Commentary: Overselling potential for agri-centers

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I was extremely interested in reading about how St. Joseph, Mo., has plans for constructing a multi-million dollar Agri-Business Expo Center. The plans are being justified by some extremely aggressive projections for the activities that will be hosted at the center.

It might seem that I’m being too regional in even writing about this construction project, but it brings to mind how agri-centers around the country have been financed because of over expectations. These agri-centers aren’t research business centers such as research parks like the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina that is headquarters for companies including Bayer CropScience, BASF and Syngenta.

The agri-business centers I’m writing about are the Agricenter International at Memphis, Tenn., the small Interstate Center/McLean County Fairgrounds at Bloomington, Ill., and the Kemper/American Royal center in Kansas City to mention three of varied size. A search for agri-centers finds many event facilities in relatively small rural cities that are expected to serve as convention centers, too. But I know they sit idle for weeks and weeks. In my opinion, almost all these centers haven’t accomplished the original projections or have lost ground from their high-use days when there were many more farmers.

The Interstate Center actually doesn’t exist because an equipment retailer has taken over the facility. The Agricenter International has had trouble attracting companies and events to keep the facilities fully utilized. And the Kemper Arena site sits unused weeks at a time and hosting events much smaller than the facilities are designed to hold. In general, are there too many agri-centers already and more being added that waste tax revenue to serve such a small percentage of the nation’s population?

The Kemper site and a new St. Joseph facility appear to be an example of unnecessary competition only 53 miles apart. Should a city with population of about 130,000 be investing more than $70 million and trying to attract events away from a city with international airport service and visitor activities associated with a metro population of more than 2.3 million?

The business plan for the St. Joseph center reportedly claims 169 annual events can be hosted because it will be the site of a regional University of Missouri Extension office, agricultural corporate buildings, a 90,000-square-foot expo center, a 4,000-square-foot demonstration and commercial kitchen, a 150- by 300-foot arena with 5,000 seats, supporting livestock buildings and staging/warm-up area.

If everything pans out at St. Joseph, I’ll be completely shocked and eating crow about whether there is enough rural-related events to host and support new multi-million agri-centers around the country.


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