Courtesy Missouri Division of Tourism
Katy Lacy moved to Jefferson City, Mo., five years ago. Twenty-one at the time, she didn’t find much that appealed to her and her generation as she surveyed the streets of the state capital.
Today, Jeff City, as locals like to call it, seems much livelier to the young professional. Downtown boasts new businesses, including a frozen yogurt shop, a wine bar and a sports bar/restaurant.
Almost a dozen restaurants have added outdoor seating.
Community events, like a Thursday night concert downtown and summertime movies on the Capitol lawn, bring people to town in the evenings.
Biking, big in the area, is better thanks to a new bike/pedestrian bridge that safely connects riders to the Katy Trail, the country’s largest rail-to-trail pathway, on the other side of the Missouri River.
Added appeal for young professionals
“So much has changed in the past five years,” Lacy said. “To keep young professionals in the city, it is trying to market to that crowd.”
The somewhat sleepy state capital seems to be awakening in other ways. Early this year, voters approved an increase in the local hotel tax from 3 percent to 7 percent. The extra revenue will allow the city to build a convention facility. It now relies on three midsize hotels for meeting space.
An unlikely new attraction has garnered heaps of media attention and is bringing visitors to town. Three years ago, the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau began promoting tours of the Missouri State Penitentiary, which closed in 2004 after 168 years.
Built 100 years before Alcatraz, MSP was not your average prison. At its height, it housed 5,300 inmates, and its 142 acres supported a variety of prisoner-fueled enterprises, from the world’s largest saddletree factory and a rock quarry to a wagon factory and shoe manufacturers.
The prison tours have been a boon to tourism in general and meetings in particular, said Marianne Thies, sales manager for the Jefferson City CVB.
“We’ve had several meetings that have booked just because of the prison tours,” she said.
Seat of government’s a natural meeting place
Because it is Missouri’s seat of government, Jefferson City is a meeting place. Each year, from early January until the end of May, legislators, lobbyists and constituents pour into the city of 40,000 to hammer out legislation.
Their presence puts pressure on hotels, especially the 255-room Capitol Plaza, three blocks from the Capitol and with 22,000 square feet of meeting space, and the 151-room Doubletree Jefferson City, a rebuild of an existing property that opened in 2008. It is four blocks from the Capitol and has about 6,000 square feet of meeting space.
The pressure placed on meeting space is illustrated in Thies’ own experience. In one day, she has seen a meeting room at one of the hotels flipped six times — for a breakfast, a meeting, two lunches, another meeting and a cocktail party.
It’s no surprise, then, that many believe a convention center is warranted. The new tax moves the project from talk to action even as discussions continue about a location and a design for the facility.
“We’ve been talking about a convention center for 25 years — I know because I moved here 25 years ago,” Thies said. “Now we are certain it is going to happen, but we aren’t certain about the location.”
Adventurous eating at G2 Gallery
In the meantime, groups are migrating to G2 Gallery for smaller receptions and dinners.
Launched in January 2007 by Kasey Green, chef, and TaNea Graves, event planner, the events center has been a hit, due in part to its location a block from the Capitol.
“When the session’s in and the associations are in town hosting events to lobby their causes, we stay really, really busy,” said Green.
The proprietors’ adventurous spirit doesn’t hurt their business. Green and Graves turned the upstairs of the old Lohman Opera House into their dream business. The two demolished walls, tore up carpets, built bathrooms and a kitchen, and laid floors in the upstairs of the historic building.
The bright contemporary art on the big white walls is a practical solution to a decorating dilemma. G2’s ceilings are 24 feet high.
“How do you decorate these walls that are so huge? You use other people’s art,” said Green.
The art typically changes once a year, and all of the pieces are for sale.
The 2,000 square feet of open and airy space can accommodate 200 guests, who enter by stairs or elevator.
The food turned out by G2’s chef is as innovative as the meeting venue. Green willingly detours from the standard menus offered; she loves to work with a group that has a theme or a focus.
“When I get a group that wants to play, I just go crazy nuts,” said Green.
She boots up her computer and goes on a research mission to find foods and recipes to fit a theme. For a group of schoolteachers who were studying the Lewis and Clark expedition, she created a four-course dinner based on foods Clark wrote about in his journal.
“I used foods they found along the way, but I gave those foods an upscale twist,” said Green.
For example, sauteed crawfish served over a corn cake with field greens and vinaigrette was the first course. For another group, Green prepared a complete meal using the recipes of Julia Child; she included interesting trivia about the famed cookbook author as an aside.
Her most recent special meal had a Civil War theme — she even made hardtack — a salty cracker that could become brick hard over the course of days. The crackers she made were soft, and many of the diners were fans.
Most of the foods, though, were one-pot meals popular in the mid-1800s, among them a chicken fricassee made exactly like the 1800s recipe with bone-in, skin-on chicken. “It was a big hit,” said Green.
Known for imposing edifaces
The Missouri State Penitentiary, on downtown’s edge, near the river, is an imposing place, its Gothic Revival architecture chosen to send a message.
“They wanted to impress upon inmates that you are no longer in charge of your life,” said Mark Schreiber, who heads the prison tours, has written two books about MSP and has worked in administration there for 42 years.
Equally imposing, but in a more appealing sense, is the Missouri State Capitol. Like many of its early-1900s peers, the 1917 edifice is a knockoff of the nation’s Capitol, with its central dome and Roman Renaissance styling. Its three acres of grounds are dotted with bronze statues and gardens, but it is the interior of the statehouse that wows.
In 2008, USA Today said the Missouri Capitol has the most beautiful interior of any of the 50 state capitols.
“A lot of our visitors visit state capitols — that’s what they do — and when those people talk to us, they say it is one of the more beautiful of the capitols they have toured,” said Linda Endersby, assistant director and acting director of the Missouri State Museum.
Surplus funds turned the interior of the Capitol into a veritable art museum. Construction ran under budget, so “over $1 million was left in the budget, and it was all appropriated for new artwork,” said Thies.
“It is large, but it is also very decorated with statuary, stained glass, carvings and wall murals,” said Endersby.
Free guided tours are given seven days a week, 361 days a year. A tour highlight is a mural by Missourian Thomas Hart Benton in the House Lounge.
Now valued at $10 million, its theme is the social history of Missouri, and it covers topics including farming, manufacturing and Prohibition as it illustrates the life of the average Missouri citizen. Other favorites are 41 lunettes, half-moon-shaped paintings by various artists that line a second-floor hallway.
Just off the Capitol rotunda is the Missouri State Museum, where a major exhibit on Missouri and the Civil War will be displayed through 2015. Like the tours, the museum is free.
“Usually people don’t think of Missouri when they think of the Civil War, but we had the third-most engagements of any state,” said Endersby. The exhibit explores what it was like to live in a state so divided in opinion, a state with stars on both the Rebel and Yankee flags. “It was a very, very contested state,” said Endersby.
Prison property sprouts development
About eight blocks east of the Capitol, near the river, a federal courthouse has opened on a sliver of the old MSP property. That development is expected to generate other growth around the old prison: restaurants, shops and, possibly, a hotel. A greenway that would connect the old prison lands to downtown and the Katy Trail is also part of the plans.
Despite new developments, reliables remain in the capital city.
Out on Jefferson Street, about one and a half miles from downtown, the Truman Hotel and Conference Center, built in 1963, is popular with statewide associations and military reunions. The Missouri Elks meet there, using the hotel and its 24,000 square feet of meeting space, as well as four nearby limited-service hotels.
A bonus there is an adjacent movie theater owned by the hotel’s owners. Hotel guests can watch second-run movies free. The four theaters at the multiplex can also be booked for meetings.
“We’ve had state legislators book it so they could watch a film about education reform,” said Denise Kinard, the hotel’s director of sales.
Another established Jefferson City business continues to draw crowds: Central Dairy has been making ice cream in Jeff City since 1932. Entering its red-and-white soda shop seems like stepping back to the 1950s.
Changes made for future leaders
The ice cream is timeless, with standards like chocolate and vanilla, but abundant exotic flavors too, strawberry cheesecake, butterscotch ripple, spumoni, muddy river, bear claw and mother lode among them.
It is certain that the 850 teens from around the state who will attend Youth in Government’s annual state convention in two sessions late this year will find their way to Central Dairy, according to Lacy, who plans the conference.
But they’ll also be exploring the new treats within walking distance of the Crowne Plaza, where they will stay, and the Capitol’s House and Senate chambers, where they will meet.
“Yo Yums, a yogurt shop, opened, and last year, our kids packed that. This year, J. Pfenney’s opened. It is has a sports theme, and I think they are really going to love that, because it has tons of televisions,” said Lacy.
The youth are Jefferson City’s target, the future leaders who may eventually wend their way back to the capital as lawmakers. And if they do, they will find a revitalized city, Lacy believes.
“Jefferson City is undergoing a transformation,” she said.