City to start process of building $10 million worth of infrastructure at Farmland site

Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday are set to take their biggest step yet toward starting about $10 million of infrastructure work to convert the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant into a business park.

City crews work at the former Farmland property Monday as the city prepares to connect the property to East Hills Business Park. Since 2010, the city of Lawrence has worked to clean up and remove debris from the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant off Kansas Highway 10. The city took ownership of the 467-acre site with the intention of creating additional space for industrial development and expanding the city’s business park.

They’ll also be making progress on fulfilling a motto that City Manager David Corliss has been chanting for months.

“I’ve been saying for a while now that our goal is more shovels and less lawyers,” Corliss said.

At their weekly meeting tonight, commissioner will consider taking the initial steps to create a benefit district that technically will fund nearly $10 million in roadwork, waterline construction and sewer improvements needed to make the more than 400-acre site on Lawrence’s eastern edge ready for development.

Corliss, though, is making sure that leaders understand that, in reality, it will be city taxpayers who are paying for improvements for the foreseeable future. Normally, a benefit district passes the costs along to property owners in the district through special assessments that show up on property tax bills.

But the Farmland property currently is owned by the city, which means the city will be responsible for paying the special assessments. Even if the city does end up selling some of the property to future tenants of the business park, Corliss said it is still possible the city will be left to pay the bills for the infrastructure.

“Who pays those special assessments probably will be part of the negotiation process when we try to attract employers to the site,” Corliss said. “It is very common for a company that provides jobs to a community to expect the community to provide some level of support.”

The city took ownership of the environmentally blighted piece of property in 2010, and has been continuing to pump groundwater at the site to rid it of high levels of nitrogen fertilizer that had been spilled at the site over the years.

But tonight’s action will set the stage for construction on streets, sewers and water lines to begin in April. Commissioners hope to award bids for the infrastructure work in mid-March.

A new road connecting the Farmland property to the adjacent East Hills Business Park will be the most visible improvement at the site. The new road will run parallel to Kansas Highway 10, which is just south of the property.

The city also will construct a short portion of O’Connell Road north of Kansas Highway 10. The new portion of O’Connell will serve as an entrance to the business park and will connect with the new east-west road that runs into the East Hills Business Park.

Work to install a traffic signal and turn lane at 23rd and O’Connell began last week. A signal should be in place by mid-summer.

Corliss expects the infrastructure work on the Farmland site — which also includes installing about 9,300 feet of sewer lines, water mains, sidewalks and bike lanes — to be completed by early 2014.

When done, the infrastructure will open up for development about a dozen industrial lots, ranging in size from about 5 acres to about 80 acres.

Future phases of infrastructure projects would create access and utilities to about another half-dozen lots. The largest future project is another expansion of O’Connell Drive to the north so it would connect with 19th Street, which dead ends at the Farmland property.

Corliss said there is not a timeline for that project. He said it would require a complete rebuilding of 19th Street and would require significant conversations with neighborhoods in the area.

The first round of infrastructure improvements, though, will allow the city to more aggressively market the property to potential tenants. The city showed the site to a manufacturer of wind energy components in 2012, and was a finalist for the project but eventually lost out to another city.

“As companies see more progress on the infrastructure, as they see progress on the cleanup and as they see work begin on the South Lawrence Trafficway in the area, I think we’re going to see a lot more interest in the property,” Corliss said.

The city won’t know the total cost of infrastructure improvements until it gets bids next month. But Corliss said the city’s bond and interest fund has sufficient reserve funds to make the expected bond payments for the next 20 years without needing to increase the property tax mill levy.

“The city will bear these costs for a while, but we have been good stewards of our bond and interest fund, and we’re in a position to do this,” Corliss said.

Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.