In-depth coverage of the candidates and the issues, all leading up to the Aug. 5 primary and the Nov. 4 general election.
Voter Education Coalition forum: Douglas County Commission 2nd District
Voter Education Coalition forum: Douglas County Commission 3rd District
All four Douglas County Commission candidates, who are vying for two open seats, agree the former Farmland Industries site along Kansas Highway 10 is one of the most attractive industrial sites the area offers.
Even amid concerns about the site's cleanup cost, the candidates would like to see the commission take a more active and cooperative role in the area's economic development process. The Lawrence City Commission has taken the lead on inquiring about cleanup costs and development.
"Probably the best thing the county can do if it's able to get back into the conversation is to encourage resolution," with the former Farmland site, said Nancy Thellman, a Democrat running for the Second District seat.
Thellman is running against Republican David L. Brown in the district that includes the eastern half of the county, North Lawrence, southeastern Lawrence, Eudora and Baldwin City. Republican Jim Flory and Democrat Ken Grotewiel will face each other Nov. 4 in the Third District race - western Lawrence, Lecompton and most of western Douglas County.
With short-term budget concerns in the air because of stagnant valuations, the candidates say the long-term answer is to help attract more business to Douglas County to expand the tax base. The former Farmland site is a major piece of the puzzle, and the candidates said the county also should forge more partnerships with the city, Lawrence Chamber of Commerce and other county governments.
Thellman, a Presbyterian minister who lives in rural Lawrence, gained attention last year for helping lead opposition to proposed industrial development near the Lawrence Municipal Airport.
Her main opposition to the development in the Kansas River valley was because it was in a flood-prone area and has soil best suited for growing crops.
"My sense, as well as many folks in this community, is that is land worth preserving, protecting for future agricultural use," Thellman said.
Instead, the county and other area governments should focus on sites, like the former Farmland site, that have already been used for industrial use. Farmland is also near a railroad and a highway, and it could be developed and used for traditional industry and connected to the alternative fuel industry or other businesses, she said.
Her opponent, Brown, a retired Douglas County Sheriff's officer and Vinland-area farmer and rancher, said he also had concerns about flooding with the proposal near the airport. He said the Farmland site has a "fantastic" location, but he also has concerns about the cleanup costs.
A July cost estimate from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment predicted it could take at least $10 million over 30 years and maybe up to $16 million to clean the environmental hazards at the former fertilizer plant. Two bankruptcy trust funds have a combined $12 million.
The city is waiting on an answer from the KDHE if its liability can be capped for the site.
Brown said the county also needs to be looking at ways to make the area more friendly to industry, to small business and to attract younger workers, especially those who grow up in the area.
"I get tired of seeing the kids who grow up in this area commute to Kansas City to get a job," he said.
Brown said he also planned to involve leadership in smaller cities in economic development conversations across the county.
Grotewiel, a former Wichita-area state legislator and retired Kansas Water Office official, agrees that the former Farmland Industries site is an example of a good industrial site that could become available.
He said, though, the city and county need to have a more clear discussion about overall economic development priorities and a plan. Because the Legislature recently exempted business from paying property taxes on newly purchased machinery and equipment, it makes that sector of economic development less valuable than it once was, Grotewiel said.
Instead, the area should focus more on Douglas County as a destination, especially for retired people, instead of just sporting and music events.
"If you attract people with money, they will spend it," Grotewiel said.
Flory, a former Douglas County district attorney and retired federal prosecutor, said the former Farmland site could be a huge benefit to the community if the private sector can be drawn in.
"The first step I think is to have an accurate assessment of those cleanup costs, but it's an area that needs to be dealt with. The city, it's really in their hands now," he said.
Flory has also been a vocal advocate for having the county commission support completing the 32nd Street alignment of the South Lawrence Trafficway. He has said that would make the former Farmland site more attractive to private business.