Lee’s Summit leaders flummoxed over site for proposed festival plaza

rpulley@lsjournal.comSeptember 20, 2013 

  • $600,000 Amount of money that may not be enough to buy a site and build festival plaza promised in bond issue approved by voters in April.

A design meeting for Lee’s Summit’s new downtown festival plaza turned to speculating on what the community should do if the city is unable to buy the chosen site.

Deputy City Manager Brian Scott told the group on Sept. 17 that the city was still negotiating with owner Dusty Dahmer.

“We have our number, they have their number, and we’re starting to get creative on how we can bring that together,” Scott said.

The representatives met with Hollis+Miller Architects, Downtown Lee’s Summit Main Street Inc., the Lee’s Summit Historical Society, arts groups and others.

The Lee’s Summit City Council had scheduled a closed session for Sept. 19 to discuss real estate matters, which was after The Journal’s deadline.

The city has offered to buy two lots belonging to Dahmer’s company, Tustin LLC.

Prior to the bond campaign in April, the Cultural Arts Facility Task force said Dahmer had expressed willingness to sell and perhaps to do a joint project with him building on part of the site. As the project proceeded the city began negotiating for both lots that make up the site.

The city had owned them, but years ago sold to Dahmer for $237,497 when City Hall had moved to Green Street. It also demolished an annex that had been on the site.

In the bond issue the city figured on $250,000 to buy land and have $350,000 for construction of the performance space.

Ideas batted around Tuesday included condemnation, or buying only part of the land, a land swap, or an alternate site.

John Beaudoin, publisher of The Journal and serving as board president for Downtown Lee’s Summit, asked at the public meeting how much time the city has to obtain a site while staying on track for a goal of getting construction bids early in 2014.

City Manager Steve Arbo said the city has a window of about two months, considering the architect’s time line. Arbo said it is too early to abandon the site because the city has hopes of reaching an agreement.

Beaudoin said if the project isn’t delivered as promised, it would be increasingly difficult to get voters to approve bond issues in the future.

He and others pointed out that the purchase price is crucial.

The group, at the end of its meeting, did prioritize amenities for the project, saying a performance stage, with a backdrop and room for 450 spectators with landscaping was the primary goal.

The intent is to have a plaza where people will gather informally as well as for organized events.

The meeting had a few tense moments.

Christine Bushyhead, chair of the Cultural Arts Facility Task Force, and also a board member for Downtown Lee’s Summit, questioned how the city was getting into the bind because money might be short.

She said the city architect had advised them on $600,000 amount.

Arbo said the city had depended on a study known as the Webb Report and the task force’s recommendation, including Dahmer as a partner. When planning shifted to buying the entire site, he said, the dynamic changed. Dahmer wanted more money because the city wanted land and Dahmer is losing a business opportunity, Arbo said.

Bushyhead said the task force only identified Dahmer as a “potential” partner.

Arbo defended the city staff, saying that land acquisition is often a messy and time consuming step in public projects.

“I know it’s frustrating to everyone involved, but it’s just something we have to work through,” Arbo said.

That quibble was dropped as the group moved on to talk about other tactics.

The group compared the size of the vacant site to other downtown sites. A city owned parking lot west across the street was mentioned. Or attempting to buy land that’s proposed for development by Craig Grider for his orthodontics office. That project was scheduled to be voted on by the City Council this week but has been continued to Oct. 3.

Bushyhead suggested condemnation of Dahmer’s property. Or delaying the project to let him continue paying the mortgage and taxes. A few more years without development there might soften the price, she said.

Discussing the issues, Brad Cox, who co-chaired the bond campaign committee Foundations for Our Future, said that he thinks the city should stay with the Dahmer site to maintain credibility with voters.

“I put a lot of capital on the line, and I don’t mean money,” Cox said, implying the reputations of community leaders are at stake.

If there is a delay, he and Bushyhead said, the city should also put on hold renovations of the WPA Post Office. Bushyhead also suggested using part of that project’s money, if costs for the renovations come in under what was estimated. The WPA Post Office is intended to be the home for the Lee’s Summit Historical Society’s museum.

A 2015 opening date is prominent in the society’s business plan for building membership and endowments, to cover ongoing operating costs for the facility. And the opening of the museum is envisioned as the kick-off for the city’s celebration of its 150th year.

Lee’s Summit Historical Society President Kathy Smith said the society has hit the ground running, and has diligently been working to finish planning for its piece of the bond issue.

“It would be heartbreaking for us not to go ahead and proceed,” Smith said. “And I think it’s something voters really want.”

Smith said it is too early in the process to think of diverting money from the museum to the festival plaza, as the city hasn’t taken bids for any of the renovations or exhibit displays. The costs are still uncertain, she said.

Arbo said that while planning the bond issue, a concept emerged for placing the museum adjacent to the festival space to create a “synergy” of the two uses. People coming to events in the plaza would encounter the museum and the museum could help promote performances in the festival plaza.

“I don’t want to lose that either,” Arbo said.

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