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Public speaks out on conference center again

Public speaks out on conference center again

November 15th, 2013 in News

Stephanie Bell, center, stands with other supporters of the downtown site for the proposed conference center during a city council hearing on the issue Thursday evening. Proponents of the downtown site made their presence known by wearing red to show their support.

Photo by Katie Alaimo

The opinions from two dozen speakers Thursday night were almost evenly split between a downtown site or the Capital Mall as the home of Jefferson City's proposed new conference center.

With their final votes planned for Monday night, Jefferson City's 10 council members spent more than 100 minutes listening to those comments - including the opinions of two former mayors and representatives of both developers whose proposals are being considered by the council.

Ten people supported a downtown site on West McCarty Street, being proposed by Hannibal-based Ehrhardt Hospitality Group, while 11 argued for the mall location being proposed by Jefferson City-based Farmer Development, which bought the mall properties earlier this year.

And one man - Glen Costales, who's spoken at previous hearings - again took no position on either site.

Former Second Ward Councilman Jim Penfold reminded colleagues the city has had two consultants on the project in recent years, with one

supporting the downtown site, and most recently, Charles Johnson recommended the mall location.

Penfold said a downtown location "is better for the long-term economic benefit of Jefferson City."

Attorney Stephanie Bell reminded council members that "the lodging tax was sold to the voters for a downtown conference center. "

Mary Ann Hall Murphy said: "Six years ago, then-Mayor John Landwehr used his veto to kill a bill that would have saved the historic homes on West McCarty Street. Those buildings were quickly torn down to make way for a convention center we were told was swiftly and surely coming."

Landwehr said that was one of the most difficult decisions he had to make as mayor.

"I did it because it's a perfect site for a conference center," Landwehr said. "I don't have to tell elected officials that, when there's a commitment made to taxpayers to pass a tax based on some promises, there has to be a very, very overwhelmingly good reason to turn your back on that."

But Costales reminded the council that, in spite of the advertising in 2011, the actual ballot language only promised to spend the lodging tax "for the promotion of tourism. It doesn't say build a conference center at Site A, Site B or Site C."

Capital Mall general manager Jamie Reed said the mall site is the "only site that is financially feasible."

Businesswoman Lisa Steppelman supports the mall site because the Farmers "have proven success and 40 years of experience in the business arena."

Former Mayor Duane Schreimann, an attorney who represents Farmer Holding Co., reminded the council that the Farmers continually have been successful developers.

"I think that shows you the ability of this company," Schreimann said, "and I think the city could not have a better partner in the development of a convention center than this company."

Cole County Western District Commissioner Kris Scheperle agreed, noting that with the Farmers, as a local company, "All money would be spent locally."

But Trey Propes - manager of the Candlelight Suites hotel and the Ehrhardts' representative at many of the conference center meetings - later reminded the council that he also is a local businessman, interested in keeping the local economy strong.

Darryl Winegar said the downtown area is a part of the city's dynamics, "but the West side is the future going forward."

He said the Farmers' proposal has more economic strengths and will "perform with less subsidies."

New resident Jordyn Wilson said the downtown area "is Jefferson City's sweet spot" and a downtown conference center would be more attractive to younger people like herself.

"Do you want to keep the young professionals here?" she asked. "Or do you want to lose them?"

No council members commented about either proposal during or after Thursday night's public hearing.

But, during Thursday morning's "Brown Bagel" preview meeting for Monday's official meeting, a lengthy discussion indicated several members continue wrestling with the information they've been given.

Third Ward Councilman Bob Scrivner said neither the Farmers nor Ehrhardts had provided numbers that would give the council a clear understanding of how they would fund the center each has proposed.

Interim City Administrator Drew Hilpert pointed out it took the Farmers about a year to put together the numbers they presented to the council in a recent closed session on TIF (tax increment financing) funding.

The Ehrhardts haven't even started on their TIF numbers, Hilpert said, and are waiting to see what the council does.

During Thursday night's meeting, Propes noted both developers would rely on TIF funding for parts of their projects.

Jeff Haldiman and Madeleine Leroux of the News Tribune staff contributed information used in this story.