Small towns, big plans

With the help of government grants, growth is on horizon for Boone County towns.
Monday, December 22, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:30 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Sturgeon has one restaurant. One main street. One gas station.

The population is 944, according to the sign posted on the road into town. It might be a little more than that, Mayor Gene Kelly said, but it usually hovers around 950.

It’s the kind of place where a customer can tell Stacy Griffith, co-owner of The Buzz Cafe, that he’ll have “the usual,” and she knows what that means.

Griffith said she knows most of her customers, and she loves it that way.

“It’s just that small hometown feeling that you get to know everybody,” she said.

It’s the kind of place where David Ritchie, co-owner of the town’s hardware store, knows nearly all his customers and greets a young customer in camouflage clothing by name.

“Dustin, get your deer yet?” Ritchie asked.

But it’s also the kind of place where growth — both in population and in commerce — is a matter of delicate balance. In any city, there’s no commercial development without infrastructure: water, sewers, roads. That infrastructure, though, is funded largely through taxes, which are primarily generated by commerce.

It’s a vicious circle: no development without taxes, no taxes without development. Caught in this fiscal Catch-22, small towns attack the problem differently.

Hallsville and Rocheport find relief in government grants. Ashland encourages the slow but steady growth of commercial areas. And Sturgeon is hoping a new industrial park will prove to be a good starting point.

A tax base for Sturgeon

Hugh Tincher, 63, has lived in Boone County most of his life. He grew up in Columbia and in the early 1980s moved to northern Boone County to farm. He owns the land near the intersection of U.S. 63 and Missouri 22 that he wants to develop into an industrial park.

“Towns like Sturgeon are gonna dry up if they don’t get something going,” Tincher said. “Sturgeon needs quite a little help. The businesses there could use some more people around.”

Tincher said he hopes the light manufacturing plants that might eventually be built on his property will not only create jobs and draw people to northern Boone County, but also generate tax revenue that will feed the local schools’ coffers.

Kelly has the same hopes. While the development would not technically be within Sturgeon’s town limits, it would affect the small town financially.

“That’s what concerns us,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to support our school. That’s our biggest employer. We’re just a small town, you know? We’re just fortunate to have the business we have.”

The Sturgeon R-5 School District employs 75 people, 38 of whom are teachers. School Superintendent Frank Curtis said the district last year had to eliminate five jobs and a few school programs, including off-season baseball and softball and some upper-level classes.

“We’re watching the budget real close,” Curtis said.

Curtis said the school board is thinking about proposing a tax levy increase in the spring that would boost the school’s operating budget. A similar proposition failed in August.

“All the schools are stretched a little bit because of state budget cuts,” Kelly said. “Most people I’ve talked to liked the idea of getting something out there to help with the school taxes.”

Area residents have generally favored the industrial park, which is on hold while plans for a water main are being negotiated with Boone County Water District No. 10. The Sturgeon City Council and Chamber of Commerce voted unanimously to support the development.

Curtis saidproperty owners in the area are the biggest source of tax revenue for the schools.

Some local farmers voiced their support, Kelly said. “(Farmers are) real concerned about the school out here, and they want some type of tax base,” Kelly said. “The farmers pay a pretty good-sized chunk of money to school taxes. If they had something to kind of alleviate a little of that, with some industry out here, that’s what they were wanting.”

Sturgeon is lucky enough to have a landowner and developer lined up who are willing to go ahead with a project. Other smaller towns turn to grants and loans from the state and federal governments. But even using these resources, these rural towns run into roadblocks.

Grants for growth

Although Boone County is a fairly wealthy area of the state, some of its smaller cities need money to cover the otherwise prohibitive costs of infrastructure, said Garry Taylor, executive director of the Mid-Missouri Regional Planning Commission. The commission helps towns in a six-county area apply for loans and grants.

In Rocheport, for example, the commission staff wrote a grant to get $178,580 from the Missouri Department of Economic Development for senior citizen housing when the city and Moniteau Housing Project Inc. didn’t have the money.

“I guess you could say we rely on grants,” said Rocheport City Clerk Shirley Jenkins, citing as another example a federal Community Development Block Grant that paid for rehabilitation of the wastewater treatment plant.

Rocheport residents aren’t aggressively pursuing growth and development, Jenkins said. When the city needs a “substantial amount” of money for a project, grants and county revenue-sharing money often are the only source of cash.

Hallsville, with a population of about 1,200, is another example of a city that needs state and federal money to help it build infrastructure and grow, said Cheri Reisch, the city’s clerk.

The city has received outside funding to pay for everything from a chipper-shredder to police department programs. But Taylor said the granting agenciesoften ask cities to exhaust every possible funding option — such as raising utility rates — before looking for grants.

“Some local assistance is usually required,” Taylor said. “Agencies will look at the finances of a city or county and what they’re going to be able to afford.”

In a small town such as Hallsville, Reisch said, if there’s a need, residents will find a way to pay for it. Without grants and loans, however, improvements “wouldn’t be as quick or as much,” she said. “Nobody wants their taxes raised by any more than they have to be.”

It’s the need for matching money from residents that sometimes foils Ashland’s grant requests, said Ken Eftink, the city administrator. If the city lacks the local matching money, the grant must be turned down.

Also, Eftink said, residents must fall under a certain income level for the city to receive a grant, and the average Ashland resident’s income is often too high.

A good source of funding for Ashland’s infrastructure projects, Eftink said, is the county’s revenue-sharing money, as well as city sales taxes, which pay for city operations and capital projects.

While Ashland residents don’t want to aggressively pursue growth, there is a rising interest in becoming a community that can sustain itself, Eftink said.

Toward that end, the town’s Board of Aldermen in 1999 adopted a 15-year annexation plan that called for incrementally expanding the town to triple its size.

Eftink shied away from describing Ashland as a “bedroom community.”

Residents want to be able to “buy the things they need here in town and be able to work here, and that’s the goal,” Eftink said.

A city again

The newly reincorporated city of Huntsdale faces not the hurdle of raising taxes, but of levying them at all. After 70 years without official city status, Huntsdale was re-established in March, and town officials were elected.

“We’ve spent so much time learning to be a town,” Mayor Debby Lancaster said. The town has been working on a five-year plan, which Lancaster said is necessary to receive a Lewis and Clark conservation grant. The grant would pay for events celebrating the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as cleanup efforts in the city.

Lancaster said Huntsdale is a perfect example of a town victimized by the need-money-to-make-money conundrum. Federal Community Development Block Grants, which are often used to pay for social welfare programs and build housing for low-income people, are “essential to what we need for this town,” Lancaster said, noting Huntsdale’s lack of social and community services.

“I’ll work on grants as we go,” she said.

Huntsdale still has very few city ordinances because it is so new. Lancaster worries about the way the town will develop.

“I’m worried any time there’s no guidelines to go by,” Lancaster said. “We have nothing that says, ‘You can’t do that.’ “

So, first things first.

“My goal as far as the mayor of the town is that we have our ordinances established and we start looking at our tax base before the next election,” she said.

Jobs in town

The smaller towns in Boone County are often commuter cities — residents drive into bigger cities such as Columbia to work. That’s certainly the case in Sturgeon.

Sturgeon’s location — halfway between Columbia and Moberly — makes it a perfect place for those who drive to a bigger city for work but like to live in a smaller town, said Ritchie, the co-owner of Ritchie True Value Hardware on Sturgeon’s main street.

Griffith, who owns her cafe with her husband, Bruce, said she used to commute to Columbia every day, while her husband drove to Moberly for work.

But if the industrial park comes to fruition, it could keep northern Boone County residents working — and spending money — in the area.

“The whole idea is get more employment there,” Mayor Kelly said.

Kelly outlined the expected turn of events: First, the industrial park will bring jobs. In turn, the jobs bring people, who will settle nearby and build homes. That will create greater demand for commercial development, which will increase the tax base. And that brings more infrastructure and more funding for the schools.

“Any industry that grows within your school district is bound to help,” said Curtis, the school superintendent.

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