COLUMBIA — On a recent Saturday at Stephens Lake Park, state Rep. Chris Kelly is busy being himself. He's shaking hands, cracking jokes and making conversation with people who have come to the park to walk their dogs, stroll its trails or to gaze out over the lake as it reflects a topaz sky.
Stephens Lake Park is part of Missouri's newly-drawn 45th House District, which is a product of the 2010 U.S. Census. It's an eclectic district that encompasses some of Columbia's most active and outspoken neighborhoods: Country Club Estates and East Campus to the east, Parkade and Vanderveen to the north and Ridgeway, Douglass and North Central in the middle of the city.
The district stretches north along the Range Line Street corridor to the northern border of Columbia and south to include University Hospital. Stephens Lake Park and Douglass Park serve as bookends of the district, and Interstate 70 cuts through its center. And if that wasn't enough, the 45th includes MU, Stephens and Columbia colleges, along with downtown.
Kelly, who for the past four years has represented the 24th District that included parts of southern Boone County and Columbia, is getting acclimated to his new constituencies. He is unopposed in next Tuesday's election.
“It changes my job," Kelly said. "I have to think on all those terms. I face the intellectual challenge of figuring out what is important to the district, the whole voice of the district.”
At Stephens Lake Park, Kelly wasn't out politicking. He was there to support a cause. Dressed casually in a plaid button-down shirt and jeans, Kelly fits right in. He doesn't mention the election or government.
The Missouri Cures Education Foundation, which Kelly sponsors, is out on this day for a costumed 3K fun walk. It is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and protecting medical research, something Kelly said is very close to his heart as a politician.
But Kelly knows health care issues aren't the only ones he'll have to tackle in office. There's the economy, education funding, tax credits and policies regarding growth and development. The economic viability of downtown Columbia is an issue that's important not only to his new district, but also to all of Columbia and Boone County.
“I hope to be quite involved with what happens downtown,” Kelly said. “I want more feedback, so I make a point of participating in larger degree with people who pay attention to downtown.”
Although he has no specific examples yet about how he will be able to directly contribute to the growth and development of downtown, he knows that once he is elected he'll discover some strategies.
Kelly gave an example of when he worked with business associations in Ashland, which is part of the 24th District that's about to fade away. By learning there was a need for natural gas service in an industrial park, he was able to connect those in need to Ameren Missouri.
"I would have never learned of that need if I hadn't met with those business associations," Kelly said. He hopes to bring that model of working together to businesses and residents in his new district.
"I plan on talking to business and associations downtown and going from there," Kelly said.
Tom O'Sullivan is among those who Kelly is about to represent. A resident of East Campus and a detective with the Boone County Sheriff's Department, O'Sullivan also is a former Republican candidate for state representative. He said he's one of those people concerned about what happens downtown. He also believes the welfare of MU is a primary concern.
"It is the economic engine of Boone County," he said. "Its success also has statewide implications."
As a voter, O'Sullivan also believes the legislature needs to make hard decisions about spending on social services.
"The budget of those is bloated and draining the state," he said. "There's a difference between people who can't and won't. There are too many unproductive people who are living off the government, and the state is too willing to enable these people."
O'Sullivan said he definitely will vote, and he hopes Kelly will take all the concerns of his district into consideration.
"I hope he can create a climate to continue to attract business to downtown," O'Sullivan said.
Amy Stephenson, owner of Get Lost Books near Broadway and Ninth Street, also hopes downtown area continues to prosper. She loves how lively the area is during the week.
“The main good thing about Columbia is it is very real living,” she said. "People really live here."
Kelly knows the neighborhood associations in his new district are very active and will reach out to him on a variety of issues. Some neighborhood representatives already know Kelly as an accessible politician.
“I know him, I like him, and I talk to him regularly,” Pat Fowler, president of the North Central Columbia Neighborhood, said.
Fowler also said that while she and her neighbors have been more concerned with city-level issues, she has never been hesitant to call Kelly about anything on her mind.
Martha John, who lives near Columbia Country Club, also sees Kelly as available and easy to talk to. Over the past four years, her neighborhood has been represented by 25th District state Rep. Mary Still, who is making a bid for the 19th District state Senate seat.
“Up until recently, our representative lived in our neighborhood, so there were no concerns,” John said. “I have no problems or concerns with Chris Kelly, though.”
John McFarland is treasurer of the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association, which represents residents of central Columbia south of Business Loop 70 and west of Providence Road. He said he and his neighbors are concerned about the city's efforts to establish an enhanced enterprise zone, which he believes stigmatizes his neighborhood, and the threat of eminent domain.
That's an issue Kelly and other lawmakers tried to address during the most recent legislative session, during which they passed a bill saying blight declarations that accompany the creation of EEZs cannot be used to justify eminent domain.
McFarland said he hopes Kelly can continue to weigh in on those kinds of issues after hearing his association's opinions on city issues.
For non-students, MU is still a major economic issue. Joshua Nunez, who lives in East Campus and works downtown, is interested in the implications of MU’s move to the SEC.
“Will joining the SEC stimulate the economy?” Nunez asked. He sees a lot of development and growth in the downtown area overall, and hopes it will continue to be beneficial for everyone.
Skip Walther is a principal in Walther, Antel, Stamper & Fischer, P.C. as well as a board member of the Downtown Community Improvement District. Although the board is independent of state and city government money, he says both have helped its efforts in the past.
"Historic tax credits have had a significant impact on downtown," Walther said. "Those buildings which have used that money are full of tenants now. That wouldn't have happened without it."
Walther said he is not usually a critic of government because it tends to "do the best for the people." He credits past legislatures for helping Columbia and downtown be as vibrant as it is today.
"Columbia is very economically healthy. Because downtown is so strong, it doesn't need much government assistance," Walther said. "It doesn't have to look to legislature for help like other downtowns across the state do."
Walther believes Columbia has one of the strongest downtowns in the state, and he hopes newly elected representatives do what they can to help keep this trend going.
Rather than spend his time campaigning for his own election, Kelly believes it's more important to stump for Proposition B. The measure, which appears on Nov. 6's ballot, would boost the state tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products and funnel the new revenue toward K-12 and higher education, as well as smoking-cessation programs.
“There is nothing that is more important to the district than the tobacco tax," Kelly said. "What it does is extremely meaningful to this district."
Kelly's website indicates Proposition B, if approved by voters, would generate an additional $2.7 million for Columbia Public Schools.
Kelly said he also has an interest in and commitment to hospitals and their employees. The 45th District's borders encompass Boone Hospital Center, University Hospital and Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital.
“(The) employees of the hospital of my old district are different from the ones in my new district,” he said, explaining that while the current 24th is home to many doctors, he'll now represent a variety of employees, such as X-ray technicians.
Melvin Platt, president of the Rotary Club of Columbia of which Kelly is a member, said Kelly is a passionate, engaged public servant who is outspoken on the issues he cares about.
“He does not appear to me to be a different person in private than he is in public," Platt said. "It is comforting to know that he is the same person when representing his constituency in Jefferson City or visiting with Rotary Club members around a luncheon table.”
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.