Changing retail climate poses challenges for Lawrence

Times change, and nowhere could this be more evident than in Lawrence’s retail business sector, particularly in downtown Lawrence.

City and Chamber of Commerce officials express concern about the loss of retail sales (and the accompanying sales tax revenue) to nearby shopping areas in Kansas City and Topeka. Civic boosters do not like the image of empty storefronts lining the main streets.

Downtown Lawrence has lost several major retailers in recent weeks, one moving to a southwest Lawrence location and another closing its doors. There is a fear that other stores soon may decide to move to other locations where they believe the sales climate and potential is more favorable.

For the casual observer, downtown Lawrence is busy, day and night, with parking spaces and sidewalks filled with shoppers, lookers or just strollers enjoying the ambiance and activity of the area.

For years, city officials have said downtown Lawrence is the center and soul of the city, and they have done everything they could to force maximum development of the very limited footprint from Sixth to 11th streets and from New Hampshire to Vermont streets.

Downtown Lawrence is an attractive area, but it long ago lost its spot as the retail center of the city. Sales totals at stores in southern Lawrence along Iowa Street far exceed sales in downtown Lawrence, and it is likely the same is true for stores along West Sixth Street from Kasold Drive to Wakarusa Drive.

Unfortunately, Lawrence continues to lose sizable sales dollars to the area near the Kansas Speedway in Wyandotte County, the easily accessible Johnson County shopping centers and, to a lesser degree, stores in Topeka.

The big change in the Lawrence retail effort, however, is the loss of so many locally owned stores in the downtown area, stores and property owners who had a tremendous stake in the success of Lawrence as an attractive, convenient shopping area. Their economic survival depended on their stores attracting customers and being profitable.

As owners, they could call the shots. They didn’t have to check with regional or zone managers living in St. Louis, Chicago or Minneapolis to get the OK to participate in civic activities or to contribute to local charitable programs.

The downtown was a close-knit group of merchants who worked together to make Lawrence a highly attractive city in which to do business.

But times have changed. There are not many major retail businesses in downtown that are owned by their operators.

All of the automobile dealerships were located in downtown Lawrence: Winter Chevrolet, Parker Buick, Morgan-Mack Ford, Krimminger Pontiac-Cadillac, Sanders Motors, Buddy Gallagher Motors, etc. The grocery stores along Massachusetts Street were A&P, Safeway, Kroger’s and Rusty’s IGA.

Major businesses included Weaver’s, Carl’s, Ober’s, Royal College, Jay Shoppe, Montgomery Ward, Gibbs, J.C. Penney, Woolworth’s, Mark’s Jewelers, Hanna’s, Miller Furniture, Vincent’s Hardware, Friend Lumber Co., Green Brothers Hardware, Rexall Drug, Drake’s Bakery and on and on.

All of the movie theaters were downtown: The Dickinson, Granada, Varsity and Pattee. The drive-in theater was on the outskirts of the city on 23rd Street just west of Louisiana Street.

But, as the town grew and business owners wanted to attract and hold on to new shoppers with new buying habits and better means of transportation, they were unable to expand their businesses in the tightly packed and geographically restricted downtown. There was no space to build large, modern one-story buildings with adjacent parking. City leaders tried to control the development of “cornfield malls,” one of which was proposed south of 31st Street on Iowa Street. This was turned down, and the rejected developers said they would build a project between Seventh and Ninth streets and Massachusetts and Rhode Island streets. This, too, was rejected.

So, eventually, major retail stores moved to South Iowa, and now, sales in this area far exceed sales in downtown Lawrence.

Lawrence has a problem. It’s a great place to live, and its future potential is excellent. However, retail business struggles in Lawrence. There are ample bars and restaurants and many specialty or novelty shops along Massachusetts but a dwindling number of large retailers to draw in shoppers.

As noted at the outset, times change and needs change.

Nevertheless, Lawrence needs to have a strong, vigorous retail base. It cannot exist merely on bars, restaurants and novelty stores.

Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult to build in downtown Lawrence because of relatively new requirements to meet various historical and visual guidelines.

Lawrence’s goal should be to continue to be looked upon as America’s finest university city. This means a variety of housing opportunities, good health and recreation facilities, an appreciation for the environment, good job opportunities, great schools, honest city government, excellent law enforcement and up-to-date, comprehensive retail shopping opportunities.

There’s no reason or excuse for Lawrence not measuring up in all of these categories.

However, it won’t be accomplished without dreamers who have a passion to make Lawrence, along with Kansas University, a very special place.