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In Discussion for Ten Years, The City of St. Joseph, Missouri Tentatively
 Approves Plans for a $32 million Convention Center and a $16 million Hotel
By Joe Blumberg, St. Joseph News-Press, Mo.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Feb. 28, 2008 - Plans move forward for the chicken and the egg downtown.

The City Council on Wednesday agreed with the general idea of a downtown convention center and second hotel, although it wants more financial details. Hand-in-hand, the city's planning department is close to rolling out plans for broader downtown redevelopment, including an "entertainment district."

City officials and paid consultants share a generally positive view of the overall project. However, questions exist about the project's ability to pay for itself and whether the community will buy into the idea.

Plans released Wednesday call for a $32 million convention center and a $16 million second hotel. The broader downtown plans will be discussed in an informational meeting March 11 with the community's Tax Increment Financing Commission.

Each project would be necessary to drive the other, said Clint Thompson, the city's director of planning and community development. Convention-goers would want restaurants, shopping and entertainment within walking distance, but more of those businesses couldn't open without the well-funded convention center patrons.

The upside for the community could be jobs and a revitalized downtown.

The city has discussed a downtown convention center for more than 10 years but never quite had the confidence and money to pull the trigger -- not to mention factoring in whether the project would be better suited for the east side of town.

"Although we had identified the concept, the whole 'build-it-they-will-come' was a risky proposition," Mr. Thompson said.

With funds from Gov. Blunt's downtown "DREAM" initiative, the city hired Hunden Strategic Partners to consider a hotel-convention center plan.

Rob Hunden said Missouri and Kansas have a shortage of quality medium-sized meeting facilities, and St. Joseph's hotel occupancy also has increased from about 63 percent to 73 percent since 2001. Those are "green flags" for the project, he said.

But convention centers themselves generally lose money, pointed out Marci Bennett, of the St. Joseph Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"We really do need more convention center space. We really are ripe for that," Ms. Bennett said. "I just want to make sure we as a community are willing to make that investment."

Plans put the convention center in the parking lot north of the Holiday Inn. The American Electric Co. building north of that could be converted into a nicer, 130-room hotel to supplement the Holiday Inn.

The building costs pose a challenge.

That's where the rubber could meet the road with the "DREAM" initiative.

On retail TIF projects like East Hills Shopping Center, the state collects its full share of new sales taxes from the project, while local governments, schools and libraries give up theirs. But the city wants the state to approve what's sometimes called a super-TIF -- the Missouri Downtown Economic Stimulus Act -- to capture state sales tax and income tax created downtown.

The DREAM initiative is supposed to give St. Joseph priority for state incentives, and it pays for a private planning consultant to put together the complicated applications.

Council members Donna Jean Boyer, Mike Hirter, Barbara LaBass, Mike Bozarth and Bill Falkner attended the meeting.

Joe Blumberg can be reached



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