COLUMBIA — Columbia City Council members are scheduled to give a proposal to acquire property for a new historical museum its first official look Monday night.
Contained in Council Bill 377-08 is an ordinance “declaring the need to acquire land for construction and operation of an historical museum and research facility."
The museum, as proposed between Fifth and Sixth streets just north of Elm Street, could eventually provide a new home for the State Historical Society of Missouri, which currently resides on the ground floor of MU’s Ellis Library.
With hundreds of pieces of art — including works by John James Audubon and Thomas Hart Benton — more than 200 years' worth of newspaper microfilms and the repository for the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine called the society “one of the gems we have in this city.”
It is a resource that is greatly overcrowded, though, officials with the State Historical Society say.
“We have enough space that we can continue to acquire art for a few more years,” Joan Stack, the historical society’s art curator, said in a previous Missourian article, “but it’s time to move on to a facility where we could have room to continue to grow.”
St. Romaine, in detailing efforts to find a location for the society during an Oct. 27 council work session, said there have been “more than rumblings” of an available site in Jefferson City where the Missouri State Penitentiary used to stand.
For him, losing the historical society to Jefferson City would be a "tremendous loss for the city of Columbia, to the university, to the faculty, to the researchers that come to this community to do research.
"And so to that end,” St. Romaine said, “It’s really critical that we get a plan together to at least acquire the property and to get the state to really buy into this particular project."
But for Jack Rader, the commercial real estate developer who owns two of the properties that would need to be acquired, the project is not as attractive.
“I do not bemoan (the State Historical Society) for wanting a new and larger place,” said Rader, who owns the buildings that house Bengals Bar & Grill (formerly Shiloh Bar & Grill) at 227 S. Sixth St. and US Cleaners at 501 Elm St.
Rader added, “There’s plenty of sites around that would be available without having to take an existing business.
“I have no interest in selling my property,” he said.
Owners of a third rental residence just west of Bengals that would need to be acquired to build the historical site were not contacted.
According to St. Romaine, plans to relocate the historical society have been a long time coming. He said the project was one of seven catalytic recommendations to come out of a 2006 study by the Boston-based urban planning firm Sasaki Associates Inc., which was hired to outline suggestions for Columbia's future development.
When, in 2007, the Missouri legislature allocated $600,000 for planning and development of a new building for the society, St. Romaine said an architect was hired to determine where a 177,000-square-foot building not to exceed five stories might best be placed.
That architect and the Sasaki study both recommended the block bounded by Fifth, Sixth, Elm and Locust streets as the “best proposed location for that particular project,” St. Romaine said in the Oct. 27 work session.
The land acquisition would likely be more expensive than the allocated $600,000. St. Romaine told council members that the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau agreed, in principal, to allocate $250,000 out of city reserve funds to the project and that a funding request would also be made to the state of Missouri to the tune of $500,000 for land acquisition costs.
St. Romaine added that, with an estimated $2 million price tag for the three properties, "That’s still going to require a huge amount of fundraising by the State Historical Society for the balance of that land.”
Rader contends that he has not been kept abreast of the dealings, though. Other than brief contact with a couple of city staff members and members of the historical society’s board of directors, “there’s been no communication with the city whatsoever,” he said.
He argued that until the state makes a determination whether to allocate additional funding for the project, the city has no business initiating the land acquisition process.
In October, City Manager Bill Watkins did acknowledge that “even best case, you wouldn’t be able to turn the first spade of dirt for five years” on a new museum.
But, like St. Romaine, he emphasized that with the possibility of additional state funding and the threat of an available site in Jefferson City looming, “it would be important, I think, before anyone would add real dollars into this project, that you did have ultimate site control.”
Mayor Darwin Hindman said that, naturally, all affected property owners would be reimbursed at a “fair market value.”
If a resolution passes at Monday night's council meeting, a public hearing would be held Jan. 5, according to a memorandum from the city manager’s office.