Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
Auto dealership files plans to expand Lawrence operations; latest real estate statistics point to an aggressive sellers’ market on the horizon
My truck now has more sand and salt than a Miami Beach margarita bar. With the winter crud continuing to pile up, maybe it would be easier just to buy a new vehicle than wash an old one. One local dealership may be thinking along those lines. Lawrence Kia has filed plans to close the car wash adjacent to its 23rd Street business and use the space to significantly expand its dealership.
Lawrence Kia, 1225 E. 23rd St., has owned the 23rd Street car wash immediately west of its dealership since 2013. But with car sales continuing a years-long uptick, the dealership has decided now is the time to close the car wash and use the space to add room for about 120 additional vehicles on its lot.
“This is a pretty big step for us,” Chin Rajapaksha, general manager and managing partner for Lawrence Kia, told me. “We’ve always been landlocked. It is about a half-million dollar project. We’re thinking it will allow us to sell about 50 to 60 more cars per month.”
Chin said the dealership will use the car wash location to house about five detail bays for the dealership’s use. All other car wash functions, though, will be closed and no longer open to the public once the project is completed. He’s hoping the project will be completed sometime in May.
Don’t worry about running out of places to clean your car, though. (I never worry about cleaning my car. I figure, worst case, salt is a preservative and it is doing good things for the emergency stash of Doritos on the floorboard.) The Lawrence car wash market it going through a major expansion elsewhere. Plans have been filed for a new one at the former Cadillac Ranch location on Sixth Street and also at the former Applebee’s on Sixth Street. Plus, maybe this closing will spur the Zarco gas station to start its car wash project on 23rd Street. It has had a sign up about a new car wash coming to the site, but work has been slow to start. The company also has one planned for its Ninth and Iowa location.
In addition to providing more space for vehicles, the Kia project also will free up more space in the dealership’s existing service center, Chin said. Currently, the service center houses two detail bays, and those will be converted to service spaces as part of the project.
Chin said the Kia dealership, which has been in town since late 2011, is gearing up for a big year. He said forecasts predict that the used car market will be the biggest in at least the last seven years. He said a large number of leased vehicles coming back into the market is expected to drive up used car buying activity. As a result, new car sales may not be as strong, but that likely will lead to manufacturers becoming more aggressive with their incentive programs.
In other news and notes from around town:
Maybe my mention of Miami Beach inadvertently got you to thinking about packing up and finding some place warmer (or at least a place where pastel blazers are still considerable fashionable.) If so, know that the latest real estate statistics are saying it is a good time to sell a Lawrence home.
The Lawrence Board of Realtors has released its January home sales report. One month of statistics aren’t too meaningful, but probably the biggest takeaway is that inventories of homes for sale continue to drop.
“We are seeing the beginnings of what is shaping up to be a very aggressive spring market,” Henry Wertin, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors said in the report. He expects the number of homes receiving multiple offers from buyers to increase.
The key number driving that finding is the number of homes currently on the market. In January there were 169 homes on the market in Lawrence. That’s down from 197 in January 2017 and 260 in January 2016.
Another indicator of the aggressive market: The median number of days a home sits on the market before selling is now 29, down from 48 a year ago.
Overall, home sales in Lawrence were up 1.9 percent in January, totaling 53 homes. Again, it is tough to see trends after just one month, but it is worth keeping an eye on whether sales of newly constructed homes continue their uptick. It was a good year in 2017 for newly built houses, and sales of new homes in January 2018 were stronger than the same periods in 2017 and 2016.
Also worth keeping an eye on this year are selling prices. With an admittedly small sample size, the median selling price of homes in January was up 12.9 percent compared with the same time a year ago.
They say going into Ernst & Son Hardware store is like going backward in a time machine. If so, buy me some Ice Melt, or a Feb. 19 ticket to the Caribbean, whichever one is handier. But since Rod Ernst’s death late last month, there’s been a question about whether anyone would be going into the store for much longer.
Well, I talked with Ernst family members recently, and they told me the store is open and it plans to remain that way for the foreseeable future.
“We are going to try to keep it open as long as possible,” said Shirley Ernst, Rod’s widow. “We would love to find someone who wants to rent it and keep this service going.”
The store closed for eight days following Rod’s death on Jan. 23.
“I’m sure Rod didn’t approve of that,” Shirley said of the closing. “He would have wanted us down here the next day.”
But the store is a true, tight-knit small business. The employees at the store are like family, said Lynda Allen, Rod’s oldest daughter. She said they all needed time to grieve, and family members also needed some time to think about what they were going to do with a downtown institution.
The store has been open in Lawrence since 1905, all the time being owned by the Ernst family. Rod, 84, was the third-generation owner of the business.
Other family members weren’t overly active in the day-to-day operations of the store. Lynda said that has changed since Rod’s death. She, her mom and several other family members and friends have been coming to the store nearly every day. They’ve been marking down prices — most items are selling for at least 20 percent off — and they’ve been sorting through merchandise.
You can find some of the new merchandise hanging behind the counter. Marvelous, new hunting and fishing vests. Well, maybe “new” isn’t the right word. The vests are from the 1970s, but Lynda found them still in their original box and packaging. They’ve just been in storage.
Ernst & Son is that type of store. The storefront at 826 Massachusetts St. is stocked full of items, including on old-style shelves that are so tall you sometimes need a ladder to retrieve an item. And you haven’t even seen the basement.
“We try not to go down there very often,” Lynda said with a laugh.
Lynda, though, said the family is working on a plan to revamp the merchandise mix at the store. While hardware has been its main line, the store has long had a lot of sporting goods equipment. She said the sporting goods line probably doesn’t make a lot of sense for the store anymore.
In terms of new items, Lynda said she’s not quite sure. She said she has heard from several downtown business owners that a shop that sells more conveniences would be appreciated.
“Even just bottled water,” Lynda said. “That can be hard to find on Massachusetts Street.”
A new operator, though, might have his or her own ideas. Lynda agreed with her mother that finding someone to rent the store would be a good option.
In the meantime family members and friends will continue sorting through the merchandise. A possible slogan for the store perhaps has already emerged.
“We’ve got vintage, that is for sure,” Lynda said.
But it is not just merchandise that is causing Lynda to pause and investigate. She said she recently found a ledger book from 1905, the first year the store was open.
“Every piece of merchandise sold was handwritten in the ledger,” she said.
As she looked further, she found years and years worth of ledgers.
“It has kind of been like a museum,” she said.
Fact-checking county commissioners on assertion that big budget cuts will come if voters reject jail/mental health sales tax
Passing a new tax often is about painting pictures. Supporters of the tax paint a pretty picture of what happens if the tax is approved, or they paint an ugly picture of what happens if it is rejected.
As Douglas County commissioners try to convince voters to support a half-cent sales tax for jail and mental health improvements, they’ve been painting both. If approved, the tax would fund a mental health campus that would provide housing for those who struggle to find it, treatment for those who often go without, and help to prevent people from falling into crisis. If the tax fails and the jail isn’t expanded, there will continue to be inmates sleeping in work rooms, violent offenders interspersed with nonviolent offenders, and conditions that are producing potentially dangerous unrest for both inmates and corrections officers.
Simply put, county officials believe overcrowding at the jail has reached a crisis and inmates are not being treated in a way befitting a caring community. It is not clear, though, whether a majority of the electorate feels that way. Opposition groups have formed that want the proposed mental health services but don’t want the $44 million jail expansion.
With that in mind, county commissioners have been painting a starker picture of what happens if voters this spring reject the sales tax. The county would work to expand the jail in phases, and it would fund it by cutting other county services, perhaps even some existing mental health services.
Based on reader feedback, it seems that scenario has struck a nerve. It also has created a question: Is it true? It is true that the county could do that. But there is also another scenario county officials didn’t offer. It involves the county getting more than $4 million to expand the jail and still having millions to add new mental health services.
But it would involve the county doing something that is has resisted and that groups like Justice Matters have urged: creating a ballot question — likely in November — that funds only mental health projects and not a jail expansion.
Let’s sort through this by looking at three points:
— If the spring sales tax fails, plans for a $44 million jail expansion are basically done. The county could fund a jail expansion using cash from its existing budget, but it can’t cut $44 million from its budget. Plus, the current plan, if built in phases, would cost a lot more than $44 million. Phased projects cost a lot more because of inflation and other factors. How many phases the county would try to do is also unclear. Voters will have a say on that. There is a county election in November 2018, where Commissioner Mike Gaughan’s seat is up for election. The other two seats face election in November 2020. If voters don’t want to do a jail expansion, they likely will elect people who also don’t want to do a jail expansion.
— If the spring sales tax fails, watching how it fails will be important. If the county determines voters liked the mental health projects but disliked the jail plan, then the county may have a financial incentive to put a half-cent sales tax on the November ballot that would fund only mental health. To understand why, you need to know a bit about the county’s budget. The county’s existing budget has $4.2 million of mental health services, such as Bert Nash funding, that are funded by property taxes. If a mental health sales tax were approved, that $4.2 million could be removed from the property tax portion of the county’s budget and transferred to the sales tax portion of the budget. That frees up $4.2 million of property tax money that could be spent on the jail expansion, and the county gets that money without making any cuts to services. In addition, the sales tax is expected to generate about $10 million in funding, which means the county would have about $6 million in funding left for new mental health services.
— People who think the county needs a $44 million jail expansion should hate this scenario. That’s because $4.2 million isn’t enough to build the necessary improvements, even if you spend that amount year after year. Even though county officials have said they would do a phased jail expansion, it is clear they really dislike the idea. They believe the jail is in desperate need of improvements, and a phased approach would produce fewer improvements and take longer to deliver. But if voters reject the spring sales tax, that might be a sign that a majority of residents don’t agree with that assessment. At that point, commissioners are left with the phased expansion or nothing at all. If that is the boat they are in, commissioners are going to be under tremendous political pressure to limit the amount of budget cuts needed to fund the jail. Mental health advocates would be livid if existing mental health services are cut. They would clamor for a mental health-only sales tax. If county officials believe there is any chance such a tax could pass, and then choose not to put it on the ballot, they would face a lot of tough political questions.
I asked all three county commissioners last week why they haven’t talked about this scenario when explaining to voters what would happen if the spring election fails. All said it was a scenario that they just hadn’t focused on. I asked all whether they would be open to putting a mental-health only sales tax on the ballot if the spring sales tax fails. All three said they wanted to focus on convincing voters to pass the current sales tax proposal, although Commissioner Michelle Derusseau said: "We are going to be looking at all of our options, if it comes to that."
Politically, it makes sense that commissioners don’t want to talk too much about what happens if the vote fails. But they are the ones who raised the issue and planted the seed of painful budget cuts. I followed up on it simply because readers had questions about what commissioners were saying or implying. Presumably, commissioners raised the issue of what happens if the vote fails to encourage people to vote for the sales tax. That may not end up being a winning strategy.
To cover their bets, commissioners may need to find another picture to paint. County Commissioner Mike Gaughan had the makings of one when we talked last week.
“We have to make sure people understand the needs aren’t going away,” Gaughan said. “I hope the compassion that exists in this community extends to people who are in jail. I believe it does.”
More coverage: Douglas County push for jail expansion, behavioral health campus
• Feb. 17, 2018 — Activist leaders blast proposed expansion of Douglas County Jail
The rumors are true. The once-popular downtown restaurant Ingredient has closed.
The restaurant at 10th and Massachusetts streets had been dark for a couple of days, so I went there this morning to investigate. Owner Nick Wysong was there and confirmed he had decided to shut down the restaurant after 12 years in business. He said Lawrence diners should keep their eyes open for him in the future, but he provided no other specifics about his plans.
Ingredient gained a following as a “chef-owned restaurant,” and it featured a heavy dose of wood-fired pizza, gourmet salads and several varieties of sandwiches. Wysong had branched out in the restaurant business recently. Last year he was part of the group that opened Harold’s Chicken Whiskey & Donuts. That restaurant, though, closed not long after it opened. It is not to be confused with Wake the Dead Breakfast Bar, which also involves whiskey, doughnuts and some chicken. It is still operating at 7 E. Seventh St. Leaders of those two businesses at one point in time were connected, but that fell apart.
Wysong also took over Jackpot Saloon & Music Hall in downtown Lawrence early last year. It is still open and hosting some concerts.
Wysong didn’t provide any details about what caused him to close the restaurant. However, there are signs of some business struggles in downtown. The list of vacancies is significant. I won’t promise this is a comprehensive list, but here are several prominent vacancies along Massachusetts Street:
— The national chain clothing retailer White House Black Market closed a few weeks ago, leaving its storefront at 714 Massachusetts St. vacant.
— Dan Blomgrem’s Crema Dolce Gelaterio has closed. It was located above Rudy’s Pizzeria at 704 Massachusetts St.
— As we have reported, clothing retailer The Buckle closed its downtown store at 805 Massachusetts. The Buckle closed in March, meaning that large storefront on a very busy block has been empty for almost a year. It looks like the owners are willing to divide that space to accommodate smaller users.
— Another large storefront that has been empty for almost a year is the Pro-Print building at 838 Massachusetts St. This is a little different scenario. Pro-Print did not close. It simply moved its printing business to Sixth and Wakarusa in west Lawrence. It moved out of downtown after owners of the building sold the property. Based on property records on file at the courthouse, it looks like an individual associated with Yantra Financial Technologies has bought the building. Yantra is a financial services firm that is developing technology that helps banks make large transactions at very high speeds. Yantra’s offices currently are next door to the former Pro-Print space. So, I’ll check in soon with Yantra officials to see if there is an update.
— The former Buffalo Wild Wings and Jazz, A Louisiana Kitchen space at 1012 Massachusetts St. also is still vacant. That spot may say something about the challenges with downtown restaurants. Buffalo Wild Wings closed in November 2014, and then Jazz closed in fall 2016 after being open for only a year. The large restaurant space has been vacant ever since. As a reminder, Buffalo Wild Wings opened a new location at 27th and Iowa streets. There was some mild surprise that Buffalo Wild Wings would leave an entertainment district like downtown, but officials in 2014 told me they wanted to get to a location with more parking. Thus far, it appears the move has worked well for them. The small shopping center at 27th and Iowa street is undergoing a bit of an expansion currently. (Hope to get you info on some new tenants there soon.)
— The former bank location at 800 Massachusetts St. continues to be vacant. It most recently was home to Great American Bank, but it always planned to be there just temporarily. It occupied the space while its new headquarters was being built at Eighth and New Hampshire streets. The location has struggled to find anything more than a temporary tenant since early 2012 when Central National Bank closed its downtown branch.
Downtown goes through stretches like this. Leases in downtown Lawrence often are done on five-year terms, and there are periods where many of those leases expire all at once, and many changes in business occur at once. There may be some of that going on, but I think there are also just some business struggles, despite some fairly positive economic news otherwise (i.e. sales tax returns.)
In other news and notes from around town:
There is happier food news at the 1900 Barker Bakery & Cafe. Taylor Petrehn has been named as a semifinalist for the Outstanding Baker designation by the prestigious James Beard Foundation. This is the second consecutive year Petrehn has been a semifinalist for the award. Petrehn, who is a co-owner of the business, has gained quite a following for simply made bread that eschews a lot of additives, sweeteners and oils. The menu includes lots of sourdoughs, plus a selection of croissants and other baked goods.
Petrehn is one of two finalists from Kansas. Megan Garrelts of Rye in Leawood is a semifinalist in the Outstanding Pastry Chef category.
Finalists will be announced on March 14.
It is flu season and we could all use more soap. (I also could use safety goggles to weather the buckets of Pine-Sol that certain members of my family dump on me. I think that is related to flu season.) Fortunately, there’s a new Lawrence business that can help.
Evening Shade Farms Soap House has opened in North Lawrence at 1320 N. Third St., which is the old house right next door to Howard Pine’s Garden Center. As you can imagine, Evening Shade doesn’t sell just ordinary soap that you can stock up on at any discount store.
Instead Evening Shade sells small-batch, handcrafted soaps, often made from fresh goat milk that comes from the company’s farm in Osceola, Mo. You may know Osceola if you know Lawrence history. It was raided by Jayhawkers in a particularly ugly period of the Bleeding Kansas era. I know it better as the place I eat copious amounts of cheese samples at the Osceola Cheese Shop on busy Highway 13 on my way to Branson. (I like my belly full of cheese when I listen to my banjo music.)
Evening Shade’s farm doesn’t have the good fortune of being located along the busy highway in Osceola, so the company was looking for a location to open its first retail store. Lawrence won out after Evening Shade owner Loudy Bousman did some in-depth investigation of the community. She worked for a season at Howard Pine’s Garden Center.
“The energy of the community and the social structure of the community, I just loved it,” she said. “I just felt like it would really embrace who we are and what we do.”
The company does have a strong emphasis on organic, which usually hits a sweet spot in Lawrence.
“We use certified organic ingredients that are good for you and good for the planet,” Bousman said.
The part about soap that is good for the planet is often overlooked, Bousman said. She said that many chemicals used in cosmetics, including soap products, are not that great to be washed down a drain because they ultimately can end up infecting water supplies over the long run.
An aspect that is getting more awareness is what the wrong soap can do to your skin. Bousman said.
“For a long time the skin has really kind of been the forgotten organ,” Bousman said. “That’s incredible because it is the largest organ and it is the most abused. It is exposed to everything.”
Or another way Bousman puts it: Your skin is like a million mouths. It absorbs everything.
Surprisingly, maybe your skin would benefit from pig lard. Evening Shade has a brand of soap called Pine Tar soap. It is made, in part, from pig lard and tallow. In fact, that is the style of soap that got the company in business.
Bousman’s mother started the business 40 years ago after she was battling a skin condition and decided to make a batch of soap like her mother did on the farm in Evening Shade, Ark. Upon using the homemade soap, her skin condition disappeared. Bousman then started making more soap and selling it at farmers markets and other events.
Bousman took over the reins of the business seven years ago when her mother died. She has since expanded it well beyond the farmers market model. The company now has a contract to be in quite a few Whole Foods stores, and is looking for other commercial opportunities.
All the soap is made at the Evening Shade farm in Osceola. She said the company sticks with that method, in part, because it allows the company to use fresh goat milk in its products, whereas most goat soaps actually use powdered goat milk.
In total, the company has about 100 products that it sells. In addition to bar soap, it also has an active living skin care line, a facial care line, a line of vegan soaps for those who don’t want animal products, dog shampoo, and a variety of oils, including insect repellent oil. Bousman said the company even has a “tattoo serum.” I had to ask about that one. I guess it brightens up your tattoo. I thought it was serum that made you tell the truth about how you actually got the tattoo, in which case I was going to carry some with me at all times. The blackmail money would ensure I’d never have to work again.
Evening Shade has been open since just after the first of the year. It plans to have a grand opening celebration in late March.
New report says Lawrence is not a very diverse place; as deportation cases make headlines, a look at our foreign-born population
It is that time of year when a new report comes out that reminds us that Lawrence it is not a very diverse place. It is also the time of year people act surprised by that finding.
After all, I’m sure you are thinking Lawrence is a very diverse place, at least in terms of thought. Take KU basketball for example. When the team loses, some people lose their minds while other people merely freak out.
The latest report from the financial website WalletHub, however, doesn’t quite measure diversity that way. Instead it looks at census data about race, foreign-born population, foreign-language speakers and other such data. The finding: Out of 501 cities, Lawrence was ranked as the 316th most culturally diverse city in the country. The report also provided some sub-rankings. Lawrence ranked No. 329 when you look at race and ethnicity; it ranked No. 296 in the category of different languages spoken; and ranked No. 185 in the area of foreign-born population. So, in other words, we were below the median in all categories except foreign-born population.
What is the most diverse city in Kansas? Look next door. It is Kansas City, Kan. It ranks No. 62 overall. In terms of race and ethnicity, it actually is the 18th most diverse in the country, and it almost cracked the top 100 in terms of language diversity, coming in at 103. Here is a look at the rankings for Kansas communities:
— Kansas City, Kan.: No. 62
— Wichita: No. 188
— Olathe: No. 267
— Topeka: No. 288
— Overland Park: No. 301
— Lawrence: No. 316
— Manhattan: No. 321
— Shawnee: No. 371
— Salina: No. 383
Of course, the rankings are subjective. The authors of the report provide various weightings to certain statistics. However, raw census data does show the lack of racial diversity in the city. In fact, when you look at race and ethnicity, Lawrence looks a lot like some of the Johnson County communities. Here’s a look at the most recent census data — it is the 2016 five-year averages, for those of you scoring along at home — related to race and Hispanic origin. ("Hispanic" is considered an ethnicity, not a race; it's counted separately, which explains why the percentages don't equal 100).
Lawrence: 82 percent white; 4.3 percent black; 5.5 percent Asian; 2.3 percent American Indian; 6.6 percent Hispanic.
Olathe: 85 percent white; 5 percent black; 4.4 percent Asian; 10.9 percent Hispanic
Overland Park: 84.6 percent white; 4.9 percent black; 7.1 percent Asian; 6.4 percent Hispanic
Wichita: 76.2 percent white; 11.2 percent black; 5 percent Asian; 16.4 percent Hispanic
Kansas City, Kan.: 59.4 percent white; 25.1 percent black; 3.9 percent Asian; 29.2 percent Hispanic.
Topeka: 78.7 percent white; 10 percent black; 1.4 percent Asian; 14.1 percent Hispanic
Although Lawrence has some of the lower percentages for black and Hispanic populations, American Indians may make up a larger share of our population than any other metro area in the state. Haskell Indian Nations University is a diversity differentiator for the community.
I also wondered whether Lawrence’s status as a university community made us a bit more of a magnet for foreign-born residents. Not really. The census numbers show we are only slightly above the statewide average. About 7.8 percent of Lawrence’s population is foreign-born compared with about 6.9 percent for the state. When you account for margin of error, that is pretty close.
Again, larger cities and Johnson County communities had higher percentages.
— Kansas City, Kan.: 16.6 percent
— Olathe: 10.6 percent
— Wichita: 10.3 percent
— Topeka: 5.5 percent
But with the recent news about deportations in Lawrence, I did wonder how many actual people are foreign-born residents but not American citizens. The Census Bureau’s latest estimates are that 5,117 people are foreign-born but not U.S. citizens. That’s about 5.5 percent of the population. Statewide, the number is 126,903 or about 4.3 percent of the population.
Since Lawrence is a big city now, I guess my morning commute should involve a subway. (I’ll plan on getting a footlong and three cookies for breakfast.) I’m, of course, referring to the news that city planners estimate Lawrence’s population has crossed the 100,000 mark in 2018. Not everything is growing so rapidly in Lawrence, though, as a new jobs report shows.
Planners estimated that we had a pretty robust 2.5 percent population growth rate in 2017. For at least a year anyway, that’s a return to the type of population growth we saw in the go-go 1990s. Jobs in Lawrence and Douglas County, though, grew at only about a third of that pace, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Each month BLS estimates the number of jobs that actually exist in the Lawrence metro, which includes all of Douglas County. The numbers, of course, change each month, but we now have a full 12 months of preliminary data for 2017. I’ve averaged the monthly totals, and they show Lawrence had 54,375 jobs on average in 2017. That’s up from 53,950 jobs in 2016. That’s 425 jobs or a growth rate of about 0.8 percent.
There certainly was a time not long ago that any job growth was seen as a victory, so I would be careful not to sneer at 0.8 percent job growth. But there was a point in 2017 where it looked like Lawrence was poised for a big jump in jobs. At least that is what the statistics were pointing toward. In June, Lawrence posted job growth of more than 5 percent. It followed it up in July with job growth of about 1.8 percent and then 1.6 percent in August.
Since then, the picture has become negative. The preliminary numbers show the numbers of jobs in September dropped by 1.8 percent, by 1.2 percent in October, by 0.5 percent in November and 0.2 percent in December. I wouldn’t get too hung up on the specific numbers because they are preliminary and will change, but they probably are a good indication of the trend.
The other thing of note is that Lawrence did not keep up with Topeka or Kansas City job growth in 2017, and for the last part of the year, Wichita also had much higher job growth totals. Here’s a look at the 12-month average growth rates for each of the metro areas, which include the Kansas and Missouri side of Kansas City.
— Kansas City: up 1.9 percent
— Topeka: up 1.2 percent
— Lawrence: up 0.8 percent
— Manhattan: up 0.8 percent
— Wichita: up 0.6 percent
For whatever reason, though, the state’s two big college communities — Lawrence and Manhattan — both suffered slowdowns in the last part of the year. Like Lawrence, Manhattan has posted declines since September, according to the preliminary numbers. In fact, the declines in Manhattan have been even more pronounced. In December, Manhattan posted a 2 percent job decline compared to Lawrence’s 0.2 percent dip.
On the other end of the scale is Wichita. It has posted job increases for eight straight months, according to the preliminary data. Topeka and Kansas City had much less volatility. Both communities posted job gains for every month of the year.
It sure looks like a bar operator in a major college town plans to plant himself on downtown Lawrence’s Massachusetts Street.
Plans have been filed at Lawrence City Hall for a bar called Logie’s to take over the space at 728 Massachusetts St. That is the space currently occupied by Tonic and Mass St. Pub, which are also bars.
Those, however, are local bars, and Logie’s looks like it is part of a growing chain run by a longtime bar operator out of Austin. And, importantly, Logie’s plans to be larger than Tonic and Mass St. Pub. The plans filed at City Hall call for an approximately 1,200 square foot expansion onto the back of the building that will allow for a kitchen, new restrooms and other amenities.
I’m a little shy on details currently because attempts to reach Joe Bendetti, who is listed on the application as the guy behind the Logie’s business, have been unsuccessful for the last couple of weeks. A quick internet search shows Bendetti was the owner of the longtime downtown Austin bar Logan’s on Sixth. But according to Mr. Google, that bar is now closed. He also owned a Logan’s in Madison, Wis., but closed it after getting into a license dispute with city officials there, according to news reports.
However, the internet does show several listings for Logie’s bars that are still operating. There is a Logie’s on Campus in College Station, Texas, which is home to Texas A&M. There also is a Logie’s on the Corner in Norman, Okla., which is home to the University of Oklahoma. There is also a Logie’s on Beltline in Dallas, which used to be home to J.R. Ewing and other guys who really know how to wear a Stetson. (Maybe it also is near a university, but I don’t know which one.)
While plans call for the Lawrence Logie’s to have a kitchen, it looks like the emphasis at the other Logie’s locations is on being a bar. I never found a menu for the locations, but several reviews mentioned bar food such as wings. The focus on the social media pages for Logie’s, though, seemed to be on the drinks and the entertainment. The College Station establishment promoted several emo bands, lots of DJ music, game-watching events and specials on tequila shots and beer. The Norman bar even promotes something called Movie Night at Logie’s.
I’ll let you know if I get any other good details from Bendetti. In terms of the City Hall process, he has filed a design review for the expansion plans. The city’s planning department is still processing that application.
One issue the city will have to consider is the special nature of the property at 728 Massachusetts St. It is one of a handful of downtown properties that received a “grandfather” exemption from a city law that requires downtown drinking establishments to make at least 55 percent of their sales from food. In the early 1990s the city put that law in place to stop downtown from becoming a pure bar district. However, it allowed several locations that already were established as bars to be exempted from the food requirement.
However, it is a little unclear on how much those exempted properties can expand their physical footprints and still keep the exemption from the food requirement. City officials are still reviewing that part of the plan, I’m told. UPDATE: City officials have told me the expansion is allowed under city code, but it will require a special vote of the City Commission. No date yet on when that issue might come before the commission.
It was the year of the hotel, not apartments, in Lawrence; a look at 2017 building facts and figures
Let’s put the final nail in 2017 building activity in Lawrence. No, I promise, this does not involve me actually having a hammer. (You have one deck collapse like the stock market, and suddenly everybody gets nervous.) Instead, I’ve got the final statistics on the millions of dollars worth of building activity that took place in the city.
The city has released its building permit totals for 2017. The summary is that 2017 was a good year but was down from the historic highs of the last two years. The city issued permits for $165.9 million worth of projects in 2017. That’s down about 25 percent from the $220 million in projects in 2016 and down even more sharply from the $227 million in 2015. However, it is worth noting that the 2015 total was an all-time high for the city. The $165 million mark still ranks as one of the better years of this decade. Here’s a look:
— 2017: $165.9 million
— 2016: $220.8 million
— 2015: $227.8 million
— 2014: $99.7 million
— 2013: $171.9 million
— 2012: $100.6 million
— 2011: $115.7 million
— 2010: $101.8 million
— 2009: $75.3 million.
But 2017 may be most notable for what didn’t happen: There wasn’t a surge of new permits issued for apartment construction. In fact, 2017 is the only year this decade that the city issued more permits for single family home construction than apartment construction. The city issued permits for only eight living units of apartments, while issuing permits for 172 single-family and duplex homes. That’s the sort of fact you can use to win a bar bet, if you go to really boring bars. Regardless, single-family and duplex construction showed some positive signs in 2017. For much of this decade, an up year in single-family construction has been followed by a down year. That trend was broken in 2017, and the year finished with the second-best total of the decade. Here’s a look:
— 2017: 172 permits
— 2016: 171 permits
— 2015: 239 permits
— 2014: 116 permits
— 2013: 165 permits
— 2012: 126 permits
— 2011: 99 permits
— 2010: 156 permits
— 2009: 126 permits
But if you think 2017 is a sign that Lawrence’s apartment boom is over, think again. It is like the plumbing project I did last weekend. Sometimes the work pauses while you go to the hardware store to get more duct tape. Apartment construction was just on pause in 2017. Plans already have been filed for more than 800 new bedrooms of apartments in Lawrence for 2018. If anything, we may want to watch whether 2018 challenges the recent high set in 2016 when the city issued permits for 1,205 apartment units.
If 2017 wasn’t the year of the apartment, then what was it? I would say the year of the hotel (and that’s not just because we needed a room after the duct tape didn’t hold well.) Instead, three of the top 10 largest projects in the city were hotels. Between the Best Western Plus hotel near Rock Chalk Park, the Country Inn & Suites on East 23rd Street, and the Tru by Hilton near Sixth and Wakarusa, the city is adding about 280 hotel rooms to its inventory. That’s about a 20 percent increase in the number of hotel rooms in the city. Here’s a look at the top 10 projects of the year, ranked by dollar value:
— Best Western Plus, 6101 Rock Chalk Drive: $10.7 million
— USD 497 Maintenance complex, 711 E. 23rd St.: $4.9 million
— Tru by Hilton, 510 Wakarusa Drive: $4 million
— Country Inn & Suites, 2176 E. 23rd St.: $3.9 million
— Connect Church, 3351 W. 31st St.: $3.6 million
— City of Lawrence water storage tanks, 1220 Oread Ave.: $3.5 million
— St. John Church addition, 1208 Kentucky St.: $3 million
— Bioscience and Technology Business Center renovation, 2029 Becker Drive: $2.8 million
— Boys & Girls Club center, 2910 Haskell Ave.: $2.8 million
— Office and lab addition for U.S. Geological Survey, 1217 Biltmore: $2.4 million.
Here is one interesting thing to note about that list: At least six of the 10 projects are ones that won’t pay property taxes on their new construction because they are either owned by governments, nonprofit entities or churches. That is an issue in Lawrence. Lots of real estate isn’t on the tax rolls, and government projects are some of the larger ones in town some years.
Expect that trend to continue in 2018. This could be a massive year for Lawrence construction because of all the work that will get underway with the school bond projects. Between those projects and the already announced apartment projects, could Lawrence top the $250 million mark in construction for the first time?
I don’t know, but as a man with a lot of duct tape would say, stick around to find out.
Veggie burger manufacturer plans to expand in Lawrence, seeks financial incentive from local taxpayers
It is the $30,000 veggie burger question. No, that’s not how much ketchup I would need in order to enjoy a veggie burger meal. Veggie burgers are quite popular, as evidenced by an expansion plan that has been filed by a Lawrence-based veggie burger manufacturer. Instead, the $30,000 is how large of a grant the company is seeking from local taxpayers to complete the expansion.
Hilary’s Eat Well has plans for about a $1.5 million expansion near 23rd Street and Haskell Avenue. The company plans to outfit its current space at 2205 Haskell Avenue with new production equipment, and lease new space next door at 2151 Haskell to accommodate its growing warehouse operations. The company hopes to add about five employees in the first year of the expansion. In subsequent years, the company hopes to add another five to eight employees as it beefs up its production capabilities. (Actually, that’s not the right way to say that for a veggie burger company.)
The company needs about a $30,000 grant to help with some of the workforce training costs, moving expenses and other soft costs that are expected to occur with the project. The company is proposing the grant be funded equally by the city, the county and a consortium of local economic development organizations.
I had noticed the company recently received a $500,000 building permit for warehouse space work at 2151 Haskell. I had tried for a few weeks to get an update on that project. Lydia Butler, president and chief financial officer for Hilary’s, got back to me this morning.
She confirmed the company already has received the building permit for its warehouse project, but said construction work isn’t really underway yet. However, she also was upfront by saying that the expansion project isn’t dependent on the $30,000 grant. Instead, the grant will give the company more room to navigate in the future.
“We feel like we are going to continue to grow,” Butler said. “We think probably 10 to 15 jobs in the next few years, if our growth continues like it has been.”
Butler said city and economic development officials in the past have told the company how interested they are in keeping Hillary’s headquarters and production facilities in Lawrence.
The company does have a compelling story. Hilary Brown, the founder of the once popular Lawrence restaurant Local Burger, created the company and its veggie burger recipe. Brown, however, isn’t involved in the day-to-day operations of the business anymore. Several investment groups, including one led by successful Wichita businessman David Murfin, own the company.
The new ownership group has delivered on a growth plan. Back in 2015, we reported the company had about 10 employees. The company now lists 40 employees.
Part of the growth has come from new product offerings. The original veggie burger continues to be a big part of the company’s sales, but Butler said new offerings also are becoming important. The latest offering, released less than a year ago, is something called Millet Medley. It is a grain-and-vegetable-based side dish that now comes in four different flavors, according to the company’s website. With those additions, the company now has almost 30 different products, including veggie burgers, veggie bites, vegetarian breakfast sausage, and a full line of salad dressings.
The product offerings have helped the company get into grocery store chains across the country. The company is in Whole Foods, Sprouts, Kroger (Dillons), Safeway, Hy-Vee and many other chains, Butler said. Canada also has become a major growth market for the company, she said.
Butler said the company has benefited from a number of emerging trends in the food industry. She said for health reasons more people are getting more plant-based foods into their diet. She said, though, people becoming more aware of food allergies also has been a big boost to the company’s business. Hilary’s markets its products as being free from common allergens. Butler said there are about 15 million people with food allergies in the U.S., but those 15 million people probably impact the diets of about 45 million people. Think about it: If someone in your house is allergic to something, you are less likely to include that in your diet as well. That is sizable market that needs served.
“We have a specific sweet spot with people with food allergies,” Butler said. “There are a lot of gluten-free bread and crackers, but in terms of entrees, that is a real need. We are filling it through our products.”
In terms of the company’s $30,000 grant request, that process is just getting started. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday are expected to formally receive the application request and refer it for review to the Public Incentives Review Committee. Following a recommendation from that group, city commissioners would be able to approve the city’s portion of the grant.
To the surprise of neighbors, bulldozer begins to demolish disputed stand of trees near Clinton Parkway and Crestline
Just days after winning a key victory to stop a large student apartment complex from being built in their neighborhood, residents near Clinton Parkway and Crestline Drive suffered a loss via a bulldozer on Friday.
About 9 a.m. Friday, a bulldozer began plowing through a mature stand of trees on the site where the 522-bedroom apartment complex was once slated to go. The trees had become a complicating factor in the apartment complex winning necessary zoning and land use approvals from City Hall. The site is at the southwest corner of Clinton Parkway and Crestline Drive.
Landowners in the area are looking for the property owner to be punished for the clear cutting.
“We need to see what the city is going to do about this,” said Kenneth Prost, an owner of the adjacent Lawrence Child Development Center. “This is very aggressive.”
Aggressive, but perhaps not illegal, even though the trees supposedly have some protections in the city code. On Friday afternoon, it appeared those protections did not extend to stopping a bulldozer from pushing them over.
Scott McCullough, the city’s planning director, told me in an email that the stand of trees do fall under the city’s “sensitive lands” regulations. The development group was made aware of that definition when it filed its plans for the apartment project. The sensitive lands designation is meant to protect important environmental attributes of a property.
However, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, that doesn’t mean the trees can’t be bulldozed. McCullough confirmed there is no fine the city can levy for taking the trees down. Instead, the city might be able to require new trees be planted on the site, if a new development plan is filed for the property. However, that sounded less than certain.
“That will be a discussion had at the time of such a future request,” McCullough said in the email.
If you remember, this is the same site where the apartment complex was proposing to build around three sides of the day care, after it failed to reach a deal to buy the day care property. Last week, the Planning Commission dealt that apartment complex proposal a major setback by denying a comprehensive plan change that would have allowed an apartment complex on the site.
The apartment complex was proposed by Gilbane Development, a major builder of student apartment complexes. But Gilbane never actually purchased the property, and I’ve been told that it has canceled its contract to purchase the property. That is probably a sign that Gilbane has given up on the Lawrence project.
On Friday, it wasn’t entirely clear who ordered the trees to be bulldozed. The bulldozer operator told Prost that he didn’t know who hired him. Presumably, though, only the property owner would have the authority to order work on the site. The property is owned by Iowa Street Associates, a company that is in turned owned by a California investment firm. The company has an Overland Park representative, but an attempt to reach him was not immediately successful.
I’ve got a call into city officials as well to get their reaction. City Hall was notified of the clear cutting shortly after 9:15 a.m., but staff wasn’t able to immediately get to the scene to order the work to be stopped. When I left the scene about 10:45 a.m., city staff wasn’t yet on site. McCullough said he did get on site about 11:45 a.m.. He did talk with the contractor about the circumstances regarding the trees, and asked him to get in touch with the property owner. The contractor, however, said “if the code did not prevent him from removing the trees that he would continue,” according to McCullough.
In addition to the day care, the property is adjacent to a residential neighborhood. Residents of that neighborhood had come out strongly against the apartment project. The stand of trees backed up to their rear yards in many cases.
Dan and Liz Berghout live about 100 feet from the trees. They told of how their oldest daughter used to play in the area and also how the trees served as an effective noise barrier and a good habitat for wildlife.
“Those trees add a tremendous amount to the neighborhood,” Dan Berghout said.
The incident likely will spark several debates. The city protecting trees on private property has been controversial in the past. It has brought up questions of the rights of property owners. However, I suspect another debate will center on what the city is able to do when someone does take aggressive action to remove environmentally sensitive elements from their land.
As this incident has demonstrated, labeling the trees as something that ought to be protected does little to actually protect them.
Douglas County tries to explain why ballot language for jail, mental health projects doesn’t include a dollar amount or debt cap
Hopefully this doesn’t happen to you every day, but it is conceivable that someone you know may ask for your permission to take out debt that you will be partially responsible for repaying. If so, two natural questions probably spring to mind: For what and how much?
Douglas County residents are going to be put in that position this spring when county commissioners ask for approval of a half-cent sales tax to fund a jail expansion and mental health project. When voters open their ballot (it is a mail-in ballot) it generally will explain what the county will use the money for, but nowhere in the ballot language will there be a dollar amount of how much debt the county intends to take on as part of the project.
That omission creates the possibility the county could issue debt that exceeds the dollar amounts that have been publicly discussed thus far. It also is creating questions from some readers about why the county is refusing to list a dollar amount in the ballot language. I’ve asked county officials about that and have done some digging on my own. Here’s a look at the issues:
• State law doesn’t require the county to put the dollar amount on the ballot, but the county could if it wanted to. The past several bond issues in the community have included dollar amounts. The school board puts dollar amounts in the ballot language when it seeks approval for school bonds. In 2010, the library expansion ballot included an $18 million cap on the amount of bonds that could be issued. In 2014 the city sales tax ballot for a new police headquarters included a $24.2 million cap on the amount of bonds that could be issued. But, it also would be incorrect to say this lack of a dollar figure is unprecedented. When voters in 1994 approved a countywide one-cent sales tax to fund construction of the jail, among other projects, the ballot language did not include a dollar amount on the bonds.
• The county wants to provide itself the most spending flexibility possible. As the Journal-World has reported, the county currently believes the jail will cost about $44 million and the mental health campus will cost about $11 million to build. Thus, the current estimate is the county will need to issue about $55 million in bonds. But Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman told me there is a concern the numbers could grow higher.
“Costs are changing rapidly even as we speak, and if we put a not-to-exceed number on these projects, we may find ourselves hamstrung at the very moment we need to bid them and put that first shovel in the ground,” she said.
By not putting a cap in the ballot language, rising costs become less problematic. But, how high could the project go before the county commissioners would go back to the drawing board? I’m sure there is a number that would cause county officials to balk, but when I asked this week, no one gave me a specific dollar figure.
County voters will have to decide their comfort level in not having a built-in cap as part of the project. It is important to understand how the cap would function. It would not prohibit the county from building the project if, for example, costs for the jail came in at $44.5 million instead of the $44 million. The cap is only on the amount of debt it can issue. Like most governments, the county has cash reserves it can spend to make up the difference, and it also can rearrange its budget to free up cash to make up the difference. However, such budget changes could involve cuts to other county services. Some voters may be more comfortable letting the county operate without a cap rather than worrying about what services they may cut, if they had to make up a shortfall.
• The proposed sales tax can, theoretically, fund quite a bit more debt than $55 million. The half-cent sales tax is projected to generate a little less than $10 million a year. Only about $3.75 million will be spent each year to make the payments on the bond. The rest will be spent on operating costs, primarily for the mental health project, but some for the jail. If the county finds a way to reduce those operating costs, the ballot language would allow the the county to apply those savings to fund a larger bond issuance. In very rough terms, every $1 million in cash from the sales tax can fund $10 million to $13 million in debt at 4 percent interest for 20 years.
• The spring election is about more than just a sales tax. It would be easy to think that this issue of a debt cap does not matter because the end result will be the same: The sales tax rate you pay will be a half-cent higher regardless of how much debt the county issues. If everything goes according to the county’s plan, that will be true. But the county also has to have a backup plan, and it technically is asking voters to approve that plan. The county fully intends to only use sales tax dollars to pay off this debt. It must even conduct a feasibility study before issuing any bonds to confirm future sales tax revenues will be enough to pay off the bonds.
But ... predicting future sales tax revenues is like predicting the weather. If the economy takes a downturn and sales tax revenues decline to the point there is not enough to pay the debt, the county will be obligated to use property tax revenues. The resolution the county has approved spells that out by saying the bonds are “payable from and secured by the proceeds of the sales tax, and if not so paid, from unlimited ad valorem taxation within the county.” That means the county could raise its property tax rate or cut other county services to free up cash to pay for any shortfall.
It is important to note that all the county officials I talked with said they weren’t trying to be deceptive by omitting a dollar figure from the ballot language. They’ve obviously talked about the dollar costs in public meetings, and they will be required by state law to make a more specific estimate soon. The county must run a legal notice in the Journal-World detailing the amount of bonds expected to be issued, the projected interest rate and other such details. The Journal-World, of course, will include those details in our coverage.
But this issue is highlighting how spirited of an election this could be. Already, the county is having to answer questions that really don’t even help voters get to the heart of the matter. First there were voter questions about why the project couldn’t include two votes, one for the mental health part of the project and one for the jail part of the project. Now, county officials are answering questions about why there isn’t a dollar cap.
County Administrator Craig Weinaug told me the county does need to make sure voters don’t lose sight of the major issues the county is trying to address: an overcrowded jail and a lack of mental health services in the community.
“We need to be able to focus the public’s attention on the needs we have, how we can minimize incarceration, and how we can provide better mental health services,” Weinaug said.
There was a time period where about four nights a week I went to the Cadillac Ranch dressed in such colorful country and western attire some people thought I should run my outfit through a car wash. I guess those folks will get the last laugh because plans are in the works to tear down the longtime bar and replace it with a high-tech car wash.
Steve Stallard, an owner of the Cascades Car Wash chain, told me he has a contract to purchase the former Cadillac Ranch location at 2515 W. Sixth St. He plans to build a 120- to 140-foot long tunnel car wash on the site.
Yes, this may sound familiar. Tunnel car washes may become the newest trend in Lawrence. If there were a chicken restaurant at the end of the tunnel it could become the ultimate trend. You may remember that there is a relatively new tunnel car wash next to the QuikTrip near 23rd and Haskell. Scott Zaremba with the local Zarco chain of convenience stores has proposed plans for a tunnel car wash near Ninth and Iowa, and another chain —Tommy’s Car Wash — has filed plans to tear down the former Applebee’s building at Sixth and Monterey Way in Lawrence, although that plan still needs significant city approvals. Plus, Hurricane Car Wash came to the market several years ago near Sixth and Wakarusa.
The competition already has some benefits for consumers. For one, you are a complete chump if you pay to vacuum your car in Lawrence. While the supposed “smart money” has been paying attention to the historic rise in the stock market, those of us with “remedial money” have been fixated on the plummeting price of vacuuming your car in Lawrence. Many of these tunnel car washes offer free vacuums — and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say this — but I’ve used the vacuum even on days I haven’t gotten a car wash. (I get very excited about free vacuuming, although my wife gets dismayed because she notes I can vacuum the house for free at any time.)
Despite the uptick in activity, Stallard said Lawrence is still under-served in the car wash world. He has been in the business for about 13 years. The company is based in Dallas and has more than a dozen car washes, mainly in Texas. But Stallard, who originally is from Topeka, has his eyes on the Kansas City market, including Lawrence. The company has a location in Bonner Springs and has said Kansas City is its major growth market.
He said the entire industry is undergoing a transformation — an out with the old and in with the new type of thing. He said the idea of self-serve washes are falling out of favor. You know the type. You get out of the car, grab a wand, stack your quarters on top of the machine, furiously wash so you don’t have to put another 50 cents in, decide you have to put more money in, knock the stack of quarters over, and then get your hand caught in a drain trying to save 50 cents.
And then there is the idea of washing your car in the driveway. That idea is all but dead, he said.
“That has gone away,” Stallard said. “People don’t like it, and cities don’t like it.” Soap in the storm sewers is a concern for cities and environmentalists.
The tunnel car washes, he said, are capitalizing off the overarching trend in America: convenience. People don’t have to get out of their cars, and Stallard said the equipment he plans to install will wash a car in about three minutes.
As for a timeline for the project to begin, Stallard said he hopes to finalize the purchase of the property soon and start construction by the middle of the summer. He contends the site has all the necessary zoning to allow a car wash, although he hasn’t yet filed plans with City Hall.
If your body hasn’t already told you, here are two charts detailing how bad the flu is in Kansas, Douglas County
Walk into Lawrence Memorial Hospital this week and you’ll think you’ve stumbled into a bank robbers convention. So many people wearing masks. Efforts to defend against germs have kicked into high gear and with good reason. A new report ranks Kansas as being the sickest state in the country this week.
To tell you the data behind this, I first have to tell you a story about a thermometer — so stick with me. (If you didn’t laugh at that, I’m going to assume it is because you are ill.) A company called Kinsa produces a digital thermometer that connects to your smartphone and thus stores all types of data. Using that data, the company has insight into how sick various parts of the country are at any given moment.
Using that data, Kinsa says Kansas is 6.6 percent sick this week, just beating out Missouri, which is at 6.5 percent. Iowa is not feeling too well either with a No. 3 ranking at 6.3 percent ill. The national average is 5 percent sick levels.
Perhaps more interesting is Kansas’ illness level peaked at 5.3 percent last year, so this is yet another piece of evidence that the flu bug really is more serious this season. (I was convinced when we switched out the breakfast orange juice for Pepto-Bismol.) And as the chart below shows, we are way above the 10-year average.
We also have some local numbers that are eye-popping. The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department runs a flu surveillance program that tracks the percentage of Douglas County residents who go to an emergency room reporting flu-like symptoms. We reported in early December that there were signs we were on the verge of flu season hitting us hard, and the numbers have proved that.
At the beginning of the year, the Douglas County flu rate was about 11 percent compared with about 5 percent a year earlier. Now, the flu rate has climbed to almost 16 percent. That is well above last year’s peak, which was at 12 percent.
As the chart below shows, we have been on a steep and steady rise since early December. But the chart also shows that in 2016-2017, this is the time of year when the number of flu cases began to stabilize. Flu rates held steady at about 12 percent, then really began to drop off by the third week in February. By the first of March flu rates were below 6 percent.
It probably is worth reminding everyone that the flu — influenza, not the stuff that causes you to call in sick on a sunny Friday — is a serious deal. The flu was a contributing factor in about 1,200 deaths in Kansas in the 2016-2017 flu season, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. While the flu vaccine is the No. 1 recommendation health care professionals have for combating the flu, the Centers for Disease Control also stresses good hand washing, covering your cough and doing your part to not spread the illness if you contract it. That means staying out of circulation for at least 24 hours after your fever has broken.
And, yes, maybe wearing a mask is a good idea — although I’m skeptical of the motives behind the people who keep telling me I should completely cover my face at all times.
Lawrence real estate market continues winning streak in 2017; questions turn to whether home prices will jump in 2018
Back in January 2017, there was a bit of worry about whether Lawrence’s real estate market was going to take a downward turn in the new year. (Other than that, I think the world was pretty worry-free in January 2017.) Well, rest easier. The final real estate numbers for 2017 are in, and the Lawrence market did just fine.
The Lawrence Board of Realtors' latest report shows 2017 home sales in the city increased by 4 percent compared to 2016 totals. There had been some concern that Lawrence’s real estate market might go through a slump in ’17 because 2016 ended a bit weak. Sales in 2016 grew by only 2.4 percent, and there were concerns housing prices were rising rapidly enough to slow demand. The median home price increased by more than 5 percent in 2016, one of the higher yearly gains in recent memory.
All the concerns, though, were a false alarm. Here’s a look at some of the key real estate numbers from 2017.
— Lawrence home sales totaled 1,261 in 2017. That’s up 4 percent from 2016 totals and up 6.5 percent from 2015 totals. It was the third year that Lawrence’s home market showed significant growth. The 2014 market was basically stagnant. Lawrence hasn’t seen a real downturn in the home market since 2011, when the economic woes of the nation caused home sales to plummet by 14.7 percent.
— The number of newly constructed homes sold in 2017 was a highlight. The report shows 114 newly constructed homes were sold in 2017, up from 103 in 2016 and 83 in 2015. The new home market has been making a gradual comeback. For instance, in 2014 the number of newly constructed homes sold had dipped to 76.
— Average selling prices in Lawrence continued to rise, but not as rapidly as they did in 2016. The median selling price increased to $180,000 in 2017, an increase of 1.1 percent over 2016’s median. However, that 1.1 percent growth was quite a bit slower than the 5.3 percent increase home prices experienced in 2016. Going back a bit further, the median selling price in 2012 was $159,500. So, home prices over the last five years have increased by about 12 percent in Lawrence.
— Homes are continuing to sell very quick. The median number of days a home sat on the market before selling was 11. That’s down from 19 in 2016 and down from 25 days in 2015. To give you some perspective, the median number of days a home sat on the market in 2012 was 59.
— The number of homes on the market continue to be pretty low. December ended with 183 homes on the Lawrence market. That was up 3 homes from December 2016 totals, but it was down from 240 homes at the end of 2015. In 2012, the number stood at 369.
“Supply is still at a staggeringly low rate,and is forecasted to continue to be low well into the year,” Henry Wertin, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors noted in the report.
Whether tight inventories remain in 2018 will play a key role in whether home prices begin to rise rapidly again. If home prices do rise rapidly again, that also may be a sign that the county appraiser will raise your tax values on your home. Which, unless governments cut their property tax mill levies, will mean a tax increase.
So, see, there is always something to worry about.
Report looks at the mighty single population in Lawrence; another report lists Lawrence as one of the best cities to live
It should be no surprise a new study has found Lawrence to be one of the most predominantly single cities in America. Take this week: Most of the male population has blurted multiple times per day “%&$#?@! Poke-a-Doke.” My research has found this is an ineffective pick-up line for 95 percent of the population. (Hopefully the other 5 percent realize it is a basketball reference.)
Indeed, a new report from the financial website 24/7 Wall Street ranked Lawrence fourth in the country for the percentage of single residents in our population. The report examined Census data for 384 metro areas and found more than six in 10 people 15 and older in Lawrence are single.
Not surprisingly, college towns dominate the list. Ithaca, N.Y., home to Cornell University, is No. 1 on the list. Bloomington, Ind., home to Indiana University, is No. 2, and Gainesville, Fla., home to the University of Florida, is No. 3.
What does this ranking mean for Lawrence? Having a large number of single residents isn’t necessarily positive or negative. Lots of people are single because of the stage of life they are in, others are single by choice, some due to death or divorce, and, I suppose, a few are single because they haven’t yet figured out wearing a 1988 Scooter Barry jersey isn’t as attractive as it used to be.
But having a large amount of single residents does shape a community in many ways. One of the more obvious ways involves the school system. Single residents are less likely to have children to go to K-12 schools. Arguably, another potential impact is with the housing market. Smaller households may be more likely to rent an apartment or own a condo rather than live in a single-family home. A community that has 60 percent single and 40 percent married residents is going to look and feel different from a community with the inverse.
And while it is not a perfect measurement, the single population might say something about how much of a college community we are. There are plenty of college communities that didn’t make this top 25 list. The fact that we did may be an indication that we haven’t diversified our economy beyond the traditional college town economy. If Lawrence were a college community that also attracted large, private research firms or corporate headquarters — like some college communities have — the numbers might look a bit different.
So, maybe it is worth pondering a bit what it means for Lawrence to be such a single community. Instead of relying on numbers from the 24/7 Wall St. report (I had a hard time figuring out what section of the Census they were pulling from) I pulled my own numbers from the Census. Here’s the rundown for Lawrence’s single population 15 and older, according to the 2016 American Community Survey five-year average report.
— Never married: 52.3 percent. Men are more likely to be in this category than women with men at 54 percent and women at 49 percent. About 6 percent of all men 65 and older in Lawrence have never been married.
— Divorced: 8.4 percent. Women are more likely to be in this category with women at 10 percent and men at 6 percent. The demographic most likely to be divorced in Lawrence are women 55 to 64 years old. About 25 percent of that demographic is divorced, according to the numbers.
— Widowed: 3.8 percent. Perhaps not surprisingly, women lead this category. (Watching missed free throws is harder on the male heart, perhaps.) Women are widowed at a rate of 6 percent while men are just under 2 percent. Almost 38 percent of all women 65 and older in Lawrence are widowed. That is almost equal to the number who are married.
I thought it also would be interesting to look at how we stack up to some other Kansas communities in terms of singles. It is a reminder of how different we are from most cities in the state:
— Topeka: 32 percent never married; 15 percent divorced; 6 percent widowed.
— Olathe: 26 percent never married; 10 percent divorced; 3 percent widowed.
— Wichita: 32 percent never married; 13 percent divorced; 5 percent widowed
— Overland Park: 28 percent never married; 11 percent divorced; 5 percent widowed
— Manhattan: 55 percent never married; 6 percent divorced; 2 percent widowed
As you can tell, Manhattan actually is more single than Lawrence, but it is small enough that it wasn’t included in the ranking by 24/7 Wall St. Manhattan doesn’t have a Poke-a-Dok problem, but it can be difficult to find a cologne to cover up a day at the veterinary school.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I might as well pass along one other piece of ranking news. Lawrence recently ranked No. 23 on the 100 Best Places to Live list compiled by livability.com. The site calls Lawrence a dynamic community for shopping, dining and entertainment venues.” It also highlights our downtown, our park system and our “robust music and arts scene.”
The report uses data from a variety of sources, including the Census and several nonprofit organizations. Lawrence’s highest scoring areas were in education, economy and civic engagement. Lawrence’s lowest scoring areas were in infrastructure and diversity of the population.
College towns do well in this ranking, and Lawrence wasn’t the top in the state. Yes, our friends in Manhattan did exceedingly well in this ranking. Manhattan just missed out on being the best place to live in 2018. It came in No. 2 on the list. It lauded Manhattan’s bustling downtown, the Aggieville district, affordably priced housing, and even noted that the Manhattan Regional Airport is the second busiest commercial airport in Kansas. Well, OK.
Some other towns of note on the list:
— No. 4: Iowa City
— No. 11: Overland Park
— No. 16: Boulder, Colo.
— No. 19: Lincoln, Neb.
— No. 21: Columbia, Mo.
— No. 53: Ames, Iowa
A student-oriented apartment complex with more than 500 bedrooms may not be coming to the area near Clinton Parkway and Crestline Drive after all. Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commissioners dealt the project a potentially fatal blow on Wednesday.
After hearing from a long line of upset neighbors, planning commissioners unanimously denied a proposed change to the city’s comprehensive plan to accommodate the project.
Commissioners didn’t vote on the actual design plans for Gilbane Development to build 197 apartments with 522 bedrooms near the southwest corner of Clinton Parkway and Crestline Drive. Instead, commissioners denied a change to Horizon 2020, the comprehensive plan that provides guidance on particular areas that the community should develop. Horizon 2020 listed the vacant property near Clinton Parkway and Crestline as developing with office use in the future. The developers were seeking to have the plan modified to list the area for medium and high density residential use.
As we’ve reported several times, the project had a real twist: A day care — the Lawrence Child Development Center sits on a portion of the property. Gilbane, which is a large developer of apartments across the country, could not reach a deal to buy out the day care, so it planned to simply build around it. The proposed plans showed the day care surrounded on three sides.
It was easy to see how that oddity could cause the project some problems. But the project also faced a more traditional hurdle: Lots of neighbors who didn’t want an apartment complex built next to their single family homes. The group had plenty of insight into how to fight City Hall. Former Mayor Mike Amyx is part of the neighborhood that abuts the proposed project.
The comprehensive plan issue gave neighbors a point to argue. They could legitimately say that when they bought their houses they had reason to believe they would be living next to offices, not apartments. That is what the plan called for.
But, it wasn’t certain that planning commissioners would feel that way. The city’s planning staff recommended approval of the comprehensive plan change, noting that there already are apartments just southeast of the site. Plus, the staff report noted that KU’s continued redevelopment of the southern part of its campus and the potential redevelopment of West Campus may create more demand for residential development in south Lawrence. The staff also noted that the city has been promoting the idea of infill development rather than pushing large projects to the edge of town.
This project, which certainly would have added at least $10 million to the property tax base, is a good example of the pitfalls of infill development. Getting a plan that meets the approval of neighbors is almost harder than building in a pasture on the edge of town.
The denial of the comprehensive plan amendment should kill this particular project. Unlike most planning commission items, a comprehensive plan amendment is difficult for the City Commission to overturn. Plus, the City Commission would likely react much the same way to neighbors' concerns as the Planning Commission did.
I’ve reached out to Gilbane officials to get a reaction. Technically, the current zoning on the property — a residential/office designation — allows for some types of medium density residential development, but it would require major changes to the plan and its scope. I’ll let you know if I hear something from the development group.
And don’t worry, there will be plenty of other apartment projects to keep an eye on. The big one is a 784-bedroom proposal on 27 acres of land south of the Iowa Street Walmart. The development would stretch all the way to the South Lawrence Trafficway. That project should have an easier path to approval. It already has apartment zoning in place.
As we reported earlier this week, the other project to watch is a 192-bedroom apartment complex near the southwest corner of 23rd Street and O’Connell Road. That property also already has multi-family zoning in place.
Despite million-dollar discrepancy, city still saw better-than-budgeted sales tax growth for 2017; local retail sales better than in most area cities
Multiple city-produced sales tax reports last year had more than $1.1 million in discrepancies, the Journal-World has found. The discrepancies didn’t result in any missing money for the city, but they did mask a more than $550,000 windfall in sales tax money the city received in 2017.
Each month the city’s finance department compiles a report for city commissioners and the public measuring the amount of sales and use tax dollars the city has collected thus far in the year. The report compares the year-to-date collections to the amount the city budgeted to collect. However, for all of 2017, the city listed the wrong budgeted amount on the reports.
For the first five months of the year, the city listed a budget figure that was about $1.1 million higher than the actual budgeted amount. For the final seven months of the year, the city listed a budget figure that was about $560,000 higher than the actual budgeted amount.
The end result is the monthly reports delivered to city commissioners failed to report that the city’s sales and use tax collections in 2017 came in about $550,000 above what the city originally budgeted to collect for the year. Instead, the key chart in the year-end report showed sales tax collections came in about $380,000 less than budgeted.
Bryan Kidney, the city’s finance director, said this week the report was mislabeled. He said the amounts listed under the “city budget” category should have been described as projected sales tax numbers.
Kidney said the purpose of the report was to show city officials how sales tax collections were coming in compared with the latest projections. But the discrepancy has raised the question of whether the city is doing enough to track surplus tax collections.
The Journal-World never found a city document that listed the amount of surplus sales tax collections. Rather, the newspaper spent several hours gathering figures from city budget documents and state treasurer’s documents, and did calculations to determine the city collected $552,087 more in sales taxes than it budgeted for in 2017. The Journal-World then confirmed that number with the city. Kidney said he does plan for 2018 reports to list both the projected amount and the originally budgeted amount.
Sales tax collections have outsized importance in the city’s budget. At about $39 million, sales taxes are the second-largest revenue source in the city’s budget — trailing only water and sewer fees — and they are the largest revenue source in the city’s general operating fund.
The city approved its 2017 budget in August of 2016, meaning the city had to project in the summer of 2016 what it thought sales tax collections would be in 2017. Because of the difficulty in projecting sales tax revenues that far in advance, it is common for governments to offer updated sales tax projections as the year progresses.
However, those updated sales tax numbers play a different role from the original sales tax numbers that are included in the approved budget. That’s because city governments only get once chance per year to set their property tax rates. That’s done during the summer budget-making process.
The amount of money the city budgets to receive in sales tax dollars can have an impact in how the city sets its property tax rates. If the city is projecting a significant increase in sales tax collections, it can lessen pressures to raise the property tax rate. A projected decline in sales tax revenues can have the opposite impact.
Since at least 2012 the city has consistently had sales tax revenues that have exceeded the city budget. In fact, the period between 2011 and 2016 produced the largest growth in retail sales in recent memory, surpassing even the booming period of the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to city figures compiled by the Journal-World. During that time, sales tax collections grew by about 23 percent. However, city taxpayers haven’t seen a reduction in their property tax rates. From 2012 to 2017, the city’s mill levy has increased from 29.5 mills to 33.2 mills. Given that home values have been rising at a significant pace, the true amount of property tax increase most homeowners have seen is even greater.
The last several years have created a question for some: Is there a flaw in the sales tax system? When the city has the rare year that it collects less sales taxes than it budgets, there is pressure to either cut services and/or raise the property tax rates. However, as the last several years have shown, when the city collects more in sales taxes than budgeted, there isn’t much pressure to use the surpluses to lower property tax rates.
As someone who has watched city budgets for more than 20 years, I should note this isn’t something new. Surpluses haven’t received a lot of attention over the years, and in some key ways the budget process under City Manager Tom Markus is more transparent and easier to understand than past processes.
In the past, though, the expenditure portion of city budgets did come in pretty much at or under what the city approved as part of its budget process. Surpluses often would end up by default increasing the city’s rainy day funds, also known as fund balances. Now, however, what happens to the surpluses is a little harder to follow. In recent years, the city has exceeded its budgeted spending amount in some areas, following the idea that addressing an issue now will be cheaper than letting it wait until the next budget year.
It is not for me to say what is the correct process, but I can report that as property taxes took a big spike recently, there are more taxpayers wondering if growing sales tax revenues can help offset those property tax increases.
Having a better idea of how large our sales tax surpluses are may help answer that question.
For those of you who follow my monthly report of sales tax activity, here’s a look at how the year ended: Lawrence sales tax collections grew in 2017, but not as fast as they had in past years. Compared with other major retail centers in the state, though, Lawrence still had above-average growth.
Lawrence sales tax collections grew by 2.2 percent in 2017. That’s down from past growth rates. In 2016, the city posted a 5.5 percent growth rate. It also is worth noting that sales were slower in the second half of 2017 than the first half. So, that may be a trend to keep an eye on for 2018.
Compared with other large retail centers in Kansas, Lawrence fared a bit above average. Here’s a look:
— Lenexa: up 6.6 percent
— Shawnee: up 3.9 percent
— Olathe: up 2.7 percent
— Lawrence: up 2.2 percent
— Topeka: up 0.7 percent
— Overland Park: up 0.4 percent
— Saline County (Salina): up 0.2 percent
— Kansas City, Kan.: down 0.7 percent
— Sedgwick County (Wichita): down 1.4 percent
— Riley County (Manhattan): down 2 percent
Maybe eastern Lawrence was getting jealous. It saw all the apartments being built in west Lawrence and south Lawrence and felt it was getting left out of Lawrence’s apartment boom. Well, fear not. Plans have been filed for a new apartment complex along the city’s eastern edge.
Plans have been filed at City Hall for 128 new apartments to be built near the southwest corner of 23rd Street and O’Connell Road. The development, which is being proposed by Lawrence apartment developer Doug Compton's First Management, would have eight two-story buildings with a mix of one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments.
In total, there would be 64 one-bedroom apartments and 64 two-bedroom units. It is cold out there, so don’t take off your shoes. I’ll do the math for you: That’s 192 new bedrooms for the area. In the Lawrence apartment industry, that’s now considered a middling-size project. For example, the recent plans for an apartment complex just south of the Walmart on south Iowa Street calls for about 700 bedrooms. Plans for an apartment complex near Clinton Parkway and Crestline Drive call for about 500 bedrooms.
In addition to the eight apartment buildings, the project also calls for an approximately 2,500-square-foot, one-story clubhouse that appears to also have room for an outdoor basketball or volleyball court. The plan also shows about half-dozen, single-story garages that could accommodate about 40 vehicles in total.
As for the location, the project would have frontage along 23rd Street but would take its access off of Exchange Court. Exchange Court is a short cul-de-sac that has been completed for several years just south and west of the 23rd and O’Connell intersection. The apartment complex will be on both the north and south side of Exchange Court, but won’t go all the way to the corner of 23rd and O’Connell. The plans show there are still three lots available for future development at the southwest corner of the intersection.
This area once was considered for a development that would provide subsidized rental housing for working families. The Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority was going to be a partner in that project. But there are no indications that this plan includes that element. I talked with Shannon Oury, executive director of the housing authority, and she said her organization is not involved. She said efforts to build the envisioned workforce housing project fell apart after the project had difficulties obtaining tax credits, and after a rise in interest rates caused about a $1 million shortfall in the financing plan.
While a traditional apartment complex is a bit unique for the area, there have been several other developments in the area recently. Lawrence developer Roger Johnson for the last couple of years has been building a new single family neighborhood farther to the south and east of the site. Directly south of the site, a 55-plus, rent-controlled development has been built by Johnson County-based Wheatland Investments.
The area has seen an uptick in interest as the city has tried to redevelop the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant across the street in VenturePark, the city’s new business park. There has been a thought that area would be a good one for workforce housing, which is a another way of saying starter homes that could be occupied by people who are working in the industrial park. Thus far, though, there have been more homes built than there have been jobs added at VenturePark.
However, do expect work to begin in the spring on the first building in VenturePark. As we’ve reported, Kansas City-based Van Trust Real Estate plans to build a “spec” industrial building in the park, which is another way of saying that the building is being built without a specific tenant in place. The plans for that building have been filed at City Hall. I’m working to talk with a Van Trust official about how the leasing efforts are going, and I’ll report back when I get some more information.
Empty storefronts become a bit more prominent in Lawrence, new report shows; vacancy rate hits recent high
With all this talk of a federal government shutdown, the natural question is whether it would include presidential cellphone service? I don’t have insight into that, but this is the time of year that Lawrence leaders look at another type of shutdown: how many businesses have closed and how many empty storefronts are left as a result. The short answer is vacancy rates were up a bit in 2017.
The Lawrence branch of the commercial real estate firm Colliers International puts together a report on vacancy rates of retail, office and industrial space throughout Lawrence. The retail vacancy rate frequently is a topic of conversation in some political circles, as Lawrence is never very far away from a debate on whether new retail projects should be allowed to locate in town.
This year’s numbers probably will fuel some of that. The retail vacancy rate climbed to 7.5 percent, up from 5.2 percent at the end of 2016. While that is not a huge jump, it is Lawrence’s highest retail vacancy rate in the last decade, according to the Colliers report. The 7.5 percent vacancy rate also is higher than the national and Kansas City metro averages. The K.C. retail vacancy rate is about 6 percent, according to Colliers, while the national average is about 4.5 percent. This is the first time in the last decade that Lawrence’s vacancy rate has been higher than the Kansas City vacancy rate.
The areas with the highest vacancy rates are perhaps predictable: East 23rd Street and West 23rd Street. Why predictable? Traffic patterns are changing as a result of the South Lawrence Trafficway being completed. While I haven’t yet seen specific numbers, it is reasonable to surmise that traffic on 23rd Street is not going to grow the way it used to. High traffic volumes are important to many types of retailers.
Vacancy on East 23rd Street stood at 16 percent, while the rate was 10.5 percent for West 23rd Street. Here’s a look at retail vacancy rates for other parts of town:
• Downtown: 7.5 percent
• South Iowa Street: 7.9 percent
• Sixth Street: 4.7 percent
• West Lawrence: 4.6 percent
• North Lawrence: 3.3 percent
• University district: 3.8 percent
Colliers officials, however, said interest levels are strong from retailers looking to come into town. This survey includes some vacant space that already has had deals announced to fill it, such as the former J.C. Penney store, which is being remodeled to house Hobby Lobby, Marshalls Home Goods, and Five Below. So, by next year’s report, that property won’t show up as vacant space.
But the fate of a few other big, empty spaces is still unclear. The former Hastings building at 23rd and Iowa is still empty. The Hobby Lobby building at 23rd and Ousdahl will be empty once Hobby Lobby moves to south Iowa Street. And despite an announced deal, Price Chopper is still awaiting city approval to open a grocery store in the former Borders bookstore building at Seventh and New Hampshire. How those three buildings fill up will go a long way in determining the vacancy rate for 2018.
There are also a few large spaces in downtown Lawrence, although I’m told there are several deals close to being announced. I don’t have great information on those, although I will pass along that there are certainly a couple of microbrewery projects that have been looking for space around town. In downtown, some of the large spaces looking for tenants include the former Buffalo Wild Wings location, the former Buckle clothing shop, the former Pro Print location and the ground floor of the former M&M Office supply building. What if a brewery went into that location, right across the street from The Free State Brewing Company? No one would ever get any work done in the 600 block of Massachusetts Street again.
I’ll let you know if I hear other details. In the meantime, here’s a look at some of the other vacancy rate information from the Colliers report:
• The vacancy rate for office space stood at 8.9 percent, up from 7.5 percent at the end of 2016. Lawrence’s rate is well below the peak vacancy rate that occurred in 2009, when vacancy rates were near 14 percent. Today’s rate is about equal to the Kansas City office vacancy rate, while it is less than the national average of about 12.5 percent. The report notes, however, downtown does have a 20 percent vacancy rate, as new office space has developed along the New Hampshire Street corridor.
• The industrial vacancy rate hit an all-time low in Lawrence at 1.9 percent, down just slightly from 2016 totals. The Colliers report said there are only 10 true industrial buildings available in Lawrence currently, and all of them are less than 20,000 square feet. Eight of them are less than 10,000 square feet. The industrial market has been a slow one in Lawrence. Lawrence leaders are optimistic that plans for a new industrial building in the Lawrence VenturePark will serve as a magnet for new companies. As we’ve reported, Kansas City-based VanTrust Real Estate has been awarded incentives to build a 152,000 square-foot industrial building in the park. No tenants have yet been announced, but I’m told marketing of the planned building has begun.