The King of Cass County’s bold vision for Harrisonville imploded. Can anyone revive it?
It’s 5 pm on a Monday night in downtown Harrisonville. Only one other car is parked in the square. The clock tower that sits atop City Hall strikes five times, and tiny American flags are planted six inches apart on the ground below, hanging limp in the humid air. An unseen motorcycle’s revving engine is the only noise puncturing the eerily quiet town square.
Nearly every building in the square is closed—not only tonight but every night. Once, the downtown square in Harrisonville aimed to be the “Westport of South Kansas City.” At least, that’s what was envisioned by Delbert Dunmire, an eccentric millionaire who casts a long shadow over Cass County. After long feuding with city planners, Dunmire faced lawsuits and bureaucratic red tape that eventually caused him to abruptly leave town and close the doors to all of his properties—eighty percent of the square—literally overnight. Six years after his death, for-sale signs are still taped crookedly across dusty windows.
JT’s Steak and Seafood, which claims to have the largest outdoor patio in Missouri, is the only place open in the square this evening. Inside, on-the-clock employees talk to the only customers—off-the-clock employees sit at the bar.
Larry Rains owns JT’s, one of a dozen properties on the square that were once owned by Dunmire—Rains purchased them in a “buy two, get ten free” special. Rains started out as a school teacher, then became a social worker, but he’s always thought of himself as having an “entrepreneurial spirit.” He got into real estate before the economic crash of 2008, which sent him back to substitute teaching and led him to open JT’s in the former Younger’s bar, one of the few Dunmire properties that was actually completed. Rains jokes about JT’s chef and steak master, Tad Lee, a seeming reflection of the restaurant itself: “He might not be crap on the Plaza, but, dammit, down here he’s everything.”
And that seems to be the sentiment for everything around Harrisonville. It’s certainly not booming at the level of Kansas City or its close-in suburbs. The town is composed mainly of pastureland and strip malls along a small intersection of highways, but there’s always been hope from its people that it could someday be more.
Rains is also a big booster of the town he now owns a big chunk of, and while JT’s is his only property in operation, he’d like to see more up and running. However, that isn’t so simple. The buildings in the square have been boarded up and abandoned for almost a decade. It will likely cost millions to renovate them.
To understand why so much of the square has remained closed for so long, it’s important to know the rocky history of Harrisonville’s downtown square—and the equally rocky history of Del Dunmire, the man who once owned almost all of it.
Harrisonville is a town of about ten thousand people, the vast majority of whom are white. Only fifteen percent of the population of adults has a four-year college degree. It has historically been a place of farmers who pride themselves on their salt-of-the-earth attitudes. Throughout the Civil War, Cass County was caught between border warfare. The Union army occupied Harrisonville and repurposed city hall as a stable for their horses.
Ownership of Harrisonville’s downtown square has historically been a symbol of who holds power in Cass County at any given moment. The square was easy to take without much of a fight and easily discarded when a battle ended. And Del Dunmire was not the first man with fantastical visions of making Harrisonville his idea of paradise only to come to ruin.
In 1972, the square became the site of boiling tensions between townspeople and a group of hippies who saw the area’s cheap land as a potential utopia. A rag-tag group of young men led by twenty-five-year-old Charlie “Ootney” Simpson—an acolyte of Henry David Thoreau who sported long, greasy hair as a middle finger to the townies—occupied the courthouse square for most of the spring. The group was mostly forgotten, uncared-for Vietnam veterans and men who had seen time inside cell blocks. After many run-ins with the local cops, they had developed a defiant, aggressive attitude toward locals stuck in the “old way of thinking.”
Ootney and his gang of misfits were determined to make a better life for themselves and, like Dunmire, had constant run-ins with authority as they resolved not to do as they were told.
Ootney became disgruntled after being forced to give up the funds he had saved for a few acres he planned to turn into an idealistic “Walden-like” escape. He used his remaining cash for friends’ bail after bogus arrests to keep them in check and out of the townies’ business.
The situation ended in tragedy as Ootney pulled up to the square’s bank wearing old army fatigues and fatally shot two policemen and a bystander before killing himself.
Joe Eszterhas, a journalist turned screenwriter who penned zeitgeisty scripts like Basic Instinct, was so fascinated by these bizarre events in the tiny town that he wrote about Ootney’s rampage and the events leading up to it in his book Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse.
After that, future projects started expanding outward, toward the highway.
Due to decades of bad PR, the nearly empty square was “ripe pickings” for Dunmire, a native of an eastern Pennsylvania mining town called Cloe. Dunmire landed in Kansas City after founding his business, and he was eager to buy up the empty, cheap real estate in Harrisonville that he thought had been underutilized for decades.
“They were looking for somebody to save them and, you know, get the square back to its good old days,” says Jennifer Reed, director of the Cass County Historical Society.
“I once asked him, ‘Was it the money that drove you crazy, or was it the fact that you were crazy that made you the money?’”
Nearly everyone in Harrisonville has a story to tell about Del Dunmire, and every person says the same thing about him: You either loved or hated him. There was no gray area.
Dubbed the “trailer-park millionaire,” Dunmire’s ascent into ultra wealth is unbelievable. After dropping out of college at the University of Buffalo, Dunmire served a short stint in the air force before being sent to prison for robbing a bank in the small town of Abilene, Kansas, to pay off gambling debts. After being released from prison for good behavior, Dunmire returned to college at KU and studied aeronautical engineering. He went on to found his own company, Growth Industries Inc., which sold essential aviation parts. In the aerospace industry, he quickly acquired more money than he knew what to do with.
The rest of Dunmire’s life was dedicated to spending his fortune in bizarre and indulgent ways.
“I once asked him, ‘Was it the money that drove you crazy, or was it the fact that you were crazy that made you the money?’” recalls Tad Lee, the chef at JT’s Steak and Seafood and a former drinking buddy of Dunmire’s. Lee met Dunmire when he dined at Lee’s family restaurant. The day Lee met him, Dunmire was passed out at one of their tables. Lee asked his mother if she wanted him to throw Dunmire out. Instead, she told Lee to make a pot of coffee for him.
The stories of Dunmire that dominate his legacy are filled with blowing his fortune in extravagant ways, on lavish parties and getaways. He invited all of Kansas City to his second wedding to Debbie, a former secretary who was two decades his junior, in 1986 at Barney Allis Plaza. He gifted his bride a carnival merry-go-round, rented over a thousand rooms in nearby hotels for guests and spent more than one million dollars on the night. Evel Knievel was one of his groomsmen and had to be bailed out of jail before the ceremony for soliciting a prostitute. For Dunmire’s thirty-fifth high school reunion from Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney High School, he took his graduating class to the Bahamas for a three-day cruise. Dunmire’s other charitable donations include gifting hundreds of assault rifles to the Missouri Highway Patrol and a short-lived prairie dog exhibit for the Kansas City Zoo.
He was also an avid collector. He often went to estate sales and antique stores and bought up entire collections. Dunmire even went as far as buying the Hyde Park home where serial killer Bob Berdella killed six young men. When he didn’t have enough storage for all of his collectibles, he bought a Walmart in Harrisonville and renamed it “Bizarre Bazaar” to be used as a giant flea market to resell his vast array of items. The sign is still up, but the space never opened to the public.
Joni Mabary, a lifetime resident of Harrisonville, friend of Dunmire and owner of Joni Fashions in the square, fondly remembers Dunmire’s obsession with collecting. Mabary is somewhat of a collector herself—she is now in her mid-eighties, and her shop is crowded with vintage tuxedos, sparkly prom dresses and frilled wedding dresses. There’s no shortage of shoulder pads in the inventory.
Mabary recalls a memory of admiring the palm trees at Dunmire’s bar. She said she wanted one of her own, and Dunmire told her where he had gotten them. The next day she drove to the store, only to find that they were sold out. The salesperson said some man—they didn’t know who it was—had bought up every palm tree in stock.
“It was Del,” Mabary says with a laugh. “He was ornery.”
Even if Dunmire didn’t want something, he would get it out of spite. “You never wanted to be at an auction when Del was there ’cause if he found out that you wanted something, he’d just run the bid up,” Mabary says. “That’s the way he was.”
However, the project that was closest to Dunmire’s heart was revitalizing Harrisonville Square. One of Dunmire’s friends called his visions for it “fantastical.” Dunmire wanted the area to be like Westport—with a busy nightlife, restaurants, bars and art galleries.
The shooting of ’72 left the square a ghost town. The aging owners of the local businesses of yesteryear were eager to get out of what looked like a sinking ship. That’s when Dunmire came in and saw an opportunity. “He offered all the mom-and-pop shops money for their buildings, and they jumped on it as quickly as they could to get off the square and retire,” says David Atkinson, historian and co-author of Harrisonville.
By the early nineties, Dunmire was buying up all the properties in the square. It’s said that he spent more than ten million dollars buying up property around Harrisonville, often at the asking price or above—it wasn’t worth it for him to haggle.
“He gave them more money than what their building actually was worth because that’s the way the man was,” Mabary says. “He was a very giving person, and he had a lot of good ideas for the square, but he could never get the city to go along with things he wanted to do.”
Mabary credits her decades-long friendship with Dunmire to his providing her a good deal on the coveted space for Joni Fashions. “I kept saying, ‘Del, I want to buy this building.’ And he said, ‘You’ll get that building one of these days, and you’ll get a really good price, too.’ And I did,” Mabary says. Joni Fashions is the only original business bought by Dunmire that is still open for business in the square.
There are many stories like this from Harrisonville natives—of Dunmire walking around his factory and around the square, handing out hundred dollar bills to the people he passed.
Several friends of Dunmire remember a New Year’s Eve party in which he released innumerable balloons from the ceiling at midnight filled with money ranging from one-dollar to hundred-dollar bills. Everyone was free to pop the balloons and collect the cash inside.
Mabary remembers that New Year’s Eve celebration fondly: “I’m running around popping balloons like crazy, and I get a one-hundred-dollar bill. Well, I bought the whole table drinks, you know? I mean, it was New Year’s Eve—it was fun. But that’s the way Dunmire was. He was very generous.”
With all of his generosity and party-animal inclinations, Dunmire also had trouble being told what to do, and he often wanted the last word, both in business and in his personal life. Tad Lee recalls a night when he and Dunmire went out drinking and Dunmire handed Lee the key to his Porsche—just a single key on what Lee describes as “the biggest safety pin I’d ever seen in my life.”
The Porsche was filled with brown paper bags. Dunmire wrote down seemingly every thought he had on these bags, “His whole car—and it didn’t matter which car, he had several—was stuffed full of these brown paper bags,” Lee says.
Dunmire always wanted to surround himself with people who were smarter than him, Lee says. He would jot down notes during conversations or drawings of his idealistic future metropolis on scattered bags that would inevitably find their way into the console of his car or one of his property’s dumpsters. Several friends remember his cars being filled with trash—trash that actually contained his hasty plans for a future empire that never was. Once, Dunmire sketched out his “entire vision for the square” on a ten-foot cardboard lumber box that Lee kept as a keepsake in his shed for years.
Lee remembers finding a blank signed check among the paper bags in Dunmire’s Porsche. “I look down and I realize I’ve got a signed blank check from Del Dunmire, the richest man around. I can’t just leave that sitting in his car.” Lee recalls getting up early and beating on Dunmire’s door to wake him up, thinking, “Hell, he’s about to give me a thousand dollars for giving this back to him.” When Dunmire opened the door that morning, he only snatched the keys from Lee’s hands and slammed the door.
On another occasion, Dunmire retaliated out of jealousy because Lee was dating one of the bartenders from his restaurant. “I woke up one day and my front door was gone,” Lee says. “Just a hole where my front door was. And on one of his famous brown paper bags, he wrote, ‘You embarrassed me.’ I had that thing for years, too. I wish I still had it.”
With the vast amount of money he had, Dunmire also expected to have everything in Harrisonville he desired. That started a feud that ended with him leaving town.
“Dunmire didn’t like to be told what to do,” Rains says. “He had poured millions of dollars into the square, blew through a lot of his money so he could be the big fish in a little pond down here. That was important to him.”
As Dunmire began renovating more of his properties on the square, he began to continually run into problems with the coding department and other city bureaucracies.
“He had to fight tooth and nail to get anything done,” Lee says. “And of course, they would wait until he finished the project—like, Pearl Street Grill, for example, the first restaurant that Dunmire opened on this side of the square—and then say the overhang was two inches too wide.” Lee and other Harrisonville natives say city officials would wait until Dunmire’s projects were nearly complete before pointing out flaws he needed to correct, which would set Dunmire back several weeks or months on his timeline and cost a small fortune to fix.
When city officials and citizens were concerned with Dunmire’s developments and renovations on the square, they went to City Hall and got the buildings marked as historical landmarks to curb Dunmire’s attempts at change. “The square was put on the National Register of Historic Places, meaning that Dunmire technically couldn’t come in and change everything and tear stuff down without permission,” says Atkinson, co-author of Harrisonville.
Dunmire didn’t like being told no. Atkinson remembers times when Dunmire would get to work on buildings at 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning when the square was quiet and people were still asleep. By Monday morning, city officials would reprimand the unsolicited changes. “They’d say, ‘You can’t do that,’ and he’d say, ‘Well, I did, so what are you gonna do about it?’” Atkinson recalls.
That’s when things started going downhill. The dream of building a “Westport of south Kansas City” seemed to be drifting further and further away.
After one feud with city officials, Dunmire retaliated by placing “thousands” of yard signs around Harrisonville calling the then-mayor, Kevin Wood, a carpetbagger—
despite the fact that he was from Adrian, Missouri, twenty miles south of Harrisonville.
Joni Mabary says Dunmire had “great visions for the city, but he could just never agree with the people who worked for the city. He couldn’t get along with the city administrator—he couldn’t get along with anybody.”
This standoff culminated when Dunmire tried to take over the town, using Mabary as a proxy by running her for mayor on his dime.
Weary of the red tape, Dunmire marched into Joni Fashions and told Mabary to lock up the store and get her purse because they were going to City Hall.
He said, “You’re running for mayor, and I’m going to back you,” even though Mabary had no political experience and had been running the boutique in Harrisonville for several decades.
Dunmire financially backed Mabary, putting up red and white “Joni Fashions Mabary for Mayor” signs all across town.
“People in this city were scared to death that I was going to get in,” Mabary says. “I had more signs than anybody.”
Since Dunmire couldn’t get along with the city, he hoped a new mayor—a friend of his—could help him finally get his buildings opened.
“If I were mayor, then maybe he could get some of the stuff done that he wanted to do,” Mabary says. “But it doesn’t work that way in Harrisonville.”
The multitude of colorful signs and Dunmire’s financial backing weren’t enough. A third candidate entered the race, split the vote, and Mabary ended up in second place.
After Mabary’s loss, things continued to go downhill for Dunmire.
After buying so much property, Dunmire promised big results for the people of Harrisonville and their historic square “but then got sideways with some of the city leaders and just held [the properties] hostage,” Reed, the historian, says. “Basically he decided that he was just going to let some of these buildings he owned on the square disintegrate. They’re in such bad repair. It will literally take a million, if not more, to salvage them, which is so sad because of the history that’s in them.”
Finally, one day Dunmire locked up his buildings and escaped the mess he had created by heading down south to Texas with a new girlfriend. For nearly ten years, no one in Harrisonville heard from or saw Dunmire. The buildings he once owned sat empty, awaiting his return.
Most of the buildings sat vacant for nearly a decade, from around 2008 to 2016, with everything still inside them from the day Dunmire left. Papers on desks, never-used grills and cobwebs hanging from chandeliers. When Larry Rains took over several of Dunmire’s restaurant properties, he described the equipment inside as a twenty-year-old car with no miles on it. It wasn’t the newest stuff, but it had never been used—faux marble columns, crystal chandeliers, an ornate host stand with hand-carved figurines dancing around it.
Unfortunately, because these spaces were left vacant for so long, they were victims of vandalism and looting. Broken glass now sparkles between dust and crumbling ceilings.
Dunmire had retucked brick and relaid foundations before he left. He had fixed so many of the structures, but after a decade of being untouched, roofs started to cave, water got in and natural damage occurred.
Once Dunmire passed away in 2016, his children were eager to finally sell the decrepit spaces on the square. But major investments will have to be made to the spaces to get them up and running after nearly a decade frozen in time.
“They are going to have to find someone who has a passion for bringing old buildings back to life,” Reed says. “And it’s not necessarily going to make economic sense in the short term, but it might in the long term.”
“while he did do quite a bit of damage to the square, at the same time, in my opinion, he saved most of it.”
Once the king of the square, the big fish in a little pond, Dunmire now has virtually no remains in Harrisonville—except for the larger-than-life stories surrounding his short-lived visions for an empire and defunct buildings like the Bizarre Bazaar, which have sat vacant in a town that has struggled to keep up with the times.
Rains, like others in the square, is hopeful to renovate and remodel Dunmire’s old properties to give new life to Harrisonville’s square and continue Dunmire’s vision of a bustling nightlife.
Along with JT’s, the square currently has several lawyers’ offices—the only spaces Dunmire didn’t buy up—a cafe, wine bar, event space and, of course, Joni Fashions.
Katie Phelps, who works for the codes department and lives on the square, says, “I’m excited about the way things are going, especially living here. I don’t have to go anywhere else.” She and other Harrisonville locals are hopeful that soon there will be destinations on all four corners of the square, that more properties will be bought and renovated after a decade of boarded-up storefronts.
The square remains an underused, historically significant spot with lots of untapped potential. However, the people of Harrisonville think the future is looking brighter than it has in a long time, with more buildings being bought and renovated and more community events like the farmers market bringing folks to the square.
Many Harrisonville locals are also quick to point out that while Dunmire’s feuds got in the way of his visions of a bustling downtown, he did a lot to preserve the buildings in the square.
“To his credit, the first thing he did was checkpoint the buildings and put a new roof on them,” Atkinson says, “And frankly, if he had not done that, they all would have collapsed. So while he did do quite a bit of damage to the square, at the same time, in my opinion, he saved most of it.”