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What a Kroc

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Sometimes you just have to dump all your pieces on the table and see what you've got.

After months of stalling by the city attorney's office, representatives from the Salvation Army met with the City Council's park committee last week to discuss a site-specific plan for the proposed Kroc Center. The more than $20 million recreational facility is tentatively planned for 28 acres on the fairgrounds, but the council had questions about where exactly the Kroc Center would be located and how the land would be transferred.

"I'm a little concerned," said Dedrick Brittenum. "I think it's a great facility, but if we agree on a location before we finish the fairgrounds analysis, we're basically letting the Kroc Center dictate to developers how the rest of the fairgrounds will be developed."

The fairgrounds re-use committee has been studying how best to use the land since 2004. Last February, six different scenarios were presented to the committee -- including one that omitted the Mid-South Coliseum and the Mid-South Fair from the property entirely -- but no decision was ever made. A study of each scenario's economic impact is expected by the end of the year, after which the council should have a clear plan for the property.

But the Salvation Army's proposal was to put the Kroc Center -- made possible by a trust from McDonald's widow Joan Kroc -- on property just south of Fairview Junior High and north of what used to be Libertyland.

"It's like the tail wagging the dog," said Brittenum. "That is the choice location on the property. This way developers will have to work around the Kroc Center. It may diminish the opportunity that developers see."

But with time running short -- the Salvation Army would like to break ground on the center next spring -- both groups need to start thinking seriously about what the final product is going to look like.

Stephen Carpenter, director of the Kroc Center, said the group's architects have done preliminary drawings, using the fairgrounds site as a placeholder.

"We can only go so far," said Carpenter. "If it ends up not being that site, that will be wasted work. We're getting within a month of having to stop everything if the site is not set."

But the location is not the only problem. The Kroc Center must own the land, whether it's donated or bought at fair market value. And there's a question of whether or not the city can give land to what is -- technically -- a religious organization.

"That's valuable land. I would prefer a sale rather than lease it or give it," said council chair TaJuan Stout Mitchell. "I would rather look at land that would be harder to sell. ... It could be in the Salvation Army's best interest to look at that part of the land and save your money."

Saving the choice property for high-dollar customers may be a smart move, especially if the Kroc Center will increase the nearby property value. But the problem for both sides is this: How do you put a puzzle together if you don't have all the pieces?

By the parameters of the trust, the Kroc Center has to be highly visible and easily accessible. And without knowing what else will be located on the property, there are no guarantees that those parameters would be met if the Salvation Army agreed to a different fairground site.

"If we don't have a street, then it's questionable," said Carpenter. "The Salvation Army is the only one that's come forward with a project with money on the table, ready to do a program. ... We'd work with other parties, but there aren't any that we know of."

The city and the Salvation Army are meeting this week to discuss a possible contract agreement, with an aim to having a proposal before the full council within the month. However, with an eye to the other possible puzzle pieces, the committee asked that the city attorney's office go forward with negotiations without a particular site in mind.

I don't think anyone in city government wants to lose this project, especially if it means sending it to DeSoto or Crittenden counties. And the city definitely has the opportunity to make the fairgrounds a landmark project. But there's no need to get greedy. Think about what's there now; almost anything would be an improvement.

Selling the best piece of the property first may make other groups less interested in the land, but maybe not. Wouldn't the Kroc Center -- with $24 million to be raised locally and a $48 million grant for operational costs -- make the less desirable land more desirable?

We could be looking at the perfect fit.

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