Worried that downtown Lawrence real estate is becoming so pricey that deep-pocketed national franchises will crowd out the "mom and pop" businesses, city commissioners Wednesday told city staffers to look for ways to keep the chain stores at bay.
"We may be on the verge of (downtown) losing its uniqueness to franchise operations," said City Commissioner David Schauner.
Property values downtown keep going up, swelling the city's tax coffers. But those taxes are particularly burdensome on the type of local businesses that make downtown Lawrence unique, Schauner said.
"We don't have another venue that is as closely associated with what people think of as Lawrence as downtown," he said.
And as doing business downtown becomes more expensive, the only stores able to afford the higher rents and tax bills are part of national chains, he said.
Schauner's fellow commissioners agreed with that assessment. At a study session, the commission told city staff to look into ways to ease the tax burden on locally owned businesses downtown, especially those in historic buildings.
"Probably (the) best vehicle would be some type of rebate," said Assistant City Manager Dave Corliss. "You're not going to be able to go in and give a tax exemption, absent changing the Kansas Constitution or a number of different statutes."
Commissioners also are worried the higher values and corresponding decrease in locally owned retail stores will accelerate another phenomenon: the rapid growth of bars and restaurants along Massachusetts Street.
"In the last 20 years we've lost almost a third of the retail stores," Schauner said.
Commissioner Sue Hack said the changes had some people worried about being downtown at night.
"We have three downtowns," Hack said. "We have downtown during the day, downtown during the dining hours, and downtown from 10 until 3. There's a lot of concern from a lot of people that after 10:30 they don't want to be downtown."
One suggestion: a crackdown on underage drinking and re-examination of the percentage of food sales downtown restaurants must have in order to keep their liquor licenses.
"There are bar owners downtown who are working very hard with their clientele to avert some of the problems," Hack said. "But with the influx of fake IDs, it's hard to keep up."
Mayor David Dunfield said the problems downtown could be solved if more people lived downtown.
"One of the answers to the late night situation is having more residents downtown," Dunfield said.