If city commissioners want to renovate and improve the Santa Fe Depot in East Lawrence, they’re likely going to have to take a bigger risk than originally planned.
City staff members have confirmed that efforts to create a deal that would allow the city to buy the depot only if it first receives a grant to rehabilitate it have not gone well.
“Given the amount of time it takes to put these transactions together, the railroad wants to have a greater amount of certainty about having a transfer occur,” said Diane Stoddard, the assistant city manager who has been working on the deal.
But that may be a tough pill for city commissioners to swallow. The city knows there are at least $600,000 worth of repairs that need to be made to the 1950s-era building at Seventh and New Jersey streets. Some of the repairs — such as improvements to bring the building up to ADA compliance — will need to be completed in a timely manner regardless of whether the city receives a grant.
“It is fair to say there are a number of costs that would have to be addressed,” Stoddard said.
But a group of area residents hoping to restore the depot plans to ask commissioners to buy the building anyway.
“This is the wrong time to be backpedaling,” said Carey Maynard-Moody, leader of the Depot Redux group. “The station will never be cheaper again. It is time to assume some risk because I think the benefits will be great.”
City commissioners previously haven’t been interested in moving forward without more financial certainty. But Maynard-Moody said members of her group plan to lobby commissioners on the subject at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting.
Nothing prohibits city staff members from applying for grants for the depot, with the hope of negotiating a deal to purchase the depot after receiving a grant. But both Maynard-Moody and Stoddard said it may be difficult for the city to win a grant for a building it does not own or have a contract to own.
“If we own the building, the chances of us getting a grant for the rehabilitation go up 100 percent,” Maynard-Moody said. “Without ownership, our chances of getting a grant aren’t good.”
Stoddard said the railroad has confirmed that it is willing to sell the building to the city for a low- to no-cost purchase price. The railroad, though, won’t sell the land that the building is on. Instead it would offer a low-cost 30-year ground lease. Stoddard, however, said details of that proposed lease have created questions. The railroad wants the city to assume any environmental liabilities associated with the land. The city hasn’t studied whether there are any environmental liabilities. Stoddard said she’s not confident the railroad is willing to budge from that position.
The depot currently serves as the Amtrak station for the city. Maynard-Moody’s group has been working to generate interest in the local Amtrak service. Ridership at the Lawrence station has increased by 13 percent in the last year, better than the 6 percent increase Amtrak experienced nationally.