Construction could begin at decaying Johnson County ammo plant after decades of planning

·7 min read
John Sleezer/jsleezer@kcstar.com

New construction might finally begin this year at the old Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant under development plans advancing in De Soto, which could transform the contaminated mega-campus after decades of decay.

The small city gobbled up more than two-thirds of the 9,000 acre former U.S. Army property in a massive annexation finalized this month, literally doubling the size of De Soto.

Now city leaders have taken the reins on a new series of construction and tax incentive plans that envision bringing 10 million square feet of new industrial and light manufacturing space to portions of the site that are poised to receive their final environmental cleanup certifications this year.

That could pave the way for the first major construction at the site since it made rocket propellant during the war in Vietnam.

“We are truly on the precipice here,” said John Petersen, a representative for the Sunflower Redevelopment group that has been working on the project for nearly 20 years. “You’re about to start seeing dirt being moved out there ... We feel realistically hopeful that we will have true development activity out there in 2022.”

The De Soto City Council approved the first step of a tax incentive plan for the project this week and hope the latest effort will begin to radically transform the rural acreage into a bustling business hub.

“While we may not see a true immediate boom in our pocket books in our city, this is a decision we’re making for the generations that come after us,” Mayor Rick Walker said Thursday. “It brings this property back to productive use, it puts our community in a great position in the future ... We’ve seen this project languish for many years and I’m not willing to sit and watch it further decay.”

New plans

Redevelopment of the former munitions site has been in the works since before 2005, when Sunflower Redevelopment took over the project, but the group stepped up with new plans late last year with the city of De Soto.

The project has been delayed for years by the complicated environmental cleanup of the chemical hazards left behind from the site’s decades as a cannon powder and rocket propellant plant for the U.S. military from World War II into the early 1990s.

Although the U.S. Army’s portion of the cleanup is expected to continue through 2026, officials have said that more than 1,100 acres of the site already are on the verge of receiving their final state and federal environmental approvals and could be ready for new development this year.

To jumpstart those plans, Sunflower Redevelopment and the city of De Soto created a plan to bring the bulk of the 9,000 acre site into city limits and create a new tax-increment financing district designed to help pay for the infrastructure — and future environmental cleanup — necessary to finally bring plans for a massive new business and industrial park to fruition.

The De Soto City Council approved a predevelopment agreement in November and have since formally annexed the northern 6,000 acres of the site into city limits from the unincorporated county, giving the city oversight of all future development on most of the property.

“We’ve been watching this go on for 20 years or more ... We didn’t create that as a city either,” Councilwoman Lori Murdock said. “What we are doing as a city is leading the direction of where it’s going. We don’t want someone else coming in and making decisions on what’s at our back door.”

The council also voted Thursday to approve a tax-increment financing district that includes all of the new acreage brought into the city for the next 20 years. That district will allow Sunflower Development to keep a large portion of the money that would otherwise be paid to the city in rising property taxes as the value of the land rises and instead reinvest that into infrastructure at the site.

That will help offset more than $105 million in environmental cleanup costs for projects like demolition of dilapidated structures and removal of tons of asbestos-laden concrete that are not included in the U.S. Army’s $200 million cleanup plans, which are focused on the chemical waste left on the site from the years of munitions production.

“The reason the TIF district is so large is because the developer has a very legitimate need to generate revenues from economic activities that happen in one part of the TIF district to fund environmental cleanup and fund remediation efforts on the other,” De Soto City Manager Mike Brungardt explained to the council last fall.

What’s next

The tax increment financing district must clear one more hurdle before it is finalized, however, and could face a challenge from County Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara.

She and Sheriff Calvin Hayden, who lives just north of the site, both spoke out against the tax increment financing plan before the city council on Thursday and argued the federal government should be forced to cover the cost of the entire cleanup effort.

“Let’s not do the same thing over and over. The government created this problem,” Hayden said. “If I break something, I fix it. They made this problem, they created it in the name of national defense, the most honorable thing they could do, but it’s their problem. Let them clean it up.”

Under state law, both the county and school district where a tax increment financing district is created are allowed to effectively veto that district within 30 days if they find they are “adversely impacted” by the plan. In this case, the school district would continue to receive its portion of the rising property taxes on the property, but O’Hara said she will ask the Board of County Commissioners to consider vetoing the Sunflower plan.

“This is a mess. This is an absolute mess,” O’Hara said last week. “It’s just unfortunate that it’s the good ol’ boys and the people used to getting the money from public coffers. They’re just bellying up to the trough again and I’m just not going to have it, not without a full public discussion.”

If the tax district was vetoed, under the terms of the new agreements, De Soto would be required to de-annex the Sunflower property back into the unincorporated county and the new development would stop in its tracks. O’Hara has unsuccessfully attempted the maneuver on other local tax increment districts before and it does not appear she would have the support of other commissioners.

Should De Soto’s plans clear O’Hara’s challenge, Sunflower Redevelopment expects to submit specific development plans for its first phase in late spring or early summer, said Petersen, one of the longtime representatives of the project.

Those plans will focus on the northeast corner of the property along 103rd Street and Lexington Avenue and are likely to include about 10 million square feet of warehouse, distribution, industrial and light manufacturing buildings, Petersen said. If final environmental checks are cleared this year, the group hopes construction will start before the year is out.

Hotel, residential and retail projects are likely to follow and the group plans to roll out the plans in at least three more separate projects, he said. Zoning, site plans and the specific terms of how much tax increment financing will apply to each portion of the project will all be considered at public hearings before city leaders as each proposal proceeds.

“We’re square in the middle of it now and that’s where we want to be,” Mayor Walker said. “It’s a very huge impact on our city and, by being part of it, we are able to steer it in the way it best benefits this community in the long run.”

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