City opens Lawrence VenturePark as community’s newest business center

New access to East Hills

With the opening of VenturePark, employees in the adjacent East Hills Business Park now have a safer way in and out of work.

City officials opened the left-turn lane at 23rd and O’Connell that allows motorists to turn into VenturePark. Once in the park, motorists can take VenturePark’s main road into the East Hills Business Park.

City officials are hopeful East Hills employees will use the new road rather than trying to enter and exit at East Hills’ main entrance, which is at the top of a hill and has been the site of several accidents in recent years.

Mayor Mike Amyx remembers when the Farmland Industries fertilizer plant on the east edge of Lawrence provided good jobs to hundreds of area residents.

He also remembers when the plant went bankrupt in the 2000s, and how the vacant facility became an eyesore at one of the prime gateways into the community.

On Tuesday, nearly 100 people gathered to celebrate the latest iteration of the property: A 220-acre business and industrial center called Lawrence VenturePark. And Amyx had a prediction for what the property at 23rd and O’Connell Drive will become.

“Let’s make this the most successful job creation center in northeast Kansas,” Amyx told the crowd.

The park doesn’t have any tenants or buildings yet. But city officials were celebrating that all the roads, utility lines and other infrastructure needed to host a business are now complete.

“One of the great things is we’re no longer just showing prospects plans,” said City Manager David Corliss. “We’re showing them what we’ve built. We’re ready to start creating jobs out here.”

The city has issued about $8.5 million worth of debt to build the necessary roads and infrastructure at the park. It hopes to be repaid for a portion of the costs through special assessments on future land sales at the park.

Economic development leaders said the park is drawing interest from manufacturers and distribution centers. The timing for the project is good, said Larry McElwain, president and CEO of the Lawrence chamber of commerce. The South Lawrence Trafficway will be completed in 2016, and the business park is located just west of a major interchange for the trafficway, which leads to Interstate 70. The recent completion of U.S. Highway 59 is key because that provides easy access to Interstate 70 in Franklin County.

The timing on the jobs front may even be good. Recent numbers from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in August 2014, Lawrence had the largest percentage job growth of any metro area in the country. McElwain said he’s still viewing the preliminary numbers with some caution, but said there have been some indications that businesses in the area are starting to feel more optimistic about expansion.

“I do feel the mood is changing, but I have trouble quantifying it all,” McElwain said. “But I’m hopeful, very hopeful.”

Tuesday’s ribbon cutting marked a major milestone for a project that has been at least a decade in the making. Corliss noted planning for the project already was underway in City Hall before he took over as city manager in 2006.

The property was the site of groundwater contamination caused by years of nitrogen fertilizer spills on the property. The city was granted ownership of the land through a bankruptcy trust process. It did not pay a purchase price for the property, but rather signed agreements accepting responsibility for its cleanup. The city received about $8.5 million in trust fund money from the Farmland bankruptcy to use for environmental remediation at the site. Corliss said the city still has about $6.5 million in the trust fund, but will have future costs as it must continue to monitor and pump the groundwater on the site.

City officials thanked various partners on the project, including Douglas County officials who were heavily involved in the early planning for the project, and Westar Energy, which undertook a multimillion construction of a new electric substation to accommodate the design of the property.

“This is an important project,” Amyx said. “This really shows what Lawrence can do when we set out to do something.”