A commission established for the sole purpose of overseeing the old Missouri State Penitentiary site in Jefferson City may be lacking the authority it needs to accomplish its goals.
The General Assembly passed a final budget last week that includes $38 million for planning, design and construction and renovation of the Missouri Department of Transportation Central Office, which would be located on the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) site.
When the appropriation was announced May 2, one group had been left out of the loop: the Missouri State Penitentiary Redevelopment Commission, resulting in questions as to what the commission's role truly is.
Some former Missouri lawmakers say the MSP Redevelopment Commission has not served the purpose that was originally laid out in a 2001 state statute.
MSP is a 142-acre piece of land that became available for redevelopment after prisoners were transferred to a new facility in 2004. In anticipation of the transfer, two former state lawmakers sponsored a bill to create the Missouri State Penitentiary Redevelopment Commission, also known as the MSP Commission.
According to RSMo 217.902, which took effect in August 2001, the commission's powers and duties include acquiring the title to the MSP property and leasing or selling real property to developers who will use it in accordance with the commission's master plan.
But the commission, which has been operating since 2002 when the first commission members were appointed, has never received the title to the MSP property.
"I thought that land (MSP) would have all been turned over by the state to the commission a long time ago," said former state Rep. Bill Gratz, who sponsored the commission legislation. "I think some people have dropped the ball on that.
"Nobody seems to be pushing hard enough for it."
He said the commission has served a purpose, but could serve a better purpose if it had complete control of the land.
"The economy has taken a spin since the time of the new prison and everything else," Gratz said. "It (MSP) is still a "diamond in the rough.'
"It has a lot of potential, it just has to be developed."
Former Jefferson City Rep. Carl Vogel helped in getting Gratz's legislation through the House. He said the commission was created in order to keep legislators out of the MSP redevelopment process, except for funding decisions.
"(The commission) is so that those individuals appointed could analyze the information and make the decisions to the best of their ability to move forward with the overall development of the project," Vogel said.
He believes the commission has carried out what it was created to do.
Former Sen. Larry Rohrbach was also a key player in the legislation.
He said lawmakers at that time, 2001, knew MSP could be an asset or a liability and their goal was to make it an asset for the community and the state.
"I didn't expect it to be quick," Rohrbach said of MSP redevelopment. "It isn't the sort of thing that can happen overnight."
The three former lawmakers said one of the biggest obstacles in moving the legislation was getting lawmakers from outside the Mid-Missouri area on board with MSP redevelopment.
"The community would plead their case, and it (MSP redevelopment) was very important to central Missouri and those of us who represent Jefferson City," Vogel said. "But in the total scheme of what's on a legislator's plate from St. Louis, Kansas City or even outstate Missouri, it was a challenge to convince them how important this was to the state."
Gratz said some representatives thought Jefferson City was getting something for nothing.
"I think that's probably an ongoing problem," he said. "The resentment from some other representatives that Jefferson City was getting something."
"A holding pattern'
Those who have been involved with the commission agree.
Commission member Gene Bushmann said the state statutes lay out the responsibilities and role of the commission, but nothing really has developed along those lines. When asked why he thought that was, Bushmann said it was hard to say.
"I don't think the state ever bought into the proposition that they would transfer all that property to this new commission that had no funds, had no expertise in handling property," Bushmann said. "(The Office of Administration) has always sort of been in charge and maintaining the attitude that this is state land."
According to RSMo 217.905, the commission has the power "to acquire title to the property historically utilized as the Missouri state penitentiary to acquire by gift or bequest from public or private sources property adjacent thereto and necessary or appropriate to the successful redevelopment of the Missouri state penitentiary property."
The commission is operated through the state Office of Administration, and OA staff works directly with the commission. General Assembly appropriation funds have been designated to the Office of Administration, not to the commission, giving them no control or authority of the site.
"We've been asking the governor for a long time to let the commission do its work, do what it was designed to do and be the nonpartisan group that really takes that piece of property and gets it moving," said Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City. "For whatever reason, there's been a lack of interest because of other priorities."
Bushmann said a consistent issue has been the lack of members. The state is supposed to have four appointees on the commission, including the commission chair. Currently, the state has four vacancies on the commission, with the chair having resigned a few weeks ago.
Bushmann said for the past two or three years, the state has only filled one of their vacancies and left the rest open. Before that, he said, it often would fill just two of the vacancies.
"Our authority and responsibility has been diminished in the last few years," Bushmann said. "We've been in a holding pattern ... I don't know where we're going."
The commission has had an issue with establishing a quorum at its meetings, and Bushmann said he is concerned that the commission no longer has enough members to have a quorum because of the state vacancies.
"Everything's pretty much on hold," Bushmann said. "The next step will be dictated by OA."
Steve Roling was the first chairman of the commission, appointed by former Gov. Bob Holden in 2002. Roling had to resign in 2003 after being appointed as director of the Department of Social Services. Roling said the commission's goal was to redevelop the site once the prisoners were transferred to the new facility.
"The original idea was to take this piece of land that's in a prime location right on the bluff and turn it into a place that Jeffersonians can be proud of," Roling said.
Roling said the commission relied on the state very much in the early days, because it was state funds that were used for appraisals and "our due diligence work," but the ultimate authority on the property was supposed to be the commission itself.
"My impression was nothing happened on that land without our group blessing it," Roling said. "It was a partnership, but the way it was set up when I was there and when Gov. Holden was there ... we were ultimately the decision makers."
John Landwehr was appointed as a commission member when it originally was formed in 2002, but had to resign in 2003 after being elected Jefferson City mayor. Landwehr said the role of the commission was to manage the property and its redevelopment, but that role has changed over the years.
"The commission is now looked upon as being an advisory body," Landwehr said. "The real control has remained vested in the state and the Office of Administration."
"My sense is it's not going to go back to the way it was originally designed."
Landwehr said he doesn't know whether that is a good or bad thing for the progress of redevelopment at MSP, but noted the various administrations have consistently considered the project to be a state and OA project more than a commission responsibility.
Relationship with OA
Randy Allen served as director of the division of facilities management in the state Office of Administration when the commission was formed in 2002. Allen said for some reason, progress slowed at MSP in 2004 once Holden left office and the commission now doesn't have much to do.
"It seems like with Gov. (Matt) Blunt and Gov. (Jay) Nixon both, either because of lack of money or whatever, the process just really slowed down," Allen said. "The commission just really is inactive. They're not being asked to do anything."
Allen, who is now the president and chief executive officer of the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce, said progress at MSP has been a struggle because no one seems to have the desire to really push the commission's master plan and get it moving. He said the commission was meant to bridge the gap between the government entity and the redevelopment of the property because governments are not the best entities to complete that type of redevelopment.
"What was believed at the time, and I still believe, state government, city government, county government, is not good at these kinds of projects," Allen said.
Repeatedly, it has been noted that the state is not a developer. Yet, when the commission selected a master developer, the state would not agree to it. The state has not transfered the land to the commission, as the statute intended, in part because the commission had no revenue stream nor liability insurance.
In theory, Allen said, the commission's job is to push the master plan forward and work with the various entities, including the state, to get development going on the property.
"When that role is diminished, nothing happens," Allen said. "There is no other entity, whether it be the state, the city or the county, there is no other entity that has the interest to really develop it for that purpose ... it's just the way things happen."
Allen said everything is in place for the commission to do what they are required to do by law, including a master plan and a framework for how things should proceed. But, the property was never transferred over to the commission, and it has never been given the real authority to get anything done, he said.
Dan Carr, who served on the commission from March 2007 and resigned as chairman a few weeks ago, said the commission's role is to oversee and try to grow and develop the project as a whole for the benefit of the region. Carr said obviously the commission changes over time as new administrations come in, but did not know how to answer when asked if he thought the state had retained control of the property and saw the commission as acting in more of an advisory role.
"I was appointed by the state, so my role maybe was different than somebody who was appointed by the city or the county," Carr said.
When asked if there was anything he thought would be important for people to know about the commission or how it operates, Carr said "I've got lots of opinions, but I think I'll hold them."
Carr said he resigned from the commission because it was time to "get some new blood on the board."
Jeff Schaeperkoetter, who served as director of the division of facilities management in the state Office of Administration from January 2009 until June 2010, said he believes the commission has operated in accordance with what is laid out in the state statute.
"I don't think their role has changed," Schaeperkoetter said.
Schaeperkoetter said the ownership of the property was left in the governor's authority to decide when and how much of the property would be transferred to the commission, though the statute states the commission has the power to acquire the title to the property.
Questions submitted to OA by the News Tribune early last week were not responded to by late Friday afternoon.
According to minutes of the commission from February 2009, Schaeperkoetter said the redevelopment of MSP was one of Nixon's top priorities and "he emphasized Gov. Nixon's high interest in the MSP redevelopment project."
Nixon said at a press conference Friday that MSP redevelopment is a long-range plan for the state and that it includes a partnership between the state, Cole County and Jefferson City.
"I think, for here in Jefferson City, there's decisions down the line to be made about that site and when we do it, it needs to be done right," he said.
Jefferson City lawmakers are on the front lines, promoting the future of MSP.
Kehoe said he has been involved with MSP redevelopment and the MSP Commission both through his involvement with the Jefferson City community and in his role as senator.
"It's a fine piece of real estate to redevelop and try to move forward as we work on our economic development projects in this town," Kehoe said. "Rep. (Jay) Barnes, (Rep. Mike) Bernskoetter and I have been in constant communication with the governor and OA in trying to figure out what the next steps are to try to get that process going and that property starting to take some shape."
Kehoe said his understanding of the original statute is that it outlined that the state would at some point turn MSP over to the commission.
But, that never happened, even with three different state administrations.
"I think in each of their minds, they wanted to make sure they're doing the right thing before they do that," Kehoe said. "They have maintained the maintenance on the property and have done some work, but for whatever reason never turned the property over so the commission could sink their teeth into it and get going with it."
He said the commission's current role is staying involved with the site's master plan and trying to figure out how to go from conversation to action.
Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, said he still sees a vital role in the commission.
"But, it's unfortunate that this is kind of being done piecemeal," he said. "But piecemeal is better than not at all, and it was a big step forward with the budget bill that passed."
Kehoe believes the $38 million in the budget bill for a new state office building on the MSP site is a good start to bringing the commission back into the redevelopment process.
"That will be the start of getting the commission more involved, and getting the proper appointments on that board will move this process forward."