Please forgive downtown Lawrence merchants if their gaze keeps drifting north this spring.
It's just that they're anxious to see what the impact will be from the Lawrence Riverfront Plaza, a factory outlet shopping complex scheduled to open this month along the Kansas River just east of city hall.
Perhaps nobody's more interested in the plaza than George Paley, who says it's the most important issue facing Downtown Lawrence this year.
Paley, the owner of Natural Way and president of the Downtown Lawrence board of directors, said in a recent interview that nobody knows what the impact will be until the plaza is up and running. But Paley has a good feeling about the riverfront project partly because it's a far cry from the malls found in Topeka and Kansas City.
AND HE SAID he expects several local businesses to have stores in the mall, which will separate it from traditional suburban malls, which generally have little local participation.
Also, "the mere fact that it's so close to downtown it's part of downtown as far as we're concerned is positive, we think," he said.
Paley said he and other downtown merchants feel strongly that the mall will add to Lawrence's unique environment and draw even more people to town.
"We hope the increase in the pure numbers of people coming to Lawrence, that the overflow should increase the amount of business people downtown are doing now," he said.
Making use of Lawrence's newest attraction is one of the major goals this year of Downtown Lawrence, which is emerging from a turbulent year.
IN JANUARY 1989, the downtown organization's board of directors decided to change the group's name. The organization had been known since its inception in 1972 as the Downtown Lawrence Assn.
The Downtown Lawrence board said the new name reflected the organizational changes made since Lawrence entered the Main Street Program in 1985.
Formed as a merchant's association, the group's main purpose initially was to promote the downtown. But under the Main Street approach, Downtown Lawrence works to comprehensively improve all aspects of the downtown.
Then last May, the Downtown Lawrence board of directors endorsed a proposal to dissolve the controversial business improvement district.
The BID, formed in 1987 by the Lawrence City Commission, assessed annual mandatory fees on downtown businesses to pay for improvements and general promotions downtown under a program administered by Downtown Lawrence.
HOWEVER, the BID was marked by controversy because several business owners objected to the mandatory fees.
Since the dissolution of the BID, Downtown Lawrence's membership and budget have decreased. The 1990 budget of $39,500 is about half of last year's, and DL board members have said there are no plans to hire an executive director this year.
But "in many ways, it's stronger," Paley said. "A lot of people resented the BID. . . . They always said they'd be happy to participate if they weren't forced. Many of those people in fact are coming on board.
"All in all, we seem to happier and stronger having a volunteer organization," he said. "People who work on committees are working hard and more and more businesses are getting involved."
Paley said DL will make a major push this spring to boost its membership. Downtown Lawrence now has 120 members, down markedly from the 400 it had during the BID.
"I THINK we'd like to try to get it up to about 60 percent," he said.
The Downtown Lawrence board also is on a fact-finding mission this year.
The board is trying to gather information on retail "leakage" out of Lawrence, Paley said, and how much business comes from out of town.
Paley said he thinks there's more leakage into Lawrence than out of Lawrence. For example, the people at Silverworks jewelry store estimate that 30 to 40 percent of their business comes from out of town, he said.
"Certainly, people go out of Lawrence to do lots of things," he said. But a lot of people from Kansas City and Topeka come to Lawrence, Paley said, "because they like the feel of downtown, the personal attention and service they get here."
LAWRENCE HAS a lot going for it, he said, such as Kansas University, an excellent school system, affordable housing and a thriving arts community.
Paley said Downtown Lawrence officials are talking to local artists about holding more art fairs.
"Lawrence has the potential to be the Santa Fe, New Mexico, of Kansas," he said, "because there are so many great artists here."
Paley cited the growth of art galleries in town, the development of the Lawrence Arts Center and the downtown sculptures as signs of the active community of artists here.
Downtown Lawrence officials also plan to continue to seek ways to improve the parking situation, which he said will only get more pressing when the mall opens.
Meters are unpopular but without them, parking abuses probably would be worse, he said. For about a year now, downtown merchants have been waging a "Park Smart" campaign to encourage fellow merchants, employees, upstairs apartment tenants and others to park in the city lots behind the stores and leave the spaces on Massachusetts for the customers.
PALEY SAID he'd also like to see more businesses open up their back doors and improve the rear facades of their buildings if necessary to make the entry from the parking lots more inviting.
Linking the mall to downtown is another issue, he said, adding that Downtown Lawrence officials are looking into the possibility of leasing a trolley. The city budgeted $100,000 for 1990 to buy a trolley and $50,000 to operate it for a year, but the Lawrence City Commission decided earlier this year to explore other, less costly options.
Paley said Downtown Lawrence officials have talked about a bicycle shuttle service, and are continuing discussions with the Lawrence Bus Co., which runs buses between the KU campus and downtown. The bus company has been very cooperative, according to Paley, who said he's hopeful that something can be worked out for transporting people between the mall and downtown shops.