While Governor Greitens cracks the whip on state lawmakers to pass legislation with two special legislative sessions having now been called, the Missouri head of state has a number of bills on his desk waiting for scrutiny.

Missouri State Penitentiary was once the largest prison in the state, with more than 5,300 inmates in the 1930s. (Photo courtesy: Missouri Division of Tourism)

One of them is a measure to convey a small portion of state land to Jefferson City for the purpose of tourism.  30 out of the 128 total acres that comprise the Missouri State Penitentiary site would be turned over to the city to begin the redevelopment process.

The transfer would help complete the state master plan for the historic site. An interchange from Highway 50/63 to a street which provides direct access to the penitentiary was completed in 2016 for roughly $20 million.  The city is spending $8,368,392 to upgrade intersections in the site’s vicinity, and it’s hoped boarded up buildings will be rehabbed through the private sector.

Two state agencies already have buildings on the penitentiary site, the Department of Natural Resources and the Missouri State Health Laboratory.

The transfer of the 30 acres to Jefferson City would trigger the expenditure of $2 million in local money already secured to build an entrance road onto the site.

An additional $20 million dollars generated from a lodging tax passed by voters would go toward the construction of a convention center/conference center, with private investment being required to finish out the project with a hotel.  Plans also call for dining, retail and housing to be part of the complex.

Even without any outlay of cash, the penitentiary has grown in popularity as a tourist attraction.  Before closing in 2004, it was the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi at 180 years.  Since tours began in 2009, the number of visitors has grown from 3,000 to 34,000, while visits to the penitentiary museum have gone from 752 to almost 7,000 in 4 years.

Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin says the site’s location near the state Capitol and the Missouri River makes it an especially attractive draw.  “We’re the only city in the entire country that has a state Capitol, a river and then a historic prison” said Tergin.  “We’re the only state that has all three.  So that really positions us above and beyond what anyone else has in the country as far as a tourist attraction.”

Tergin thinks the penitentiary’s charmed location will allow it to match the 350,000 visitors drawn to Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania every year.  Eastern State is near the large population base of Philadelphia, PA.  It has a rich history, having housed mobster Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton.

Mayor Tergin thinks the penitentiary will be a tourist asset for the state, as well as the city, because it’s attracting visitors from across the country already.  In 2016, there were guests from 45 states and 43 countries.  “It’s proven with the tours, the 34,000 people that came here last year to tour the penitentiary, are coming from all over the country, and all over the state.  So it’s definitely a benefit to the state.”

The penitentiary became a venue for live shows last year with what was billed as a “Concert Inside the Walls” featuring country star Travis Tritt.  Tergin is excited about the scheduling of Wynonna on July 1.

“Anyone who went last year to Travis Tritt knows.  They were walking in one by one saying ‘wow’.  People were literally just in awe of what an amazing venue that is, because typically people aren’t even in there.  You never get to go in unless you’re there on a tour.”

With the bill on his desk to convey the small parcel of land from the state to Jefferson City, Governor Greitens could sign, veto or let the measure become law without his signature.  Tergin says she would appreciate the governor’s full throated endorsement.

“For the governor to get behind this would be an amazing way to really kick off his new administration, and show that development and growth for our state is important.”