Chamber CEO talks VenturePark prospects, other projects; questions raised about arts corridor application ahead of commission vote
Lawrence is in the running to land a large manufacturer that would employ an estimated 125 people over the next five years, and would occupy about 120 acres of property at the former Farmland Industries site that the city has converted into a business park.
I’ve been telling you for a couple of months now that economic development leaders have said they have a strong prospect for the former Farmland site, which is now called Lawrence VenturePark. But at a meeting this morning, Lawrence Chamber of Commerce President Larry McElwain gave the most details yet about the prospect.
McElwain didn’t provide the name of the company or a specific industry, but McElwain said the bulk of the jobs would be manufacturing in nature. He said the company would look to make a capital investment of about $20 million over five years.
“This is a really exciting company that is looking at us right now,” McElwain said.
McElwain, speaking at an economic development update breakfast, didn’t say when we will know if the company has chosen Lawrence for its new home. But in conversations I have had with other people knowledgeable about the situation, the current talks have been described as negotiations. Now, whether the company is in exclusive negotiations with Lawrence or also is negotiating with other communities, I don’t know.
I would assume the negotiations involve an incentive package to bring the company here, but I don’t know that for a fact. It has been assumed for quite a while that once the city developed VenturePark, it would become more aggressive in putting together packages to lure companies to the site. Other communities in similar situations have offered free or discounted land to companies that will produce quality jobs. We’ll see what is on the horizon here, but it sounds like economic development officials are still very much in the thick of what could be a significant deal. At 125 jobs, that would be one of the larger new employers to come to town in the last decade or so. A 120-acre site also would be a big one by Lawrence standards. That project would consume about a third of the available industrial property the city has at VenturePark.
McElwain provided updates on a few other projects as well. They include:
• An animal health company that wants to initially locate 11 jobs in the Kansas City area. Over five years, it could provide 55 jobs, with most of the positions being technical or managerial in nature and offering “very high salaries,” McElwain said. The company currently is considering the Bioscience & Technology Business Center on Kansas University’s West Campus, and also is looking at locations in Kansas City.
• An animal health company that is looking for a location to establish its North American headquarters. Initially, the company likely would add 1 to 2 positions, but would add more depending on how its business grows in North America. McElwain said economic development leaders are fielding a large number of inquiries from animal health companies as Kansas City’s reputation as a leader in that industry continues to grow.
“It is amazing the potential for clustering in that industry,” McElwain said. “The University of Kansas is a huge magnet for this, especially the School of Pharmacy.”
• Three local companies currently are considering expansion projects that could in total add more than 100 jobs over the next several years. McElwain said one of the companies is looking at sites in the Kansas City area. He said the companies in question are a mix of manufacturing and technology companies.
In other news and notes from around town:
• A couple of weeks ago, we reported how some East Lawrence residents expressed concern that the Lawrence Arts Center was declining to make public the application the agency submitted to win a $500,000 grant for a project to remake Ninth Street into a unique arts corridor.
Well, as city commissioners prepare to take a vote on the project tonight, the Arts Center has released a redacted version of the full application. It appears some of the new information released has created more questions for some East Lawrence residents who are trying to get a better understanding of the project in their neighborhood.
The application states in multiple places that the Kansas City architecture firm el dorado inc. would serve as the lead designer on the project. That’s despite the fact that el dorado inc. had not been selected yet by the city to serve as the lead designer on the project. In fact, the vote that is set to take place tonight is to authorize city staff to begin negotiating a contract with el dorado. The city is recommending el dorado receive the contract because a city-appointed committee selected it from six design teams that had submitted proposals.
The grant application was not made available to the city-appointed committee reviewing the potential design firms. At least one member of the city-appointed committee is now saying he thinks the application creates the perception that Arts Center officials wanted el dorado to lead the project all along.
Dave Loewenstein, a longtime East Lawrence resident and artist, said too many residents already have a perception that some city projects have involved “back room deals.” Loewenstein, who currently is out of town on a project, said he hopes commissioners will be convinced tonight to delay the project.
“I feel our city commissioners must postpone their vote on selecting a firm for this project until we have an opportunity to look further into how and why the city went forward with a competitive RFQ process even though a design firm had already been explicitly named as a project leader,” Loewenstein said in an e-mail.
Susan Tate, the director of the Lawrence Arts Center, said the application wasn’t meant to convey that el dorado inc. had been selected as the lead designer for the project. Instead, the name was meant as an example of the type of firm that would be leading the project. But nowhere in the application does it state that the decision on the design team was still pending.
Tate said it is common practice for arts organizations to list specific artists or designers as part of its grant application. In hindsight, Tate said she wishes she would have written the grant in a way to make it clear that el dorado was just an example of the caliber of company that would be hired for the project.
In addition, Tate seemingly misspoke when she was interviewed by the Journal-World about the subject in early November. At that time she said she had provided the City Commission and the public with a “word-for-word” version of the portion of the grant application that described the project. But upon further review, the document provided to the City Commission did have a slight change in wording. It removed any mention of el dorado inc. and instead simply said “ArtPlace will fund a professional Urban Planner to lead Creative Team . . .” The application that was actually submitted to the ArtPlace grant funders said “ArtPlace will fund el dorado architects to lead Creative Team . . .”
Tate said she didn’t intend to misspeak, and said the mention of el dorado was removed from the document released to the public because it would have been difficult to conduct a competitive request for proposals if the description of the project included a specific design firm. She said city officials were not aware that the ArtPlace grant application listed el dorado as the lead designer.
Tate expressed confidence that all six companies that applied for the city contract were given a fair chance at winning the proposal, and she said he entered the process with an open mind about who should be selected.
We’ll see what commissioners do with the issue tonight when they meet at 6:35 p.m. It is an unusual issue. Folks in the nonprofit world note that grant applications usually aren’t made public. But several people have noted this may be a different case because the $500,000 grant is only a small portion of what is needed to convert Ninth Street into a unique arts corridor. The city also will need to budget about $3 million worth of improvements to the street.