Sink or swim in Kimmswick: Amid financial crunch, locals work to keep tiny river town afloat

During the last weekend of October, Kimmswick’s city square usually bustles with tourists and vendors, making it a lively hub for commerce. But the cancellation of Kimmswick’s two major events – the Apple Butter Festival and Strawberry Festival – due to COVID-19 concerns has left this town on the brink of financial ruin.

Kimmswick, located along the Mississippi River about 30 miles southwest of St. Louis, faces the decision of cutting public works spending if funds cannot be recouped by year’s end, according to Mayor Phil Stang.

“We’re trying to get $200,000, and that will carry us through in the beginning of next year,” Stang said. “If we don’t get there, then we’re talking about laying off most of the people in the city (government), and we’ll have to curtail any public works.”

These layoffs would include full-time and part-time employees. Public works cuts include road maintenance and electricity, according to Stang. The town government’s annual revenue declined by 80% after the two festivals were canceled.

The Apple Butter Pavilion in Kimmswick is usually a hub for the town’s Apple Butter Festival. The town has canceled its marquee festivals the last two years. | Larissa Gao/Missouri Business Alert

The Apple Butter Festival alone attracts 100,000 visitors and between 500 and 600 vendors a year, according to the city’s website.

This is Kimmswick’s second consecutive year of canceled events and financial uncertainty. In the summer of 2019, the town saw the second-highest flood in its history, according to Stang. Flooding forced the cancellation of the 2019 Strawberry Festival.

“The city did not get wet,” Stang said. “But, it cost us over $150,000 to fight that flood.”

The expenses Kimmswick incurred guarding against last year’s flooding did not qualify for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, so the town was on the hook for them.

Hear more: The Speaking Startup podcast catches up with Kimmswick entrepreneurs

In addition to shutting down the main festivals, the pandemic has sidetracked infrastructure work designed to help Kimmswick court businesses. The Jefferson County Port Authority was supposed to begin construction on a new port in Kimmswick for the Delta Queen steamboat.

“That has also been held up somewhat by COVID,” Stang said, although he added that he is hopeful construction will start soon.

After the pandemic struck this year, the town government was not eligible for any direct funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act. Only local jurisdictions with populations above 500,000 were eligible for direct funding through that coronavirus relief package.

“That’s why we’ve gone to the internet,” Stang said. “We have a number of different events.”

A donation jar to raise funds for Kimmswick stands on a table at the Blue Owl Restaurant & Bakery. | Larissa Gao/Missouri Business Alert

These events, ranging from fundraising dinners to Christmas cookie walks, have been limited in size because the mayor takes the pandemic seriously. However, no mandate prohibits public gatherings.

“We have small events where we believe (in enforcing) social distancing, wearing masks, making sure people wash their hands — all that kind of stuff that is recommended by the CDC,” Stang said, referencing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “If we can have that kind of small event, we will.”

The financial hardships the town is facing have led many businesses owners to try to help. Mary Hostetter, owner of the Blue Owl Restaurant & Bakery, advocates for Kimmswick.

“We’ve done a lot of news media and a lot of TV shows and things like that to be able to let the people know that the city of Kimmswick, which is near and dear to very many people in their hearts … they’re hurting for finances,” Hostetter said.

Cindy Huckstep owns the local Dough Depot Cafe, another business trying to support Kimmswick. She approves of the job Stang is doing.

“This is something that no one has ever been through before,” Huckstep said. “I think that the city is in excellent hands. He’s doing everything within his means to try to get grants or some type of funding for the town.”

Dough Depot owner Cindy Huckstep holds a jar of apple butter at her store. Though the annual festival was canceled, many Kimmswick establishments still sell the seasonal treat. | Larissa Gao/Missouri Business Alert

For Huckstep, there is still uncertainty surrounding how the town’s money problems will affect her.

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” Huckstep said. “So hopefully we don’t find out.”

While Huckstep is uncertain about the future, Stang thinks that businesses will survive regardless of the town’s financial issues.

“The businesses would still be here,” Stang said. “The problem there is that they would then have a difficulty around services. I mean, the city provides lighting; they provide the road maintenance.”

A sign directs visitors to different sites in Kimmswick. The town’s mayor worries about municipal services if the town’s financial picture doesn’t improve. | Larissa Gao/Missouri Business Alert

Jefferson County Council member Charles Groeteke said that the county lacks the funds to help keep Kimmswick afloat.

“Frankly, there isn’t any money there to give to Kimmswick,” Groeteke said.

Groeteke said that the county would provide public services should the town become insolvent.

Most businesses in Kimmswick remain open; Stang said that six have closed since the start of the pandemic. Some, like the Kimmswick Visitor Center and the Dough Depot Cafe, are still selling apple butter. Many are accepting donations for the town government.

The local LaChance Winery held a sold-out fundraiser on Nov. 7 that raised more than $4,600 for the town through a silent auction. Other fundraisers include the 10th annual Cookie Walk, scheduled for early December, with a portion of proceeds going towards helping the town government. People can also donate directly to the city.

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