In Its Missouri Bluffs Land Deal, Mizzou Has Put Profit Before Principle

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Enthusiasts of the Katy Trail, shown, are livid about the University of Missouri's plans to sell the Missouri Bluffs.
Enthusiasts of the Katy Trail, shown, are livid about the University of Missouri's plans to sell the Missouri Bluffs. FLICKR/JOE FLOOD

The University of Missouri has a side hustle. It's flipping real estate.

Now, this is not your everyday house-flipping enterprise. No. The university — my alma mater — is in the process of turning a profit from the sale of land the federal government gave it in 1948 for the purposes of research and stewardship. This is the public-institutional equivalent of taking that nice watch Grandma gave you for your birthday and hawking it on eBay.

And that's not even the worst part. The folks at Crazy Tiger's Overstock are about to unload some of the most pristine, beautiful and breathtaking scenic land in the state — some 148 acres in the area known as the Missouri Bluffs in St. Charles County — to facilitate construction of a couple hundred homes and multi-family residences. Just a small, commercial helping hand to Mother Nature.

The university boasts that its College of Agriculture offers "the Midwest's only school with a comprehensive natural resource program." Perhaps that's its day job. But overlooking the Missouri River, it's doing plenty to spoil part of the Great Rivers Busch Greenway, the Busch Conservation area and the Katy Trail, cherished by hikers, cyclists and other nature lovers in our region and beyond.

There's also this detail: Beautiful as the area is, concern lingers that radioactive contamination remains from the munitions plant the federal government operated on site before it graciously handed off the property to the university. The waste from the plant famously created an environmental crisis at Weldon Springs that, despite cleanup efforts, remains a health concern for St. Charles County residents.

"We don't really know if the area is contaminated, but it would be prudent to test thoroughly and then perform an environmental impact statement," says Kay Drey, Missouri's grand dame of environmentalism. That hasn't happened. But, hey, real-estate flippers gotta do what real-estate flippers gotta do.

The university may close the deal this month if the St. Charles County Council approves the umpteenth version of a plan by developer Greg Whittaker's NT Home Builders. The council is expected to do so.

Still, the process is not without intrigue. The plan was initially rejected 8-1 by the St. Charles Planning and Zoning Commission, a group seldom confused with Greenpeace. After that, the developer went back to the drawing board — or otherwise fine-tuned the political process — and the County Council voted 5-1-1 to greenlight the project. The lone "no" vote came from Councilman Mike Elam, a Republican and hardly a radical himself.

"This is a great example of 'just because you can, doesn't mean you should,'" Elam told me. "I think we've heard from a thousand opponents, and the only support has come from people with some financial interest in the project going forward. I do think Gary Whittaker is a fantastic builder whose heart is in the right place. He wants to do the development right and in an eco-friendly way. But this is the wrong place to be doing it."

Elam believes the only way to stop the project at this point would be for public outcry to compel the university to back out of the deal. I'm no expert on St. Charles politics, but I don't doubt him: A friend who lives in the city shared this nice response she got from Councilman David Hammond after weighing in with her concerns: "Since your [sic] not a resident of St. Charles County your opinion means nothing." Well, there's that.

University officials have faced mounting pressure to cancel the deal, but to no avail. In April, they lamely tried some too-little, too-late damage control, announcing that after hearing from "many interested parties" at angry public hearings, they would put out for bid a sale to public entities of the 200-acre Missouri Bluff Golf Course, which adjoins the controversial housing development, along with an additional 100 acres given by the feds. These acres would be given "specific development restrictions," as the university said in a statement, to "guarantee the land remains in a natural state for generations of Missourians."

How nice. Too bad the university wasn't concerned about public bidding and preserving the "natural state" before embarking on its little real estate deal.

And I still have a problem with the larger issue: Why should the university sell land it was gifted at all? If it's not needed for research, why not give it the Missouri Department of Conservation or to the St. Charles County Parks Department? You're a university, not a real estate investor.

Dan Burkhardt, who with his wife Connie is among the state's leading environmentalists (and guardians of the Katy Trail), says, "I think the university has completely abdicated its role as a leader and as a land-grant university. [University officials] had a chance to do something creative and beneficial and important with a piece of property they had, and they failed to do so. It's malfeasance."

Connie Burkhardt, a former member of the Board of Curators, resigned last year from a group called Missouri 100 — comprised of top donors to the institution — in protest over the Missouri Bluffs sale. That didn't seem to matter.

Throughout this deal, the University of Missouri has behaved abominably. Not only has it violated the public trust by abdicating its stewardship responsibilities, and set a new standard for tackiness by cashing out a gift, but the whole sordid affair been shrouded in secrecy by the university that proudly opened the first journalism school in America. Its actions have damaged its reputation with thousands of Missourians, and rightfully so.

And if all that weren't enough, it turns out that the university has brought all this anguish upon itself for phone change. The side hustle isn't even a great side hustle.

The carefully guarded agreement between the university and NT Homes has fallen into the wrong hands: mine. I was leaked a copy of the deal, executed almost two years ago, one that the university had guarded so closely that it refused to share it with St. Charles County Council members. (This is consistent with the principles they taught us at the J-School in a course entitled "Respecting State Secrets 306.")

While it's pretty clear that the agreement has changed significantly — it initially provided for 360 lots, a number that certainly has been slashed, according to the county councilmen I spoke to — there's one item, heretofore not reported, that rather jumped out at me: the price.

In the agreement, the university agreed to sell at $24,250 per acre for 148.61 acres (and possibly another 40, now apparently off the table). Unless the price has changed, which is unlikely, the entire fiasco will net the university no more than $3.6 million, and probably less, as the acreage has apparently been reduced.

Are they kidding? In the upcoming season, Mizzou will pay football coach Barry Odom $3.05 million and basketball coach Cuonzo Martin $2.9 million. And those are annual numbers, not one-time hauls. Did the University of Missouri — a $2.9 billion annual enterprise — actually engage in this nonsense for little more than the price of one season's coach?

That's not the main reason to oppose this deal, not even close. But the numbers speak to the underlying issue here: awful judgment.

"This is such bad leadership, it's shameful," Burkhardt says. "They just cannot be shamed into doing the right thing."

No, they cannot. But this isn't some academic matter awash in principle. They're flipping real estate here.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann and Jay Kanzler from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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