COLUMBIA — A $6.6 million proposal to revamp Providence Road and streets in the Grasslands neighborhood was among the top issues cited by Fifth Ward voters who headed to the polls Tuesday morning to select a new City Council representative.
Susan “Tootie” Burns, Mark Jones and Laura Nauser are competing in the special election to replace former Councilwoman Helen Anthony, who resigned in November so she could move to the East Coast to be with her husband.
Along with the street projects in and near the Grasslands, voters cited the ongoing debate about where to string large new power lines in the Fifth Ward and more general city issues, such as economic development and student housing, as important to the city.
Voters said they want stability, trustworthiness and good financial management skills from their council member. A common theme was that any of the three candidates would be a fine representative.
"There are three candidates who would all do a good job on city council," Jerry Murrell, a retired physician who voted at Forum Christian Church, said.
Even so, several voters expressed their preference for each of the three candidates.
"I hope Mark Jones wins. He is the best candidate for Columbia and the Fifth Ward," political organizer Alex Townsend said while at the church.
Eleanore Wickersham also voted at the church and said the ward couldn't have "a bad winner." She prefers Jones or Burns, though, "because I feel like (Nauser) is going to support developers more than the average citizen."
Data analyst Michael Dunne, who cast his ballot at Woodcrest Chapel, said Burns was his choice.
“'Tootie' Burns offers the best balance in terms of her interest in the community welfare over big business special interests," Dunne said. "I don’t want another real estate developer or someone with questionable character who misappropriated campaign funds." Dunne was referencing a 2002 campaign finance violation for which Jones paid a $2,500 fine.
Builder Don Howser selected Nauser on his ballot “because of her experience as a former councilperson. She’s well known and understands what issues are in there.”
Grasslands street projects
A city plan to address traffic congestion in the Grasslands and on Providence Road immediately north of Stadium Boulevard was on the minds of many voters. As it stands, the plan calls for demolishing eight homes in the neighborhood to clear the way for new connector streets. It also includes a longer right-hand turn lane from Providence onto Stadium, new signals and revamped intersections.
At the Columbia Public Library, attorney Joanna Trachtenberg cited the Grasslands project as a top issue.
"I think they need to fix the traffic problem in the area," she said. "I just want an appropriate plan for the city."
Accountant Terry Philips agreed but conceded that the city is "limited by the state as to what we can do" because Providence Road is a state highway.
Angela Speck, an MU astronomy professor who lives in the Grasslands, acknowledged the road projects present "a difficult situation."
"I think if we could find a solution that doesn't destroy houses and gives us a traffic light, that would be great," Speck said.
At Forum Christian Church, physician Charles Abromovich called the current plan "ridiculous."
"Nobody looked to see if there were cheaper options," Abromovich said. "Whoever drafted it is ... well ... I won't go into name-calling."
Retiree Miles Lemmon also voted at the church. "Providence reconstruction could be done cheaper," he said. "... There are other issues including Nifong where it bottlenecks into two lanes."
Christine Staelens, an accountant, said she is concerned about the expense of the Providence project.
Carol Mallory, a homemaker, said she is concerned about bringing the Providence Road plan to the best conclusion possible.
"There is no good way to do that but to try and compromise," she said.
City staff has been working for years to find a route for large new power lines that are necessary in southwest Columbia to keep pace with capacity needs and to connect a new electric substation with the rest of the city grid. Finding a route that residents find acceptable has been difficult, though.
Several voters said the issue was on their minds when they went to the polls.
Mallory said she would like to see the power lines buried. Although that would be far more expensive than overhead lines, she said the city should eat that cost and save money on weather damage later.
"I don't know if that's a really big issue with those really large power lines, but I know the regular power lines are always being repaired," Mallory said. "Just get it over with."
Staelens said the city needs to find a balance between cost and the route selection.
"It would be great aesthetically to not have the power lines overhead, but on the other hand, the cost is certainly an issue," Staelens said.
Dozens of voters shared their thoughts with the Missourian this morning. Here's a sampling of what others had to say:
"I think that a progressive position in our city government and a focus on infrastructure are important." — Mike Alden, 54, MU athletics director
"Biggest issue facing this city is economic development." — Jason Lawless, 38, financial adviser with Edward Jones
"Very disturbed by the fact some people are content to tear down an old building downtown (the Niedermeyer) to build something new. The new parking structure they built is too ugly and too tall. I am more concerned about maintaining the quality of life and the appearance of the city than compromising that to maximize profits for a group of small developers. I believe that 'Tootie' Burns would be the best representative for all the people of Columbia on City Council." — Marvin Rogers, 80, retired MU political science professor
"I wanted to make sure the candidate I voted for cared about the issues that I care about, because we need someone on City Council who represents students since we compose a large population of the city.
"I want more options (for student housing) brought in so that we can keep the cost of housing low, and the city needs to be there for the students and make sure they have a place to live. Students are stimulating the economy of Columbia, so we just need to make sure that the city is there for them." — Chris Soelle, MU junior
“I’ve voted on every election… Many people don’t get to do so, and I enjoy it. 'Tootie' Burns has been around the neighborhood, plus I like her ideas.” — Mike Happ, 71, retired salesman
Missourian reporters Valentine Lamar, Ethan Colbert and Tony Puricelli contributed to this report.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.