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The Fieldhouse Sportscenter will soon be part of the Springfield-Greene County Park Board, following Springfield City Council’s approval Aug. 23 of its purchase from private owners.
Although the acquisition was originally suggested to use American Rescue Plan Act funds, a motion by Councilperson Andrew Lear at the Aug. 9 meeting amended the proposal to buy the building with a $2 million carryover in the general fund and a $5.2 million bond.
Council approved two separate measures. One authorized the city manager to enter into a purchase agreement with Fieldhouse owners Dr. Craig and Kristen Naugle, and the other approved the issuance of the special obligation improvement bonds. The 46,230-square-foot Fieldhouse Sportscenter opened in spring 2013 and cost $5 million to construct, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.
Councilperson Angela Romine, who was the sole “no” vote on each of the measures, said some residents had contacted her with concerns about the expenditure.
“They feel like there are other things we could possibly do that would benefit the community a little bit better,” she said, citing dangerous properties and underfunded animal control as two examples.
Because of the amendment to change the funding mechanism from ARPA to city and bond funds, a public hearing was held.
Mayor Ken McClure said he was in favor of the purchase, though he voted against the amendment at the Aug. 9 meeting because he thought the ARPA funds were appropriate.
“I fear that we may be setting a precedent that we may regret as we look at other possible uses of all of our funds,” McClure said. “That being said, I intend to support the bill as amended and think that the purchase and being able to fund it now is a good process.”
In SBJ’s online poll posted Aug. 12, readers had mixed opinions on whether the city should buy the Fieldhouse. Roughly, 40% of the 828 respondents said the city should not buy the facility. The rest of respondents were in favor of the purchase, but were split about funding, with 37% favoring use of ARPA funds and 22% believing other funds should be used.
Christopher Donegan, a one-time employee of the Fieldhouse, objected to the purchase, saying keeping the property in the private sector would allow it to generate real estate property taxes that can fund the parks and other city needs.
In the public hearing, Missouri Senator Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, spoke in favor of the purchase, saying it would have been a perfect use of ARPA funds.
“As a member of the Missouri Tourism Commission, I’ll throw a couple of quick stats out,” he said. “Even in an off year, even in fiscal year 2020 … a little over $12.5 billion was spent in this state on tourism.”
Additionally, roughly 1.3 million people visited Missouri specifically for the purpose of a youth sporting event in fiscal 2020, Hough said.
On Aug. 20, SBJ published a letter to the editor from Michael Homeyer, who raised questions about the proposed purchase. Homeyer wondered why the city was determined to pay $7.5 million to acquire a private business, as well as whether the city had hired a consultant to study competitive venues and how Springfield would fare against them.
Homeyer also questioned whether alternative uses for the funds could be found. He cited litter, crumbling curbs and sidewalks, abandoned and neglected homes, and homelessness as examples.
Homeyer wrote, “In addition, we experience crime rates much higher than the national average and those statistics are deteriorating.”
Police staffing concern
The Springfield Police Department lost 400 years of experience with 2020 retirements.
Councilperson Craig Hosmer offered this statistic to ask City Manager Jason Gage what the city is doing about a possible rehire program for retired police officers.
“We’re going to have one of the youngest police departments in the country if we don’t do something,” Hosmer said.
While the city has made some improvements in its recruitment of new officers, Hosmer said, something must be done to get experienced officers to stay.
“Our retirement plan incentivizes those officers to retire,” Hosmer said. “Some officers want to retire after 25 years and they deserve to retire, but some officers would be willing to come back and serve the city of Springfield to help in the fight against crime at a time where we’re almost 70 officers short.”
The SPD’s 2020 annual report shows the department has 335 sworn officers and 72 nonsworn staff. It lists 25 human retirees, plus two police service dogs.
“I think we’re going to be looking at the same exodus in 2021, and I think it’s something we have to correct if we’re ever seriously going to get a handle on the problems we’ve got with crime in the city,” Hosmer said.
Gage said, “It’s been a challenge for us even as we look at that technical legal aspect. … The challenge is the same challenge that we’ve seen across the country.”
Grant Avenue blight study
Council members voted to pay $75,000 for a blight study for the proposed Grant Avenue Parkway project, a move they say will allow future developers to skip the expense. Hosmer opposed the measure.
The Grant Avenue Parkway public project will create an off-street pedestrian and bicycle pathway along Grant Avenue between Sunshine and College streets, according to the project’s website.
Hosmer’s chief concern was that single-family homes along the parkway might be declared blighted to clear the way for apartment buildings.
“We keep incentivizing more and more developers to tear down single-family homes and build apartment complexes,” Hosmer said.
Hosmer said 60% of the population rent instead of owning their own home. The website TownCharts, which is based on 2020 census data, has the Springfield rental rate at 57.7%, “the largest of all places in the greater region.”
“That spells problems for the city of Springfield,” he said, citing a transitory population, plus more crime and less care for property. “We all bemoan the fact that we’ve got 60% living in rental property and then we incentivize it – sort of schizophrenic.”
He added the city can use the $75,000 in better ways.
The study was proposed by Councilperson Richard Ollis, who said that it is not unusual to review blight for a project like the Grant Avenue Parkway. Blighted properties would likely be cleaned up or eliminated through the course of the project. Ollis said the $26 million in public investment for the Grant Avenue Parkway project is important for the community.
“We’re creating a design standard along the corridor which is the most rigorous that we’ve ever had in the city of Springfield,” he said.
Other action items
“I counted 35 mature trees on those properties; the late B.J. Marsh was quite a tree guy,” Schilling said at this week’s meeting. “When we plan the new 20 years of Springfield planning and zoning, we should really take a serious look at getting a tree preservation ordinance in the code.”
Ollis said he can’t think of a better corporate citizen or a better use for the property than CoxHealth.
CoxHealth spokesperson Kaitlyn McConnell said Aug. 26 the purchase is in the works.
“That’s still the plan, but we haven’t closed on it yet,” she said.
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