Douglas County Commission joins other local governments in approving tax incentives for redeveloping vacant building

photo by: Matt Resnick/Journa-World

Local businessman Doug Compton fields questions from Douglas County commissioners on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. Also pictured is Brandy Sutton, First Management Inc. director of operations.

Douglas County commissioners have now joined other local governments in approving tax incentives for a project that would redevelop a building in downtown Lawrence — after a developer told them the story of why the building had sat vacant for more than a decade.

On Wednesday the commission voted 2-1, with Commissioner Shannon Reid opposed, to approve the incentives for the project at Seventh and New Hampshire streets, which would turn the former Borders bookstore site into a corporate headquarters for First Management and First Construction. The incentives — which still need one final round of approvals at a future Lawrence City Commission meeting — would be a 15-year, 65% property tax rebate and a sales tax exemption for construction materials that would save the developers about $80,000.

Like the other votes on the request — 3-2 on the Lawrence City Commission on Aug. 1 and 4-3 on the school board earlier this week — the County Commission’s vote was divided, and one of the issues was the property’s history.

Early in the meeting, Commissioner Patrick Kelly wondered whether the development group, led by local businessman Doug Compton, had been neglecting the building, which has not had a tenant since 2011. Kelly asked Britt Crum-Cano, the City of Lawrence’s economic development director, if there had ever been a request for tax incentives under the city’s Neighborhood Revitalization Act “where the applicant was the owner of the property originally and (it) fell into neglect, and the applicant is still the owner and now they’re asking for an NRA?”

But Compton said that he hadn’t been neglecting the property — rather, it had been a struggle to find a tenant to take over the space. He said he’d made multiple attempts to redevelop the property into a downtown grocery store, but had faced litigation from neighboring property owners each time.

The project Compton and his group are now proposing wouldn’t bring a grocery store to the site — rather, it would allow First Management and First Construction to relocate their 80 current staff members from their current site in North Lawrence, and it would allow for them to add up to 21 full-time positions.

As the Journal-World has reported, the 65% property tax rebate wouldn’t cut into the taxes the site currently generates, but it would apply to the value of the new improvements to the property. Kelly wondered about whether the new tax revenue the county would forgo — about $200,000 over 15 years — was worth it for the benefits the headquarters would bring.

“So what I’m trying to calculate in my head,” Kelly said, “is it worth $200,000 to bring additional tax revenue onto the rolls that we don’t currently have in commercial (property)? Is it worth $200,000, over 15 years, to bring 15 more employees downtown?” But he also added that it wouldn’t make much fiscal sense — for the county or the developers — to keep the property in its current state.

Reid thought that there wasn’t enough benefit from the project, and she actually motioned to deny the request but couldn’t get anyone else to second her. But Kelly said knowing the building’s history and that Compton had made legitimate attempts to redevelop it in the past made him more willing to support it, and Commissioner Karen Willey joined with him to approve the incentives request.

After the decision, Compton told the Journal-World that he thought the project would “100 percent benefit downtown and the city of Lawrence as a whole.”

“Some exciting things are getting ready to happen downtown,” he said.


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