The northeastern Missouri town of Kirksville has a population of just over 17,000 people. It’s also home to Truman State University, a liberal arts school with about 6,000 students – a few of whom have worked hard to create their own sense of adventure in a town where there isn’t much to do.
“It’s a town where you have to roll up the sidewalks at night, you know? It’s that small,” says Jacob Hurst, a grad student at Truman State. “All we have is, like, a Wal-Mart. That’s what some kids do for a good time on a Saturday night: Just go walk around Wal-Mart.”
But not Hurst. He’s president of a local performing-arts enterprise called The Aquadome.
Students started the venue 15 years ago, and new generations of students have run it on an all-volunteer basis. The small, nondescript, brick and wood-paneled storefront in Kirksville’s downtown area doesn’t have any heat, but what it lacks in physical characteristics it makes up for in its culture, says Rachel Hain, the organization’s treasurer.
“The Aquadome is a place and a space for people to create art, to showcase their art, or to just come and watch people show their art to the community,” Hain says. “Really we just exist to give people a space to do that. And to give people a voice that otherwise wouldn’t have one.”
It hasn’t been easy. The Aquadome closed back in 2004 due to financial problems. Following a seven-year hiatus, it reopened in 2011. Then, two years later, frozen pipes caused the roof to collapse.
“It was really hard just watching the slow deterioration of the building,” Hain says. “Just driving past it every day was so hard. And when it finally all came down, it was just really surreal to see an empty space.”
But the students showed their resilience, and re-opened The Aquadome at the new location downtown.
Community members noticed. Betsy Delmonico, who has lived in Kirksville for more than 30 years, says it made her happy watching the students bounce back.
“I’m so glad they were able to overcome the building falling down two years ago,” Delmonico says. “Last year, I know it was difficult finding places (to host performances).”
Most recently, the students faced a new challenge: coming up with $400 to file paperwork to gain non-profit status with the IRS. For a group of students who can’t afford to pay for heat, that was no easy task.
In January, members and supporters gathered for a fundraiser. Hurst hoped the event would be successful enough to broaden the horizon for The Aquadome.
“(We’d like to be able) to do everything we’ve been doing but on a much larger, wider scale,” he says. “We have events about twice a month. What if we have those every single week? If we always have incoming bands? And we’d always have steady income from donations because they’re tax deductible. This is the great dream.”
Meanwhile, Hurst says, some of the lessons he has learned from running The Aquadome surpass those he learned in the classroom.
“It’s almost like The Aquadome comes first and it always has for me,” Hurst says. “Even when I have homework. There was the issue with the old pipes in the building that collapsed – it was absolutely horrible. But we still loved that building. We gave it everything. It’s a learning experience.”
About 50 people showed up for the January fundraiser. Support came from people of all backgrounds.
The night’s performances started with a local student musician, who was followed by a few student poets. Two local high school and college bands, American Brasswood and Two-Headed Cow, headlined the event.
And by the end of the night, Hurst had news to share.
“We made the $400 dollars!” he announced, to cheers and applause.
For the foreseeable future, it looks as if the community of Kirksville will have entertainment options other than the aisles of Wal-Mart.
Ross Terrell is a student anchor and producer with KBIA in Columbia, Missouri. Follow him on Twitter, @RossTerrell7.
This story is part of Artland, a regional public radio collaboration reporting on stories of creativity building community in unexpected places.
Eds. note: A previous version of this story identified Two Headed Cow as a high school band, they are a college band.