I am always stunned when I hear city or planning commissioners defensively arguing that Lawrence is not unfriendly to new business. Of course it is!
But that was not always the case. I grew up in the home of a Lawrence city councilman who served as city commissioner after the form of government changed. He and other elected city officials realized that Lawrence had to increase its tax base and provide all types of jobs for its citizens. A few residents came to city hall to complain when Westvaco (now ICL) wished to locate its plant in North Lawrence. They were blunt: “We don’t want the lunch box trade in Lawrence.”
When I served on the Land Use Task Force of Horizon 2020, I heard the same complaint, only in politically correct language: “We want only high-paying, high-tech jobs in Lawrence.” I said then that it would be great if all workers qualified for high-paying, high-tech jobs, but they did not. Nor would there be enough of those types of jobs if everyone did qualify.
Fortunately, back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, our city leaders recognized that Westvaco would be a boon to Lawrence and approved building the plant. Under whatever name (Westvaco, FMC, Astaris. ICL) it operated, that industry and the people employed there have made Lawrence a far better place to live.
I cannot think of a single retail business or industry in recent years that has not faced a battle from Lawrence when it attempted to locate here. At best, they are urged to locate elsewhere in Lawrence or to make their stores smaller. Sadly, Menards is no exception. In my opinion, locating next to Home Depot makes perfect sense, both from Menards’ point of view and mine. I once interviewed Junior Brubeck, then owner of Lawrence’s Chrysler dealership, about why so many car dealers chose to locate in or near the Auto Plaza. “Competition makes us better,” Brubeck said. Menards is likely thinking along similar lines.
As a shopper, I rarely find everything I need at one store, making me grateful that Walmart and Target are in the same South Iowa neighborhood. When Home Depot doesn’t have all the items on my list, it would be nice to find it next door instead of driving to a hardware store miles away.
Think of the property and sales taxes generated by Menards that will be used by local governments to fund infrastructure, public safety and schools. Other cities that have welcomed the businesses and industries that Lawrence spurned — or did not even get a chance to spurn because of the city’s unfriendly-to-business reputation — are realizing those benefits. Think of 250 jobs that Menards will provide for Lawrence residents. My guess is that more than twice that many workers will apply for those 250 jobs.
As for building apartments on the site, is there anyone who does not recognize that the rental market is overbuilt? My husband and I were relieved several years ago to sell the rental duplex that we bought new and kept in pristine shape. We had no trouble renting it, but we saw the writing on the wall and realized the city was embarked on a path that would turn rental homes and duplexes in the center of Lawrence into empty shells.
When I was commissioned to write the Chamber of Commerce history, I was privileged to have the opportunity to research Lawrence’s economic development from 1878 to 1990. I learned the Lawrence that people cite as worthy of keeping today would not even exist if those people strongly advocating its preservation “as is” had been in charge of developing the city way back when.
Economist Peter Drucker said, “Long-range planning does not deal with future decisions, but with the future of present decisions.” We are indeed fortunate that those long-ago city leaders made the right decisions.