Public meetings planned before Heartland Park vote by new council
Some controversial provisions may not be in contract
Topeka’s way is clear to issue bonds and purchase Heartland Park, city staff told the council Tuesday evening, but the public will get to weigh in first.
The city planned to issue $5 million in Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) bonds to purchase the racetrack and expand the district surrounding it. State and local sales tax collected within the surrounding district would go to pay off the remaining debt on $10.5 million in bonds issued in 2006 and the additional $5 million.
City attorney Chad Sublet said the city no longer has any legal obstacles to issuing the bonds since the Kansas Court of Appeals ruled a petition to force a public vote on the bonds was invalid, but city manager Jim Colson said the issue will go before a new council after the April election. Colson also said the process could include town hall meetings before the council would vote to authorize bond sales.
It was a substantial shift in tone from discussions of Heartland Park in recent months, when lawyers for the city and racetrack operator Jayhawk Racing raised alarms that the track was in imminent danger of closing if a petition drive led by Topekan Chris Imming went to a public vote. CoreFirst Bank & Trust could have foreclosed on Jayhawk Racing as early as Feb. 28, but has opted not to do so thus far.
Imming collected 3,587 signatures in the fall to attempt to force a vote on issuing the bonds. City manager Jim Colson filed suit against the petition and prevailed in Shawnee County District Court.
Imming appealed, but the Kansas Court of Appeals ruled March 11 that the city could purchase Heartland Park without a public vote. The court found Imming used the wrong type of petition to challenge the issuance of STAR bonds. Imming’s attorney, R.E. “Tuck” Duncan, said they plan to ask the Kansas Supreme Court to review the case.
Races at the track are scheduled to start April 4. Jayhawk Racing owner Ray Irwin may continue to operate the track for the time being, Colson said.
It isn’t clear how the council’s views on Heartland Park might shift after the April 7 election. Council members Denise Everhart and Chad Manspeaker didn’t seek re-election, and councilmen T.J. Brown and Nathan Schmidt have opponents.Councilwoman Sylvia Ortiz said she had received comments from constituents saying they didn't want the city to purchase Heartland Park.
“They're saying, ‘Have they paid their water bill,’ ” she said, referencing Heartland Park's large outstanding water bill.
Councilwoman Denise Everhart said she hadn’t heard an alternative way to pay off the old bonds other than to raise property taxes.
“I guess the question that should be posed to all those folks that are going to come forward is, ‘What else should we do?’ ” she said.
Some council members raised the question of whether the city could call a special election to decide whether to proceed with the vote, but that isn’t legally possible, Sublet said.
Sublet also moved to clarify what a contract with a racetrack operator might include if the council directs them to negotiate one, though Colson reminded the council that nothing had been negotiated yet. The operator would be legally required to invest at least $5 million into the property, but it wouldn’t be required to do specific projects — such as building a banquet hall — that had been suggested, Sublet said.
“It could be whatever the operator wants to invest in the park, but it has to be at least $5 million,” he said.A controversial provision also could be removed, Sublet said. The National Hot Rod Association had asked for a $1.8 million profit guarantee from the city and the prospective operator.
“The NHRA has verbally agreed they would do away with the guarantees in the contract,” he said.