News and notes from around town:
• There’s a shake-up coming to downtown Lawrence’s fine dining scene. Esquina, 801 Massachusetts, is set to close at the end of the month, and a new Italian restaurant is set to take its place.
Word of Esquina’s demise came quickly. A tipster (thank you, by the way) notified me late Friday afternoon that servers of the restaurant had been told the restaurant soon would close. But before I could get the news confirmed, Esquina sent out a message to its own mailing list saying the restaurant’s last day in business would be Oct. 31.
The message doesn’t go into much detail about the decision of the partners — Robert and Molly Krause and Simon and Codi Bates — to close the restaurant, which recently had shifted from a Mediterranean-focused menu to something billed as “new American cuisine.” The group also owns the popular Burger Stand restaurants in Lawrence and Topeka, and the message says there are “new opportunities” for that business. No word on whether that means a new location or just something new at the current locations. Either way, it appears fans of that establishment need not fear.
As for the new restaurant set to occupy the Esquina space, it may be a major development for Italian food lovers. According to the message, a longtime leader at the famous Gitto’s “On the Hill” restaurant in St. Louis has struck a deal to open an Italian restaurant in the space.
The new Italian restaurant will be called Intorno, which means “round” in Italian, paying homage to the unique architecture of the Esquina building and its longtime tenant, the Round Corner Drug Store. The restaurant will feature “classic Italian fare” prepared in the same style and manner as found in the Charlie Gitto’s On the Hill restaurant in St. Louis.
For those of you who have never been to The Hill in St. Louis, it is a traditional Italian-American neighborhood. My wife and I went there a few summers ago, and although we did not go to Gitto’s, we can attest that there is some mighty fine Italian food in the district. (That was the summer vacation I was convinced my wife was trying to sell me by the pound.)
According to the message, Intorno will be run by Jim and Leslie Vaughn, who have relocated to Lawrence to be closer to family. I’m not sure what role Jim played at Gitto’s, but the message says he “spent years leading the kitchen” at the restaurant’s Hill location.
No word yet on when the restaurant may open, but I’ll try to track down the owners.
Also, no word yet on whether the St. Louis-style restaurant will serve giant meatballs. I’m uncertain that they will because it sure seems that folks in St. Louis are prone to choking on Giants. (For those of you who don’t get that, this is a baseball joke. If you are like me, you are not a baseball fan. We’re Royals fans.)
• Speaking of businesses on the move, I bet you didn’t know the city of Lawrence was in the moving business. As far as I know, the city hasn’t bought a fleet of those fancy yellow Ryder trucks or anything, but City Hall is set to provide a helping hand to a Lawrence-based business that is moving.
At their Tuesday evening meeting, commissioners are set to approve a request to provide up to $12,400 in moving expenses for EMR Inc., a Lawrence-based environmental firm that employs about 24 people at its headquarters near 31st and Haskell.
The company last month told City Hall leaders that EMR may have to move to another community because it is concerned the construction related to the South Lawrence Trafficway, which will run very close to their offices, may be too disruptive to the business.
City officials told EMR — which has about 250 employees in locations outside of Lawrence, but still lists Lawrence as its home base — that it would like to do something to convince the company to stay in Lawrence.
Well, EMR has found a suitable office location in the city. The company has signed a deal to move into the space at 2110 Delaware, which ironically is space that formerly used to house EN Engineering. If you remember, EN Engineering is the company that pulled out of Lawrence and took its 65 high-paying jobs to Olathe after local leaders and the building’s ownership group led by Lawrence businessman Duane Schwada couldn’t put together a deal to keep the company here. (Re-read this article to be reminded of what local leaders would or wouldn’t do to keep that engineering company.)
City officials apparently are intent on making sure that doesn’t happen again. EMR estimates it will have about $12,400 in hard moving expenses, such as paying the movers, relocating business signs, reprinting stationery and business cards, and paying rent on two locations in December. The city is offering to reimburse EMR for all of those expenses. In exchange, the company is being asked to sign an agreement saying EMR will keep its headquarters in Lawrence for at least three years.
City Hall staff members are recommending “due to the relatively small amount of the request,” that the issue not go before the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee, which provides recommendations on incentives that can be offered to businesses.
This quick deal being brokered by the city will be cheered by some in the business community. There is a growing saying in the business community that Lawrence City Hall needs to operate more at the “speed of business” not the speed of government. This seems to be doing that, and losing EMR to another community would have brought up a whole new set of concerns about why Lawrence can’t keep good-paying engineering jobs in town.
The deal, though, may create questions for others. The largest may concern what type of precedent this sets. When does a business qualify to get some moving cash from City Hall? Do you have to have a couple dozen employees? Do you have to pay a certain average wage? (I don’t know what EMR’s Lawrence wages are.) Do you have to have threatened to move to another town? Do you have to have actually moved some employees out of Lawrence? (EMR, according to the city, moved about 10 Lawrence employees to Overland Park last year.)
The city memo on this deal doesn’t provide many details about when this type of incentive is appropriate. As someone who follows real estate in this town, I can tell you there are companies that move from one Lawrence location to another all the time. I would think some will be interested in obtaining some city moving cash. The city may want to come up with some criteria — or else buy some of those good-looking yellow trucks.
• There is one group of businesses that the city is looking to be a little less friendly to: shyster towing companies.
At their Tuesday meeting, commissioners are scheduled to adopt Douglas County’s new policy related to how emergency dispatchers determine which towing company to call when a motorist is involved in an accident and such.
Several articles in the Journal-World highlighted how a few towing companies in Lawrence had charged motorists involved in accidents more than $1,000 for what were deemed to be relatively simple tows.
In September, the Douglas County Commission approved a new set of standards for what levels of service a towing company must meet to be place on the county’s list of towing companies to be called to respond to accidents. The standards include limits on how much customers can be charged by towing companies that are called to the scene of an accident.
But the standards only apply when the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office seeks a tow for an accident scene. It does not apply when Lawrence police officers seek a tow at an accident.
City commissioners will change that at their Tuesday evening meeting. The city is being asked to approve a resolution that will allow the city to use the same tow company list and standards as the county does.
That should provide motorists involved in an accident in Lawrence some certainty about towing costs. I don’t have the final figures in front of me, but the county previously was contemplating setting a maximum tow charge of $150 per small vehicle and $250 for large vehicles, with a mileage charge of no more than $3 per mile. The county resolution also prohibits several types of surcharges that some towing companies have been known to charge.
Beware, though, the new regulations don’t apply to all types of tow services. The regulations only cover towing services made as part of the city and county’s “non-preference tow list.” That is a list maintained by the city and county’s emergency dispatchers. The dispatchers use the list to call towing companies when motorists involved in an accident, for example, have no preference on which towing company to use. Motorists under the new regulations still have the right to decide which towing company they want to call.