UPDATED — Three state agencies, including two that currently are in the Finney State Office Building, are close to finalizing leases for the former Ryan International Airlines building at 266 N. Main.
The Joint Committee on State Building Construction will consider leases for the Kansas Corporation Commission and the Kansas Human Rights Commission next month and the state Board of Indigents’ Defense Services on Wednesday.
“To my great surprise and chagrin, this committee has no authority to stop this process other than the bully pulpit,” says state Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, a new member of the committee. “We can raise questions about the appropriateness of the move … and hopefully shame them into doing the right thing.”
Ward says the reasons the state has offered for why nine agencies need to leave the Finney building, a city-owned property at 230 E. William, “don’t seem to hold water compared to the bid given by the city.”
He’s referring to a new lease rate the city is offering to the state to keep the Department for Children and Families at the Finney building. DCF has more than 550 of the 700 state employees at the building.
According to a Sept. 9 letter Mayor Carl Brewer sent to Gov. Sam Brownback, the city would slash DCF’s lease rate from $11 a square foot to $6 a square foot for half the space it currently has. The reduced space is at DCF’s request, according to the letter. The city also offered to make a $6 million investment in improvements in the building.
“It is my hope, as mayor of Wichita, that the valuable relationship between the City and State can be preserved by a responsible business decision allowing the continued use of the Finney State Office Building as a centralized location for state agencies,” Brewer wrote.
Chuck Knapp, spokesman for the state Department of Administration, says it’s a “foregone conclusion” that DCF and the Kansas Corporation Commission will be leaving, because the Finney building does not meet their needs.
“Someone could offer you a cardboard box for free, and if it didn’t meet your housing needs, you … wouldn’t accept it,” Knapp says. “I’m certainly not saying the Finney building is a cardboard box. … Price isn’t necessarily the determining factor in the deal.”
In his letter, Brewer referenced a July meeting he had with Brownback after which a new conversation started with DCF about how the city could meet the department’s needs.
“However, despite our best efforts, we encountered obstacles that prevented a full evaluation of our counterproposal,” he wrote.
Brewer also told Brownback, “A vacant building in our downtown area would be a serious setback, considering the millions of dollars of private investment that have recently been dedicated to our downtown development effort.”
According to the letter, the state also complained about safety in the area around the Finney building. The mayor shared crime statistics for the area and said they were not an “unusual volume.” He also offered to work with state police to increase safety.
“There is something driving this that just doesn’t make sense,” Ward says of the state’s insistence on leaving the Finney building. “We have a 20-year relationship, and all of a sudden we’re all moving? … The reasons don’t seem compelling enough to make this big a change.”
He says the state should choose the best space that’s also the most cost-effective, “particularly in the financial crisis we’re in right now.”
Craig Simon, a Landmark Commercial Real Estate broker who handles leasing at the building, says he thinks the Corporation Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Board of Indigents’ would do well at the Main Street building.
“What they’re doing makes sense,” he says.
He says there’s adequate parking, unlike at the Finney building, and the groups and their clients are more compatible with each other than they are with DCF clients.
“To me, it’s just all about the city hating to lose that tenant,” Simon says. “It just became a big political thing.”
Ward wonders about the politics behind it. Regardless of the joint committee’s power, he says he’s undaunted in his fight over the Finney building.
“I’m a Democrat in Kansas, so I’m born optimistic that you can affect policy from the minority.”