City Commission agrees to give Masonic Temple tax rebate

Deb Drummet, of Capital City Bank, uses her cell phone to capture a picture from the balcony of the Masonic Temple building during a tour Wednesday, June 29, 2011. Stephen Maceli, owner of Maceli's, is considering converting the historic building to host weddings and catered events.

City commissioners think the Masonic Temple building in downtown Lawrence has been empty long enough.

Commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting agreed to provide 10 years worth of property tax rebates to a local development group that hopes to convert the 100-year-old building into a banquet hall for Lawrence caterer Steve Maceli.

“This is a generous tax incentive, but it is warranted by the fact that this is a particularly historic building in a district of historic buildings,” said Mayor Aron Cromwell. “It has been sitting there boarded up not adding to our downtown, and it should be.”

A development group led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton bought the building eight years ago, after Lawrence’s Masonic lodge moved to a new south Lawrence location. The building has been vacant ever since. Paul Werner, a local architect who is leading the renovation efforts, said that the building’s layout makes it difficult to use as an office or retail location and that making any major changes to the building likely would not pass historical preservation standards.

But Lawrence caterer Steve Maceli said he wants to use the building as a second location for his catering and banquet business. He said he envisions restoring the original Reuter organ, the old wood floors and other historic features in the building to make it a prime location for downtown weddings and other events.

“I like taking old things and giving them new life,” Maceli said.

Commissioners agreed to grant the project a special type of tax rebate. Using the Neighborhood Revitalization Act, the city will grant the property a partial tax rebate. The project will continue to pay the approximately $12,000 in taxes it currently pays, but it will receive a rebate on the new taxes created by the estimated $800,000 in renovations. The property tax rebate will range from 95 percent in year one to 50 percent in year 10. Thereafter, the project will not receive a rebate.

The project also will receive $12,000 in city funding to build a new ADA-accessible entrance to the building and $36,000 over 10 years to help offset the cost of installing a fire sprinkler system in the three-story structure.

City commissioners were told the financial incentives will be used to lower the rent charged to Maceli’s venture.

“This is our best chance to make something work at this location,” Werner said.

Commissioners approved the incentives on a 4-1 vote. City Commissioner Bob Schumm opposed the deal. He said he was willing to provide the project a tax rebate but argued for a lesser amount.

“I still feel like this is kind of a rich gesture on our part,” Schumm said. “I think we would see the project get done with a lesser amount of money.”

City Commissioner Mike Amyx, though, said he wasn’t sure about that, given that the building has already been vacant for eight years.

“It may or may not get done for less money,” Amyx said. “I think the building could sit there empty for another 10 or 12 years.”

Additionally, commissioners approved a property tax abatement for Lawrence-based Grandstand Sportswear & Glassware to move into the vacant Sauer-Danfoss building in the East Hills Business Park.

Commissioners unanimously approved a 10-year, 65 percent property tax abatement for the project. The business, owned by former Kansas University basketball player Chris Piper, is seeing a growth surge as it designs specialty glasses for craft brewers around the world. Piper is estimating the company will add 84 employees over the next 10 years. The business currently has about 50 employees. The business is expected to start new employees at a wage of $12 an hour, with average wages growing to about $18.50 an hour.