Community leaders from across south-central Missouri told members of the state highway commission last week that a plan to close the District 9 MoDOT headquarters in Willow Springs would create economic havoc, a reduction in services and further threaten the region when disasters strike.
The message to two commission members and MoDOT Director Kevin Keith was clear: Don’t mess with District 9, which is slated to be closed under a plan unveiled last month. The commission is expected to take up the matter Wednesday after a 30-day comment period. Macon and Joplin also are on the chopping block.
Keith said the proposed cutbacks were needed to address his agency’s funding crunch. “This is about money, and I don’t want to lose sight of that,” he said.
Several of the speakers who squeezed into West Plains City Hall said they wanted MoDOT’s commissioners to slow down and carefully consider how the decision would affect residents of south-central Missouri. Travis Morrison, a business owner and former state legislator, said the plan failed to address rural needs and seemed to be more focused on urban areas. He urged the commission to modify the plan. Attending the meeting were two of the state’s six commissioners, attorney Joe Carmichael of Springfield and Chairwoman Grace Nichols, a former mayor of St. Charles. Nichols pledged that a decision had not been made, and changes were likely.
State legislators and representatives of counties, cities, the business community, education and others packed into two rooms to address the plan, which also is opposed by Missouri Farm Bureau.
Howell County Presiding Commissioner Mark Collins said the plan had been unveiled without input from those directly affected by the move. A regional transportation advisory group also was not consulted, he said. He urged the commission members to scrape the plan, engage others, including commissioners in the region. Fred Stenger, Linda Garrett and John Casey, Texas County commissioners, looked on.
One by one persons – from a cross section of the region – came to the microphone and gave their thoughts in the two-hour meeting.
Michael Green, an education administrator, said the plan would greatly harm economically a region that is already impoverished and needs employment and additional education opportunities. Green said many of the area’s natives had been able to find engineering jobs – providing role models for area school children.
Chancellor Drew Bennett said his successful MSU campus in West Plains depends on good modes of transportation. About 50 percent of its enrollment commutes to the campus. Texas County Memorial Hospital CEO Wes Murray added that transportation was key when responding to emergencies.
Willow Springs businessman John Bailey said it was hard to see the feasibility of removing the south-central Missouri MoDOT headquarters when every other state agency has a presence in the region, including headquarters for the Missouri Department of Conservation and Missouri State Highway Patrol. “It takes the representation away from the citizens,” he said.
Dan Corman, a regional credit executive with Landmark Bank in south-central Missouri, said the proposed plan would have a major economic impact with the loss of jobs at the headquarters and maintenance sheds that ultimately would affect an already weak housing market. He also wondered what value might be recovered from the physical assets left behind.
Emergency response would be slowed in District 9 if closed, said Lou Wehmer, a retired communication specialist with the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Delays cost lives, and this area’s proposed headquarters would sit in Sikeston, which would likely be greatly impacted by an earthquake in the New Madrid Fault.
“We’re not opposing your plan” to cut expenses, said Wendell Bailey, the former state representative, state treasurer and congressman from Willow Springs. Bailey said the matter boiled down to one matter: removing the District 9 headquarters from south-central and its role in the life of its residents.