News and notes from around town:
• Complaints from downtown merchants about property taxes are about as common as Crimson and Blue on game day. But as I was working on a project about downtown and how it has changed over the last 10 years, I kept coming back to the property tax issue and wondering how that has impacted downtown’s ability to serve as a retail center.
Hopefully you saw our database and interactive map that appeared on the LJWorld.com site yesterday. It lists every property on Mass. Street from Sixth to 11th and shows how much the property has changed in value since 2001, who its owners are, and also how the tenant mix has changed downtown. The one piece of information I found most interesting was this: $13,520 is how much the average-valued commercial building in downtown will pay in property taxes in 2011. That’s $1,126 per month. In 2001, the average-priced building in downtown paid $623 per month in property taxes. That’s an increase of 80 percent, or 8 percent per year. During that same time period, inflation has been running about 2.8 percent per year.
But remember, that’s just for the average-priced building. In 2001, the median value for a building on Mass. Street was $273,400. In 2011, that average price had risen to $437,600. That’s an increase of 60 percent, or 6 percent per year. There were 30 buildings on Mass. Street, however, that had their property values increase by 100 percent or more for the decade. (On our map, those properties have a sunflower icon, since their owners so obviously have a great love for the Sunflower State.) So, rising property values are certainly part of the equation — the largest part, in fact. That part may be taking care of itself. At our downtown roundtable discussion, there was a general consensus that what buyers are willing to pay for a downtown building had declined significantly in the last couple of years. (And I think you have started to see that in some of the appraised values from the county.)
But rising property values are only part of the equation. The other part is the rising mill levy. In 2001, the total mill levy for downtown was about 109 mills. The current rate is about 123 mills. That’s an increase of about 12 percent for the decade.
City commissioners are in the process of appointing a new downtown task force that is supposed to discuss issues that are making it more difficult for downtown to be a retail destination. It will be interesting to see if property taxes get much discussion, and even more interesting to see if anybody has any solutions.
• How about an update on the SS Porta Potty that is docked in the Kansas River? If you remember, I told you last week about a portable toilet that found its way into the Kansas River near the downtown bridges. It is sitting just west of Bowersock dam, near where construction crews are building a $21 million power plant for the Bowersock Mills & Power Co. Well, I was talking to Sarah Hill-Nelson of Bowersock to get an update on the power plant project, and she wanted to give me an update on the Porta Potty too. She said it did not come from her company’s job site. Instead, it came from the job site related to the repaving of the Kansas River bridges. Apparently, a portable toilet perched atop a bridge is too tempting of a target for vandals. Hill-Nelson said her company has offered to help retrieve the toilet. After all, there is large crane on the Bowersock site. But she also noted it won’t be cheap.
“Crane time is very expensive,” Hill-Nelson said. “Cranes like that cost thousands of dollars an hour. That thousands plural. But we’re frustrated that it is not out of there yet. It is embarrassing to us because people see it and think it is ours and it is not.”
As far as the power plant project goes, it has been a good summer. The water levels of the river have cooperated nicely, and Hill-Nelson said there haven’t been any major surprises yet. It will be an interesting project to watch. Most of what you see on the north bank of the site is actually just temporary. What looks like a big pad site is really just mounds of dirt to keep the river at bay. Instead, the real action is the digging that is going on. There is an already deep hole near the center of the site. It is going to get deeper. Hill-Nelson said crews will have to dig 43 feet down to find bedrock that they can anchor the power plant to. Once the hole is dug, it will be filled up with concrete to act as a pier-like foundation for the power plant. It seems like a lot of effort, but without that, we would have a power plant and a Porta Potty to fish out of the river. The power plant is expected to be completed by the end of 2012.
• A quick update on a previous mention about Bum Steer Catering. As we suggested, the company indeed is moving to a new location in the shopping center at 19th and Haskell. But don’t expect the company to get back into the restaurant business. Owner Chris Lemmon told me that he was looking for a new location after his lease expired on an out-of-the-way spot on East 22nd Street. The new spot will give him more visibility, but he said he doesn’t have any desire to get back into the restaurant business. Instead, he'll just stick to catering a variety of events. Lemmon operated a large barbecue restaurant on South Iowa Street, just south of where Applebee’s is, until the mid-1990s. Lemmon said he hopes to be in his new location by Sept. 1.
As for a new sign that also has appeared in the shopping center, Lemmon doesn’t know what the Very Serious Comedy Office is either. The business is setting up shop just north of the Crosstown Tavern. I’ve got a lead on it though, and will let you know what I find.