Diane Stoddard discusses Manhattan versus Lawrence.
The conversation sounds familiar.
A university community on the Kaw looks to expand its downtown. It seeks to add new recreation complexes through a sales tax. And community leaders tout the need for new funding to boost economic development.
It is a conversation that can be heard often at Lawrence City Hall. But Lawrence leaders aren't blazing a new path with their discussions. In many ways they're following a trail already pounded out by Manhattan.
That's right, a Jayhawk following a Wildcat. Manhattan leaders already have discussed all this. They're now past the talking stage and into the doing. For example:
¢ In Manhattan, construction work is under way on a $190 million public-private partnership to build retail, residences and a destination-driver Flinthills Discovery Center on the southern and northern edges of downtown. In Lawrence, leaders are in a multiyear discussion about whether to build a library that would be part of a public-private partnership to redevelop Vermont Street.
¢ In Manhattan, voters will go to the polls in November to determine whether to pass a new quarter-percent sales tax to fund an indoor swimming pool, improvements to the city's zoo and other recreation-oriented projects. In Lawrence, leaders are stalled on the idea of whether to put on the ballot an idea dubbed PLAY - Partners for Lawrence Athletics and Youth - that would build recreation facilities.
¢ In Manhattan, voters in 2002 approved a half-percent sales tax devoted to road repair and economic development funding. In Lawrence, city commissioners have discussed for more than a year - but taken no action yet - on a sales tax proposal that would be geared toward streets and economic development.
Lawrence leaders have noticed what's been going on in Manhattan.
"The big difference between Lawrence and Manhattan has always been the location," Lawrence Mayor Sue Hack said. "Manhattan has probably had to work a little bit harder because of its location. They're not right on the interstate, they're not right between two cities.
"Our location always has blessed us, but, you know, it may not be serving us well now because I think it has made us a bit complacent. We've been patting ourselves on the back for too long saying what a great place this is. It is a great place, but we can't just pat ourselves on the back."
Lawrence leaders are particularly interested in what Manhattan - a town of about 50,000 people - is doing with its downtown. Just north of Manhattan's downtown mall, construction work has begun on a retail and residential project that will add 250,000 square feet of retail space, and about 180 apartments and condos. The project is about 70 percent leased, with Best Buy and McAlister's Deli already in place, and Office Max, Bed Bath and Beyond, Petco and possibly a Hy-Vee Food and Drug Store on the way.
South of the mall, city leaders have bought property for an 18,000-square-foot Flinthills Discovery Center, which is envisioned to be a museum and interactive visitors center for tourists exploring the prairie. The center would be operated by the city, and projections call for about 100,000 visitors a year.
Next to the Flinthills building would be a new hotel, a 30,000-square-foot conference center, and a 400-space parking garage.
In total, Jason Hilgers, Manhattan's assistant city manager, estimated that the development would generate at least an additional $60 million in sales tax during the next 20 years. He said community leaders have backed the project, in part, because they sensed it was needed to ensure downtown remains the city's retail center.
"When Target and Home Depot came to the city, they located on the west side of town," Hilgers said. "I think people began to realize that a lot of retailers may come to town and decide to locate in greenfield areas far from our downtown.
"The community took the reigns and said we want them near our downtown."
Taking a chance
The Manhattan project will require about $85 million in public money, with the rest coming from the private development group Dial Realty. That's the type of number that can make City Hall leaders swallow hard. But Manhattan found a way to make the bite a little easier.
About $50 million of the $85 million total is essentially state money. It will come in the way of STAR bonds. The STAR bonds allow the city to keep - for about the next decade - the 5.3 percent sales tax that is charged to consumers in new retail areas. Usually that 5.3 percent tax belongs to the state.
The STAR bond money, though, must be used to build a public attraction that is likely to draw visitors from outside the state. Manhattan plans to use the STAR bond money to build much of the Flinthills Discovery Center.
The idea of using state money for redevelopment definitely has caught Lawrence city commissioners' attention. Two weeks ago, city commissioners directed staff members to begin researching how Lawrence could apply for STAR bonds. Although a plan hasn't surfaced, commissioners have suggested that an attraction related to the area's Civil War history could be used to qualify for the STAR bonds.
Lawrence City Manager David Corliss is pushing for more information on the STAR bonds, which also have been used by Topeka, Hutchinson and Wyandotte County.
"I think one of the things we don't do enough of sometimes is recognize that there are a lot of other peer communities out there that we can learn from," Corliss said. "But I think we're beginning to do that. I think this commission is saying that we're going to get stuff moving."
Mayor Hack agrees. But that doesn't mean Lawrence wants to do exactly what Manhattan has done. Hack said she thinks any redevelopment of Downtown Lawrence should have a heavier emphasis on residential units than what Manhattan has done. She also said more office space is needed to get additional workers downtown.
"I think we have to reorient our thinking," Hack said. "I don't think it is all about providing more retail. I think it is about providing more avenues for people to be downtown.
"If we create a critical mass of people, the retailers will follow."
One idea that Hack hopes Lawrence citizens do take from Manhattan almost verbatim is a sales tax to support economic development. Manhattan's sales tax is playing a major role as it competes to become the home of the National Agro- and Bio-Defense Facility, a federal laboratory that is viewed as a bioscience plum for the community that lands it.
Manhattan city leaders have committed to use the economic development sales tax to provide $5 million in incentives for the project. Hack said Lawrence would be hard pressed to put together such a package today if it were competing for a similar project.
"We would just have to borrow the money," Hack said. "We don't have the revenue stream to allow us to compete at that level, and that is incredibly disconcerting to me. We need to step up to the plate.
Advice from Manhattan
Manhattan leaders said one thing that shouldn't be disconcerting to Lawrence residents is all the talk and relatively little action. Lyle Butler, Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce president, said that's how it was in Manhattan for a number of years. He said the community has been talking about the downtown redevelopment project since summer 2001.
The Manhattan chamber took the bull by the horns. Butler and a local architect went to 31 different groups in Manhattan asking what they would do with the downtown if "money was no object."
Butler and the architect came back with 41 renditions. Ultimately, they boiled it down to one plan that was submitted to city planners and commissioners.
"We wanted to use a different approach," Butler said. "Instead of getting a development group in here that said 'this is what we want to do,' we wanted to go to the community first."
That's not to say the idea has been universally loved. There's a lot of debate in Manhattan about whether the intent of the plan is being followed. Also, early on, the city had to use eminent domain to purchase six properties for the project. That was controversial. Several downtown retailers, when approached last week, also said they were apprehensive about the project.
But Butler said Manhattan has a history of leaders who continue to work on projects even when times get a bit turbulent. He cited the building of the downtown mall in 1992, which today is a thriving enterprise with a JCPenney, a Dillard's, a Sears and about 45 other shops. Back then, though, it was extremely controversial.
"From visitors, we hear all the time about how much foresight we had to put a mall in downtown," Butler said. "People say we were really thinking. But I can tell you by looking at the newspaper articles that city commissioners lost their seats, people lost jobs over that.
"I guess the lesson is that sometimes undertaking these big projects is not politically easy, but they sure can pay off."