A plan that would add Olive Garden to the menu of retail offerings along South Iowa Street will get a hearing before an administrative committee that weighs applications for tax incentives, Mayor Aron Cromwell said Tuesday.
At issue is what developers are calling an “essential” component of the project: using a share of increased property taxes to help finance what would be a private development, one envisioned for the northeast corner of 27th and Iowa streets.
Called into duty will be the Public Incentives Review Committee, which typically assesses potential tax abatements for multimillion-dollar industrial, warehouse or bioscience projects often expected to generate hundreds of jobs.
But Tuesday night, members of the Lawrence City Commission found themselves mulling whether a less-prominent public incentive — the Neighborhood Revitalization Act, thus far used only twice in town — would be appropriate for helping draw a national chain restaurant to a commercial corridor that already is home to the city’s largest retailers and several other national chain restaurants.
Cromwell, who serves on the review committee, said that the committee’s upcoming review would hinge on a number of variables that need further study. Among them: claims that an Olive Garden at the corner would generate $5 million in annual sales and that the restaurant would “cannibalize” relatively few sales from existing restaurants and other retailers.
Staffers still have work to do on their analyses, Cromwell said, and a date for the review committee’s meeting has yet to be set. Once reviewed, the development plan would go the City Commission for a decision.
Cromwell, for one, remains unsure about whether or how the city should invest in retail projects.
“I haven’t made up my mind on that yet,” Cromwell said, after Tuesday night’s meeting at City Hall. “I don’t think that it’s an easy decision. We have to make sure that we’re using our tools wisely. We are talking about the public’s money.”
Among his fellow commissioners, only Commissioner Bob Schumm — himself a restaurateur, as owner of Buffalo Bob’s Smokehouse and the Dynamite Saloon downtown — indicated a clear direction on the issue Tuesday night. His take: Such incentives should be reserved only for truly “unique” projects, ones that couldn’t occur otherwise.
On Iowa Street, he said, plenty of other retailers have opened or made upgrades without tax assistance:
• Walmart, 3300 Iowa, acquired the former Payless Cashways, then swapped property with Crown Automotive to make room for an expanded Supercenter.
• Freddy’s Frozen Custard, at the northeast corner of 23rd and Iowa streets, replaced the former Sheridan’s Frozen Custard.
• Discovery Furniture, 2525 Iowa, moved into the former home of Food 4 Less.
“I have a real philosophical problem using taxpayer money to support a chain restaurant on Iowa Street,” said Schumm, appointed Tuesday night by Cromwell to serve on the review committee. “I don’t think this act, the Neighborhood Revitalization Act, is designed to bring in chain competition to Lawrence, Kansas, at the taxpayers’ expense.”
Specific financial details of the plan to attract Olive Garden have not been disclosed, but the revitalization act would permit the developers to use at least some of the increased property taxes generated by the project to help finance the project itself. The city and other taxing jurisdictions would still receive at least as much tax revenue as the site generates now; only portions of the increased tax revenues, or increment, would be available for private use.
The corner is a former home of Mazzio’s Pizza, plus a former Chinese restaurant.
Commissioners decided Tuesday night to discuss the Neighborhood Revitalization Act and other public incentives during an upcoming commission meeting. The goal: Determine whether commissioners want to tighten standards or set clear guidelines for the use of such incentives.