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November 17, 2007  BY Mike Martin

Ever heard of mad King Ludwig?

He was an eccentric 19th century Bavarian monarch and composer Richard Wagner’s most generous patron. He built the famous Bayreuth festival theater and Neuschwanstein, the fairest fairy-tale castle of them all.

Ludwig II was also a grand-scale historic preservationist whose grandfather, King Ludwig I, restored most of old Munich.

But despite his magnificent contributions, quixotic King Ludwig was hard for most people to figure. His own shortsighted government eventually deposed him, saying his plans would bankrupt Bavaria.

Instead, Castle Linderhof, Castle Herrenchiemsee and most of Ludwig’s other designer dreams later became some of Germany’s most profitable tourist attractions.

In an act that today might generate millions in royalties, Missouri native Walt Disney used Neuschwanstein (which means New Swan Stone) as the model for his Sleeping Beauty castles, at Disney parks everywhere.

Believe it or not, our own Columbia has a mad king of sorts.

With millions in the bank he could spend or invest anywhere, John Ott has embarked on a visionary endeavor worthy of King Ludwig: the largely speculative remaking of an aging downtown with modern-day trappings and historical designs.

Ott’s odyssey on one of the slowest boats to profitability ever devised — historic preservation — is also generating an enormous public good: brick by Moberly-fired brick, the beautification and restoration of Columbia’s civic heart.

But John Ott’s story is not yet a fairy tale.

By taking us back in time, he casts a metaphoric shadow across our present-day predicaments, revealing a shortsighted little burg paying a steep price for extracting every penny from its greatest assets and then ignoring those assets as they grew old and fatigued.

His story also illustrates a local government ethos that — even amidst bad roads, rising crime, low wages and a flagging economy — preaches constituent sacrifice with a minimum of reciprocal give.

Dream discourse
The first thing that strikes you about a John Ott appearance in front of the Columbia City Council is the notable lack of the usual mouthpieces.

Appearing alone, Mr. Ott never raises his voice, and you won’t see him trading the witty entendres of a Dan Simon, say, or a Mark Farnen, client representatives who, even at their best, articulate second-hand visions.

Ott quietly explains his vision in the first person and then waits with cat-like patience for an answer that can be months — or years — in the coming.

About an alleyway improvement project he has long championed, Ott recently told a Columbia Tribune reporter, “I think we have been patient and will remain patient.”

This low-key approach is remarkably refreshing.

Amid political discourse battered by everything from council speakers publicly calling their neighbors “Nazis” to the county assessor using profanity with a constituent, in walks a dream discussant who makes things happen without baronial bravado, bullying bluster, or highly paid spinners.

A TIF for the Tiger
In a city clamoring for economic development, Ott’s enterprises haven’t generated much real support from local officials.

City Hall grumbled about his tax-increment financing (TIF) request for the Tiger Hotel* — Columbia’s long-under-utilized downtown centerpiece — instead expressing support for a transportation development district (TDD) at the Regency Hotel.

The Regency TDD would build a new pay-parking garage for — you guessed it, City Hall — further cementing an onerous downtown parking monopoly that burdens merchants and discourages shoppers.

A TIF for the Tiger would instead channel the hotel’s future sales tax receipts toward present-day renovation costs.

On the county side, hundreds of communities around the nation that embrace historic preservation tax incentives would abate Ott’s property taxes for several years.

But Boone County officials will likely hand Mr. Ott, and many of his neighbors, a stack of steep tax increases, on the gleeful note that an improved downtown means higher property values.

“The next appraisal is 2007, and they’d better start saving,” Boone County Assessor Tom Schauwecker publicly warned historic property owners two years ago.

Alley cat
Nowhere has official hemming and hawing with respect to an Ott project been more apparent than with his plan to convert Columbia’s downtown alleyways into attractive, pedestrian-friendly economic engines.

At the behest of City Council Member Chris Janku, the Historic Preservation Commission completed the first step in this enterprise more than three years ago.

Without a name, no street or alley can host a business, so preservation commissioners delivered a handful of notable monikers from Columbia’s colorful past.

This month, city staff and council members — only three of whom were serving in 2004 — approved one name for one alley.

Inspiring Sesame Street fans everywhere, they chose “Alley A,” as in the first letter of the alphabet—and the first in a new series of potential pitfalls.

“After more than six months of waiting for a name, downtown property owner John Ott might have another obstacle to overcome,” the Columbia Tribune wrote.

The obstacle — four new legal standards that alleys must meet to accommodate businesses — shouldn’t be a hindrance, and wouldn’t be, had the standards been discussed ages ago.

Even Mayor Darwin Hindman threw up his hands in frustration.

“If we were going to do policy, we should have done it when he [Ott] applied for a building permit in February,” Hindman said at the Nov. 5 council meeting. “It’s been almost eight months. We’ve been begging people to invest in downtown, and now that someone is ready to invest, we’re telling him he has to wait. It’s not right.”

Ott’s response: “I think it’s a good idea to have those policies in place.”

And with that we close our tale of mad King, St. John — at least until alleyway “B.”

*Tiger Hotel co-owners Dave Baugher and Al Germond also publish the Columbia Business Times.