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story.lead_photo.caption Shelby Kardell/News Tribune Construction continues on the SOMO Training for Life Special Olympics campus off of Christy Drive in Jefferson City on Thursday, August 24, 2017.

Twelve years after fundraising began, a Jefferson City training center for Special Olympics athletes is beginning to take shape.

Early construction at the $18.5 million Special Olympics Missouri Training for Life Campus started in late July. While the project is still about a year away from being finished, the start of construction represents a huge milestone for the organization.

SOMO officials said they're kicking off a short fundraising campaign today to help raise $1.5 million needed to finish parts of the facility.

About a half-dozen Caterpillar bulldozers and a few dozen PVC pipes of varying sizes sat at the construction site Wednesday afternoon. Gary Wilbers, capital campaign chairman of the fundraising efforts, said a lot of excavating had to be done at the site to fill the former quarry, on which the facility is being built.

"Construction is just getting started," Wilbers said. "The bids are in and approved."

In early 2015, SOMO officials announced the project had been awarded to Jefferson City over a competing bid from Columbia. The proposal, submitted by the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce, included the Christy Drive property donated by Land Investments, which is run by Bud Farmer, Mike Farmer and Frank Twehous. The property is valued at $3.2 million.

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Around a main building will sit a variety of outdoor recreational fields providing space for soccer, a four-lane track with a 100-meter straight-away, long jump and shot put areas, golf skills space, horseshoe pits, tennis area, softball fields, bocce courts and a torch run plaza.

The 34,000-square-foot main building will include a 16,000-square-foot gym for basketball and volleyball, as well as fitness rooms, a training facility, office space, a small clinic and multipurpose meeting rooms.

SOMO estimates about 165,000 people in the state qualify for Special Olympics Missouri.

The chamber and SOMO officials broke ground in May. The excavating work was the first phase in the project and began in early July, Wilber said. He noted construction went slow at first but is now ramping up.

SOMO officials said in May they hope to open the facility in fall 2018. Wilbers said that's still the goal.

"That's what we're still saying," Wilbers said. "But fall goes until December."

In May, about $16 million had been raised. Wilbers said that's reached $17 million now, and SOMO thinks the total cost of the project will be about $18.5 million. The project still needs $1.5 million to reach that goal and to finish building the back area, which will have the bocce courts, torch run plaza, horseshoe pits, track, shot put area and other amenities.

Wilbers estimated construction may be 5 percent complete.

"We're going ahead with the building," he said. "With this, we're still trying to finish the back area."

Early fundraising for the project began in 2006 but went slowly, Wilbers said. SOMO held a fundraising campaign in spring 2013 that kicked efforts into high gear. To this point, the group has focused on raising funds mostly from corporate and community partners.

The Missouri Council of the Knights of Columbus; Centene Corp. in St. Louis; the J.E. and L.E. Mabee Foundation in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and the Law Enforcement Torch Run are groups that pledged at least $1 million toward the project. A handful of other anonymous donors made $500,000 and $250,000 donations.

Athletes who will use the complex raised about $230,000 through a program that gives them a shirt and cap for raising $500, a class ring for raising $2,500 and a varsity letter jacket for raising $5,000.

Throughout the fundraising campaign, Wilbers said, there hasn't been a huge push for donations from individuals. So SOMO's launching the Fan the Flame campaign today. The campaign encourages people to give $50, then encourage 10 of their friends to also give $50.

"It's not $1,000 or $10,000," Wilbers said. "If all 10 of them give, it's $550, not $50."

People can donate at somo.org. The campaign will involve heavy promotion through social media, which Wilbers said may rope in donors from Missouri residents outside the region or people outside the state.

Learfield Sports, which has given $500,000 to the project, plans to promote the campaign on radio broadcasts of Missouri sports.

Fan the Flame will run through the end of September, so the goal is to have a short push over the next month, Wilber said. The organization wants to finish fundraising for the center by the end of 2017.

More than anything, Wilbers wants the public to understand this facility is designed especially to teach Special Olympics athletes life skills and skills they can use to enter the workforce.

"This is going to be a facility like no other in the world," he said. "It's impacting our athletes by showing them skills that help them participate in the community."

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