Future of Heartland center in limbo as city, county work on costs

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer says he’s ready to move forward on construction of a new law enforcement training center without Sedgwick County if needed.

The Heartland Preparedness Center project, expected to cost about $30million, has been in limbo as county and city leaders consider what they can and can’t afford to spend on a new training center to replace one at an aging former school.

Last week, County Manager William Buchanan recommended moving the project out of the county’s capital improvement program to a “watch list.” Buchanan has maintained that the county can’t afford to spend $15million and must find a less expensive alternative.

It’s unclear how the city would pay for it. City officials said last week they did not want to borrow money for a new $30million central library because of high debt.

Brewer said Friday that he remains committed to Heartland, which was originally envisioned as the nation's first homeland defense center merging city and county public safety and the military. The Kansas National Guard’s building at the center is well under way at I-135 and K-96. A state official could not be reached for comment Friday.

“It’s an opportunity to have a state-of-the-art facility. It could very easily be a regional training center not only for the Guard and the Reserve but for law enforcement,” he said. “I’m disappointed that the county made the decision to change and go a different route.”

Brewer met Wednesday with Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams, Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter and county commissioners Jim Skelton and Dave Unruh.

Williams is working on a scaled-down plan if the city does go it alone, Brewer said. Easter, the mayor said, “clearly voiced his concerns about separating from us and how important he thought it was that we train together.” Easter, who was out of the office Friday, is working on a plan that the county might be able to afford, Brewer said.

“Our position has not changed,” Brewer said of the city’s plans to build at Heartland. “It’s been in our budget, and we’ve kept it in our budget. The only difference is how do we scale back if we do it alone.”

Skelton agreed the chief and sheriff are “trying to find out what’s fair to build what and how much they can get the cost down.”

Skelton and Unruh are questioning whether the city and county’s part of Heartland needs to include an auditorium. They said it likely would be used only for law enforcement class graduations, which both said could be held elsewhere.

“Is it reasonable for the city and county to build an auditorium and gymnasium and have access to 2,400 feet of classroom space?” Skelton asked. “It might be, it might not be. Right now we conduct graduations elsewhere. My own personal opinion is that I’m not sure, and I don’t know that the city and county should be paying for the auditorium if we don’t need it very often.”

Overall, he said, “the cost needs to come down significantly. I explained that. I think Dave explained that. There’s no votes to take the project forward in its current state, and we’ve got to have significant cuts.”

Skelton said he thinks it’s critical for the city and county to continue to train together.

“They run across each other in the field” all the time, he said.

Unruh said “at present, what the mayor had indicated was that he felt the city had a commitment and they would go ahead and build it but it would only house city police training. On our side we’re pretty well decided that we need to train together.”

The city has included the project in its most recent capital improvement program, adopted last year.

Commissioner Tim Norton said he wants “to honor a commitment for a new law enforcement training center. I spent a lot of time years ago on all the plans. But the price tag is higher than I anticipated. It became a more expensive project. Now the landscape has changed from seven or eight years ago when I started working on it. Money’s a little tighter. It’s a worthwhile collaborative effort. But at what cost? That’s what we need to try to work on.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle