Split commission moves forward on next phase of Johnson County Square in Olathe

A partially completed Johnson County Square on the site of the former county courthouse in downtown Olathe was unveiled in December 2021. File photo credit Nikki Lansford.

The public plaza at the site of the old county courthouse in Olathe remains on the road to completion next spring with the approval Thursday of agreements on funding, maintenance and management by the county commission.

Driving the news: Commissioners took a series of votes related to the square, which was created when the old courthouse was razed last year.

  • The square has been partially completed, but there are several features yet to be installed, including a history-themed memorial plaza, a multi-use platform, art garden play area and tree grove seating area.
  • The area will also need some additional utility infrastructure before the first events can use it, possibly as soon as May 2023.

Details: The votes Thursday centered on an agreement between the city and county for events Olathe will host on the plaza, which is county property.

  • Under that agreement, the city and county each contribute about $1 million to the improvements.
  • The city, which approved its half of the agreement on Aug. 2, would be responsible for programming events like Old Settler’s Days and the Chamber of Commerce’s Fourth Fridays through its permitting process.
  • Permit fees would be shared for continued repairs and improvements in those self-sustaining operations.
  • The county would continue to maintain the space. The agreement also calls for the creation of a city-county committee to coordinate operations.
At the square, looking toward the new county courthouse in downtown Olathe. File photo.

The votes: Although a majority of the commission voted in favor of the measures, some balked at the funding agreement.

  • Commissioners Charlotte O’Hara, Michael Ashcraft and Janeé Hanzlick voted against the funding item for varying reasons.

What they said: O’Hara, who is running for county chair and advanced out of Tuesday’s primary, said she was troubled by the thought of spending when her constituents have been hurt by higher property valuations that may result in a bigger property tax bill. The money could be combined with other spending cuts to roll back the mill levy rate, she said.

  • “This is not just a million dollars in isolation. It’s the attitude of just spend, spend, spend,” she said, noting the commission recently allocated $15 million for infrastructure to support the coming Panasonic plant near DeSoto.
  • Ashcraft said, “part of me wants to be very supportive, but I keep hearing from people who have expressed concerns about our expenditures on the things that are nice,” adding that it is beneficial to some degree but struggles with the return on investment. “I’m sure the plaza will be nice and I’m sure it will be used but I look at that million dollars and I think what are we doing to push tax relief for people who are on fixed incomes.”
  • Hanzlick voted against it because she wanted to see more effort to get fundraising from community groups for some of the cost: “I am concerned about this action not because I think a million dollars is going to lower anybody’s property taxes. That’s a very tiny amount, it will not make any difference,” on overall tax bills, she said.

The other side: Those supporting it said the benefit to the community shouldn’t be overlooked because it encourages young families to locate nearby.

  • “About the return on investment, I don’t think you can ever underestimate community pride and county pride, beautification. That’s one important piece,” said Commissioner Jeff Meyers.
  • Chairman Ed Eilert said similar improvements have benefitted other communities.
  • “Looking into the future this investment also is going to turn out to be a very positive investment for Olathe,” he said.

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist who reports frequently for the Post and other Kansas City area publications. You can reach her at roxieham@gmail.com