For a dollar, a majority of city commissioners are definitely interested in buying the deteriorating 1950s-era Burlington Northern Santa Fe Depot.
Commissioners on Tuesday took the first step toward negotiating a low-cost purchase of the east Lawrence depot from the railroad, despite concerns that a tight city budget would make it difficult to undertake what is expected to be a several hundred thousand dollar renovation of the building.
"I think it would be a shortsighted view to say we can't do this right now," City Commissioner Sue Hack said. "Well, we're not going to get it done by the weekend, but we can get on the path to get it done."
Commissioners on a 4-1 vote directed staff to begin discussions with the railroad, which has expressed an interest in selling the depot to the city for $1. Commissioner Rob Chestnut was the lone commissioner to vote against the issue.
Chestnut said he was concerned that taking over ownership of the depot would amount to an implicit commitment by the city to restore the building, which sits at the corner of Seventh and New Jersey streets. He said he was disappointed the railroad hadn't taken better care of the building.
Staff members said repairs and renovation could be expensive. A preliminary analysis estimated it could cost about $400,000 to bring the building into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and upward of $100,000 for several repairs such as fixing a leaky roof. It is also estimated to cost the city about $60,000 a year for routine maintenance and operational costs.
"I would love to restore another depot," said City Manager David Corliss, who was part of a team that restored the Union Pacific Depot in North Lawrence in the 1990s. "But it is that 'wants versus wallets' issue that is going to keep coming back to us."
Commissioners, though, received about an hour's worth of public comment urging them to take action on the building. A small community group - dubbed Depot Redux - has formed to build support for the project. Leaders of the group said reasons to proceed are numerous: Rail travel is better for the environment; the 1956 building is a good example of post-World War II architecture; and the city could benefit economically from having an attractive depot just three blocks from downtown.
"There are people from all over the state, all over the country who walk through those doors," said Marty Kennedy, a former city commissioner who serves as the volunteer who unlocks the station prior to the 5:50 a.m. arrival of the morning train. "This is the first impression they have of Lawrence."
About 3,700 customers a year use the Lawrence depot, Amtrak officials said. Currently the westbound Southwest Chief stops after midnight and the eastbound Southwest Chief a few hours later. But that number could increase to about 14,000 if a proposal to add new rail service between Kansas City and Oklahoma City materializes.