Our Opinion: Developments, disclosures and diverging forces

News Tribune editorial

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” --William Butler Yeats from “The Second Coming”

Jefferson City officials must ponder whether pursuit of a conference center can hold in the face of diverging forces.

The city has dangled a $9 million incentive and has lured three suitors. On the bright side, the favorable response will allow city officials to evaluate, compare and, ultimately, choose from among three potential operators.

Proposals have been received from:

• Ehrhardt Hospitality Group, Hannibal, for a conference center on state property adjacent to Broadway and McCarty streets.

• Drury Development Corporation, St. Louis, at one of the city’s prequalified sites (West McCarty Street and the Missouri State Penitentiary area) or additional sites meeting city requirements.

• Farmer Holding Company, Jefferson City, in a location adjacent to the Capital Mall, which the company recently purchased.

As envisioned, the proposals are to operate a facility to be built by the city.

And therein lies the downside; lodging tax revenues to build the $9 million cache are not meeting projections.

As our readers may recall, the lodging tax in Jefferson City was increased to 7 cents per overnight stay, with 4 cents earmarked for a conference center fund. From May 2011 through December 2012, the average monthly collection of $47,730 has fallen short of the $50,000 projection.

The total in the city’s convention center fund is $954,601 — a fraction of its goal. That money is dedicated and cannot be diverted to other city expenditures.

City officials not only aren’t worried, they’re relatively nonchalant. Comments included “we still are confident,” “things could turn” and “we’re ... in the early stages.”

Call us overly cautious, but we have concerns.

We know a conference center has been on the city’s wish list for decades and we understand that low interest rates create favorable conditions to borrow money to build the facility.

We also are aware of the “if-youbuild-it” argument that a conference center will increase visitors and, consequently, lodging tax revenues to retire the bonds.

When we pull back the camera to look at the larger picture, however, we see the city grappling with other finance-related issues.

First, the city is contemplating not only who will oversee financial operations, but in what capacity the person will serve.

In addition, the city recently learned revenues for this year are projected to be nearly $2 million below projections. To address the shortfall, recommendations include: cutting all city department budgets, including public works; a hiring freeze; and reducing its allocation to the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce for economic development.

New developments and disclosures, both positive and negative, have converged in Jefferson City government in recent weeks.

We encourage city officials to address these issues with due diligence and greater transparency as we move forward.

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