News and notes from around town:
• The big news out of Topeka that the city will be home to a $250 million Mars candy plant caused my phone to ring a couple of times. Some local folks wanted to know whether Lawrence even made a pitch for the project. Indeed we did, but economic development leaders admit we didn’t get very far in the process. Beth Johnson, vice president of economic development for the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, told me that the state’s Commerce Department contacted her about the project in August 2010. She said the project had several specific requirements.
- A site of at least 80 to 150 acres.
- A site that had the infrastructure ready to go because the company wanted to start building as soon as it made a decision.
- Easy access to a four-lane interstate highway.
- And the company made it clear that incentives from the community were going to be an important part of the equation.
Lawrence submitted its 87 acre site along Noria Road, just east of the East Hills Business Park. That site was basically the only piece of property that met the size requirements that was zoned for industrial. But it is not along an interstate highway, and it would be a stretch to say that the infrastructure is ready for the site. The property needs several feet of fill dirt to address flooding concerns, unless Mars is okay with its M&Ms; floating out the door every once in awhile. Of course, there is a 150-acre site for industrial at the Lecompton interchange. But it still has questions about infrastructure and has faced some legal challenges from neighbors. Plus, the chamber and the new owners of the property don’t seem to be singing on the same page when it comes to marketing that property. The Farmland site in August 2010 certainly wasn’t ready.
But even if there was a Lawrence site that would have met all of those requirements, the question of incentives would have loomed large. Topeka, through its economic development organization that is funded by a special sales tax, offered $9 million in incentives to land the company. I have heard it said that if Lawrence were to offer that deal, it would have needed to be $9 million and a thousand heart defibrillators — because that is about how many heart attacks that large of an incentive would have created. Maybe, maybe not. Incentives here certainly have been controversial over the years. (Actually, I think they were controversial just yesterday.) But perhaps for the right project, Lawrence residents would be willing to step up with such an offer. It would be fun to find out.
In talking with some leaders, it does seem that Topeka — which has landed a Target distribution center, a Home Depot distribution center, and a commercial bakery project all fairly recently — has a different model for economic development than Lawrence does. The community has the dedicated sales tax to fund the development of industrial parks and to offer incentives. But it seems that elected officials also have been more comfortable ceding significant control of economic development to an outside group — GO! Topeka — than what has happened here.
Anyway, for Topeka, this announcement was out of this world. (Get it. Mars. I should start writing speeches for the governor.)
• From big business, to mini business. I’ve had a few questions about whether the re-opened driving range and pitch and putt golf course along K-10 and County Route 1057 is going to re-open its miniature golf course. Not yet, is the word from Jeff Burey, owner of the Twin Oaks golf facility. He said he definitely would like to, but he said estimates to get the mini-golf course back in shape are about $15,000. He said he’ll need to get some cash flow from the driving range and pitch-and-putt course before he tackles that project. The pitch and putt course opened about three weeks ago. So far, he said, business has been good. The course is marketing itself as a good place to learn the game or hone your skills. It particularly is making efforts to get kids involved in the game. Burey is one of the leaders in the region in S.N.A.G., which stands for Starting New at Golf. That program has a specialized golf game that is kind of like golf’s version of tee ball. Burey also is trying to offer a lower-priced alternative for a round of golf, although it is a much shorter round of golf. You can play the nine hole course for $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and military, or $5 for children under 10. Each round of golf also includes a bucket of balls for the driving range.
• Managers at the city-owned Eagle Bend Golf Course are trying to figure out how to spur business at the course at Clinton Lake. At a recent Parks and Recreation Advisory Board meeting, course leaders said revenue for the course January through May was as low as it had been in at least the last three years. Department leaders said golf courses all over the region are reporting a similar start to the season. The economy has definitely taken a toll on the game. The course will try to spur some business on July 5 by rolling back its prices for the day to the levels they were at when the course opened 13 years ago. That means 18 holes for $15 without a cart or $25 with a cart. Normal prices with a cart are $36 Monday-Thursday and $41 on Fridays and weekends. That’s an increase of about 45 percent since the course opened, or about 3 percent to 4 percent per year. I’m just glad they don’t charge by the stroke.
• Speaking of folks who are trying to spur business, the numbers for homes sales and home construction in Lawrence during May weren’t good. According to statistics from the Lawrence Board of Realtors, 104 homes were sold in May. That’s down from 191 in 2010 and down from 140 in May of 2009. All that is despite more people trying to sell their homes. There were 1,035 active listings in May, up from 907 in May 2010 and 867 in May 2009.
For the total year, 399 homes have sold. That’s well down from 520 sold during the same time period in 2010, when the stimulus program spurred some sales. We are nearly below 2009 pace of 393 homes. Sales of newly constructed homes have been particularly poor. Only 26 newly built homes have sold in 2011. That’s down from 42 at this time in 2010 and 30 in 2009. Despite all this, average selling prices are up. The median selling price in 2011 is $160,000, up from $152,475 in 2010 and $150,000 in 2009. Between this and gasoline prices, I guess I don’t understand supply and demand anymore.
• Building permit numbers also have been slow to this point in 2011. The city issued 15 single-family building permits for May, that’s up from 10 in May 2010. But for the year, total single-family permits are down. The city has issued 48, down from 63 through May 2010. The city is on pace to build a little more than 100 homes for the year. When the economy was rolling, that would have been 300 to 400 single-family homes.
• And finally, I give you the bird before I leave for the July 4 holiday. Wait, that doesn’t sound right. How about I give you news of a bird. The city’s Prairie Park Nature Center recently has received a Peregrine falcon for its Birds of Prey Collection. The falcon was received from the California Foundation for Birds of Prey. The 10-year-old bird had been there for about the last six years. It ended up at that facility after it had been shot through the wing.
Hopefully all the birds and other animals dodge all the fireworks this holiday. Hope you all have a happy and safe Independence Day. I’ll be partaking in a “staycation” (thank you gasoline prices) for the week following July 4, so Town Talk will return the following week.