Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
After a week of vacation, I’ve got hotels on my mind and my credit card. (I learned that in southern California you’ll spend $70 to park your rental car at the hotel. But, on the bright side, it didn’t cost me anything other than blood pressure medicine to park for hours at a time on the freeway system.) All this is to say I’ve got a few more details on Lawrence’s latest hotel project.
We reported in August that a deal was in the works for a new hotel to be built in eastern Lawrence where Don’s Steakhouse used to be near 23rd and O’Connell. But back then details were slim on what hotel was coming to the location. Well, I’ve now learned that a Country Inn & Suites is slated to go on the property.
Area businessman Mark Gwaltney, who is leading the development group, confirmed that the hotel chain has approved moving ahead with the project. Country Inn & Suites is kind of a late entrant to the project. Back in August, Gwaltney had told city officials that he was working with the large IHG hotel group on an extended-stay hotel, which led to speculation that IHG was bringing its Candlewood Suites brand to town.
But my understanding now is that IHG has a different Lawrence location in mind for that project. If you remember, we’ve also reported that the former Ramada Inn site near Sixth and Iowa streets is looking for a new hotel brand. A Candlewood could be a real possibility for that site.
As for Country Inn & Suites, it is part of the hotel group that has the various Radisson brand of hotels. The company describes Country Inn & Suites as an “upper midscale” hotel. Plans filed at City Hall call for a three-story building and 89 hotel rooms, plus a separate structure for an indoor pool. According to the hotel chain’s website, other amenities include a fitness center, free high-speed internet, free cookies and, importantly, complimentary hot breakfasts. (No, breakfast was not complimentary at my Disneyland hotel, and Donald Duck did not take it as a compliment when I asked if he came with orange sauce.)
The site plan application filed at City Hall lists the project to have about a $5.5 million construction value.
Gwaltney said he hopes to break ground on the project before the end of the year, but said that may be optimistic. The project will occupy the site where Don’s Steakhouse previously was located, which is on the north side 23rd Street, just west of O’Connell. The project also will demolish the old Diamond Everley Roofing headquarters, which is just east of the Don’s Steakhouse business.
Plans filed at City Hall show that portion of the property housing a restaurant. Gwaltney confirmed no deal has been struck for a restaurant yet. He said now that the hotel company has committed to the project, they’ll start reaching out to potential restaurant operators. He said they’ll look at both sit-down restaurants and fast food chains for the location.
Gwaltney is predicting the area around 23rd and O’Connell will change quite a bit in the future. He said he’s trying to get ahead of the changes by redeveloping the old Diamond Everley site — he’s an executive with that company — and the old steakhouse property.
“I just envision the area becoming more of a hub, more like what you would see on south Iowa Street or Sixth Street,” Gwaltney said. “I think the whole area is going to see a lot of renovation. I think the land will become more valuable than many of the old businesses that are on it.”
Others are thinking that way too. In recent weeks, the old Knights of Columbus building has again been listed on the market. As we reported last year, the Knights closed its longtime banquet facility that is just north and east of 23rd and O’Connell. The approximately two-acre property had been on the market, but then the for-sale signs disappeared. They have now reappeared. I talked briefly with Lance Johnson, the commercial broker listing the property. He said no deal is imminent, but said the changing nature of the area should attract interest in the property.
Both the Knights of Columbus property and the proposed hotel site are adjacent to the city’s new Venture Park business park, which is one of the reasons that Gwaltney said a hotel development makes sense for the site. But what is more likely to spark development in the area is the pending opening of the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway next month.
Others have been predicting new development near the 23rd and O’Connell intersection for quite awhile. A development group led by Doug Compton and Bill Newsome helped build the development at the southeast corner of the intersection that houses Tractor Supply. The development has additional space for retailers — a grocery store has long been on the wish list — but the project has failed to attract any new tenants since Tractor Supply came to the site more than five years ago.
One of the reasons why that development hasn’t taken off is because there are still lots of open green fields near the site. But that may be changing. It will be interesting to see if an eastside housing boom takes place on the large amounts of open land west of O’Connell Road.
Already construction work is underway on apartments on the east side of O’Connell Road, a bit south of 23rd Street. Lawrence businessman Roger Johnson also has begun building homes in a new subdivision west of O’Connell Road behind Tractor Supply and a bit west of the Douglas County Jail. I’ve had real estate agents tell me those homes will sell well because they can come in at lower price points than homes in west Lawrence.
There’s lots of open land west of O’Connell Road. The area will be more accessible when the eastern interchange of the SLT opens just a few blocks away. Some of you remember when the eastern part of Lawrence went through a housing boom in the 1990s and the Prairie Park neighborhood was created. That neighborhood was billed as working-class homes that were more affordable than what was being built further west. As affordable housing becomes the buzz phrase at City Hall, we’ll see whether developers turn to eastern Lawrence again.
Report predicts biggest jump in years for Lawrence home prices; date set for SLT ribbon cutting; update on local’s effort to win Kelly Ripa contest
I once was in the market for a beachfront home. I told the realtor my price range. I was encouraged when she didn’t laugh. I was less encouraged when she showed me a blanket. Lawrence’s real estate market hasn’t reached that extreme, but realtors are seeing significant price increases. A new report is predicting even more in 2017.
Home prices in Lawrence are expected to finish 2016 up 5.1 percent, and are predicted to rise another 4.1 percent in 2017, according to a new report from the Wichita State University Center for Real Estate.
Lawrence hasn’t seen that type of growth in home prices in quite some time. Since 2012, the average annual increase in Lawrence home prices has been just 0.8 percent. Rising home prices are consistent with what local real estate agents have been reporting throughout 2016: the supply of homes is in short supply, thus prices are rising.
The WSU report, which was delivered to the Lawrence Board of Realtors on Thursday, confirmed that trend. The report called Lawrence’s supply of homes for sale “incredibly tight.” The trend of an undersupply of homes isn’t a new one for Lawrence. The report highlighted that the number of homes available for sale in Lawrence has consistently trailed the national average since 2014.
The spike in home prices will create several questions. Perhaps the largest is whether Lawrence homebuilders will increase their pace of building. Even as home sales have increased in Lawrence in recent years, the number of new single family homes under construction has remained pretty flat, or has fallen in some years. The report predicts 2016 will finish relatively flat — 225 new housing starts in Lawrence and Douglas County compared to 221 in 2015. The report is predicting a slight decline in 2017 to 220 single family housing starts.
That’s in contrast to what is happening in the Kansas City market. As home sales increase in the metro, so too has home construction. Kansas City home starts are estimated to rise by 22 percent in 2016, and another 4 percent in 2017.
The report wasn’t real clear on why Lawrence home construction isn’t surging more, but in my talks with some real estate professionals, I hear a couple of factors. Local homebuilders still remember the pain that the recession created and are being cautious. Plus, Carl Cline, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors, said there is probably an even more practical reason the numbers haven’t surged.
“We only have so many builders, and so many builders can only build so many homes,” Cline said. “We lost a large number of builders in the financial debacle.”
But I also hear that the average price point of a new home in Lawrence is making it tough on builders.
For example, through August, the median selling price of a newly constructed home in Lawrence was $314,450. The median selling price for an existing home was $171,000. That’s a big gap, and I’ve had real estate agents tell me buyers may not be seeing enough value in new homes. That may change, though, if the price of existing homes rise but builders are able to keep the price of new homes relatively steady. It also will be interesting to see if builders undertake more projects outside of west Lawrence neighborhoods, which traditionally come with some pretty big price tags. New construction out near 23rd and O’Connell in eastern Lawrence, for example, won’t be producing many homes of more than $300,000.
There is one other important reason to keep an eye on home prices. If home prices do increase at the rates predicted by the WSU report, that would make it more likely that homeowners will see higher assessed values on their property tax bills.
The Douglas County Appraiser’s office is tasked with determining what the fair market value of every home in the county is as of Jan. 1. That work is underway. Property owners will receive change of value notices in March. For the last several years, tax values for most properties haven’t gone up much. Now, tax bills have still increased in many cases because several governments have increased their property tax rates, i.e. mill levies.
Property owners from the 1990s and early 2000s, though, still remember when tax values often did rise by 5 percent or more. If that happens, and mill levies continue to rise, that would be a double whammy for taxpayers. But, I still think it is too early to predict that tax values actually will rise by 5 percent.
The Douglas County Appraiser’s most recent report had mixed signals on that front. The report said the office had analyzed all the sales made during the first half of 2016. It compared the selling price of those homes to the tax value that had been assigned to those homes. The selling prices were, on average, about 1.7 percent higher than the tax values. That would indicate some upward adjustment of tax values may be warranted, but that’s quite a bit less than 5 percent.
The appraiser’s report, though, did note that it also had evaluated the selling prices of some homes through the end of August. That analysis found the selling price of an average three-bedroom, two-bath home with 1,300 to 1,800 square feet was $184,987. That’s up 9.5 percent from the same time period a year ago. What the data shows in the next few months probably will be key in determining how much tax values rise.
Other findings from the WSU report include:
— Home sales in Lawrence and Douglas County are expected to finish 2016 at about 1,400 homes, up about 1 percent from 2015 totals. Home sales for 2017 are predicted to come in at 1,510 units, which would be about an 8 percent increase.
— Mortgage rates are predicted to remain low through 2017, with rates for a 30-year mortgage predicted to remain below 4.5 percent. While 4.5 percent is historically very low, that would represent an increase. Mortgage rates for 30-year loans are closer to 3.5 percent nationally.
The WSU report also provided projections for other Kansas communities. Those include:
— Kansas City: Sales growth of 4.4 percent, and an increase of 4.2 percent in home prices in 2017.
— Manhattan: Sales growth of 6 percent and an increase of 4.7 percent in home prices in 2017.
— Topeka: Sales growth of 2 percent and an increase of 1.9 percent in home prices in 2017.
— Wichita: Sales growth of 5 percent and an increase of 3.5 percent in home prices in 2017.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I’ve gotten word that a date has been set for the ribbon cutting of the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway. KDOT plans to have a ribbon cutting at 10 a.m. on Nov. 4 near the eastern end of the SLT, or near the intersection of E 1750 Road, which is also known as Noria Road.
Do not, however, plan to start driving on the SLT right away. My understanding is the road won’t actually open to traffic on Nov. 4. KDOT is still saying the road will open before Thanksgiving, but an exact date hasn’t been set. The road looks largely completed, but there is some ancillary work still being done on the site. Also, KDOT has said it wants to make various safety improvements to the intersection of the SLT and Kasold Drive extended. That intersection is on the western portion of the SLT, which has long been open. KDOT officials, though, expect traffic on the western leg of the SLT to increase significantly once the eastern leg of the trafficway is open. Thus, KDOT wants to complete those improvements before the eastern leg opens. Those improvements shouldn’t take long — they involve some barriers to limit turning motions — but work hasn’t yet started on that project.
Expect the ribbon cutting on Nov. 4 to be a big deal. The SLT project has been in the works for more than two decades, has been the subject of at least two major federal lawsuits, and many more protests. It also has been touted as one of the most important regional transportation projects for the state, providing a more direct route from Topeka to Johnson County. Look for the road to change traffic patterns in Lawrence significantly. It already is creating development pressure, evidenced by the new and proposed retail development along south Iowa Street.
U.S. Sen Pat Roberts, as we reported, was in Lawrence Thursday. In a brief conversation I had with him, he told me he plans to attend the ribbon cutting. His office was instrumental in securing federal funding for the project. Roberts estimated he worked a good 11 years on funding issues for the road. Given that, he said he knows what one of his messages will be at the ribbon cutting.
“Sometimes you just have to be persistent,” Roberts said.
Roberts said he remains convinced that the trafficway will play a key role in creating a high-tech corridor between Manhattan and the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility there and Kansas City and the large animal health sciences industry that exists in the metro.
• Since we are speaking of U.S. senators, just a quick note that Kansas’ other senator, Jerry Moran, also was in Lawrence on Thursday. Moran was getting a briefing on some federal research grant money at KU. We tried to catch up with Moran to ask him a few questions about his campaign, the current environment and other matters, but were unsuccessful. His press representatives said Moran didn’t have any media availability during his visit to Lawrence.
• Just like I’ve had to put that beach house dream on hold (someday I’m going to be able to afford a blanket and an umbrella), it looks like one Lawrence resident will have to put on hold her dream of being a co-host on Kelly Ripa’s popular daytime talk show Live! with Kelly.
As we have reported, Lawrence resident Courtenay DeHoff was named a finalist in a competition to be a co-host for a day on the “Live! with Kelly” talk show. This week she was named one of the 10 finalists based on a video tape she sent in and voting by the show’s audience.
On Friday, though, DeHoff was not among the five finalists announced by the show.
• One housekeeping note, Town Talk will be off next week. Unless I find a really cheap beach house, the column should resume Oct. 24.
More on the latest chicken chain; update on a Lawrence resident’s effort to win Kelly Ripa contest; local business awards and Habitat for Humanity fundraiser
As promised earlier this week, I’ve talked with the executive who is bringing the chicken chain Slim Chickens to Lawrence. Yes, I’ve got more detailed information about when and where that chain will locate in Lawrence, but more importantly we may be one step closer to figuring out why we may wake up one morning to learn Lawrence is being run by fingerless chickens.
In talking with Slim Chickens franchisee Mark Killeen — who was an executive in the Applebee’s chain for many years — there are at least two reasons Lawrence is seeing an explosion of chicken restaurants and menus of chicken fingers: There is only so much more you can do with a hamburger, and millennials love chicken.
“I think we have gone through the burger revolution,” Killeen said. “There are plenty of those restaurants. Chicken tenders became a big staple with millennials. It just seems like a natural progression.”
As for Slim Chickens’ pending entry into the Lawrence market, look for it to happen near Sixth and Wakarusa. Killeen confirmed his company has purchased the former KFC location along Wakarusa Drive. Renovation work will begin soon, and Killeen hopes to have the restaurant open by mid-January.
Killeen also confirmed he has a deal to purchase the former BarbWire Steakhouse building at 2412 Iowa St. Killeen said demolition of that building could begin in the near term, but he said it will be a bit longer before the company opens a Slim Chickens at that location. Killeen said he also has franchise opportunities in other communities. The Wakarusa Drive store will be his first, a location in Wichita likely will be his second, and the Iowa Street spot may be his third. He’s not ruling out that it all could happen relatively quickly.
“We need to get our feet underneath us with the store on Wakarusa,” he said. “But we probably could have three restaurants in Kansas in the next six months or so.”
Killeen said the explosion of chicken restaurants in Lawrence doesn’t worry him. In case you have forgotten, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chick-fil-A, Wing Stop, Popeyes, Raising Cane’s, and Zaxby’s have all either opened in Lawrence or are under construction.
Killeen said Slim Chickens uses high quality chicken that has never been frozen, and its dips and sauces set the restaurant apart. They are all made on site, and there are up to a dozen dipping sauces and about 10 wing sauces available.
“You are going to have choice,” Killeen said. “You are not going to have to stick to two or three items. You have a lot of flavors to choose from, and great variety is something people really like to have.”
Indeed, the millennial generation may well be the sauce generation. Years ago I remember wondering what was in my younger cousin’s Fruit Loops that caused her to order ranch dressing so she could dip her pizza into it. Now, everything gets dipped. (Yes, I realize I am getting very close to sounding like a grumpy old man complaining about those “dang dipping kids.”) If you read marketing or restaurant industry websites, you will see that them come up. One said chicken wings may be the “ultimate millennial food.” The variety of sauces available at most wing locations — and now chicken tender restaurants — speaks out to the generation.
“It allows them to create their own experience and therefore speaks out more than other restaurants,” Jeff Fromm at Millennial Marketing wrote in 2013. “While they want to be served, they also want the freedom to put their own signature on the dishes they’ll later devour alongside their friends or family.”
So, for what it is worth, those are the best guesses about the chicken explosion we’ve seen in Lawrence. The bigger question may be whether it is done. I’m not sure, but there are a couple of other locations to keep an eye on for fast food additions. I’ve certainly heard that restaurants are interested in the former Jayhawk Bookstore location, which sits atop Mt. Oread and is a rare piece of commercial property adjacent to the KU campus. I’ll try to get you an update on that location. I do believe the property has changed hands since the store closed earlier this year, and it is being marketed to potential tenants.
The other location is the former site of the Cadillac Ranch, 2515 W. Sixth St. I’ve heard a redevelopment into a fast-food location is a possibility, although no deals have been struck.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe Lawrence’s fried chicken phenomenon will make it on national TV. If you recall, Lawrence resident Courtenay DeHoff is a finalist to be a co-host for a day on the “Live! with Kelly” talk show.
If DeHoff is chosen, and host Kelly Ripa asks how everything is in Lawrence, surely she will bring up the chicken situation. That’s what I always lead with, although it is kind of necessary to explain why I have wing sauce on my glasses. What will DeHoff do? As they say in the TV business, stay tuned. As we reported earlier this month, DeHoff — a Tonganoxie native — was one of 20 finalists selected from across the country to serve as Ripa’s special co-host for a day.
Well, the latest on DeHoff is that she still very much is in the running to win the competition. The show has announced that DeHoff is one of the 10 remaining finalists. According to DeHoff’s Facebook page, she expects to learn on Friday whether she is one of the Top 5 finalists. If she makes that cut, the show’s producers will fly her to New York to be on an upcoming episode where the winner is announced.
We will update you on Friday.
• It is not chicken and it doesn’t involve Kelly Ripa (as far as I know) but a Lawrence restaurant has been named a big winner. Lawrence’s Leeway Franks has been named the Minority-Owned Retail Firm of the Year by the Kansas Department of Commerce.
As we reported, Leeway Franks opened last year, and it has since become a real hit in Lawrence. The business makes homemade bratwursts, hot dogs, plus other sausages and sandwiches, and also has gained a following for homemade tater tots that can come with brown gravy or cheese sauce.
Even though it may not be able to compete in the gravy category, one other Lawrence business won a big award at the Department of Commerce’s Minority Enterprise Development ceremony. Lawrence-based A.S.K. Associates was named the Women-Owned Professional Service Firm of the Year.
The company provides conference and event planning services for clients across the country, and also has a division that provides information technology services to clients.
• Speaking of efforts that involve women leading the way, there will be a fundraiser tomorrow evening celebrating such a program with Lawrence’s Habitat for Humanity.
The Happy Homes Happy Hour is the biggest fundraiser of the year for Habitat’s Women Build program. In addition to food, drinks, live music and an auction, the event also will feature the unveiling of the 2017 Women Build calendar that features 12 prominent Lawrence women modeling ‘40s style looks.
The event is set from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at The Oread. Tickets for the event are $35, which includes a calendar, or $20 without a calendar. Tickets are available at Habitat’s website.
Let’s be honest: We members of the public sometimes can be annoying.
After having covered Lawrence City Commission meetings for more than two decades, I saw that firsthand on many Tuesday evenings. So many public comments about so many different topics. Even though the length of those public comments, or their tone, or their repetitive nature could become annoying, they are a very important part of the process. They help ensure that public officials don’t govern in an echo chamber.
One public government that receives little public feedback is the Lawrence school board. The amount of public participation in a Lawrence school board meeting pales in comparison to the amount of participation at a Lawrence City Commission meeting. Think about it: There have been far more public debates about roundabouts and stop sign placements than there have been about how our children are educated. Granted, the school board does get public comment. Talk about closing a school, and the meeting room is packed. But on a week-in-week-out basis, public participation in a school board meeting is negligible compared to a City Commission meeting.
I’ve been thinking about why that is. It could be that everybody agrees the board is doing a great job, so no need to come say anything at a meeting. I do think the school district does a good job at many things — as the city does, as well — but I don’t think that is the answer. I believe it is because the public often has a hard time knowing what the school board is talking about.
Recently, the newspaper opined about the lack of notice the public received regarding the school board’s decision to allow condoms to be available through the health offices of Lawrence High and Free State High. The public received no meaningful notice that issue was going to be discussed at that board meeting. When the agenda was posted, and when the Journal-World reported on that agenda, the condom issue wasn’t on it. It was added after the fact with no notice to the public that the topic had been added. Regardless of how you feel about the condom issue, it is unfortunate the public wasn’t better notified.
Another example occurred at Monday’s school board meeting. The school board was scheduled to receive a report, which is a big part of what the school board does. This one was on the district’s efforts to have a more racially diverse staff. The agenda listed that the board would receive such a report, but, as is often the case with the school board, the report itself was not included on the agenda. That is far different from how the city operates. If the City Commission is to receive a report, the public almost always has the benefit of seeing the report at the time the agenda is released.
The Journal-World’s K-12 education reporter on Friday contacted a district official to find out what the report said because she knows her editor is a stickler for such things. I’m a big believer in providing details before a meeting so that the public can make an informed decision about whether it wants to add its opinion to the topic.
Based on that interview, we wrote an article about how the data shows a 25 percent increase in the number of people of color employed by the district in the last two years. But that is a broad number that includes everything from cooks to janitors to teachers. Parents may be more interested in how the district is doing at attracting teachers or principals of color. The article included a caveat that those numbers weren’t yet available.
By Monday’s meeting they were, and they didn’t sound quite as good as the 25 percent growth rate that was the headline of our article. The report found that of the district’s classroom, or certified, staff there were: 965 who are white, 32 who are Hispanic; 20 who are black; 11 who are American Indian; five who are Asian and two who are Pacific Islander.
To their credit, district leaders aren’t saying these numbers are good. But it would have been good for the public to see them in advance. Members of the public could have decided whether they wanted to come hear the discussion for themselves and offer opinion. Certainly matters of race, equity and diversity have been known to draw large amounts of public opinion.
Perhaps more importantly, it would have been good for school board members to see the numbers in advance. School board members receive the numbers the same time the public does. To give school board members exclusive access to the numbers would be a violation of open government laws. If school board members have the full report ahead of time, they could come to the meeting better prepared with questions.
There has got to be a way to improve upon this situation. Many governments figure out how to supply adequate information to the public before their meetings. It will just take a bit of planning and commitment to do so.
It will be well worth the time, because an engaged public can be a valuable asset for any government. There is no government in Douglas County more in need of a valuable asset than the Lawrence Public School District. Public schools are facing a funding crisis. To avert it will require the political will of legislators and the governor.
The body that forges political will is the public — also known as the people who don’t attend school board meetings.
New sushi restaurant opens near Sixth and Kasold; new Chinese restaurant with lots of spice, exotic dishes opens near Sixth and Iowa
Fortunately, I’ve never had a problem finding people to throw food at me. But if you rely on one of those Japanese steakhouses with a theatrical chef who slices, dices and then uses a spatula to throw an octopus into your mouth, you have one less option in Lawrence. Lawrence’s Kokoro Japanese Steakhouse has closed, but a new restaurant that aims to bring the taste of California sushi has opened.
Under the Sea has opened in the Westridge Shopping Center at Sixth and Kasold in the location that until a couple of weeks ago housed Kokoro. The new restaurant will focus on sushi and less so on the Japanese steakhouse style of food.
“We’ve got really good quality sushi, and that is what we want to focus on,” said owner Kevin Park.
Park said he’s been a sushi chef for the last eight years in California, and another chef at the restaurant has been a sushi chef for the last 15 years, also in California. So, I guess you could say that the restaurant is California-style sushi, although I don’t know exactly what that means. Some of you, however, may. Park said the perception on the coasts is that sushi is growing in popularity in the Midwest, and that is one of the reasons he decided to start the Lawrence venture. He said he came to Lawrence, in part, because it had a fair number of sushi establishments, which he said was a sign that the market had a taste for the Japanese cuisine.
As for the menu, Under the Sea features about 20 sushi varieties, including tuna, salmon, yellow tail, octopus, and more exotic offerings such as smelt roe, surf clam and fresh water eel. The menu also includes more than 30 classic and fresh sushi rolls, including snow crab, California and Spicy Salmon rolls. The restaurant also serves tempura (or batter-fried) dishes, among several other combination platters and other offerings.
And, if you like watching your food be made, there is still an opportunity for that. While the elaborate Japenese steakhouse routine is gone, the restaurant does have a sushi bar where you can watch as a chef prepares your dish.
• The Asian food market has been a busy one in Lawrence. I also have news of a new Chinese restaurant that has opened on Sixth Street. Szechuan House has opened in the former home of Panda Garden, 1500 W. Sixth St., which closed earlier this year after its owners retired.
It too comes to Lawrence from afar. I chatted briefly with Tina Wei, who described herself as the operator of the restaurant. She said she came to Lawrence from New York to open the restaurant. Just like Under the Sea, it wasn’t clear to me what caused Lawrence to stand out over other communities, but whatever the case, there is no shortage of Asian cuisine entrepreneurs who are coming to Lawrence. This is at least the fourth one I’ve written about in the last few months — Nagoya Japanese Cuisine in the Malls Shopping Center at 23rd and Louisiana and the Thai Diner in the Louisiana Purchase shopping center near 23rd and Louisiana are a couple of others I’ve reported.
As for Szechuan House, I believe the “house” part of the name may refer to overnight living quarters for people who want to fully read the menu. In other words, the menu is huge. There are more than 200 dishes listed on the menu. That includes appetizers, soups, rice and noodle dishes, vegetarian, chicken and duck, beef and lamb, seafood, pork, pickled pepper dishes, poached dishes, something called gan guo served in a “hot pot,” black curded bean dishes and several others.
The menu lists about 20 house specialties and some of them will test your desire for the exotic, including: intestines and fish; one dish that makes marketing professionals squirm because it is simply labeled seaweed, mussel, fish ball, fatty beef and pork blood; and another dish that may make the annoying AFLAC duck squirm but may intrigue the rest of us who are tired of those commercials — spicy duck tongue.
Spicy is a key word on the menu. The menu explains that Szechuan cuisine is “characterized by its spice and pungent flavors,” and emphasizes the use of chili. A spice called prickly ash also is often used, along with garlic, ginger and fermented soybeans. So, if you don’t like spicy food, beware, although I’m sure there are some ways to avoid the heat. The duck found one, although he may not recommend it.
Hot spending pace continues in Lawrence with sales up $70 million so far; eastern Lawrence retailer opens; signs of expansion at tech center
The latest retail sales report shows spending totals surged in Lawrence, and they don’t even yet include the expenditures on earplugs, blinders and vulgarity detectors needed to get through the last month of the presidential campaign.
Instead, the latest report from the Kansas Department of Revenue shows spending that primarily happened in August. The report builds on a nearly yearlong theme of Lawrence being one of the hottest retail markets in the state.
For the month, sales tax collections in Lawrence were up 7.1 percent compared with the same month a year ago. The more impressive number is the year-to-date total. Thus far in 2016, local sales tax collections are 5.5 percent — or about $1 million — ahead of last year’s total. To put that in perspective, the totals show that Lawrence consumers have spent nearly $70 million more in 2016 than they did during the same period of 2015.
The sales tax totals are good news for Lawrence City Hall. The city budgeted for a surge in sales tax collections, but it did not plan on an increase of more than 5 percent. Instead, it budgeted for a 3.7 percent increase. If the city can finish the year with an increase of 5 percent or more, it will result in a windfall of several hundred thousand dollars to the city budget. But we are about ready to enter the key period for the retail season. A poor Christmas shopping season could quickly reverse these numbers.
Here’s a look at how Lawrence is stacking up compared with other large retail centers in the state. All numbers are year-to-date, compared with the same period a year ago:
— Lawrence: up 5.5 percent
— Olathe: up 3.4 percent
— Topeka: up 3.0 percent
— Overland Park: up 2.4 percent
— Manhattan: up 1.6 percent
— Kansas City: up 1.4 percent
— Johnson County: up 1.4 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 1.0 percent
— Salina: down 2.8 percent
— Lenexa: down 4.7 percent
In other news and notes from around town:
• As we have been reporting for several months, the shopping center at 19th and Haskell is set to get a boost with the opening of a new Dollar General store. Well, the wait is over for eastern Lawrence residents. The Dollar General store has opened in the past few days. The store has announced that it is holding a grand opening ceremony at 8 a.m. Saturday, which will include several giveaways.
As I suspect you already know, Dollar General sells housewares, cleaning supplies, health and beauty, basic apparel, and some food, among other items. The new store, which was built in a portion of the parking lot of the old shopping center, employs about 10 people, the company said.
The new store definitely is the most significant development for the old shopping center in years. It will be interesting to see if the store and the additional traffic it brings to the area spurs more redevelopment of the rundown property.
• Keep your ears open for what could be an exciting development at the Peaslee Tech vocational education center in southeast Lawrence. I’m hearing that officials there are working on a deal to add a new automotive technician degree program, and may be close to finalizing a deal.
The program would teach students — likely both adult and high school — the necessary skills to enter the automotive repair industry. I think the program would involve a partnership between an area community college, local automotive dealers and others.
I’ve got a call in to the Peaslee Tech center to get more details, but I have heard from multiple sources that such a deal is in the works. I’ll let you know when I hear more.
In case you have forgotten, Peaslee Tech is the relatively new vocational education center that is run through a partnership with community colleges, local economic development organizations, and city and county tax dollars. It also has been successful in tapping into private fundraising from industry leaders to make improvements at the center, which is near 31st and Haskell.
Another fast-food chicken chain coming to south Iowa Street; maybe Lawrence has more vacant apartments than once thought
Heaven help us, the chickens are multiplying, and this time they’ve gotten their hands on a wrecking ball. Plans are in the works for another fast-food, fried chicken chain to open on south Iowa Street, and the project will involve tearing down a fairly large building along the corridor.
I’ve been telling you for weeks that I’ve heard speculation that a fried chicken chain called Slim Chickens wants to come to Lawrence. I had heard the chain was looking to locate at the old KFC building near Sixth and Wakarusa, but this Slim Chicken may be a wily bird. It now appears the restaurant is set to locate in the former Barbed Wire Steakhouse building at 2412 Iowa St.
City officials have confirmed that a demolition permit has been filed for the 2412 Iowa building, and the permit provides information that says the replacement structure on the site will be a Slim Chickens restaurant.
But I also think that there is a strong possibility that Slim Chickens also will open a restaurant at the Sixth and Wakarusa site. No, that doesn’t sound very slim. It sounds like this chicken has some weight behind it, and plans to throw it around in what is becoming a crowded Lawrence chicken market. In case you have forgotten, the market recently has added Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, a new Buffalo Wild Wings, a Wing Stop, Raising Cane’s, and a Zaxby’s is under construction in the Bauer Farm development near Sixth and Wakarusa.
As for Slim Chickens, I’ll find out more about that chain soon. I’m tentatively scheduled to meet with one of the Lawrence leaders of the chain next week. I’ll get the official scoop then, but if there is one thing I’ve learned about chicken in this town, it is that news of it cannot wait. (If there is a second thing I have learned, it is that pointing to an empty bucket of chicken in the passenger seat and grease on the steering wheel will not get you out of a reckless driving ticket.)
I do have a bit of information about Slim Chickens from the chain’s website. The restaurant’s tag line is “tenders, wings and more,” so not surprisingly the menu has lots of combinations of wings and tenders. It looks like it has almost 10 dipping sauces, ranging from honey mustard to mango habanero to cayenne ranch. In addition, there are about 10 other wing sauces with various levels of heat. The menu also features some salads, sandwiches and wraps.
I should be able to let you know more next week.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The project on the old Barbed Wire site will eliminate one of the larger vacant properties along south Iowa Street. In case you are confused about the location, it more recently has been Wilde’s Chateau 24, a bar and dance club that I never entered because you had to know the hip way to spell Wild to gain entry. The building, though, was built for Barbed Wire Steakhouse, an earlier version of a Texas Roadhouse style chain. But as someone mentioned to me, that was a long time ago.
Regardless, the vacancy rate along south Iowa Street is set to go down. The commercial vacancy rate is one that city leaders try to keep abreast of. However, that’s not the case with another key vacancy rate: the apartment vacancy rate. It seems like it is a guessing game to know how many vacant apartments there are in Lawrence.
Well, I have some new data on that front, although I’m not willing to declare it definitive. The Census Bureau last month released its 2015 American Community Survey results for cities of 65,000 population and greater. That survey includes an estimated vacancy rate for apartments.
Lawrence’s estimated rate checked in at 10.5 percent. The Census Bureau survey has some limitations, and as a result its margin of error is 3.5 percent. That means the vacancy rate could be as low as 7 percent or as high as 14 percent. Regardless, any of those numbers are significantly different from what we’ve reported. We had a recent article about the number of potential new apartments that could be built in Lawrence, and a privately produced report estimated the vacancy rate at 3 percent and on the decline since 2011. An older Census Bureau survey estimated it at 5.3 percent with a margin of error of 1.5 percent plus or minus.
I couldn’t tell you what number is accurate. I doubt anyone at City Hall can either. It seems like an important issue. City Hall leaders are contemplating two issues where having an accurate vacancy rate would be important: 1. They’re considering regulations that could make it more difficult to build apartment complexes on the edge of town, in an effort to limit urban sprawl; 2. They are trying to come up with solutions on affordable housing.
If the city really does have a vacancy rate of more than 10 percent, that likely means there are a significant number of empty apartments in older complexes in the central part of the city. It seems like that would be good information to know before the city embarks on a plan to provide incentives or other assistance to build new affordable housing units. Perhaps it is time to for the city to contract for a comprehensive vacancy rate study of the apartment market.
For what it is worth, here is the Census Bureau's estimates of vacancy rates for some other Kansas communities, with the margin of error in parenthesis.
— Lawrence: 10.5 (3.5)
— Overland Park: 7.9 (3.5)
— Olathe: 2.6 (2.4)
— Topeka: 12.5 (4.2)
— Wichita: 8.1 (1.9)
“Affordable housing” is as big of a buzzword at City Hall as “Halloween candy” is in my household. So, city leaders don’t need any extra push to work on the affordable housing issue, but they have gotten a national reminder anyway. A new report is out that lists Lawrence as the most expensive city in the state of Kansas.
The financial news site 24/7 Wall Street — which provides its content to large national sites like USA Today, MSN, Time and others — has listed the most expensive city in every state, based on 2014 cost of living data from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The report, which was getting big billing on MSN.com earlier this week, has good news and bad news in it for Lawrence. The good news is that the cost of living in Lawrence is 5.7 percent less than the national average. So, it is still cheaper to live in Lawrence than in lots of other places in the country. However, lots of those other places are not in Kansas. The report found the average cost of living in a Kansas community is 9.3 percent less expensive than the national average. So, a little math tells us that Lawrence is about 3.6 percent more expensive than the average Kansas place.
Although that is not a great number for Lawrence, it isn’t terrible either. Sometimes when you hear people talk about Lawrence you would think it costs 30 percent more to live here than elsewhere in Kansas, not 3 percent. Think of it this way: If Lawrence residents just made 3 percent more than the average Kansan, Lawrence’s higher prices essentially would be negated. But that’s not the case. Instead, Lawrence’s median household income is about 15 percent lower than the statewide average.
In other words, if Lawrence has an affordability problem, it may not be because goods and services cost so much more here. It may be because we just make less money than other communities. I know this is not a new revelation, but it is one I find worth repeating nonetheless.
One other point to note about this report: I’m not sure it really can definitively state that Lawrence is the most expensive city in the state. I think it would be more accurate to state that it is the most expensive metro area in the state of Kansas. The report’s authors didn’t look at every city in the state, but rather every metro area. That’s significant because every Johnson County community is included in the Kansas City metro area, which for the purposes of this study was counted toward Missouri. I still think it is more expensive, for instance, to live in Overland Park. I would guess that’s definitely the case for a place like Mission Hills, which I’m pretty sure is a real place, but can’t confirm because every time my old beat-up F150 and I ask for directions, we end up in Edgerton.
But there are other numbers that put Lawrence’s cost of living into perspective. The U.S. Census Bureau last month released new 2015 figures for cities greater than 65,000 in population. So, here’s a look at some data related to housing, rentals, and incomes: (Note: Manhattan, one of my favorite cities to compare us with, isn't large enough to have been included in this latest Census report.)
Median value of owner-occupied housing
— Lawrence: $179,100
— Overland Park: $249,000
— Olathe: $207,700
— Topeka: $102,800
— Wichita: $124,400
— Lawrence: $814
— Overland Park: $1,022
— Olathe: $912
— Topeka: $744
— Wichita: $734
Median household income:
— Lawrence: $46,564
— Overland Park: $81,144
— Olathe: $80,242
— Topeka: $43,860
— Wichita: $46,894
— Kansas: $53,906
Make of those numbers what you will. Certainly, Lawrence’s household income numbers are affected some by Lawrence being a university community that has lots of students who don’t earn full-time livings. But that doesn’t account for all the difference. As we’ve reported, there’s also some reason to believe Lawrence has an inordinate amount of part-time employees even for a university community.
One thing the numbers tell me is that it may not be accurate to say Lawrence is the most expensive city in the state. Clearly, housing and other goods cost more in Johnson County.
Measuring how expensive an item is only looks at its cost. Measuring how affordable something is also looks at your ability to pay for it. It seems like that is where Lawrence’s struggles are. Perhaps it is an obvious distinction to everyone. Hopefully it is clear to those who are studying affordable housing issues in Lawrence because trying to make housing cheaper in Lawrence will require one set of strategies while trying to raise incomes will require a different set.
A Lawrence resident — thanks to a carrot-eating horse and perhaps even a white pantsuit — is in the running to be a co-host on the national morning talk show "Live! with Kelly."
No, Courtenay DeHoff is not in the running to be the full-time co-host with Emmy Award-winner Kelly Ripa, but she is one of 20 finalists to serve as a co-host for a day on Ripa’s top-rated morning television program. Ripa announced the finalists on the air on Wednesday, and now viewers of the show will vote online — through Oct. 9 — to determine the winner.
If voters like horses, white pantsuits and a combination of the two, DeHoff has to be a front-runner. In her video that she submitted as part of the competition, DeHoff introduced viewers to a workout "cowgirl style." That involved feeding the horse some carrots, some vigorous riding while training her horse to cut a calf (don’t worry city folks, a switchblade is not involved), and some stretching in her white riding suit. DeHoff told viewers a white pantsuit makes every workout a bit more challenging.
I talked just briefly with DeHoff, who confirmed she is a Lawrence resident, which a certain person (perhaps her mother) had called and already told the newspaper. In fact, DeHoff is a native of the area. She grew up in Tonganoxie, and the horse riding scenes were filmed at her parents’ home there. DeHoff has her own production company in Lawrence, and she has been a correspondent on the Better KC program for KCTV5. She also has had various other broadcasting jobs for Rural-TV and other networks.
Ripa, who came to fame as a morning talk show host when she joined forces with Regis Philbin on "Live! with Regis and Kelly," is interviewing multiple celebrities to become her new permanent co-host after Michael Strahan left the show to join Good Morning America.
But Ripa also is hosting a contest where one viewer will serve as a co-host for a day, likely on an episode in mid-October. Viewers can vote once per day until Oct. 9, after which the winner will be announced. People interested in voting can do so here: http://livekelly.com/live/kelly-and-you/
Fire safety in the 1970s largely consisted of a crushed velvet smoking jacket to protect the polyester dress shirt — top six buttons inoperable, of course — from stray ashes. A lot has changed in the fire safety world, which is one of the major reasons Wakarusa Township officials have filed plans to replace a 1970s-era fire station with a larger, higher-tech building.
Plans have been filed with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department to build a two-story, approximately 12,000 square-foot fire station next to Broken Arrow Park, near the intersection of 31st and Louisiana streets.
“The trucks are bigger and we have more of them,” Wakarusa Fire Chief Mike Baxter said of why the station built in 1972 no longer is adequate. “We probably have about $200,000 worth of equipment that sits outside on a pretty regular basis because we don’t have the room for it.”
The new fire station will replace an existing station on the same piece of property next to Broken Arrow Park. The existing fire station will remain and be used by the township’s road and maintenance department.
Plans call for the new fire station to have two more equipment bays than the current facility, a training room, and expanded living space for the crews that staff the station 24 hours a day. The station houses anywhere from three to eight firefighters at a time, Baxter said. The department is a mix of full-time firefighters and a crew of 32 volunteer firefighters. Volunteers are required to spend a certain number of hours in the station for training purposes.
Wakarusa Township — which is the township that essentially surrounds the city of Lawrence — will continue to operate a second station north of the city, near the Westar Energy power plant, Baxter said.
According to the paperwork filed with the Planning Department, the project is expected to cost about $1 million to construct. But Baxter said a tax increase won’t be necessary to pay for the new building. Wakarusa Township taxpayers already pay into a fire protection fund. Baxter said that fund has built up a reserve that will be used to help pay for the fire station construction.
If the project wins the necessary approvals, Baxter hopes the new fire station will be operational in early 2017.
The fire station project would be the latest in a line of upgrades for the township fire department. Baxter said new equipment and training have been paying off. The township earlier this year had its ISO fire rating improved from a 9 to a 5. The better rating should help reduce homeowners' insurance premiums.
"People ought to check with their insurance agent to make sure they are getting the benefit from it," Baxter said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• You may notice a new name on a relatively new Italian deli in west Lawrence. As we reported last fall, Miceli Market and Deli opened in the old Miller Mart gas station and convenience store at 3300 W. Sixth St.
But if you drive by the location now, you may notice a new name, Amici Italian Market and Deli. (I’m not sure if the signs are up yet or not. I haven’t driven by because my banker has cut me off from driving by places that sell meat by the pound.) The deli hasn’t, however, undergone a change in ownership. Instead, it has undergone a lesson in legal wrangling.
The deli is owned by Jess Maceli. He called the business Miceli because his keyboard had so much marinara sauce on it that it was difficult to ascertain the A’s from the I’s. Wait, that’s why I misspell most things. Maceli spelled the business differently because his family generations ago used to have two spellings of the name, largely because that was a sound business strategy in the bootlegging business.
But another reason for the different spelling is Maceli was looking to avoid confusion with the longtime Lawrence business Maceli’s Catering. Jess is not related to Steve Maceli, who owns the catering business.
Well, apparently confusion did result, though. Jess Maceli said he did receive a cease and desist letter from the catering company insisting that the deli quit using the Miceli name.
Jess Maceli said he is a little disappointed by having to change the name of the business, since it is, after all, his name too.
“But I don’t want people confused either, and I just thought I would be better off not fighting it,” Maceli said.
So, the name changes to Amici Italian Market and Deli, and avoiding the name fight will give Maceli more time to expand the business. Maceli owns the entire building that Amici is located in, and Maceli continues to operate the convenience store side of the business.
But the Italian deli part of the operation has taken off, he said. In addition to selling meat and cheeses by the pound, he said the business is finding a niche with panini sandwiches. The deli serves a dozen panini sandwiches made from a variety of the 17 Italian meats the business stocks and 20 cheeses. But the deli also has expanded into pasta. The menu includes a different pasta dish each weekday, such as Fettuccine Alfredo, Penne alla Vodka and good old-fashioned penne pasta with marinara sauce and meatballs. Maceli said the next venture will be for the business to buy the necessary sausage production equipment to begin making homemade Italian sausages.
Update on Menards manufacturing plant for Lawrence; Chamber narrows field in search for eco devo leader
I think everybody but late-night comedians and attention-craving 400-pound hackers are ready for this presidential election to be over. Lawrence economic development leaders may have another reason to root for the finale: They still haven’t heard anything from Menards officials about if or when the home improvement retailer plans to start a project to build a new Lawrence manufacturing plant.
“Our hope is they would take a harder look at the project after the election is completed,” Larry McElwain, president and CEO of the Lawrence chamber of commerce, told me.
In case you have forgotten, Menards in January received approval to build a manufacturing facility on about 90 acres of property in Lawrence VenturePark. The facility — which would manufacture trusses, stone blocks and other products — would employ 100 to 150 people.
But work has never begun on the project, and the company has never activated its approximately $2.3 million in incentives that were approved for the project. In May, local leaders told me the company had notified them the Lawrence project was indefinitely delayed.
The idea that the project could get moving again after the election is more guesswork than anything else. McElwain said he still believes the decision to delay the Lawrence project had nothing to do with Lawrence in particular but rather was part of a broader national outlook. Often companies delay some investments if they are nervous an election will affect the economy.
“They told us that they would tell us if the project is no longer viable,” McElwain said. “They haven’t told us that. We still feel like it will occur. But it is on their timing, not ours.”
It would be a great boost to Lawrence economic development efforts if the Menards project moves forward. Officials need a project to blaze a path for new development at Lawrence VenturePark, which is the industrial park located on what used to be the Farmland Industries fertilizer plant in eastern Lawrence.
Local leaders held the ribbon cutting for VenturePark in October 2014. Back then there was great optimism for the center. There certainly was realistic hope that a project would be in place by the time the South Lawrence Trafficway was completed, which will make the park much more accessible to Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 59. But it has been two years since that ribbon cutting, and the park continues to be empty. The trafficway will open by Thanksgiving.
Fortunately, city and county leaders did not bet the farm on the success of the project. The city received the land for free, plus gained access to a multimillion dollar trust fund to pay for environmental cleanup of the property, which had been contaminated by years of nitrogen fertilizer spills. But the roads, water lines and other utilities that were needed for the park were built with public money. The city has spent around $7 million on that infrastructure.
But the dollars probably aren’t what weighs on local leaders the most. Instead, the question of why the park hasn’t attracted tenants is the real nagging issue. It is not like the Lawrence economy has been in a standstill for the last two years. Sales tax collections have been on the rise, and Lawrence posted its best ever construction year — in terms of the dollar value of projects constructed — in 2015. Nationally, job totals have risen during the time period.
Perhaps you noticed J-W reporter Rochelle Valverde’s article about the city’s plans to hire a consultant to study economic development. It looks like most of the consultant’s studying will be about incentive packages that are offered to Lawrence projects. That’s a topic certainly worth studying, but figuring out why VenturePark hasn’t had more success is also one worth exploring. If the city has a lengthy debate about whether it is too generous with economic development incentives, and no discussion about why its new business park is empty, that would be a shame.
• One person who could provide some insight into Lawrence’s strengths and weaknesses in economic development is the Chamber’s vice president of economic development. That position has been empty since the sudden resignation of Brady Pollington in May. McElwain, though, tells me the Chamber is getting closer to making a hire.
McElwain said the Chamber’s search committee has basically narrowed the field to two candidates, although a third candidate who “is not directly in economic development right now,” also may be considered. The position drew 65 applicants.
McElwain confirmed none of the candidates under consideration is local, but all are from the Midwest.
“I think we are better off when we search in the Midwest where people are perhaps more likely to understand our values and our community,” McElwain said.
The position is the community’s top salesperson in trying to attract new companies to town, and also serves as a key contact for existing businesses that want to expand in the community. Connections in the economic development world — knowing the site selectors that companies use — is a key attribute. McElwain, though, said there are skills the committee is looking for other than a great Rolodex.
“It would be good to have somebody who understands the economic development process we use in Lawrence and who can adapt to that process,” McElwain said.
McElwain said he thinks a hire could be made in the next 30 days.
New report says Lawrence one of the slowest growing cities in America; local company wins big round of venture capital funding
I believe my TV room couch recently was ranked as a top destination for empty Dorito bags and crushed Dr Pepper cans. Yes, there is a ranking for nearly everything. Some make you feel good. Some make you feel bad. Rarely, a few of them make you think. There’s a new ranking out about Lawrence’s growth that might be a prime candidate for a little thought.
Here’s why: Currently, Lawrence City Hall leaders are beginning to debate about whether we need new regulations to combat urban sprawl and to promote infill development. It is a classic type of conversation for a community that is experiencing a good amount of growth. But, at least according to one new report, Lawrence is one of the slowest growing cities in America.
The report analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, among others, to evaluate both population growth and economic growth. The report ranked Lawrence growth at No. 479 out of 515 U.S. cities.
Lawrence’s ranking was the lowest in Kansas and the broader region, although many of our neighbors also ranked middle-of-the-pack or worse. Here is a look:
— Columbia, Mo.: No. 123
— Norman, Okla.: No. 232
— Olathe: No. 287
— Iowa City: No. 304
— Kansas City, Kan.: No. 336
— Overland Park: No. 341
— Topeka: No. 371
— Wichita: No. 388
— Kansas City, Mo.: No. 438
— Independence, Mo.: No. 462
— Lawrence: No. 479
In case you are wondering, a few of our usual suspects for comparison purposes — Manhattan and Ames, Iowa, for example — were not part of this report.
The report looked at two broad categories. The first was called “sociodemographics” and it measured total population growth, working-age population growth, and college-educated population growth. Lawrence ranked No. 479 in that part of the study. The second category was a “jobs and economy” ranking. It looked at median household income growth, changes in unemployment rates, poverty rates, job growth totals, full-time vs. part-time jobs, gross domestic product growth, business establishment growth, startup numbers, venture capital totals, housing price growth and foreclosure data. In the jobs and economy category, Lawrence ranked No. 421.
For most metrics, the report looked at data from 2009 to 2015, in order to account for any one-year blips. I’m still not sure that I buy that Topeka is a better growing city than Lawrence, but the results are a good conversation starter.
As the city and county get closer to officially rewriting Horizon 2020 — the comprehensive plan that addresses policies on growth, development, urban sprawl and a host of other topics — it will be important to see what numbers government officials have about our recent growth performance.
Is Lawrence really one of the slower growing communities in the country? Are we either urban or sprawling? This report from WalletHub shouldn’t be viewed as definitive on any of those questions. But Lawrence leaders do need to do research that gets at some of those answers. If Lawrence really is one of the slowest growing cities in America, a discussion about urban sprawl regulations might be the wrong discussion to have.
In other news and notes from around town:
• One of the measures in the WalletHub report looked at the amount of venture capital local companies have raised. Well, one local company has gotten a boost in that area. Lawrence-based Mycroft AI recently completed a $335,000 round of venture capital funding, with many of the investors coming from the Kansas City area, according to an article on the website Startlandnews.com.
Then in September, Mycroft got another big win by being named one of 10 companies to receive a $50,000 grant as part of the LaunchKC technology competition.
Mycroft, as we have reported, is the latest venture for Lawrence entrepreneurs Josh Montgomery and Kris Adair, who also is a member of the Lawrence school board. The couple also are well known for their Wicked Broadband service — formerly Lawrence Freenet — that operates in Lawrence.
The new Mycroft startup company is developing a device similar to Amazon Echo, which can be used to complete a number of Internet-based tasks. For example, the device can be programmed to remotely turn off or on lights in your home, lock doors, start the coffee maker or provide answers to any number of questions. The device, like Apple’s Siri, uses voice recognition technology.
Obviously, there are some big players already in this market, but it appears Mycroft is getting good interest from investors. I’m not smart enough to know what is differentiating Mycroft front the bigger players, but several technology sites note that company is using an open source software philosophy that allows developers from around the world to modify and distribute the platform.
The company is based in Lawrence — Montgomery and Adair also operate a Lawrence technology incubator near Ninth and Iowa streets — but the LaunchKC grant does give the company a greater Kansas City presence. In addition to the $50,000 grant, the company receives a year of free office space in the Crossroads Arts District of downtown Kansas City.
Clay manufacturing plant to locate in Lawrence; local businesses owned by women propel city to high ranking
I’ve long thought Lawrence was the clay capital of Kansas. After all, nearly all my teammates in pickup basketball have clay feet on defense. But soon, Lawrence may come by the designation more naturally. A Lawrence firm is undertaking a major expansion to add a clay manufacturing plant.
Lawrence-based Good Earth Clays has filed plans to build a 10,000 square-foot addition to its facility at 1831 East 1450 Road in North Lawrence. Good Earth for years has used the Lawrence facility to distribute 50-pound boxes of unmolded clay to artists and other users, in addition to selling kilns, potters wheels and other tools used in the ceramics business. But Good Earth has not actually manufactured the clay that it sells.
Cindy Bracker, vice president of Good Earth Clays, said that soon will change. The company has reached a deal to purchase Marion-based Flint Hills Clay Works, which has been a longtime clay supplier for Good Earth.
The new addition, which will nearly double the size of Good Earth’s facility, will house mixing equipment, filters and a device called a “pug mill,” which actually extrudes the 25-pound segments of raw clay, which are called pugs.
The mixing plant is expected to employ two people initially, but may grow as the company looks for new markets to sell its clay.
“We haven’t figured out how to do this right without diving in head first, so that is what we’re doing,” Bracker said.
As for the actual work that will go on in the facility, Bracker explained that the business has dry, powdered clay shipped to it from mines throughout the country. Depending on the location of the mine and the soil type surrounding it, each type of powdered clay has different properties and characteristics. Each also has its own recipe, so to speak, about how much water filtering and pressing is needed.
“It is kind of like making a cake,” Bracker said. (I was unclear on whether that means the fire department frequently visits the facility, or perhaps that is unique to my cake-baking process.)
Bracker said Good Earth decided to buy the Marion-based clay producer because the owners of the Marion company were going to retire. Good Earth didn’t want to lose its main clay supplier and didn’t want to go through the uncertainty of finding a new one. Plus, there was another reason Good Earth went through with the deal: because mom said so. Bracker’s mother, Anne Bracker, is a founder of Good Earth.
“My mom really wants to mix clay,” Bracker said. “She has always wanted to have an all encompassing ceramics business, and now we will.”
Good Earth hopes to have the production facility operational in early 2017, Bracker said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Good Earth is probably a good example of the type of business that has helped Lawrence rank highly in a new list. Lawrence has been named the 22nd best city in the country for female entrepreneurs.
The ranking comes from GoodCall, an online consumer research company. The firm looked at data for about 400 metropolitan areas, and ranked each based on factors such as the number of businesses owned by women in a community, the breakdown of small businesses versus large businesses in a community, growth of the local economy, education rates for women and a few other factors.
Victoria, Texas, was the top-ranked community. At No. 22, Lawrence was the top-ranked community in Kansas and the second highest ranked in the region. Greeley, Colo., checked in at No. 5. No other Kansas communities made the top 100. Others from the region include:
— Fort Collins, Colo.: No. 30
— Boulder, Colo.: No. 33
— Iowa City: No. 50
— Oklahoma City: No. 79
— Des Moines, Iowa: No. 86
The report found that about 35 percent of all businesses in Lawrence are owned by women. That ranked fairly high. The community with the largest percentage of female-owned businesses was Danville, Ill., closely followed by Memphis, Tenn., which both had about 45 percent of businesses owned by women.
Larger than expected growth causes East Hills firm to sign new warehouse deal; manufacturer to undertake minor expansion
Coffee after beer has been a strategy for a few things in life, but I’m not sure it often has been used to grow a company. But that is the way it is working, in part, for Lawrence-based Grandstand Glassware and Apparel. The company is adding space and employees.
Grandstand recently completed a deal to lease more than 70,000 square feet of warehouse space in southeast Lawrence, and the company now has 203 employees. That’s up from 104 employees when I profiled the company in 2013.
In case you have forgotten, Grandstand is the company founded and operated by former KU basketball and Lawrence High standout Chris Piper. The company for years was in the T-shirt printing business, but took off when it began producing branded glassware — mugs and growlers with logos and such — for the micro brewing industry. The brewery industry then started ordering branded T-shirts, koozies and other such items from Grandstand too.
The brewery business is still strong, Piper said, but Grandstand has received a boost by taking that same concept to the coffeehouse industry, which is now ordering mugs, T-shirts and other promotional materials.
The result has been Grandstand’s 155,000 square-foot facility in the East Hills Business Park has filled up much more quickly than expected. Piper recently completed a deal to lease 71,300 square feet of warehouse space in the former E&E Display building along Haskell Avenue.
“We just ran out of space a lot quicker than we thought we would,” Piper said. “We are so far ahead of where we thought we would be at this point.”
Grandstand in 2011 received a tax abatement and a $25,000 forgivable loan as part of an incentive package to help the company expand into the East Hills Business Park building. As part of that incentive application, Piper estimated the company would add 84 jobs over a 10-year period. Instead, the company has added about 160 jobs since 2011.
Getting into the coffeehouse business has only been a part of the company’s growth, Piper said. A large contributor has been the e-commerce trend. Grandstand operates e-commerce sites for several customers, doing the order fulfillment for them from the Lawrence facility. That has increased the warehouse space needs and also has created the need for more employees to pack and ship the orders.
The company, though, doesn’t just employ warehouse workers. Piper said the firm now has 28 graphic artists on staff, and that department continues to grow as the company’s apparel business surges. The apparel business now is the company's top growth area by percentage, Piper said. Grandstand has started its own e-commerce site allowing companies and individuals to buy directly from Grandstand. Piper said the company does apparel sales across the country, but is particularly focusing on grabbing more local business as people learn that Grandstand has the ability to fill small orders in addition to big jobs.
“There are still a lot of people in Lawrence who don’t even know we exist,” Piper said. “But we can do apparel work for about anybody, high schools, PTOs, companies.”
The company will be one to keep an eye on in future years. Piper said there is enough room at the company’s East Hills Business location to easily accommodate a 150,000 square-foot expansion of the building. He said that is a real possibility in the near future.
“I think we will fill the warehouse we just leased in about three years,” Piper said. “And then we will need to do something.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• Keep your eyes open for some work to happen across the street from Grandstand’s facility. Amarr has filed plans with the city to build a new parking lot at its garage door manufacturing facility in the East Hills Business Park.
Plans call for approximately 90 additional parking spaces to be added to the company’s parking lot. That is not the most exciting of projects by itself, but it may well be a sign that the company has more employees than it used to. The company is one of the largest manufacturers of garage doors in the country. As the national housing economy improves, that usually creates real jobs in Lawrence.
I’ve got a call into the company to get an update on its operations.
A bevy of high-tech car washes set to come to Lawrence; businessman confirms he’s looking at commercial, industrial options for site along SLT
Lawrence gets on its binges. One not long ago was fried chicken. For awhile, the only thing more frequent than a new fried chicken restaurant in Lawrence was another sharp pain in my chest. Well, now it appears to be tunnel car washes. Three plans have been filed with the city to build 150-foot tunnel car washes in the city.
Perhaps the chicken restaurants and the car washes are related. (It would be more environmentally friendly to push me through a car wash than to provide me two pallets of wet wipes.) Regardless, you soon should have no excuses for a dirty car.
The owner of the Lawrence-based Zarco convenience store chain is set to begin construction on a new car wash along Iowa Street, and has filed plans at City Hall to build another one on 23rd Street. Meanwhile, an Illinois-based company has filed plans to build a similar tunnel car wash just down the street from Zarco’s 23rd Street location.
First, the Zarco plans: Lawrence businessman and Zarco leader Scott Zaremba said construction is expected to begin in the next 30 days on a new tunnel car wash that will be located on his property near Ninth and Iowa streets.
As we have reported, plans call for the old Phillips 66 station and the old Amoco station — more recently it was a brightly colored Sandbar Subs shop — to be torn down to make way for the high-tech car wash. Zaremba said the new car wash will be about four times as large as the small automatic car wash that is on the property today.
“And it will be a tunnel car wash,” Zaremba said. “We will be able to wash cars much quicker. That’s the big thing so that people don’t have to spend their time waiting.”
The car wash also will be connected to the fuel pumps at Zaremba’s adjacent American Fuels station, meaning that customers can pay for a car wash at the pump.
The Ninth and Iowa project will be good practice for Zaremba’s 23rd Street project. Zaremba said plans call for the same type of car wash to be installed at his convenience store/fueling station at 1500 E. 23rd St.
The existing store at the 23rd Street location will remain unchanged, but some diesel fuel pumps behind the building will be moved. The plans, however, do call for some changes on 23rd Street. The plan proposes a new right-turn lane for motorists using the eastern driveway of the property.
Look for more changes just down the road. Illinois-based Peak Inc. has a deal to buy a portion of the long-vacant lot just east of the QuikTrip at 23rd and Haskell. Plans filed at City Hall call for an approximately 5,000 square-foot automated tunnel car wash, plus 32 stalls equipped with vacuum cleaners for your vehicle.
The project will be on the eastern half of the vacant lot, near the River Rock Family Dental building. The project, however, is not proposing another new curb cut for busy 23rd Street. Instead, car wash customers will use the 23rd Street curb cut that leads to the QuikTrip property. The project will still leave a little less than an acre of vacant property near the QuikTrip that could be developed in the future.
As for the car wash, Brian Sturm with Lawrence’s Landplan Engineering, said the project hopes to begin construction this fall and open in early 2017.
Zaremba, who is using Lawrence-based Paul Werner Architects to design his project, said he also hopes to have the car washes open in early spring.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Car washes aren’t the only thing on the mind of Zaremba. He confirmed to me that he is in the process of preparing a concept plan for development for what will be the new intersection of the South Lawrence Trafficway and Haskell Avenue.
An entity led by Zaremba owns the approximately 18 acres at the northwest corner of 31st and Haskell. Some of you may remember the site as the location of the old LRM asphalt — or perhaps it was a concrete — plant The site now stores some vehicles, mulch and other items. But the property is zoned for heavy industrial use. Zaremba said that could still be a possibility, but more commercial or retail uses also may be a possibility. Of course, a gas station — perhaps a pretty large one — also may make some sense there.
The property is well situated. That portion of the South Lawrence Trafficway has only three interchanges, and Haskell is one of them.
“I feel like it is going to be a prime entrance into the city,” Zaremba said.
He said he doesn’t have any firm plans about what type of development he will propose to the city for the location. He has been adding fill dirt to the location to raise the elevation of the property, which is near the Haskell and Baker Wetlands.
“I want to see what we can bring to the site,” he said. “Right now it is zoned heavy industrial. It is kind of wide open for what could happen there.”
It will be one of several locations to keep an eye on as that leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway opens for traffic. As traffic patterns in the city change significantly, there will be new development pressures emerge along the trafficway. One of the greater questions at City Hall will be how this city commission responds to those pressures.
Gyro is among a fairly sizable list of words that I neither know how to spell or pronounce but do know how to eat. Well, one of the city’s largest producers of gyros has new owners and is looking to expand.
Downtown Lawrence’s Pita Pit restaurant has been bought by longtime commercial real estate executive Pat Peery and his son Sam. The duo has begun a small scale remodeling of the location at 1011 Massachusetts St., including a new rear entry, new signs, a new large screen television and the installation of free Wi-Fi for guests. Plans also call for a new sidewalk dining area to be built along Massachusetts Street.
The menu also has expanded some. The restaurant has begun serving fruit smoothies, with a variety of mango, berry and banana flavors.
But the bigger changes to the restaurant may be yet to come. Pat Peery used to direct the real estate activities of Wal-Mart Stores and Kohl’s Department Stores before coming back to Lawrence in 2012. Peery said he and Sam bought the Lawrence Pita Pit with the idea of expanding the chain’s presence in the region.
“We intend to grow the business,” Pat said. “We aren’t doing this to just own one Pita Pit. A west Lawrence location at some point would make a lot of sense for us.”
The Lawrence store also has launched a catering division and has bought a delivery van. Sam Peery, who runs the day-to-day operations of the restaurant, said the Lawrence store had seen a bit of a downturn under previous ownership, but he thinks the idea of pita can still be a hit with Lawrence diners. I guess I shouldn’t assume you are all familiar with a pita. It is a type of unleavened bread with a pocket that can hold a variety of meats, cheeses and veggies.
“I was a customer of a Pita Pit back when I was in college,” Sam said. “I like that it is a healthier alternative. It is less bread than a sub sandwich.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• I’ve learned the hard way, don’t get your gyro and your Yugos confused, although a used Yugo will cost you less than most gyros. Either way, skip the Yugo, one of the worst cars of all-time, and get a good bike.
All this is to say that Lawrence has one of the top-rated bike shops in the country, according to a new ranking.
Downtown Lawrence’s Sunflower Outdoor & Bike has been named to the America’s Best Bike Shops list by the National Bicycle Dealer’s Association. The association looks at about 4,000 bike shops across the country, and fewer than 300 bike shops were included on the list. The program involves an application process and mystery shoppers visiting the store to evaluate a host of product and customer service issues.
This is the fourth straight year Sunflower has been named to the list.
• Here’s the name of a restaurant chain to keep an eye on: Buffalo Wings & Rings. The restaurant recently announced that it has signed a deal to build three restaurants in Wichita, with construction set to begin this year. But the chain also took the unusual step of announcing that Lawrence is the next city in the state where it plans to locate, although the timeline might still be another three years.
The chain is a sports bar concept that serves chicken wings and onion rings but also has a large menu of hamburgers, quesadillas, tacos and other items.
Update on Spin pizza coming to Lawrence; keep eyes open for another hotel project; more updates on northwest development
Fall — it began Thursday, as evidenced by my perspiration having a certain pumpkin spice latte hue to it — makes me think of flannel. Flannel makes me think of lumberjacks. Lumberjacks make me think of the Northwest. So, let’s provide an update on some northwest Lawrence development. Yes, I really should think less.
• Trump vs. Clinton. Pepperoni vs. sausage. They are all choices you may have to make in November. I’m getting word that Kansas City’s Spin Neapolitan Pizza will open its Lawrence location sometime in November.
As we have reported, Spin is going into the new retail building just east of the Wal-Mart near Sixth and Wakarusa. As you can see below, that building is looking fairly complete from the outside. A representative with Spin alerted me to the likely November opening, but didn’t have an exact date to share yet.
If you have forgotten about Spin, it touts itself as an artisan-style pizzeria, with Neapolitan crusts. That means hand-spun, thin crusts that are cooked in a stone oven. The artisan part also means a variety of toppings. Cheeses range from the traditional mozzarella to Asiago, feta and something called taleggio. Meats include staples like Italian sausage and pepperoni but also Italian bacon, Scimeca’s meatballs, and salami. In addition there are things like arugula, pine nuts, crushed glazed pecans, fig onion marmalade and sun-dried tomato relish that you can put on your pizza and whatever tie you happen to be wearing that day.
The restaurant has been popular in Kansas City since it opened its first restaurant in 2005. We also have reported that Blue Moose Bar & Grill also will occupy a portion of the new Lawrence building. I haven’t heard an opening date yet for that facility, which is a Kansas City-based restaurant that serves a mix of sports bar dishes and more upscale dinner entrees. I would think November would be a good bet.
• Keep your eyes open for a new hotel project near Sixth and Wakarusa. Nothing is finalized, but a representative with the Bauer Farm development group near Sixth and Wakarusa did confirm that a group has signed a letter of intent to locate a hotel in the development.
As we have reported, the lot at the corner of Wakarusa Drive and Overland Drive — it is right behind the car wash — has been reserved for a hotel property. Bill Fleming, a Lawrence attorney with the development group that owns the lot, declined to identify the group or other details about the potential project, but said a letter of intent has been signed to build a hotel on the property. The deal is not yet done, however. More due diligence and city approvals will be required. We previously have noted that the lot could accommodate about an 80- to 100-unit hotel property. Fleming said interest from hotel properties had been strong.
“I think it is another example of where Rock Chalk Park has helped the community,” Fleming said.
The Rock Chalk Park Sports Complex, of course, is just down the road at Sixth Street and George Williams Way. This is the second hotel proposal in the last couple of months. As we have reported, an extended stay hotel is planned for the old Don’s Steakhouse property on the eastern edge of Lawrence along 23rd Street. I know many folks thought a hotel quickly would develop on the vacant, commercially zoned property near Rock Chalk Park, but that hasn’t been the case. Developers would welcome it, I’m sure, but I think most of the efforts continue to focus on bringing in a big box retailer for the site. I believe the thought process is that it will take a destination type of retailer to get some momentum going for commercial development in that area, which is still considered very much on the edge of town.
• A pizza, a moose, a hotel room to sleep off both of them: Absolutely I’m going to need the assistance of a financial institution. As we have reported, MidAmerican Credit Union is slated to build a new facility right behind the CVS near Sixth and Wakarusa. Well, the project came together quickly and is now completed. The building has a bit of a distinctive look to it, as you can see below.
Another unusual feature is that it is a bank — well, credit union — without teller windows. The credit union is testing a new design in banks that uses a pod system. A customer representative meets you at the door and walks you over to a computer station where the representative and the customer complete the transaction together.
• You may have noticed dirt work beginning on another piece of property along Sixth Street between Wakarusa and Folks. It is just west of the new apartment complex under construction, and just east of Starbucks. I can’t believe you already have forgotten what that will be: as we have reported, a Zaxby’s fried chicken restaurant. It is a chain that focuses on chicken fingers and chicken wings, with lots of sauce options. I’ll admit, I forgot what was going there too. There are so many new chicken places in town that I think the cholesterol is starting to clog my brain.
• You also may have noticed dirt work just east of Sixth and Folks Road next to Central Bank of the Midwest. As we have reported, that will be a new dentist office. The city has approved plans for a $2.5 million building that will house Growing Smiles Pediatric Dentistry, plus have space for two other medical tenants. Smart. Nothing is tougher on teeth than a moose, although maybe the blue variety is more tender.
• And finally, if you have a golf game like mine, it pays to know where all the window stores are located. The Pella Products store has located in the shopping center on the southwest corner of Sixth and Wakarusa. It is kind of next door to Eileen’s Colossal Cookies. The window store previously was located a bit east of Sixth and Kasold.
Longtime area restaurant owner opens new eastside diner; an update on 19th and Haskell Dollar General; Arts Center raises big money
There are stylish 1980s photos out there that prove I was in some conversations for posting a triple-double on a basketball stat sheet. These days when I talk about a triple-double it most often is to describe the desired strength of my elastic waistband. That change is because of new restaurants like the one recently opened in eastern Lawrence.
Yes, there is a new restaurant venture at 19th and Haskell, and it plans to do what nearly every other restaurant that has opened in the old shopping center has strived to do: make good, old-fashioned food.
“Basically, it is good comfort food, farm breakfasts and food like mom and grandma did,” said Jim Morey, owner of the new Cosmic Cafe. “There is no froo-froo here.”
One of the least froo-froo dishes is a breakfast dish called the Triple-Double. It is a full order of biscuits and gravy, two sausage patties, and two eggs.
Many restaurants have opened and closed in the spot that Cosmic Cafe now occupies in the shopping center at the southeast corner of 19th and Haskell, but Morey brings a lot of local restaurant experience to the venture.
Morey owns the Cosmic Ale House & Grill in Eudora, and was part of the once popular North Lawrence restaurant Fat Man’s. His family also operated the downtown bar Club Hideaway, the Laughing Dog Saloon at 19th and Haskell, and for several years in the early 2000s he operated a restaurant called P.J.’s Eastside Cafe in the spot that Cosmic Cafe now occupies.
“I grew up in east Lawrence over on Maple Lane, and I know a lot of people in the neighborhood,” Morey said of his decision to expand outside of Eudora. “I had some instant business because people still remember me.”
Morey said the Lawrence project required him buying all new kitchen equipment for the restaurant space and doing a deep cleaning of the facility.
“It took us a month just to repaint the place,” Morey said.
As for the menu, breakfast is a big part of it from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.. There are all your traditional bacon, eggs and sausage combinations, plus omelettes. But there also are some unique dishes, like Kaw Valley Eggs, which are scrambled eggs, herbs, sour cream and cheese. The lunch menu includes a variety of hamburgers, patty melts and other sandwiches. But the restaurant’s specialties are a chicken fried chicken dinner and a pork tenderloin dinner that both come with homemade mashed potatoes and gravy.
“We sell the snot out of them over in Eudora,” Morey said.
The 19th and Haskell shopping center is always one worth keeping an eye on. There’s always speculation, or perhaps just hope, that the old center will be redeveloped or undergo a significant makeover. Morey said he thinks the center is poised for an upswing, although he said he believes the problems associated with the location have been overblown at times.
“I think everything is up and coming over here,” Morey said, noting that the area will receive an even larger boost when the city in future years follows through on its plan to connect 19th Street with the new LawrenceVenture Park business park.
The biggest change for the area, though, is the pending opening of a newly constructed Dollar General store in the shopping center. I don’t have an opening date for the store, but as you can see below, it looks nearly complete. I think an opening will happen soon, given that lots of boxes were being unpacked in the store this morning, although it still appears quite a bit of shelving and fixtures need installed.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Lawrence showed its love of the arts once again. The Lawrence Arts Center hosted a major fundraising event on Saturday: Shaken & Stirred, a James Bond themed event. (The fundraiser accepted cash, checks and credit cards, but I believe drew the line at Goldfingers.)
Well, I have word on the success of that event. The event raised $61,000 from more than 200 guests who came to the Arts Center for dinner, dancing and drinks. The event welcomed new CEO Kimberly Williams and thanked outgoing CEO Susan Tate.
The money raised will be used to support the Arts Center’s financial aid fund, which provides arts education to a variety of children, including some in Head Start, the Boys & Girls Club, CASA, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and several other organizations.
An announcement also was made at the event that the Arts Center was attaching Susan Tate's name to the Visiting & Resident Artists Fund to honor the outgoing director. During her six-year tenure at the Arts Center, Tate raised more than $700,000 for the artists fund, which has helped bring the work of more than 400 artists from around the world to the center.
If I thought we wouldn’t get an eye poked out by obnoxious football fans wearing those pointy Cornhusker hats, I would suggest we all take a trip to Grand Island, Neb. There’s a new report out that suggests Lawrence and Grand Island may be more alike than we think.
Federal officials have released a new report that measures the economy of every metro area in the country. Lawrence’s economy is the 342nd largest economy in the U.S. — one spot and a few dollars ahead of Grand Island, Neb. Unless trends change, Lawrence likely won’t be moving up the list anytime soon. The report found the Lawrence economy was stagnant in 2015.
The report is the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ annual look at the gross domestic product of metro areas. Gross Domestic Product — or GDP — is kind of the big enchilada in the world of economic statistics. It is the broadest measure of the economy. It attempts to measure all the economic activity in a community. In Lawrence that means everything from what Hallmark spends to produce greeting cards at its local production plant to what students spend to keep themselves properly hydrated and full of ramen noodles.
Let’s take a look at some of the findings of the report.
• Small scale: The report always serves as a good reminder that Lawrence isn’t as large as we sometimes think. The Lawrence economy checked in at $4.06 billion dollars, which is quite a lot of hydration, if you know what I mean. But Lawrence has a smaller economy than many communities, including some you may not guess. For instance, would you have thought that Joplin, Mo., has an economy that is almost $3 billion larger than Lawrence’s? It does. Here’s a look at some regional communities and their national rankings:
— Kansas City, Mo.-Kan: $125.6 billion (No. 29)
— Wichita: $31.4 billion (No. 81)
— Boulder, Colo.: $23.4 billion (No. 105)
— Topeka: $9.8 billion (No. 200)
— Iowa City: $9.4 billion (No. 204)
— Columbia, Mo.: $8.3 billion (No. 218)
— Joplin, Mo.: $6.7 billion (No. 247)
— St. Joseph, Mo.: $5.7 billion (No. 283)
— Ames, Iowa: $4.9 billion (No. 311)
— Lawrence: $4.06 billion (No. 342)
— Manhattan: $3.3 billion (No. 367)
Communities grow in lots of different ways, and that brings us back to Grand Island, Neb. Grand Island doesn’t have a major university, isn’t located along one of the larger interstates in the country, and is not right next door to a major metro area. But Lawrence and Grand Island have essentially the same size of economies. The size of Lawrence’s economy is what it is. The question — and one that often doesn’t draw a consensus — is whether it is the size it ought to be? Arguments could be made both ways.
• Holding steady: The report estimated Lawrence’s GDP grew at a rate of 0.0 percent. The report provided details that some areas of Lawrence’s economy grew, but others declined. In the end, they canceled each other out. Lawrence’s growth rate is near the bottom of those posted by regional communities. But there is a familiar refrain we can repeat: At least we are not Topeka. The report shows our neighbor to the west is hurting.
— Boulder: up 3.6 percent
— Manhattan: up 2.4 percent
— Ames, Iowa: up 1.6 percent
— Kansas City: up 1.5 percent
— Wichita: up 1.3 percent
— Columbia, Mo.: up 1.2 percent
— Iowa City: up 0.3 percent
— Lawrence: 0.0 percent
— St. Joseph: down 0.7 percent
— Joplin: down 0.2 percent
— Topeka: down 3.5 percent
• The longer view: The report provides data back to 2010. Lawrence’s economy has grown some since 2010, which isn’t the case for every community. But Lawrence still is in the bottom half of the list. There’s also a refrain we could say based on these number — although as loyal Jayhawk fans we might need to keep our head in a wastebasket while uttering it: I wish we could be Columbia. Iowa City’s numbers are also noteworthy, given that Lawrence’s current city manager previously led that community. Here’s a look at GDP growth totals — adjusted for inflation — since 2010:
— Iowa City: up 13.8 percent
— Columbia: up 10.3 percent
— Kansas City: up 6.1 percent
— St. Joseph: up 4.3 percent
— Manhattan: up 3.5 percent
— Wichita: up 3.1 percent
— Lawrence: up 2.1 percent
— Boulder: up 1.7 percent
— Joplin: down 0.9 percent
— Topeka: down 2.9 percent
— Ames: down 3.3 percent
One item to note is that Lawrence’s growth trend is heading in the wrong direction. Lawrence’s GDP posted a 1.2 percent gain in 2011, but the growth rate has slowed every year thereafter: 0.7 percent in 2012; 0.2 percent in 2013; 0.1 percent in 2014; 0.0 percent in 2015.
• Winners and losers: The reports shows which areas of the Lawrence economy grew and which ones declined. The biggest loser in Lawrence was the government sector, which is the largest sector of Lawrence’s economy. Losses in the government sector caused Lawrence’s GDP to decline by 0.34 percentage points. The finance and real estate sector also showed a decline, resulting in a 0.22 percentage point decline in GDP. The information sector posted the largest increase, causing GDP to grow by 0.28 percentage points. The wholesale and retail trade industries also caused GDP to grow by 0.24 percentage points.
I wish I was smart enough to know which businesses in Lawrence contributed to each of those industries. But I don’t, so I’m not sure what to make of those numbers. And I don’t have time to figure it out. After this column, I’ll spend all my time answering mail from Topeka, Columbia and Grand Island. All remarks about those communities are made in jest, although the pointy Cornhusker hats do make me nervous.
You can read the full BEA report here.
My weeklong vacation once again has dashed my hopes of becoming a professional fisherman. Even the box of frozen fish sticks managed to get away. Regardless, I do have news about other Kansas jobs.
As we reported last week, unemployment in Kansas rose during August, as the state lost about 7,700 nonfarm jobs compared to August 2015. Well, I’ve now got Lawrence numbers to share with you from that report. Lawrence and Douglas County contributed to the job losses. In fact, in the most recent report, Lawrence had the largest percentage job loss of any metro area in the state. The Lawrence metro area lost 600 jobs over the course of the year, although its unemployment rate remains at a reasonable 4.1 percent.
On a percentage basis, Lawrence’s jobs total shrank by 1.2 percent compared to August 2015. That’s significant because Lawrence’s decline occurred at twice the rate of the state as whole, which saw a 0.6 percent decline. It also was greater than the other metro areas that the state measures. Here’s a look:
— Manhattan: down 300 jobs; 0.7 percent decline
— Topeka: down 1,200 jobs; 1.1 percent decline
— Wichita: up 2,300 jobs; 0.8 percent growth
— Kansas City, Kan.: up 4,700 jobs; 1 percent growth
Lawrence continues to struggle in the area of goods-producing jobs, which primarily are manufacturing and construction jobs. Lawrence lost 200 jobs in that category, or a decline of 3.6 percent. The state as a whole has struggled in that area, but Lawrence’s decline is a bit more pronounced. Statewide, goods-producing jobs are down 2 percent. Manhattan and Lawrence are tied among Kansas metro areas for the largest percentage decrease in goods-producing jobs.
Government jobs also took a notable hit in Lawrence. The sector is down 200 jobs compared to August 2015, a 1.5 percent decline. Statewide they are down 1.8 percent.
There are a few areas where Lawrence is growing jobs, and doing so at a rate faster than the state as a whole. As has been the case the last few months, Lawrence has become the leisure capital of Kansas. The leisure and hospitality industry — which includes hotels, bars and restaurants has added 400 jobs over the last year, a 6 percent increase. That compares to 0.2 percent statewide. Lawrence had the largest growth rate of any metro area in the state, although Kansas City was a close second at 5.3 percent.
Leisure and hospitality jobs now make up 14 percent of Lawrence’s entire workforce. That appears to be tops in the state. In Wichita, leisure and hospitality jobs make up 11 percent of the workforce; Topeka nearly 8 percent; and Kansas City about 9 percent. (The state doesn’t provide numbers for Manhattan.)
Lawrence also saw 1.9 percent growth in the professional and business services category and 1.8 percent in the education and healthcare industry. Statewide, those industries grew by 0.4 and 1.1 percent, respectively.
One other number worth looking at is Lawrence’s unemployment rate. As I mentioned earlier it is 4.1 percent, which is low compared to many places in the country. It also is below the statewide average of 4.6 percent. But like every other metro area in the state, the rate has risen over the last year. In August 2015, Lawrence’s unemployment rate stood at 3.8 percent.
The other trend that is evident is Lawrence’s labor force is shrinking. Over the last 12 months, Lawrence’s labor force — the number of people who are working or looking for work — shrank by about 1,500 people. Every metro area in the state saw a reduction in their labor force, but Lawrence’s was the greatest at 2.4 percent. (Manhattan and Topeka were close behind at 2.3 percent.) This is notable because it means the number of people employed in Douglas County is significantly lower than it used to be.
As noted above the number of jobs in Douglas County is down by 600. But that only tells part of the story. That number measures only the number of jobs actually located in Douglas County. If you live in Lawrence but work in Kansas City, you aren't counted in that particular part of the report. The measurement of the labor force, however, accounts for those commuters. That part of the report shows the number of Douglas County residents who have a job somewhere stands at just more than 59,000. That’s down from about 60,700 in August 2015.
Federal officials also put out a jobs report. It is about a month behind, so it is measuring July numbers. It is useful in showing that Kansas is in a jobs funk. From July 2015 to July 2016, Kansas saw job losses of 0.2 percent. Other states in the region saw job gains:
— Missouri: up 0.7 percent
— Iowa: 1.7 percent
— Nebraska: 1.3 percent
— Colorado: 3.0 percent
— Oklahoma: down 1.0 percent