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Archive for Saturday, April 26, 2008

Lawrence, Douglas County target growth


New home construction is under way in the northwestern part of Lawrence, just west of Free State High School.

New home construction is under way in the northwestern part of Lawrence, just west of Free State High School.

April 26, 2008

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After years enjoying a slow, steady drumbeat of population growth, economic expansion and employment additions, Lawrence leaders are finding themselves grappling with some unfamiliar feelings these days.

Companies no longer are pounding at the doors of commercial Realtors, angling for pieces of a tight supply of industrial or commercial properties expected to produce futures of steady production or robust sales.

New residents aren't signing purchase contracts for homes virtually sight unseen, back when builders would struggle to find enough lots for houses that likely would be sold by the time construction wrapped up.

And the times of accelerating plans for new schools, water lines, sewer systems and other infrastructure items to keep up with it all also seem to have waned a bit, all part of a skittish economy that is struggling to regain its footing.

But listen closely to those community leaders - the elected officials, business owners, organization bosses and others who have been around awhile - and they're not letting frustration with the way things are limit their vision of the way things should be.

Lawrence, after all, isn't Las Vegas, or Silicon Valley, or any of the other major population hubs hammered in recent months by major economic swings, such as from collapsing home sales, massive job losses and anything else easily categorized as dire.

That's because the community - anchored by a major state university and buoyed by its high quality of life and perch between the state capital to the west and a major metro area to the east - isn't about to change its steadying ways.

"I really feel that we're positioned well," said Jim Otten, a Lawrence dentist and chairman of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. "We're naturally going to experience some of the fallout from any economic downturn, but there aren't wild swings upward or downward. We're fairly steady in our growth."

It's a mantra being repeated up and down Lawrence's economic landscape these days: Things may not be great, but they could be much, much worse.

Residential review

Take housing.

For years, homeowners have counted on the Lawrence market to give back the payoffs generated by ever-increasing valuation notices and a steady inventory of new construction.

Then the market cooled. Builders slowed their work to the slowest pace in two dozen years, leaving a far-above-average inventory of properties flooding the market.

Sales declined 8 percent last year in Lawrence, to their lowest level in a decade. The decrease came on top of a 10 percent drop from a year earlier.

But before anyone thinks the market had gone from boom to bust, consider this: The average price paid for a home in Lawrence actually increased 5 percent last year, to $201,452, according to McGrew Real Estate.

People continue to see value in Lawrence and its historically steady pace of economic success, said Mike McGrew, the agency's president and chief executive officer. While national credit concerns, foreclosure worries and talk of recession aren't helping here, people are still buying and selling homes no matter how tight mortgage markets become.

"The fact is, Lawrence has weathered lots of storms in the past," McGrew said, as the spring homes market dawned, "and we're going to weather this one."

Development decisions

Or try economic development.

The chamber, which handles business-attraction responsibilities on behalf of the city, isn't exactly fielding tons of inquiries from prospects, but the activity hasn't slowed to a trickle.

Beth Johnson, the chamber's vice president for economic development, said that she had received 64 inquiries last year from such prospects, up slightly from the annual five-year average of 62. But she was forced to turn away 34 of those inquiries before they could entertain a pitch.

The city simply has too few industrial properties to offer prospects, or at least not at the sizes - at least 100 acres, typically - in demand, Johnson said.

But instead of complaining, Johnson and others are rallying efforts for the city to support acquisition of the former Farmland Industries Inc. fertilizer plant site for use as a future business park. And there's talk from private developers of establishing a business park near Lawrence Municipal Airport, or on property near the Lecompton interchange along the Kansas Turnpike.

Tough economic times can heighten the urgency to push for projects that may be needed now, Johnson said, but likely won't be realized for some time to come.

Given the community's location, educated work force, research resources and continued high quality of life, she said, Lawrence's long-term outlook remains strong. People just have to think ahead.

"Economic development is not a tomorrow game," she said.

Empowering employment

Or consider employment.

While efforts to attract new businesses have turned up few successes in recent months, leaders have turned their attention to programs that could help make a difference in the future.

Among them: creation of the Douglas County Manufacturing Certificate Program, a workforce-development effort organized by the chamber and Heartland Works, Johnson County Community College, the Lawrence and Eudora school districts, Sauer-Danfoss and Berry Plastics.

It's an employment-based certification program designed to give people who don't go to college a chance to gain access to technical and manufacturing jobs in the area.

Participants will get classroom training, provided free of charge, through the community college. They will be paid for their time in class and at work, where they will be on the line learning skills on the job.

Stacy Walters, a business consultant for Heartland Works, said that, yes, the program would be a major benefit for people looking for jobs. But she emphasized that it also would serve a greater good for the entire community, by supplying manufacturers and other operations with qualified employees, and showing that the community cares enough about their success that they would undertake such a focused program.

If other employers outside of Lawrence take notice and decide they want to be a part of the community? Well, so be it.

"We're building a model," Walters said, noting that the program would be expected to offer a steady supply of workers to participating companies, no matter what economic conditions might surface.

Comments

BigPrune 6 years, 7 months ago

Progressive Lawrence Coalition's poison still affecting Lawrence.It's time to clean house of some of the bad apple City employees that carry the Progressive infection, or better yet, make the planning department employment performance based, just like the real world. If they don't have the business, they don't have the job. If they turn away business, they don't have the job. Pretty simple solution.

hipper_than_hip 6 years, 7 months ago

There's a 117 acre tract and an 87 acre tract listed on the chamber of commerce website; perhaps Beth Johnson is too stupid to walk across the hall in the chamber building and find out what's already available?

JohnBrown 6 years, 7 months ago

More growth means more demand for water. What's our water supply look like Mark?

Lindsey Buscher 6 years, 7 months ago

"creation of the Douglas County Manufacturing Certificate Program...an employment-based certification program designed to give people who don't go to college a chance to gain access to technical and manufacturing jobs in the area."I've never understood if Lawrence is "anchored by a major state university" why we don't do more to entice the kinds of employers that could convince more graduates to stick around town after graduation. KU seems like a job-factory, you go in one end and come out the other with a degree and leave town for a job. I know that people without college degrees need employment too, but there is already plenty of that in the manufacturing and service industries in Lawrence according to State statistics. The problem with Lawrence is wages, why work here when you can do the same identical work in JoCo and get paid at least 10% more. Hell, before the gas bullcrap it was even worth it to live in Lawrence and commute to JoCo to work.

fu7il3 6 years, 7 months ago

That's the problem. It costs a lot to live in Lawrence, more than the average job in Lawrence will pay. Now with gas the way it is, why would you pay to live here unless you had a job that would pay for it.Besides, I thought that the population has actually decreased in the last two years, yet we are still building houses, condos, and apartment complexes. There are buildings sitting unused all over town.Those buildings beside Best Buy and On the Border were built when I first moved here and most of them have never had anything in them. Some friends of mine live in a neighborhood that was developed a couple of years ago. Several houses were built there and hardly any have been sold since then.Things need to change, or the way that Lawrence looks at its growth and population needs to change.

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