State government to commit funds for Docking building renovation, new KDHE lab
The years-long attempt to figure out what to do with the neglected Docking State Office Building finally has some financial backing.
Kansas lawmakers last week put into the state budget up to $120 million in bonds to renovate the building. The language calls for preserving all 12 stories of the building and including only office space.
Legislators also set aside $55 million in bonds for a new, separate Kansas Department of Health and Environment lab to be placed within an eight-mile radius of the Kansas Statehouse. Gov. Laura Kelly's administration had preferred keeping the lab within the Docking building.
"It's a tragedy that Topeka, with all the effort that's been put in the downtown, has that sitting there right next to this this capitol that we've invested so much in as taxpayers," said Sen. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina. "We really do need to do something to address it."
The 62-year-old high rise adjacent to the Statehouse has had a bad history of issues and neglect plaguing it. Former Gov. Sam Brownback had pushed to tear it down, but that was ultimately rejected.
Now, there is some progress toward renovation being made. Some of the money could come from the federal coronavirus relief funding, particularly to help pay for the KDHE lab, heavily used during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fact the KDHE lab will also remain in Topeka is a win for the state health department, after initial discussions leaned toward potentially moving it outside the capitol city.
"That lab could be located anywhere, but there would be certain things that would be lost by having it too far remote from our main campus," said KDHE Secretary Lee Norman previously. "We've had a long-standing recruitment and retention process that goes on with Washburn University ... (and) I do worry on the intermediate run about retention. We know that 54% of our staff reside in Shawnee County."
The Legislature, however, delayed the finer details of how the building renovation and lab construction will play out. A committee of lawmakers will meet over the summer to review all potential plans and then formally recommend one for approval.
Some threw around the idea of putting the Kansas Museum of History into Docking, saying it would attract more footsteps and tourists in the downtown area. And the space where the museum is could be used to place the new lab.
But those details, such as where the lab should exactly be located, will be for a later time. The governor still has to sign off on the budget, which she is expected to.
"That's the issue with Docking," Claeys said, "is constantly you'll have someone come in with a brand new idea, right when we're about to do something."