News and notes from around town:
• As we previously reported, local caterer Steve Maceli has an idea to take over the former Masonic Temple space at the southwest corner of 10th and Massachusetts for use as a unique reception and wedding hall. Well, that idea is now reaching a new level of seriousness. Maceli and the building’s owners — a group led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton — are asking the city to consider providing assistance to restore the one-of-a-kind downtown building.
The Compton ownership group is asking the city to use the Neighborhood Revitalization Act to help lessen the property tax impact of a major renovation. The Neighborhood Revitalization Act is a program that gives a property tax rebate to projects that fix up decaying properties. The city approved its use recently for Treanor Architects to remodel and expand the old Strong’s Office Supply building in the 1000 block of Vermont Street for it new corporate headquarters. The act only allows new property taxes generated by an expansion or an improvement. In other words, whatever the property tax bill is for the building today will continued to be paid in the future, but the development group would get a break on the new taxes that would be added to the property as a result of the improvements. The group is proposing a tax rebate period of 15 years. In year one, the property would have 95 percent of its new taxes rebated. The percentage would decline by 5 percent a year through the 15-year period. After year 15, the property would receive no rebate.
In addition, the ownership group also is asking the city to consider ways it could help with installation of a fire sprinkler system in the building.
Maceli told me he’s excited about the possibilities for the project. He believes the building could make downtown a major destination for weddings. He envisions the building being a one-stop shop for weddings because the main floor of the building — which has a historic Reuter organ — could be used for wedding ceremonies, while the lower level could be used for receptions. Maceli would continue to keep his existing facility at 1031 N.H. for events, and it also would continue to serve as his commercial kitchen.
But Maceli believes the project will be very difficult to do without the tax rebate program and other assistance. Without the help, he said, the lease payment on the building would be too high to feasibly operate a reception hall.
“If we don’t get some kind of assistance to do the work that needs to be done, I’m afraid it will continue to sit empty,” Maceli said. “The building still is a Lawrence treasure. To bring that treasure back to life, we just need some help.”
Representatives of the ownership group said they have struggled to find a tenant that would work for the building. Most potential tenants would have required a complete reconfiguration of the building. Other tenants also likely would need major changes to the facade of the building, which with its Egyptian Revival-style has to be on a list of most unusual facades in northeast Kansas.
Maceli doesn’t want to change the facade, and can use the space in its current configuration. But the building needs an elevator and other ADA improvements, plus new wiring, the fire sprinkler system and other similar improvements.
The building has been vacant since about 2003, when the Lawrence Scottish Rite sold the building to move to a new location in eastern Lawrence.
A date hasn’t been set for city commissioners to consider the most recent proposal for the building.
• Newly elected City Commissioner Hugh Carter is following through on a campaign pledge to have better communications with local business leaders. Carter has asked the city manager to schedule the first of what he hopes will be quarterly CEO Roundtables. The event will feature six to eight business leaders, up to two city commissioners, one county commissioner and members of the city and county’s staffs. Carter talked about the roundtable idea frequently during his recent campaign. But now Carter has added one other detail. He thinks the meetings should be closed to the public. Carter told me he didn’t think it would be a good idea to allow the media or members of the public to attend the meeting because it may cause business leaders to not truly speak their minds.
Carter probably is correct that a meeting without the media would be a bit different. If I had a dollar for every time that a crowd of people have hushed their tones as I’ve walked up upon them, my kids might actually have a college fund. But, on the other hand, the public has been told for a long time now that economic development and making the city more business-friendly is one of the most important issues facing the community. (In almost 20 years, I have yet to cover a City Commission election where that hasn’t been a central theme.)
Carter wants to really hear from business leaders about what is wrong with our community. But if the public is unable to hear those concerns — and business leaders apparently are too timid to mention them publicly — how will the public ever know whether its elected leaders are addressing those concerns?
To be clear, I have no inclination that Carter wants or will allow the meetings to become some venue for shady dealings. But closed-door meetings involving elected officials haven’t exactly been the most popular idea among some members of the public in recent years. It will be interesting to see whether the public cares much about this proposal.
No date has been set yet for the first quarterly roundtable.
• City officials will have a special meeting on Tuesday to talk about downtown parking in the 1000 block of Vermont Street. City staff will host a meeting from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. at City Hall to discuss a proposal to convert the two-hour free parking lot in the 1000 block of Vermont into a 10-hour metered lot. The proposal is aimed to accommodate a project by Treanor Architects to relocate their headquarters to a vacant building that is adjacent to the lot. The city previously held a meeting about the parking proposal, but few businesses in the block attended. As commissioners were ready to approve the plan earlier this month, several businesses — Rex’s Stadium Barber Shop, Aimee’s Coffee House, and D&D; Tire, to name a few — raised questions. So, the city decided to have a second meeting before taking any action. When commissioners last discussed the idea, they seemed to be leaning toward making only a portion of the lot available for 10-hour parking, and leaving the rest as two-hour parking to accommodate retail businesses. It also will be interesting to see what commissioners decide on a request to help the Treanor project out on parking rates. Treanor officials are proposing to buy about 50 long-term parking passes at the current rate of $192 per year. But Treanor wants that $192 price locked in for the next 10 years. When commissioners last discussed the subject, Carter and Commissioner Bob Schumm indicated they thought that would set a bad precedent. The other three commissioners, however, didn’t weigh in on the subject.
• If you want to enjoy the beauty of Burcham Park, be aware that it will be difficult to do so on Thursday. Access to the park will be closed from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. while crews with Burlington Northern Santa Fe work on the railroad crossing that is at the entrance to the park at 200 Indiana Street.