Learn the facts, see the data
The Journal-World has built an interactive map with property owners and property values around downtown. Explore the database in this related story.
The Journal-World at the beginning of its project to chronicle the changing nature of downtown Lawrence invited four prominent property owners and businessmen to participate in a roundtable discussion.
In mid-July, the following shared their thoughts and concerns about downtown Lawrence:
• Doug Compton, the president of Lawrence-based First Management Inc., and the largest property owner on Massachusetts Street.
• George Paley, a former downtown retailer who has bought multiple properties throughout the city with an emphasis in the downtown area.
• Earl Reineman, a longtime Lawrence retailer who is a vice president with Weaver’s department store.
• Bob Schumm, the owner of Buffalo Bob’s Smokehouse, a city commissioner and a downtown landlord.
Here’s a look at several issues the group discussed.
General health of downtown
Reineman: “I think it is in a comeback phase,” he said, although he agreed that the economy had presented multiple challenges to downtown, especially retailers.
Schumm: Said he largely agreed with Reineman’s assessment. “About a year ago, though, I was pretty worried with the number of vacancies that were occurring,” he said. But he said the fact that there are also multiple vacancies in outlying strip centers in Lawrence suggests to him the vacancy issue is more of a broad economy problem than a downtown-oriented problem. “In my opinion, it was probably the highest vacancy rate we’ve seen downtown since I can remember,” said Schumm, who has been in business for more than 40 years downtown. “But it also was matched by the virtues of the Great Recession.”
Compton: Agreed that it is on a “positive comeback” right now. But he said that he was definitely concerned about one year ago with the vacancy level. He cited Treanor Architect’s decision to move its offices downtown, which likely will bring upwards of 70 employees to downtown.
Reineman: Said the Treanor project is “huge” for downtown, but said Compton’s seven-story retail/office/apartment building that is under construction at Ninth and New Hampshire is a “great thing for downtown.” “The more people who work and live in downtown is really the key to downtown.”
Schumm: Went a step further and said Compton’s Ninth and New Hampshire project likely was the best development for downtown in the last 10 years.
Downtown and the real estate market
Compton: Said the market is adjusting in downtown as the economy has been “horrible.” “Some of us bought properties in the last five to 10 years that we might have paid a higher price than what some of those values might be today,” Compton said. “Usually those values dictate your rent numbers. We bought our last building at a lesser price than we paid for previous buildings. That allowed us to rent it for less money. I don’t want to dance around that issue. It is a fact.”
Schumm: “I see buildings on the market for a long time for a price for which they used to be snapped up in a matter of weeks,” Schumm said. “That tells me that the market has topped out.”
Paley: “Being very honest, I’m cutting rents to fill them up,” Paley said. “I’m working hard, I love all the restaurants, but if we don’t keep the balance of retail, I think we’re in some jeopardy. I’ll say it that way. Fortunately I’ve been in this for awhile, and I feel like I’ve had my good times. Right now this is just one of those times that tenants are beating me to pieces.”
Downtown events and a pedestrian mall
Paley: Said he came back from downtown Iowa City recently thinking: “Why couldn’t we close two blocks on Eighth Street” to convert it into a public gathering area.
Schumm: Notes that one of the features of the new library is a grass plaza area. In terms of Eighth Street, he said traffic flows could be concern. “I would lean towards looking at it and taking public comment about it. We don’t have a very good gathering area in downtown.”
Reineman: Said he would love to have a defined gathering area but said he is concerned about “contributing to a perception that is already out there” that access is difficult in downtown. “I would have to think long and hard about closing any streets.”
Paley: Said closing any part of Mass. would be problematic, but he suggested closing one block of Eighth Street on both sides of Massachusetts and maybe making Seventh street a one-way street and either Ninth or 10th Street a one-way. “Everything took a long time here. Staying open on Sundays, angled parking. But if people would just stop and think for a moment: When Aunty Martha comes to town, they don’t take her to Walmart. They take her to downtown. Why they then go home and forget about downtown for anything else? I don’t understand it.”
Compton: Said he knows people would like to have a gathering place downtown. Said he got a lot of comments about his new development at Ninth and New Hampshire streets taking the place where downtown movies have been shown in the past. “I got beat up over that.”
Development in good years
On why downtown didn’t see more development during the good years of the 2000s. In particular, questions about why the Downtown 2000 project in the 900 block of New Hampshire saw rather lackluster private development until just recently.
Schumm: “For a long time we had one of the best games in town,” Schumm said. “We had a real downtown. Someone along the line, they read our book.” He said new developments like The Legends near the Kansas Speedway in western Wyandotte County that are made to look like a downtown have hurt Lawrence’s downtown. “That has drawn away a lot of our customer base.”
Reineman: Reminds people that South Iowa Street was developing at this time period too. “There’s a lot of retail out there.”
Compton: Said he thinks Schumm “is exactly right” about The Legends. “Drive through there sometime and count the Douglas County tags. It is scary.”
It is noted, though, that The Legends has quite a few more national retailers than downtown Lawrence. Why have more national retailers landed in downtown, and is that good or bad?
Paley: Said national retailers are more in a closing mode than an opening mode at the moment.
Schumm: Said national retailers have a bad feeling about downtowns everywhere. “They don’t look at downtown Lawrence any differently than the 200 downtowns that have been bombed out and are trying to get a Bed Bath & Beyond or something. They are about taking the guesswork out of any decision. We have multiple owners they would have to work with. We don’t have any consistent store hours here. We try, but chains are really looking for that consistent package.”
Reineman: Said national retailers are a close-knit group, and they know the national chains that have been in Lawrence “have not been high performers.” “Lawrence is not yet a big community. There is a big difference in the eyes of a national retailers between a community of 85,000 to 90,000 people and a community of 120,000.”
Paley: Said he thinks part of the discussion for downtown has to include more consistent hours and later hours. “I think you have to give those people going to Kansas City or Topeka (to work) a chance to come back downtown and shop.”
Reineman: Said if Weaver’s felt it could be profitable by staying open later it would stay open later. Said Thursday evening hours have become less significant over time rather than more significant.
Compton: Said he has tenants, like The Buckle, that do well after 5 p.m. He said the shopping environment has changed since he was a retailer in downtown in the early 1980s. “In the ’80s you used to be able to shoot a cannon off after 5 o’clock in downtown. Now, you’re not going to get a place to park.”