MU’s Jesse Auditorium might have witnessed one of its most historic performances Friday when Chancellor Richard Wallace took the stage to unveil plans for a new performing arts center.
If MU gets its way, the 28 acres of land on the corner of College Avenue and Stadium Boulevard would slowly be transformed into an arts haven.
Before the first stone can be laid on the $40 million to $50 million performing arts center, however, the university needs legislative approval to lease seven acres to a developer who would build a hotel and convention center.
Money from the lease, supplemented with private funds, would help kick-start what MU calls the Arts Village. This is the third time the lease proposal will come before the Missouri General Assembly.
Wallace was clearly happy Friday talking about what some university officials called “his baby.” He spoke on the stage of Jesse Auditorium alongside a community group that took the opportunity to announce its support for the project.
“This is a wonderful vision for an important part of the campus,” Wallace said.
Community Leaders Supporting Economic and Cultural Growth is a group of Columbia business leaders led by Bob Pugh, chief executive officer of Missouri Book Services, and Greg Steinhoff of Option Care Missouri River Hospice.
Pugh said this is a great opportunity to improve the university’s facilities for supporters of arts and area residents.
“It will be the crown jewel of our community,” he said.
More than 100 people, including university officials, legislators, faculty and students, attended the news conference where one of the largest building projects in MU history was unveiled. Wallace said the hotel is not just a financial driver for the performing arts center; it is needed and would be ideal for conferences or symposiums on campus.
The proximity of athletic facilities, such as the stadium and basketball arena, might bring additional visitors and hotel clients, MU officials said.
Marty Oetting, MU director of governmental relations, said sports did not play a decisive role in choosing the location. Oetting said the future developer would evaluate the importance of athletics and other facilities in the area to the operation of the hotel.
Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, who spoke at the conference, said that approving the lease is a difficult issue for him and he still has to make up his mind.
“As soon as I find a comfort level, I will have an answer for you on how I fall on this issue,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs said he has talked to hotel owners across the state, and none favor the university’s plans.
Five hotel owners also said they oppose the lease.
One of those, Mike Ebert, owner of the Regency Hotel, said, “I’m absolutely against it. Basically, a university is established for two reasons: to educate and to research — not to compete against free enterprise.”
Pugh invited local hotel owners to participate in the bidding process if the lease is approved. Wallace said he hopes bidding would be completed within three or four months of legislative approval. Both Wallace and Pugh said some hotel operators have expressed interest, but they declined to comment further.
Ed Baker, vice president and partner of Executive Hotel Management, which owns the Holiday Inn Select in Columbia, said that if community businesses are ruined, Wallace will be retired and gone by the time it becomes apparent.
“Chancellor Wallace has nothing to lose,” Baker said. “It’s not his business on the line.”
Most of the owners contacted don’t have a strategy for how they are going to fight the proposal. Some, like Ebert, have sent letters to legislators. Baker said he thinks the legislature won’t approve the lease.
“I believe the legislators will do the right thing, like they did last year and the year before,” Baker said.
Operating a textbook business has taught Pugh what it means to compete with the university, he said. Pugh acknowledged the fact that initially he was tempted to join the “naysayers.”
“My instincts would say that anything the university does to compete with the private sector would be unfair,” Pugh said.
Still, he added, the university’s proposal shows that it will not get involved in managing the hotel and that the developer would pay all applicable local, county and state taxes.
Hobbs said there is a chance for the lease to be approved this year, but there are still questions that need to be answered in front of lawmakers.
“If we have state tax dollars and land is owned by the state, we have to be very certain that we are not competing against private industries,” Hobbs said.
Sen. Carl Vogel, R-Jefferson City, and Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia, expressed their support for the project during the conference. Both Vogel and Wilson have ties to the university; Vogel’s daughter is currently an MU student, and Wilson performed in Jesse Hall shortly after its last renovation in the late 1950s.
Wilson said it’s time for the university to move from the 1950s into the 21st century.
“It’s been termed a win-win,” Wilson said. “I would say it’s a no-lose project.”
Still, if construction starts, MU would lose about 38 percent of its apartment space. University Terrace, the apartment complex now on that property, would have to be torn down, said Frankie Minor, MU director of residential life. He said MU would try to find suitable housing for those students and is examining strategies to make up for the potential loss.
Minor said the campus might identify a location for building a new complex, form a partnership with an existing apartment complex that would help house students, or, as a last resort, reduce the overall on-campus apartment inventory. The apartments are inhabited mostly by graduate level and professional students and students with families.
Missourian reporter Andrea Latta contributed to this report.