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REMEMBERING: A. J. McRoberts, the Quiet Tiger Who Saved Columbia -- Twice

Blight Decrees and redevelopment schemes meet a different sort of bulldozer
 
COLUMBIA, 4/27/12  (Beat Byte) --  Andrew Jackson (A.J.) McRoberts, who died last Sunday at 89, lived up to his storied name when he told me with a mischievous grin that he'd like to "drop kick" a certain elected official "into the next county," back in 2007.  "But I don't kick as well as I used to," he quipped. 
 
A.J. also lived up to his "Old Hickory" namesake when he took on the powers that be not once, but twice.   A.J. and his rebels twice defeated a headlong rush toward the Willy Wonka golden ticket of Missouri land use law -- BLIGHT -- and the power blight designations quickly confer to the chosen few who sit in judgment of what -- and whom -- is blighted.
 
They did it despite eager City Councils; powerful bankers; mouthy Mayors; and strange, alien governing things with ominous names like the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (and Enhanced Enterprise Zone Boards today).  
 
In a third attempt that targeted the black community under the mantle of "urban renewal" between 1956-66, city leaders successfully used blight and eminent domain to shutter 115 black-owned businesses and relocate over 400 black families, many of whom owned homes in the area around Douglass School, the Trib building, and the post office.   The black community simply wasn't organized or politically powerful enough to turn them back. 
 
And they didn't have their own Andrew Jackson McRoberts. 
 
BLIGHT:  The Willy Wonka golden ticket of Missouri land use law.
 
In 1963 and 1978, Columbia's leaders set out to blight the town for government incentives and eminent domain, in widespread moves that largely targeted white landowners. 
 
McRoberts led citizen protestors the Columbia Daily Tribune called "howling jackals" and "snakes in the grass," turning back develocrats bent on building a giant parking garage, a convention center, apartments, and a 225-room hotel.   
 
In 1963, the chosen few marked 600 acres and more than 1,000 private homes for "clearance and redevelopment"; they went after a smaller 45 acres in 1978.   To fight them, A.J. headed up Citizens for the Preservation of Private Property Rights and Self Government during the first battle; and Citizens Against Flat Branch Redevelopment during the second. 
 
Squaring off with Landmark Bank scion Marquis Landrum, A.J. answered Columbia Missourian questions about the Flat Branch Redevelopment project that mirror the questions asked about today's EEZ/Blight Decree:   Is the project economically feasible?  How much tax money will be involved?  Should government be doing this kind of thing?
 
As they are today, the chosen few dished plenty of dirt about the opposition. 
 
"There was more underhanded and dirty-dealing tactics used in that campaign than any I've ever seen before," John H. Longwell, Mayor of Columbia in 1963, said about A.J.'s revolt.  "The public was receiving misinformation as fast as the opponents could turn it out.   The most popular circulated during the debate was a picture of a bulldozer knocking over houses with a caption, "The bulldozers are coming!  This could be your house!"  

"Dirty dealing, misinformed citizens spreadin' lies."   Sound familiar? 
 
A.J. recognized all this when, in 1980, he characterized the 1963 fight as "very bitter" in the Missourian.  "It took 10 years for the bad feeling to die down," he said.   "And now we're doing it again."  
 
 Is the project economically feasible?  How much tax money will be involved? 
Should government be doing this kind of thing?
 
On the advice of someone who called A.J. "a quiet tiger," I paid him a visit at his longtime office in back of the Boone County Courthouse and the Roger B.  I wanted to unseat the public official A.J. wanted to drop kick, so we had something in common. 
 
A real estate appraiser who specialized in hotels around the country, A.J. was savvy to Boone County's intensely political climate, and one of the first people who taught me how much folks hereabouts love their politics.  "If you can solve a problem politically, do it," A.J. advised.  "Stay out of court."   I had come from a part of the country that filed suit first and asked questions later, so the political approach was refreshing.   
 
A former Hickman High history teacher who also did his share of land development, A.J. said he got involved in local politics mainly because he didn't like what he called "Boone County's one-party system."   He thought there was too darn much collusion between the area's "single-party government" and shady businesspeople with lazy ideas just out to make a buck.  
 
A staunch Republican, A.J. complained it was hard to get anything done in Boone.  But the GOP "is where my heart is," he said.   He never mentioned his earlier involvement in all the past blight decrees and redevelopment schemes (I learned about that sifting through old newspaper archives), but from what I've read, A.J. never waivered in his belief that public funds were a sacred trust not to be abused by the greedy. 
 
The GOP "is where my heart is." 
 
I got to know A.J. better during his service on Columbia's Historic Preservation Commission.  He and his wife Doreen had lived for years on one of Columbia's few brick streets -- Bouchelle Avenue, in the East Campus area -- and he was restoring an old farmhouse -- Kosy Grove -- in a different county my family and I visited several years ago.  
 
We also went to church together, where A.J. and I often discussed local politics.   Though his health had declined when the latest incarnation of Columbia Meets Blight showed up in February, I expect A.J. would be urging the citizen protests onward.   
 
On the political front, he seemed to live by a simple mantra:   "If it's the right thing to do, you have to fight!   You'll know it's the right thing to do if it's where your heart is."
 
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