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Archive for Sunday, May 30, 1999

LONG-TERM COMMITMENT KEY TO DOWNTOWN SUCCESS

May 30, 1999

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While cities across the nation look for ways to revitalize downtowns, Lawrence's continues evolving to stay vital.

To a lot of residents, it's just downtown.

But Lawrence's thriving, historic central business district is much more. It's the city's front door, its living room, and a mirror of its personality. It's also a model for cities across the nation.

"Lawrence is looked to across the state for its active downtown," said Scott Morrill, Manhattan's Main Street project manager.

That success didn't just happen.

Its roots stretch back at least four decades, when business leaders and city officials decided to make downtown a priority and began planning for growth, the increasing importance of the automobile, and other changes.

That commitment is still key to keeping downtown a vital, thriving part of the city, officials say.

"Unlike most other cities, our downtown has never died," said Chamber of Commerce President Gary Toebben. "People have worked to save it."

There was a time, though, when downtown Lawrence was left for dead. From the ashes left by Quantrill's raiders in 1863, Lawrence has built a successful, thriving downtown.

More important than efforts in the aftermath of the bloody raid has been a half century of development and dedication to downtown.

Once a one-stop shopping center at the town's historic birthplace, downtown has become a specialty and entertainment district as it's evolved to compete with development elsewhere in Lawrence.

Numerous capital investments and development projects have fueled the area's success.

Activity and admiration

Along with Kansas University and Haskell Indian Nations University, downtown has become a key part of Lawrence's identity.

"The university and downtown make us the envy of many communities throughout the country," said Joe Flannery, a 27-year downtown veteran and president of Weavers Department Store Inc. "Downtown, for any community, shows the spirit of the citizens and what is important to them."

Bob Georgeson, president and chief executive of Douglas County Bank, said Lawrence's downtown became the focus of an introduction when he was a speaker at a banking conference in Washington, D.C.

"Before I got to the podium," Georgeson recalled the emcee saying, "he said, 'I just want you to know that this man is from Lawrence, Kansas, and they have the best downtown in the country.'"

Activity -- round the clock -- is what makes downtown work, said Dennis Enslinger, the city's historic resources administrator.

In order to thrive, cities must find ways to attract people downtown for different reasons at different times.

Lawrence has done that.

"Downtown Lawrence is more of a 24-hour place than ever." Toebben said

A balancing act

Lawrence's downtown has a mix including retail shops, government services, art galleries, residences and entertainment.

"We really have three groups downtown: shopping, eating and nightlife," said Mayor Erv Hodges. "We have to make sure that no one segment affects the success of another."

It is a challenge to keep harmony among the elements of downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods.

"For the neighborhoods to remain viable, they have to support each other," Enslinger said. And downtown's encroachment on neighborhoods must be monitored.

But as the center for community activity, downtown provides a forum for personal interaction, events and involvement.

"The essence of community is not a semblance of structures, it is a network of people," said Chuck Magerl, owner of Free State Brewing Co., an anchor at the north end of downtown at 636 Mass.

Parades, art shows, sidewalk bazaars and celebrations all are held downtown because that is where the town gathers.

"When KU won the NCAA tournament (in 1988), we had that celebration downtown, not in the Wal-Mart parking lot," said Georgeson, who has worked downtown since 1954.

Long-time commitment

Historically, the people of Lawrence have placed a high value on downtown's vitality, and city governments has used that value to guide development.

"The city has consistently made (downtown) a priority in its plans," said Marcia McFarlane, president of Downtown Lawrence Inc.

Though the intricacies of zoning practices and community development may be lost on many residents, the bottom line is that city commissions consistently have defended downtown while planning for its future.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when New Hampshire and Vermont streets were populated with filling stations and poultry houses, business leaders and the city started buying land and building parking lots because cars were becoming popular.

With an urban development grant in the early 1970s, the city unearthed Massachusetts Street to moderize it, install sawtooth parking and landscape the area.

Adequate parking is still a concern.

"The speed at which traffic moves down Massachusetts Street makes you realize that it is just a parking area for downtown," Hodges said.

In 1975, when it came time to plan for future development, downtown again topped the list of priorities in the city's longterm development guide, dubbed Plan '95.

When shopping mall proposals hit town in the 1980s, Plan '95 provided the legal grounds for the city to deny the developments -- a move many thought was necessary to protect downtown retailers.

Though government has invested in and protected downtown, private concerns, too, have sponsored major developments.

"It's a real vote of confidence that the people who live, work and do business downtown are willing to invest in the area," said local developer and businessman Jeff Shmalberg, who is planning to redevelop the 900 block of New Hampshire with his Downtown 2000 project.

In another project, Gene Fritzel Construction Co. Inc. plans to redevelop two buildings on the west side of the 600 block of Massachusetts Street.

An evolving success

Though such developments are key, other market conditions have shaped downtown. In recent years, the biggest factor has been booming retail development on South Iowa Street.

Once upon a time, downtown featured grocery stores, car lots, pharmacies, lumber yards and other retail stores.

But as the town has grown, many of those original businesses moved to other parts of town.

To compete with the growing discount superstore market and to attract customers, downtown had to find a niche all its own.

That has brought downtown to where it is today. Even with the addition of several national retailers, the area is still known for many of Lawrence's entrepreneurs and specialty retailers.

"People can go to a national clothing store in any city, but they come to Lawrence because we have the specialties along with it," Shmalberg said.

Though its history is key, downtown's future depends on the people who do business there, those who visit the area and the city's commitment.

"The key to future success is to make downtown a place to hang out," McFarlane said. "It should be a place where people want to come and spend the day."

-- Josh Funk's phone message number is 832-7222. His email is jfunk@ljworld.com.

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