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Archive for Tuesday, April 21, 2009

City grappling with industrial growth

April 21, 2009

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This aerial view looks northwest over the former Farmland Industries Inc. fertilizer plant and its surrounding 467 acres. In the foreground is Kansas Highway 10, the extension of 23rd Street east of Lawrence.

This aerial view looks northwest over the former Farmland Industries Inc. fertilizer plant and its surrounding 467 acres. In the foreground is Kansas Highway 10, the extension of 23rd Street east of Lawrence.



Potential Industrial sites

• The former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant just east of Lawrence along Kansas Highway 10. • Vacant property at the Lawrence Municipal Airport in North Lawrence and current farm ground that surround the airport in North Lawrence. • Property along the Kansas Turnpike near the Lecompton Interchange, which is just northwest of Lawrence

The search is still on for Lawrence’s next hot spot for jobs.

Lawrence city commissioners have spent the good part of a year talking about potential sites to locate a new business park, but it has been difficult to turn the talk into solid action.

“The availability of industrial land is still our number one deficit,” City Commissioner Rob Chestnut said.

But the last 12 months have produced a trio of possibilities. They include:

• The former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant just east of Lawrence along Kansas Highway 10.

• Vacant property at the Lawrence Municipal Airport in North Lawrence and current farm ground that surrounds the airport in the area.

• Property along the Kansas Turnpike near the Lecompton interchange, which is just northwest of Lawrence.

But all three properties have faced challenges. City commissioners spent about two years trying to figure out the best way to purchase the 467-acre Farmland site, which has been vacant since Farmland Industries filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002.

Purchasing the property from the bankruptcy trust overseeing the property has been complicated by the environmental situation at the site. Both state and federal regulators will require the new owner of the property to undertake efforts to clean up the site, which has suffered from years of nitrogen fertilizer spills.

There is about $10 million in a trust fund that Farmland was required to set aside for cleanup as part of its bankruptcy proceeding. But the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has estimated it will cost $12 million to $15 million over 30 years to clean up the property. It also could cost an additional $10 million to $15 million over the next 30 years to improve infrastructure at the site.

Economic development leaders, though, have said it is important to continue efforts to convert the property into a business park. Tom Kern, president and CEO of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, said the site is a good one because it is adjacent to the existing East Hills Business Park and has good access to Kansas Highway 10.

“The great thing about that site is there seems to be consensus in the community that it is a great location for industrial and business park development,” Kern said. “That hasn’t been the case with some other sites.”

Opposition from neighbors has complicated efforts to develop sites near the airport and near the Lecompton interchange.

Neighbors near the Lawrence Municipal Airport have vigorously opposed plans to convert farm ground near the airport into a business park. They’ve said the ground is prime agricultural land that should be protected and that industrial development will worsen flooding in the area.

Developers, though, have said the site is a prime spot for business park development because it is near the East Lawrence turnpike interchange.

City commissioners have refused to approve rezoning requests for the area around the airport, but interest in allowing development to occur on the airport property itself has increased. Lawrence-based DAR Corp. has said it wants to construct a facility to build prototype aircraft at the airport. Over the next five years, the business expects to create about 65 jobs that would pay about $80,000 per year.

Neighbors near the Lecompton Turnpike interchange also have fought plans to convert about 150 acres into a business park. City commissioners have approved annexation and rezoning requests for that property, but the project is now tied up in Douglas County District Court.

Economic development leaders said getting issues with the neighbors worked out is important so the project can proceed.

“Being located along the major east-west interstate in the country is a huge asset that we have to capitalize off of,” Kern said.

Chestnut said he was optimistic that the legal issues surrounding the site could be worked out.

“It probably is one of the most ideal spots that we have,” Chestnut said. “It sits less than a quarter-mile from the interchange. It is really perfectly positioned to attract new business.”

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