Archive for Thursday, October 11, 2001

Sunflower: Officials mull what’s next

October 11, 2001

Johnson County Commission Chairman Doug Wood was thinking ahead immediately after he voted to end the county's consideration of Oz Entertainment Co.'s redevelopment plan for the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant.

Before he explained the reason he changed his position on Oz and sided with fellow commissioners Annabeth Surbaugh and Susie Wolf to cut off the county's consideration of the company's proposed redevelopment of the closed plant, Wood talked about the future of Sunflower.

The county should work with the state to replace Oz as the eventual owner of the site, Wood said. The transfer to Oz would actually have involved a prior public benefit transfer of Sunflower to the state of Kansas.

"I think Johnson County has the opportunity to step forward with the state of Kansas to avoid the federal government's disposing of the property in piecemeal or hodge-podge manner," he said. "I think those negotiations have to start as soon as possible."

De Soto Mayor Dave Anderson and state Rep. John Ballou, R-Gardner, echoed Wood's call for action.

In August, Anderson suggested the county issue bonds for Sunflower's cleanup. He further suggested the county create a redevelopment authority to guide the plant's development.

The De Soto mayor said Tuesday that he is calling county officials and other interested parties in an attempt to schedule a summit on Sunflower's future.

"We need to get everybody to the table so that we can find common ground in pursuit of a solution," he said. "I don't care if it's my idea or not, as long as we get something."

Ballou said Tuesday that Anderson's plan was a good place to start.

"I think we need to take a look at the county taking over with some kind of state/county partnership," he said. "De Soto should be represented as well. It will be part of De Soto some day."

Ballou said he didn't think it would be hard to find developers interested in Sunflower's northern section.

"That property might not quite be ready for development, but it will be in a couple of years," he said. "I don't think we would have any trouble finding developers, especially for the property that fronts K-10."

Blaine Hastings, who is handling Sunflower's transfer for the U.S. General Services Administration, said the federal government is willing to listen.

"If they can come up with a good package, we're willing to work with them," Hastings said. "We will pursue the public sale of the property unless the state decides it doesn't want to close out the agreement we have with them."

Should nothing develop, the GSA still has to close out its agreement with the state before it can start selling parts of the plant, Hastings said. Sunflower property sales will also have to wait for resolution of lawsuits Taxpayers Opposed To Oz Inc. filed that challenged the early transfer of the plant pending an environmental impact study and required archeological reviews, he said.

TOTO President Bill Sheldon said his group won't drop the lawsuits with the apparent defeat of Oz.

"Absolutely. That's going to be the big focus for us now," he said. "There really hasn't been any change on that."

Part of the urgency, Wood said, is the Shawnee Indian Tribe's request for Sunflower property. Wood repeated his fear that request would lead to a casino.

The Shawnee will not have the opportunity to pursue a claim for Sunflower land unless the GSA again screens the property for public benefits transfers. Hastings said that is something the federal government does not plan to do.

The GSA's stance is that the Shawnee Tribe, which was not officially recognized by the federal government until December 2000, did not make its request for a public benefit transfer in time to be considered, Hastings said.

The Shawnee Tribe accepts Hastings' explanation, said Greg Pitcher, a member of the tribe's business council and chairman of its economic development committee. But the tribe has asked the U.S. Department of Interior to make a request on it behalf. Should the secretary of interior do so, the tribe believes the GSA would have to honor the request.

"Our interest is in being a good citizen," Pitcher said. "We're not interested in being all or none. We would like to accommodate all interests.

"We're going to continue to pursue it. Oz's denial does improve things. As long as there was a viable proposal on the table, there was no room for us."

Calls to Oz were referred to public relations spokesman Kristen McCallum. The company still has the marketing rights to the Wizard of Oz characters and has developed the theme park concept. It must now decide how Johnson County plays into the future the company envisions, she said.

"Our legal counsel and management team are weighing all our options and plans," she said. "We expect to make an announcement soon."

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