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Gardner Debates Annexing Intermodal Site

A map of the proposed intermodal development near Gardner.
A map of the proposed intermodal development near Gardner.

By Maria Carter

Gardner, KS – Gardner officials and railroad executives are looking to bring industrial growth in the form of a rail hub to the small Johnson County town. Trains loaded with goods from China and the Pacific would arrive from West Coast ports into the intermodal hub. There the cargo would be moved to trucks and taken to distribution centers in the logistics park before being sent to stores throughout the Midwest. The proposal sparked a wave of concern and public outrage this spring, eventually leading to a ballot proposal to prevent the city from annexing the land. KCUR's Maria Carter reports on the ballot measure.

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Gardner has undergone a rapid change over the past few decades from a town of a few thousand people surrounded by soybean fields to a growing suburb with a newly built Wal-mart and strip malls. Much of Gardner's growth so far has been from new residents moving in to enjoy small town life not too far from their jobs in Johnson County and Kansas City. But some residents fear BNSF Railways plan to put in an intermodal hub and logistics park could threaten the small town atmosphere

Claud Hobby: You know, does anyone want to live in a railtown. I don't. I don't think the majority of people here want to live in a railtown.

Claud Hobby drives his red pick up truck down a dirt road that would be a border for the industrial development. Hobby lives about a mile away from the facility and heads the group that petitioned to get the measure to prevent annexation on the ballot. Hobby says prohibiting annexation will make the process for BNSF more difficult and he hopes the railroad will pull out.

Claud Hobby: We believe we still have a great opportunity. This is a last chance to actually try to stop them. If we vote no and this thing is annexed, it will come. It's over.

BNSF says no matter how the vote goes the development of more than a thousand acres is coming coming. The railway plans on building the intermodal hub and logistics park in the exact same spot whether its part of Gardner or not. Even those opposing the hub like Hobby agree, stopping the annexation s won't stop at least the intermodal part of the plan. That's because the railroad has special rights under federal law, but the vote could affect whether Gardner or Johnson County has authority over the accompanying logistics park. BNSF spokesman Steve Forsberg says the railway would prefer to work with the city on the project but will work with the Johnson County commission if necessary.

Steve Forsberg: We believe it's going to be a tremendous asset in that area regardless of what jurisdiction it ends up in.

Earlier this summer, Gardner was a sea of yard signs reading No Intermodal , but tides have changed. About half the signs proclaim If you can't beat em, tax em. Steve Hale has lived in Gardner for the past 25 years and is part of the group responsible for those signs. He says by annexing the land Gardner will have more control over the project

Steve Hale: We are being asked to give up a right to have a say in how that park is going to developed. I can't for the life of me understand why anybody who lives in this community and wants the best for the community would think that's what we need to do.

Gardner Mayor Carol Lehman agrees the city is in a better position to negotiate than the county, but Lehman says annexing would bring the city other important benefits.

Carol Lehman: Tax revenue is a biggie. Obviously.

According to a BNSF study, the project will create some 7-thousand jobs in Gardner and kick in some 230 million dollars in property taxes to the city, state, and school district. Lehman says that's not something Gardner should miss out on.

Carol Lehman: I personally do not want to have that sitting on my door step without being able to capture the tax revenue.

The Kansas City Area Development Council's Bob Marcusse says it's an important vote for Gardner but less so for Kansas City as a whole.

Bob Marcusse: Whether they choose to be the beneficiary or not, this project is going to go forward. Tax dollars will be generated and they will either go in some large measure to Gardner or they will go elsewhere.

BNSF has not waited for the vote to start work on the project. The rail company has already bought some 80 percent of the land and recently named a developer for the logistics park. Gardner residents will vote on the annexation on Tuesday. When Gardner residents head to the polls, they may find the question before them a little confusing. That's because essentially yes means no. A yes vote stops the city from annexing the land and a no vote allows the city to go ahead with negotiations.

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