City ponders $8M business park plan

Nov. 16--Two key numbers have emerged for developers who hope to build a new business park near the Lawrence Municipal Airport: $8 million and four votes.

City Manager David Corliss said Thursday that his staff has determined that it will take $8 million in off-site infrastructure improvements to develop a 144-acre site near the intersection of U.S. Highway 24-40 and North Seventh Street. Developers have asked for public financing to help pay for those improvements, which include road, sewer, water and stormwater projects.

City Hall leaders also announced that valid protest petitions have been filed by neighboring property owners, which means it will take four out of the five city commissioners approving the project before it can move forward.

"We're to the point where we really need additional commission direction," Corliss said. "The city needs to talk about incentive policies in these types of situations and whether it is appropriate to have the city pay for infrastructure in order to get industrial type of uses."

That could be a hefty debate. Lawrence businessman Jes Santaularia -- who leads the development team proposing the project -- says it would be a good investment for the city. He says the site -- which is adjacent to Interstate 70 -- has good potential to attract warehouses, manufacturers and other businesses. In total, his studies project the site could ultimately attract 1,600 employees and pay more than $54 million in fees, taxes and other revenue to local governments in a 20-year period.

"Lawrence really has no available industrial space," Santaularia said. "It creates an opportunity for Lawrence to bring in major employers and increase its commercial tax base."

But already, opponents of the project say the public's investment would be too high, especially since there are no major companies that have committed to come to the park.

"It strikes me as an awful lot of money to pay for private enterprise when the city already doesn't have much money to spend," said Nancy Thellman, who leads an opposition group called Citizens for Responsible Planning.

Santaularia, though, said he's not sure the public understands what he is proposing. He said heplans to pay for all infrastructure improvements that would happen on the site. But he wants city assistance in improving the roads, sewers and other needed infrastructure leading up to the site. He said some of the improvements -- such as adding a turn lane to the intersection of U.S. Highway 24-40 and North Seventh Street -- are needed regardless of whether his project happens.

He also said Thursday that his development group is willing to pay back the city -- perhaps up to 80 percent -- for many of the offsite improvements. But he wants the city to finance the improvements. The city would be paid back through special assessment fees that wouldn't be collected until after the property was developed.

But even under that scenario, the city still would have to figure out how to come up with the upfront cash to pay for the improvements. For the water and sewer line improvements, city staff members are estimating that they'll require slight increases in rates. Water rates would need to increase by 0.7 percent and sewer rates by 0.4 percent to pay for the projects.

Santaularia, though, said he wants city staff members to re-examine all the costs. He said the city has factored in a 20 percent contingency on many of the projects, which he said artificially inflates the prices.

City commissioners haven't yet weighed in on whether they support the project, or whether they would be willing to provide public financing. But several commissioners have said they want to weigh the airport project against a potential redevelopment of the former Farmland Industries site. City leaders are working to buy that 400-plus acre site on the east edge of Lawrence. It is expected to require infrastructure improvements, and commissioners have said they aren't sure whether the city can afford both projects.

Commissioners are tentatively scheduled to discuss the Airport Business Park at their Dec. 4 meeting.

To see more of the Journal-World, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2007, Journal-World, Lawrence, Kan. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.