Recent headlines in the Journal-World have suggested local business and civic leaders are not overly concerned about retail store closings. They acknowledge there are a number of empty stores but point out that retail sales figures show a slight improvement over last year.
They suggest the city may have lost Sears, Old Navy, Borders and other smaller operations in recent months but say that’s no reason to think the sky is falling.
It is proper to be optimistic about the future, particularly in a city such as Lawrence with a major university, but just because the city may have “bounced back” in past years is no guarantee the same “bounce back” will occur in the future.
Times are far different. In past years, there wasn’t the competition of the nearby Legends, the numerous convenient shopping centers in Johnson County or the Internet, which makes out-of-town shopping easy and quick. In addition, in past years, Lawrence enjoyed steady growth with new industry, new business and added residents. Lawrence was the darling of the state, with these new businesses and industries, along with handsome population gains.
Times have changed. School district officials and interested parents are trying to figure out what elementary schools to close, and we seem to have lost more industries and businesses than we have gained.
Not all local merchants are singing the “everything is getting better; good times are coming” song. In fact, one successful businessman told this writer, “I think things are getting worse, not better.”
This local resident told of merchants who have planned on expanding, starting new businesses or leasing additional space and now are saying they have to change their plans. They say they cannot afford the projects they were planning, that they had eaten into their savings and that they have to back out of business agreements. Even in cases where rental or lease rates have been slashed, merchants have said they can’t afford to stay in business.
This doesn’t present a healthy or realistic case for “it really isn’t as bad as some may say.”
This situation doesn’t have one simple cause. It’s a combination of reasons. In one sense, it is a “perfect storm” with the national economy in the dumps and no real reason at the present time to think conditions will improve overnight, or at least until after November’s presidential elections. There’s the cumulative effect of Lawrence’s city government sending negative and less-than-enthusiastic signals to industry and business interested in locating in Lawrence. The sense of complacency has infected far too many in Lawrence, causing them to think eventually everything will be OK. There’s also a lack of enthusiasm, excitement, leadership and involvement from the university, which used to be one of the outstanding features or assets of Lawrence.
Not too many years ago, leaders in other university cities asked Lawrence residents, “What is the secret you have? Why is it you have such a successful and cooperative town-gown relationship?”
Sure the economy is a significant factor in the local retail scene, the vacant storefronts, but the city’s justified and continued reputation of being an extremely difficult city in which to build and grow plays a major role. Likewise, complacency is a deadly disease.
Add to this the growing and powerful effect of special interest groups who can stop a planned project dead in its tracks and the fact that those trying to sell Lawrence as a great place to live and work really don’t know how city commissioners may react to this or that project or effort. Just because there may be a ruling, policy or action on a past situation is no guarantee city commissioners will vote the same way on a new and similar proposal.
Consider the fight developers are facing as they try to get an OK to spend millions on a new business-apartment-hotel building at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets. Consider the arguments that such a building would cut off sunshine to some sidewalk coffee drinkers or that it shouldn’t be higher than a nearby building being able to derail such an addition to the city. Apparently, this is the case with the proposed building. Think back to the battle Lowe’s faced in trying to build a store in Lawrence that would have added hundreds of construction jobs and sales positions. Unable to satisfy City Hall, they abandoned their Lawrence project.
Many other examples could be cited in which Lawrence lost out on new jobs, new payrolls, new taxes and new residents. This doesn’t mean Lawrence should throw away any and all building requirements and standards. Officials should make sure new buildings, industries and commercial activities are, indeed, good for the city.
The fact is, whereas Lawrence once led the state in many favorable categories and measurements, this no longer is the case. Once the highly favorable, positive momentum Lawrence used to enjoy stalled or came to a stop, it is doubly difficult to regain that momentum.
Headlines saying “City, business leaders not sounding alarm over retail store closings,” and “City’s retail vacancy generally improves” will not get the job done.
It is a very serious situation, and a “we’ll get through it” approach falls far short of getting Lawrence back to its leadership position.