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Council to meet in private with 2 hoteliers, local developer

About 3 conference center plans being pitched

Three development groups are poised to move on to the second phase of review in the Jefferson City Council’s dogged pursuit of a new conference center for the Capital City.

Ehrhardt Hospitality Group, based in Hannibal, pitched a plan to build its facility on the state-owned property adjacent to Broadway and West McCarty Street.

Drury Development Company, based in St. Louis, also sent a proposal for that site, as well as the Missouri State Penitentiary site or any other locale that meets the city’s requirements.

Farmer Holding Company, the only local developer, proposed building its conference center at the Capital Mall, which the developer purchased in December.

The Jefferson City Council met in executive session Monday to examine the three proposals and decide their fates.

Although the Ehrhardt and Drury proposals were moved forward to Phase 2 with unanimous votes, the Farmer Holding Company’s proposal did not receive unanimous support.

Three council members — Carrie Carroll, Ralph Bray and Larry Henry — voted against the Farmer Holding Company’s plan.

In interviews, Bray and Carroll said they believe it is necessary to build any new conference center in closer proximity to the Missouri State Capitol and other downtown amenities.

Spike Ehrhardt, co-owner of Ehrhardt Hospitality Group, said the process is in the preliminary stages. He said his group prefers the West McCarty Street site because of its proximity to the state Legislature and the access to Highway 50. His team plans to work with the Marriott hotel chain.

“We think it will serve the community well,” he said. “We’re in the running, but we may not be chosen.”

Representatives from Drury and Farmer Holding Company did not return calls on Thursday.

The developers each will be invited to present their proposals to the City Council in the coming weeks. The meetings will be held in closed sessions since the proposals are still under negotiation.

In February 2011, Jefferson City voters approved a 7 percent lodging tax on hotel and motel guests. The proceeds were intended to be “expended for the promotion of tourism,” according to ballot language. The tax expires in 2035, but it is expected to generate a $9 million revenue stream officials hope to use for a conference center.

The council sent out the request for conference center proposals last December; the deadline to submit ideas was Jan. 31. As envisioned by city officials, the city would enter into a partnership with a hotelier, or developer, to construct an exhibition or banquet hall.

The city’s query specified a minimum of 200 hotels rooms and 30,000 square feet of ballroom/exhibit space, plus 10,000 square feet of space for back-of-the-house operations. The city also asked interested hoteliers to indicate how much additional meeting space they would provide, asking for a minimum of 10,000 square feet.

Bray, who represents the Fifth Ward, said the request for proposals lacked specificity, but that was by design. “In order not to rule any concept out, it was kept open so everyone felt welcome to participate,” he said.

As one of the three who voted against the Farmer Holding Company’s proposal, Bray said his decision was not related to any opposition to that company, but stemmed from his conviction the conference center must be near the Capitol.

“What F and F Development Co. have done at the Capital Mall is great for the community. It’s another shot in the arm, and it’s going to become a great destination,” he said. “But for Jefferson City’s financial involvement, it’s a better investment for our conference center to be in close proximity to the downtown.”

(Founded by Mike and Bud Farmer, F and F Development Co. owns Capital Mall JC LLC.)

Bray added dozens of state associations — that established their headquarters in Jefferson City to be near the lawmakers — are expected to be some of the prime users of any new conference center. “It’s no accident they are located in Jefferson City’s downtown,” he said.

Carroll, who represents the Fourth Ward, was pleased to see the three developers announced publicly. “We want to respect the developers, and make sure the information about their proposals is shared at the right moment, but it’s time for the public to know we received a viable response,” she said.

She expected that city staff will share their ideas on how the council should proceed soon.

Third Ward Councilman Bob Scrivner said he hopes to maintain a “neutral stance” on all three proposals until a decision is imminent.

Both Scrivner and Carroll said they are interested in gathering some public input prior to narrowing the field from three candidates to one. “My preference is to have that conversation in public,” Scrivner said.

How the process unfolds depends, in part, on the quality of the developers’ ideas, he said. “Maybe all three will be strong. Maybe one will clearly prevail and it will be very clear cut,” he said. “The next step, I think, is to see a concept drawing.”

Mayor Eric Struemph said: “I’m pleased with the proposals we’ve received and looking forward to moving on to the next step of hearing directly from each developer about their proposals for a conference center in Jefferson City.”

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