Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5 p.m. May 9 to add that the Capital Plaza Hotel property has been included in Parcel B.
Calls for unity behind a significant change of course for downtown redevelopment were met Wednesday with skepticism from several Frankfort leaders.
Nonetheless, the Development Advisory Committee (DAC) members voted unanimously to give their blessing to a plan that would have the state offer 11.8 acres of state-owned land — including the former Frankfort Convention Center site, the YMCA, the Capital Plaza Hotel and its parking garage — to private developers in order to get the property on local tax rolls.
The vote also advances Finance and Administration Cabinet Secretary William Landrum’s proposal to dissolve an existing agreement between Frankfort, Franklin County and the commonwealth. With DAC’s approval, the measure will now go before the Frankfort City Commission and the Franklin County Fiscal Court for approval.
However, several details of the plan for the prime downtown real estate remain unclear, which fueled skepticism during the meeting.
“It shows we’re united about the importance of this project,” said Franklin County Judge-Executive Huston Wells about the significance of the vote. “It also allows the state to make this happen quicker.”
Frankfort Mayor Bill May also highlighted the expediency with which the state could have a private developer moving forward with a project in order to generate tax revenue for school, city, county and state projects.
“I’m excited about a new YMCA and removing the current location to put something in its place,” May said. “The possibility to open Washington Street up and get those properties generating revenue for the residents is all exciting.”
Frankfort City Manager Keith Parker had been tasked with bringing owners of the Capital Plaza Hotel, YMCA representatives, the Finance and Administration Cabinet and the city planner together in one room to collaborate on a plan to attract developers to the land formerly occupied by the Frankfort Convention Center, known as “Parcel B.” A previous plan failed to attract prospective developers due to stipulations attached — like a requirement of a 150-car, covered parking deck.
However, Parker brought forward Wednesday a proposal from Landrum to convert to surplus the 4.1 acres of “Parcel C” — upon which the YMCA and the parking garage sit — in order entice a developer along with the 6.4-acres of “Parcel B.”
“This additional property sale will have an immediate impact on the school, county and city tax rolls, considering the new 5 acres have significant improvements on them,” Parker said. “… What sells it to me is that it doubles the property.”
In the letter, Landrum wrote that the existing memorandum of agreement (MOA) “limits the possibilities for development” and called on the dissolution of the agreement between the local government and commonwealth in order to proceed. The MOA, arranged two years ago between the entities, brought in consultant City Visions — which was paid a combined $100,000 by the county and city — and established a process to get the public involved in the development of Parcel B.
The community’s proposal was beyond what the MOA entailed, Landrum told local leaders.
“This will allow the project to continue forward with additional acreage and with a broader course of action in transferring the property to the private sector,” Landrum wrote. “… Using its extensive knowledge and resources, the cabinet will write a request for proposal (RFP) and will market it to a wide range of private sector partners.”
Reception was mixed by officials and citizens attending Wednesday’s announcement.
Frankfort Independent Schools Superintendent Houston Barber told DAC members that about 75% of property in the school district is tax-exempt. He gave an example of the current state office building being erected in the area having a value of about $100 million — which would translate to about $900,000 in tax revenue for the school district. Barber figured the impact on schools with the sale of 10.5 acres of downtown property to be between $250,000 and upward of $1 million in annual tax revenue.
“You want to talk about a game changer,” Barber said. “… When education thrives, your entire community thrives.”
Barber called for something in writing, though, to ensure the property would not again end up tax-exempt. It was not the first nor the last expression of skepticism on where the proposal could lead.
Brent Swegert, vice president of Envision Franklin County, also called on decision-makers to have certain aspects in writing before moving forward with relinquishing the existing agreement with the commonwealth.
“If you get rid of the MOA and don’t replace it, what do we have to hang our hat on?” Swegert asked.
However, Martha Gray, a Frankfort resident, said that the state could simply dissolve the MOA at any time regardless. Not accepting the state’s invitation to be involved to some degree in development plans would be a misstep by the community.
“It looks like some of the city and county are looking a gift horse in the mouth,” Gray said. “And this is really a gift.”
DAC unanimously approved a motion to commend Landrum’s requests to the city and county boards. Those boards will take up the matter at their respective meetings, then pass on their decisions to Landrum. From there, officials estimated, the state could have a developer in place by the end of the year.
“The goal is to get something on that property,” Wells said. “And the hope is that it’s vibrant and adds to the synergy of our downtown in order to have events and living areas and connect downtown to the river.”