Public hearing focuses on downtown site

Randy Allen, president of the Jefferson City Chamber of Commerce, listens as Joe Bednar, attorney for the Erhardt Group, talks specifics during the City Council’s public hearing on the conference center proposals.

Randy Allen, president of the Jefferson City Chamber of Commerce, listens as Joe Bednar, attorney for the Erhardt Group, talks specifics during the City Council’s public hearing on the conference center proposals.

The focus of the most recent discussion on a potential conference center in Jefferson City focused on support for, and questions about, a proposed downtown location.

A dozen people spoke at a public hearing Monday devoted to the conference center and the most recent proposals from two developers. Of the 12 who spoke, nine favored the downtown site; the other three speakers either expressed doubt about both proposals or favored throwing both proposals out completely.

The proposal from Jefferson City-based Farmer Holding Co. includes a 61,000-square-foot conference center to be located within the Capital Mall, with a 127-room hotel attached and a total conference center cost of roughly $14 million. The hotel itself would cost just under $14 million.

The proposal from Hannibal-based Ehrhardt Hospitality Group includes a nearly 45,000-square-foot conference center in the 300 block of West McCarty Street, with a 150-room hotel attached. The conference center would cost $13.8 million and the hotel itself would cost $15 million.

David Wallace said one issue with the mall site is parking. Though the site has about 3,000 spaces, Wallace said large, well-attended events could crowd the existing lot and hurt businesses within the mall.

“Our success will pose a burden on some of these existing businesses,” Wallace said. “I see a real potential problem there.”

Jerry Knollmeyer said neither of the proposals are in the taxpayers best interest, pointing to a 2010 local survey in which he said less than 30 percent of respondents were interested in a conference center.

“I object to taxpayer dollars being used to supplement private business,” Knollmeyer said.

Mel Kallal has concerns about both proposals. He noted at first he favored the Capital Mall site, but is now leaning toward the downtown site. He said he is concerned about the parking limitations at the Capital Mall and the lack of breakout space there.

“Neither proposal comes close to being ideal,” Kallal said.

Kallal said he would like to see the city put out more clear information to ensure the public understands the type of incentives being discussed, such as tax increment financing (TIF) districts, community improvement districts (CID) and transportation development districts (TDD).

Glen Costales urged the council to vote no on both proposals and suggested the city hold several town meetings in each ward to give all interested residents a chance to comment on the issue.

Stephanie Bell, Downtown Association president, said the continuing investments in the downtown area, evidenced by new and expanding businesses, shows the support for downtown.

“The community core is the right place for the conference center,” Bell said. “A project like this belongs in the downtown.”

Bill Steinmeier said the downtown location is the only site that would work. He said conference centers work when attendees can walk to other attractions, such as the Capitol. He urged the city to poll trade associations and government officials about which facility they would be more likely to use.

“The mall location is just wrong,” Steinmeier said. “Jefferson City would be better off having no convention or conference center.”

Jim Penfold said the image of Jefferson City is the Capitol and that has to be kept in mind when trying to attract more people to the area.

He said the downtown location would bring more people into the historic city core and build on the strengths of Jefferson City.

Scott Ehrhardt, of Ehrhardt Hospitality Group, also spoke, focusing on the company’s history in hotels and asking the council to move the Ehrhardt proposal into a pre-development agreement where aspects of the proposal could be fine tuned until everyone is comfortable with what is being proposed.

“I would just ask you guys to trust us,” Ehrhardt said. “Our project is a viable project … I really encourage you guys to take that next step with us.”

Joe Bednar, an attorney representing the Ehrhardt Hospitality Group, described the pre-development agreement as an engagement, noting that it doesn’t mean the city has to “marry” the proposal.

“We want to be your partner,” Bednar said. “It’s about a commitment to downtown.”

In council discussion after the public hearing, there was further discussion about the downtown proposal, the incentives being requested and how they would work. Specifically discussed were estimates of the area needed for a CID at the downtown site. Interim Finance Director Bill Betts said it probably needs to be from the Missouri River to U.S. 50, and from Bolivar Street to Jackson Street, if not larger.

Betts said all affected landowners and business owners would need to vote on any taxing district being proposed before the council would vote on whether to approve such a district.

One issue pointed out was that the Ehrhardts and the city have differed on estimates for what the incentives requested will generate. The city’s estimates show a much lower revenue from the taxing entities than the Ehrhardts have cited. Fourth Ward Councilwoman Carrie Tergin requested Bednar and Betts sit down and figure out why the numbers are different.

Third Ward Councilman Bob Scrivner and 4th Ward Councilman Carlos Graham both pointed to the possibile need for general revenue funds for the Ehrhardt proposal if incentive revenues don’t match the Ehrhardt predictions.

Both proposals require some type of assurance that the city would provide the funds promised from incentives, even if the revenue from those incentives do not match predictions. The Farmers proposal requests a pledge the city will make up any difference with city funds. The Ehrhardt proposal states the city would be obligated to pay $327,000 annually, plus 1 percent annual increase, even if the incentives do not raise that much.

Bednar said the incentives could change throughout future discussions if the Ehrhardts are moved to a pre-development agreement.

The City Council is expected to vote on the proposals at its April 7 meeting.

“This is a very passionate project, there’s no doubt,” said Mayor Eric Struemph.

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