Saturday, November 01, 2014

2013: A year to sink or swim

By The Herald Staff | 12/27/2013

Ottawa and the surrounding area recorded its share of successes, tragedies and controversial moments in 2013. The Herald’s news staff culled through the year’s headlines to determine the Top 10 stories of 2013. The following accounts provide a synopsis of top stories No. 6 through No. 10. The top five stories of the year will be presented in Tuesday’s edition.

NO. 6: ORC FEE

Ottawa and the surrounding area recorded its share of successes, tragedies and controversial moments in 2013. The Herald’s news staff culled through the year’s headlines to determine the Top 10 stories of 2013. The following accounts provide a synopsis of top stories No. 6 through No. 10. The top five stories of the year will be presented in Tuesday’s edition.

NO. 6: ORC FEE

Those expecting to walk into the Ottawa Community Recreation Center/Goppert Building for free in 2014 won’t get very far. The Ottawa Recreation Commission, which runs the building, voted 4-0 in November to charge an admission fee, effective Jan. 1, to use the building at 705 W. 15th St., Ottawa. The decision didn’t come without some conflict.

“We have had light conversation of it for the last three months, maybe back as far as six months,” Tommy Sink, ORC director, said in November. “We could see it coming. We just didn’t know when or how. We just flat didn’t want to do it, but the options are just not there.”

The ORC plans to charge those who are coming in to use the Goppert Building, but not those who are there to attend or participate in the separate ORC programs, Sink said. The approved fees were set at $2 per day for ages 12 through 59; and $1 per day for ages 6 through 11 and 60 and older. Children age 5 and younger would be admitted free. There also will be a system where people can purchase punch cards for a lower per-day price.

The need to charge an admission — the center has been free to the public since its opening in September 2011 — is not necessitated by building payment, but rather by upkeep and daily operations of the building and the equipment it houses, Sink said.

“The payments on the building is not the issue,” Sink said. “That money is there and will always be there. It is the operation of the facility and the continued upkeep for everyday use is where the concern is coming from. We are not going to shut the doors. We have money reserved to operate if we didn’t take in another penny for a period of time. We’re going to continue to do events, especially events and programs to raise money to help offset costs. ... Where the issues come in, the thought process didn’t allow for the operation [of the building].”

Sink, as well as ORC board members, said the ORC would look at cutting some of its little-used programs, as well as organize fundraisers to offset costs. While the fees are set for the foreseeable future, board member Dennis Tharp said the situation could change at some point.

“What happens down the road is dependent on where everything goes,” Tharp said earlier this month.

NO. 7: BNSF INTERMODAL

EDGERTON — The October completion of Logistics Park Kansas City — better known locally as BNSF Railway’s intermodal facility in southern Johnson County — set the wheels in motion for a boom in economic development for Ottawa, Wellsville and other portions of Franklin County, local economic leaders said.

To ensure Franklin County is on track to take advantage of the commerce the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway intermodal transportation hub should generate in the next decade, the county needs to expand its industrial park space, Jeff Seymour, executive director of the Franklin County Development Council, said.

“Of the crucial elements to our success, having new industrial park land — a new industrial park with multiple, large, flexibly dividable parcels — is one of the most crucial elements to taking advantage of the potential growth,” Seymour wrote in a Nov. 18 column published in The Herald.

The intermodal facility is expected to add an additional 60 million square feet of industrial space to the Kansas City region, Kansas City-area economic leaders have predicted.

“For those of you running the numbers in your head, even a 10-percent total capture rate of that new industrial development in Franklin County would generate 6 million new square feet of new industrial space in Franklin County (that’s about four Walmart distribution centers if you’re looking for a scale),” Seymour said.

“Add on to those figures any new homes that will be built in Franklin County and any retail and other commercial projects that take place because of enhanced activity in our region,” he said.

“Bottom line, the new intermodal project can have a huge impact on Franklin County — it just depends on our level of preparation to fully take advantage of the opportunity,” Seymour said.

The Franklin County Board of Commissioners and Ottawa City Commission forged an agreement with the Franklin County Development Council in November to share the cost of attorneys’ fees related to future land acquisition for a new industrial park as the search for available ground ramped up a notch.

BNSF Railway invested more than $250 million in the 1,550-acre master-planned distribution and warehouse development, near Edgerton and Gardner. Logistics Park Kansas City is expected to eventually help create an estimated 7,400 jobs in the immediate area of the development and 13,000 jobs in the state, BNSF officials said at the grand opening in October.

NO. 8: PLAZA CINEMA

Ottawa could be home to the oldest theater in America and perhaps the world.

And with each new media scrutiny this winter, Peach Madl, owner of Plaza Grill and Cinema, is gaining more confidence she in fact does own the oldest theater in the country at 209 S. Main St., she said Thursday.

In September, Madl and others working with her on a project to tout the theater’s national significance, provided documentation that indicated patrons have been flocking to the same building in the 200 block of South Main Street to watch movies for 108 years since the first theatergoers attended a movie on the second floor of the Pickrell Building in November 1905.

Armed with scanned images of historical negatives and a ream of documentation that includes local newspaper articles and other accounts, Madl launched an ambitious plan — with the aid of Deborah Barker, executive director of the Franklin County Historical Society, Kristi Lee, director of the Franklin County Convention and Visitors Bureau, and other members of her “chick team” — to convert the theater into a living tribute to the history of movie making through interactive exhibits, historical photographs, Hollywood memorabilia, a short documentary and an IMAX-like 4D experience designed to educate and entertain people about the world of “cinemagic,” she said.

“We want to make it a destination place for people to enjoy the history of movie making in the oldest cinema in America and possibly the world,” Madl said. “Our target date to complete the project is May 2014.”

Bill Shaffer, producer for Channel 11 Kansas Public TV, Topeka, plans to produce a film documenting the first movie ever made and short clips of historic films from silent movies to talkies and beyond, Madl said.

As part of the initiative, Madl’s group launched a fundraising campaign this fall on the website www.kickstarter.com Kickstarter is the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects, according to its website. While the group did not reach its $45,000 goal, the campaign did draw media attention to the project, Madl said.

Since then, the Kansas City Star published a multi-page investigative report into her claim, and the theater’s 108-year-old timeline upheld under that scrutiny, Madl said. The project also has gained exposure on Kansas City-area TV stations and a mention in the USA Today’s Dec. 10 edition, she said.

Madl’s team has applied for a matching $100,000 tourism grant through the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism that would help pay for the large format, wrap-around 4D experience, the museum exhibit and the documentary, she said. The group also has applied for a Heritage Trust Fund Grant to make improvements to the marquee and other infrastructure, she said. If selected, the theater would be eligible for 40 percent of the estimated $97,000 infrastructure repair costs, she said.

Madl should find out in mid-January if the theater would be awarded the grants, she said.

NO. 9: KFC AND EL MEZCAL

Mystery still surrounds two empty Ottawa restaurants that closed mid-summer, generating curiosity, concern and hunger from many passersby and former patrons.

KFC, 2121 S. Princeton St., Ottawa, closed its doors without notice, putting up a sign in the window that read “Closed, Out of Stock.”

The married owners of the restaurant were cleaning and hauling out garbage at the end of July and only would said they were closed, with no further information given as to why the finger lickin’ good restaurant shuttered its doors.

The property is owned by Elaine Cook of Lenexa, according to the Franklin County Appraiser office’s website. Cook also owns other properties in Ottawa.

She recently sold the China Palace restaurant property, 910 S. Main St., to Yue Wang and still owns the adjacent property to the north where the Subway restaurant is in operation at 902 S. Main St.

While Cook owns the KFC building, that doesn’t necessarily mean she was involved in the day-to-day business activity. Property owners can lease their buildings to restaurant franchisees but are not involved in running the restaurant.

There was no indication of delinquent taxes or food safety violations that would have prompted the restaurant’s closing, according to Herald archives.

Calls to Cook went unanswered Friday and the building remains empty and is currently up for sale.

The former El Mezcal Mexican restaurant building, 402 S. Main St., Ottawa, remains dark after Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, with assistance from other local and regional agencies, shut down the restaurant June 14 as part of a criminal investigation, authorities said.

It wasn’t until September that residents learned of the reason for one of Ottawa’s most popular restaurants closing.

Alex Sanchez Jr., former El Mezcal manager, was charged with nine counts related to the harbouring and employment of illegal immigrants in a federal indictment handed down Sept. 25 by U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom’s office in Kansas City, Kan.

The investigation started in June 2011 when the Department of Homeland Security received information El Mezcal was not completing I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification forms and a notice of inspection was served to Sanchez, the indictment said. Sanchez received a final order in November 2011 requiring him to cease employing undocumented aliens and pay a fine related to the violations, according to the indictment.

The case is ongoing, and a call to the U.S. Attorney’s office public information officer went unanswered Friday afternoon.

If convicted, Sanchez faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000 on each count, the U.S. Attorney’s office said previously.

NO. 10:

ADVANTAGE FORD

Advantage Ford’s move in November to its new location at 2320 S. Oak St., Ottawa, could drive continued economic development on the city’s south side near I-35 in the years to come, city officials said.

Moving from 402 N. Main St., Advantage Ford now offers a Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center, as well as other innovative equipment, at the new location to enable the dealership to better serve its customers, Rick Nunez, general manager, said. The state-of-the-art facility cost more than $4 million for construction and landscaping, Nunez said.

Built on 3.9 acres, the estimated 26,645-square-foot dealership and service center also could provide incentives for continued economic development as part of the city’s South 59 Tax Increment Financing District, city officials said. Ottawa city commissioners approved the TIF agreement with Advantage Ford in fall 2012.  

Tax Increment Financing is a special financial tool that can generate money for economic development in a specific geographic district, Wynndee Lee, the city’s planning and codes director, told city commissioners when Ford’s TIF proposal was being discussed in fall 2012. TIFs are created by local municipal governments to provide incentives to lure private investment and help finance infrastructure improvements, she said.

TIFs work by capturing new property tax revenues from a specific area and re-investing those revenues in that area, Lee said.

“A TIF is a program that allows new property tax increments, created by a new project, to pay for approved project costs within the TIF District,” Lee said. “Generally that’s infrastructure, but TIF funds also are eligible for acquisition costs and limited site development costs. In the case of Love’s [Travel Stop] project, it was the very high cost of putting in a sanitary sewer system.”

 Advantage Ford’s city-approved TIF plan calls for tax increments totaling $750,000 — to be paid out over eight years — to recoup some of the cost of the construction project. The land where the dealership was built is located within the 604 acres of developed and undeveloped tracts that comprise the South 59 TIF District, established by the city in 2008.

While the reimbursements would be paid out to Advantage Ford over the course of about eight years, a TIF project plan is set for 20 years, Lee said, so tax increments collected during the remaining 12 years of Ford’s project could be reinvested in other projects within the TIF district.

Nunez’s hope for the new location is simple — bring in new business and keep it, he said in November about a week after the dealership had opened its doors at the new site.

“We’re always hoping for additional business,” he said. “Hopefully draw some new customers to the community to help them when they come to see us. ... If you treat people well and take care of customers, they will always come back.”

A sign at the dealership’s former property on North Main Street indicates Cates Auction and Realty Co. — the North Kansas City, Mo., firm handling the sale — still is accepting offers from interested buyers. A company representative could not be reached Friday.

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