Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
City asked to cut downtown employees a break on parking; talk of a downtown liquor store versus downtown grocery
At last night’s Lawrence City Commission meeting, I felt like we were pretty close to hearing one of those “back in my days, we walked up hill both ways” type of stories. The subject was downtown parking, and how far downtown employees may have to walk to find a free parking space.
Perhaps you have seen that there is a petition floating around the Internet protesting a parking change that is about to happen downtown. In early September, city officials will start charging people to park on the roof of the parking garage at Ninth and New Hampshire streets. For years, the city has offered free, long-term parking on the roof, and it gradually has become a popular place for downtown employees to park.
Downtown employee Mallory Liss has started an online petition asking commissioners to offer free parking passes to people who can prove they are downtown employees, or absent that, at least a reduced-fee, monthly parking pass for downtown employees. As of this morning, the petition had 196 signatures.
City commissioners last night reacted a bit like we do when we find one of those pretty yellow envelopes underneath our windshield wipers. They weren’t too enthusiastic. (I thought I had better clarify, in case you thought I meant they put it in their purse, proceeded to go shoe shopping, repeated the process daily, and then several months later were holed up in my storm shelter with their chocolate fountain hiding from a warrant related to outstanding parking tickets. That didn’t happen. Not to city commissioners, anyway.)
Instead, commissioners pointed out that free, long-term parking is available on the rooftop level of the city’s new parking garage next to the public library at 7th and Vermont streets.
“It seems like that is the answer to the situation,” City Commissioner Bob Schumm said. “There are quite a few spaces there.” (About 70.)
But Liss, who works at Weaver’s, pointed out the 7th and Vermont parking garage isn’t as centrally located as the Ninth and New Hampshire garage. That’s when I thought we were going to hear the up hill both ways story, but we didn’t quite get there.
“Well,” Schumm said, “if we were in New York City or even the Plaza, that would be a really short walk. Plus, it is healthy for you.”
After the meeting, Liss said she’s also concerned about when the city will decide to take away the free spaces on the top level of the Vermont Street parking garage.
Commissioners didn’t completely rule out her idea for a reduced rate parking pass for downtown employees. They asked city staff to prepare a report in the next few weeks. But they also noted that parking in downtown Lawrence is pretty cheap. For $192, the city sells an annual pass that allows people to park in any long-term space in downtown. That rate hasn’t been raised since . . . at least 1996. But Liss noted that for a part-time, downtown employee waiting tables or clerking a register, it can be difficult to come up with nearly $200 all at once. That’s why she would like the option of buying a monthly pass. The city doesn’t offer a monthly pass, but it does offer a quarterly pass, but sales of those passes have been light. The city has sold 67 of the quarterly passes thus far in 2014, compared to 672 of the annual passes.
City officials say they are removing the free parking designation from the New Hampshire Street garage because demand for that garage is greatly increasing with the apartments nearby and all the development that is happening at the intersection. And the city would like to collect as much fee revenue as it can from the garage because the city’s parking fund could use it.
The city’s recent budget process served as a reminder that the parking fund is technically a money-loser. In 2013, the parking fund took in $1.1 million but spent $1.2 million. Even though the city will get new revenue from the Vermont Street parking garage in 2015, revenue for the parking fund is projected to go down by about $70,000 because the new garage is expected to cut down on the number of people who receive overtime parking fines in the city’s short-term spaces.
It also is important to remember that the money motorists pay to park in downtown really does very little to fund maintenance of the city’s parking garages or lots. Maintenance of those facilities basically comes from general tax dollars. The parking fees largely fund the five parking control officers who go around and monitor the meters and write the tickets. In addition, the fees fund about 10 other city positions, including three Municipal Court clerks, three police officers, and some maintenance workers in public works and parks and recreation.
In short, the city’s parking fund is an odd one, but as City Manager David Corliss points out frequently, its purpose is not to make money. Its main purpose is to help keep downtown healthy.
We’ll see where this parking discussion goes. But Liss does bring up an interesting issue. A part-time student clerk who works, for example, 20-hours a week for 40 weeks a year at $8 an hour is probably spending about 3 percent of her gross pay on parking if she buys a city permit. It would be an even greater percentage of her net pay. Whether that constitutes a burden probably depends on where you sit. One thing, however, is certain: Downtown wouldn’t work as well as it does if it wasn’t for the relatively cheap labor that waits tables and staffs cash registers.
In other news and notes from around town:
• How about a liquor store in downtown Lawrence? Some folks aren’t excited about the idea. Leaders with the Downtown Grocery Project have begun expressing concern that the former Borders site at Seventh and New Hampshire may be purchased to serve as a liquor store. The leaders of the grocery group aren’t excited about that prospect. They believe the Borders store should be used to house a small, urban grocery store.
Mayor Mike Amyx said he wants to have a discussion about whether liquor stores should be allowed in the downtown zoning district. Currently, they are allowed, there just happens to be none on Massachusetts, New Hampshire or Vermont. There is Jensen’s near Ninth and Mississippi. Commissioners agreed to have the discussion, but Schumm said he wanted to be careful about deleting possible uses in the downtown area. As more people live in the downtown area, they’re likely to want convenience-based businesses, such as liquor stores. He noted that in the 1970s, there were several liquor stores downtown.
For what it is worth, Schumm said he’s been told the rumors of a liquor store going into the Borders space are false. I haven’t heard that either. While we’re passing along rumors, the most interesting one I’ve heard is that an independent Wichita-based grocer has an interest in the site, but I haven’t been able to confirm that. Amyx has indicated he’s spent some time in meetings recently about a downtown grocery, but he said it was too early to provide any details.
The Downtown Grocery Project is making a point to highlight that the Borders building is the only site that currently meets all the requirements for a downtown grocery. I won’t debate that, but that may be changing. I know the developers of the multistory hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire have ground floor space where they would like a grocery. Plus, Doug Compton’s proposal to redevelop the Allen Press property at 11th and Massachusetts also could feasibly include a grocery component. Thus far talk at that site has focused more on a drug store being the retail anchor tenant for an apartment project, but in case you haven’t noticed, talk on that project has slowed significantly. I had expected by this time that CVS would have announced its intention to go into the space. That hasn’t happened, but when I talked to Compton more than a month ago, he said he was still very much interested in redeveloping the space.
Soon, I’ll be Baryshnikov in Swan Lake. I’ll be Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. I’ll be the over-enthusiastic chicken dancer who stays too long at every wedding reception you’ve ever been to. In other words, I’m going to be doing some happy dances because Thursday is the day my kids go back to school.
While that certainly is big news on the dancing front (the costumes alone will be worth the price of admission), a local dance studio also is making news. Dance Gallery, 4940 Legends Drive, has filed plans at Lawrence City Hall for an expansion. And just like the start of school, this expansion should bring a smile to the faces of parents.
The business plans to add about 3,500 square feet for a fitness center. The center will be open to parents who bring their children to the dance studio and then often spend their time waiting for their child’s lesson to be completed.
“There are times I have 40 mothers just sitting here, and this would give them a chance to work out,” said Grant Ryan, a co-owner of the business.
Ryan said he envisions some yoga and cardio classes, and he’s working on a deal where a local personal trainer would located her business in the studio. In addition to offering classes for parents of youth dancers, Ryan said he also plans to allow the dancers to use the fitness center. Ryan said the additional space will allow the studio to provide more fitness and strength training to students. He also said the fitness area may be used to provide fitness training for basketball, soccer or other types of youth sports.
“I’m not going to try to be a Genesis or a Body Boutique,” Ryan said of two of the larger gyms in town. “But we think we can offer something unique.”
The project is awaiting the necessary site plan approvals from City Hall, but Ryan hopes to have the expansion completed by Jan. 1.
Ryan and his wife, Kristen, bought the business from its longtime owner, Karen Fender, earlier this year. The couple did some interior remodeling, brought on a new dance director who has ties with KU’s Rock Chalk Dancers, and now offers classes in a variety of dance styles, including tap, jazz, lyrical, theater, cheer, tumbling and contemporary.
In other news and notes from around town:
• One dance that I occasionally do is a fancy little number where I’m in my boxer shorts costume, and I’m frantically pirouetting in the early morning hours with my trash cart as I try to get it to the curb before the trash crew arrives.
Soon, Lawrence residents will get the chance to do that dance with two carts at once. As we’ve reported many times, the city is set to launch its curbside recycling program on Oct. 21. City officials recently provided an update, and said all systems are go for operation “Curb it with Blue.”
In case you are wondering, City Hall officials unfortunately have not turned into characters from a 1980s Cold War thriller movie who provide cool code names to anything and everything. Instead, Curb it with Blue is the marketing slogan the city is using to promote the roll out of the curbside system. It is meant to remind you that the recycling carts will be the blue ones, not the green ones that currently are used for your garbage. Those carts will start being delivered to homes on Sept. 8, and everybody will have their cart by mid-October. Here are some other tidbits about the upcoming rollout of the system.
— The system will work on an every-other-week collection schedule. Trash service will remain on an every-week schedule. Your trash day and your recycling day will be the same day, except you will have to remember which week you are supposed to set out your recycling. Look below to see a map of the collection dates, or click here to see the city’s site on the subject.
— If you think you’re going to have a hard time remembering whether this week or next week is the date to put out your recycling, the city is offering a service where they will text or e-mail you a reminder. You can sign up for the alerts at notify.lawrenceks.org
— City officials are working to make sure residents know what items can be placed in the recycling cart and which ones still must go in the trash. All the standard stuff will be recyclable, including newspapers, magazines, office paper, junk mail, paperboard, plastic bottles, milk jugs, aluminum cans, and tin cans. Any yes, you will be able to recycle your glass bottles — including colored varieties — and you’ll be able to put your glass in with all your recyclable in the cart. As for items that aren’t allowed to be recycled, the only one that may surprise some people is plastic bags. So, if you choose plastic over paper at the grocery store, those bags will have to continue to go in the trash, or you can continue to stick them under the sink until they create a pile approximately the size of Mt. Everest.
This entire discussion today has brought some clarity to my crystal ball, and I will offer two predictions. Prediction No 1: Plastic bags are on their way out in Lawrence. You are starting to see some cities in other parts of the country ban plastic bags from retail stores. I have heard that idea brought up from time to time in Lawrence, but thus far it hasn’t gained serious momentum. But this recycling program, in the coming years, may provide the momentum.
Prediction No 2: I will pull my hamstring doing the chicken dance Thursday. I always do.
Hurst Diamonds moving to 23rd Street; study predicts big gains in household income for Lawrence residents
Perhaps this past weekend has caused you to enter the market for a piece of diamond jewelry. Perhaps it is because you’ve found the love of your life and are about to become engaged. Or perhaps it is because you are already married to the love of your life, and your Saturday night decision to build a whole-hog smoking pit in the kitchen — complete with BBQ sauce buffet— wasn’t as well received as you had hoped. Either way, a diamond may be in order. (Perhaps a really large one, I have found.)
Well, there’s news on the diamond front in Lawrence. Perhaps you saw some fellow out this weekend with signs about the imminent closing of Hurst Fine Diamonds at the Pine Ridge Plaza on south Iowa Street. But as we previously have reported, Hurst isn’t closing for good. We earlier reported the store was moving to an undisclosed location. Now, we have more information. The store’s ownership group has confirmed that it is moving to 520 W. 23rd St., in the strip center that houses Panera Bread. Hurst is taking the spot formerly occupied by AT&T Wireless, which moved to 33rd and Iowa streets.
“We feel that spot on 23rd Street is going to be a better location or us,” said Mike Hurst, an owner of the store. “There is more street visibility for us there.”
The company has been in Lawrence for the past 13 years, but overall, the company has been in business for 106 years, all of them with ownership by the Hurst family. The company started in downtown Kansas City, and Hurst said having a location in the eastern half of Lawrence is appealing because a good amount of the store’s business still comes from the Kansas City market. In addition to Lawrence, the company also operates a store in Columbia, Mo.
“We have people in Kansas City who shopped with my grandfather and father, and now with me and my son,” Hurst said.
Hurst said the exact timing of the move to 23rd Street is still uncertain, but it will be before Sept. 30. When the store does move, it will have a slightly different name. The name will change from Hurst Fine Diamonds to Hurst Diamonds. No, the diamonds won’t be any less fine. The name change is being made to match the name of the store to the store’s website address.
The shopping center on 23rd Street has had some vacant space for a while, but that is about to change. In addition to Hurst, the center is adding a wireless phone repair shop, Phone Medic. In recent months, a Great Clips hair salon/barber shop also has moved into the center. Allison Vance Moore of the Lawrence Colliers International office served as the broker on the deals, and she tells me the center is now fully leased.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Go ahead and buy two diamond tennis bracelets. (My theory is I’m sure I’ll do something else stupid in the near future.) Don’t worry about the money. There is a new report out that says Lawrence residents are poised to become quite a bit wealthier.
A report was released today that projects Lawrence’s median income will grow at the fastest rate in the country between 2013 and 2017. The report was prepared for the United States Conference of Mayors and a couple of other organizations. The study really was focused on the growing wage gap between the top earners in the economy and the bottom earners, but a portion of the report projected future income growth for all the metro areas in the country.
I indeed was surprised when Lawrence showed up at the top of the list with median household income expected to grow at 5.3 percent per year between 2013 and 2017. That’s well above the projected national average of about 3.5 percent per year.
The study doesn’t provide an explanation on why Lawrence’s income levels are expected to rise so rapidly in the coming years. It offers explanations for a few of the top 10 cities. Several are located next to new oil and gas plays, and it notes San Jose, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., are home to several fast growing technology companies. The top 10 cities are projected to be: Lawrence; Ocean City, N.J.; San Jose; Houma-Bayou/Thibadaux, La.; Pascagoula, Miss.; Midland, Texas; Boulder, Colo.; Wheeling, W. Va.; Williamsport, Penn.; Salem, Ore.
But Lawrence bests many of those communities by a full percent or more. I’ve got a call into the study’s authors to see if I can get an explanation. In the meantime, we can all hope that the prediction is correct. If Lawrence’s household incomes grew by more than 5 percent a year, that would be the best economic news the city has received in a long time.
Here’s one way to look at it: If the predictions hold true, Lawrence’s household income would rise from $51,900 today to $76,500 in 2021, the report estimates.
That would make Lawrence one of the higher income cities in the state. For example, Lawrence’s median household income currently is about $3,000 behind that of the Kansas City metro area. But if the report’s predictions hold true, Lawrence’s household income in 2021 would be $6,000 greater than Kansas City’s median household income in 2021. And we would be more than $12,000 ahead of Topeka and Wichita.
As I said, I hope the projections are sound. There has been some recent news, though, that indicates Lawrence has quite a bit of work to do. The Department of Housing and Urban Development each year releases it estimate of median family incomes for all the metro areas and counties of the U.S. From fiscal year 2013 to fiscal year 2014, Lawrence’s median family income actually declined by about 6 percent. Kansas City’s also declined, while Topeka and Wichita’s rose a bit. (Family income and household income are measured differently, but they are close cousins.)
As for how Lawrence fared in the other parts of the study, the city was kind of in the middle of the pack of many other measurements. The one that was kind of interesting was the percentage of households who have income of $100,000 or more versus households that have incomes of $25,000 or less.
Lawrence has 19.3 percent of households that make more than $100,000 per year. It has 28.3 percent that makes $25,000 or less. I don’t really know if that is good or bad, but it is interesting to compare the numbers to some other communities. Lawrence has more $100,000 households than several other communities in the region. Here’s a look:
— Joplin, Mo.: 9.7 percent $100K or above; 33.7 percent $25K or below.
— Kansas City: 22 percent $100K or above; 21.4 percent $25K or below.
— Springfield Mo.: 11.9 percent $100K or above; 28.3 percent $25K or below.
— St. Joseph, Mo.: 12.9 percent $100K or above; 28.8 percent $25K or below.
— Topeka: 15.1 percent $100K or above; 23.8 percent $25K or below
— Wichita: 17.1 percent 100K or above; 24 percent $25K or below.
Lawrence’s status as a university town probably plays a role in the number of households we have below $25,000 in earnings, but Lawrence, at 28.3 percent, seems to be in line or slightly better in that category than several other college communities in the region. Some examples: Ames, Iowa, had 30.6 percent; Bloomington, Ind., 33.6 percent; Columbia, Mo., 29.1 percent; Fort Collins, Colo., 22.6 percent; and Iowa City, 25.3 percent.
Tofu maker seeking location in rural Douglas County; city now looking at 0.2 percent sales tax proposal; City Hall discussion of payday loan regulations
Perhaps you have noticed that you now have to take out a home equity loan to have a pot roast for dinner, and my banker asked me if Warren Buffett was my uncle or something when I brought up the possibility of a steak. The point is, beef prices have soared, but there is one Lawrence company that may benefit if consumers begin looking for an alternative.
Lawrence-based Central Soy Foods is moving to a new location in rural Douglas County to give it better space to make its tofu and tempeh products. The company has filed plans with the Lawrence-Douglas County planning office for a conditional use permit to build about a $100,000 addition onto a rural Douglas County home at 1168 East 1500 Road. The addition would serve as production space for the company that has about five part-time employees.
If you are like me — someone who carries an extra piece of meat around in your pocket just to make sure you don’t have a shortage — you may not be familiar with Central Soy Foods. But it's been around since 1978. A group led by longtime Douglas County businessman David Millstein purchased the company in 2003. It now produces weekly about 2,000 pounds of tofu and tempeh, a soy product that incorporates mushroom spores.
The company currently has production space on East 22nd Street, and Millstein said the proposed move isn’t so much about expansion as it is about having a more efficient location. Currently, the company is in a building that has a roofing company on one side and auto body shop on the other, which keeps the Central Soy staff busy maintaining the necessary sanitary standards.
But Millstein said the company already has enough equipment to more than double its production. Now, the company is just monitoring whether tofu consumption in the Lawrence and Kansas City region has room to grow.
“I think it is growing a little bit right now,” Millstein said. “It should. The price of beef is so high right now. You can get tofu for around $3 a pound or a little less.”
But Millstein said the company doesn’t have any plans to grow the geographic region it serves.
“We like what we’re doing,” Millstein said. “We like the regional aspect of it, and the freshness of it.”
The company currently sells its products in Lawrence at pretty much all the grocery stores in town, and also in the Hen House, Whole Foods, and several other chains in the Kansas City metro area.
As for our friends in the beef industry, the run-up in prices has been just short of amazing. A recent article in Beef Magazine (excuse me while I day dream of the holiday employee meal at Beef Magazine) estimated that owners were receiving an extra $585 per head for fed cattle compared to this time last year. Although that is not fun at the grocery store, Kansas is still one of the larger producers of beef cattle in the country, so you have to figure the state’s economy is getting a nice boost right now.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Don’t forget to factor in the sales tax when you are filling out that loan application for the ground round. Lawrence residents will have a hard time forgetting sales taxes over the next few months because there will be a proposed sales tax increase on the November ballot to pay for a new police headquarters building.
But as we indicated earlier this week, the proposal is changing. At their Tuesday evening meeting, commissioners will consider placing a 0.2 percent sales tax increase on the November ballot. Previously, commissioners had been considering a 0.25 percent sales tax on the ballot. The 0.2 percent increase would last for nine years, or until the police headquarters is paid for, whichever comes first. City staff also notes that a 0.25 percent sales tax rate would likely pay for the project in eight years. But based on what I’ve heard from city commissioners, they like the 0.2 percent and nine year option. They like the idea of being able to present a lower rate to voters. Indeed, that does work out mathematically to be a better deal for consumers. For example, assume the average fellow makes $20,000 a year in taxable purchases in Lawrence. That’s $160,000 in purchases over 8 years. At a 0.25 percent rate that is an extra $400 in taxes over the total eight-year period. Use the same $20,000 per year estimate, but change the rate to 0.2 percent for nine years, and the total tax increase falls to $360.
As for how Lawrence’s sales tax rate will stack up with other communities if a 0.2 percent rate increase is approved, the city’s general sales tax rate would rise to 8.9 percent. In the two places where a special taxing district exists — The Oread hotel and the retail area at northeast corner of Sixth and Wakarusa, the sales tax would be 9.9 percent. Here’s a look at how Lawrence’s general sales tax rate would compare to several other cities in the state. (Note: This assumes these other cities also don’t raise their sales tax rates.)
— Baldwin City: 8.4 percent
— Unincorporated Douglas County: 7.15 percent
— Eudora: 8.15 percent
— Kansas City: 8.775 percent
— Kansas City Legends shopping area: 9.375 percent
— Leawood: 8.5 percent
— Lenexa: 8.75 percent
— Manhattan: 8.4 percent
— Olathe: 8.875 percent
— Ottawa: 8.75 percent
— Overland Park: 8.5 percent
— Overland Park Oak Park Mall district: 9 percent
— City of Shawnee: 8.625 percent
— Tonganoxie: 8.9 percent
— Topeka: 8.8 percent
• There may be one other rate that gets attention at Lawrence City Hall: The interest rate that payday loan businesses charge their customers. Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, director of the food bank Just Food, has expressed concern that some payday lenders are having a negative impact on low-income residents. The city attorney’s office has prepared a memo on what regulations exist in the payday loan industry in the state. That memo questions whether the city would have the legal authority to create local regulations that could place a cap on the interest rates such lenders could charge. But, it may still come up for discussion at the City Commission.
In general, payday lenders can’t charge an interest rate above 15 percent, and the loan must be between 7 and 30 days. If the borrower is late in paying back the loan, the payday companies can charge 3 percent of the loan amount each month. But there are also other types of loans, “open ended credit agreements” that aren’t technically considered a payday loan by state regulations, and those don’t have an interest rate cap.
Some area cities do require payday lenders to get a local business license, but I’m not sure what additional protections that license process would create for consumers. I’ll report back if it looks like the idea is going to get a hearing before commissioners.
Retail spending falls for month but still up for year; study suggests Kansas a cheap place to live; more Mizzou sports coming to local cable
Maybe we were all too dazed by the invasion of orange construction cones that began showing up in Lawrence in late May or early June. Or perhaps there is some other explanation that doesn’t involve a “road closed” barrier stuck in my radiator. But whatever the reason, new numbers show local shoppers took a bit of a break as summer began.
According to the latest sales tax numbers from Lawrence City Hall, retail spending for the period of mid-May to mid-June was down about 3.3 percent, compared to the same period a year ago. That decline ends a streak of seven consecutive months where consumer spending had increased compared to the same period a year earlier.
But this one-month setback is no reason to do something crazy, like try to drive the through intersection of 23rd and Iowa. The city’s sales tax collections are still in good shape for the year. The city has received seven of the 12 monthly sales tax payments from the state, and thus far, collections are up 3.4 percent for the year. So shoppers have been reasonably busy in Lawrence.
That year-to-date total is an important one, and the city’s recent discussions about building a new police headquarters building have reminded us why. The city is betting heavily on consumer spending in Lawrence to grow by at least 2 percent per year. If it doesn't, then the sales tax plan the city is proposing to pay for the police headquarters won’t work. It will come up short of dollars.
If a single year comes in with less than 2 percent growth, that probably isn’t going to cause too big a problem. What’s important is that the long-term average is 2 percent. So, is that a good bet for the city to make? The short answer is probably, but there is certainly no guarantee.
If you look at the last five years worth of sales tax growth — 2009 through 2013 — the average rate of growth is below the 2 percent threshold. It checks in at 1.5 percent. But it is worth remembering that we experienced the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression during that five-year period. The city saw an actual decline in consumer spending in both 2009 and 2010, the first time in recent memory that the city has suffered a decline in two straight years.
If you look at the last 10 years, the average growth rate has been 2.4 percent per year. So, 2 percent doesn’t seem unreasonable, but it is important to monitor because it is not just the police headquarters project that would require that type of growth. The city’s funding plan for the Rock Chalk Park sports complex also depends on 2 percent annual growth.
But there is one other factor to keep in mind that is tougher to calculate: The city no longer gets to keep all of the sales taxes it collects. It has offered financial incentives — tax increment financing, to be specific — to several projects around town. That sort of incentive involves the city essentially providing the project a partial rebate on sales tax, for which the developer then uses the money to pay infrastructure, private parking and such. The amounts are becoming significant.
For example, the city is on pace to collect about $34 million in sales taxes in 2014. That is a little more than $400,000 more than what the city had budgeted for. But according to the city’s finance director, about $300,000 of that money will be turned over to the developers of The Oread hotel, which currently is the largest TIF district in the city.
None of that is to say the Oread TIF is a bad deal. The hotel certainly produces a lot of sales tax revenue for the city. But the point is, as the city adds more TIF districts, it does complicate the calculations for how much sales tax growth is needed to fund general city projects.
As for how Lawrence’s consumer spending is stacking up with other cities, here’s a look:
• Dodge City: down 0.5 percent
• Emporia: up 5.1 percent
• Garden City: up 5.3 percent
• Hays: down 17.5 percent
• Hutchinson: 2.6 percent
• Junction City: no change
• Kansas City: up 3.7 percent
• Leawood: up 0.1 percent
• Lenexa: up 3.5 percent
• Manhattan: up 0.9 percent
• Ottawa: 2.3 percent
• Overland Park: 3.6 percent
• City of Shawnee: up 4.2 percent
• Topeka: up 1.2 percent
• Sedgwick County: up 3 percent
Lawrence’s numbers stack up pretty well, especially compared to places like Manhattan and Topeka. But it will be interesting to watch how we finish out the year to ensure that this one-month decline isn’t the beginning of a trend.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I knew my fellow Kansans were just like me: We spend our wad on the all you can-eat-buffets, but scrimp on everything else.
At least that is one way to interpret a set of new federal numbers about spending patterns in Kansas and the other states.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis for the first time has released data showing per capita spending rates for a variety of goods and services, such as gasoline, utilities, health care and dining out.
The numbers show that Kansans spend $3,075 per person on food and beverages, including restaurants. That is more than $300 more than both the national average or the average for the seven states that make up the Plains region. But on every other category measured, Kansas comes in with below average spending levels.
The conclusion is unmistakable: Pasta bars that charge by the pound are expensive, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still a good value.
Actually, there may be other conclusions to draw as well. The numbers show that Kansas actually has the lowest per capita consumer spending average of any of the states in the Plains region. Kansans spend $32,523 per person on “personal consumption expenditures.” (Where is that aisle at in Dillons?) The national average and the average for the Plains states are both around $35,000. The biggest spenders in the Plains region are folks who live in North Dakota at $44,029. (They like their pasta in North Dakota.)
Here’s a look at our spending broken down by other categories:
— Gasoline and other energy goods: Kansas: $1,294. National Average: $1,328. Highest in the region: North Dakota, $3,916. Lowest in the region: Kansas
— Housing and utilities: Kansas: $5,180. National Average: $6,415. Highest in region: Minnesota, $6,101. Lowest in the region: South Dakota, $5,030.
— Health Care: Kansas: $5,809. National average: $5,886. Highest in the region: North Dakota, $7,785. Lowest in the region: Kansas.
— All other personal consumption expenditures: Kansas: $17,165. National average: $19,118. Highest in region: North Dakota, $23,735. Lowest in the region: Kansas.
I’m not sure exactly what we should make of these numbers. If you are business that makes your living selling consumer goods, these numbers probably aren’t that pleasing. If you are trying to live from paycheck to paycheck, maybe they are pleasing or maybe they aren’t. How much you spend generally is tied to how much you make. What does seem clear is that if you have ample income, Kansas is a pretty cheap place to live. But it would be interesting to see how Kansas does when you look at what our consumer spending is related to our average income.
But I’ve dropped my calculator in the marinara sauce, so those calculations will have to wait for another day.
• If Lawrence construction zone traffic hasn’t been enough fun for you, Lawrence customers of WOW cable soon will be able to turn on their T.V. and watch some University of Missouri sports. WOW has announced it will be adding the SEC Network to its system on Aug. 14. The sports network for the conference that includes Missouri, Alabama, Florida and others will be on channel 157. Perhaps there were lots of Lawrence cable consumers clamoring for the SEC Network, but it looks like this is more of an example of how the major networks have cable companies over a barrel. The SEC Network is owned by the same folks who own ESPN and Disney. WOW said carriage of the SEC Network was part of the cable’s system’s renewal of its contract with ESPN and Disney.
Crunching the numbers on police HQ plan; still no update on firefighters negotiations; city wins grant for solar project
Last night’s City Commission meeting ended up sounding like a diet soda commercial, at times. The big phrase of the night was “net zero.” You know, like zero calories but all the same great taste. But city commissioners weren’t selling soda. They were selling a $2.25 million land purchase for a new police headquarters building.
As we reported, commissioners approved a letter of intent to buy about 47 acres of vacant ground from Hallmark Cards along McDonald Drive. There was no drama in whether commissioners were going to approve that deal. Staff members had negotiated about $1 million off the asking price for the ground, and commissioners like its relatively central location. But even with the reduced price, the Hallmark site is still the most expensive of any considered by the city. Two of the sites were on property already owned by the city — one across the street from the county jail in VenturePark and another near Sixth and Wakarusa — so there have been questions about why the city hasn’t pursued one of those lower-cost options.
Commissioners have said the central location of the Hallmark site and the fact it has been listed as the preferred site by Police Chief Tarik Khatib were big factors. But commissioners didn’t stop there. They also said they were confident the land could come at a “net zero” cost to taxpayers. That’s because the city only needs about 15 acres of the 47 acre site, and the city thinks it can sell the remaining acreage to help offset the costs. By the end of the night, though, it was clear that statement needed more review.
So, here’s a look at some of the details:
— The idea of net zero costs to taxpayers is a projection, and it is one that still will be uncertain when voters go to the polls in November. Commissioners won’t have all the necessary land deals in place to completely offset the $2.25 million purchase price by November. Voters will have to put some faith in the future real estate market.
— Part of the proposed sell-off of land has included the idea of a privately operated family fun center that includes electric go-karts, mini-golf, batting cages and other outdoor activities. When the project was proposed for a West Lawrence site, neighbors came out in strong opposition. On Tuesday, the president of the Pinckney Neighborhood Association said residents would want to hear a lot more about this fun center idea. They may have concerns as well.
— The city won’t be able to recoup its costs simply by selling the excess property off the Hallmark site, City Manager David Corliss confirmed. A big part of the plan is for the city to sell the West Lawrence building that currently houses a portion of the police department. The city hopes to get $2 million or so for that office building. That sale won’t happen until the police department has moved into its new building, so we’re talking a couple of years.
— How you account for the sale of the West Lawrence building is important. That’s because the city would sell the West Lawrence building regardless of where it decides to build a new police headquarters building. So, if the city gets $2 million for the building, that is $2 million that could be used to reduce the project costs at any site.
Here’s how the math on that works: The city is proposing to build a $25.7 million building. That figure doesn’t include land costs, so at the Hallmark site, the project is about $27.9 million. But before you can say “low-calorie delight,” commissioners are reminding you the ultimate price will be $25.7 million because they’re confident they’ll recoup the $2.2 million land purchase costs. But at the VenturePark site, for example, the city also plans to build a $25.7 million building. The city already owns the property, so there are no land costs to add onto the project. The city also would still sell the West Lawrence building for an estimated $2 million. It would have those funds to reduce the cost of the project to about $23.7 million.
It is not inaccurate for the city to say the Hallmark site comes at a net zero cost to the public, if their assumptions about future sales hold true. But if people hear the net zero argument and assume that means the project at the Hallmark site won’t be any more expensive than the project would be at one of the city-owned sites, that is a bad assumption.
Now, it is important to remember that price and value are not one in the same. When confronted with the math above, Mayor Mike Amyx’s response was that he’s still convinced the Hallmark site is absolutely the best one for a police headquarters location. So, that will be one of the tasks of city officials in the coming weeks: Help the public understand the difference between price and value.
It will be an interesting election to watch. The police department has a compelling story to tell about issues of overcrowding and outdated workspaces. But even supporters of the project acknowledge that the public goes into this election with some concerns.
There’s a group of citizens who have started to informally campaign for the police headquarters project out in the community. Members of that group last night told commissioners the two concerns they most frequently hear are: 1. Why is the police headquarters building coming after the Rock Chalk Park recreation center and the new public library? 2. Why is the city buying an expensive piece of ground instead of using city-owned property for the project?
Those will be key questions supporters will attempt to answer for voters before November. It is an important development that a citizens group already is forming in support of the police headquarters issue. A strong citizen’s group is definitely part of the formula for a successful election in Lawrence.
So, voters, get ready to hear a lot more about this issue. Or in other words, let the calorie counting begin.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If keeping up with Lawrence firefighters is more your thing, good luck with that right now. Getting an update on wage negotiations between the city and the firefighters union has proved difficult. The negotiations have been at an impasse since just before Independence Day, and when I asked for an update earlier this week, I was told there wasn’t one immediately available. The city and the union have agreed to communicate to the public only through joint statements, so I thought perhaps it was just a logistical issue that caused the delay on Monday.
But I asked again for an update on Tuesday, and was told there was still not one and there was no timetable for one to be provided. It sure appears that the city and its firefighters union are so at odds that they can’t even agree on how to provide a simple update to the public.
I can’t even tell you with any certainty what the two sides are butting heads about. In early July, the firefighters union said a study has been prepared that shows firefighter wages are about 8.5 percent below those of peer communities. City officials disagreed with that assertion. I’ve asked to see that study, but have been denied access to it by city officials.
Ultimately, I expect this issue to come before the City Commission. Even though commissioners have approved the 2015 budget, they technically could still approve a raise for firefighters. The money, though, would have to come out of someone else’s line item, or else would have to come out of the city’s reserve fund. That doesn’t seem to be likely.
I’ll provide you details when I get them, but at the moment, the takeaway seems to be that the city and its firefighters aren’t getting along very well.
• On a sunnier note, the city has received word that it has won a grant for a solar energy project. Prairie Park Nature Center has been chosen by Westar Energy as one of 15 locations that the electric company will pay to have solar panels installed.
The solar panels won’t only reduce the center’s electricity costs, but also will be used as a learning tool. Plans call for a kiosk to be installed inside the center, 2730 Harper, that shows how much electricity the panels are producing at any moment. Other information about solar energy also will be provided.
Lawrence transit system ranked No. 36 in the country; construction firm purchases North Lawrence property
There used to be a time whenever you mentioned Lawrence’s public transit system – The T – you would inevitably hear a joke about how its more appropriate name was the empTy. But those jokes have lost their luster, and there’s a new study out that shows why. The T isn’t empty, but rather is the 36th most used public transit system in the country, at least by one measure.
The journalists at FiveThirtyEight.com have looked at the ridership numbers that transit systems report to federal regulators each month. Then they took that data and compared it to each city’s population. The result was number of trips per resident. Of the 290 cities ranked by that criterion, Lawrence was No. 36 with 33.2 trips per resident.
So, not exactly empty. If you want to look at empty, gaze to the south. Our friends in Wichita ranked No. 245 in the country with 4.5 trips per resident. Nearby Topeka was a little better at No. 170 with 8.2 trips, and the Kansas City metro only was No. 139 with 10.9 trips per resident.
In fact, you could argue that Lawrence has the second most used transit system in the entire region. Who has the top spot? Iowa City checks in at No. 11 in the country with 66 trips per resident. Iowa City, like Lawrence, is a university town. The study by FiveThirtyEight did show that compared to other university towns, Lawrence still has some room to grow. Four of the top 11 cities were university communities, with Athens, Ga. No. 4, Champaign, Ill. No. 7, and State College, Pa. No. 8. All those cities more than doubled Lawrence’s usage rates, so it seems the city’s system still can grow.
Certainly, KU students play a large role in Lawrence’s ridership numbers. Although the city and the university technically operate separate bus systems, they are coordinated, which means riders from each system can transfer between the two systems. When it comes to counting ridership, the federal regulators combine the KU and Lawrence systems and count the riders under Lawrence. Without the KU riders, Lawrence’s standing on this list would look much different.
While Lawrence still has some catching up to do with some university communities, it is clearly ahead of some others. Columbia, Mo. ranked No. 108 with 13.9 trips per resident. (Note: I don’t think it is accurate or appropriate to say that the reason for Columbia’s low ranking is because they have to take the buses off of the cement blocks each morning.) In fact, Lawrence was the top ranked city of all the Big 12 communities that were ranked. (Ames, Stillwater, Norman, and Manhattan weren’t large enough to be ranked.)
I’m sure these numbers won’t dissuade some from continuing with the empTy jokes. Indeed the ranking system isn’t perfect. It measures per capita volume more so than efficiency, but it is interesting to think that Lawrence has one of the more heavily relied-upon systems in the entire Midwest. It also is interesting to think about four years from now. Lawrence voters likely will be asked to save the system again. It was in November 2008 that voters approved a pair of sales taxes to fund the transit system, which at the time was hurting for funding. The ballot language, however, made it clear those taxes only would last 10 years. The transit vote won easily with 70 percent of the vote back then, so perhaps fans of the transit system don’t have anything to worry or about. Or, on the other hand, take a bus on Wall Street and you’ll find many a poor soul who has relied on past performance to project future returns.
In other news and notes around town:
• Maybe a mobile home is more your style than a bus. If so, you already have noticed that Webster’s Mobile Home Sales in North Lawrence has gone out of business. We reported on that quite a while ago. But there is now news about a new business that will take over the company’s longtime real estate at 801 N. Second St. A group led by Manhattan-based Hi-Tech Interiors has purchased the property, and will use the existing building for its Lawrence office staff. But a company official told me the construction firm also is considering building a warehouse and a construction yard on the site. The firm has had offices in Lawrence at 616 Arizona St., but has been looking for additional space as work levels in the Lawrence and Kansas City areas have been increasing. The Lawrence office serves the Kansas City market, which has been the company’s best growth market. The firm specializes in steel framing, drywall and exterior finishes. It is a subcontractor for a lot of large projects, including the Theatre Lawrence project and the downtown hotel project that is underway.
Lawrence’s Orchards Golf Course opens new FootGolf facility; update on downtown’s Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade
Dear homeowners along Bob Billings Parkway,
Don't be alarmed if you find me in your living room with a soccer ball, argyle socks, and a pair of 1980s-style soccer shorts that cause my children to disown me. Chances are, I'm just looking for my wayward ball with a new type of golf played at Lawrence's Orchards Golf Course.
The game of FootGolf is coming to Lawrence. The owners of the Orchards Golf Course, 3000 Bob Billings Parkway, have built a FootGolf course to go along with their traditional, nine-hole executive golf course.
Based on the fellows I play golf with, I thought FootGolf had arrived years ago because the foot wedge is clearly the best shot my buddy has. But that's not how the real sport of FootGolf is played. Instead, the golf ball is replaced by a soccer ball, and there are no clubs involved. You simply use your feet to advance the ball, and you count strokes like you would with golf. (I take that back: I think the FootGolf people want you to actually count every stroke.)
The course is basically laid out alongside the traditional golf course. The cup, so to speak, is a 21-inch diameter by 14-inch hole in the ground. No, it is not on the actual putting green of the golf course. In fact, foot golfers are given a one-shot penalty if they put a ball on the green.
The sport gives players an experience that involves a little bit of golf and a little bit of soccer.
"I've noticed that when you kick a ball, it is just kind of natural that you jog after it," said Richard McGhee, who owns the course with his wife, Chris. "It is a pretty good aerobic exercise."
The Orchards Course ranges from a par five that is 270 yards to a par three that is 97 yards. The course is designed so that both traditional golfers and foot golfers can play at the same time. Just like in regular golf, though, you'll need to wait your turn, or else have a really fast golf cart to outrun the big guy that you just beaned in the back.
The game is played with a regulation soccer ball. You can bring your own, or Orchards will rent you one for $3. (Green fees are $11 for 18 holes.)
"I think it is a little tougher to lose your ball in FootGolf," McGhee told me.
(I don't know who he thinks he's talking to. I'm excellent at finding golf balls, including that one that landed in that fellow's BBQ grill. If you think chipping out of sand is tough . . . And that reminds me, I still owe him a filet mignon.)
The game of FootGolf has become popular on the coasts, and also overseas. Kansas City has one golf course that has a FootGolf course, and so does Manhattan, McGhee said. The sport has a governing body, which has sanctioned the Lawrence course. (Sanctioned is a good thing in this case, unlike some other sanctions I have received from several neighborhood associations abutting golf courses.)
McGhee said he expects the game to become popular in the Midwest as well. Golf courses are looking for ways to generate new revenue and expose new people to their properties. McGhee thinks the game will be particularly popular in a town like Lawrence.
"One of the things we have going for us here is that lots of people are looking for ways to get out and exercise," McGhee said. "We think there are people looking for ways to exercise besides just walking down the sidewalk."
The Orchards, which is being renamed Orchards Golf and FootGolf, is open for FootGolf during all regular business hours, except on Tuesday and Friday mornings, when the course will be reserved for a pair of traditional golf leagues.
In other news and notes from around town:
• An update on a major downtown event: As we reported last month, the Old-Fashioned Christmas parade in downtown Lawrence lost its major sponsor. Parade organizers tell me interest has been strong from potential sponsors since we spread the word in mid-July. A deal hasn't yet been struck, but parade president Marty Kennedy said he is optimistic that a deal will be reached soon.
But here is the major point: Regardless of the timing of any future deal, this year's parade will take place. We reported in July that the 2014 wasn't in jeopardy, but some folks must have overlooked that part of the article because Kennedy said the organization has heard from several people who were under the impression that this year's event would possibly be cancelled.
Kennedy said the organization has the resources it needs to put the parade on, which is slated for Dec. 6.
"The parade is still a go," he said.
• Also, if you will allow me, a brief bit of recognition for another important Lawrence event. As I've been telling you for the last couple of weeks, the Douglas County Fair has been a big part of my family's schedule recently, and it wrapped up Saturday night with the annual livestock auction. The event isn't always top-of-mind when it comes to great Lawrence traditions that help the community, but indeed it does. It is not an exaggeration to say that scores of local businesses and other bidders literally gave tens of thousands of dollars directly to Douglas County youth on Saturday night. Bidding on animals — goats, sheep, swine and cattle — lasted for nearly four hours, and I don't remember any animal going for less than $400 and some champion animals went for around $4,000. More than just the youth-owners of the animals also benefited. Dale Willey Automotive, for example, purchased several animals and donated the meat to Just Food, the local food bank. There were other organizations that did the same, but I didn't get their names. If you have them, feel free to list them below. My kids sold two hogs, including one that went to Just Food. They and the other youth thank all involved.
Opening date in sight for Ladybird Diner; Turnhalle meeting set; police headquarters, mini golf, paintball, teen center and more
Although my attorney has told me to never talk about it again, I do admit that the prospect of pie will cause me to peep through a window. So, if you've seen me recently peeping through a mostly covered window in the 700 block of Massachusetts Street, that's probably what I was doing.
As we reported in April, a new downtown Lawrence diner with pies and more is slated to open in the former Dynamite Saloon spot at 721 Massachusetts S. But its opening was planned for June, and although my glasses are still stained with blueberry, chocolate walnut and other leftovers from pie-eating mishaps, I'm almost certain June has come and gone.
But fear not, diner fans. I saw where Ladybird Diner recently has filed for its sign permit at Lawrence City Hall, which is usually a good sign that an opening is imminent. Indeed, co-owner Meg Heriford tells me she plans to have the diner open no later than Aug. 15, but hopefully several days earlier.
Heriford also had more details to share about the restaurant's operations. Let's start where all serious discussions should begin: with pie. The restaurant will serve eight types daily, with four fruit pies and four custard pies, Heriford said. Flavors will change with the season, but look for the opening lineup to include some pies such as a sweet cream with fresh raspberries, a Mexican chocolate, a Colorado peach, a triple berry and a coconut cream.
The restaurant is slated to be open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day, and in traditional diner fashion, it will serve breakfast at any time, Heriford said. Look for all the traditional breakfast dishes, plus a rum raisin French toast and other such creations.
Other signature dishes are expected to include fried chicken, pot roast, chicken pot pie, pimento and cheese sandwiches, egg salad and a traditional diner style hamburger, which indeed will be a bit different from the thick burgers found at some of the hotspots for hamburgers in downtown.
"The burgers are going to be fantastic," Heriford said. "They are going to be those thin diner style burgers. If you want onions with it, we'll fry them right into the burger."
And if you need something to wash it all down, handmade milkshakes also are on the menu.
As for the restaurant's delay in opening, Heriford said the diner's ownership group — which includes the owners of the nearby 715 restaurant — decided to take extra time to get the design and details of the restaurant perfected.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There's another group in town trying to figure out designs and details for a Lawrence building, although it doesn't involve anything so noble as creating pie. Instead, this group is just trying to figure out how to revitalize an 1869 East Lawrence building.
As we reported a few weeks ago, a group led by developer Tony Krsnich has reached a tentative deal to purchase the Turnhalle building at Ninth and Rhode Island streets. But as we told you then, the group didn't have a specific plan for how to use the old stone structure.
Well, the group is seeking ideas from the public at a 5:30 p.m. meeting Monday at the Cider Gallery, 810 Pennsylvania St. Tom Larkin, a vice president with the development group, said he's reached out to the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association and other stakeholders, but he wants to hear from anyone in the public who has an idea for how the building should be used.
Thus far, Larkin said that Krsnich, who is the developer behind the Poehler Lofts project in East Lawrence, has ruled out a residential use for the building, but is open to a host of other ideas.
"Its history has been one of a community building," Larkin said. "It has been a place for people to gather, and that is an aspect we really want to keep."
For decades, the building served as the home to the German-American society Turnverein. That organization used the building to host everything from gymnastics competitions to bowling in the basement, plus lots of beer and sausages. Figuring out a way to incorporate some of that history into the building's new use is a goal, Larkin said.
"The German component has jumped out to us," Larkin said. "The idea of a bowling alley in the basement is intriguing, but we're a long way from knowing whether that is feasible."
But the group will have to figure that and other details out in a hurry. The tentative deal with the building's current owner, the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, gives Krsnich's group 60 days to conduct its due diligence and finalize the purchase.
• There's a piece of real estate news coming out of Lawrence City Hall as well. City commissioners on Tuesday will be presented with a tentative deal to purchase 47 acres across from Hallmark Cards' production plant for a new police headquarters building.
I expect commissioners will jump at the deal because the proposed purchase price is coming in about $1 million less than what Hallmark previously had been seeking for the vacant piece of ground.
Commissioners are being asked to approve a letter of intent to purchase the property at 100 McDonald Drive for $2.25 million. Previously, Hallmark had advertised the property for sale at about $3.2 million.
The potential deal comes as no surprise. As we reported last week, a majority of commissioners publicly supported the site owned by Hallmark as the best location for a new $25 million police headquarters building.
The property is along the east side of McDonald Drive near the Kansas Turnpike interchange. A majority of commissioners have liked the site's location and easy access to major streets and the Kansas Turnpike.
But the site does come with one issue: It is a lot larger than what commissioners need for a police headquarters building. Only about 15 acres are needed for the police functions, but Hallmark showed no interest in selling only a portion of the property. Commissioners, though, have said they will look for ways to sell off the excess property.
As part of their Tuesday agenda, commissioners have letters from three groups interested in putting uses on the property. The Lawrence public school district is interested in five acres to build a maintenance warehouse near its administrative offices, which are just to the south of the site. Lawrence businessman Glen Lemesany has expressed an interest in purchasing 10 acres to build a family fun center on the site. Lemesany was the fellow behind the proposed fun center near Clinton Parkway and Inverness that eventually was discarded after neighbors opposed the plans. In his letter to City Hall, Lemesany said he still would like to have a miniature golf course, electric go-carts, batting cages, and a two-story clubhouse that would include kids arcade games on the ground floor, and an adult arcade and mini-bowling area with a beer bar on the second floor. With this site, Lemesany said he's also interested in creating about a three-acre paintball course.
The Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence also is interested in about five to seven acres of the property for a potential expansion project. The group's executive director, Colby Wilson, told commissioners in a letter that he's in the early stages of planning for a capital campaign that could support a 20,000 square-foot building that could house a full-size gymnasium, a commercial kitchen and cooking stations, a technology and learning center, a performing arts room and a host of multipurpose spaces. Currently the organization's East Lawrence facility is at capacity with about 60 youth per day. A new facility could serve 150 to 200 youths, with a particular focus on the teen population. But Wilson also is making it clear that his organization doesn't envision buying the property from the city. Instead, it is seeking a donation of the land.
One other use mentioned for the property is a new city park. There long has been talk that Lawrence Memorial Hospital would like to take over Woody Park, the small city park just north of the hospital's parking lot. Under this latest scenario, the city would relocate Woody Park to five acres on the southeast corner of the Hallmark property. The city is proposing that LMH pay for the relocation of the park in exchange for use of the current parkland.
The lower price tag for the property certainly improves the attractiveness of the Hallmark site, and the possibility of parks and teen centers and mini golf will give voters something else to ponder as they go to the polls in November on this issue. (It is like Ron Popeil has become the project's manager. For one low price you not only get the juicer but . . . )
The one remaining issue I've heard with the site is that it does go against what economic development leaders previously had been preaching: the need to maximize the city's location along Interstate 70. This site is one of the few vacant sites already zoned for industrial development along the turnpike. My understanding is that for years it hasn't really been available for development because Hallmark has been holding it in reserve. It will be interesting to see whether anyone questions whether the highest and best use for the well-situated property is development that primarily will take the property off the tax rolls.
But that likely will be a minor question moving forward. The bigger issue will be the tax increase needed to pay for the new police headquarters building. As we reported last week, the idea of a new quarter-percent sales tax for nine years is the most likely funding plan that commissioners will present to voters in November. Commissioners are scheduled to discuss that proposal on Tuesday also.
I've been on a little vacation that included a weekend in the glitzy country music capital of Branson, followed by several days in the pig barn of the Douglas County 4-H Fair. Such a trip creates a post vacation survey that includes questions such as: 1. How many rhinestones are too many on a sports blazer? (Trick question: You can never have too many.) 2. Did you shut the gate, and if so, how did that pig get on the Ferris wheel? 3. What is likely to happen to your leg if you stand behind a pig too long? (A hint: The answers can appropriately be labeled No. 1 and No. 2.)
Well, Douglas County residents have been taking a different type of survey, and the results are out. Residents have been asked to provide their opinions on a host of issues related to the future of Lawrence and the unincorporated parts of the county. The results will be used in the updating of Horizon 2020, the comprehensive plan used by planners and commissioners to determine where to allow new development and other such issues. The updating will take place over the next several months and will involve a host of public meetings.
So, while it may not be as exciting as a crossbred hog on a Tilt-A-Whirl, the results are a good snapshot of what's on the mind of residents. Here's a look:
• Get a job. That is on the minds of a lot of residents. When asked to name their top four issues that need to be addressed by government in the future, "creating employment opportunities" was mentioned most often. It was cited by 55 percent of respondents. Others frequently mentioned included the stability of downtown (39 percent), quality housing for all income groups (34 percent), managing future growth (33 percent), availability of parks/recreation/open space (22 percent).
• Get a job, part II. The survey firm asked respondents whether they agree or disagree with several statements about what should be included in the community's vision. Not surprisingly, the category of "more employment opportunities" was the winner. A full 91 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that should be part of the community's future vision. Other issues that received a strong or strongly agree rating of 70 percent or more included: better protection of natural resources (77 percent), better management of growth (72 percent), more sidewalks, walking paths and trails (72 percent), more affordable housing within the city (70 percent).
• When it comes to our vision of the future, it is pretty broad. Of the 23 issues presented to respondents, 17 of them received an agree/strongly agree rating of 50 percent or more. Only three issues had a negative rating of 20 percent or more. Leading that list was the idea of new or expanded conference space in town, with 26 percent disagreeing that it should be included in the community's vision of the future. (49 percent were neutral on the topic and 24 percent either agreed or strongly agreed with the idea.) As a matter of full disclosure, The World Company — the owner of LJWorld.com — has proposed a new conference center on property it owns at Sixth and Massachusetts in downtown. The other issues that scored low: More housing in and around downtown (23 percent disagreed), and more recreational opportunities near Clinton Lake (20 percent disagreed.)
• Respondents were asked to rate major strengths of the community. Downtown was a winner in this category, with 83 percent rating it a strength. Next in line was the community's overall quality of life, with 82 percent, and the availability of arts, music, and cultural amenities with 81 percent. In contrast, only 14 percent of respondents said job opportunities was a strength of the community.
• On the transportation front, residents might be more satisfied than you would think given the number of orange traffic cones stuck in grills this summer. The survey found 47 percent were either satisfied or very satisfied with the "ease of travel by car on major streets," while 35 percent were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. The other 18 percent must have been in a coma because they were neutral on the subject. The category receiving the highest level of dissatisfaction was the safety of bicycling in Lawrence, with 40 percent giving it a negative rating.
• On the retail front, not surprisingly, most folks would rather see existing retail buildings filled before new ones are built. Eighty-two percent agreed with that statement. The survey also found that a majority of respondents (69 percent) believe the expansion of retail development should be supported downtown. Perhaps in a sign of the times, the other questions related to retail development failed to produce a consensus.
The survey, conducted by Olathe-based ETC Institute, was a scientifically valid survey, according to the authors. But it is worth noting that the demographics of the respondents were pretty different than the demographics of the community. For example, 85 percent of the respondents were over the age of 35, even though Douglas County is much younger. According to Census numbers, only 40 percent of our population is 35 years or older. Another example is the number of homeowners surveyed: 83 percent of respondents owned their home. That's not anywhere close to reality in Douglas County. According to Census data, 48 percent of housing units are rentals. Of course, the three universities in the county contribute greatly to those numbers, and students weren't a big part of this survey. Only 1 percent of respondents were listed as full-time students.
Perhaps that is the way it should be. Students may not be around long enough to care much about the community's future vision. Or perhaps, we should care more about what they think because they drive our economy. I don't know. I'll leave that to you, and the city/county-appointed committee reviewing the full survey results.
As for me, I've got enough on my plate. I've got to take care of a pig that is causing a major problem in the cotton candy line.
Add Lawrence real estate agents to the list of folks who are hoping for a slightly better second half of the year.
The latest numbers for Lawrence home sales are out, and they provide further evidence that the city's two-year streak of improving real estate sales is coming to an end in 2014.
In June, real estate agents saw home sales fall 6 percent compared to June 2013, according to the report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors. That's about how it has gone for the entire year. For the first six months of the year, Lawrence home sales have totaled 522, down about 6.5 percent compared to the same period a year ago.
Probably the statistic that is most disappointing is the number of newly constructed homes that have sold. The new home industry got hit hard during the economic downturn, but there were some signs of new life in 2013. Sales of newly constructed homes were up 50 percent at this time in June 2013. But now, they are down 41 percent to just 30 homes in the first half of the year. That's even below the 2012 midway mark of 34 homes.
Other numbers from the report include:
— The median selling price of homes in Lawrence has dropped 4.9 percent for the year to $160,500. That might be a sign that housing prices are softening, or it might just be an indication that the types of homes sold in 2014 are a bit different than in 2013.
— Homes are selling quicker. The median number of days on the market before a home sells is 34, down from 47 a year ago. But when you look at just newly constructed homes, the number isn't nearly as pretty. The median days on market is 168 for newly constructed homes, up from 98 a year ago.
— The number of homes on the market has increased about about 7 percent to 457 active listings.
In other news and notes from around town:
• My shoes are already off, so we might as well stay with the number theme and look at the latest housing construction totals.
I've just told you that the sales of newly constructed homes have taken a bit of a dip in the first half of the year, so perhaps you don't need your crystal ball and Ouija board to divine what these latest numbers say. Indeed, construction of new homes in Lawrence are down for the year. City officials have issued permits for 57 single-family or duplex units through June. That's down from 87 during the same period a year ago. The 57 permits is the lowest six-month total since 2009. The previous five-year average has been about 65 new units.
The housing industry has lost a little steam nationally, but not all communities have seen a downturn. The Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City recently released its monthly report and noted that single-family home construction is up about 5 percent in its multicounty region. So, if you are keeping score at home, single-family construction is up 5 percent in the Kansas City metro area, but is down 34 percent in Lawrence.
The total value of construction projects underway also is down for the year but has climbed closer to recent averages. The city has issued permits for $46.3 million worth of projects. That's down considerably from the $75.1 million worth of work underway at this time last year. But last year ended up being a banner year with work on the library, a new downtown hotel, Rock Chalk Park and several other large projects. The other previous four years have seen totals in the $38 million to $49 million range.
It is worth noting, however, that a major public project has done the most to boost construction totals thus far in 2014. In June, Douglas County pulled permits for $11 million worth of work on its new public works facility at 3755 E. 25th St. near the Douglas County Jail. Thus far, that's the largest construction project started in Lawrence in 2014.
• A housekeeping note: Town Talk will be off for about a week. I'll be spending some time supervising the preparation of my kids' pigs for the Douglas County Fair, and other such things that somehow have become known as a summer vacation.
900-unit apartment complex wins key vote; the path forward for SLT shopping center; Hurst Fine Diamonds to close, move
Well, now it is going to be particularly awkward when I ricochet a golf ball off one of the 900 new apartments that will be built as part of The Links development in northwest Lawrence.
The project, which is a bit east of the Rock Chalk Park Sports complex, has been in the news for years. The Arkansas-based development group has touted the plan as one where apartments will be built around a privately owned nine-hole golf course. But the plan has changed many times since 2008, and now the development has undergone its biggest change yet: The golf course has been eliminated from the project.
But Lawrence-Douglas County planning commissioners at last night's meeting didn't blink at giving the revised project a new round of approvals. Commissioners approved it on a 5-1 vote, with Commissioner Jon Josserand the lone nay vote. Even though the project won't have a golf course, it will have an extraordinary amount of open space, according to the plans. The development plans to construct the buildings for its 900 apartments in clusters, leaving more than 60 percent of the 78 acre site as open space. Instead of a golf course, the open space will now have a trail system or simply will be left as natural areas.
As for why the golf course was dropped from the plans, the development team was pretty forthright in its answer: Golf is in decline.
"What we're learning more and more about golf courses is that, unfortunately for us, interest in golf is declining," said Kim Fugitt, an executive with Linsey Management. "It takes a long time to play, and it is expensive."
Fugitt said the economics of the Lawrence project long have been challenging, which is why the project has received several approvals from city leaders but has yet to be built. Fugitt said when it began reviewing the city's development code in more depth, it realized it could seek a higher density of apartments on the property, and that has taken the project financially from "a borderline development to something that became very attractive."
The project now must receive a round of approval from city commissioners before it can move forward. Look for the issue to come before the City Commission in the next few weeks. If approved, Fugitt said, construction could begin in late summer or early fall and likely would take about 18 months. The project has been estimated to have about a $40 million price tag. The plan is to build in phases, with the first phase consisting of about 600 apartments. It is unclear when the remaining 300 apartments may be built.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The big news out of last night's Planning Commission meeting, of course, was the commission's recommendation to deny plans for a new shopping center southeast of the Iowa Street and South Lawrence Trafficway intersection.
We have a full report of that meeting online, so I won't rehash all of that. But I do want to give folks an idea of what is next. The project can still proceed to the City Commission, and ultimately it still only will need three votes from city commissioners to move forward.
That may surprise some. There is a state law that says in matters of rezoning, the City Commission must have a super majority vote to overrule a negative recommendation of a planning commission. In Lawrence's case, that means four out of the five city commissioners would need to vote in favor of the project.
But I confirmed with Randy Larkin, the city's senior assistant city attorney, that there is another part of the law that can be invoked. A simple majority of the City Commission can send the rezoning matter back to the planning commission for reconsideration. If the Planning Commission reconsiders it and still recommends denial, the City Commission at that point can override the Planning Commission's recommendation with a simple majority vote. In other words, three votes is all it takes to move this project forward, but it will take more time.
I don't have a good sense whether there are three votes on the City Commission for this project. I think some city commissioners are struggling with it. Last night's Planning Commission meeting probably provides more food for thought. City commissioners will have to determine what to make of the Planning Commission's recommendation. At this point, the recommendation for denial is merely a plurality rather than a majority opinion. The Planning Commission has 10 members. Only six members participated in last night's meeting, and only four recommended denial. With a full group, the recommendation could change, although I'm not sure that is likely.
The bigger issue seems to be what policy the city wants to have on planning retail development. Does the city want to allow retail development only in areas already approved for retail development, or does it want to evaluate new sites that the research of retailers say will be successful? Last night, the four commissioners who recommended denial expressed significant concern that this project would too greatly hinder the plans of already approved retail zoning, primarily at Sixth Street and the SLT.
The project may create an interesting philosophical discussion about the role of planning, and it almost certainly will create an interesting exercise in politics. The groups that own the undeveloped retail land near Sixth and the SLT include two of the more powerful development families in the city: the Fritzels and the Schwadas. They both were present last night with their attorneys.
• One last retail note: Look for changes at Hurst Fine Diamonds at 3140 Iowa St. in the Pine Ridge Plaza. The retailer has announced that it is closing its Lawrence store but plans to reopen at another location in Lawrence. An employee at the store said she didn't have a timeline for the closing or information about where the store plans to reopen. I'm checking in and will report back when I have more information. In the meantime, the store is starting a closing sale on Thursday.
New tax increase proposals for police HQ; $30K funding request for downtown mural; 900-unit apartment complex up for review; Family Dollar to close
It is not quite like a wonderful Western Sizzlin' buffet where you can get spaghetti and meatballs, mashed potatoes, whipped pudding, mashed potatoes, tacos and mashed potatoes all on the same plate. But City Hall officials have created a buffet of sorts of possible tax increases to pay for a new police headquarters building.
A new report is out that shows possible tax increase scenarios if the city endeavors to build a $25 million police headquarters. The city previously had put together such a scenario for a $30 million facility, but this is the first set of numbers since a proposal has emerged to drop the price to about $25 million. As a reminder, these increases would be in addition to the 1.85 mill property tax increase currently proposed for the 2015 budget. Any tax increase for the police station likely will be put on the November ballot for voters to decide in a citywide election.
So, get in line behind me and my wagon train of five buffet trays, and let's see the offerings:
• Option A is a sales tax of 0.15 percent. It could pay for the entire police headquarters project and then sunset after 17 years.
• Option B is a sales tax of 0.25 percent that would expire in nine years.
• Option C is a sales tax of 0.5 percent that would expire in five years.
• Option D is a sales tax of 1 percent that would expire in three years.
• Option E is a sales tax of 1.2 percent that would expire in two years.
• Option F is a sales tax of 0.1 percent that would expire in 20 years, and a property tax increase of 0.35 mill
• Option G is a sales tax of 0.2 percent that would expire in 10 years and a 0.15 property tax mill.
If you are curious how much the potential tax increases have dropped now that the price tag of the building appears to be about $5 million less, you can read this old article and compare. There are too many scenarios for me to fully compare (I've fallen into that trap with the whipped puddings) but one example is that at $30 million the project was expected to need a 0.3 percent sales tax for 10 years. Now, it is down to 0.25 percent for nine years.
City commissioners are scheduled to talk about the police headquarters building at their Tuesday evening meeting.
In other news and notes:
• From police to pollinators, city commissioners will get to hear it all on Tuesday. Commissioners on Tuesday are set to approve the general outlines of the 2015 budget, but not before they hear some additional funding requests.
That includes a $30,000 request in funding to help re-create the "Pollinators" mural that is on the wall of the soon-to-be-demolished office building at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire. The location will house another multistory apartment and office building by developer Doug Compton and his group of investors.
As we previously reported, members of the art community fought hard to have the future of the mural considered as part of the project. Developers and city commissioners worked out a compromise to have a portion of the exterior of the new building set aside for a re-creation of the mural.
Now, somebody just has to figure out how to pay for it. Compton's group has committed $20,000 to the mural project, but the organization Friends of the Spencer Museum of Art is estimating the project will cost $50,000. The group is asking for the city to fund the $30,000 difference.
Reginald Robinson, president of the organization, tells commissioners in a letter that the $30,000 in funding would provide the "city with an invaluable opportunity to demonstrate how to resolve, in a balanced and constructive way, the tensions that can emerge between art and culture on the one hand, and important economic development initiatives on the other."
Commissioners also will hear funding requests from the nonprofit agencies Warm Hearts and Van Go Mobile Arts. Both of those organizations are proposed to have their funding cut in the 2015 budget.
• As we've reported, Lawrence-Douglas County planning commissioners tonight will consider several requests related to a new shopping center southeast of the South Lawrence Trafficway.
But that won't be the only major project up for discussion. A 900-unit apartment development also will be debated. It is for The Links at Lawrence, which is a proposal that would build apartments near the Rock Chalk Park sports complex in northwest Lawrence.
The project has been on the drawing board for years. In 2008, city commissioners approved a plan for a 480-unit apartment complex. It never got built. Then plans were filed for a 630-unit apartment development. It never got built. As we reported in April, the Arkansas-based development group now has filed plans for about 900 apartment units spread out over about 50 buildings on about 72 acres.
UPDATE: Previously the proposal had included a small golf course that would be built adjacent to the apartment complex. But the golf course component has been removed from this most recent plan. I had not noted that upon a quick review earlier today, but the course indeed is out of the plan.
A 900-apartment complex would be one of the larger ones in the city, but it is worth noting the group proposes building the project in two phases. Phase I would be 650 units with 1,038 bedrooms. Phase 2 would be 258 units with 430 bedrooms.
The city's planning staff is recommending approval of the development plan. The Planning Commission meets at 6:30 p.m. today at City Hall.
• If your family spends its dollars at Family Dollar, it soon will have to look for a new location. Signs are up, and a manager at Family Dollar store at 23rd and Louisiana streets has confirmed the store is closing. The manager said it likely will close in August, but perhaps earlier or later depending on how quickly inventory is depleted. The Family Dollar, which is located in The Malls shopping center, is the only Family Dollar in Lawrence. The manager said staff members haven't heard of any plans for the company to reopen in a new Lawrence location. The closest Family Dollar now is the new one that opened near the Church Street interchange along Kansas Highway 10 in Eudora.
Homeless shelter’s dog biscuit business closes after loss of funding; report cuts costs of police HQ building by $5M; city loses grant money for trail project
There is bad news for the good dog. Lawrence-based Good Dog! Biscuits & Treats — the nonprofit company that employs residents of the Lawrence Community Shelter — has closed after losing key grant funding.
The maker of all-natural dog biscuits and other treats notified its retail partners earlier this month that it was closing. Dianne Huggins, an organizer of the not-for-profit, said a private funding organization recently pulled its support, leaving Good Dog in a financial bind.
"There is not a realistic path at this time to bring the business back," Huggins said.
Huggins said sales of the dog biscuit products were strong at places such as The Merc, Checkers, Hy-Vee and a host of smaller specialty retailers. But the business never had the money to make investments in more baking equipment, which would have allowed it to expand its geographic reach. The relatively small volume of sales made it difficult for the business to consistently meet its payroll, which is where the grant money came into play.
Huggins said the business employed about four residents of the homeless shelter at any given time, with full-time employees making $9 an hour and part-time about $8 an hour.
The business, which for a while was based in East Lawrence but then moved into space at the new homeless shelter facility, was open for six years. I remember when they opened because the organizers somehow convinced me to try one of the biscuits when I was out interviewing them. (If I thought it would have helped, I would have given them an endorsement. It really was the best dog biscuit I've ever tried.)
During the business' six-year run, Huggins said 16 employees of the business have exited homelessness.
"We truly were successful in that regard," Huggins said. "We are real proud of that."
Huggins said leaders of the Lawrence Community Shelter are discussing possibilities for other programs that could provide jobs to shelter guests.
"I'm certain there are people thinking about that, but we'll just have to wait and see what develops," she said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• City commissioners are looking for ways to cut costs, too. In particular, commissioners are trying to figure out how to lower the estimated $30 million price tag for a new police headquarters building.
Well, architects for the project have delivered a report that presents a plan to knock the price down to an estimated $25.7 million. The cost reductions were made simply by reducing the size of the building and its underground parking garage. The building shrinks to about 62,000 square feet, down from about 73,000 square feet previously proposed. For comparison purposes, the police department has about 37,000 square feet of space today, although it is spread out in several locations.
The proposed parking garage, which would be for police department vehicles, not employee vehicles, would shrink to about 15,000 square feet, down from about 20,000 square feet. Plans call for the garage to have a firing range.
An outbuilding that would be used for evidence storage would shrink to about 4,000 square feet, down from about 6,400 square feet.
Now that architects have uttered these figures, I suspect a majority of city commissioners will latch onto them and the building will shrink in size and cost. The question is whether commissioners will push for further cuts.
The more interesting debate may be where city commissioners decide to locate this facility. My sense is that commissioners are split on the issue. There are some who think highly of a site across the street from the Hallmarks Cards production plant. That would put the police headquarters building right next to the West Lawrence interchange for the Kansas Turnpike. Others, I believe, are concerned about the expense that comes with that site. The site, owned by Hallmark, has 47 acres and Hallmark is not interested in selling it off in parcels. Hallmark is seeking about $3.2 million for the site.
The architect's study indicates the acquisition costs for the Hallmark site are likely the highest of the five studied. In addition, architects estimate it will cost $750,000 to $830,000 to prepare the site for development, which makes the site development costs the highest of the five sites.
The site also has an added twist. The city only needs about 15 acres for the police headquarters building, but would be buying about 47 acres. I know some commissioners already are running numbers on what it could sell the excess property for to help recoup costs. That certainly could work, but it also essentially would put the city in the private development business. Which developer would the city sell to, and for what type of project? Remember that voters likely are going to be asked to approve the funding for the police headquarters building in November. Voters likely are going to want to know the details of what will happen to the extra land, and in this town, that certainly could be a complicating factor.
But I know that some commissioners really like the idea of having the police headquarters greeting visitors coming off the turnpike. We'll see whether this latest report does anything to dampen the enthusiasm.
As a reminder, the other sites under consideration are: 14 acres in the city-owned VenturePark business park near 23rd and O'Connell; 26 acres in the Fairfield Farms development near 23rd and O'Connell; 41 acres southwest of 31st and Louisiana; and 29 acres of city-owned land at Wakarusa and Overland drives.
I intend to write a more complete article on the new report, so check back later today for more details.
• Finally, one more piece of bad funding news on this Friday. City officials learned that a much anticipated trail project through East Lawrence was not selected to receive funding through a state grant program. The trail project would have connected Hobbs Park near 11th and Delaware Streets with Constant Park near Sixth and Kentucky streets. The city applied for a transportation grant through the Kansas Department of Transportation. KDOT, however, only had enough money in the program to fund 20 of the 43 projects submitted. It is uncertain when the next grant from the state will become available.
Commissioner Bob Schumm has made this trail a priority, and it has received a lot of public support from several groups that promote alternative transportation and the benefits of exercise. It will be interesting to see if a last-ditch effort is made this week to add the full cost of the project to the city's 2015 budget. Based on the last estimates I've seen, the project is expected to be about $1 million. Commissioners are scheduled to set the budget at their Tuesday evening meeting.
Summer movies outdoors returning to downtown; Ben McLemore to host slam dunk contest downtown; New Thai restaurant coming to Mass. Street
If you are like a certain someone in my household, you may still be downtown on July 26 packing up all your purchases from today's Downtown Lawrence Sidewalk Sale.
Well, good news. You'll be able to take a break from coordinating all those U-Haul trucks and cargo planes and spend a little time watching an outdoor movie downtown. Yes, the tradition of an outdoor, summer movie series is coming back to downtown.
Downtown Lawrence Inc. has reached a deal with Lawrence Parks and Recreation and the Lawrence Public Library to have a shortened summer film festival this season.
First up will be "Ghostbusters" on Saturday, July 26. The original plan called for the showing to take place in the new plaza area between the expanded public library and the parking garage. But Downtown Lawrence Inc. Director Sally Zogry said she's been told the plaza area won't be completed when the library opens on July 26. So, arrangements are being made with the city to have the portion of Vermont Street in front of the library closed to traffic to accommodate an inflatable movie screen. The area also will have food and drink vendors. Zogry said currently nine downtown merchants have signed up to sell food, snacks, soft drinks and beer at the event. The area also will have a stage for some live music before the show. Downtown Lawrence Inc. will provide free popcorn to spectators, and the movie also will be free.
The series will continue on Aug. 7 with a showing of "Space Jams." The movie again will be on Vermont Street because Zogry said it is her understanding that the plaza area of the library may not be done until late August. Downtown Lawrence Inc. plans to have vendors, some pre-movie entertainment and free popcorn at this event too.
Both events will open at 7 p.m., and the movie is expected to start about 9 p.m.
If you remember, Downtown Lawrence Inc. several years ago started the tradition of showing outdoor movies during the summer. Back then they showed old-time classics with Bogart and Hepburn and that crew in what was then the vacant lot at Ninth and New Hampshire. But then construction work began on a multistory apartment building, and that made watching a movie there inconvenient.
Downtown Lawrence Inc. looked for other locations to host the movies, but was unsuccessful in securing a spot. Zogry said the plaza area at the library would be a perfect location in future years. She said DLI only had time to organize two showings this summer, but she hopes that the number will grow to four or six next summer.
"Now that we have a spot for it, we are going to do more of it," Zogry said. "I think people are excited about it, A year ago when I started this job, I had people calling and asking when we were going to bring back the downtown film festival."
We'll have to wait and see what movies the group comes up with for next year, but I know that Downtown Lawrence Inc. knows a thing or two about horror shows. I predict they'll be sponsoring one at my house in just a few weeks: "Attack of the Mastercard Bill."
In other news and notes from around town:
• July 26 will be a busy day downtown. Hopefully you already have your calendars marked for the grand opening celebrations for the Lawrence Public Library. Now, there's a film festival that evening, and to top it off former KU basketball player and current burgeoning NBA star Ben McLemore is holding a unique charity event downtown.
From noon to 2 p.m., McLemore will be hosting the Sir McLemore Summer Slam, which will feature a slam dunk competition featuring Ben some of his KU friends. The event will take place at the Community Building at 11th and Vermont streets. (Hopefully those rims will hold up. My crew and I have about worn them out.) The event is charging a $30 admission ($25 if bought in advance) with the proceeds going to Ben's charity All4Kids and the Lawrence Community Shelter.
But McLemore will be offering folks a unique chance to win free tickets to the event. Prior to the event, McLemore will hide 20 autographed sneakers throughout downtown Lawrence. From July 23 to July 25, McLemore and Downtown Lawrence Inc. will be sending out clues on where to find the sneakers. Finding a sneaker gets you free admission into the slam dunk contest. (They'd better hope I don't find two, or else they'll have new competition in the dunk contest. I know the right pair of sneakers is the only thing I'm lacking.)
Downtown Lawrence also plans to host a free party for all prior to the slam dunk contest. From 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. near the South Park gazebo there will be food and drink vendors, some KU players signing autographs and a kids zone.
People interested in buying an advance ticket to the slam dunk contest can do so here.
This is the first Lawrence event for McLemore's charity, but the charity has hosted several events over the last year in McLemore's hometown of Wellston, Mo.
"The people of Lawrence have been so great to me since day one," McLemore said in a release. "The minute I stepped on campus they showed me love. Lawrence is my home. I have a house here, and one day I hope to retire here."
That doesn't quite sound like one and done to me.
• As you are pulling your wagons, driving your forklifts and all the other standard stuff you shoppers do as part of the sidewalk sale, you are likely to go by the vacant Freebirds burrito location. Well, it won't be vacant for much longer.
I'm light on the details at the moment, but I have gotten confirmation that a new Thai restaurant is coming to the location. According to a sign permit filed at Lawrence City Hall, the place will be called Baan Thai Restaurant. Based on its website, it looks like it is a Kansas-based company that currently has restaurants in Leavenworth and Manhattan. I'll work to get in touch with the owners and will report back.
If you are a fan of Old Navy, feel free to blow your fog horn and do your best Popeye impersonation. A development that is proposing to bring Old Navy, Academy Sports, Designer Shoe Warehouse and a host of other retailers to south Iowa Street has cleared its first hurdle to approval.
The city's planning staff is recommending approval of the necessary rezoning requests and other such items needed to build the project at the southeast corner of Iowa Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway. But hold on there, sailor. Before you order a gross of skinny jeans and midriff T's, remember that a recommendation from the city's planning staff is kind of like a bitcoin: It is worth something if you can get somebody to take it.
This proposed retail development still must win approval from the Planning Commission, the City Commission, and the Douglas County Commission will even have to vote on a portion of it. So, the project is a long way from a done deal, but developments that receive a negative recommendation from the planning staff have a decidedly uphill battle.
Based on the conversations I've heard, it wasn't a foregone conclusion that this project would receive a positive recommendation from planning staff. It is almost certain that the project is going to receive some opposition at the City Commission level. Commissioner Bob Schumm already has indicated he thinks the proposal would throw the city's retail market out of geographic balance. That's a debate that likely will emerge in the coming weeks, but the planning staff did not find the threat of creating a geographic imbalance enough to recommend denial.
Here are some key findings from the planning staff's reports:
• The project would add 460,000 square feet of new retail space, plus 80,000 square feet of hotel space.
• There are three fairly large areas in town that already have been zoned for retail uses but haven't really developed yet. The largest is the Mercato area near the Rock Chalk Park sports complex near Sixth and the SLT. The other two are the area near Johnny's Tavern in North Lawrence, which has been proposed for a riverside type of retail and entertainment area, and the area near Tractor Supply near 23rd and O'Connell.
The report notes if this proposed development is approved, it very well could increase the amount of time that those already-approved areas sit undeveloped. But the planning staff did not find that possibility a good reason to recommend denial.
• The report found the area is suitable for retail development. The city's comprehensive plan calls for the area to develop with a mix of apartments and commercial development that is of an "auto-oriented" nature. Think either a car lot or even a truck stop. The planning staff's report said the comprehensive plan does need to be changed to allow this development because the retail uses would be different than the auto-oriented uses envisioned in Horizon 2020. But the report recommends approval, saying that the proposed development would be a natural extension of the south Iowa Street commercial corridor.
• The report did not find a likelihood that the new retail development would substantially increase the retail vacancy rate in the city. The report said it was highly unlikely that the developer would build any part of the project without first having signed leases for the space. The report does note that it is likely up to three existing retailers in town — no names given — will relocate to the site. But the report noted that in recent years vacated store fronts in Lawrence have successfully redeveloped in a reasonable period of time. Think the formers Sears building which now houses Dick's Sporting Goods, and the former Food-4-Less, which now houses Discovery Furniture.
• Data suggests the city's retail market is now attracting more spending than it is losing. In 1999, the city had per capita retail spending that was 1 percent below the statewide average. In 2013, it had grown to 7 percent above the statewide average. Developers of the project, however, note that Lawrence still trails several other cities in that regard. Lenexa's per capita spending is 59 percent above the statewide average, Salina's 45 percent, Leawood's 42 percent, Topeka's, 33 percent, and Manhattan's 31 percent. The developers also note that Lawrence still well below 2001 totals, when per capita spending was 18 percent above the statewide average. The staff report didn't weigh in on how Lawrence compares to other communities, but said that the recent improvement in the per capita spending numbers was a sign that the retail market was healthy and could absorb more space.
Activity on the project will start heating up quickly. The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will hold a hearing on the proposal Monday evening. It could take votes on the necessary rezoning and comprehensive plan amendments needed for the project. If action is taken by the Planning Commission, the item could be before the City Commission in a couple of weeks.
Then, I think it will get pretty interesting. Based on talk I've heard, I think there are some conflicted city commissioners on this one. Here are some questions I think commissioners likely are mulling:
• Can they do anything to steer retail development toward northwest Lawrence and the new Rock Chalk Park sports complex? Thus far several retailers have taken a pass on that area — think Menards, Dick's Sporting Goods and PetSmart. Clearly there are commissioners who want development to go in that direction. They would like to see more retail options in western Lawrence, but retailers have said they like synergy that is created with the south Iowa corridor. But I've heard commissioners say they don't want Lawrence's retail market to develop like Topeka's, where most of it is located in one area of town.
• Can the city financially afford to say no? This is an interesting time to bring forward a large project at City Hall. The city is proposing a 1.85 mill property tax increase, and a larger tax increase likely soon will be proposed for a police headquarters building. The developers have estimated the project will add $1.1 million a year to the city's sales tax coffers by 2017, and the amount will grow to $2.1 million by 2020. Those are numbers put together by the development group, so you can take them for whatever you think they're worth. The city's planning staff didn't try to verify or refute those numbers.
But there's another set of numbers yet to come. Those will be estimates on how much the development will pay in property taxes. As we reported recently, the developers have said they don't intend to seek any tax rebates from the city on this project. That means the city not only will get to keep all the sales tax revenue generated by the project, but also all the property tax revenue. The property taxes will be significant. For example, the Walmart at 33rd and Iowa streets paid $390,000 in property taxes in 2013. This proposed development will be newer and will have about three times as much square footage as Walmart.
Will commissioners feel comfortable rejecting this proposal and its tax dollars, and then turning around and asking the public for another tax increase to pay for a police headquarters building?
It looks like it will be a summer of interesting questions and answers at City Hall.
Maybe at this time next year, you'll see Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari at West Lawrence's Six Mile Chophouse, or Michigan State's Tom Izzo at downtown's Pachamama's, or Missouri coach Kim Anderson at North Lawrence's circus school.
Indeed, it looks like the city's recreation center/fieldhouse at Rock Chalk Park is going to do more than attract youth basketball players. City officials have confirmed they've reached a deal with a major promoter to bring a signature AAU basketball tournament to the city, which is expected to bring 80 to 100 teams, and upwards of 30 of the top Division I basketball coaches to scout talent.
City officials aren't yet announcing the name of the tournament because the promoter hasn't yet made an announcement, but Chad Tower, the operations supervisor for the Rock Chalk Park center, told me the tournament is one that is currently held in Kansas City. Tower said plans call for the tournament to be held over four days in late July 2015.
"You talk about a chamber of commerce type of weekend, this will be one of them," Tower said.
The four-day nature of the tournament — Thursday through Sunday — is great for hotels and gives participants and their families a lot of time to explore the community's shops and restaurants.
More such tournaments may be on the way. Tower said the same promoter is about 95 percent certain he'll use the Rock Chalk center to host a similar size and caliber tournament for top Division I women's basketball recruits in April. A different promoter is close to signing a deal for a four-day boys tournament that would showcase lower NCAA and NAIA types of talent. That likely would be in early July.
"We already have been giving a lot of tours to tournament directors," Tower said. "When you get in there, you really feel the size of the facility. They have all said this is going to be the best facility in the area. They talk about how there won't be another place like it in the area."
Tower said Parks and Recreation officials also have had good discussions with members of Bill Self's staff about having the KU coach's summer basketball camps at the facility. Those camps likely would take place in June.
We've previously reported the facility also has booked some volleyball tournaments with area clubs and leagues. Thus far, Tower estimates that the facility has a little more than 20 tournaments booked.
When completed in early September, the Rock Chalk center — officially named Sports Pavilion Lawrence — will have eight full-sized basketball courts that can be converted to 16 cross-court playing surfaces. Only seven of the eight courts ever will be available for tournaments because the city has committed to keeping at least one court open for community use at all times.
Now that brings up an interesting possibility: Maybe I'll just happen to be on the community court at the same time Calipari, Izzo and the other big-time coaches are in the facility. They'll be over to watch in no time, because I'm guessing it won't take long for word to spread about the player in jean shorts with the hook shot. Who knows, maybe even Kim Anderson will stop juggling fire for a moment and come over to watch.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There have been some questions about whether people will be able to take the city's public transit system out to Rock Chalk Park. Robert Nugent, the city's transit administrator, tells me the answer soon will be yes.
Nugent said the city will be unveiling its annual tweaking of transit routes in August. That will include a new route that will run from Sixth and Wakarusa to the Rock Chalk Park facility. It won't have high frequency — current plans call for it running once an hour — but it also will have a flex service component to it, meaning people can call and schedule some times as well. Look for more details on the route in the coming weeks.
• Lawrence is staying in the trail business in a big way. The city is working to submit a $108,000 grant to build a new trail along the Kansas River between Burcham Park and Constant Park. The trail would tie into a recently completed trail that is located in the Sandra J. Shaw Community Health Park, which is behind the old VFW building at First and Alabama streets. The grant, which comes with a 50 percent match requirement from the city, would be through the Sunflower Foundation, which provided grant money for the trail in Shaw Park. Winners should be announced in August. There currently is a path along the Kansas River, but Mark Hecker, assistant director of parks and recreation, said the new trail would be much more functional.
"We will put it back from the river just a bit to avoid erosion problems, but the idea really is that you'll be able to take a nice walk along the edge of the river," Hecker said.
If the grant is awarded, construction would begin this winter. In the meantime, the city is still waiting to receive word on whether it will receive a state transportation grant to build a new hike and bike trail through East Lawrence. News on that grant is expected at any time now.
• On the very off chance that our plan to get recruited by the country's top basketball coaches doesn't work, we may have a fall back. You get your best Brian Boitano costume on, I'll do my best Reg Dunlop impersonation from the classic hockey movie Slap Shot, and we'll put on quite a show at downtown Lawrence's ice rink.
We've reported several times that parks and recreation leaders are exploring the idea of putting in an artificial ice rink in the plaza area between the library and the parking garage. Well, that plan is still moving forward, and we should know soon whether it actually will be feasible.
The city has sent out a request for proposals from companies that can provide the necessary equipment to create the ice rink. The deadline for those proposals is Friday. At that point, the city should have a better idea on the cost of the facility.
As currently envisioned, the rink — which would be designed for recreational skating, not hockey — would be in operation from around Thanksgiving through the winter holiday season, which may mean through New Years or perhaps all the way to Valentine's Day.
Lawrence consumers are continuing to do their best impersonation of the Energizer bunny. They keep going and going and going. The latest numbers show that retail sales in Lawrence increased for the seventh straight month.
The new report measures retail spending for the mid-April to mid-May time period. And as they say in my house, April showers bring May flowers, a set of designer gardening gloves, a platinum-plated garden spade, and a new diamond tennis bracelet — because it can't all be about toiling away in the garden. All that is to say, consumer sales in Lawrence were up by 9.4 percent compared with the same one-month period a year ago.
Thus far we have six sales tax reports in for 2014 and, year-to-date retail spending is up 4.7 percent for the year. That growth rate is more than double the 2.1 percent growth in sales that was posted in 2013. If the pace continues — and that is a bit like counting your Gucci handbags before the UPS driver delivers them — this would be the third year out of four that sales tax collections have grown by more than 4 percent. And get this, you have to go all the way back to the 1996-1999 time period to find the last time that sales tax collections have grown by more than 4 percent in three out of four years. I don't know exactly what that means, other than we're in a pretty good stretch right now.
As for how we are doing compared with other retail centers in the state, we're right in line. It is worth noting that the city actually is posting better growth rates than one market that traditionally sucks dollars away from Lawrence: Topeka. Here's a look:
• Dodge City: up 0.1 percent
• Emporia: up 6.4 percent
• Garden City: up 6.8 percent
• Hays: down 19.3 percent
• Hutchinson: up 3.6 percent
• Junction City: up 1.2 percent
• Kansas City: up 3.4 percent
• Leawood: up 0.8 percent
• Lenexa: up 4.9 percent
• Manhattan: up 1.7 percent
• Ottawa: up 4.7 percent
• Overland Park: up 5.4 percent
• City of Shawnee: 5.8 percent
• Topeka: up 2 percent
• Sedgwick County: up 4.5 percent
Retail sales numbers could take on some additional importance in the coming weeks. The planning commission next week is scheduled to vote on a proposed shopping center at the southeast corner of Iowa Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway. Discussion of whether Lawrence's retail market can safely absorb more retailers is expected to be part of that meeting. The sales tax numbers are some of the best data we have on that subject.
I hope to get my abacus out in the coming days and crunch a few numbers in that regard.
Used bicycle shop opens in East Lawrence; Kwik Shop nixes plan for 19th and Mass. expansion; Baldwin City Walmart update
I've always said that if I could find Lance Armstrong's old bicycle, I would enter the Tour de France, because the bike clearly was the secret to his success. Well, I may be in luck. Lawrence has a new business that specializes in used bicycles. (And just in time for the Tour de France. Don't worry. I've already got the Spandex on, so it will take me no time to catch up.)
The new business actually is an old one that has reopened. After closing its downtown location in 2011, the Lawrence Re-Cyclery bicycle shop has reopened in East Lawrence.
"Everybody I ran into in the community kept telling me how much they missed the shop," said owner Brian Shay.
So, Shay jumped at the chance to be part of what's becoming an East Lawrence renaissance. (Yes, I'm trying to build up my French street cred by using words like renaissance.) The shop is located at 924 Delaware St., which is next door to the new coffee shop Decade and just a block away from the growing Warehouse Arts District.
The shop doesn't actually specialize in used Tour de France bicycles, but rather carries used bicycles of all types. Shay buys, sells and trades a variety of bicycles, and usually has 40 or more on hand at any given time.
"I think we're the type of business that really benefits the community," Shay said. "We're providing cheap transportation. If you can get a bike that retails for $400 for $175, that makes people happy."
Shay said he and his staff refurbish all the used bikes and offer a 30-day warranty on any bike that is purchased. The business also has a full-service shop that will do repairs on any type or age of bike.
"The service shop is important because lots of people are starting to use bikes for transportation," Shay said. "i keep people on the road every day who tell me all they have is a bike."
The shop is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
On a side note, I first interviewed Shay a couple of years ago because he was part of a group hoping to get access to some city-owned land to build a BMX bicycle racing track. I asked Shay about those efforts, and he said they have essentially fallen by the wayside. He said discussions with the city about a suitable location for such a track just never gained any traction.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While my dream of winning the Tour de France and receiving the obligatory lifetime supply of cream puffs and other French pastries is alive and well, the dream of an expanded Kwik Shop at 19th and Mass. appears dead.
As we have reported over the last several months, Kwik Shop had filed plans with City Hall to tear down the existing store, rebuild farther to the east and use the additional room near Massachusetts Street for more gasoline pumps.
But the city's planning office now has confirmed that Kwik Shop has officially withdrawn that proposal. Neighbors along New Hampshire Street had expressed some concern about the store moving closer to their homes. Plus, the project needed several zoning variances to fit all the pumps on the lot. So, don't look for that project to proceed, but I'm told by those who have followed the project to look for a remodeling of the existing store.
• Well, you can tell that Baldwin City and Lawrence drink from the same pail of water because when it comes to Walmart projects, both towns have plenty of concerned citizens. (Just in case you are ever on Final Jeopardy!, Baldwin really does buy its water from Lawrence.) As we reported earlier this week, Walmart has filed plans for a Walmart Express store along U.S. Highway 56 in Baldwin City. The store would be about a 15,000 square-foot mini-Walmart that sells gasoline, groceries, pharmacy items, and offers a service that allows customers to order any item stocked by Walmart.
But according to our sister publication the Baldwin City Signal, about 100 residents showed up at the Baldwin City Planning Commission meeting to express their opposition to the store. Planning commissioners then tabled any action on the proposed development plan.
The planning commission said Walmart needs to submit a traffic study for the development, and the Baldwin City Council needs to determine how the store would fit in with the city's comprehensive plan. We'll see what steps Walmart now takes. It could create the traffic study, or appeal to the city council that such a study is not required. Or, Walmart could decided to drop the proposal all together. Residents near Sixth and Wakarusa probably could offer some odds on that prospect.
Kansas City-area psychiatric practice expands to Lawrence; local drug development firm has success in cancer trials
It was touch and go there for awhile, but my wife's dream of opening a psychic detective office in Lawrence is still alive (At least, I assume that's her dream. She loves the USA Network program "Psych," and she spends an inordinate amount of time rubbing her temples — especially when I'm talking — like she is receiving a psychic message.)
Regardless, I had heard that there was a new psych office coming to town, and I just assumed . . . But in reality, there is a new psychiatric office that has opened in Lawrence, and it really is no joking matter.
It was about 10 years ago that Lawrence Memorial Hospital closed its inpatient mental health unit, and a major reason behind the closure was a shortage of psychiatrists in Lawrence.
A Kansas City-area psychiatrist says the shortage still exists, which has led her to open Awakenings, an office that offers intensive outpatient mental health programs out of the Medical Arts building at 346 Maine St.
"This is a step down from an inpatient unit, but it is a step up from what can be provided by an ER visit for a suicidal patient, for example," said Dr. Maria Cristina Davila, who serves as the medial director for the Awakenings practice.
Davila has been a psychiatrist for more than 20 years. She opened her Awakenings practice in Prairie Village last year and quickly decided to expand into Lawrence after hearing about the need.
"I've been a resident of Lawrence since 1996, and we definitely have a large gap in services," said Angie Logan, a clinical therapist on the Awakenings staff. "I have seen a lot of KU students who have had to drop out of KU because they had to go to Kansas City or elsewhere to get treatment."
The Lawrence office will offer intensive outpatient programs for conditions such as bipolar, anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse, pain pill addictions and other issues. Awakenings offers both adult and adolescent treatment programs.
Davila will have regular office hours in Lawrence on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and other licensed mental health professionals also will staff the Lawrence office on other days. A big part of the treatment programs at Awakenings involve group therapy, which meet three times a week for three hours at a time.
Davila said the practice also hopes to have serious discussions with Lawrence Memorial Hospital about how her staff can provide services that complement the mental health treatment that is provided in the hospital's emergency room.
"There is a real problem when patients get sent out of town for treatment," Logan said. "A lot of time when they come back to Lawrence, they don't have that continuity of care, and that is critical."
In other news and notes from around town:
• There's also news on a different health front in Lawrence. We've been telling you for years to keep an eye on the Lawrence-based biotech company CritiTech. Well, the company has recently announced that its latest trials for a possible cancer drug have gone well.
The company put its Nanotax product through phase I clinical trials that involved providing doses to 21 patients with advanced forms of cancers. The trials were conducted in partnership with Kansas University's cancer center in Kansas City, Kan., which is a National Cancer Institute-designated program.
A majority of the patients were suffering from advanced stages of ovarian cancer, but the drug also is designed to treat pancreatic cancer, colorectal, liver and bladder cancers.
"The study results demonstrated that Nanotax was very well tolerated, and there were no serious adverse events related to the drug," said Charles Decedue, Crititech's chief scientific officer. With guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, we are looking forward to initiating the next steps to continue to advance Nanotax."
In other words, the company is still moving down a positive path to gain regulatory approval to sell the drug in the U.S. I reached out to company officials to get a better estimate of that timeline. Drug development is a slow-moving business, but this latest news is a positive development for the company, and there have been other signs that Crititech is optimistic about its future.
As we previously reported, the company purchased a new headquarters location in North Lawrence late last year. The move was billed as a strategy to provide room for the company to expand its laboratory and drug development space.