By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
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When Louis Blechle opened Blechle's Inn around 1950, state liquor laws required a town have at least 500 residents before its taverns could serve full-strength beer. At the time, O'Fallon, Missouri, lacked the necessary head count. Fortunately, though, the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood convent housed nearly 600 nuns and it was inside the city limits.
"Thanks to the nuns, we got to drink 5-percent," says Jim Blechle, son of the late Louis Blechle.
Descended from German immigrants who settled the area in the 1830s, the 63-year-old Blechle is that rare O'Fallonite who remembers when the city was so small.
O'Fallon, once a mere rail stop amid farm country, is now the largest city in St. Charles County, its population exceeding 72,000. It has become a magnet for young families and, in July 2006, was named a "Best Place to Live" by Money magazine. Much of O'Fallon's growth came in the 1990s, after the city widened Highway K, its main drag south of Interstate 70.
Old Town O'Fallon is north of I-70 and Main Street is its heart. The road passes Assumption Catholic Church, the convent, city hall and a series of low-slung storefronts. Just off Main sits a fifteen-acre shopping center O'Fallon Plaza that Blechle has owned since 1976. He says he always supported the city's expansion; the more the merrier, he thought.
"The reason Highway K got widened was because of people like myself," Blechle says. "Then they fuck us," he adds, alluding to the bruising civic battle that, even more than four years later, continues to reverberate. In fact, the political angst that lingers in O'Fallon today can be traced back to a May evening in 2003, when city leaders unveiled a $200 million downtown development plan. Under the plan, a group called Main Street Ventures would acquire 100 acres through eminent domain and plow under dozens of businesses and homes in Old Town. Main Street Ventures' concept was to build villas, apartments and boutique retail shops around a series of trails, green spaces and small lakes.
A firestorm of protest erupted. The notion of uprooting longtime business- and homeowners struck a raw nerve, even among O'Fallon's newcomers. "I've never seen this town as unified as it was then," recalls Jim Blechle's son and business partner, Steve Blechle.
The Blechles joined with threatened business owners and residents many of them senior citizens to form the Old Town Preservation Committee. They launched a campaign to torpedo the project and, within three months, Main Street Ventures was dead. Though the fight was to prevent eminent domain, the Blechles also took aim at Mayor Paul Renaud, the project's ringleader.
Amid the public outrage, Renaud abandoned the downtown development project. But the Blechles would not be satisfied until they ousted Renaud and the aldermen who had gone along with him. "I went after them as far as I could," Jim Blechle says.
The Blechles teamed with Randy Hudson, another Main Street business owner, and Lyn Schipper, whose wife worked at Hudson's jewelry store. Their unofficial headquarters was the Trigg Banquet Center, a recent addition to O'Fallon Plaza, owned by a former police officer and North St. Louis County businessman, Tom Wilkerson.
Through Wilkerson they met Rick Fischer, a Clayton lawyer and fellow north-county transplant, who would stop by for a beer on his way home from work. In the April 2004 election that followed the Main Street Venture brouhaha, three political newcomers, including Schipper, defeated three sitting aldermen. All ousted were project supporters. A month later Renaud, who had held office since 1995, announced that he would not seek re-election.
In the late fall of that year, Blechle and Hudson recruited a citizen activist named Donna Morrow to run for mayor. Hudson and two others ran as a "smart growth" slate. Morrow and two of the three challengers won in the 2005 election. (One of the challengers, Jimmy Mitchell, lost his race, but Morrow appointed him to the board after a Renaud ally resigned.)
Steve Blechle remembers the day after the election. He and his father were in the O'Fallon Plaza office, reveling in their victory. Ervin Davis, a veteran of St. Charles County politics, made a visit and announced, "Well gentlemen, now the hard work begins." Still grinning, Blechle didn't understand. "Now you got to keep it together," the gruff, retired family-court judge explained.
Blechle would soon realize what Davis meant. Instead of fighting Renaud, the newly elected officials began to fight among themselves. "We lost our cause," says Steve Blechle. "We lost our unifier, which was Main Street Ventures."
Since the contentious 2005 election, O'Fallon has weathered one political storm after the next. Top administrators fled, and the results of a blistering state audit initiated by a petition drive during the Main Street Ventures fight became public. Renaud's supporters were enraged by efforts to investigate the prior administration, calling it a witch-hunt. The backlash heightened when the anti-Renaud aldermen, forming a six-to-two majority, fired the city's popular police chief. The mistrust extended to a new city administrator, and the six-to-two alliance soon fractured. Three aldermen abruptly walked out of one meeting. Within a year, three members of the gang of six, as St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist John Sonderegger dubbed them, had resigned.