Downtown supporters turn out for final conference center hearing

Supporters of a downtown conference center location wore red as a sign of solidarity at Thursday night's public hearing on the center's location. The Jefferson City Council has scheduled a final vote for Monday.

A sea of red filled city council chamber seats Thursday night as supporters of a downtown conference center location made their voices heard.

About 23 people in all spoke on the two conference center proposals, with about half taking each side. The Jefferson City Council is currently weighing two possible locations for a conference hotel. Ehrhardt Hospitality Group's proposal would put a hotel and conference center on the site of an old state laboratory across the street from the Truman Building in downtown Jefferson City. Farmer Holding Company's design would make the hotel and conference center part of the Capital Mall, which Farmer owns.

Supporters of the downtown location said building the center there would be in keeping with how the city sold its lodging tax to voters in 2011 and matches past efforts to build a conference center. Mary Ann Hall, who owns the Art Bazaar downtown, told the city council the city bulldozed four historic homes a few years ago for the expressed purpose of building a conference center in the area. David Wallace pointed out the proximity of additional hotel space to a downtown location. Downtown Jefferson City president Stephanie Bell told KRCG 13 the downtown location would be a major boon to that area.

"Downtown over the last year has seen significant reinvestment. We've got a lot of residents living downtown. All of our state capitol is there, all of our state offices are there. All of our visitors want to go downtown."

Supporter of the mall location countered the mall makes better business sense. Ryan Rowden, who said he has attended several conferences, told the council associations look at the hotel and conference space itself first and then consider surrounding amenities. Jason Luebbering pointed out the mall location would not need any annual subsidies from the city and said the historic sites in downtown Jefferson City are a short drive from the mall anyway.

Mayor Eric Struemph told KRCG 13 he personally favors the mall location.

"It's not downtown versus west side, it's the best business model for a conference center, and they just so happen to be either downtown or at the mall, and in my eyes the best one is on the west side at the mall," he said.

Struemph and interim City Administrator Drew Hilpert said the council will hold up-or-down votes on both proposals at its regular meeting Monday night.