Militant Journalism

Springfield, Mo., activists fight to stop city from using public money for private gas station

Party for Socialism and Liberation members in Springfield, Missouri, in coalition with other progressive organizations, launched a major campaign on Jan. 17 to organize against the Springfield City Council using taxpayer money to incentivize the development of a Buc-ee’s gas station.

The campaign, “Dam Up Buc-ee’s,” began in response to the City Council announcing at their Jan. 10 meeting that the city had put forward a proposal for $9.2 million in tax incentives to bring the famous Texas-sized gas station chain to southwest Missouri.

The deal would consist of a $4.1 million Infrastructure Reimbursement Agreement, which would divert a percentage of overall sales tax for 20 years to reimburse Buc-ee’s for infrastructure improvements around the proposed location, and a $5.1 million Community Improvement District agreement, which would impose a higher sales tax on that new business district and use that as part of the reimbursement package.

The argument for bringing Buc-ee’s to Springfield was that it would encourage further economic development and offer higher-than-average paying jobs with benefits. 

Springfield City Council rubber-stamping multi-million dollar deals for so-called “community improvement” is nothing new — one only needs to look at the deal given to Bass Pro Shops to develop their “Wonders of Wildlife” aquarium, whose admission prices leave out much of the population who helped build it with their tax dollars. However, this latest development poses a particular threat to the environment and future health of Springfield residents.

Beyond being a 20-year investment in fossil fuels, while climate change is threatening the future existence of life on the planet itself, this particular gas station poses a threat to Springfield’s drinking water. The proposed location of this 100-plus pump Buc-ee’s gas station would drain into Fulbright Springs Watershed, the oldest drinking water source for the city and the source of 12-17% of the city’s present-day drinking water.

While Buc-ee’s representatives assure the public that they have everything under control, Springfield has a history of corporate pollution of drinking water and subsequent coverup — defense company Northrup Grumman knowingly allowed a known carcinogen to contaminate groundwater for over two decades.

The City Council appears to have taken efforts to keep this development out of the public eye, as no announcement was made until two weeks before the vote, and even then the announcement was towards the tail end of a 4.5-hour long council meeting. It took the work of local independent reporters for the story to reach PSL members.

However, less than a week after the announcement, an official Dam Up Buc-ee’s social media campaign was launched with the intention of shining a light on this new development and building a resistance against it. The initial infographic reached nearly 20% of the Springfield population, and graphics soon followed to encourage concerned residents to email their council members.

The week of campaigning culminated in more than 50 people protesting outside Springfield’s historic City Hall on the day of the vote, Jan. 24. Protesters lined the street holding signs and chanting slogans such as, “The people can’t drink gasoline, so what do we say? DAM UP BUC-EE’S!” All this was taking place just an hour before City Council would convene to make the decisive vote.

When the time came for council members to convene their meeting, a small number of PSL members joined the limited number of spectators allowed in the gallery due to COVID restrictions. As the bill came up for discussion and vote, only one council member, Mike Schilling, attempted to table the bill for further discussion after receiving a number of emails from his constituents expressing concerns. He was unfortunately drowned out by his colleagues, who proceeded throughout the meeting to mischaracterize the campaign, calling citizens opposed to the Buc-ee’s deal “confused” and “misinformed,” and speaking in infantilizing tones to their constituents. The bill unfortunately passed with a 7-2 majority without public comment.

Although no public comment was allowed before the vote, PSL Springfield member Seth Goodwin delivered an impassioned speech during the general public comment section at the end of the meeting. Highlighting the high rates of poverty and homelessness, generally crumbling infrastructure and inadequate public transportation, Goodwin tore into the city’s clearly business-oriented priorities: “I believe it was Councilman [Abe] McGull who stated that city government is ‘where the rubber meets the road.’ My question is, who is behind the wheel? Because it’s certainly not the 60% of people who rent here, it’s certainly not the 23% of this population that lives in poverty, and it’s certainly not the community organizers and leaders who have done arduous amounts of work to mitigate issues with our most underserved communities. 

“If the people were behind the wheel, we would have free and expanded public transit, comprehensive and well-funded care for our homeless neighbors. We’d have affordable housing in the urban centers, poverty would vanish as the majority of people wrest the hoarded wealth from the few. … I hope that you all have a good night, because I’m sure it will be better than the night many of my homeless neighbors and friends will have as they teeter between being with the living and eternity.”

Although this vote went through, the fight and the campaign is far from over. The council is yet to vote on the second portion of this reimbursement deal, and the people of Springfield are waking up and demanding more from their elected officials. They aren’t “confused.” They aren’t “misinformed.” They’re just finally beginning to assert their right for clean water over the rights of corporations to pollute their water, their right to shelter over the landlord’s right to hoard perfectly good homes, and their right to adequate social infrastructure that doesn’t leave them to fend for themselves. Springfield City Council, and elected officials elsewhere, should take notice. 

Feature photo: Springfield, Mo., activists protest a proposal for $9.2 million in tax incentives to bring Buc-ee’s to southwest Missouri. Liberation photo

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