Radford opens up about challenges, opportunities his small town faces
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a two-part series taking a look at the struggles and opportunities unique to two of The Parkland’s smaller towns, Bismarck and Leadwood. These communities each have a population below 1,600 and are representative of numerous other communities of similar size throughout Missouri.
DAN SCHUNKS, firstname.lastname@example.org
Many wax nostalgic about small towns, considering Mayberry, the town of “Andy Griffith Show” fame, to be the ultimate community– even though it was a figment of a writer’s imagination.
While small, rural communities have been the backbone of this country throughout American history, today these towns face challenges unimagined by the writers of that 1960s sitcom or by the lawmakers of this country. Rising costs to maintain city services and aging infrastructure are among the new issues confronting elected officials daily.
Train town to suburb
Bismarck, founded in 1868 as a railroad town and named after the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to encourage German immigrants to settle in the community, reached its population zenith in 1980 with a count of 1,625 residents. The census count for 2020 was 1,573, a 3% drop.
As a railroad town, Bismarck was a hub for the Iron Mountain and Southern railroad which ran from Bismarck to Charleston, Missouri. The community was also a stop on the Missouri Pacific main line and the most western point for the Missouri-Illinois line. It also had a connecting line to Ste. Genevieve which allowed transport from the Frisco and Missouri Pacific lines.
Seth Radford is the mayor of Bismarck, a post he has held since 2022 and prior to that from 2014-2020. A Bismarck native, he is guardedly optimistic about the town’s future.
“We are in the phase of attempting to grow and we’ve got a couple of contractors wanting to put in some subdivisions, but the only thing that’s holding them up are the interest rates,” he said, adding his town is “a good growth area. We’re a suburb to Farmington, which is obviously a busy city, but we’re kind of out here quiet and out of the way, which makes it nice for us. We have a great school district and you know we got a really safe town. Our police really work hard at that.”
Radford said he believes interest rates will come down, and when they do, “I think the contractor is ready to pull the trigger. You know rents aren’t quite as high as in Farmington, obviously because we’re a suburb community to that. We are an older town and that’s what we’re excited about, we’re working on improving our older town, our older subdivisions, and things like that. Be we were excited about incorporating new subdivisions into that and kind of integrating and mixing in and move that forward.
“But it’s been very difficult.”
A major hurdle that working families face is the rise in prices. Cities must cope not only with rising prices of goods, but rising salaries to keep qualified workers. Mayor Radford cited several areas in which the city, like many others, has been financially dinged.
“One is obviously building material and anything associated with pipeline, even street paving,” he said. “Fuel for vehicles, fuel for the city vehicles, all of that is putting an extra burden onto the citizens.”
The issue of transients and undocumented aliens has forced the city to reevaluate their police needs, the mayor explained.
“We’ve had several encounters with transients passing through that we were talking about at the (city council) meeting. And the one thing that we are having to have is an increase of police presence in order… to keep people moving on,” Radford said. “We have some people trying to set up tents here and in our park. So, we’re having an extra police presence and having to hire extra officers and things like getting that in order to keep it, so that’s kind of like taxing our budget a little bit.”
Radford said many in Bismarck are inspired by public safety measures passed in other Parkland communities.
“That is the purpose of Prop P. We’re one of the decent-sized cities that hadn’t passed it yet. And that’s what we’re going to be going for,” he said. “Because if we don’t, you know we’re not going to be able to target and keep as much crime down as soon as detected in an area.”
The mayor referred to recent incidents in which homeless people were setting up tents in Sundale Park and also events on the other end of town in which transients were bathing in children’s wading pools and stealing clothes off resident’s clotheslines.
Maintenance of private and public property must be a priority to give good first impressions and maintain a positive visual impact, Radford indicated, but with many owners not living in the community where they own property, their neglected property drags down the values of adjacent properties and definitely gives a negative and false impression.
One building in the heart of Bismarck, at the intersection of Mo. 32 and Rte. BB and N, is widely considered to be a major eyesore.
“Obviously, number one is this four-way building, that’s right here in this town. We just had the hazardous material company come in yesterday and do testing,” Radford said recently.
But there are positive developments as well. “We’ve been working with the Main Street owners. They’ve rehabilitated our Main Street just great! They’ve done excellent work down through there,” he said.
The city is applying for grants to make sidewalks ADA compliant and a Department of Natural Resources grant to work on the parks, especially Sundale Park. Bismarck is working on a matching DNR grant to improve and expand the city’s infrastructure. For communities of limited means, grants are essential for maintaining and improving all facets of the city.
The city passed ordinances before COVID dealing with the upkeep of private property, and is lately beginning to enforce them.
“The goal is not to write tickets,” Radford said. “The goal is to work with the people and get it out there that they want to get it cleaned up.”
Bismarck is located on the route to many of Missouri’s natural tourist destinations, among them Johnson’s Shut-Ins and Elephant Rocks state parks, Taum Sauk Mountain, and historic Arcadia Valley which includes the Fort Davidson Civil War site. Tourists often stop in Bismarck for gas or other traveler treats or needs, causing a revenue stream from outside the city.
A city-owned airport for a town the size of Bismarck is an unusual asset. The airport began operating in May 1951, and is where U.S. Four-star General Glen VanHerck, who leads USNORTHCOM, started to take a shine to aviation.
Radford said the tiny airport has a new manager, and the changes have been fantastic.
“It’s (the airport) up and running again. He’s got it functioning. It’s still the city’s airport, but it’s managed by Crosswind Aviation,” Radford said. “That’s good!”
Bismarck is in the 116th State District represented by Rep. Dale Wright of Farmington, but until the last reorganization of districts, it was in the 117th and represented by Rep. Mike Henderson of Desloge. The state senator is Elaine Gannon of De Soto.
Radford said he is very satisfied with their cooperation and assistance to Bismarck.
“…they are really, really good on helping us and working with us and obtaining what we need. Smaller communities tend to be forgotten and they’re really pro-responsive,” Radford said, adding that he is under the impression Wright and Henderson will be meeting with Gov. Mike Parson next week to specifically address an issue Bismarck faces with the EPA. Both representatives are optimistic about a resolution in Bismarck’s favor.
“Bismarck is a tight-knit community and very positive in its outlook. I think that even though it’s an uphill battle, I think things are going to get better,” Radford said.
“We have a lot of growth outside the city limits. We’ve had a lot of people putting in housing outside the city which is obviously good for our businesses and good for our school and good for our community.”
If the community will pull together and inflation and interest rates decline, “I believe that we can really boom the town because we have the people ready to do it. It’s just a matter of getting to where it’s financially stable and set here. Once we get the building (at the intersection of 32 BB and N) torn down, that’s going to be a huge blemish taken away from the city. I think it will improve the morale of the city.”
Dan’s take: History gives way to future
Bismarck has a long history of being a successful, small town. It has produced several outstanding natives who have gone on to success.
Local sports legend Johnny Reagan, who gained fame as a baseball and basketball player and eventually became an outstanding collegiate baseball coach and then Athletic Director at Murray State University where the baseball field is named for him, as it is in Bismarck and US Air Force General Glen D. VanHerck, who was a scholar, athlete, and band member, and is currently Commander, United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, whose successes reflects positively on their home town.
Bismarck has a viable, though small tax base, which has been able to sustain the growth in the community. The existing businesses are able to meet the needs of the community as well as the surrounding area. With infrastructure in place and functioning, aside from the disagreement with the EPA, the city has the ability to support growth both in town and possibly through annexation. Being located on Highway 32 gives the city the opportunity to show visitors the positive attitude that most associate with Bismarck.
The building at the intersection of 32, BB, and N, however, is a major eyesore and a horrible first impression for those passing through. There are areas in the city limits that most definitely appear to need major repair and updating. Absent, out-of-town landlords are a definite problem, not just in Bismarck, but in many other small towns, as we shall see. Licensing non-local landlords might be one solution. These neglected properties contrast to the many well kept and desirable properties throughout the community.
In the final analysis, Bismarck is seeking the perfect balance of traditional and new. It is a difficult position to achieve, but Bismarck’s location near state parks and recreation areas, give it an advantage that other towns do not have. Mo. 32 travels through the middle of town and part of the downtown area, including the restored railroad station lend itself to tourist interests, but it must be pursued and promoted. There is room for small industry, particularly with available road and railroad access.
The ultimate strength of any community is its people, and, in that respect, Bismarck is uniquely gifted. The enthusiasm exhibited, not only by its current residents but its natives who no longer live there, points to a civic strength of character and pride in their community. It is an essential first step. The key before them is to put individual interests aside and work for the benefit of the entire community. The opportunity for growth and preserving the community is attainable. What will be required is patience and selflessness.