Although there are some important differences between the two properties, it might be interesting, as they consider the future of the former Farmland fertilizer plant east of Lawrence, for local officials to see what they could learn from Johnson County's experience with the former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant.
After many years of negotiation and consideration, Johnson County commissioners voted Thursday to turn the development of the Sunflower property near De Soto over to a Kansas City, Mo., company. County officials said Kessinger/Hunter & Co. was chosen because it was the only firm that showed it had the resources to buy the property, clean it up and profitably redevelop it for residential, business and park uses.
Although some observers said the Johnson County Commission was hasty in its decision, the commission is a little like the entertainer who becomes an "overnight success" after toiling for decades in the trenches. Johnson County officials have been working with various proposals for the Sunflower property for many years, including a number of years working with the now-defunct Wizard of Oz theme park proposed by some California developers. Thursday's decision may have taken some people by surprise, but the commission had had ample time to study the issues involved with redeveloping the Sunflower property.
One of the key aspects of Thursday's decision is that commissioners rejected the idea of the Johnson County government acting as developer of the property. Johnson County must acquire the property from the federal government, which has declared the site surplus property and will transfer it only to a local government, not a private company. Johnson County then will be able to transfer the land to the private firm but plans to establish a "redevelopment authority" to oversee the redevelopment and maintain a certain level of county control.
The Farmland property in Lawrence is similar to the Sunflower site in a couple of key ways. Both are located in the important Kansas Highway 10 corridor, a prime area for development between Lawrence and Kansas City. Both also have significant environmental cleanup concerns because of the manufacturing facilities that previously were located there.
But there also are important differences. The Farmland site, at 467 acres, is far smaller than the 9,065-acre Sunflower site. And Farmland is privately owned, not government surplus.
Nonetheless, Lawrence and Douglas County officials might find certain aspects of the Sunflower process instructive. Johnson County officials have decided not to take on a developer's role or the risks that go with it. Because it's difficult to know exactly how much the environmental cleanup at these sites will cost, that's a significant issue that will have to be dealt with by whoever develops the Sunflower or the Farmland property.
It also may be interesting to look at the role Johnson County will play in the Sunflower redevelopment. The fact that the land must go through the county before going to the developer gives the county an opportunity to maintain some control over the process. If the Lawrence property goes directly from Farmland to a private developer, the only governmental control probably would come from local planning and zoning regulations.
The Farmland property is an important site for Lawrence and has the potential to be a great asset for the community. The Sunflower property doesn't provide an exact comparison, but local officials should see what they can learn from the Johnson County experience.