Studies on retail development are sort of a Rorschach test for Lawrence residents. What you see in the study depends a lot on the predisposition you bring to the table.
While some local leaders say a new study by the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department indicates the city is building too much retail space, others say it shows Lawrence needs to do a better job of attracting retail dollars.
There may be some truth to both points of view.
The retail vacancy rates in Lawrence may not be alarming, but they bear watching. Property that stands vacant for any period of time is in danger of contributing to blight, which can require expensive solutions down the road.
The other notable statistics in the study were the "pull numbers" in other communities in the area and across the state. Lawrence is well behind many other communities when it comes to drawing shoppers from outside its borders.
The reasons for this disparity are obvious and, in most cases, nearly impossible to fight. It's no surprise that cities like Hutchinson, Salina and Manhattan have much higher pull numbers than Lawrence. They serve much larger geographical areas. Shoppers come to those cities because it is the closest place to access the stores they want. It's also impossible for Lawrence to match the wider variety of retail options that attracts shoppers to larger cities like Topeka, Overland Park or Lenexa.
As local officials are starting to realize, duplicating retail outlets available in Topeka and the Kansas City area may keep some Lawrence shoppers at home, but it won't do much to draw shoppers from out of town. Rather than looking at how much retail Lawrence should have, we must look at what kind of retail is being offered. What draws shoppers from out of town are unique stores or an especially pleasant shopping opportunity.
Enter Downtown Lawrence. Saying that downtown is the only chance we have to boost retail sales in Lawrence may be a bit overdramatic, but downtown certainly offers enticing potential. Unfortunately, much of that potential isn't currently being met. Some solid retailers are thriving downtown, but too many Massachusetts Street storefronts are empty or being occupied by marginal businesses that have minimal staying power.
Trying to choke development in other parts of Lawrence to "protect" downtown is one strategy. A far better idea is to find ways to make downtown more attractive to prime retailers. It's not just a matter of planting more flowers. What do retailers and want? More parking? Tax breaks? More police patrols? More public transportation? What do shoppers want? More sales? More promotions? Longer store hours?
These and many other questions need to be asked by leaders who are willing to be innovative in formulating a vision for Downtown Lawrence's future. Looking at the numbers in another study may provide some guidance, but coming up with dynamic plans to make/keep Downtown Lawrence a destination retail center will depend more on our creativity than on our ability to crunch numbers.