Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
I’ve long joked that everybody who enters Lawrence Memorial Hospital has high blood pressure not because they are ill but because they’ve tried to find a parking space. The hospital has filed plans at City Hall to help address the parking shortage at LMH, but it will involve tearing down a half-dozen homes in the surrounding neighborhood.
LMH leaders are seeking a variety of zoning and special use permits to convert a large portion of residential property along Michigan Street into a parking lot that will accommodate about 100 cars. The new parking lot would begin near the northeast corner of Fourth and Michigan streets and would stretch to the southeast corner of Third and Michigan streets. The new parking lot would be adjacent to an existing parking lot that runs along Arkansas Street between Fourth and Third streets.
The new parking lot, though, won’t take up the entire block along Michigan Street. There are two property owners along the east side of Michigan Street that evidently are not interested in selling to the hospital. As a result, those two homes will be surrounded on three sides by a parking lot. (Insert your own Joni Mitchell joke here.) One of the property owners is listed as the City of Lawrence. I confirmed it is a property managed by the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority and is part of its affordable housing rental program. The other house appears to just be a traditional single-family home owned by a couple.
If there is a sticking point on this LMH parking plan, it likely will be the demolition of the other six single-family homes on the block. Tearing down existing housing stock — especially as the city has a goal of promoting more affordable housing — can be tricky in Lawrence. I haven’t yet heard back from a hospital official, but it appears that five of the six houses are occupied. The hospital does own all the houses at this point, according to the plans filed at City Hall.
Affordable housing is an important goal, but so too is having a functional hospital. The current parking situation at LMH doesn’t grind functions at LMH to a halt, but it is an issue that I’ve heard hospital leaders express concern about for a number of years. It is not uncommon for hospital visitors to park on residential streets around the hospital.
I haven’t yet gotten a definitive number from LMH, but by reading through plans it appears the project will add about 190 new parking spaces to the area around the hospital. The new lot along Michigan Street would be the largest contributor with 97 new spaces. But the hospital also proposes to add some angled parking spaces along a couple of major roads near the hospital.
LMH plans to add angled parking stalls along the east side of Arkansas Street, on the portion of the street that is near the northern end of the hospital. Currently, 24 angled parking stalls are there, but the number would grow to 62 if the plan is approved. The hospital also plans to begin using angled parking stalls along Maine Street, which is the busy city street that runs along the eastern edge of the hospital. Plans call for 34 angled stalls to be built along the west side of Maine Street.
The hospital will need to win a variety of approvals from City Hall before it can go ahead with the project. The plans are scheduled to go before the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission on May 24. The hospital is seeking approval of a special use permit for the parking lot and is requesting that the property be rezoned from single-family to a special hospital zoning designation. If approved by the Planning Commission, the plans would need to win approval from the City Commission before work could begin.
We’ll see how the request goes. The larger question may be what the hospital’s long-range plans are for parking. It is not uncommon for hospitals to have a parking garage. LMH does not, but conceivably it could convert a surface parking lot into one. Understanding whether a parking garage is part of LMH’s future or whether expanding surface parking lots into the surrounding area is in the cards are issues that may interest planners.
I’ll let you know if I hear more from the hospital.
Lawrence sales tax collections remain strong; a look at how local shoppers are saving the city’s budget
While the Kansas Legislature continues to struggle to find a tax policy to fill a gaping budget hole (thus far the idea of using one hand to point fingers and the other to rub a magic lamp has fallen short), the city of Lawrence continues to receive good tax news. Sales tax collections remain on a roll in Lawrence.
Lawrence recently received its April sales tax check, which reflects taxes collected on sales made generally in February or late January. Whether it was big Valentine’s Day gifts, or the gifts you have to buy for forgetting Valentine’s Day, spending totals were up in Lawrence. Sales tax collections for the month grew by 5.1 percent in Lawrence, compared with the same period a year ago.
For some reason, spending in Lawrence was much better in February than it was in other major retail centers in the state. For example, Sedgwick County, Overland Park, Olathe and Topeka all saw declines in their sales tax collections for the month.
It is never wise to read too much into any one month, but the latest report continues a trend for Lawrence. The city now has received four of its 12 sales tax checks for 2017, and they have added up to a pretty positive trend. For the year, Lawrence has seen sales tax growth of 4.2 percent — or about $350,000 — compared with the same period a year ago. That puts Lawrence near the top of the pack of other large retail centers in the state. Here’s a look:
— Lenexa: up 10 percent
— Lawrence: up 4.2 percent
— Shawnee: up 4.2 percent
— Olathe: up 3.7 percent
— Topeka: up 2.9 percent
— Kansas City: up 2 percent
— Overland Park: up 1.1 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 0.4 percent
Sales tax numbers are a good indication of economic activity in a community, but they also are important to keep in mind this time of year for another reason. It is budget season at Lawrence City Hall. As we reported, City Manager Tom Markus released his recommend budget for 2018 last week. Sales taxes are a critical part of the budget.
While Lawrence’s performance this year is good, city officials are counting on it to remain good throughout the entire year. Markus’ recommended budget shows projections for how 2017 will end. The budget is projecting that 2017 sales tax revenues will come in 4 percent higher than 2016 totals. We are at 4.2 percent now, which is better than most cities in the state. Lawrence needs to keep up the pace to meet those projections.
A closer look at the budget shows just how important sales tax revenues have become to the city. It basically is the revenue source that makes up for all the other failing revenue sources. One struggling revenue source is franchise fees, which is a special tax you pay on several utility bills, such as electric, cable, telephone and gas bills. The city budgeted to collect $8.1 million in franchise fees in 2017, but city officials now project they’ll collect only $7.8 million. Licenses and permits — building permit fees are the big one in this category — were budgeted at $1.38 million for 2017. Now, they are projected to come in at $1.26 million. And then there are fines, such as the ones you pay for speeding or parking in a spot you are not supposed to. Evidently, Lawrence is becoming much better behaved in that regard. Fine revenue is really sagging. The city is budgeted to collected $3.02 million in fines in 2017 but is now projecting to collect only $2.4 million.
Just those three categories alone account for a $1.1 million budget shortfall at City Hall. Given that, you may think the city’s budget is in trouble. It is not, though. The city in 2017 budgeted to collect $72.22 million in revenues for its general operating fund. It is now projecting it will collect $72.81 million in the general fund. The city is on pace to have a nearly $600,000 budget surplus in its main operating fund.
The reason: sales taxes. The city budgeted to collect $28.5 million in general fund sales taxes in 2017. It is now projecting it will collect $29.7 million in sales taxes for the year — a $1.2 million surplus.
Lawrence shoppers are saving the city’s budget. A valid question, though, is: Could they save it even more?
As the city asks for this tax increase — and don't forget, the county may ask for one too — it will be interesting to watch whether it creates a debate about the city’s policy for allowing new retail development. An issue that continues to lurk just beneath the surface is the city’s 2016 denial of a proposed shopping center south of the South Lawrence Trafficway and U.S. Highway 59 interchange. The city is getting sued over that denial. The lawsuit is moving slowly. Whether that is a sign the two sides are trying to reach a settlement, I don’t know, but it would not surprise me given some of the chatter I have heard.
The developers commissioned a study that showed if the City Commission would have approved the shopping center in early 2016 that by 2018 the new retailers at the center would have added about $970,000 in new sales tax collections to the city’s budget. In case you are scoring at home, the 1.25 proposed mill levy increase in Markus’ budget will generate about an extra $1.1 million in property tax revenue. If the shopping center had been in place, perhaps a smaller mill levy increase would be needed. Opponents of the shopping center may not agree. It certainly is fair to note that developers' estimates don’t always come true.
What is likely to be true, though, is that by the time the city, the county and the school district get done with their budgets, there will be a fair number of people unhappy with their property tax bills.
A story of Willfred “Skillet” Eudaly, Lawrence’s first hamburger and the pending closure of perhaps Lawrence’s oldest liquor store
If the Kansas City Royals or the resumption of the Kansas legislative session doesn’t cause you to think of liquor stores, then you aren’t watching either close enough. Regardless, there soon will be one less liquor store to frequent in Lawrence. In some ways, Lawrence is losing its ultimate mom and pop liquor store.
The store that is named Mom & Pop's Liquor at 1906 Massachusetts St. is closing after the end of business on Friday. The store has been open since 1948, according to Mike Myers, the current owner of the establishment. There is some thought that the store may be the oldest liquor store in Lawrence. That is a tough fact to confirm, however. I don’t have personal knowledge of it, and anybody who has spent 70 years going to Lawrence liquor stores may not be the best source on a topic that involves the use of brain cells.
However, a 2011 Journal-World obituary for Willfred “Skillet” Eudaly did report that the liquor store at 19th and Massachusetts was the first liquor store in Lawrence. The obituary reports that Eudaly operated several businesses at the 1906 Massachusetts St. location. First it was Grover’s Market and then it turned into Skillet’s Tavern. Eudaly gained the nickname of “Skillet,” perhaps because he also operated in the late 1930s Snappy Lunch Restaurant in the 600 block of Massachusetts. According to the obituary, the restaurant was the first in town to sell hamburgers. (If Lawrence didn’t have hamburgers until the 1930s, can you imagine how often everybody had to eat frozen pizza for supper?)
But back to 1906 Massachusetts. According to the obituary, Skillet’s Tavern became Skillet’s Liquor Store in 1948. So, if it isn’t the oldest liquor store in town, it sure has to be pretty close. And now, it also may be a sign of the changing times. The store is small, and it appears that small may not be as successful in the liquor store industry as it used to be.
Myers, who has owned the store since 2005, said his business has been on a downward trend since the large On the Rocks Liquor Store opened just down the block in about 2010. Now, the Kansas Legislature has passed a law that will allow grocery stores in the future to sell full-strength beer, which liquor stores long have had a monopoly on.
Myers said he suspects that law will open the door for other changes to the liquor store industry, and it eventually will become more like it is in other states.
“It will be dominated by bigger places,” Myers said. “That has been the trend for awhile. It has both its advantages and disadvantages. But there won’t be as many of the small ones.”
Currently, the Kansas liquor store industry is dominated by small operators. Kansas law doesn’t allow for liquor store chains. The closest you can come to that is a single household can operate two stores — with each spouse holding a license for one. How the new liquor laws will shake out for the industry is still a mystery. While liquor stores lose their monopoly on strong beer, they still have it on other liquors. Plus, liquor stores now will be able to sell a larger variety of nonalcoholic items.
Myers said his guess is the new system will probably produce cheaper liquor prices for popular items, but it may become harder to find specialty items as smaller stores become less common.
Myers, though, isn’t bemoaning the changes. He said they played only a small role in his decision to close the store.
“The new law was a fairly minor part of it,” he said. “Being ready to retire has a lot to do with it.”
Myers was new to the liquor store business when he bought the shop about a dozen years ago. He said he does have mixed emotions about the closing.
“I probably didn’t learn enough,” Myers said when asked what the business taught him. “I learned a bit about the products, and I got to know a few people, and that was good.”
As for the future of the site, Myers did own the building, but said he has already sold it. My understanding is a group that has a connection with the Miller Tattoo shop next door bought the building. I’ve got a call into the tattoo shop and will let you know if I hear of any plans for the location.
In sign of times, Lawrence gas station owner pulls back a bit on alternative fuels; reports show summer gas prices likely to be higher
I had a reader ask me a question, and this one I can actually repeat in a family-oriented newspaper: Did Lawrence’s Zarco fueling stations give up on selling E-15 gasoline, the ethanol-based fuel that was supposed to put a dent in Big Oil's stranglehold on our wallets?
The answer is no, it did not. But it is a reasonable question because you may have noticed that the Zarco American Fuels station at 1500 E. 23rd St. no longer lists the E-15 product on its sign. That location has stopped selling the E-15 gasoline. But its sister station at Ninth and Iowa streets continues to sell the product. E-15 gasoline is a bit different from what you normally get at the pump because it has 15 percent ethanol. Most other gas brands have ethanol totals at 10 percent or less. The Zarco decision to start offering an E-15 variety was kind of a big deal because Lawrence-based Zarco became the first station in the country to start selling it in 2012. Big Oil did not like that decision, and Zarco leader Scott Zaremba actually ended a 28-year relationship with Phillips 66 to continue selling the product.
But at the 23rd Street store, Zaremba removed the product a couple of months ago and went a different direction. He’s now selling a super premium brand of fuel that has no ethanol in it. Boaters, lawn mower users and other owners of small engines often like fuel free of ethanol because the corn-based ethanol can cause some complications in certain types of small engines.
In some other ways, though, the change is a sign of the times. Oil is cheaper now than it was in 2012 when Zaremba was making the E-15 push. He expects that will be the case for the foreseeable future, which means pressure to create demand for more alternative fuels is waning.
“I don’t think we’re going to see any big advancements in new fuels for quite awhile,” Zaremba said.
That doesn’t mean some of the alternative fuel products —think E-85 ethanol for flex fuel vehicles or compressed natural gas for specially fitted vehicles — will go away. Zaremba thinks the infrastructure will remain in place to deliver those fuels, and they’ll be waiting in the wings if the oil markets take a dramatic turn upward. But Zaremba doesn’t see the markets moving that way anytime soon, as drilling technology has opened up new sources of American oil.
“We have huge domestic crude oil production that we didn’t use to have,” Zaremba said. “South of a nuclear war, we are going to be stable for transportation energy needs for decades to come.”
• The signs you may have noticed at the two Zarco stations in town are ones advertising high-tech car washes coming soon to both the 23rd Street and Iowa Street locations. But those signs have been up for quite awhile, and construction work hasn’t yet started on the tunnel car washes. For a time, an excavator was even on site to presumably begin tearing down the former Sandbar sub sandwich shop near Ninth and Iowa to make way for the 150-foot car wash there. But then it didn’t happen.
Zaremba, though, tells me that the car washes still will happen.
“I had the plans all set once, and then I decided I needed to look at them a little closer,” Zaremba said. “I have to be comfortable with the equipment layout.”
The tunnel car wash industry has turned competitive in Lawrence. Shortly after Zaremba announced he was going to build a tunnel car wash at his 23rd Street store, an out out-of-state company struck a deal to buy vacant ground next to QuikTrip — and just down the block from Zarco — to build a large tunnel car wash. That location is now open.
• While we are talking about gasoline, we might as well talk about one of Lawrence’s favorite subjects: gas prices. We are starting to get into prime driving season, and the latest report gives you reason to worry that filling up the family cruiser won’t be as cheap this summer.
The auto club AAA of Kansas released its latest report detailing fuel prices for a host of Kansas communities. It showed that while prices had started to drop recently, they were still significantly ahead of where they were a year ago. And to the chagrin of many local motorists, it found that Lawrence prices were in a familiar place — right near the top.
Here’s a look at prices across the state and how they compared with the same period a year ago:
— Hays: $2.31, up from $1.98 a year ago
— Lawrence: $2.28, up from $2.02 a year ago
— Garden City: $2.28, up from $2 a year ago
— Kansas City, Kan.: $2.27, up from $2 a year ago
— Topeka: $2.26, up from $1.96 a year ago.
— Wichita: $2.21, up from $2.02 a year ago
— Emporia: $2.20, up from $2.02 a year ago
— Salina: $2.19, up from $1.90 a year ago
— Pittsburg: $2.15, up from $1.88 a year ago
— Manhattan: $2.13, up from $1.98 a year ago
— Kansas average: $2.22, up from $1.99 a year ago
— National average: $2.39, up from $2.21 a year ago.
Of course, in the time it took you to read that list, gasoline prices may have changed a couple of times. They are volatile. But the U.S. Energy Information Administration does put out a forecast. Its latest forecast for the April through September summer driving season predicts nationally that gasoline prices will be about 10 percent higher than they were last year.
Kansas ranked one of the least fun states in America; Lawrence housing construction off to best start in years; KC eatery coming to downtown
Now that I’ve made a weight loss breakthrough (the battery finally went dead in my digital scale), I thought it was safe to offer up a smorgasbord of news and notes from around town:
• When it comes to fun, Kansas evidently isn’t, according to a new ranking. The folks at the financial website WalletHub have looked at a variety of data related to restaurants, bars, national parks, beaches, theaters and other such attractions that suck dollars out of our bank account in the name of entertainment. (Personally, I think dollar bill origami is the best type of entertainment. You get to keep the dollar, and origami just sounds fun.)
Kansas ranked No. 43 out of 50 states in the Most Fun States in America report. The report looked at two broad categories. The Entertainment and Recreation category used data such as per capita rates for restaurants, theaters, beaches, golf courses, marinas, national parks, art venues and also looked at the per capita dollars spent by consumers on recreation and also the per capita funding levels by government for parks and recreation. Kansas ranked No. 44 in that category. The second category was Nightlife, which measured average beer and wine prices, movie costs, nightlife options per capita and something called “access to bars.” I know you are curious: it is combination of bars per capita and bars per square mile. Kansas ranked No. 42 in the Nightlife category.
While this report uses data from the Census Bureau and other federal agencies, it is still pretty subjective because everybody’s idea of fun is a bit different. However, it is interesting to look at Kansas compared with other states in the region. The rankings may help add some perspective to how Kansas’ tourism industry stacks up. No surprise here, Colorado is the runaway leader in the region. With mountains, ski resorts and a huge tourism industry, it ranks No. 3 in the report. Missouri is next at No. 22, and that isn’t exactly a surprise. The Ozark tourism industry, with corn cob pipes and Deliverance soundtracks, is pretty significant. (Actually, I love the Ozarks.) But then the rankings get more interesting. Nebraska is No. 23 and Oklahoma is No. 25. Both states were helped by top 20 rankings in the nightlife category, which I think means the number of bars per capita is pretty high and/or liquor prices are pretty cheap.
Again, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the ranking, but it did make me wonder if Gov. Brownback has a point. Kansas really may be in need of more attractions if it hopes to draw more outside dollars to its economy. I’m not saying that the whitewater rafting park that the administration is pushing for at Clinton Lake — the proposed North Carolina developer of that park is still meeting with folks around town — is the answer, but the administration may be seeing something that others are too.
In case you are wondering, the top five ranked states for fun are:
— No. 1: Nevada
— No. 2: South Dakota
— No. 3: Colorado
— No. 4: North Dakota
— No. 5: New York.
In case you are wondering how North Dakota made the list, all 25 people who live there have vouched for its fun factor.
• If Kansas isn’t any fun, why is it that more people are building homes to live in Lawrence? The city has released a report showing building permit activity through the first quarter of 2017. It shows that the homebuilding industry is off to its best start since the Great Recession.
Through March, the city has issued 63 permits for single-family or duplex construction. That’s well above the first quarter average of recent years. Since 2008, the average has been 32 such permits, so builders are operating at a pace almost double the recent norm. As we have been reporting for awhile now, real estate agents say the number of buyers on the market are outnumbering the supply of homes for sale in the Lawrence market. Builders seem to be responding. It will be worth watching the rest of the year.
However, the total amount of building going on in the community is down from past years. That’s primarily because there haven’t been any large apartment projects in Lawrence yet in 2017. Plus, the number of large commercial projects have been a bit light thus far.
March, however, did produce the two largest commercial construction projects of the year so far. They are both projects we previously have reported on: a $3.9 million project to build a Country Inn and Suites at the old Don’s Steakhouse site near 23rd and O’Connell, and a $3 million office and gym addition at the St. John Catholic school, 1208 Kentucky.
Despite those projects, though, the total dollar value of construction projects receiving permits through March totaled $38.7 million, down from $68.7 million and $81.2 million during the same time periods in 2016 and 2015. However, 2016 and 2015 went on to be two of the top construction years in Lawrence history. The $38 million underway this year is still the third highest total since 2008, and is slightly above the average since 2008, which is about $34 million.
• I told you quite some time ago that the speculation on the street was that a Kansas City sandwich/bar type of shop was going into the old La Familia location on New Hampshire street. Indeed that appears to be correct.
Kansas City restaurant folks being what they are decided to confirm that to The Kansas City Star. The newspaper reported that Grinders hopes to open in July in the former La Familia spot and the buildings next door to it. Pizzas, cheesesteaks, burgers, wings, that sort of stuff and more. It will be hip and funky. The proprietor, Jeff “Stretch” Rumaner, has gotten quite a bit of attention over the years from Food Network Host Guy Fieri for his Kansas City version of Grinders. I’ll let you know if I hear more.
Juice cafe with locally grown salad bar coming to downtown; Lawrence startup pitching Uber-like app for restaurants; update on rooftop dining
Maybe ramen noodles are the ultimate energy food, although that reopens the mystery about why I overslept for so many college classes. Regardless, the owners of Lawrence’s popular Ramen Bowls restaurant have plenty of energy, as evidenced by two ambitious projects: A new downtown eatery, and a tech startup that hopes to bring an Uber-like vibe to a key part of the restaurant industry.
First, the new eatery. Shantel Grace, an owner of Ramen Bowls, has confirmed it has signed a deal to open Lucky Berry Juice Cafe in the downtown space formerly occupied by TCBY, near Ninth and Massachusetts.
Look for the cafe to have a variety of “cold-pressed” fruit and vegetable juices. But perhaps its truly unique offering will be an organic, locally grown salad bar.
“Our goal is definitely for the salad bar to be 100 percent locally grown, especially during the growing season,” said Grace, who acknowledged the bar likely will have to rely on some shipped-in produce during the winter.
In addition to the standard greens that come on a salad bar, the cafe plans to make some unique and fresh salad dressings with the juice that is pressed on site. Plus, Grace said the salad bar will feature some of the homemade ramen noodles that are made at Ramen Bowls. A few grab-and-go sushi dishes also will be available.
The restaurant also is buying the frozen yogurt machines that were part of the TCBY shop. Plans calls for the machines to offer frozen fruit smoothies. In case that is not enough fruit for you, the cafe plans to bring a West Coast fruit trend to downtown: Acai bowls. The bowls are a combination of acai berries, and a host of other ingredients such as bananas, strawberries, local honey, Greek yogurt, fresh coconut or other combinations.
One other possible twist for the cafe is a liquor license that would allow for a few speciality cocktails that would be made with the fresh juices. Grace, though, said that part of the business won’t overtake the primary purpose of the shop.
“We really want to set ourselves up as an urban farm stand that sells fresh-pressed juice,” she said.
She said the business model also hopes to succeed by not only selling the complex juice blends that can be a bit pricey, but also by selling simple, affordable juices.
“One thing we hope to have on tap is O.J.,” she said. “We want fresh-pressed orange juice available for kids or other people anytime. I want families to be able to come in here and have an affordable salad bar and some juices that are $2 or less.”
Grace — who is partnering with her husband, Tim, and downtown entrepreneur Dalton Paley on the cafe — hopes to have the location open sometime in June.
• Next, the idea of an Uber-like service for the restaurant industry. No, I’m not talking about making the Uber driver take you through the Taco Bell drive-thru at all hours of the night.
The same trio that is opening the juice cafe also has teamed up to create a new tech startup, FoodDrinkHire, that recently was invited to make a pitch to angel investors at one of the country’s larger tech conferences.
The company is developing a mobile app that will allow restaurant owners and potential restaurant employees to connect. One part of the app will function like a traditional job-listing website, although it will specialize in restaurant jobs.
But the more innovative part of the app is an “instant hire” function. Here is a scenario: You own a restaurant, and the employee who washes the dishes doesn’t show up. You must have a dishwasher that night, so you post your predicament on FoodDrinkHire. In theory, there will be a pool of available dishwashers — just like there are a pool of available Uber drivers — who are ready to take a job at a moment’s notice.
Grace acknowledges that system won’t work for all types of restaurant jobs. You’re likely not going to hire a chef or even a server through that type of method. But dishwashers, hosts, delivery drivers, and some types of prep cooks all may be good possibilities.
The idea grew out of a problem that restaurants frequently have: High turnover and employees who quit with little to no notice. Grace said some studies have shown that 50 percent of the time a restaurant has at least one employee who has not shown up for a shift.
“Whether we do this project or somebody else does, the industry needs this idea to happen,” Grace said.
Grace said the company has developed a beta version of the app, but said the company now needs more programming expertise, funding, and assistance from tech experts. The company submitted its idea to the prestigious Collision Conference in New Orleans, which is an event that attracts several thousand tech investors, programmers and other industry leaders. The company was chosen to make a pitch at the conference, and is being paired up with a tech industry executive who will provide some guidance to the company, Grace said.
“We’re at the point where we need to raise money, we need to hire programmers, we need someone to help us through the process,” she said. “The mountains are huge. I don’t know how far we’ll get, but we wanted to give this idea a try. There’s a real need for it.”
• While we are talking about the folks from Ramen Bowls, you may remember that I reported in November that they had filed plans to add rooftop dining to their building at 125 E. 10th St. Well, that project is progressing, but slowly.
The plan to add a dining area and bar atop the Ramen Bowls restaurant has won the necessary City Hall approvals, Grace said. But the first round of construction bids to build the facility came in higher than expected. Several structural and safety improvements have to be completed before the city will allow a dining area on a roof.
Grace said Ramen Bowls and the building’s owner — a group led by Lawrence businessman Jeff Shmalberg — are re-examining the design and looking for changes that can be made to reduce the costs. Grace said she is still hopeful the project can proceed, but said it won’t be happening in the near term.
“In reality, it would be at least a year before we could do it,” she said.
Did the school district’s 2013 bond issue stay within its budget? A look at what voters were told then and now
When it comes to budgets, I know the one in my household works best when it is written in pencil. However, I’ve maybe picked up a few other pieces of budget knowledge over the years as I’ve covered a variety of governmental budgets in Douglas County.
That’s why my curiosity has been piqued for a few weeks now as I’ve heard more about the Lawrence school district’s budget for its $92.5 million bond issue that was approved by voters in 2013. It became more piqued as I discovered numbers that showed construction spending at one Lawrence school was off more than 70 percent compared to what voters had been told prior to the election, and several were off more than 30 percent. As school district leaders work to convince voters to approve a new $87 million bond issue — the deadline to deliver your mail ballot is noon on Tuesday — a key selling point has been that the 2013 bond issue was completed within budget.
As I’ve looked at that question — was the bond issue on budget? — I’ve come to the conclusion that it really depends on what budget you look at and how you define the phrase “within budget.” One point that is clear is that the district has made good on what was likely its most important pledge: to not raise the tax rate to pay for the 2013 bond issue. The tax rate has not gone up. (To be clear, it is projected to rise about 2.4 mills, if the new bond issue is passed next week.)
So, if the tax rate is all you care about, there is not much else for you to see here. But, if you want more details on where the dollars were spent and how that compares with what voters were told prior to the 2013 bond election, here’s a look:
• Budget No. 1: At Monday’s school board meeting, the board and public were provided an update on how much bond money has been spent at each school as part of the 2013 bond issue. The chart also shows the bond issue budget so you can compare how close actual spending was to the budget.
|School||2013 Bond Issue Budget||Bond Revisions and Interest Earnings||Total Adjusted Bond Budget||Expenditures 4/13/2017||Balance of Bond Funds|
|Food Service Equipment||1,000,889||183,318||1,184,207||1,184,207||0|
|Total Bond Issue Expenditures||92,500,000||4,468,312||96,968,312||96,673,019||295,292|
As you can see, the chart conveys that the district was almost spot on with its budgeting. It shows that in 20 out of the 23 individual projects, the amount the district spent matched exactly the “total adjusted bond budget.” (More on that phrase in a moment.) The few that didn’t match were only off by a few dollars. Such accuracy is tough to do.
• Budget No. 2. An important point to remember about Budget No. 1 is that it is not the budget that was presented to the Lawrence school board in December 2012 when it agreed to put the issue on the ballot. A different budget was presented to the board, and, importantly, it was this different budget that was used to communicate the size and scope of projects to voters prior to the 2013 election.
Getting my hands on that different budget was difficult. But after a couple of weeks of thinking, I finally figured out the right document to ask for — a 2013 bond master plan — and it included a copy of the building-by-building cost estimates that were presented to the board when it agreed to move ahead with the bond campaign.
The chart below is one I’ve created. It shows the 2017 spending figures, compares them with the 2012 budget as presented to the board, and then shows how much over or under spending is compared with the budget.
|School||2017 Spending||2012 Budget||Over/Under|
|Broken Arrow||1,354,637||1,683,100||UNDER 328,463|
(under 19 percent)
(under 5 percent)
(over 32 percent)
(under 5.2 percent)
(over 3 percent)
|Langston Hughes||3,212,943||2,442,856||OVER 770,087|
(over 31 percent)
|New York||5,669,155||5,739,500||UNDER 70,345|
(under 1.2 percent)
(over 1.9 percent)
|Prairie Park||893,740||1,983,483||UNDER 1,089,743|
(under 54 percent)
|Quail Run||4,342,190||2,645,496||OVER 1,696,694|
(over 64 percent)
(over 4.3 percent)
(over 36 percent)
|Sunset Hill||9,274,931||9,371,657||UNDER 96,726|
(under 1 percent)
(under 2.3 percent)
|Food Service Equip||1,184,207||945,000||OVER 239,207|
(over 25 percent)
|Career and Tech Education||7,006.041||5,747,416||OVER 1,258,625|
(over 21 percent)
|Free State||4,037,855||4,239,893||UNDER 202,038|
(under 4.7 percent)
(under 7.8 percent)
|Liberty Central||336,871||1,061,384||UNDER 724,513|
(under 68 percent)
|South Middle||365,639||424,322||UNDER 58,683|
(under 13 percent)
|Southwest Middle||406,627||682,720||UNDER 276,093|
(under 40 percent)
|West Middle||1,578,420||911,165||OVER 667,255|
(over 73 percent)
(over 20 percent)
This chart looks quite a bit different from the district’s chart. None of the projects exactly matches the budget, and eight of them are off by more than 30 percent. One of them is off by 73 percent.
• Total spending. It would be unreasonable to expect a pre-bond budget made in 2012 to exactly match actual construction spending that won’t be completed until later this year. Master planners don't have the benefit of detailed construction plans. Those come later in the process. As you get into a project you are going to realize some buildings are going to cost more than you expected, and you are going to have to trade money from one line item to another. A natural question is whether the total amount of spending matched the 2012 budget.
It did not. The total project cost presented to the board in December 2012 was $92,622,220. At its meeting in December 2012, the board instructed the 2012 budget to be lowered to $92.5 million. As of April 13, the district had spent $96,673,019.
The $92.5 million price tag is what was advertised to voters prior to the vote, and it is still how the 2013 bond issue is commonly described. Total spending, though, has come in at $96.6 million. District officials contend, however, that it has stayed within budget.
The key to understanding that claim goes back to the phrase you find in Budget No. 1: “total adjusted bond budget.” What didn’t show up in the 2012 budget is that the district received about a $4.4 million bonus in bond money. That is primarily bond interest money. (There is also something called a bond premium.) When the district issues bonds, it gets an infusion of cash upfront from bond buyers. That large amount of cash is put in a bank account and earns interest.
Thus far, it has earned about $4.4 million in interest. This was not an unexpected windfall for the district. It was known beforehand that the bond would generate interest, although an exact amount wouldn’t have been possible to know. The district notes that state law allows it to spend bond interest money on bond projects. That is accurate.
There are other ways the district could have dealt with the bond interest money. The district could have estimated how much it would be and added it on to the 2012 budget, which would have given the public a more complete picture of expected spending levels. In an email exchange, Superintendent Kyle Hayden said that issue was never considered by the district. He said because the district didn’t know exactly how much that money would be he was uncomfortable including it as a part of any budget. The district also could have chosen not to spend the bond interest money on projects but rather used the money to help pay off the bond debt. Hayden via email said that option also was not considered. He provided no explanation why it was not considered. In a separate email board president Marcel Harmon said he thought that option wasn't pursued because the board knew there were additional needs to be met, and it would be cost-effective to use the bond money to pay for them.
• Shifting spending, shifting priorities? It is not uncommon for construction project costs to differ from initial estimates. In fact, most construction projects have contingency funds built into them to help cushion against unknown costs. However, some of the differences in the 2013 bond project were striking.
Improvements at Prairie Park Elementary are an example. The 2012 budget estimated that $1.98 million worth of improvements would be made at Prairie Park. Instead, a little a more than $890,000 in improvements were made. Prairie Park parents may be wondering if their school received all the improvements that were originally envisioned in 2012. Hayden, via email, said that both Prairie Park and Southwest Middle School, which saw its spending decline by 40 percent, both received appropriate improvements.
“We met the scope of both projects without sacrificing any program elements,” Hayden said.
But in a separate question asking how the Prairie Park initial project estimate could be off by more than $1 million — 54 percent — Hayden answered in a way that suggested some of the originally envisioned improvements at Prairie Park didn’t happen.
“Pre-bond planning provides project cost estimates based upon the anticipated degree of improvements,” Hayden said via email. “Numbers can change significantly once design and construction teams go through a more detailed assessment of needs and work with district staff to address those needs.” An attempt to interview Hayden to clarify what that that specifically meant for improvements at Prairie Park was unsuccessful.
What happened to the more than $1 million in cost savings from Prairie Park? It was not booked as a cost savings. Instead, those dollars were applied to other projects in the district.
As for why some schools had budgets that far exceeded 2012 estimates, district officials made the post-election decision to add two classrooms each to four schools based on projected enrollment trends: Deerfield, Quail Run, Langston Hughes and Sunflower. Those costs, which weren’t budgeted in 2012, were paid for through the unbudgeted bond interest money, from cost savings at other schools or a combination thereof.
Details about why other projects exceeded the 2012 budget weren’t readily available, Hayden said.
Harmon, via email, said much of this issue goes back to understanding the difference between a master plan and construction planning.
"The master planning process is a visioning exercise of what could be, not a design exercise of what will be," Harmon said.
Hopefully, voters understood that. Harmon thinks they did. Regardless it is something for voters to keep in mind as they look at the master plan for the 2017 bond issue and decide how to cast their vote.
If the new $87 million bond issue passes on Tuesday, voters will have a new set of numbers to examine in a few years. If history is a guide, when voters go to reconcile what they were told prior to this election with what actually was spent, it is likely that more than $87 million in bond funds will have been expended. It is likely that the amounts expected today to be spent at individual schools will be different.
I am not saying that is inappropriate. But I am saying it is something that voters should know. Hopefully, the next time around, the information will be easier for all to understand.
An old-fashioned food cart files plans to locate in East Lawrence; look for more activity on former Sunrise Garden site
You know it is a good time of year when there is talk of needing a wagon to hold all the food. That’s the case in East Lawrence right now. Plans have been filed to allow an old-fashioned produce wagon to set up shop in the neighborhood.
The folks at One Heart Farm have filed plans at City Hall to install a food wagon, canopy and other minor structures on the site of the former Sunrise Garden center at 15th and Learnard in East Lawrence. Tomatoes, corn, melons, greens and herbs will be mainstays at the wagon, said Chris Black, who owns the business along with local farmer Pete Flory. Fresh flowers also are expected to be a regular offering.
One Heart Farm sells a good amount of produce to the Lawrence grocery store Checkers and a few other outlets. But currently, it doesn’t have a retail outlet of its own. Plans are to keep this venture simple, Black said.
“It basically will be an open-air trailer with an awning,” Black said. “It is a wagon with produce.”
But, because the wagon will draw more traffic to the site and such, it technically must be approved by Lawrence planning officials before it can operate. But it is considered a minor improvement to the site, which means it goes through an expedited approval process. Black said the wagon hasn’t yet won approval, but he’s hopeful everything will be approved in time for the business to be in operation by Mother’s Day. Black said the wagon likely will be open three to four days a week with evening and weekend hours.
The farm grows a lot of its produce in old greenhouses that exist on the former Sunrise Garden Center site. It also has farmland near Lone Star Lake. The farmers have been spending a lot of time renovating the small greenhouses that had been vacant for a few years.
Black thinks that getting people to the old Sunrise site will be a positive because it shows that agriculture doesn’t have to be just for rural areas.
“We’re trying to demonstrate how successful urban agriculture can be,” Black said.
As for how successful this year’s crop of produce will be, Black said it looks promising thus far.
“We need it to be a good year for produce, that’s for sure,” Black said. “This is only our second year trying to do this as a full-time business. You learn something new about farming every day, but it has been great.”
• Look for more activity on the former Sunrise site in the near future. I chatted briefly with David Millstein, who leads the group that bought the property more than a year ago. He said several projects are in various stages.
“It is all rounding into a finalized state, at least philosophically,” Millstein said.
Among the projects:
— The nonprofit group the Sunrise Project is making progress on the rehabilitation of the old storefront that used to serve the Sunrise Garden Center. That space will give the nonprofit kitchen and indoor classroom space, Millstein said. The nonprofit aims to educate youths and others on how to grow, process and sell food. Millstein said the indoor space could be completed in about two months. The nonprofit already operates an outdoor garden at the site and hosts events there, like an organic plant sale from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on May 6.
— Millstein hopes to start construction on a small manufacturing plant for his family’s tofu business. As we previously have reported, Millstein operates Central Soy Foods, a small company that produces about 2,000 pounds of tofu and tempeh that is sold in grocery stores in Lawrence and Kansas City. The company needs better manufacturing space, and Millstein is close to getting final approvals needed to build on the Sunrise site. He plans to build about 2,800 square foot building just south of the main greenhouse building on the site. He hopes to start in about a month and complete construction by the beginning of 2018.
— A for-profit company called Lawrence Organics occupies about 6,000 square feet of the approximately 30,000 square feet greenhouse complex on the property. The company grows a variety of greens that it primarily sells to restaurants and other larger buyers. Millstein said he is reserving the rest of the large greenhouse area to accommodate future growth of the organic company.
“Growers are pretty finicky about their processes, so I don’t think we want too many of them in there at once,” Millstein said.
— As we have previously reported, Seeds from Italy also has set up shop at the location. The Lawrence business imports a variety of seeds from Italy and sells them across the country through an online catalog.
As I get older, I’m learning that the ice bag for aches and pains gets larger. Some people use their retirement nest eggs to buy a condo. I’ll use mine to buy a Hefty bag full of ice. Or maybe I won’t have to. A new business is coming to Lawrence that will take cold therapy to a new level.
Optimal Wellness & Cryo Spa has signed a lease to locate in the shopping center at Sixth and Wakarusa, a few doors down from the Salty Iguana restaurant. If you are not familiar with the concept of a cryo spa, get ready to shiver.
The spa uses a tank-like device that uses liquid nitrogen to expose your body to some unearthly cold temperatures. Bill Keating, owner of the soon-to-open Lawrence spa, said temperatures in the tank drop to minus 118 to minus 180 degrees Fahrenheit. (Some websites tout cryo machines that go to negative 300 degrees Fahrenheit.)
People only stay in the tank for a maximum of three minutes. But during that time, the cold does things to your joints, muscles and other parts of your body that may be in pain. (In case you are wondering, women typically enter the tank undressed other than socks and gloves, while men also wear their briefs.) Keating said the cold temperature stimulates “cold shock proteins” which in turn stimulate the immune system.
Now, I write way too much about the benefits of Doritos to ever be considered a health reporter. So, I’m not qualified to offer an analysis of the science behind this. But I do have some basic information. The idea of using this type of cryotherapy for pain management appears to have begun in the late 1970s in Japan for patients with severe arthritis. But the idea of cryo spas has become trendy on the coasts in the last few years. More recently they have made their way to middle America, including some in the Kansas City market. Assuming that my wife’s dictatorial control of the thermostat throughout the winter doesn’t count, I believe this will be the first cyro spa in the Lawrence area.
Like many forms of alternative treatments, the scientific community is unclear about the benefits. The FDA put out a paper last year that said there is insufficient information to understand what cryotherapy actually does to the body, but warned that cryo spas shouldn’t promote that the therapy cures anything because that has not been medically proven yet. There are multiple first-person accounts that have been written about using the therapy. Here is one from The Washington Post, where the author said he did feel “unnaturally cold,” his teeth chattered, and that the experience was “unpleasant but not intolerable.” Afterward, he said he did experience a “giddy surge of endorphins” that lasted for about an hour.
Keating said he decided to open a cryo spa after trying the therapy a little more than a year ago, following shoulder surgery. Keating said the cryo treatments aided in his recovery, and he’s betting there are plenty of Lawrence residents looking for a new way to deal with aches and pains.
“Lawrence doesn’t have anything like this,” he said. “I thought it would be a good thing to bring to the community. Lawrence is a progressive area, and there are a lot of health conscious people, a lot of athletes, a lot of people who are active, so it is a good market.”
Keating anticipates he’ll have clients who range from high school and college athletes to senior citizens dealing with arthritis or other types of ailments. The therapy has gotten a fair amount of publicity in the celebrity press, with people like NBA star LeBron James reportedly touting the treatments.
“We want to make it available to the normal guy,” Keating said. “The weekend warrior who played 36 holes of golf over the weekend and is as sore as a bandit can use this. The normal guy can’t go out and buy one of these machines.”
In addition to the costs of the machines, special precautions also have to be taken. Liquid nitrogen can be fatal if too much of it gets in your lungs. The machine that Optimal Wellness will use encloses you only from the neck down, and an employee controls the machine at all times.
In terms of costs, Keating said a session will cost about $40, and he said people often use cryo sessions on a semi-regular basis, much like people schedule massage sessions periodically.
“We’re going to have a ‘frequent freezer’s club’ promotion,” Keating said.
In addition to the full-body therapy, Optimal Wellness also offers spot cryo treatment. That uses a different device that allows the cold to be focused on a particular area, like a sore shoulder or knee. It can also be used for facial treatment. Some people believe the cold helps promote more collagen and improves skin health.
The business also will have the other end of the temperature spectrum covered. It will offer an infrared sauna. Some people do find benefits from receiving cryo treatments and then immediately going into the hot sauna, Keating said.
The spa also will have one other unique piece of equipment, a Normatec compression suit. It is a suit that fits over your arms, legs and torso. A computer program inflates the suit, which squeezes more blood toward the heart, Keating said. He said the technique is used by a lot of marathon runners, triathletes and others who are looking to recover more quickly from a workout.
Keating has filed the necessary paperwork to begin remodeling the storefront to house the spa. The spa is going in the location formerly occupied by Grills & Grinders at 4931 W. Sixth St. Keating hopes to have the business open sometime in June.
Ryan Schulteis, a brokerage associate with Reece Commercial Real Estate, brokered the deal to bring Optimal Wellness to the shopping center. A quick note on that front, I reported last week how the commercial real estate market is becoming more competitive in Lawrence, as Stephens Real Estate announced it was opening a commercial real estate division. Add Reece to the list of companies joining the fray in Lawrence. The Kansas City-based company now has two agents who are working in the Lawrence market, Schulteis and Matt Watkins. The company has now secured three shopping centers that it represents, Wakarusa Crossroads at Sixth and Wakarusa, Orchards Corner at Bob Billings and Kasold, and the small center at the southwest corner of Clinton Parkway and Wakarusa Drive.
Plans filed to build two new fraternity houses near KU campus; foreclosure completed on shopping center
Hearing that two new fraternity houses are being built in your neighborhood will wake you up quicker than an $8 cup of Starbucks. That’s indeed the case for one Lawrence neighborhood, but this neighborhood may not mind much. It already speaks Greek.
Plans have been filed for about $2 million worth of fraternity house construction at 1505 Sigma Nu Place. That’s a vacant lot next to the Sigma Nu fraternity, which, for those of you no longer in the fraternity know, is just a bit of west of Emery Road, northwest of the KU campus. More specifically, Sigma Nu is at the intersection of Sigma Nu Place and what very well may be the most stolen street sign in Lawrence . . . High Drive.
I thought I had the exact location for the project figured out but then realized, much like with Greek alphabet, I was confused. (Don’t even get me started about the time I learned Pi did not involve pie.) I’ll report back on the exact location later today. (UPDATE: It is on vacant land just west and across the street from the Sigma Nu house. Here's a photo of the site.)
Greek Housing USA, a Springfield, Mo.-based company, will build the two houses. Pi Kappa Phi will be the tenant for the bigger of the two houses, a 26-bedroom, three-story home. The second house — a three story, 20-bedroom house — will be rented by the Zeta Beta Tau — or ZBT — fraternity.
Roger Lantz, principal with Greek Housing USA, said the neighborhood is well situated to accommodate the two new homes. The 2.5 acre site is already zoned for fraternity construction. Lantz said parking is always a big issue with fraternity house construction, but he said this site will be able to accommodate at least 80 off-street parking spaces, and perhaps upwards of 90 spaces.
“There will be no on-street parking,” Lantz said. “We want to be good neighbors.”
He said plans are being created to limit the amount of lighting in the parking lots, and to push the parking lots back on the site to be farther from the general neighborhood.
As for the houses themselves, Lantz said they’ll be all-brick homes with commercial kitchens, extensive privacy fencing around the back yards, and a few outdoor amenities, such as a volleyball court.
“They’ll be legacy homes,” he said. “All-brick, big columns, lots of steel. They are built to last.”
The neighborhood already is one of the hotspots for Greek housing. Among the houses in the vicinity are: Alpha Chi Omega, Sigma Nu, Delta Gamma, Delta Upsilon, Kappa Sigma, Kappa Delta, Alpha Delta Pi, and others. (I should remember them all. I lived in an apartment house a couple of blocks away. Just like a fraternity has a motto, this apartment complex had one too: Do not cross yellow hazard tape.)
Lantz said he hopes to begin construction this summer. Construction is expected to be complete in about a year.
Pi Kappa Phi was previously renting a house, but needed to find other accommodations, Lantz said. ZBT has been without a fraternity house for a while, he said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I reported a couple of weeks ago that an eastside shopping center had fallen into foreclosure and soon would be sold at a sheriff’s auction.
Well, the auction for the shopping center at 23rd and Harper streets has been held, but the shopping center’s ownership likely isn’t settled yet. U.S. Bank, the financial institution that held the mortgage, bought the shopping center for $5,000,032 in a sheriff’s auction that produced about 15 minutes of back-and-forth bidding.
The attorney for the bank said the shopping center — which houses Set ‘Em Up Jack’s and other businesses — was being immediately transferred to a group called MSCI 2007-IQ16 East 23rd Street LLC. There are sign companies across the city hoping they sure put a sign up. It would be like winning the lottery.
Don’t count on it though. A little research through the Kansas Secretary of State’s database shows the company is managed by a Miami Beach company called LNR Partners, LLC. LNR Partners is one of the largest companies that helps banks sell commercial property that they have foreclosed upon. I haven’t talked with anyone at LNR, but it would seem likely that its task is to find a buyer for the shopping center.
If you are fans of some of the businesses in the shopping center — Tres Mexicanos and Subway are a couple more businesses in the center — don’t worry. The foreclosure does not mean those businesses have lost their leases. They are just all wondering who their new landlord will be. The foreclosure also included the building at the corner of the intersection that includes the Conoco gas station and adjacent liquor store.
Lawrence businessman Bill Schulteis was the only other bidder in the auction. He bid a little more than $5 million for the shopping center. Schulteis heads a group that owns the Orchards Corner shopping center at Bob Billings and Kasold, and also owns the shopping center at Sixth and Wakarusa that includes Morningstar’s Pizza, Eileen’s Colossal Cookies and other businesses.
Forbes magazine says Lawrence is one of the best places in the nation to retire; other surprising data about the city and its retirees
I thought for sure that when Forbes magazine released its list of best places to retire in 2017, it would keep it simple: The Trump cabinet. Fortunately for Lawrence, the magazine was more detailed. Lawrence has been named one of 25 communities on the Forbes list, which is one of the more prestigious rankings in the retirement industry.
Forbes does not rank its top 25, but Lawrence can legitimately say it is the best in Kansas. Lawrence is the only Kansas city to make the list.
The magazine has some positive things to say about the community. Among the pros listed by the publication: a cost of living that is 4 percent below the national average; adequate physicians per capita; a low serious-crime rate; good air quality; and a very bikeable community. Among the cons: cold winters; and a state income tax on Social Security earnings. Noteworthy in today’s environment is that the magazine ranked Lawrence as being only “somewhat walkable.” But the magazine also opines that except for the largest of U.S. cities, most communities aren’t very walkable from a senior perspective.
Traditionally when you think of retirement hot spots, the Sun Belt and the warm climates of the coasts are what come to mind. But the Forbes’ authors noted that communities in those locations are having a harder time making the list because of high cost-of-living issues. (The magazine publishes a separate list if cost isn’t a consideration for your retirement.) Instead, several locations from middle America made the list this year. Here’s a look at some other communities from our region.
— Jefferson City, Mo.: It has a cost of living 10 percent below the national average.
— Iowa City: It is listed as the quintessential college community, and it has a favorable tax environment for seniors too.
— Colorado Springs: The city’s scenery and strong economy drew high marks.
— Bella Vista, Ark.: The Ozark community has a cost of living 13 percent below the national average, and it has made serving retirees a big part of its economy for a long time.
— Lincoln, Neb.: Both a college town and a capital city, Lincoln had a cost of living 8 percent below the national average.
Lawrence is trying to make attraction of retirees a bigger part of its economic development strategy. The private sector also has been investing with that in mind too. There have been several expansions of retirement communities in Lawrence, and west Lawrence has a couple of projects that may particularly provide a boost: The Links apartment project, which is building apartments around a nine-hole golf course near Rock Chalk Park, and Village Cooperative, which will be co-op living for older adults at Sixth and Queens Road.
This Forbes listing certainly can be useful marketing material as the community tries to get retirees to give Lawrence a look. You can see the full Forbes list here.
• There is at least one other study community leaders may want to take a close look at as they try to build the local retirement industry. The Forbes ranking frequently referred to The Milken Institute’s Best Cities for Successful Aging Report.
Lawrence ranks well on that report too — although not best in the state. Manhattan grabbed the No. 2 national ranking in the small cities category. Lawrence had the No. 8 ranking. The No. 1 city was Iowa City, which may mean good things for Lawrence to come. Lawrence City Manager Tom Markus was previously the city manager in Iowa City. He likely saw much of what was working in Iowa City during his tenure there.
The Milken report is more detailed than the Forbes report. It presents Lawrence in a different light, in some ways. For example, Forbes’ brief writeup noted Lawrence has a low serious-crime rate. The Milken report looked at all crime — the definition of serious crime changes depending on how close you are to it — and Lawrence did not fare well in that category. Of the 281 small communities that were ranked, Lawrence’s crime rate checked in at No. 238. Manhattan, on the other hand, ranked No. 13 on Milken’s crime rate ranking.
The rankings, though, also point out some areas where Lawrence excels in ways we maybe haven’t fully recognized. One of them is in employing older people. The report found Lawrence had the top rating when it comes to the unemployment rate for people 65 and older. In other words, that unemployment rate is very low. Lawrence’s overall unemployment rate also ranked No. 29 out of 281.
There are about 75 different rankings for Lawrence within the Milken report, so I can’t go over all of them. But you can click here to see it for yourself.
The report, however, did summarize Lawrence’s strengths and weaknesses as it relates to caring for an aging population. Among the strengths:
— Low unemployment rate for elderly adults.
— Few older residents living in poverty; few residents with reverse mortgages.
— Highly educated populace.
— Volunteerism among older adults is high.
— Good growth in health and leisure employment.
— Well accredited hospital.
— Good numbers of primary care physicians.
— Low rates of diabetes.
— Fitness centers easily accessible.
— Multitude of home health care providers.
— Highly rated nursing homes.
A few negatives also were listed. They include:
— Expensive home prices and rent rates.
— A high tax burden.
— A shortage of Alzheimer’s units, geriatric facilities and hospices.
As someone who lives with a teenage boy, air quality is always on my mind. In our house, the main particulate we measure is Axe Body Spray. The rest of you may have air quality matters on your mind because Earth Day is approaching. Even if you don’t, I’ve got some Earth Day-type news to share.
First, there is new information about our air quality. Some of you noticed that the Journal-World’s USA Today section recently ran an article detailing the communities with the worst air quality in America. The American Lung Association puts together the annual report based on air quality readings from monitoring stations across the country.
To the chagrin of some, Lawrence doesn’t have an official air quality monitoring station, even though we do have a coal-fired power plant right outside the city limits. So, Douglas County was not one of the counties ranked by the American Lung Association report.
But a handful of Kansas counties were ranked. I believe the one we ought to pay attention to the most is Leavenworth County. Since Douglas County doesn’t have a station, we previously have reported that the state uses Leavenworth County as a proxy to measure Douglas County’s air quality. The few times that the state has measured Lawrence’s air quality, it has been similar to that of Leavenworth County, is my understanding. If that is still the case, Lawrence’s air quality is just average, at best. Leavenworth County received a C grade as part of the report, and it experienced four orange days in the last year. An orange day is when air quality is deemed to be unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as children, the elderly and people with heart or lung diseases. The county didn’t have any red or purple days, which are days when the air quality is dangerous to even larger groups of people. No county in Kansas registered any of the red or purple days.
Here is a look at the other Kansas counties or KC metro area counties that received a ranking:
— Johnson County: A grade, with no orange, red or purple days.
— Sedgwick County: D grade, with eight orange days and no red or purple days
— Shawnee County: B grade, with one orange day and no red or purple days
— Sumner County: C grade, with five orange days and no red or purple days
— Trego County: A grade, with no orange, red or purple days
— Wyandotte County: B grade with one orange day, and no red or purple days
— Clay County, Mo.: F grade with 13 orange days, and no red or purple days
— Cass County, Mo.: A grade with no orange, red or purple days
The takeaway from that list is that Clay County — which has some of the big industry in Kansas City, including the Ford Motor plant — has some struggles with air pollution. Johnson County soccer parents, however, evidently have figured out how to run their SUVs on nonpolluting Starbucks coffee, because it ranks high both statewide and nationally.
I chatted briefly with an air quality official with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. He told me there aren’t any plans to add an air monitoring station in Douglas County. The department does generally look at Leavenworth County to get an estimate of what air quality levels are in Douglas County.
For a short period of time last decade, there was a monitoring station at the Lawrence Municipal Airport. The state placed the station there amid concern that air quality was declining in Douglas County and that Lawrence may need to be added to a special air quality district that encompasses Kansas City. If that had happened, local gasoline stations likely would have been required to sell a different formulation of fuel that would have increased costs. There were concerns that the financial impact to the county would have been $10 million or more due to the fuel change and other regulations that would have been required.
However, in 2007 we reported that the state removed the air monitoring station at the airport and determined that Douglas County air quality levels were fine. Lawrence was no longer at risk of being placed in the Kansas City district. There was some talk at the time of the county spending perhaps $100,000 to install its own air monitoring system to ensure that we had good data, but that never happened.
Doug Watson, environment program supervisor with KDHE, told me Lawrence isn’t at great risk of being added into the Kansas City district. That’s mainly because air quality levels have been improving in the Kansas City area.
As for the need for an local air monitoring station, that would be nice, but may not play a great role in keeping Lawrence out of the Kansas City district in the future. That’s because federal regulators don’t necessarily believe that Lawrence has polluted air that is drifting over to Kansas City. Instead, if Lawrence is contributing to Kansas City’s air quality problems it would be because of the high number of commuters from Lawrence into Kansas City each day.
Watson warned that if Kansas City’s numbers do reverse course and start to deteriorate, Lawrence could be back into the conversation because of those commuter numbers.
“We could have a couple of horrible, dry, stagnant summers and we would be back to talking about this again,” Watson said.
• Speaking of the state, a new report ranks Kansas low in terms of being a “green state.” The financial website WalletHub put together a report that looked at a variety of statistics related to energy efficiency, recycling, pollution and other such matters. Kansas ranked as the ninth least green state in the country.
In other words, Kansas ranked No. 42 on the list.
The report did provide some specifics for the Sunflower State. Here’s a look at Kansas’ rank in various categories:
— 19th in water quality
— 21st in gasoline consumption per capita
— 22nd in air quality
— 36th in energy consumption per capita
— 44th in nitrous-oxide emissions per capita
— 47th in number of LEED-certified buildings per capita
— 47th in energy-efficiency score
The report also has a category it calls “Climate-Change contributions rank,” which is a conglomeration of data about energy usage and certain types of emissions data. Kansas ranks seventh worst on that category.
In terms of some states in the region and how they rank overall, here’s a look:
— Colorado: No. 20 overall and No. 29 on Climate Change
— Missouri: No. 30 overall and No. 24 on Climate Change
— Iowa: No. 38 overall and No. 43 on Climate Change
— Kansas: No. 42 overall and No. 44 on Climate Change
— Nebraska: No. 44 overall and No. 47 on Climate Change
— Oklahoma: No. 46 overall and No. 48 on Climate Change
An update on what may replace Lawrence’s J.C. Penney when it closes; new commercial real estate brokerage opens
We are in wait-and-wonder mode when it comes to Lawrence’s J.C. Penney store. Many of us are waiting for the going-out-of-business sale and the deals that come with it. Those in the development world, though, are wondering about the future of one of south Iowa Street’s larger retail buildings.
I talked today with the Lawrence businessman who is leading the redevelopment efforts of the J.C. Penney property, and while he also is waiting and wondering, I didn’t hear any signs of worry from him. Martin Moore — who leads a group that owns the land the J.C. Penney store occupies — said he’s been fielding multiple inquiries since J.C. Penney announced last month that the Lawrence store was on its closure list.
“I’ve been getting four or five calls a day from brokers and owners and people involved in the property world,” Moore said. “The only thing we’re telling people is ‘stay tuned.’ We have something we’re working on. It will be exciting to see what happens with it.”
I had been checking in with some folks in the commercial real estate world about the prospects for the J.C. Penney building once the store closes, which is now expected to happen in late July. The view is the property at 3311 Iowa St. is well-situated. It has good visibility from Iowa Street, the area is seeing growing traffic volumes thanks to the opening of the South Lawrence Trafficway, and the building is right in the middle of a prime shopping district with Target, Wal-Mart, Kohl’s and others all either next door or across the street from the property.
But the one piece of concern I heard is that J.C. Penney still has a lot of years left on its lease. That sometimes can slow redevelopment of a property. A landlord may not be motivated to make changes as long as he’s still contractually obligated to get a lease payment. And sometimes a store like J.C. Penney, which is fighting for survival, gets bogged down with other issues and doesn’t do the work needed to free the property for redevelopment.
Moore, though, told me he doesn’t anticipate any such problems. He told me J.C. Penney actually owns the building, while Moore’s group owns the ground.
“That is highly unlikely,” Moore said of a scenario where the building sits empty for a long period while J.C. Penney determines its strategy. “There is a lot of buzz for that area right now. It will not become a derelict piece of real estate.”
Moore didn’t provide me any hints of what project he is working on for the building. However, there have been plenty of names in the news of chain stores looking at the Lawrence market. As part of the proposal for the KTen Crossing shopping center south of the SLT, the development group announced that Academy Sports, Designer Shoe Warehouse, HomeGoods, Fresh Market and Old Navy were all strongly interested in signing leases. But that center, proposed for the southeast corner of the SLT and Iowa Street interchange, didn’t win City Commission approval. The developer and the city are now engaged in a lawsuit over the matter.
In the meantime, you have to wonder whether some of those retailers might look at the J.C. Penney building as an opportunity. The J.C. Penney building is about 80,000 square feet, which probably would be too large for all of those retailers with the possible exception of Academy. But that wouldn’t be a problem. The trend has been for big box stores to be converted into multi-tenant retail buildings. Think of the old Sears building at 27th and Iowa that now houses Dick’s Sporting Goods, Boot Barn, Petsmart, and Ulta Beauty. The building at 31st and Iowa that houses Bed Bath & Beyond, TJ Maxx and World Market used to be a Kmart.
“The people who did that project did very well for themselves in how they repositioned that property,” Moore said of the former Kmart building. “There is a lot of work in a project like that, but they got rewarded in the end.”
Again, I don’t have any idea what Moore has planned, but it will be interesting to watch whether the J.C. Penney closing ends up being viewed as a loss or an opportunity.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While we are talking about commercial real estate, keep your eyes open for a new sign around town. Stephens Real Estate — which has been a longtime residential real estate company — has started a commercial real estate division.
More accurately, the company has restarted a commercial real estate division. Stephens had one of the larger commercial real estate businesses in town up until the late 1990s or so. But that part of its business faded away as several of its agents left to partner up with a national firm.
But Stephens in recent weeks has hired Lawrence businessman Evan Holt to lead what it is calling Stephens Commercial. Some of you may know Holt as a co-owner of the Levee Cafe in North Lawrence. But Holt leaves the day-to-day operations of the diner business to his wife and business partner. Holt instead focuses more on property issues. He owns the commercial real estate near 25th and Iowa streets that used to house Kief’s Audio Video and now houses Boom Comics. He also was part of the group that redeveloped the property that now houses Raising Cane’s chicken along Iowa Street. He said his experience as a landlord should be helpful in the real estate business.
“I speak the landlord language,” Holt said.
Holt also has an MBA degree, and he said he plans to use that training to do a lot of analytical research and presentations on the Lawrence real estate market.
Holt said his read of the Lawrence commercial market currently is that it is not nearly as hot of a market as Lawrence’s residential scene. But because of the relatively small number of commercial real estate agents in town, he thinks the community can benefit from a having another firm in the mix.
He also thinks the commercial real estate market will pick up in Lawrence as new investors start looking at some older properties that are candidates for redevelopment.
“People aren’t seeing that right now, and they aren’t jumping on some properties that are good candidates for that,” Holt said.
The new division will operate as Stephens Commercial Real Estate, and at the moment, Holt will be the primary agent for the division. It will become one of several commercial brokers in town. The Lawrence office of Colliers International, Doug Brown of McGrew Commercial Real Estate and Lance Johnson of the Johnson Group are generally considered to be the three most active locally based firms, while several Kansas City firms also do business in town.
When I was at KU, I became an expert in Danish studies. There were cherry ones, there were lemon ones, and so many others that I should have gotten a diploma but instead just left with 20 extra pounds. Well, KU students may get a similar chance if a new plan for the old Jayhawk Bookstore building is approved.
Plans have been filed for a McLain’s Market to locate in the former bookstore building at 1420 Crescent Road, which of course is at the top of the hill and right on the edge of the KU campus.
The business is part of the same McLain’s Market that operates in Kansas City. An employee at the store there referred questions about a Lawrence location to a manager, but I haven’t yet heard back.
McLain’s Market operates at I-435 and Roe in Overland Park. The store is a sister to McLain’s Bakery, which has a multidecade tradition in the Waldo district of Kansas City. According to its website, McLain’s serves a variety of pastries, plus a breakfast and lunch menu.
The breakfast menu includes bacon, sausage, egg and cheese dishes, plus a granola parfait, a veggie quiche and a breakfast burrito. The lunch menu includes several salads, sandwiches, some wraps and even fancier fare, including a sirloin dish that comes with pears, pesto, mushrooms, cauliflower and a balsamic reduction.
But the business has it roots in the dessert world. McLain’s Bakery dates back to 1945 in the Waldo district. The main attractions were a “chocolate cup cookie,” something called a butter roll, and a German chocolate coffee cake. The bakery is on a new set of owners, but those traditional menu items have remained.
According to the company’s website, the restaurant’s dessert menu also includes a variety of danishes, croissants, muffins, scones and more than a half-dozen flavors of coffee cake.
The plans on file with City Hall indicate the building will receive a new facade, and the ground floor will be completely remodeled to accommodate a kitchen and seating area and a little bit of space for merchandise sales. The second floor space will include a public seating area for students who may want to use the area as a study hall, as well as a private room that can be rented for events, meetings and other such functions, according to the plans.
It is not clear from the filing whether McLain’s plans to serve beer and other liquor as part of its menu. The one in Overland Park does offer spirits. It also isn’t clear to me what approvals that may require from City Hall. But based on everything I’ve seen from the company, the business certainly doesn’t appear to be anything close to a bar. The Overland Park location closes at 9 p.m. or earlier every day.
As we reported in October, Kansas City-based Axiom Equities bought the old book store building that is just west of the Chi Omega fountain and the main entrance to Jayhawk Boulevard. At the time, the leaders of that group said they were fielding multiple inquiries from restaurants and coffee shops that wanted to be next to campus.
I’ve got a call into the building’s owners for more details. When I hear back from them or the folks at McLain’s, I’ll let you know more.
As a child of the 1980s, I remember when pizza companies went crazy and started putting pineapple on pizzas. There was little doubt in my household that it was a sign of a Communist infiltration. Fortunately, the Communists have moved on to U.S. elections, so I have no reason to worry about a pending Lawrence pizza parlor that has made its name with funky toppings.
A pizza chain called Toppers has signed a deal to locate in one of the retail spaces in the HERE apartment building across the street from KU’s Memorial Stadium. The company has filed plans at Lawrence City Hall for a location at 1100 Mississippi St., and the company’s website also lists a Lawrence location as coming soon.
The company focuses on carryout and delivery pizza. The company also has a menu that encourages people to get creative with their pizza combos. Any pizza with two or more toppings is the same price, so you can get wild with the pairings.
The menu also features several ready-to-go funky offerings. I’m sure some of you have heard of the mac ‘n’ cheese pizza before, and you maybe have heard of the buffalo chicken pizza, too. Toppers has both of those, but one of its top sellers is a buffalo chicken mac ‘n’ cheese pizza. There’s also a taco pizza, a Maui pizza (yes, pineapples), a bacon cheeseburger pizza, and a smoky barbecue chicken pizza. But none of those compare to the ... Tot-Zza. Hold onto your dough ball for this one. It is a pizza with tater tots on it. It is covered in ranch sauce, mozzarella cheese, tater tots, bacon, green onions, and nacho cheese sauce drizzled across the top. (Take note, Putin: This pizza is the prime example of why Russia will never be superior to America.)
The restaurant gives diners three types of crusts to choose from — hand-tossed, thin, and “tallboy” — and about 16 different dipping sauces for the pizza. They include the traditional ones, such as marinara and garlic butter, the slightly exotic, such as bacon honey mustard, salsa, and sweet chili, and the full-on unusual including vanilla or chocolate frosting.
Perhaps the frosting dipping sauces are for the dessert breadsticks, but maybe not. (Never underestimate American ingenuity.) The breadstick menu is extensive. They call them Topperstix. There are the garlic-cheese variety, the pepperoni variety, and the gooey cinnamon variety. But there are also Tacostix, Baconstix, and the Chocolate Baconstix varieties.
For good measure — this is Lawrence after all — the restaurant also will serve chicken wings, with about a half-dozen varieties on the menu.
As for the chain’s background, it got started in 1993 with a single store in Whitewater, Wis., which is why I assume the chain makes a big deal out of using only Wisconsin cheese on its pizza. The company now has grown to about 100 stores. The company has been growing rapidly, but the Lawrence store will be just the second one in Kansas. The company has a sole Kansas City store at Metcalf Avenue in Mission.
No timeline on when the Lawrence store will open. My understanding is the store is going into one of the ground floor spaces along Mississippi Street. I would think the store may well be open by the beginning of football season, which may be worth remembering. The restaurant will be across the street from Memorial Stadium. Tailgate parties may get even funkier at KU football games.
As a reminder, we’ve reported that two other businesses are going into the HERE building. Edible Arrangements has moved into one of the spaces along the Indiana Street side of the massive HERE building. It sells edible fruit bouquets and other fruit-based treats.
Topeka-based PT’s Coffee Roasting is locating in the spot right at the corner of 11th and Indiana streets. That store, of course, will sell coffee but also have light breakfast and lunch menus and a small cocktail menu too.
While I’m issuing reminders, I should remind you we also reported on one other pizza place that is coming town. Sarpino’s Pizzeria, which also focuses on carryout and delivery pizza, is locating in The Malls Shopping Center at 23rd and Louisiana. It too is a chain that features a large number of toppings. It boasts more than 50 gourmet or speciality pizzas on its menu.
As local voters ponder tax questions, here’s a look at what property taxes have done for the last 10 years
If the 2016 presidential elections didn’t give you enough to grit your teeth over, fear not — local politics in 2017 may give you more opportunities. But it won’t be Trump that is the main topic. Instead, it is the other five-letter ’t’ word that will get the attention — taxes.
Specifically, property taxes in Douglas County may get more discussion this year than they have in a long time.
Voters in the Lawrence school district already should have the topic on their minds. Ballots have been sent out as part of an $87 million bond issue for the Lawrence public school district. The ballots — which have a due date of May 2 — are asking voters to approve the issuance of new debt that would improve secondary schools in the district, among other items.
Likely, the big question voters will have on their minds is whether the improvements are worth the tax increase that will be required to pay for the new debt. The increase is estimated at 2.4 mills, which is about $55 a year on a $200,000 home or about $300 a year on a $500,000 commercial property.
But there are other potential tax increases out there. Douglas County officials continue to talk about the need for jail expansion and creation of a mental health crisis center. That could come at a price tag of $30 million or more, and either a property tax or sales tax increase likely would be required.
The city of Lawrence is once again talking about the need for a new police headquarters building. City officials have scaled the price tag of that project back to $17 million, and they now say it likely won’t be pursued until 2019. But officials are saying it would require a mill levy increase of about 1.25 mills.
But long before that, both city and county officials may find themselves raising the property tax mill levy just to take care of basic governmental operations. They’ll make those decision this summer. If history is a guide, an increase is likely. Since 2007, the city has increased its mill levy nine out of the 10 years and the county has increased its mill levy seven times in the decade.
Unlike past years, though, voters may have to approve any such tax increase by the city and the county. A new state-mandated property tax lid calls for a general election if city and county governments try to increase taxes beyond certain rates of inflation.
So, all this means it may be time to study up on taxes. Here are some facts and figures compiled from city, county and school district documents.
• Rising rates. A Lawrence property owner pays at least four significant property tax bills — the city, the county, the school district, and the state of Kansas. Some property owners pay some others, like drainage district taxes, but most don’t.
When you add those big four together, the total current property tax rate in Lawrence is 130.97 mills. What does that mean? Property taxes can be a little complicated because they involve the value of your home — or at least what the county tax man says your home’s value is— the mill levy and basically a discount rate that varies whether you own residential property or commercial property. If you own residential property, you pay taxes on 11.5 percent of the value of your home. If you own commercial property, you pay on 25 percent of the value of your property.
To keep it simple, under the current tax rate, homeowners pay about $1,500 for every $100,000 worth of residential property they own. Commercial property owners pay a little more than double that amount for every $100,000 worth of business property they own.
In 2007, the property tax rate was 115.84 mills. That’s an increase of about 13 percent.
• School facts. During this campaign season, if Lawrence school district officials get questioned about the last decade of rising property tax rates, they have a possible retort: Don’t look at us.
Indeed, the school district’s property tax rate is less today than it was in 2007 — 53.36 mills today versus 57.56 mills in 2007. The district’s property tax rate hit a decade high in 2010, but has been mostly on the way down since then. Here’s a look:
— 2010: 59.64 mills
— 2011: 59.43 mills
— 2012: 58 mills
— 2013: 57.78 mills
— 2014: 55.75 mills
— 2015: 56.90 mills
— 2016: 53.36 mills.
Note: 2016 is the current tax rate. The 2017 rates aren’t set until this summer.
The school district did have a $92.5 million bond issue in 2013 to improve elementary schools. But district officials promised that bond issue wouldn’t raise taxes. Instead, as the district retired old debt it replaced it with new debt and was able to keep the mill levy at or below previous levels. Granted, if the school district hadn’t done the 2013 bond issue, the tax rate would have dropped significantly. But as school district officials point out, elementary schools also wouldn’t be improved.
In case you are curious, the Lawrence public school district’s property tax rate is quite a bit lower than the two smaller Douglas County-based school districts. Baldwin has a tax rate of 68.66 mills, and Eudora has the highest rate in the county at 70.36 mills.
• City and county facts. If the increases of the past decade didn’t come from the school district, where did they? Look at both ends of Massachusetts Street to find the answer. In 2007, the city of Lawrence’s mill levy was 26.78 mills. Today it is 32.01 mills. In 2007, Douglas County’s mill levy was 29.99 mills. Today it is 44.09 mills.
Now, before city and county officials call me, let me say I’m not opining about the appropriateness of those higher tax rates. The city essentially has a new library, for example, which was built with a voter-approved property tax increase. And county officials could talk your ear off about what they believe are a host of costs that used to be covered by the state of Kansas that now fall to the county to cover.
I’m not trying to answer the “why” of these tax rate increases but rather the “where.” In terms of where the tax rates increased, they have come from the city of Lawrence and Douglas County. But the “why” is important, and before you complain about taxes, you should get familiar with the “why,” and think about what services or improvements you would have preferred to do without over the past 10 years.
In case you are wondering, the state of Kansas has a property tax rate of 1.5 mills. It hasn’t changed in decades.
• The rest of the story. Property tax rates are a lot like my teenage son: They are both lousy at telling a complete story. Property tax rates could remain steady but property owners may still pay a lot more in taxes. That’s because if the value of your property increases, your tax bill will increase if the tax rate stays the same.
But the tax rate did not stay the same in Douglas County. It increased by about 13 percent, which is actually less than the rate of inflation for the decade. The consumer price index since 2007 increased by 20 percent, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.
But Douglas County home values also increased during the decade. Not only that, there is more property to tax than there was in 2007. People have built new structures, and those new structures have added to the tax base.
In Lawrence, the taxable value of property has grown from $853.5 million in 2007 to $928.9 million in 2016. That’s an increase of 8.8 percent. That’s on top of the 13 percent increase in the actual tax rate.
• Real dollars. Most of you, though, only care about any of this because once a year the bank that has your mortgage sends you a letter saying it needs to increase your monthly payment by “X” amount because your home’s taxes have increased.
The fact is, some of you get that letter and some of you don’t because property taxes don’t believe in being equal. They are based on a home’s value, and some of you own homes that have increased in value, and others have not.
That makes it difficult to make a broad statement about how property taxes impact everybody. Instead, we have to look at some hypotheticals.
— Scenario 1: You own a $200,000 Lawrence home. It has increased in value by a modest 1 percent each year. In 2007 you paid taxes of $2,664. Your current taxes are $3,012. Your taxes have increased by 13 percent. That’s less than the rate of inflation for the time period. You are paying about $29 more per month on your mortgage payment to cover taxes than you did in 2007.
— Scenario 2: Your home may increase more than 1 percent a year. Consider this: When the county appraiser recently set tax values for residential property, the largest number of homes received an increase in value of between 2 percent and 5 percent. The second largest group were people who received an increase in value of more than 5 percent. Your home probably is not going to increase in value by 50 percent in a decade, but it could easily increase by 30 percent. Here’s how that would look if you own a $200,000 home in Lawrence. In 2007, you paid $2,664 in taxes. Your current taxes are $4,048. That is an increase of 51 percent in taxes, and is well above the rate of inflation. You are paying about $115 more per month on your mortgage payment to cover the taxes than you did in 2007.
Granted, the homeowner in Scenario 2 has theoretically gained some wealth. The home is worth about $70,000 more than it was in 2007. But unless the homeowner is willing to sell it at that moment, it is mainly just paper wealth rather than the type that adds money to your bank account.
• Real houses. To further prove the point that property taxes don’t impact everybody equally, I picked seven properties at random from the phone book and tracked what their property taxes were over the 10-year period. Here’s a look:
— A $160,000 home in the 900 block of West 25th Street. It pays $2,470 in taxes, up just 11 percent from what it paid in 2007. The home actually had a higher value — $166,000 — in 2007.
— A $141,000 home in the 800 block of West 22nd Street. It pays $2,126 in taxes, up 38 percent from 2007.
— A $196,000 home in the 2500 block of Via Linda Drive. It pays $2,964 in taxes, up 30 percent from 2007.
— A $248,000 home in the 1000 block of Wildwood Drive. It pays $3,747 in taxes, up 11 percent from 2007. The home had a higher value — $253,000 — in 2007.
— A $231,000 home in the 2100 block of Carolina Street. It pays $3,480 in taxes, up 23 percent from 2007. This is an example of a home that increased pretty close to the rate of inflation.
— A $162,000 home in the 600 block of Bently Drive. It pays $2,450 in taxes, up 15 percent from 2007.
As you know, Lawrence has lots of apartments, so it is not surprising that my random methods produced one address that was located in an apartment complex. The landlords there pay the property taxes, but they certainly try to pass along any property tax increase to the tenants, if the market allows it.
— A $5.5 million apartment complex in the 2400 block of Louisiana Street. It pays $83,195 in taxes, up 43 percent from what it paid in 2007.
Don’t read too much into the above numbers. The sample size is too small to draw broad conclusions. But it is a reminder of why property taxes raise the ire of some but not others.
• The other number. Most people don’t spend any time thinking about a property tax mill levy. But they do spend time thinking about how much money they make. That’s the other number in this whole equation. How much money do you have to pay your tax bill?
The federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development publishes a median family income for each county in the country. It is not a perfect statistic, but it does provide an indication of how much incomes have grown in the county over the years. In 2007, the median family income in Douglas County was $63,700. In 2017, it had grown to $68,500. That’s an increase of just 7.5 percent, well below the approximately 20 percent rate of inflation during the same time period. Some other income figures from the Census would put the growth rate closer to 10 percent to 15 percent for the time period.
Either way, it is likely many families are paying a greater percentage of their incomes in property taxes than they used to.
• What’s next? Those are the numbers from the past. And, of course, they are just numbers. They don’t do a good job of measuring the value of an improved school, a better library, or the necessity of services like police and fire protection.
Voters have to decide what type of value to place on those factors, and they have to decide what is a fair amount to pay in taxes.
It appears they will have plenty of figuring to do in 2017.
A fourth hotel files plans for multimillion dollar project in Lawrence; J.C. Penney to delay store closings
There is officially a hotel building boom in Lawrence. Another set of hotel plans has been filed at City Hall, which means Lawrence soon will have four hotel projects under construction.
Maybe everybody needs a place to sleep off all the fried chicken.
Whatever the case, the hotel market is active. The latest plans are for the area near Sixth and Iowa streets, on the property where the Ramada Inn once was. The old Ramada building already has been torn down.
Now officials with a Kansas City based company — Marquee Hospitality — have filed a plan to build one hotel, and possibly two, on the site. I haven’t yet gotten the company to confirm what hotel brand is interested in the location, but the plans call for a sizable facility.
Phase one of the plan calls for a four-story, 99-room hotel. The plans also call for a phase two that would include an 81 room, three-story hotel that would be just a bit west of the first hotel. The two projects are expected to have an estimated construction cost of about $9 million, according to the plans.
As I mentioned, I don’t have confirmation on what hotel chain may locate on the site. But the company’s website indicates it has business relationships with Holiday Inn Express, Candlewood Suites, Home 2 Suites by Hilton, TownePlace Suites by Marriott and Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott.
For what it is worth, Candlewood Suites is the brand I most frequently hear mentioned as a tenant for the property. Candlewood is an extended stay hotel brand, which means the hotel features suites that include kitchens. The hotel chain also has other features designed to appeal to long-term guests, such as a laundry room and a gazebo and grill area for guests to use. But again, there’s no confirmation on whether Candlewood is a tenant, but the chain certainly has been eyeing locations in Lawrence.
As for the rest of the hotel projects in town, here’s a reminder of what’s underway:
— Plans have been filed for the first hotel to locate near Rock Chalk Park. It will be a four-story, 100-room Best Western Plus. As we reported in January, the $14.5 million project will be near the southwest corner of George Williams Way and Rock Chalk Drive, or basically right at the entrance of the sports complex.
— Site work is underway at the former Don’s Steakhouse location near 23rd and O’Connell in eastern Lawrence. That site will house a three-story, 89-room Country Inn & Suites. As we reported in October, it is part of the Radisson brand of hotels, and it is described as “upper midscale.” (I’m also often described that way, but unfortunately, only when I’m standing on an actual scale.) Amenities include an indoor pool, and the project has a phase two that would allow for some restaurants to develop near the hotel.
— Plans also have been approved for a hotel across from Free State High School. As we reported in December, it will be a Tru by Hilton hotel. It may be a bit of a hipster hotel. It calls its lobby area a “Hive,” and it markets itself as a place where you can discover “what cost-conscious meets cool-conscious looks like.” The project will go on the vacant lot at the corner of Wakarusa Drive and Overland Drive. In other words, just north of the tunnel car wash business. Plans call for 82 guest rooms and an outdoor recreation area.
In other news and notes from around town:
• When it comes to discovering “what cost-conscious meets cool-conscious looks like,” I long ago discovered that it looks like a polyester Hawaiian shirt with the top four buttons undone to promote air flow. I’ve been known to find such shirts at the local J.C. Penney’s, but if I want to buy some as part of the store’s going-out-of-business sale, I’ll have to wait a bit longer.
CNBC is reporting that J.C. Penney has decided to delay its store closings — which includes the Lawrence store on south Iowa Street, by more than a month. The network reports stores now are scheduled to close on July 31, which is about six weeks later than originally planned. The news channel says the going-out-of-business sales will begin on May 22, instead of the original date of April 17.
The company told CNBC that sales have picked up significantly at the stores since the pending closures were announced. So, the company isn’t ready to start doing deep discounting yet while traffic levels are good. No one, though, should probably get their hopes up that J.C. Penney is rethinking the closure of any of the stores.
I just hope there will be some shirts left.
Kansas City grocery company signs deal to locate store in downtown Lawrence; lawsuit could still derail project
A full-service downtown grocery store — complete with a pharmacy and a Mongolian grill — is now closer to becoming a reality than ever before. But a Douglas County court case could still deal the project a major blow.
As expected, Queen’s Price Chopper of Kansas City has signed a letter of intent to locate a Price Chopper grocery store at Seventh and New Hampshire streets, on the site of the former Borders bookstore.
A development group led by Lawrence businessmen Mike Treanor and Doug Compton have filed plans at City Hall to tear down the old Borders bookstore and replace it with a three-story building that would include the ground-floor grocery store and two levels of apartments above. The filing of formal plans — an incentive request also will be filed — marks the largest step yet in a multiyear effort to bring a grocery store to downtown. But the project is still in jeopardy of receiving a major setback from a Douglas County lawsuit.
As we reported in December, a pair of condo owners in the adjacent Hobbs Taylor Loft building have filed a lawsuit alleging that the development group is seeking to do an end run around a set of covenants that prohibit a large grocery store from being built on the Borders property. The development group disagrees. The development group filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. A hearing was held at the end of March, and now the parties await a decision from Douglas County District Court Judge Kay Huff. If the lawsuit isn’t dismissed, it is presumed Huff will issue an injunction that will stop work on the project. That makes the stakes of her decision high.
“If there is a ruling that says we are under an injunction, it probably will be close to a death knell,” said Bill Fleming, an attorney who represents the development group.
The injunction wouldn’t stop the development group and the two residents — Brian Russell and Brent Flanders — from settling the lawsuit, but it is unclear to me whether such a settlement is likely. As for the timing of the court’s decision, that is anyone’s guess, although it has moved fairly quickly thus far by judicial standards.
Absent the lawsuit, excitement levels are high for the project. The development will need to win several city approvals, and the developers are making no secret about the fact that they will be asking for incentives. Those will include a tax increment finance district that will rebate back large portions of property and sales taxes to the project, plus a low or no-interest loan that will help equip the new store.
But developers say the community will be getting what it long has asked for: a downtown grocery store that is big enough to serve not just the downtown but surrounding neighborhoods like North and East Lawrence.
“There will not be anything lacking from the grocery side,” said Dennis Reilly, chief financial officer for Queen’s Price Chopper. “It will be one-stop shopping.”
Here’s a look at some the of the details from the latest plans:
• The approximately 20,000 square-foot Borders building would be demolished and would be replaced with a three-story building that would have a footprint of about 40,000 square feet. The ground floor would house the grocery store.The second and third floors would house 82 apartments that would include a mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. Fifteen percent of the apartments would rent at rates that meet the city’s new affordability standards.
• The project would include a two-level, underground parking garage built beneath the new building. The garage would have 182 spaces. The lowest level of the garage would be gated and reserved for the use of apartment tenants. The other level — about 91 spaces — would be available for grocery store customers. In addition, the project would have about 80 above-ground parking spaces around the store. About 60 of them would be in the existing lot just south of the current building. About 15 angled parking stalls would be added on New Hampshire Street and about five angled stalls would be added on Seventh Street. All the above ground parking is anticipated to be public parking that would be managed by the city, which means it could be metered spaces or could be two-hour free parking.
• In case you are wondering how you get your grocery cart to your car in the below-ground parking garage, the store’s design includes an escalator specifically built for grocery carts. The store would have a standard escalator, and next to it is one that is designed to grasp a grocery cart.
“You can stay with your cart, but you can’t ride in the cart,” Fleming said. “At least I don’t think you can.” (We’ll see about that.)
• The store will have many of the same features as the Queen’s Price Chopper at 151st and Metcalf in Overland Park, Reilly said. That store is twice as large — at 80,000 square feet — but the Lawrence store will be designed in a way to accommodate the same basic features. At 40,000 square feet, the Lawrence Price Chopper will be similar in size to the Dillons store on Massachusetts Street.
• Among the features the store will have is a drive-thru pharmacy. The drive-thru will be on the south side of the building. The store also will have a sushi bar, a Mongolian-style Asian grill, an American grill, cold sandwiches, a coffee shop, a large indoor dining area and a patio seating area. The store also will have a floral shop, a bakery, a full meat counter and all the grocery items you would expect. Reilly said the store’s produce department is being given special attention. The store will be designed so that the produce department is visible from the street.
“Produce is a real emphasis for us,” Reilly said.
• The project will need to win multiple approvals from City Hall in order to move forward.
“The project is going to need some help,” Fleming said.
The project will have to go through the historic resources review process, since downtown is part of a historic district. The Borders building only dates back to the 1990s, but the site includes an old wall from a livery station that used to occupy the site long ago. Keeping that wall was part of a compromise reached with historic preservationists who objected to the construction of the Borders building in the 1990s.
• City Hall approval of an incentives package will be critical, Fleming said. He said the project will ask for tax increment financing, which is a mechanism that allows the development to receive a rebate on new property and sales taxes generated by the development. Fleming said the TIF is needed to help pay for an estimated $7 million worth of expenses that will be incurred to build the underground parking garage. Fleming, though, said the project is not currently expected to ask for a transportation development district tax. That’s significant because a TDD would impose a special 1 percent sales tax on the grocery store.
“We want to keep the groceries as affordable as possible,” Fleming said. “There already is a concern about how regressive sales taxes are on groceries, so we want to avoid that special tax.”
The project also is expected to ask for about a $2.25 million no-interest or low-interest loan that would be used to equip the grocery store with items such as freezers, shelving and other items needed to make the store functional. The loan would be repaid to the city as long as the grocery store hit certain sales targets.
• A key piece of federal assistance also will be needed. The project will apply for federal new market tax credits. Those tax credits will be used to help finance the project, which is expected to have a total private price tag of more than $20 million.
Those tax credits are awarded through a competitive process. If the project were not awarded the tax credits, Fleming said the project would be in jeopardy. The development group should know in about a month whether it has won any tax credits this year. Fleming believes the project stands a good chance of winning tax credits.
“I think the odds are high that we will get the credits, but it is not a simple process,” Fleming said.
He said the fact that the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods are part of a “food desert” should go a long way in securing the tax credits. The food desert designation refers to residents needing to travel a good distance to have access to fresh food. Both the North Lawrence and East Lawrence neighborhoods have been advocating for a downtown grocery store to address the food desert issue.
If approved, this will be the sixth store for Queen’s Price Chopper. It operates stores in Overland Park, Paola, Spring Hill and Bonner Springs.
Reilly said demolishing the Borders building to allow for a larger store to be built is a key part of the plan. He said the company explored using the existing Borders building but didn’t feel comfortable that it would be large enough to act as the full-service grocery store that he believes community members want.
“This will allow us to have the full variety of offerings that will make it a destination for shoppers,” Reilly said. “You want a store that the community can be proud of, and we know the store has to have what the customer wants.”
Overland Park-based company to add 100 jobs in downtown Lawrence; chamber takes position on school bond
About 100 new jobs are coming to downtown Lawrence, thanks to people buying stuff on the Internet. No, Amazon hasn’t set up a hub just for the Lawhorn household. Instead, an Overland Park-based company has chosen Lawrence as its first location for an expansion.
Inside Ventures has leased about 7,000 square feet on the ground floor of the former Riverfront Mall building at Sixth and New Hampshire streets. It has a handful of employees already working out of the space, which previously was occupied by Heartland Health. By March, the company hopes to have about 100 employees.
The company makes its living by helping people buy things online. Heaven knows some of us don’t need any help hitting the “buy now” button for many items. But there are some products where buying online can be a bit more complicated. Think insurance, or home security systems, or enrollment in an institution of higher education. Those are three major industries that Inside Ventures works with.
Often companies in those industries don’t have websites with buy now buttons, but rather online users click a button indicating that they would like to learn more or they have a question. The employees at Inside Ventures are the people who follow up on that request for more information.
“We bridge the gap from the digital marketplace to the physical world,” said Ryan Condron, a recruiter for Inside Ventures.
But make no mistake: At the heart of the business is sales. The majority of people who will work at the Lawrence facility will be sales representatives. But Trevor Nohe, president of Inside Ventures, said the company doesn’t want to be painted as a call center that is indiscriminately reaching out to anyone and everyone trying to sell a product. The company doesn’t conduct any cold calls, but rather only reaches out to people who have been online and sought more information.
“Our team is doing the front part of the sale,” Nohe said. “What are they shopping for? What interests them? We provide them information and then we make the warm handoff to the industry professional to complete the sale.”
As for the jobs, they are like many sales jobs. They come with a base salary plus a commission and benefits. Condron said many of the company’s full-time sales positions make about $45,000 a year, with some top earners at the $65,000 mark and above.
Inside Ventures is based in Overland Park and has about 150 employees. Nohe said he chose Lawrence as the spot for the company’s first expansion because he thinks being next to KU will be beneficial. Students learn the company’s high-tech phone systems quickly, The company also offers both full and part-time positions, so the company likes the idea of recruiting students for part-time jobs and them hiring them for full-time positions upon graduation. The decision also may have been guided by the fact Nohe is a KU graduate, with a degree in finance and marketing.
Nohe said the company liked the Riverfront building because of its location in a vibrant downtown, and also because the former mall building could accommodate a quick expansion if one is called for. The company took the old Heartland Health space because it needed minimal work to house the company’s operations. But Nohe said he’s already entered discussion about taking the large unfinished space on the third floor of Riverfront, if the company’s business continues to grow rapidly.
The company has been around since 2011. Nohe — who previously worked in the venture capital industry and as a business consultant with Deloitte — said business has been strong in recent years as more companies have realized it pays to work with a company that specializes in working with online consumers.
“We have a laundry list of additional industries that we think are ripe for our type of marketing service,” Nohe said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The Lawrence chamber of commerce is throwing its support behind the school district’s $87 million bond issue. The Chamber announced its board of directors has unanimously voted to support the district’s bond issue, which currently is before voters as part of a mail-in ballot that is due on May 2.
The Chamber pointed to the success of the 2013 bond issue that focused on improvements to elementary schools. The proposed bond issue would focus on secondary schools.
Vote Yes signs also have popped up around town. A citizen group supporting the bond issue has formed. Thus far, no formal opposition group has been formed against the bond issue. The bond would increase property taxes by an estimated 2.4 mills, or about $55 on a $200,000 home or about $300 on a $500,000 business.
“The positive effects of education spending appear in indicators ranging from economic development to employment rates, small business starts, productivity, personal income, housing values, social stability, and quality of life,” the chamber’s endorsement read in part.
Commercial property that owes city, county $180K in back taxes sells for $1 at auction; east side shopping center in foreclosure
It is like a magic trick: $1 can make more than $180,000 worth of obligations disappear.
At a Douglas County tax auction on Tuesday morning, Jeremiah Johnson bought a piece of industrially zoned property — a little over three acres with an appraised value of just more than $200,000 — for $1. And when Johnson pulled the single dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department representative overseeing the sale, it wiped out $181,924 of past due taxes, interest and special assessments that had piled up on the property.
A pretty neat trick, unless you are the city of Lawrence and Douglas County. Those are the two governments that were owed the back taxes and special assessments. The sale of the property means the previous owners are no longer responsible for the back taxes and special assessments. They are forever lost.
The property is at 2460 Fairfield St., which is a vacant lot behind the Tractor Supply store east of 23rd Street and O’Connell Road. You may remember that the J-W has written about the property before. In December, we reported that an investment group that included Lawrence businessman Doug Compton and Bill Newsome had fallen behind on the property taxes and special assessments on the property.
The development group used special assessments from both the city and the county to finance various pieces of infrastructure for what they hoped would be a thriving commercial development. A special assessment is simply a way that developers finance items such as streets and sewer lines. The government uses its ability to borrow money cheaply to pay the upfront costs of the improvements, and the development group agrees to pay back the money and a modest amount of interest. The money is generally paid back through a special assessment that is added to the annual property tax bill of the property.
The idea is that developers save some money in financing costs, and the government helps spur new development and ultimately will be made financially whole. One intended backstop for government is that if the special assessments aren’t paid, the property can be sold in sheriff’s sale. The proceeds of the sale are used to pay off the special assessments and back taxes. Governments usually take some comfort in the idea that a piece of commercial land that has infrastructure on it should be worth more than any amount of past due special assessments or taxes.
But on Tuesday morning, that was not the case with 2460 Fairfield St. The entire auction — which also included two other unrelated properties — only attracted about six people. Most were there just to watch. When the sheriff’s deputy called for any bids, there were several seconds of silence before Johnson said he would pay a dollar for the property. No one else bid.
In case you are thinking Johnson got the deal-of-the-century, know that there is a catch. While Johnson doesn’t have to pay any of the back taxes or past due special assessments, he does to have pay future taxes and future special assessments. The property has about $190,000 worth of special assessments that will come due in future years.
“It still has a ton of assessments on it,” Johnson said, which is why he said he was only mildly surprised that the property didn’t draw more interest.
As for what Johnson intends to do with the property, he doesn’t know yet. He is the son of Lawrence developer Roger Johnson, who is building a new residential neighborhood across the street. Jeremiah Johnson said it made sense to buy the property because of that proximity. The light industrial zoning on the property would allow for a variety of commercial uses. He said he would love for a grocery store to go on the property, but it likely is too small for that. But some other type of development that would offer some conveniences for the developing neighborhood would be ideal, he said.
As for what’s next for the city and the county, there is not much more to do on this particular piece of property. Government officials may give some thought to how they want to proceed in the future, though. The city or the county could have bought the property — who knows, perhaps for $2 — and then tried to sell the land to recoup some of the past due taxes that way. City Manager Tom Markus brought up that possibility in December, but city commissioners ultimately decided to take their chances that a bidder would emerge for the property.
Local government may be confronted with other such decisions in the future. The are six other lots in and around the unsuccessful development near 23rd and O’Connell. Those six lots owe at least $1.1 million in back taxes and special assessments. That is a rough tally based off of the county’s website, but the actual amount will be significantly higher as interest, penalties and other fees are added into the total.
Those properties have not yet been scheduled for a tax auction, but they will if no one pays the taxes in the near term.
Of course the biggest implication of all this may be how the city offers special benefit district financing in the future. It has been a longtime practice of the city, and many other cities use it too. The city already has tightened its incentive policy to do more to ascertain whether a person seeking an economic development incentive from the city is part of a company that is delinquent on any taxes or special assessments.
As for the original developers in all of this, I didn’t reach out to them today. But we did hear from Compton when we first reported the issue back in December. He noted that no one wanted the development to succeed more than he and the other five original investors. He said they spent millions of dollars of private money on the project, which thus far has only attracted the single Tractor Supply store.
“Our investment group — I was one of six original investors — has supported this commercial project for well over 10 years with millions of dollars of private investment,” Compton said in an email in December. “The City and County partnered with us in infrastructure investment because of the critical location of this project, particularly across the street from the City’s new business park (VenturePark.)”
It will be interesting to watch whether other properties that are part of the development come onto the auction market, and whether they draw more interest from developers. Perhaps the far eastern side is not ready to grow yet. This lot that came up for auction on Tuesday probably was in some ways the least visible of the bunch. Some of the higher-profile sites — one that would be large enough to house a grocery store on — are still yet to come, and may draw more interest.
In other news and notes from around town:
• We may get a read on what the market thinks about eastern Lawrence commercial property soon. The shopping center at northeast corner of 23rd and Harper is scheduled to be sold in a foreclosure auction later this month.
The shopping center that houses the restaurant Set ‘em up Jack’s and other businesses is scheduled to be sold at a Sheriff’s auction on April 20, according to the Douglas County Sheriff’s website. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean the businesses in the shopping center have to close. It may mean they will be getting a new landlord.
A representative with the sheriff’s department confirmed the sale includes both the shopping center at 1800 E. 23rd St., and the smaller commercial building next door that houses a gas station, liquor store and used to house a bank at 2200 Harper Street.
Other information about the foreclosure is a bit sparse. U.S. Bank is the lender seeking to foreclose on the property. The filing does not list how much is still owed on the shopping center and commercial development.
Foreclosure auctions work similar to tax auctions, although it is unlikely you will get this property for a dollar. The bank can make a bid on the property, and often does. To protect its interest, the bank often bids somewhere close to the amount that is owed on the property, but not always.
The filing lists 10 Marketplace Investors as the owner of the property. The Kansas Secretary of State’s office lists that company being owned by a conglomeration of individuals and LLCs primarily from the Kansas City area, and also by a Lawrence company headed by local businessman Stephen Craig.
I’ll try to keep an eye on that auction as well, and will let you know how it turns out.