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Maplewood works to keep a happy ending to its rags-to-riches story

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 8, 2009 - Seemingly everyone who lived or worked in Maplewood toward the end of last century remembers an occasion when merely mentioning an association with the city was enough to earn a disapproving sneer.

Ellen Bern, who in the early 1980s became the first executive director of the Maplewood Chamber of Commerce, recalls accepting her job amid "political chaos" and economic turmoil. "People in my field were asking me what I was thinking going there," Bern said.

"If you said you lived in Maplewood in the 1980s," added Tim Dunn, a resident since 1978 and a Maplewood City Council member since 1993, "people would look at you like this [cue an intense grimace]. We were the definition of a distressed community, with a low median income and high crime into the 1990s." (Median income was $29,100, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.)

The story of Maplewood's downfall is not unlike the stories of other inner suburbs across the country that confronted demographic changes and economic challenges starting in the late 1950s. Martin J. Corcoran, who grew up in Maplewood and has been its city manager since 1983, said the city faced white flight to the farther-west suburbs and was hurt by the advent of the regional mall (Crestwood Plaza and later the Galleria) that drove business away from Maplewood's once-bustling downtown.

With empty storefronts and depreciating home values, city officials sought to offset the lost revenue coming into Maplewood by, among other things, adding high-density apartment buildings that brought in more taxes. "That left us with a tough legacy, because while some problems were solved in the short term, fewer property owners mean fewer people invested in the city," Corcoran said.

Vacancies in the historic downtown district continued to plague Maplewood, and the kinds of businesses that wanted to move in often weren't the type that city leaders wanted. Maplewood faced dire financial problems into the late 1990s.

But visitors these days who eat at Monarch Restaurant & Wine Bar on Manchester Road and then stop for a drink down the street at Schlafly Bottleworks might not believe that dreary tale.

Maplewood, a St. Louis County municipality that's nestled between Highway 40 and Interstate 44 and borders St. Louis city on its eastern edge, hasn't been spared from the economic downturn. Some specialty businesses, in particular, have been hit hard. But the city's fortunes have largely risen in recent years. The downtown is vibrant once again. Stores have opened on side streets next to homes that had soared in value. The median household income has risen to roughly $44,000.

"It's like a miracle story," Dunn said. "You hear about people planning things like this but it doesn't happen. Well, it happened here."

A City's Ups and Downs

In the first half of the 20th century, Maplewood was known as one of St. Louis County's public transportation hubs (see below). Local and chain stores, as well as small manufacturing companies and factories, employed many of the middle-class residents who lived in the city. In the 1950s, Maplewood's population peaked at roughly 14,000 people. It's been shrinking ever since and is now just under 9,300.

As businesses shut down or moved away along with residents, property values in Maplewood sank. The city became heavily working class but no longer had the employers in town to support residents. Cases of political corruption also hurt the city's image.

It's hard to pinpoint an exact time when Maplewood began its turnaround. Dunn says it was in the early 1990s; others say momentum started to build in the mid-1980s. But it's well-established that the reversal of fortunes began when a group of longtime residents joined the business community who had grown tired of defending their city's sinking reputation.

For starters, that group pushed for and saw voters approve the establishment of a special downtown business district. This allowed property taxes on building owners and a fee on businesses to go toward funding badly needed streetscape improvements. Sunnen Products Co., a major employer based in Maplewood that funded business improvement projects and a nonprofit community betterment foundation, is credited with spurring much of the city's redevelopment.

Restaurants and small businesses looking to relocate took advantage of Maplewood's cheap rents. Rob Birenbaum, a music industry consultant and former owner of Drum Headquarters, moved his business from Richmond Heights to Maplewood in 1984.

"Maplewood had a checkered record at the time, but I had a feeling the image was worse than the reality," he said. "I was afraid that I might lose some customers because of the move, but that didn't happen."

Birenbaum joined the Maplewood Chamber of Commerce, and years later he and others successfully lobbied city officials to enact an ordinance mandating that in a two-block stretch on Manchester Road only retail could move in on the ground level. Critics, including property and business owners, complained that the ordinance was too restrictive. The idea, Birenbaum explained, is that retail brings foot traffic into a city. Corcoran said the move has borne fruit.

Another major milestone came a decade ago, when in the middle of the business district a Shop 'n Save replaced a Kmart known mostly for the creaky, pigeon-infested parking lot it sat atop. Shop 'n Save's relocation from several blocks away allowed city leaders to go after Schlafly, which had been considering opening a location on the Hill.

"In my opinion, getting Schlafly gave us instant credibility," Corcoran said. "When it opened several years ago, it brought people who'd never been here before, and it created a demand for more restaurants and stores."

From there, restaurants, coffee shops and other specialty stores moved into the neighborhood. Diane Blaskiewicz, director of marketing for St. Louis Closet Co. and St. Louis Cellars Food and Wine, said she's seen the city's reputation grow since 1994, when the Closet Co. moved to Maplewood. "In the past five years, especially, this area has blown up," she said. "It's one of those last little secrets in St. Louis."

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, 200 homes were razed to make room for the Maplewood Commons, anchored by a Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and Lowe's. The controversial development angered some city residents who didn't want to see part of a neighborhood demolished and felt the big-box stores didn't fit with Maplewood's downtown core, known for small businesses like the century-old Scheidt True Value Hardware.

Residents who were displaced received between $180,000 and $250,000 for their homes, which was above market value, Corcoran said. The city is receiving more than $2 million a year from the development.

Dunn said Maplewood Commons rescued the city from major financial problems. "If we'd have depended just on the old downtown, we would have closed our doors years ago," Dunn said. "There's just not enough revenue there."

While Birenbaum agrees on the importance of the Commons as the leading revenue generator, he argues that "Maplewood still lives and dies in the minds of the St. Louis community at large with the several blocks of downtown businesses."

More than a mile -- and the major intersection of Big Bend Boulevard and Manchester Road -- separates the Commons from the downtown business district. Both areas have been helped by the addition several years ago of a MetroLink stop on Manchester -- though it's still a long walk from that station to the downtown. Dunn was instrumental in bringing that and another station to Maplewood.

Maplewood today, with just under 9,300 residents, is evenly split between homeowners and renters. The city's housing stock is a mixture of styles -- two-story Victorian homes, modern one-level residences and brick apartment complexes, among them.

Corcoran said Maplewood houses run from the low $100s to several million. Many renters live in what he calls "middle-end apartments" that don't lend themselves to being converted to condominiums. (Corcoran, though, said he'd like to see more homeowners in the city.)

Corcoran said the city over the past two decades has more strongly enforced a housing code that limits apartment occupancy based on the number of bedrooms in a unit. The city also has ramped up efforts to inspect all rental units once a year.

Although Birenbaum said rents in some of his properties are five times as much as when he bought them 10 years ago, other buildings he owns have taken a hit. He and others insist that Maplewood is feeling the effects of the economic downturn just like other cities.

"Any problems we're having, other municipalities are having, too" Birenbaum said. "Whether we might have tenants struggling or are losing businesses, it's not because they aren't in a good location. It's a sign of the bigger economic problems."

Jeannine Beck, executive director of the Maplewood Chamber of Commerce, said city records show that 77 new businesses have opened in Maplewood and 65 have closed since the start of 2008. Some of the businesses that have shut were run from people's homes, she said.

"While our businesses are not immune to the impact of a struggling economy, I strongly believe that they are weathering the storm well and that Maplewood is still growing at the very least," she said.

Corcoran said business isn't as strong now at some of the city's boutique shops and restaurants as it was a year ago because of the sagging economy. Blaskiewicz, the St. Louis Closet Co. marketing director, said business there has slowed, although it hasn't at the wine shop that shares the same location.

One factor could be the closure of Highway 40 and the recent closure of the overpass on Big Bend that connects the city to Clayton. "This [highway] closure has been more painful than the one that took place earlier," Corcoran said. (Blaskiewicz said she didn't see the highway closure as affecting business.)

Maplewood is not without its empty storefronts. Perhaps the biggest hole is an abandoned section of a strip mall that was set to be an upscale senior living facility until the company involved in the deal backed out when the economy worsened.

Beck said that even thought Maplewood has come a long way since the 1980s and 1990s, "We still have a long way to go; we're still trying to overcome the stereotypes."

Maplewood history

* In 1896, the electric streetcar reached Maplewood, connecting people from the Sutton Loop to downtown. Manchester Electric Railway's fare was 5 cents.

* Maplewood's incorporation came in 1908, when the city had a population of more than 4,000 people -- up from 200 people a decade earlier. 

* The 1912 city directory showed more barbers (5) than lawyers (3) or banks (2).

* Buses replaced the trolleys in 1949.

* The city hosted an annual charity baseball game called "Fats & Leans" featuring portly amateur players vs. skinny guys.

* The Kmart was the first built in an "inner city" business district and the first atop a parking structure. (see photo below)

Source: "Maplewood, MO: The First 100 Years," by Joyce Cheney and Doug Houser