Sunflower forum produces calls for united front
Mayor Dave Anderson told a community forum concerning the future of the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant Monday that a recent gift he received from Myrtle and Leon Coker underscored the importance of the plant to the city of De Soto.
The gift was a map of northwest Johnson County's early days. Anderson said it showed the trails that traversed the area that is now Sunflower north to a small trading center on the Kansas River that was to become De Soto.
"That is our tie to the past. It's why there is a town of De Soto," he said. "We can't just let a decision on what happens out there be made by someone else."
Anderson went further, and told the gathering De Soto might have to take the lead on Sunflower if Johnson County lacks the political will to move forward.
USD 232 Superintendent Marilyn Layman and realtor Sheri Caldwell explained the local interest the community needs commercial and light industrial growth at Sunflower to increase its tax base.
Monday's forum was the second step in a search for community consensus on Sunflower's future that began with last month's community leadership forum. At that gathering, representatives of city government, De Soto USD 232, civic organizations and business leaders sought to find common ground on key questions about the closed plant's future use.
Those at the first meeting proposed Sunflower's future include mixed uses of residential, commercial, light industrial and parkland development. They advocated a cooperative effort between Johnson County, the city and nearby municipalities and the immediate transfer of proposed public benefit transfers.
The leadership forum also produced a call for the plant's environmental cleanup on a specific time schedule.
Monday's forum was scheduled to share those ideas with the community and give residents an opportunity to voice their views. It effectiveness was limited, however, by a small turnout of 25 people, many of whom were representatives at the leadership forum.
Caldwell, Leon Coker and Darrel Zimmerman were the only residents not present at the leadership forum to speak Monday. Coker said Sunflower's future should include the proposed public benefit transfers to the Johnson County Parks and Recreation District, K-State, Kansas University and De Soto. Energy generating windmills should be placed on ground too polluted for other uses, he said.
Zimmerman advocated the creation a self-contained planned community at Sunflower, an idea advanced at the leadership forum. Innovative new communities are being created that reduce the need for new highways by offering residents a place to work, play, learn and live, he said.
The sparse attendance prompted one of the forum's hosts, De Soto Explorer publisher Dan Simon, to suggest promotion of the event should have made mention of Oz. Over the past three years, forums on the now defunct Oz redevelopment plan drew large crowds in De Soto and elsewhere in Johnson County.
Other than expressions of envy for the attention it garnered, Monday's speakers didn't lament the Oz plan's passing, or its accompanying controversy. The only thing approaching discord Monday was a statement by Taxpayers Opposed To Oz Inc. member Katie Hopkins that rural residents and TOTO should be a part of any discussion of Sunflower's future.
"Frankly, without our efforts, you wouldn't be having this discussion right now," she said after the forum. "Whatever is done out there needs to be done correctly and by the federal government's own regulations.
"TOTO doesn't necessarily have an opinion on Sunflower's development. There are probably as many opinions as there are TOTO members."
By contrast, Monday's speakers repeatedly stressed the need for De Soto to find consensus on Sunflower's future. Anderson and Simon cited Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer's advice to the De Soto Chamber of Commerce last Thursday on the need for communities to speak with one voice if they are to be successful in economic development.
Rich Caplan, executive director of the K-10 Corridor Development and De Soto's interim city administrator, was encouraged by Sherrer's assurances that Gov. Bill Graves' administration is discussing solutions for Sunflower and the lieutenant governor's suggestion that the state issue $30 million to $40 million in bonds to clean Sunflower. The state could find a creative was to retire the debt from the federal government's commitment to clean the plant in the next 11 years, he said.
Anderson told Hopkins Sunflower is in De Soto's backyard and the city has to pursue its interests. The city has an interest in growing south of K-10, he said. Currently, the closed plant represents a "hole" in what should be the K-10 growth corridor, he said.
Still, Anderson didn't reject Hopkins' call for inclusion. He expanded on it, saying Gardner, Olathe, Eudora and other nearby communities should also be represented in the Sunflower decision-making process.
Last August, Anderson suggested the county form a redevelopment authority to guide Sunflower's development. The authority would include representatives from De Soto, surrounding communities, the county, neighbors and other interested parties.
Monday, Anderson said he thought the proposal, which Hopkins endorsed, remained viable.
The proposal is one of several the De Soto mayor has suggested in what he admitted is an attempt to stir local interest in the plant and to make it clear the city wants a role in its future.
Anderson has also suggested the possible annexation of Sunflower or the use of the city's $2.5 million utility reserve fund to purchase plant property. Annexation would come with a price, but might be worth it if it prevented unwanted development, he said.
As for purchasing Sunflower property, Anderson said the city should only do so if it got a return five to 10 times as great as its investment.
De Soto school board member Jim Plummer insisted Johnson County should invest in the northwest part of the county because tax dollars from the De Soto community were used to build infrastructure in the east.
Anderson was dubious the county commission has the political support to invest in Sunflower. He suggested De Soto and the county had to think of creative "out-of-the-box" ways to finance needed infrastructure improvements.
"What's Sunflower worth?" he asked. "I think the land is worth enough to attract developers, and developers will pay for the infrastructure. All we need to do is get all the thinking done up front."
With Monday's less-than-hoped-for attendance, it was agreed the thinking process will have to include another community forum. Once a community consensus is reached on Sunflower's future, Anderson said he would share with the state's congressional delegation, the state, county and Johnson County Council of Mayors.