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City OKs public financing for Liberty Commons project

Some concepts for Liberty Commons redevelopment.
Some concepts for Liberty Commons redevelopment. RED DEVELOPMENT

The Liberty City Council has put its stamp of approval on public financing to redevelop the 29-acre Liberty Commons shopping center just east of Interstate 35.

With little discussion, the council on Monday approved special taxing districts and assessments that it says are needed to tear down and rebuild the mostly empty shopping center.

Meanwhile issues with the fire sprinkler system remained unresolved, though the property owner, Sears Holdings, has had work crews out recently to get them fixed, said Fire Chief Mike Snider.

The sprinkler system serving the middle part of the center had been disabled since at least mid-October. That’s when a former fire captain reported to officials that a valve had been turned off.

The system appeared almost ready to go Dec. 8, but leaks were discovered during a final test, Snider said. The company has ordered more parts to complete the work. The company is also working on its heating system to prevent the pipes freezing during the winter, Snider said.

Liberty Commons, located at the southeast corner of the interstate and Kansas Street, is anchored on one end by the B&B Cinema 12 and on the other by an empty former Kmart. Sprinkler systems were operational for both ends of the center, but not for the middle part, which was devoted to smaller retail spaces.

That part of the center has a lot of vacancies. But a motor vehicle licensing office, a restaurant and dental office were still seeing customers.

The violation was reported by retired Liberty fire captain Harry Boggess in October. Boggess chided the council during the meeting Monday for not being quicker to respond to his request for records on the sprinkler safety tests.

“People’s lives are your responsibility,” he said. “Property can be replaced but people’s lives cannot.”

Sears Holdings did not respond to email and phone requests for comment on the repairs.

The fire department has the option of asking businesses at the center to vacate for safety reasons if the sprinklers are not fixed. However, Snider said he has not set any further deadlines for that to happen. He said Sears understands that the systems are to be fixed quickly to ensure the safety of customers and employees.

Meanwhile, the city council moved forward on new plans for the shopping center, which is at one of the main entrances to the city. Plans are for an $80 million project that would include a seven-story hotel, retail area and six pad sites, for a total of about 332,300 square feet of commercial space.

The city’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) commission already has approved public financing of about $32.5 million that would come from special taxing districts and assessments. Sales taxes in the area would increase to 9.725 percent from the current rate of 7.725 percent.

Boggess questioned the public financing package during the public hearing Monday night, saying that the TIF will ask Liberty public schools to forgo $1.9 million in tax revenue per year for 15 years.

But Karan Johnson, the city’s economic development manager, said the schools will see an increase in real estate tax revenue once the project is done.

No other citizens spoke at the public hearing.

The anchor stores probably will not be announced until closer to the end of 2014, said Dave Claflin, spokesman for RED Legacy, the developer. Pending approval of the site plans, the remaining businesses would be relocated in the spring of 2015, with construction expected to be done in 2016 or 2017.

The B&B theater will have to relocate as part of the plan. The theater has separate plans to build a new theater close by the redone Liberty Commons, in front of Liberty High School. No opening date has yet been set for the new theater.

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