This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.
SARCOXIE — A piece of the past is now improving life for the future in Sarcoxie, where a former department store has been transformed into a modern-day destination for coffee, connection and community.
On Feb. 7, the former Red Front Department Store opened to house the town’s library, license office and a brand-new coffee shop. While the renovated space offers greater opportunity for the library (which was previously housed in a portion of the building) and more room for the license office (relocating from City Hall), the coffee shop creates a place to gather in a way that didn’t previously exist — especially for younger residents.
“We had a great team to work with and build this,” said Tanner Rice, Sarcoxie assistant city manager. “We think it’s a very unique idea and made it our own. I hope it offers that safe place for our young adults, teens, kids to come to and hang out, and hope to build economic development — mainly here on the square, but also in town.”
Seeing the needs
One of the first things that led to the project was a realization that the local library wasn’t being used as heavily as it once was. Perhaps it’s fewer people reading physical books; maybe it’s changes in population. Regardless of why, Rice says Sarcoxie leaders saw it as a problem for the library, which is independent and funded by a town tax.
“The city recognized the need to do something about that; really, an effort to keep the library in our community,” Rice said of the library. “There’s also been a large community interest in wanting some local places in town for people to hang out in the evening; good locations to do that, safe locations for kids to do that as well.”
That latter desire was colored with caffeine, too.
“We have a lot of people here in town that will travel to Mount Vernon, Carthage, even as far as Joplin just to go get coffee,” Rice said. “Just on a coffee run; before school or after school, whichever.”
Finding funding through ARPA
Even though the needs were there, the funds weren’t — until money through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) became available from the federal government. That, combined with some funds amassed through the library’s friends group, helped pave the way for the building’s complete remodel.
Rice wasn’t sure offhand of exactly how much the renovations cost, but one thing is known.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do this project without the ARPA funding, honestly,” Rice said.
Renewing and revitalizing a small town
It’s part of an ongoing effort to renew and revitalize the town of around 1,500 residents. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, about 15% of Sarcoxie’s population is between 20 and 40 years old, which compares with nearly 40% for those aged 19 and below.
Perhaps it’s not a unique Ozarks challenge — younger people in small communities leaving after high school — but economic development and building a sense of place is important to helping create an incentive to stay or come back.
Just like Rice did.
“I went to Springfield for some schooling for about a year,” he said of a time around 10 years ago. “It made me realize how much I missed home, so I came back and I’ve been (here) ever since.”
Early response has been positive
It took about a year after work began in early 2022 for the Red Front to open. Not all is complete. Carpet still needs to be installed and the license office isn’t open yet. But those elements haven’t stopped a positive response.
“It’s just been amazing to see this — community support has been all over,” said Brooke Sommer, the coffee shop’s manager. “We have people posting on the internet. It’s been a wonderful experience.
“The kids want to come in here while they’re doing homework — it’s just perfect.”
Sommer, a student at Sarcoxie High School, is joined by Kaylee Burruss and Abbey Lawyer, coffee shop employees and fellow students who have taken advantage of the new opportunity for local jobs.
“Our friends will come in and sit down and do homework and talk to us while we make coffees,” Lawyer said. “We just know everybody who walks in since it’s such a small town.”
“It’s very homey — it’s comfortable,” added Burruss. “I like it a lot.”
One of the customers they served on the shop’s first Saturday in business is Ashly Keene, who came in with her three daughters.
“I’m just excited for our town to grow a little bit more and have something like a coffee shop,” said Keene, who grew up in Sarcoxie.
She also points to the benefit of having the updated library close by and being able to bring her children there for activities.
“When I was growing up, you had fast food restaurants. That was kind of where we hung out, and that was about it. It’s just exciting to be able to stay local,” she said.
“I definitely don’t want a Walmart; I don’t want us to get too big. I love the small-town feel. But I just like being able to stay local and have more jobs here in the community versus having to drive.”
Building has a long history
The close-knit legacy ties in with the building where they stand. It was long known as the Red Front Department Store, one of several stores in the region that carried a little of a lot.
That history led the current life of the building to carry the same name — and in its logo, a hat also ties to its past. It honors Martha Moore, a woman who long owned the store and was known for her hats.
One news article on her death in 1958 notes she bought the store in 1933 — the same year it reopened after a hiatus due to the Great Depression.
“The Red Front was one of Sarcoxie’s chief business enterprises and has been the community’s chief loss during this abnormal period which people call the depression,” noted the Sarcoxie Record in 1933. “Mistaken assumptions are easily made and this may be one, but appearances indicate Sarcoxie, having gone to the bottom, is now coming upgrade again.”
Bringing people back to the city’s square
Just like Moore’s effort to serve customers in and near Sarcoxie, the oldest town in Jasper County and dating to the 1830s, restoring the Red Front is part of an effort to bring people back to the square.
“Ten, 15 years ago, the square was really rough place. We did not have as many businesses open here,” Rice said. “In other words, the start of the decline was a couple decades before then. But the council and the city recognized the need to see the square build up because this is the heart of the city, essentially.
“Trying to keep that local is extremely important to us. Because if we can keep people local, or at least try to do that, and then maybe attract others around to stay local, that just helps us build and improve our economic development. It also offers a little bit for other businesses as well.”
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