Archive for Saturday, May 4, 2013

Simons’ Saturday Column: Lawrence has lost growth, economic momentum

May 4, 2013


Fairly soon, former and current local city officials should get the message Lawrence is not doing so well as a business center that generates jobs, retail sales and tax revenues and attracts new business and new residents.

We seem to be great at calling for, or demanding, expensive new buildings and programs, but one has to wonder how long the city can sustain this policy when the city is ranked as the nation’s second worst performing small metropolitan area relative to a number of economic measurements.

Apparently, the old adage of living within your means doesn’t apply to Lawrence. On the other hand, perhaps the thinking of past and recent city officials is that you must spend money to make money.

As reported in a Journal-World article earlier this week, a national economic study by the Milken Institute showed Lawrence ranked 178th out of 179 small metropolitan areas in its “Best Performing Cities Index.” In fact Lawrence dropped 79 spots from its 2011 ranking.

Nine different categories were used to determine the rankings: five-year job growth, one-year job growth, five-year wage growth, one-year wage growth, one-year job growth percentage, five-year high-tech GDP growth, one-year high-tech GDP growth, high-tech GDP as part of overall GDP and the concentration of high-tech companies.

According to those who collected and analyzed the data, there are two types of small metro areas that should do well in the study: communities benefiting from the nation’s new natural gas and oil exploration and communities with “high concentrations of public sector employees, especially in prominent universities.” Apparently Lawrence doesn’t even score well among small metro areas with “prominent universities.”

Complacency, complacency, complacency. Time and time again, this writer has said complacency is a deadly mindset because nothing is guaranteed. Lawrence, as well as Kansas University over the past 10 or so years, has been complacent, or lazy, thinking its continued growth and good fortune was almost a guarantee. We had all the necessary ingredients to be, and continue to be, an outstanding university community: good location, good natural resources, ample supplies of water, good transportation services, clean city government, good law enforcement, a major metropolitan area nearby with good airport facilities and large hospitals, and an aggressive, top-rated, state aided university. We had a record of visionary and hard-working city leaders who were interested in only one thing — how to help make Lawrence a better city — along with community-minded public school leaders and chancellors who were powerful and effective not only for the university but for the entire state.

We still have the good location, plenty of water (at least for now) and a good university, although it has slipped a bit in national rankings. In other categories, however, we have failed to keep pace and match, or exceed, what other peer cities have to offer.

But we do know how to spend money: an $18 million library expansion project, a new $40 million KU track and field complex, a new $25 million city recreation center, a new $64 million sewage treatment plant, $37 million for water and sewer projects, a requested $20 million to $40 million for police personnel and facility upgrades and several new multimillion-dollar buildings at KU.

Some of these projects could be classified as necessary, while others are nice but not vital no matter how much proponents claim they are necessary. Why try to save when city leaders are willing to spend big bucks?

For years, Lawrence was the model the rest of the state used to measure growth and economic vitality. National site selection teams scouting locations for new manufacturing plants or major retail operations considered a stop in Lawrence almost a “must.” Times changed, and Lawrence earned the reputation of being an extremely difficult city in which to build or locate new businesses.

Who is at fault? It’s easy to point figures, but there is no single guilty party. Rather, there are a number of factors. In no particular order or priority, consider these possibilities:

• The general public that obviously doesn’t attach much importance to whom they elect to the City Commission, County Commission or school board. Voter turnout in Lawrence is a disgrace, somewhere in the range of 15 to 20 percent. The adage, “You get what you pay for,” could be applied to our various government bodies. If the public doesn’t care, look what happens.

• City Hall.

• Next, what happened to the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce in recent years? It used to be an effective, visible and visionary organization, but something happened. It lost some good people and it lost its drive.

• Or could it be that so many people in Lawrence seem to be so proud of the diversity of opinions here and brag about Lawrence being so different than the rest of the state that it is extremely difficult to gain consensus on anything. How can there be a consensus on what the city does, when 80 percent of the residents don’t have enough interest or passion to vote? Lawrence may be paying a price for being so proud of being different and so liberal.

Not too many years ago, Lawrence enjoyed great positive momentum. There was enthusiasm, excitement and an optimistic attitude and environment. That momentum, once lost, is extremely difficult to reignite.

Leaders in Lawrence and the university “X” number of years ago would be shocked to think or be told that in only a relatively few years, the city and its school system would receive such poor grades relative to other Kansas communities or peer cities in other parts of the country,

How long will Lawrence residents allow this slide to continue?


jafs 11 months, 2 weeks ago


And, again, this editorial is complaining that Lawrence isn't growing enough, and that we should encourage more growth, both of population and businesses.

It's a mentality that "bigger is better", which is obviously not always the case.


paisley 11 months, 2 weeks ago

I agree with Dolph's editorial. The way I see Lawrence is that it enjoyed "the good life" for many years...eating and eating and growing more obese with every bite. Now it's unhealthy and needs to diet some to get back within "normal" weight and it just can't stick to a diet. The end result will be it's own massive heart attack! And that heart attck may be fatal or at least need many long hard years of rehab.


jayhawklawrence 11 months, 2 weeks ago

I voted against the library but the majority approved it. Now it is time to accept it and move on. The decision was made and the investment over 20 years is going forward. It does not do any good to complain all the time.

On the other hand, I believe we need fresh talent and a fresh perspective on how we improve our economy. Those who want to maintain the status quo need to be gone. Change is needed and a younger generation needs to take the city in a new direction.

If we want to be great we have to be ethical. We have to have principals and we have to have a standard that is not corrupted as our state and national politics have become. We need the idealism that comes from the younger generation. I hope they will be educated because this is a community that values above all else, education and great ideas.


ChuckFInster 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Interesting to see how a discussion on the Lawrence economy has dissolved into random thoughts. Part of a bigger issue ?


stranger_na_strangeland 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Library? Why spend money on a Library? For what? No one uses them with Google and cell phones and laptops. Libraries in Arizona have become so bad, that city officials have to put Public Health Nurses in them just to keep up with all the concerns over Public Health. They have evolved into homeless shelters in many communities. Pumping millions into a by-gone era. Libraries are not needed, not new ones anyway. If you want to build a homeless shelter then build one, not spend three times the money for something that does not function as it should.


jayhawklawrence 11 months, 2 weeks ago

This was a good editorial.

I agree with most of it. When you get an F on your report card and continue doing the same things it is not very hopeful for the future.


Liberal 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Consensus is NOT needed! Trying to get consensus is what got us in this mess. What IS needed is visionary leadership, like Gary Tobin or those individuals who came forward and got Hallmark to locate here.

Can you see Howard Hughes, Andrew Carnegie, h3ll, even Steve Jobs build their companies by consensus. Bah Humbug.

Someone with GUTS and VISION who will NOT listen to the naysayers and negative nellies in this town. It could be a political leader or an outstanding business leader but running the city by committee will get us exactly what we have...a bottom feeder.


Carol Bowen 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Whether or not Manard's chooses to build in Lawrence, additional retail is incidental and really would not stimulate Lawrence's economy. Retail does not provide many good paying jobs. Yes, the choice is Menard's. The city did not say "No". The city just did not rezone the property. There are other businesses, CVS for example, that did not need a rezoning request. CVS chose property that was already zoned commercial.

If all of the people who posted on this blog were in the same room, they probably could bring focus to the overall challenge.

  1. Lawrence lacks a vision, a common sense of direction.
  2. Some Lawrencians are not comfortable with the investments/spending plans. (Could this be because of #1?)
  3. There is a lack of balance between growth and maintenance.
  4. Some folks cannot shake their biases and work towards a common vision.

In my opinion, Lawrence needs full time jobs in the $20 to $30/hour range. We have a void in this range. That will not happen with retail, hoteling, or recreation. The question is does Lawrence have a comprehensive plan that would accommodate businesses that have these jobs, and can Lawrence maintain the quality that would attract the new businesses we need?


LogicMan 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Just back from a shopping trip to Topeka. Hit four stores that Lawrence doesn't have including Lowes and Menards. All but one were packed full of shoppers. Then ate at a chain restaurant that Lawrence doesn't have either. It was bursting with customers too.


Hudson Luce 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Lawrence has a small number of rich families who use the place as their own cash cow. They run their projects through the City Commission which they control, lock, stock, and barrel. It's obvious to any industry that considers Lawrence as a place to put their operations that they have to have a "buddy" from one of these families, or they won't be in business here long. Corporations see this, and stay away. Word does get around. The recent business about the way Rock Chalk Park was handled is a case in point, it's a bad deal that the taxpayers of Lawrence can't afford, but it provides cash benefits to a couple of the families which run the place, so it went through the City Commission on the fast track. As a result of the tax arrangements for this deal, the rest of Lawrence will be paying still yet higher property taxes, and residential real estate values will fall. And seeing the influence of big family money on local politics, most of the population has lost interest in taking part in elections. The only thing really keeping the place afloat is KU - and if the state runs into financial difficulties and has to make really big cuts there, Lawrence will be in big trouble with lots of debt and a shrinking tax base with which to pay it. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I'm pretty sure "more of the same" isn't it.


jafs 11 months, 2 weeks ago

The whole focus of the study was on growth.

Underlying these sorts of things is the idea that continued growth is desirable. Since I'm not at all convinced that's the case, it is rather irrelevant to me that we're not continually growing.

I'd like to see some studies with different criteria.


kippcolorado 11 months, 2 weeks ago

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dd0031 11 months, 2 weeks ago

The cause of the current downturn in Lawrence's fortunes is utterly obvious. Our most substantial employer and generator of economic activity is the University of Kansas. For more than a decade, the University of Kansas' budget and enrollment has been shrinking, bringing (a) fewer dollars into the city as a result of faculty and staff salaries, cutting faculty lines, replacing high-earning senior faculty with low-earning junior faculty and adjuncts, etc. and (b) bringing fewer students, and their spending to the city.

If the city wants to improve its fortunes, it needs to improve and to advocate for investment in the University of Kansas. Period.


Patricia Davis 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Lawrence lacks a solid vision of what it is and what it should become. We're viewed as the oasis in Kansas, but what have we done with that? We are not as green as we could have been decades ago. We did not plan bike paths in an organized way to encourage biking Lawrence. We have not planned retirement areas close to downtown to encourage walking and shopping. We do not have a coherent mass transportation plan. Who in their right minds would put a homeless shelter on the edge of town and then bus the homeless downtown so that they could continue to pan handle?

We have been for some strange reason wedded to Gould-Evans and the result is a collection of some really, really ugly buildings that already are not aging well. How could a historic community build the Lawrence Arts Center building? I swear my small town in Oklahoma built a better looking gym in 1970 than this mess. And don't even get me started on the library, or the my god how ugly can the monstrosity of a Rockchalk Park.

And then we enter the times of Brownbackistan and just how far and fast we have become incredibly stupid and making more stupid laws and begging for money to defend the laws they know are stupid. If I could afford to retire some where else, I would. Why in god's name would someone choose to retire in Lawrence?


sunny 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Still blaming Bush...and now Brownie. People truly amaze me!


tissue 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Successful cities or urban areas witing easy driving distance from Lawence with positive growth:

JoCo? Check Topeka? Check Western Wyandotte county? Check Plaza/Downtown KC area? Check



Armstrong 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Kind of interesting, the battle cry ideology Larryville locals are always most boisterous about is what's killing Larryville, diversity and acceptance. Two of the city's largest employers are non revenue producing, KU and local Govt. Meanwhile the city has done basically everything in it's power to keep industry away. That cocktail is a sure fire recipe to kill any economy.

Look at Larryville in relation to other college towns roughly the same size. Manhattan, Columbia, Springfield MO, what do they have in common? - 1) A diverse economy with an open door to industry. 2) Major highways and interstates running through the city. 3)Educated population. 4) Skilled workforce. I would say Larryville has 3 out of 4.

Look outside your bubble. You can't blame state government for Larryville's dismal performance. Larryville's problems are caused by the good ol boy network and Larryville's leadership or lack thereof. You are fooling yourself to blame the local economy on anything else.


yourworstnightmare 11 months, 2 weeks ago

The biggest economic problem faced by Lawrence is that it is in Kansas.

Anyone with any sense, and the ability to leave, leave this place. No one with any sense and high-tech business ability would move to this place.

Tax cuts are not as important to high-tech business people as good schools, an educated labor force, and a pro-science environment.

Kansas politicians and "leaders" have been undermining these things for many years, and the chickens are coming home to roost.


Stop_the_Madness 11 months, 2 weeks ago

I think Lawrence should focus more on appealing to retirees. There seems to be a large following of KU grads who enjoyed living in Lawrence. If you can build good housing choices and control the tax and spend mentality the quality of life would be attractive for retirees.


Larrytown 11 months, 2 weeks ago

I must say....I always get a kick out of reading Simons article.

First, he talks about complacency....then he complains about the city spending (big $ projects). It's like he's talking out of two sides of this mouth. Which is it Dolph? Do you even know what you stand for?

BTW...It's not city's INVESTING in the community. If you not interested in INVESTING (i.e. tax dollars) in the community, I suggest moving out to Western Kansas (where I was born and raised). You can then set there and watch your community dry up. That's the general reality in small-town Kansas and it saddens me.

Again, Lawrence is, without question, one of the better places to live in the State.


billybob1 11 months, 2 weeks ago

What business is going to move to Lawrence? You are just subjecting yourself to years of abuse by the newspaper (Dolph). If you prosper you are doing something wrong. The business community will grow once Dolph retires.


chootspa 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Haven't you answered your own questions here? "A high concentration of public employees" won't do much good when the state is cutting their funding, as they have been for the entire period measured during this study, which measures things like wage increases. City hall didn't do that. Lawrence didn't do that. Those durned dirty hippies that read your newspaper in spite of your Saturday opinion pieces didn't do it.

Do I think Lawrence could be doing more to attract high tech jobs to the area? Sure. But the state (and the governor you endorsed) sure isn't helping matters here.


Les Blevins 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Excellent editorial Dolph, I didn't think you had it in you. You asked; "Who is at fault" and I have to admit I am at least partly to blame. You see since the 1980s (when I discovered that conversion of liabilities to assets was a good thing) I've been suggesting that Lawrence cut ongoing expenses by converting it's municipal waste streams (which costs the city a lot of money annually to dispose of) into higher value products (which costs the city a lot of money annually to purchase) I've essentially boggled the minds of mayors, city commissioners and yes the city manager and became the object that caused a lot of confusion and consternation within city government, which has essentially turned off the good fiscal management thinking, wise priority selection, and conservative practices the city once enjoyed. And it seems that as long as I keep suggesting such common sense approaches to solving such a wide array of the city's ongoing problems the powers that be at city hall cannot regain their composure. So I guess you can blame me and of course yourself and your own publication for not explaining it all for the people of Lawrence so that they can understand it and get their voting prioritized.


Lynn731 11 months, 2 weeks ago

No wonder. They go out of their way to run off companies that want to have stores in Lawrence.


Richard Heckler 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Those economies based on Fracking are aka boom town economies. Boom town oil activity has left behind many many many ghost towns behind when the oil people left town.

North Dakota is is being subjected to environmental destruction and high risk economies. Which the taxpayers will be held responsible for cleaning up once the oil industry will claim zero responsibility. Northeast Kansas can live without that nonsense.


Richard Heckler 11 months, 2 weeks ago

I would not count those years of "boom town economics" aka inflated real estate values as successful momentum. Those years assisted in putting Lawrence in the low ratings because of the illusionary factor = dumb growth. Bedroom communities are tax dollar money holes.

Adding miles and miles and miles of new infrastructure is like adding miles and miles and miles of new taxes. In a bedroom community this is not expanding the tax base it is expanding our tax bills.

I would consider the rehabilitation of the local library a show of fiscal responsibility in that is one display of maintaing taxpayer owned property as we should.

Killig downtown has never been the best idea yet the city continues to allow developers that choice served on a silver platter. Why destroy a central business district?

Lawrence is a small town with big city tax dollar give aways and ready to hand out more for another downtown building project..... you would think that wealthy developers would know how to make money without being tax dollar moochers. Obviously they can't which places these folks in the high risk column. Yes more multi million dollar handouts are on the table.

City government pushing aside the measuring tools that define which so called "growth" projects are paying back the taxpayers and which are not = very risky business.


jafs 11 months, 2 weeks ago

I question the notion that continued growth is a desirable or necessary thing.

In fact, a number of the things we're spending money on mentioned here are because of our growth.


scott3460 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Lawrence, so far as I know, is not blessed with great natural oil and gas reserves. That means that the university was the main hope as a driver of economic gain. One party has insisted that public spending on things like public universities be cut to dole out tax breaks. The tax breaks appear not to have been beneficial to Lawrence. Indeed, how long will we continue this slide?


JohnBrown 11 months, 2 weeks ago

It's pretty much the results of republicanism over the last 12 years. George W punched a big hole in our economy...with the help of our current starting two unfunded wars...creating unnecessary tax breaks, and continuing to spend. W doubled our national debt. When O'Bama won the republicans vowed to never give him a break...lest the economy begin to grow and he get the credit in 2012. They are still doing that and now pushing for European austerity...based on defunct Laffer economics and an ignorant sequester that is just slash and burn economics.

There is no republican leadership...only fear-mongering. There is no "can do"attitude any more...just look at the republican state legislature.

Well, at least we can cling to our guns and our religion.



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