By Stephen Lindsley
Springfield is a fascinating mix of old and new, small and large. Known as the site of a famous Wild Bill Hickok shootout and birthplace of Route 66, it is also the world headquarters of Hammons Hotels & Resorts and home of more than 65 lodging facilities – a cumulative total of nearly 6,000 hotel rooms. At just over three hours it is a relatively short drive from St. Louis, and even slightly closer to Kansas City.
Springfield has a significant Civil War history. Four separate Union forts defended the town from falling into Confederate hands, and nearby Wilson’s Creek was the site of an early conflict in which Nathaniel Lyon would become the first Union general of the war to die in battle.
GREEN AS A FIELD IN SPRING
Springfield is also a leader in the development of sustainable architecture. The Discovery Center, an interactive science museum, was the first building in southwest Missouri to receive a LEED Gold designation. The Green Circle Shopping Center, on the south end of town, received its LEED Platinum Certification in early 2009. And in June, 2011 the nearby Hilton Garden Inn, Missouri’s first hotel designed to LEED Gold standards, held its grand opening. Sustainability features include a geothermal HVAC system in the pavilion and meeting areas, solar electrical system, a salt water swimming pool, and a full recycling and waste food composting system. With 125 rooms, 3,500 square feet of meeting space and onsite catering, the Hilton Garden Inn is a great way to add more green to your meeting.
Several other hotel properties in Springfield have undergone significant renovations and expansions recently. A remodeling project at the Best Western Coach House included a new lobby, breakfast room, fitness room, guest laundry area and improved meeting room area. The University Plaza Hotel is adding a new spa and remodeling its lobby, and the convention center at the Ramada Oasis Hotel added three new meeting rooms that will accommodate up to 250 guests each – an additional 13,000 square feet of space. These rooms are connected to the existing convention center with a new airwall system that opens to create a large hall capable of hosting up to 1,300 for banquets and 1,800 for meetings.
The most recent development is the new White River Conference Center adjacent to Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World. Elaborate wildlife dioramas and décor set the scene at the new facility, which includes a floor-to-ceiling fireplace and a wrap-around patio overlooking a pond, trails and green space. The new center features a 9,600-square-foot conference center that accommodates up to 650 people in conference, theater and classroom-style seating, three classrooms and the 2,600-square-foot Sportsman’s Lodge.
ENJOY THE VIEW
Outdoor activities are an important part of the mix in Springfield, and the options are abundant. During the baseball season you’ll hear a lot about the Cardinals, but not those Cardinals. The AA minor league Springfield Cardinals are hugely popular, due in no small part to their home at John Q. Hammons Field. This ballpark is every minor league ball club’s dream. The red brick exterior and open design bear a passing resemblance to the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis, with amenities rarely found at a minor league park. There are 25 luxury suites on the top level, plus a VIP lounge and executive kitchen. These suites are equipped with a bar area and mini-fridge, as well as 12 stadium seats in an outdoor balcony area. Two other penthouse-style suites are available on the press box level, and the third is for the private use of ballpark namesake and sole benefactor John Q. Hammons. A Springfield hotel legend, Hammons’ philanthropy is evident all over town, including the JQH Arena and Hammons Student Center, both located on John Q. Hammons Parkway at Missouri State University. The Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts is also on campus.
Groups of 20 to 99 visiting Hammons Field receive discounted ticket rates ($8.00 per person for field box tickets, $6.00 per person for general admission), plus a specially designed Season Commemorative Coin. Larger groups qualify for even greater discounts. In addition, the Homeplate Deck and four Ashley Furniture Dugout Decks are available for groups of 20 to 120 at just $15 per person. Each group member in a party deck also receives a specially designed Springfield Cardinals baseball cap.
Averaging 7,000 in attendance at every game over the last three years, Hammons Stadium is one of the top three most popular minor league ballparks in the country.
Nathanael Greene/Close Memorial Park is a popular and centrally located spot for groups with an interest in nature and wildlife. There are numerous opportunities for group activities and meeting spaces within the park’s Botanical Center. The facility has several meeting spaces, including the Full Meeting Room, which will accommodate 84 for a banquet, 120 for a lecture, or 145 standing. The 1,790-square-foot room, with Wi-Fi and state-of the art A/V facilities, is available at $55 per hour, $110 for a half day and $220 for a full day. It can also be divided into smaller areas for groups of fewer than 50.
Other event/meeting spaces at the center include the Roof Plaza, which can accommodate up to 150, the Workshop Studio, which holds 24 seated and has A/V capabilities and art/garden work sinks for hands-on demonstrations and craft classes, and the Great Lawn for outdoor events of up to 250 guests. The park’s 7.5-acre Mizumoto Japanese Stroll Garden includes a pavilion for up to 64 guests. All of these meeting spaces are available at $250 for four hours, either from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 4 to 8 p.m. Other outdoor garden, gazebos and pavilions are also available, and the Dr. Bill Roston Native Butterfly House and the Gray-Campbell Farmstead (the oldest home in Springfield) are also located in the park.
Rutledge-Wilson Farm Park is another outdoor venue, with a barn that gives visitors the chance to interact with live farm animals including several cow species, miniature horses, Nigerian dwarf goats, boar goats, baby doll sheep, miniature donkeys and Yorkshire pigs. The 207-acre park includes the animal barn, milking barn, visitors’ center and gift shop, plus demonstration crops and gardens, a 20-acre native prairie, and a farm-themed playground.
A classroom attached to the animal barn is available at $25 per hour, and can comfortably accommodate 36 people seated at tables or up to 50 people in chairs arranged theater-style. Adding animal meet-and-greets for kids ages 2 to 12 years is $1.50 per child and includes a choice of two animals. The choices are: horse, goat, sheep and rabbit.
Bonfire rentals are also available at the park, with options including bonfire plus s’mores and bonfire, hotdogs and s’mores. Larger groups – such as a school or church function, wedding or corporate picnic – may consider a park rental. For groups of 75 or fewer, the rate is $40 for a 4-hour rental, or $80 for a full day. Larger groups can do a full day rental for $250, and the non-profit rate is only $100 for a full day. The park remains open to the public during park rentals, but the area reserved will be held specifically for the group.
Just north of town is Fantastic Caverns, which is famed as the only cave in North America in which Jeep-drawn trams carry visitors on a ride-through tour. The cave was discovered in 1862, and was used as a speakeasy during prohibition and a music venue in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Groups of 20 or more can visit the cave and bask in its year-round 60-degree temperature at a discounted rate of $16.50 per person for adults and $6.00 per person for children. Because of the ambient temperature and motorized tour, this is an attraction that is especially suited for seniors, children and the disabled, although it is fun for all.
Golf is also a popular outdoor activity in the Springfield area. The Bill and Payne Stewart Municipal Golf Course, considered one of the best public courses in the state, offers two 18-hole courses as well as pitch-and-putt. Fees for 18 holes (walking) are only $18 per person during the week, and $23 on weekends. Senior and junior discounts are available.
One of the most popular outdoor activities in Springfield actually takes place indoors. Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World is considered by many to be the Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Drawing visitors from all over the world, the awe-inspiring 300,000-square-foot showroom includes waterfalls, aquariums, a firing range, a Tracker boat showroom, an art gallery, a barber shop and a restaurant. After beginning humbly in 1971 with a small display in a Springfield liquor store, Bass Pro eventually grew into the worldwide sporting gear icon it is today. Admission is free, and the store is open Mondays through Saturdays from 7 a.m. to10 p.m., and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Also in development at Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World is the Wonders of Wildlife Museum & Aquarium, which is currently closed for expansion and renovation. The museum will display more than 225 species of live animals, fresh and saltwater aquariums (including the 225,000-gallon “Out to Sea” exhibit), interactive displays and educational programs.
LOCAL FOOD: WORLD CLASS
The first thing you need to know about Springfield cuisine is cashew chicken. A special Springfield-style cashew chicken with breaded and deep-fried chicken, oyster sauce, cashews and green onions was created by David Leong, a Chinese immigrant to Springfield in 1940, in an attempt to please local palates. It worked so well that today Springfield-style cashew chicken is not only noted and served far and wide, but it represents its own sub-category (and the bulk) of the Wikipedia entry for cashew chicken. Some 70 Chinese restaurants in the Springfield area alone serve this local delicacy, but for the original recipe you must visit Leong’s Asian Diner on the south side of town. It is even rumored that a 50th anniversary celebration of Springfield-style cashew chicken is being planned for 2013, with talk of offering plates of the famous dish at 1963 prices.
Tacos are another thing that Springfield seems to enjoy, with three mobile taco trucks battling it out for 4-wheeled supremacy, while the Purple Burrito has three brick-and-mortar locations and serves California street-style tacos. Fish taco aficionados also have multiple options, including Prima’s Mexican Grill, Farmers Gastropub and Touch Restaurant.
Located in Ravenwood, a Springfield suburb, Touch features Mediterranean/American cuisine, and has won numerous awards in 417 Magazine, a southwest Missouri lifestyle publication. Awards include Best Romantic Dinner and Best Outdoor Dining, and it also ranked among the Five Best Independent Restaurants and Five Best Chefs.
Touch is further known for its extensive wine cellar, wine tastings and training dinners, and hosting wedding receptions, corporate meetings, private events and parties. Entrees are mainly in the $20 to $30 range, and include a Persian lamb shank with quinoa, Dr. Pepper short ribs with jalapeno-mascarpone polenta, and a Chilean sea bass with truffled wild mushroom risotto. Be sure to leave room for the flourless chocolate cake!
While Touch is just south of the James River Freeway that more or less defines the southern city limit, Farmer’s Gastropub is located in the heart of downtown, just a few blocks from Park Central Square. The Gastropub is all about farm-fresh and local ingredients, and their mission statement says it all: “We are one of Springfield, Missouri’s only restaurants and pubs dedicated to fresh, local, sustainable, and natural/organic dining and drinking. We feature ingredients from local farmers. We buy supplies, to the extent possible, that are sustainable and recyclable.”
Catering is another big part of what the Farmer’s Gastropub is all about, no matter the size of the meeting or event. The Pershing Room Bistro is a space set aside at the Gastropub for meetings and events of up to 60 seated guests or 100 standing, but planners are welcome to use the entire pub for an even larger event, or choose their own venue and leave the catering to the experts.
As the third-largest city in Missouri, Springfield is still just shy of half a million residents in the metropolitan area. That makes it quite a bit smaller than the big two, while retaining the cosmopolitan air of the historic downtown, and the Midwestern charm that keeps people coming back. In fact, according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Springfield grew more than 5 percent in the decade previous. It is the subtle balance of rural Missouri and urban sophistication that gives Springfield its unique character. Springfield is much, much more than the gateway to Branson and Table Rock Lake. Visit – by yourself or with a group – and you will see why.
Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau
800-678-8767 or 417-881-5300
The Green Circle Shopping Center
Hilton Garden Inn
Best Western Coach House
University Plaza Hotel
Ramada Oasis Hotel
White River Conference Center
Springfield-Greene County Botanical Center
Rutledge-Wilson Farm Park
Bill and Payne Stewart Municipal Golf Course
Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World
Leong’s Asian Diner
Prima’s Mexican Grill