A look at what Lawrence’s new city manager has learned so far, and a peek at a possible debate to come

photo by: Ashley Golledge

City Manager Craig Owens attends the Lawrence City Commission's meeting on Tuesday, July 2, 2019 at City Hall.

With about one month on the job, City Manager Craig Owens already has made some observations about his new community.

For one thing, we have plenty to say in public meetings. Owens has been to three City Commission meetings, and booked about 12 hours as part of them. The long meetings haven’t scared him away.

“You care and you should,” said Owens, who previously served as city manager for Clayton, Mo., just outside St. Louis. Such a process may not always produce a quick consensus, but Owens said he’s OK with that.

“It is hard and it takes time, but it works,” he said. “It works.”

Although he’s still probably more of an expert on St. Louis, Owens also has learned something about Kansas City in his short time here. Lawrence doesn’t want to be Kansas City. As the luncheon speaker at a recent chamber of commerce event, Owens said he readily picked up on Lawrence’s “pride in uniqueness.”

“I’m not interested in bringing Clayton here,” Owens said. “Lawrence is unique, and the things that worked there may not work here. It is unique and I embrace that.”

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The first observation Owens relayed to the chamber crowd, however, was Lawrence’s pride in its history.

“People can tell me the history of this place when I stop them on the street,” Owens said.

Sometimes we even repeat it.

Lawrence may be getting ready to do so, although it may not necessarily be the most exciting rerun. But Lawrence appears poised to have another debate on whether residential growth in town pays for itself. People who followed City Hall back in the 1990s will remember that was a big debate, and Lawrence’s political scene got divided into simplistic labels of “Growth” and “No Growth” people.

We are not revisiting the topic because somebody found a time machine to play with in City Hall. Instead, work has been going on in planning meetings for the last several years to update the community’s comprehensive plan, Horizon 2020. The work is being called the 2040 update. Among other things, comprehensive plans are good for sparking arguments over whether growth pays for itself.

Some specific elements of the 2040 update are expected to spark the debate this time. They involve policies that will seek to limit how much the city expands its city limits in the future. Instead, the plan will encourage more infill development. Infill development sounds good, until you try to do it, many developers have said. Filling a vacant lot next to an existing neighborhood can create all types of arguments. And developers point out there is usually an underlying reason why the property hasn’t already been developed.

Others, though, talk about the costs associated with urban sprawl when a community continually expands its city limits to meet its growth needs. Think new roads, waterlines and other infrastructure. And, voila, we have a debate about the cost of growth, and fretting about whether the city will become an unfriendly place for development.

Don’t worry, Lawrence’s new city manager was smart enough not to pick a side in that debate. But he did report that he’s noticed a tension around the subject.

“We need to try to get this balance right about how do we take care of what we’ve already built, and how do we prepare for and plan for and accommodate new growth and development that is an asset and is necessary for a healthy community,” Owens said. “There is a tension there that is not unusual, but it is not easy to solve.”

I was curious, though, whether Owens had formed any opinions on the question of whether residential growth does pay for itself, so I asked him more directly after the meeting. No definitive answer there, but it sounds like a subject he’ll be thoughtful about.

“I don’t think there is a magic answer,” he said. “It is kind of a values conversation that every community has to have on its own.”

He said he is a believer in looking at the numbers. He pays attention to the depreciation costs that show up on the city’s balance sheet, for instance. They are a good measure of the city’s aging infrastructure and a reminder that the city has to reinvest to keep that infrastructure usable. It is best to make that investment incrementally rather than all at once, if it can be avoided, he said.

He said he found it “a little surprising that capital planning is a little bit of a new thing the city is doing. It is good that it is happening.”

He said city government should be “reactive to what the city wants to become, not necessarily restrict its options for the future.” But he also added the “evolution of the city should be informed by real costs and future costs.”

Then, he added, there’s an even trickier part to this. You can’t just look at numbers. There are lots of intangibles that have to be accounted for.

“The calculations usually aren’t done by accountants or city bureaucrats,” Owens said. “They are done more by community sentiment over time.”

In other words, get ready for some long meetings.

Expect the City Commission and the Douglas County Commission to start talking about approval of the 2040 update in the next month or so.

As for Owens, he said he’s still learning the details of that plan and many other topics in town. At the luncheon, he praised his very professional city staff for helping him in the transition.

“I can’t answer any questions because I don’t know anything very well, and they do,” he said.

He said he plans to stretch his “honeymoon” period out in the community as long as possible so that he can listen and learn a lot in the early going. He said he wants to hear from people what isn’t working, but also really wants to identify the strengths in the community.

“When I’ve been successful, we have focused a lot more energy on what is right, doubling down on that and fanning that flame,” Owens said.


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