Town Talk: What census numbers may mean to the building industry; Comfort Inn construction begins; Teller’s sold to general manager

News and notes from around town:

• Well, I admit I’m a bit of census geek. For a guy who had to travel to the ends of the earth to find a “university” that would pass him in college algebra, I actually do like numbers. I found Thursday’s release of census data to be interesting, and I haven’t even yet begun to go through all of it.

The population totals have provided plenty of food for thought. Basically what Thursday’s release showed is that Lawrence and Douglas County for the last decade grew at about 1 percent per year instead of the 2 percent per year that has been more common in the previous two decades.

Some people may be saying “so what?” What’s 1 percent between friends, right? Perhaps, but I can tell you one group that will care a lot: the building and real estate industry. If 1 percent a year is the “new normal” when it comes to local growth, that’s a major hit to their business.

Look at it this way: Lawrence has a 2010 population of 87,643 people. If it grows at 1 percent per year, the city’s population will be 106,836 people in 20 years. If it grows at 2 percent per year, the city’s population will be 130,232 people in 20 years. That’s a difference of 23,291 people. Our average household size has been about 2.35 people per household. Do the math and that means we’re talking about a difference — over the 20 year period — of about 9,900 homes between 1 percent growth or 2 percent growth. That is a lot of homes and apartments that will go unbuilt each year.

If this is the new reality, that will be a major change for one of Lawrence’s largest industries.

• The census numbers also are kind of fun because they allow us to see how well our crystal ball works. The city’s long-range planning is governed by a document called Horizon 2020. It was drafted during the go-go 1990s. The document includes three sets of growth projections for Lawrence: a low, a medium and a high. The new census numbers now put Lawrence below the low projection, although just by a bit. The low projection estimated Lawrence would have 88,961 people in 2010, or about 1.5 percent more than what the census says we have. So, we’re actually in the ballpark, but I covered the Horizon 2020 process in the 1990s and I can tell you not many people were betting on the low scenario.

Where the projections are more interesting is for the outlying communities of Eudora and Baldwin City. The document assumed those towns would continue to grow much like they had for the past 30 years. They haven’t. The plan projected Baldwin City to have a 2010 population of 3,621. Instead, it has a population of 4,515, or a difference of about 24 percent. In Eudora the 2010 projection called for 4,775 people. Instead, it has a population of 6,136 people, or a difference of 28 percent.

• I’ve gotten some calls about what new project is happening just south of the Hallmark Cards production plant. As we’ve previously reported a Comfort Inn hotel is being built on the property. Construction work on the project began this week. I’m checking in with developers on an estimated timeline for completion of the approximately 65-room hotel.

• Perhaps you had heard speculation that the longtime downtown restaurant Teller’s, 746 Mass., was on the ropes. Well, the restaurant has recently sold, and its new owner said it is on a much firmer foundation now.

General manager Tom Wilson recently formed a group to buy the restaurant.

“We are back on track now,” Wilson told me. “When I got here the restaurant was trending down about 30 percent and now we’re up 12 percent. We’ve almost had a 45 percent swing.”

As we previously reported, Wilson joined Teller’s as its general manager last year, and brought in a new chef from the Denver area. He’s also shaken up the menu.

“Our menu previously was 80 percent Italian,” Wilson said. “Now it is about 15 percent Italian.”

The restaurant has adopted a “World Cuisine” philosophy that has several ethnic dishes along with some American favorites. More menu changes are on the way. Wilson said new twists to the menu will be introduced on Monday, including the addition of lobster.

Wilson has had a 20-year management career in the restaurant industry, largely with the chain that owns Macaroni Grill. But Wilson said he’s committed to keeping Teller’s an independent operation.

“My goal has just been to stabilize it with a little corporate knowledge in a noncorporate environment,” Wilson said.