Lawrence city commissioners are getting their first look at a redevelopment that would convert a dormant corner of downtown into the home of a conference center, hotel and other multistory buildings, but also would require the city to be a major partner in the project.
At the commission’s work session Tuesday, developers will present the project, which would replace the former Journal-World production facility at Sixth and Massachusetts streets with four new buildings and an outdoor plaza, and would add a new parking garage in the 600 block of New Hampshire Street.
Developers are asking the city to own the parking garage and conference center, with a contract or partnership for its operation, and provide incentives for the other buildings: a 12-story condo and apartment building; a multistory hotel and retail building; and a multistory apartment and retail building.
City officials said the specific details of the conference center partnership and incentives aren’t yet established, and the work session is mainly an opportunity for commissioners to give the developers feedback on the idea.
“I think the key thing will be for the City Commission to decide if this is a project that they do want to see and have as a priority,” Assistant City Manager Diane Stoddard said. “In that case, then those would obviously be details that staff would work with a development team on.”
The former Journal-World production facility takes up most of the 600 block of both Massachusetts Street and New Hampshire Street and has been out of use for several years. The property is currently owned by The World Company, the former owner of the Journal-World.
A development group led by Lawrence businessman Mike Treanor is under contract with The World Company to purchase the property, according to Bill Fleming, a Lawrence attorney representing the development group.
For those who might be nervous about the city becoming a partner in the conference center, Fleming said he thinks the risk to the city is pretty low.
“We as the developer are going to take most of the actual risk for the success or not success of the conference center,” Fleming said. “I don’t think there is much downside risk for the city and I think there is a lot of upside.”
Fleming said there are a lot of professional, educational and social organizations that need a space to hold large events. He said the amenities of downtown Lawrence would be a big draw for such conventions and conferences, and the visitors would provide an economic benefit for the city.
“The community impact we think would be significant, in terms of the number of people that it would bring to Lawrence and the type of activity,” Fleming said. He noted a market analysis estimates events at the conference center would draw around 100,000 attendees annually.
The idea for a conference center project goes back to 2014, when the city and the University of Kansas partnered to conduct a market analysis of a potential new conference center in Lawrence. Fleming said The World Company and Treanor have since contracted with the same firm, Convention Sports & Leisure, to conduct the second phase of the study.
Developers are also asking for a land exchange, swapping the city parking lot near the intersection of Sixth and Massachusetts Street for a tract of land just south of that location, which the development plans leave as open space for a public outdoor plaza.
Though details of the incentives aren’t established, developers are interested in dedicating an increment of hotel guest tax to pay for the conference center and establishing a tax increment financing district to pay for private parking for the hotel, condos and apartments, according to a presentation from the development team.
For her part, Mayor Leslie Soden was not enthused about subsidizing or granting incentives for the project. Soden said she is interested in hearing about development downtown that doesn’t need incentives. She said she thinks the city needs to prioritize affordable housing and permanent, well-paying jobs.
“I’m really tired of developers that cannot seem to come up with a business plan that doesn’t rely on taxpayer dollars,” Soden said. She said she’d like to know if developers can make the project work without incentives.
The City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.