Will Joplin voters “make something positive out of it, or let it go?” The legacy of Memorial Hall will be decided on Tuesday, April 5

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FRED FLETCHER-FIERRO (REPORTER): It’s Morning Edition on KRPS. I’m Fred Fletcher-Fierro. Tomorrow, in-person voting takes place for one of the most hotly contested ballot questions in Joplin in recent memory. Question one asks, quote”Shall the City Council of the City of Joplin, Missouri be authorized to issue general obligation bonds in the amount not to exceed $30,000,000 to reconstruct, renovate, expand and improve Memorial Hall, and to improve related parking?”unquote

The project is contentious because it would increase property taxes for Joplin residents. Most residents would see between 80 and 100 dollars per year increase for as many as 20 years, according to the bond language available at JoplinMo.org.

Regardless, interim President of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce and Executive Director of the MOKAN partnership Tony Robyn says Memorial Hall is vital to the city and region.

TONY ROBYN: “You know, the building is conjoined with a memorial, so it’s beyond just an auditorium, and it’s beyond just a memorial. It’s a community center. And an events center. And it’s a historic building—an icon of the downtown area. And we’ve heard for many, many years now how at the loss of other buildings in downtown Joplin, we’re losing, and we’ve lost that historical connectivity.”

A graphic of the proposed Memorial Hall

FRED: Long-time Joplin residents will remember the collapse and demolition of the Conner hotel in the ‘1970s. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, numerous local business owners and city councils attempted various ways to save the Midwest’s first skyscraper.

The Connor was located where the old Joplin Library now stands empty for the past five years. The fate of the Memorial project is so uncertain that during a city council forum last week hosted by Missouri Southern’s KGCS TV station, only one candidate said they support the plan. First time, general council seat candidate Josh DeTar.

JOSH DETAR: “I fully support the renovation and addition to Memorial Hall. I think it’s an incredibly important step in the growth and the future of Joplin.”

FRED: Note what Detar says, the renovation and addition to Memorial Hall. If passed, an 8,400 square addition would be constructed on the S. Wall Avenue side of the hall. That’s in addition to a new 8th Street pedestrian plaza where the memorials would be relocated to. DeTar continues.

JOSH: “We can host basketball and volleyball tournaments that have left town. We can host events through different charities or different businesses, the Joplin business expo goes over to Oklahoma.”

FRED: How did a rehab of Memorial Hall get on the ballot? Nearly two years ago, Joplin City Manager Nick Edwards held a city-wide listening tour at several venues over a handful of months. Over 1,400 residents responded to the five-question survey that provided about 7,000 responses.

The data allowed city officials to produce a 33-page Executive summary. The phrase “Memorial Hall” shows up precisely three times in the report. One line reads, quote “Many express their sadness regarding Memorial Hall and hope to see something large enough to entice big name entertainers and encourage events that bring the community together to begin to heal from adversity and division the community has faced.” unquote

Acting on behalf of Joplin residents the Memorial Hall Committee had a feasibility study on the site. Eventually, the city council approved that Question 1 should be placed on the April 2022 ballot. All of that work now comes down to a simple yes or no question.

General council seat candidate Kate Spencer says now is not the right time for the bonds passage.

KATE SPENCER: “I question the timing of it. We’ve gone through a pandemic that has hurt all members of our community. Small businesses especially. Now we have inflation. My Dad’s a contractor, and he tells me the cost of goods and a sheet of plywood has gone up 40 dollars a sheet.”

FRED: Spencer and first time General council seat candidate Brian Evans have both focused their campaigns on supporting Joplin’s Police and Fire and are seeking pay increases for the departments. Evans shared a similar message to Spencer’s at last week’s forum.

BRIAN EVANS: “And the way I see it, is a Memorial is important but also is putting a 30 million dollar tax burden on a lot of our eldery and on a lot of the Veterans themselves. Other people, it’s going to make a huge negative impact on our community. I have a feeling. (The) timing of it, is just really bad.”

FRED: Perhaps we got our best view of how and why Memorial Hall has fallen into such disrepair over the last handful of years should fall on longtime city council member and former mayor of Joplin, Gary Shaw. At last Tuesday’s city council forum, he admitted that he has no clear answer of what should be done.

GARY SHAW: “I’m conflicted about the situation. I’m a veteran, so I have a lot of memories there. I do know that ever since I’ve been on the council for 20 years, every year, Memorial Hall comes up, and it’s frustrating because we never have the money to do what we needed to do there.”

FRED: Shaw went on to say that he understands the frustrations of residents on a fixed income and if the bond passes, their property taxes will increase as a result. As for alternative ideas to a complete remodel of Memorial Hall Zone Four candidates, Diane Reid Adams and Dr. Mark Farnham offered competing but similar visions. Reid Adams speaking at last week’s forum.

DIANE REID ADAMS : “My idea for the last two years has been to create a Veterans Memorial Park has as already been mentioned by several. Build a gazebo that is big enough for a bandstand. We could have patriotic concerts there on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July.”

FRED: While Dr. Farnham stated that instead of passing the multi-million dollar bond and reconstructing a nearly 100-year building, he would prefer a cost-effective memorial like the one on the campus of Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas.

DR. MARK FARNHAM: “The outdoor memorial, so we would have the wide walkways and the granite and marble stones with the names etched in there. It would probably cost in the range of a couple million, instead of 30 million.”

FRED: There is one aspect of Question 1 that candidates agree on. Now is not the right time for such a large project in Joplin. General seat candidate Jon Thomas Buck told me last month during a candidate interview that he supported the project though at last week’s forum he stated his opposition.

JON THOMAS BUCK: “After talking and asking some more questions about it, I am for the vision and what Memorial Hall stands for. I just don’t like this plan. For me, it’s a no right now because it just doesn’t make any type of fiscal sense.”

FRED: General city council seat candidate Doug Lawson didn’t use last week’s forum to say whether or not he supported Question 1, instead he used his time to remind Joplin residents.

DOUG LAWSON: “We gave the citizens of Joplin the vote. The city council did not decide to spend thirty million dollars but we gave the citizens the opportunity to either save the building and make something positive out of it, or let it go. But it’s the citizens, the voters, that decide.”

FRED: In-person voting for city and municipal elections in Missouri will be held tomorrow. To pass Question 1 must be approved by 57.14%, or four-sevenths majority of voters. Polling places will be open from 6 am until 7 pm.

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