SMITH CENTER, Kan. – Followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, known for founding the transcendental meditation movement, recently broke ground on a complex they are calling the World Capital of Peace.
The $14 million project will sit on 480 acres of land in north-central Kansas, near the Nebraska border and close to the geographical center of the continental United States.
“I really felt good about it,” said Smith Center Mayor Randy Archer, whose initial reservations about the Maharishi moving to the region were put to rest at the groundbreaking last week.
“I think they will blend and mesh with the community and the county. But any time a change comes in, usually it’s scary.”
The transcendental meditation movement began in India in the 1950s and is best-known for celebrity disciples that included the Beatles, comedian Andy Kaufman and actor and director Clint Eastwood.
The Maharishi-affiliated groups at work in Smith Center are nonprofit organizations known as the U.S. Peace Government and the Global Country of World Peace. Officials said they chose Smith Center because of its quiet, rural setting in middle America.
“It’s not a closed community that won’t let anybody else be a part of what we are doing,” Kent Boyum, an ecologist and the director of government relations for the Global Country of World Peace, said of the Maharishi.
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Boyum said the Smith Center complex will include 12 to 15 buildings, each about 12,000 square feet, with living quarters and meeting space. He said people living in the community will focus on practicing transcendental meditation and organic farming, but the site also will be open to tourists.
Smith Center is the centerpiece of a number of “Peace Palaces” the group intends to build across the Midwest, Boyum said. Two such single buildings are planned for Lawrence and the Kansas City area.
“The people who practice are all kinds of people – all shapes, all colors. Some have religion. Some don’t,” Boyum said. “It isn’t an absolute way of life. Some people just add to their normal way of life and have less stress.”
Like Archer, some people in the area had initial reservations about a new group of people moving to the area. They point to the lack of local water and wonder whether there will be enough to support such a massive increase in development.
But most trepidation is due to a number of misconceptions that accompany Maharishi.
“The rumors are it’s a cult and they are going to make underground bunkers and build nuclear weapons,” said Archer, who estimates about 95 percent of the population is on board for the project. “That’s not what they are about.”
While Boyum said the buildings for the World Capital of Peace will be built mostly in a factory, then erected on site, the economic windfall for a town with an aging population of about 1,800 is enticing.
“I feel very positive about it. The thought of people coming in and spending money is very positive,” said Charles Sellens, an administrative assistant for the Smith County Commissioners. “They not only sound professional, they are professional.”