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Leading Locally: Willow Springs Community Foundation

Dating to 1882, the Howell County community began because of the railroad. Today, it’s still well-connected from its location along U.S. 60, but also close to nature. Just one example: CCC-built Noblett Lake, about 15 miles away.

Affiliate foundations

Group helps individuals, as well as collective need

The Willow Springs Community Foundation improves life every day by improving everyday life.

Since its inception in 1993, the Howell County-based foundation has used its resources to focus on needs like housing, commercial development, community services, historic preservation and local pride.

“For a town to grow, you have to have jobs, you have to have someplace where people to work, you have to have someplace for people to live,” says Dean Aye, a board member of the WSCF and its executive director. “You have to have all kinds of houses; you have to have low-income houses and high-income houses. You have to have a good educational base and to have some form of recreation. Of those things, what can we have an impact on?”

Several of them, as it turns out. The foundation currently owns 29 houses, which are available for individuals and families on limited incomes. The group also buys distressed properties, demolishes the structures, cleans them off and prepares them for, down the road, building more houses.

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Willow Springs is located in Howell County.

While serving as a charitable resource for donors and agencies in the community, WSCF’s ownership and management of property sets it apart from other affiliate foundations of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, which it joined in 2001.

Additionally, the WSCF owns several commercial buildings which it has restored — or is in the process of doing so — that have given back space, resources and support for a vibrant downtown. One example of the latter is the town’s historic Star Theater, which the WSCF owns, and is used by the community on a regular basis for bluegrass and country music shows.

“The Star Theater became a theater in 1920. It’s just down the street,” Aye says. “It’s next door to the annex which we use in tandem. The theater burned in ’72 the first time and in ’16 the second time. The Community Foundation stepped in and rebuilt it, so we have a history of stepping into these downtown properties.”

Efforts behind the WSCF’s work date back to the time when Wendell Bailey, a staunch local supporter and WSCF board member, was in office as Missouri’s state treasurer. Through another role he held with the Missouri Housing Development Corporation, he helped lead the creation of a government program that allowed communities to apply for grant funding to build low-income housing.

“He rolled out this program where you can apply for government grants to build low-income housing. It was not without some difficulty for communities to get involved because they had to have some infrastructure; somebody to manage these houses and properties,” Aye says. “They did it with sweat equity and volunteerism, and just an awful lot of vision, I think. Then it finally got to the point where it sort of funded itself after a dozen years or so.”

Individuals from many walks of life live in the homes owned by the WSCF.

“The community has to be behind them or we can’t do much of anything. The low-income — it’s not necessarily as what you think of as ‘low’ income,” says Jackie Williamson, a WSCF board member. “We have people that have been engineers at the highway department, we have teachers, we have nurses. Those are the people that are renting our houses.”

“We’ve got one house that that was built 20 years ago, and the same lady lives in it,” says Aye. “We get people who stay for a very long time. We also get people who move up and get on their feet and buy their own home.”

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Located in downtown Willow Springs, the Ferguson Building was restored by the WSCF. It currently serves as home to the foundation, and offers space for community events and gatherings.

The properties are managed by Aye and Donna Eggert. After 25 years of low-income rental, the program forgives the remainder of the debt and allows entities to sell property. That’s what the WSCF has done with a few of its homes, which gives cash to reinvest in new ways — like the McClellan building, a landmark in downtown Willow Springs that was close to collapse.

“Arriving here in this community, one of the things I heard about was the McClellan Building,” says Robert Hollis, a board member who recently moved to Willow Springs. “It was one of the most important issues to the public around.

“There was a group that was trying to deal with the building and weren’t getting anywhere, to the point where the city’s hand was forced to essentially condemn the building and demolish it.

“In our infinite wisdom,” Hollis says with a smile, “we decided we’d take on the project and try to save the building. Most of us were of a like mind that it was the best thing for the community.”

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One of the WSCF's latest projects is the McClellan Building, which it owns and is renovating.

Once renovations are complete, it’s expected that the property will be sold — accomplishing two goals for the community: One is the preservation of the building and its status as a community icon, but another is that once it sells, the property tax it generates in private hands will benefit the local community.

“We are getting serious enough and built up enough in the community here that I think people are going to see that and want to start endowments and things of that nature,” says Phil Chafin, the WSCF board president, giving an example of another project the board would like to pursue, “where we can do more things like this building right across the street from us.”

It’s not the first commercial building the foundation has rehabilitated. Another is where they sit: The Ferguson Building, which now serves as the foundation’s offices. The Ferguson Building also provides space for community meetings and offers free computer use with high-speed internet access — a valuable tool in rural areas.

Looking ahead: Potential acquisitions and further development

One of the primary projects is work on the McClellan Building, which just began in November 2023. Once complete, it will feature mixed-use space, with apartments upstairs and retail on the main level.

Beyond that, Aye speaks of federal grant applications which are underway around solar energy and additional housing units which, if they are approved, would substantially expand the foundation’s efforts.

“You’ve got to have housing; that brings your businesses in. If you bring the people to businesses, suddenly you have a thriving community,” Aye says.

“But they’ve got to be able to recreate somewhere, you got to be able to have housing, and they want their kids to be well educated. And they want good jobs. We can do all that.”

In their own words

Why do you serve?

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“I believe we are the caretakers of our community; it belongs to our children and their children. I serve every day to make their lives better.“

—Dean Aye, WSCF board member and executive director

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“We’re making this something that I hope people down the line will say, ‘I’d like to help that out. They did this; they did that. They’re cleaning up this and making our town better.’ That they can see we’re making the town better from the effort put forth.”

—Phil Chafin, WSCF board president

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“I want to be helpful in community service. Part of my lifestyle change coming here was I wanted to be involved.”

—Robert Hollis, WSCF board member

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“I grew up here, and I’ve been involved with the Chamber, and my husband is a pastor; he was involved in the school board forever in a day. It’s home and you don’t want it to go away.”

—Jackie Williamson, WSCF board secretary/treasurer

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