County will tear down boys ranch

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information, reflecting the story that first appeared in the Aug. 10 print edition of The Times-Sentinel.

By Travis Mounts

Sedgwick County Commissioners voted last week Wednesday to demolish the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch at Lake Afton.

The 3-2 decision was made during the regular commission meeting, with commissioners David Dennis, Michael O’Donnell and Dave Unruh voting for the demolition. Jim Howell and Richard Ranzau were opposed.

Even empty, the boys ranch was a drain on county finances, according to Commissioner Dennis, whose district includes Lake Afton.

“It was costing $20,000 annually to keep it empty,” he said.

County leaders had explored selling the ranch, but those efforts were complicated by a 50-year-old federal grant for a bathroom. A grant for just over $7,000 from the Kansas Park and Resources Authority (now the Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism) provided money for a bathroom, but a portion of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965 limited what else could be done with the ranch. To use the property for a different purpose would have involved navigating the federal government, including obtaining approved from Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.

Dennis, who took office in January, was not a fan of trying to sell the facility.

“I’m not interested in selling park land,” he said. “I want to make sure we preserve it for Sedgwick County citizens.”

Dennis said the costs were a bigger issue to him than the encumberance.

The facility has not been in use since 2014. It closed after a funding dispute between Sedgwick County and the state of Kansas. The facility was a home for troubled teens, and operated in the southwest corner of Lake Afton, in rural Goddard, for decades.

The state was paying for the cost of housing youth there, but the money was not enough to cover all costs. At the time the facility was closed, Sedgwick County was supplementing the Riddel Boys Ranch with $1 million or more for county funds annually. The ranch was housing approximately 41 teenage boys at the time of its closing.

The daily cost per day to house one youth was $204, but the state was paying just $126 per youth per day. Efforts in 2014 to get additional funding from the state were unsuccessful.

Attempts were made to find a group to use the facility, but nothing came to fruition. The facility has fallen into disrepair and would have required extensive work to use.

In early 2015, it was estimated the cost to reopen the boys ranch and operate for 18 months would be around $5.5 million; it remained closed.

Demolition will begin with asbestos removal. After that, buildings and other structures will be torn down and debris removed. The land will be turned into additional park land.

Dennis said a walking path could be possible in the future. High school and middle school cross country races held in the fall at Lake Afton could trek onto the reclaimed land. Dennis said it is doubtful the county could even build a pavilion on the land without first getting out of the encumberance.

Contracts for the asbestos removal and demolition were approved at a cost of $217,000.

In 1928, the Sedgwick County Boys’ Detention Home open on South Seneca in Wichita. In 1949, the name was changed to the Orville Wright School.

In 1960, the detention home moved to Lake Afton, and was named the Lake Afton Boys’ Ranch. It later was renamed to Judge V. Riddel Boys Ranch.