Lawrence school board approves development incentives for Turnhalle building, following unanimous lead of city and county

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

The Lawrence school board is pictured Monday, Feb. 26, 2024.

The Lawrence school board on Monday unanimously agreed to grant development incentives for a project to help convert the historic Turnhalle building into an event space and restaurant — incentives that have already been approved by the city and county commissions.

Before the board voted 7-0 to grant a 15-year, 70% Neighborhood Revitalization Area tax rebate, Patrick Watkins, the attorney for developer Turnhalle LLC, described the revitalization of the downtown stone building — one of the oldest in the region — as a “miracle” of historic preservation.

“It will be a remarkable preservation property,” he said, and it will align with the city’s goal of investing in community arts and culture.

The Neighborhood Revitalization Area property tax rebate, by law, requires the approval of the school board in addition to that of the Lawrence City Commission and the Douglas County Commission, as all three entities are local taxing jurisdictions.

The City Commission gave its approval in a 4-0 vote on Feb. 6, and the County Commission gave its unanimous approval on Feb. 14. The Public Incentives Review Committee had previously unanimously approved the project, 5-0. With the school board’s approval, the incentives package now returns to the City Commission for final approval at a future meeting.

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

The Turnhalle building at Ninth and Rhode Island streets is pictured Monday, Feb. 26, 2024.

Turnhalle, at 900 Rhode Island St., was built in 1869 and was once home to the Lawrence chapter of Turnverein, a longtime German club, although in recent decades it has largely sat empty. As the Journal-World has reported, its owners — Turnhalle LLC, which is led by Lawrence residents Zarif and Mamie Haque — have filed plans to construct a small addition that will aid in converting one floor of the building into an approximately 300-person event space and another floor into a restaurant. The project will include structural improvements, window, floor and exterior rehabilitation, plus improvements to make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The project will require an investment by the developer exceeding $5 million, as the Journal-World has reported.

The Neighborhood Revitalization Area would allow for a 70% rebate on only the new elements of the project.

Industrial Revenue Bonds, which would provide a sales tax exemption on construction materials and labor, have also been approved for the project, but that incentive has no impact on the school board.

The City Commission on Feb. 6 also approved a 20-year, 2% additional sales tax via a Community Improvement District, which can be done without county and school board approval.

The school board approved the incentives with little discussion, with board president Kelly Jones noting that the measure, as evidenced by unanimous support by all local government entities, was not regarded as controversial.

However, concerned about public misperception of the board’s role in the process, board member Shannon Kimball noted that the school district does not lose “a single dollar of funding” in approving the incentives request — a fact confirmed by Cynde Frick, the school district’s executive director of finance.

“We would continue the same taxes that we have,” Frick said. “It would be the ability to grow that tax revenue in the future is what we’re looking at.”

Kimball then noted that the district in fact “benefits financially in the capital outlay fund immediately from the growth in value of (the Turnhalle) property.”

“That’s true,” Frick said.

Kimball said she appreciated the clarification “because every time we’ve had one of these come before the board in the last couple of years there’s been a lot assertions that we are financially mismanaging the district by approving” the incentives.

Most recently, requests from developer Tony Krsnich for the New Hampshire Street Lofts project and from Lawrence businessman Doug Compton to convert the former Borders bookstore space at Seventh and New Hampshire streets into a corporate headquarters have both been granted NRA and Industrial Revenue Bond incentives, as the Journal-World has reported.

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

The north side of the Turnhalle building at Ninth and Rhode Island streets is pictured on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024.


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