Couple reviving heart of Truman's hometown

Sunday, May 9, 2010

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- Harry S. Truman's old stomping grounds are experiencing a revival thanks in large part to a personal-injury lawyer and his wife.

Ken and Cindy McClain own 16 businesses on the Independence Square -- everything from a refurbished bowling alley to a soda fountain.

The Kansas City Star reported that they have spent maybe $25 million since the late 1990s reviving the historic square. The project hasn't been a moneymaker. Ken McClain guesses he's still in the hole for about $25 million.

The parents of six say the effort is just now nearing an annual break-even point.

Some in the community resent their charge-ahead style, but many are thankful for it.

"Every historic community with a town square wishes they had a Ken and Cindy McClain in their midst," said Independence tourism director Stephanie Rousch.

By the early 1970s, rot had begun destroying the square.

In 1992, the couple took five of their children to the Jackson County Courthouse to see Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton as he spoke in front of Truman's statue. The campaign blared its theme song -- Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)."

But when they watched the highlights on the evening newscast, the boarded-up buildings embarrassed them.

"They were singing 'Don't stop thinking about tomorrow,' and looking around, there didn't seem to be a tomorrow," Ken McClain recalls.

The old Katz store was the McClains' first purchase on the square. It was transformed into the restaurant Ophelia's after 10 months of renovation.

"We were hoping Ophelia's would encourage others to invest here," said Ken McClain, 52, ducking away from his law office on the square to tour his properties. "That didn't happen."

Twenty or so deals later, Ken McClain now has most of the square's square footage. Long-popular fixtures such as Scandinavia Place, the Rheinland Restaurant and other shops not owned by the McClains have benefited from increased foot traffic.

"The square is back, alive and going," said Rick Frazier, 35 years at Peddler's Bicycle Shop. "The McClains deserve a lot of credit, but so do other businesses that just hung in. Our motto at the bike shop: We just keep pedalin' along."

The whole family is involved. McClain children have waited tables and worked summers at the soda fountain, where Truman landed his first job at $3 a week.

"This is really the heart of philanthropy," Ken McClain said, "making real businesses with real people working together and making it a go."

Information from: The Kansas City Star,

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