PARKVILLE, Mo. -- Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston arrived for an interview with a list of the state and national awards her city has won in the last year.
Why only a list for this year’s awards? Why not a list for the last decade or so?
“We’d be here a while,” Johnston laughed.
Indeed, downtown Parkville’s historic Main Street made USA Today’s list of the “Most Charming Main Streets” this year. The tourism and travel website “Only in Your State” went even further, declaring Parkville “the coolest place in the Midwest.”
Johnston grew up in Pittsburg, Kansas, before moving to the Northland. She said she instantly became enchanted with Parkville.
“I really like the shops down here because they’re small. They’re local, and you know that when you go in, you will be greeted by name,” Johnston said.
Longtime resident Jim McCall has deep roots in Parkville. McCall’s grandfather opened Frank’s Restaurant on Main Street in 1931.
McCall glows when he’s asked to explain why Parkville inspires such praise from newcomers and people born and raised here.
“There is a little magic on the river,” McCall said. “They have a saying: 'It’s a little bit of wonderful on the Missouri River.' It’s one of the few downtown areas that go up to a river that’s still around with the same buildings from the 1800’s.”
McCall said many describe Parkville’s Main Street, with a mix of restaurants, coffee shops, and antique stores like a “Colorado town, a quaint little mountain resort town, without the mountains.”
Another quality that separates Parkville from other historic small cities along the Missouri River: From the very beginning, Parkville has been a college town.
“There wouldn’t be a Parkville without a Park, there wouldn’t be a Park University without a Park,” Erik Bergrud at Park University said. “So we share the same founder, George S. Park.”
Park College, now Park University, dates back to 1875. Bergrud said having an institution for higher learning as one of its cornerstones gives Parkville an edge over communities of similar size and history.
“It became less of an old west, rumble-tumble type of place and something that was going to be more permanent, more significant,” Bergrud said.
The university’s Mackay Hall is the defining landmark of the hillside campus with a bell tower that overlooks downtown Parkville. In the 1980’s, Park University took a novel approach to campus expansion.
Looking to raise revenue, the school began quarrying limestone from the hillside beneath Park U. The limestone quarrying created underground caverns.
“It’s a lot cheaper to build underground than to create a brand new structure above ground, so we started by putting classrooms and a library and a bookstore and other offices underground,” Bergrud said.
Today, the school’s Parkville Underground leases space to two dozen other outside businesses which, like many other subterranean workplaces in the metro region, creates a unique place to report to work.
“I think it’s constantly 64 to 68 degrees down here, somewhere in that range,” Brad Biles with Park University said.
Also a short walk from downtown: English Landing Park, the Parkville Farmer’s Market, a free dog park and miles of trails -- and a waterfall -- at the Parkville Nature Sanctuary.
It’s a solid mix of old meets new and bustling yet peaceful.
“You can live in so many different neighborhoods,” Johnston said. “You can live on a lake in Riss Lake. You can live on a Tom Watson-designed golf course. We have two of them. You can live in a house on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. How incredible is that?”
One of the most thrilling days, in recent memory, for the people of Parkville happened in late July 2014. A day remembered as the time when Parkville received the unofficial Presidential Seal of Approval.
“I think they were looking for a snapshot of Americana,” Johnston said.
During a visit to the metro, President Barack Obama paid a visit to downtown’s Parkville Coffee.
“I have a great picture of him with his hand on my shoulder,” Jim McCall said. “I tell people I was giving him advice.”
Johnston later learned the Secret Service had been scouting downtown Parkville for some time before Obama’s short visit. A prime example of presidential stagecraft, putting the leader of the free world in a small American town with authentic charm, nostalgia, and promise for the future.
“It’s the real deal here,” McCall said. “You can build all the new buildings with a Main Street feel, like Zona Rosa, but Parkville’s kind of like Country Club Plaza. It’s the real deal.”