Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
My scorecard and I have long thought the “mini” in minigolf has been a misnomer. (You’re telling me you’ve never taken a score of 12 strokes and three stitches on the windmill hole?) Regardless, the idea of putt-putt golf in Lawrence is one that has long intrigued but has been elusive. A local business, though, is now testing the market.
Epic Family Fun Center in the Malls Shopping Center at 23rd and Louisiana has added indoor minigolf to its offerings. I should caution you, though; it is a bit rudimentary. The only open clown’s mouth will be that of your playing partner, and I felt mildly ridiculous with my eye patch and parrot because there is no pirates’ cove either. Instead, the course is a portable one like you would find at school carnivals and other such functions.
But the course does have a full 18 holes, and it allows you to test your putting skills.
“It is a lot more difficult than it looks,” said Travis Jacobsen, an owner of the fun center.
Perhaps just as importantly, it is allowing the owners of Epic to test the market’s appetite for minigolf.
“We did have minigolf in in our initial plans, but then we decided we didn’t have the funding to do it right away,” Jacobsen said.
He said Epic recently looked at building a full-scale miniature golf course on a vacant lot next to their building in the The Malls Shopping Center. But he said he quickly learned that the city was going to require some zoning changes for the shopping center, and it appeared that was going to make the project more complex than what Epic was looking to undertake.
Instead, the company decided to go with the temporary indoor course. The course is located in a party room area of the business, which means that the course is only open Monday through Thursday. The party rooms are still used for birthday parties and such Friday through Sunday.
Rates are $4.25 for adults, $3.50 for kids 5 through 12, and $2 for kids 4 and under.
Jacobsen said that depending on demand, the company may revive ideas of building a full scale miniature golf course. Jacobsen said the company envisions an expansion of the fun center business in the next few years, and he said that would be a time when the addition of minigolf could be undertaken.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Just like sometimes I forget to write down a stroke on my scorecard, some of you have forgotten what is going into the location that used to house a Kwik Shop a bit east of 23rd and Iowa. As we have reported, it will be Qdoba Mexican Grill.
I do have a bit of an update on that project. As you can see by driving by the site, construction work is well underway. Now, new plans have been filed at City Hall that show the building will have a bit of a funky element to it.
City officials have approved multiple “works of art” to be permanently installed on the new Qdoba building at 1714 W. 23rd St. One side the building will have three art panels — two 55 square-foot panels and one 110 square-foot panel — while both the east and west walls of the building will have an approximately 80 square-foot panel. In addition, there will be a sixth piece of art that won’t really be an art panel, but rather will be a large graphic applied to the inside of one of the windows. Some of the art will be visible from 23rd Street, but I think most of it is designed to be seen by people using the store’s drive-thru.
What will the art be of? Perhaps that super large burrito you dream about? Or perhaps they could just hang up my white shirt after I tackle a meal that involves both green and red chili sauce. It kind of looks like modern art.
No, the plans don’t call for that. I’ll do my best to describe the art, and then you can look at renderings below to see how well I did. One large window piece involves a portrait of what looks like a mean cat, and a man who is perhaps defending himself by throwing his hip at the cat. Another panel involves three hands with palms facing out, a mermaid and other imagery. The others, well, just look for yourself. There’s a reason why they say a picture is worth a thousand words.
UPDATE: I am hearing some word from people knowledgeable about the project that the Qdoba likely will open by October.
No need to cover the furniture or get out the full body smock, but I am planning on painting by numbers. There are new Census numbers out that paint a picture of Douglas County’s diversity. Or perhaps better put, Douglas County’s lack of racial diversity.
It has been the case for a long time that Lawrence doesn’t have a lot of racial diversity, but the new estimates from the Census Bureau — which are for 2015 — do show racial minorities in the county are growing. Let’s take a look at some key findings.
• When it comes to minority racial populations, Asians are now at the top of the list in Douglas County. In other words, the Asian population is now larger than the black or American Indian population, which historically have been two of the larger minority populations in Lawrence.
That wasn’t the case in the 2010 census. Black members of the community stood at about 4,500 while Asians numbered about 4,100. But in the five years since, the Asian community has grown by nearly 35 percent. Numbers of black residents also are growing significantly, by about 20 percent.
Lawrence long has had a larger than normal American Indian community, in part, due to Haskell Indian Nations University, but those numbers are shrinking. From 2010 to 2015, the American Indian population declined by 865 people, a drop of about 27 percent.
• Numbers of some minority groups may be growing, but they still aren’t very large in Douglas County. Asians make up 4.7 percent of Douglas County’s population. That’s up from 3.7 percent in 2010. Blacks make up 4.6, compared to 4 percent in 2010, and American Indians dropped a tenth of a point to 2.7 percent of the Douglas County population.
• Black residents are less prevalent in Douglas County than any of the other five large Kansas counties. Here’s a look at some comparisons:
— Black population: Douglas: 4.6 percent of population; Johnson: 5 percent; Riley: 7 percent; Shawnee: 8.8 percent; Sedgwick: 9.5 percent; Wyandotte: 24 percent.
— Asian population: Douglas: 4.7 percent of population; Shawnee: 1.4 percent Wyandotte: 4.1 percent; Sedgwick: 4.5 percent; Johnson: 4.7 percent; Riley: 4.8 percent.
— American Indian: Douglas: 2.7 percent of population; Shawnee: 1.4 percent; Wyandotte: 1.3 percent; Sedgwick 1.3 percent; Johnson 0.4 percent.
• Hispanics are not considered a race, but rather that is a term used to identify a person’s heritage. In other words, you can be black and be Hispanic, you can be white and be Hispanic and so forth. Hispanics are less prevalent in Douglas County than any of the other five large counties in Kansas. Here’s a look:
— Douglas: 6 percent of total population
— Johnson: 7.4 percent of total population
— Riley: 8.3 percent of total population
— Shawnee: 11.9 percent of total population
— Sedgwick: 14.1 percent of total population
— Wyandotte: 27.7 percent of total population
But the trend may be changing in Lawrence. Douglas County had the second highest growth rate in Hispanic population of any of the six big counties. Keep in mind that Douglas County’s Hispanic population is small — about 7,100 people — so it is always easier to have a higher growth rate when you are trying to grow a small number. But, still, it is worth noting. Here’s a look:
— Douglas: 25.7 percent growth rate since 2010
— Riley: 35 percent growth rate since 2010
— Sedgwick: 11.7 percent growth rate since 2010
— Johnson: 10.9 percent growth rate since 2010
— Shawnee: 10.4 percent growth rate since 2010
— Wyandotte: 8.7 percent growth rate since 2010
As I mentioned earlier, none of these numbers is particularly surprising for people who follow Douglas County demographics. (It is a hobby I took up when watching growing grass became too exhilarating.) Douglas County long has been lacking in some racial diversity — at least by urban county standards. There are certainly many rural Kansas counties far less diverse. Cheyenne County, for instance, has four black residents, according to the Census Bureau, out of about 2,600 total residents. Several other Kansas counties count their minority populations in single digits.
Douglas County’s numbers stand out most in terms of the relatively small black community. It is important to note that I’m not drawing any conclusions about the reasons behind Lawrence’s racial make-up. I’m not qualified to do that, and racial issues can be very tough to discuss. But it is worth noting that Lawrence once was a very important community for black Americans during and following the Civil War. For whatever reason, that doesn’t seem to have stuck.
I report the Census numbers every few years because it is important to understand our community, and it seems like the numbers could produce some meaningful conversations.
Speaking of numbers, the Census Bureau also has released a lot of data on the age of Douglas County’s population. I’m going through that data too, but I’ll save it for later this week. I’m being threatened with the full-body smock if I spout any more statistics today.
March 2015 fire ultimately causes downtown restaurant to close its doors; downtown beer venture closed as well
Even when I take a quick break from the office to stroll down Massachusetts Street, I get salsa on my tie. That’s how many Mexican restaurants there are in downtown. Sandwich crumbs in my whiskers? Absolutely. Sandwich shops are everywhere. There’s almost no shortage of any food type in downtown, except one: barbecue. Downtown’s lone barbecue restaurant has closed.
Bigg’s on Mass has closed its doors at 719 Massachusetts St. for good, owner Doug Holiday told me. Although I think you can get some barbecue dishes at a few locations downtown, Bigg’s was the only truly BBQ-based restaurant in downtown, I believe. I don’t know about you, but that makes me nervous. In Kansas, where I sometimes think cattle outnumber people, I consider BBQ restaurants self-defense.
But more seriously, the closing does have a sad element to it. Bigg’s faced challenges almost from the beginning. In March 2015 — just four months after the restaurant opened — a fire in the smoker portion of the kitchen caused major damage to Bigg’s, to the Ladybird Diner next door and to other adjacent offices. Bigg’s ended up being closed for 11 months.
“It was just hard to recover from that,” Holiday said. “The burden had just become too much. The insurance company really didn’t compensate me the way I thought it should.”
But he said the downtown closing won’t affect his other two restaurants in Lawrence — the original location at 2429 Iowa St., and Burgers by Biggs near Sixth and Wakarusa. Holiday said the downtown location was its own separate corporation.
Holiday, who closed the downtown restaurant on Thursday, said he’ll now focus on the remaining two restaurants, where he plans to add a few menu items, and boost the company’s catering business.
No word yet on any new business that may occupy the prime Massachusetts Street space, which previously housed Buffalo Bob’s Smokehouse for many years.
In other news and notes from around town:
• One thing there definitely is not a shortage of in downtown Lawrence is beer. But it is beginning to look like one of the businesses that specializes in craft beers has closed down. Ted’s Taphouse at 1004 Massachusetts St. announced earlier this month that it was “temporarily closed for mental repairs.” But now there is a "for lease" sign in the window of the business.
The restaurant was in a space that has long been occupied by the Nguyen family, who has operated a variety of establishments in the location near 10th and Massachusetts. Angler’s Seafood House and Wild Pho are a couple of the more recent ones, and The Orient was a longtime tenant of the space.
Owner Ted Nguyen’s mother had been in the downtown restaurant business continuously in one establishment or another since 1981, I reported in an earlier article. She retired in late 2014, and now it appears we’ll need to wait and see whether that downtown restaurant family has ended for good.
It looks like the restaurant was changing all the way up until the end. At some point, the restaurant had converted the front part of the building into a video arcade. No word on its future.
Another brewery planned for East Lawrence; new gallery and small scale retail also proposed as part of project
As if that beer can replica of the Egyptian pyramids in your garage wasn’t enough, there is now another sign that Lawrence is going crazy over beer. Plans have been filed for a new East Lawrence microbrewery that essentially would be next door to another microbrewery that is in the planning stages.
Look for the historic Standard Oil property at Ninth and Pennsylvania streets to be transformed into an area that houses a microbrewery and restaurant that is attached to gallery space and an arts-oriented retail shop. Plans have been filed at City Hall for an approximately 2,200 square-foot modern building to be constructed in between the old brick Standard Oil buildings that used to serve as a bulk oil and gasoline distribution site in the early and mid 1900s.
Scott Trettel of Lawrence-based Trettel Design Build Inc. has owned the property for about five years, and primarily bought it to house the offices of his design firm and construction company.
“I’ve realized that the social dynamic of that property seems to be changing,” said Trettel, who will continue to keep his offices in the site's main building.
The property is part of the Warehouse Arts District. At the opposite end of the block from the Standard Oil site is the popular Cider Gallery. In between the two sites, plans have been filed for a brewery and restaurant to occupy the ground floor of one of the other old industrial buildings — a former poultry processing facility — and apartments would be built above the brewery space. Other former industrial buildings in the district already are filling up with office users, and plans for a new bistro/bar on the northern end of Pennsylvania Street are progressing.
Trettel, who plans to be the owner and operator of the microbrewery and the gallery space, said the idea of having two breweries in the same block doesn’t concern him.
“Bringing a general energy of revitalization to that area will be great for Lawrence,” Trettel said. “If you look at Lawrence’s size and the number of breweries it has, I think Lawrence can handle it without becoming an over-saturated market.”
The two East Lawrence breweries are in addition to plans for a brewery operation along east 23rd Street. As we have reported, a Kansas City area businessman plans to convert the old Lawrence Lumber location at 706 E. 23rd St. into a brewery and food truck hub. (And those are in addition to my buddy’s microbrewery in his basement, which we will begin partaking in again once the federal officials remove the biohazard tape.)
Of course, there are breweries in place today. Henry T’s brews some of its own beer under the brand name Yankee Tank Brewing, and the two largest breweries in the city are 23rd Street Brewery and Free State Brewing Company, which is the company that got the whole craft brewing movement going in Kansas and is highly regarded nationally in the industry.
That sure seems like a lot of breweries in Lawrence, but perhaps the town is about to cross a threshold where it becomes a craft brewery destination. Already downtown Lawrence becomes a destination for craft beer aficionados each spring with the Kansas Craft Brewers Exposition.
As for the type of brewery that Trettel plans to operate, he said it will be relatively small. He doesn’t plan to have an operation that sells beer at multiple locations, but rather wants to brew just enough beer to serve the restaurant’s needs. The brewery, though, should be a sight to see. Trettel is designing the project so the beer making process is highly visible to restaurant patrons. The smaller of the two existing buildings on the site will be used as part of the brewery operations. It will house a grain mill and grain pump that will feed grain into the main brewery area, which will be housed in a new addition onto the small building. The new addition and the grain mill will be visible to restaurant patrons.
The layout of the site also is expected to create two large courtyards for the restaurant. The southern courtyard along Ninth Street will have lots of room for outdoor dining, while the northern courtyard will be more secluded and is expected to have bocce courts and other such features, Trettel said.
In terms of food and other details about the restaurant, Trettel — who grew up working in a restaurant and has designed several of them — wasn’t yet ready to divulge much on that front. It does sound like he has a chef on board and is far along in the creation of a menu.
“It will not be bar food,” Trettel said. “It will be a very clean, healthy, local menu, uniquely prepared by a master chef.”
The project still has to win some approvals, though, before it becomes reality. First up will be design approval from the Historic Resources Commission. Trettel said he’s emphasizing that he’s not making major changes to the two existing buildings on the site, and the new addition will be done within historic guidelines. His construction and design firm does extensive work with historic properties.
Here’s a look at some of the proposed changes, courtesy Trettel and the packet of information he has submitted to City Hall. First a look at the overall site. Note that the new 2,200 square-foot expansion features a green roof.
Next, a view of the project from Ninth Street.
Here’s a view from Pennsylvania Street.
And finally, here’s a view from inside, showing some of the brewery equipment in the background.
If the project wins all approvals in a timely fashion, Trettel hopes to begin construction on the project in the fall.
If my house is any indication, job numbers have to improve this summer. (There’s the crew of workers filling the Gatorade stations throughout the house, and, of course, the security team that ensures I’m not allowed to turn down the thermostat.) But positive job numbers weren’t the case for Lawrence and Kansas during the month of May.
Let’s take a look at a mishmash of recently released job data.
• It wouldn’t be fair to say that Kansas is part of the Dirty Dozen. There were not a dozen states during the month of May that saw job declines, according to new federal data. But there were seven states that saw job losses compared with May 2015, and Kansas was one of them. So, maybe we’re part of the Sleepy Seven, or I’ll let you come up with your own nickname. Here’s a look at the seven:
— North Dakota: 16,600 jobs lost; 3.6 percent decline
— Wyoming: 9,500 jobs lost; 3.2 percent decline
— Louisiana: 19,600 jobs lost; 0.9 percent decline
— Alaska: 2,000 jobs lost; 0.5 percent decline
— Kansas: 5,000 jobs lost; 0.3 percent decline
— Maine: 900 jobs lost; 0.1 percent decline
— Oklahoma: 500 jobs lost; 0.03 percent decline
There is good news, though. The governor rightly notes that the unemployment rate in the state has declined. In May it stood at 3.7 percent, which is down from 4.3 percent in May 2015. So, how you view these numbers probably depends on what you are most interested in: job growth or the number of people on unemployment rolls.
Here’s a look at how we stack up in both areas, compared with other states in our region. While our unemployment rate is below the national average of 4.7 percent, Kansas’ rate is just middle of the pack when compared with our neighbors. Job losses in May, however, were the greatest of any state in the region.
— Kansas: 5,000 job loss; 0.3 percent decline; 3.7 percent unemployment rate
— Missouri: 20,300 job gains; 0.7 percent increase; 4.0 percent unemployment rate
— Iowa: 18,600 job gains; 1.1 percent increase; 3.4 percent unemployment rate
— Oklahoma: 500 jobs lost; 0.03 percent decline; 4.8 percent unemployment rate
— Nebraska: 14,600 jobs gained; 1.4 percent increase; 2.8 percent unemployment rate
— Colorado: 62,500 jobs gained; 2.4 percent increase; 3.6 percent unemployment rate
Granted, this is just a one-month snapshot, but it was particularly poor month for construction firms in Kansas. Construction jobs fell by 4,000, compared with May 2015 totals. That’s a drop of 6.5 percent. That was the industry with the greatest number of job losses in May. The mining industry — think oil and gas — had the largest percentage decline. It lost 1,200 jobs or about 14 percent. In terms of industries that saw some growth, the leisure and hospitality industry grew by 1,400 jobs, or 1 percent. The financial services industry also added about 900 jobs, for about a 1.1 percent growth rate.
• Let’s shift gears to Lawrence job numbers. Like the state, Lawrence’s unemployment rate is low and is falling. It checked in at 3.2 percent in May, down from 3.8 percent in May 2015. But also like the state, Lawrence’s job totals did not grow during the month. Total jobs in Lawrence and Douglas County fell by 100 from a year ago, a drop of 0.2 percent. The reason the unemployment rate fell at the same time jobs were falling is because the labor force — the number of people actively looking for work — also declined during the year. Here’s a look at how Lawrence compares with the other metro areas in the state:
— Lawrence: 100 job losses; 0.2 percent decline; 3.2 percent unemployment rate
— Manhattan: 1,800 job gains; 4.1 percent increase; 2.9 percent unemployment rate
— Topeka: 1,200 job losses; 1.1 percent decline; 3.7 percent unemployment rate
— Wichita: 3,700 job gains; 1.2 percent increase; 4.1 percent unemployment rate
— Kansas City: 3,100 job gains; 0.7 percent increase; 3.4 percent unemployment rate
As is the case every month, there were winners and losers on the Lawrence job front. Here are the Lawrence industries that lost jobs in May, compared with the same period a year ago:
— Goods-producing/manufacturing: 200 job losses; 3.6 percent decline
— Trade, transportation and utilities: 200 job loses; 2.5 percent decline
— Education and Health Services: 200 job losses; 3.4 percent decline
Here’s a look at the industries that gained jobs during the period:
— Professional and business services: 100 job gains; 2 percent increase
— Leisure and hospitality; 200 job gains; 2.9 percent increase
— Government; 300 job gains; 1.8 percent increase
In case you are wondering why Lawrence is lagging behind Manhattan so significantly, there is one simple answer: government jobs. Manhattan added 1,800 government jobs during the last 12-month period, an increase of 1.8 percent. Those government jobs pretty much accounted for all of Manhattan’s job growth.
New study shows Douglas County second least affordable in state; see which city has average mortgage payment of $217 a month
Maybe you have heard that Lawrence is one of the least affordable Kansas communities in which to buy a home. Maybe you have the empty Ramen noodle packages to prove the point. Well, a new study has come out that reaches much the same conclusion, but this one also tells you where you’ll need to move to get the most affordable home in Kansas.
Pack the bags for... Parsons.
A new study by the financial website SmartAsset ranked Douglas County as the second-least-affordable county in Kansas, bettering only Riley County, home to Manhattan. The study looks at home prices, insurance costs, closing costs and other similar factors, and then compares that to the median income in the community.
The study found that the cheap living in Kansas is to the south. The five most affordable communities all were in the southern part of the state. Parsons topped the list, but just how cheap can you live in Parsons?
The website calculated the monthly mortgage payment in Parsons is $217. In Douglas County, it is $702. When you factor in the median income in Parsons, a homeowner there spends a little less than 7 percent of his/her income on a mortgage. In Douglas County, the average homeowner spends about 16 percent. In Riley County, it is all the way up to 18 percent. (And remember, this is gross income. If we were actually talking about take-home pay, the percentage would be significantly higher.)
Here’s a look at the top 5 most affordable communities in the state, according to SmartAsset:
• No. 1: Parsons; avg. monthly mortgage: $217; median income: $37,948
• No. 2: Chanute; avg. monthly mortgage: $251; median income: $41,476
• No. 3: Ulysses; avg. monthly mortgage: $361; median income: $53,393
• No. 4: Mulvane; avg. monthly mortgage: $481; median income: $71,031
• No. 5: Independence; avg. monthly mortgage: $246; median income: $39,050
I can’t help but notice that your Samsonite is still empty, and you still have your cookbook copy of "Bologna: A Slice of (Processed) Heaven." Yes, Labette County, home of Parsons, does have an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent, compared with Douglas County’s 3.2 percent. And it is true that Allen Fieldhouse in Parsons is just a house owned by a wheat farmer named Allen.
So, perhaps you want to take a closer look at Douglas County to see what type of value you are getting. (Note: The study ranked the top 10 most affordable cities in the state, but thereafter only provided data on the county level. Thus, I don’t have statistics just for Lawrence.) Here’s a look at how Douglas County’s average mortgage payments and incomes stack up to some other large counties in the state.
• Douglas: avg. monthly mortgage: $702; median income: $50,732; 16.6 percent of income
• Johnson: avg. monthly mortgage: $817; median income: $75,017; 13 percent of income
• Wyandotte: avg. monthly mortgage: $353; median income: $39,326; 10.7 percent of income
• Shawnee: avg. monthly mortgage: $463; median income: $49,695; 11.1 percent of income
• Riley: avg. monthly mortgage: $668; median income: $44,522; 18 percent of income
• Sedgwick: avg. monthly mortgage: $486; median income: $50,326; 11.5 percent of income
One interesting part of this study, though, is it also goes beyond just mortgage costs. It also provides data on average closing costs, home insurance costs, and property taxes. Here’s how Douglas County stacks up in those categories:
• Johnson County: Avg. annual property taxes: $2,843
• Douglas County: Avg. annual property taxes: $2,494
• Riley: Avg. annual property taxes: $2,410
• Shawnee: Avg. annual property taxes: $1,933
• Wyandotte County: Avg. annual property taxes: $1,732
• Sedgwick: Avg. annual property taxes: $1,685
Now, closings costs:
• Johnson: Avg. closing costs: $3,542
• Douglas: Avg. closing costs: $3,348
• Riley: Avg. closing costs: $3,321
• Sedgwick: Avg. closing costs: $3,116
• Shawnee: Avg. closing costs: $3,083
• Wyandotte: Avg. closing costs: $2,591
Now, home insurance costs:
• Johnson: Avg. annual home insurance premium: $2,009
• Douglas: Avg. annual home insurance premium: $1,715
• Riley: Avg. annual home insurance premium: $1,654
• Sedgwick: Avg. annual home insurance premium: $1,186
• Shawnee: Avg. annual home insurance premium: $1,136
• Wyandotte: Avg. annual home insurance premium: $865
The study used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Bankrate, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, and various government websites. You can see the complete study here, and check out any Kansas county via an interactive map.
Locally owned coffee shop, cafe to open in former south Lawrence fast-food spot; timeline update on movie theater upgrades
Never underestimate the power of coffee. On a day like today, where the heat index is expected to top the century mark, some of us have ice cream on our minds. (And perhaps in our socks and in any other place that we think may provide some cooling relief.) But there are plenty of you who still will insist on having a cup of coffee, too. For those of you, I have word of a new, locally owned coffeehouse and cafe for south Lawrence.
Z’s Divine Espresso has signed a deal to open a new location along 31st Street in the location that formerly housed Backyard Burger, and, more recently, the El Potro Mexican restaurant before it moved to its new location. This will be the third location of Z’s, but this one is expected to be a bit different, said owner Sherry Bowden.
“This building has a kitchen,” Bowden said. “It gives us an opportunity to do all of our own baked goods and light lunches. It will be a little bit more of a cafe. We’re really excited about the kitchen.”
Bowden said she is still developing a lunch menu, but expects it to focus on sandwiches, salads, soups and other “lite bites.” She said the kitchen also will allow her to add more vegan and gluten-free options to the menu. The south Lawrence location — its actual address is 2351 W. 31st St. — also has a drive-thru that Bowden said the store will put to good use.
One thing that won’t change, Bowden said, is the coffee. The company will continue to do all of its own coffee roasting at its 23rd and Harper location. In addition to that location, Z’s also operates a coffeehouse in downtown Lawrence.
Bowden said she had been looking for quite some time to get a location in northwest Lawrence but struggled to find a suitable spot. She said she had no problem shifting gears to south Lawrence after seeing the rush of development that has occurred along the south Iowa corridor. That’s included a new Menards store, Dicks Sporting goods, and multiple restaurants including Pie Five, Popeyes, Raising Canes and others.
“There is a lot going on along south Iowa,” Bowden said. “People like the idea of a local brand, and right now there is not a lot of local on south Iowa, and there is not a lot of coffee.”
Bowden hopes to have the new location open sometime in August.
Allison Vance Moore and Kirsten Flory of Lawrence’s Colliers International brokered the deal for the new location.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I reported in April that a $1.5 million renovation project for Lawrence’s Southwind Theater had been approved, and that much of the plans looked to focus on adding reclining, Lazyboy-type seats to all 12 screening rooms.
At the time, though, I wasn’t able to get a lot of information from the theater’s ownership group, Regal, about the upgrades, although they did have the new chairs on display in the theater’s lobby.
Well, I have at least a bit of news to pass along: Regal has sent out a press release saying that the theater renovations are expected to be completed in September. The theater remains open during the renovations, although not all 12 screens are in operation during the time period.
Chain retailer on 23rd Street files for bankruptcy, seeks buyer; new report says Lawrence one of the more unique cities in the country
There are signs of trouble at 23rd and Iowa streets, and, thankfully, this time it doesn’t involve an orange construction cone stuck in my grill. Instead, one of the largest retailers at the busy intersection has filed for bankruptcy.
The bookstore and DVD chain Hastings has filed for bankruptcy protection, and is seeking a buyer to keep the chain of stores open.
The Wall Street Journal reports the Amarillo, Texas-based retailer has nearly $140 million in debt and posted a loss of more than $16 million in 2015. The Lawrence store remains open, while the company seeks to find a buyer for the chain. But the company did not sugarcoat the situation it is in.
“We have reached a point where we do not have the necessary cash on hand to continue operating our business,” Hastings president and COO Jim Litwak, said on the company’s website. “A sale process, facilitated by Chapter 11, will help us determine how we can best maximize the value of our assets for the benefit of our stakeholders.”
So, stay tuned on whether the 23rd and Iowa intersection will have a bookstore in the future. The company said it expects to complete its sale processes within the next 30 days.
Not surprisingly, Hastings cited weak demand for “physical media properties” such as books, movies and games, which has been the trio of major sales categories for Hastings, as the primary reason for the company’s troubles. In other words, lots more people are downloading that type of entertainment rather than driving to a physical store to buy it.
One quick note for you Hastings customers, the company says any gift cards that are outstanding are still valid, but only for a limited time. All gifts cards or types of store credit will expire on July 13, or earlier, depending on when the card was purchased. The company also has stopped renting games.
The company has about 125 stores across the country. And, in case you are ever on "Jeopardy!" and the category is Hastings, remember this factoid: The company is owned by a group controlled by Joel Weinshanker, who also owns the rights to Elvis Presley’s Graceland operations, according to The Wall Street Journal. And there you go. Isn’t that the answer? More outfits of the King surely would boost sales.
It is too early to say whether Hastings is gone for good, but if the store does close, it marks an interesting milestone in the city. Unless I’m forgetting something, Hastings is the last chain bookstore in Lawrence. (I’m not really counting the textbook stores.) For some of us, that is significant because we sat through a very long and contentious debate years ago about Borders bookstore opening in downtown Lawrence. It was really a divisive time. A common theme of the day was how Borders was going to put out of business all the local bookstores in town. That was in the 1990s, and back then you wouldn’t have found many believers that in 2016, Borders would be closed and the local retailers once again would own the market. (Well, Amazon may own the overall market, but local retailers own the physical bookstore market in Lawrence.)
I bring this up because it is a good reminder that when it comes to predicting the future — especially as it relates to whether retailers should or shouldn’t be allowed to locate in Lawrence — nobody’s crystal ball is very good. That doesn’t mean that Lawrence shouldn’t plan and that the community ought to say ‘yes’ to everything. But it probably is worth remembering that anybody who can truly predict future American business trends almost always has something better to do than share their views on a Tuesday night at City Hall.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Speaking of stores that went bankrupt, I’m hearing that another fabric store is likely to take the place of Hancock Fabrics near 27th and Iowa streets. As we reported, Hancock filed for bankruptcy and is in the process of closing its stores. I’ll work to get some additional information on the identity of the likely fabric retailer.
• Lawrence doesn’t exactly bleed red, white and blue, according to a new ranking. The folks at the financial website WalletHub do all sorts of crazy rankings, and they have one that tries to identify the cities that most closely resemble America as a whole. It sounds a little wacky, but really it is just a study that looks at how closely a community’s demographics mirror the demographics of the entire country. In that respect, it is kind of interesting.
What this year’s study found is that Lawrence is one of the cities least like America. Or, to say it another way, Lawrence is pretty unique. Take your choice of how you want to spin that.
Lawrence ranked No. 373 out of 379 communities in the report. The lower the ranking the less like America your community was found to be. Another interesting tidbit is that right next door is a metro area that is one of the most typical of American communities: The Kansas City metro area ranked No. 13 on the list. (This reinforces the idea that Lawrence kind of is like its own country and that Johnson County residents should be required to show a passport before entering. Although, I guess a visa would suffice, especially if it has a high credit limit.)
The website looked at a lot of demographics from the Census Bureau and housing data from Zillow to compile it rankings. Certainly, I think Lawrence’s status as a university community played a large role in the ranking, as it should. Being a university community is the main thing that makes us different. I do think it is interesting to remind ourselves just how different we are in some regards. Here’s a look at the areas where we were most different from the U.S. average, according to WalletHub:
• Lawrence has a lot more renters than the average community.
• Our population is more highly educated than the average community.
• We have a lot more young people than the average city, which is to be expected as a university community. But even by university community standards, we are pretty young.
• We have a lot more people living in nonfamily homes than the average community. The Census Bureau defines a family household as one where there are at least two people related by birth, marriage or adoption.
As for how some other communities in the region ranked, here’s a look:
— No. 3: Oklahoma City
— No. 10: Tulsa, Okla.
— No. 13: Kansas City
— No. 36 Wichita
— No. 73 Waco, Texas
— No. 82 Springfield, Mo.
— No. 106 Des Moines, Iowa
— No. 116 Joplin, Mo.
— No. 121 St. Joseph, Mo.
— No. 163 Topeka
— No. 223 Lubbock, Texas
— No. 349 Boulder, Colo.
— No. 351 Columbia, Mo.
— No. 352 Iowa City, Iowa
In case you are wondering, the metro area deemed to be most like America as a whole was Indianapolis. You can see the full list here.
Douglas County getting national attention for Zika virus risk; federal report shows how bad state’s economy was in 2015
Well, it looks like the Summer Olympics won’t be moving to Douglas County anytime soon. Douglas County is gaining some national attention as a hotspot for the type of mosquito that can carry the Zika virus.
I know Town Talk isn’t exactly the place you turn to for your health news, but I wanted to pass this along anyway because it seems like the type of information that may be spread far and wide. The Centers for Disease Control on Thursday published a map that shows a county-by-county breakdown of where scientists have collected Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the type of mosquito thought to be spreading Zika in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a report by NPR. (I’m afraid offending these dangerous mosquitoes by misspelling their species name, so from this point forward I will refer to them as Zika-eligible mosquitoes.)
The map shows Shawnee, Douglas, Johnson, and Wyandotte counties all are in the highest category for the Zika-eligible mosquitoes. Specifically, what the map shows is that scientists have found the Zika-eligible mosquito during three or more years in the past two decades. As you can see, that doesn’t exactly mean the county is swarming with these insects, but it is surprising to see Douglas County show up on the map.
As you can see above, the group of Shawnee, Douglas, Johnson and Wyandotte counties kind of stand out like a sore thumb in middle America. I suppose one explanation is all four of those counties are along the Kansas River, which may be a breeding ground for the type of mosquito in question. Atchison County, along the Missouri River, is the one other county in Kansas that shows up in red.
Another possibility is perhaps the trio of counties do a better job of cataloging mosquitoes than other counties in the area. I had no idea that anybody was tracking mosquito types in Douglas County. I’ll keep an eye out for people walking around, stabbing the air with tweezers. (If I duck, it is only because my wife and her eyebrow plucking have conditioned me to do so.) The NPR report does note that the map is likely incomplete because not every county has “mosquito surveillance programs,” and many that do are looking for the type of mosquitoes associated with the West Nile virus.
We’ll have someone on staff look into this more, and get some reaction from local health officials about what the mosquito situation really is in Lawrence. At the moment, this is interesting news, but it can benefit from being put into context a bit more. We’ll try to do that.
In other news and notes from around town:
• That sting you felt last year probably wasn’t from a Zika-eligible mosquito. It probably was just the Kansas economy.
The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis released a new report Tuesday, and it shows Kansas was one of the lower performing economies in the country in 2015. The report measures the gross domestic product of each state — basically the sum total of all the goods and services produced in a state — and Kansas’ GDP shrunk by 0.7 percent. It was one of only eight states that saw an actual decline.
Kansas, though, had company. Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa also were on that list. As you may guess, a decline in agricultural prices played a big role. The detailed numbers show that is what happened in Kansas. The agricultural sector posted a 1.82 percent decline, and the state wasn’t able to grow any of its other sectors fast enough to make up for that decline.
I may add more on this later as I go through the numbers, but take a look at this map to see how Kansas stacks up.
UPDATE: As promised, I looked at the numbers a bit, and there are four areas worth highlighting — two where the Kansas economy outperformed the region and the nation, and two where it underperformed.
First, the good news. Kansas had a pretty decent year in terms manufacturing growth. The production of durable goods — in Kansas that might be something like airplane parts — added 0.16 percentage points to Kansas' GDP. That was quite a bit better than the Plains region and the U.S. as a whole, which both saw GDP grow by 0.04 percentage points from durable goods manufacturing. The production of nondurable goods — food products would be an example — added 0.43 percentage points to Kansas' GDP in 2015. That outpaced the Plains region at 0.32 percentage points and the U.S. at 0.24.
Now, the not so good news. It appears Kansas underperformed in two key areas that often produce the highest paying jobs in an economy. Kansas really struggled in the sector titled "management of companies and enterprises." Think of this as a category that measures companies that basically serve as the corporate headquarters for multiple enterprises. The category subtracted 0.24 percentage points from Kansas' GDP. That shrinkage occurred at the same time the Plains region and the U.S. as whole were seeing gains. The category added 0.11 percentage points in the Plains region and 0.12 percentage points to the U.S. as a whole.
The other category that produced a less than stellar showing for Kansas was the Professional, Scientific and Technical Services category, which includes everything from legal and accounting firms to scientific research companies. It added 0.10 percentage points to Kansas' GDP, but it added 0.24 percentage points to the Plains region and 0.28 to the U.S. economy as a whole.
Once popular sandwich chain looking to make return to Lawrence, owner confirms; Lawrence innovator receives special invite to White House
Lawrence, maybe you really can have your buns of yesteryear. Wait, this is not me pitching my specially designed elliptical machine. (My attorney says I can never, ever sell one of those again.) Instead, I’m referring to talk of Schlotzsky’s — the sandwich shop known for its sourdough buns — making a return to Lawrence.
Perhaps some of you remember that there used to be a Schlotzsky’s in the Louisiana Purchase shopping center at 23rd and Louisiana several years ago. Well, it sure looks like Schlotzsky’s wants to come back to Lawrence.
Some renovation work is underway at the old Kentucky Fried Chicken location near Sixth and Wakarusa. If you remember, we reported KFC closed its west Lawrence location earlier this year. An alert reader has let me know that a vehicle wrapped in Schlotzsky’s logos has been parked outside the business at various times during the renovation work.
That indeed is a good sign that Schlotzsky’s plans to return to Lawrence, said Bart Hastert, a co-owner of two Schlotzsky’s locations in Olathe and Overland Park. Hastert said he hasn’t yet signed a deal for the Wakarusa Drive site that formerly housed KFC. Hastert said that location, along with locations at 23rd and Iowa and in the Bauer Farm development near Sixth and Wakarusa are under consideration. Hastert said his company already has signed a deal with Schlotzsky’s corporate offices to open three to five new stores in the near future.
“Lawrence is definitely in our sights,” he said.
Schlotzsky’s probably has been gone from Lawrence for about five years, and there’s been a major change since then. The chain has signed deals with dessert companies Cinnabon and Carvel ice cream to open mini-stores inside Schlotzsky’s. Hastert said the Lawrence store definitely would have the Cinnabon cinnamon rolls, and he said he would like to win corporate approval to have an ice cream brand in the store as well.
As for what Schlotzsky’s is offering these days, it is still a shop known for its sandwiches. The restaurant’s calling card has been a sandwich it calls The Original, which features multiple cheeses, salamis, ham, marinated black olives, a signature dressing and a toasted sourdough bun. That’s the sandwich that got the chain started 40 years ago as a small shop in Austin.
Today, the menu also includes about two dozen other sandwiches all served on either sourdough, rye, jalapeño cheese or other types of fresh-baked buns. The restaurant also includes, soups, salads, artisan flatbreads and several flavors of 10-inch pizzas.
Hastert said he hopes to sign a deal for a Lawrence location soon. His company already has signed a deal to open a new store in Liberty, Mo., and he wants Lawrence to be his next location.
“We’re on a time crunch already,” said Hastert, who did not own the previous Lawrence franchise. “I think folks will welcome us back to town.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• A Lawrence executive is heading to the White House for a special business event. Ben Smith, the director of social and emerging media for Lawrence-based Callahan Creek, will be representing Kansas at a White House event related to the National Week of Making.
The event is one that highlights the power of teaching and fostering innovation both in education and the business community. Smith has been recognized both locally and nationally for his efforts to empower creative thinking, including his work to create ConfabuLarryum, Lawrence’s Festival of Making and Creativity. The event is held in conjunction with the Lawrence school district, which uses it to showcase innovative projects produced by students.
Smith will be at the White House on Friday for a special meeting of individuals around the country who are involved in the maker movement. Smith also will be in Washington, D.C., for the National Maker Fair that is set for Saturday.
Running, clothing store set to move to Massachusetts Street; KDOT backs off plan to close SLT and Kasold intersection
There is a certain someone in my house who appreciates any new shoe store on Massachusetts Street, especially running shoes. She needs all the help she can get staying a step ahead of the parking meter patrol. If you are like her, you are in luck. One of Lawrence’s more popular running stores is undertaking a major expansion and moving to Massachusetts Street.
Ad Astra Running has signed a deal to move into the vacant space at 734 Massachusetts St. For those of us who are more into elastic waistbands than running shoes, you may know that as the space that is next door to the old Hot Box Cookies location. (I say old because as we have reported, Hot Box moved to The Oread hotel recently.)
Ad Astra currently is located at 16 E. Eighth St. in downtown Lawrence. The pending move will allow the store to more than double in size, said Grant Catloth, who owns the store with business partner J. Jenkins.
The expansion is coming just eight months after Ad Astra opened for business. Catloth said the store’s status as a locally owned establishment has resonated with the running community.
“We’ve had a great reaction from the public and the running community,” Catloth said. “Douglas County is just a very homegrown, populous-oriented type of community, and they have really supported us.”
Catloth said the larger space will allow the store to stock a larger shoe inventory, but really will allow the store to grow its athletic apparel lines. Catloth said the larger space also will make it easier for the store to host events. Ad Astra currently hosts a Thursday evening running event in downtown, along with several other classes or gatherings each week. Although the events usually take place outside, the store serves as a gathering place and a location for runners to store their belongings. Catloth said crowds — the Thursday event attracts upwards of 80 people — were filling the store to capacity during those times.
Catloth expects one of the larger benefits of the move will be greater visibility among shoppers.
“One of our biggest issues is that a lot of people just don’t know we exist,” Catloth said. “Getting on Mass, you will have a couple hundred people walking by every 10 minutes on a Saturday.”
Catloth said minor renovation work is underway on the space. He said the store hopes to be open in the new location by the end of June.
In other news and notes from around town:
• This just in this morning: The Kansas Department of Transportation is backing away from its one-time plan to close the intersection of the South Lawrence Trafficway and Kasold Drive in in southwest Lawrence. But KDOT leaders aren’t willing to go so far as to install an expensive traffic signal at the intersection.
Instead, KDOT plans to convert the intersection into a right-in, right-out intersection. That will mean no left turns will be allowed at the intersection, and it also means that traffic won’t be able to fully cross the busy SLT to get to either Kasold Drive or to the rural county road that is just south of the SLT. Access to those roads will be limited to motorists turning right off of the SLT.
KDOT has included its recommendation in a final report that was delivered to local officials yesterday, and was placed on the city of Lawrence’s website Friday morning.
The idea of closing the intersection sparked much concern from many rural residents who live southwest of Lawrence. They use the intersection as a way to get into Lawrence, via Kasold Drive. Lawrence Landscape, which owns a tree farm just south of the intersection, also had objected to its planned closure.
KDOT officials had lobbied for the closure because they fear accidents will increase at the intersection once the eastern leg of the SLT opens this fall. Traffic at the intersection is expected to more than double once the eastern leg of the SLT opens.
In their final report, KDOT leaders said closing the intersection still would be the best decision for motorist safety, but said the right-in, right-out proposal is a “compromise solution.” The project won’t involve widening the intersection at all, but will include restriping and other minor modifications to the intersection. It is expected to cost $70,000, and will be paid for by KDOT. The City Commission and Douglas County Commission are expected to receive a briefing on the project by KDOT at their June 21 and June 22 meetings, respectively.
Latest report shows Lawrence sales tax growth among tops in the state; are City Hall leaders paying attention?
It is the season for City Hall couch cushions strewn about and organ grinder music in the background. The city’s budget process is underway, and the last several years the theme has been that any loose change matters, as the city’s major operating fund in 2015 spent more than it received in revenue. It is budgeted to do so again in 2016.
That is happening despite a key positive trend: Lawrence is experiencing the best sales tax growth of any major retail area in the state.
State revenue officials have released their latest sales tax report — it basically measures sales through early April — and Lawrence continues to be on a roll. The report showed sales tax collections for the latest one-month period were up 6.2 percent compared with the same period a year ago.
The more important numbers, though, are the year-to-date totals. There have now been five sales tax reports issued by the state in 2016, so we are almost to the halfway point of the annual reporting period. Thus far, Lawrence’s growth rate is tops among the 10 large retail markets that we track. Here’s a look:
— Lawrence: up 4.6 percent
— Overland Park: up 3.6 percent
— Olathe: up 3 percent
— Topeka: up 2.5 percent
— Johnson County: up 2.1 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 1.4 percent
— Manhattan: up 0.8 percent
— Kansas City: up 0.3 percent
— Salina: down 3.3 percent
— Lenexa: down 8 percent
The most interesting number may be what’s driving Lawrence’s increase. The city has provided a breakdown of the industries that are seeing the largest increase in sales tax collections. The city noted three: grocery and beverage stores are up 6 percent from a year ago; bars and restaurants are up 7 percent; and sales taxes on building materials are up 29 percent.
The building material category is obviously an eye-catcher. There seems to be an obvious explanation to that large increase: Menards and its superstore near 31st and Iowa have entered the market.
But sometimes the obvious answer isn’t always the correct one. So, I looked a little deeper. Not all building materials are bought through home improvement centers. Many of them are bought through wholesale companies that deliver to job sites, and construction firms pay the sales tax on those materials. If Lawrence’s building scene is booming, that could account for the increase in sales tax collections, and it really wouldn’t have much at all to do with Menards. But the city’s building permit reports show that is not what’s happening. Construction totals are very high this year, but they are about 15 percent below the record-setting totals of 2015. Based off that, you would think sales tax collections for building materials would be down.
I also considered that perhaps there has been an increase in the price of building materials, which would cause the sales tax collections to increase, even though the amount of work has declined some. That doesn’t appear to be the case either. The construction cost index put out by the large construction company Turner indicates that the cost of building materials actually has declined some.
I don’t know definitively why Lawrence is collecting so much more in sales taxes for building materials, but it seems the Menards effect is a real possibility. It seems that what’s happening may be exactly what Menards officials said would happen: Lawrence residents who were leaving town to shop at Menards are now staying in Lawrence to shop at Menards. It seems likely some shoppers from nearby communities are coming to Lawrence to do their Menards shopping. Here’s a little fact that maybe has been overlooked: Menards really doesn’t have any stores in the Kansas City market. It has one in St. Joseph, but that is about it. That means the Lawrence store is the closest Menards store for lots of communities in Johnson County. Of course it also is the closest store for places like Franklin and Jefferson counties. The Lawrence store may be getting more out-of-town traffic than what you would think.
Again, I don’t know if that is what’s happening here. But I would think City Hall leaders would want to figure it out. If indeed Menards is keeping more retail dollars in Lawrence and attracting more retail dollars from outside Lawrence, then it seems possible other select retailers could do the same.
Perhaps this is causing you to think of the City Commission’s recent rejection of a proposed multimillion dollar retail center that would have brought several new brands to Lawrence near the Iowa Street and SLT interchange. The rejection has landed the city in a lawsuit filed by the proposed developers. The developers of that proposed center said their numbers showed 40 percent of all Lawrence retail dollars spent on apparel are being spent outside of Lawrence.
I can almost guarantee you that Menards had a similar study that told it that there were a lot of home improvement dollars leaving the Lawrence community.
Is the 40 percent number about apparel accurate? I don’t know. But I would think City Hall officials would want to find out. A trusted third party easily could be hired to figure it out, and many other retail questions. The problem is, Lawrence fights so much about retail development, it would be difficult to hire a third-party that both sides would trust. It is sad that we are so deep in the weeds that we can’t even get data.
But if the 40 percent estimate is accurate, then something else also is true: Millions of sales tax dollars are leaving the community every year.
Capturing them may be easier than operating the organ grinder.
I admit, I panicked this morning and tried to eat my cereal bowl. You can’t blame me. I had heard that Quinton’s — the longtime downtown restaurant that is famous in my book because you can eat the bread bowl that the chili comes in — had closed. But don’t worry, Quinton’s is not closed for good, but has sold to a new owner. (Also, I’ll be fine. I’ll sell plasma to pay for the crown I now need.)
Brandon Graham, an owner of the Jefferson’s restaurants in Lawrence, has told me his group has bought the Lawrence Quinton’s from longtime owner Steve Gaudreau. Graham said the restaurant currently is closed for some renovations, and also the new ownership group has to go through the process to obtain a new liquor license for the establishment.
When the restaurant at 615 Massachusetts St. reopens — hopefully by Aug. 1, Graham said — customers will notice a few changes, including new flooring, paint and other cosmetic items. But he said plans don’t call for major changes to the menu.
“We will keep the core items,” Graham said. “We may replace a few items that aren’t selling as well, but the stuff people have grown to love will still be there. The sandwich and soup vibe of the place certainly will go on without missing a beat.”
For those of you who haven’t been to Quinton’s, the establishment’s calling card is it menu of bread bowl soups and toasted sandwiches that range from reubens to BLTs to a turkey avocado club sandwich. Some of you may argue that the place's true calling card isn’t a food item at all. Quinton’s certainly has a bar scene as well, and Graham said that will continue. He said the business, which has been in operation for well over 20 years, has built up a lot of nostalgia with the Lawrence community.
“I think its success today may involve some memories of good times over the years. I’ll leave it to the reader’s imagination to figure that out,” Graham said, noting that both he and his business partner David Bennett frequented Quinton’s as KU students. “It is just a good college town joint.”
This has ended up being a big year for Graham and his restaurant business. Jefferson’s recently opened its second location in Lawrence, taking over the west Lawrence space that previously housed Legends at Bob Billings and Wakarusa. That location has chewed up several restaurants, but Graham said business at the new Jefferson’s thus far is exceeding expectations.
“That has been a great business for us,” Graham said. “The community has supported us in spades at the west location.”
As for Gaudreau, I’ve got a call into him to receive an update on his plans. My understanding, though, is that Gaudreau is focusing on his other restaurant venture, Dempsey’s Burger Pub. That would make sense. Dempsey’s has been growing, and Gaudreau said his goal is to grow it even larger. I last reported on the business in June 2015 when Gaudreau opened a Dempsey’s in the Westport district of Kansas City, Mo. That followed deals that opened locations in Lincoln and Wichita.
At that time, Gaudreau hinted that his time with Quinton’s may be nearing an end.
“I want to grow it as big as I can go,” Gaudreau said of the Dempsey’s brand. “Dempsey’s is definitely our future. I prefer the restaurant business over the bar business. That’s more of a young man’s game.”
UPDATE: I did talk to Gaudreau today, and he confirmed the sale was so he could focus more of his time on the Dempsey's brand. He said he's currently in negotiations to open a Dempsey's in Tulsa. Gaudreau said he still owns the Quinton's in Topeka, but is in negotiations to sell that restaurant as well.
"Quinton's has been a great run," said Gaudreau, who has had the business for 25 years. "It is where I met my wife, so there is an emotional tie there. But I'm excited for Brandon to take the reins and have it going for another 25 years."
More signs of expansion for south Iowa auto dealership; work begins on eastern Lawrence Dollar General store
Everybody responds a little differently when the "check engine" light comes on. I’ve found that duct tape works well to fix the problem. Put enough of it on your instrument panel, and you’ll never see that light again. Others, apparently, buy a new vehicle. The car-selling business must be good because there’s more renovation work underway in the Lawrence Auto Plaza along south Iowa Street.
As we have reported several times over the last few months, Manhattan-based Briggs Automotive has been acquiring property around its dealerships and filing plans that will give the business additional space for more automobiles. That work is now accelerating and getting more aggressive.
Briggs recently tore down an old, red barnlike building at 2103 W. 28th Terrace. I knew the building well because I used to work around the corner from it, and it housed a flower shop. That meant I stopped there about every night. (You can either assume I love flowers or dislike sleeping on the couch.)
Briggs has now filed plans at City Hall to re-use the space for an “outdoor sales area.” In other words, a car lot. It is just the latest move by Briggs. As we have reported, the company — which operates multiple dealerships in Lawrence, including Nissan, Chrysler and Subaru — has filed plans to use the old Jane Bateman Interiors building as an auto reconditioning shop. That building is just east of the area that has been proposed for the new car lot. Briggs also owns the old Bud Jennings Carpet building — or more recently it was Advanced Homecare — that is along south Iowa Street. Plans haven’t been filed for that high-visibility location, but I’m told they soon will be.
I’ve been told the pending plans don’t include a new dealership for Briggs, but what the building will be used for is still unclear to me. But it certainly does seem like it is all part of a larger plan. Briggs has made one other filing at City Hall. The company is seeking to convert the small grass strip between Iowa Street and the frontage road leading into the Auto Plaza into a display area for vehicles.
Plans filed at City Hall show the grass would be replaced with pervious pavers, and the area could accommodate about 45 vehicles. Those plans, however, haven’t yet been approved by city officials and are subject to change.
It is interesting to note that the stretch of grass that Briggs is proposing to use is directly in front of Jack Ellena Honda. With Briggs’ recent purchase of the old Bud Jennings Carpet and Jane Bateman Interiors buildings, Briggs now pretty much completely surrounds the Honda dealership. That may be a situation to watch in the future.
As for the little grass strip, it will be interesting to watch how that plays out. It is kind of like the grass strip that is in between the road and the sidewalk of many Lawrence homes. The city limits what a homeowner can do with that property. That’s been the case with commercial properties as well. But city officials may be willing to let commercial businesses have more leeway. After all, nothing produces sales tax revenues like vehicle sales.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It sure looks like there soon will be another place for me to stock up on cheap duct tape. Work is underway at 19th and Haskell streets for a new Dollar General Store.
I reported in January that Dollar General had filed plans to build a store in the parking lot of the shopping center at the southeast corner of 19th and Haskell. But then work never began on the site, and Dollar General was a bit shy about confirming its plans or timeline for the project.
Now, however, excavation crews are on site and have removed a large part of the parking lot and fenced the area off for further construction. A Dollar General sign hasn’t yet been placed on the site, but it is the same location, so I think it is safe to assume Dollar General is on the way.
As for the store, the previous plans showed a 9,100 square-foot store that would be just south of the existing convenience store. The convenience store will remain in business, and all the other commercial space in the old shopping center also will remain. The parking lot will just get smaller.
Dollar General previously has confirmed that the store won’t be one of its super stores, which sell produce items. But the store will provide a new option for some food and general merchandise items that eastern Lawrence currently doesn’t have. The stores carry a little bit of everything, including a line of nonperishable food items, health and beauty supplies, cleaning supplies, diapers and other baby items, pet food, school and office supplies, and other items.
The Dollar General certainly is the most significant redevelopment plan for the shopping center at 19th and Haskell for quite some time. It will be interesting to see if the rest of the center, which certainly has begun to show its age, also will redevelop.
Changes on tap in operation of historic Castle Tea Room; new report finds Kansas economy unremarkable
No, the folks at The Castle Tea Room haven’t taken my suggestion to add a moat, but there is change happening at the historic building at 1307 Massachusetts St. A longtime Lawrence-based catering company has taken over many of the day-to-day operations of the building.
The Castle, of course, is one of Lawrence’s more distinctive buildings. Built in 1894 by a Lawrence businessman of Scottish descent (some people wear a kilt, some people build a castle), the building is owned by a nonprofit trust designed to preserve its uniqueness and keep it open for public enjoyment. The trust will continue to own the building, but Steve Maceli has told me that his Maceli’s catering firm has struck a deal to run many of the operations of the facility, which primarily serves as a reception hall and meeting space.
“We’ll book the space, we’ll advertise it, we’ll give tours of it,” Maceli said. “I think the trust is looking to maximize the potential of the space. They were looking for people who could operate it on a grander scale than they could.”
Maceli’s is based in downtown Lawrence, just a few blocks from the Tea Room, which is just south of downtown. Maceli said the proximity of the two buildings will allow them to share many of the same staff and achieve other economies of scale that the Castle couldn’t on its own. The nonprofit trust that owns the Tea Room uses revenue from event rentals to help maintain the property.
The Castle — it once used to be a restaurant operated by longtime businesswoman Libby Kriz-Fiorito — primarily is used to host wedding receptions. (That’s why I lobby for the moat. That fellow who ate three pounds of my roast beef and gave us monogrammed paper napkins, never would have gotten past a moat.) Maceli said he expects wedding receptions will continue to be a major part of the business.
“It has real history,” Maceli said of the property. “People love that. It is really a part of Lawrence in so many ways.”
As for a little bit of trivia related to the building’s history, here’s one question for you: What product made a fortune for the original owner of the Castle? Answer: Berry Baskets. John Roberts, who built the home in 1894, had received a patent for a basket-making machine, but also made butter containers, butter platters, cheese boxes and broom handles, according to a biography on the Castle’s website. Berry baskets, though, were the big item. By 1881, the company was making about 2 million of them per year.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe Kansas needs more basket makers. Whatever the case, Kansas’ economy showed up as being pretty unremarkable in a new ranking.
The online financial website WalletHub has published a new ranking of the states with the best and worst economies. Kansas ranked No. 35 in the report. The report used government statistics from a variety of sources to look at factors such as state gross domestic product growth, export numbers, unemployment rates, income levels and several other factors.
Unfortunately, WalletHub didn’t provide a breakdown for each category it measures, so I can’t tell you specifically how Kansas performed on all measures. But it did provide a top five and a bottom five for many of the categories. Those rankings show Kansas still has a ways to go to reach its goal of becoming a top destination for business startups and other such activity. Kansas didn’t rank in the top five of any category, including highest business startup activity, lowest unemployment rate or highest GDP growth. The state also didn’t rank in the bottom five of any of those categories.
As for the overall rankings, here’s a look at how states in our region fared:
— No. 5: Colorado
— No. 30: Missouri
— No. 34: Iowa
— No. 35: Kansas
— No. 36: Nebraska
— No. 43 Oklahoma
Utah was the No. 1 ranked state, while Mississippi was ranked last. To see the full report, click here.
New sandwich chain to locate on 23rd Street; cookie business moves, sparking new downtown restaurant rumor; yellow signs invade Oread neighborhood
If the great inventor Thomas Edison would have come up with this first, we would never have the lightbulb. Picture this: You order a shake. It comes in a cup with a straw, and — I advise you to sit down for this part — the straw has cookies on it. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it too, but apparently it is one of the features of a new chain sandwich and dessert shop that plans to open on 23rd Street.
Plans have been filed at City Hall for Potbelly Sandwich Shop at 1618 W. 23rd St., which currently is the location of Dunn Brothers Coffee.
My understanding is that Potbelly is a big deal in Chicago, where it got its start as a mom-and-pop sandwich shop that started in an antique store. Sandwiches are its main thing, but it also has a dessert menu, and I would have my journalistic credentials revoked if I didn’t immediately share information about straws with cookies on them. Here’s a picture:
As for the sandwiches, the hook there is that they are all toasted. The menu is full of traditional offerings, such as turkey, roast beef, meatball, an Italian, and a chicken salad that the restaurant says is made on site each day. But the restaurant also offers a few that you may not find at other chain restaurants, such as a grilled chicken Mediterranean with hummus, artichoke hearts, feta cheese and several other ingredients. The restaurant also offers a special brand of sandwich called a Skinny. It features less meat and cheese and skinnier bread. The selling point is that each sandwich is under 400 calories.
The restaurant also offers a half-dozen salads, including a few that are beyond the ordinary, such as a chickpea veggie salad and an “Uptown Salad” that includes grilled chicken, grapes, apples, dried cranberries, candied walnuts and blue cheese. Soups also are on the menu, and the breakfast menu features breakfast sandwiches and steel cut oatmeal.
The company’s website also touts that each restaurant is a bit different too. I noted that the original restaurant was started by a couple who owned an antique shop and started selling sandwiches to their noontime customers. As a result, each restaurant now has a little bit of an antique store look. In addition, the website indicates that most restaurants typically have live music at various times, often during the lunch hour.
As for the Potbelly part of the name, every restaurant in the chain includes a potbelly stove. (This is much better than how I tried to pull off the concept. I had no idea a potbelly pig could become so unruly, especially around the sight of bacon.)
The restaurant chain expanded into Kansas City a couple of years ago. The closest locations are in Overland Park and Mission.
No word yet on when the Lawrence restaurant will open. The project needs to win some site plan approvals to do a small addition onto the building. Plans call for about a 360 square-foot addition to the dining area, an approximately 600 square-foot patio area and changes to the configuration of the drive-thru lane.
As for Dunn Brothers Coffee, there is a sign on the door saying the business has lost its lease. It says the shop's last day of business will be June 24. The sign makes no mention of a new Lawrence location for Dunn Brothers, which has been open in the location for a little more than 10 years.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There is other news on the cookie front. Hot Box Cookies has closed its store in downtown Lawrence and has reopened inside The Oread hotel at 1200 Oread Ave. In case you have forgotten, Hot Box Cookies was located at 732 Massachusetts St. I have no official word about what will locate in that space, but word on the street says to keep our eyes open for a wing-oriented restaurant. I’ll let you know if I hear more.
• If you have been in the Oread neighborhood lately, you perhaps have noticed a few yellow yard signs that the city requires to be placed on property when new development has been proposed. When I say a few signs, I mean 308.
There are yellow signs everywhere in the Oread neighborhood currently, but, no, plans have not been filed to build a giant cookie factory in the historic neighborhood. Instead, new design guidelines have been proposed for the neighborhood. Actually, the design guidelines already have been approved once, but city officials realized after the fact that they had not met the letter of the law when it came to notifying residents of the proposed changes. City code requires the yellow signs to be posted on property that will be affected by zoning or development code changes. That wasn’t done the first time the design guidelines were heard. If the city placed a yellow sign at every property in the Oread neighborhood, that would be several thousand signs. My understanding is city officials have determined that placing a sign at every intersection in the neighborhood will meet the requirement. More specifically, every corner of every intersection has been the thought process. That means that there are eight signs at every intersection.
In case you are wondering, the signs advertise public hearings that will take place in June and July about the design guidelines.
Although the design guidelines were approved previously, there was dissent, especially from some landlords. Concerns were raised about parking requirements and zoning regulations that would limit the number of residents in each home.
• A quick housekeeping note: Town Talk will not appear on Friday. I’ll be conducting experiments with straws, cookies, yellow signs and an overly perturbed potbelly pig. I hope to return on Monday.
Large pet supply chain files plans for store near Sixth and Wakarusa; Lawrence gasoline prices still the highest in the state
Somewhere in Lawrence, I picture a dimly lit, smoke-filled room full of canines. They’ve probably just gotten done playing pool or poker, and, of course, that big bulldog who chomps on his cigar is the leader. Let’s not kid ourselves, they run this town. How else do you explain that PetSmart — just months after opening a store on south Iowa Street — has now filed plans to build a new store in west Lawrence?
Whatever the reason, PetSmart indeed has filed plans to build a new 18,000 square-foot store near Sixth and Wakarusa. More specifically, the project will be in the Bauer Farm development on a vacant lot just west of the Sprouts grocery store. Plans at one point had called for a multitenant retail building there, but it looks like the developers have landed a bigger fish.
No word yet on when the store will open, but it obviously will be several months to perhaps a year in the making. The project does need to win approval from city planners. Thus far, though, it looks like a fairly routine approval process. The zoning is already in place, and the development group is taking steps to avoid a fight over the lingering question of how much retail should be allowed to develop at the northeast corner of Sixth and Wakarusa. City officials have placed a cap on the amount of retail that can be built at the northeast corner. Originally, the PetSmart proposal would put the development over the cap, but developers now are modifying their plan to remove some planned but unbuilt retail from a different part of the Bauer Farm development in order to keep the total under the cap.
The cigar-chomping bulldog cares nothing about that, though. (I know, you want to see a picture of the bulldog, so at the end of this article, I’ll allow you a peek inside my gallery.) The numbers must show Lawrence is a big pet town in order for PetSmart to propose a second store so soon after opening its first Lawrence store at 27th and Iowa streets, next to Dick's Sporting Goods.
In case you have forgotten, PetSmart is the largest chain retailer of pet supplies in the country. It operates about 1,500 stores. The stores carry food and supplies for dogs, cats, fish, reptiles and a variety of small pets. The Lawrence store also operates a grooming service, and a limited number of PetSmart locations also operate a kennel service, or what the company calls a PetsHotel. I can’t tell from the plans whether that service is planned for the new Lawrence location. I’ll reach out to the company, and if I get more information about the project and its timeline, I’ll let you know.
But enough with that: On with the art. This is one of my favorites. It is titled “That’s Not a Biscuit!”
In other news and notes from around town:
• Forget what the calendar officially says, it is summer. How do I know? Yes, the Gatorade stations in my home — in place of actually turning on the air conditioner — are one sign. But the surer sign is that readers have started to ask me to look into why fuel prices in Lawrence are higher than they are elsewhere.
That is the question that never goes away in Lawrence. Not to spoil the ending, but there is no definitive answer to that question. But I’m happy to share data with you. Here’s a look at the average fuel prices of major Kansas markets, as measured by AAA Kansas.
— Lawrence: $2.26; One year ago: $2.57
— Kansas City, Kan. $2.23; One year ago: $2.55
— Topeka: $2.09; One year ago: $2.43
— Wichita: $2.16; One year ago: $2.48
— Statewide average: $2.16; One year ago $2.50
As you can see, one thing hasn’t changed in the last year. Lawrence still has the highest average price of any major market in the state. What has changed is the gap between Lawrence and other markets is growing. Topeka is the leader in cheap gas in Kansas. Last year, prices were 14 cents per gallon higher in Lawrence than Topeka. Now, the average price is 17 cents higher in Lawrence. The gap between Lawrence and the statewide average also is up from 7 cents a year ago to 10 cents today.
The simplest answer to why this continually happens is supply and demand. Reporter Nikki Wentling last year did some digging at my request to look at why Lawrence’s market is different from Topeka’s. A big finding was the number of gas stations. Lawrence has about one gas station for every 3,000 residents. Topeka has about one gas station for every 2,000 residents. That’s a big difference, and leads you to believe that Topeka gas stations have to be more aggressive in pricing gasoline in order to attract customers.
Another factor that we haven’t gathered information on, but that may be more important, is the number of gasoline chains operating in a community. For example, the last time we checked, Lawrence had 33 gas stations, but a lot of them were all owned by the same corporation: Kwik Shop, which is owned by Dillons grocery stores. Kwik Shop surely has to be the largest seller of gasoline in Lawrence. Do other communities have a greater variety in retailers and thus have more natural competition? I would think they might.
You probably would see downward pressure on gas prices, if Lawrence had more QuikTrips, or if places like Wal-Mart started selling gasoline. If you remember, I noted a few months ago that both Wal-Marts in Lawrence made an inquiry with City Hall about whether their Lawrence stores had the proper zoning to sell gasoline. Thus far, I haven’t seen any plans filed for gasoline pumps to be installed at either Wal-Mart, but I’ll continue to check on that.
Furniture store opens at Ninth and Iowa; apartment construction has Lawrence building totals off to strong start; pizza trivia
Perhaps you are like me and last week’s rain caused you to cut up the furniture to use for building the Ark. If so, you are probably wondering when you are going to get your circular saw returned to you and what your Lawrence furniture buying options are. Well, there’s news on the Lawrence furniture store front.
Over the years Lawrence has lost several large furniture stores, but there has been a pretty strong trend of smaller, secondhand furniture stores coming into the market. Add one more to the list. Phoenix Furniture and Home Goods has opened in the Hillcrest Shopping Center at Ninth and Iowa streets.
The store sells bedroom sets, couches, desks, dining room tables, rugs, lamps, wall hangings and other such items, said owner McKenzie Widner. Except for a few smaller items, all of the furniture is used.
Widner said she sold antiques as a side business for years while she worked as a Montessori school teacher in Lawrence. She said finding unique items has been something she’s long enjoyed, and she believes it is a service Lawrence shoppers are seeking.
“I tend to collect things that have a story,” Widner said. “I think shoppers these days like items with a little bit of character. The cool thing is the stuff in the store is stuff you can’t find anywhere else.”
Lawrence has a few used furniture stores that cater to the college crowd, and Widner said some of her items are at prices aimed at that audience. But she said the store also seeks to have a good inventory of items for families and others that are wanting to stock their home with quality furniture.
A big part of the store’s business is that it buys furniture as well as sells it.
“Lawrence is a town where people are always coming and going, so I think it is important that there always be a store where people can go to sell their items,” Widner said.
The store is located at 925 Iowa, Suite L. If you haven’t memorized your Hillcrest Shopping Center suite locations, the store is right next door to a shop that has caused me to expand the size of some of my furniture: Munchers Bakery. (It is funny how mini-cinnamon rolls do not make you “mini-er.”)
In other news and notes from around town:
• When it comes to building homes to put more furniture in, activity is up a bit in Lawrence, according to figures from City Hall.
I have city building permit totals through April, and they show new single-family and duplex construction is thus far off to its best start since 2013. The city has issued 53 permits for single-family and duplex construction, up from 49 the same period a year ago. The recent high-water mark was 59 in 2013. So, activity is up but not actually booming at this point.
The story in the Lawrence building world continues to be apartments. The city, through April, has issued permits for 377 apartment units. This marks the third time in the last four years that the city has issued more than 350 apartment permits during the spring building season. Last year the city issued 351 building permits through April and issued 374 during the time period in 2013.
The construction activity has Lawrence on pace to have an above-average year in construction projects. The city thus far has issued permits for $77.7 million worth of projects. That’s below last year’s pace of $89.3 million, but remember that construction activity hit an all-time high in Lawrence in 2015. Since 2009, the spring season — January through April — has produced an average of $39 million worth of projects. So, Lawrence is nearly doubling that pace.
As for large projects that got started in April, an approximately $940,000 renovation of the Delta Chi Fraternity at 1245 West Campus Road tops the list. Also, as we’ve reported, work has begun on an approximately $825,000 renovation of the Hampton Inn at 2300 W. Sixth St.
• It is now after 8 a.m., so of course pizza is on my mind. Fun fact time regarding pizza. Pizza Hut was founded on this date in 1958 in Wichita. The company was once a very important Kansas-based company, but it has long ago moved its headquarters out of state. On its birthday, the company announced it is making some changes to its menu. It is removing all artificial preservatives from its cheeses by the end of March 2017 and removing something called BHA/BHT — both food preservatives, I think — from all its meats by the end of July.
That's fine enough, but I mainly bring up Pizza Hut because of its birthday and because I've been trying to track something down about the chain for awhile. I've had someone tell me that the former Pizza Hut store on Massachusetts was the first Pizza Hut in the country to offer delivery service decades and decades ago. I've even heard that it may be the first location — or at least one of the first — of any pizza places in America to offer delivery. I haven't ever been able to confirm that, though, but it would be a neat bit of Lawrence trivia, if true. So, if you happen to have a box of Pizza Hut delivery documentation in your attic, let me know.
New federal numbers show Lawrence housing prices on the rise; a peek at what they say about Lawrence’s affordability question
I have news about Lawrence home values. They’re going up, but not yet booming, according to the latest federal figures.
It seems like it is time to keep a closer eye on home values in Lawrence. Real estate agents are talking about a low supply of available homes putting pressure on housing prices. Community leaders are talking about spending potentially millions of dollars for affordable housing projects. And then there are those of you who treat your homes like ATMs. (My wife doesn’t understand that term. She thinks it means she gets to charge me a fee to live in the house. She calls it an inconvenience fee.)
Regardless, here’s a look at home value totals as calculated by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The agency takes data from both homes sales and mortgage refinancing activity that is processed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. So, the agency has access to lots of home prices and appraisal reports for properties all across the country.
The report found that in Lawrence home prices accelerated at a pretty decent pace in the first quarter of 2016. Home values increased on average by 2.3 percent compared with the fourth quarter of 2015. That was nearly the top growth rate in the state. Topeka actually just edged out Lawrence. It posted a 2.55 percent growth rate. But home prices in Lawrence rose more rapidly than they did in the KC metro area, which saw appreciation of just 0.17 percent for the quarter.
But when you look at a longer term period you see that Lawrence’s home values have been pretty moderate. Here’s a look at growth rates over the last year for Lawrence and few regional metro areas.
— Lawrence: 3.10 percent
— Topeka: 6.05 percent
— Wichita: 1.33 percent
— Kansas City: 5.81 percent
— Manhattan: 0.34 percent
— Columbia, Mo.: 4.4 percent
— Joplin, Mo.: 0.4 percent
— Lincoln, Neb.: 4.64 percent
— Omaha, Neb.: 4.82 percent
— Iowa City: 3.89 percent
— Ames, Iowa: 5.76 percent
— Oklahoma City: 4.85 percent
For some perspective, the top ranked metro area in the country was Port St. Lucie, Fla., at 14.68 percent appreciation over the year. Boulder, Colo., was No. 2 at 14.4 percent. Greeley, Colo., a town we sometimes compare ourselves to, was No. 10 in the country at 13 percent, and Fort Collins, Colo., was No. 13 at 12.5 percent growth.
When you look at the five-year growth rate, Lawrence is even more moderate.
— Lawrence: 8.14 percent
— Topeka: 6.04 percent
— Wichita: 5.55 percent
— Kansas City: 11.39 percent
— Manhattan: 8.04 percent
— Columbia: 11.97 percent
— Joplin: 9.14 percent
— Lincoln: 14.85 percent
— Omaha: 12.74 percent
— Iowa City: 12.49 percent
— Ames: 18.27 percent
— Oklahoma City: 16.03 percent
For perspective, the Colorado communities I mentioned above — Boulder, Greeley and Fort Collins — all had five-year growth rates of 39 percent or more.
In that light, Lawrence’s housing prices aren’t considered particularly out of line. But folks shouldn’t use these numbers to make broad conclusions about whether Lawrence has a housing affordability problem. For one thing, rent rates are important when examining housing affordability. These numbers don’t look at rent rates at all. But more importantly, you can’t look at housing affordability without looking at income levels in a community.
Still, I find these numbers interesting. As the community continues to discuss affordability issues, it's numbers like these that may lead us to ask an important question: Does Lawrence have a housing price problem or does it have an income problem?
Whatever the case, have a good Memorial Day. Town Talk won’t appear on Monday but will be back on Tuesday.
Let’s get in the time machine and set the dial to 2008. No, I’m not looking to relive the decision about a Mario Chalmers tribute tattoo or other such common KU National Championship celebration issues. Something else happened that year: Voters went to the polls to approve a new sales tax for infrastructure projects. Just like the tattoo, there are questions that linger from that vote.
As the headline implies, I believe there is a question about whether city commissioners are breaking a political promise about how they’re using that sales tax money and paying for street maintenance.
That question has come up from time to time, but has been renewed by the City Commission’s recent discussion of a five-year capital improvement plan. As proposed, that plan calls for the city to spend $3.14 million in 2017 for its contracted street maintenance program. It also calls for that same annual funding level for the life of the five-year plan.
What’s interesting is that in 2008 — before voters approved the 0.3 percent sales tax for infrastructure — the city approved $4.83 million in spending for contracted street maintenance.
Before we get too deep into the weeds here, a quick word about the city’s contracted street maintenance program. It is the program that seals the cracks in streets, puts a new coat of pavement on sections of streets, repairs portions of curbs and gutters and other such maintenance issues.
Engineers deem this program critical. I’ve frequently heard it is just like caring for your house. You have to do the mundane maintenance in order to avoid or delay the really big, expensive rebuilding projects. Simply put, the city is spending less money on those type of projects than what they were before voters approved millions of dollars in new sales tax funds for streets.
Here’s where we get into the weeds a little bit: Overall, the city certainly is spending more money on streets now than it did prior to the sales tax vote. It darn sure better be. The sales tax in 2015 alone provided almost $5 million for infrastructure projects.
But, as I’ve already noted, there are different types of street spending. There is spending on street maintenance and there is spending on rebuilding streets. The city has been spending more money on the high-profile street rebuilding projects — think Kasold Drive, think Iowa Street — but has been spending less on the more mundane street maintenance projects.
Does that, however, mean city commissioners are breaking a political promise? Well, some pretty specific things were said during the campaign to convince voters to approve this sales tax. I covered that campaign, and remember pretty well the environment we were in. A key talking point was that the city hadn’t spent enough money on street maintenance historically, and as a result we had lots of streets that needed to be rebuilt. We were behind the curve. The last thing politicians were telling voters is that they were going to spend less money on street maintenance.
Just to reconfirm my memory, I looked for a written statement on the subject. I went back to the documents from the City Commission’s Aug. 5, 2008, meeting, when commissioners agreed to put the sales tax issue on the ballot. There is a memo that explains how the infrastructure sales tax would be used. A reminder: It is used for more than just streets. The Burroughs Creek Trail received sales tax money, firetrucks have been purchased with it, a major drainage project in North Lawrence is being funded by the tax.
The memo explains all that, and then includes a paragraph that addresses a key point of philosophy: “Remaining funding is anticipated to provide new funds for street and storm water infrastructure which would enhance rather than supplant existing general fund, gas tax or storm water funding for these infrastructure projects.” Yes, city memo language can be a cure for insomnia. But let me translate for you: The key phrase is “enhance rather than supplant.” In other words, we are going to keep spending all that we spend today on streets, and this sales tax money will be new money that we’ll add on top of it. That sentiment was expressed many times on the campaign trail.
But that is not what is being proposed, and it is not what has happened the past few years. I’ve already told you the city’s contracted street maintenance fund is scheduled to receive $1.69 million less in funding in 2017 than it did in 2008 before the sales tax was approved.
But let’s take a look at the specifics. The street maintenance fund gets money from a variety of city sources.
— In 2017, it is proposed to get $2 million from the general fund, which is primarily property taxes. In 2008, it received at least $2.1 million in general fund dollars. (I think it is closer to $2.55 million, but the records are little difficult to understand on that point.)
— In 2017, it is proposed to receive $140,000 in storm water funds, which comes from a special fee on your utility bill. In 2008, it received $540,000 in storm water funds.
— In 2017, it is proposed to receive $200,000 in gas tax funds, which comes from a state-imposed tax on gasoline. In 2008, it received $690,000 in gas tax funds.
— In 2008, the street maintenance fund also received $850,000 from the countywide 1-cent sales tax, which is a different sales tax from the infrastructure sales tax approved by voters in 2008. As proposed for 2017, the street maintenance fund will receive no countywide sales tax dollars. Much of the countywide sales tax dollars that the city had available to it have now been committed to paying for Rock Chalk Park.
It is important to note that the city is proposing to use $800,000 in infrastructure sales tax money for the street maintenance fund. That is money that wasn’t available in 2008. But, as you can see, the city has reduced funding from other sources by an amount much greater than $800,000. Basically, for every new dollar the city has put into the fund, it has taken two old dollars out.
If you think this is something the new city manager has come up with, you are incorrect. The city started doing this well before Tom Markus arrived earlier this year. We reported last year that the 2015 contracted street maintenance budget had dropped to $2.8 million after city officials took money from the fund for other purposes.
So, are city commissioners breaking a political promise when it comes to streets? Honestly, I’m not that interested in answering the question. The answer will be subjective, and won’t have much bearing on what happens in the future. It certainly appears that street maintenance funding is different from what voters were told in 2008, but a lot of things have changed since 2008. The city has had financial issues it has had to address. The truth is, the folks who campaigned in 2008 for the sales tax had no way of promising what future city commissions would do with future budgets. That’s why when it comes to promises, there are many I would prefer rather than political ones.
What happens going forward, though, is important. City engineers say they ought to be spending about $6 million a year in contracted street maintenance to stay ahead of the curve. Whether that number is entirely accurate is probably debatable too.
But it seems there is a reasonable question to ask at City Hall these days: Is the city going to fall behind on street maintenance again? If the answer is yes, you need to answer another question: What city spending are you going to cut, or what taxes are you going to raise?
Don’t ask me. I think it may be easier to figure out the tattoo.