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Bolivar bounces back from brink of bankruptcy

Five years ago, a financial crisis loomed but dozens of recent and planned developments signal a turnaround for the city

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Bolivar city leaders are a testament that a lot can change in five years.

In 2012, the city was in a financial crisis to the tune of nearly $900,000 in the red. At one point, borrowing for payroll was on the table, as was the fate of becoming the first Missouri city to file bankruptcy.

But that’s in the rearview mirror.

This year, over a dozen new businesses have opened and some larger projects are in the works, signaling Bolivar’s turnaround is here to stay.

“We reimagined how government was to be done, and the city is flourishing,” said City Administrator Darin Chappell, who was brought in for that purpose and made the tough decisions to cut 11 jobs that have not been replaced.

Nearly $1 million in budget cuts upset some but effectively warded off the fiscal emergency. Now, the town of nearly 11,000 people has $1.4 million in reserves, accomplished without raising taxes, increasing fees or further cutting services, Chappell said.

City revenues for 2016 were $12.6 million, rising by at least 4 percent each of the past four years and generating hope the town will be known as more than a pit stop for Highway 13 travelers on their way to Springfield 26 miles to the south.

Breaking ground
Outside of government budgeting, there are other signs of an improving economy.

Thane Kifer, CEO and chairman of Farmers State Bank and a Bolivar alderman, is behind a 61-room Best Western Plus Vineyard Hotel and Suites that broke ground June 30 just south of Southwest Baptist University. There currently are three hotels in Bolivar on the east side of Highway 13, but this would be the first near Springfield Avenue which runs through the heart of town.

The hotel is expected to anchor Kifer’s budding development area known as The Vineyard, which already has a 12-unit shopping center, a two-unit office building and an Aldi grocery store.

In its first 15 years, the hotel managed by O’Reilly Hospitality Management LLC is expected to create an economic impact of $30 million.

According to an agreement signed with the city, sales taxes generated by the hotel will be earmarked to repay Kifer’s Pinecone Holdings LLC for infrastructure improvements in The Vineyard. A 60-acre former cattle pasture, development plans call for retail, restaurants, offices and residential properties.

Kifer’s son Drew, the managing director of Pinecone Holdings, said the city is in line to gain additional sales tax revenues from other businesses in The Vineyard and the surrounding area.

“They have nothing right now, because there’s no hotel built and no sales tax coming in from that bare piece of ground,” he said. “If they can reinvest that sales tax in infrastructure development in that area, that is going to help accelerate the growth and have the ability to attract other new businesses to Bolivar.”

The shopping center was erected in 2007, Kifer said, but the family slowed down development plans in the wake of the recession. Now, several units sit empty, including one equipped for a restaurant.

“We have recently been working with Galen Pellham at Murney Associates for any national accounts that we may not have connections with,” he said.

Offshoot industries
Chappell believes the hotel fits into city plans to draw visitors off the highway into the heart of the city.

“We anticipate that being a big help to us as a city as well, because we have been working very hard to draw sporting events,” he said.

Bolivar has baseball, softball, soccer and football fields inside the city limits and volleyball courts just outside of the city. The city Parks & Recreation Department runs a 9-hole golf course, and Silo Ridge Country Club operates an 18-hole course east of town.

The city and area associations are promoting these properties as destinations for tournaments, Chappell said.

“Bolivar is a very sports-oriented town. This is just an extension of who and what we are as a community,” he said, noting the SBU football team is ranked No. 1 in a conference poll and No. 7 in a national poll.

Additionally, the city opened a $5.5 million, 28,000-square-foot aquatic center in 2012, attached to the YMCA and next to the city golf course.

Chappell, who announced Aug. 2 he’s taken the city administrator job in Chillicothe (See the sidebar story above right), also emphasized Bolivar’s arts-and-crafts industry. The city hosts Country Days, which includes booths for area craftsmen, as well as a car show. And it’s home to privately held Dunnegan Gallery of Art Inc., a large collection of Western and contemporary art with free admission to the public.

“It’s a way unsung jewel,” Chappell said. “It was established by the Dunnegan family and the Dunnegans were some of the founding fathers of the city of Bolivar. So although the city doesn’t own it proper, we work hand-in-glove with them at every turn trying to make sure that this is utilized as one of the main aspects of trying to draw people here to town.”

Strategic planning
Economic diversity is key to Bolivar’s future, Chappell said, noting the unique fact the city doesn’t assess a property tax.

“If one segment of the economy falters a bit, it doesn’t mean that all the rest of them fall at the same time or at the same rate,” he said.

Chappell is encouraged by Bolivar Technical College’s new $5 million campus, just south of the city’s largest employer, Citizens Memorial Healthcare.

CMH draws not only patients from surrounding communities, he said, but also medical talent from around the world. Bolivar-based CMH – including Citizens Memorial Hospital and Citizens Memorial Health Care Foundation – has more than 1,900 employees and reported $425 million in revenue for 2016 with $133.8 million in payroll.

“We have one of the premier cancer specialists, who’s actually from Russia,” Campbell said. “Obviously, they bring a great deal of talent and knowledge, but they also bring a different cultural view and help us be more diversified in our community.”

Mercy Springfield Communities, which has one clinic near The Vineyard, is planning an additional $23 million multispecialty clinic in Bolivar, including MRI and other image capabilities.

About 35 employees will work in the medical facility, on the south side of town, with salaries totaling $2.2 million, city officials estimate.

In the industrial sector, city planners are hanging hopes on a 72-acre plot on the west side of Highway 13. Though it’s been available to tenants for 15 years, the city industrial park does not yet have a single tenant, said Gail Noggle, director of economic development and executive director of the Industrial Development Authority since November 2016.

Tennessee-based Tractor Supply Co. (Nasdaq: TSCO), an operator of 1,600 rural-lifestyle stores, has broken ground and plans to open adjacent to the park this fall. The hope, Noggle said, is that activity near the park will spur interest in the area.

Bringing in new businesses is part of ongoing strategies, Noggle said, pointing to membership in professional organizations, trade show attendance and working with recruiting agencies.

“There’s a lot of work behind the scenes that takes place, before you even see the dirt being moved,” she said.


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