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City, owner far apart on value of Hotel of Terror

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Springfield City Council unanimously voted to seize a downtown holiday mainstay by invoking eminent domain – the right of a government entity to take over private property, with compensation, for public use.

The decision to take over the building that is home to the Hotel of Terror haunted house, 334 N. Main Ave., came at the Feb. 21 council meeting.

The Hotel of Terror opened 45 years ago in a 1904 building that held a series of railroad hotels with restaurants: the Traveler’s Inn, the Manuel Hotel, the Plaza Hotel and finally the Texas Hotel, which closed in the 1960s, according to the Dark Ozarks podcast.

The family of Sterling Mathis purchased the building and opened the Hotel of Terror on the site in 1978, and Mathis now operates the haunted attraction with his sons. Mathis said he brought in $200,000 in the single month he was open in 2022, and despite the city’s vote to seize the property, he said it will be open at its current location for one last season this October.

More steps remain before the city can tear down the Italianate commercial structure – a necessary step, officials say, toward the city replacing the Main Avenue bridge over Jordan Creek and, eventually, completing its multimillion-dollar Renew Jordan Creek project, which will establish walkways and amenities along the creek.

The amount to be paid to Mathis will be determined by a three-person commission chosen by a Greene County Circuit Court judge, according to Paul Blees, the city’s right of way supervisor. That process will begin after the city files its condemnation petition.

Reason for razing
Part of the project requires the Main Avenue bridge north of the old hotel to be replaced, according to Blees.

“It is not in good condition,” Blees said.

He added that City Utilities of Springfield transit buses are no longer traveling over the bridge because of its load limit. This is especially inconvenient since the CU Transit Center is located a block away at 211 N. Main St.

“It has hindered their capability and their flexibility of using Main Avenue,” Blees said.

Kristen Milam, communication coordinator for the city, added that flooding impacts the area, another reason for the bridge replacement project.

Blees said the foundation of the Hotel of Terror is close enough to the bridge that it poses a risk to the building.

“Our contractors are very leery of doing any kind of work that close due to possible damage – they could possibly destroy the building during the construction process,” he said, though he noted he is not an engineer.

Milam said the bridge will be expanded from a single span to two spans, with a span defined as the gap between supports. The city considered completing a single span project while continuing negotiating with Mathis but could not get a good bid on the project because of risk.

Blees said one of the prime objectives of Renew Jordan Creek is to open up the creek to realize flood control benefits. The basement wall of the hotel is immediately adjacent to Jordan Creek.

Jordan Creek was sent underground through culverts in the 1930s, and the city aims to bring the waterway back to a natural appearance on the surface, where it will be flanked by walkways and amenities.

Preliminary plans were first introduced to City Council in 2019. A map of the affected downtown land shows the western terminus of the project’s initial site on Main Avenue, between Mill and Olive Streets – the location of the Hotel of Terror.

Just below the north wall of the building, the human-constructed course of Jordan Creek is visible. It runs under the bridge through its concrete channels into a tunnel, the walls of which have been painted in lurid hues by covert artists.

Renew Jordan Creek stands to make the current landscape unrecognizable, with no concrete channels, no graffiti and no hotel, but instead a natural-flowing creek with pathways beside it – an urban amenity intended to encourage private development, according to the Renew Jordan Creek website.

It comes down to competing interests. Mathis said he and his haunted attraction’s guests – over 15,000 last year – are in favor of maintaining a longstanding attraction that is also one of the city’s few remaining railroad hotels, across the street from the site of the original Frisco railroad depot. City officials say the Renew Jordan Creek project is a quality of life and environmental initiative that will lead to urban renewal throughout much of the downtown area.

Relocating Terror
Mathis said he is not opposed to moving the attraction to his other haunted house, Dungeons of Doom, located in an 80,000-square-foot former grain mill within a short hayride’s distance at 701 W. Wall St.

The commercial value of the hotel, according to Greene County assessor records, is $142,700. That doesn’t tell the whole story, Mathis said, because it’s not just a building; it’s a profitable turnkey business, and one that he had planned to take him through retirement.

“Some people thought I’m just trying to make a buck, which I’m not,” Mathis said. “If they will do the work here, move me over, set me up where it’s turnkey like it is here, I’ll do it for free. They can have it.”

But Mathis maintains moving the attraction is a $1 million proposition.

A walk through the attraction shows part of the reason for his claim. Over the years, Mathis has handcrafted features, like flooring composed of hundreds of handcrafted skulls.

“These are all made out of Ultracal 30, which is the same stuff that dentists use to make the mold for your teeth, and so they don’t chip,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many hours it took to do this.”

The same type of skulls, but larger, also adorn the walls, and these appear to be dripping fresh blood, with a red paint formula that Mathis developed.

During the walk-thru, he points out features that are too large to be easily moved, plus ones that have been perfected over the decades, like a mannequin that moves and spews vomit – actually colored water.

Mathis has room for the contents of the building in the Dungeons of Doom – in theory, he could fit about nine of the 8,900-square-foot hotels into the old granary. But in reality, much of the unused part of the building housing the Dungeons of Doom needs work to be functional, Mathis said, like a new roof estimated to cost $375,000. Mathis also has a quote for $500,000 for an addition he’d like to put atop one section of the former granary. He also needs to remove a metal silo that is a newer addition to the building.

So, is $1 million his bottom dollar in negotiating with the city?

“Well, that’s what I told them I have to have,” he said. “It’s going to cost me more than that, but that’s just to get the rough part done.”

Dungeons of Doom has capacious rooms, and Mathis has used the space to design life-sized dioramas, like a setting where a Jack the Ripper character has slashed a woman’s throat. Conversely, the smaller Hotel of Terror is designed to capitalize on narrow passageways and lots of corners, just right for jump-scares.

As far as the city’s offer, officials would not divulge an amount due to ongoing negotiations, but Mathis said they offered him $200,000 three years ago.

“I said you guys are out of your minds – I can’t do anything for $200,000,” he said.

Blees noted Mathis’ moving costs – separate from an agreed upon real estate payment – would be covered by the city.

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