A former fertilizer plant at the southeastern edge of Lawrence is a 467-acre eyesore to some, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to others.
But the plant, which operated for 47 years before being shut down for good five years ago, offers a clear example of the decisions facing community leaders, Douglas County taxpayers and others who will be affected by a growing list of decisions set to dominate the public agenda in the coming months.
The Farmland Industries site just happens to be among the biggest.
Cleaning it up would take money. Buying it would take money. And turning it into a showcase industrial park would take money.
"We've talked about this for a long time," said Douglas County Commissioner Charles Jones, who has been working on the Farmland issue for more than a year. "It's time for us to make our move."
But turning the Farmland plant into the city's next major industrial park isn't the only project or program vying for public funding, community commitment and future development. Among the others gaining attention:
¢ Plans for a new or expanded Lawrence Public Library, a project that could cost $30 million and involve private interests for other development nearby, including a parking garage.
¢ Expansion of the city's sanitary sewer system to relieve capacity limitations, which already have raised concerns to the point that city leaders have put the brakes on many plans for future development in northwest Lawrence, the city's hottest development area.
¢ Ongoing discussion about the merits of granting tax abatements, the breaks on property taxes for qualifying companies looking to move in, expand, add new jobs or install new equipment.
Lawrence long has grappled with weighty issues that appeared destined to affect its shape for years to come - rejecting a "cornfield mall," establishing the East Hills Business Park and thwarting plans for a for-profit hospital come to mind - but area leaders concede that rarely have so many significant choices face major decisions in such a brief period.
The time to come together, they say, is now.
"We have to have a vision, and not just for the next five years but for the next 50 years and 100 years," said Jason Edmonds, a vice president for Morgan Stanley in Lawrence, and a board member for the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce.
Coming up with a community vision - an effort backed by the chamber and Lawrence and Douglas County commissions - not only could help the community grapple with the major issues it already faces, Edmonds said, but also guide polices and decisions that could ease divisive pains in the decades ahead.
People already move to the Lawrence area and tend to stay for a long time because the community is such a great place to live, he said. The key is maintaining the momentum, something challenged by current sewer concerns, road complications and other challenges.
"Growth is the constant, and the variable is how we deal with it," Edmonds said. "We can embrace it and say that we're a healthy, vibrant economy, but we have to think like a bigger city. If we want to be a city in the future, we have to think like we're a city of the future."
The fate of the Farmland site sits atop a list of projects envisioned by the Lawrence-Douglas County Economic Development Board and ECO2, a task force convened several years ago by the chamber to ease friction between advocates for business development and preservation of open space.
These days, the two sides agree the community needs to invest $20 million during the next 10 years to accomplish both goals.
The Economic Development Board has voted to support efforts to establish two major business parks: one at the former Farmland site, and another on about 300 acres of as-yet unidentified agricultural land north of the Kansas Turnpike and near Lawrence Municipal Airport. The board also backs plans for a handful of open-space projects, including the creation of a "Two Rivers Trail" between the Kansas and Wakarusa rivers.
Commissioners have not determined exactly which projects to pursue, when to do them or how to pay for them. Among the revenue options are being studied are boosting sales taxes by 1/4 cent on every $1 purchase, or increasing property taxes by the equivalent of about $42 a year for the owner of a $200,000 home. A third option - imposing a mortgage registration tax to help finance such projects - also is on the table.
"It's a significant amount of money over a long period of time," said Lavern Squier, president and chief executive officer of the chamber.
Another emerging project with a multimillion-dollar price tag involves the Lawrence Public Library.
Checking out library
Consultants hired by the city have determined that the library, which opened in 1973 at 707 Vt., is too small to meet the community's needs. The current building provides 52,000 square feet of space, while a modern library for a community of Lawrence's size should be about 140,000 square feet.
Private developers are being asked to put together proposals by May 4 for expanding the library or relocating it to a nearby site. Such proposals are to include plans for any private development associated with the library project, and library leaders say they would prefer that proposals include viable plans for increased parking.
In February, city commissioners learned the library project likely would cost at least $30 million. And as with the issue of industrial parks and open space, commissioners did not settle on a source for paying for such a project.
A public vote remains a possibility.
"I have always thought that the public will be the ones who decide whether a new library is needed or not," City Commissioner Mike Amyx said during a study session to discuss the library's future.
Questions about capacity of the city's sanitary sewer system surfaced last year and remain unresolved. The uproar led to the resignation of Linda Finger, the city's longtime planning director, and later led city commissioners to ask for and receive the resignation of City Manager Mike Wildgen.
Last year, city inspectors stopped issuing building permits for some projects in northwest Lawrence, citing concerns that there wouldn't be enough room in the city's sewer system to handle any more waste. At least one builder who had been expecting to start a new housing subdivision in the area said he was forced to lay off employees because of the uncertainty.
The sewer issue has led to speculation that Lawrence's already-tight supply of available lots for home construction could shrink even more, especially as projects that are already under way fill up, and ones that are on paper fail to get permission to move ahead.
Then there's the matter of who ends up paying for the upgrades that may be called for, whether it's enlarging pipes, adding relief lines, installing new pump stations or anything else.
"It's going to take years to solve, knowing Lawrence," said Phil Struble, president of Landplan Engineering, which handles land-use planning for developers in town. "We're going to solve it, but it's going to take years. This is a wake-up call."
Tax abatements continue to weigh on the minds of elected officials.
In January, city commissioners agreed to grant Packerware Corp. a 90 percent break on its property taxes for 10 years on a planned $118 million in upgrades and expansions that would add 154 jobs at the plastics plant by 2010.
Packerware, which already has 450 employees in Lawrence, is a subsidiary of Berry Plastics Corp., which selected the Lawrence plant for upgrades over other company locations. Members of the city's Administrative Review Committee, which studied the company's application, and some city commissioners questioned the level and payoff of the abatement before ultimately approving it on a 4-1 vote.
"My position on abatements has been consistent," said Commissioner Mike Rundle, in voting against the tax break. "They should be rare and fair."
As if the issues facing the community already weren't enough, a March 12 storm burst through Lawrence and uprooted trees, ripped off roofs, shattered windows and damaged business inventories. Estimates pegged damage to buildings on the Kansas University campus at more than $6 million, and owners of dozens of homes and businesses were faced with assessing damage and filing insurance claims.
Miles Schnaer, owner of Crown Toyota Chevrolet Scion, was busy offering sale prices on 100 or so vehicles that were damaged in the storm. He figures that his dealerships suffered at least $600,000 damage to buildings and inventory, and knows it could have been worse.
"Thank goodness it was on a Sunday, when there weren't that many people out here," Schnaer said.