Archive for Sunday, November 9, 2008

City ready to revisit Farmland discourse

Some commissioners confident about taking on site, burden

The city's looking to buy the empty Farmland Industries plant and turn it into a business park. Those plans may be picking up steam.

November 9, 2008


City leaders are beginning to become more comfortable with the idea of purchasing the environmentally troubled Farmland Industries site, even though state leaders can't guarantee how high cleanup costs may run.

City Manager David Corliss said last week that he would be asking city commissioners in the near future to submit a new bid for the 467-acre property that sits along Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence. City commissioners have long been interested in converting the former fertilizer plant - currently controlled by a bankruptcy trust - into a new business park.

"It is just critical for the community to be constantly on the march for additional jobs," Corliss said.

But earlier this summer, it appeared prospects for the Farmland site were dimming. Leaders with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment estimated it would cost between $10 million and $16 million during the next 30 years to clean up the property, which has been damaged by years of nitrogen fertilizer spills. Those cost estimates were significantly higher than the $5 million mark that city leaders had been contemplating.

Commissioners also said they wanted KDHE to agree to a monetary cap of how much the city would have to pay for any future cleanup costs. KDHE recently notified the city that it could not agree to such a cap, Corliss said.

But several commissioners this week said they were still interested in looking at a possible purchase. Mayor Mike Dever said that since July, when KDHE announced its cost estimates, he has talked in detail with state regulators familiar with the site and past consultants that have worked on the property.

"I'm more optimistic because I've had more time to digest the technical data and determine that the information is valuable," said Dever, who is an environmental consultant by trade.

Willing to take risks

City Commissioner Rob Chestnut also said the lack of a firm financial cap by the state was no longer a deal-killer for him. He said he's become more comfortable with the city's ability to handle the cleanup, which primarily involves pumping nitrogen-tainted ground water to ensure that it doesn't spread to other water supplies.

"In most economic development opportunities, you are going to have to take some risks," Chestnut said.

The city may be willing to take more risks now that other economic development opportunities are in motion. The city in July committed $75,000 a year for 10 years to help fund the construction of a new biosciences incubator on Kansas University's west campus. One of the major concerns of commissioners at the time was that the incubator facility would be built, would grow promising companies, but then the community would not have a new business park for the companies to grow into.

Commissioners are in agreement that the Farmland site may be the best in the county for industrial and business park development. It is serviced by a rail line, has access to Kansas Highway 10, and is adjacent to the East Hills Business Park.

But some still have nagging doubts.

"Not having the cap, that is a concern," Commissioner Mike Amyx said. "As I look at this, we're going to have to have a discussion as a community. Now is the time to decide whether we are in or out."

The money factor

Money, of course, is the big fear. The property is unique because when Farmland Industries filed for bankruptcy in 2002, it was required to set aside several million dollars in trust funds to pay for future site cleanup. City commissioners long had thought the trust fund money would be enough to cover all cleanup costs and perhaps cover some infrastructure costs, such as extending sewer and roads to the site.

But the new cost estimates by KDHE raised the possibility that the trust funds may not be enough to cover even the cleanup costs. Currently, the trust funds contain about $10 million.

Dever, though, said he's becoming more comfortable with the idea that the city may be able to do the cleanup for less than what the state has estimated. He said the city has employees in its Utilities Department who are well versed on complying with environmental regulations. The department also has employees trained to operate and maintain a variety of pumps that would be used in the cleanup process.

"Instead of paying a private contractor $100 an hour, we may be able to pay someone in-house $25 an hour to do the same job," Dever said.

Commissioners are scheduled to talk about the Farmland project in more detail at their Nov. 18 meeting.


gl0ck0wn3r 9 years, 1 month ago

"Richard Heckler (Anonymous) says: Basing decisions on speculation is fiscally irresponsible. All taxpayers are legal stakeholders."You seemed to have no problem basing decisions abou tthe T on speculation and fiscal nonsense. Also, for the love of god, learn how to use a comma.

Richard Heckler 9 years, 1 month ago

Where is the money? How can taxpayers approve of any new development plan without hard evidence as to the real need, without hard evidence as to cost and hard evidence that there are interested parties? Basing decisions on speculation is fiscally irresponsible. All taxpayers are legal stakeholders. What tax give aways aka incentives will be on the table?Our local government officials have no obligation to approve any new retail,housing or light industrial development. Without consistent indepth economic analysis, aka hard evidence, how can government officials make the correct decision. Who in the world makes up the tax incentives that are given away? Existing retail and residential owners? How is this fair? Are tax incentives necessary? Does Lawrence enforce tax incentive agreements?Why not present new projects, complete with indepth economic analysis, to taxpayers once a year on an economic growth ballot and let US TAXPAYERS make decisions about our tax dollars? Every new housing,retail or light industrial project impacts Lawrence/Douglas County taxpayers thus makes each and every tax payer a stake holder. We need the right to vote on projects thus eliminating curious special interest influence.

KsTwister 9 years, 1 month ago

"Instead of paying a private contractor $100 an hour, we may be able to pay someone in-house $25 an hour to do the same job," Dever said.And if it doesn't pass the EPA's inspection then you can add more money to the cost later. Of course, why didn't I think of that? Realistically though should not the city stay out of the real estate market. What if no business wants to locate on the property?

kansasplains 9 years, 1 month ago

It seems to me that that a combination mall-business park might be ideal. There is no grocery store - Dillons, Hy-Vee, etc., in that part of town at all. That, combined with easy in and out from K-10, might have many people stopping for groceries, etc., before heading into Lawrence. It could also be linked up with public transit, for example.

Alexander Neighbors 9 years, 1 month ago

I thought there was such a budget crisis that the T was going to get cut ??

MandM 9 years, 1 month ago

Unfortunately in most cases these days some form of incentives are necessary. Businesses are starting to ask about incentives earlier and earlier in their search process these days. But having solid claw back policies in place is very important. I'd be interested in hearing how much the feds and state are going to kick in towards the clean up? Are they going to use the Brownfields's program?

MyOpinionCounts 9 years ago

The city should stand back and let private interests purchase and clean up this toxic mess. The city should not be in the real estate business...period!

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