Archive for Sunday, January 23, 2011

Longtime Lawrence developer John McGrew to receive Lawrence Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Years award

John McGrew, a retired Realtor and developer, will be honored with the Citizen of the Years award by the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. McGrew and the late Bob Billings helped guide development of much of western Lawrence, including the Alvamar golf courses and surrounding neighborhoods.

John McGrew, a retired Realtor and developer, will be honored with the Citizen of the Years award by the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. McGrew and the late Bob Billings helped guide development of much of western Lawrence, including the Alvamar golf courses and surrounding neighborhoods.

January 23, 2011


Other award winners

Three longtime local volunteers and business leaders will be honored by the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce at its annual meeting on Friday.

The chamber will award Sharon Spratt the Buford M. Watson Jr. Public Service Award, Ranelle Fischer the Wally Galluzzi Volunteer of the Year Award, and Jane Bateman the Athena Award.

“Each of these honorees contribute to our community on a daily basis and make Lawrence a better place in which to live and work,” said Cindy Yulich, chair of the chamber’s board of directors.

The chamber will host its annual meeting and awards banquet at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Holiday Inn Lawrence, 200 McDonald Drive.

Longtime Lawrence Chamber of Commerce leader Gary Toebben will be the keynote speaker. Toebben was the president of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce from 1981 to 1999. He now is the president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber selected its award winners from a list of nominations made by its membership and the general public.

Spratt is the chief executive officer of Lawrence-based Cottonwood Inc., an organization that serves people with developmental disabilities. In addition to her work there, she also has been a board member with Douglas County Visiting Nurses, the Douglas County Dental Clinic, and the Kansas Commission on Disability Concerns.

Fischer is a vice president for Lawrence’s Emprise Bank. Since moving to Lawrence in 1995, she’s been an active volunteer with the Kiwanis club, the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, the Leadership Lawrence program, the Douglas County Senior Center, the United Way of Douglas County and several other organizations.

Bateman is the president of Lawrence’s Jane Bateman: The Interiors Store. She has won several business and volunteer awards including the Wally Galluzzi Volunteer of the Year Award, and has served as the president or chair of several local organizations, including the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Board, the Lawrence Community Theatre, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission and Rotary International of Lawrence.

Back in the 1960s, there was no Clinton Parkway in Lawrence, and certainly no Bob Billings Parkway. After all, it would have been odd to name a road after Kansas University’s young director of financial aid, even if he had been a teammate of Wilt Chamberlain.

But there was a bumpy, graveled, Kansas farm road that would take you about a mile west of Iowa Street. Lawrence real estate broker John McGrew bounced along it because a hunting buddy of his was looking for a piece of land. A pretty good size piece of land, in fact.

Something about this 450-acre tract caught McGrew’s eye. It had some hills and nice timber, and for whatever reason McGrew could envision white balls someday bouncing along tightly mowed fairways.

That’s what his hunting buddy was looking for — a place to build a golf course. The buddy was Bob Billings. Yes, the financial aid director who later would go on to become one of the more respected suburban developers in the country. Billings and Lawrence businessman Mel Anderson had the idea of making Lawrence home to one of the better public-play golf courses in America.

“I didn’t even know if the land was available, but I made the contact,” McGrew said. “And the rest ended up being a miracle.”

You, of course, can go visit the 450-acre site today. Paved roads lead to Alvamar’s two golf courses, although if you don’t hit it straight there is still much that is rough about the place.

That nice piece of ground down the bumpy road was just the opening shot for McGrew and Billings. Together, they developed about 3,000 acres of West Lawrence residential neighborhoods under the Alvamar name.

A year apart in age, McGrew and Billings knew each other at KU, and they discovered they were both also outdoorsmen. Perhaps never has a bigger trophy been brought in from the field than the partnership McGrew and Billings ended up forging through their hunting and fishing trips.

“I knew him well from spending quite a bit of time with him in the field, and it just took off from there,” McGrew said of Billings, who died in 2003. “And sometimes, you just get lucky. I found the right piece of land.”


McGrew, the past chairman of Lawrence-based McGrew Real Estate, will receive the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Years award at the chamber’s annual meeting on Friday.

Friends and business associates said the award was well-deserved for one of the community’s consummate dealmakers.

“John is always going to carve out a deal as good as he can make it,” said Larry Chance, a vice president with Lawrence’s Emprise Bank, who was an executive at Alvamar for 27 years. “That wasn’t Bob’s strong suit. But John always has a very fine pencil. I don’t think John or Bob could have done everything they have done without the other.”

Now 72 (yes, McGrew is the guy on the much-played physical therapy commercial who says of his tennis game ‘not bad for an old guy’), he is thankful he’s gotten anything done in the real estate business.

For a time, it didn’t appear like he would. McGrew’s father, Conrad, founded the real estate company in 1951, the same year large parts of Douglas County were under water from the area’s largest flood in recent memory.

In 1953, his father died.

“My dad was 48 when he died, and I was 14,” McGrew said. “It is the biggest shock a teenager could ever have.”

One would think it might have been a fatal shock for a 2-year-old real estate company.

“I never forget that it is a miracle that McGrew Real Estate exists today, and the miracle is my mother,” McGrew said.

McGrew’s mother, Viola, had never balanced a checkbook before her husband’s death. But she took over the reins of the company and kept it going until McGrew could graduate from KU’s Business School in 1960. At that point, there was no doubt about what McGrew was going to do. He went straight to the family business, without regard for whether he would like it or not.

In perhaps his biggest stroke of luck, he ended up loving it. The process of carving new neighborhoods out of Douglas County hillsides left him with a feeling that you don’t always associate with developers.

“It was just such a joy to feel like you were being creative,” McGrew said. “I’m not an artist, but I always felt like we were making a positive contribution.”


McGrew has been retired from his real estate company since 2007, promoting his son, Mike, to the chairman position. But with blue jeans, a blazer and a starched white shirt, McGrew still very much looks the part of a laid-back Lawrence dealmaker.

In a Sixth Street office, he asks his secretary to find some documents from the 1980s to help him make a point to a visitor. She does so in a matter of minutes. Office file cabinets contain plats of neighborhoods throughout the city, and an aerial photograph of one piece of land or another is never very far away.

But these days, McGrew sells ideas more than he does property. He’s the founder and chairman of the local nonprofit Outside for a Better Inside. It works to get people — particularly youths — outside more often in the hopes of preventing health problems in the future.

Like a man who has been through countless open houses, he has a selling point about the program to stick in your mind.

“Make the computer a tool, not a lifestyle,” he says.

Over the last year he’s been promoting a plan to use school district ground just east of Lawrence near Kansas Highway 10 and Noria Road as the site of an eventual wellness campus that could include walking trails, outdoor classrooms, a “miracle field” for youths with disabilities, and other features. The school board balked at the use of the site, but McGrew still hopes some place can be found in the community for a project devoted to outdoor activities and wellness.

“I just want the community to evaluate the risks of not doing it and the benefits of doing it,” McGrew said. “If we just embrace it, it will work.”

Retired or not, McGrew also is still selling the idea of Lawrence. A great location with a great university has been the sales pitch for a long time. Like several in his industry, he feels like the community has slipped in its efforts to create jobs and the population growth that comes with them.

“We went through a time period there where we just thought we were too good for some jobs and some projects,” McGrew said, mentioning a failed deal to land the American Eagle Outfitters warehouse and other distribution and industrial projects.

He knows those type of comments will anger some, but he’s used to that. Being a developer in Lawrence doesn’t make you the most popular guy in some circles. But McGrew said he’s never apologetic about being in the development business, or for how the city has grown.

“When I was growing up here in the 1940s, Lawrence, Ottawa, and Las Vegas, Nevada, all were about the same size,” McGrew said. “I think most thinking people would agree Las Vegas has been runaway development and lots of bad things have happened. Ottawa would say we would like to have more development to be more economically healthy. I think Lawrence has had a good balance.

“I’m glad to have the discussion. I think it is healthy to have a well-educated population that cares about its community. That doesn’t bother me. But it is easy for me to believe that the amount of development we had here was healthy and good for the community overall.”

Even if there are fewer gravel roads to travel down.