This week, the Journal-World reported on its LJWorld.com website that the Pine family was selling the highly successful sod business it operates north of Lawrence to a Wichita-based company.
A member of the Pine family noted that this will be the first time since about the late 1860s that members of the family have not been actively engaged in growing a crop in the Kansas River Valley. Members of the Pine family gave up traditional crop farming several years ago to focus on the sod business, which now has been sold.
The Pines, along with other long-time area farm families, such as the Hecks, Florys, Vogels, Nunemakers and others, have added greatly to this area. They have been actively engaged and have contributed in many ways to making this area better, and it is hoped members of the Pine family will continue to be involved in the community.
The sale of the sod business by a family that has been in farming for approximately 150 years calls attention to a disturbing trend: Lawrence is losing too many family-owned businesses.
Granted, times change, business conditions change, and it is wrong to live in the past. Nevertheless, a great deal of the good things current residents enjoy about Lawrence and the surrounding area are due to the vision, hard work and commitment to Lawrence by past business leaders — businessmen and -women who owned and operated their own stores and could make commitments and fiscal contributions to local projects, support entrepreneurial efforts and be involved in a wide range of local projects and programs.
In a growing number of cases, those managing local businesses now have to check with their regional or national offices to find out what they can or cannot do, how active they can become in local matters and how much money they can contribute to local efforts.
This is understandable for companies owned by major corporations with hundreds or thousands of stores scattered around the country. Such corporations cannot have each store or outlet operating however the local manager wishes.
Lawrence needs to figure out some way to attract more men and women who want to own and operate stores of all sizes in Lawrence.
Recent reports make it clear Lawrence is not holding or attracting as high a percentage of retail sales as other cities of similar size. A city the size of Lawrence, the home of a major university, should generate far more retail business than it does. Perhaps this is the result of a combination of factors: the nearness of Kansas City and its many shopping centers, the massive Legends retail and sports complex only a few miles east of Lawrence and the retail outlets in Topeka, only 25 miles to the west. The ability to shop online also is a factor.
Could it also be that individuals who have wanted to move to Lawrence to buy or start a business have found it difficult, for various reasons, to start their dream operation? Maybe it’s because there are not enough major employers in Lawrence to provide greater numbers of employees who would generate considerable new retail sales and feed additional shopping opportunities.
Whatever the reason, Lawrence seems to be falling behind in the retail sales battle and the taxes generated by such sales.
Not too many years ago, Lawrence was the envy of those living in other parts of the state, as well as surrounding states. Starting in the post-World War II years, in the 1950s and until the 1980s or perhaps the early ’90s, Lawrence was a leader in most every important category: population growth, new business activity, excitement and enthusiasm surrounding Kansas University, a great “town-gown” relationship, a forward-looking city government (maybe this started to fall apart in the ’80s) and attracting new industry. Young people, including many former KU students, wanted to come back to Lawrence to buy or start a business.
However, something happened. Either Lawrence wasn’t as attractive, or other cities became more competitive.
This isn’t to suggest that more family-owned and operated businesses alone would bring positive changes and reverse the city’s slowed population growth, its stagnant retail sales and its lack of excitement and enthusiasm within the business community, but more local ownership would make a difference in the degree of commitment and concern that retails have about the direction of the city.
Also, it would be helpful if KU, whether it be university faculty members, the administration or some combination of KU people, would take greater interest in what they could do to help the city. The university is a tremendous asset in many ways; one example is the expertise within the talented KU faculty that could be used to try to help make Lawrence a better, stronger and more attractive spot for business and clean, research-based facilities that would provide employment opportunities for a wide range of skilled workers.
Some way or another, Lawrence needs a kick start to get the city and its residents back to the friendly environment that once made it such a special place.
Again, just increasing local business ownership won’t bring about a sea change in the mood and attitude of the community, but the city and the surrounding area will be weakened with fewer and fewer locally owned and operated businesses.
The competition between individual cities and states for population and retail growth is intense, just as is the competition among universities to attract top students, superior faculty members and dollars to operate the schools.
Lawrence cannot afford to fall behind. It has lost some of the great momentum it once enjoyed, and some way must be found for the city and the university to join forces to regain the positive attitude and vision that once was a hallmark of both Lawrence and KU.