The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 2011 Joplin tornado

September 15, 2012

Downtown’s next step may depend on SPARK, tornado redevelopment

JOPLIN, Mo. — Some downtown businesses are thriving, some are moving and some have closed.

Joplin’s historic business district is anything but static, but its future may depend on redevelopment efforts proposed for the downtown and tornado recovery elsewhere in the city.

Nearly one-third of nearly 50 storefronts on Main Street between First and Seventh streets are for sale, for lease or inactive, despite an investment of more than $5 million in downtown streetscaping projects since 2006 and approximately $528,000 in city grants for improvements to storefronts.

City Manager Mark Rohr said via email last week that an effort is under way to push the downtown to the next level.

“I recognize the need to take the next step in downtown redevelopment. It has been a resounding aesthetic success but we are not where we need to be in making it a commercial success.

“That is the reason for, and the importance of, the SPARK project. We need a downtown destination for events that can spill over into the redeveloped downtown. Implementing the SPARK project is a priority for the master developer,’’ he said, referring to Wallace Bajjali Development Partners of Sugar Land, Texas.

Rohr introduced the SPARK plan — Stimulating Progress through Arts, Recreation and Knowledge of the past — just before the 2011 tornado.

Devised by the North Group, the proposal calls for a performing and visual arts center of about 150,000 square feet to be built near First and Main streets. The plan also includes an amphitheater, a Town Green and also could involve restoration of the Union Depot.

Tax credits

Early last month, the Joplin City Council agreed to take the first step toward applying for federal tax credits that might help finance some of the projects that are part of SPARK. The city is filing an application with the federal government to create the Joplin Community Redevelopment Fund, which could eventually administer tax credits the city might receive through the New Markets Tax Credit Program.

Under that program, taxpayers can buy credits to reduce their tax bills. The fund’s board could use the money generated by the sale of the credits to provide investment capital for economic development projects.

Some merchants in downtown Joplin say they are hopeful that step and others will lead to implementation of the SPARK plan, but they are remaining cautious until they see something concrete take shape. There are a lot of unknowns, they say, not only for the downtown but also because of ongoing redevelopment throughout Joplin, and especially for those areas recovering from the tornado.

“There is some uncertainty right now,’’ said Jeff Neal, with the Neal Group, which specializes in historic storefront restoration. “We are all waiting with anticipation that SPARK will happen as it is supposed to happen. Once the master developer’s plan is confirmed, funding is in place and those projects are moving forward, there will be a big impetus for people when it comes to considering the downtown as a place for a business or to live.

“Until that happens, it’s sort of holding everyone in limbo. But there is a feeling of opportunity and anticipation. When those plans are finalized, I think you will see a big increase in interest downtown.’’

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