Director dreams big for Kemper property

At least three groups are vying for use of the former school property.
Sunday, November 9, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:30 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

When Boonville’s economic development director, Sarah Gallagher, thinks of the shut-down Kemper Military School, she sees it as the center of Boonville’s economic activity for the next 100 years.

Gallagher has endless ideas for the use of the property, which the city purchased for $480,000 in April.

One possibility could be using a Kemper barracks as a bicycle hostel. People would ride their bikes along the Katy Trail and stay in the barracks. They would take advantage of a massage table downstairs and a bottled water stand. Later, they would walk up the street to shop at an antique mall and head to a cafe for a cup of coffee.

Gallagher can picture Kemper becoming a mini-convention center. Its central location, variety of meeting spaces and proximity to the Isle of Capri casinos make it the perfect place for a company retreat.

“Everybody should want to come here,” she said.

But that’s just Gallagher’s imagination. She still needs to persuade the Boonville City Council.

The city charged its Industrial Development Authority with the responsibility of reviewing proposals and making a presentation to the council about the best use for the property.

Gallagher said the authority has not received any formal proposals, but she has two other groups that are in the process of putting one together. She would not identify the groups. The groups join the Friends of Kemper Foundation, a group dedicated to reopening the school, in their interest for using the property.

In a closed session in September, the foundation expressed its interest in leasing two buildings to reopen Kemper Military School.

David Nicholas, president of the development authority, said it hopes to present a plan to the council by Jan. 1.

The development authority has held several discussions about Kemper in closed session. Interested parties deal directly with Gallagher, who has a confidentiality agreement with them.

Councilman Pete Soener has been Boonville’s representative to the authority since October and has attended one of its meetings, but was not present for any of its closed sessions, he said.

“If anything is going on, I’ve heard about it from the economic developer, not the IDA,” Soener said.

When the city purchased the property after the school filed for bankruptcy, it had no intentions of keeping most of the buildings, city officials said earlier. The only one it wanted to retain was Johnston Field House, where the Boonslick Heartland YMCA is now housed, they said.”The idea was to buy the property, sell off what they could and keep the park land,” Gallagher said. However, Gallagher personally feels it is in Boonville’s best interest to retain the buildings to ensure proper development of them.

Councilman Bob Irish said the city has no desire to be a landlord but would consider a leasing option on a case-by-case basis.

Mayor Danielle Blanck said she would like to see the buildings sold. She said if someone came in with half a million dollars, the city would seriously entertain the proposal. But it would first ensure that the interested party was honest and not out to destroy the buildings, which are part of Boonville’s history.

Blanck said the city council gave the development authority the responsibility of reviewing proposals because it is made up of people who have a background in business.

The development authority’s last meeting was on Oct. 23 and went in a closed session to talk about the development authority’s role in Kemper.

Gallagher said a vote did not take place in that session, and she still does not know what the authority will do.

Soener said he would like to see discussions about Kemper be as public as possible. He does not think the development authority should have held a closed session if it was not voting.

“If nothing happened, let everyone know about it,” he said.

Nicholas said the development authority has been working on a proposal to take to the city but is not ready yet. He would not give specifics or say what the authority’s role will be in Kemper’s future.

Gallagher said she could see the authority holding the property as a non-profit entity. But if that is not the route the authority chooses to take, she said she could see any non-profit group developing the property as a multi-use campus.

Steve Read, the Friends of Kemper Foundation’s president, said whether the school will reopen is partially hinged on the development authority’s role.

Read said he has heard that the property may be turned over to the authority. If that happens, he said, there is a better chance of reopening the school because the foundation already has a good relationship with the board.

In the meantime, Read said, the foundation has conducted interviews for the school’s president and has two or three strong candidates in mind. Once a president is hired, Read said that person will review the already-existing business plan, and the foundation will then take it to the authority.

The foundation is hoping to reopen the school in September 2005.

Gallagher said the foundation will need about $4 million to make its plan feasible. She is confident the foundation has the money or at least has the ability to come up with it.

But Gallagher said the Kemper project will continue, with or without a school.

Gallagher said her vision is completely doable if the project is a collaboration between many different people, businesses and organizations.

“The more winners there can be, the stronger the project can be,” she said.

Her vision, she said, could create 20 to 50 jobs. It would give people a reason to come to Boonville and give the people of Boonville something new to take pride in.

“Change is going to happen. We can’t stop it,” she said. “We’re either in charge of the change, or we’re not in charge.”

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