Archive for Thursday, August 30, 2001

Latest twists could turn Oz supporters

August 30, 2001

Dismayed by Oz Entertainment Company's recent dealings with Wyandotte County, two supporters on the Johnson County Commission have put the company on the clock.

Questions concerning Oz's commitment to repay Wyandotte County $550,000 have dogged the company since it abandoned plans to build a Wonderful World of Oz Theme Park there in favor of the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant. At issue are sums of $150,000 from Wyandotte County Unified Government and $400,000 from the Wyandotte County Board of Public Utilities that Oz received in the 1990s to perform a study on the feasibility of a theme park.

For the past three years, company officials have said they would repay the money an action that was required in the 1998 Sunflower redevelopment legislation and a one-year extension of that statute that was passed last spring. But Aug. 20, Oz attorney John Petersen asked Attorney General Carla Stovall to rule on the legality of the Legislature mandating repayment of what the company now maintains was a grant. Later in the week, Oz stopped payment on a $150,000 check it sent to Wyandotte County for its share of the disputed sum.

Johnson County Commissioner George Gross said actions have raised serious questions about Oz's credibility.

"It's turning public opinion the average person I talk to on the street against them," he said. "The guy who cuts my hair, the guy I buy gas from were always asking me, 'why doesn't the county move ahead on this thing,' now they're beginning to ask 'what the heck's going on.'"

Gross and Commissioner Doug Wood have twice voted in favor of Oz's $861 million redevelopment plan for Sunflower. Both votes resulted in a 2-2.

In a conversation Friday, Gross said he told Oz Chairman Robert Kory to resolve the Wyandotte County issues and restore the company's image if he wanted the county to move ahead.

Tuesday, Kory acknowledged Gross' concerns.

"We are working very hard to find a resolution," he said.

Gross said Kory made the same commitment to him Friday, but was equally vague about what action the company would take.

For his part, Gross said Oz needs to do two things. His first requirement would have the company comply with the conditions the commission established earlier this month when it last discussed the feasibility study of Oz's financial plan requested by Commissioner Annabeth Surbaugh.

"I want there to be a positive resolution that makes Wyandotte County happy by Sept. 25," Gross said. "If that isn't done, I'm not going to vote to go forward with the review."

Short of a decision by Stovall that Oz doesn't owe Wyandotte County money, the commission agreed the study would only go forward if: (a) unified government and BPU provide a written statement that the payback issue is resolved; or (b) Oz makes repayment or establishes an escrow account.

If one of those conditions is not met, by Sept. 25, the commission agreed to reconsider the planned feasibility study.

As far as Wyandotte County Unified Government Mayor Carol Marinovich said she wouldn't be satisfied until Oz repays the $150,000.

"I don't see it as a legal issue as much as an ethical issue," she said. "They said they'd repay. They said they didn't have a problem with it, so repay."

As for the $400,000 owned BPU, Marinovich said, "That's their issue at this point. I think Oz should repay the whole thing. That's just my opinion."

The mayor did add that the Wyandotte County legislative delegation should approve any agreement Oz reaches with the utility.

Gross said his other requirement of Oz is that the company demonstrates it is a good corporate citizen and that Johnson County was "not going to run into the same kind of issues as Wyandotte County."

The means of meeting that standard are murky, Gross said, but a good place to start would be to repay Wyandotte County. A turnaround will be noticeable, he said, once the company starts getting positive press.

Wood said he wants Oz to put the disputed $550,000 in an escrow account by Sept. 15. His fear is Oz will await Stovall's decision, further delaying the county's feasibility study. If so, the county will be hard pressed to complete the feasibility in time for the commission to make its third vote on Oz this year.

The commission is obligated to have a public comment session before its vote, Wood said, and that will not be scheduled for December. The commission was criticized for having public comment hearings on the County Arterial Road Network Program in December 1998 because of conflicts with holiday events.

For his part, Gross said it was unlikely the commission would vote on the Oz proposal before February. Provided his conditions are met, Gross said he would vote for the plan.

"As long as this makes good economic sense for the county, I'll continue to support it, provided Oz demonstrates they are good corporate citizens," he said.

Still, Gross said his vote won't be based solely on trust.

"Ronald Reagan used to say 'trust but verify,'" he said. "That has to be the county's position. I think we've taken a good start in that direction with the pre-development agreement we negotiated. We have Oz nailed down pretty good.

"A conditional use permit and zoning will be pretty big sticks. What people don't understand is we're in a different position than Wyandotte County was."

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