Monday, April 13, 2009

BEAT BYTE SPECIAL REPORT: Documents Disclose Land Grab Scheme, Part 1

COLUMBIA, 4/13/09 (Beat Byte) -- A public information request from Columbia Citizens listserv founder Traci Wilson-Kleekamp has unearthed a mother lode of documents implicating a behind-the-scenes group of city leaders in a now-defunct scheme to take private downtown land using City Hall, eminent domain, and an ugly specter from Columbia's racially-troubled past -- a Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority.

Proposed for construction of a State Historical Society of Missouri (SHSM) museum, the downtown land included Bengals Grill, U.S. Cleaners, and a rental house owned by the proprietors of Addison's Restaurant.

Primarily orchestrated by Columbia Daily Tribune publisher Henry J. "Hank" Waters, the scheme shows up in email conversations as early as May of last year.   It culminates in a November 12, 2008 letter from SHSM director Gary R. Kremer to Columbia City Manager William H. "Bill" Watkins, with details Kremer would later deny.

The SHSM board of trustees, which includes Waters as a vice president, "has voted to endorse the City of Columbia's activation of its Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA), or some similar administrative entity, to assist in implementing the plan," Kremer wrote Watkins on official SHSM letterhead.

Between 40 and 50 years ago, a similarly-constituted LCRA used eminent domain -- aka condemnation -- to acquire land from 115 mostly black business owners at fire sale prices -- less than fifty cents on the dollar.   Waters built the Tribune headquarters and Wisconsin-based river shipping magnate Ray Eckstein built the downtown post office on land they bought from the LCRA. 


On Nov. 23, 2008 -- about three weeks before the first city council meeting on the issue -- the Tribune publisher emailed the city manager on behalf of SHSM.

"Bill, we're ready to make our application to the legislature for the lot purchase.  To that end, it will be necessary to have evidence from the city concerning its commitments, to wit: the $250,000 Convention and Visitors Bureau money and the authority to use eminent domain on all the properties on the south half.   Can you give me a timetable for this? A letter of intent would be fine as soon as you have the authority. Thanks, Hank."

But three weeks later, at the Dec. 15 city council meeting, Gary Kremer told council members that SHSM "was not seeking the use of eminent domain.  We are seeking to buy property from willing sellers. The only time the issue had come up, our Board voted to avoid eminent domain if possible."

Kremer also told council members he had only learned about the land grab plan three days earlier, after being contacted by a reporter on Friday, Dec. 12. But that wasn't true either, Watkins told Traci Kleekamp in a tape-recorded interview.

"Kremer knew," the city manager said. "I don't know why he said he didn't."


On May 22, 2008, Hank Waters confirmed a June 18-19 visit from SHSM's Maine-based architect, Herb Duncan, emailing Kim Olden, an assistant to Columbia developer and SHSM trustee Jeffrey Smith.

"We will gather a good group of the right people," Waters wrote, cc'ing Kremer, Mayor Darwin Hindman, Watkins, and another SHSM trustee, appeals court justice Steven Limbaugh. "I will gather our crowd more specific about our agenda as soon as possible."
In early June, Waters exchanged emails with Duncan, who was working on alternatives to the Sasaki Plan, a downtown redevelopment design named for its out-of-town designers. Concerned that his ideas might come off as "adversarial or negative," Duncan wanted directions on how to deal with MU Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services Jackie Jones.

"Don't contact Jackie yet," Waters advised him. "Let me have a go at [MU Chancellor Brady] Deaton and [then MU president] Charles Lamb."

Waters then asked Duncan why he wanted to engage the university "this early in the process," again suggesting that Jones stay out of their discussions. "Run the Jackie idea past her bosses first," Waters wrote. "They might want someone else, or themselves, involved first." 

Signing his next email "Hank, the butterfly," Waters emailed Duncan, Kremer, SHSM board president Doug Crews and Deaton minutes later. 

"Dear Merry-go-rounders," he wrote. "Herb, no need to cancel anything. Chancellor Deaton is not part of this melange and will be able to respond quickly, I hope...Since he is a clever fellow able to maneuver his own bureaucracy with more alacrity than any other person alive. By the time we get under way here, everyone may be in the mood to flagellate me at some prominent place on one of the street corners included in the Sasaki report."

A few days later, on June 12, SHSM director Kremer emailed Waters, seeking more directions.

Who would be with the group on their June 18 meeting/tour?  Kremer asked. "Do you want us to walk over to the Elm Street site? Should I make plans to provide lunch? If so, where and for how many? Who are we meeting, what time, and where? And what about Thursday the 19th?"

Waters responded, cc'ing the city manager. "Sorry, Gary. I'm not surprised by your questions, given all the round robin back and forth we've had. Bill Watkins, Doug [Crews] and I will be there.   This is a get-acquainted time for Herb Duncan.  We'll want to show him an SHSM overview (no need to have all your people go through their usual dog and pony show) and we will take him to the Elm Street neighborhood."

About the entire planning committee, which would arrive later that day, Waters wrote, "We should plan to take them to the site...they do not need to see the SHSM office."

Waters then laid out the entire schedule, right down to cocktails, telling Kremer "my job is to hustle around among the troops trying to get all hands as far down the road together as possible."  He also suggested something particularly audacious.

"We'll gather for a Dutch Treat lunch at the old Shiloh's [aka Bengals]," Waters wrote. "I'll pay for Herb."


An ardent Sunshine Law advocate, Waters more than once endorsed the SHSM project and covered it extensively in his newspaper.   And though he did tell readers that he was "a member of the society's board of directors," he never disclosed the level of his involvement, and timed his Tribune editorials accordingly.

"The power of eminent domain is needed to enable accumulation of land for renovation of aging central city areas,"  Waters opined on Nov. 11, one day before Gary Kremer's letter to the city manager urging the same thing.   "City officials recently discussed restoring the process here, initially to enable progress on locating a new building for the State Historical Society of Missouri."

Amidst a scramble to regroup the day after city council members backed away from the SHSM proposal, Waters emailed Watkins, city attorney Fred Boeckmann; asst. city manager Tony St. Romaine; Kremer; and several other senior city staffers.

"Good to keep the ball moving," the Trib publisher told them on Dec. 16.  "I think we should emphasize the city resolution is not to acquire the targeted property but merely to established the authority for using eminent domain.  After that resolution is passed, the city will have to go through a process to decide whether a particular property qualifies, I would presume. In other words, let the city rebuild the authority and intent to use if necessary."

The following day, he published another advocacy editorial.

"The plan for downtown redevelopment outlined in the Sasaki plan cannot be implemented without city authority to help assemble tracts of land for larger projects," Waters told Trib readers on Dec. 17. "The first and ultimately most important project is the new building for the State Historical Society of Missouri."

Ironically, Waters praised then-school board president Michelle Gadbois around the same time, citing her work on behalf of transparency and openness.  "School superintendents and boards govern more or less privately, giving lip service to public procedures but avoiding disclosure and discussion of difficult issues far too often," he wrote.


NEXT TIME, Part 2: Scrapping Sasaki

-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat

1 comment:

  1. Everybody in this community should learn of this and all of these documents uncovered by Traci on this issue.

    Local TV coverage of this would help alot.