Lawrence City Commission candidates weigh in on growth of Lawrence, use of tax incentives

A bus comes to a stop at the west end of Overland Drive as it meets George Williams Way in west Lawrence. One issue being discussed by city commission candidates is future growth of the city.

As Lawrence’s population continues to grow, so has the debate about where new development should be and how it should look.

The most sustainable way for the city to grow and the use of tax breaks and other economic incentives to support jobs, affordable housing and other development have gotten a lot of attention at City Hall.

The Lawrence-Douglas County comprehensive plan draft includes three development tiers that prioritize infill development and require developers who want to annex new land to meet certain requirements. Those requirements include establishing demand and providing community benefits such as jobs or affordable housing.

Opinions have been varied about whether the city should allow retail to develop in the area south of the South Lawrence Trafficway, and a proposal for a shopping center and hotel may come before the commission in the future.

The city’s industrial business park, VenturePark, has been open three years with little activity. VenturePark received several million dollars in street, sewer and other infrastructure improvements and has yet to attract its first business tenant.

Here’s a look at what City Commission candidates are saying about the future growth of Lawrence and economic development.

Jennifer Ananda

Ananda, an attorney and social worker, said the commission needs to make sure that the city’s growth benefits the community as a whole.

“I’m looking at creating jobs, having affordable housing and opportunities for individuals to come to Lawrence and to thrive,” Ananda said. “And that includes business owners.”

City Commission candidate Jennifer Ananda

Regarding the development tiers in the comprehensive plan draft, Ananda said she is in favor of having additional requirements for new land to be annexed to the city. She said she didn’t see that as discouraging development, but rather as establishing guidelines.

“I think that having guidelines is important so that we can review why are we making the decisions that we’re making,” Ananda said. “Because there is an impact of annexing new land into the city, and if we have those guidelines, we at least have a roadmap for decision-making that prioritizes what we as a community see as important.”

As far as encouraging infill development, Ananda said economic incentives can be useful. The city’s economic incentives policy prioritizes infill development, but Ananda said she thinks the policy needs to be more specific about when incentives for infill are appropriate.

When it comes to incentives, in general, Ananda said to receive incentives developments should provide jobs or affordable housing.

“That’s the goal of this; it’s not about developer benefits,” Ananda said. “It’s about benefits for our community, and that’s really what we should be weighing.”

Ananda does not have an absolute position when it comes to whether the city should allow retail to develop in the area south of the South Lawrence Trafficway. Rather, Ananda said regardless of location, the city needs to look at its priorities, the environmental impact and what retail looks like at the time.

“I think that the beauty of having process and transparency is that we all know what we’re considering and what the issues are, regardless of where we are looking,” Ananda said.

Regarding VenturePark, Ananda said that the city has been reactive rather than proactive. She said the city needs to learn from the successes of other communities, and that it should better utilize its partnerships with the chamber of commerce, the Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center and the University of Kansas to market the business park.

She said that is especially important considering the millions of dollars in special assessments coming due on the infrastructure for VenturePark.

“A deadline is looming and something has to be done,” Ananda said.

Mike Anderson

Anderson, an actor and former local talk show host, said encouraging entrepreneurship and business retention and expansion is crucial to Lawrence’s future. He said one way he’d like to do that is by increasing the number of economic development staff and by visiting and surveying more local businesses to understand needs.

“It also shows the commitment to those businesses that we want to help them problem-solve,” Anderson said. “Right now we are just understaffed in that way.”

City commission candidate Mike Anderson

Regarding the development tiers in the comprehensive plan draft, Anderson said he is generally open to some requirements for developments that want to build outside the city’s current borders, but that he doesn’t want to “hamstring businesses at all.”

“I want to see businesses succeed in Lawrence, and I want to do everything to help them,” Anderson said. “So I’m not comfortable with saying every sort of new development has to have x or y or z. It’s a case-by-case basis, and I understand that when businesses succeed, it helps develop the tax base.”

As far as encouraging infill development within the city’s current borders, Anderson said he is happy to use incentives to do so. When it comes to incentives, in general, Anderson said one of the main things the city should consider is the tax base and whether the incentives meet the city’s cost-benefit ratio.

“If the cost-benefit ratio is advantageous to the city, then I completely support that,” Anderson said. “Again, we are doing everything we can to build the tax base. And so if these Neighborhood Revitalization Areas, tax incentives and abatements that we’re giving out, if we’re getting more in return and bypassing that 1.25 (cost-benefit ratio) by a great deal, then, boy, that is something we should definitely be doing.”

When it comes to whether the city should allow retail to develop in the area south of the South Lawrence Trafficway, Anderson said “100 percent yes.” He said he worries there is “leakage” of dollars that Lawrence residents are spending in Kansas City, Topeka or at the Legends shopping center.

Regarding VenturePark, Anderson said the city needs to target firms that pay a living wage. For example, he said the city is in an “animal health corridor” and could work on attracting additional animal pharmaceutical companies to Lawrence.

But Anderson said focusing solely on recruitment isn’t enough and that the city also needs to encourage expansion of existing businesses and startups. He said part of that is improving the relationship between the city, KU and Peaslee Tech.

“I want to encourage more people here to start up their businesses in Lawrence and grow their businesses in Lawrence,” Anderson said.

Bassem Chahine

Chahine, a Lawrence business owner, said his main goal is to give university graduates more local employment options.

“I just want the people who graduate from KU to stay in Lawrence and be able to find a job and increase our tax base,” Chahine said.

City Commission candidate Bassem Chahine

Regarding the development tiers in the comprehensive plan draft, Chahine said he thinks there should only be restrictions on expanding the city’s borders for residential development. He said he would not be against a large primary employer that wanted to do so.

As far as encouraging infill development, Chahine also prioritizes business. He said he doesn’t think it’s fair that developers with a lot of money ask for incentives for projects that really won’t benefit Lawrence residents. He said incentives should be used primarily for businesses as opposed to residential developments.

“I feel that giving those incentives to primary business owners or for jobs is more important and high on the priority scale than giving it to developers who make apartments or build houses,” Chahine said.

When in comes to incentives, in general, Chahine said the city’s economic development policy needs to be more concrete. He said he’d like to see specific requirements for businesses that receive incentives to pay a living wage and to hire certain percentages of Lawrence residents.

When it comes to whether the city should allow retail to develop in the area south of the South Lawrence Trafficway, Chahine said he’d “probably be against it.” He said retailers are not primary businesses that will bring in new money or higher-paying jobs.

“Having a secondary business is not going to grow (our) economic base; it’s not going to do anything extra for our city,” Chahine said. “If anything, it costs us money.”

Chahine said VenturePark has yet to attract its first business tenant because the city “waits until they call us.” He said the recently proposed plan to have speculative industrial buildings constructed is a plus, and that the chamber of commerce needs to meet with manufacturers and tell them why they should locate in Lawrence.

“I believe we can push harder and work with the Chamber to bring in primary businesses: us going out of our way to meet with manufacturers and whomever and tell them why (they should locate in) Lawrence,” Chahine said.

Matthew Herbert

Incumbent candidate Herbert, a high school teacher and owner of a property management company, said his priority when it comes to economic development is job creation.

Regarding the development tiers in the comprehensive plan draft, Herbert said one of the reasons the city is putting value on infill is because when city services and infrastructure already exist, the cost to the taxpayer is relatively minimal. He said annexations can be “incredibly expensive” and that he thinks it’s reasonable to require those developments to provide a community benefit.

City commission candidate Matthew Herbert

“I think it’s reasonable, before we annex, to make sure that the growth will actually eventually pay for itself,” Herbert said. “That’s been one of the big conversations people have had with me, is how do we actually prove that city growth is paying for itself? And that’s a really hard thing to quantify, but it’s something we need to look at and make sure that we’re not just growing to grow.”

As far as encouraging infill development, Herbert said he doesn’t think it should be assumed those projects will require incentives. He said his priority is job creation, and preferably those developments that pay a living wage.

“I have very limited interest in incentivizing residential property,” Herbert said. “What I am interested in is opportunities and infill development that can bring actual job creation to the city.”

Herbert also said there is disagreement among the commission about how much discretion it has regarding incentives. He said he doesn’t think just because a development meets the minimum standards set by the city that it guarantees incentives will be awarded.

“When I look at any of our policies, whether it be tax abatement, (Neighborhood Revitalization Area), economic development policy regarding affordable housing, I see those policies as minimums,” Herbert said. “So this is the minimum we request in order for you to apply. I do not see it as ‘if you meet this you are given an incentive.'”

Regarding retail development in the area south of the South Lawrence Trafficway, Herbert said the important thing to note is that the city has already paid to expand water lines and infrastructure to that area. He said not developing there makes no sense to him.

“We spent a ton of taxpayer money to develop infrastructure out that way,” Herbert said. “And so that’s why it was so shocking to me when our City Commission told that developer that we’re not prepared to grow south of the highway.”

Herbert said one of the reasons VenturePark is still seeking its first tenant is because nobody wants to be the first. He said that is part of the reason he supported the Catalyst Program, which provides a process and incentives for developers to build speculative industrial buildings on the property.

“I’m of the belief that once we get an industrial tenant out there, and they are able to demonstrate that the infrastructure we have in place is effective, they’re able to demonstrate the feasibility of access to the railroad, all of those things,” Herbert said, “I think we’re going to start seeing dominoes fall left and right.”

Lisa Larsen

Incumbent candidate Larsen, a retired geologist, said her first priority for development is to look at infill to make sure the city is taking advantage of existing infrastructure and building in a sustainable manner.

Larsen did not come down on either side as to whether she supports the comprehensive plan’s proposed annexation requirements. She said she thinks the plan provides needed structure for the city’s growth going forward, but that she wants to go through the review process before she makes a determination about the annexation requirements.

City commission candidate Lisa Larsen

“I need to have all the information, have heard the experts, heard the citizens, done my own research,” Larsen said. “And then I’ll make my decisions.”

As far as encouraging infill development within the city’s current borders, Larsen said she doesn’t think incentives should be expected for every infill project. She said infill is just one component of the city’s economic development policy.

When it comes to incentives, in general, Larsen said she believes any project that requests incentives has to provide “multipronged” community benefit and be a net gain for the city financially. She also said that following the guidelines in the city’s economic incentives policy is important.

“If the developer comes before us and says, ‘I’ve done everything in your policy that I’m required to do,’ then I am going to be inclined to look at that more favorably,” Larsen said.

But Larsen said there are aspects of the policy she’d like to improve. She said she wants the commission to have further discussion on the standards for mixed-use projects that apply for Industrial Revenue Bonds and a better definition of what percentage of residential units need to be set aside for affordable housing.

When it comes to whether the city should allow retail to develop in the area south of the South Lawrence Trafficway, Larsen said she would not categorically deny any proposal. She said each proposal should go through the process and the commission should decide project-by-project how to move forward.

Regarding VenturePark, Larsen said there is much competition in nearby cities to attract businesses, and many cities are offering significant incentive packages. She said the city has not done that in the past, but that the Catalyst Program provides one such option.

“I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of incentives; however, we’ve got mechanisms in place and we have to keep them in place in order to make sure we can compete with nearby towns,” Larsen said. “Or we have to fully understand that we may never get industry out there.”

Dustin Stumblingbear

Stumblingbear, a retired veteran, said future growth needs to rely on infill development so as to not spread city services too thin.

“We have to build upward; we have to go vertical,” Stumblingbear said. “Because urban sprawl just creates a whole host of problems.”

City commission candidate Dustin Stumblingbear

Stumblingbear said he agrees the comprehensive plan should restrict developments that require annexation. He said the long-term costs of city services are not generally funded through housing developments.

“There is a huge cost initially and for many years to come, like perpetually,” Stumblingbear said. “Because we can’t say we’re not going to patrol that with police or have schools out there. That’s not an option.”

As far as encouraging infill development within the city’s current borders, Stumblingbear said the use of incentives should be “the exception and not the rule.”

“These individuals are going to make money either way,” Stumblingbear said. “To argue that they need to increase their profit margin while the taxpayers bear the brunt of the tax burden is not cool and not sustainable.”

When it comes to incentives, in general, Stumblingbear said he doesn’t think the public should be forced to bear the burden of new development. He said he thinks incentives are appropriate for expansions or redevelopments of current businesses and that he is willing to look at incentives for downtown projects that would provide new parking options, such as underground garages.

On the issue of whether the city should allow retail to develop in the area south of the South Lawrence Trafficway, Stumblingbear said he is not sure. He said he’d want to consider the environmental impact, job figures and safety in regards to the highway access.

“I need to see more of what they plan to do,” Stumblingbear said.

Regarding VenturePark, Stumblingbear said it was never going to make any money and that he thinks the plans to build industrial buildings at the park is not economic development, but instead will just shift jobs from one place to another.

“I’ll be honest, I think it was a bad idea from the get-go and I don’t see how we can fill it, other than what the Catalyst Program did,” Stumblingbear said. “I absolutely oppose the Catalyst Program for the same reason. The tax breaks are beyond belief and ridiculous.”

Stumblingbear said maybe it’s time to “bite the bullet” on VenturePark, regardless of the money invested to build the infrastructure.

“There comes a time when you have to cut losses,” Stumblingbear said.