The City Council hasn’t been doing a very good job informing you of what’s going on. But don’t worry, it’s not just you that is being left out. City officials, including our own mayor, seem to be in the dark when it comes to Council Bill 377-08.
There are no visible flaws with the land and buildings on Sixth Street. On any given Friday night you will find Bengals Bar & Grill packed for $4 pitcher night. Previously the home of Shiloh Bar & Grill, Bengals is still a new addition to the downtown area. Yet, according to the bill, the council may condemn half that block in order to move the State Historical Society of Missouri to this larger area.
The bill states that this is possible if the council “deems it necessary for the welfare and improvement of the city and public interest that certain private property be acquired by negotiation or by condemnation for public improvement.”
On Dec. 15, 2008, the council delayed a hearing on the land for a month in order to gather more information on eminent domain, the power of government to seize private property with monetary compensation but without the owner's consent, and property negotiations. But coming up on Feb. 2, the council will try and revisit this issue.
This might not seem like a big deal at first glance. But Sixth Street contains fully-functioning small businesses run by your friends and neighbors. Bengals Bar & Grill and U.S. Cleaners are two of the businesses in jeopardy of losing their operations for what Mayor Darwin Hindman told the Missourian would be “fair market value.” What’s the real estate market like again these days, Mayor Hindman?
Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine is quoted in the Missourian as calling the historical society “one of the gems we have in this city.” He believes the museum, located in Ellis Library on the MU campus, is outgrowing its current facility.
Joan Stack, the historical society’s art curator, agrees, stating the society might only be able to take in additional artifacts for a few more years. “But it’s time to move on to a facility where we could have room to continue to grow,” she told the Missourian.
It seems those involved in the historical society are afraid if nothing is done now, the facility might be moved to Jefferson City. That’s why St. Romaine told the Missourian, “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 should that plan involve condemning the land of businesses downtown to suit the needs to the city? The proposed site on Sixth Street would take out Bengals and U.S. Cleaners, owned by Jack and Julie Rader. Jack Rader has told the Missourian he has no interest in selling his property, adding, “There’s plenty of sites around that would be available without having to take an existing business.”
It seems the council has left much of Columbia guessing as to its intentions. It mistakenly referred to the State Historical Society of Missouri as the “Missouri Historical Society” in the ordinance. Even Mayor Hindman didn’t seem to have a clue when he spoke on David Lile’s KFRU radio show on Dec. 16, 2008. Mayor Hindman had no idea who would own the land in the event the ordinance passed — the city or the museum — nor was he aware if anyone had even contacted unsuspecting business owners Jack and Julie Rader about the big plans already in the works dealing with their property.
In fact, even museum director Gary Kremer hadn't been informed about the council agenda until hearing from a reporter. According to the Columbia Heart Beat blog, Kremer said something that might be of interest to the council: the board of directors for the society doesn't want to use eminent domain.
Is this ethical? How can everyone be out of the loop on this deal? The Missourian cited an outside planning firm, Sasaki Associates Inc., was hired to come in back in 2007 and find the best place for a 177,000-square-foot building that would not exceed five stories. According to St. Romaine, the firm recommended the block bounded by Fifth, Sixth, Elm and Locust streets as the “best proposed location for that particular project.”
Just like everyone else, I’m worried about the price tag here and how city money is being used. But I’m also worried about the message this is sending to small businesses in the area. If a city can condemn land whenever it pleases, wouldn’t the value of that land go down and therefore the compensation to the landowners be unfair? Would a condemned property really bring “fair market value?" Can we afford to shut down small businesses in this economy? Is this the betterment of the city eminent domain is supposed to be used for?
If Mayor Hindman is unsure who would get this land, is there an eminent domain case here at all? The city should only be allowed to use eminent domain if the land would be better served for the city. But if the city doesn’t own the land and it goes to the historical society, wasn’t it wrong to use eminent domain to obtain the land in the first place?
I can’t see how getting rid of both businesses and jobs in the area is bettering our city and fulfilling the eminent domain standard of making Columbia a better place. I agree with Rader when he says there are plenty of other sites where we could put this historical society. I see the importance and richness it adds to our community, and I hope it isn’t moved to Jefferson City. But the city can’t just close down businesses whenever it feels like it. In this economy, how much are the Raders going to get for their property? Could they realistically pick up and move to a different location and have the same success? No. They have prime college town location and a great following. To be fair, they were there first. You snooze, you lose, City Council.
Columbia should not be that selfish bully child that takes things from the smaller, defenseless children whenever it feels like it. Let’s not taint the historical society’s brand new start in Columbia by obtaining its land in a way even the society’s board of directors doesn’t deem fit.
Tracy Barnes graduated from MU in 2008 with degrees in journalism and English. She is a former copy editor and multimedia editor for the Missourian. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.