Last week, those who are still hanging on to hope a project will be born from an April 2013 bond issue promising a downtown Lee’s Summit performance space got a glimpse of a concept largely rooted in theory and hope.
Of course, if there is one thing we know for certain about the heart of our city, it’s that downtown has always thrived on big ideas and hopeful dreams for its future.
And in that regard, we should be cautiously optimistic about a plan directed by Mayor Bill Baird which showcases a lofty project covering Second and Third streets between Johnson and Green in downtown Lee’s Summit. It’s a plan that includes a new farmers market pavilion, a small performance area, a conservatory and potential for mixed-use development, a boutique hotel and other amenities.
The renderings were brought to council by Kansas City firm Ochsner Hare & Hare and representative Darren Varner was on hand at the July 21 meeting, although, after questioning on project costs from Councilman Bob Johnson, Baird informed him and the council that OHH wouldn’t have total project costs and those costs would be unknown for some time.
(OHH and Varner did not return phone calls regarding the project or renderings, instead, via a secretary at the firm, deflected questions back to City Hall).
Johnson was on the right track asking that multi-million dollar question last week: how much will this project cost?
The answer is simple: they simply don’t know. The reality? It’s $10 million or more and much will hinge on what kind of developer will come in and put some skin in the game on the project.
And part of that reason is simple, too: we’ve piled so much into this project from its original goals that we have gotten away from what the voters approved and into a whole new territory.
Somewhere in the renderings is a performance stage, which is what voters overwhelmingly approved back in 2013. Cultural arts supporters from across the city came out to champion the cause and help package package a bond issue — one that included the Legacy Park Amphitheater, the Lee’s Summit Historical Museum and upgrades to Orchard Street — to the voters. Some of those champions included members of the Lee’s Summit Symphony Orchestra, Summit Theatre Group and members of various City councils and commissions.
Back in 2016, a Memorandum of Understanding was penned that would tie the Downtown Lee’s Summit Main Street and Downtown Community Improvement District organizations into the project, both as financial and vocal partners. This was done once it became clear the city and a landowner were at an impasse for developing off of Market and Southwest Main streets, land that is now a parking lot for ReeceNichols.
That MOU, which has since expired, called for DLSMS and the CID to be “50 percent” partners on several aspects of the project on Green Street, including costs associated with site selection, the funding plan, purchase price and closing costs of property on the project site, design fees and project construction. It is unclear, to this date, how much of these costs actually fell to DLSMS or the CID.
CID board chairman Brad Culbertson said that, even with expired MOU, there is a joint commitment from downtown and the CID for an amount not to exceed $4 million over 20 years toward the project. According to the presentation last week, about 75 percent of the original $600,000 approved for the project has gone to pay consultants, OHH, and for the purchase of the property that used to house the Lion’s Den at Third and Green streets.
So, it is technically accurate that original voter approvals on costs are going toward the ultimate project.
During a recent chat with Culbertson, the longtime downtown building owner, volunteer and champion said the farmers market is the most critical piece of the project.
“That $4 million is to be used for public improvements within the development project, and it’s important that Main Street gets the multi-use farmers market pavilion,” he noted.
The CID and downtown have to wonder aloud, as many of us do, who will run the day-to-day operations of the performance space and any outdoor or indoor venues, including the conservatory. In the 2016 MOU, it reads that “Prior to the purchase of any real property for the Project, the City and Main Street shall agree and execute, subject to approval by each of their governing bodies, an agreement for lease and/or operation and/or maintenance of the Farmer’s Market and Outdoor Performance space associated with the Project.”
If Downtown is running that space, or has to hire someone to do so, that changes things as well. And if any CID money has gone into building this space, as certainly seems to be planned, the organizations have to be doubly careful about how that space is used by private, for-profit entities, such as the proposed hotel or other commercial ventures. What we cannot do is build a performance space and conservatory that allows a hotel or business to use those facilities for weddings or events of any kind.
And on that conservatory idea, as grand as it is, what proforma or collaboration with the Symphony, Summit Theatre or other arts-related groups were used to determine that we need one on this expanded pavilion? Who was part of that conversation?
As grand an idea as it is, voters could argue that they in no way approved that type of a facility within this project.
Other wildcards not discussed at council, but that certainly have to be a part of the discussion once the developer is chosen, include: potentially millions in infrastructure upgrades to stormwater and sewer systems in the area, fiber relocation and land deals with AT&T that have never been secured. The city has done a fine job grabbing land around the project, and will use the ultimate sale of the old Herrington and Davis properties (Second Street between Green and Johnson) as a funding source on this project. With the amount of fiber and infrastructure inside that building, AT&T is a gigantic hurdle that several in the city admin office haven’t been able to negotiate yet. Mark Dunning is currently carrying that ball. As a former rugby player, perhaps he will be the one to break through on these negotiations.
Culbertson, like all of us, is hopeful that as plans are laid out and professionals enter the project discussion, we can start to see what is reasonable and what we can build for the future of our downtown.
“As a CID board, we are excited about the possibility of the Green Street project gaining some momentum,” he said. “We want to make sure we continue to be at the table to see that our dollars are spent for public benefit.”
The City of Lee’s Summit playing developer is a tricky game. Those with a stake in the arts and in downtown — especially the ones that helped pass this measure — need to start seeing a light at the end of this long tunnel.