Downtown redesign challenges discussed

Community members and experts address how to pay for the changes.
Thursday, May 24, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:00 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

As sweeping development plans for the southern half of downtown Columbia move forward, city officials and neighbors understand that giving it a face-lift is a lot like giving a person one: It isn’t cheap, and it isn’t easy.

On Wednesday evening, economic experts and community members met in the City Council chambers at a joint planning forum to discuss how Columbia can tackle the financial and logistical challenges of implementing a series of projects outlined by Sasaki Associates. The Boston-based urban development firm was hired to help the city brainstorm ways to expand and renovate the limited space available downtown.

Ideas floated by Sasaki include a 200-room hotel and convention center at Eighth and Locust streets, a new museum for the Missouri State Historical Society at Sixth and Elm streets, a new MU performing arts center, new parking garages and a parklike extension of Elm Street to College Avenue. Sasaki also suggested the city look at redeveloping other areas dominated by surface parking or by one-story buildings.

City Manager Bill Watkins emphasized the importance of combining as many economic “tools in the city’s toolbox” with community and university cooperation to foster development.

Guest speaker Sallie Hemenway, operations director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development, said that the most important tool of all is efficient, cohesive planning on behalf of all parties invested in reinvigorating the District: The city, private developers, business owners and nonprofit organizations.

“When you plan and communicate your goals effectively, you naturally attract investors,” Hemenway said.

Once those investors are interested, Hemenway said the state can offer financial assistance. Several forms of Tax Increment Financing programs, ranging from the Missouri Downtown and Rural Economic Stimulus Act to local TIFs, allow the state, county and city to use new sales tax dollars in designated development areas to pay the cost of that development over time, which can be as much as 25 years.

“Private investment creates economic development,” Hemenway said. “That creates economic return for the state of Missouri. When we use public dollars to stimulate private development, it has a positive effect on the state of Missouri.”

Representatives from Kansas City and Springfield described how their communities applied state and local funding to foster downtown renovation. Jeff Kaczmarek, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of Kansas City, said his city has made effective use of sales taxes and bonds voted on by the community to finance several projects.

Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine said Wednesday’s public forum signaled an important shift in the downtown redevelopment process. The city is no longer just thinking about parking garages and apartment units. It’s deciding how to build them — a shift that is perhaps as important as the gritty financial details themselves.

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