New government restrictions aren’t the best choice for promoting downtown retail, but, if a turnaround isn’t near, they could be on the table.
Members of the public aren’t alone in being concerned about downtown Lawrence becoming too much of an entertainment district at the expense of its retail roots.
Four prominent downtown property owners came to the Journal-World last week to discuss a host of downtown issues. All four — landlords Doug Compton and George Paley, property and restaurant owner Bob Schumm and Weaver’s executive Earl Reineman — expressed concern about the mix of businesses in the downtown.
It is encouraging that individuals who have invested heavily in downtown over a long period of time see the need to keep a strong retail presence in the area. Retailers help make the downtown a more diverse and interesting place to be.
Several members of the group said they believe downtown is either close to or has reached a saturation point for restaurants. They expect the development of restaurants and entertainment venues to slow in the near future. The public hasn’t yet seen that trend. Two new Mexican restaurants currently are under development in downtown, and, in the not too distant past, the downtown lost a drug store and a greeting card shop to restaurant uses. A longer list of restaurants replacing retailers easily could be developed.
Surprisingly, everyone in the group also acknowledged that there may be a day that Lawrence City Hall has to take some action to try to protect downtown’s retail foundation. What effective action the city could take would require a significant amount of discussion, but last week’s gathering brought up the possibility of greater regulation of drinking establishment licenses in downtown. The city already requires downtown businesses to have a significant amount of food sales before they can receive a drinking establishment license. That has stopped the district from adding more bar-only establishments.
That concept could be expanded, members of the group noted. Most restaurants entering the downtown want the ability to serve alcohol. Compton said he is familiar with several communities that essentially require any new business wanting a drinking establishment license to purchase a license from an existing license holder. That effectively limits how many drinking establishments an area can have.
None of the group members last week strongly endorsed such a move for Lawrence. That’s good. It would be far preferable for the market to make the necessary adjustments. When city government starts trying to manage a market, the potential for unintended consequences is great.
But group members also didn’t rule out the idea. In a way, that’s good, too. It shows that downtown leaders recognize the seriousness of keeping our retail base strong.
If downtown loses its critical mass of retailers, it will be extremely difficult to regain that mass in the future. What will follow will be a downtown transformation that many residents won’t enjoy watching. That transformation may produce more places to eat and drink — for a while, anyway — but downtown will not be a more fun place. As the downtown becomes more one-dimensional, property values will fall, behavior problems will rise, and downtown’s quaintness will be an attribute we talk about in the past tense.
There are still more questions than answers when it comes to providing Downtown Lawrence a retail boost. It appears the stage is set to have a good conversation.