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Support split between Capital Mall, downtown conference center sites

Public support for a Jefferson City conference center seems split between two proposed sites.

Eight people spoke at a public hearing Thursday on the conference center, the second in a series of hearings on the topic.

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.

Larry Kolb said Capital Mall would be a great location for a conference center and would help the mall become the viable property it has struggled to become. Calling the Capital Mall proposal a “win-win” for Jefferson City, Kolb said sales tax revenues would increase significantly from those attending conferences shopping at the mall or visiting the nearby movie theater.

Darryl Winegar said a conference center would be an economic boom for the city, and the mall provides the best possibility for no operating subsidy, or at least a low operating subsidy.

“The Capital Mall is a better spot,” Winegar said.

Jim Penfold, a former city councilman, said the image of the city is the Capitol and the downtown area and a conference center should seek to bolster and strengthen the city’s main draw — the downtown. He said having a conference center located on West McCarty Street would support other initiatives for redevelopment of sites such as the current St. Mary’s Health Center (SMHC).

SMHC is building a new facility on Missouri 179, which is expected to open late next year. The move would leave the hospital’s current facility at 100 St. Mary’s Medical Plaza vacant. Sansone Group in St. Louis is marketing the site for potential buyers.

Local hotelier Vivek Puri, who recently announced plans for his own conference center proposal at the Truman Hotel, said the proposals being considered by the city will weaken the economy by dividing what already is low occupancy rates with another hotel.

“I guarantee that the proposals that are here are not the best for our community,” Puri said. “If it’s not the right size or the right fit, we don’t need to be doing it.”

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 5:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall, where comments 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 573-634-6311.

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