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Questions linger about Lincoln University project

Questions linger about Lincoln University project

LU would need to secure state funds to use St. Mary's space

June 18th, 2017 by Philip Joens in Local News

This layout depicts a potential plan for commercial development at the old St. Mary's hospital in central Jefferson City.

When Farmer Holding Company first proposed a plan in February to redevelop the historic St. Mary's Hospital site, it touted its "Lincoln project" that would build a satellite campus for Lincoln University expansion.

In documents filed with Jefferson City and at meetings with commissions, boards and other stakeholders, Farmer Holding repeatedly promoted the Lincoln project as a way to give back to the community while also turning the property into a space for restaurants, retail and office space.

As the project moves forward, though, questions linger about whether LU will participate in the project or whether Farmer Holding will redevelop the St. Mary's site with only commercial space.

Farmer Holding proposed building a $44.6 million project with facilities for Lincoln University and commercial tenants or a $30.9 million project creating only commercial space to redevelop the site. The company sought $7.3 million in tax increment financing assistance for the Lincoln project and $6.7 million in TIF funding for the commercial project.

Under FHC's plan, Lincoln University could use parts of the old hospital for an expansion of its nursing or other programs. The Lincoln project would contain four areas with 21,000 square feet of commercial space.

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The commercial project would construct six areas with 30,200 feet of commercial space. Under both plans, a medical office building and the 112-year-old original St. Mary's Hospital building would remain standing and be converted into offices.

Members of the Jefferson City Council said they'd like Lincoln University to be involved in any redevelopment plan of the St. Mary's site and that the Lincoln project would help the city.

"I also think that could be a very attractive option because of all the things going on downtown," said 5th Ward Councilman Ron Fitzwater.

The Jefferson City TIF Commission on Wednesday recommended approval of the project to the full City Council. The proposal is expected to be introduced to the council sometime in July and voted on in August. If the City Council approves Farmer Holding's request, the company then will decide which project to pursue.

Farmer Holding Principal Rob Kingsbury said the company has had "several meetings with Lincoln over the past couple years, but there's several things that need to be worked out still.

"If the City Council votes to adopt the partnership for the site, our plan is to meet with Lincoln the next morning to begin to work through the steps necessary to accommodate them," Kingsbury said.

It's still not clear how much money LU would need to put in if the Lincoln project were to move forward. Most likely, LU would need state funds to cover the cost of creating new programs or expanding existing programs, like its nursing program, which could use the space.

Kingsbury said LU could lease space or buy renovated space at the hospital site from the company. The most common arrangement in redevelopments like this, and the one FHC is planning for, is for tenants to lease space from the property owner.

Outgoing Lincoln University President Kevin Rome did not say how much funding it would take for LU to participate in the project, and he did not specify what types of discussion the university has had with Farmer Holding.

"If Lincoln receives support from the state, it would be very beneficial for the School of Nursing and its students," Rome said in an email. "Lincoln has been in and out of talks concerning the acquisition of space at St. Mary's for several years."

At Wednesday's TIF Commission meeting, Farmer Holding attorney Korb Maxwell told the commission the university would need some state funding for the Lincoln project to move forward.

"There's people that sit several blocks from us that would need to weigh in with a very significant appropriation to make that a reality," Maxwell said.

Kingsbury said Farmer Holding is not asking for additional taxpayer money for the project, other than what the city may give if it approves the proposal. But it does want a clear signal from LU that it will participate before moving forward.

"We will not be going to the Legislature to procure funds for Lincoln University," Kingsbury said. "That will be their role to get the funds they need in their budget. In order for them to grow their additional programs, they will need additional space, and there's a price to that space."

A June 8 meeting of the Lincoln University Board of Curators showed the dire financial straits the school may be in. The curators cut $3.76 million from LU's operating budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year and approved the administration to cut 48 jobs, including 15.5 teachers, from the budget.

Gov. Eric Greitens has also been tightening the state's spending at each of its public universities. He originally proposed to cut 10 percent of core funds from each Missouri public college and university's budget. Lawmakers eventually reduced the budget cuts to 6.58 percent. This year's budget also assumes Lincoln will have 5 percent fewer students.

Most city staff members reached by the News Tribune agree something needs to be done with the derelict hospital, but they're not sure about the status of the Lincoln project. First Ward Councilman Rick Prather said he was briefed only once on the project. He also has not been briefed yet by Farmer Holding. Fitzwater knows only what's been discussed at the TIF Commission meetings, like the Wednesday one he attended.

City Administrator Steve Crowell said the City Council had a closed session where staff briefed council members about one aspect of the proposal.

Jefferson City Public Schools Board of Education members early last week endorsed Farmer Holding's proposal before the TIF Commission's Wednesday vote. But the matter split the board. Board President Steve Bruce endorsed the project, but he said he wished there was more concrete information about the Lincoln project.

"I would be much more excited about this were the Lincoln project to be front and center given that it'd be a win for the district," Bruce said at the meeting. "It'd be a win for LU; it'd be a win for Cole County."

Maxwell said given the time, effort and capital Farmer Holding put into the project, the company needed to have a backup plan as well.

Fitzwater said, though, the commercial plan has merit as well.

"I think we've got to review economic opportunities," Fitzwater said. "Anything we can do to add to the opportunities."