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From Blight to Bright: ‘Best days are ahead’ for north-side corridor, developer says

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 As one of the main gateways into the city of Springfield, the intersection of Glenstone Avenue and Kearney Street once left something to be desired.

In fact, after his 2000 visit to the city, author David Sedaris famously wrote, “Springfield has got to be the most depressing city in the United States.”

Sedaris cited failed strip malls and chain stores surrounded by empty parking lots, all visible from his hotel room (though he may have taken some poetic license with geography).

“From my window I can see a Big Kmart (aren’t they all big?), a Walmart, an Aldi, an AutoZone, a Donut Connection, a Master Wang’s Chinese restaurant, a Western Sizzlin’ and a Git ‘n’ Go,” he wrote in his 2017 book, “Theft by Finding: Diaries.”

“You get the idea people would leave if they could only sell their houses and summon up the energy to pack.”

Not long after Sedaris’ visit, the energy in the area he described began to change. In 2006, Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Hospitality Management LLC, decided he wanted to get into hotel and restaurant management, so he bought the Hawthorn Park Hotel and transformed it into the DoubleTree by Hilton, opening in March 2008. Five months later, he opened a Houlihan’s restaurant at the site.

A lifelong Springfieldian, O’Reilly found something to appreciate on the corner Sedaris had defamed. 

“That was probably as much based on just the fact that it was a very solid structure,” he said. “It was an atrium hotel, and it needed a big upgrade, but it’s hard to find those opportunities.”

While O’Reilly was not trying to start something happening on the north side, he noted the hotel and restaurant continue to do well to this day.

“It’s an easy place to support,” he said.

The most recent sign of his support is BigShots Golf, another O’Reilly Hospitality Management project that has brought entertainment to the area. The 37,700-square-foot driving range was a $6.5 million project with 56 bays, 3,500 square feet of meeting space, an outdoor putting green, a restaurant and bar, and a golf instructional academy, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

Former Springfield City Councilperson Phyllis Ferguson readily expresses her own passion for the north side, the part of the city she once represented. One of the things she pushed for during her time on council was a study of the Kearney Street corridor.

“That corridor was my priority,” she said. “When I came on council, economic redevelopment was one of my points that I knew we needed to focus on.”

Ferguson said she has seen a thriving retail establishment disappear from Kearney Street. She remembers buying good-quality shoes at Dryer’s Boots & Shoes as a child.

“My great-aunt ran it,” she said. “I’ve owned many pairs of shoes from my early days on until the shopping center little by little closed down. Everything moved south.”

But Ferguson is not giving up on the north side.

“Before I die, I want to be able to buy a decent pair of shoes on the north side of town,” she said.

Incentives in action
Sarah Kerner, Springfield’s director of economic development, said the north side factors strongly into the city’s next comprehensive plan, Forward SGF, which is now being crafted. The area of Glenstone between Kearney and Interstate 44 is getting focused attention in the plan, she said, though she noted City Council has yet to approve it.

Council members do see the North Glenstone intersection with I-44 as a key entrance to the city.

“That’s been something council repeatedly has identified as a priority – a focus on gateways to the city, and making decisions that increase the attractiveness of those gateways,” Kerner said.

Kerner added that a high concentration of the city’s 6,047 hotel rooms are on North Glenstone.  She cited Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau figures as noting the 1-44/Glenstone area houses 38% of those rooms.

“As Springfieldians, you may not pass through there on a regular basis, but that’s our home base,” she said, adding, “First impressions do matter.”

Part of the area has been identified as blighted, and developers who choose to replace blight with new establishments can benefit from tax increment financing, which allows them to be reimbursed for public improvements by receiving a portion of the tax revenue generated by the new businesses they put there.

Brad Thessing is one developer who has opted to take advantage of TIF funding on North Glenstone with his purchase of the Springfield Inn from owner Harish Patel. 

Council created the Kearney Community Improvement District in July 2020 to establish a 1% sales and use tax to fund the hotel’s demolition at a cost of $550,000, according to past SBJ reporting.

That property is now in the lengthy process of being demolished; it contains asbestos, which must be removed with extra care. Additionally, Thessing said he has brought in a rock crusher to crush concrete block for use as part of the continued work site, with the reuse of materials leading to a greener project.

Before tearing down the Springfield Inn, Thessing invited the city’s Police Department and SWAT team in to do some training, kicking off the demolition. 

“It works out awesome – real buildings, real doors, real hotels,” he said. “They’re pretty excited and thankful.”

The Springfield Inn will be replaced by a Whataburger that Thessing has secured, as well as a sit-down restaurant yet to be named. Across the street, Thessing owns the site where a Take 5 Oil Change is being constructed, and he also owns the land where the Kum & Go, 1810 E. Kearney St., has operated since April 2019.

All of this, and O’Reilly’s BigShots Golf, 1930 E. Kearney St., replace the view of the Kmart Sedaris observed more than 20 years ago.

“The city was instrumental in blighting that whole area to help encourage development,” Thessing said.

The areas north of Kearney and east of Glenstone are also designated as Qualified Opportunity Zones, providing tax incentives for those who invest capital gains for new businesses or property improvements within the zones.

Thessing has worked with O’Reilly to develop the area. While O’Reilly bought the old Kmart, Thessing purchased land from the Missouri Department of Transportation for the convenience store, oil change and possibly some future businesses. 

O’Reilly also owns a small retail center in front of DoubleTree at 2407 N. Glenstone Ave., and Thessing manages the property, which houses Echelon Coffee, AT&T and a vacant space.

Echelon owner Joe West told Springfield Business Journal in September, not long after opening, that he and his wife and partner Megan wanted to bring something special to the area.

“It seems like there’s been a lack of amenity for the north side of Springfield for a long time. That’s very evident now that we’re open,” he said at the time. “People on the north side are so excited we’re here.”

Thessing said it is clear the area is serving as a much better front door for the city.

“Between what Tim O’Reilly’s done and what we’ve done, we’ve cleaned up the corridor, for sure,” he said.

O’Reilly said he expects even more improvement in the area with the city’s 10-year tax abatement zone in play for the Kearney Street corridor, including the Glenstone intersection.

“There’s a huge financial incentive to do that there,” he said. “I don’t know that people really understand the 10-year tax abatement the city’s offering. I expected more development, with a combination of that and what we’ve done to update the area.”

O’Reilly offered a sunny forecast for the area.

“North Springfield’s best days are ahead of it,” he said. “It’s a great place to do business. The automatic thought that we need to put things on the south side – that hasn’t panned out in terms of how we’ve built our businesses.”

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jean@highlandsprings.com

As a Northsider, I do appreciate the improvements the O'Reillys have made at the Glenstone and Kearney intersection. It's too bad our Walmart is so "sketchy" . My nephew who is a freshman at Evangel drives to Target to shop because he's uncomfortable in Walmart, and I understand why. My neighborhood Walgreens at National & Kearney is like a ghetto store--no trashcans because of the homeless people filling them with who knows what, so now they leave their trash all over the parking lot and sidewalks and the Redbox machine like that's a better look. They haven't had outside lights at that Walgreen's for months, so I don't shop there after dark any more because I don't feel safe.

And just about 5 blocks south and two blocks west of their lovely Doubletree, the O'Reilly's gifted my neighborhood with the "O'Reilly Center for Hope", which is commonly known among the Robberson neighborhood residents as the "O'Reilly Center for Despair" because what it has brought my neighborhood is a an avalanche of trash and homeless people camping in our backyards. This would never have been built in a southside neighborhood.

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