News and notes from around town:
• City leaders have spent a lot of time talking about the importance of being business friendly, but at least one small downtown business owner doesn’t think City Hall is being very friendly to him. In fact, he thinks the city has become an unfair competitor.
Steve Maceli — owner of the catering and event hall Maceli’s at 1031 N.H. — said the city’s decision to start renting out the newly renovated Carnegie Library building for wedding receptions and other similar types of events is an example of government unfairly competing with private business.
The city rents out the main floor of the Carnegie — located at Ninth and Vermont — for $525 for a six-hour event. Maceli said that price isn’t anywhere close to a market rate for a facility of that quality or size. The Carnegie can seat 220 or more, plus accommodate a dance floor.
Maceli’s rental rates start at $1,000, and he said that’s necessary in order for him to pay off the loan that he took to renovate the building. And, oh yeah, he reminds folks that he has to generate revenue to pay property taxes on the building. The city doesn’t pay property taxes on the Carnegie.
He also said the city, in addition to the cheap rate, has policies that make it tough for private businesses to compete. The biggest two are that the city allows renters to bring in their own food and alcohol.
The city has been in the rental business for a number of years, most notably renting out the North Lawrence depot. But Maceli said that facility was small enough that it does not compete for many wedding receptions or large events.
“But the Carnegie is the type of venue that could take a good chunk of business from people trying to make a living in downtown,” Maceli said.
He mentioned event space at The Eldridge, Pachamama’s, and The Castle Tea Room as several others that would find themselves competing with the city.
City officials previously have supported the idea of using the Carnegie building as event space because they believe it is a way to help get more people into downtown, which will benefit a broad number of businesses downtown. City Hall also is operating on an assumption that event space in town can be hard to find. Maceli, though, takes exception to that premise.
“People in Lawrence are always saying we need more event space in the city,” Maceli wrote in a letter to city commissioners. “I do not believe this is the case. From my perspective, what people are often saying is that they are not willing to pay for the spaces that are already available, or they have picked a busy month and nothing is available at their price point.
“No matter how many event spaces Lawrence has, there will never be enough in April, May, June, October and December. Ultimately some people may have to have their events in other months. That doesn’t mean we need more event space, let alone subsidized event space.”
Maceli said the city could make some changes that would make the situation better. The city could just offer the space for non-profit meetings and such for a nominal fee. Or, if the city wants to continue to offer the building for receptions, it could require that liquor only be served by a caterer or someone else who has the proper state licenses.
“Then there would be some more control,” Maceli said. “I don’t think the city’s parks and recreation staff is going to be responsible for providing that type of liquor control.”
Maceli has sent a couple of letters to city commissioners on the subject over the last month, but he said he hasn’t heard from them. We’ll check in with some city officials and report any thoughts they have.
• Maceli also confirmed he’s in negotiations with First Management to lease the long vacant Masonic Temple building at 10th and Massachusetts. He said he’s interested in using the building as a second location for his event business — although, he said he’ll be less interested if he has to compete with the city.
He said the space is so unique that it might be able to serve as a one-stop shop for weddings. He says the building still has the oldest Reuter organ west of the Mississippi, which could be a drawing card for the building to host actual wedding ceremonies. He envisions weddings happening on the main floor, a dinner happening in the basement, and then guests returning to the main floor for dancing.
• City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday received some new information about efforts to restore the Santa Fe Depot at Seventh and New Jersey streets.
Assistant City Manager Diane Stoddard said officials with Amtrak are now considering whether it can pay for some of the interior renovations of the building related to making it ADA accessible. Previously, Amtrak has said it only would be responsible for bringing the outdoor passenger train platform up to ADA standards. If Amtrak also would tackle the interior ADA issues — like new bathrooms — that would reduce the $600,000 in repairs that the city would need to do if it takes over ownership of the building. Amtrak executives are expected to take the Lawrence issue to the Amtrak board later this week.
Also, Stoddard said the city on Tuesday received some communication from the depot’s owner — Burlington Northern Santa Fe — about re-writing an ownership transfer contract that would be more friendly to the city. The railroad indicated it would consider several revisions to a proposed contract that would transfer ownership to the city for essentially no cost. The city had expressed concerns about some provisions, including a requirement that the city accept all environmental liability for the land that the depot sits upon — even though the city would not own the land. The city also has expressed concern that the railroad has been unwilling to proceed with a transfer agreement that is subject to the city first receiving grant money to renovate the depot. It is unknown whether the railroad is willing to bend on that point.
City commissioners on Tuesday, though, said they still were not interested in taking over ownership of the building without first having grant money to fund the improvements.