Rushing to Condemn

July 1, 2007 looms large in the minds of Manhattan, Kan., city officials. That is the date after which they will no longer be able to use eminent domain for private development without the approval of the Kansas state legislature, according to the eminent domain reform law passed in 2006.  As a result, city officials are rushing to use eminent domain for seven of 23 remaining businesses in the footprint of the South End Redevelopment Project.[1]

First drawn up in 2004, the master plan for downtown Manhattan’s “revitalization” revolves around the 30,000 square-foot Flint Hills Discovery Center, which according to the plan, would house exhibits “detailing the experience in the Flint Hills and the Tall Grass Prairie.”  Surrounding the Center would be a hotel and conference center; 70,000 square feet of commercial space, including restaurants and a theater; and 24,000 square feet of residential space.[2]

Most of the property owners affected by the plan negotiated the sale of their properties and thereby avoided the use of eminent domain against them.  But some businesses owners who have asked the city for substitute lots of land to help ensure the continued survival of their businesses are under threat.

At a special meeting held by the Manhattan City Commission, Ken Cope, vice president of O’Reilly Auto Parts, told city officials, “We’re willing participants for the redevelopment, but we have to have a suitable relocation to be competitive in our business.”[3]

Not expecting the city to find them another property, O’Reilly has been proactive in trying to find somewhere to relocate.  They offered the developer, Dial Realty, three sites they thought would be suitable for the future success of the business, but Dial did not respond until after two of the properties were sold. When they did respond, they offered another site that O’Reilly did not find satisfactory. Negotiations continue over the third site O’Reilly recommended.[4]

Other local businesses like Art Craft Printers and Bud’s Auto Service are also waiting for suitable properties to relocate to before they sign over their current property to Dial.

“We don’t want to be against the project,” said Mike Conkwright, third generation owner of Bud’s. “We just feel it should not be at the present business owners’ expense.”[5]

In response to the business owners’ willingness to negotiate, the city commission approved between $200,000 and $250,000 to help them relocate.[6]

In spite of the monetary aid, city officials have been clear that their loyalties lie with the redevelopment plan, which exists only on paper, rather than with the small business owners who have invested themselves and their future in the city of Manhattan.

At the very same meeting they approved the relocation funds, the city commission approved the final reading of the ordinance giving the city authority to seize the seven remaining properties through eminent domain.  The mayor commended the approval of the ordinance beginning the condemnation process, citing the best long-term interests of the city.[7]

As the July 1 deadline approaches, the city is moving as fast as it can, trying to approve final plans with Dial Realty.  A public hearing is to be held in the near future, but even the assistant city manager admits that participation of residents would do nothing to change the plan or its timeline.[8]

The rush to condemn in Manhattan shows the willingness of city officials to abandon their constituents—even constituents who have specifically expressed an interest in working with the city—in favor of preserving government power.  By choosing to condemn rather than work directly with property owners, the city has chosen its plan over its people.

[1] Natasha Trefla, “Down to the Wire,” KTKA ABC News, March 15, 2007.

[2] City of Manhattan, “South Project Area Redevelopment Project Plan and Special Bond Project Plan Manhattan Downtown Redevelopment District,” January 30, 2007.

[3] Quoted in Trefla

[4] Willow Williamson, “City Commission takes first step toward using eminent domain in south redevelopment,” Kansas State Collegian, March 28, 2007.

[5] Mandy Stark, “Business owners wait for fair compensation, relocations for south end redevelopments,” Kansas State Collegian, April 4, 2007.

[6] Jeff Wright, “City OKs relocation help,”The Manhattan Mercury, April 4, 2007.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jeff Wright, “City to Ok deal with Dial,” The Manhattan Mercury, April 10, 2007.