by Karen E. Culp
Springfield will get an ice rink, Civic Park and, probably, an American National Fish and Wildlife Living Museum and Aquarium following a favorable vote by its citizens on an increase to the city's hotel/motel tourist tax.
The increase in the room tax from its current 2 cents to 4 1/2 cents passed, earning 15,515 yes votes vs. 5,251 no votes. The continuance of a quarter-cent capital improvement tax also passed, earning 16,136 yes votes vs. 4,560 no votes.
The total number of votes cast was 21,092 out of 93,365 registered voters, or 22.59 percent. The turnout was higher than predicted, said County Clerk Richard Struckhoff, but represents about the average for a February election, "if you take all of them together," he said.
"The margins were certainly impressive. A candidate would love to win by 75 percent," Struckhoff said.
The yes votes represented 74.71 percent of the votes for the tourist tax increase and 78.16 percent for the quarter-cent renewal.
One final source of revenue for the museum project is the state's commitment, said Joe Greene, attorney for the museum's board of directors. Museum supporters appeared before the House Appropriations Committee and will probably know next week whether any action will be taken on the House of Representatives side, Greene said. Supporters are looking for a $20 million commitment of state funds.
The vote of the people was very encouraging for state legislators, said Rep. Jim Kreider, a Democrat from Nixa and House Speaker Pro-Tem. Kreider has long been a supporter of the museum project; he was involved in enacting enabling legislation for the formation of the museum district during the 1997 session. In 1998, he hopes to reform some of that statute's language with regard to specific concerns.
"There's been some concern about the board membership for the museum. Many legislators think that there should be some state representation on the board if it is to receive state funding, and I agree. We are not sure where those state members will come from, but they would be appointed by the governor," Kreider said.
His office is researching amending the enabling law this session, he added. There will also be some provision for disallowing a state-funded project like the museum to be named after a commercial entity.
"There's been some concern over that in light of the TWA Dome in St. Louis," Kreider said.
Kreider said he expects the vote in Springfield will mean a lot to state officials, especially Gov. Mel Carnahan. Carnahan did not include the museum project's funding in his budget recommendations.
"I can't emphasize enough how important this vote of the people is. It demonstrates to us the commitment on the part of the citizens of Springfield. It was a very impressive vote, and I am personally pleased by the majority with which it passed," Kreider said.
For the city's part, the next step toward building Civic Park will be acquiring the land needed to build the park, said City Manager Tom Finnie.
"It will probably be a year or so before you see any changes on that site. There is the business relocation involved, and that will take some time before we actually break ground," Finnie said.
Finnie agreed with Struckhoff and Kreider that the turnout itself was impressive.
"That percentage was a much better turnout than last year, certainly. I think this year the issues were out there and people were aware of them," Finnie said.
Dr. John Moore, Drury College president and co-chair of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce campaign committee for the election issues, said that the committee raised the $50,000 it had budgeted for the campaign. He added that the visibility of the television ads, signs and print ads increased awareness.
"I was delighted with the turnout. A lot of people came together to make this happen," Moore said.
Mayor Lee Gannaway had this to say of the election results:
"The several millions of dollars to be spent for the actual building of the exhibition center, museum and so forth, are going to be very nice bursts for the local construction industry. However, the long-term economic effects of these projects are what may make the difference and turn the corner for us as we approach the next century."
An increase in visitors could have a "ripple effect," resulting in, perhaps, better air travel opportunities for the city, which can in turn make Springfield more competitive for attracting national industry and business, Gannaway added.
"Springfield is about to debut," he said.
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