The downtown Healthy Campus project moved forward after a 9-1 vote tonight at the Unified Government Commission.
The $2 million authorization vote at about 10:15 p.m. Nov. 30 was for pre-construction architectural and engineering plans and to exercise options to purchase property for the project.
The $37.1 million project includes a YMCA-community center and a grocery store from 10th to 11th, at State Avenue. It also includes a parking area, and there will be additional retail space there, according to officials.
The YMCA-community center will be 35,000 square feet, with aquatics and a health service provider, and there would be retail space of 32,000 square feet, with a minimum of a 12,000-square-foot full-service grocery, UG officials said.
Before tonight’s vote at the 7 p.m. meeting, the issue was discussed at the 5 p.m. UG Commission meeting.
When questioned by commissioners, Mayor Mark Holland said that the amounts to be contributed by the UG were more than what they had anticipated when they started the project.
Commissioners had expected that $500,000 a year would be spent on the project, but that number has increased to around $1.3 million more than anticipated, according to officials. It totals $1.8 million a year cost to the UG, officials said.
A public hearing was held at the 7 p.m. meeting, with several community members coming forward in support of the project. Only one person, Carolyn White, was against the project, and she said she felt the grocery store was being placed second to the community center, when the grocery store was the priority for residents there.
Frank Lavender of the Historic Northeast Business Association told the commission that they’ve been trying to do something for years about the food desert, and it seems like they finally have. Representatives of the Downtown Improvement District also appeared in support of the Healthy Campus, with several other organizations.
Answering questions from Commissioner Gayle Townsend, UG officials described the financing for the project. The UG is looking at an anticipated annual expenditure of $750,000 for operations of the YMCA, much of which would go toward paying the costs of those who are using the facility, according to the officials. In addition, there is an annual debt service of over $1 million a year, bringing the annual cost of the project to almost $2 million a year, according to officials.
Commissioner Mike Kane noted that he did not like to receive all this information at 5 p.m., with little time to study it before the vote at 7 p.m., but he would have preferred a longer time to consider it.
At the 7 p.m. meeting he said that there was no doubt a grocery store was needed, and they have to take steps to make it work. After they purchase the property, before they move forward, they have to make sure they have a signed contract, he said. He also wants to see local contractors do the work.
Mayor Mark Holland said the timing of this meeting was simply because of the timeline of New Market Tax Credits that may be applied for; the deadline for applications is approaching. He also said that Mayor-elect David Alvey has been contacted about it, and there is an effort being made to hold an information session with him and the grocer about it, according to Mayor Holland. The grocer wanted to make sure the new mayor is supportive of the project, he said.
According to the UG officials, the New Market Tax Credits would be through the YMCA – there is a federal tax credit to those who invest in certain approved projects in some urban areas.
Mayor Holland remarked that this could be the last year for New Market Tax Credit program, depending on what the Senate is voting on right now.
Commissioner Angela Markley at the 5 p.m. meeting said that $2 million a year in additional expenses could change the UG’s annual budget and affect other initiatives that might be planned, and she thought this effect on the budget should be studied.
At the 7 p.m. meeting she said that it was not a problem if the majority of the commission wanted to move forward, but that the staff needed to schedule a time after Jan. 8 as soon as possible to discuss the ultimate cost of the project fitting into the long-term budget planning.
Commissioner Hal Walker at the 5 p.m. meeting said he was 100 percent in favor of the project, but he felt that it might have been better to wait until the newly elected officials are on board before making a decision. That includes Commissioner-elect Tom Burroughs, who will be the Second District at large commissioner, and who will take Walker’s place in January.
At the 7 p.m. meeting Walker made the motion to approve the project, saying the commission had to do something now if it was going to take advantage of the New Market Tax Credits, which is a cost benefit to the project.
UG officials said they might spend as much as $250,000 on the project by the time the new officials take office in January, out of the $2 million that was proposed to be allocated for pre-construction design and land acquisition costs.
Commissioner Brian McKiernan supported the $2 million resolution tonight, but said before it’s all done, they have to make sure the development deal is a smart move for downtown and all of Wyandotte County.
Commissioner Jane Philbrook said it shows the UG is willing to put some money into the project to create the picture that other people are willing to give them funding on. “Either we move forward or we stall. I’m for moving forward,” she said.
Other commissioners asked a number of questions about the project at 5 p.m. Commissioner Ann Brandau – Murguia asked if there was a grocer who had signed an agreement yet, and was told that while negotiations are ongoing with a grocer, and they are almost to that point, the letter of intent hasn’t been signed yet. She remarked that if she had come to the commission without a signed agreement with a grocer, they would not have approved anything for two Argentine area groceries. Holland said the project will not be built without an operator for the grocery store.
At the 7 p.m. meeting Murguia said there is no grocery provider yet for this project, and traditionally, every development project has to have tenants in order to have incentives.
“With all the expenses we have within the Unified Government, I am reluctant to spend $2 million on the hopes that a grocery store provider will sign a deal,” Murguia said. “I am absolutely an advocate for a grocery store in the northeast; I don’t think it’s an unrealistic expectation to have a deal signed with a grocery store provider prior to spending that $2 million.”
Mayor Holland said the UG has built six grocery stores in the last eight years, and the further east they are, the more subsidy was required by the UG. He also said children deserve a first-class recreational facility including aquatics.
It’s also a huge economic engine, he said. More than $6 million was contributed from the philanthropic community to the project, and allocation holders for New Markets Tax Credits are very excited about the community center and grocery store being built together.
“The question we need to ask, and this commission will be prepared to answer as we move forward, is are we prepared to spend money in the urban area?” Holland said. “We’ve spent money all over this county.”
About $20 million was spent at the Legends without a single tenant, initially, he said.
“I think the northeast deserves it,” Holland said. “It’s not enough to do a $150,000 master plan if we’re not willing to put money behind it to invest in the amenities the community is asking for.”
He said the tax credits and the letter of intent with the grocer will be critical, and it is all moving on track.
“We have an opportunity to do something special for downtown,” Holland said. “Downtown is everyone’s downtown, every community deserves a thriving downtown. This will be the largest capital investment in downtown in two generations. I’m very excited about the opportunity to have led it this far, and I’m turning it over to the next administration, and hopefully they will continue to move it forward and get it across the finish line.”
The UG Commission had a closed session in between the 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. meetings to discuss pending claims with the UG attorney and to discuss labor negotiations.
Much more information about the proposed downtown Healthy Campus project can be found at the UG Commission’s YouTube website, https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=unified+government+of+wyandotte+county, under the 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. meeting for Nov. 30.