Conference center one step closer with details of two proposals

A long discussed project in Jefferson City is one step closer to becoming reality, but the plans unveiled late last week for a proposed conference center paint a slightly different picture than what the city was hoping for.

“It took 80 years to get here tonight,” said Mayor Eric Struemph at the opening of Thursday’s meeting to unveil proposed plans from two developers.

Those developers, Farmer Holding Company and Ehrhardt Hospitality Group, presented their proposed plans for a conference center at a special City Council meeting Thursday, with plans from both groups detailing a concept smaller in size than originally requested and with neither group willing to take the idea of an operating subsidy completely off the table.

Farmer Holding Company

The Farmer Holding Company’s proposal, presented by Rob Kingsbury and Kirk Farmer, detailed a 20,000 square foot facility with an accompanying 126-room hotel located at the Capital Mall site with a total price tag of $25 million, which includes the $9 million contribution from the city’s lodging tax fund.

Farmer said the development company would take on the remaining cost of the project, which is almost half the size of the facility originally requested by the city.

In its request for proposals, the city specified a facility with 30,000 square feet of exhibit space and an accompanying hotel with 200 rooms.

“We don’t think that project is feasible,” Farmer said. “Two hundred rooms may be too many rooms for the marketplace today.”

Farmer said the scope of the project outlined in the city’s RFP would cost more than $40 million and definitely would require an operating subsidy to keep the facility running. With the smaller facility as proposed by Farmer, he said either a smaller subsidy or no subsidy would be required to operate, but it’s still too early to tell.

“We don’t know exactly what the revenues will look like on the convention facility, so we’re not really sure where that number is going to end up,” Farmer said.

The plan laid out by Farmer and Kingsbury has the conference center and accompanying hotel, a Courtyard Hotel by Mariott, in a small corner of the Capital Mall lot, which Farmer said would leave open the possibility of a future expansion. The Capital Mall already has existing parking, but Kingsbury noted another 1,700 spots could be added, making the site equipped with more than 4,000 total parking spots.

“The last thing we want to do is have parking get in the way,” Kingsbury said.

Kingsbury said the site is level and ready to develop, meaning no added funds would be needed to get the ground to where it’s ready to build. He also noted more than 300 hotel rooms are available within two miles of the Capital Mall location, if overflow rooms are needed.

When asked whether the mall’s location would be a hindrance, as it is farther west from the downtown area and many of the city’s attractions, such as the Capitol, Farmer said there are options to get people to and from the downtown area and noted the site is only five miles from the Capitol itself.

“We’re really not very far,” Farmer said.

Kingsbury said the location is a realistic concern but if the developer sees a need to provide transportation to and from the downtown area, they would be willing to look into it. He added that not every convention would need to go to the Capitol or downtown at all.

“The mall is where it is and our site is where it is,” Kingsbury said.

Farmer and Kingsbury said the most important aspect now is to have a transparent, open process and a collaborative conversation that includes city leaders, both developers and the public.

“We want the convention center to happen in this city, because we live in this city,” Farmer said. “Whether we win or not is less important to us than it happening ... we want to see this city grow.”

Ehrhardt Hospitality Group

The Ehrhardt Hospitality Group’s proposal, presented by Scott Ehrhardt, Stan Ehrhardt, Spike Ehrhardt and Trey Propes, detailed a 22,500-square-foot facility with an accompanying 200-room hotel, though the developers stated they would be more comfortable with a 150-room hotel. The facility is proposed at the West McCarty Street site with a total price tag of $36.8 million, which does not include the cost of a parking garage, something the developers said they would ask the city to fund.

Scott Ehrhardt said a hotel with 200 rooms is “something we don’t want to fund personally,” and stated industrial revenue bonds would need to be issued to help build the hotel. Any industrial revenue bonds needed would have to be issued by the city and approved by the City Council.

“A 150-room hotel is something we’d be more comfortable with,” he said. “The 200-room hotel probably won’t be viable, not in this present market.”

In the developer’s proposal, the West McCarty Street site is listed as the right site for a conference center because of its proximity to other hotels, its visibility and because “the site is what voters were shown when they passed the lodging tax.”

Like the Farmer’s proposal, Ehrhardt has proposed the accompanying hotel be a Courtyard Hotel by Mariott.

When asked if there would be a need to come back to the city and ask for an operating subsidy down the line, Propes said it’s unknown at this point, but whatever the outcome, the chosen developer would need to work with the city on a solution.

“I can’t say if we would or wouldn’t, but we’d need to work together,” Propes said. “It is something that is possible.”

Spike Ehrhardt said they have the experience in operating a Courtyard Hotel and believe the McCarty Street site is a great location. When asked if there were any concerns with the location being in the flood plain, he said the lowest levels would be parking only, meaning if a flood were to occur, only parking areas would be flooded.

“I don’t think we’d have a problem with that at all,” Spike Ehrhardt said.

The plan, as detailed Thursday, includes a parking garage, which the developer said would need to be funded by the city. The designs show more than 300 spaces would be built, not including any surface parking made available using the lot across the street from the site.

The developer pointed out the Ehrhardt Hospitality Group has been involved in conference center discussions long before the city issued its latest request for proposals. In 2010, Ehrhardt Hotels indicated to the city an interest to build a hotel adjacent to the proposed conference center on West McCarty Street and continued to express interest during discussion on using the old Missouri State Penitentiary site.

“We’ve been after a conference center in this town for a good number of years,” Scott Ehrhardt said. “Jefferson City has been left behind because they don’t have quality meeting space.”

Find complete proposals for the conference center at www.newstribune.com/jcmo.

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