Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”

An old-fashioned food cart files plans to locate in East Lawrence; look for more activity on former Sunrise Garden site

You know is it a good time of year when there is talk of needing a wagon to hold all the food. That’s the case in East Lawrence right now. Plans have been filed to allow an old-fashioned produce wagon to set up shop in the neighborhood.

The folks at One Heart Farm have filed plans at City Hall to install a food wagon, canopy and other minor structures on the site of the former Sunrise Garden center at 15th and Learnard in East Lawrence. Tomatoes, corn, melons, greens and herbs will be mainstays at the wagon, said Chris Black, who owns the business along with local farmer Pete Flory. Fresh flowers also are expected to be a regular offering.

One Heart Farm sells a good amount of produce to the Lawrence grocery store Checkers and a few other outlets. But currently, it doesn’t have a retail outlet of its own. Plans are to keep this venture simple, Black said.

“It basically will be an open-air trailer with an awning,” Black said. “It is a wagon with produce.”

The former Sunrise Garden Center site, at 15th and Learnard in East Lawrence, is pictured on Thursday, April 27, 2017.

The former Sunrise Garden Center site, at 15th and Learnard in East Lawrence, is pictured on Thursday, April 27, 2017. by Nick Krug

But, because the wagon will draw more traffic to the site and such, it technically must be approved by Lawrence planning officials before it can operate. But it is considered a minor improvement to the site, which means it goes through an expedited approval process. Black said the wagon hasn’t yet won approval, but he’s hopeful everything will be approved in time for the business to be in operation by Mother’s Day. Black said the wagon likely will be open three to four days a week with evening and weekend hours.

The farm grows a lot of its produce in old greenhouses that exist on the former Sunrise Garden Center site. It also has farmland near Lone Star Lake. The farmers have been spending a lot of time renovating the small greenhouses that had been vacant for a few years.

Black thinks that getting people to the old Sunrise site will be a positive because it shows that agriculture doesn’t have to be just for rural areas.

“We’re trying to demonstrate how successful urban agriculture can be,” Black said.

As for how successful this year’s crop of produce will be, Black said it looks promising thus far.

“We need it to be a good year for produce, that’s for sure,” Black said. “This is only our second year trying to do this as a full-time business. You learn something new about farming every day, but it has been great.”

• Look for more activity on the former Sunrise site in the near future. I chatted briefly with David Millstein, who leads the group that bought the property more than a year ago. He said said several projects are in various stages.

“It is all rounding into a finalized state, at least philosophically,” Millstein said.

Among the projects:

— The nonprofit group the Sunrise Project is making progress on the rehabilitation of the old storefront that used to serve the Sunrise Garden Center. That space will give the nonprofit kitchen and indoor classroom space, Millstein said. The nonprofit aims to educate youths and others on how to grow, process and sell food. Millstein said the indoor space could be completed in about two months. The nonprofit already operates an outdoor garden at the site and hosts events there, like an organic plant sale from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on May 6.

— Millstein hopes to start construction on a small manufacturing plant for his family’s tofu business. As we previously have reported, Millstein operates Central Soy Foods, a small company that produces about 2,000 pounds of tofu and tempeh that is is sold in grocery stores in Lawrence and Kansas City. The company needs better manufacturing space, and Millstein is close to getting final approvals needed to build on the Sunrise site. He plans to build about 2,800 square foot building just south of the main greenhouse building on the site. He hopes to start in about a month and complete construction by the beginning of 2018.

— A for-profit company called Lawrence Organics occupies about 6,000 square feet of the approximately 30,000 square feet greenhouse complex on the property. The company grows a variety of greens that it primarily sells to restaurants and other larger buyers. Millstein said he is reserving the rest of the large greenhouse area to accommodate future growth of the organic company.

“Growers are pretty finicky about their processes, so I don’t think we want too many of them in there at once,” Millstein said.

As we have previously reported, Seeds from Italy also has set up shop at the location. The Lawrence business imports a variety of seeds from Italy and sells them across the country through an online catalog.

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A cryo spa that hopes to freeze your pain away signs deal to come to west Lawrence

As I get older, I’m learning that the ice bag for aches and pains gets larger. Some people use their retirement nest eggs to buy a condo. I’ll use mine to buy a Hefty bag full of ice. Or maybe I won’t have to. A new business is coming to Lawrence that will take cold therapy to a new level.

Optimal Wellness & Cryo Spa has signed a lease to locate in the shopping center at Sixth and Wakarusa, a few doors down from the Salty Iguana restaurant. If you are not familiar with the concept of a cryo spa, get ready to shiver.

The spa uses a tank-like device that uses liquid nitrogen to expose your body to some unearthly cold temperatures. Bill Keating, owner of the soon-to-open Lawrence spa, said temperatures in the tank drop to minus 118 to minus 180 degrees Fahrenheit. (Some websites tout cryo machines that go to negative 300 degrees Fahrenheit.)

People only stay in the tank for a maximum of three minutes. But during that time, the cold does things to your joints, muscles and other parts of your body that may be in pain. (In case you are wondering, women typically enter the tank undressed other than socks and gloves, while men also wear their briefs.) Keating said the cold temperature stimulates “cold shock proteins” which in turn stimulate the immune system.

Now, I write way too much about the benefits of Doritos to ever be considered a health reporter. So, I’m not qualified to offer an analysis of the science behind this. But I do have some basic information. The idea of using this type of cryotherapy for pain management appears to have begun in the late 1970s in Japan for patients with severe arthritis. But the idea of cryo spas has become trendy on the coasts in the last few years. More recently they have made their way to middle America, including some in the Kansas City market. Assuming that my wife’s dictatorial control of the thermostat throughout the winter doesn’t count, I believe this will be the first cyro spa in the Lawrence area.

Like many forms of alternative treatments, the scientific community is unclear about the benefits. The FDA put out a paper last year that said there is insufficient information to understand what cryotherapy actually does to the body, but warned that cryo spas shouldn’t promote that the therapy cures anything because that has not been medically proven yet. There are multiple first-person accounts that have been written about using the therapy. Here is one from The Washington Post, where the author said he did feel “unnaturally cold,” his teeth chattered, and that the experience was “unpleasant but not intolerable.” Afterward, he said he did experience a “giddy surge of endorphins” that lasted for about an hour.

Keating said he decided to open a cryo spa after trying the therapy a little more than a year ago, following shoulder surgery. Keating said the cryo treatments aided in his recovery, and he’s betting there are plenty of Lawrence residents looking for a new way to deal with aches and pains.

“Lawrence doesn’t have anything like this,” he said. “I thought it would be a good thing to bring to the community. Lawrence is a progressive area, and there are a lot of health conscious people, a lot of athletes, a lot of people who are active, so it is a good market.”

Keating anticipates he’ll have clients who range from high school and college athletes to senior citizens dealing with arthritis or other types of ailments. The therapy has gotten a fair amount of publicity in the celebrity press, with people like NBA star LeBron James reportedly touting the treatments.

“We want to make it available to the normal guy,” Keating said. “The weekend warrior who played 36 holes of golf over the weekend and is as sore as a bandit can use this. The normal guy can’t go out and buy one of these machines.”

In addition to the costs of the machines, special precautions also have to be taken. Liquid nitrogen can be fatal if too much of it gets in your lungs. The machine that Optimal Wellness will use encloses you only from the neck down, and an employee controls the machine at all times.

In terms of costs, Keating said a session will cost about $40, and he said people often use cryo sessions on a semi-regular basis, much like people schedule massage sessions periodically.

“We’re going to have a ‘frequent freezer’s club’ promotion,” Keating said.

In addition to the full-body therapy, Optimal Wellness also offers spot cryo treatment. That uses a different device that allows the cold to be focused on a particular area, like a sore shoulder or knee. It can also be used for facial treatment. Some people believe the cold helps promote more collagen and improves skin health.

The business also will have the other end of the temperature spectrum covered. It will offer an infrared sauna. Some people do find benefits from receiving cryo treatments and then immediately going into the hot sauna, Keating said.

The spa also will have one other unique piece of equipment, a Normatec compression suit. It is a suit that fits over your arms, legs and torso. A computer program inflates the suit, which squeezes more blood toward the heart, Keating said. He said the technique is used by a lot of marathon runners, triathletes and others who are looking to recover more quickly from a workout.

Keating has filed the necessary paperwork to begin remodeling the storefront to house the spa. The spa is going in the location formerly occupied by Grills & Grinders at 4931 W. Sixth St. Keating hopes to have the business open sometime in June.

Ryan Schulteis, a brokerage associate with Reece Commercial Real Estate, brokered the deal to bring Optimal Wellness to the shopping center. A quick note on that front, I reported last week how the commercial real estate market is becoming more competitive in Lawrence, as Stephens Real Estate announced it was opening a commercial real estate division. Add Reece to the list of companies joining the fray in Lawrence. The Kansas City-based company now has two agents who are working in the Lawrence market, Schulteis and Matt Watkins. The company has now secured three shopping centers that it represents, Wakarusa Crossroads at Sixth and Wakarusa, Orchards Corner at Bob Billings and Kasold, and the small center at the southwest corner of Clinton Parkway and Wakarusa Drive.

Reply 4 comments from Clara Westphal Richard Heckler Bob Smith

Plans filed to build two new fraternity houses near KU campus; foreclosure completed on shopping center

Hearing that two new fraternity houses are being built in your neighborhood will wake you up quicker than an $8 cup of Starbucks. That’s indeed the case for one Lawrence neighborhood, but this neighborhood may not mind much. It already speaks Greek.

Plans have been filed for about $2 million worth of fraternity house construction at 1505 Sigma Nu Place. That’s a vacant lot next to the Sigma Nu fraternity, which, for those of you no longer in the fraternity know, is just a bit of west of Emery Road, northwest of the KU campus. More specifically, Sigma Nu is at the intersection of Sigma Nu Place and what very well may be the most stolen street sign in Lawrence . . . High Drive.

I thought I had the exact location for the project figured out but then realized, much like with Greek alphabet, I was confused. (Don’t even get me started about the time I learned Pi did not involve pie.) I’ll report back on the exact location later today. (UPDATE: It is on vacant land just west and across the street from the Sigma Nu house. Here's a photo of the site.)

Greek Housing USA, a Springfield, Mo.-based company, will build the two houses. Pi Kappa Phi will be the tenant for the bigger of the two houses, a 26-bedroom, three-story home. The second house — a three story, 20-bedroom house — will be rented by the Zeta Beta Tau — or ZBT — fraternity.

Roger Lantz, principal with Greek Housing USA, said the neighborhood is well situated to accommodate the two new homes. The 2.5 acre site is already zoned for fraternity construction. Lantz said parking is always a big issue with fraternity house construction, but he said this site will be able to accommodate at least 80 off-street parking spaces, and perhaps upwards of 90 spaces.

“There will be no on-street parking,” Lantz said. “We want to be good neighbors.”

He said plans are being created to limit the amount of lighting in the parking lots, and to push the parking lots back on the site to be farther from the general neighborhood.

As for the houses themselves, Lantz said they’ll be all-brick homes with commercial kitchens, extensive privacy fencing around the back yards, and a few outdoor amenities, such as a volleyball court.

“They’ll be legacy homes,” he said. “All-brick, big columns, lots of steel. They are built to last.”

The neighborhood already is one of the hotspots for Greek housing. Among the houses in the vicinity are: Alpha Chi Omega, Sigma Nu, Delta Gamma, Delta Upsilon, Kappa Sigma, Kappa Delta, Alpha Delta Pi, and others. (I should remember them all. I lived in an apartment house a couple of blocks away. Just like a fraternity has a motto, this apartment complex had one too: Do not cross yellow hazard tape.)

Lantz said he hopes to begin construction this summer. Construction is expected to be complete in about a year.

Pi Kappa Phi was previously renting a house, but needed to find other accommodations, Lantz said. ZBT has been without a fraternity house for a while, he said.


In other news and notes from around town:

I reported a couple of weeks ago that an eastside shopping center had fallen into foreclosure and soon would be sold at a sheriff’s auction.

Well, the auction for the shopping center at 23rd and Harper streets has been held, but the shopping center’s ownership likely isn’t settled yet. U.S. Bank, the financial institution that held the mortgage, bought the shopping center for $5,000,032 in a sheriff’s auction that produced about 15 minutes of back-and-forth bidding.

The attorney for the bank said the shopping center — which houses Set ‘Em Up Jack’s and other businesses — was being immediately transferred to a group called MSCI 2007-IQ16 East 23rd Street LLC. There are sign companies across the city hoping they sure put a sign up. It would be like winning the lottery.

Don’t count on it though. A little research through the Kansas Secretary of State’s database shows the company is managed by a Miami Beach company called LNR Partners, LLC. LNR Partners is one of the largest companies that helps banks sell commercial property that they have foreclosed upon. I haven’t talked with anyone at LNR, but it would seem likely that its task is to find a buyer for the shopping center.

If you are fans of some of the businesses in the shopping center — Tres Mexicanos and Subway are a couple more businesses in the center — don’t worry. The foreclosure does not mean those businesses have lost their leases. They are just all wondering who their new landlord will be. The foreclosure also included the building at the corner of the intersection that includes the Conoco gas station and adjacent liquor store.

Lawrence businessman Bill Schulteis was the only other bidder in the auction. He bid a little more than $5 million for the shopping center. Schulteis heads a group that owns the Orchards Corner shopping center at Bob Billings and Kasold, and also owns the shopping center at Sixth and Wakarusa that includes Morningstar’s Pizza, Eileen’s Colossal Cookies and other businesses.

Reply 4 comments from David Holroyd Richard Heckler Steve Jacob Dan Rose

Forbes magazine says Lawrence is one of the best places in the nation to retire; other surprising data about the city and its retirees

I thought for sure that when Forbes magazine released its list of best places to retire in 2017, it would keep it simple: The Trump cabinet. Fortunately for Lawrence, the magazine was more detailed. Lawrence has been named one of 25 communities on the Forbes list, which is one of the more prestigious rankings in the retirement industry.

Forbes does not rank its top 25, but Lawrence can legitimately say it is the best in Kansas. Lawrence is the only Kansas city to make the list.

The magazine has some positive things to say about the community. Among the pros listed by the publication: a cost of living that is 4 percent below the national average; adequate physicians per capita; a low serious-crime rate; good air quality; and a very bikeable community. Among the cons: cold winters; and a state income tax on Social Security earnings. Noteworthy in today’s environment is that the magazine ranked Lawrence as being only “somewhat walkable.” But the magazine also opines that except for the largest of U.S. cities, most communities aren’t very walkable from a senior perspective.

Traditionally when you think of retirement hot spots, the Sun Belt and the warm climates of the coasts are what come to mind. But the Forbes’ authors noted that communities in those locations are having a harder time making the list because of high cost-of-living issues. (The magazine publishes a separate list if cost isn’t a consideration for your retirement.) Instead, several locations from middle America made the list this year. Here’s a look at some other communities from our region.

— Jefferson City, Mo.: It has a cost of living 10 percent below the national average.

— Iowa City: It is listed as the quintessential college community, and it has a favorable tax environment for seniors too.

— Colorado Springs: The city’s scenery and strong economy drew high marks.

— Bella Vista, Ark.: The Ozark community has a cost of living 13 percent below the national average, and it has made serving retirees a big part of its economy for a long time.

— Lincoln, Neb.: Both a college town and a capital city, Lincoln had a cost of living 8 percent below the national average.

Lawrence is trying to make attraction of retirees a bigger part of its economic development strategy. The private sector also has been investing with that in mind too. There have been several expansions of retirement communities in Lawrence, and west Lawrence has a couple of projects that may particularly provide a boost: The Links apartment project, which is building apartments around a nine-hole golf course near Rock Chalk Park, and Village Cooperative, which will be co-op living for older adults at Sixth and Queens Road.

This Forbes listing certainly can be useful marketing material as the community tries to get retirees to give Lawrence a look. You can see the full Forbes list here.

• There is at least one other study community leaders may want to take a close look at as they try to build the local retirement industry. The Forbes ranking frequently referred to The Milken Institute’s Best Cities for Successful Aging Report.

Lawrence ranks well on that report too — although not best in the state. Manhattan grabbed the No. 2 national ranking in the small cities category. Lawrence had the No. 8 ranking. The No. 1 city was Iowa City, which may mean good things for Lawrence to come. Lawrence City Manager Tom Markus was previously the city manager in Iowa City. He likely saw much of what was working in Iowa City during his tenure there.

The Milken report is more detailed than the Forbes report. It presents Lawrence in a different light, in some ways. For example, Forbes’ brief writeup noted Lawrence has a low serious-crime rate. The Milken report looked at all crime — the definition of serious crime changes depending on how close you are to it — and Lawrence did not fare well in that category. Of the 281 small communities that were ranked, Lawrence’s crime rate checked in at No. 238. Manhattan, on the other hand, ranked No. 13 on Milken’s crime rate ranking.

The rankings, though, also point out some areas where Lawrence excels in ways we maybe haven’t fully recognized. One of them is in employing older people. The report found Lawrence had the top rating when it comes to the unemployment rate for people 65 and older. In other words, that unemployment rate is very low. Lawrence’s overall unemployment rate also ranked No. 29 out of 281.

There are about 75 different rankings for Lawrence within the Milken report, so I can’t go over all of them. But you can click here to see it for yourself.

The report, however, did summarize Lawrence’s strengths and weaknesses as it relates to caring for an aging population. Among the strengths:

— Low unemployment rate for elderly adults.

— Few older residents living in poverty; few residents with reverse mortgages.

— Highly educated populace.

— Volunteerism among older adults is high.

— Good growth in health and leisure employment.

— Well accredited hospital.

— Good numbers of primary care physicians.

— Low rates of diabetes.

— Fitness centers easily accessible.

— Multitude of home health care providers.

— Highly rated nursing homes.

A few negatives also were listed. They include:

— Expensive home prices and rent rates.

— A high tax burden.

— A shortage of Alzheimer’s units, geriatric facilities and hospices.

Reply 4 comments from Mike Edson Chris  Ogle Steve Jacob Scott  Morgan

As Earth Day nears, new reports on how clean Lawrence’s air is and how not green Kansas is

As someone who lives with a teenage boy, air quality is always on my mind. In our house, the main particulate we measure is Axe Body Spray. The rest of you may have air quality matters on your mind because Earth Day is approaching. Even if you don’t, I’ve got some Earth Day-type news to share.

First, there is new information about our air quality. Some of you noticed that the Journal-World’s USA Today section recently ran an article detailing the communities with the worst air quality in America. The American Lung Association puts together the annual report based on air quality readings from monitoring stations across the country.

To the chagrin of some, Lawrence doesn’t have an official air quality monitoring station, even though we do have a coal-fired power plant right outside the city limits. So, Douglas County was not one of the counties ranked by the American Lung Association report.

The Westar Energy Plant north of Lawrence is pictured in this file photo from 2007.

The Westar Energy Plant north of Lawrence is pictured in this file photo from 2007.

But a handful of Kansas counties were ranked. I believe the one we ought to pay attention to the most is Leavenworth County. Since Douglas County doesn’t have a station, we previously have reported that the state uses Leavenworth County as a proxy to measure Douglas County’s air quality. The few times that the state has measured Lawrence’s air quality, it has been similar to that of Leavenworth County, is my understanding. If that is still the case, Lawrence’s air quality is just average, at best. Leavenworth County received a C grade as part of the report, and it experienced four orange days in the last year. An orange day is when air quality is deemed to be unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as children, the elderly and people with heart or lung diseases. The county didn’t have any red or purple days, which are days when the air quality is dangerous to even larger groups of people. No county in Kansas registered any of the red or purple days.

Here is a look at the other Kansas counties or KC metro area counties that received a ranking:

— Johnson County: A grade, with no orange, red or purple days.

— Sedgwick County: D grade, with eight orange days and no red or purple days

— Shawnee County: B grade, with one orange day and no red or purple days

— Sumner County: C grade, with five orange days and no red or purple days

— Trego County: A grade, with no orange, red or purple days

— Wyandotte County: B grade with one orange day, and no red or purple days

— Clay County, Mo.: F grade with 13 orange days, and no red or purple days

— Cass County, Mo.: A grade with no orange, red or purple days

The takeaway from that list is that Clay County — which has some of the big industry in Kansas City, including the Ford Motor plant — has some struggles with air pollution. Johnson County soccer parents, however, evidently have figured out how to run their SUVs on nonpolluting Starbucks coffee, because it ranks high both statewide and nationally.

I chatted briefly with an air quality official with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. He told me there aren’t any plans to add an air monitoring station in Douglas County. The department does generally look at Leavenworth County to get an estimate of what air quality levels are in Douglas County.

This file photo from July 2015 shows a westward look across Lawrence, including the University of Kansas on Mount Oread, at the center-left, and Ninth Street stretching toward downtown Lawrence, at center-right.

This file photo from July 2015 shows a westward look across Lawrence, including the University of Kansas on Mount Oread, at the center-left, and Ninth Street stretching toward downtown Lawrence, at center-right. by Nick Krug

For a short period of time last decade, there was a monitoring station at the Lawrence Municipal Airport. The state placed the station there amid concern that air quality was declining in Douglas County and that Lawrence may need to be added to a special air quality district that encompasses Kansas City. If that had happened, local gasoline stations likely would have been required to sell a different formulation of fuel that would have increased costs. There were concerns that the financial impact to the county would have been $10 million or more due to the fuel change and other regulations that would have been required.

However, in 2007 we reported that the state removed the air monitoring station at the airport and determined that Douglas County air quality levels were fine. Lawrence was no longer at risk of being placed in the Kansas City district. There was some talk at the time of the county spending perhaps $100,000 to install its own air monitoring system to ensure that we had good data, but that never happened.

Doug Watson, environment program supervisor with KDHE, told me Lawrence isn’t at great risk of being added into the Kansas City district. That’s mainly because air quality levels have been improving in the Kansas City area.

As for the need for an local air monitoring station, that would be nice, but may not play a great role in keeping Lawrence out of the Kansas City district in the future. That’s because federal regulators don’t necessarily believe that Lawrence has polluted air that is drifting over to Kansas City. Instead, if Lawrence is contributing to Kansas City’s air quality problems it would be because of the high number of commuters from Lawrence into Kansas City each day.

Watson warned that if Kansas City’s numbers do reverse course and start to deteriorate, Lawrence could be back into the conversation because of those commuter numbers.

“We could have a couple of horrible, dry, stagnant summers and we would be back to talking about this again,” Watson said.

• Speaking of the state, a new report ranks Kansas low in terms of being a “green state.” The financial website WalletHub put together a report that looked at a variety of statistics related to energy efficiency, recycling, pollution and other such matters. Kansas ranked as the ninth least green state in the country.

In other words, Kansas ranked No. 42 on the list.

The report did provide some specifics for the Sunflower State. Here’s a look at Kansas’ rank in various categories:

— 19th in water quality

— 21st in gasoline consumption per capita

— 22nd in air quality

— 36th in energy consumption per capita

— 44th in nitrous-oxide emissions per capita

— 47th in number of LEED-certified buildings per capita

— 47th in energy-efficiency score

The report also has a category it calls “Climate-Change contributions rank,” which is a conglomeration of data about energy usage and certain types of emissions data. Kansas ranks seventh worst on that category.

In terms of some states in the region and how they rank overall, here’s a look:

— Colorado: No. 20 overall and No. 29 on Climate Change

— Missouri: No. 30 overall and No. 24 on Climate Change

— Iowa: No. 38 overall and No. 43 on Climate Change

— Kansas: No. 42 overall and No. 44 on Climate Change

— Nebraska: No. 44 overall and No. 47 on Climate Change

— Oklahoma: No. 46 overall and No. 48 on Climate Change

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An update on what may replace Lawrence’s J.C. Penney when it closes; new commercial real estate brokerage opens

We are in wait-and-wonder mode when it comes to Lawrence’s J.C. Penney store. Many of us are waiting for the going-out-of-business sale and the deals that come with it. Those in the development world, though, are wondering about the future of one of south Iowa Street’s larger retail buildings.

I talked today with the Lawrence businessman who is leading the redevelopment efforts of the J.C. Penney property, and while he also is waiting and wondering, I didn’t hear any signs of worry from him. Martin Moore — who leads a group that owns the land the J.C. Penney store occupies — said he’s been fielding multiple inquiries since J.C. Penney announced last month that the Lawrence store was on its closure list.

“I’ve been getting four or five calls a day from brokers and owners and people involved in the property world,” Moore said. “The only thing we’re telling people is ‘stay tuned.’ We have something we’re working on. It will be exciting to see what happens with it.”

Lawrence's JCPenny store, 3311 Iowa St., is shown in this aerial file photo from July 2014.

Lawrence's JCPenny store, 3311 Iowa St., is shown in this aerial file photo from July 2014.

I had been checking in with some folks in the commercial real estate world about the prospects for the J.C. Penney building once the store closes, which is now expected to happen in late July. The view is the property at 3311 Iowa St. is well-situated. It has good visibility from Iowa Street, the area is seeing growing traffic volumes thanks to the opening of the South Lawrence Trafficway, and the building is right in the middle of a prime shopping district with Target, Wal-Mart, Kohl’s and others all either next door or across the street from the property.

But the one piece of concern I heard is that J.C. Penney still has a lot of years left on its lease. That sometimes can slow redevelopment of a property. A landlord may not be motivated to make changes as long as he’s still contractually obligated to get a lease payment. And sometimes a store like J.C. Penney, which is fighting for survival, gets bogged down with other issues and doesn’t do the work needed to free the property for redevelopment.

Moore, though, told me he doesn’t anticipate any such problems. He told me J.C. Penney actually owns the building, while Moore’s group owns the ground.

“That is highly unlikely,” Moore said of a scenario where the building sits empty for a long period while J.C. Penney determines its strategy. “There is a lot of buzz for that area right now. It will not become a derelict piece of real estate.”

Moore didn’t provide me any hints of what project he is working on for the building. However, there have been plenty of names in the news of chain stores looking at the Lawrence market. As part of the proposal for the KTen Crossing shopping center south of the SLT, the development group announced that Academy Sports, Designer Shoe Warehouse, HomeGoods, Fresh Market and Old Navy were all strongly interested in signing leases. But that center, proposed for the southeast corner of the SLT and Iowa Street interchange, didn’t win City Commission approval. The developer and the city are now engaged in a lawsuit over the matter.

In the meantime, you have to wonder whether some of those retailers might look at the J.C. Penney building as an opportunity. The J.C. Penney building is about 80,000 square feet, which probably would be too large for all of those retailers with the possible exception of Academy. But that wouldn’t be a problem. The trend has been for big box stores to be converted into multi-tenant retail buildings. Think of the old Sears building at 27th and Iowa that now houses Dick’s Sporting Goods, Boot Barn, Petsmart, and Ulta Beauty. The building at 31st and Iowa that houses Bed Bath & Beyond, TJ Maxx and World Market used to be a Kmart.

“The people who did that project did very well for themselves in how they repositioned that property,” Moore said of the former Kmart building. “There is a lot of work in a project like that, but they got rewarded in the end.”

Again, I don’t have any idea what Moore has planned, but it will be interesting to watch whether the J.C. Penney closing ends up being viewed as a loss or an opportunity.


In other news and notes from around town:

• While we are talking about commercial real estate, keep your eyes open for a new sign around town. Stephens Real Estate — which has been a longtime residential real estate company — has started a commercial real estate division.

More accurately, the company has restarted a commercial real estate division. Stephens had one of the larger commercial real estate businesses in town up until the late 1990s or so. But that part of its business faded away as several of its agents left to partner up with a national firm.

But Stephens in recent weeks has hired Lawrence businessman Evan Holt to lead what it is calling Stephens Commercial. Some of you may know Holt as a co-owner of the Levee Cafe in North Lawrence. But Holt leaves the day-to-day operations of the diner business to his wife and business partner. Holt instead focuses more on property issues. He owns the commercial real estate near 25th and Iowa streets that used to house Kief’s Audio Video and now houses Boom Comics. He also was part of the group that redeveloped the property that now houses Raising Cane’s chicken along Iowa Street. He said his experience as a landlord should be helpful in the real estate business.

“I speak the landlord language,” Holt said.

Holt also has an MBA degree, and he said he plans to use that training to do a lot of analytical research and presentations on the Lawrence real estate market.

Holt said his read of the Lawrence commercial market currently is that it is not nearly as hot of a market as Lawrence’s residential scene. But because of the relatively small number of commercial real estate agents in town, he thinks the community can benefit from a having another firm in the mix.

He also thinks the commercial real estate market will pick up in Lawrence as new investors start looking at some older properties that are candidates for redevelopment.

“People aren’t seeing that right now, and they aren’t jumping on some properties that are good candidates for that,” Holt said.

The new division will operate as Stephens Commercial Real Estate, and at the moment, Holt will be the primary agent for the division. It will become one of several commercial brokers in town. The Lawrence office of Colliers International, Doug Brown of McGrew Commercial Real Estate and Lance Johnson of the Johnson Group are generally considered to be the three most active locally based firms, while several Kansas City firms also do business in town.

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Kansas City company files plans to open bakery, restaurant in former Jayhawk Bookstore building

When I was at KU, I became an expert in Danish studies. There were cherry ones, there were lemon ones, and so many others that I should have gotten a diploma but instead just left with 20 extra pounds. Well, KU students may get a similar chance if a new plan for the old Jayhawk Bookstore building is approved.

Plans have been filed for a McLain’s Market to locate in the former bookstore building at 1420 Crescent Road, which of course is at the top of the hill and right on the edge of the KU campus.

The business is part of the same McLain’s Market that operates in Kansas City. An employee at the store there referred questions about a Lawrence location to a manager, but I haven’t yet heard back.

McLain’s Market operates at I-435 and Roe in Overland Park. The store is a sister to McLain’s Bakery, which has a multidecade tradition in the Waldo district of Kansas City. According to its website, McLain’s serves a variety of pastries, plus a breakfast and lunch menu.

The breakfast menu includes bacon, sausage, egg and cheese dishes, plus a granola parfait, a veggie quiche and a breakfast burrito. The lunch menu includes several salads, sandwiches, some wraps and even fancier fare, including a sirloin dish that comes with pears, pesto, mushrooms, cauliflower and a balsamic reduction.

But the business has it roots in the dessert world. McLain’s Bakery dates back to 1945 in the Waldo district. The main attractions were a “chocolate cup cookie,” something called a butter roll, and a German chocolate coffee cake. The bakery is on a new set of owners, but those traditional menu items have remained.

According to the company’s website, the restaurant’s dessert menu also includes a variety of danishes, croissants, muffins, scones and more than a half-dozen flavors of coffee cake.

Jayhawk Bookstore is located at 1420 Crescent Road, just off the KU campus at Crescent and Naismith Drive.

Jayhawk Bookstore is located at 1420 Crescent Road, just off the KU campus at Crescent and Naismith Drive. by Sara Shepherd

The plans on file with City Hall indicate the building will receive a new facade, and the ground floor will be completely remodeled to accommodate a kitchen and seating area and a little bit of space for merchandise sales. The second floor space will include a public seating area for students who may want to use the area as a study hall, as well as a private room that can be rented for events, meetings and other such functions, according to the plans.

It is not clear from the filing whether McLain’s plans to serve beer and other liquor as part of its menu. The one in Overland Park does offer spirits. It also isn’t clear to me what approvals that may require from City Hall. But based on everything I’ve seen from the company, the business certainly doesn’t appear to be anything close to a bar. The Overland Park location closes at 9 p.m. or earlier every day.

As we reported in October, Kansas City-based Axiom Equities bought the old book store building that is just west of the Chi Omega fountain and the main entrance to Jayhawk Boulevard. At the time, the leaders of that group said they were fielding multiple inquiries from restaurants and coffee shops that wanted to be next to campus.

I’ve got a call into the building’s owners for more details. When I hear back from them or the folks at McLain’s, I’ll let you know more.

Reply 5 comments from David Holroyd Jim Haack Kurt Kummer Richard Heckler Clara Westphal

Pizza chain with lots of funky toppings plans to locate near KU’s Memorial Stadium

As a child of the 1980s, I remember when pizza companies went crazy and started putting pineapple on pizzas. There was little doubt in my household that it was a sign of a Communist infiltration. Fortunately, the Communists have moved on to U.S. elections, so I have no reason to worry about a pending Lawrence pizza parlor that has made its name with funky toppings.

A pizza chain called Toppers has signed a deal to locate in one of the retail spaces in the HERE apartment building across the street from KU’s Memorial Stadium. The company has filed plans at Lawrence City Hall for a location at 1100 Mississippi St., and the company’s website also lists a Lawrence location as coming soon.

The company focuses on carryout and delivery pizza. The company also has a menu that encourages people to get creative with their pizza combos. Any pizza with two or more toppings is the same price, so you can get wild with the pairings.

The menu also features several ready-to-go funky offerings. I’m sure some of you have heard of the mac ‘n’ cheese pizza before, and you maybe have heard of the buffalo chicken pizza, too. Toppers has both of those, but one of its top sellers is a buffalo chicken mac ‘n’ cheese pizza. There’s also a taco pizza, a Maui pizza (yes, pineapples), a bacon cheeseburger pizza, and a smoky barbecue chicken pizza. But none of those compare to the ... Tot-Zza. Hold onto your dough ball for this one. It is a pizza with tater tots on it. It is covered in ranch sauce, mozzarella cheese, tater tots, bacon, green onions, and nacho cheese sauce drizzled across the top. (Take note, Putin: This pizza is the prime example of why Russia will never be superior to America.)

The restaurant gives diners three types of crusts to choose from — hand-tossed, thin, and “tallboy” — and about 16 different dipping sauces for the pizza. They include the traditional ones, such as marinara and garlic butter, the slightly exotic, such as bacon honey mustard, salsa, and sweet chili, and the full-on unusual including vanilla or chocolate frosting.

Perhaps the frosting dipping sauces are for the dessert breadsticks, but maybe not. (Never underestimate American ingenuity.) The breadstick menu is extensive. They call them Topperstix. There are the garlic-cheese variety, the pepperoni variety, and the gooey cinnamon variety. But there are also Tacostix, Baconstix, and the Chocolate Baconstix varieties.

For good measure — this is Lawrence after all — the restaurant also will serve chicken wings, with about a half-dozen varieties on the menu.

As for the chain’s background, it got started in 1993 with a single store in Whitewater, Wis., which is why I assume the chain makes a big deal out of using only Wisconsin cheese on its pizza. The company now has grown to about 100 stores. The company has been growing rapidly, but the Lawrence store will be just the second one in Kansas. The company has a sole Kansas City store at Metcalf Avenue in Mission.

No timeline on when the Lawrence store will open. My understanding is the store is going into one of the ground floor spaces along Mississippi Street. I would think the store may well be open by the beginning of football season, which may be worth remembering. The restaurant will be across the street from Memorial Stadium. Tailgate parties may get even funkier at KU football games.

As a reminder, we’ve reported that two other businesses are going into the HERE building. Edible Arrangements has moved into one of the spaces along the Indiana Street side of the massive HERE building. It sells edible fruit bouquets and other fruit-based treats.

Topeka-based PT’s Coffee Roasting is locating in the spot right at the corner of 11th and Indiana streets. That store, of course, will sell coffee but also have light breakfast and lunch menus and a small cocktail menu too.

While I’m issuing reminders, I should remind you we also reported on one other pizza place that is coming town. Sarpino’s Pizzeria, which also focuses on carryout and delivery pizza, is locating in The Malls Shopping Center at 23rd and Louisiana. It too is a chain that features a large number of toppings. It boasts more than 50 gourmet or speciality pizzas on its menu.

Reply 4 comments from David Holroyd Richard Heckler Charley Downey

As local voters ponder tax questions, here’s a look at what property taxes have done for the last 10 years

If the 2016 presidential elections didn’t give you enough to grit your teeth over, fear not — local politics in 2017 may give you more opportunities. But it won’t be Trump that is the main topic. Instead, it is the other five-letter ’t’ word that will get the attention — taxes.

Specifically, property taxes in Douglas County may get more discussion this year than they have in a long time.

Voters in the Lawrence school district already should have the topic on their minds. Ballots have been sent out as part of an $87 million bond issue for the Lawrence public school district. The ballots — which have a due date of May 2 — are asking voters to approve the issuance of new debt that would improve secondary schools in the district, among other items.

Likely, the big question voters will have on their minds is whether the improvements are worth the tax increase that will be required to pay for the new debt. The increase is estimated at 2.4 mills, which is about $55 a year on a $200,000 home or about $300 a year on a $500,000 commercial property.

But there are other potential tax increases out there. Douglas County officials continue to talk about the need for jail expansion and creation of a mental health crisis center. That could come at a price tag of $30 million or more, and either a property tax or sales tax increase likely would be required.

The city of Lawrence is once again talking about the need for a new police headquarters building. City officials have scaled the price tag of that project back to $17 million, and they now say it likely won’t be pursued until 2019. But officials are saying it would require a mill levy increase of about 1.25 mills.

But long before that, both city and county officials may find themselves raising the property tax mill levy just to take care of basic governmental operations. They’ll make those decision this summer. If history is a guide, an increase is likely. Since 2007, the city has increased its mill levy nine out of the 10 years and the county has increased its mill levy seven times in the decade.

Unlike past years, though, voters may have to approve any such tax increase by the city and the county. A new state-mandated property tax lid calls for a general election if city and county governments try to increase taxes beyond certain rates of inflation.

So, all this means it may be time to study up on taxes. Here are some facts and figures compiled from city, county and school district documents.

• Rising rates. A Lawrence property owner pays at least four significant property tax bills — the city, the county, the school district, and the state of Kansas. Some property owners pay some others, like drainage district taxes, but most don’t.

When you add those big four together, the total current property tax rate in Lawrence is 130.97 mills. What does that mean? Property taxes can be a little complicated because they involve the value of your home — or at least what the county tax man says your home’s value is— the mill levy and basically a discount rate that varies whether you own residential property or commercial property. If you own residential property, you pay taxes on 11.5 percent of the value of your home. If you own commercial property, you pay on 25 percent of the value of your property.

To keep it simple, under the current tax rate, homeowners pay about $1,500 for every $100,000 worth of residential property they own. Commercial property owners pay a little more than double that amount for every $100,000 worth of business property they own.

In 2007, the property tax rate was 115.84 mills. That’s an increase of about 13 percent.

• School facts. During this campaign season, if Lawrence school district officials get questioned about the last decade of rising property tax rates, they have a possible retort: Don’t look at us.

Indeed, the school district’s property tax rate is less today than it was in 2007 — 53.36 mills today versus 57.56 mills in 2007. The district’s property tax rate hit a decade high in 2010, but has been mostly on the way down since then. Here’s a look:

— 2010: 59.64 mills

— 2011: 59.43 mills

— 2012: 58 mills

— 2013: 57.78 mills

— 2014: 55.75 mills

— 2015: 56.90 mills

— 2016: 53.36 mills.

Note: 2016 is the current tax rate. The 2017 rates aren’t set until this summer.

The school district did have a $92.5 million bond issue in 2013 to improve elementary schools. But district officials promised that bond issue wouldn’t raise taxes. Instead, as the district retired old debt it replaced it with new debt and was able to keep the mill levy at or below previous levels. Granted, if the school district hadn’t done the 2013 bond issue, the tax rate would have dropped significantly. But as school district officials point out, elementary schools also wouldn’t be improved.

In case you are curious, the Lawrence public school district’s property tax rate is quite a bit lower than the two smaller Douglas County-based school districts. Baldwin has a tax rate of 68.66 mills, and Eudora has the highest rate in the county at 70.36 mills.

• City and county facts. If the increases of the past decade didn’t come from the school district, where did they? Look at both ends of Massachusetts Street to find the answer. In 2007, the city of Lawrence’s mill levy was 26.78 mills. Today it is 32.01 mills. In 2007, Douglas County’s mill levy was 29.99 mills. Today it is 44.09 mills.

Now, before city and county officials call me, let me say I’m not opining about the appropriateness of those higher tax rates. The city essentially has a new library, for example, which was built with a voter-approved property tax increase. And county officials could talk your ear off about what they believe are a host of costs that used to be covered by the state of Kansas that now fall to the county to cover.

I’m not trying to answer the “why” of these tax rate increases but rather the “where.” In terms of where the tax rates increased, they have come from the city of Lawrence and Douglas County. But the “why” is important, and before you complain about taxes, you should get familiar with the “why,” and think about what services or improvements you would have preferred to do without over the past 10 years.

In case you are wondering, the state of Kansas has a property tax rate of 1.5 mills. It hasn’t changed in decades.

• The rest of the story. Property tax rates are a lot like my teenage son: They are both lousy at telling a complete story. Property tax rates could remain steady but property owners may still pay a lot more in taxes. That’s because if the value of your property increases, your tax bill will increase if the tax rate stays the same.

But the tax rate did not stay the same in Douglas County. It increased by about 13 percent, which is actually less than the rate of inflation for the decade. The consumer price index since 2007 increased by 20 percent, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.

But Douglas County home values also increased during the decade. Not only that, there is more property to tax than there was in 2007. People have built new structures, and those new structures have added to the tax base.

In Lawrence, the taxable value of property has grown from $853.5 million in 2007 to $928.9 million in 2016. That’s an increase of 8.8 percent. That’s on top of the 13 percent increase in the actual tax rate.

• Real dollars. Most of you, though, only care about any of this because once a year the bank that has your mortgage sends you a letter saying it needs to increase your monthly payment by “X” amount because your home’s taxes have increased.

The fact is, some of you get that letter and some of you don’t because property taxes don’t believe in being equal. They are based on a home’s value, and some of you own homes that have increased in value, and others have not.

That makes it difficult to make a broad statement about how property taxes impact everybody. Instead, we have to look at some hypotheticals.

— Scenario 1: You own a $200,000 Lawrence home. It has increased in value by a modest 1 percent each year. In 2007 you paid taxes of $2,664. Your current taxes are $3,012. Your taxes have increased by 13 percent. That’s less than the rate of inflation for the time period. You are paying about $29 more per month on your mortgage payment to cover taxes than you did in 2007.

— Scenario 2: Your home may increase more than 1 percent a year. Consider this: When the county appraiser recently set tax values for residential property, the largest number of homes received an increase in value of between 2 percent and 5 percent. The second largest group were people who received an increase in value of more than 5 percent. Your home probably is not going to increase in value by 50 percent in a decade, but it could easily increase by 30 percent. Here’s how that would look if you own a $200,000 home in Lawrence. In 2007, you paid $2,664 in taxes. Your current taxes are $4,048. That is an increase of 51 percent in taxes, and is well above the rate of inflation. You are paying about $115 more per month on your mortgage payment to cover the taxes than you did in 2007.

Granted, the homeowner in Scenario 2 has theoretically gained some wealth. The home is worth about $70,000 more than it was in 2007. But unless the homeowner is willing to sell it at that moment, it is mainly just paper wealth rather than the type that adds money to your bank account.

• Real houses. To further prove the point that property taxes don’t impact everybody equally, I picked seven properties at random from the phone book and tracked what their property taxes were over the 10-year period. Here’s a look:

— A $160,000 home in the 900 block of West 25th Street. It pays $2,470 in taxes, up just 11 percent from what it paid in 2007. The home actually had a higher value — $166,000 — in 2007.

— A $141,000 home in the 800 block of West 22nd Street. It pays $2,126 in taxes, up 38 percent from 2007.

— A $196,000 home in the 2500 block of Via Linda Drive. It pays $2,964 in taxes, up 30 percent from 2007.

— A $248,000 home in the 1000 block of Wildwood Drive. It pays $3,747 in taxes, up 11 percent from 2007. The home had a higher value — $253,000 — in 2007.

— A $231,000 home in the 2100 block of Carolina Street. It pays $3,480 in taxes, up 23 percent from 2007. This is an example of a home that increased pretty close to the rate of inflation.

— A $162,000 home in the 600 block of Bently Drive. It pays $2,450 in taxes, up 15 percent from 2007.

As you know, Lawrence has lots of apartments, so it is not surprising that my random methods produced one address that was located in an apartment complex. The landlords there pay the property taxes, but they certainly try to pass along any property tax increase to the tenants, if the market allows it.

— A $5.5 million apartment complex in the 2400 block of Louisiana Street. It pays $83,195 in taxes, up 43 percent from what it paid in 2007.

Don’t read too much into the above numbers. The sample size is too small to draw broad conclusions. But it is a reminder of why property taxes raise the ire of some but not others.

• The other number. Most people don’t spend any time thinking about a property tax mill levy. But they do spend time thinking about how much money they make. That’s the other number in this whole equation. How much money do you have to pay your tax bill?

The federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development publishes a median family income for each county in the country. It is not a perfect statistic, but it does provide an indication of how much incomes have grown in the county over the years. In 2007, the median family income in Douglas County was $63,700. In 2017, it had grown to $68,500. That’s an increase of just 7.5 percent, well below the approximately 20 percent rate of inflation during the same time period. Some other income figures from the Census would put the growth rate closer to 10 percent to 15 percent for the time period.

Either way, it is likely many families are paying a greater percentage of their incomes in property taxes than they used to.

• What’s next? Those are the numbers from the past. And, of course, they are just numbers. They don’t do a good job of measuring the value of an improved school, a better library, or the necessity of services like police and fire protection.

Voters have to decide what type of value to place on those factors, and they have to decide what is a fair amount to pay in taxes.

It appears they will have plenty of figuring to do in 2017.

Reply 4 comments from David Holroyd Dave Trabert Melinda Henderson Floyd Craig

A fourth hotel files plans for multimillion dollar project in Lawrence; J.C. Penney to delay store closings

There is officially a hotel building boom in Lawrence. Another set of hotel plans has been filed at City Hall, which means Lawrence soon will have four hotel projects under construction.

Maybe everybody needs a place to sleep off all the fried chicken.

Whatever the case, the hotel market is active. The latest plans are for the area near Sixth and Iowa streets, on the property where the Ramada Inn once was. The old Ramada building already has been torn down.

Now officials with a Kansas City based company — Marquee Hospitality — have filed a plan to build one hotel, and possibly two, on the site. I haven’t yet gotten the company to confirm what hotel brand is interested in the location, but the plans call for a sizable facility.

Phase one of the plan calls for a four-story, 99-room hotel. The plans also call for a phase two that would include an 81 room, three-story hotel that would be just a bit west of the first hotel. The two projects are expected to have an estimated construction cost of about $9 million, according to the plans.

As I mentioned, I don’t have confirmation on what hotel chain may locate on the site. But the company’s website indicates it has business relationships with Holiday Inn Express, Candlewood Suites, Home 2 Suites by Hilton, TownePlace Suites by Marriott and Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott.

For what it is worth, Candlewood Suites is the brand I most frequently hear mentioned as a tenant for the property. Candlewood is an extended stay hotel brand, which means the hotel features suites that include kitchens. The hotel chain also has other features designed to appeal to long-term guests, such as a laundry room and a gazebo and grill area for guests to use. But again, there’s no confirmation on whether Candlewood is a tenant, but the chain certainly has been eyeing locations in Lawrence.

As for the rest of the hotel projects in town, here’s a reminder of what’s underway:

— Plans have been filed for the first hotel to locate near Rock Chalk Park. It will be a four-story, 100-room Best Western Plus. As we reported in January, the $14.5 million project will be near the southwest corner of George Williams Way and Rock Chalk Drive, or basically right at the entrance of the sports complex.

— Site work is underway at the former Don’s Steakhouse location near 23rd and O’Connell in eastern Lawrence. That site will house a three-story, 89-room Country Inn & Suites. As we reported in October, it is part of the Radisson brand of hotels, and it is described as “upper midscale.” (I’m also often described that way, but unfortunately, only when I’m standing on an actual scale.) Amenities include an indoor pool, and the project has a phase two that would allow for some restaurants to develop near the hotel.

— Plans also have been approved for a hotel across from Free State High School. As we reported in December, it will be a Tru by Hilton hotel. It may be a bit of a hipster hotel. It calls its lobby area a “Hive,” and it markets itself as a place where you can discover “what cost-conscious meets cool-conscious looks like.” The project will go on the vacant lot at the corner of Wakarusa Drive and Overland Drive. In other words, just north of the tunnel car wash business. Plans call for 82 guest rooms and an outdoor recreation area.

In other news and notes from around town:

• When it comes to discovering “what cost-conscious meets cool-conscious looks like,” I long ago discovered that it looks like a polyester Hawaiian shirt with the top four buttons undone to promote air flow. I’ve been known to find such shirts at the local J.C. Penney’s, but if I want to buy some as part of the store’s going-out-of-business sale, I’ll have to wait a bit longer.

CNBC is reporting that J.C. Penney has decided to delay its store closings — which includes the Lawrence store on south Iowa Street, by more than a month. The network reports stores now are scheduled to close on July 31, which is about six weeks later than originally planned. The news channel says the going-out-of-business sales will begin on May 22, instead of the original date of April 17.

The company told CNBC that sales have picked up significantly at the stores since the pending closures were announced. So, the company isn’t ready to start doing deep discounting yet while traffic levels are good. No one, though, should probably get their hopes up that J.C. Penney is rethinking the closure of any of the stores.

I just hope there will be some shirts left.

Reply 1 comment from David Holroyd

Kansas City grocery company signs deal to locate store in downtown Lawrence; lawsuit could still derail project

A full-service downtown grocery store — complete with a pharmacy and a Mongolian grill — is now closer to becoming a reality than ever before. But a Douglas County court case could still deal the project a major blow.

As expected, Queen’s Price Chopper of Kansas City has signed a letter of intent to locate a Price Chopper grocery store at Seventh and New Hampshire streets, on the site of the former Borders bookstore.

A development group led by Lawrence businessmen Mike Treanor and Doug Compton have filed plans at City Hall to tear down the old Borders bookstore and replace it with a three-story building that would include the ground-floor grocery store and two levels of apartments above. The filing of formal plans — an incentive request also will be filed — marks the largest step yet in a multiyear effort to bring a grocery store to downtown. But the project is still in jeopardy of receiving a major setback from a Douglas County lawsuit.

As we reported in December, a pair of condo owners in the adjacent Hobbs Taylor Loft building have filed a lawsuit alleging that the development group is seeking to do an end run around a set of covenants that prohibit a large grocery store from being built on the Borders property. The development group disagrees. The development group filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. A hearing was held at the end of March, and now the parties await a decision from Douglas County District Court Judge Kay Huff. If the lawsuit isn’t dismissed, it is presumed Huff will issue an injunction that will stop work on the project. That makes the stakes of her decision high.

“If there is a ruling that says we are under an injunction, it probably will be close to a death knell,” said Bill Fleming, an attorney who represents the development group.

This drawing shows a northwest perspective of a proposed grocery store and apartment building at 700 New Hampshire St.

This drawing shows a northwest perspective of a proposed grocery store and apartment building at 700 New Hampshire St.

The injunction wouldn’t stop the development group and the two residents — Brian Russell and Brent Flanders — from settling the lawsuit, but it is unclear to me whether such a settlement is likely. As for the timing of the court’s decision, that is anyone’s guess, although it has moved fairly quickly thus far by judicial standards.

Absent the lawsuit, excitement levels are high for the project. The development will need to win several city approvals, and the developers are making no secret about the fact that they will be asking for incentives. Those will include a tax increment finance district that will rebate back large portions of property and sales taxes to the project, plus a low or no-interest loan that will help equip the new store.

But developers say the community will be getting what it long has asked for: a downtown grocery store that is big enough to serve not just the downtown but surrounding neighborhoods like North and East Lawrence.

“There will not be anything lacking from the grocery side,” said Dennis Reilly, chief financial officer for Queen’s Price Chopper. “It will be one-stop shopping.”

This drawing shows a south perspective of a proposed grocery store and apartment building at 700 New Hampshire St.

This drawing shows a south perspective of a proposed grocery store and apartment building at 700 New Hampshire St.

Here’s a look at some the of the details from the latest plans:

• The approximately 20,000 square-foot Borders building would be demolished and would be replaced with a three-story building that would have a footprint of about 40,000 square feet. The ground floor would house the grocery store.The second and third floors would house 82 apartments that would include a mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. Fifteen percent of the apartments would rent at rates that meet the city’s new affordability standards.

• The project would include a two-level, underground parking garage built beneath the new building. The garage would have 182 spaces. The lowest level of the garage would be gated and reserved for the use of apartment tenants. The other level — about 91 spaces — would be available for grocery store customers. In addition, the project would have about 80 above-ground parking spaces around the store. About 60 of them would be in the existing lot just south of the current building. About 15 angled parking stalls would be added on New Hampshire Street and about five angled stalls would be added on Seventh Street. All the above ground parking is anticipated to be public parking that would be managed by the city, which means it could be metered spaces or could be two-hour free parking.

• In case you are wondering how you get your grocery cart to your car in the below-ground parking garage, the store’s design includes an escalator specifically built for grocery carts. The store would have a standard escalator, and next to it is one that is designed to grasp a grocery cart.

“You can stay with your cart, but you can’t ride in the cart,” Fleming said. “At least I don’t think you can.” (We’ll see about that.)

• The store will have many of the same features as the Queen’s Price Chopper at 151st and Metcalf in Overland Park, Reilly said. That store is twice as large — at 80,000 square feet — but the Lawrence store will be designed in a way to accommodate the same basic features. At 40,000 square feet, the Lawrence Price Chopper will be similar in size to the Dillons store on Massachusetts Street.

This drawing shows a west perspective of a proposed grocery store and apartment building at 700 New Hampshire St.

This drawing shows a west perspective of a proposed grocery store and apartment building at 700 New Hampshire St.

• Among the features the store will have is a drive-thru pharmacy. The drive-thru will be on the south side of the building. The store also will have a sushi bar, a Mongolian-style Asian grill, an American grill, cold sandwiches, a coffee shop, a large indoor dining area and a patio seating area. The store also will have a floral shop, a bakery, a full meat counter and all the grocery items you would expect. Reilly said the store’s produce department is being given special attention. The store will be designed so that the produce department is visible from the street.

“Produce is a real emphasis for us,” Reilly said.

• The project will need to win multiple approvals from City Hall in order to move forward.

“The project is going to need some help,” Fleming said.

The project will have to go through the historic resources review process, since downtown is part of a historic district. The Borders building only dates back to the 1990s, but the site includes an old wall from a livery station that used to occupy the site long ago. Keeping that wall was part of a compromise reached with historic preservationists who objected to the construction of the Borders building in the 1990s.

• City Hall approval of an incentives package will be critical, Fleming said. He said the project will ask for tax increment financing, which is a mechanism that allows the development to receive a rebate on new property and sales taxes generated by the development. Fleming said the TIF is needed to help pay for an estimated $7 million worth of expenses that will be incurred to build the underground parking garage. Fleming, though, said the project is not currently expected to ask for a transportation development district tax. That’s significant because a TDD would impose a special 1 percent sales tax on the grocery store.

“We want to keep the groceries as affordable as possible,” Fleming said. “There already is a concern about how regressive sales taxes are on groceries, so we want to avoid that special tax.”

The project also is expected to ask for about a $2.25 million no-interest or low-interest loan that would be used to equip the grocery store with items such as freezers, shelving and other items needed to make the store functional. The loan would be repaid to the city as long as the grocery store hit certain sales targets.

This drawing shows a northeast perspective of a proposed grocery store and apartment building at 700 New Hampshire St.

This drawing shows a northeast perspective of a proposed grocery store and apartment building at 700 New Hampshire St.

• A key piece of federal assistance also will be needed. The project will apply for federal new market tax credits. Those tax credits will be used to help finance the project, which is expected to have a total private price tag of more than $20 million.

Those tax credits are awarded through a competitive process. If the project were not awarded the tax credits, Fleming said the project would be in jeopardy. The development group should know in about a month whether it has won any tax credits this year. Fleming believes the project stands a good chance of winning tax credits.

“I think the odds are high that we will get the credits, but it is not a simple process,” Fleming said.

He said the fact that the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods are part of a “food desert” should go a long way in securing the tax credits. The food desert designation refers to residents needing to travel a good distance to have access to fresh food. Both the North Lawrence and East Lawrence neighborhoods have been advocating for a downtown grocery store to address the food desert issue.

If approved, this will be the sixth store for Queen’s Price Chopper. It operates stores in Overland Park, Paola, Spring Hill and Bonner Springs.

Reilly said demolishing the Borders building to allow for a larger store to be built is a key part of the plan. He said the company explored using the existing Borders building but didn’t feel comfortable that it would be large enough to act as the full-service grocery store that he believes community members want.

“This will allow us to have the full variety of offerings that will make it a destination for shoppers,” Reilly said. “You want a store that the community can be proud of, and we know the store has to have what the customer wants.”

Reply 20 comments from Rosemary Morris David Holroyd Richard Heckler Jake Davis Kendall Simmons Armen Kurdian Tony Peterson Brett McCabe David Klamet Kevin Kelly

Overland Park-based company to add 100 jobs in downtown Lawrence; chamber takes position on school bond

About 100 new jobs are coming to downtown Lawrence, thanks to people buying stuff on the Internet. No, Amazon hasn’t set up a hub just for the Lawhorn household. Instead, an Overland Park-based company has chosen Lawrence as its first location for an expansion.

Inside Ventures has leased about 7,000 square feet on the ground floor of the former Riverfront Mall building at Sixth and New Hampshire streets. It has a handful of employees already working out of the space, which previously was occupied by Heartland Health. By March, the company hopes to have about 100 employees.

The company makes its living by helping people buy things online. Heaven knows some of us don’t need any help hitting the “buy now” button for many items. But there are some products where buying online can be a bit more complicated. Think insurance, or home security systems, or enrollment in an institution of higher education. Those are three major industries that Inside Ventures works with.

Often companies in those industries don’t have websites with buy now buttons, but rather online users click a button indicating that they would like to learn more or they have a question. The employees at Inside Ventures are the people who follow up on that request for more information.

“We bridge the gap from the digital marketplace to the physical world,” said Ryan Condron, a recruiter for Inside Ventures.

But make no mistake: At the heart of the business is sales. The majority of people who will work at the Lawrence facility will be sales representatives. But Trevor Nohe, president of Inside Ventures, said the company doesn’t want to be painted as a call center that is indiscriminately reaching out to anyone and everyone trying to sell a product. The company doesn’t conduct any cold calls, but rather only reaches out to people who have been online and sought more information.

“Our team is doing the front part of the sale,” Nohe said. “What are they shopping for? What interests them? We provide them information and then we make the warm handoff to the industry professional to complete the sale.”

As for the jobs, they are like many sales jobs. They come with a base salary plus a commission and benefits. Condron said many of the company’s full-time sales positions make about $45,000 a year, with some top earners at the $65,000 mark and above.

Inside Ventures is based in Overland Park and has about 150 employees. Nohe said he chose Lawrence as the spot for the company’s first expansion because he thinks being next to KU will be beneficial. Students learn the company’s high-tech phone systems quickly, The company also offers both full and part-time positions, so the company likes the idea of recruiting students for part-time jobs and them hiring them for full-time positions upon graduation. The decision also may have been guided by the fact Nohe is a KU graduate, with a degree in finance and marketing.

Trevor Nohe, president of Inside Ventures, stands in a training area of the company's new Downtown Lawrence facility.

Trevor Nohe, president of Inside Ventures, stands in a training area of the company's new Downtown Lawrence facility. by Chad Lawhorn

Nohe said the company liked the Riverfront building because of its location in a vibrant downtown, and also because the former mall building could accommodate a quick expansion if one is called for. The company took the old Heartland Health space because it needed minimal work to house the company’s operations. But Nohe said he’s already entered discussion about taking the large unfinished space on the third floor of Riverfront, if the company’s business continues to grow rapidly.

The company has been around since 2011. Nohe — who previously worked in the venture capital industry and as a business consultant with Deloitte — said business has been strong in recent years as more companies have realized it pays to work with a company that specializes in working with online consumers.

“We have a laundry list of additional industries that we think are ripe for our type of marketing service,” Nohe said.


In other news and notes from around town:

• The Lawrence chamber of commerce is throwing its support behind the school district’s $87 million bond issue. The Chamber announced its board of directors has unanimously voted to support the district’s bond issue, which currently is before voters as part of a mail-in ballot that is due on May 2.

The Chamber pointed to the success of the 2013 bond issue that focused on improvements to elementary schools. The proposed bond issue would focus on secondary schools.

Vote Yes signs also have popped up around town. A citizen group supporting the bond issue has formed. Thus far, no formal opposition group has been formed against the bond issue. The bond would increase property taxes by an estimated 2.4 mills, or about $55 on a $200,000 home or about $300 on a $500,000 business.

“The positive effects of education spending appear in indicators ranging from economic development to employment rates, small business starts, productivity, personal income, housing values, social stability, and quality of life,” the chamber’s endorsement read in part.

None

Reply 15 comments from Kendall Simmons David Holroyd Andrew Applegarth Cindy Wallace Steven Guinn Lee Saylor Dorothy Hoyt-Reed

Commercial property that owes city, county $180K in back taxes sells for $1 at auction; east side shopping center in foreclosure

It is like a magic trick: $1 can make more than $180,000 worth of obligations disappear.

At a Douglas County tax auction on Tuesday morning, Jeremiah Johnson bought a piece of industrially zoned property — a little over three acres with an appraised value of just more than $200,000 — for $1. And when Johnson pulled the single dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department representative overseeing the sale, it wiped out $181,924 of past due taxes, interest and special assessments that had piled up on the property.

A pretty neat trick, unless you are the city of Lawrence and Douglas County. Those are the two governments that were owed the back taxes and special assessments. The sale of the property means the previous owners are no longer responsible for the back taxes and special assessments. They are forever lost.

The property is at 2460 Fairfield St., which is a vacant lot behind the Tractor Supply store east of 23rd Street and O’Connell Road. You may remember that the J-W has written about the property before. In December, we reported that an investment group that included Lawrence businessman Doug Compton and Bill Newsome had fallen behind on the property taxes and special assessments on the property.

The property at 2460 Fairfield St. is shown in this undated aerial photograph from the Douglas County Geographic Information Systems Property Viewer.

The property at 2460 Fairfield St. is shown in this undated aerial photograph from the Douglas County Geographic Information Systems Property Viewer.

The development group used special assessments from both the city and the county to finance various pieces of infrastructure for what they hoped would be a thriving commercial development. A special assessment is simply a way that developers finance items such as streets and sewer lines. The government uses its ability to borrow money cheaply to pay the upfront costs of the improvements, and the development group agrees to pay back the money and a modest amount of interest. The money is generally paid back through a special assessment that is added to the annual property tax bill of the property.

The idea is that developers save some money in financing costs, and the government helps spur new development and ultimately will be made financially whole. One intended backstop for government is that if the special assessments aren’t paid, the property can be sold in sheriff’s sale. The proceeds of the sale are used to pay off the special assessments and back taxes. Governments usually take some comfort in the idea that a piece of commercial land that has infrastructure on it should be worth more than any amount of past due special assessments or taxes.

But on Tuesday morning, that was not the case with 2460 Fairfield St. The entire auction — which also included two other unrelated properties — only attracted about six people. Most were there just to watch. When the sheriff’s deputy called for any bids, there were several seconds of silence before Johnson said he would pay a dollar for the property. No one else bid.

In case you are thinking Johnson got the deal-of-the-century, know that there is a catch. While Johnson doesn’t have to pay any of the back taxes or past due special assessments, he does to have pay future taxes and future special assessments. The property has about $190,000 worth of special assessments that will come due in future years.

“It still has a ton of assessments on it,” Johnson said, which is why he said he was only mildly surprised that the property didn’t draw more interest.

As for what Johnson intends to do with the property, he doesn’t know yet. He is the son of Lawrence developer Roger Johnson, who is building a new residential neighborhood across the street. Jeremiah Johnson said it made sense to buy the property because of that proximity. The light industrial zoning on the property would allow for a variety of commercial uses. He said he would love for a grocery store to go on the property, but it likely is too small for that. But some other type of development that would offer some conveniences for the developing neighborhood would be ideal, he said.

As for what’s next for the city and the county, there is not much more to do on this particular piece of property. Government officials may give some thought to how they want to proceed in the future, though. The city or the county could have bought the property — who knows, perhaps for $2 — and then tried to sell the land to recoup some of the past due taxes that way. City Manager Tom Markus brought up that possibility in December, but city commissioners ultimately decided to take their chances that a bidder would emerge for the property.

Local government may be confronted with other such decisions in the future. The are six other lots in and around the unsuccessful development near 23rd and O’Connell. Those six lots owe at least $1.1 million in back taxes and special assessments. That is a rough tally based off of the county’s website, but the actual amount will be significantly higher as interest, penalties and other fees are added into the total.

Those properties have not yet been scheduled for a tax auction, but they will if no one pays the taxes in the near term.

Of course the biggest implication of all this may be how the city offers special benefit district financing in the future. It has been a longtime practice of the city, and many other cities use it too. The city already has tightened its incentive policy to do more to ascertain whether a person seeking an economic development incentive from the city is part of a company that is delinquent on any taxes or special assessments.

As for the original developers in all of this, I didn’t reach out to them today. But we did hear from Compton when we first reported the issue back in December. He noted that no one wanted the development to succeed more than he and the other five original investors. He said they spent millions of dollars of private money on the project, which thus far has only attracted the single Tractor Supply store.

“Our investment group — I was one of six original investors — has supported this commercial project for well over 10 years with millions of dollars of private investment,” Compton said in an email in December. “The City and County partnered with us in infrastructure investment because of the critical location of this project, particularly across the street from the City’s new business park (VenturePark.)”

It will be interesting to watch whether other properties that are part of the development come onto the auction market, and whether they draw more interest from developers. Perhaps the far eastern side is not ready to grow yet. This lot that came up for auction on Tuesday probably was in some ways the least visible of the bunch. Some of the higher-profile sites — one that would be large enough to house a grocery store on — are still yet to come, and may draw more interest.


In other news and notes from around town:

• We may get a read on what the market thinks about eastern Lawrence commercial property soon. The shopping center at northeast corner of 23rd and Harper is scheduled to be sold in a foreclosure auction later this month.

The shopping center that houses the restaurant Set ‘em up Jack’s and other businesses is scheduled to be sold at a Sheriff’s auction on April 20, according to the Douglas County Sheriff’s website. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean the businesses in the shopping center have to close. It may mean they will be getting a new landlord.

A representative with the sheriff’s department confirmed the sale includes both the shopping center at 1800 E. 23rd St., and the smaller commercial building next door that houses a gas station, liquor store and used to house a bank at 2200 Harper Street.

Other information about the foreclosure is a bit sparse. U.S. Bank is the lender seeking to foreclose on the property. The filing does not list how much is still owed on the shopping center and commercial development.

Foreclosure auctions work similar to tax auctions, although it is unlikely you will get this property for a dollar. The bank can make a bid on the property, and often does. To protect its interest, the bank often bids somewhere close to the amount that is owed on the property, but not always.

The filing lists 10 Marketplace Investors as the owner of the property. The Kansas Secretary of State’s office lists that company being owned by a conglomeration of individuals and LLCs primarily from the Kansas City area, and also by a Lawrence company headed by local businessman Stephen Craig.

I’ll try to keep an eye on that auction as well, and will let you know how it turns out.

Reply 8 comments from Kim Watkins David Holroyd Richard Heckler Clara Westphal Town Peterson Andy Craig

New report suggests it may not cost as much to live in Lawrence as we think

This is the time of year when I start playing with Easter egg dye at the house, which causes me to think about rentals — either rental of a carpet cleaning machine, or, occasionally, the rental of an apartment where I would be really hard to find. All this is to say, I’ve got some new information on how much it costs to rent in Lawrence. It may not be as much as you thought.

The folks at ApartmentList.com compile a national report each month that looks at rent rates for thousands of cities across the country. Given that local leaders are spending a fair amount of time — and may soon start spending a fair amount of money — related to affordable housing issues, I thought it might be time to start monitoring rent rates in Lawrence more closely.

The latest report from ApartmentList shows median rents through March. The report basically aggregates online rental listings from across the web and uses them to calculate median rent rates for various communities. It also looks at apartments that have come on the market at least twice in the course of a year, and it looks at the difference in rental rates to gauge how much rents are increasing or declining in a market.

In Lawrence, the report found the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $760 a month. The report calculates average rent rates have increased by only 0.4 percent for the year.

When you look at some other middle America communities that are predominately college towns, Lawrence does OK. Here’s a look at median rent rates for two-bedroom apartments in other communities, plus their year-over-year growth rates:

— Fort Collins, Colo.: $1,260, down 2.9 percent

— Ames, Iowa: $1,070, up 7.6 percent

— Fayetteville, Ark.: $950, up 7.5 percent

— Iowa City: $900, down 3.4 percent

— Manhattan: $820, up 3.2 percent

— College Station, Texas: $800, up 1.1 percent

— Lawrence: $760, up 0.4 percent

— Waco, Texas: $740, up 4.5 percent

— Norman, Okla.: $720, up 3.3 percent

— Stillwater: $700, down 4.2 percent

— Columbia, Mo.: $630, down 2.7 percent

The main takeaways from that list: Ames has discovered a drug that makes people think Iowa is Hawaii; Manhattan’s housing market is under more pressure than Lawrence’s; a two-bedroom apartment in Columbia is a VW van with a curtain; and you would be hard pressed to describe rents in Lawrence as exorbitant.

At least, that’s the situation currently, as portrayed by this one report. Rent rates can change rapidly. It will be more interesting to watch this report over time. But some of what is showing in the Lawrence numbers makes sense. Lawrence has added a lot of apartments in recent years. Many of those new apartments— think the downtown stuff and the stuff near Sixth and Wakarusa — do command rent rates of more than $1,000 for a two-bedroom unit. But it also is reasonable to assume that the influx of new units is putting downward pressure on the rent rates of existing apartments. That might explain why year-over-year rent rates are basically stagnant in Lawrence.

People probably don’t want to hear it — and I’m not necessarily advocating for it — but one way to bring down housing costs in Lawrence is to let the market become saturated.

I used university communities for this comparison because obviously college students change a rental market significantly. But when you look at noncollege communities, Lawrence’s rent rates are still middle of the line — higher than Topeka and Wichita, but lower than the Johnson County communities.

— Overland Park: $1,200, up 3.6 percent

— Olathe: $890, down 0.1 percent

— Kansas City, Kan.: $870, up 3.3 percent

— Topeka: $680, up 3.4 percent

— Wichita: $650, up 1.3 percent

There are, of course, other ways to measure housing affordability. One statistic often cited is how many people pay more than 35 percent of their income for housing costs. The Census tracks that information through its annual American Community Survey. The latest numbers we have are for 2015. So, while we’re on the subject, let’s look at those. Again, compared with other university communities, Lawrence’s numbers don’t necessarily standout.

— College Station: 63 percent of renters pay more than 35 percent of their income on housing.

— Stillwater: 60 percent

— Iowa City: 55 percent

— Ames: 54 percent

— Fort Collins: 51 percent

— Columbia: 50 percent

— Waco: 49 percent

— Lawrence: 46 percent

— Manhattan: 45 percent

— Norman: 43 percent

— Fayetteville: 43 percent

As I’ve noted, these number came from 2015, so they are probably 18 months old at this point. But, they don’t really show Lawrence being an outlier in terms of affordability, at least compared with other college communities.

If you compare Lawrence with other noncollege communities, it does appear that Lawrence is out of line. Some of that, though, is to be expected. Some of the 46 percent of renters in Lawrence who pay more than 35 percent of their income for housing are students who don’t really have any appreciable income. But they also don’t have a housing affordability problem because they are getting their rent subsidized by the Bank of Mom and Dad. Some probably are using student loans to pay for their rent too, which is a different problem for a different day.

Here’s how Lawrence compares with some other Kansas communities:

— Lawrence: 46 percent

— Kansas City, Kan.: 44 percent

— Topeka: 40 percent

— Wichita: 39 percent

— Olathe: 35 percent

— Overland Park: 30 percent

What does all this mean about Lawrence’s affordable housing problem? Is it is as severe as we think it is? I don’t know, and it would be unwise to make any such conclusions off such a small set of numbers. But it is worth remembering that identifying a problem and identifying a cause are not the same. Maybe Lawrence doesn't have a housing problem as much as it has an income problem. Those may be two different types of problems to fix.

The good news is the city is looking to take a more analytic look at Lawrence’s housing market. As we reported earlier this year, the city has sent out a request for proposals for a housing study that will look at both the rental and homeownership markets from a demographic and economic standpoint. The study could cost $40,000 or so. The deadline for the city to receive proposals from consultants interested in conducting the study was last week, so there may be action on this one soon.

Reply 3 comments from Deborah Snyder

Southside garden center to expand; other news and notes along south Iowa Street, including Payless’ future

I’m such a master gardener that I get pretty yellow flowers to come up in my lawn naturally. For those of you who don’t have such luck, I have word of a plant and nursery business that plans to expand.

Earl May Nursery and Garden Center at 3200 Iowa St. has filed plans with City Hall to expand. The store is seeking to add about 1,500 square feet of outdoor retail space to its business, said David DuPont, store manager.

Plans call for the store to convert a driveway area on its south side into a retail area. Dupont said the new space would allow the store to carry a larger selection of annuals, tropicals, trees and pottery.

DuPont said store officials decided to undertake the expansion because business has been good at the Lawrence location.

“We need more room,” he said. “Our business is growing.”

DuPont said if city officials approve the expansion plans relatively quickly, he hopes to have the new retail space in place by mid-May. If approval is slower in coming, DuPont said the expansion likely would have to wait until after the busy spring planting season.

Here are some other news and notes from around south Iowa Street:

• Some of you have noticed construction work is underway at the former site of BarbWire Steakhouse at 2412 Iowa St. Some of you have asked what the new building will be? You must be new to town. It is a new commercial building, so obviously it is a fried chicken restaurant.

We previously reported that the group that has opened the Slim Chickens restaurant near Sixth and Wakarusa also bought the south Iowa location. The leader of that group told me he planned to build a second Slim Chickens at the location, but it was a little unclear how quickly it would happen. He said he had some Slim Chicken plans in Wichita he also was working on, which may take precedence over the second Lawrence location.

Well, it is all I can do to keep up with Lawrence’s fried chicken news, let alone Wichita’s. But whatever the case, the Lawrence restaurant is moving forward.

As for Slim Chickens, chicken fingers, chicken sandwiches, dipping sauces and, importantly, chicken and waffles, are all part of the menu.

• Construction appears to be nearing completion on a new HuHot Mongolian Grill at 25th and Iowa . Crews were doing a bit of exterior work, but there are signs the restaurant will open soon. The restaurant is now hiring, and it also recently received its drinking establishment license from City Hall.

If you have forgotten about HuHot, you are in trouble. You needed to start training weeks ago in order to be able to lift all the food you will put on your plate at this all-you-can-eat establishment.

As we previously reported, the restaurant will go into the old Tuesday Morning space that is just south of Office Depot. The restaurant features a Mongolian grill where you select raw meat, vegetables and noodles, go to a sauce bar to pour a few ladles of sauce on your ingredients, and then take those selections to a grill staffed by a stir-fry chef. You then repeat several more times, drink some water to help control the sweats, then repeat some more.

I should warn you, though, the restaurant probably isn't likely to open right away. The business doesn’t yet have its sign up.

Future site of HuHot Mongolian Grill at 25th and Iowa.

Future site of HuHot Mongolian Grill at 25th and Iowa. by Chad Lawhorn

• One business that does have its sign up and is touting that it is opening soon is Men’s Wearhouse. As we have reported, it is going into the shopping center next to Kohl’s, Bed Bath & Beyond and others.

Nothing really new to report here. It is still a men’s clothing chain, but some of you were having a hard time picturing where the store was locating in Pine Ridge Plaza. This picture should help.

• Word also has come that south Iowa Street has dodged one corporate downsizing, for now. Earlier this week, Payless Shoesource announced it was filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy and would close about 400 stores as part of its reorganization. On Wednesday, the company released the list of stores it would close. Lawrence’s Payless store at 3231 Iowa St. is not among those that will close.

The company is closing four stores in Kansas: Great Bend, Liberal, Emporia and Hutchinson. The company is closing a dozen stores in Missouri, including in Independence, Grandview and Belton.

There are many people in Lawrence watching the Payless situation closely because the company is based in Topeka. Many of the company’s executives live in Lawrence.

The Payless situation is a reminder that not all is well in the retail world, and that extends to south Iowa Street. We reported last month on JCPenney’s announcement to close the Lawrence store later this year. (I looked today, and the store still does not have the “going out of business” signs and other such markings of a liquidation sale yet.) The former Hastings bookstore location at 23rd and Iowa also is vacant. The JCPenney site is about 80,000 square feet. The Hastings site has about 32,000 square feet, according to a for lease sign at the property. I’ve begun checking around for any speculation about what may come to the sites. If I hear anything interesting, I'll let you know.

Reply 5 comments from David Holroyd Michael Dennis Clara Westphal Floyd Craig

A west Lawrence library branch? Not quite, but library partners with westside business to increase service

Dietitians tell me to make smart choices at the grocery store (which I assume means buy the value size Doritos.) The meat aisle urges me to buy Smart Chicken. (The smartest chicken is a ribeye steak.) And now shoppers at the Hy-Vee on Sixth Street may notice something called a “SmartLocker.” No, it is not a place to keep the chocolate away from my wife. Instead, it is a significant new way for the library to provide service to west Lawrence.

The Lawrence Public Library and the Hy-Vee store at 4000 W. Sixth St. have partnered to install the first smart book locker in the city. The concept is simple enough: People go to the Lawrence Public Library’s online catalog and choose a book, DVD or other such material that they want to check out. They click a tab that says they would like the item to be delivered to the Hy-Vee SmartLocker. In a couple of days or so — depending on the availability of the item — they will receive an email notifying them that the item is ready to be picked up. To retrieve the book, users simply swipe their library card at the locker, and the appropriate door opens.

Courtesy: Lawrence Public Library

Courtesy: Lawrence Public Library by Chad Lawhorn

The long and the short of it is, the new device should save west Lawrence residents several trips to the downtown library.

When the library won voter approval in 2010 for an $18 million expansion of its downtown facility, there was some discussion about why the library wouldn’t pursue a west Lawrence branch instead. Well, this isn’t exactly that, but library officials say they’ve heard the message about adding convenience.

“Expanding our outreach and making library services more convenient to everyone in Lawrence is an important part of our current strategic plan,” Library Director Brad Allen said in a press release.

The library does hope to add more SmartLockers in other parts of the city. But there are financial considerations. Kathleen Morgan, the development director at the library, told me each locker costs about $22,000 to buy and install.

For the Hy-Vee project, the library received a grant from the U.S. Bank Foundation to help cover the costs. Library leaders said they are actively looking for grants and partners to expand the program to other parts of Lawrence. Morgan said having one in places like eastern Lawrence, North Lawrence and south Lawrence would be a goal. Future lockers could be located in other retail businesses or could be located in city recreation centers or other publicly owned facilities.

One other issue that the library will have to monitor is capacity, she said. Each locker contains 34 compartments that each can hold multiple books and DVDs. The library has not done any promotion of the service, but it has made it available to people who happen to stumble upon the service online. Already, Morgan said, about half the compartments are full on a regular basis.

That’s an issue that libraries who use the system run into. Regionally, both the Topeka and Olathe libraries use the system.

“The biggest problem we hear from other libraries is that people love it and there sometimes aren’t enough compartments to deal with the demand,” Morgan said. “We think it is going to be super popular here.”

Reply 1 comment from Eddie Muñoz

An update on Menards’ plans for local distribution center; Lawrence manufacturer expanding, but in Shawnee

There was some thought that a Trump victory in the presidential election would lead to a positive business development for Lawrence. No, the rumor that Vladimir Putin was going to set up a knock-off Jayhawk Beanie Baby operation in town isn’t true. Instead, there was some hope that the election result would spur Menards to restart its plans to build a 100-job distribution and manufacturing plant at VenturePark.

Thus far, that has not been the case. A Lawrence chamber of commerce official told me he remains in contact with Menards, but the company hasn’t said anything that gives anybody a clue as to whether the company plans to start the Lawrence project or whether it has been scrapped.

“There is nothing at this point to say they are a definite go at any point in the future,” Steve Kelly, vice president of economic development for The Chamber, said.

In case you have forgotten, Menards received City Commission approval in January 2016 to build a plan that would manufacture and distribute trusses, stone blocks and other products on about 90 acres of property at VenturePark. The project would employ 100 to 150 people. The city authorized about $2.3 million in incentives for the project.

But by May, the project had been put on indefinite hold. In October, local economic development officials said they still didn’t know the future of the project, but they speculated that Menards was waiting to see the outcome of the presidential election before deciding whether to invest in new projects. There was an assumption the company was rooting for a Trump victory, given that Menards is owned by a family that is well-documented as being politically conservative. And indeed, a Trump victory generally has spurred activity in several financial and business markets. (Sales of Russian translation books have soared, for example.)

Kelly said there are some signs that the company may be getting closer to restarting projects. He noted that Menards pretty much put on hold all new projects that hadn’t yet started in 2016. He has seen some reports of some new store projects in other markets moving forward in 2017. So, that may be a good sign for the Lawrence project, but chamber officials are hesitant to read too much into anything.

“The conversations we have had have been positive, but I can’t tell you that we have a definite go-ahead,” Kelly said.

We may be entering an interesting time for the project. I thought to ask for an update because the city, as we have reported, is considering a new economic development incentives program to jump start development at VenturePark, which is on the east edge of town where the Farmland fertilizer plant used to be. The Menards project was scheduled to be the first development in the park, which opened in October 2014. More than two years later, the park is still seeking its first tenant.

Menards has selected a 90-acre site at VenturePark for its project, but it has not yet purchased the site. That brings up the question of whether the city is going to include that 90-acre site in the new incentive program, which would offer free land and other incentives to companies wanting to build in VenturePark. In other words, is the city confident enough that Menards is going to happen that it will keep that piece of property in reserve?

Kelly said he thinks the city would have to seriously consider allowing someone else to build on the property.

“Certainly we would like Menards to come through,” Kelly said. “But if this program stimulates interest and there is a developer who wants to move on a quicker timeline, I think that certainly would be considered by the city. The city’s interest is to get things going.”

• I also have some news on that front. As we have detailed, the City Commission tonight will consider a program that essentially would allow the city to offer free land at VenturePark and put tax abatement requests for VenturePark and East Hills Business Park projects on fast-track approval. Both of those ideas are a new level of aggressiveness for City Hall.

But in talking with Kelly, it is clear the city actually may take the aggressiveness level a step further. That’s because the new policy contemplates offering those types of incentives to a company who wants to construct an industrial building “on speculation.” That means the company would be constructing the building without having a tenant in hand. Instead, the hope is the construction of the building would lure a tenant to the property.

That means the city could find itself offering free land and a tax abatement to a company that doesn’t yet know how many or what type of jobs may be located in the building. Such deals happen in other communities, but they aren’t common in Lawrence. Whether that draws objections from some community members remains to be seen.

“I think at a base level that probably is something people will have to get comfortable with,” Kelly said. “When you are talking about spec development, there is no guarantee who the tenant will be.”

But Kelly — who before joining the Lawrence chamber recently was a longtime economic development professional for the state — said Lawrence needs to consider the value of having some spec buildings available in the community.

He said companies are currently less interested in constructing a building from scratch. Often they want a building they can move into and make minor modifications to suit their business needs. Kelly said companies are declining to look at Lawrence because there isn’t currently any sizable space— think 75,000 square feet and up — available.

But Lawrence has tried spec buildings in the past with mixed results. An approximately 65,000 square-foot speculation building was constructed in East Hills Business Park several years ago — it is the one that backs up to Kansas Highway 10 right about where the highway curves. The building sat empty for several years until a KU entity purchased the space for a design studio in 2009. That wasn’t the outcome economic development leaders had in mind when they started the project.

Kelly said building the right type of space is important, but he thinks there are companies experienced in the spec building industry that will give Lawrence a look, especially if the city can offer some incentives. He noted that spec buildings have played a significant role in attracting new companies to the intermodal rail facility in Edgerton.

And, while he’s not ready to wave a red flag, Kelly did say that it is important that VenturePark gets its first tenant. Selling a park that is empty is harder than selling a park that has a tenant.

“I don’t know that there is a magic number that if the park sits empty for ‘x’ period of time that it is cursed,” Kelly said. “I prefer to look at this as being proactive and getting something going. Once there is activity on the site, I think that could take the lid off and we could see more activity. There is just this human quality that makes it hard to believe something is actually happening until people see it happening.”

• On more piece of news on the economic development front. A Lawrence company is expanding and adding 60 jobs to its workforce, but it is doing so in Shawnee.

EntreMatic — the company more commonly thought of as Amarr Garage Doors — has signed a deal to open a production facility in the WestLink Business Center in Shawnee. It is leasing about 70,000 square feet of space in the Johnson County business park.

EntreMatic has about 800 employees at its Lawrence plant in the East Hills Business Park. It makes garage doors that are sold across the globe.

The company began a search for an expansion site last fall. Among its criteria for a site was one that was close to its Lawrence production plant, the company said in a statement.

That would lead you to believe that the company was open to expanding in Lawrence, but simply couldn’t find a facility to meet their needs. The Amarr plant is next door to the vacant VenturePark industrial area.

Kelly said his reading of the situation is that Entrematic decided it needed space it could move into immediately, rather than take the time to build new space.

“We obviously would really like to have those type of expansion opportunities happen here,” Kelly said. “I think that project is another thing that is spurring some additional interest (in the incentives program) and the need to be more proactive.”

Amarr has begun hiring for the new plant, which will produce several types of garage doors and assemble garage door hardware. The facility is expected to open this month.

Reply 10 comments from Rick Masters David Holroyd Richard Heckler Lesblevins Clara Westphal Floyd Craig

Douglas County topping a list of new Census population numbers; a look at the handful of Kansas counties that actually are growing

Maybe the folks building all those apartments in Lawrence aren’t insane after all. Perhaps the same goes for retailers wanting to build new stores along south Iowa Street too. Since 2010, Douglas County has added nearly 9,000 residents, according to a new Census report. That’s a growth rate that is even higher than Johnson County.

Since the 2010 Census, Douglas County has added 8,614 residents. As of July 1, 2016, Douglas County had 119,440 people. Since the 2010 Census, Douglas County’s population has grown by 7.7 percent. Of all the urban counties in Kansas, Douglas County has the highest population growth rate this decade. It beat out Johnson County, which had a 7.4 percent growth rate.

Those are the type of growth numbers that catch the attention of businesses and builders. They are even more noticeable given the fact that there are only a handful of counties in Kansas that are posting any population gains.

According to the recently released annual county population estimates produced by the Census Bureau, only 23 of Kansas’ 105 counties have added population this decade. Many of them have just barely added population. When you look at the counties that have added population at a rate of 1 percent or more, there are only 14 counties.

Those numbers may help explain some of the building, and some of the interest retailers have expressed in the city in recent years. Heck, it may even help explain the explosion of chicken restaurants. Take a fast food chicken chain, for example. The chain decides it wants to enter the Kansas City market. Chains have figured out that it is more efficient to operate multiple stores in a region rather than one. So, a chain may come to the region for Kansas City, but it needs to open additional stores near the Kansas City market to maximize efficiency. When they turn their attention to Kansas' side of the state line, there simply aren’t very many counties that are posting positive demographics.

In fact, the number posting positive numbers is growing smaller. As I reported, there are only 23 counties in the state that have posted positive population growth numbers this decade. Back in 2010 when the Census was released, there were 28 counties that posted population gains. Not good news for the state, but Lawrence is likely standing out even more these days.

What’s more, the report indicates Douglas County has good momentum currently. In 2016, Douglas County grew by 1.2 percent, or an estimated 1,485 people. Again, the 1.2 percent growth rate was the highest of any urban county in the state.

Douglas County can’t quite make the claim to be the fastest-growing county in the state. (I know, some Lawrence residents don’t want to make that claim anyway.) What county is besting Douglas County? If you are thinking it may be related to the other major university community in the state — Manhattan — you are correct, but only partially.

Douglas County is growing better than Riley County, home to K-State. In fact, Douglas County is growing quite a bit better. Since 2010, Riley County’s growth rate is 3.1 percent, less than half of Douglas County’s. Riley County’s population took a particular hit in 2016. It declined by almost 2,000 residents.

But part of Manhattan also is located in Pottawatomie County. Pottawatomie only has about 24,000 residents, but it is the fastest growing county in the state right now. In 2016, it grew by 2 percent, and since 2010 it has grown by 9.5 percent.

Of course, this means one thing for Pottawatomie: It should get ready for more fried chicken.

Here’s a look at some other numbers from the report. First, a look at the counties that surround Douglas County, with their 2016 population and their growth rate for the decade

• Franklin: 25,560, up 1 person from 2015; since 2010 down 1.6 percent

• Jefferson: 18,897, up 11 people from 2015: since 2010 down 1.2 percent

• Johnson: 584,451 up 5,693 people from 2015; since 2010 up 7.4 percent

• Leavenworth: 80,204 up 997 people from 2015; since 2010 up 5.2 percent

• Osage: 15,843 down 69 people from 2015; since 2010 down 2.7 percent

• Shawnee: 178,146 down 395 people from 2015; since 2010 up 0.1 percent

I mentioned earlier that there are only 14 counties that have posted population growth of 1 percent or greater this decade. Here’s that list.

• Pottawatomie: up 9.5 percent

• Douglas: up 7.7 percent

• Johnson: up 7.4 percent

• Leavenworth: up 5.2 percent

• Wyandotte: up 4 percent

• Greeley: up 3.9 percent

• Geary: up 3.5 percent

• Riley: up 3.1 percent

• Logan: up 2.7 percent

• Sedgwick: up 2.7 percent

• Scott: up 1.9 percent

• Butler: up 1.7 percent

• Ellis: up 1.5 percent

• Rawlins: up 1.1 percent

It may not be entirely accurate to say that Douglas County is booming. But Lawrence in the last two years has set new building permit records. I hold off on labeling it a boom because in the 1990s when growth was really humming, Lawrence was growing closer to 2 percent per year. We're not to those levels. But one similarity between then and now is that in the 1990s, Douglas County often was at the top or near the top of the fastest growing places in the state.

For the time being, we are again. When the decade ends in a short three years, it will be interesting to see what Lawrence has to show for it.

Reply 1 comment from Carol Bowen

Home prices up, home construction up, and other signs that Lawrence homebuilding is on the rebound; another Lawrence ranking

The sounds of hammers, saws and then the buying of a new home: As I can attest, that indeed can be the order of events of a home improvement project gone wrong. But these days it also is a description of the Lawrence real estate market. A pair of new reports show new home construction and new home buying have surged in early 2017.

First, let’s start with the home buying report. The Lawrence Board of Realtors reports that home sales in February were up 23 percent compared with February 2016. For the year, home sales in Lawrence are up 25 percent, totaling 115 homes sold.

Perhaps the more important number, though, is that the sale of newly constructed homes totaled 11 in February. That’s up from just two in February 2016. For the year, new home sales stand at 18 homes. For comparison, local builders didn’t sell their 18th new home of 2016 until April of last year.

Builders evidently are taking notice. The city of Lawrence also has released its February building permit report. It shows that 28 new single-family or duplex homes received building permits in February. That’s the highest February total this decade. For the year, the city has issued 41 permits for single-family or duplex homes. The 41 permits make up the best two-month start to a year in recent memory, according to city records.

It is still a small sample size, but the surge in new home construction and new home sales will be a development to keep an eye on. The city’s real estate market has been posting steady gains the last several years, but it mostly has been fueled by the sale of existing homes. For whatever reason, the improving real estate market had not spurred Lawrence home builders to increase their building activity significantly. We’ll have to wait and see whether 2017 will be different, but early indications are that it will be. New home construction once was a major supplier of local jobs in Lawrence, but the number of companies in that business has dwindled significantly since the housing bubble burst at the end of the last decade.

One reason buyers may be turning to new homes is price. Two things are happening in the Lawrence real estate market: The prices of existing homes are increasing significantly, and the prices of newly constructed homes are coming down. Thus far in 2017, the median selling price of an existing home is $189,900. The median selling price of a newly constructed home is $298,700. That is a price difference of about $109,000. For all of 2016, the median price difference between existing and new homes was about $147,000.

Home prices in general will be a key figure to watch in 2017. Just how high will they go? Although the sample size is still small, the 2017 median price of $189,900 is eye-catching. For all of 2016, the median selling price was $178,000. That’s a 6.6 percent increase, and that’s before the real estate market has hit its busiest point of the year, which generally is the spring and early summer.

“It really is a seller’s market, and now is the time to list if you are thinking of moving,” Mark Hess, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors, said in a statement.

The prices are one sign of it being seller’s market. The other is the amount of homes available on the market. A low supply of homes on the market has been a story for more than a year in the Lawrence real estate market. February’s report shows the number of active listings dipped to 212 homes, down from 255 at the same time in 2016 and down from 325 during the same period in 2015. Thus far in 2017, the median number of days a home sits on the market before it sells is 40, down from 53 during the same time period a year ago.

Here’s a look at some other statistics from the reports:

— The total dollar value of homes sold thus far in 2017 is $24.3 million, up from about $18.4 million during the same period a year ago.

— The total dollar value of building permits issued in the city thus far in 2017 is $22.6 million, down from $36.2 million during the same period a year ago. While single-family home construction is up, the amount of apartment construction in 2017 is down from a year ago. The amount of new commercial construction permits — the construction of new business buildings and such — also is down thus far in 2017.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Maybe some of the folks buying a new home in Lawrence are recent college graduates who have decided to stick around. A new report ranks Lawrence as one of the best college towns to live in after graduation.

The website RentCollegePads.com has ranked Lawrence as the 18th best college town to live in post-graduation. This report kept its analysis simple. It looked at three factors: the unemployment rate for people 25 to 29 years old; the median salary of someone with a bachelor’s degree and the percentage of the 25-34-year-old population with a bachelor’s degree.

As with all of these rankings, the results are really subjective, but it is interesting to look at some of the data, such as earnings and unemployment data. Here’s a look at Lawrence and some selected other cities that made the top 20. The salary is the median salary for people with a bachelor’s degree. The unemployment rate is the jobless rate for people 25-29 years old.

— No. 18 Lawrence: median salary, $37,607; jobless rate, 4.8 percent

— No. 15 Fayetteville, Ark.: median salary, $45,707; jobless rate, 5.6 percent

— No. 12 Columbia, Mo.: median salary, $32,594; jobless rate, 4.6 percent

— No. 6 College Station, Texas: median salary, $40,736; jobless rate 4.5 percent

— No. 3 Iowa City: median salary, $35,693; jobless rate 1.8 percent

— No. 2 Bowling Green, Ohio: median salary $36,869; jobless rate 1.5 percent

— No. 1 West Chester, Pa.: median salary $49,079; jobless rate 2.9 percent

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Old church with new name to build multimillion dollar project in southwest Lawrence

A big new church at the Kasold curve in southwest Lawrence makes sense. If you have ever been a white-knuckled passenger in one of my family vehicles as it speeds around that big curve at 31st and Kasold, you would understand why. Regardless, look for construction to soon begin on a multimillion dollar church facility.

The Lawrence Wesleyan Church has filed plans with City Hall to build a new church on property just south of 31st Street where it turns into Kasold Drive. Plans call for a $5 million church building that will feature a sanctuary that can seat about 400 people.

Courtesy: Lawrence Wesleyan Church

Courtesy: Lawrence Wesleyan Church by Chad Lawhorn

But the big new building is only part of the news, said Elizabeth Scheib, connection and communications director for the church. The church is also changing its name. In early May the 80-year old Lawrence church will change its name to Connect Church.

“We have been around here for 80 years, but for a number of years the question we often here is “What is a Wesleyan?” Scheib said.

Wesleyan is a Christian denomination named after John Wesley, who is more commonly associated with the United Methodist denomination. The Wesleyan denomination is smaller and less well known than many of the other large Protestant denominations. Scheib said that played a role in the pending name change.

“We cherish our denomination, but most people don’t come to Lawrence looking for a Wesleyan Church,” Scheib said. They come to Lawrence looking for a place to connect, and hopefully they will consider us.”

The church will remain a part of the The Wesleyan Church denomination.

As for the building, the church is planning for growth. The new building will feature a sanctuary that is about double the size of the church’s current facility at 3705 Clinton Parkway. In addition, the new facility will feature a youth area, complete with a gaming area on a mezzanine level, a children’s area, a kitchen, and a foyer area that will double as meeting space for the church and other community organizations that use the church as a base of operations.

Also important to note is that the project includes a large amount of ground for future expansion. As we previously have reported, the church bought essentially all the vacant farmland that was just south of the Kasold curve. The church sold a good part of that land to a development group led by John McGrew, who has been building duplexes and other housing on the site. Scheib, though, said the church retained 7 acres for its project.

“There is plenty of room to expand, when need be,” she said.

The plans filed with the city show an athletic field — like a soccer field — being located on the open space behind the church. But Scheib said those plans are tentative. She said church leaders are exploring several options, including a sports field, a disc golf course or even a playground that could be made available to the neighborhood.

“We want to be a good neighbor,” she said. “We are really dedicated to serving the community.”

The church has a congregation of about 700 and growing, Scheib said. For the past 30 years, Nate Rovenstine, along with his wife, Janet, have served as the lead pastor of the church.

Look for construction to begin on the church in early May. The church will host a groundbreaking on May 7, at which point the name of the church also will be officially changed to Connect Church. The new church building is expected to open in the spring or summer of 2018. In the meantime, the church will continue to meet at is building at 3705 Clinton Parkway. Scheib said the church has put that building on the market, so the church is prepared to move into temporary space if it is sold prior to the completion of the new building. I’ll keep an eye on that spot as well. It is a fairly large two-story building that used to be commercial space, and probably could be converted back to that use. It previously housed the Raintree Montessori School, and before that it served as the district offices for Lawrence Public Schools.

Reply 17 comments from Dorothy Hoyt-Reed Brandon Devlin Sean Rudisel Bob Smith Laura Wilson Fred Whitehead Jr. Chuck Wehner Clara Westphal Bill McGovern Alex Landazuri and 4 others

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