The passage of the Hotel-Motel tax opened the door for the creation of Civic Park, but there were large obstacles still to be faced. The auto dealership eventually moved to the city’s south side, but only after a protracted and public dispute with the City of Springfield over compensation for its land. The limousine builder also relocated.
Tri-States Laundry owners Bob and Joyce Mahoney declared they were willing to sell their holdings at the corner of Trafficway and Hammons. But inspections revealed the land beneath the business posed environmental concerns that would have to be addressed—at a potentially high cost—before any development of the property could take place.
As Tom Finnie recalls: “This was a classic example of the hurdles facing the redevelopment of aging downtowns. As long as the Mahoneys, the current property owners, occupied the site and were introducing no new activity on it, no environmental remediation was required. But if the property changed hands, remediation was mandatory.” As a potential pollution hazard and an aging eyesore, the buildings might continue to hinder the redevelopment of a large portion of prime downtown real estate.
But Finnie was pleased by the final agreement reached by the City of Springfield’s capable attorney, Howard Wright, and the graciously amenable Mahoneys. Says Finnie: “It was a creative compromise in which the city promised that the land would be transformed into an expansive city park, allowing the city to minimize remediation requirements. We also agreed to share with the Mahoneys the payment for any remediation efforts that might arise. And we agreed that the site would be an open space, with no large buildings.”
Well, make that one large building. Shortly after the city acquired the property, Finnie recalls: “I received a call from Joyce Mahoney, who was a talented and undergoing demolition.enthusiastic amateur potter. Joyce told me that she had been using part of the Creamery building as a pottery studio, and she invited me to visit the building to see a workshop put on by a nationally noted potter, Rudy Autio. Joyce was hoping to save the building and convert it into a large, central studio where local potters could create and display their work.”
Finnie adds: “I have often confessed—this was the first time I was even aware that this aging building existed. I had assumed that the Mahoneys’ entire holdings on the property would be demolished to create room for the coming greenspace.”
When Finnie arrived at the building, he found that potter Rudy Autio “had been well briefed by Joyce Mahoney. He gave me a tee-shirt with his
Master potter Rudy Autio. picture on the front and he had signed the back with the message: 'We need you. Thanks, Rudy Autio 4/99.' By the end of Rudy’s demonstration, a tour of the building and a history lesson about it from Joyce, it was clear that she was right: the building should be saved, even though, during her tour, we surprised two homeless men who were taking shelter in the building! I always like to say, the transformation of The Creamery began with a simple tee-shirt.” (Potter Autio died in 2007.)
Even as City Manager Finnie bought into Joyce Mahoney’s notion of saving the old building, he began to entertain larger plans for its future. While in a previous post in city government in Charlotte, N.C., Finnie had seen an old downtown church that had been transformed into a lively home for the city’s Arts and Science Council, which housed many of the city’s not-for-profit organizations.
The Creamery building, Finnie began to think, might be used in a similar manner—but only if the funding for such a transformation could be raised from private resources rather than from city coffers. Springfield’s citizens had voted to create a park, not an arts center—and Finnie knew that the costs incurred when a local university had acquired and then demolished an aging downtown hotel a few years before had left many Springfieldians wary of civic redevelopment projects.
If the Creamery was to be developed into an arts center, a coalition of stakeholders would have to be assembled to help promote that vision and find the funds to achieve it. One such visionary, Finnie says, was Springfield Visual Arts Alliance (SVAA) president Carolyn Gerdes, who had served on Springfield’s City Council and was widely respected for her energy, judgment, common sense and broad connections across the city. (The SVAA evolved into today's Springfield Regional Arts Council.)
Gerdes had helped nurture the fledgling Ozark Greenways into a powerful force that was creating a network of green trails and recreational spaces across the city and county, and she had been an important participant in the Vision 20/20 group.
As Gerdes recalls, the SRAC at the time was an under-staffed and under-utilized group that was operating out of a small storefront in downtown Springfield. Gerdes, who had accompanied Finnie on Joyce Mahoney’s tour of the building and its pottery studio, agreed that the property could be renovated into a thriving arts center. She recalls believing that such a center would not only benefit the individual organizations, it would also open up avenues of communication and collaboration between the groups that could multiply the impact of the arts in Springfield—and create new opportunities for SRAC to spread its wings and expand its services.