The Springfield City Council will have two choices regarding the eminent domain it authorized on the Hotel of Terror on Feb. 22: it can either repeal the authorization, or send the case to voters’ ballot for a special election.
On Monday April 10, Mathis submitted an additional 800 signatures on a petition to the city clerk’s office. Mathis initially fell 401 verified signatures short of putting the council’s decision to condemn his haunted attraction before Springfield voters, and had 10 days to find them.
On April 13, the city announced that the amended petition had a sufficient amount of verified signatures, securing a referendum unless the City Council rescinds the eminent domain on the downtown Halloween attraction.
“We’re excited that we got enough signatures,” Mathis told the Daily Citizen in an interview. “It’s a shame that a business has to do this, jump through these kinds of hoops. But I feel confident if the city does not do a recall and they do want to extend it to the voters — I feel confident that we’ll come out ahead.”
What is at stake?
For Mathis and his supporters, the Hotel of Terror — and the cost it would take to relocate, but for the city government, it’s the Renew Jordan Creek project, in which the current plan requires the Hotel of Terror to be demolished and the bridge on which it sits to be replaced.
The project, which includes the daylighting of Jordan Creek, is intended to create urban, outdoor amenities, as well as reduce flood risks in the area just north of Park Central Square.
The Main Street Bridge has been determined to be a public safety hazard, with vehicles weighing more than 10 tons restricted from using it.
Mathis founded the Hotel of Terror, located at 334 N. Main Ave., in 1978, and has continued to build on it over the last 45 years. In addition to operating the Hotel and his other haunted house, Dungeons of Doom, seasonally, Mathis works as a salesman for Crownline Boats.
“I have not ever opposed the move,” Mathis said. “I mean, it’s a lot of work that’s going to have to be done and it is not cheap, everybody knows that at this point. Even the city architects and city builders, everybody knows it’s going to be expensive to try to recreate what we have done the last 45 years.”
According to Mathis, the city’s highest offer for the Hotel of Terror is $550,000, which he said would only cover sprinklers and roof repairs at the Dungeons of Doom. Mathis said the Hotel of Terror would likely merge into Dungeons of Doom in the event the city buys the hotel, according to past reporting.
City defends it stance on the authorization of eminent domain on the property
“The condemnation process is not entered into lightly,” the City of Springfield said in a statement on April 13. “It is only being considered after years of trying to negotiate agreement on a fair market value offer for property acquisition needed to be able to move forward to replace the failing Main Street Bridge.”
“Throughout the negotiation process, the City has sought multiple third-party appraisals on the property to help determine ‘just compensation’ for the building since the property owner continues to decline offers,” the statement reads. “The City has also hired a consultant that specializes in providing relocation assistance and the City will provide reimbursement costs for relocating his personal property to reestablish his business in a new, comparable building.”
Mathis reiterated his willingness to move, and said that it’s “always been about the dollar amount” he’s been offered.
“They claim that they’ve been negotiating with me for three years,” Mathis said. “Well, when you start out at $200,000, that’s just a slap in the face for 45 years I have invested.”
The City Council will be faced with a decision on whether to repeal the eminent domain ordinance, or call for a special election, allowing Springfield voters to approve or repeal the previous decision to condemn the property. The council reportedly has 30 days to make its decision.
While “certification of referendum petition” has been placed on the agenda for the April 17 City Council meeting as a “placeholder,” in the event that a vote is taken up.
However, Mathis told the Daily Citizen that he was told by the city that it will probably be up for a vote at the May 8 City Council meeting, although it is not certain.
If voted on on April 17 in the order listed in the agenda, outgoing councilmembers Richard Ollis, Andy Lear and Mike Schilling will have an opportunity to once again weigh the eminent domain authorization on the Hotel of Terror that passed unanimously the first time. However, if a vote is pushed back, incoming councilmembers Callie Carroll, Brandon Jenson and Derek Lee will have a say instead.
“That’s good,” Mathis said to the possibility of the new council members considering the future of his haunted house. “I’d like to see the new people.”
If eminent domain repealed by voters, Hotel of Terror to stay put
While the city has claimed years of failed negotiations have led to authorizing eminent domain on the property, time for negotiation may be coming to a close, depending on how the council votes.
“If it goes to the ballot, I will never leave that spot.,” Mathis said. “I will stay there forever.”
Lear, however, hopes negotiations can continue going forward, regardless of the council’s decision.
“The eminent domain process in and of itself is you continue negotiating right up until you can’t,” Lear said. “So I think we should negotiate up until there’s no longer any time to do so.”
While Lear acknowledged the improbability of the decision to come before him in his final meeting as a city councilmember on Monday night, he doubled down on the council’s initial decision to authorize eminent domain on the property.
“I would be hard pressed to overturn an action I think we took that we believe to be the right action,” Lear said. “But I would have to go through the ramifications of what does that do to the overall project, how do we best move forward because this is a project for the citizens of Springfield. It’s been years in the making and millions of dollars in grant money and expenditures.”
Lear said anything to speed up the process would be favorable.
Ollis, too, is hopeful negotiations for the city to acquire the property can continue, regardless of the council’s decision.
“It’s always the city’s intent to try to come up with something,” Ollis said. “It has to comply with the rules of the eminent domain, but if we can get there I think that’s always the city’s first priority.”
While Ollis emphasized the importance of the Main Street Bridge needing to be replaced, he thinks that the ongoing, controversial rezoning proposal in University Heights, the 2022 Galloway referendum — in which the city resoundingly voted “no” on another rezoning proposal — and recent election outcomes could hold sway in the council’s decision.
“I think really the goal for everyone is to try to work a situation out that complies with the eminent domain rules and allows for the city and Mr. Mathis to come to an agreement on both the price of the building and moving expenses,” Ollis said.
Referendum petition and eminent domain in the city charter
In order for a referendum petition to make the ballot, the city requires signatures from “qualified electors of the city equal in number to at least ten percent of the total number of persons voting in the last general municipal election in April,” which is 1,568 signatures.
Mathis’ first batch of signatures consisted of 1,167 verified signatures out of 2,132. He was given ten days to collect the outstanding signatures, which amounted to 401.
According to Mathis, the city stopped counting his second batch of 800 signatures once staffers in the clerk’s office exceeded the 401 mark by 20 signatures.
Eminent domain is spelled out in two key areas of the Springfield City Charter. In Article 2, City Council is given the authority to “acquire, by condemnation or otherwise, property.”
It also specifies that the City Council may “condemn private property, real or otherwise, or any use therein for public use within or without the city.”
In Article 29, property is authorized to be condemned for the purposes of eminent domain acquisition.
The authorization of eminent domain by the city council begins the process of a third party arbitrator to identify a “fair value consideration” for the building, in addition to a second payment for relocation.