To be reminded of the retail competition in northeast Kansas, Lawrence leaders only need to look to their east — the expanding retail center around the Kansas Speedway in Wyandotte County — and even to their west — as Topeka’s retail pull factor remains above the state average.
Lawrence’s ability to pull shoppers in from outside the city has declined in recent years, and last year it dipped below the state average.
Lawrence Mayor Rob Chestnut said the numbers were a wake-up call, meaning the city needs to look deeper into its strategy to attract retail, including the community’s mix of Kansas University students.
“It’s pretty obvious that we’ve got some missing spots there, and I don’t really know what those are,” Chestnut said.
Retail task force
He has created the Lawrence retail task force that will get its work under way this year and look at the city’s strengths and weaknesses and what it can do to better market itself to retail operations seeking space.
Others who have a hand in promoting Lawrence and Douglas County say more study is needed because the city and county have operated without a retail strategy.
“We don’t have a marketing strategy, and I think that’s been detrimental to the community retail side, both downtown and in the community as a whole,” said Tom Kern, Lawrence Chamber of Commerce president and CEO.
Some critics say Lawrence, and the entire Kansas City area, has built too much retail space, which makes it difficult for older shopping centers to compete.
“The pace of growth of space so rapidly outpaces the growth of spending that economics take over,” said Kirk McClure, a Kansas University urban planning professor.
McClure said Lawrence has been too quick to approve newer retail development projects, including near Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive in northwest Lawrence. The frequent critic of the city’s retail planning efforts says Lawrence is starting to see more storefront vacancies along 23rd Street, in older strip malls like near Kasold Drive and Bob Billings Parkway, and in downtown Lawrence.
McClure said Lawrence’s downtown can be a unique shopping draw for shoppers outside the region, but he believes the city is losing out on shoppers from the outside who are choosing to go other places.
The city’s main competitors for day trips in the region include smaller cities like Liberty, Mo., and Weston, Mo., which both market their downtown shopping. Lawrence is also suffering in competition from the newer and expanding shopping centers in the Kansas City area, like the Town Center Plaza in Leawood and the shopping center near the Kansas Speedway.
“If we don’t make Lawrence appealing, they won’t come here,” McClure said. “Junky strip malls aren’t appealing, and empty storefronts aren’t appealing.”
Chestnut said Lawrence leaders need to study the issue more because he believes part of the problem is a large number of Lawrence shoppers spending their money elsewhere.
“I don’t necessarily believe that this is about expanding the amount of square footage,” Chestnut said. “I think this is about trying to encourage in-fill development, trying to create some retail incubation.”
Downtown is a key, but he said the task force also needs to strategically look at what Lawrence offers overall, including retail outside downtown.
“It’s important to take that in the context of how they complement one another and how do we work together as a community to have people here in Lawrence,” Chestnut said.
Kern, the chamber’s leader, said as task force members develop a marketing strategy, they will have one successful example to look at. Topeka-based Discovery Furniture and Roommakers Furniture plans to open a larger store in the former Food-4-Less building on South Iowa Street this summer.
“Hopefully, over time we will see some other retailers who look at us and see the potential,” Kern said.