Community, economic, business and workforce development

Address issues and opportunities of Missouri’s economic infrastructure, communities, public services, economic development, jobs and educational access.


MU Extension’s Community Arts Pilot Project takes root in Lexington

photo: Lexington, Mo.

Lexington, Mo. is the first community to be part of MU Extension's Community Arts Pilot Project.

The historic community of Lexington is the site of a University of Missouri Extension Community Arts Pilot Project designed to provide an economic boost through community development.

The project makes the resources of MU’s Art Department and MU Extension available to the Lexington community over a two-year period, said Lee Ann Woolery, project director and community arts specialist for MU Extension. MU students and faculty, along with MU Extension staff, will work with Lexington residents on projects designed to enhance quality of life and stimulate economic development.

Abigail Tempel, a project committee member, said MU Extension’s resources will provide an opportunity for the youth of Lexington to explore the arts as an economic development tool and to encourage youth to stay in the community.

“We have quite a story to tell,” Tempel said. “Any opportunity we have to promote the town and show people our quality of life is important. Partnering with MU Extension not only allows us to promote the Civil War history, the river history and our unique architecture, but also agribusiness, so that MU students and our own students appreciate how important they are as economic development tools.”

photo: Seth Ritter

Seth Ritter works on his "found art" project, a guitar or banjo made out of objects he's found. The Lexington high school student has his own studio in a refurbished 1850s downtown Lexington building. Ritter serves on an advisory committee overseeing the Community Arts Pilot Project.

Lexington, like many small rural towns, has limited financial and volunteer resources, and the project will infuse new blood into efforts to promote the town. “It will help us further build Lexington as an arts destination point for tourists,” Tempel said. “Studies have shown that patrons appreciate the town and further upgrade the quality of life and the appeal of that town for new business and new residents.”

“Through this MU Extension program, we’re looking at how the arts can be an economic development tool.” — Lee Ann Woolery

The project will allow Lexington to tap MU’s extensive resources in music, theater, fine arts, film, journalism, architectural studies and art education, she said. MU faculty and students will go to Lexington to exhibit their art, hold workshops, work on collaborative educational projects and teach master classes. Lexington’s students will be able to attend summer art camps, workshops and other activities to explore what MU offers for emerging artists as part of the intellectual and research exchange.

Woolery said that the project committee hopes to promote the town’s proximity to Kansas City as a drawing card and encourage artists to commute to Lexington to take advantage of large buildings suitable for studio and gallery spaces, which are available at far more affordable rates than in metropolitan areas. This, combined with the rich history of the town and a vibrant volunteer group, makes Lexington an ideal site to attract new artists, she said.

Learn more about the Community Arts Pilot project at extension.missouri.edu/communityarts.

MU Extension’s Labor Education program works with state and national workplace-based organizations to help them develop skills to contribute to their organizations, to act effectively in the workplace, and to be informed, active participants in their communities.

Major partners in these efforts include:

Missouri AFL-CIO and affiliates

Sheet Metal Workers Joint Apprenticeship Committees

Missouri Coalition of Public Sector Unions and affiliates

Westminster College and the National Churchill Museum

Office of Professional Employees International Union, AFL-CIO

International Union of Operating Engineers National Training Center

District 11 of United Steelworkers of America

United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the U.S. and Canada

Habitata brings back American jobs, transforms neighborhood

In an abandoned grocery store in an abandoned St. Louis neighborhood, Habitata Building Products, LLC, makers of Halcyon Shades, has brought American jobs back from Mexico and in the process transformed a neighborhood. MU Extension’s Small Business and Technology Development Centers (SBTDC) helped.

Not too long ago, Habitata’s neighborhood, McRee Town, was one of the worst in the St. Louis metro area. Crime was rampant and buildings were vacant or falling down. The city of St. Louis decided on a draconian solution — level it and start over.

Halcyon Shades chose to put its manufacturing facility in McRee Town because the owners believed in the city and its people. They found an empty grocery store and repurposed it into a factory, storage facility and offices. As a result of their efforts and those of others, McRee Town is now called Botanical Heights and is a national model of urban renewal.

But it almost didn’t happen. In 2006, Halcyon Shades was owned by a global conglomerate that made the regrettable decision to move the operation from Virginia to Puebla, Mexico, to take advantage of lower wages. It soon realized it had made a mistake. While labor was cheap, freight costs to take materials in and products out of Mexico made the operation unprofitable and unmanageable. The parent corporation started taking steps to shut Halcyon Shades down.

Co-founders David Kenyon and Jane Quartel knew Halcyon well and believed in the value of the custom-made, ultra-energy-efficient, semi-transparent window shades. Both feared the brand would be lost in the bankruptcy, a personal loss for them but a far bigger loss for the environment.

Kenyon and a new partner, Kevin Schaedler, had meanwhile founded a renovation and building products firm they called Habitata with little more than a couple of old trucks and a customer list. Within a month, they had outfitted the old grocery store as a shade factory, hired and trained workers and moved Halcyon’s materials and equipment 4,000 miles from Mexico to St. Louis while still fulfilling order commitments.

Habitata is a true equal opportunity employer, hiring mentally disabled employees, veterans, newly released felons and chronically unemployed people from the St. Louis area as a matter of ordinary hiring practice.

“We’re not a halfway house,” Quartel says. “But your history doesn’t necessarily say who you are. Your character says who you are. We’re mining for character. We expect 150 percent, but we give 150 percent, too. It’s a cohesive team, but we have high expectations of our employees.” Current employees also have a say in new hires and are expected to mentor them, further reinforcing personal bonds and company loyalty.

Kevin Wilson, director of the St. Louis SBTDC, was integral in Halcyon’s transformation from a small building company to a model of environmental and socially conscious manufacturing with nearly $3 million in sales and 12 employees, four of them veterans.

“This is a place where you come to work and leave happy and fulfilled,” says Kenyon, a former trial lawyer. Kenyon practices what he preaches. When the company hit hard times in 2010, he gave up his salary and stepped down as CEO to save employees’ jobs. And he tells his workers: “You will save the environment. You will have made some money for your family and your company. You will have done something for the community by just showing up to work in an abandoned grocery store.”