The city has changed its American Rescue Plan Act funding agreement with Mosaic Life Care Foundation to help fund a Children’s Discovery Center.
All other ARPA allotments from the city’s first installment of about $19 million have already been approved. However, the Children’s Discovery Center vote was postponed until the new council could gather enough information about the project.
The $19 million Children’s Discovery Center will engage children, from birth to 10 years old, with hands-on learning experiences that “teach the basics of health and wellness.”
The city’s original funding agreement was $4 million for the project. However, once the new council was in place, the city negotiated a different agreement — $2.5 million for the project and $1.5 million for infrastructure and Downtown revitalization. It also negotiated with Mosaic for the Children’s Discovery Center to be at the Plymouth Building at Sixth and Felix streets, rather than the other proposed site, the U.S. Bank Building location on Fourth and Jules streets. This saves money, as Mosaic already owns the structure.
“The Plymouth Building also gives us an opportunity to go in and fix a blighted area of Downtown and really rebuild and gives us kind of a cornerstone of developing in that part of Downtown,” said St. Joseph Mayor John Josendale.
The $1.5 million for revitalization and infrastructure will be used to fix up the blight along Felix Street between Sixth and Fourth streets. It also will help ensure the Plymouth Building meets the proper specifications.
“You want to make sure that they can have buses or a safe opening for families to come in, so the back side will have to be developed a little bit,” Josendale said. “There is a building next door that has been damaged, and we’re working with everybody to get some things done there.”
The project isn’t a done deal, though. It still has to be voted on by the council at its next meeting on Monday, July 25, and getting five “yes” votes is never a guarantee. But the change in funding made the agreement more “palatable,” according to City Councilman Taylor Crouse.
“There’s two considerations that go into any vote for allocation of funds,” Crouse said. “Number one, does it fit within Congress’ intent to remedy an entity that was damaged by COVID-19. And number two — community input, especially my constituents. At the end of the day, that’s how I make my decision, but we’re not there yet.”
The project also relies on $4 million from Buchanan County’s ARPA funds. But those funds don’t matter if the city votes against allocating their portion on July 25.
“We want to be participating if it’s a viable project,” said Buchanan County Presiding Commissioner Lee Sawyer. “If the city falls completely out, I don’t know that it stays a viable project. There would have to be other types of funding mechanisms.”
Josendale said there has been communication between the city and the county regarding the ARPA funds for the Children’s Discovery Center.
“We’ve talked back and forth,” he said. “They were very much aware of where the city was headed. Mosaic was very aware of where the city was headed. We all talked through the plan and the process. I think everybody’s been very much on board.”
Mosaic declined to do an interview but in a statement said, “Mosaic Life Care Foundation is grateful for the funds from both the city of St. Joseph and Buchanan County. These funds advance the discovery center and the blocks that surround the Plymouth Building. We are excited to share additional information soon about the Children’s Discovery Center.”
The Buchanan County commissioners are in the process of creating a funding agreement with Mosaic, but they each have varying opinions about the project. Sawyer said it’s “significant.”
“It’s something that we earmarked pretty early on that we think could be a difference maker for the community,” he said. “As you look at the fact that we lost population recently, this is a quality-of-life opportunity for residents and for visitors and also to get people to St Joseph.”
Eastern District Commissioner Scott Burnham agrees the children’s center could be a vital development for Downtown but is wary of the price tag.
“The fact that they would be taking that building and turning it into something that could actually be a showpiece for the Downtown, I think that is a positive,” he said. “When it comes to the funding, I’m not sure that I’m quite there yet, but it’s something that we’ll have to talk about.”
Western District Commissioner Ron Hook supports the project but disagrees with the city’s change in funding. He said the city already should have fixed up the infrastructure in Downtown with taxpayer money instead of using ARPA funds.
After months of delay, the pieces will start falling into place — one way or the other — with the council’s vote on July 25.
“Knowing that the county was involved and that they were putting up money, the Mosaic Foundation was putting money, Mosaic was putting money in, but we also knew that we were the ones that had to fix the infrastructure and do the other things,” Josendale said. “That’s where we wanted to make the overall contribution equal.”