By Michael Schwanke
KWCH 12 Eyewitness News
4:17 PM CST, November 15, 2012
(BEL AIRE, Kan.)
Bel Aire was at the edge.
“Bel Aire faced its own financial cliff I guess you could say,” says city manager Ty Lasher.
Just last year, hundreds came out to help Bel Aire leaders solve a problem. “It got to the point where we had to look at all the options,” says Lasher.
Police, fire, and the recreation center all faced cuts. Large tax hikes were also considered. The idea of giving up the city charter was even discussed.
“Our citizens said we incurred this debt and we're obligated to pay for it so the idea of walking away from it was taken off the table,” adds Lasher.
The debt came from land deals made when economy was strong. The city decided to buy thousands of acres. “You either grow or you die. You can't stay the same” says former Bel Aire Mayor Gary O’Neal.
O’Neal was mayor when the land was purchased. He stands by the city’s decision to buy the land. O'Neal says early on there were protections for taxpayers and private investors were involved. But over time the city assumed all the risks.
Now, half of all the money Bel Aire takes in goes to land debt payments.
“I have no regrets for the risks that were taken,” says O’Neal. He says it was a long term plan.
“The risks that were taken…I think we're seeing the fruits of those now.”
He may be right. Construction is underway in Bel Aire’s 800 acre industrial park. Century Manufacturing is constructing a $2.2 million facility. It’s moving its operations from Wichita to Bel Aire because of incentives offered.
“It's kind of nice to be the first one,” says Owner Jim Laubach.
Laubach says Bel Aire made sense and it saved him money. The city offered him property tax abatements for 10 years. “They promised they would get the streets and sewer and I took them at their word and they're making it happen,” says Laubach.
Lasher says two other manufacturing deals are possible, and a $5 million medical facility also plans to build in Bel Aire.
Home construction is also making a comeback.
“We've had more housing units than we've had in five years,” says Lasher. Two new schools have also opened and Bel Aire is getting its debt under control.
But as it comes back from its own “financial cliff” it has learned a lesson.
“I think we've learned than when boon times are there…they’re not always going to be there;” says Lasher.
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