When voters go to the polls next month to select three new city commissioners, they may be doing more than pulling the lever for their favorite candidates.
They also may be pushing a big reset button on the long-simmering issue of whether the city should buy the vacant Farmland Industries fertilizer plant and convert it into a business park.
Four of the eight candidates running for the Lawrence City Commission either expressed opposition to the idea, said they would delay moving forward, or would make the project a lower priority for the city. Another said he would be open to using the property for a mixed-use development instead of solely as a business park.
“I think the nature of the game has changed out there,” said candidate Dennis Constance. “I don’t know if it makes as much sense anymore.”
Last month, city leaders confirmed that a private company has become interested in the site. Capitana Redevelopment Group — an Overland Park-based group led by an insurance attorney — has purchased a legal interest in the approximately $10 million trust fund that has been set aside to clean up the environmentally blighted, 467-acre tract on Kansas Highway 10 at the east edge of Lawrence.
That purchase created a question of whether Capitana’s goals will run counter to the city’s interest in converting the property into a business park. Those questions, seemingly, still haven’t been resolved.
City Manager David Corliss said the city has met with Capitana representatives, but also said he couldn’t say whether the development company and the city were in harmony on what should happen to the property.
“We haven’t gotten into a lot of the development details,” Corliss said. “That is probably one of the things we’ll discuss more when we meet in April.”
Attempts last week to reach Aaron Bowers, lead member of the Capitana group, were unsuccessful.
Deal before election?
Timing may become as big a question for the project as any. Last month, Corliss expressed some optimism that a deal for the property could be reached before the April 7 elections. Last week, he declined to express such optimism. Corliss said the two sides had agreed to not publicly discuss timelines for the project.
But privately, some city leaders have said they find it unlikely that any type of meaningful deal can be struck before April 7. After the elections, the majority on the commission could be changed. Three of the five seats are up for election.
In interviews last week, candidates clearly were split on how to proceed with the Farmland project.
Three candidates — Mike Amyx, James Bush and Lance Johnson — all expressed general support for moving forward with the city’s current plans to purchase the property and turn it into an industrial or business park development.
All three said its location — adjacent to East Hills Business Park and to Kansas Highway 10 — make it a logical choice for industrial development.
“I don’t know that there is a site that is better positioned and ready to go in terms of its access and location,” Lance Johnson said. “Trying to zone a new area for an industrial park is not a fun thing to do.”
Nearly all candidates agreed on the desirability of the site’s location, but several candidates said costs were a concern. The property comes with a $10 million trust fund that Farmland was required to set aside for environmental cleanup when the company went bankrupt in 2002.
But current studies by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment estimate it will cost $12 million to $15 million over 30 years to clean up the property. Whoever owns the property will be responsible for its cleanup.
The city also has estimated it could cost another $10 million to $15 million over 30 years to improve infrastructure at the site.
Now that a private company has expressed interest in the property, at least one candidate said he wants the city to clear the way for the private sector to do the project.
“I think there is an opportunity there for private enterprise to do it,” said candidate Price Banks.
Banks said he also would be open to allowing some of the property to used for commercial or retail uses, rather than all of it being used for a business park. The city has generally opposed that idea, but private companies have said that would make the property more attractive to private investment.
“I think we ought to be pretty flexible,” Banks said. “We have a problem out there that needs cleaned up. If the private sector is willing to help us do that, we should be flexible.”
Candidates Aron Cromwell and Gwen Klingenberg both said they want to see the property used as a business park, but both said they would be willing to move more slowly on the project to give the private sector more time to step forward or to give city finances time to improve.
“I worry about spending millions to bring in city sewer and water to the site during these tough times,” Cromwell said.
Klingenberg said she was concerned the project could hurt the city’s ability to finance important human service projects that will need funding during the down economy.
Tom Johnson said he was open to spending money on the project if the city could find reliable partners to work with. But he also said he would be open to using the property for a mixed-use development that could include space for some business park uses but also include retail development and some affordable housing on portions of the property that have been deemed environmentally clean.
Candidates who support buying the property, said they also were mindful of spending money on the site, but said they were encouraged because the money could be spent in smaller increments over a long period of time.
“It will be about a 30-year program on that site to make improvements,” Amyx said. “It would be wise use of dollars because we need space for new jobs.”