Archive for Thursday, June 2, 2011

Town Talk: Banquet business looking to open on Conn. Street; Olive Garden questions keep coming; a Wichita grocery deal to keep an eye on

June 2, 2011


Subscribe to the Town Talk email edition

Subscribe to the email edition of Town Talk and we'll deliver you the latest city news and notes every weekday at noon.

News and notes from around town:

• As home to more than 20,000 students, Lawrence long has had a bit of a party reputation. But now, it seems, there is an effort to expand it, but not by students. What I’m talking about are receptions and banquets. There has been a flurry of activity from entrepreneurs looking to provide people with a place to party.

We’ve previously reported on Steve Maceli’s idea to convert the vacant Masonic Temple in downtown into a reception, banquet, and meeting venue. Before that, the Castle Tea Room underwent a major renovation and emerged as a new type of player on the reception scene. Also, the business plan of The Oread hotel seems to rely heavily on attracting receptions and such. And, of course, the city has decided to expand its role in the business. It began offering this year reception and meeting space at the former Carnegie Library at Ninth and Vermont.

It seems the trend is not over. Plans have been filed at City Hall to convert a vacant building near Seventh and Connecticut streets into a banquet and meeting facility. Grant Lechtenberg, an owner of ES Lighting at 724 Conn. has filed plans to convert an adjacent building he owns at 704-706 Conn. into a banquet and meeting facility. The building — which is just north of the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store — would offer about 4,500 square feet of space for everything from small corporate meetings to mid-sized wedding receptions. I don’t believe that Lechtenberg ultimately will be the operator of the reception business, but who will be isn’t clear to me. Lechtenberg didn’t want to say much about the project when I got in touch with him.

The site is within walking distance to a couple of downtown hotels, many churches that host weddings and multiple restaurants that could serve as caterers. City planners, though, are trying to figure out how parking would work at the location. A planner working on the project told me the developers are trying to work out deals with some nearby businesses that are typically closed after 5 p.m. There lots could be used for evening receptions, and the business would provide either valet parking or a shuttle.

• Just like the salad and bread sticks, it seems the comments about a proposed Olive Garden Italian Restaurant and the tax breaks that developers are seeking for it just keep coming. I spent a good part of Wednesday talking to folks about the concept. Here are a few things I didn’t work into the article that is in today’s J-W.

  1. There will be a debate over how much new dining business the Olive Garden will bring to the city. Several members of The Lawrence Originals — organization of locally owned restaurants — contend it won’t do much.

“It is not a destination restaurant,” said Doug Holiday, owner of Biggs BBQ and president of The Lawrence Originals. “The Brookville Hotel or something like that is a destination restaurant. I don’t think this is going to do much to increase people’s propensity to eat out.

But City Commissioner Mike Dever told me that he thinks the restaurant does have the potential to put Lawrence “in play” as a place for area residents to dine and shop. He said there is no question that the Olive Garden runs successful marketing campaigns that bring people to their restaurants. When those people are from Baldwin City or Jefferson County or Ottawa — all places without an Olive Garden — where do they currently go? The answer is: Not Lawrence. Dever suspects many times they don’t just go to eat, but also will do a little shopping as well.

The issue is an important one because it will help determine how big of an economic impact the restaurant could have on city coffers. Based on some sales projections, the restaurant could generate about $125,000 per year in sales tax collections for the city and county. But how many of those sales will come at the expense of existing restaurants versus new sales that Lawrence wouldn’t have gotten otherwise? It is a big question that probably will be tough to answer definitively.

  1. A crystal ball doesn’t always work. Many times when a national retailer comes into a community, you hear concerns about how it could drive out local retailers. That is certainly an argument that will be made here. But such things can be tough to predict. It was mentioned in conversation yesterday that many people years ago were sure that Borders was going to decimate the local bookstore market in Lawrence. Of course, if you come down here to Seventh and New Hampshire, you can still buy a book at locally-owned mainstay The Raven, but good luck buying anything at Borders. After Borders closed, some bookstore owners did say that the national chain actually helped business because it brought more book buyers into the general area. Could the same thing happen at 27th and Iowa? Could the Olive Garden bring more diners to that intersection and increase the exposure of other restaurants in the area? I don’t know. My crystal ball doesn’t work either.
  2. Jobs will be a topic of discussion. The Olive Garden likely would employ about 75 full and part-time employees. But already, The Lawrence Originals have tallied up its numbers to remind folks of the contribution locally owned restaurants make to local economy. There are 21 locally owned restaurants in The Lawrence Originals group, and they have a combined annual sales total of $24.1 million. They employ 938 people. Plus the group points out that one study suggests that locally owned restaurants returned 56 percent of their revenues to the local economy (through wages, purchase, donations, etc.) while chain restaurants averaged 37 percent.
  3. The dynamics of this debate will be interesting to watch. Often, a development proposal finds its stiffest opposition from neighbors or other similar groups that have concerns about things like traffic or planning or other issues. But this time, it will be a group of business owners leading the charge. That will make for an interesting decision at the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. Many of these local restaurant owners are chamber members. In talking with several yesterday, I get the sense that this is a make-or-break issue with them. They’ll push hard for the chamber to come out against this proposal. Who would have thought one Italian restaurant could have created so many questions.

• I also got forwarded to me yesterday an article out of the Wichita Eagle. It was about a small grocery store chain that wanted a tax subsidy (a special sales tax district) to build in the Wichita area. It didn’t get it but ended up building anyway.

I’m not sure how analogous it is to the Olive Garden request, but it caught my eye because it is a small grocery store chain. It is locating in a 20,000 square foot building, and it focuses on selling “value-priced food and staples.” The franchise is called Save-A-Lot. The franchise owner says he has plans for more stores in Wichita.

I have no idea whether Lawrence is on his radar, but I do know there is a 20,000 square foot building sitting empty at Seventh and New Hampshire (with parking), and that people have been clamoring for a downtown grocery store. Or what about one in North Lawrence? It would be interesting to see if that national chain could win a tax break at Lawrence City Hall.


Ken Harris 6 years, 7 months ago

I enjoy the local restaurants. But none of them have done italian in a way that has me going back. Every time we have italian here in town we come out saying the same things. Too expensive; not as good as OG. Doesn't mean I'm not going to have great food somewhere else in town. Just means, sometimes I want OG breadsticks.

MarcoPogo 6 years, 7 months ago

If you really want to be treated like "family", you should go to Bambino's; the owner is more than happy to come out and yell at you if you send the food back for not being fully cooked.

Cimmy Redmond 6 years, 7 months ago

Oy. Bambino's. The one time I went there, in 2008, I got food poisoning the next day. So did my husband, who ate the same thing I did (my stepson and our friend, who had meatless dishes, were fine). I had to call several times to even get the female owner to talk to me, and then, I got a flurry of calls from her husband, who said there was no way their chicken made us sick because "[his] family eats the same thing." He then continually asked me to come in for free drinks, although I kept telling him I was pregnant. I should also point out our server was wearing cheap flipflops as footwear.

Yuck to Bambino's.

TimW 6 years, 7 months ago

"not as good as OG"

Haven't been to any of the local Italian places, but talk about a damning comment. That's like having a mediocre burger and saying "Eh, not as good as McDonald's"

Hate to say it, but the Olive Garden really isn't quality food, there's a reason people refer to it as McPasta.

John Sheppard 6 years, 7 months ago


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

I'm guessing that Dever's main interest in the Olive Garden tax break is to (further) set a precedent for tax breaks for almost any development-- Developers are looking for public subsidies anywhere they can get them, and development interests are his main constituency.

Steve Jacob 6 years, 7 months ago

“It is not a destination restaurant,”

I hate to say it, but it kind of is. OG knows from credit cards how many Lawrence people eat at their restaurants in Topeka/KC.

tolawdjk 6 years, 7 months ago

Receipts of out of town people doesn't prove destination status. All it proves is someone from out of town stopped and ate here while they were in town. You would have to poll those people, ask them "Did you come to Topeka/KC for OG or are you at OG because you were in Topeka/KC for something else?"

Beaujos in Idaho Springs, CO is a destination restaurant. There isn't anything worth stopping for in Idaho Springs, however, when I am in the area, I time my visit to eat a meal there.

CardHawkFan 6 years, 7 months ago

Had a Save-A-Lot in my hometown growing up. It was affordable, but it is that way because you won't recognize many of the names on the labels because it specializes in generic products. Plus, you have to sack your own groceries. I would go there. Their generic root beer was AWESOME!

Kontum1972 6 years, 7 months ago

how about Popeyes and Olive Garden right next to each other?

Kontum1972 6 years, 7 months ago

how about Popeyes and Olive Garden right next to each other?

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

Borders did in fact put a number of small local bookstores out of business when it originally located here, just for the record.

Will Soo 6 years, 7 months ago

Most of the local Italian restaurants in town should go out of business.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

Apparently a lot of people don't agree with you - if they did, those businesses would fail.

Bob_Keeshan 6 years, 7 months ago

Apparently Mr. Lawhorn is unfamiliar with the local bookstore market before Borders.

Indeed, The Raven is still open. Others, though, are quite clearly long forgotten.

Perhaps Lawhorn's point is that if the Olive Garden opens and then closes years from now, Lawrence should be happy that 50% of the competing restaurants are still open.

Incredibly shoddy reporting/commentary.

Phil Minkin 6 years, 7 months ago

Adventure was one and there was an indy that went in the space where town crier was.

MarcoPogo 6 years, 7 months ago

Adventure was pretty much done before Border's opened. Hasting's put the nails into Hatch's coffin. What was the indie store in the Town Crier spot? There was one down where Milton's was (Terra Nova) but I think they were already gone by that time.

Chad Lawhorn 6 years, 7 months ago

No, I'm familiar with it. I was here at the time. I sat through the meetings at City Hall. I stand by what I said. What I wrote today was that there was concern at the time that the local bookstore market would be "decimated" by Borders. I don't see any evidence that it has been or that there ever was a period in time where it was "decimated." In fact, one of the larger downtown tenants to come to downtown in the last few years has been an independent bookstore — Signs of Life. Another — The Dusty Bookshelf — continues to win awards as one of the better independent bookstores in the region. A somewhat significant tenant on 23rd Street in the past few years has been Half Price Books. There are others that I'm likely forgetting. I never said there weren't any bookstores that closed following Borders' entry into the market. If you think I did, perhaps you should check your shoddiness meter. (I know. That's snarky on my part.) As for what it means as it relates to Olive Garden, I wouldn't read much into it. The topic came up in a conversation yesterday, so I passed it along. Thanks, Chad Lawhorn Journal-World

MyOpinionCounts 6 years, 7 months ago

I sure wish we could get a Red Lobster to locate in Lawrence.

jjt 6 years, 7 months ago

Being in the Real Estate "trade" and seeing as how my family often had that very discussion some years ago I called their corporate HQ. I was asking about the junction at 23rd and 6th where the pharmacy is now. When it was just an old empty restaurant. Their line was that there were not enough people in Lawrence year round to make a Red Lobster work. During school time they said that although the numbers do go up students would not use it.
I do not recall what the magic number was.

Fred Sherman 6 years, 7 months ago

Plans were submitted for City Commission approval in the summer of 1996 for a Red Lobster to be located at the NWC of 31st Street & Iowa. The parent company pulled the plans from consideration at the 11th hour - right before the commission meeting. Search the JW archives for the story.

Catalano 6 years, 7 months ago

If the LJW archives had a decent search engine.

deadanimals 6 years, 7 months ago

the banquet hall is a bad idea for that location.

Sylvie Rueff 6 years, 7 months ago

Hood & the one where Milton's is now were other ones....

fisher66067 6 years, 7 months ago

i live in ottawa and would eat at the olive garden every time im in lawrence and were up there once a week to shop. only been in biggs once wasnt impressed

jl72189 6 years, 7 months ago

HOW is a banquet hall near Mass a bad idea, it sounds like it way bigger then what you can find from some hotels. Parking should not be a issue with a TON of parking downtown not to mention the empty lots eat of mass that are 2 blocks from the location. Hell this is a great idea for the city now they will start driving revenue in the 10 hour pay lot that they do the farmers market in. As long as the building is reasonable it should be a top 3 option in Lawrence!

jl72189 6 years, 7 months ago

Having a wedding on or near mass you have 4 options Eldridge, Macelis, Spring Hill and this new Hall. Eldridge is most people’s first choice however they cannot handle over 150 people very well. Macelis is a great option and has smaller size issues. Spring Hill is a great option as well but I am sure the new place will be a lot more reasonable.

always4ever 6 years, 7 months ago

A bigger question in our house is - when is Vermont Street BBQ going to reopen?

countrygirl 6 years, 7 months ago

There used to be a Save a Lot in Topeka---reminded me of Aldi's. Not that that's a bad thing, but you won't find the name brands or deli items you would in Dillons or Hy-vee.

tonytman 6 years, 7 months ago

I will go to olive garden Biggs stinks worst BBQ in lawrence pluse olive garden i would think would bring more people off of I-70 than Biggs BBQ

Terry Jacobsen 6 years, 7 months ago

Love Olive Garden. It would provide a number of our teenagers and college students a good part-time job. We need more of those in Lawrence, as well as higher paying permanent jobs. I have yet to see an Olive Garden that wasn't packed all the time. Dinner sales = tax dollars. When are we going to stop protecting Bob Schum's restaurant downtown and bring in some business that will generate tax money and bring in people from the highway and surrounding area.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

How is turning down a request for a tax break "protecting" anyone?

Giving it would be giving the new restaurant an unfair advantage - why should we do that?

Fred Sherman 6 years, 7 months ago

Reporting on this issue as - should tax breaks be considered and granted for a corporate restaurant chain - will generate lots of comments and web traffic – which is what Talk of Town is generally designed to do. Reporting only on the potential public policy debate without any of the site specific details of the project may not be fair for this debate, nor is good sound journalism IMO – unless the goal is only to generate web traffic and comments.

The site at the NEC of 27th & Iowa is a difficult commercial property in its current configuration. Its like the Moon – great visibility, but very difficult to get to. This site is a dog based on its current left-turn access connections. If the request for some public financial concessions includes some aspect of improvements to the public infrastructure – then this public policy debate issue is a different animal than is being reported – Chad. In this situation, building and connecting Red Bud Lane as a public road between 27th and 26th Street may be so specific to this location that it puts the debate on the financial concession issues into a different category of consideration than what other projects have been reviewed under. I have no knowledge as to if connecting Red Bud Lane is or is not part of the proposal, but the cost of constructing a publicly dedicated road is not a typical development cost that can be easily absorbed by a small-scale commercial redevelopment project. Connecting Red Bud Lane between 26th and 27th Street would be a benefit to the general public for this location, be it for an Olive Garden restaurant, or any other restaurant or other commercial business at this location.

optimist 6 years, 7 months ago

I agree completely. Finally someone here that can make a rational point without invoking classism or wealth envy. To give this restaurant chain or any other retailer or restaurant business a tax break simply as an incentive to open a for-profit business in Lawrence is idiocy and creates a welfare environment. If they are asking the city to pay for improvements to the surrounding area to provide safe and easy access to their property which benefits everyone then I think it is worthy of discussion and provides no advantage over other businesses in the community.

The libertarian in me says that this mentality invites more government intrusion into their business. It is only right if we invest in their business we should as stake holders in their business be able to vote on pretty much every business decision they make regarding this restaurant location. First order of business Price Fixing; or better yet Dividends to every local tax payer from profits earned at this location.

BigPrune 6 years, 7 months ago

Went to Olive Garden twice in my life. Made a special trip both times. Food was mediocre both times. Paisano's will take a big hit.

If they get a special tax break, it will not be fair to all of the other businesses in this town. The developer paid way too much for that land, thinking it was Kansas City I guess. Let whomever buys it take the property tax hit like every other business in this town and leave us taxpayers out of it.

true_patriot 6 years, 7 months ago

Anyone thinks that Olive Garden is real Italian food is living a delusion. NO MORE CORPORATE WELFARE.

I wonder how much of our local money we have to give away to corporate chains or out of town investor groups with deep pockets as they come in and pressure mom and pop and local businesses out of the market before we wake up as a city and put a stop to it.

If you want to live in a sterile corporate landscape like Strang Line and 119th in Olathe for example move there. It takes decades and really centuries to build character in a unique town like Lawrence - the inhabitants here should be leading the way in fighting to protect this incredible asset and keep our money local, not just a local restaurant consortium having to lead the way.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 7 months ago

true_patriot: "If you want to live in a sterile corporate landscape like Strang Line and 119th in Olathe for example move there." === I tend to agree. There is too much 'beigeville' in America already. Except that the trees are different, it's tough to tell if one is in parts of Lawrence, most of JOCO, Colorado Springs (look up at the mountains; that's the only difference) or hundreds of other places. I have few regrets in life, but do wish I'd bought stock in the companies that make baby poop brown house paint. That's much of what is used these days. The 'radicals' get to paint their house grey or a subtle shade of blue.

George_Braziller 6 years, 7 months ago

A woman from Topeka is who is interested in operating a banquet facility north of the Re-Store.

Steve Jacob 6 years, 7 months ago

Just because a place is local does not make if good food, just because it's a chain does not make it bad food.

Stephanie Harris 6 years, 7 months ago

I like Olive Garden for what it is....breadsticks and pretty good salad. Not too hot on their entrees...they're ok. Genovese is not good, Bambino's sucks.....what other Italian is there in Lawrence? I have heard Basil Leaf Cafe is good, but it's only take out at the moment. I agree with srj...."Just because a place is local does not make if good food, just because it's a chain does not make it bad food."

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

Genovese is one of the best Italian restaurants I've ever been to - what didn't you like?

Teller's is also a good Italian restaurant, and 715 offers some Italian options.

Clark Coan 6 years, 7 months ago

The new Bambinos at 15th & Wakarusa has a fantastic executive chef who makes wonderful dishes. It's a lot better than Genovese or Paisanos.

JJ Morgan 6 years, 7 months ago

I've seen Save-A-Lot stores..they run well, but the stores in areas I've you really want the clientele?

Richard Heckler 6 years, 7 months ago

"If they get a special tax break, it will not be fair to all of the other businesses in this town. The developer paid way too much for that land, thinking it was Kansas City I guess. Let whomever buys it take the property tax hit like every other business in this town and leave us taxpayers out of it."


People have these notions about Lawrence. ..... some illusions I'd say.

This is not Boulder Colorado no matter what real estate sales people may imply. And most markets are saturated.

Sara Garlick 6 years, 7 months ago

This city doesn't need another restaurant. As for OG "suppling jobs for high school & college kids" the most a hs kid can do in a restaurant is host & dish and they can only work for limited hours in a day due to child labor laws. This is why most restaurants unofficially require ppl to be over 18. Plus restaurants pride themselves on liquor sales and one must be 18+ to serve & 21+ to pour.

Why can't the city add an arcade/laser tag, a sports equipment store, ice rink ,formal ettire shop, H & M, nurseries, more bakeries, a better Youth center, Ymca, etc. If Olive Garden is added we might as well add Hooters!

bornherelongago 6 years, 7 months ago

Let them pay the current taxes for the next 10 years. The corner has been vacant for the past 10 and hasn't created any sales tax. They WILL bring folks in from Ottawa, Baldwin, Eudora, Perry, McClouth, DeSoto, etc, because they are the formula that people love. In 10 years, the property will be worth 20 times what it is today, and we can make up for lost time. If we don't that corner will continue to be an eyesore and will not be developed.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

And if you're wrong, and that doesn't happen?

George_Braziller 6 years, 7 months ago

Don't think so.

For starters, it's McLouth not "McClouth."

There is already one in Lenexa that would be faster and/or closer for people living in DeSoto and Ottawa, and one in Topeka that would be faster/closer for people living in Perry.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.