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Just when we thought the laudable efforts of a group of property owners to transform the sow’s ear of Business Loop 70 into the silk purse of a beautiful boulevard called The Loop through the creation of a Community Improvement District has come to a grinding halt, it has become a contentious matter inflated by the discovery of a heretofore unaccounted for resident of the 12-room Ernest and Eugenia Wyatt Guest House at 317 Business Loop 70 W., which is part of the UMC Health Care System. Under state law, the presence of a single registered voter living in the CID can determine the fate of any measure involving taxation, in this case levying a sales tax designated for improvements for designated projects within the district. Because this heroine of the low-tax crowd has already told us how she plans to vote, plans for the Business Loop 70 CID are dead in the water for now, paralyzed by an unexpected oversight during the process of due diligence.
In 1998, the late Mel Carnahan signed the Community Improvement District Act, which was designed to create state-approved legal subdivisions using both member assessments and sales taxes to fund improvements within a legally designated district. The Three Trails Village CID in Kansas City was first in 2002 with a project aligning the Santa Fe, Oregon and California National Historic Trails that extended from State Line Road to Upper Independence Landing in Jackson County. Now there are more than 35 other CIDs, including the one that embraces downtown Columbia.
Poor old U.S. Highway 40. It’s the route of unrecognized but deeply historic significance that elevated Columbia to prominence in 1927, when the city was linked to Kansas City and St. Louis with a slab of concrete 18 feet wide while hundreds of bridges were installed across the rolling countryside to pull Missouri out of the mud. As an upgrade of the equally historic Old Trails Road that predated the Civil War, Columbia triumphed in a stroke of geographic luck because the Centennial Highway Act of 1921 specified routing between the state’s two great cities over the shortest path, a route that conveniently crossed the city’s northern edge where the Business Loop is today. Overwhelmingly popular and well traveled from the start, U.S. Highway 40 running from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to San Francisco quickly earned the unwanted distinction like many major highways as a route marked by numerous accidents racking up thousands of fatalities over the years. Columbia was now readily accessible, freed from the shackles of limited branch-line railroad service and the reputation as a “tank town.”
Soon there were alarms that travelers were bypassing Columbia and spending the night elsewhere because there wasn’t much in the way of hospitality along the new bypass. Then came the entrepreneurs who quickly rectified the situation. Highway 40 became a casbah of commercialism designed to ensnare weary travelers with a variety of diversions that included frequent carnivals and a miniature golf course at the corner of Highway 40 and Garth. Among others, the four Proctor Brothers built the All-States Village at the northwest corner of Highways 40 and 63, now the Business Loop and Range Line. Across the street, “Proctorville” was a mixed-use development that once included the Columbia Baking Co., the Wig-Wam Cafe and the first location of The Blue Note.
Noting the discovery of a single overnight bed in the Wyatt House within the ostensibly gerrymandered boundaries of the proposed CID recalls the presence years ago of hundreds of beds bunked in a since-forgotten array of motels and tourist camps up and down Highway 40, including the Show Me; Travelier; Mizzou; El Don; and the Arrow Head, still ensconced at 1411 Highway 40 E., a survivor if only via its iconic neon sign.
Improvements came slowly, but in 1955 the State Highway Commission revealed plans to build a four-lane bypass around Columbia that quickly morphed into extensions east and west to include a new four-lane bridge across the Missouri River. Passage of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 accelerated crossing the state with a safer divided interstate highway, which was dedicated on Sept. 19, 1965. The Missouri River Bridge and more than 30 miles of Interstate 70 had opened on Oct. 8, 1960, thus begetting a new role for Old Highway 40, which was renamed Business Loop 70. The old dame had served travelers well for more than 30 years with 11 motels in 1960, 15 restaurants and 18 service stations. Only a handful of the buildings listed in the 1960 Polk’s City Directory are still standing today, and none of those extant would qualify as historic except for the Ellis Fischel building that opened in 1940.
Close examination along both sides of the road armed with old directories points to the almost complete repurposing of the street. That’s not enough for proponents of the proposed CID who correctly recall that, aside from individual, privately financed business development including extensive demolition and new construction, Business Loop 70 hasn’t been attended to in a major way since 1964, when the State Highway Department spent $675,000 to widen the highway to five lanes while making other infrastructure upgrades.
Proponents of the proposed Business Loop 70 CID have to be smarting over the sty in their collective eye inflicted by the temporary resident of the Wyatt Guest House, a person who appears to be especially gifted with a snarly attitude of adolescent belligerence. Maybe there’s more to this story because it involves the curious chronology of a lapse in time and disclosure between Feb. 28, the day the Wyatt Guest House caretaker registered to vote, and the day in May when the existence of this newly minted voter was first revealed. We might never find out what really transpired, but there are ample reasons to be suspicious. Perhaps the Missouri Legislature will amend the 1998 CID Act to address the anomaly presented by this lone voter, who can claim no bona fide interest because she owns no property in the proposed district. Meanwhile, Historic Old Highway 40 will saunter along, providing the service as it has for nearly 90 years, under appreciated but significant and worthy of whatever aid and assistance we can provide through the inevitable creation of a workable CID.