Debate over Jefferson City conference center begins

Jefferson City may finally get a conference center, if everyone can decide where it should go and how big to build it.

On Monday night, members of the public had a chance to give the City Council their opinion on the construction of such a facility. During the public discourse, one thing was clear: the construction of a conference center in the wrong area or of the wrong size could turn an economic opportunity into a disaster.

Monday night, the council previewed two possible locations.

One is right next to the Capital Mall, built by the mall's developer. The center would be built in the parking lot adjacent to the mall, alleviating the need for additional parking to be constructed.

The second location is near highway 50 in the heart of downtown Jefferson City, on Broadway. The land of the second possible location is currently being used as a parking lot and is the former location of a state laboratory.

The city says area hotels would see an economic benefit from a downtown conference center, but hotelier Vik Puri thinks otherwise.

"I have 540 rooms in this market," Puri said. "The person who would be benefitting the most would be me in this situation. But when you look at the business models that were proposed, they won't benefit anybody. They will simply divide the pie further up and move it from one place to the other."

Despite a convenient location, some like Puri argued that the downtown site is too small and leaves no room for future expansion. Others criticized the mall location, saying it's too far away from the center of town.

The city said construction at either site would cost around $30 million, $9 million of which will come from money the city has set aside from hotel taxes.

Members of the public Monday night urged the council to pick the best spot, even if it means waiting.

City Administrator Nathan Nickolaus explained that a conference center is a long-term investment.

"Both the proposers now have talked that they think a subsidy is needed," Nickolaus said. "The study we've looked at says the convention center will operate at a loss, and the city is not willing to subsidize that operating loss."

The Council will hold more public hearings before they make any decisions. They are urging everyone interested to attend the next public hearing.

The next meeting is September 23.