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Joplin, Mo., Hopes to Reuse Old Library as a University Tech Center

The city hopes Missouri Southern State University will turn the building into a downtown campus where students can learn advanced computing.

(TNS) — The old Joplin Public Library could soon have a new life.

Officials with Missouri Southern State University and the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce will propose that the old library, 300 S. Main St., be used in the short term as working space for entrepreneurs, according to Brad Hodson, the university's executive vice president. The library is under ownership of the Missouri Southern Foundation for anticipated long-term use as a downtown campus, and a discussion of the project is on Thursday's agenda for the university's Board of Governors.

Toby Teeter, the newly installed president of the Joplin chamber, said his goal is to work toward an approach of collaboration among the city's businesses and organizations with similar objectives, and the old library could provide the needed space to help achieve that.

"There is an opportunity there to provide small-business-development services from the downtown campus and provide a limited amount of shared space to the entrepreneur community, and we're in a position to administer that and cultivate that," Teeter said.

Chamber staff already operates the nearby Joseph Newman Innovation Center, which offers support to entrepreneurs and small businesses, but it's full, Teeter said. He said the same staff members could oversee a third-party site such as the old library building.

"What that might look like is a little loose, but there are plenty of assets between (the chamber and Missouri Southern) where we can be efficient and create a community," he said.

Hodson said the proposal makes sense as the university continues to mull what programs to put at the old library in the future.

"It's a great short-term use for the facility," he said. "It allows us to more fully maximize the facility in the short run."

Possible uses

While the chamber proposal aims to be a short-term solution for the old library, Missouri Southern officials are still wrestling with what to do with the building in the long term, Hodson said. A task force of MSSU faculty, staff, administrators and downtown representatives has suggested that the building be used for an academic program, a bookstore and a small-business-development center, and university officials are considering the recommendation as they make a final determination.

Several ideas for the building have been suggested, according to administrators' emails the Globe obtained through a Sunshine Law request for which the university charged the paper $450.

Mike Franks, a member of the university’s Board of Governors, recommended that the building be turned into an advanced computing center.

In a Dec. 5 email to MSSU administrators, he cited information from the Missouri Department of Economic Development that shows careers in information technology are among those of greatest demand across the state. Employment in the field has increased approximately 3.7 percent per year from 2012 to 2017, and it represents 5.1 percent of all private sector employment, according to the state department.

Franks, who also serves as CEO of the Neosho Area Business and Industrial Foundation Inc., said area employers are among those who seek to fill IT jobs.

“As we assess the present and future needs of this area, this category of skill sets are among our greatest labor force shortfalls,” he wrote in his email. “As with medical care, if we want a workforce that can provide IT skill sets, we must grow that workforce locally. I am definitely persuaded that MSSU must lead the development of this segment of our regional workforce.”

In a reply to his email, another member of the university’s governing board, Carlos Haley, agreed.

“I think a project of this magnitude would have a significant impact on this region and the university,” he wrote.

Another suggestion for the old library emerged last summer, when an instructor with Missouri Southern’s law enforcement programs emailed administrators to ask whether the building could be used for training exercises for Peace Officer Standards and Training classes. In his June 27 email, the instructor noted that he’d also been approached by Joplin Police Department K-9 teams about using the building for training.

Paula Carson, provost and vice president for academic affairs, in a follow-up email called the request “unusual,” but she said it could fit with other Missouri Southern efforts to build unique programs. In particular, instructors in the criminal justice department want to enhance programs such as cadaver dog training and school protection officer training to attract out-of-state students, she said.

“While (the training) would likely be a one-time or infrequent request, I just returned from a meeting of several departments collaborating together on a unique program tentatively called a master’s (degree) in justice studies,” Carson wrote in her email. “It may fit down there (in the old library) as a new option.”

Focusing on old library

The downtown campus project, when it was initially pitched to city leaders, was a "broad vision" that included the possibility of student housing, potentially in the Howsmon Building that is being restored at Fifth Street and Virginia Avenue, Hodson said. But the university isn't pursuing other downtown properties at this time.

Administrators had been notified last fall about a new listing in the downtown area: the PLJBD Architects Inc. building at 303 S. Main St., directly across from the old library. A real estate agent emailed administrators on Oct. 23 to ask whether they had any interest in the building. Hodson responded that he didn’t.

Hodson told the Globe this week that the university's governing board has prioritized the development of the old library ahead of any other properties.

"I probably have toured three or four other properties downtown where the owners have said, 'This would make great student housing,' but the university board has been very clear that they want to see the academic program up and running first and make sure it's viable," he said.

Once a decision is made about what will be based in the old library, the Missouri Southern Foundation will be responsible for the fundraising campaign for its renovation, Hodson said.

The university has already retained the services of the Vecino Group, a Springfield-based developer that is heavily involved in the Block22 project in Pittsburg, Kansas. Block22 involved the conversion of several downtown Pittsburg buildings for use as university student housing and business development.

The Vecino Group has toured the old library and provided a "complete review" of the property, outlining structural and mechanical issues that the university must address regardless of which programs are based there, Hodson said. The firm also has provided a cost estimate — $6.5 million to $7 million — that Missouri Southern could expect to pay for renovating the building into a generic academic-use building, according to a Nov. 27 email from the firm to Hodson.

Hodson said fundraising for the renovation project won't get underway until Missouri Southern decides how to use the old library in the long term.

Meeting details

The Missouri Southern State University Board of Governors will meet at 1 p.m. Thursday in the boardroom of Billingsly Student Center. Brad Hodson, executive vice president, will discuss the downtown campus project, according to the agenda. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for Nixon Hall will immediately follow the meeting at approximately 2:30 p.m.

Before the meeting, the board's Academic Affairs Committee will meet in Room 343 of Billingsly Student Center, and the Budget/Audit Committee will meet in Room 356. Both sessions will begin at 11 a.m.

©2019 The Joplin Globe (Joplin, Mo.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.