The Springfield City Council voted 9-0 to repeal the eminent domain ordinance it previously authorized on the Hotel of Terror. In doing so, the city government avoids having a referendum election.
Hotel of Terror owner Sterling Mathis gathered enough signatures on a petition to put the case of his haunted hotel to a public vote.
The council’s other option would have been to send its eminent domain case before the Springfield voters, an election for which the referendum vote would have been the sole issue on the ballot. The city would have been burdened with an election cost which was estimated to be $250,000.
The repeal delays the city’s acquisition of the Hotel of Terror property, but it also extends the negotiation period between the city and Mathis, both of whom expressed optimism for a deal.
“Now that their eyes are open to what it really is going to cost, I think we can make this work,” Mathis told the Springfield Daily Citizen.
Back to square one: Hotel of Terror as it stands
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.
On Feb. 21, the Springfield City Council voted to authorize the use of eminent domain in order to acquire the Hotel of Terror, which the city would tear down for the purposes of replacing the Main Street Bridge and the Renew Jordan Creek project.
The Jordan Creek daylighting project is intended to create urban, outdoor amenities, as well as reduce flood risks in the area just north of Park Central Square, and the Main Street Bridge has been determined to be a public safety hazard, with vehicles weighing more than 10 tons restricted from using it.
If eminent domain is proceeded to completion, Mathis would receive what a third party arbitrator deems to be “fair value consideration” for the building, plus a second payment for relocation.
Negotiations for the City of Springfield to purchase the building have been ongoing for years, with the highest offer topping out at $550,000, according to Mathis.
In addition to the price of the property, the city would also pay the additional cost of moving the business, according to City Manager Jason Gage. However, Mathis said that much of what he has built over the last 45 years at the hotel can’t be moved.
Mathis has previously indicated that the Hotel of Terror would likely merge into Dungeons of Doom in the event the city buys the hotel, and that the current offer would only cover the cost of fire suppression sprinklers and roof repairs at his other haunted house.
In order to fight the eminent domain process, Mathis set out with supporters to collect signatures of Springfield voters opposed to the ordinance. After initially falling short, Mathis submitted the sufficient amount of signatures on April 10 for a referendum petition, which ultimately led to the City Council’s May 8 decision.
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.
“I’m not opposed to moving, I’m opposed to going bankrupt”
Mathis has repeatedly indicated his willingness to move and told the City Council on Monday night that he “absolutely” intends to keep negotiating with the city, but estimates the total cost of recreating the hotel to be somewhere between $1.5 to $2 million.
“You say you’ve worked with me for three years and negotiations have failed,” Mathis told the City Council. “They failed because you started with a $200,000 offer, which is ridiculous.”
Mathis claimed that aside from the appraiser, no one from the city had been to the hotel, until after he launched the petition. Since then, he said city employees have visited both of his haunted houses and believes they are getting a clearer idea of what it will take to move the operation.
“I’m not opposed to moving, I’m opposed to going bankrupt,” Mathis said. “Would anybody here, on this panel, want to sell their house for $10,000?”
Council members express concerns, all parties hope to find common ground
Councilman Derek Lee and Mayor Ken McClure both expressed concerns over the safety of the Main Street Bridge. Dan Smith, the city’s director of public works, assured that while the bridge is recommended for replacement, it will remain relatively stable for the next two years.
McClure and several council members stressed the need to move these projects forward, and that “appropriate negotiations” could progress in hopes of reaching an agreement.
Gage, while unable to estimate the length of the delay the repeal could cause on both the bridge replacement and Renew Jordan Creek, said either outcome of a vote could contribute towards a delay.
“Ultimately, it all depends on can we come to an agreement,” Gage said. “If we can’t come to an agreement, the time frame could be in perpetuity.”
Councilman Brandon Jenson urged the city and Mathis to negotiate “expeditiously” in order to avoid additional costs the delay could cause.
While Mathis told the Daily Citizen he didn’t know what to expect heading into the meeting, he thought a referendum election in November 2022 influenced how the City Council eventually voted.
“Anytime that the people of the city have signed a petition to put it on the ballot, it has not worked for the city,” Mathis said. “So I don’t think they wanted to put it on the ballot, especially with the following that we had.”
City Attorney Rhonda Lewsader assured Councilman Craig Hosmer the repeal doesn’t preclude the city from using eminent domain again if negotiations fail, and Mathis later told the Daily Citizen that if he finds himself in the same position, he thinks it will be even easier to collect the required signatures for a referendum petition.
However, like the City Council, Mathis hopes it doesn’t come to that again.
“I’m happy it went this way,” he said. “I really am hoping that we can work this out.”