August 9, 2013

Americans for Prosperity wants Wichita to seek more for riverfront land

Americans for Prosperity wants City Hall to get more money out of prime riverfront land that’s been earmarked for apartments at First and McLean. At least one council member is in their corner.

But on Thursday, confusion surrounded whether the city has the authority to sell almost five acres of downtown real estate to developer George Laham and his partners for more than the $100,000 the group proposed in its River Vista project.

On Tuesday, the City Council selected Laham’s group – including partners Dave Wells, Dave Burk and Bill Warren – as the preferred developer for the downtown land. The council rejected a competing offer from Wichita developer Steve Clark’s management team, an offer immediately withdrawn after Tuesday’s council vote.

Rebuffed on Tuesday with their call for the land to be auctioned, AFP has retooled its demand that the city rework the River Vista deal.

“It is critical that an independent appraisal be completed prior to entering negotiations,” AFP-Wichita spokeswoman Susan Estes said. “We believe the proposed sales price is low and incentives aren’t necessary for such a large assembly of land in such a location on the river. If we practically give away prime real estate, what’s next?”

Council member Jeff Blubaugh agrees, saying Thursday that he’ll ask city staff to get a higher price from the Laham group for the land, which has been appraised by Sedgwick County at a little more than $600,000.

“All we did on Tuesday is select a developer to negotiate with,” Blubaugh said. “I plan to follow the process all the way through, and I want to negotiate a good opportunity for the development team for what’s a very important property to the city. I want to ensure we get the best possible deal for the taxpayers.”

Such negotiations for land aren’t unusual in public-private urban renewal partnerships, Wichita City Manager Robert Layton said.

“When I was in Des Moines, they had a similar process for urban renewal – select a preferred developer and then negotiate it out,” he said.

However, Layton questioned whether the council authorized such land negotiations on Tuesday.

“At this point, the direction we have is to negotiate along the terms submitted in the proposal,” Layton said. “I haven’t heard to do anything different.”

Laham said Thursday afternoon that he is not authorized to speak about the deal for his development group – the same posture adopted by Wells and Warren on Tuesday.

Blubaugh’s fellow council members are all over the map on the land price.

“We’d be hard-pressed to negotiate a change in the land price at this time,” council member Jeff Longwell said. “... We’d be inviting a lawsuit if we did.”

Council member Janet Miller said Blubaugh’s chance to tweak the River Vista deal passed when he sat silent during Tuesday’s council vote – after indicating he wanted to offer a motion to spend 30 days negotiating with the Laham and Clark groups.

Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner said he’s moved on, focused now on what River Vista can bring to downtown Wichita.

“I’m way more concerned now that we make sure this project is a showcase on the river,” Meitzner said.

And council member James Clendenin noted that the Laham group’s $100,000 offer is better than the $1 land lease for 99 years Clark’s group sought – “free land,” he put it.

The controversy over the West Bank deal continues to frustrate Clendenin.

“So many people contributed to muddy the water on this deal that we had to sweep all the noise aside,” Clendenin said. “When you did, it was very clear which developer’s proposal was best for the citizens.

“It just seems like politics, and sitting on the City Council sometimes, can become like a giant game of junior high school.”

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