TOPEKA — Conflicted opinions were on display as a panel of legislators recommended a three-story event center at the Docking State Office Building site.
In advancing the plan Monday, Republican members of the Joint Committee on State Building Construction dismissed proposals for taller versions sponsored by committee Democrats and the Department of Administration. The recommendation calls for either renovation of the bottom three floors or new construction of the event center, but the final details will be ironed out by the State Finance Council, which has the final say on the issue.
During the legislative session earlier this year, legislators approved $129 million in bonds to renovate the mostly vacant 60-year-old building. It is still home to the heating and cooling plant used to power the Capitol complex.
Sen. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, offered the plan to ensure flexibility in the final model and allow for possible consideration of a new energy system.
“No plan would be the worst plan, and I think that it is good for us to move forward with some instruction for the State Finance Council,” Claeys said. “Another decade of this eyesore sitting on the Topeka skyline just isn’t something I’m willing to accept.”
In the same vote, the committee also approved a plan to build a new Kansas Department of Health and Environment laboratory at the Kansas Neurological Institute. There was some pushback over the move because the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was considering the spot for a new veteran’s home, but the motion passed.
Opponents of the recommendation preferred maintaining the Docking Building for historical purposes or felt the plan was too broad. It passed, 6-4, after a hectic voting process matching the debate.
After time spent debating whether committee members could vote remotely, there was confusion about the number of votes necessary to send the recommendation to the State Finance Council. Eventually, a senator with difficulties accessing the meeting was brought in via cellphone to cast the sixth vote in favor of the plan.
The proposal also allows other organizations, such as the Kansas State Museum, to have exhibits on display.
“My husband and I have visited over 25 state capitals, and most of them have some sort of museum near the state capitol,” said Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita. “I love the idea of rotating exhibits, so this becomes a center for people to look at the capitol and to see some of the history of the state of Kansas.”
However, all four Democrats on the committee voted against the proposal, some offering alternative options in concert with or against the Claeys plan. Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, went as far as to recommend the building be added to the National Register of Historic Places and that the whole building be renovated.
Some advocates and stakeholders have supported maintaining parts of the building for historical reasons as well.
“Tearing down any floors of the Docking State Office Building would be a travesty,” Francisco said.
Other Democrats on the committee, such as Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, proposed that the committee endorse the six-floor plan as a more effective approach to the longstanding problem.
“Chamber of Commerce, the City of Topeka, Greater Topeka Partnership, business owners downtown — everybody’s in favor of the amendment that Sen. Hawk has proposed,” said Rep, John Alcala, a Democrat whose district includes the Docking Building.
All proposals from the Democratic committee members were rejected, including recommendations that multiple proposals be advanced to the State Finance Council. There is no timeline for when that panel will act.
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