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Archive for Sunday, August 23, 1998

RETAIL BALANCE

August 23, 1998

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The unsurprising conclusion of a new study is that downtown Lawrence no longer is the city's center of retail activity. But what should the city do about it?

A new study with the catchy title of ``Retail Market Dynamics'' offers some interesting observations about the retail scene in Lawrence.

The study paints a picture of where the city is and where it may be heading in terms of retail businesses. It encompasses five years' worth of sales tax data and more than 100 years of construction information and relates that information to the 500 existing retail properties in the city.

One of the most striking figures in the study should come as no surprise to Lawrence residents. The study found that downtown Lawrence and West 23rd Street each account for about 18 percent of the city's total retail sales. But the real powerhouse is on South Iowa Street, which takes in about twice that amount. That local balance of trade is sure to tip even further to the south by the end of the year with the openings of new Kohl's, Penney's and Sears stores and an expanded Kmart.

What does that mean to Lawrence?

Well, it depends on who you ask. Some adjustment in the market is inevitable. Over the last several decades, the nature of businesses in downtown Lawrence has changed considerably. Grocery stores and car dealerships have migrated outward. Local people looking for clothing, hardware, furniture or a pharmacy once had nowhere to go but downtown. Now, many of the dollars spent on those items is spent in other parts of town.

Increasingly, what people come downtown for is entertainment. They have favorite restaurants or specialty shops they want to visit. They will spend money there, but not as much money as they do in other parts of town.

Some people view this as a harmless, inevitable evolution of retail in Lawrence. Other people -- including the Kansas University associate professor of urban planning who authored the retail study -- believe the trend paints a dark future for downtown Lawrence. History, he told commissioners, shows that if the city allows too much retail development in other parts of town, the city's older commercial areas will suffer.

Keeping Lawrence's downtown vibrant while allowing for opportunities in the rest of the city is a constant balancing act for city officials. Downtown Lawrence has shown amazing resilience over the years, but the challenges to its retail health are growing.

The proximity of the Kansas University campus always has been a boon to downtown, but that isn't a long-term guarantee of success. It also was reported this week that demand for residential rentals in the central city neighborhoods around the university seemed to be waning in favor of newer apartments that were further away but offer desirable amenities.

Downtown Lawrence no longer meets all the retail needs of local residents, but it nonetheless is a valued center of social and shopping activity. There isn't room for companies that want to build large stores that require large, adjacent parking facilities, but the recent influx of smaller national stores as well as the continued success of locally owned businesses indicates downtown still is a desirable retail location.

There's only so much city officials should do to try to manipulate the future of downtown by curbing retail growth in other parts of town. It's interesting to note how the retail figures have shifts in the city, but, so far, downtown Lawrence has shown it can successfully evolve and survive.

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