Baldwin Douglas County commissioners are ready to cut a $273,000 check to buy a home for a new Baldwin business park.
But before that happens, members of the Baldwin City Council must decide whether writing an even bigger check -- an estimated $600,000 to extend streets, sewers and other utilities -- would be a worthwhile investment in the city's future.
Without such a commitment, commissioners say, the deal's off.
"We need to have the infrastructure in place up front ... so we can have something to market, rather than just pasture," Commissioner Bob Johnson said.
Commissioners unanimously agreed Wednesday that county taxpayers should purchase the 43 acres at the northwest corner of U.S. Highway 56 and East 1600 Road. The decision came without a formal vote during a meeting with council members at the Baldwin City Library.
The decision wasn't formal because council members still have work to do. Before the county buys the 43 acres, the city needs to firm up its own commitments to extend services, create a marketing plan and establish a long-term vision for what could end up being a 220-acre business park.
Lynn Parman, vice president of economic development for the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, likened the possibilities to Lawrence's own East Hills Business Park, where 250 of 300 acres have been developed with businesses that employ a total of 2,500 workers.
In general, she said, the initial 43-acre site could be expected to generate 300 to 400 jobs, depending on the companies that would move in.
"We're excited about it," Parman said.
But others attending Wednesday's meeting were less optimistic.
Albert Johnston, who owns 155 acres northeast of the proposed business park, said that the park would exacerbate an already dangerous traffic situation along U.S. 56, where a hill limits visibility. Baldwin's new elementary school is located just across the highway, raising more safety concerns.
But most of all, Johnston said, the park would force Baldwin taxpayers -- especially existing businesses -- to pay higher taxes to create a park designed to bring more businesses to town.
"We'll have businesses paying higher taxes to attract their competitors," said Johnston, who predicted that the park wouldn't fill up for at least 20 years. "We're making the tax equation unequal."
But Mayor Ken Hayes said that without new businesses, Baldwin would continue to become even more of a "bedroom community." Only a third of the city's employee population works in town, while the rest commute to Lawrence, Topeka and the Kansas City area.
Besides, he said, the city is ready for growth.
The city's sewer plant is equipped to handle twice as many residents as today, and two water towers installed within the past year have boosted water pressure to acceptable levels, Hayes said. Upgrades to the city's electric plant, expected to come online next month, will provide even more power to an already expanding city.
The business park simply is the next step.
"We've put some time and effort into it at this point," Hayes told commissioners. "It has a strong possibility of helping our city economically, and it's a logical place to put the industrial park -- on a highway."
Hayes said that he would expect the council to make a decision about its infrastructure responsibilities -- costs estimated to start at $600,000, then reach up to $1.16 million -- within two months.