The question of how to "protect" downtown Lawrence has been discussed for years. Before there was any thought of suburban malls, downtown leaders were active in trying to promote the area, make it as attractive and inviting as possible, and encourage local and area shoppers to buy from downtown merchants rather than drive to Kansas City or Topeka for their purchases.
Improvements in the highway system between Lawrence and Kansas City and Lawrence and Topeka made the drive to these cities faster and safer, and Lawrence was losing many retail dollars and much tax revenue.
The Lawrence Chamber of Commerce used to be very active and take a far more active leadership role in promoting downtown Lawrence. Representatives of the chamber spearheaded the drive to develop benefit districts and off-street parking. They organized Christmas lighting activities, the popular summer sidewalk sale and many other events.
It wasn't until a nationally known and highly successful developer from Cleveland expressed interest in building a true shopping mall on South Iowa that the question of protecting downtown Lawrence from the competition of a so-called "cornfield mall" developed into a heated controversy in Lawrence.
These particular developers then shifted plans and proposed building a mall east of Massachusetts Street, primarily in the 800 block, but this, too, was rejected because officials feared the development would destroy or damage the aesthetic value of downtown.
These were nice-sounding arguments, but many wondered just how much of the opposition was based on downtown merchants not wanting the added competition that would come from several new, large department stores that were expected to be part of the mall project, along with the smaller retailers that would be located in the mall.
It is interesting to note that Iowa Street, south of 31st Street, probably has more retail development now than it would have if the cornfield mall had been given the green light many years ago.
Jumping forward to today's situation, Lawrence city commissioners now have decided to pump city funds into trying to help the economic health of downtown and have gone so far as to suggest they will not look favorably on the location of any more large, national stores in downtown. They say they will not oppose such operations but rather will use city money to try to attract smaller shops to the area and encourage existing smaller shops to expand.
Added to this is the manner in which "architectural guidelines" can be used to approve or deny new buildings or the remodeling of buildings downtown. In addition, there is the ability of some to suggest that a new building or remodeling a building may violate or damage, in some way, a nearby structure that has been designated as historical.
So there are many means already in place by which the city can deny about any kind of new building or remodeling in downtown.
It is good and proper to take pride in downtown, and time and again, visitors to Lawrence comment on the attractiveness of the downtown area.
It's one thing to be attractive and quaint but something quite different to be a flourishing, fiscally sound downtown. There need to be major stores in the downtown to generate traffic. There need to be convenient parking facilities to encourage shoppers/motorists to shop in downtown rather than drive to outlying shopping centers or to Kansas City and Topeka.
So far, several of the newer, larger national stores that have located downtown in recent years appear to have given little back to the city. There are complaints that they haven't participated in major civic endeavors. And there may be other complaints. But they do draw shoppers downtown.
What would the downtown retail shopper traffic be today without some of the major downtown stores? It's nice to have the "smaller shops" city commissioners want to promote and protect, but how would these stores do without some larger stores to help lure shoppers to the downtown area. What is "large" in the eyes of city commissioners and what constitutes a small store? Is it the dollar volume a store does, the amount of Massachusetts Street frontage, the number of stories or what?
On what basis will city commissioners allocate dollars to encourage the smaller stores, and how large or national in scope must a store be before the city, through various means, will give that company the cold shoulder, refuse to allow it downtown and maybe even reject any effort by the company to build in a suburban location?
It is apparent the "protect downtown" effort is going to be an ongoing situation.
All Lawrence residents have a right to be proud of their downtown, and it is to be prized and protected. At the same time, extreme care must be taken not to be so protective that legitimate, well-run national companies are discouraged from coming to Lawrence. The large shopping centers of Kansas City are developing closer and closer to Lawrence, and it is important that local residents can fill most of their shopping needs in Lawrence stores rather than thinking they must shop in Kansas City or Topeka to find the selection and price they want.