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Developer has big plans for long-vacant drive-in: N.Y. firm has 93-acre Lawrence site under contract

September 25, 2006

A 93-acre former drive-in south of the former Fort Benjamin Harrison has sat vacant since the theater closed in 1993. But now a Rochester, N.Y., developer has agreed to buy the property and envisions building retail space plus either a light-industrial business park or a medical campus.

If it comes to pass, the large development could kick-start Lawrence's efforts to revitalize struggling portions of Pendleton Pike.

Norry Management Corp. has had the land under contract since spring and is preparing to seek rezoning, said CEO Lewis A. Norry.

He said the site is well-suited for a light industrial project with flex office space or, his preferred option, a medical campus.

"My gut sense is that it would make a phenomenal medical campus in an area that's not covered," Norry said. "It's a hole in the patchwork right now."

The closest hospitals are Community North at Interstate 69 and 82nd Street and Community East on 16th Street.

Either scenario, Norry said, would include a significant retail component along Pendleton Pike. The site has 1,400 feet of frontage along the busy thoroughfare.

Big-box chains, including Wal-Mart and Kohl's, have stores on Pendleton Pike two miles east of the site. But Norry hopes to get a stoplight entrance for the parcel, upping the chances of landing national retailers.

The seller of the property is Paul Estridge Jr., via Estridge Development Co. Inc. In 2000, his father proposed building a horse track there. A state commission turned him down, saying it was too close to Hoosier Park in Anderson. He later won approval to open Indiana Downs in Shelbyville.

Listing broker Ross Reller, vice president of Indianapolis-based Meridian Real Estate, said many firms wanted to purchase part of the property, but Estridge preferred finding a buyer for the entire site.

"We were really looking for the right user," Reller said, citing Norry's success in revitalizing the former Western Electric manufacturing plant on Shadeland Avenue. After buying the vacant east-side plant in the mid-1980s, the developer turned it into a 1-million-square-foot industrial park that's 95-percent occupied.

Neither Norry nor Reller would disclose the purchase price for the drive-in site. However, it was listed for $6 million.

Landing a hospital or large medical campus on the property might be a stretch, said Mike McCaslin, a health care consultant at Indianapolis-based Somerset CPAs.

McCaslin said that about a mile to the north, the Fort Harrison area already has several doctors' offices. He said health care firms have been choosing areas with higher incomes for projects like hospitals.

"I don't know if medical works at that location," he said.

On the other hand, a mix of light industrial and retail probably would be successful, said Abbe Hohmann, a senior vice president of the local office of St. Louisbased Colliers Turley Martin Tucker

If it happens, Norry's project would help kick off the city of Lawrence's push to revitalize Pendleton Pike. The road is heavily traveled, but older shopping centers struggle with high vacancies. Businesses along the road include strip clubs and payday lenders.

New legislation gives smaller cities like Lawrence a tool to spur economic revival. The law allows them to form commissions that can set up so-called tax-increment financing districts. Property taxes generated by new developments in the districts can be used on upgrades.

Lawrence officials have targeted Pendleton Pike from Interstate 465 northeast to Sunnyside Road as their first redevelopment corridor and are working to finalize a plan for that stretch. The drive-in falls within that area. The city has talked with Norry officials, but has not finalized incentives. "We're very excited about that particular spot," said Lori Kaplan, Lawrence's director of public works. "It's on a major thoroughfare and is a gateway into Lawrence." State transportation plans to complete upgrades to Pendleton Pike. Norry's project could boost the Fort Benjamin Harrison Reuse Authority's plan to build Lawrence Village Center, an 85-acre office, retail and residential development. "We need to look at Pendleton Pike as the front door to Lawrence," authority Executive Director Ehren Bingaman said. "A major investment would be a great indicator in terms of the potential for Pendleton Pike."
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