Poll Shows Strong Support for Preservation of Stephens Lake (MO)

Columbia, MO: Results of a public opinion survey presented today show that Columbia voters would strongly support a new sales tax levy to provide funding for local parks. The poll, conducted earlier this week by American Viewpoint, Inc., a well-known Republican polling firm based in Alexandria, Virginia, asked 300 randomly chosen city voters if they would support a five-year, ? of one percent sales tax referendum that would fund local parks, including the purchase and improvement of the Stephens Lake Property located near downtown Columbia. Sixty percent of voters interviewed said they would vote for the measure, while 27% said they would oppose it. The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 5.8%.

For more than fifty years, the Stephens Lake area, owned by Stephens College, has been open to the public and enjoyed as parkland. The college is now planning to sell the property. City officials hope to acquire the land in order to preserve it as a public park and open space. The Trust for Public Land, which commissioned the poll, was asked by the city of Columbia to negotiate the purchase of the property and to assist with finding a way to pay for the acquisition costs.

The question of a sales tax increase to save Stephens Lake received broad support among voters throughout the city. A majority of respondents in every ward and across all party affiliations said they would support the measure. In addition, the question received more than 50% support across age and income groups, ranging from 59% support for households making more than $75,000 a year, to 66% for households with annual income under $30,000.

When asked how they would like to see the property used if purchased by the city, the most popular use was “family picnicking” which was approved by more than 90% of respondents. Other uses supported by at least three out of four voters include boating, fishing, swimming, and protecting wildlife, trees and historic sites.

Later in the survey, voters were read several statements about the importance of saving Stephens Lake. Respondents agreed most strongly with the following arguments:

“Stephens Lake is one of the last large open space properties near downtown. We must act now, or it will be lost.” 74% agree, 21% disagree.

“If the Stephens Lake property is not purchased by the city and is sold for commercial and residential development instead, traffic congestion will get much worse.” 74% agree, 22% disagree.

When asked to identify the most important problem facing the City of Columbia, only 17% of voters interviewed cited government spending and taxes, and 45% said controlling growth, addressing traffic problems, and protection of natural areas are the most important problems. Ernest Cook, director of the National Public Finance Program at the Trust for Public Land, said, “Compared to other communities around the country, voters in Columbia are especially eager to see government take action to deal with the impacts of growth in their city.”

Voters were also asked what hesitations they may have about supporting the proposed parks measure. One in four respondents cited increased taxes, while one in ten are concerned that the city might pay too much for the property. Nineteen percent of respondents said they have no hesitations.

Toward the end of the survey, voters were asked if they would still support the measure if after the ? percent sales tax expired in five years, a permanent 1/8 percent sales tax extension was imposed to fund parks and open space preservation over the long term. Fifty-seven percent of voters said they would support such a measure, while 32% would oppose.

“These findings show great community support for the acquisition of Stephens Lake and for public parks in general,” said Mayor Hindman. The mayor said he strongly supports the preservation of the Stephens Lake property and will recommend putting before Columbia voters a proposition to purchase the property with the hope that the city and Stephens College will be able to negotiate a price that is fair and acceptable to voters.

City Manager Ray Beck explained the next steps to be taken, saying that at the request of the City Council, an ordinance proposing a sales tax to fund the purchase of Stephens Lake will be prepared for introduction at the August 7th council meeting. “The opinion of our residents is very important and I’m pleased to see the progress made by The Trust for Public Land,” Beck said.

The Trust for Public Land is a national, nonprofit organization that conserves land for people to improve the quality of life in communities and to protect natural and historic resources for future generations. TPL is working with the City of Columbia to design and implement a local parks and open space measure that reflects the priorities of city residents.