Discussions are ready to begin again on how an Oklahoma-based Indian tribe will develop more than 90 acres of property it has purchased in North Lawrence.
Leaders of the Delaware Tribe of Indians are scheduled to be in Lawrence on Wednesday and Thursday to meet with officials from the city, the county, the chamber of commerce and other groups. The meeting also will involve the use of a paid facilitator meant to help the various parties better communicate.
“We want to really just get the best lines of communications possible between different folks in our community and the tribe,” said Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman, who will participate in the meetings. “We want to talk about what potential projects there may be for their parcel of land.”
In July 2013, a subsidiary of the Delaware Tribe purchased about 90 acres of property located along the Kansas Turnpike, just northeast of the turnpike’s interchange in North Lawrence. For years, the property has served as a sod farm operated by the Pine family. Since its purchase, the property has continued to be leased to a sod farm operator.
But discussions this week will focus on what long-term plans the tribe has for the property. Shortly after the tribe purchased the property, several residents expressed concern that the tribe may try to build a casino on the site. The tribe has never said it intends to build a casino, and it originally said it wanted to explore development of the property in ways that would include housing, child care and a medical clinic to serve the state’s American Indian population.
In November, however, tribal officials did confirm that they had signed an agreement with a private development company that would search for possible casino sites in northeastern Kansas. But city and county commissioners at the time said their discussions with Delaware leaders left them confident the tribe did not have an interest in building a casino in Douglas County.
Thellman said she still believes that is the case. Thellman and others have had several ideas about how the tribe’s North Lawrence property could serve as a unique agricultural attraction or resource. But whether that means a teaching farm, a farm that focuses on providing local food production, a conservation demonstration project or something else is unknown, Thellman said.
“The hope is that when we are done, we’ll have some consensus on what a potential project is and who may be interested in joining forces on taking the next step,” Thellman said.
Hearing more about what the Delaware Tribe envisions for the property will be key, she said. Thellman and others have cautioned any type of significant construction on the low-lying property could create flooding problems in the adjacent North Lawrence neighborhood.
“The fact is always going to remain that it is river-bottom land, and it has some of the best agricultural soils in the area,” Thellman said. “It is going to be difficult to develop for lots of reasons, period.”
Tribal leaders have not commented recently on whether they still intend to use a portion of the property for housing, educational and medical facilities. Tribal leaders, however, have stressed that they want to greatly expand the tribe’s presence in northeast Kansas. The North Lawrence property was part of the tribe’s reservation prior to a forced relocation that took place in the late 1860s. Tribal leaders have said they are hopeful that re-establishing operations on their former reservation property will lead to greater opportunities for grants and other recognition from the federal government.
Chief Paula Pechonick was not available to answer questions on Tuesday, but issued a statement about the upcoming meetings: “We are looking forward to being able to explore the opportunities of the use of our newly reclaimed land of the Delaware Tribe’s former reservation from which our ancestors had to move in 1867.”
The meetings on Wednesday and Thursday will be closed to the public, Thellman said. She said various staff members from the city and the county have been asked to attend, as well as representative from the Lawrence chamber of commerce, the Douglas County Extension Service, the local conservation district, the school district, Kansas University and Haskell Indian Nations University. Gary Flory of Great Plains Consensus has been hired to serve as facilitator for the meetings. Thellman said two other meetings also have been preliminarily scheduled for next week.