COLUMBIA — Even as representatives of the State Historical Society negotiate buying the property that is home to Bengal’s Bar and Grill and surrounding land, the Columbia City Council is considering whether to use eminent domain.
At its Monday night meeting, the council introduced an ordinance authorizing the use of eminent domain to acquire the property if necessary. The city and society have identified the site as the best place to build a new $40 million historical society museum.
The museum is one of several components of a plan developed by the Sasaki consulting firm in 2006 for redeveloping the southern half of downtown Columbia. The plan also calls for mixed-use developments, the elimination of surface parking lots, a garden district along Elm Street and other amenities it said would help Columbia reach its potential as an “inviting campus town.”
The historical society, which is currently housed in the basement of MU’s Ellis Library, has a vast collection of Missouri art and historical artifacts, but lacks enough space to display it all.
“We currently occupy approximately 33,000 square feet of space,” said Gary Kremer, executive director of the society. “We need in excess of four times that space. We have a huge art collection that at any one time we can show less than one-half of 1 percent of the material.”
But space is not the only problem.
“We're in a building that was built in 1915. We have a lot of concerns about the security, the environmental controls,” Kremer said. “When I say security, I mean not just security in terms of theft, but security in terms of proper environmental controls and then also accessibility.”
Kremer also said the museum’s current location in the midst of a primarily pedestrian campus makes it difficult for older patrons to get to it.
The society has been negotiating with owners of the properties in the half-block bounded by Elm Street, Lancaster Drive, Fifth and Sixth streets. Jack and Julie Rader own Bengal's Bar and Grill, plus the lot housing the U.S. Cleaners building. Fifth Street Investments owns a house on the block, and MU owns a surface parking lot on the north half of the block.
Although the city is not a party to the negotiations, the council is considering whether to use eminent domain if the talks don't produce a deal between the society and the Raders.
Some council members are opposed to the idea, while others appear willing to use it as a last resort.
“Let me stress one point. I want to see a successful negotiation,” Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said. “I don't want to see eminent domain used. I think that would be in many ways awful. I want to encourage these guys to get their act together and come up with some settlements before the next meeting because I don't really want to have to vote on that.”
The ordinance authorizing the use of eminent domain will be up for a public hearing and a final vote by the council at its April 6 meeting.
The Raders renovated the Bengal’s building a year ago and say business is good. But the threat of condemnation, they said, made them unable to renew the lease for U.S. Cleaners next door.
The Raders also say they are confused about why their property has been chosen for the project. The Sasaki plan actually shows the museum one block east, on the surface parking lot immediately south of MU’s Heinkel Building.
Both the Raders and Kremer declined to comment specifically on the negotiations. They plan to talk with each other again Friday.
Kremer said the historical society tried to move to MU’s McKee Gymnasium on Hitt Street a decade ago, but a lack of funding caused the project to fall through. Kremer said it wouldn’t have worked out anyway.
“That building would have not been nearly large enough, and again we would have been faced with the same problem of access of parking,” he said. “What's prompted the most recent need to try to speed up the process is the possibility of obtaining federal stimulus money.”
The historical society needs to secure the site for the museum before the state legislature can direct $40 million of federal stimulus money toward the project. A report from City Manager Bill Watkins to the council stated that it's an opportunity the city and society shouldn’t pass up. That’s one reason he’s recommending the council move forward with authorizing eminent domain; doing so would demonstrate to the legislature that one way or another, the society will gain control of the property.
"If the community will not make these assurance, funding will go elsewhere, a tremendous economic development opportunity lost and worst case, the society and its resources moved," according to a report made by Watkins and city staffers.