Drivers in Independence long have noticed the approximately 200 mostly-empty acres on the southwest corner of two interstates.
There’s that big Bass Pro Shops store.
And not much else.
That’s scheduled to change in May, when construction begins on a Stoney Creek Inn and conference center just southwest of Interstates 70 and 470. The hotel chain, known for its lodge-like interiors as well as bunk beds and indoor-outdoor swimming pools popular with kids, is expected to open in the spring of 2014.
But the mere sight of earth being moved just east of Bass Pro for a 165-room hotel and 20,000-square-foot conference center, city officials believe, could flip the narrative on the long-discouraging display there.
“Hopefully this is a sign of renewed enthusiasm and momentum for the project,” said Robert Heacock, Independence city manager.
“This has been a long time coming.”
For several years the “Bass Pro” project, formally known as The Falls at Crackerneck Creek, arguably has been better known for its lack of activity and related financing issues than for the shopping and dining experiences available there.
In 2004, Independence officials approved about $72 million in tax-increment financing for the $171 million project.
When the 180,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops opened to fanfare in early 2008, developers originally spoke of landing as many as 70 retail and restaurant tenants for the unique urban woodland space with its 18-acre man-made lake, 70-foot waterfall and 80-acre public park.
But during the grinding years that followed, only a handful of other tenants — Mardels, Hobby Lobby, Cheddar’s — have opened.
The subsequent lack of expected tax revenue forced the city, beginning last year, to shoulder about $10 million in debt-service payments on construction bonds used to build the project. Through next summer, the total debt-service payout will approach $12 million.
The payments last year prompted angry accusations at an Independence City Council meeting by a former council member who insisted officials had failed to schedule the public discussion such debt payments deserved. This week, both candidates competing for a vacant at-large council seat in Tuesday’s election have spoken about the need for more “transparency” on the Crackerneck Creek deal.
Meanwhile, Independence officials anticipate a schedule of similar payments over the next 15 years, said Heacock, who added that officials hope one day to re-finance the Crackerneck Creek debt.
None of this angst, however, seems to bother Jim Thompson, president of Stoney Creek Hospitality, who believes what will be the 14th facility in the chain promises to be in special harmony with its environment.
“The Independence site is simply beautiful, a first class commercial development,” Thompson said.
“We have an eight-acre area that is very unique, and the lake exponentially adds to its attractiveness.”
The Stoney Creek Inn visitor experience, with its mounted moose and buffalo heads in its lobbies, likely offers a synergy with the antlers, fins and feathers that are part of any stop at Bass Pro Shops. Plans in Independence include the enhancement of an existing storm drainage retention area just east of the Bass Pro facility, Thompson said.
Fountains and walkways will transform the site, he added, into a “gateway” to the store.
And then there are the two major highways that the new facility will stand near, Thompson said.
“We are excited about being able to create such a high profile,” he added.
While Independence officials are pleased with the hotel announcement, they are especially so with the conference center plans. The size of the Independence Stoney Creek conference center would place it on the larger end of similar Stoney Creek properties, and also would allow Independence tourism officials to consider bidding on events that they previously would not.
“This will get us into that upper tier,” said John Pinch, Independence deputy city manager.
All this represents a welcome change in the usual Crackerneck Creek dialogue.
In early 2011 the city announced a $3.5 million debt-service shortfall on bonds issued to finance the project. Independence lawyer and Crackerneck Creek LLC partner Byron Constance, in turn, announced that the “unexpected and unprecedented economic downturn” had slowed the announcement of new tenants, and that the group couldn’t pay any of the $3.5 million.
So the Independence City Council approved a $3.5 million payment that February. The next month Jason White, a former council member, appeared before the group arguing that the payment deserved more public scrutiny.
This week Heacock said that although the hotel and conference center likely wouldn’t represent near-term relief for the debt-service payments, additional tenants could add to the development’s financial viability.
“Hopefully at some point there would be enough positive development to allow us to restructure the debt,” he said.
Crackerneck Creek LLC remains the developer of record, Heacock said, adding: “We want to continue to work and fulfill the original vision as well as we can.”
Constance conceded that finding tenants has taken longer than originally imagined.
“But we hope the hotel and conference center announcement will serve as a catalyst for other retailers and restaurants,” he said.
That, in fact, happened Wednesday. Independence officials announced that Pizza Ranch, a chain of 169 restaurants spread across 10 Midwestern states, will build an almost 6,000-square-foot location in The Falls. The chain, whose restaurants often incorporate western themes, already operates a Liberty location.
White, meanwhile, considers the Stoney Creek news a welcome development.
“We still have the failings of city government to be transparent on this project,” White said this week. “But it’s much more important now to say that I’m glad that the city has finally gotten this going.
“Now the question is, ‘How do we keep this going, and how does it lead us out of the mess we are in?’ ”