JC council hears last words on conference center plans

Most of the people who attended Monday night's hearing say they favor a downtown conference center.

Several residents told the city council Monday they supported building a conference center downtown, but a few said they thought the whole project was a bad idea.

Monday night's public hearing was the last scheduled public comment before the Jefferson City Council votes on where to build a conference center and hotel, if at all, on April 7. The city is currently considering two different proposals. Jefferson City-based Farmer Holding Company wants to build the facility into the Capital Mall, which it already owns. That company envisions a 61,000-square-foot conference center with a 127-room hotel. Hannibal-based Ehrhardt Hospitality Group wants to build on a state parking lot at Broadway and McCarty, across from the Truman State Office Building. Ehrhardt's proposal would involve a 44,585-square-foot conference center with a 150-room hotel. Both projects would utilize revenue from the city's 4 percent lodging tax to fund the conference center itself.

The two developers have also asked for additional tax breaks to offset conference center costs that the lodging tax won't cover. Ehrhardt's conference center would cost $13,800,000, well beyond the roughly $9-12 million the lodging tax could provide. That developer has asked for a 20 year tax abatement on its hotel, which amounts to an extra $264,892.80 annually over that period. Ehrhardt as also asked for an extra $6.2 million to pay for a parking garage and additional street-level spaces. In addition, company representatives have said they would like a Special Local Conference Center Incentive, or SLCCI. That package would consist of a 1 percent Community Improvement District tax and a 1 percent Transportation Development District tax, and would allow the developer to capture 100 percent of the sales tax revenue generated by the conference center. Ehrhardt representatives told KRCG 13 the TDD would most likely include Ehrhardt's proposed conference center and hotel as well as the existing Capitol Plaza Hotel, while the CID would probably include Ehrhardt's facility and a good chunk of downtown.

Farmer, whose conference center would cost $14,017,882, has asked for 100 percent tax increment financing on the new hotel and conference center, changing the current Capital Mall TIF to send 75 percent of the revenue to the company for mall improvements and construction costs, and a CID similar to what Ehrhardt wants. That package would net about $538,000 a year for 23 years. Farmer has also asked for 7 percent of the lodging tax revenue from the hotel and convention center, which would bring in an additional $247,000 a year over the same period. The company has also said it would like an annual appropriation pledge to support bond financing of those revenues depending on the final size of the conference center.

Nobody at Monday night's hearing spoke in favor of the Capital Mall proposal, a departure from prior hearings. Most of the dozen people who spoke told the council they wanted the center built downtown, saying it would boost small businesses and provide visitors with a more attractive place to do business. Leonard Steinman said he is tired of looking at what he described as "three and a half blocks of nothing but blight" along the Whitton Expressway. He said building the conference center downtown would go a long way toward reversing the effects of that blight. Jefferson City resident Don Trabue told KRCG 13 he had serious concerns about the Capital Mall's ability to handle the additional traffic that a conference center would bring. He said a downtown location would put several hotels within walking distance if overflow space was needed.

"It is close to state government, it is close to our historic sites," he said. "Downtown, you've got several points of access to Highway 54, Highway 63/50."

Trabue also said conference center parking at the mall could potentially strangle businesses there, while the downtown area could use a parking garage of the size Ehrhardt is proposing.

Not everyone at Monday night's hearing thought a conference center was a good idea. Jerry Knollmeyer said neither proposal was in the taxpayers' best interest and pointed to a 2010 survey which showed fewer than 30 percent of Jefferson City residents showed any interest in building such a facility. Glen Costales, who is running for city council, told KRCG 13 only a handful of the people he has talked to in going door-to-door on his campaign support a conference center at all. He said such a facility should be built solely through private enterprise without the assistance of public monies.

"Government should not be competing with private industry," he said. "A lot of private industry around here has conference rooms. And we're gonna build one and start taking business away from them."

The city council is expected to choose which site it wants to move forward with, if any, at its next meeting on April 7.