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Archive for Sunday, November 10, 2002

Thorny city issues thwart consensus

SLT, school closings undermine leaders’ tentative cooperation

November 10, 2002

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It came to a head with the debate about American Eagle Outfitters.

Then came a making-up period - ECO2, the Tax Abatement Task Force, the Bert Nash Community Summit, The World Company's "Lawrence is Growing: Finding Common Ground" project.

And now ... what?

Wal-Mart. Continuing disagreement on the South Lawrence Trafficway. The Lawrence school district's facilities study. More tax abatement arguments.

Put it all together, and some observers say the era of good feelings among Lawrence's decision-makers and those who watch them closely may be coming to an end.

"This community has become almost dysfunctional, because everyone on both sides is gravitating toward the polarities," said Planning Commissioner Ron Durflinger, himself often a lightning rod in the city's growth debates.

Those sides traditionally have been labeled "chamber" and "neighborhood" in Lawrence politics. In the past two years, however, Lawrence Chamber of Commerce President Bill Sepic was credited with helping bring the two sides together to talk.

His impending departure to Michigan has some leaders worried.

"I think what Bill did was bring diverse groups to the table, trying to find common ground," Douglas County Commissioner Charles Jones said last week. "He was a real breath of fresh air for those of us who've had some frustration in dealing with the chamber. I hate to see him go."

But Chamber Chairman Kelvin Heck said the organization's commitment to community dialogue wasn't diminishing.

"I hope whoever comes in next has the same amount of consensus-building and dialogue ability as Bill had," he said.

Low-point

If the debate about American Eagle Outfitters represented a modern low-point in Lawrence politics, it also fertilized the ground for the community-building efforts that followed.

The retailer announced in February 2000 that Lawrence was the "preferred site" for a $45 million distribution center from which it would ship its products nationwide. But it asked for an 80 percent tax break for 10 years. That set off a storm of outrage featuring debates about land use and the quality of jobs that lasted through spring of that year.

Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer called the hubbub "embarrassing" to the city.

The Lawrence City Commission approved the tax breaks, but American Eagle eventually decided to locate in Ottawa. And officials started to consider how to prevent a repeat.

"It felt like we went as low as we could go as a community, in terms of how we deal with those issues," Heck said. "It seemed from where I was sitting that there were an awful lot of fevered emotions. This wasn't a good way for the community to move forward."

One response was that Heck convened ECO2 under the umbrella of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. Its goal was bringing together environmentalists and business leaders to talk about ways to provide industrial and open space land in Douglas County.

And then-Mayor Jim Henry convened the Tax Abatement Task Force, composed of business leaders and critics of abatement policy, that produced a new policy.

Common ground

Along the way, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center sponsored a community summit to encourage Lawrence residents to talk, work and play more with one another. The World Company sponsored the "Lawrence is Growing" project to educate the community on growth issues and bring together stakeholders to search for consensus on topics ranging from economic development to schools to transportation.

Folks on both sides of the issues lauded what seemed to be a new era of cooperation. When opponents talked to each other about an issue, they frequently said they'd found more common ground than they ever expected.

"There's a lot of understanding that took place in those sessions," Heck said. "I think we all a lot better understand each other's perspectives, and we need to do that more as a community."

In recent months, though, the dialogue has taken on a renewed edge on topics like the South Lawrence Trafficway, a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter in West Lawrence, the proposed closing of several neighborhood schools and the tax abatement policy.

"We've had some big issues come up recently," Mayor Sue Hack said. "Those are always going to be contentious."

And new groups have been formed to advocate on growth issues " the Progressive Lawrence Campaign and the Lawrence Builder-Realtor Coalition.

What happened?

Observers say there are several reasons for rekindled partisanship.

In some cases, critics haven't seen concrete results come from the dialogue.

"With 'Lawrence is Growing,' there was a lot of talk, a lot of consensus," said Melinda Henderson, coordinator for the Progressive Lawrence Campaign. "We came together to express our opinion, and now what?"

ECO2, meanwhile, has been hampered by a slow economy and skeptics who'd rather not pay taxes for open space or industrial land. Heck hopes the county will soon take responsibility for the committee, and he is looking for eight new members.

"We don't want to have eight contentious people looking at this," he said last week. "We want eight people who can make a decision and get somewhere."

In other cases, not everybody liked the results that did emerge.

"To me it's obvious there are still flaws in the tax abatement policy," Henderson said. "But people are still waving it around and saying it's a great document and the discussion's over."

Henry has been a staunch defender of the policy and suggests there's little more that can be done.

"We brought together a lot of people who didn't agree with each other on every issue, but who listened to each other and almost always found consensus at the end of the day," he said. "But there will always be critics of tax abatements."

\Some say disagreement simply is always part of the democratic process.

Three seats on the city commission are up for election on April 1, after all. The results of that election will determine who makes appointments to the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission in coming years as well.

"I'm not sure there's been a retrenching by both sides, but if it is, I'd say it's happening around election time more than anything else," Heck said. "Elections are a partisan event - it's an 'us-and-them' event."

Contentious future

And that means the city may be in for a contentious few months.

"I suspect the period of communication and cooperation has peaked for now," Jones said. "It's going to get very rough between now and the city commission election. If the Chamber takes power, the doors will slam shut."

The dialogue of the last two years has happened, though, with candidates perceived as allied with the chamber - Hack, Henry and Marty Kennedy - holding a 3-2 edge on the city commission.

Heck points to the appointment of Jean Milstead, an ECO2 member who led creation of Horizon 2020 during the 1990s, as proof of the chamber's commitment to dialogue.

"A new chamber president sets the tone for the business community, and at this point broader than the business community because of that dialogue," he said.

People on both sides of the issues say they must work hard to listen to each other. Lawrence's success depends on it.

"If you dig your heels in," Hack said, "you don't get to move forward."

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