Rusty Worley, the executive director of It’s All Downtown, likes to joke that downtown Springfield’s urban renewal is a 25-year overnight success story. If you were to walk around downtown Springfield in the mid ’90s, you would have seen a vastly different scene from the one you see today. Gone would be the industrial glass sliding doors of Hotel Vandivort. You wouldn’t be able to check out a book at the Park Central library and tuck in to read it over a latte next door at The Coffee Ethic. Where Sky Eleven sits today sat the empty Woodruff Building—a once impressive structure that was, for a time, home to the Missouri Court of Appeals.
Like cities across the country, Springfield experienced considerable suburban flight throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, leaving the district a shell of its former self. Today, downtown is flourishing again. The influx of housing and businesses there stand as proof. In 1998, Worley estimates there were 25 lofts and 250 businesses downtown. Now, downtown has more than 800 lofts and 400 businesses. There are also 2,000-plus new student housing beds within the district. Most of these gains have occurred in renovated historic buildings, but downtown is starting to see new development as well. For example, a partnership among Missouri State University, The Vecino Group, the City of Springfield and the Springfield Business Development Corp., the economic arm of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, is considering a multimillion-dollar expansion of IDEA Commons. All of this begs the question, what happened? How did downtown transform from a near-deserted district to the vibrant and growing community it’s become?
According to Worley, three major contributing factors jump-started downtown’s development. Created between 1996 and 2001, Vision 20/20 is a community-driven planning process that identified local issues of concern and created a comprehensive plan to address them. Around the same time the Vision 20/20 plan was created, Missouri State decided to expand into downtown. In doing its long-term planning, the university realized growing toward downtown was the only direction that made sense. Then, in 1998, the Missouri legislature enacted the Missouri Preservation Tax Credit Program, which acted as an incentive for developers to renovate historic buildings.
Bill Hart, the executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation, says the “program was designed to save important buildings and foster economic growth.” It gives developers who are renovating historic buildings a tax credit worth 25 percent of the qualified rehabilitation expenses. This is in addition to a similar federal tax credit worth 20 percent of the qualified rehabilitation expenses. However, unlike the federal tax credit, the state tax credit is transferable. Developers can sell the credits, which makes the state historic tax credit particularly enticing. Due to the state historic tax credits, Vision 20/20 and MSU’s expansion into downtown, the district started to see renewal, and developers began renovating some of the smaller buildings downtown. However, although these three factors supplied the kindling for a development boom, Dan Scott lit the match that ignited the blaze.