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Opinion: City, Hammons should hit pause button

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The city of Springfield and developer John Q. Hammons should take the cue of the Great Recession. Hit the pause button. Your pen pal won’t mind.

Clearly, now is not the right time to build a convention hotel – no matter the number of stars assigned to it or the number of letters the two sides write. When hotelier extraordinaire Hammons can’t obtain financing, which he recently told me over the phone was a first for him, what more does the city need?

The recession forced businesspeople to press pause on anything close to an aggressive plan, and the recovery obviously is not yet in full swing. So, buy back the land for $1, as the contract dictates, and hold it until credit becomes available and legitimate developers can return to the table. Then, run it through the normal public request for proposal process, which allows those developers to compete for what the city would deem the highest and best use.

If Hammons is as good as we think – and still has it at age 91, like he told me he does – he’ll come out the victor. If not, it seems the worst that could happen is that Hammons doesn’t get to leave the final feather in his legacy cap, as his letters to the city and the talk I had with him indicate he’d like to do for his hometown.

He does want to be remembered well. As we talked, Hammons reminded me several times of all that he’s done for the city – the tower, ball field, arena, arts hall, all with his name on them, and several hotel properties and subdivisions to his credit. He even asked if I knew how many city streets he was responsible for naming. More than 80, he said.

Hammons is no doubt a huge figure in and for Springfield. But that doesn’t mean the city should allow him to abuse a contract or give him preferential treatment at the bargaining table.

I’m not of the mindset that absolutely nobody can build a hotel as fast and as well as Hammons. There is one under construction right now in south Springfield by someone who is not named Hammons. Tim O’Reilly, developer of that Hilton Garden Inn, has no current interest in the center city spot.

Sure, it would make for a more smooth project between the city-owned Expo Center and Hammons-owned Jordan Valley Car Park due to consistencies among facilities and management. And I guess as the property owner, Hammons and the city have room for dialogue above and beyond what other interested parties receive – at least, until City Council pays him his buck for the land. Yet it seemed a bit much for the city to dangle a carrot in front of Hammons by sending him a letter on May 13. Signed by City Manager Greg Burris and Mayor Jim O’Neal, the city encouraged Hammons to stick with the RFP process should they go that route. Hammons’ written rebuttal 11 days later was essentially the same request he gave the city after missing an April 1 construction start date: May I have an extension, please? I’ll have the funding by July 2011 – promise.

Let’s drop the letter-writing pens. Stick to your guns, City Council, and uphold the integrity of the original contract by buying back the 1.7-acre vacant parcel. And sit on it.

Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at eolson@sbj.net.[[In-content Ad]]

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