County gets serious about Sunflower purchase
Told by their top lawyer that the county's efforts to acquire the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant could become a reality by mid-spring, Johnson County Commissioners made two key decisions about the closed plant's transfer.
There was no shared sense of urgency, however, on the need to name a Sunflower redevelopment authority. Commissioners deferred any decision on that matter because of uncertainty over the role such a board would play in Sunflower's transfer and development.
At a three-hour session last Thursday, commissioners acknowledged County Legal Counselor Don Jarrett was engaged in talks with federal officials to bring about a negotiated sale of Sunflower. Jarrett said the negotiations were proceeding on the assumption the county would "take down" all of Sunflower whether or not a developer was available to take the property off its hands.
"Things are significantly picking up momentum," he said. "There are some things we really we need to address."
With Jarrett's urging, commissioners set in motion processes that would mzake a developer available to assume title of the World War II plant polluted from 40 years of off-and-on production of rocket propellant. Commissioners agreed Jarrett should start talks with Kessinger/Hunter and Co. of Kansas City on how to structure the plant's sale to the local real estate company.
The Commission also agreed to give other potential developers until Nov. 15 to inform the county of their interest in Sunflower. At Jarrett's suggestion, the developers would have to signal their seriousness by demonstrating the financial wherewithal to undertake the expensive and complicated transfer.
In accordance with its longstanding policies, the county is demanding any developer agree to take title to the entire plant and submit a redevelopment plan that adheres to the Community in the Park land-use plan approved in 1998. The Commission also demands the future owner clean contamination sites at the plant to residential standards.
Contrary to on-the-street speculation, Jarrett said, the only developers to demonstrate a serious interest in Sunflower were Kessinger/Hunter and Oz Entertainment Co, which saw its Wonderful World of Oz redevelopment plan fall apart two years ago.
"From time to time, we heard there was interest," Jarrett said. "When we asked for something concrete, no one stepped forward."
It was agreed the notices of the county's interest would include trade periodicals and calls to a short list of developers known to have extensive experience in brownfield development, but Commissioner Doug Wood said he "was not naÃive enough," to think any other developer would emerge.
Should one do so, the Commission left unanswered how it would evaluate competing proposals. The Kansas Legislature passed a bill last spring that made tax incentives available at Sunflower with the creation of a redevelopment authority.
Last Thursday, Commissioners Ed Peterson, David Lindstrom and Wood said the county should consider using such a board to help establish the criteria the Commission used to evaluate redevelopment proposals, including that of Kessinger/Hunter.
But County Commission Chair Annabeth Surbaugh argued against a quick decision. Should Kessinger/Hunter's proposal go ahead, the redevelopment authority's role would be akin of that of a zoning board and planning commission, she said. Should a developer not be on hand to take the property when the county took title, the authority would be active in marketing the property and evaluating prospects, she said.
"How do you go about creating it without knowing its function?" Surbaugh asked. "I would see two different type of people I would place on the board depending on its function.
"I don't think we should be rushing this decision because someone in the Legislature wants it done today."
It was agreed the Commission would return to the issue with a goal of appointing a redevelopment authority by early January.
One legislator, State Rep. Rob Boyer, expressed disappointment with the direction the Commission appeared to be taking with the informal invitation of interest to potential developers.
"It would be my request to have a formal bid process," the Olathe Republican said. "It's like having a house for sale but refusing to put a sign in the yard. I would like to see them put down what they want in writing and put a bid package out for review throughout the United States.
"There's no question the most important thing is doing what is right for the citizens of Johnson County and De Soto. It seems irresponsible to me not to pursue all options before making a decision to proceed."
Boyer, who represents De Soto and much of west Shawnee, said that citizen's board should help the Commission select the ultimate developer.
"I think the redevelopment authority should take responsibility to creating an RFP and sorting through those as they come in," he said. Then, ultimately the Commission will make the final decision.
"If Kessinger/Hunter won that process, then I think we embrace them. But without going through the process and just award it to the only developer who comes forward to me seems irresponsible."
Boyer and Rep. John Ballou, R-Gardner, co-sponsored legislation that gave the county the right to create a redevelopment authority and offer tax incentives at Sunflower. The Legislature might reconsider that option should the county not create a redevelopment authority and create a process open to all developers, Boyer said.
County Commissioner John Toplikar, who served in the Kansas House before his election to the Commission last November, said the Commission should meet with county legislators to avoid such a misunderstanding.