Douglas County residents may be getting ready to play a high stakes game of wait-and-see.
City and county commissioners appear to be on the verge of spending a significant amount of money to purchase the vacant Farmland Industries plant east of Lawrence.
But the public won't know how much money will be spent on the defunct fertilizer plant until after the two governments have committed to sign the check.
Various elected leaders this week confirmed that the two governments are seriously interested in buying the environmentally damaged property and cleaning it up to be used as an industrial park.
"Here's what I think will happen: I think we will acquire the land," County Commissioner Charles Jones said. "And then we'll start making some decisions about putting it back to work."
The Farmland project is in bankruptcy court, which means the property ultimately will be sold to the highest bidder during a live auction.
"We can't really announce what our top-dollar price is," Jones said. "That's not a very good way to enter an auction."
Elected leaders, though, are trying to assure the public that they would be reasonable in any acquisition efforts.
"Nobody is interested in making a wild or foolish decision about the ground," said City Commissioner David Schauner. "We'll be operating within reasonable parameters."
Jones, though, said the risk to the public may not be as great as once thought. He said that he's optimistic that the city and county could purchase the 467-acre property for a price that would not require a tax increase.
Jones also is confident that cleaning up the property - which has been contaminated by nitrogen fertilizer spills over its 50 year history - won't be a financial risk to the public. That's because the bankruptcy court required Farmland to set aside $6 million in a trust to pay for clean-up costs.
Schauner also confirmed that there's a second administrative trust that has $8 million to $10 million in it for the property. That trust fund is creating questions because it is not clear whether the proceeds of it would go to the purchaser of the site or whether it would be returned to the bankruptcy estate.
"That is an $8 million or $9 million question we're trying to get answered," Schauner said.
That money could pay for extending roads and sewer to the site to make it a viable business park, leaders said.
Jones said the positive side of the infrastructure costs is that the community can tackle those at its own pace, unlike the environmental clean-up, which is mandated by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Economic development leaders are hoping the city and county find a way to purchase the property. Mike Maddox, chairman of the Lawrence-Douglas County Economic Development Board, said the Farmland property can be a key tool in increasing the city's presence in the biotechnology industry.
"There's a lot of opportunity out there, and this is a big piece of land in one piece," Maddox said. "I hope we'll think creatively about some things we can do to attract some real serious bioscience companies."
No auction date for the property has been set. The bankruptcy court won't set one until somebody agrees to make an opening bid. A handful of private companies have expressed interest in the property, but city and county leaders said they don't think the private sector ultimately will purchase the property.
That's because city and county commissioners have stood strong in saying that the only uses for the property should be industrial. Some private groups have said they want to use portions of the property for retail or residential uses. Others have not publicly disclosed what they would use the property for.
City and county commissioners control the zoning of the property. Elected leaders have said they think the private sector isn't interested in using the property solely for an industrial park because that is the type of project that would take many years to produce a profit.