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Economic development board questions whether new vo-tech campus ought to be located on former Farmland Industries site

When voters go to the polls in April, they may have junior college on their minds just a bit. That’s because about $5.7 million of the Lawrence Public School district’s proposed $92.5 million bond issue would go towards bringing together three area community colleges to create a new campus for vocational and technical training.

For one group of voters, though, the idea will be on their minds more than just a bit. Economic development leaders have made the idea of a new technical training center one of their higher priorities.

On Friday morning it started to become clear that some eco devo leaders may want to see the plans for the new technical center changed some.

Doug Gaumer — chair of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce's board — raised a question at the meeting of the Lawrence-Douglas County Joint Economic Development Council: Why isn’t the school district planning on building its new vocational and technical training center on a portion of the former Farmland Industries site along Kansas Highway 10 in eastern Lawrence?

Currently, the school district has been focusing on refurbishing an existing school district building — commonly known as the Community Connection Center — which is sort of hidden a couple of blocks west of 25th and Iowa streets. Current plans call for Johnson County, Kansas City and Neosho County community colleges to provide classes at the location.

Gaumer said he was concerned about whether that location would be visible enough and convenient enough for employers who want to send employees to the center for training.

“I’m afraid we wouldn’t get any play off of that location,” said Gaumer, who is the president for the local Intrust Bank locations in Lawrence. “It would be good to have it next to more businesses.”

That’s why the former Farmland property might be a good location, Gaumer said. The city is working to convert the approximately 400-acre former fertilizer plant into a business and industrial park. The property has high visibility along K-10 highway.

The Joint Economic Development Council was more in a brainstorming mode today than a decision-making mode, so the group didn’t take any action on the idea.

But I got the impression that this might be an idea that starts gaining some momentum, or at least causes economic development leaders to ask the school district to consider changing plans.

City Manager David Corliss said he suspects the City Commission would be open to listening to any request for the school district to use a portion of the Farmland property for a vo-tech/community college branch location. The Farmland property has about 200 acres that can be redeveloped, and the vo-tech campus would only require a small portion of it.

The bigger issue may be whether the $5.7 million currently included in the proposed bond issue would be enough to accommodate an entirely new building. I believe the district was planning on doing more renovating rather than new construction on this project.

But the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce continues to talk about the need for additional vocational training as being one of the community’s top economic development priorities. The chamber also continues to explore the feasibility of a multimillion-dollar, multiyear private fundraising campaign for economic development initiatives. It will be interesting to see if there’s any talk of private fundraising being used to help build a more ambitious vocational school.

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