Baldwin — Douglas County taxpayers are being asked to pump $273,000 into Baldwin's efforts to build a business park at the edge of town.
The money would buy a 43-acre patch of open land at the northeast corner of U.S. Highway 56 and East 1600 Road, just across the street from a new elementary school and a city water tower.
The site would be used to accommodate industrial development -- anything from a distribution center to nearly two dozen smaller firms, together willing to hire dozens of Baldwin residents and generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenues.
The next step: deciding whether to buy Mildred Allen's land, a prospect that could be up for review within a month.
"I'm excited about this," said Bob Johnson, a Douglas County commissioner whose district includes Baldwin. "I want to do what we can to facilitate this, but we need to protect our interests and the interests of the taxpayers of Douglas County."
The idea comes from the Baldwin City Council, which holds an option to buy Allen's land for development. The $10,500 option expires in June, but can be extended for another year for another $10,500.
The council has set aside $10,500 for the extension, and both option payments can be applied to the negotiated purchase price of $273,000, but the city isn't ready to pay the full freight.
Search for space
That's why council members are turning to the county, which has been down such a road before. The county bought the land that became the East Hills Business Park east of Lawrence on Kansas Highway 10, recouping the investment with the sale of each lot.
Governmental involvement in such ventures is not unusual, given the relatively high cost of development and long lead time before a company is ready to move, said Craig Weinaug, county administrator.
And with commissioners actively engaged in a search for 1,000 acres for future industrial development in the county -- an effort with the express goal of including Lawrence, Eudora, Lecompton and Baldwin -- Baldwin's request is finding a receptive audience.
"I suppose it's a good time," Weinaug said. "I think we have everybody on the same page of this topic as much as we've ever had. You may have disagreements, but they're mostly about details, not about the question of whether this county needs quality industrial development, or it's a good thing for all of us.
"When you get into the siting decisions, of where you're going to locate industrial development, you get some controversy. But that's pretty typical of any community."
Among the details to be discussed in the coming weeks:
l Sites. Commissioners are continuing their search for industrial land, or finding general areas appropriate for development efforts. Baldwin officials hope to meet with commissioners within a month to pitch their concept.
l Costs. Baldwin officials have negotiated the $273,000 price with Allen, a deal that would put the cost at just less than $6,350 per acre in an area otherwise destined for continued residential expansion. "If you owned a hundred, 200-some acres that are right across from an elementary school in a city that's growing and the utilities are right there, what's the worth to you? If you're a developer, you'd crank on it," said Mayor Kenneth Hayes, laughing. "We got a good deal. That's all I'm going to say."
l Timing. Baldwin officials know it would cost at least $1.3 million to build roads, sewers and water pipes to serve the site, but the timing of such work would depend on which companies were lined up to occupy the site and when. The city would be responsible for all such costs, to be reimbursed when companies moved in. "We don't start incurring costs until we've got a tenant," Hayes said. "We're not going to go out there and blast this thing in there and say, 'Now what?'"
l Expansion. Allen has an additional 177 acres available to the west, but that's a prospect for future negotiations. The county's requested $273,000 payment for the first 43 acres would be an up-front cost, and a substantial one at that. "We're not saying 'no' just now," said Charles Jones, commission chairman. "We're asking questions."
Joint meeting awaits
Jones said he expected both governments to set up a joint work session in coming weeks to discuss such issues. All three county commissioners have indicated a willingness to entertain the concept, but want to be sure Baldwin officials understand the costs, commitments and risks involved.
Hayes said his fellow elected officials would be ready. The company he owns, Cornerstone Construction, builds homes and business buildings in Lawrence, Tonganoxie and Baldwin, and Hayes has watched as his town has issued 70 permits a year for new homes while signing off on relatively few projects for new business.
He said Baldwin always would be a "bedroom community," with residents driving off to work in Lawrence, Overland Park, Topeka and Ottawa, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't strive to keep some of the business -- and taxes -- at home.
"There are a lot of employers that have come to smaller towns and made quite a difference," Hayes said. "Cobalt Boats, in Neodesha, employs 300 to 400, and that's in a city of 3,000 people. Now, I'm not saying we want to be a one-company town, but you have to have the potential for flexibility. ...
"This would be beneficial for both (the city and county). Every piece of commercial property is taxed at 25 percent, versus 11.5 percent for residential. In a two- to three-acre spot with a commercial or industrial building, you can achieve what 30 or 40 rooftops do for you in town."