Plans are in the works to convert one of downtown Lawrence’s larger pieces of property into a conference center surrounded by a hotel, apartments, retail development and an open-air plaza.
Leaders of The World Company announced Monday they are in the process of selecting a development firm to assist in redeveloping the former site of the Journal-World’s printing plant at 609 New Hampshire St.
“Rather than sell to a developer and wash our hands of the property, we feel this is an opportunity to make a significant, positive impact on the future of Lawrence,” said Dolph C. Simons Jr., chairman of The World Company, which publishes the Journal-World and LJWorld.com. “I want this to be special for Lawrence. It could be a signature development for Lawrence.”
The project would involve demolishing the Journal-World printing plant, which stopped printing operations earlier this year when the printing functions of the Journal-World and USA TODAY were moved to other locations.
The property, which stretches from New Hampshire Street to Massachusetts Street, is at the northern entrance to downtown. Dan Simons, president of the electronics division of The World Company, said the size and prominence of the property make it well suited to a conference center that could attract Kansas University-related conferences and other events.
“We’re not trying to be Bartle Hall and take on the boat show,” Dan Simons said. “This would be a conference center, with the idea that the people coming into town will have a huge economic impact.”
The conference center, however, would be only one element of the project. Concept plans include a hotel, a multistory apartment building that also could house some condominiums, new retail and restaurant space along Massachusetts Street and a plaza area along New Hampshire Street.
“It would be a significant area of open space that could be used by the businesses that ring the square but also by the community,” said Dolph Simons III, president of the newspaper division of the company.
The project also could include a parking garage and surface parking lots on the east side of New Hampshire Street, adjacent to the former Reuter Organ buildings and near where the Journal-World’s parking lot is currently located. The project does not include the current offices of the Journal-World, which are located in the historic News Center building at Seventh and New Hampshire streets.
The project, however, is not yet a done deal. Dolph Simons Jr. said the company has received strong interest from architects and developers who want to be part of the project.
“We hope to finalize negotiations with developers, builders and architects within the next several weeks,” he said. “It will not be a process of six months or so. It will be in the next several weeks.”
At some point, officials with The World Company also will have to submit formal plans for city approval. Dan Simons said the project will include a request for some financial participation from the city, the university or a combination thereof to help fund the conference center portion of the development.
Cost estimates are still being developed for the project, but Dan Simons said the requested amount could be in the $10 million to $15 million range. He estimated the entire project likely will cost about $50 million to build.
Both city and university leaders said the potential for development at the site was exciting, but said they needed to conduct a full feasibility study of how much business a conference center could attract and where its ideal location would be in the community.
Figuring out how the city would financially participate in such a project also will be paramount, said Mayor Mike Amyx. Commissioners currently are in discussions about how to finance a potential $30 million police headquarters.
“We are fortunate that there are locations that can be available today for such a project to exist,” Amyx said. “But on top of everything else, we have to really look at all our priorities. It is a fun project to think about, but there will be a process.”
Tim Caboni, KU’s vice chancellor for public affairs, said the university would rely heavily on a joint feasibility study commissioned by the city and the university. The two parties are close to finalizing a contract with a consulting firm to study the potential demand for a conference center and potential locations. Caboni said he was uncertain how long such a study would take, but said it is possible it might take six months or more for the study to be completed and reviewed.
“We are excited about anything that is good for the city of Lawrence, and this sounds like it would be a terrific development for our community,” Caboni said.
Caboni said university leaders are confident that many academic conferences would like to come to Lawrence, but he said a study is needed to provide a more precise estimate of the demand, and also to provide opinions on how close a conference center should be to the university’s campus.
“We know there is a remarkable marketplace for conferences that want to be near the type of intellectual firepower that we can offer,” Caboni said.
Dan Simons said he believes estimates will show the development will be a significant generator of tax revenue ranging from sales, property and transient guest taxes that can be used to help fund future city projects.
“All of the preliminary numbers we have seen show this will put a lot of money back into the community each and every year,” he said.
The Journal-World has had the property since the mid-1950s, and the Simons family has owned the Journal-World and various other enterprises in the community since 1891.
“We’re fortunate to have a unique piece of property in terms of size and location,” said Dolph Simons III. “With those advantages, we want to make the most of it so it is not just a run-of-the-mill development. We want to go the extra yard to make this really benefit the university and the community. We would like to make this a hallmark of the community.”