News and notes from around town:
• Lawrence’s largest private employer soon will have a new set of bosses. General Dynamics — yes, the company that has made a living producing weapons systems for the U.S. government — has reached a deal to buy Vangent, which is a major employer out in the East Hills Business Park. Vangent is a large government contractor that provides computing and management services for a variety of federal programs — everything from the Census to student loan programs. It operates a call center at East Hills that traditionally employs more than 1,000 people. Don’t worry flower children, the Lawrence location will continue making calls — not tanks or missile systems. General Dynamics, like many defense contractors, is looking to diversify. Vangent will become part of General Dynamics Information Technology, which already is doing some of the same type of work that Vangent does. But the acquisition of Vangent will provide a major boost to General Dynamics. Vangent already has major IT-related contracts with the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Labor, State and Defense.
The best news for Lawrence in this deal is that a spokesman for General Dynamics told The Washington Post the company has no plans to change Vangent’s locations or staffing levels.
Vangent’s Lawrence employees are used to corporate ownership changes. The company started in Lawrence as NCS, which I believe stood for National Computer Systems. (I’m sure there is an NCS trivia champion out there who can correct me.) Then the international publishing company Pearson bought the firm in 2000 and it was known as NCS Pearson. Then in 2003 the company changed names to Pearson Government Solutions as part of a corporate reorganization. In 2007, change came again when the New York-based private equity firm Veritas Capital purchased Pearson Government Solutions, and changed the name of the company to Vangent. (This company and its name changes have been like a federal stimulus program for business card and stationery printers.) The press release announcing the deal didn’t make it clear whether the Vangent name would continue or whether the Lawrence location will now be known as General Dynamics Information Technology. (I expect to see printers circling the parking lot nonetheless.)
The $960 million deal already has won approval from both General Dynamics and Veritas’ boards. The deal is expected to close by Oct. 1.
• Speaking of deals, although presumably less than $960 million, the manager of The Dusty Bookshelf confirmed to me that the company is very interested in starting up a new business venture in the former Penny Annie’s location near Ninth and Massachusetts streets. But the company hasn’t yet signed a lease for the spot, and is stopping short of confirming any plans for what it wants to do with the location. The owners of The Dusty Bookshelf also own the ACME T-shirt store that is adjacent to the Penny Annie’s location. So that spot holds some appeal to them. But manager Shannon Jones told me that plans don’t call for The Dusty Bookshelf to leave its current location for the Ninth and Mass. spot. Instead, it could be more of an “annex” for The Dusty Bookshelf. I previously reported that the location could include vintage bicycles and doughnuts. Whether that pans out, I don’t know. The owners of The Dusty Bookshelf and ACME started their businesses in Manhattan, and they currently are starting a business venture out there that includes those elements. It is too soon to say whether that concept makes its way to Lawrence, Jones said.
“Right now we’re still really in the idea phase,” Jones said.
My elastic waistband awaits your decision.
• Residents of the condominium complex Bella Sera at the Preserve, near Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive, also are awaiting what’s coming next. No, not the doughnuts. (Though, maybe. A dozen glazed by the pool has a nice sound to it. No need for napkins.) What they’re really interested in is whether the struggling condo development is going to get new life. There will be a sheriff’s sale at 10 a.m. Thursday in the jury assembly room of the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center at 11th and Massachusetts. The sale is the latest step in an area bank — M&I Marshall & Ilseley Bank — foreclosing on the property. According to court documents, the Bella Sera development group took out a $16.28 million loan in 2006. The developers have since fallen behind on the payments, and $13.45 million still remains unpaid.
The sale includes 38 condo units and a vacant piece of property adjacent to the development. My understanding is that the condo units are basically blank shells awaiting the final interior finishes. I’ve had people ask me whether the auction will be the type where people can buy individual condo units. I wish I had a better answer, but I don’t think so. I have been unable to get in touch with the Kansas City attorney who is handling the foreclosure, and the sheriff’s office didn’t know either. I think all the units and land will be sold as one package. Regardless, bidders at a sheriff’s sale need to come armed with cash, or at least a cashier’s check. Once you make a winning bid, you have to produce the money later in the day.
Chances are, the bank will end up the owner of the property after the auction. Residents out at Bella Sera hope that the new ownership will spur more activity at the site. Tammy Steeples — who lives at the development with her husband, Don — told me that only about 13 of the 50 units in the building are occupied.
“The neighbors who are here are anxious to get more neighbors,” Steeples said.
She said the development is extremely nice. It includes a swimming pool, a huge patio, an outdoor kitchen, a media room for up to 20 people, a bar area, and a lobby that “looks like a four-star hotel.”
But she said the development group — which was lead by Lawrence businessman Jes Santaularia — got the project started at the wrong time. The real estate bubble burst, and home and condo sales dried up. (That is the Santaularia that unsuccessfully tried to partner with the city on a new industrial park near the Lawrence Municipal Airport.)
The residents pay homeowners association dues, and Steeples said so far there hasn’t been a problem with keeping the common property of the condos maintained during all this legal limbo.
“But we’re hoping that this will really allow them to start selling again,” Steeples said. “Maybe there will be some bargains out here for awhile.”
• City commissioners Tuesday night finalized employment contracts with the city’s police and fire unions. It was kind of an evening of odd moods at City Hall. The spokesman for the Lawrence Police Officers Association gave brief remarks that mainly centered on how the new deal was a strong commitment by the city to attract and retain quality officers. He thanked commissioners for a 2012 budget that adds new police officers.
The leader of the local fire union, though, gave remarks that urged city management to really think about changing how it negotiates with the unions. Kathy Elkins told commissioners that the five-month negotiations took longer than they should have. She also indicated that the negotiations have become less friendly than they need to be. Elkins urged commissioners to “get back to inter-space bargaining,” which I gather from my friend Google is a term for a type of bargaining session that is less adversarial in nature, or else has something to do with Star Trek. (MBA students, impress your professors. Get on the comment board and explain interspace bargaining. Somebody wake me when they’re done.) UPDATE: I've been told the term is interest-based bargaining, although there are several scholarly articles about inter-space bargaining on the Web as well. So, I'm confused. The only thing I know is that if it is not inter-space bargaining, Dr. Spock is going to leave the negotiating table.
But the most interesting comment Elkins made was that if the negotiation process doesn’t improve “it is going to end up being trouble again, like it was a number of years ago.”
I don’t know what that means, and Elkins was in no mood to talk after the meeting. She declined to take questions from me.
One point of clarification, though. I previously have mentioned that the city’s unions really aren’t unions. That’s only half true. The police officers group is an association. The fire organization, however, is an union, Elkins pointed out during the meeting. My understanding, though, is it still can not strike. I apologize for the confusion.