Editor's note: This is the third in a series of stories looking at the projects that would benefit from the increase in local sales tax revenue if voters approved a .3-cent increase in November. 

Driving down Jennie Barker Road from the intersection of Schulman Avenue north toward Kansas Highway 156, one can almost transport back in time, if they keep their eyes straight ahead.

As drivers head north, a glance to the left brings a stretch of open land into view, sometimes peppered with hay bails, until the horizon stops short with developments like Menards, The Home Depot, Sam’s Club, and the Walmart Supercenter farther down and across K-156.

Many of the big-box developments along that stretch are fairly new, but they come with a roadway that affords five lanes, including a turning lane. Conversely, the northern half of Jennie Barker Road hearkens back to a simpler time, with two lanes, no streetlights, no sidewalks, no turning lane and very little adjacent commercial development.

But that may soon change, as a project that has been discussed for 15 years finds a glimmer of hope with the advent of an interlocal Garden City-Finney County sales tax agreement broached in July and slated for a vote on the November ballot.

In late June, a series of city projects were introduced that would be funded by a .25-cent citywide sales tax hike. That quickly turned into an interlocal agreement between the city and county, and in July the beginnings of a countywide sales tax hike of .3-cents, or .30 percent, was put forward for a public vote in November. The hike would bring the existing sales tax rate in Garden City from 8.65 percent to 8.95 percent and effectively adds 30 cents to a $100 purchase.

One project local officials have targeted for financing from the sales tax revenue would include urbanized improvements to the aforementioned section of Jennie Barker Road that would bring acquisition of right of way sufficient for three lanes of traffic in the short term and five lanes in the long term. With that would come sidewalks, walking trails, a storm sewer, and traffic signals at the intersection of Mary Street and K-156.

The improvements would effectively mirror those already completed by the city on the stretch of Jennie Barker moving south from Schulman. Garden City Manager Matt Allen said that 15 years ago, the city and county had agreed to split the construction costs to update Jennie Barker Road straight down the middle. The city would cover the southern half of the project and the county would cover the northern half. Only the southern half got done.

“This is the portion that remains of the half that Finney County pledged to complete, and I think the sales tax gives this the best shot at that happening, because there doesn’t appear to be a solution if it were to fail,” Allen said.


Past efforts

The county has repeatedly tried to tackle the project, but County Commissioner Bill Clifford said that to his knowledge, there was never enough money. The County Commission brought the endeavor to the fore once again in July and agreed to allocate $2 million to a basic expansion and bituminous resurfacing project that would cost approximately $4.38 million, with no concrete pavement, storm sewer, right of way acquisition, easement or utility relocations included.

Those luxuries cost more than $6 million, and the county still would need the city to match funding on the bulk of the project. The $2 million allocation also would drain the county’s roughly $5 million special highway reserve fund by 40 percent, according to County Administrator Randy Partington.

That was after the county had allocated $1.5 million in 2016 in hopes that the city would match that amount for a $3 million project. But after a thorough engineering study in 2017, new cost estimates were provided, and the price is only going up.

Since 2009, construction estimates for the barebones version of the project have shown a gradual increase. The cost in 2009 would have been about $2.5 million, then $2.7 million in 2010, and about $4.4 million in 2017. In 2019, the cost is anticipated to reach $4.7 million, about $5.6 million in 2025, and more than $6.4 million in 2030. For the cost the unadorned project will achieve in 2030, Finney County can get the bare minimum and so much more.

“You can see how in 17 years it has more than doubled the cost to do it,” Partington said. “The County Commission, at this point, if we’re going to improve it as they feel it is needed, they want to take care of it before that price is unachievable.”

Partington said a sales tax hike, at least partially covered by out-of-town visitors, would pay for the entirety of the road project. Without the sales tax hike, he said, it is still unknown where the county would source the remaining $4 million for an equivalent project.


Needed improvements

The city and county have decided to give working together on a big project another shot with the interlocal sales tax agreement that will bring the Jennie Barker Road construction project into the mix and include all the fixins — concrete pavement, storm sewer, right of way, easement, utilities — resulting in a total project cost of slightly more than $6 million.

The interlocal sales tax agreement also would pay for ongoing improvements to Lee Richardson Zoo; construction and operation of an 11,068-square-foot indoor shooting range intended for use by local law enforcement and the public; and construction, operation and maintenance of a 15,061-square-foot fire station on the city's east side with additional storage mezzanines totaling 3,582 square feet for use by the Garden City Fire Department, Garden City Police Department and county EMS.

The sales tax hike, if passed, would take effect April 1, 2018, and sunset after 15 years. The increase would yield about $2.15 million annually to fund the balance of each project, which has been estimated at $18 million.

The road project comports with the prospective development of the third fire station, which would be located just opposite that stretch of Jennie Barker at the Schulman intersection. The city’s “Sports of the World” STAR Bond project also would be located in the direct vicinity of the prospective redevelopment.

According to the Finney County Economic Development Corp., the sports complex itself will be built just east of the Parrot Cove water park and the Heritage Hotel, and the current proposed concept includes a two-rink ice arena, a world food truck plaza, a central plaza, a sporting stadium with a private sports bar located on a mezzanine connected to the stands, and a constellation of fields intended for a range of different sporting activities, including but not limited to rugby, soccer and lacrosse. The concept also includes a building to house a privately run trampoline park and a field house for general use.

FCEDC President Lona DuVall said it will be important that Jennie Barker Road functions along the same lines as Kansas Avenue and Mary Street as the city continues to grow to the north and east.

DuVall added that Jennie Barker Road is already heavily trafficked, and with that will come continued opportunities for retail and/or housing developments in that undeveloped area.

“We’ve obviously got our eyes on property all over the county, but absolutely it’s becoming very obvious that the community is going to continue to grow to the east, largely because that’s where our newest utilities are,” she said. “Our wastewater treatment plant is out there, so there is a great opportunity to continue to grow in that direction, so anything we can do to make those sites more valuable is going to be a good thing.”

Allen said the reconstructed portion of Jennie Barker Road would be designed to integrate with the east side storm drainage system administered by the city, thus benefiting nearby property owners by boosting storm drainage in that area.

Many officials have begun calling Jennie Barker Road the “bypass to the bypass,” most notably Clifford, who very well may have originated the terminology.

“For me, that was a conclusion I drew a long time ago,” he said.

The portion of Jennie Barker in question is part of Clifford’s district, and he said the need for that redevelopment was one of the motivating factors for his candidacy for the county commission.

“I just thought there was a little less cooperation between the County Commission and the City Commission, and I thought if I ran and was elected, I could try and facilitate those two bodies working together for the taxpayers’ benefit,” Clifford said.

Having begun his term in January 2015, Clifford said he feels it is an “obligation on the part of the county to finish this road.”

“The city put a lot of resources into the southern portion of Jennie Barker Road and made it a boulevard really,” he said. “That enabled the school system to build two new schools there in the last two decades, and then that drew housing to that corridor.”

He noted that the northern portion has yet to be developed, despite the fact that that area “is primed” for the next phase of retail or mixed development, “and I think if we put a well thought out road in there, we’re going to draw in that kind of development,” Clifford said.

Clifford uses the road in his own travels and describes it as “poorly lit, extremely narrow” with “no shoulders.”

“There are ditches along the road, so anybody making a mistake on that road is going to be imperiled by the ditches along it,” Clifford said.

Comparatively, he said, the redeveloped southern portion is “absolutely safe.”

Clifford echoed the sentiments of other officials in voicing that the sales tax is the “ideal joint effort between the city and county to get it done.”

“It’s not in the city right now, so if it’s going to be improved, it would be our initiative,” he said. “I want government to work for the taxpayers, and this is to me the way to make it work between the city and the county with a minimal impact on our taxpayers and no impact on the property tax.”

Clifford said the only alternative for the necessary project is to use general obligation bonding that would be paid back through the general fund, thus raising property taxes. Right now, the county would need to come up with $4 million for the project.

“That’s a big gap, and we don’t have the resources to fund that. So the only way I could conceive of that being funded is bonding, which is general fund money, and that comes from property tax, and that’s not the direction we want to go,” Clifford said.

Maybe more than anything, the three-tenths-of-a-penny sales tax hike would represent city and county government in Finney County working together.

“I’ve been here over 20 years, and this effort shows the greatest level of cooperation between the city and the county I’ve ever witnessed,” Clifford said. “This package to me is a legacy package. This is what we’re leaving the next generation. We’re not going to be building fire stations and large road projects in the next 15 years. This is the current generation’s legacy to our children and our grandchildren, and I think it’s a vote on what kind of city and what kind of county we want to leave or create for our families.”

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.