Towns meditate on fate of peace palace project

The Associated Press/September 19, 2008

Kansas City, Missouri: Folks in the Kansas prairie town of Smith Center were a little skeptical when they were told more than two years ago that their poor rural county soon would become home to the World Capital of Peace.

Now they're scratching their heads even more over the spectacle 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of town, where the Transcendental Meditation movement is either building "peace palaces" or laying the foundation for a 40,000-student university, depending on who is being asked.

Sprawled across about 300 acres (121 hectares) of farmland near the geographical center of the Lower 48 states are huge buildings in various states of construction, many just bare metal framework jutting up from the ground.

The TM movement created a stir around Smith Center in 2006 when leaders announced that the complex of peace palaces and an organic farm would be finished by year's end.

It didn't happen, and today only one of the buildings is near completion. Most of the workers are gone, and plans for the World Capital of Peace project have turned into the Maharishi Central University, where the proposed school's probable president says at least 10,000 students will be enrolled when it opens, possibly within five years.

"It's very much in the developmental stages," said John Hagelin, who would lead the university. "The ultimate vision is 40,000 students. We're probably not interested in something smaller than 10,000 students."

Hagelin, who is director of the Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, said the Smith Center project is on hold as the TM organization deals with the February death of its founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

"In terms of big projects, and Maharishi launched many of them," Hagelin said, "we really have to prioritize and that takes input from countries all around the world."

He said it would take more than $100 million to start up the university - which he had wanted to have open two years after construction began - and that kind of money isn't easy to find amid a national banking crisis. Because of that, he said, a more reasonable estimate would be that the university will open in five to 10 years.

"We really can't move forward to achieve the vision of a university of 10,000 students without the capital infrastructure in place," Hagelin said. "Until it is I don't think there will be much more activity or building there because it won't support our goal."

For some Smith Center residents, whose county about 260 miles (418 kilometers) northwest of Kansas City is one of the state's poorest, there's nothing uncertain at all about the future of a university in their area.

"In my personal opinion, I'm 60 years old and I'll be damned if I see a college with 20,000 people, or even 5,000 of them," said Al Freiling, an auctioneer and the real estate agent who sold some of the land for the TM complex.

Residents in the town of 1,800 were perplexed when most of the people working on the peace palaces left the area in the spring. Communication between the meditators and community virtually dried up, prompting locals to draw their own conclusions.

"I honestly don't think they're around," Freiling said. "My personal opinion is that deal may just never finish. There's just not anything happening."

The Global Country of World Peace picked Smith County for the site of its $15 million peace capital because its location is a central point from which the meditators say they can transmit their calming vibes to create peace.

TMers believe that if enough of them meditate together, they can bring order and harmony to the collective consciousness in a phenomenon known as the Maharishi Effect. In essence, they send out positive "waves of coherence" that influence the behavior of others.

It would take the square root of 1 percent of the world's population meditating at once to create world peace, the theory goes.

"We consider them to be a cult," said the Rev. Dennis Lambert, whose church is near where the World Capital of Peace is being built.

Lambert was among a small group of people who in 2006 dug up what they believe to be a Hindu idol on a rural property that meditators had once owned about 10 years ago. The figure, a hollow metal animal, contained fake jewels symbolic of the nine planetary gods, he said.

"The fake jewels were crushed and the metal deal was destroyed with heat," Lambert said. "It was believed to have demonic influence and that's the way we dealt with it."

Around the time the Smith County project was in its early stages, the Global Country of World Peace was announcing plans for peace palaces in places like Seward County, Nebraska, and Goshen, Indiana.

But chamber of commerce officials in both of those communities say they haven't heard anything about the palaces.

Elsewhere, lawsuits related to the palaces - both pertaining to local zoning rules - in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, and Parma, Ohio, have delayed construction in those communities.

In Smith Center, with a population of about 1,800, residents were told that about 300 people would initially live in the two-story palaces, with the potential for that number to grow to 2,000 within three years.

The announcement led to tension as local pastors readied for a fight for "the eternal souls" of the people and growers questioned what was being done with a large chunk of prime farmland. Many also questioned why the meditators would pick one of the poorest counties in the state for its grand vision.

"I wish it would have happened someplace else," said Arthur Kuhlmann, chairman of the Smith County Commission.

From the start, county officials weren't expecting a big economic impact despite the project's proposed scale. Kuhlmann said the developers even asked his commission for a reduction in property taxes because the land was going to be used for educational purposes.

"We didn't give it to them," he said.

Kent Boyum, the Global Country of World Peace's director of government affairs, assures that the Smith County project remains in the works. He said problems with financing and utilities have caused delays.

"You have to realize that it's eight or nine miles from Smith Center," Boyum said. "There are no utilities there. It takes some time to get the appropriate amount of electricity eight or nine miles. I always knew it would take some time for that."

Boyum was one of the group's members at a June 2006 meeting where plans for development were laid out for the community.

"I think it was ambitious and seeing the large view was definitely the case," he said. "We have no intention not to do it, that's for sure."

That was before the "vision" was expanded and the goal became to build a world-class university in a most unlikely spot.

"A 10,000-student university in the middle of nowhere is not going to happen," Lambert said.

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