By Michael Humphrey
Downtown Liberty is the kind of place that just makes you take a deep breath. The old-fashioned square of a county seat; the tree-lined neighborhoods; a small college up the hill, with its 19th Century red-brick charm. You know you are in America when you come to Liberty – and you might even be willing to believe it is an America of years gone by.
But Liberty, located 20 minutes north of downtown Kansas City, has the American spirit when it comes to business, too. It has its shingle up, its door unlocked and Liberty is ready to work for the all-mighty dollar.
That’s means meetings, too, of a certain size, anyway.
“If you need a convention-style meeting,” says Gayle Potter, president of the Liberty Area Chamber of Commerce, “there are several parts of Kansas City that can facilitate that. We’re not that. But if a small group is looking for a getaway with some charm – and needs to have the amenities for a meeting – we can do that.”
Small groups – 10 to 20, for instance – will find plenty of opportunities to have a great meeting and fun outings. Groups of 30 to 50 will still feel the comfort of Liberty. And what’s nice − the city understands its limitations and isn’t trying to oversell. Groups of 200 are going to stretch the city’s hospitality and dining infrastructure – although it is still possible to enjoy the town with a group that size, in certain venues.
“Platte County can serve that size of group (200+) better than we can,” Potter says. “They have the airport, the hotels and the expo center to do that. But when groups smaller than that want more ambience, we make a lot of sense.”
Liberty, big and small
Which kind of Americana do you want your group to experience? Actually, in Liberty, the choice is minute-to-minute rather than one or the other.
Downtown, Liberty has the look and feel of a burgh several hundred miles away from a metropolitan area. Quaint shops, a bookstore and coffee shop, bed and breakfasts, locally owned restaurants, small historical museums and William Jewell College make you feel far away.
On the edge of town, along the I-35 corridor, there’s a whole different image of America. Big box retail stores, a multitude of chain restaurants and hotels are clustered together near a boom of new housing developments. Most of the developments are technically in Kansas City, Mo., which has borders that snake all over the metro area. Liberty, therefore, has remained a town of just 28,000.
“But we have the amenities of a much larger city,” Potter says.
And unlike many cities that have a tension over this kind of growth, leaders here see the relationship as symbiotic.
“To preserve the heritage of Liberty, which is so rich, we have to have the (major developments) to create the sales tax dollars and property tax dollars to deliver simple, basic services,” Liberty city administrator Curt Wenson told the Commercial Journal.
It creates a combination that only a few towns in the metro area can match, and few as seamlessly as Liberty. Even fewer have the rich history that Liberty can brag about.
“History is one of our most important assets,” says Faith Weber, communications director for Liberty’s Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not just the things that happened here in the past, but the feel of history in our town.”
Liberty is the second-oldest incorporated town west of the Mississippi River. It was incorporated in 1829, seven years after it was established as a port town along the Missouri River. (The Missouri has long since meandered away from the city limits.)
And when you think of history that makes up the American West, Liberty owns a good piece of that heritage. Jesse James might come to mind, for instance, and one of his famous bank heists took place in Liberty, the first daylight robbery during peace time in the United States. That’s not just a fact – it’s a museum. The Jesse James Bank Museum shows the original vault where the robbery took place and tells great stories of the James Gang exploits.
Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, was arrested in Liberty and kept in the jail. It is sometimes described as the “Temple Jail” because of revelations Smith had there. And that is more than just a story, too. The Church of Latter Day Saints now owns the place where Smith was imprisoned and houses a museum there, explaining the exodus of more than 70,000 Mormons through Missouri on the way to Salt Lake City.
William Jewell College was the first four-year men’s school west of the Mississippi. And it’s not exactly resting on its laurels 159 years later. Time Magazine named William Jewell “Liberal Arts College of the Year” in 2001. It’s most valued building, Jewell Hall, was used as a hospital in the Civil War, tending to both sides of the skirmish.
Meeting in the present
Things are quieter these days in Liberty. The history is alive, but the city is full of businesses and services ready to meet the challenges of here and now.
“Our restaurants, hospitality, merchants are ready to serve,” Potter says. “We had a group particularly interested in history last year. The merchants took it upon themselves to create an itinerary for them.”
That kind of attitude goes a long way, but it wouldn’t mean much without the infrastructure needed to host good meetings. For the right size group, Liberty can deliver.
Meeting space, options include:
* Comfort Suites with a meeting room capacity of 25-35;
* Claycomo Community Building, with room capacity for 216;
* Heritage Hall, with capacity of 350 and ability to break up the space;
In addition, Fred Pryor Leadership Center, owned by William Jewell and near campus, offers several opportunities for meeting space. They include:
* First Floor Leadership Classroom, which seats 20-25 for classroom and up to 40 theatre-style and includes a 61” plasma TV for presentations;
* JRT Executive Conference Room, which seats 20 for formal conference room and 25 for training and also includes a 61” plasma TV, as well as conference phone-line available;
* Mezzanine Level, a multi-functional room to allow for open-room, which seats up to 25 in classroom seating style and up to 40 in theatre-style;
* Basement Level, which seats up to 25 in classroom style and serves as secondary meeting room for meals and/or group activities.
Near the I-35 corridor, Liberty offers many recognizable restaurants for casual dining opportunities, including Olive Garden, Red Robin, Texas Roadhouse and more. Near downtown the local restaurants tend to focus on lunch crowds and are very willing to cater or serve as function space for dinners.
The local restaurants include:
* Ginger Sue’s, a casual bistro that seats about 75;
* Cupini’s and Sorella, both casual Italian restaurants with a reasonable price range;
* Corbin Mill restaurant, a light lunch restaurant that seats about 75.
“All of the restaurants are ready and willing to cater to groups,” Potter says. “They can do very fine events, but it’s never going to be outrageously expensive here. And, of course, downtown Kansas City is just a few minutes away if you want to greatly expand the possibilities for dining and entertainment.”
Liberty, for years, did have just a few hotels and several bed and breakfasts. Those quaint B&B’s are still around, but the expansion by the highway has added chain hotels to the mix. Hampton Inn, Days Inn, Fairfield Inn, Holiday Inn and Comfort Suites all sit just minutes away from downtown.
“It’s a city that continues to grow and offer far more possibilities,” says Weber, “but it will never lose that small town charm.” MM&E
(Michael Humphrey is the Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)
Liberty Chamber of Commerce
9 So. Leonard
Liberty, MO 64068