Transforming the Clay County Riverfront

Clay County has a little more than 30 miles of untapped greenspace along the river that could be one of the regions premier public spaces.  Yet, it is current state its blighted, forgotten and an embarrassment.

For generations the riverfront has been inaccessible to the public.  Drive close to the levee and you’ll notice that the area is sealed off by a barbed wire fence and signs that read “no trespassing violators will be prosecuted.”

All the while our neighboring counties have long seen their riverfront as a cultural and recreational asset.  Platte County has English Landing Park and recently opened its newest park Platte Landing Park.  KCK has Kaw Point Park and Jackson County / KCMO has Berkley Riverfront Park and River Front Park.  Also, the 15 mile Riverfront Heritage Trail is nearing completion, and connects the KCK riverfront to KCMO riverfront and downtown.

Over the years there have been a few proposals for the Clay County riverfront, mostly centered around the historic Harlem community.  Those plans included a prison and halfway house, the docking of the USS Missouri, riverboat casinos, mixed use development and creating yet another industrial park.  So far the only plans that has come to fruition are the three casino developments (Sam’s Town, Ameristar, and Harrah’s).

I hate the idea of adding another industrial park in Harlem or along any part of the riverfront.  I believe this is a narrow-minded and shortsighted development idea.  North Kansas City is already full of industrial opportunities.

By right the river belongs to the people of Clay County and our county exist because of the river.  It’s time for a new vision for our riverfront.  It’s time for a Clay County riverfront revival.

Imagine a future riverfront full of parks, floating boat docks, sports facilities, a pedestrian trail system that connects Harlem, North Kansas City, Chouteau, Buckeye Greenway, Searcy Creek Greenway, Missouri 210 HWY and the Cooley Lake Conservation Area.  A riverfront with settings for picnics, exercise, relaxation and education opportunities.

2022 marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of Clay County.  It would be great to help celebrate this occasion with the opening of Clay County’s first riverfront park in Harlem and with the opening of the Clay County riverfront as one of the regions premier public spaces.

The parks should also be named after H. Virgil “Skip” Bower.

Skip passed away 18 years ago, but his name is still spoken with reverence and his legacy of service and giving back to the community continues through those who he touched.  His public service career was summed up by former Kansas City Star reporter Bill Graham as the “Northland patriarch of community service.”

His  Clay County roots date back to the 1930s while studying at William Jewell College.  He went on to graduate from Jewell in 1933 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and history.

After graduating, Mr. Bower became the teacher for the Harlem Elementary School.  In 1934, Mr. Bower became principal.  That same year a Boy Scout troop was forming at the Harlem Baptist Church and Mr. Bower became the Scoutmaster of Troop 122; a title he would hold for 63 years.

Like so many others his age, Mr. Bower’s tenure as principal was cut short with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

During World War II, Mr. Bower served as a Commander of a naval gunnery group aboard a Merchant Marine ship.  Mr. Bower achieved the rank of Senior Lieutenant and was given the nickname “Skip”.

After returning home from the war, Mr. Bower entered the banking industry as vice president of public relations for the First National Bank of North Kansas City, a position he held for 49 years.

Mr. Bower’s other community activities included serving for 17 years as either the treasurer or secretary for the North Kansas City Board of Education; president of the North Kansas City Kiwanis Club; Clay County March of Dimes president; and treasurer of the Earnest Shepherd Memorial Youth Center in Liberty.

Mr. Bower also served as the treasurer for numerous bonds campaigns.  In a 1997 interview civic leader Anita B. Gorman said of Mr. Bower, “Anytime his name was associated with anything, it helped because then people knew it was for a good cause.”

For his work with the Boy Scouts, Mr. Bower attained the title of Sagamore, which at the time was highest position of the Boy Scout Mic-O-Say Tribe.  He also received the “Silver Beaver” from the Boy Scouts of America, also the highest honor a Scout can receive.

The Heart of America Council – North Star District awards the H. Virgil Bower Unit Leader Award annually to the leader who has provided significant leadership.  Former Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle, who also served as the Boy Scout executive for Kansas City tried to convince Mr. Bower to complete the required training to become an executive himself.  Each time Mr. Bower said, “It’s not for me” and insisted on staying a volunteer leader.

For his work in the community, Mr. Bower was the 1992 recipient of the Clay County Economic Development Council Look North Award and in 1995 was selected by Fox 4 as one of Kansas City’s Symbols of Caregiving.  Mr. Bower also  received letters of commendation from Mayors, Governors, State and United States Senators, even Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan.

I looked up to Mr. Bower as a kid. When thinking of the legacy he left, I’m reminded of this saying: “What a man does for himself, dies with him. What he does for his community lives forever.”

I can’t think of a more deserving person to name Clay County’s first riverfront park after.

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