Kimmswick mayor calls region to shop, dine to save his town

KIMMSWICK, Mo. (AP) — A lemonade jar, about a quarter-full of cash, sits on an entryway table at the Blue Owl Restaurant and Bakery. “Any donations are appreciated,” reads a hand-written sign taped to the glass.

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The restaurant is famous for its towering caramel-apple-pecan pie, and draws diners from across the region. But the jar isn’t for the restaurant, its waiters or diners. The Blue Owl is trying to help its town survive.

“By year’s end, Kimmswick will, for all practical purposes, be out of money,” wrote Mayor Phil Stang in a recent message on the city website.

The pandemic has compounded a wave of financial problems for this river town, population 160, about 25 miles south of downtown St. Louis. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that most of the city’s revenue comes from two annual events: the Strawberry Festival, in June, and the Apple Butter Festival, in October. But the city canceled the Strawberry Festival last year as flooding on the Mississippi River endangered roadways. Then COVID-19 hit, forcing the city to call off the festival again. Apple Butter festivities, scheduled for this weekend, were also scrapped.

Stang estimates 225,000 people come to Kimmswick for the two festivals. Allowing them to happen this year, during a pandemic, would make him “complicit in disaster,” he said.

So the mayor, faced with cutting hours, pay or even employees, took to the airwaves. His message, across St. Louis television and radio stations: Come shop, dine and donate in Kimmswick.

The troubles started last summer.

The Mississippi River was flooding, threatening two of the three roads in and out of town. Officials raised an emergency levee and rented a fleet of pumps. Flood costs for the year exceeded $150,000, money that came out of city savings, “totally depleting our reserves,” Stang wrote on the city website.

The 180-person town may not be able to get FEMA cash for its work to stave off this year’s Mississippi River floodwaters.

Then the city canceled the Strawberry Festival, and a day rained out the Apple Butter celebration, together costing Kimmswick another $85,000, according to city records.

Now the city is anticipating almost no revenue from either festival this year, adding another $200,000 loss.

Smaller events, like the Kimmswick Cookie Walk, have not been canceled. Organizers hope to raise $5,000 by selling 1,000 tickets at $30 each, with $5 from each ticket going to the city.

Stang said the city has raised about $15,000 so far. But it needs $200,000, he said, to survive 2021.

“We just have a gigantic hole in our budget,” he said.

Shop owner Betteanne Smith said local businesses have struggled through the pandemic. But the recent publicity from the mayor’s tour has boosted traffic, making her more hopeful.

Smith helped ring up a steady stream of customers Sunday afternoon at her store, Mississippi Mud Gallery & Gifts. Music wafted into the shop from a quartet singing outside the Blue Owl.

“People have responded,” Smith said. “They don’t want Kimmswick to disappear.”

Chris Delk, a software engineer from St. Louis County, heard about the town’s plight on the news. He and his wife drove in Sunday to dine and shop.

Others did too. Around town, store clerks were busily ringing up customers. At 2 p.m., there was an hour wait for a table at the Blue Owl.

“When we first got here I was amazed,” Delk said.

“Just look, the parking lot’s full,” he said, gesturing to the bustling lot outside the restaurant. “I love the idea that people are stepping up.”

Mary Hostetter worked the hostess stand Sunday afternoon, taking down reservations and welcoming customers to the Blue Owl, which she has owned for 35 years. She wore a blue owl pin on her blue apron, and a necklace with a blue owl charm.

The lemonade jar sat near the entrance. It encouraged visitors to donate any amount and enter to win a pie for Thanksgiving, with proceeds benefiting the city. Hostetter said there are similar donation jars at other businesses throughout Kimmswick.

The Blue Owl closed for seven weeks when the pandemic hit, Hostetter said. It then offered curbside pickup for two weeks, before reopening indoor and outdoor dining. The numbers were slower at first, but have picked up. On Saturday, she said, the restaurant served about 500 people, not including carryout orders. Last year, a weekend day might see 700 to 800 patrons. She said the restaurant is only using 24 tables, out of 48, and is requiring that customers wear masks until they are seated.

Hostetter steered the restaurant through the 1993 flood and the Great Recession. But 2020 brought new challenges.

“This has been the strangest thing that I’ve been through,” she said. “That’s for sure.”