The future of about 1,000 Lawrence jobs should be heavy on the minds of community leaders these days.
Lawrence is engaged in an important effort to convince Berry Plastics to build a 600,000-square-foot warehouse in Douglas County. In fact, it appears Berry would like nothing better than to do just that.
But now this project has become caught in a web of complications. Unfortunately, such webs have been spun in Lawrence before.
Although Berry has not announced its intentions, indications are that it is most interested in about 50 acres of a 155-acre site at the Lecompton interchange on the Kansas Turnpike.
Disagreements among the property’s owners will cause that property to be sold to the highest bidder at a sheriff’s auction later this month. That’s a complication. But at least it is a complication with an end in sight.
The larger threat appears to be two lawsuits filed by neighbors who have concerns about how an industrial property will fit in with the rural area surrounding the site. The neighbors have one lawsuit pending in Douglas County District Court. They have lost another one in district court, but have appealed that decision to the Kansas Court of Appeals.
Lawyers have been hesitant to say how long that appeal may take, but history says it could drag on for 18 months or more.
That, almost certainly, is time this project does not have.
Federal bonds related to the stimulus package are part of Berry’s plans, and the likelihood of the project losing access to those bonds increases as each month passes.
To lose this project would be a needless defeat that would sting for years. As proposed, the warehouse would create just 11 new jobs, although it would employ about 350 during construction.
But viewing this project in those terms would be shortsighted. The larger picture is that it makes sense for the warehouse to be near Berry’s drinking cup manufacturing facility, which thankfully is in Lawrence. Berry has been perhaps the most encouraging local business story of the last several years. The plant has grown from about 450 employees in 2006 to about 950 today.
Berry has not said it will move its plant if it can’t have the warehouse in Douglas County. Certainly, such an undertaking would be significant. But there’s no doubt that if the warehouse is located elsewhere that the door to that possibility would be opened a little wider. That’s not what a community who says it wants to focus on economic development would do.
What a community who says it must grow its tax base would do, is muster some leadership. Economic development leaders at the chamber have been working hard on this project, but now we’re in need of a different type of leadership.
A political leader or community leader needs to reach out to the neighbors near the Lecompton interchange. Serious discussions about what could be done to make this warehouse project palatable need to occur.
This task needs to be undertaken by someone neighbors believe have their interests in mind. Perhaps County Commissioner Nancy Thellman — who has built up much goodwill with folks concerned about preserving key pieces of area land — would be a candidate.
But if not her, someone. Politicians and community leaders have talked for a long time about the need for more economic development.
What’s called for now is a true conversation.