It may not be the most exciting goal a politician has ever come up with, but incoming Lawrence Mayor Mike Dever has one he wants the community to consider for the next year: Let’s catch our breath.
Consider this: In 2013, the city will have three of the larger projects in its history under way all at once — the $19 million expansion of the Lawrence Public Library, a $25 million regional recreation center, and a multiyear, multimillion dollar effort to convert the approximately 450-acre abandoned Farmland Industries fertilizer plant into a business park.
“Any time you have a flurry of activity, I think it is probably wise to take a moment and stop and assess where you are at,” Dever said.
If tradition holds, Dever, the city’s current vice-mayor, will be selected by his fellow commissioners on Tuesday night to serve a one-year term as mayor. It would be his second stint in the mayor’s seat. He also served as mayor during the 2008-2009 term. The timing, he said, is good.
“People want to be where there is a lot of energy, and the energy in Lawrence is going to be palpable,” Dever said.
Beyond the three big projects, the city also has approved a new citywide curbside recycling program, and design work is scheduled to begin on a $64 million sewage treatment plant for the Wakarusa River.
But these days, even a $64 million project can be topped. Although the city isn’t the main fund provider of the project, the completion of the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway will add about $200 million worth of construction activity into the community, beginning in late 2013.
Add it all up, and Dever believes the city is set to enter a period unlike any in recent memory.
“There will be a time in the next two to three years where there is an unprecedented amount of dollars spent in this community by outside forces and taxpayers,” Dever said.
Several of the projects will require local taxpayers to dig deeper into their wallets. Voters agreed to a property tax increase for the library project when they approved the expansion in 2010, and both the sewer plant and curbside recycling programs will require an increase in monthly sewer and trash fees.
Dever said he understands the city will have to be mindful about tackling other large projects while it has some significant efforts already under way.
“A big part of the next 12 months will involve ensuring that we spend our money, energy and time to make the investments of the last 12 months as successful as possible,” Dever said.
The big project that may be most affected by the philosophy is the idea of a new police headquarters building. Police Department officials have urged city commissioners to consider a new state-of-the art facility that would house all the department’s activities. The idea was a campaign issue during the last City Commission election, with the top three vote winners expressing concern about the current facilities of the Police Department.
But previous proposals have estimated a new facility may cost $20 million to $40 million to construct. Dever said he doesn’t envision pushing for significant action on the facility during the next 12 months.
“We need to look at whether there are ways for us to team up with Douglas County on that project,” Dever said. “That is something we can do over the next year, and I would be happy to do that.
“But moving forward with a new building is not something that I think is going to happen in the next year.”
There will be plenty of other issues to keep commissioners busy, though. Some that Dever highlighted:
• A technical education center. Dever said he wants to have discussions with the Lawrence school district about a potential site for the proposed technical education center that was approved as part of the school district’s April bond election. District officials have proposed using an existing building near Holcom Park in South Lawrence. But Dever said he wants to have discussions about placing the facility in a more visible location that would be closer to the city’s main employment centers. He and Chamber of Commerce leaders have said a site at the new business park on the Farmland site might be appropriate. Dever said a new facility that goes beyond what was contemplated as part of the bond issue may require the city and the county and other partners to make a financial contribution to the project.
• The Farmland Industries business park. Dever said the city needs to come up with an official name for the park, and then come up with a solid strategy for marketing the park to new businesses. He said the city also needs to have a discussion about how aggressive the city wants to be on offering incentives to attract businesses to the park.
“I think we realize there are going to be some opportunities that will require a gift of land or a gift of city services,” Dever said. “We’ll have to vet those opportunities. But I think we have to be open to any and all opportunities that come our way. Then the community will have to decide how much we’re willing to sweeten the deal, so to speak.”
• Recreation center. Dever has been one of the stronger supporters of the proposed recreation center in northwest Lawrence. He said while construction is under way in 2013, the city will need to develop a specific plan for hiring a new position responsible for marketing both the recreation center and the adjacent Kansas University facilities in Rock Chalk Park. Dever said he could envision the marketing person working either for the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau or the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. He said it is likely that the city will need to make a financial contribution to the position. He said being aggressive in marketing the facility will be a key to maximizing the value of the center.
“When it is done, I want a list of events we’re going to hold out there and have a tangible idea of what the benefits will be to the community,” he said.
A well-traveled mayor
Dever, 50, is the president and an owner of Lawrence-based GuideWire Consulting, an environmental consulting firm. As part of the job, Dever travels the country, often going to about two cities per week. It used to be more than that.
“I’ve been to every state in the country, and I’ve probably been to 3,000 or so different communities in the last 20 years,” Dever said. “I used to go to five or six a week.”
Dever said his travels have given him a good insight on how communities grow and falter.
“My day job brings perspective to my city job,” Dever said. “Perspective is valuable when you are talking about what you want to look like 20 to 30 years from now.”
Dever said the biggest theme he’s noticed is the importance of communities re-investing in themselves. He said that has been one of the reasons why he has been supportive of many of the big-ticket projects the city has approved in recent years.
“My philosophy is if we’re not willing to invest in our community, how can we expect outsiders or others to do so?” Dever said. “I think we have given a clear sign that we think the economy is improving and that we believe this is a great place to live, to grow a business, to raise a family.”
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall. In addition to electing a new mayor, recent election winners Jeremy Farmer and Terry Riordan will be sworn in for their first terms. City Commissioner Mike Amyx, the top vote-winner in the recent election, will be sworn in to his fifth term. If tradition holds, Amyx also will be elected vice-mayor, putting him in line to take over as mayor in April 2014.