Looking for an electrical option

Downtown Jefferson City event planners say long-range plans need to address growing electrical demand

Jefferson City’s downtown area is host to many large events, such as Thursday Night Live and Salute to America. But as these events grow, event planners say the demand for electricity is growing, too.

While Salute to America, the annual Fourth of July celebration, is one of the few downtown events to include a number of food vendors needing electrical access, Thursday Night Live’s electrical demands are not small with the large stage set up on Madison Street for performing bands.

Mark Mehmert, community development manager with the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce, said Ameren actually already addressed some of the electrical needs for the live music by installing a new point of access, a meter loop, near the intersection of High and Madison streets, for the main stage used at Thursday Night Live.

“There are several events that happen downtown … and as these events keep growing, electrical demand keeps growing,” Mehmert said. “We want downtown to be the gathering place … and if we do, we need to be able to accommodate these groups as they grow.”

Mehmert said for downtown events to continue to grow, more access points are needed throughout the downtown. Many downtown business and property owners have been generous enough to allow vendors to plug in to their electricity free of charge, he said, but that is not a permanent solution to a growing problem.

“We’re trying to work out some ideas,” Mehmert said. “It’s not as easy as it may sound … there is a limit to the demand you can put on some of these things, some of this infrastructure.”

Mehmert said the discussions about electrical needs are still very preliminary and no cost estimates have been gathered for any potential solution, though he noted no option will be inexpensive.

Stephanie Bell, president of the downtown association, said addressing the growing electrical demands is one of the really long-term goals for the downtown and any solution is likely to cost more than $20,000. Bell said as events downtown continue to grow, the downtown needs to be prepared for what the needs will be 10 years from now.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in requests for events downtown and just the number of events happening downtown,” Bell said.

Jill Snodgrass, festival director for Salute to America, said 10 years ago, every vendor used a generator, which were “loud and stinky and obtrusive to the event,” leading to portable electrical boxes that Salute to America organizers had built.

Snodgrass said there are many places downtown that have no access point to electricity outside of using an existing business’ access, and organizers are trying to be forward thinking in figuring out how to address those needs.

“Before we expanded Salute to America, there really wasn’t any electrical at all, and over the years, Salute has made a significant investment in strategic locations around the downtown,” Snodgrass said. “We have different panel boxes we’ve had built … and as events grow, it’s definitely not sustaining those needs.”

Snodgrass said one of the reasons any solution is expected to be expensive is because the growing demand wasn’t planned for when the initial infrastructure for downtown was completed.

Britt Smith, operations division director for the city, agreed that it’s not an easy issue to address but wanted to specify that the demand issues are only related to special events and not day-to-day needs of the downtown businesses and residents.

“This is about having electric where special events would like electric to be,” Smith said. “It’s a public-private partnership working on that.”

Smith said the first issue to address is figuring out what is wanted by event organizers and how it can be achieved, which is not an easy issue.

“Once we decide what we want, then we have to figure out a way to make it happen,” Smith said. “It’s a tough issue that we didn’t get here overnight, and we’re not going to get out of overnight either … we just started walking down the path.”

And he said that leads to the question of who is financially responsible for the desired upgrades. Smith said the city certainly would see some benefits from electrical upgrades to the area, but the events generally are run by private groups who are dictating where the access points are needed.

“It starts to get a little bit hard whenever you start putting your brain around not only the problem but whose is it to fix,” Smith said. “The city certainly wants to be a player in that fix, but I’m not sure that we’re in the driver’s seat.”

Snodgrass said organizers are looking at a variety of options for funding sources, including grants, and looking at what other cities are doing to address similar problems, though she acknowledged the first step is figuring out what is wanted or needed downtown. She said the goal would be to pull all organizations using the downtown area for events together to figure out how to handle the financial obligation that goes with electrical upgrades. Snodgrass said Fulton is a great example of how a city addressed electrical needs.

In 2009, Fulton received a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Energy to pay for a new smart grid meter system throughout the city. The city had to fund another $1.5 million for the project, along with another $1 million for gas and water portions of the grid.

Fulton Utilities Superintendent Darrell Dunlap did not return a call for comment.

Though any growing demand will be costly to address, both Mehmert and Bell said capacity issues are good problems to have because they are a sign of a healthy and attractive downtown.

“Having some of the capacity issues is a sign that we’re growing,” Mehmert said.

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