Surrounded by black curtains and bright stage lights, Melissa Trierweiler watches attentively from atop a riser as a handful of girls argue around a make-believe picnic.
“Angles,” Trierweiler calls out firmly, and two of the girls immediately adjust their stances, still quarreling and without missing a beat.
Since last year, Trierweiler has been working as a professional actor in Kansas City. But every summer, she drives out to the Presser Performing Arts Center in Mexico, Missouri, where she directs children’s plays and helps run the center’s two-week summer camp.
“This place really has my heart because I grew up here and it’s how I discovered theater,” Trierweiler said. “This place has thoroughly impacted my life.”
For Trierweiler, who grew up about 40 miles from Mexico but annually attended Presser’s summer camps as a teenager, the center gives her a reason to visit and reinvest in the town that helped nurture much of her childhood.
That kind of reinvestment is exactly what Presser is attempting to inspire in Mexico. With the Great Recession, the migration of steel manufacturing overseas and the 2002 closure of the city’s famous A.P. Green firebrick plant, Mexico has fallen victim to the same stagnant population and economic growth that many rural U.S. towns have experienced over the last three decades.
According to census data, Missouri’s overall population has grown by roughly 1 million, or about 19 percent, since 1990. Meanwhile, between 1990 and 2009, Mexico’s population dropped, from 11,522 to 11,060.
But that trend appears to be shifting. Mexico’s population has rebounded to 11,655 this year — the highest the city has seen since the U.S. Census Bureau began keeping track in 1990.
Business licenses are up, too. According to city officials, new business jumped from 37 in both 2015 and 2016 to 102 in 2017.
Some believe Presser has played a pivotal role in that recovery. Those who invested in the center’s $3.5 million renovation completed last fall did so because they believe “the arts is going to save Mexico,” said Lois Brace, the center’s executive director.
Presser itself isn’t a huge employer for the city, having only 17 staff. Rather, Brace said, the facility provides an important arts destination for the region, incentivizing more white-collar workers to raise their families in Mexico.
“They used to be employed here and work here as physicians and attorneys and executives, but live in Columbia because they want things to offer their children,” Brace said. “Well, now they’re starting to move here and live here and stay here.”
Reinventing a rich history with arts
Located in a place known more for livestock and manufacturing than art, the Presser Performing Arts Center can come as a surprise to some. From the outside, the three-story brick building blends in seamlessly with the historically industrial rural town around it.
Inside the structure, however, the complex opens up into a brilliantly lit and expansive modern arts facility. It features two state-of-the-art theaters that seat more than 1,200 together, an art gallery with vaulted ceilings and several studios where painting, performance art, dance, music and filmmaking are taught.
Many of those programs, including dance, yoga and music, are only now available because of the 9,200-square-foot addition completed last November, Brace said. Presser raised $3.5 million to install the new wing, she said, which has allowed the center to more than quadruple its programming.
“People were getting bored with what we were providing, so they weren’t coming anymore,” Brace said. “If we didn’t grow, we were going to die.”
But it was hardly the first time the nearly century-old building had gotten a facelift. Originally named Presser Hall, the building was constructed in 1925 as a part of Mexico’s all-female Hardin College and has a rich history of supporting the arts in many forms, said Lori Pratt, director of the Audrain County Historical Society.
Before it was renovated into a modern performance hall in 1987, Pratt said, the building housed a women’s finishing school, acted as a music conservatory and, at one point, even showcased circus acts.
“In fact, at one time, it had been a vaudeville theater — Presser Hall itself,” Pratt said. “There have been elephants up on that stage. There have been monkeys.”
Today, the space acts as a regional arts hub, Brace said, serving 26 zip codes and seeing about 20,000 people shuffle through its doors each year.
The center has an operating budget of about $250,000, with annual revenue of around $200,000 from ticket sales, donations and grants.
Brace anticipates those numbers will likely grow with the new facility and programming. After last year’s construction, the opening show, “Peter Pan,” filled the center’s 850-capacity main theater for the first time in years, she said.
“It’s more comfortable, it’s pleasant and it rivals any arts center in all of mid-Missouri,” Brace said. “And it’s something that (we’re) proud of.”
Economic growth through the arts
Using art as an economic driver is nothing new, said GK Callahan, the community and arts specialist for University of Missouri Extension in Clay County.
Cities across the country have long used the arts to draw in business, Callahan said. But more recently, he said, it seems that rural Missouri towns are starting to follow suit, too. “I think a lot of rural communities are looking at all kinds of ways to be creative to keep their communities vibrant,” Callahan said.
The arts and culture industry in Missouri generated more than $1 billion in total statewide economic activity in 2015, according to a study commissioned by the Missouri Arts Council. That includes created jobs, money spent by arts organizations and goods and services like increased retail sales and tourism, the study says.
Michael Gaines, executive director for the Hannibal Arts Council, said his city of roughly 17,000 has been using art to drive its economic development for the last 15 years. For example, Gaines said, Hannibal’s annual arts festival has brought in up to $750,000 in revenue over just one weekend.
Gaines said investing in the arts can also have a ripple effect, benefiting other, unintended industries. “In Hannibal, we’ve had instances where over $5 million in real estate has been sold to artists who we’ve recruited to move here,” he said.
Brace said it’s difficult to measure exactly how much economic impact Presser has on Mexico. But what is clear, she said, is the value the community places on the center.
The vast majority of the $3.5 million raised for last year’s renovation came from private community donations, Brace said, with the highest single donation reaching $1.5 million.
Russell Runge, Mexico’s assistant city manager and director of economic development, agrees that Presser is an asset to the city. “It’s difficult to attract people to a community of our size,” he said. “Especially if we don’t have certain features that they’re expecting that they can find in much larger communities.”
Kyle Yeast, like Trierweiler, said Presser gives students there a reason to come back to Mexico while also acting as a launchpad for larger aspirations like college.
Yeast, who’s a senior at Mexico High School and played a leading role in a recent production of “Little Princess,” said her time at Presser has helped develop her confidence and communication skills.
Trierweiler said that’s the beauty of Presser: it gives everyone in Mexico more opportunities. “Everyone who comes in, comes out a little more confident in their communication skills, their leadership skills,” she said. “Whether or not they continue doing theater with their lives, like I decided to do, I think everyone gets something out of participating here.”