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Wrench thrown in works during public forum for lake developments

Staff reporter

A bombshell, of sorts, was dropped Monday afternoon when Marion County Commission asked for public comment regarding development plans at Marion County Lake.

The plans include the investors, Jim and Debra Whitfill, leasing the north half of the county lake hall for a privately-owned café, constructing cabins to rent, and providing water craft rentals (paddle boats, kayaks, and other human-powered water vessels).

Wichita attorney and county lake property owner Karen Humphreys, informed the commission that a state statute may change the plans regarding a long-term lease on the lake hall.

Humphreys said she was aware that there is a limit to how long the county can lease a building per a state law.

"My understanding is that there is a one-year limitation," Humphreys said. She noted that KSA 19-15-117 appears to limit the leasing of county-owned property to one year at a time.

When asked her profession, Humphreys said she is an attorney, practicing since 1973, but admitted that this was not her area of expertise.

"The county lake and park is a tremendous asset to this county," she said. "We all love it. We consider it one of the best-kept secrets in the state and want to work together in a collaborative way to take care of this treasure which is on the national register of historic places."

The public forum was held in the Marion City Auditorium because the 50 to 60 attendees could not fit in the commission room at the courthouse.

Jim Whitfill commented that he was aware of the possible legal issue and would have to withdraw his offer if the lease could not be resolved.

Commissioner Dan Holub said that county attorney Susan Robson had checked with the Kansas Attorney General's office regarding whether the county could lease property to private individuals, which is allowable, but did not check into lease limitations.

Karen Benbrook of Peabody, who owns property at the lake, asked if the area where the water crafts will be rented could cause congestion with fishing and other boats on the water.

She also wondered if the county would be exposed to additional liability having a restaurant on county property, specifically food poisoning. Jim Whitfill responded that he would carry his own insurance.

"Does the $50 per day rent include utilities?" Benbrook asked.

It was explained, as at previous commission meetings, that the café and cabins would have separate metering for the utilities of which the Whitfills would be responsible.

County lake resident Dan Crumrine asked why the county would allow the Whitfills to collect rent for the north half of the lake hall if they rent it to customers. Dallke responded that the county was being paid $50 per day, regardless if the Whitfills rent their side.

Crumrine continued that the lake hall was built with grant money and wondered if there was some limitations of how it should be used. Cities that provide lease-purchase opportunities to private industry do not use grant money to construct the buildings, Crumrine said.

Gordon Pendergraft said he had done the math.

If the Whitfills rent out the cabins at $100 per day from April to September, there are 212 possible days to rent. At $100 per day and the county's three percent cut, that would only be $636 per year that the county will receive, Pendergraft said, which is not much money for the extra work that county employees will have to provide.

Holub said Pendergraft forgot the additional six percent for a "bed tax" and one percent county sales tax, for a total of 10 percent.

"It's going to draw more people to the lake and that's our goal," Holub said.

David Oursler of Peabody said he was concerned about the staging area of the human-propelled boats.

He also asked if there were any plans to increase the electricity at some campsites where there are 30-amp outlets instead of 50 amp. Holub responded that the county was trying to add more camping sites which may require an increase in the mill levy.

"(Income from) . . . the cabins, café, and boats are going to offset expenses at the lake," Holub said. "We're trying to offer something without increasing taxes."

He continued that the lake requires $87,000 per year to operate.

"These projects aren't economic development but tax relief," Holub said.

Karen Spinden of McPherson said she owns a trailer house at the lake. She, too, was concerned about the three percent income for the county. Spinden said that the cabins probably would be rented 26 weekends a year at maybe $75 per night which is a total income of $3,600, and the county would receive $360 per year.

"That's assuming the cabins are rented 100 percent of those weekends," Spinden said. "Occupancy for motels is 40 percent, at best. Is $390 per year enough to pay for electricity that each cabin would generate?"

Earlier in the forum, it was again mentioned that the Whitfills would pay the monthly utility charges.

Spinden said there were 66 mobile home owners who pay $1,000 per year lot rent to "have the pleasure of spending weekends at the lake.

"That's a considerable amount of money that's pumped into that," she said. "Is this the best way to support the lake?"

Spinden continued that she spends money in Marion and is a taxpayer who supports the park and recreational activities.

Deb Whitfill said she and her husband were full-time lake residents. Again she explained that the utility costs would be their responsibility, not the county's.

"Cabins will include water and sewer, all on us," Deb Whitfill said. "It will not cost the county to do this."

Crumrine corrected Spinden and said there are 57 trailers and there are 66 hook-ups.

Judy Priest, lake resident, said she wanted to speak on behalf of the Whitfills. She said she knows there is a need to have cabins for rent at the lake.

"I think these people will do a good job," Priest said. "They could have gone a lot of places and done a lot of things but want to help our community. I hope we can work this out.

"We can only see what we've always had," Priest said, stating that Marion tends to be provincial regarding economic development.

Lake resident Richard Plume said he didn't care one way or the other regarding the proposed development but noted there were a lot of vacant restaurants in town. He agreed that more motels are needed but was concerned about additional boats on the lake.

"There are so many boats on the water . . . you're flirting with disaster," he said. "It's just too dangerous the way it is right now to have free rein on the lake."

Plume suggested the county devise a business plan and a feasibility study and put the project out for bids.

"Let's do it but let's get all of our ducks in a row," Plume said. "Have you really researched what it would take to do this development? There are little things that you people need to to take into consideration. The county should take care of its end of it."

Rick Sardou brought another point of view to the attention of the commission. The lake resident and his wife, Linda, have owned a bed and breakfast at the lake for three years, and have yet to break even.

"Linda makes no money (off of it)," Sardou said. "Last year we came within $800 of just paying expenses on the building."

He continued that he questioned the feasibility of creating an income with the cabins. What happens if the cabin business fails? Would the county own them? Would the bank own them?

"I'm not afraid of competition," Sardou said. "Competition is the only way this town and county are going to grow. I don't want to see the competition be given an unfair advantage that other businesses don't have.

"It gives them (the Whitfills) an unfair economic advantage when they don't have to buy the land and put all of the investment in this project. If this doesn't float, are we going to end up paying for this in our taxes?

"Am I going to be financing my competition through my taxes?" Sardou asked.

Holub said he considered bed and breakfast businesses and cabin rentals as two separate types of businesses, attracting different clientele.

"Some won't rent a bed and breakfast but will a cabin," Holub said. He continued that the Whitfills are paying three percent to the county and will pay personal property taxes on the cabin structures.

Sardou then asked if county lake superintendent Steve Hudson would be responsible for the cabins. Holub responded that Hudson would not be responsible for maintenance, upkeep, or renting the cabins.

Benbrook said the lake was peaceful and quiet and couldn't imagine any further development there.

Marion resident and city economic development director Jami Williams said the county had done a "great injustice to the Whitfills.

"This has become such a situation that they are starting out with two strikes against them. I don't think the homework has been done right. My only concern was that the (former) Kingfisher was a huge draw to the county lake. The restaurant is being auctioned," Williams said.

Jim Whitfill said he made four offers on the restaurant, most recently two weeks ago.

"I'm talking about a coffee and breakfast, and lunch thing, and then we're done," Jim Whitfill said.

Tina Novak, owner of the Kingfisher Steakhouse and Lounge, said the Whitfills did make an offer but two years ago "I was in contract with them for a substantial amount," she said. The Whitfills had made an offer to her a couple of weeks ago that evidently was considerably less.

"I think the county ought to buy my restaurant and lease that to them," Novak said.

Lake resident Nancy Fee said her experiences of working at the lake office were seeing families using the kitchen at the lake hall as well as larger groups using it each summer.

"These families and groups won't come back," Fee said, if the lake hall isn't available.

Dallke said the Whitfills would lock up their equipment so that half of the hall can be rented.

Ken Schmidt, also a county lake employee, asked who was going to police the people in the cabins and on the water.

Lake resident Don Fruechting said the Whitfills were sincere in what they are wanting to do and supported it.

No time line was mentioned regarding negotiations between the county and the Whitfills. The commission had appointed county economic development director Teresa Huffman to oversee the project and negotiate with the developers.

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