Archive for Monday, May 2, 2011

Benefit balance

City officials must balance public and private interests as they consider incentives to restore an iconic downtown building.

May 2, 2011

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First, let it be said that it would be great to see the former Masonic Temple at the southwest corner of 10th and Massachusetts streets brought back to life.

Local Masonic groups had to give up the iconic downtown building with its historic Reuter organ in 2003 when it became too expensive to maintain. Now local businesspeople are exploring ways to adapt the structure to other uses.

At the top of the list currently is an idea being floated by Lawrence caterer Steve Maceli to convert the building into a reception and wedding hall. Presumably the remodeled structure also could serve as rental space for other community events.

But, as Masonic officials recognized a number of years ago, refurbishing the building will take some money, and the group that owns the building, led by local businessman Doug Compton, is seeking some financial assistance in the form of tax rebates under the Neighborhood Revitalization Act.

There are several ways to look at this request. Some local residents probably think that Compton and his group have deep enough pockets to take on the necessary improvements to the Masonic Temple. That may be true, but they also are businesspeople and must weigh the potential return on any investment they make.

As public financial assistance goes, the tax rebates being requested are fairly attractive for both city taxpayers and the building’s owners. The owners would continue to pay property taxes on the current value of the building, but would receive a break on the additional taxes that would be based on the increased valuation that would result from improvements to the building. Their request is for a 15-year rebate that would decline by 5 percent a year.

Under the rebate terms, the property taxes on the building would steadily increase. If the building continues to sit vacant, the taxes will remain the same or perhaps decline.

A tax rebate may be appropriate as an incentive to revitalize a notable building like the Masonic Temple. Representatives of the ownership group say they have tried to find a tenant for the building, but most potential tenants would want to significantly change the building’s interior and perhaps alter its Egyptian Revival facade. It’s probably worth something to the community as a whole to maintain the facade and the basic layout of the building, as Maceli proposes.

The owners also are asking the city to consider ways it could help with the installation of a fire sprinkler system in the building. After a devastating fire in downtown Fort Scott a number of years ago, the city helped some downtown businesses add sprinkler systems. So there is some precedent for that type of assistance, but there’s also a limit to how much the city can afford to commit.

It’s nice to have local businesspeople thinking creatively about how to use this building — and how needed improvements could be financed. Refurbishing the Masonic Temple would be a benefit for the public, but it also would benefit the building’s owners. The challenge for city officials is to find the proper balance between those two interests.

Comments

nativeson 3 years, 12 months ago

I am perplexed about the challenge. The City will not be providing financing, and the public will receive the same amount of taxes from the property until the rebate period expires. At that point taxes will increase significantly. So, while the property owner will receive tax relief for a period of time, the tax base improves in the long-term.

In the short term the project will create jobs and local expenditures. Merchants surrounding the property will receive benefit from a better curb appearance of a large property on a major corner. The south end of Mass needs enhancement. I hope this will start a trend of projects that will provide improvement on the entrance of downtown from South Park.

This is a situation where there is a common interest where everyone can benefit.

jafs 3 years, 12 months ago

They're also asking the city to help with sprinkler installation, which would mean tax money to pay for them.

Here's an analogy - I buy a house, and want to make some improvements, which will increase the value of the house, employ people (electricians, etc.) to do so, and eventually result in higher taxes for the city.

Should I be able to get a 15 year tax abatement, during which I only pay taxes on the pre-improved value? If not, why not? My decision and activity benefits people/the city in exactly the same ways.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years, 12 months ago

Any discussion of this topic is incomplete unless it addresses the appearance that such public subsidies are available only to the deepest pockets.

To what about other businesses and residents, not just downtown, but throughout the city, should such subsidies also be made available?

If there are good reasons behind the obviously unequal distribution of these subsidies, let's hear them.

nativeson 3 years, 12 months ago

I agree that other businesses and residents should have these programs made available to them. In fact, I think it would be a great idea for a very broad area of East Lawrence included in a Neighborhood Revitilation Act area.

I do not think the distribution has been unequal, but that we have only seen requests from those who not only have the deepest pockets but the willingness to invest millions in the community. Who has been denied?

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