Commissioner’s Corner: Student Housing Coming Downtown

by Jeremy Johnson

At last night’s meeting, the Pittsburg City Commission–of which I’m one of five elected members–voted to provide a total of $1.5 million in funding over the course of two years to the Springfield, MO-based Vecino Group to complete a development project on the intersection of Fourth and Broadway. The money will be supplied through the Revolving Loan Fund (RLF), which is one of the tools the city uses for economic development, and represents 10% of the total project investment of $15 million. The amount was recommended to the Commission by the Economic Development Advisory Committee (EDAC), which considers all requests for RLF funding.

The project is a major and important undertaking: it involves renovating four historic buildings, including the National Bank and Commerce (home to Crowell’s Pharmacy) buildings, and turning them into housing for about 110 Pittsburg State University students, and including commercial and business incubator space on their ground floors. The Vecino Group, which has around 100 similar projects on its resume, specializes in developments involving historic preservation. The project is set for completion around May 2018.

During the meeting, there was some discussion surrounding the amount of money the city should invest in the project. Some argued that the city should not be spending tax dollars on helping private business, particularly a non-local business that competes with property owners in the area. Let them compete just like everybody else, the argument goes.

However, local property owners have access to those same economic development resources; they need only apply for them with a project that the EDAC approves. Up until now, no one has undertaken a project of this scale. This project is the first step to drawing new economic life into Pittsburg’s downtown district: by placing a large number of college students in the heart of town, along with some commercial space catering to their interests, you create an environment ripe for growing new businesses and expanding existing ones. It puts a lot of young consumers, looking to live in a more urban setting, in close proximity to businesses–actual and potential–where they can and will spend their money.

And this gets at the heart of why such an investment is important, and why I voted for it: it seeks to channel development in a specific direction with a vision for the future in mind. It extends PSU into downtown Pittsburg and creates a large pool of economic demand, which will set the stage for Pittsburg’s future growth. I believe that it is the duty of the city and its representatives–who were elected to uphold the best interests of its citizens–to safeguard our community’s future, and to invest in it, sometimes heavily, because that’s the only way to turn a far-off vision into tomorrow’s reality.

Pittsburg City Commission meetings are the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month at 5:30 p.m. in the courtroom of the Law Enforcement Center, and are available for viewing here.

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Jeremy Johnson is a first-term Pittsburg City Commissioner. His term runs through January 2020.