to the modern 2,850 square-foot Presidential Hall, which splits into three smaller rooms.
One of the first signs that Independence Square was making a comeback arrived nine years ago in the form of Ophelia’s Restaurant. Ophelia’s has become an area favorite with bistro-style lunches that include small plates and a “spa menu,” and a chop-house-style dinner menu that includes steaks, seafood and creative chef specials.
But the food is just the beginning for planners, thanks to the spacious, versatile and fashionable Ophelia Banquet Room that seats up to 200 guests.
“We can do anything and everything, from overheads, to dance floors, round tables, square tables, whatever you want to do,” says Ophelia’s Ray Blackman.
And talk about modern meeting yesteryear – Ophelia’s has an 8-room Ophelia’s Inn above the restaurant. That may sound quaint, but the Inn comes with Wi-Fi, all the usual hotel amenities and one suite with a Jacuzzi tub.
From 2 to 1,300
If eight rooms are not enough, Independence has several more hospitality options that come with meeting facilities.
* Olive Branch Inn, also located near the Square, includes 30 rooms and 1,900 square feet of meeting space over 3 rooms.
* Comfort Suites comes with 88 suites and an 835-square-foot meeting room.
* Holiday Inn Express & Suites has 91 rooms with a 637-square-foot meeting room.
* Hilton Garden Inn offers 203 rooms and eight meeting rooms with 11,000 total square feet.
And don’t forget the Truman Library for various kinds of meetings. With more than 7,575 square feet over nine rooms, the board can meet where Truman met some of the 20th Century’s most important figures. Or 800 can gather for a reception.
Overall, Independence can meet the needs of groups as small as two and as large as 1,300.
“I realize where I am and what’s appropriate,” Roush says. “We’re a regional market and we want to do our best to fit that role well.”
(Michael Humphrey is the Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)
Independence Tourism Department
(866) 657-6338 (MEET)
National Frontier Trails Museum
318 W. Pacific
313 W. Pacific
Historic Independence Square
Main & Lexington
Truman Memorial Building
416 W. Maple
201 N. Main