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Downtown Hall renamed for Jim Morris

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

Southwest Missouri State University's Downtown Hall will now bear the name of Springfield businessman and downtown advocate Jim D. Morris. Following the announcement of a $1.65 million gift from Morris to the SMSU Foundation, the university June 26 announced that it would name the hall the Jim D. Morris Center for Continuing Education.

Morris is owner and chief executive officer of Morris Oil Co. Inc., the Amoco distributor for the Springfield and Branson region. He started with the company at the age of 18, in 1953, in Campbell, a small town in the Missouri Bootheel.

He took over the Branson region for the company in 1961 and was promoted to a position in Springfield in 1965. Morris has lived in Springfield ever since.

In 1975, Morris became an independent jobber for Amoco, meaning the company sold the assets of the Springfield and Branson operations to him. During that time, Morris said, Amoco converted 400 agents to jobbers, and he was the first agent to be converted.

Morris' donation to the SMSU Foundation continues his involvement in downtown: he has been a longtime supporter of the Gillioz and Discovery Center projects.

"Anything that will benefit young people and children has always been an interest for me. That's something that has always been important to me," Morris said.

His gift will go toward renovating the facility named for him, which will soon serve close to 10,000 continuing education students, said Dr. Jim Baker, executive assistant to SMSU's president.

Morris' gift also includes a 66-space parking lot west of the Discovery Center, to be used by students attending courses at the Morris Center, and three other properties.

One is a building just outside Seymour, which will be used as a distance learning center, and the other two are a piece of property at the corner of Grant and Grand and tract at the southeast corner of Interstate 44 and Highway MM.

Morris said he first became interested in Springfield's downtown while serving on the Boatmen's Bank board of directors in the early and mid 1980s.

"I could look out from the board room window across the square and see that downtown had gotten into such a bad state. I thought that something had to be done with downtown," Morris said.

He then began purchasing downtown properties, which he "got up to code, renovated and improved," he said. He remains well vested in downtown today.

"When I look at downtown, I think, 'this is our heritage.' When I first came to Springfield, downtown was the center of everything," Morris said.

Baker said the university is also an avid downtown supporter, noting its purchase and renovation of the Kentwood Arms Hotel and the Professional Building.

"When people think of our involvement down there, all they see is the Colonial Hotel, but there's so much more to it than that," Baker said.

When the university began working with the city of Springfield on its master plan three years ago, SMSU officials realized the school's limits in terms of expansion.

Bordered by Phelps Grove and Rountree neighborhoods to the south, the college decided to look to the northwest for expansion possibilities, and to try to integrate the university's landscape with the downtown landscape, Baker said.

"The logical place for us to grow is northwest, from the Professional Building into downtown. Our goal is not to disturb solid, residential neighborhoods, and to do that, we have to grow in another direction," Baker said.

SMSU has renovated about 14 properties in the downtown region, Baker said.

"This university has a real sensitivity to the redevelopment efforts in downtown. It will only benefit everyone if the downtown area thrives," Baker said.

Renovation on the Jim D. Morris Center for Continuing Education will begin with the exterior, which will be cleaned and "brightened up," Baker said. The initial renovations will cost $500,000. The building has five floors.

Right now, the building houses the Storefront School, which is moving out this summer; the planning program; continuing education; the art department; and overflow for the Meyer Library.

Baker said the library material will go into a renovated Meyer Library and the art department and photography lab will move into space the university will lease from Dan Scott and David Kellett, who are erecting a building on the corner of Jefferson and Walnut.

Once the exterior renovations are complete on the Morris Center, the interior will be reworked one floor at a time, Baker said.

Morris' gift ranks as one of SMSU's largest, Baker said.

Morris said the renaming of the center in his honor is important to his family.

"SMSU has served the education needs of my family, and it will always be there for an affordable education for members of our community," Morris said.

Morris' three daughters attended SMSU. He added that he and SMSU share common goals for downtown.

"We both want a downtown that all residents of Springfield can be proud of. I think we can work together to promote an educational and business district that will be a centerpiece for our town," Morris said.

SMSU's Greg Onstot said the university is considering what it will do with the two donated tracts of land in Springfield. Those tracts may be sold and the revenue used for the renovation of the Morris Center.

PHOTO CAPTION:

The SMSU Foundation's Bill Darr and Greg Onstot present a rendering of the renovated Morris Center.[[In-content Ad]]

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