Public speaks on conference center issue

Most back downtown location; others say wait

A majority of comments Monday support a proposed conference center be located downtown, instead of an alternate location at Capital Mall.

Nine people spoke at Monday’s City Council meeting during the first of several public hearings on the city’s latest attempt to build a conference center. The City Council is considering two proposals for a conference center from the Jefferson City-based Farmer Development, which would place the facility at the Capital Mall site, and the Hannibal-based Ehrhardt Hospitality Group, which would place it on West McCarty Street.

Former Mayor John Landwehr spoke in favor of the downtown site, noting voters were shown a downtown site when the lodging tax was passed and adding that the passage of the tax showed community support for the conference center project.

“In my opinion the tax would not have passed if there had not been a location indicated, or if the location was not downtown,” Landwehr said. “If someone suggests the community does not support a conference center, they’re just wrong. The community has spoken.”

“Don’t spend $9 million of tax payer money on a secondary location just because it’s easier and faster.”

Leonard Steinman said if the wrong location is chosen, the whole project may as well be thrown out the door.

“If you want to build it, build it big,” Steinman said. “But don’t take it out to Capital Mall.”

Other speakers noted the downtown location would have more adjacent hotels within walking distance and recommended the council build it for the future.

“If we don’t grow, we’re going to slowly die,” said Roger Weiss.

David Wallace warned the council against simply accepting a proposal that does not fit the need to get the project done and noted the benefits of having a conference center would not be realized by building a facility that is too small.

Local hotelier Vivek Puri said it seems that the council is looking for reasons to accept the current proposals instead of sticking to the specifications laid out in the request for proposals.

“Don’t do it for the sake of just doing it,” Puri said. “We can wait.”

Puri also said the downtown location would not be right if the council hopes to build a facility that can be expanded in the future, though he noted the Capital Mall location also was not ideal as it is too far out from the city’s core.

Len Stella was the sole voice speaking in favor of the mall location, noting that may very well be the center of the city in 15 or 20 years if the city continues to grow.

Two speakers spoke against any conference center project, with Tim Stallman urging the council to put the issue to a vote.

“What harm is there?” Stallman asked, noting times have changed since the lodging tax was passed. “Let’s put this matter to a vote of the people.”

Glen Costales said council members should seek to leave a great legacy, which is not achieved by building or subsidizing a facility at the expense of the taxpayers.

Comments at the hearing were limited to four topics related to the conference center: the desirability of one proposal over the other, including location; facilities the public would like to have in a conference center; the amount of subsidy, if any, to be provided for a conference center beyond the $9 million contribution; and the desirability of having the city finance and provide parking at either location.

The next public hearing is set for noon Thursday at City Hall. A third public hearing will be held at 5:30 p.m Sept. 23 at City Hall. Comments at both meetings will be limited to five minutes per person.

People wishing to speak at any public hearing are encouraged to sign up in advance by contacting the city clerk at 634-6311.

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