Town Talk: Rumors of AT&T Wireless and Chipotle headed to new S. Iowa building; new group forms to discuss diversity of City Hall leadership; open house set for proposed West Lawrence interchange

News and notes from around town:

• Take this in the spirit that it is offered: The spirit of scuttlebutt. But apparently employees at the Lawrence AT&T Wireless stores are beginning to tell customers that AT&T is opening a new store on South Iowa Street in what will be a newly constructed building.

That would seem to indicate that AT&T is going to be one of the tenants of a new building that is planned for the corner of the Wal-Mart parking lot near 33rd and Iowa streets. As we previously have reported, plans have been approved for that new retail building. It has space for at least one other tenant. The word on the street continues to be that Chipotle Mexican restaurant also will go into the location.

All of this is unconfirmed, so take it for whatever you think it is worth. Attempts to reach AT&T Wireless officials for comment haven’t yet been successful. (One time my cell phone actually cut out while I was calling the store. No, I don’t have AT&T.)

Folks should start noticing some changes in the area near Wal-Mart, though. In fact, my wife (who, imagine this, just happened to be in the South Iowa shopping district recently) told me it looks like dirt work for the new building has begun.

It is just one of a few changes happening on South Iowa. The biggest project is a bit unseen at the moment. But Ross Dress for Less is plowing ahead on its plans to open in the former Old Navy location. I’m still trying to get a Ross official to give me an estimated opening date for the store. (Coming soon, according to the sign.) I can tell you that the company has pulled a building permit to do approximately $800,000 worth of remodeling work to convert the former Old Navy location into a Ross Dress for Less. So, dress for less, yes. Construct for less, not so much so.

I also continue to hear rumors that a sporting goods retailer and a home improvement retailer are interested in Lawrence. (At this point, I would guess Dick’s and Menards.) But I’ve also heard that they are more interested in being near South Iowa Street than they are in northwest Lawrence. That’s a problem for the city because it doesn’t have any sites zoned or planned for new big box stores along South Iowa Street.

It is sometimes forgotten, but there is vacant ground immediately south of the South Lawrence Trafficway. In other words, between the SLT and the Wakarusa River. The pressure to develop that site is going to be pretty intense as the U.S. 59 project is completed and the final leg of the SLT is constructed. I’m not sure how much of it is outside of the floodplain right now, and I’m also not sure what type of approvals would be needed to bring fill into the site to make it more developable.

The bigger question, probably, is whether city commissioners will entertain the idea. I have heard a couple of commissioners be pretty insistent that new big box development was going to be directed to the intersection of Sixth Street and the SLT.

As the city and KU contemplate building a new sports complex near the intersection, that particularly has been the case. That’s also why commissioners had been considering a zoning request to add another 200,000 square feet of retail zoning to the intersection — so that both big box stores and the needed commercial amenities for a sports complex could be accommodated.

But now commissioners are no longer considering that additional retail zoning. Will plans for the big box stores go away? Or, does the city now believe a sports complex doesn’t need that much complimentary retail (hotels, restaurants and such) after all?

City commissioners are scheduled to discuss the zoning issue at their Tuesday evening meeting.

• While were on the subjects of the recreation center and gossip, there may be an upcoming event right up your alley. A new group called Madre Lawrence is hosting a public forum at 6:30 p.m. on Monday at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt., to discuss questions surrounding the proposed recreation center.

I believe the event is going to be a bit informal. I’m not sure city officials have been invited to give a formal presentation at the gathering. Instead, I think Madre Lawrence organizers want to have a free-flowing conversation about what people think of the possibility of a $24 million recreation center on the edge of town.

The event will be interesting enough, but even more so is the formation of this new group. The name — Madre Lawrence — is a bit of a play off of the new group called Cadre Lawrence that has recently formed and become more active at City Hall. We recently wrote about that group and its efforts to get residents more informed and engaged with what’s going on at City Hall.

Madre Lawrence has the same basic goal, but it also aims to highlight another issue — that most of the people who are involved at City Hall are men.

“I think we have a serious problem with diversity at City Hall,” said Leslie Soden, a leader of Madre Lawrence. “The city commissioners, as much as I love those guys, are pretty solidly from one demographic.”

Soden also said it also is a bit disconcerting that most of the department heads at City Hall are men. Indeed, more than 50 percent are men, but there are numerous, powerful female staff members at City Hall. Both of the assistant city managers are female, the city attorney — who oversees all of the city’s legal department — is a female, the staff members most responsible for reorganizing the city’s trash system are females, the city’s budget director is female, and I could go on.

But what I think we all can agree is not up for debate is that none of the current five city commissioners is female. Sue Hack, who left the commission in 2009, is the last female to have served on the commission.

In the approximately 20 years that I’ve covered the commission, I’m almost certain there has never been a female majority. I’m not sure that during that time period there have been two female commissioners even serving at the same time. Somewhere in the debris pile I call a file cabinet, I have a list of city commissioners through the decades. I’ll try to provide a list of all the female commissioners here later today.

The situation at the Douglas County Commission has been much the same. Until Nancy Thellman was elected about four years ago, I don’t think there had been a female commissioner on that three-member board for about two decades. The Lawrence school board has been the only local government body that has had pretty steady female representation.

On the flip side, females don’t run for either the city or commissions at the rate males do. I can’t remember where a majority of candidates in either of those races has been female.

Although Madre Lawrence organizers didn’t mention it, I have noted in the past that there has definitely been a dearth of minority candidates for the City Commission. In the city’s 158-year history, there has never been a black mayor. I don’t recall there ever being a black or Latino candidate ever run for City Commission during the last 20 years.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see what issues Madre Lawrence raises in the future. Soden, as president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association, has been very active in City Hall business, most recently opposing development plans at Ninth and New Hampshire. I also believe Candice Davis, a longtime leader in the Oread neighborhood is active in the group.

• Somebody told me the reason women aren’t on the Lawrence City Commission is very simple: They’re too smart to run for that position. Well, we’ll see if they are smart enough to stay away from an issue that involves the never-ending South Lawrence Trafficway.

Actually, this upcoming event may not be too painful. City and state leaders are set to host an open house to discuss plans for a forthcoming interchange at Bob Billings Parkway and the South Lawrence Trafficway. The event is slated from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday at the Langston Hughes Elementary School Multipurpose Room, 1101 George Williams Way.

The Kansas Department of Transportation surprised a few people in April by announcing it had found $17 million in its comprehensive transportation plan to fund a long-talked-about interchange at Bob Billings and the SLT in West Lawrence.

At the time, KDOT leaders said they still would need $2 million either from the city or the county to add community amenities such as bike lanes, an enhanced aesthetic design and such things. I’m not sure the $2 million has been committed by either group yet, so we’ll check in and see what the latest is on that.

But the project is very real. My understanding is there are survey flags out there, and the state has been in discussions to buy the necessary property from land owners.