Columbia merchants look to enliven fall Saturdays for fans

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Ole Miss has The Grove. Florida and Georgia host the world’s largest outdoor cocktail party each fall in neutral-site Jacksonville.

Missouri? Let’s just say the Midwest school preparing to bolt the Big 12 Conference for the Southeastern Conference later this year has some catching up to do when it comes to football tailgate traditions.

As rabid fans from Alabama, Georgia and other soon-to-be rival schools continue to flood local hotels with fall Saturday reservations, some local business and civic leaders want to enliven the Mizzou game-day experience by creating a “Tiger Town” fan zone in downtown Columbia.

The details are still being worked out, but preliminary plans call for public- street closures in an area directly north of the Missouri campus and south of Broadway, a main city thoroughfare.

Picture beer gardens, outdoor concerts, autograph stations featuring past Missouri athletes, live radio broadcasts, a family-friendly play area and a “Tiger Trail” pathway lined with fans as the team walks toward Faurot Field.

The goal is to start small and build local support, said Bob Gerding, a downtown Columbia accountant and one of the plan’s boosters.

“Traditions aren’t born in one night or one year,” he said Tuesday. “This is going to take a little work.”

Gerding and his partners, including businessman Greg Steinhoff, a former state economic development director, envision a weekend experience that would begin Friday night and extend beyond the final whistle. Creating a hospitable environment for visiting Southeastern Conference fans — and their wallets — is as important as serving Missouri’s home crowd and its students, said Rick Means, chief operating officer for Shelter Insurance Co.

Early estimates suggest Missouri can expect an average of 7,500 visiting football fans at home conference games, or between three and four times the size of the typical number of visitors that accompanied Big 12 Conference rivals, Means said. The football Tigers are scheduled to host Georgia, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Kentucky this fall.

“We need to find a place for these folks,” he said. “We want to make a good first impression.”

That hasn’t always been the case for opposing fans, Gerding said, singling out the vitriol often reserved for supporters of the rival Kansas Jayhawks.

“We need to really welcome these people ... and get away from the hatred,” he said.

Those plans were met largely with enthusiasm Tuesday afternoon by members of the city’s Downtown Community Improvement District, which agreed to offer several members to serve on the various committees tasked with making the vision become a reality over the next eight months.

Their work will likely include proposed changes to a city ordinance that prohibits public alcohol consumption. Similar exceptions are already made for a summer outdoor music series on Ninth Street and a fall weekend blues concert that closes downtown streets and parts of the University of Missouri campus.

Columbia police chief Ken Burton, who attended the business owners’ briefing, said he generally supports the idea. His department plans to reach out to their counterparts in Auburn, Ala., Baton Rouge, La., Tuscaloosa, Ala., and other SEC towns for further guidance.

“Anytime we add people (downtown), there are concerns from my perspective,” he said. “But nothing is impossible.”

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