Who proposes to build a conference center for Jefferson City?

Three developers have different backgrounds, approaches

Three private developers — from Jefferson City, Hannibal and St. Louis — are vying to operate a conference center and accompanying hotel in Jefferson City.

The two out-of-town companies are hoteliers, while Jefferson City’s Farmer Holding Company has experience in retail development and other operations, but hasn’t owned hotels.

Ehrhardt Hospitality of Hannibal and Farmer Holding, a subsidiary of F&F Development, do not have experience relating to conference or convention centers. Drury Development Corporation did not return phone calls to the News Tribune for this story.

Ehrhardt Hospitality LLC

Ehrhardt Hospitality is a Hannibal-based hotelier that owns two dozen hotels, including Jefferson City’s Candlewood Suite, located off Truman Boulevard near Capital Mall.

Ehrhardt Hospitality proposes a conference center at the West McCarty Street site, near Capitol Plaza Hotel.

The family business is owned and operated by Spike Ehrhardt and three of his sons. Two of those sons, Scott and Stan, are handling the conference center proposal with their father. Trey Propes, the manager at Candlewood Suites, would also be involved in management of the project, Spike Ehrhardt said.

Ehrhardt started the company 25 years ago. He built his first hotel, a Comfort Inn, in 1988 in Macon. Now, among others, they own six in Fort Leonard Wood, five in Tulsa, Okla.; two in Springfield, Ill. and one in Normal, Ill.; one in Chillicothe; and one in St. Joseph.

Their hotel ownership goes across five flags: Marriott, Hilton, Hampton, Choice (Comfort Inn, Mainstays) and Windham (Super 8). Ehrhardt is now building a 25th hotel, a Holiday Inn Express, in St. Joseph.

“It’s been a good go for us, it really has. We try to build one every year or so, so it’s worked out really well for us. We never sold any, and we’ve really never buy any, usually. We’ve built them from the ground up. And we always operate them. That’s different than a lot of companies. They’ll get a management company to operate them.”

The company previously was more into restaurant management. They built 64 Hardees restaurants and have since leased all but two back to the company. They also own three BP convenience stores in northern Missouri.

Some of their hotels have meeting space for 150-200 people, but they’ve never operated a conference center.

“So we’ve been used to it on a smaller scale. This would be a much, much larger scale. But it’s still dealing with people,” he said. “I’m sure we could make it work.”

He said the company has between 500 and 550 employees on the hotel side alone.

“We hope we’re chosen. But if we’re not, we’ve got enough work to do. But it would be exciting to be able to do something like this. I think it would help the city out — bring a lot of people in for conventions, and having the convention center is something that really always helps the city because of the conventions that come in. When they come in the convention center, they not only spend money with us, but I think they spend money at other places in town ... so it helps the town. Being the state capital, it’s kind of a no-brainer. It should really be a very good goal for Jeff City.”

Candlewood Suites bills itself as Jefferson City’s only extended-stay hotel, with meeting room for up to 25 guests. Some of their room rates are around $100 a night.

In 2010, the city came close to striking an agreement with Ehrhardt to operate a conference center and hotel at the West McCarty site. The location is near Capitol Plaza Hotel and where the old state health lab was located.

At the time, some local hoteliers expressed concerns with the conference center plans and the city’s decision to bring in the out-of-town Ehrhardt Hotel group to build an adjacent hotel.

Farmer Holding Company

The family company that started as a concrete plant decades ago has turned into a major player in Jefferson City’s retail development. Now, the family proposes to put a conference center and hotel beside its newly acquired Capital Mall. Elliot Farmer started Farmers Concrete in 1948. He owned that, and then acquired Jefferson Asphalt.

When his son, Mike, graduated from college, he started Capital Sand Company in 1972. Mike Farmer’s brother, Bud, got into the family business about that time and started the gravel plant in Wardsville.

“They started working together and were just kind of owners-operators for a number of years at those two sites,” said Kirk Farmer, Mike Farmer’s son. “They eventually bought their dad out, my granddad, and then have just vertically grown in the construction materials business through ready-mix concrete, asphalt paving and aggregates, concrete products just over the past I guess 40 years now.”

Part of Bud Farmer’s push has been diversifying into the real estate business.

“Over a number of years before I came to work (here), they had some real estate development here and there and had done a few deals. And then over the past, I’d say, eight or nine years, it’s really taken off with our development of the Stoneridge Village shopping center.”

The center includes Kohl’s, Menards, PetSmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Buffalo Wild Wings and GameStop.

“That’s really where I’ve cut my teeth learning the real estate development business and managing the other pieces” owned by the company, Kirk Farmer said.

That development was the largest commercial development the Farmers had taken on until recently. In December, it bought Capital Mall from General Growth Properties. The family members have said they hope to make changes to invigorate the mall, but they’ve cautioned that such changes take time.

Their proposal is to put the conference center on their property beside the mall.

The company has other local developments in town, including the building that houses Jimmy John’s subs, but declined to name them all.

Kirk Farmer said the private company intentionally keeps a low profile, preferring to let the co-owners and leasees of their developments promote them.

Both Mike and Kirk Farmer were Jefferson City Jays football standouts who played at the University of Missouri before dabbling in the NFL. Both also served on local hospital boards and Mike Farmer is a past president of the Jefferson City school board.

The company acknowledges it doesn’t have prior experience with conference centers or hotels, but said the plan is to hire people with the expertise to operate the conference center and hotel. It’s the same approach the Farmers taking with Capital Mall, hiring Chicago-based Covington Realty Partners to manage the mall.

“We know what we know, and we know what we don’t know,” said Rob Kingsbury, Mike Farmer’s son-in-law. “Part of our proposal is to actually go out and find the absolute very best, top-ofclass people to operate the conference center and the hotel.”

Kingsbury said Farmer Holding has been happy with the RFP process and looks forward to discussing their proposal with the mayor and council.

“We need to have those discussions with the city and find out what we want,” he said. “What they want, ultimately, is what we’re going to do our best to fulfill.”

Kirk Farmer said a Jefferson City conference center, regardless of who operates it, will be a win-win for the city and his family’s business.

“Our first and foremost goal is for this city to grow,” he said. “And we are just thrilled that the Ehrhardts and Drurys have put in proposals that could potentially lead to the construction and the operation of a conference center. We also put in a proposal because we think we have an excellent site for it. And we’ll let the city and the public decide what’s best for them, and we’ll be happy with anything.”

Drury Development Corporation

Drury’s proposal is to operate a conference center and hotel at a site on the grounds of the old Missouri State Prison site or any other locale that meets the city’s requirements.

Drury Development is based in St. Louis, and is the development arm of Drury Hotels. The company says Drury Development is responsible for the planning, design and construction of all new properties and renovation projects.

Last year, Drury Development was planning to construct a $35.5 million, 210-room Drury Inn & Suites Hotel in Brendwood, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story last September. The story said the Brentwood Drury will join about 130 hotels in Drury’s 20-state chain that completed its first hotel in Sikeston in the early 1970s.

The company already has 23 St. Louis-area hotels under the Drury Plaza, Drury Inn, Drury Inn & Suites or Pear Tree Inn flags.

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