Corrected Southfork plan would still have support from county commissioners

Support still exists on the Sedgwick County Commission for Jay Maxwell’s Southfork retail development near I-135 and 47th Street South.

It’s less clear what the impact of two city boundary mistakes for the development’s tax increment financing district will be on future city-county economic development partnerships, with county officials frustrated by a Southfork project that hasn’t broken ground more than a year after the plan was developed.

Commissioner Tim Norton said the credibility of future TIF studies may have been red-flagged by the Southfork mistakes.

“Doggone it,” Norton said. “Do your homework.”

TIF districts dedicate new taxes created by improvements to help pay for those improvements. All taxing entities included in the designated district must grant approval for it.

The approved Southfork TIF district had two boundary errors: one, a slight extension into the Haysville school district, and another where it expands past the Wichita city limits into Riverside Township.

County Clerk Kelly Arnold informed the city of the error in an e-mail obtained last week by The Eagle. Allen Bell, the city’s urban development director, took responsibility for the errors Thursday.

County Commissioner Dave Unruh said he’s fine with proceeding with a redrawn district, as long as the financials don’t change for the project.

“Like anyone, you hate to see any sort of error,” Unruh said. “When this information comes to us, we’re under the assumption the information is correct and you make a decision based on that. If the city has to take this back, and the financials change, then it’s a whole new issue to be decided. I understand errors can happen, but this one seems pretty fundamental.”

On Friday, Arnold said any city-crafted boundaries solution will be run past county lawyers to test its legality before he will certify the Southfork TIF district.

City Council member James Clendenin, in whose District 3 Southfork falls, said Friday that the TIF boundaries might be able to be redrawn without new formal votes by the city and county.

“Certainly, if that can be done I’d be happy to certify this and get this thing going,” Arnold said.

Clendenin said he was happy for the continued support for the Southfork project.

He and Mayor Carl Brewer said they understood the county’s frustrations with the Southfork timeline, which began in early January 2012 when the County Commission initially denied the incentives over concerns about flooding and caps on the TIF revenue. The county approved it in May on a 3-2 vote.

“Nobody’s right 100 percent of the time,” Brewer said. “But in cases like these we need to be right 100 percent of the time. It’s not like we on the council can go out and measure these things.”

County commissioners also expressed some frustration that Southfork, a mixture of retail, hotel, restaurants and office space on the initial 50 acres, hasn’t begun to come out of the ground. The project would capture $9.9 million in financing from the increased valuation of the business improvements. No TIF revenues would be paid to the developers until the project began to generate increased taxes.

Tim Austin, a spokesman for Maxwell, said construction has been delayed by struggles with an out-of-state natural gas company.

“To say we’re not doing anything isn’t accurate,” Austin said. “Development is not an easy deal. If it was, everybody would do it.”

One county commissioner voiced skepticism about the project.

“The thing that concerns me is a lot of these deals are oversold,” Commissioner Richard Ranzau said. “When we did the Southfork the first time. they came before us and said they had X amount of money, and the next time they had $11 or $12 million more available.

“The numbers change on these deals so much, you have to rely on the information we get to know if the projects are accurate and feasible, particularly the TIF districts.”

Austin declined to comment on Ranzau’s allegations that the Maxwell group oversold Southfork and another project to the county panel.

“We’re beyond that,” he said. “We can have good, respectful discussions outside the newspaper.”

Norton said he remains behind the Southfork project, although he continues to believe that development in the area should be privately driven, given the south Wichita interchange improvements. He said he supports city efforts to redraw the boundaries without any further council or commission votes.

“None of this will change my vote to move forward,” he said. “It was clear in the last election that most south-siders in that area would like for economic development to happen, and Southfork can be a vehicle for that.”

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