Archive for Thursday, April 15, 2010

Downtown dilemma: Historic Lawrence district grapples with identity issues as food, entertainment venues fill vacancies

Lora Wiley, owner of Au Marche, 931 Mass., helps a customer. Wiley remains optimistic about the health of downtown despite economic conditions and a few empty storefronts.

Lora Wiley, owner of Au Marche, 931 Mass., helps a customer. Wiley remains optimistic about the health of downtown despite economic conditions and a few empty storefronts.

April 15, 2010


Lora Wiley, owner of Au Marche, 931 Mass., talks with a vendor on the phone. Wiley opened Au Marche in 1998.

Lora Wiley, owner of Au Marche, 931 Mass., talks with a vendor on the phone. Wiley opened Au Marche in 1998.

John Hay’s first experience with downtown Lawrence came before he had ever visited the town.

“I was a high school junior living in Leavenworth, and my mom came home from a wives’ club trip,” Hay recalled. “She couldn’t say enough about how neat this little town was.”

Hay learned firsthand about the charm of downtown Lawrence as a Kansas University student in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And now, he’s celebrating 22 years operating his dental office in downtown.

“I’ve always been really comfortable in the downtown environment,” he said.

For business owners, operating in downtown Lawrence brings a wealth of potential and risk — the benefits of having heavy foot traffic and the costs of being in a desirable location.

And all of this has been amplified as businesses have struggled to weather the recession, and as city officials and business owners work to envision what the makeup of downtown will be as the economy improves.

“Mostly I’m hearing quite a bit of optimism,” said Jane Pennington, director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., which is composed of downtown businesses. “Everyone seemed to have a better Christmas than expected. Things are looking up. Of course, you have the same people who are always close to closing — always looking at the worst.”

Food for thought

Lora Wiley can’t imagine working anywhere but downtown. She’s operated Au Marche, a retailer that features European foods, downtown since 1998 and at its current location, 931 Mass., since 2003.

“It makes me happy to be downtown every day,” she said. “It’s such a great atmosphere. I feel a sense of community downtown.”

Au Marche also benefits from the foot traffic. Wiley said she notices “regulars” — especially those who live or work downtown — coming into the shop more during the week, and more out-of-town people on the weekends. Business, of course, is best on KU game days, or when there are other events happening downtown.

And during the recession, Wiley has noticed another trend at her business.

“Now the economy is challenging, people are saying they are making conscious decisions to spend money in Lawrence and downtown,” Wiley said. “Those are conversations I didn’t have in the early days.”

Striking a balance

Wiley, like some other business owners, is concerned about balance when it comes to downtown’s offerings.

“It’s nice to offer customers something different,” she said.

Several large retail spaces have recently made the transition to restaurants, including the former Round Corner Drug Store (801 Mass., now Esquina) and Palace Cards and Gifts (8 W. Eighth St., now Noodles and Co.).

Several other homes to retailers sit empty, including the former Blue Heron Home Furnishings, 921 Mass.; Arensberg’s, 825 Mass.; and Maurice’s, 739 Mass. The owner of the Arensberg’s building is remodeling it to include condos and has made a commitment to retain a retailer in the space.

Pennington said concerns that downtown becomes too much of an entertainment district — and doesn’t have enough retail shops — have sparked discussions among members of Downtown Lawrence Inc.

“It’s something we’ve talked about a great deal, but we haven’t really come to any conclusions,” Pennington said. “In my mind, it does have to happen organically. We need to find a balance.”

‘Gold mine’

Josh Mochel agrees that balance is good for downtown, but he also thinks more could be done to promote the entertainment district model at the same time.

Mochel, who owns Jo Shmo’s, a bar and restaurant at 724 Mass., worries that aggressive marketing by the shopping areas near the Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., may pull regional shoppers away from Lawrence.

A recent report by the Kansas Department of Revenue confirms that Lawrence is losing shoppers compared with its pull rates from much of the last decade.

Mochel figures if Lawrence is going to do anything to stop that slide, it must start with downtown.

“When people come to town, they think of downtown Lawrence,” Mochel said. “They don’t go to Sixth and Wakarusa or 23rd and Kasold.”

He’s a proponent of closing down done some of Massachusetts Street once a month to have a pedestrian mall-like atmosphere, with entertainers and downtown vendors selling their wares and food outdoors.

“Let’s take what we do inside and move it to the streets and celebrate it,” he said.

On other days, Mochel said, downtown needs to be more visitor-friendly, with a free trolley system to move patrons along Massachusetts Street and maps showing where businesses are located.

“We’re sitting on a gold mine on Mass. Street,” Mochel said.

‘Double-edged sword’

Mochel said controlling downtown real estate prices seems to be key to keeping businesses, as well.

“The first thing they teach you in the restaurant business, or any business, is location, location, location,” he said. “Unfortunately, it comes at a price in Lawrence. It’s a huge double-edged sword.”

Hay, the dentist , said the number of owner-occupied buildings downtown has decreased in the more than two decades he’s operated his practice. More developers own buildings, with tenants operating out of them.

Hay, who rents his space at 10 E. Ninth St., said some of his patients like visiting the dentist downtown because they also can shop and have lunch at the same time.

“It makes a day,” he said.

Despite the changes downtown, Hay is confident Lawrence residents will continue to preserve one of its jewels.

“It’s a community resource that has faded in most communities,” he said of downtowns. “It has to remain, in the eyes of the community and elected officials, something people do see as valuable.”


Frank A Janzen 8 years ago

As Boog Highburger said so long ago, and wore the sweat shirt saying the same thing, "Vote with your money." Think globally, shop locally. Spend your money right here in River City. Your grandchildren will thank you.

Jennifer Dropkin 8 years ago

"More developers own buildings, with tenants operating out of them."

Renting from landlords in Lawrence is part of the problem--many of those owners specify that renters pay the owner's property taxes on top of rent. How are you going to get different businesses into Downtown Lawrence with practices like that?

The Downtown rents are artificially high, which means that only big pockets like chain stores and chain restaurants can comfortabley make a go of establishing businesses there. Everyone else--new business owners, entrepreneurs--opens at increased risk, and we have many empty storefronts to show for it--as well as the monotonous bars and other college-related stores. Can we say "T-shirt shops"?

Is this really what we want for Downtown Lawrence? It's the only thing of note Lawrence has to pull in visitors besides the University.

svenway_park 8 years ago

Paulette should practice what he preaches. He pretends to be a locovore, but he is really just a non-thinking food snob.

Lets get off the talk about produce and talk about protein for once. He isn't vegan, after all. I've watched him eat.

Instead of contributing his money locally for locally grown fish (one example: ) he has his fish flown in on CO2 spewing aircraft.

In his "buy-local-be-ecological" model, he would have hundreds more CO2-spewing aircraft flying fish from the depleted fishing stocks of the oceans to the Midwest to substitute for the consumption of locally grown beef (he doesn't care for) and fish (he claims he doesn't eat "farmed" fish. I bet he eats farmed salmon).

So he hates the local Kansas beef farmer, and the local Kansas fish farmer, but loves to have his protein jetted in, and probably even supports the export of jobs to the salmon farmers of South America.

Localism indeed.

Steve Jacob 8 years ago

Name me one fun thing for kids that's better in this town then in KC? And don't say parks, because that's lame.

jayhawkgirlbear 8 years ago

Downtown clothing stores lack customer service of the old days. I am a true Lawrence girl and I will admit I got lazy over the last few years and started to spend my money in Johnson county, but when the economy started to go south, I recommitted to buying local. I have had several situations that have now soured my taste and I don't know what to do now. Example: The last two purchase I have made at Envy have literally fallen apart after the first wearing. When I took them in I was told "we have a strict return policy and there is really nothing I can do to help you." I have two teenagers and I have spent a LOT of money there, but they really just didn't care. Another example: Went into Jock's Nitch and had a specific item I was looking for. No one else in the store but me and it took me 10 min to find someone and then I was told "I don't think we have it anymore, but you can look over there." I just walked out the door. I wish I hadn't heard more stories like mine. . .it really breaks my heart!!

whats_going_on 8 years ago

Alright, if you're shopping at Envy, why are you expecting quality? This should be pretty clear. Half of the clothes in the store, still for sale...are falling apart and have holes. I literally bought a tank top there once that was ripped at the bottom. Of course, I didn't notice it until I got it home and had taken the tag off. Good thing it was like 5 bucks.

thepianoman 8 years ago

Lawrence, especially downtown, is dub bomb!!. I'm 29, live in Oskaloosa, and spend my weekends in Lawrence. The atmosphere is phenomenal. It's unlike any other city around. I enjoy playing piano for folks at the Signs of Life bookstore.

I also meet friends for breakfast at Milton’s on Saturday --- very, very good food!!! Love their selection of coffee as well!!!

Some days it’s fun just to walk the strip and absorb the energy and beautiful weather……I’ll be playing at Signs of Life tonight, Thursday 4/15, as a matter of fact!!

Come down, have a coffee and listen to the free music!!

nytemayr 8 years ago

Ernest & Sons needs to remove the old flat steel cover awning from their building before it pulls the entire front off the building! I think we are about at max traffic handling capability downtown. Most of the retail commercial activity in Lawrence is NOT downtown and hasn't been for 35 years! The concentration of food,entertainment and shopping in a walkable venue needs to be successfully duplicated elsewhere in Lawrence. More apartments, more condos and then maybe a grocery store !?

anaughtymouse 8 years ago

I don’t think it is totally fair to blame neighboring cities for the lackluster spending in our downtown shops. How many places are there to get a good lunch or dinner that isn't fried...? Where can I buy 'career' clothing? I don’t drive to JoCo to eat or shop. I cook at home and I buy online… But there is one thing I do drive to JoCo for and that is work.

areyousure 8 years ago

Plenty of places have food that isn't fried - Ingredient, Zen Zero, Ten, Angler, Milton's, Wheatfields, Genovesse, Tellers, 715, the new restaurant in the former Round Corner Drugs, Pachamamas (not sure of the spelling), the sushi place on New Hampshire. And Jimmie Johns.

anaughtymouse 8 years ago

You are right... there are many non-fried options as your list adequately points out. While I love all of those restaurants listed, Tellers, Anglers, Pachamamas, Ten, and Genovesse come with a price... Each time, though, it is worth it.

whats_going_on 8 years ago

I agree with you on the career clothing bit...the stores here aren't very high quality. I suppose I could go to Kohls, but their stuff sucks, and it kind of defeats the purpose of shopping locally anyway. Lots of cute stores, but none of which are very quality or appropriate for certain events.

I don't know where you are coming from with the food though...we have pretty much every kind of food you could ask for downtown.

Boston_Corbett 8 years ago

Oh god, look who is back. The non-architect architect. Quoting Ghandi and all.

Mr. Kealing will learn someday to not tolerate this fool.

EARTHFIRSTER 8 years ago

I have lived in Lawrence since 1993. This is a town that I love dearly. But there seems to be some confusion about what makes a downtown area appealing as an area where people want to spend their money. PUNITIVE PARKING METERS that only allow 1.5 hours for shopping KEEP PEOPLE AWAY FROM DOWNTOWN. Downtown Lawrence Inc. seems to support anything that makes shopping downtown prohibitive, such as adding 15 minute parking spaces, handicapped spaces that get used 5% of the time they are available, and increasing parking fines. And finally, FILTHY SIDEWALKS MAKE PEOPLE WANT TO SHOP SOMEWHERE CLEAN! Lawrence can use the community service obligations of lawbreakers to clean up downtown of graffiti, trash, cigarette butts, and gum. Furthermore, street cleaning crews CAN TAKE THEIR GIANT STREET CLEANING TRUCKS DOWN THE ALLEYWAYS OF DOWNTOWN LAWRENCE, thereby cleaning up what has been neglected for 100 years in downtown Lawrence.

Flap Doodle 8 years ago

paulette, you should go downtown and get yourself a popsicle. It's a cool and fruity treat on a spring day.

whats_going_on 8 years ago

again with the parking thing, am I the only one that doesn't have a problem parking dowtown? arg.

tomatogrower 8 years ago

No lie. I either take the bus or park in the back. Except on big parade days, I never have a problem finding parking. Why park in front and pay?

livetocook 8 years ago

Che Guevara, nice. -> (sarcasm) Did you buy that logo at Urban Outfitters?

Mike Hatch 8 years ago

I've lived here since 1975 and when I was a kid and a teen, I loved going downtown. The first indoor movie I ever went to was at the Varsity (I think it was a Jodie Foster Disney movie). Shopping at Penney's (and later, briefly Litwins I think), the 'dime store' (Duckwalls?), and even a trip to the library was fun. If there were some stores downtown that sold good quality clothing not geared towards teens that wasn't too boring or too wild--same for shoes (where does a guy find a good pair of summer shoes that AREN'T those horrible flip flops or clunky sandals?), sure I'd start shopping downtown again.
The last time I went downtown was about a year ago to give the antique mall a look (if you're looking for genuine antiques or even just something mid-century, don't bother). The kind of shops downtown now just don't appeal to me at all. Just not an area I'd want to spend a great deal of time or money at.

tomatogrower 8 years ago

Shoes - there is still a shoe store downtown, can't remember the name off hand, but higher quality than the mall stores. Antiques - Strong's Antiques - combined with a great coffee shop Quality clothes geared towards adults - Weavers

Mike Hatch 8 years ago

I used to go to Weavers now and again, but they mostly had dress clothes or plain ol' solid color polo shirts that you could find anywhere. Maybe their stock is different now, though? I loved how they'd put your payment in a tube, send it off, and it would come back a few minutes later with your receipt and/or change.

Meatwad 8 years ago

The number of vagrants on every downtown block is absolutely deplorable and if I owned a downtown business I would be outraged.

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