News and notes from around town:
• Keep an eye out for an announcement of a local call center expansion. Doug Brown, a broker with McGrew Commercial Real Estate, confirmed to me that a deal has been finalized for a local business that does call center type of work to lease about 20,000 square feet of space in the I-70 Business Center — the old Tanger Mall location — in North Lawrence. Brown, who brokered the deal, said the new space will allow the company to add about 70 new employees immediately. But Brown said he was not yet at liberty to release the name of the company. My understanding is work has begun to renovate the space. I’ll let you know when I hear more. On a side note, the project nearly completes a multi-year process to convert the former outlet mall facility into an office complex. Brown said there is now only about 20,000 square feet of space remaining, and that about 10,000 of that likely will be reserved for future expansion of this new company. The I-70 Business Center has major anchor tenants of Protection One, the national home security company that has its corporate headquarters in the facility, and Home Oxygen 2 U, which operates a call center in the space.
• Wednesday was a long day, but an interesting one. All told, I spent five or six hours with the Occupy Lawrence folks down at their camp in South Park. I thought I would pass along a few observations about the group and their operations, not with the idea of trying to pass any judgment but rather just because there seem to be quite a few questions floating around about the organization and its activities. So, here we go, "My Day with the South Parkers":
- The group is pretty young, but it is not exclusively made up of college-age students. In fact, the crowd Wednesday night included a few faces that Lawrence City Hall-watchers would recognize. Richard Heckler, a long-time neighborhood advocate, was in the crowd at the beginning of the night, but did not speak. Daniel Poull, a member of the city’s Sustainability Advisory Board and also of the city’s Solid Waste Task Force, was present for the “general assembly” Wednesday night. In fact, Poull gave a pretty good speech telling the crowd that he didn’t plan to get arrested for camping in the park, but told the crowd that such arrests do make a powerful statement and were important parts of the Civil Rights and Vietnam War protests. But he also told them that George Washington probably was the greatest retreater in the history of the world. “George Washington didn’t win many battles against the British army, but he won the war,” Poull told the crowd early in the evening. “We’re facing the British army right now.”
- Most of the people I talked to had a job and a home. There certainly were some homeless folks there (more on that in a moment), but the sense I got was that the majority were students or were employed with some type of job. I talked to — off the top of my head — a Wal-mart stocker, a pizza shop employee, a massage therapist, an employee of a concert production company, and several artists.
- There have been a lot of questions about what does this group stand for and what is it trying to do? In fact, the protesters themselves asked those questions a few times Wednesday night. But I got the sense that there is general agreement on a couple of broad issues: The group is concerned about the growing gap between the richest in the country and the poorest in the country. The group also is concerned about the amount of influence that corporations have in the government process. They’re also none too thrilled with the media. The group, however, doesn’t seem to have a clear plan on how to change those issues. At the moment, they seem to be in the phase of drawing attention to the cause and their organization. People have been asking whether this is a group that advocates for socialism. I never heard the word come up during Wednesday night’s meeting, but there were some speakers who espoused socialist beliefs, such as “real communities share custodianship of all resources.”
- This movement isn’t just about large national issues. I could very easily see Occupy Lawrence becoming an organization that ends up railing against several local issues. My best bet is that those will revolve around the rights of the homeless to occupy public spaces in Lawrence. Robert Gilmore — known by many in Lawrence as a man who goes by the name Simon, wears socks on his hands and is frequently arrested in downtown for illegal camping — is a vocal member of the group. Wednesday night, he was urging members to move their occupation to the sidewalks at Ninth and Massachusetts streets. He’s advocating that people set up their tents there. He said that would be a more meaningful statement about the rights of people to occupy public property.
“You have to confront the authorities at some point, if you want change,” said Gilmore, who according to a Journal-World article last year had been arrested 106 times by local authorities since 2000.
Wednesday night, the group also included Michael Tanner, a frequent critic at Lawrence City Hall. Tanner is the man who built a fairly sizable structure on city property along the banks of the Kansas River. He said he was housing homeless people who could not stay at the community’s homeless shelter. The city razed that structure in 2008, and Tanner has delivered several angry messages at Lawrence City Hall since then. On Wednesday night, Tanner was advocating that the campers move their occupation to the front lawn of Lawrence City Hall at Sixth and Massachusetts street.
Local resident Jim Davidson also was active in the group Wednesday night. Davidson is the individual who was removed from a Lawrence City Commission meeting earlier this year for flipping off City Manager David Corliss during a city meeting. Davidson urged the group to have a “spine,” and said that occupying the park in defiance of the city should be a major strategy of the group.
“If we back down and say that we won’t occupy our property because we’re afraid of getting a ticket or afraid of going to jail, that is saying that we agree with their authority,” Davidson said. “And I do not agree with their authority.”
The group never did take a vote or a “temperature check,” as they call it, on the idea of moving their occupation to a more prominent location in the community. It will be interesting to see how much sway these individuals have with the group, and whether we see an escalation in the group’s occupation activities.
But don’t get me wrong. There are clearly people in the group who are worried about getting arrested. It will be interesting to see what happens when the rubber meets the road.
Finally, there also are members of the group who advocated for a “tactical retreat.” Some members said the group ought to start doing door-to-door canvassing to highlight their issues, and that they should start accessing voter registration rolls to target a get out the vote effort. There also was talk of organizing groups of people to come to local government meetings on a regular basis.
“Pick your battles,” said one woman who identified herself as a former journalist who is now backpacking across the country and writing a book about poverty. “Nobody goes to community meetings anymore. Show up in mass every week. They’ll listen. If they don’t listen, bring more people.”