Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
I’m no dummy. I’m going to make sure I do any articles that involve math prior to the Fourth of July. That way I’ve got full use of all 20 digits for computational purposes. So, with that, let’s crunch some sales tax numbers. With half of the year gone, Lawrence’s sales tax collections are still among the strongest numbers in the state.
Each month the city gets a check from the state for its share of sales tax collections. It recently received its June check — which represents sales taxes that were paid by consumers a couple of months earlier. There’s a lag time in computing the city’s share. The latest report shows Lawrence sales tax collections thus far in 2017 are up 3 percent compared to the first half of 2016.
As Lawrence City Hall officials work to put together a 2018 budget — and recommend a 1.25 mill increase in the property tax rate — they’ll quickly note that the 3 percent growth rate isn’t as strong as what Lawrence has been experiencing. That is correct. In 2016, Lawrence finished the year with a 5.5 percent growth in sales tax collections. That was the best growth rate of any major retail market in the state.
So, is there reason to worry that Lawrence is now only growing at 3 percent? Well, if this trend holds, it will be the slowest growth rate since 2013, when collections grew by 1.9 percent. A bit of a slowdown, though, is perhaps expected. The last three years of 2014-2016 have been some of the best sales tax years on record for Lawrence. It is tough to keep setting records every year.
Plus, there’s reason to believe Lawrence may end up posting a better than 3 percent growth rate in 2017. The year got started off a bit sluggish, but there have been signs that shoppers are becoming looser with their wallets. The city’s June sales tax collections were up 7.5 percent compared to the same period a year ago, indicating that shoppers were spending well in April and May. Plus, you have to think that the city is in for a sales tax bump when the Junior Olympics arrive in town later this month. If Lawrence doesn’t see an increase in sales tax collections from that event, then it had better rethink its tourism strategy.
Perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind, though, is that the slower sales tax growth may not be a major reason to worry, at least from a City Hall budget standpoint. That’s because 2016 sales tax collections exceeded the city’s expectations so much that 2017 revenues don’t have to grow much at all to still keep the city within budget.
Regardless, there are plenty of other communities that wish their sales tax collections were growing by 3 percent. Here’s a look at the growth rates for several of the state’s major retail areas.
— Lenexa: up 5.6 percent
— City of Shawnee: 4.1 percent
— Lawrence: up 3.0 percent
— Olathe: up 3.0 percent
— Topeka: up 2.1 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 0.2 percent
— Overland Park: down 0.8 percent
— Kansas City: down less than 0.1 percent
— Hays: down 1.3 percent
— Hutchinson: down 2.1 percent
In case you are wondering about our fellow college community of Manhattan, it recently changed its sales tax rate, so its 2017 numbers aren’t comparable to 2016 figures.
• This is the time of year when sales tax figures may be at their most important. That’s because all of the city and county governments are working on their budgets for 2018. Budget-makers take a hard look at how sales taxes are doing now to determine how they may do in 2018. Plus, the numbers are far enough along that it gives them a good idea whether they are going to meet, exceed or miss their 2017 budget numbers.
With that in mind, here’s a look at how some area towns are faring with sales tax collections. I’ll show you the growth rate, but more the importantly, the actual dollar amount over or above what they collected last year. One thing to keep in mind, I’ll show you totals for both cities and counties, but remember that counties don’t get to keep all of their sales collections. A good portion of a countywide sales tax gets redistributed back to the budgets of cities that are located within the county.
• Douglas County: up 3.2 percent or about $272,000.
• Franklin County: up 5.4 percent or about $117,000
• Jefferson County: up 13.6 percent or about $70,000
• Leavenworth County: up 5.8 percent or about $193,000
• Baldwin City: up 1.6 percent or about $3,300
• Eudora: up 24.9 percent or about $57,000
• Lawrence: up 3 percent or about $370,000
• Leavenworth: up 2.8 percent or about $121,000
• Lecompton: up 8.4 percent or about $2,000
• Ottawa: up 52 percent or about $630,000
• Oskaloosa: up 4.8 percent or about $3,200
• Perry: up 33 percent or about $8,500
• Tonganoxie: up 12.7 percent or about $43,000
• Wellsville: up 24.9 percent or about $16,000
Note: Although Ottawa is a booming retail center — especially this time of year (the semi-trailers at fireworks stands in Ottawa aren’t to store the fireworks but rather to store the money) — the economy hasn’t surged by as much as the number above suggests. Ottawa raised its sales tax rate in the last year, which explains why the increase is so large.
• Here’s hoping that everybody has a happy Independence Day, and has reason to remember the meaning of the holiday. And do be safe. Although you may never need algebra in life, you do need your fingers.
There are some who would say evoking silence from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is akin to a miracle.
After all, despite the many criticisms of Kobach, he often isn’t shy to talk. He even has been known to provide information when he didn’t intend to. See a now infamous photo of him with a set of documents and then president-elect Trump.
And when the subject is illegal voting, Kobach normally becomes like a "Game of Thrones" fan at a cocktail party. You need an actual wizard to get out of that conversation.
But evidently that is not always the case. It has been a little more than four months since I first reported a potential voter fraud case involving Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern and his elderly mother. I’ve asked Kobach’s representatives approximately a half-dozen times for an update on the case. Most times, I haven’t even received a response from his office. I did on June 14. Spokeswoman Samantha Poetter sent me an email saying she expected to have an update for me later that day. That was the last I’ve heard from her, despite checking in several more times.
Why is Kobach silent on the matter? I, of course, don’t know. I can only speculate. Fortunately, one of the perks of being an editor is you are allowed to do that.
I suspect it is because the case puts Kobach — who is running for the GOP nomination for governor and is President Trump’s co-chair on the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity — in a tough position. As a reminder, here’s the key allegation made against octogenarian Lois McGovern: She voted in the 2016 Douglas County primary while being registered at a Lawrence home that she had sold more than a year earlier. The evidence suggests she actually was living in a Johnson County nursing home at the time of the election. Her son, Sheriff McGovern, picked up the ballot for her, knowing that she was registered to vote at a home where she no longer lived.
A citizen filed a complaint with Kobach’s office against the McGoverns in September, and then another in October. For months, the complainant didn’t hear anything from the secretary of state’s office about the status of the complaints. The Journal-World became aware of the allegations and asked Kobach’s office about them in February. At that point, Brian Caskey, director of elections for the secretary of state’s office, said enough questions surrounded the allegations that the matter had been forwarded to the secretary of state’s prosecutorial division. I continue to await what they found. Here are my theories about why Kobach won’t tell me:
• Kobach doesn’t want to tell me he is prosecuting Lois McGovern. Prosecuting the elderly mother of a fellow elected Republican is not necessarily a popular thing to do. Forget the party issue even. Voters don’t like it when they think you are picking on the elderly. I caught a significant amount of heat for reporting the story to begin with, which is fine. I’ve figured out that journalism isn’t the best road to popularity. But I thought prosecutors, like Kobach, had figured out their path is a bumpy one too.
• Kobach doesn’t want to tell me he is not prosecuting Lois McGovern. Once he says that, the follow-up questions become tricky. That’s because a couple of points in the case are pretty clear: Lois McGovern didn’t live at the Lawrence home where she was registered, and she had no legal right to live at the home — in other words, she didn’t own the home, she had no lease on it, and she didn’t have an invitation to live there.
If Kobach says she didn’t break the law, then the immediate question becomes whether anyone can use an old residence as an address to vote, regardless of whether the person even lives in the community anymore. I lived in Emporia for a short time, but it has been at least 25 years since I did. Could I simply use my old address and start voting in Emporia again?
It seems absurd, and it would be a particularly odd position for Kobach, who is regarded as the hottest of firebrands on the issue of illegal voting. Already, it seems the issue is potentially embarrassing for Kobach. Think about it: The person who has been charged with shoring up the security of our national voting system oversees a state system that lets people vote in communities that they aren’t a resident of. I know there are people who don’t want the votes of illegal immigrants canceling out their votes. Wouldn’t those same people be concerned about someone who doesn’t even live in their town canceling out their votes in local elections?
• Kobach doesn’t want to tell me that it was an honest mistake on Lois McGovern’s part. It is very possible she was just ignorant of the law. (Although, you would have thought it would have raised a red flag with her son, the chief law enforcement officer of the county.) But Kobach has made it clear he doesn’t think ignorance of the law is a defense. His website says: “Each step of the process must conform to the law, from voter registration to casting votes to counting ballots and certifying results.” If Kobach says this is just an innocent mistake, that will imply that it is just one vote that didn’t alter the outcome of any election. But the moment Kobach adopts that philosophy is the moment his political house begins to crack.
• Kobach hopes the issue goes away. At one point, Poetter told me the case had been resolved. She said there had been a decision not to prosecute, but it quickly became clear we were talking about a different case. Lois McGovern also voted in the 2016 Douglas County General Election. At that time she had changed her voting address to her son’s Lawrence home, although she wasn’t living there. But you could reasonably argue she had an intent to return there, and that perhaps would make her legal under Kansas laws. But I told Poetter that I was more interested in the primary election case where Lois McGovern was registered at a home she no longer owned and had no legal right to occupy. It was clear that was new information to Poetter, and that’s when the trail went cold.
The easiest strategy for Kobach would be to simply tell me his office is still reviewing the matter and that he has no comment at this time. I probably wouldn’t even criticize him for that. I simply would report his statement and make sure I kept checking in for an update — all the way through a gubernatorial campaign, if necessary.
But Kobach didn’t say that or anything else. And that is disappointing from a public servant who wants to serve you in even a higher office.
I once thought about trying to sample every coffee shop in downtown Lawrence in a day, and then I realized that it would be too expensive to rent a U-Haul to transport my bladder. In other words, there are a lot of coffee shops in downtown. There soon will be another, but its owners are promising it will stand out.
The owners of Alchemy Coffee & Bake House at 19th and Massachusetts have signed a deal to open a shop at 816 Massachusetts St., which is the vacant space next door to Limestone Pizza. Yes, owners Ben Farmer and Joni Alexander know there are already a lot of coffee shops in downtown. But they’re confident the venture will work, in part because they learned something during their four-year run at their current shop about what Lawrence customers want.
“I had this moment about two months after opening,” Farmer said of his venture at 19th and Mass., which is a location that has chewed up a host of other businesses. “I wondered, if you try to do high quality things, will people notice? The answer was yes. If you put the effort into it, people will notice. We’ve been successful here, and it definitely hasn’t been because of the parking or the size of our space.”
Indeed, Alchemy just as easily could be called Coffee in a Closet. The shop — including the kitchen space — is 420 square feet. Farmer and Alexander said they began looking for a new location because the business — particularly the bakery element — needed more room.
“We do want more space, but we also want to keep it cozy,” Alexander said. “We want it to be that type of small space that you would find in New York or Seattle.”
On the coffee side, the business’ hallmark has been “pour over” coffees, which basically are individually brewed cups of coffee. That will continue at the new location. But the shop also has developed a following for its cold-brewed coffee and something called “nitro coffee,” which involves adding nitrogen to the production process.
“Nitrogen doesn’t change the flavor of the coffee, but it changes the texture,” Farmer said. “It is more creamy. Some people equate it to having a Guinness without the alcohol.” (Yes, there are entire Irish pubs right now bewildered by that statement.)
On the bakery side, Alexander said she will continue to promote a philosophy that is a bit unusual in the restaurant world.
“I don’t have a menu,” Alexander said. “That does throw people, but it is the best solution I can find of how to run a kitchen without being trapped by it.”
There are some items that customers can regularly count on. Alexander said a breakfast sandwich that involves a homemade biscuit, egg and Gruyere cheese is a staple. So too is at least one variety of pie, with key lime pie being the most popular at the moment. Cinnamon rolls and doughnuts regularly show up, especially on the weekends, as do cupcakes and cakes. And there are those times that Alexander gets an idea and just kind of runs with it, then runs some more.
“I have 25 house-made jams right now,” she said. “I kind of went crazy with the jams.”
The jams aren’t just used for breads and biscuits. One of the dishes is “Not your Momma’s Chocolate Mousse,” which is a mousse with house-made jams and a graham cracker crust.
“My philosophy is I work really hard to get people to trust my style of cooking, and then when they do, I can make all types of creations and they’ll try it because they trust that I won’t put it out if I don’t love it,” she said.
As for what will become of the small shop at 19th and Massachusetts Street, Farmer and Alexander said they haven’t decided yet. There is a possibility they may keep the shop open and simply run two locations. But they said they can’t yet commit to the idea because they are uncertain whether they can find enough quality staff to operate two shops.
Renovation work on the new shop — which will include an open kitchen where you can watch the staff bake — is expected to begin in the next couple of weeks. They hope to have the new location open by late September.
Lawrence-based bank to be sold as part of approximately $140 million deal; Bank Midwest to begin operating in city
Another longtime Lawrence banking family is getting out of the business, and a large regional bank is set to take its place as part of an approximately $140 million deal. Peoples Bank, which is led by longtime Lawrence businessman Wint Winter Jr., has announced it will be bought by the banking group that operates Bank Midwest in the Kansas City metro area.
According to a release from the two banks, the deal is expected to be finalized in the fourth quarter of this year. Upon completion, Peoples Banks in Lawrence and other parts of Kansas will change names to Bank Midwest.
Peoples operates three branches in Lawrence, but it has a larger local presence because Winter serves as chairman and CEO of the company and continues to be based out of Lawrence. Peoples bank near Sixth and Wakarusa is considered the corporate headquarters.
Winter, though, told me that job losses are not expected in Lawrence as part of the deal. He and other family members held most of the corporate positions within the family-owned bank, and he said there are no plans to close any of the Lawrence branches.
“There are not any overlapping branches,” Winter said of the deal between the two banks. “They don’t have anything in Lawrence, and they really want to be in Lawrence.”
The deal is a remarkable conclusion to a Lawrence family business. Winter’s grandfather, Ship Winter, made a name for himself in Lawrence as a rancher and the owner of the local Chevrolet dealership in the 1960s and 1970s. Winter’s father, Wint Winter Sr., was an attorney who bought a bank in Ottawa in 1972. That bank would become Peoples Bank. At that time it was a fairly typical small-town bank. Today, Peoples has locations in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico and operates a national mortgage company that does about $1 billion in mortgage loans per year.
Now, the bank is being sold in a deal valued at more than $140 million. Winter said it has been an incredible journey for the family. It included very difficult times during the recession of 2008, when the bank had to sign agreements with the Federal Reserve related to bad loans. Winter acknowledged there were questions about whether the bank would be able to survive the recession.
The bank, though, turned its loan portfolio around, and Winter said this deal came about because multiple banks began seeking to acquire Peoples.
“It is flattering,” Winter said of the deal. “It is the 'little guy comes through' type of story. We survived the recession and lasted nearly 50 years. That is a pretty cool thing, and then to have it culminate with a deal with such top-flight people. They are truly professional bankers. All of it is a testament to the great people we have had work with us.”
Bank Midwest’s parent company is National Bank Holdings Corp., which is a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange. The company has 86 banking centers in the Kansas City region, Colorado and Texas. NBH announced it would pay Peoples shareholders $36.3 million in cash and approximately 3.4 million shares of NBH stock. NBH shares are trading at just under $33 a share today.
As for how the deal may affect customers of the bank, Peoples officials are touting that the merger should provide greater convenience, especially for those customers who often are in Kansas City. The merger will mean that Peoples customers will have access to 40 more bank locations in the Kansas City area once the change is made to Bank Midwest.
Peoples also operates banks in Ottawa, Overland Park, Stanley, Stilwell and Louisburg. Additionally, the company has banks in five Colorado communities, including Colorado Springs, and in three New Mexico communities.
National Bank Holdings Corp., in addition to having Bank Midwest, operates banks in the Front Range region of Colorado. NBH CEO Tim Laney said Peoples locations in Colorado and the Kansas City area were particularly attractive to the company.
“The transaction with Peoples bolsters our presence in our home markets of the Colorado Front Range and the greater Kansas City region,” Laney said in a release. “More specifically, the acquisition proves a strong market position in the attractive Colorado Springs and Overland Park markets, and expands our franchise into northern New Mexico. In addition, we believe Peoples brings us one of the strongest retail mortgage banking platforms based within a community bank.”
Peoples operates a mortgage operation that has a national reach and does more than $1 billion in mortgage loans per year. As part of the agreement, though, Peoples will divest or wind down its national mortgage business by the end of 2017. Winter said that part of the deal will involve some job losses, but he said none of those positions are based in the Lawrence area.
As for what’s next for Winter, he said he’ll continue to have a position within NBH, and also will evaluate what he wants to do next. A lawyer by trade, Winter said he may again do some work in that area. Whatever he does, Winter said he will do it in Lawrence. He is a fifth-generation Douglas County resident.
“I’m a homer,” he said.
The deal will give the Winter family multiple resources to pursue other ventures if they choose. The Winter family owns more than 90 percent of the Peoples bank entity, Winter said, with a handful of close associates owning the remainder.
Winter is a former Republican state senator, and he recently has become more active in politics serving as a leader of the Save Kansas Coalition, a group that railed against many of Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax and legislative policies.
Winter, though, said people should not expect him to get back into politics.
“It is kind of like when you think back on your days in high school,” Winter said of his political career. “You think it was cool and it was a lot of fun, but you also think ‘I don’t really need to do that again.’”
Winter, though, said he has had fun in recent years helping people run for office. So, perhaps keep an eye open for that.
Winter said he also plans to spend a significant amount of time helping Bank Midwest establish itself in the Lawrence market. He said the bank will add another major player to the city’s lending market. Peoples had loan limits of about $5 million, but he said Bank Midwest has the resources to make significantly larger loans.
“We are very pleased to be joining NBH,” he said. “Our family has built Peoples over the past five decades with a focus on caring for our customers, employees and the communities we serve. We found those same values at NBH and are proud to partner with the NBH family.”
I’m beginning to become confused about prosperity.
It seems like Lawrence is experiencing quite a bit of it. Yet, Lawrence residents soon may get a statement that causes them to wonder if it is true. Lawrence residents are on track to see their largest property tax increase in recent memory.
I tend to wince when people say that “growth doesn’t pay for itself” because I came from a community that has proved that decline definitely doesn’t pay well. But Lawrence leaders aren’t doing much this year to prove that growth pays its own way because we’ve certainly had growth. Here’s a look:
• Sales tax collections in 2016 grew by their largest percentage since 1998, and collections are in positive territory thus far in 2017.
• Lawrence home values are increasing significantly. Thus far in 2017, the average selling price of a home is up more than 7 percent from the same time period a year ago.
• Construction activity has been booming. In 2015 and 2016 the city issued building permits for about $450 million in new construction, the best two-year total in the city’s history.
• Our population also is growing. Since 2010, Douglas County has grown its population 7.7 percent, the highest population growth rate of any urban county in the state.
• To top it off, outsiders seem to be seeing it too. A North Carolina development company wants to build about 500,000 square feet of retail space in southern Lawrence.
In theory, all of those factors should increase the local tax base. A growing tax base should allow local governments to collect more in taxes without having to raise the tax rates on individuals or businesses. But that’s not the way it is shaping up this year.
Nothing is final yet, but the city, the county and the school district are all in the process of setting their 2017 mill levies, which will be used to fund their 2018 budgets. Those mill levies will determine how much you pay in property taxes this December.
If the city, the county and the school district follow the recommendations of their administrators and staff, the combined property tax rate will increase 5.41 mills. I’m sure there has been a larger local tax increase at some point, but it hasn’t been since 2012. To put the proposed increase in perspective, the combined mill levy increased by a total of 6.1 mills from 2012 to 2016. In other words, this one-year increase would be almost as much as the last four increases combined.
The Lawrence school district is set to contribute the largest amount to the increase — 2.4 mills — but it will do so with the blessing of local voters. The 2.4 mill levy increase was part of the deal when voters in May overwhelmingly approved an $87 million bond issue to improve school facilities.
The city of Lawrence and Douglas County aren’t seeking any such voter approval. The county is proposing a 1.76 mill increase and the city is proposing a 1.25 mill increase. The city has a variety of capital projects it wants to fund with the increase, but the one drawing the most attention is the beginning phases of a new police headquarters building. Voters in 2014 rejected a sales tax proposal to fund a police headquarters facility. The city is changing the plans of the building, but, importantly, it also is changing strategies. It doesn’t plan to ask voters for approval. They’ll just fund it through a property tax increase instead.
The county also has several items it wants to fund with additional tax revenue, but improvements to the community’s mental health system account for a lot of the increase. Improving the mental health system has been part of a larger discussion at the courthouse related to expanding the Douglas County Jail. Improved mental health services may reduce the number of people with mental illness who are in jail. The entire project could cost $30 million or more. It likely would require a vote of county taxpayers, but it appears the county is comfortable moving ahead with some of the mental health projects without a vote of the public.
In terms of what this means to your pocketbook, it varies. A 5.4 mill increase on a $200,000 home will amount to an extra $124 in taxes for the year. If you pay your taxes as part of your mortgage, your monthly payment probably will go up about $10.
For some of you, that may not be the only tax increase you experience. The state of Kansas is raising income taxes for the first time in awhile. A previous analysis by the Journal-World found that a couple who jointly earn $100,000 per year and have two kids will experience an income tax increase of $292 for the year. If they happen to own a $200,000 house, they would be paying an extra $416 in local property and state income taxes. A couple who jointly make $50,000 per year, have two kids and own a $125,000 home would see a $77 increase in property taxes and $91 in income taxes for 2017, although their income taxes would start to go down in 2018 as a child care tax credit starts to phase in.
It is not for me to say whether any of these proposed increases are burdensome. Everybody has to make their own judgments about that. I’m also not saying, at the moment, that what the city, the county and the school district are asking for in increased taxes is unreasonable. Everybody will have their own arguments to make on that, and certainly not everything is all roses in Lawrence and Douglas County. There are problems that likely will take money to address. (Although, affordable housing is presumed to be one of those problems, and this tax increase likely won’t make housing any more affordable.)
But I do think it is important that local taxpayers understand the context of these proposed tax increases. They are the largest in recent memory, and they are coming at a time when the community is experiencing quite a bit of prosperity. It raises a natural question: Where is the prosperity dividend?
We’ll be asking elected officials that in the coming days and weeks as they finalize their budgets.
Plans filed for used-car dealerships on Sixth Street, Haskell Avenue; Lawrence home prices continue to soar
Lawrence is experiencing a used-car boom. In my house, a used-car boom usually just means my muffler has fallen off again. In Missouri, it means the car actually has fallen off its cement blocks. But in Lawrence it means there is a genuine increase in businesses getting into the used-car market.
As we have reported, longtime auto salesman Scott Teenor has opened 6th Street Auto in a newly constructed building near Sixth and Colorado streets. We’ve also reported that plans have been filed for a new building to be constructed at the entrance to the East Hills Business Park. As currently planned, that building would house Crimson & Blue Motors.
Now, two more plans have been filed for used-car lots in town. The first one is at the former location of the Zarco gas station at 1415 W. Sixth St. David Williams, a longtime auto salesman in Kansas City, plans to open Deals on Wheels Automotive at the site.
Williams said he plans to stock anywhere from 15 to 20 vehicles at a time and will try to focus on affordable, later-model vehicles. Williams, who has been in the car-selling business since 1981, said he thinks the increase in the number of used car lots is a sign of the times. The average age of vehicles rose during the recession. People now are needing to replace those older vehicles, but don’t yet feel confident enough to spend the type of money required for a brand new car.
“I think people are getting a little wiser with their money,” Williams said. “To buy a brand new car and drive it off the lot and see it depreciate by 30 percent, that is tough.”
Williams said he hoped to have the business open in the next few weeks. Look for some renovation work to occur at the site, but it will be minor. The business will keep the current building and the canopy that used to to cover the gasoline pumps.
Also look for some work to occur at a commercial building along Haskell Avenue. Lawrence-based Premier Auto has filed plans to move from its current home at 23rd and Haskell to 27th and Haskell in the building that formerly housed the shop and offices of Chaney Inc.
Ryan Blum, owner of Premier Auto, said he’s making the move because he’s tired of leasing space. He has the chance to buy the old Chaney building and said the new space should allow his business to grow.
“It will give us quite a bit more space,” Blum said. “The shop is about 50 percent larger. It will have more parking. It will allow us to carry a few more cars.”
Blum said additional space is needed because the company — which has been operating for 10 years in Lawrence — has grown beyond just a used-car business. The company also does vehicle leasing and auto detailing, and has a rental fleet of Penske moving trucks.
Blum said he hopes to have the new location open by late July.
In other news and notes from around town:
• “Boom” isn’t exactly the word I would use to describe Lawrence’s real estate market currently. Perhaps “bang,” as in the sound a starter pistol makes. If you are looking to buy a home in Lawrence, you had better be prepared to move fast. That’s been the case for the last several months, and the most recent report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors shows that is still the case.
The median number of days a home sits on the market before it sells is down to 16, according to the report.
Once you do start to move on a house, the next word to come to mind may be “ouch.” That is perhaps getting mumbled a bit as people see what is happening to Lawrence home prices.
As buyers become more competitive for the relatively small numbers of homes on the market, prices have been rising. The increases were dramatic for May, the most recent month for which Lawrence data is available. According to the report, the median selling price for homes sold thus far in 2017 is $182,900. That’s up 7.6 percent from the same time period a year ago.
The good news, for the industry anyway, is there still seems to be plenty of buyers on the market. That was in question after April’s report, which showed home sales decreased by 9.4 percent compared with April 2016. Realtors blamed a lack of available homes for sale.
But May was a big bounce-back month. Lawrence home sales in May increased by 7.5 percent compared with May 2016. Year to date, Lawrence home sales now total 485 and are up 6.8 percent compared with the same period a year ago.
But there also was a worrisome number in the May report. The number of active listings on the market stood at 248 for the month. That’s down from 260 in May 2016 and continues a months-long downward trend for homes on the market. That downward trend is what is driving home prices up.
It is an interesting — and powerful — trend to watch. City Hall officials are trying to plan for how they can make housing more affordable in Lawrence. Thus far, many of their efforts have focused on subsidizing particular housing projects, which may add a few dozen affordable housing units at a time. But, if the entire Lawrence housing market — thousands of homes — is seeing values increase dramatically, how much good does it do to add a few dozen affordable homes at a time? And, of course, not everyone sees rising home values as a bad thing. Some people see it as their largest investment is growing in value.
As someone once said, who knew this subject could be so complicated? More on that later, though. For now, here’s a look at some other statistics from the May report of the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
— Sales of newly constructed homes continue to boom. Year to date there have been 51 sales of newly constructed homes. That’s up 34 percent from the same period a year ago.
— As builders have built more homes in Lawrence, the price for new homes has gone down. Year to date, the median selling price for a newly built home is $299,900. That’s down 4.6 percent from last year’s median of $314,500.
— The higher home prices are equating into a big dollar year for the local real estate industry. Year to date, the total dollar value of homes sold in Lawrence stands at $105 million. That’s up 13 percent from the same period a year ago.
I know what you are thinking: A half pound of meat should never create a dilemma. Sure, your doctor, your colon and your aorta may sometimes disagree. But what do they know? Two out of the three don’t even a have a degree. But half-pound hamburger patties were creating a dilemma for the family-owned Sandwich Bowl restaurant.
The problem: They took a long time to cook. But in an example of how American ingenuity will save the world and the medical stint industry, the owners of the restaurant came up with a solution. They chopped up the patty while its on the griddle. It cooks a lot faster that way, and it also introduced many Lawrence residents to the concept of a loose meat sandwich.
The Sandwich Bowl has been serving them up for five years in Lawrence, but soon you will have to look for them in a new location. The restaurant has signed a deal to move to Sixth and Wakarusa in the space that previously was occupied by Cibo Sano Italian Grille. That’s on the southeast corner of the intersection in the shopping center next to Dillons.
The Sandwich Bowl previously had been in the shopping center next to Hy-Vee at Clinton Parkway and Kasold. But that location didn’t have the best visibility, and the Sixth and Wakarusa area is more a magnet for people looking to go out to eat, said Jesi Gordon, who operates the shop with her brother Jerod Feldman.
“It seems to be an up-and-coming area,” she said. “People are already used to going out to eat in this area, so we’re hoping they just add us to their list.”
As for what you will find once you get there: hamburgers, sandwiches, soups and desserts — many of them done in unusual ways.
The loose meat sandwich concept is the big twist. The restaurant will cook your hamburger in a traditional patty, but they’ll try to talk you out of it. Gordon said the chopping of the meat does add flavor. That’s because it creates more surfaces for crispy edges to form. It also allows spices and toppings to be better mixed throughout the burger.
Toppings also are a big thing at the restaurant. They have fairly routine hamburger toppings like mushrooms and Swiss cheese, all types of peppers, onions and cheese combinations. But they also have a breakfast burger that comes topped with hash browns, a Hawaiian-style burger, a bacon, mac-n-cheese burger, a pizza burger and several more.
There is one other twist, which is tied to the restaurant’s name. Instead of serving the loose meat patty on a bun, it will serve it in a bowl for you instead, if you prefer.
In total, the restaurant has 17 hamburger styles. It also has 22 grilled sandwiches, including traditional offerings such as a French dip or a Reuben. But it also has some unusual creations, including the restaurant’s most popular sandwich, the Flying Pig. It features thinly sliced strips of pork loin, pepperoni, bacon, grilled onions, Monterey Jack cheese and salsa ranch dressing.
The restaurant also has a couple of salads on the menu and a rotation of seasonal soup offerings.
“We have healthy alternatives and not-healthy alternatives,” Gordon said.
Technically, Gordon labeled the Flying Pig sandwich as an unhealthy alternative, but I think that is debatable. It is healthier for you than it is for the pig.
The restaurant got its start in the small town of Harlan, Iowa. Gordon and Feldman’s parents still run that restaurant. And, I should give credit where credit is due. The innovation of chopping up the half-pound patties started there and made its way to Lawrence.
The shop also has tried to bring some northern flavors to Lawrence. Perhaps the best example is the dessert menu. Most days the dessert menu consists of whatever Gordon wants to bake, but a constant is a dish called a scotcharoo. It is a peanut butter rice crispy with butterscotch and chocolate on top. Gordon said it is popular in the northern U.S. but less known in these parts.
“We always know who is from up north because they walk in and get really excited,” she said.
The Sandwich Bowl already has closed its Clinton Parkway location and has begun renovating the Sixth and Wakarusa spot. Gordon said she hopes to open the restaurant in early July.
Lawrence chamber raises more than $1 million in private funds; demolition of houses near LMH up for approval tonight
For once, the excuse “I gave at the office” may actually be true. Businesses all over the community got hit up for donations as part of a capital campaign to support economic development efforts in Douglas County.
The five-year capital campaign by the Lawrence chamber of commerce and its associated economic development corporation didn’t quite reach its goal of $1.8 million, but it did raise more money than any other Lawrence chamber campaign has. The group finished with $1.735 million in pledges, said Larry McElwain, president and CEO of The Chamber.
“That is $1 million more than we have ever raised before,” McElwain said.
The group shifted gears a bit for this campaign. Previously, The Chamber did a three-year capital campaign that raised just under $725,000. McElwain said the group was advised it could have more success if it launched a five-year capital campaign.
The biggest difference, McElwain said, was an increase in the number of people who donated to the campaign. McElwain said the campaign had 112 investors. That’s up from 79 during the last capital campaign for economic development.
So, those are all positive numbers, but if you look around the region, there are signs that other communities are even more aggressive in what they are able to privately raise for economic development efforts.
A good example is Manhattan. They are on their fourth-multiyear capital campaign for economic development. They recently finished raising funds for a new five-year capital campaign. It had a goal of $3 million, or a little less than twice the amount Lawrence just got done raising. It ended up raising about $3.2 million for the five-year period, a Manhattan chamber leader told me in a voicemail. Thus far, according to the Manhattan website touting the campaign, it lists more than 150 investors, which also is significantly more than the 112 investor total in Lawrence.
Based on information from the city of Manhattan’s website, it appears the Manhattan chamber has a good history of raising large amounts of private dollars for economic development. The numbers I’ve seen show the Manhattan chamber raised $2.7 million in private donations as part of a five-year capital campaign that ended in 2016. The chamber executive told me the two previous campaigns raised $2.3 million and $2.1 million respectively.
The chamber in Manhattan touts that just under 70 percent of its total funding comes from private sources.
Lawrence chamber leaders certainly have made it a goal to have a larger percentage of economic development funding come from private sources. Based on the most recent fundraising, the chamber has pledges that equate to about $350,000 a year in private funding for the economic development program. (That’s not counting chamber dues and other such revenue.) The Chamber in 2017 is scheduled to receive about $400,000 in public money from the city of Lawrence and Douglas County for the economic development marketing program.
As for how The Chamber will spend the private dollars it has raised, here’s a look at the proposed budget for the program:
— $108,000 per year for business retention and expansion efforts, which will include items such as site visits to corporate headquarters of firms considering expanding in Lawrence; hosting of an annual business expo; acquisition of a new software program to better track business expansion candidates and projects.
— $72,000 per year for workforce development efforts, which will include items such as additional renovation at the Peaslee Tech center; creation of a grant writer position for Peaslee Tech; and creating a program manager position for Peaslee Tech to develop custom training programs for area industrial companies. Several of those steps already are in motion. The Chamber’s document, though, lists one that will be interesting to watch in the future: “Hire a professional marketing firm to develop a campaign for a sales tax initiative.” The Chamber long has talked about how a sales tax initiative to help fund economic development could be useful for the community. It looks like The Chamber may use some of this private money to try to build political support for such a sales tax in the future.
— $108,000 per year for business recruitment and marketing efforts, which will include items such as a partnership study with the Kansas Department of Commerce and the city and the county to conduct a market study of the area; direct marketing to businesses in targeted industries; comprehensive research on area demographics.
— $45,000 per year for entrepreneurship and business startup program, which will include items such as supporting the development and growth of social networks of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists; creation of a mentorship program for local entrepreneurs; marketing of Lawrence and Douglas County as a center for entrepreneurship.
— $27,000 per year for site and infrastructure capacity projects, such as completing a study that would identify future locations for business parks; identifying “shovel-ready” sites that companies can build upon with a minimum of delays; and exploration of tax incentive zones and public funding opportunities for infrastructure.
The Chamber document lists a few measurable goals for the program. Two of the larger ones are 500 new jobs over the next five years and a 10 percent increase in the median income over five years. That last one would be a big one to accomplish. Income growth continues to be one of the more vexing problems facing the community.
In other news and notes from around town:
• You may remember that we reported in May that LMH had a plan to tear down about a half dozen single-family homes to make way for a new parking lot near the hospital. Well, city commissioners will be considering approving that plan at their 5:45 p.m. meeting today.
The homes — all of which are owned by the hospital — are basically between Third and Fourth streets and along the east side of Michigan Street. The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission approved the plan on 6-2 vote recently. Now, the project needs approval from city commissioners before it can move forward.
Once completed, the parking lot would provide about 100 new parking spaces for the hospital, which frequently faces a lack of parking. Hospital officials have said they looked into offering the homes to people who were willing to move them to a new location, but a consultant said such a plan wasn’t very feasible due to the condition of the homes. The hospital also considered building a parking garage on a current parking lot, but found that the cost to build a garage would be about $15,000 a space compared with the approximately $4,000 per space for the new surface parking lot.
Still, tearing down homes in Lawrence can be politically charged, so we’ll keep an eye on what happens tonight.
Mass Street to close for some upcoming concerts; free movie in downtown coming up; local restaurant lands in NY Times
In most cities the orange construction cones and “road closed” barricades mean crews are pouring some concrete or laying some asphalt. In Lawrence, it may be a hard substance of another kind: rock 'n' roll. Get ready for a major street closure in downtown Lawrence this weekend as part of a street party and concert.
Downtown business owner and music promoter Mike Logan has received City Hall approval to close the 1000 block of Massachusetts Street on Saturday as part of a new free concert series he is calling Live on Mass. The street will close to traffic about noon and won’t reopen until several hours after the concert ends at 11 p.m.
Logan is betting the inconvenience will be worth it to many music fans. The concert’s headliner is The Get Up Kids, an international touring act that got its start in Lawrence in the 1990s and went on to become a significant player in the emo music scene.
Now, the group will help Logan — who owns the Granada, Abe & Jake’s and other venues — answer a question: Can Massachusetts Street become a significant player in the Lawrence concert scene?
Logan has had the Live on Mass concert series idea for awhile, but the one other time he tried it, he didn’t win city approval to close the street to traffic — only large portions of sidewalk. But city commissioners granted his requests this year. The first event is Saturday, while a second event — featuring the reggae band The Wailers — is scheduled for July 2.
Logan said other cities have had success in using their downtown streets for concert venues. He estimated that Columbia, Mo., hosts about a dozen street concerts per year. The key, Logan said, is getting bands with large enough followings to attract sizable crowds.
“I’m pretty confident both of these shows will draw about 3,000 people,” Logan said. “We’re expecting a lot of out-of-town visitors for both of these acts.”
That means the concerts could provide a boost to hotel bookings, and it will represent new money coming into town and being spent at bars, restaurants, gas stations and other such businesses. Concert-goers, though, won’t be spending money on tickets. Both concerts will be free to enter, although Logan has won city approvals to sell alcohol and food at the street events.
Logan said he thinks the concert series has a chance to keep Lawrence’s live music scene alive during the summer months. He said concert-goers have really taken to the idea of outdoor music, which has fueled the growth of musical festivals. Ever since the state of Kansas turned sour on the Wakarusa Music Festival at Clinton Lake State Park several years ago, Lawrence has struggled to get into the music festival game. Organizers of the Free State Festival have closed a block of New Hampshire Street to host concerts in the past, but that festival has been downsized this year, and there will be no such street concert.
As a result, the number of summer concerts in Lawrence has also dropped, Logan said. He said many larger touring acts don’t do many of the small venue shows during the summer. They save those type of concerts for winter months. Logan said local concert-goers likely have noticed fewer summer shows scheduled for Liberty Hall, and he said his summer bookings at The Granada have been cut by about half.
“I think we need to try to prove this concept,” Logan said of the larger street concerts.
If successful, he thinks it could be a true form of economic development. He said his data shows that more than half of all the concert tickets at The Granada are bought by people who live outside of Douglas County.
“Music in this community can be a magnet for people,” Logan said.
But he said he also recognizes closing down a major city street can be a hassle for many people. He said he has won the support of fellow business owners on the 1000 block to give this a try this summer.
“I think many of them want to see how it works because they recognize there could be a greater benefit come from this,” he said.
As for details about the shows, here’s some additional information:
— Saturday’s show will feature The Get Up Kids with opening acts Making Movies, Kawehi, and Lily Pryor and Iris Hyde. Gates open at 6:30 p.m.. In the case of rain, the show will move indoors to The Granada. Admission is free.
— The July 2 show will feature The Wailers, which is a band formed by many of the remaining members of the late Bob Marley’s band. Opening acts are scheduled to include Page 7 and The Rhythm Project. Gates open at 6 p.m., and the rain venue will be The Granada. Admission is free.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe you are bit more into drama than music, a bit more into grass than the hard pavement of a city street. (I should probably clarify that for the Marley fans, but hopefully it will make sense in a second.) Downtown Lawrence Inc. this week is hosting the second of three Dinner and a Movie events on the lawn of the Lawrence Public Library.
This one will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the grassy area between the library and the city parking garage on Vermont Street. The movie will be "Lego Batman." Like I said, drama. (Put a large group of kids around a small batch of Legos, and you will see drama — and perhaps an ER trip to have a Lego removed from an inappropriate place.) While the event starts at 7:30 p.m., the movie won’t start rolling until 9 p.m.. Various food vendors will be on hand, although you can also bring your own picnic to the event. Several downtown businesses also will be giving away door prizes to those in attendance early.
The final Dinner and a Movie event for 2017 is set for July 26 at Abe & Jake’s Landing. That movie will be "Jurassic World."
• While we are in the area, I have news of a Lawrence restaurant that received some attention in The New York Times. It may not be one you would expect. It is the relatively new Lucia Beer Garden & Grill at 1016 Massachusetts, which used to house Fatso’s Bar & Grill.
As we reported in August, Mike Logan — the concert promoter from above — opened the Caribbean-themed restaurant. The menu is heavy on Jamaican items, and Logan alerted me that the restaurant landed a prominent mention in a New York Times article last month.
The Times did an article on Jamaican beef patties. If you have never had one, they are ground meat — beef suet is common — with Jamaican spices inside a flaky, golden pastry crust. Somehow The Times noticed that Lucia had the item on its menu and was doing well with it. The author of the article interviewed Logan, and Lucia’s version of the Jamaican beef patties served as the photo for the story.
You can read the full article here, and it sounds like the Jamaican patties have become a bit of a downtown street food trend. Logan has taken to selling the patties during late-night hours through a food window that opens onto Massachusetts Street.
“You can hold it with one hand,” Logan told The Times about one of the reasons the food has become popular.
He said he owed his passion to George Ricketts of G's Jamaican Quisine, in Kansas City, Mo., who introduced him to Caribbean food. "Most of my experience from Jamaican food comes from George," Mr. Logan said. He recalled the first time he tried the island food.
Maybe we’ll start honking for hemp at 23rd and Iowa. Or maybe we will figure out how to get a parking ticket at 31st and Iowa. Or perhaps we’ll have a zombie walk in front of the south Lawrence Walmart. None of that is likely to happen, (my credit card bill at Walmart puts me in a catatonic state but I wouldn’t say zombie-like.) But there soon will be a new eating and drinking establishment that aims to bring a touch of downtown to Iowa Street.
Construction work is underway to convert the vacant space that used to house the Phoggy Dog bar at 23rd and Iowa into Shaun & Sons Artisan Pub & Coffee House. Co-owner Shaun Trenholm has one way of describing the new venture.
“It will be a place with a downtown atmosphere but on the south side,” Trenholm said.
Trenholm also has another description of the place. “It will be everything the West Coast Saloon isn’t,” he said.
That’s not a knock on the longtime bar, which is next door to the space that Shaun’s will occupy. Trenholm wouldn’t do that. He has been a co-owner of West Coast for a staggering 36 years. (If I owned a bar for 36 years, ‘stagger’ would be the key adjective in every sentence.)
For example, West Coast has great hamburgers. Shaun’s menu will be all vegetarian or vegan options. Think cheese plates, soups, wraps, salads. West Coast has a full bar. Shaun’s will offer only craft beer and wine — no domestic beer or whiskey. West Coast has enough TVs to watch any sport known to man. Shaun’s will have no TVs, although it will have a meeting room with a computer monitor for presentations.
Then, there is the coffee. Shaun’s will serve several varieties of coffee from Messenger Coffee Co., a Kansas City-based company that does small-batch coffee roasting. At West Coast, I’m not sure you can get coffee even if you wake up there the next morning.
Shaun’s also plans to have live music and art shows. Trenholm said he thinks the coffeehouse and pub will be a place for new performers to get a start in Lawrence.
“It will be more like lounge music, though,” he said. “I want people to be able to talk while the music is playing.”
As for the art, he expects to have a lot of emerging artists too — mainly young students. Trenholm knows many art teachers in the Lawrence school district because he also is a teacher in the district. (P.E. at Woodlawn, if you are scoring at home.) He said he would like to get Shaun’s included in the Final Friday art events, which generally are more focused in the downtown or East Lawrence areas.
“We want to have some fun pieces on display,” Trenholm said. “Maybe we’ll even be able to sell a student piece or two.”
The most notable part of the business, though, may not have anything to do with coffee, beer or art. Instead, it may be a planned connection with local nonprofits. Trenholm’s wife, Lori, used to work in the nonprofit world, he said. She will largely run the coffeehouse operations — she’ll even have a blend named after her. Trenholm said Lori wanted to have a nonprofit element to the business, so Shaun’s will donate a portion of their gross sales to four local nonprofits. Current plans call for 2 percent of gross sales on weekdays to be split between the Lawrence Humane Society, Willow Domestic Violence Center, Cottonwood Inc. and St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church Mission to Nepal program. On Saturday nights one of the four charities will get the entire 2 percent of proceeds, he said.
The thought process behind the strategy is simple enough, Trenholm said. They like to support charity, and they think it will help the business standout too.
“We figure there are people who like coffee, there are people who like beer, and there are people who like charities,” Trenholm said. “Those people might as well come here. We think it will do a lot to spread word-of-mouth about the business.”
The business hopes to open sometime in August. Hours will be 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weeknights and 7 a.m. to midnight on Saturdays.
New Lawrence laboratory expected to bring millions in additional research dollars from the Department of Defense
KU is working to build a multimillion dollar, high-security clearance laboratory that it hopes will become one of a handful across the country that develops new technology for the U.S. military and others.
According to a KU document and local economic development officials, renovation work is set to begin on a $4 million project to convert vacant space on KU’s West Campus into a National Security Laboratory that will enable KU scientists to concentrate on conducting research for the Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies.
“This is a big deal for KU and Lawrence,” said G.R. Underwood, president of the Bioscience and Technology Business Center on West Campus.
The National Security Lab will locate in a 7,000 square-foot windowless basement of the BTBC building, 2029 Becker Drive. Underwood said construction on parts of the project is expected to begin in the next few days.
“We were worried about how we were ever going to rent this space because it doesn’t have any windows,” Underwood said. “They looked at it and said, ‘this will be great for security.’”
Local economic development leaders are optimistic the facility also will be great for the Lawrence economy. According to the KU document, the laboratory is expected to have about 30 to 40 employees and an annual payroll of about $12 million by 2021. KU hopes to open the laboratory in the spring of 2018.
A more eye-popping number, though, is the amount of federal research dollars the facility is expected to attract. KU currently does about $1 million a year in research related to the Department of Defense. With the laboratory in place, KU believes it could see that total grow to about $20 million within three years. KU officials have noted that while federal research dollars from institutions like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are relatively flat, Department of Defense research dollars are growing nationally.
“It makes good sense for KU to to pursue defense-related projects,” according to the KU document, which is a fact sheet distributed to certain members of the community.
If KU is successful in attracting that level of Department of Defense funding, Underwood is confident Lawrence will attract several private companies that want to be close to the laboratory.
“There are very large members of private industry who will want to be near that research,” Underwood said.
Larry McElwain, president and CEO of the Lawrence chamber of commerce, said the laboratory could be a major driver of high-tech business growth in Lawrence for years to come, especially if the laboratory can win a special designation from the Department of Defense.
The KU document confirms a goal of the laboratory is to become a University Affiliated Research Center. The Department of Defense provides that designation to university laboratories where critical research is conducted. Currently, there are only 13 of those laboratories in the country, with many of them at top research universities, including MIT, John Hopkins, Penn State and the University of Texas. Closer to home, the University of Nebraska established a center in 2012 that has gained the designation. It researches technology to combat weapons of mass destruction.
It is a little unclear to me what the mission would be of a KU/Department of Defense Laboratory. The KU document states likely research areas could include “radar, remote sensing, math, unmanned aerial vehicles, signal processing and sensors.”
I’ve heard two particular KU components have played major roles in getting the project to this point. One is the Information and Telecommunications Technology Center that is located on KU’s West Campus. It has been a longtime research center that has done work on some of the first Internet search engines, bioinformatics, radar, radio frequencies and other such subjects.
I’ve also heard that the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets is a player in all of this. KU is the lead agency for seven institutions that conduct research on the melting ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. Maybe the Department of Defense is taking a keener interest in those melting ice sheets, or perhaps the remote sensing technology that the scientists have developed has military applications. I’m not sure.
I’ve got a call into a KU official to learn more about the project. I’ll let you know when I hear more.
As for the money part of all this, the KU document states the Bioscience and Technology Business Center — which is a joint venture between KU, the city, the county, the chamber and the state — will pay to build the lab. But, BTBC will get a $4 million loan from the KU Center for Research Inc. that will be used to finance the improvements. BTBC will pay off the 20-year loan by charging rent to the KU researchers who use the lab, according to the document.
It is probably not coincidental that while this laboratory project is gaining steam BTBC leaders are becoming more serious about planning an expansion of the BTBC building.
Underwood confirmed that planning work is underway for a phase III of the building. But unlike the previous two stages, the addition likely would not be set up to be an incubator for new and emerging businesses. Instead, it may focus on having space for two or three larger, well-established businesses who want to be close to the the research that is underway at KU. That could be the Defense Department type of research that would occur in this new lab, pharmaceutical research that occurs at the pharmacy school across the street or companies who want to be close to the large engineering school that KU houses.
In the past, expansions of the BTBC building have meant major financial commitments from the city of Lawrence and Douglas County. Underwood stopped short of saying that would be the case this time. He didn’t rule it out, but he did say there is likely more potential for a private partner helping to build the space this time around.
Underwood said there is space at the current BTBC site to house an expansion. No decisions have been made about whether to move forward with such an expansion, but it sounds like those could be coming.
A look at a unique eastside housing development and why the city may spend nearly $60K to save a tree in it
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the City Commission took action on the purchase of the lot at its Tuesday meeting. The item was on the agenda for consideration but final action was deferred pending more research.
A new Lawrence housing development is going to have a very special tree. It has to be special. The city of Lawrence is considering spending nearly $60,000 to save it.
Forget the old question of “have you hugged a tree today?” The new question is whether you have talked to your banker about one?
But this tree may be worth the trouble. It is estimated to be about 100 years old and one of the largest bur oak trees in the entire state. Soon, one of Lawrence’s more unique housing developments will sprout up next to it.
The owners of Struct/Restruct, a Lawrence-based design and construction firm, will build eight new houses on the property just east of 12th Street and Haskell Avenue, on the site that used to house the salvage yard for the 12th and Haskell Recycling Center. Original plans called for the development to have nine houses, but city officials are considering buying one of the lots to save the big oak.
Struct/Restruct owners Eric Jay and Matt Jones didn’t have plans to cut the tree down, but they did plan to build a house on the lot where the tree sits. City officials expressed concern that homebuilding on the lot may harm the tree’s root system or require some of its massive canopy to be disturbed.
Ultimately the city may decide the solution is to buy the lot to ensure a home would not be built on it. The city is considering to pay $58,000 for the lot, which is what a private appraiser pegged its value at. As part of the deal, the Struct/Restruct duo is donating an additional 2.3 acres of open space that is just north of the housing development. The property would have been difficult to develop, and Struct/Restruct hopes the city someday will use the property for a park.
To find out more about the tree, I’ve got a call in to a couple of Parks and Recreation officials, who I believe were instrumental in convincing the city to purchase the lot. In the information provided to commissioners, there wasn’t a whole lot of detail about the tree, other than it is estimated to be more than 100 years old and is a “majestic” and “large, towering specimen.”
Jay said he had heard that it was the second largest bur oak in the state, but I haven’t been able to confirm that. In case you are curious, the champion bur oak tree in Kansas is in Pottawatomie County and has a nearly 21-inch trunk, stands 93 feet tall and has a crown of nearly 90 feet, according to a recent publication from the Kansas Forestry Service. The second-place finisher is not published, but it seems like the Lawrence oak is in that ballpark.
The tree, though, isn’t the only thing to watch for in that neighborhood. As I mentioned earlier, the housing development will be unique. Struct/Restruct builds modern homes, and a requirement for buying a lot in the development is that Struct/Restruct will be the builder and the design will have to meet certain guidelines established by the company.
The homes can be kind of tough to describe, as Jay struggled to put the design philosophy into words. I did an article on the company and its string of renovations in the 900 block of Delaware in 2012. Back then I described their designs as featuring unique peaks, sheets of glass, and nontraditional exteriors of concrete, stainless steel cables and distinctive timber.
Many of the homes often use timber that came from Lawrence trees or reuse items that have a history in the community, such as the roof sheathing that was removed as part of the renovation of the Poehler Lofts building in East Lawrence. It now serves as ceiling planks in one of the homes along Delaware Street.
Jay said interest in the housing development — which has land prices of about $70,000 per lot — is strong, with a few lots already having letters of intent signed.
“They range from a couple in their early 40s with no kids to a couple who are nearing retirement,” he said. “It is all over the board, really. I think people want to be closer to walkable stuff, including downtown.”
Jay said he thinks the entire Brook Creek Neighborhood is on the rise. The neighborhood is only a few blocks from the burgeoning Warehouse Arts District, which includes the Poehler Lofts and other new living units. Brook Creek also was the neighborhood where KU’s Studio 804 architecture class built its new concept house, which Jay said has been attracting strong interest from buyers.
“I think you are going to start seeing a lot more buying of properties in Brook Creek,” Jay said.
Some of you may be wondering about what the city’s plans are for the lot it purchased and the more than two acres of open space that was donated. I haven’t seen any specific plans, and they likely will be a while in the making. The properties are adjacent to the city’s Brook Creek Park, so it would be natural for it to be an extension of that space.
Some of you may remember that there briefly was talk about using the 2-acre site to house a BMX bicycle track. Jones, one of the co-owners of Struct/Restruct, is a BMX fan. Back in 2013, I reported that he was considering using the 2-acre site to house a BMX pump track.
Jay said folks shouldn’t necessarily count on that happening. He said the city has been made aware that there is an interest in such a BMX track, but Jay said the city hasn’t made any commitment to use the land that way.
“I think they are probably skeptical from an accessibility standpoint, getting emergency vehicles in and out of there, plus other traffic issues,” Jay said.
Once the land is transferred to the city, it will be up to the city to decide what to do with it, and Jay said the deal wasn’t contingent on any BMX plans.
Did you hear about the time that ...
The city of Lawrence once got a $1,000 check in the mail and didn’t know why? It sent the check back to the company. The company then turned around and sent the check back to the city again, this time with a copy of a 1997 agreement proving that it really did owe the city $1,000.
Or the time the city in 2004 was owed about $1.2 million by Douglas County for its share of construction costs for a new fire station? For reasons that still aren’t clear, it took eight years for the payment matter to get resolved.
Perhaps you have heard that the city has hired an auditor to investigate concerns that the city’s accounts receivables department has not properly been sending out thousands of dollars worth of invoices for several years.
The two examples above, though, don’t come from that recent report. Instead, those were discoveries made years ago by the city’s own in-house auditor. There were other findings as well about how the city staff handles billings, cash and other financial matters. But none of those findings sparked a broader review, and now the embattled city auditor — the city manager is recommending his position be cut in the 2018 budget — is expressing some disappointment about that.
“I’m very glad they are working on this,” City Auditor Michael Eglinski said of the city manager’s decision to hire an outside accountant to review the city’s accounts receivables operations. “I’m a little frustrated that they didn’t work on it earlier.”
As concerns have grown about the city’s accounts receivable practices — thus far it has been discovered that the city had forgotten to send bills to a variety of companies that lease property from the city — Eglinski has compiled a memo detailing several instances where he previously raised concerns about the city’s financial practices.
Among the findings from past Eglinski audits:
• A $75,000 contribution that developers were required to make to the city’s affordable housing trust fund was collected past its deadline in March 2016. An invoice for the amount was only sent after Englinski inquired about it, he said. Eglinski reported that incident to city commissioners in a July 2016 audit.
• In May 2014, the city was due to receive a $460,000 payment from Douglas County related to infrastructure at the East Hills Business Park. But by July 2016, the county had still not received the payment, Eglinski found. City officials contend that they had not lost track of that issue, but rather were trying to decide whether to forgive the county of the payment. However, it is unclear why that issue wasn’t addressed in 2014, at the due date of the payment. Eventually, after Eglinski’s audit came out in 2016, the city waived the payment requirement for the county.
• The city failed to collect a $1,000 application fee from a development group led by Thomas Fritzel as part of the Rock Chalk Park project. The fee had been due in February 2013, but the city did not seek to collect until July 2014, after Eglinski made his finding in an audit that was presented to city commissioners.
• In a 2013 audit, Eglinski noted that in 2004 the city was due a $1.26 million payment from Douglas County for its share of the construction of Fire Station No. 5. The county shares in fire station costs because the stations also house the ambulance service, which serves the entire county. In the audit, Eglinski found that “the city never received the original payment and may have never requested it.” In 2012, the issue was still outstanding, and the city ended up receiving a $1.26 million credit from Douglas County. That credit was applied to the city’s share of the construction cost related to work at the Emergency Communications Center, which serves both the city and the county. It is still unclear why there was an 8-year gap in resolving the payment issue. As far as I know, the city did not receive any interest on the more than $1 million for the eight years.
• As part of his work on a 2014 audit, while looking for something else, Eglinski inadvertently discovered a situation where the city received a check for $1,000 from a company in 2013. The staff couldn’t figure out the purpose of the payment. The city kept the check for eight months before returning it to the company. The company then sent the check to the city again, this time with a copy of a 1997 agreement showing that the $1,000 payment was due to the city. I know, you want to know the company and what the check was for. Eglinski didn’t have those details immediately available, but I’ve asked for them.
Eglinski doesn’t raise these issues in a vacuum. He raises them at a time when the future of the city auditor position is in question. For the second year in a row, City Manager Tom Markus has recommended eliminating the position from the city’s budget. City commissioners last year rejected that part of Markus’ budget. They’re set to start debating the 2018 budget next week.
Eglinski points to his past findings as evidence that that position can alert commissioners to significant problems. However, he also acknowledges that despite the past findings, he did not make a recommendation that the city undertake a full-scale audit of its accounts receivables department.
Markus also noted that, and said that is one of the shortcomings of the city auditor position. It often finds individual problems, but does not do as good of job of finding systemic problems.
“He can make the argument that we should have surmised there was a larger problem, but the way the process is set up, he lists specific recommendations, staff deals with them, moves on and waits for him to reveal some other shortcomings,” Markus said.
Markus said he’s comfortable eliminating the auditor position because he thinks there are other ways to evaluate the city’s performance. He also noted that residents shouldn’t be confused that eliminating the position would eliminate the city’s annual financial audit. Eglinski is a performance auditor, not a financial auditor or certified public accountant. The city contracts with a financial auditing firm to conduct its annual audit.
Markus, who has been Lawrence's city manager since March 2016, said he's committed to finding such problems and correcting them. He notes that the city's finance director uncovered the current billing issues, and the city immediately made public the concern.
Unlike other city employees, Eglinski does not report to the city manager, but rather reports directly to the City Commission, which gives the position a unique amount of independence in City Hall.
Eglinski contends that his audits can and have been used to make systemwide improvements. But he said the auditor position could be improved if the city commission would create an “audit committee.” That would be a group that involves up to two city commissioners and several community members who have some expertise in either finance, public administration or other such subject.
“That group would help with audit topic selection and follow-up,” he said. “They would have more time to spend looking in detail at the audit recommendations.”
Silicon Valley tech firm reaches deal to bring jobs, ‘center of excellence’ to KU campus; local companies win top biotech awards
An emerging Silicon Valley tech company plans to hire about 20 engineers for its new operations center on KU’s West Campus.
Rubrik, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company that specializes in managing data for cloud computing users, has plans to open The Rubrik Center for Excellence in the technology incubator building — the Bioscience and Technology Business Center — on KU’s West Campus.
In talking with an official from Rubrik, it sounds like the center will play a key role in providing customer support for the company’s clients. But in a twist, the company is going to use actual engineers to provide that customer support rather than people who may have a lesser understanding of the technology.
“We don’t want customers to get the basic support services of asking whether everything is plugged in, ‘have you restarted your computer,' that sort of thing,” Gerry Garwood, regional sales manager for Kansas and Missouri told me. “We feel like customer support is an area of tremendous deficiency in the IT world right now.”
It is an interesting idea. My father-in-law is an engineer, but I’m not sure I see him in a customer support role. Every time I ask for advice, he just mumbles something about a time machine to take him back to the day I married his daughter.
But I also sense that the company plans to do more than just customer support at the center. In the press release announcing the creation of the center, Garwood said the hope is the center becomes a larger hub for research.
“Inspired by the Research Triangle in North Carolina, we expect the Rubrik Center for Excellence adjacent to the University of Kansas in Lawrence to become a hub for research, innovation and training in the Midwest.”
As for why Lawrence and KU was chosen for the center, Garwood said some of the company’s first clients actually were in the Kansas City area. That led company founders to become familiar with the area, which put KU on their radar screen when they came up with the idea of having a center that was located on a university campus.
Whatever the reason, Rubrik now is a company local economic development leaders will want to keep an eye on. The company has only been in business for about three years, but it has generated significant interest in the Silicon Valley tech world. According to an April article in Bloomberg, the company recently raised $180 million in venture capital funding, which now puts the total value of the company at $1.3 billion.
According to the article, the company had about 330 employees at the time, and was adding about 70 to 80 employees per quarter. The company also was adding about 75 to 85 new customers per quarter, according to Bloomberg.
You may be wondering, though, what is it that the company actually does. Well, it is data management. I’ll explain, but you should know that I have an email inbox that proves data management is not my strong suit. (It also proves that if robots ever take over the world, they’ll do so while us humans are checking the 25,000 emails they’ve sent us about the one food you should never eat if you want a flat belly.)
But based on what I’ve read about the company, it has created a software product that allows for the easy backup, security, recovery and management of data. Importantly, the software program works for both data that is stored on a server that is on-site or for data that is stored off-site as part of cloud servers hosted by Amazon, Microsoft or others. That seems to be a key selling point for the company, which says it is approaching $100 million in annualized bookings.
The company hopes to hire the engineers by the end of 2017. Garwood said the workforce likely would be a mix of new engineering graduates and some more experienced engineers. Garwood is supposed to be getting me more information about expected pay ranges for the new positions. I’ll let you know what I hear.
I believe officials at the Bioscience and Technology Business Center — which is a partnership between, KU, the city, the county, the chamber and others — are pretty excited about the new tenant. GR Underwood, president of the BTBC, said in a statement that Rubrik can be a centerpiece to a much larger vision of uniting “private industry, academia, local researchers, and entrepreneurs” on the KU campus.
I’ve got a call into Underwood to find out a bit more and to get a general update on the BTBC. I’ll let you know when I hear more.
I do have one other piece of BTBC news. Two companies that are based at the BTBC recently won top awards at an international agriculture biotech event.
PrairieChar and Integrated Animal Health took first and second-place awards respectively in the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s 2017 Ag Biotech Entrepreneurial Showcase.
PrairieChar won first-place and a $10,000 cash prize as part of the event, which featured about 500 businesses competing for the top prize. PrairieChar is developing a technology that deconstructs animal manure and turns it into useful products. One product is fertilizer, while another is as a fuel source. PrairieChar is touting it is a cleaner burring fuel alternative to coal. The award is expected to give the company a boost beyond just the $10,000 cash prize.
“The North Carolina International Ag Biotech Showcase turned out to be a much bigger deal for PrairieChar than expected, and we were humbled to win first place,” CEO Robert Herrington said in a statement.
Integrated Animal Health was one of the other 12 finalist chosen to compete for the top prize. It received a runner-up award. Integrated Animal Health is a firm we’ve reported on before. In April 2015 the Australian firm announced it was moving its headquarters to Lawrence. The company has a product that reduces antibiotic use in dairy herds, and also conducts research related to foods, medicines and other products for livestock, pets and even wildlife.
Development group wins legal victory related to downtown grocery store; Price Chopper project expected to gain steam
A plan to build a downtown grocery store at Seventh and New Hampshire streets is closer to becoming a reality after the development group won a recent legal victory in Douglas County District Court.
If you remember, we reported in December that a lawsuit had been filed by two owners of condos in the Hobbs Taylor Lofts building. The two owners were objecting to how the development was trying to change a set of covenants that prohibit a grocery store being constructed on the former Borders Bookstore site, which is adjacent to Hobbs Taylor Lofts.
The two condo owners — Brian Russell and Brent Flanders — argued that in order for the covenants to be changed to allow a grocery store, every condo owner had to agree. The development group — led by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor — argued otherwise. Douglas County District Court Judge Kay Huff sided with the development group.
Now, look for work to accelerate on building a Queen’s Price Chopper on the site.
“We’ll really start the process of going through city approvals now,” said Bill Fleming, an attorney who represents the development group.
As we have reported, plans call for the former Borders bookstore site to be razed. It would be replaced with a three-story building that would include a ground-floor grocery store and two levels of apartments above. The project also would have a below-ground parking garage, in addition to some surface parking.
Plans call for a full-service store, including a pharmacy, a Mongolian grill, a salad bar and lots of other grab-and-go items that likely will be a game-changer in the busy downtown. The lawsuit was a potential stumbling block. If the court had ruled in favor of the condo owners, the project could have been in jeopardy because there is little dispute that the current covenants won’t allow for a grocery store.
There is always a chance that the condo owners will appeal the decision. One of the owners, Russell, is an attorney, so you can’t rule out an appeal. I’ve got a call into him for comment. (UPDATE: I heard back from Russell, and he said he will file an appeal with the Kansas Court of Appeals seeking a reversal of the decision. How such an appeal would impact the ability of the project to move forward is a bit unclear to me, but Russell said the issue will continue to be a major hurdle for the project. "If you were hoping to buy groceries there soon, I'm sorry. I think it will be months or years before anybody is buying groceries over there, even if we lose the case," he said.)
Regardless of the lawsuit issue, hurdles for the project remain. I assure, you the laws of nature and collusion among health insurers dictate that it can never be easy to put in an all-you-can eat food bar across the street from my office. (The Borders building is catty-corner from the J-W offices.) The new hurdle is now about financial incentives for the project.
Developers have been upfront that the project is going to need some financial help.
“There is a reason there is not a grocery store there now,” Fleming said.
Even at about 40,000 square feet, the grocery store still will be smaller than many of the grocery stores in other parts of Lawrence. Grocery stores make their money on volume, and a smaller store cuts down on that volume. Plus, the fact this site will need some underground parking to be feasible also adds to the costs, Fleming said.
The development will seek Tax Increment Financing. That is a program where new property and sales taxes generated by the development are rebated back to the development for several years in order to help pay for infrastructure, like the parking garage.
The project also plans to seek a $2.25 million low-interest or no-interest loan that would be given to Queen's Price Chopper company. The loan would be used to equip the store. It would be paid back to the city, as long as the store met certain financial benchmarks. But if the store doesn’t perform as well as expected, the loan would perhaps not have to be paid back. The details on that arrangement likely will be important.
Incentive requests at Lawrence City Hall can be stickier than that unfortunate incident involving my “experimentation” with the grocery store’s self-serve peanut butter machine. But if there is ever going to be a smooth-sailing incentives request, this may be it. People have been talking about the need for a downtown grocery store for decades. The talk has intensified in recent years as wellness advocates have said many central Lawrence and North Lawrence residents live in a “food desert,” meaning they don’t have easy access to fresh, healthy food.
So, expect several community members to speak in favor of this request. But, I’m also picking up on certain segments of the community who may think the food desert idea is overblown — they note there is a Dillons grocery store at 17th and Massachusetts. History also has shown that building a multistory building in downtown also can spark debates about design guidelines, encroachment on neighborhoods and other such matters.
In some ways, we are set to find out how much some people hate financial incentives and how much other people really believe in the idea of a grocery store being the lynchpin for downtown becoming a hip 24-hour district that has far more people living in it than is the case today.
Fleming said the development group already is filling out the applications for the city incentives. The group also will be seeking federal tax credits through a program that is designed to support community initiatives, such as eliminating food deserts. Those tax credits are awarded as apart of a a competitive process, but the development group has expressed optimism about receiving the credits.
One incentive that won’t be sought is a special taxing district that would add up to a 1 percent special sales tax on the purchase of groceries at the site.
Fleming said the development group also is in the process of filing the paperwork needed for the city to conduct design review to ensure the project meets the historic design guidelines that are required for downtown projects. That means the project will have to go through the Historic Resources Commission, which at times can be a lengthy process.
Fleming hopes to have city approvals within the next four months, which could allow construction to begin in the spring.
As for the court’s decision on the lawsuit, it was pretty technical in nature. However, Judge Huff did note that 38 of the 40 condo owners seem to be in favor of the project. She also noted that the two objecting condo owners hadn’t provided good evidence about why living next to a grocery store would be harmful.
“Petitioners provided no evidence indicating how living next to a grocery store would differ dramatically from living next to a bookstore or any other commercial development, for that matter,” Huff wrote in her opinion.
Thankfully, I was not called as an expert witness in this case because I can attest that Tolstoy has never added 25 pounds to me, but the year I lived next to the Dillons fried chicken counter sure did. (Now, Harry Potter books have proved to be dangerous, but that is mainly because I didn’t realize how pointy my wizard’s hat was.)
If I hear more on whether the case will be appealed, or other matters related to the incentives, I’ll let you know.
The idea of a major new shopping center south of the South Lawrence Trafficway has new life — and a new plan that is much larger than the one city commissioners already have rejected for the site.
Plans have been filed at City Hall for a 585,000 square-foot shopping center for the southeast corner of the interchange of the SLT and U.S. Highway 59. Plans call for about 395,000 square feet of retail development, about 50,000 square feet of new restaurants and 140,000 square feet of new hotels. The development would be one of the largest in the city, with plans showing room for more than a half-dozen large retailers and another 15 or so smaller retailers and restaurants. In the past, Academy Sports, Old Navy, HomeGoods, and Designer Shoe Warehouse have been among the firms the developer has identified as having a strong interest in the project.
The same North Carolina-based development group that previously has tried to develop the property — Collett development — is behind this proposal. The development group currently is suing the City Commission over its January 2016 denial of a 250,000 square-foot shopping center development for the property. But the new proposal may be an indication that the city is ready to rethink its past denial. City Manager Tom Markus confirmed to me that he has talked with the development group.
“I indicated to them that my preference would be for them to plan the whole site, and not just a piece of the site,” Markus said.
However, just because the city manager has shown an interest in the project doesn’t mean that it is set to win city approval. The city’s planning staff has recommended approval of the other two previous plans for the site. It was at the Planning Commission and the City Commission where those plans met their downfall. That could still happen with this proposal.
“It still has to go through the process, and the public process still has to be honored,” Markus said.
Markus, though, does think there are some significant differences between this proposal and previous ones. “I think it is substantially more environmentally designed in terms of protecting the (adjacent) wetlands and the watershed,” Markus said.
Dan Watkins, a Lawrence attorney who represents the development group, highlighted several differences between this plan and the previous ones. They include:
• The potential relocation of a frontage road would allow more of the development to be on the northern part of the site, which means it would be farther away from the Wakarusa River.
• The development group has a tentative deal for Baker University to take ownership of 55 acres of property on the southern portion of the site. That property, which is in the floodplain and near the river, would be dedicated as open space and would be managed by Baker, which also manages the Baker Wetlands to the east. The area would have a public easement to allow for a trail or other such use to be built on it.
• The project would be developed under a special part of the city code called a development overlay district. That gives the city greater ability to apply certain design guidelines to the project.
What hasn’t changed from the past plans is that the development group is not asking for any city incentives or tax breaks to build the project, Watkins said.
City commissioners in January 2016 rejected the smaller proposal on a 4-1 vote. So, obviously, at least two votes will have to change for this project to win commission approval. It will make for interesting political drama, especially given that this project will be happening during the middle of a City Commission campaign. Three of the five seats are up for election. A primary will be in August and the general election in November.
But if you are more interested in shopping than politics, there’s plenty to talk about on that front too. The plan would make way for several new big box retailers to come to town. And while the development group hasn’t specifically mentioned Costco or Sam’s Club, a representative seemed to hint at that when I talked with him Tuesday.
Brian Sturm, a planner with Lawrence-based Landplan Engineering, noted that there are a number of buildings between 12,000 and 65,000 square feet that could accommodate a number of national retailers. The group previously had said it had interest from tenants including Academy Sports, Old Navy, Designer Shoe Warehouse, HomeGoods and others. But Sturm also noted that the plans included one large building that he said could be “devoted to a membership wholesale club type of store.”
There has been a lot of smoke for a long time about Costco locating in Lawrence, but nothing has come up, even though the rumor has been in the wind for a couple of years. Certainly a competing development group — led by the local Schwada and Fritzel families — has been working to get Costco to come to its commercially zoned property near Rock Chalk Park in northwest Lawrence. At this point, I’m not sure I’ll believe any Costco rumblings until I see them break ground.
As for potential tenants, Sturm said Collett reports that interest from retailers has been strong as they’ve seen the South Lawrence Trafficway open.
“They’ve been in discussions with a number of different retailers who are anxious to locate in Lawrence,” Sturm said.
Watkins is hoping that the completion of the trafficway — the state completed the SLT late last year after more than 25 years of debate and delay — will cause commissioners to rethink their positions. “In past conversations, the trafficway wasn’t there,” Watkins said. “It is today, and it has made this is a logical place for this type of development.”
As City Commission candidates get ready to talk about adding jobs, here’s a look at how Lawrence is actually doing
We are now officially in campaign season for the Lawrence City Commission. There are several things you can count on: There will be free cookies at the North Lawrence Improvement Association candidate forum; all candidate forums would be improved with the addition of free cookies; and candidates will talk about how adding jobs to the community is critical.
Indeed, adding jobs to the community is important, but I’m not sure there are many people in the community who could actually quote you any statistics on how we’re doing in that regard. To be fair, it is difficult because job numbers are a bit like the presidential Twitter account — ever in motion and subject to interpretation.
The most common job number you see for Lawrence/Douglas County is the unemployment rate. As part of its calculation, it includes a jobs number. But that number is not particularly meaningful if you are trying to hold city commissioners' feet to the fire on promises to bring more jobs to town. The jobs numbers used in unemployment figures don’t measure how many jobs exist in Douglas County. Instead, they measure how many people in Douglas County have a job. That means the local unemployment rate could drop but we haven’t added any jobs at all. Instead, Kansas City has added jobs, and residents of Douglas County are driving over to K.C. to work at them.
But fear not. There are bureaucrats who measure how many jobs exist in Douglas County. The problem is they are measured monthly, and one month’s worth of data isn’t very useful.
The latest such numbers were released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics a couple of days ago, and they are for April. They show Lawrence/Douglas County nonfarm businesses had an estimated 56,200 people on their payrolls — an increase of 200 people from April 2016. That’s an increase of 0.4 percent. That was a better performance than the state as a whole, which saw job numbers decline by about 7,200 people or 0.5 percent. Compared with other regional metro areas, Lawrence didn’t fare as well. Here’s a look:
— Iowa City: up 2.8 percent
— Kansas City: up 2.2 percent
— Boulder, Colo.: up 2 percent
— Ames, Iowa: up 1.5 percent
— Topeka: up 1.4 percent
— Lawton, Okla.: up 1.1 percent
— Manhattan: up 0.9 percent
— Columbia, Mo.: up 0.6 percent
— St. Joseph, Mo.: up 0.5 percent
— Lawrence: up 0.4 percent
— Wichita: down 0.2 percent
— Grand Junction, Colo.: down 0.8 percent
— Joplin, Mo.: down 1.1 percent
But again, that is just one month. In Douglas County, the increases may be entirely attributable to the increase in forklift operators who help my family stack the candy we buy at post-Easter sales. Once the candy is gone, so are the jobs. In other words, there can be a lot of seasonal variations.
So, what I’ve done below is look at each month’s data going back to January 2017. I looked at the percentage of increase or decline for the number of jobs in each of the communities. That allowed me to create an average. It gives us an idea of whether we’ve been constantly adding or losing jobs compared with the same period a year ago.
The good news from the numbers is that Lawrence has added jobs every month in 2017. The bad news is that Lawrence is adding jobs at less than half the rate of either Kansas City or Topeka. Here’s a look:
— Iowa City: 2017 Average: up 3 percent
— Kansas City: 2017 Average: up 2.6 percent
— Topeka: 2017 Average: up 2.3 percent
— Boulder: 2017 Average: up 2.3 percent
— Ames: 2017 Average: up 1.6 percent
— Lawrence: 2017 Average: up 1.1 percent
— Manhattan: 2017 Average: up 1 percent
— Columbia: 2017 Average: up 1 percent
— St. Joseph: 2017 Average: up 0.9 percent
— Lawton: 2017 Average: up 0.6 percent
— Wichita: 2017 Average: down 0.4 percent
— Grand Junction: 2017 Average: down 0.5 percent
— Joplin: 2017 Average: down 1.1 percent
Now that I’ve done the initial leg work on this, I’ll try to keep it updated monthly — or, I may get sidetracked by the cookies.
Kansas City firm seeking financial incentives from City Hall to construct industrial buildings at VenturePark
A Kansas City real estate company is seeking city tax abatements and free land to construct up to $31 million of industrial buildings aimed at luring the first tenant to Lawrence VenturePark.
Officials with VanTrust Real Estate have filed an application seeking up to a 70 percent property tax break and up to six free parcels of land in the city-owned industrial park on the eastern edge of Lawrence. VanTrust doesn’t have a tenant for any of the proposed industrial space, but rather it would be built on speculation.
“Spec” industrial buildings have become a trend in the Kansas City market, and involve a developer constructing a large building and hoping that the presence of the building will entice companies to consider the area for their next project.
“I think this building would open people’s eyes,” Steve Kelly, vice president of economic development for the Lawrence chamber of commerce, said. “I think it will get us a lot more looks. We get a lot of requests from companies who want to see existing space, and in this market that doesn’t exist right now.”
City of Lawrence officials have sought to capitalize off the speculative building trend in Kansas City to spur development at Lawrence VenturePark, which continues to be vacant nearly three years after its opening. The City Commission recently approved an incentives program — called the Catalyst Program — that would offer several financial incentives to qualified companies who would build a spec industrial building in VenturePark or adjacent East Hills Business Park. VanTrust is the first applicant seeking to use the program.
The program offers a 50 percent, 10-year tax abatement for the construction of a standard industrial buildings or a 70 percent, 10-year tax abatement for the construction of a building that meets certain environmental and energy-efficiency guidelines. Importantly, the incentive program also would provide free land to the developers, as long as they follow through on the project.
According to the application filed at City Hall, VanTrust would like to build three industrial buildings at VenturePark. The first would be a 152,000 square-foot building located at the northeast corner of 23rd Street and O’Connell Road, which is at the entrance to the business park. The second building also would be 152,000 square feet in size and would be located just east of the first building. The third building would be about 250,000 square feet and would be built on four smaller lots that are north and west of 23rd and O’Connell.
The application indicated the buildings would be built in phases, perhaps meaning that the second and third buildings would not be built until a tenant had been secured for the first building.
I’ve got calls into VanTrust and to city economic development officials. I’ll let you know when I hear more about the project.
City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday will be asked to accept the application for incentives, and set a date of July 11 to consider granting the incentives. The incentive process will be an unusual one for the city. Typically, the key determinant in whether the city grants a tax break has been the number of jobs and the quality of jobs that a company is proposing to bring to town. In this case, commissioners will be asked to approve the tax abatement before knowing what company may occupy the building.
Instead, commissioners will have to evaluate VanTrust and its ability to bring high-quality tenants to the facility. VanTrust is based in Kansas City but has developments across the country, including retail and apartment developments. The company has about 11 million square feet of industrial developments, according to its application.
Kelly said the company has been successful at constructing and leasing industrial buildings.
“I think they are well-respected, and they are well-positioned to do a quality project,” Kelly said. “They also should have a good pipeline of potential tenants.
The company has attracted some high-profile tenants to other industrial buildings that it has constructed on spec. According to its website, the company landed UPS as a tenant for a 275,000 square-foot warehouse near Cincinnati. It also landed Tower International, an automotive parts manufacturer, as a tenant in a 500,000 square-foot warehouse near Louisville. Closer to Lawrence, the company owns the Woodend Industrial Building in Edwardsville that houses Alphabroder, a distributor of sportswear and accessories.
According to VanTrust’s website, the company has about a half dozen industrial sites under development across the country, including in Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Indiana.
VanTrust’s Lawrence project is potentially asking for about 45 acres of free property in VenturePark, which is located on the former site of the Farmland Industries fertilizer plant. If the project was approved, there would still be 11 additional lots — totaling about 210 acres — that would still be available for other development.
While VenturePark doesn’t yet have a tenant, Menards previously had committed to build a warehouse and distribution center that would employ about 100 people at the park. The home improvement retailer, however, has put those plan on indefinite hold. Kelly said there has been no new information from Menards on whether it may again consider the Lawrence project. However, Kelly noted that the VanTrust project is not seeking any of the lots that Menards has sought.
If my wife and I decided to start a business where we had to share space in the kitchen, the specialty of the house would be earplugs. But a desire to work with his wife and children was one of the driving forces behind Jose Pepe Lopez’s decision to open a new Mexican restaurant in west Lawrence.
Acapulco Mexican Restaurant opened a couple of weeks ago in the shopping center at Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive. For the last couple of years Lopez had been looking for a location downtown to open a small Mexican market that would sell food and drink items for people to make their own Latin creations. But he never could find the right spot or for the right price, so he shifted gears and went back to his restaurant roots.
Lopez for several years has been part of the group that operates Cielito Lindo in downtown Lawrence. But that restaurant was missing something: Lopez’s family.
“My wife has been wanting to work for quite awhile, but she hasn’t been able to because of the kids and the language barrier,” Lopez said. “Now we can all work together. My kids want to work and they are happy to work.”
Everybody in the family has a role, including one of the older children who watches the youngest member of the family, a 3-year old. Lopez’s role is in the kitchen. Lopez admits the menu for Acapulco is very similar to the menu for Cielito Lindo. But he also notes that he’s prone to experimentation in the kitchen. If he hears from diners that they would like a little something different, he’s game for taking requests.
“I like to do things that go beyond the menu,” Lopez said. “Some cooks go by the book only. But if I have the ingredients to make it, I will try to make it.”
The menu as it is, though, already is large. It, of course, includes all the traditional tacos, burritos and enchiladas. But it also has some more complex dishes. The menu includes about a dozen seafood dishes, with a heavy emphasis on shrimp but also several dishes with fish and scallops. The lunch menu includes four egg dishes, including the traditional huevos rancheros and the less common huevos divorciados. Yes, that sounds like a dish that would be on the menu if my wife and I ran a restaurant. However, the recipe does not include alimony and me living in a cardboard box. Rather, it is one over-easy egg covered in green sauce, one over-easy egg covered in red sauce, and beans and tortillas.
Lopez said perhaps the best dish in the restaurant also may be a surprise to some, in part, because it doesn’t come wrapped in a tortilla or a shell. It is pollo fundido, which is a Mexican-style chicken breast served with rice, beans, chorizo and cheese sauce.
If you want something in a tortilla, though, Lopez is pretty proud of the tacos pepe, which are named after him. Those are three tacos filled with steak, chorizo, and pico de gallo. There is also a version that comes with pineapples and onions.
Then there is the salsa. Meals are served with three varieties and three colors — a jalapeno, a habanero and a tomatillo salsa. This sounds great, but for someone like me who is required to coordinate his ties with the color of the salsa, it requires a lot of changing just to get through one basket of chips.
Lopez said so far the idea of bringing his family under one roof to work together has worked out as planned.
“It is good,” he said. “It definitely feels like a family restaurant. We are all here to support each other.”
Lawrence real estate market declines as available homes become scarce and buyers are forced to act quickly
If you have ever had luck in the world of speed dating, then maybe Lawrence’s real estate market is right for you. Speed home buying — out of necessity — appears to be the new trend in the local real estate market. In April, Lawrence homes were only on the market for an average of 11 days before they sold.
But while speed dating can lead to a wonderful evening talking about the companionship of cats, life lessons of Star Trek, and a worldview centered on the immeasurable benefits of “covfefe,” speed is not doing great things for the local real estate market. The latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors found that while the market has become fast-moving, it produced fewer Lawrence home buyers in April.
April home sales fell by 9.4 percent compared with the same period a year ago, according to the Board of Realtors. Real estate agents report that demand for homes remains strong in Lawrence, but there just aren’t enough people putting their homes on the market.
“Buyers aren’t finding homes to buy, or are competing with multiple offers on homes,” Mark Hess, president of the Board of Realtors, said in a release. “These market conditions cannot support the current demand, and sales are lower this last month as a result.”
The number that best shows the tightness of the Lawrence real estate market is the number of active listings available to buyers. In April, there were 228 active listings. That was down from 250 in April 2016 and down from 346 in April 2015.
But there is one other force in the market that may turn around that trend: Homes are becoming more expensive, which may cause more homeowners to consider selling. Of course, rising home prices run counter to the efforts of politicians to battle Lawrence’s affordable housing issues. Regardless, home prices are on the rise, and particularly so in April. The median selling price of homes in April rose to $177,000, up more than 7 percent from the same period a year ago.
How high home prices rise, whether more people put their homes up for sale, and whether home builders start building significantly larger amounts of new housing in Lawrence, are all interesting questions to monitor in the coming months. It also will be important to see whether April is the beginning of a new downward trend for the local real estate market.
Despite the market being tight all year, home sales in the early part of 2017 were still making gains. Even with the poor April, home sales year to date are still up compared with the same period in 2016. Here’s a look at year-to-date numbers:
• Real estate agents have sold 325 homes thus far in 2017, which is about a 5.5 percent increase from the same four months in 2016.
• Sales of newly constructed homes are now driving the entire increase in home sales in Lawrence. There have been 40 sales of newly constructed homes, compared with 23 at this time last year. The number of existing homes that have sold in Lawrence is stagnant.
• Year to date, the median selling price of Lawrence homes is $177,500, which is up from about $168,000 a year ago. Interestingly, though, the median selling price for newly constructed homes has fallen considerably to $298,700. That’s down more than 8 percent from last year’s level of about $326,000.
• Thus far in 2017, the median number of days a home sits on the market before selling is 18. That's down from 28 in 2016 and 43 in 2015. But as I noted earlier, the pace is quickening. The median number of days for homes sold in April was just 11 days.
In case you are wondering whether the trends in Lawrence are unique, they are not. According to a report from the Kansas City Regional Association of Realtors, home prices are rising even quicker in Johnson County, and the number of sales are also falling at a faster rate.
Through April, the number of sales in Johnson County has dropped by 3 percent, and in April alone they were down by 11 percent. Year to date the median selling price for Johnson County homes has risen by 9 percent to $260,000. The number of homes on the market is down by 15 percent compared with the same period a year ago.