Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
West Lawrence pizza location closes, and an update on other comings and goings in the world of Lawrence pizza
Perhaps you remember that time period when seemingly all of west Lawrence turned into New York City. If not, I’m talking about that period in 2012 and 2013 when nearly every restaurant that opened was a New York-style pizzeria serving “pie slices” big enough to cover a Donald Trump comb-over.
There was Morningstar’s New York Pizza at Sixth and Wakarusa, Tad’s Pizzeria at Bob Billings and Kasold, and Johnny Brusco’s also at Sixth and Wakarusa. You may recall that Johnny Brusco’s closed before I could even get the marinara sauce off my tie. The other two duked it out, though, for a good long time. But no more. Tad’s Pizzeria at 1410 Kasold closed in recent days.
Owner Tad Gellender told me the business’ lease was up at the end of 2016, and he decided he wanted to spend more time with his four children than at the restaurant. Gellender said business was fine, and actually he sold the name, the recipes and the equipment to an operation called KC’s Neighborhood Bar and Grill in Merriam.
“I tried to sell it locally, but nobody really looked at it,” Gellender said.
So, folks will be able to go to Kansas City to get that particular style of New York Pizza. But you really don’t need to leave town at all. There are still plenty of places near Sixth and Wakarusa that serve pizza crust like Facebook serves facts — thin. The southwest corner of Sixth and Wakarusa has Morningstar’s and Johnny’s Tavern, both of which serve New York-style pizza, and the northwest corner has the newly opened Spin pizza, which serves Neapolitan style pizza, which also is a thin-crust variety.
Some of you, though, may be more worried about Gellender’s other business venture: Tad’s Shaved Ice, which has operated for decades out of a small food trailer along Iowa Street. Tad said not to worry. The decision to get out of the pizza business won’t affect the shaved-ice business, which operates seasonally near the NAPA Auto Parts store south of Ninth and Iowa streets.
“That business is still good to go,” he said.
Gellender said he’s had that business for 22 years, opening it right after he graduated from Pittsburg State and moved to Lawrence.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While we are near the Sixth and Wakarusa intersection, I have news of Lawrence’s other favorite food: fried chicken. We’ve reported that the Arkansas-based chain Slim Chickens is locating in the former KFC location at Sixth and Wakarusa. Well, evidently Slim is quick at construction. According to the Facebook page for Slim Chickens, the Lawrence restaurant plans to open before the end of the month. As we have reported, Slim Chickens focuses on chicken fingers and chicken sandwiches.
• Back to pizza. Domino’s Pizza is probably not what you would consider New York pizza, but it is cheap and of better quality than Mariah Carey’s last New York performance. There is good news for fans of Domino’s near Ninth and Iowa streets.
The company’s store near the northeast corner of the intersection has been under renovation since August. Look for it to open soon. General manager Neal Coomes said he couldn’t provide an exact timeline, but he indicated it would be just a few weeks.
The renovation has taken about twice as long as expected, but Coomes said the location will have some dramatic improvements. Prior to the renovation, the location was strictly take-out or delivery. There will be some dine-in options at the new location. Coomes said there will be counter seating, plus two or three booths and tables for diners.
The renovation includes a complete makeover of both the interior and exterior space, and the design will be similar to the newly renovated Domino’s on 23rd Street, which is owned by the same franchisee. (Win a trivia contest with this knowledge: The owner of the Lawrence Domino’s is the brother of former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Trent Green.) Coomes said the Ninth and Iowa location will include a much more open kitchen concept that allows customers to see their pizzas being made.
“We call it the dough show,” Coomes said. “You can watch us slap out the dough and make the pizza.”
One other thing to note about the renovation. Coomes said the parking lot will become one way, with motorists able to enter only off of Iowa Street and able to exit only onto Ninth Street.
• This last item is speculation, but if you can’t speculate about pizza, what can you speculate about? (I once speculated that anchovies, habaneros and pickle chips would be a good pizza combo, but a stomach pump proved me wrong.)
For whatever it is worth, keep an ear open for a chain called Marco’s Pizza moving to Lawrence. The company sent me a press release saying it has plans to open 35 new stores throughout the greater Kansas City area in the next five years. The press release specifically mentioned the communities of Lawrence, Ottawa, Blue Springs and Shawnee as targets for expansion.
The company touts itself as the fastest growing pizza chain in the country, opening a new store about every three days. It also touts itself as the only American pizza chain founded by a native Italian. The company currently has five stores in the Kansas City market, and serves pizza, subs, wings, salads and a few desserts.
I have heard no news of an imminent deal in Lawrence, but I’ll let you know if that changes.
In today’s technological age, it probably is not wise to brag about the quality of your Rolodex. It makes people think you’ve dropped your iPhone in the toilet. But whether you have them stored on your smartphone or on a crumpled up cocktail napkin, it still is important to know who to contact and how to do it. In the ultra competitive industry of economic development, it is vital.
Lawrence officially has a new leader of economic development that comes loaded with a ton of contacts. I sat down for a good conversation with Steve Kelly on just his third day on the job as the new vice president of economic development for the Lawrence chamber of commerce.
To be clear, Kelly did not brag about his Rolodex. Kelly may end up being one of Lawrence’s most important salesmen. His job is to interact with and help close the deals with new and expanding companies that will produce new jobs in Lawrence and Douglas County. But I got the impression that Kelly is the type of salesman who doesn’t oversell anything. Instead, he’s the type who will always remember your name, where you met, and figure out a way to make a connection whenever your paths cross.
While he didn’t tout his connections, I know there are many in the community who are excited about them. Kelly came to The Chamber after having served as the deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Commerce and director of business and community development for the agency. When asked, he can rattle off a list of big deals he has been a part of: the Mars candy plant in Topeka; the Kansas Speedway and surrounding retail development; General Motors expansions in Kansas City; and many aviation deals in Wichita.
The complete list would be much longer. He had been with the Department of Commerce for 26 years. He was the guy who always survived the change in administrations. Political appointees have short shelf lives, but deal makers last longer than the fat-free mayonnaise in my refrigerator.
Lawrence has had experienced economic development leaders in the past decade, but often their experience was in different regions of the country. Not only does Kelly know the players in Kansas, he’s lived in Lawrence for nearly 30 years.
Economic development and the jobs its produces are always important, so it would be hyperbole for me to say the community is at some sort of crossroads. But this is an important hire for The Chamber. There has been a lot of turnover in both this position and the Chamber CEO and president position. It is not coincidental that the turnover has coincided with some fairly stagnant job growth numbers over the last decade.
As I’ve said before, I like to share some of the conversations I have with community leaders, so here is a look at three takeaways from my meeting with Kelly:
It is a common refrain that Lawrence has a poor reputation in broader economic development circles. What you hear is that projects are more difficult to do here than they are elsewhere. I’ve heard that refrain through both good times and bad, so I am never sure what to make of it. Business executives, I suspect, always want to move faster.
But there is no doubt that such a reputation could be damaging to Lawrence's and Douglas County’s efforts to grow jobs. Kelly was diplomatic about the topic but certainly didn’t dismiss the complaints.
“I think there probably is some work to do in that area,” Kelly said of Lawrence's reputation in economic development circles. Some of that commentary is out there. It is not a real large group of folks who work on these projects. There are a lot of conversations. Both good words and bad words get around pretty quickly.
“I think there has been a perception that Lawrence hasn’t been as easy or as amenable or as welcoming as some other communities have.”
Kelly, though, also said that Lawrence is a well-planned community. It hasn’t traditionally done things “willy-nilly.”
“One of the reasons Lawrence is cool is maybe because the community hasn’t done some of these things that people sought,” Kelly said. “But I would say there is a perception out there that there are easier places to do things than Lawrence.”
I’m confident that there is a subset of the population who has no problem with that perception. But that reputation comes with a question: Will it hold Lawrence back from being a jobs leader?
I didn’t ask Kelly that one. It was only his third day on the job. But he knows what he has signed up for.
“The world is pretty competitive right now,” Kelly said.
VenturePark, the city-owned industrial park on the eastern edge of the city, opened for business in October 2014. The park, though, is still seeking its first tenant.
Menards, the large home-improvement retailer, has announced plans to construct at the park a center that manufactures and distributes certain building materials. But the company has put those plans on indefinite hold. I don’t have much of an update for you on that, other than chamber officials previously have said they were hopeful the company would re-evaluate after the presidential election. I do know that Kelly has worked with the Menards folks in his state capacity, and I’m sure they are among the first calls he is making in his new job.
Kelly said, despite the park being empty, there is no reason to second guess the city’s decision to proceed with Venture Park. It is right next door to the East Hills Business Park, it has easy access to the recently completed South Lawrence Trafficway, it has a rail spur, and it was on old industrial property that was going to need to be cleaned up regardless. (You may remember, it was the old Farmland fertilizer plant.)
“I think the decision they made at the time was a very good decision,” Kelly said.
In terms of what the public’s expectations should be for the park in 2017, that’s a tough one to answer.
“It is not something you can put a magic timeline on,” Kelly said. “If it hasn’t happened by a certain time, you can’t say it is a failure. I don’t think it works that way. I have seen enough examples to know that getting over that first hurdle is typically the hardest one. Once you get that first tenant, it usually takes care of itself.”
Regardless, I still think it is an important year for VenturePark. At some point, an empty business park becomes demoralizing. I think a key question will be how aggressive the city is willing to become with incentives to get over that first hurdle. It is worth remembering that through the Farmland bankruptcy process, the city got the land for free, plus received a multimillion-dollar trust fund to clean up the property. Granted, the city has spent millions on the roads and infrastructure at the site, but the deal the city got on the property may allow it to be fairly aggressive.
Kelly did not weigh in much on the new policy the city has adopted as it relates to economic development incentives. He said he hasn’t studied it enough to offer specific comments. But he did talk about how incentives are an “important” piece of the puzzle in attracting a company, with other big pieces including workforce availability, workforce training and the “general climate or vibe” of the community.
“When you are changing a policy like that, you want to understand what you are trying to accomplish, and then be very diligent in trying to determine what the unintended consequences may be.”
The policy changes at City Hall, though, are just one item to keep an eye on with the City Commission. City Manager Tom Markus has talked about the need for the City Commission to do more big-picture, strategic planning, and 2017 seems to be the year that is going to happen. Such a process will encompass many topics, but certainly jobs and economic development will be a part of the discussion.
It will be interesting to see what type of vision the community comes up with for economic development. Throw into the mix that at the same time the University of Kansas will be getting a new chancellor. Some of KU’s strategic planning has opened the door for the West Campus to become more business and entrepreneurial oriented. If the next chancellor has a passion for that, an exciting plan could be crafted. Imagine if Lawrence’s next business park was on West Campus, where companies that want to have close access to talent among the university’s faculty and students could locate.
Kelly didn’t get into any of those specifics, but I know forging relationships with the university the city and the county is a priority for him.
“We can sit here and talk about and know about a lot of our assets, but what’s important is to have a real plan on how to take advantage of those attributes that set us apart or give us an advantage,” he said.
Update on doughnut, whiskey and fried chicken place; pingpong, cheap beer among changes at music venue
Doughnuts and whiskey might become the new Breakfast of Champions. Exactly what you are a champion of might be an interesting debate. But, yes, proving that anything is possible in downtown Lawrence, we indeed are getting a doughnut shop that also will serve you fine whiskey. Proving that we are intent on giving doctors everywhere a certain salute, it also will serve fried chicken.
I alerted you last week that I had seen a City Hall application for a future downtown business that wanted to sell doughnuts, fried chicken and whiskey, but the permit application didn’t provide much information. (To be clear, it a was permit for a sign. You don’t have to pay for a city permit to fry a chicken. If you did, the south Iowa corridor alone would solve all city budget problems for a generation.)
Well, now I know more. Longtime downtown restaurant owner Nick Wysong is leading a group that will open Wake the Dead: Chicken, Whiskey, Donuts at 918 Massachusetts St., which is the former location of Burger Fi.
Wysong is the co-founder and owner of the popular downtown restaurant Ingredient. Perhaps more importantly for this venture, he’s also the former owner of Harolds Fried Chicken & Donuts. That was the short-lived restaurant that operated out of the Miller Mart gas station on West Sixth Street.
Wysong said the concept of fried chicken served with a doughnut developed a bit of a cult following during the year that Harolds was open. Wysong said he always wanted to continue with the idea, but was looking to tweak both the concept and location a bit.
Wysong has partnered with Lawrence businessman Ryan Robinson, who brings a lot of marketing experience to the table as a promoter of Color Run races across the country. Josh Kurzdan, who was part of the Lawrence Burger Fi restaurant, also is part of the group, Wysong said.
What won’t change with the business is the chicken recipe. It will continue to be “honest, Southern-style fried chicken.” It will be fried in the old-fashioned manner and will come with a choice of about a dozen sauces. Traditional sides such as potatoes and gravy or macaroni and cheese will be on the menu.
At Harolds, the doughnuts were a bit of a side dish. But that won’t be the case at Wake the Dead. Wysong said the restaurant will be a fully functioning doughnut shop. People will be able to come in of a morning and get a few dozen doughnuts to take to the office. If the thought of going to the office requires a shot of bourbon, Wake the Dead also will serve you that. The shop will have a large selection of “top shelf whiskeys,” Wysong said. It also, obviously, will have evening hours. It isn’t betting on whiskey for breakfast becoming a hugely popular trend. (It is trend-disadvantaged because people who partake in it don’t remember it well enough to tweet about it.)
As for the doughnuts, Wysong said he expects to have a stable of about 60 recipes, although he plans to start out by having about a dozen varieties available daily.
“We’re going to do this right and do it well,” Wysong said. “But the doughnut element is going to be huge. We’re super stoked about that.”
But perhaps what will blow your mind is that the fried chicken and the doughnuts truly will come together. (See, there is hope for a divided America.) Harolds served a sandwich called the Grilled Glazer. It was fried chicken covered in cheese sauce, a secret sauce, sandwiched between two maple-glazed doughnuts. Are you understanding this? The doughnuts served as the bread for the sandwich. I always assumed Harolds closed after a year in business because it was miffed that it had not yet won a Nobel Prize for this innovation.
Well, the Grilled Glazer will be on the menu of Wake the Dead. Wysong also said the menu will include a line of other sandwiches, some of which also will use doughnuts in place of bread. He didn’t give me details on what those will look like. (Or perhaps he did, but I was too busy renting a semi to carry my next order of cholesterol medicine.)
Remodeling work is already underway at the site. Wysong hopes to have the restaurant open in late January.
• Wake the Dead, however, isn’t the only venture Wysong is working on. Wysong also is part of a group that has purchased the Jackpot Music Hall and Saloon at 943 Massachusetts St.
You may have noticed that Jackpot was closed for a couple of weeks in November. That’s when Wysong’s group purchased the business. The group did a bit of remodeling on the interior and installed new exterior signage.
Wysong said Jackpot still will function as a bar and music venue. Wysong called himself a “good music fanatic,” and he said the venue will host a variety of genres including rock, bluegrass, funk, hip hop, country and others.
The business is next door to Wysong’s Ingredient restaurant and his Five Bar and Tables establishment that has been hosting live music, particularly jazz, for awhile now. Five Bar and Tables also has been host to regular pingpong gatherings. Those pingpong tables are moving to Jackpot, and he said the bar soon will announce a weekly special involving pingpong and cheap beer.
“I’ve always had a big crush on Jackpot,” Wysong said of the decision to buy the establishment. “We feel like we have had a lot of good luck promoting jazz at (Five Bar and Tables.) Now we have a bigger stage and venue to promote music.”
Ed Forman had been warned about downtown Lawrence.
It was about 2005 when Forman began looking for a spot in an idyllic downtown where he and his wife could work together in a sweet shop, share some smiles and maybe create a few too. But those in the regional business community had cautioned Forman about downtown Lawrence. They told him two factors consistently drove businesses out of business in downtown: high rents and a City Hall that was terrible to work with.
By 2012, Forman and his wife took the leap. They opened the TCBY frozen yogurt shop at Ninth and Massachusetts. In the last few days, they closed it. The couple no longer could make the TCBY franchise work. Forman said he had a plan to open a business called Free State Frozen Coffee and Desserts, but a noncompete clause with TCBY won’t allow it. For the moment, the building sits empty while Forman works to find a new idea or someone to take over his lease.
Another downtown business out of business. Remember the warning? Come to find out, it wasn’t accurate. Yes, the result was the same — a closed business — but the reasons behind the closure weren’t high rents and a difficult city government.
Forman, who has a business in Branson, Mo., and has owned businesses in more than a half-dozen other cities, said Lawrence City Hall was among the best he has worked with. He also had no complaints with the rent or his landlord, the late George Paley and his family.
When Forman spoke to me, he was insistent that people understand those old, familiar reasons weren’t behind this closure. Instead, he thinks it is important for Lawrence residents to hear something that he knows several merchants in downtown think but aren’t always comfortable saying.
“The people of Lawrence,” Forman said when asked about what needs to change with downtown. “The west-siders need to reinvest in downtown Lawrence.”
Forman said he believes downtown is becoming a bit like The Strip in Las Vegas. He said the last place residents of Las Vegas want to go on a regular basis is The Strip. They go when they have visitors from out of town or when there is a special event, but many other times they avoid it.
Forman said it always was surprising how many of his shop’s customers were from out of town — many Johnson County residents coming over for a weekend outing. That’s good. Lawrence will take all the Johnson County money it can get. But unlike Las Vegas, Lawrence doesn’t yet have a tourism industry large enough to entirely support the downtown that we want to have.
A bit of perspective is probably important here. There has been a lot of new building in downtown in the last several years. Vacancy rates are not particularly high in the district. Downtown is not in crisis. And there probably are a multitude of reasons why the TCBY shop didn’t work, including the fact that a Kansas winter doesn’t always put a fellow in the mood for frozen yogurt.
But I’ve certainly heard the concerns whispered before that Lawrence consumers don’t support their downtown businesses like they used to. Worse yet, Forman thinks Lawrence residents have become a bit blasé about it.
“I think too many Lawrence people are content with the idea that businesses come and go in downtown, but that is not how you build a strong downtown,” Forman said.
Certainly there are Lawrence residents concerned about the long-term health of downtown. A certain subset of that group likely have a predictable response to this issue: Don’t allow frozen yogurt shops to locate anywhere but downtown. One possible strategy has always been to protect downtown at the expense of all other areas of town. Going that path, however, puts the community at odds with perhaps the most prevalent trend in America: the need for everything to be convenient. For that reason, the strategy might not work. If a frozen yogurt place wasn’t allowed to open at Sixth and Wakarusa, for instance, I’m not sure whether TCBY would have sold more frozen yogurt or whether Lawrence would have just eaten less frozen yogurt.
Another option is to embrace the idea of downtown Lawrence retail being supported primarily by visitors. If that is the case, though, Lawrence’s tourism industry is likely going to have to grow substantially.
The strategy that it seemed like the city had settled on was to encourage more people to live downtown, which in turn would be good for downtown retailers. The most convenient place for people who live downtown to shop would be downtown.
But as the apartment development along New Hampshire Street has illustrated, such a strategy relies on the city providing financial incentives, especially to address the parking issues that are caused by more people living downtown. It is less clear whether the current City Commission believes in that strategy. It rejected incentives for Bob Schumm’s apartment project on Vermont Street, and it seems the new incentives policy passed by the commission will make the use of incentives more difficult in downtown.
What to do? Hard to say. Downtown, like many beautiful things, is complex.
But Forman — who said he still loves downtown and may open a future business in the district — contends that Lawrence residents could make the situation better by doing something very simple: Find more reasons to go downtown and spend.
“We do wish the people of Lawrence would invest as much in downtown as the merchants do,” he said.
Chain retailer along south Iowa Street announces pending closure; downtown restaurant shuts down, burger shop to take its place
Lawrence is in that unique time period known as KU Winter Break, where the entire university is seemingly run by the French labor department. (Wait, I can ignore work-related emails? Has that pesky prohibition about fondue at my desk also been lifted?) Given this abundance of leisure, it seems now would be the time that a store known for selling oversized chairs and massive pillows would be thriving. But no, I have news that Lawrence’s Pier 1 Imports store is closing.
The closing signs have gone up at the Pier 1 location at 3211 Iowa St. The closing will mark the end of a fairly longtime retailer in Lawrence. I know the chain dates to at least the mid-1990s, when it operated a store in downtown Lawrence. (I know because that is when I first came to town, and like all college students, I had a fascination with wicker.)
The closing, though, is not entirely unexpected. The Fort Worth-based chain had announced in late 2015 that it planned to close over the next three years about 10 percent of its stores because of declining sales. Many of the stores would close as their leases expired, the company stated.
No word on what may replace the store. The Lawrence location is in a high-visibility location along Iowa Street, in front of the SuperTarget. So, while our ability to buy papasans, swingasans and even spinasans on a whim is waning, it seems like the building may be a likely candidate to bring a new retailer to the south Iowa Street scene. I’ll keep my ears open on that front.
As for the closing, a store employee told me there hasn’t been an exact date set to end operations in Lawrence, but the store tentatively is scheduled to be open into February. The company will continue to operate its nearby stores in Topeka, Shawnee and Olathe.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I’ve got news of another closing too. Jerusalem Cafe has closed its Lawrence location at 1008 Massachusetts St.
The Middle Eastern restaurant lasted less than a year in Lawrence. That is despite the fact that Jerusalem Cafe is a popular eatery in Kansas City. My understanding is that while the Lawrence and Kansas City restaurants were affiliated in some way, they weren’t run by the same ownership group. So, likely no need to worry about the KC location. When you are driving to Kansas City to buy your papasan you can pick up a gyro too. (You obviously can still buy gyros in Lawrence too as evidenced by the tzatziki sauce in the Grizzly Adams-like beards that many KU faculty members have grown during the winter break period.)
It seems that we also will get the chance to buy something called a smoke burger. A sign in the window of the former Jerusalem Cafe location says KC Smoke Burgers will be going into the vacant space.
If that sounds familiar, it is because KC Smoke Burgers was the tenant at the location before Jerusalem Cafe opened in the Mass. Street spot. Its lifespan in Lawrence was fairly short, but I guess the owners believe in the idea of the second time is a charm. Or perhaps we are just on a "Groundhog Day"-loop to relive 2015 and 2016 again.
Regardless, as we previously reported, KC Smoke Burgers is a popular restaurant near the KU Medical Center in Kansas City. It serves about 20 hamburger varieties, including traditional variations plus more exotic dishes such as lamb burgers, gyro smoke burgers and one dish that includes jalapeños, habaneros and hot sauce.
No word on when the burger restaurant will open, but keep your eyes open for activity at the site.
• There is no reason to press the panic alarm about the future of one of Lawrence’s Dairy Queens. The DQ on south Massachusetts Street is closed, but only temporarily, the owner tells me.
The store at 1835 Massachusetts St. is going through some remodeling and should reopen sometime next week, store owner Steve Walter said. Most of the remodeling work is being done in the kitchen and other staff areas of the restaurant. The DQ had a major remodeling a couple of years ago, but most of that work did not reach into the kitchen and food-preparation areas.
Walter owns all three DQs in Douglas County — two in Lawrence and one in Eudora — and he said the work on the Massachusetts Street store is the latest in a multiyear effort to bring all the facilities up to top DQ standards.
You know you have found yourself in an interesting industry when you have a legitimate reason to ask a Secret Service agent: Should I handcuff the president? Welcome to Lawrence businessman Matt Baysinger’s wacky business.
Baysinger is the owner of Breakout Lawrence, the escape room business at 727 Massachusetts St. that locks people in a room and gives them a series of puzzles they must solve in less than an hour in order to unlock the door. He also owns the Breakout KC business and an escape room called Breakout Waikiki in Hawaii.
Perhaps you have heard that President Obama and his daughters recently visited the Breakout Waikiki location. Yes, that business is owned by a Lawrence resident. And it has created some stories that will last a lifetime for Baysinger.
Baysinger was eating Christmas Eve dinner when the manager of his Hawaiian location called him. The manager received Baysinger’s automated message that he was busy. But the manager sent Baysinger a text saying he really needed to talk to him.
“He told me President Obama and his family were coming to the breakout room,” Baysinger said. “I said ‘Yeah, you’re a funny guy.’ He said, ‘No, he’s going to be here in a half hour, and I’m freaking out.’”
Sure enough, the business had received a reservation a few days earlier, but they weren’t told the president was coming. Instead, they were only told a celebrity was coming who wanted to reserve all four of the business’ breakout rooms.
To make matters more interesting, the manager of the Hawaiian location actually wasn’t at the store. He also was on the mainland visiting family. A shift leader by the name of Mitch Massey was on duty, and was relaying all of this information to the manager. It was Massey’s first day on the job as a shift leader. It wasn’t all bad, though. Massey is a veteran from the Iraq War, and he shared a story with the president about how he voted for him while serving in Iraq.
A team of about 20 secret service agents arrived at the business about 45 minutes prior to the president’s arrival. Dogs were used to search the premises. Questions were asked. Background checks were conducted.
Then came time for Baysinger’s crew to ask an awkward question. President Obama and his family had signed up for the Mission Manoa room. Normally, that particular escape room involves all participants being placed in handcuffs to start the game.
“So, we asked the Secret Service whether we should place the president in handcuffs,” Baysinger said. “The answer was: ‘absolutely not.’”
As for other details about the breakout adventure, Baysinger said the room Obama participated in is based on the premise that you are an undercover operative in a foreign country. (No word on whether Mr. Putin also has played the game.)
“I think that was probably some fun role-playing for the president,” Baysinger said.
The room is considered the most difficult room to escape at the Hawaiian facility. The president, his daughters and a few other family members did escape — although just 12 seconds before the hour time limit.
“I was pretty nervous,” said Baysinger, who was able to watch it all remotely. “I was really hoping for everyone involved that he would get out.”
I asked Baysinger if the leader of the free world wasn’t able to get out, whether that was a sign the room was too difficult. Baysinger demurred.
“The great thing about breakout is it is a game of communication and teamwork,” Baysinger said. “If he hadn’t gotten out, we would have blamed someone else, not him.”
Baysinger has had the Hawaiian business since late 2015. He opened it a few months after opening the Breakout KC business. Baysinger’s mother grew up in Hawaii, and he had visited a couple of times. When Breakout KC started to flourish, he looked for expansion opportunities, and Hawaii had many of the right demographics.
“And then when you factor in that it is in Hawaii, it becomes a great idea,” said Baysinger, who does make a few trips to check on the business, coincidentally most often in the winter.
Baysinger opened the Breakout Lawrence business in March 2016. He said business is going well here too. In fact, the store plans to open its fourth breakout room at the 727 Massachusetts St. location in January. It will have a Civil War theme, and will have a lot of puzzles related to the Bleeding Kansas time period.
Who knows, maybe President-elect Trump is a Civil War buff. Just in case that doesn’t work, Baysinger has another plan to get Trump to try a breakout room. Baysinger’s Hawaii staff had sent a tweet challenging President Obama to try the breakout room during one of his vacations to Hawaii. Baysinger doesn’t know if the tweet played any role in Obama ultimately visiting the business. But Baysinger has a similar plan nonetheless.
“I’m going to tell my staff to send out another tweet throwing down the gauntlet to see if President Trump can beat President Obama’s time,” Baysinger said.
A conversation with LMH president and CEO Russ Johnson, plus a look at whether LMH will find a partner
As part of my effort to bring you more conversations with community leaders, I sat down recently with Russ Johnson, the relatively new president and CEO of Lawrence Memorial Hospital. Yes, I probably missed a golden opportunity because I did not ask him why the gowns are so drafty. Instead, I asked him about the hot breath of competition that LMH may be feeling more acutely these days.
Johnson took over the hospital’s top spot in August after the retirement of longtime president and CEO Gene Meyer. By December, he had gotten a welcome present from neighbors to the east. As we have reported, officials with KU Hospital confirmed construction work is underway on a new orthopedic clinic along Wakarusa Drive. It will be KU Hospital’s first expansion into the Lawrence market, and I opined at the time that may be a significant sign of things to come.
Johnson agreed that KU Hospital’s decision to have a clinic in Lawrence is significant. It was not a development, however, that caught him by surprise. Johnson said it is clear to him that partnerships, collaboration and scale are among the most important trends in the health care industry for today and tomorrow.
None of those ideas are likely to discombobulate Johnson. Although he grew up in the Kansas City metro area, he comes to Lawrence after having served as an executive at Centura Health System in Englewood, Colo., a suburb of Denver. Centura operates 17 hospitals and has affiliation agreements with 12 other hospitals throughout Colorado and western Kansas. It is Colorado’s largest health care network and has more than 21,000 employees.
“Centura was all about creating partnerships and scale,” Johnson told me. “That doesn’t really scare me.”
Those could end up being important words for the future of Lawrence health care. It seems clear that LMH will have opportunities to collaborate or partner with other health care organizations in the future. Whether those opportunities end up being the right fit is tough to say, but it sounds like Johnson is in a mood to explore them.
I did not get the impression, though, that such exploration will start and stop with KU Hospital. The KU Hospital may be a good fit for a partnership or a collaboration, but just because it has the KU brand in its name doesn’t mean that it is a given that it will partner with Lawrence’s largest health care provider.
“There are lots of options out there,” Johnson said.
The Kansas City market is full of them. There’s St. Luke’s, Shawnee Mission, Overland Park Regional, Olathe Medical Center and others. LMH may not limit itself to collaborating with just a single entity. Aside from watching whether any of those Kansas City hospitals form partnerships or collaborations with LMH, it will be interesting to see how many of them expand into Lawrence with or without an LMH connection.
Some of you may remember the late 1990s and early 2000s when new banks sprouted in Lawrence faster than dandelions. I wonder if such a trend will occur with health care facilities in Lawrence. Some of the same conditions may exist. Many banks came to Lawrence because they decided they wanted to try to remain an independent bank rather than be gobbled up through a merger. But to remain independent you needed to grow. To grow, you needed to have a presence in growing communities. Sadly, there are only a handful of communities in Kansas that are growing. Lawrence was and is one of them, thus Lawrence seemingly ended up on every bank’s radar screen. There may be hospital chains going through the same calculations currently. That doesn’t mean we should expect to see lots of new hospitals. Instead, think of clinics and other outpatient procedure facilities. The grand prize for a KC hospital would be a partnership with LMH.
Well, actually, the grand prize may be to purchase LMH. However, nothing in my conversation with Johnson led me to believe that LMH is looking to be sold. That would be an unexpected outcome. LMH has been very financially strong for more than a decade. Normally, hospitals that feel a need to sell do so because they are facing a shortage of financial resources. That’s not the case with LMH today.
“We are in the enviable position of being able to be thoughtful about whatever we do,” Johnson said.
As for some other takeaways from my conversation with Johnson:
• Don’t look for all the growth of LMH to occur at the hospital’s main campus at Fourth and Maine streets.
“Fourth and Maine has a critical long-term future as an inpatient facility, but a lot of our future will be in decentralized delivery,” Johnson said.
There still will be improvements made at the main campus, but Johnson characterized them more as improvements inside the existing walls of the facility “rather than new bricks and mortar.”
But other facilities — outpatient care is about 75 percent of LMH’s total volume — are possible. Johnson said he believes convenience is definitely at the “top of the consumer value proposition.” Hospital leaders will be keeping their eyes open for where the hospital needs to be offering services in order to be convenient to area residents.
• Figuring out new ways to deliver health care services will be critical to LMH’s success. Johnson briefly mentioned how people in the future will access health care services on their smart phones much more than they do today. He talked about how consumers, especially those with high-deductible health care plans, are going to shop around for the best price for a service more than they do today. And he said LMH will have to continue to offer more services in the areas of prevention and wellness. In addition to that being the right thing to do for people’s health, Johnson is betting that ultimately the way hospitals get paid will be tied back to factors such as health and wellness metrics. He said he doesn’t know how the Trump administration and changes to Obamacare will shake out, but he thinks hospitals already were destined to face changes to their payment models.
“Our payment model eventually will change,” Johnson said. “We won’t always be a fee-for-service type of business.”
Hospital leaders will spend the next several months thinking about what the future may look like. LMH is undergoing a formal strategic planning process. It seems clear that Johnson will play a role to help people understand that change sometimes is both good and necessary.
“If we continue serving the community in the same ways we always have, I think we become vulnerable to somebody who has a better mousetrap,” Johnson said.
Has the city just killed the proposal for a downtown grocery store? And other questions about City Hall’s new policy on incentives
There are many reasons a good number of people want a downtown grocery store. We had a recent article detailing how such a store may make life easier for people who live in nearby food deserts. Other people believe a grocery will help ensure the long-term vitality of downtown. And then there is me: I simply want a grocery store with a bakery case across the street from my office. (The engineers remind me there really is nothing simple about the steel girders that will have to be placed in the floor beneath my office chair.)
The reasons for a grocery store are not what’s on my mind today, though. Instead, I’m wondering whether city commissioners have killed the latest proposal for a downtown grocery store. In case you have forgotten, commissioners last week blessed a policy that essentially would prohibit the city from providing financial incentives to a project that includes any developer that is delinquent on taxes or special assessments.
The current proposal for a downtown grocery store has been put forward by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor for the spot at Seventh and New Hampshire that previously housed the Borders bookstore. Compton has been in the news recently for being part of a development group that has more than $1 million in back taxes and special assessments on a struggling commercial development near 23rd and O’Connell. There is no question that a downtown grocery is going to seek financial incentives from the city.
So, upon watching commissioners last week say no more incentives for people behind on their taxes, I naturally wondered what that meant for the grocery store proposal. Thus far, the development group doesn’t seem too concerned that the policy will derail their plans.
“I think there is still very good support from the City Commission for a grocery store downtown, and the community wants it,” said Bill Fleming, an attorney for the development group. “We still will proceed on it. The talk has been about community benefit, and that is what this project really provides.”
OK, so the incentives policy hasn’t scared off the development group, but how does the project move forward if commissioners are serious about not providing incentives to developers who are behind on their taxes?
Fleming didn’t get into details on that point, but did say: “I don’t think it will have a negative impact on the grocery store project. Doug just wouldn’t get to be involved until he gets these other issues settled.”
I suppose one possibility is that Compton pays the $1 million plus in back taxes and assessments at 23rd and O’Connell, and commissioners pat themselves on the back for a job well done. For some reason, I don’t think that is how this gets settled. Another possibility is the grocery store project just no longer involves Compton. I find that highly unlikely too.
What seems more likely is the city’s new policy on incentives has more stretch to it than my waistband after a bakery sale on day-old pastries. To be clear, I don’t know how Compton will settle his issues of back taxes and assessments.
But what is clear is that there seems to be a lot of ways around the city’s policy. Here are a few that came to mind after I read the city policy, which simply says: It is the policy of the city that no economic development incentive will be granted to any applicant or petitioner who owns any financial interest in any real property, anywhere within the state of Kansas, with delinquent special assessments, delinquent ad valorem taxes, or federal and state tax liens, or who is currently delinquent or in default on any debts, responsibilities, or other obligations owed to the city.
— Ownership interests, or “financial interests” as the policy calls them, aren’t written in stone. If I owned a minority interest in a development group that was behind on taxes, what would prevent me from signing my interests of that failed company over to a son, a daughter, a spouse or a close business associate? At the point that I sign those interests over to someone else, would I no longer be subject to the city’s policy?
— Businesses have their own set of rules that generally are spelled out in a document called an operating agreement. Depending on how that agreement is structured, it may be very easy for me to simply forfeit — or perhaps sell for a $1 — my shares in the company. In that case, the shares go to the other remaining partners in the business. At that point, would I no longer be subject to the city’s policies?
— A property tax — or special assessment — liability isn’t really a long-term liability. If the development group that I’m a part of doesn’t pay its property taxes on a failed piece of commercial property, the tax liability goes away as soon as the property is put up for auction as part of the foreclosure process. Even if the auction doesn’t generate a high enough sales price to cover the tax bill, my tax liability is erased. At that point, would I no longer be subject to the city’s policy?
It sure seems like the policy may be an invitation for gamesmanship. Of course, as questions like these arise, the city may modify the policy to try to eliminate some of these loopholes. Likely, other questions then will emerge. Perhaps the largest question in all of this is: Has the city created a fair policy?
I will grant that it certainly seems like a policy that is grounded in common sense. Why would the city want to provide a financial incentive to someone who is behind on his or her taxes? But the issue became more complicated when the city drafted the policy to apply to any person “who owns any financial interest in real property . . .” I highlighted the word “any” because that is a key point.
What happens when I own a minority interest — say 10 percent — of a commercial development that is behind on its taxes? As the owner of 10 percent of the company, I don’t have any legal authority to order the company to pay its taxes, even if the money existed to do so. I have no legal authority to tell the other partners in the company to dip into their personal checkbooks and pay the property taxes. In theory, I could write a personal check to the Douglas County Treasurer to pay my share of the back taxes, but as the city’s policy is written that seemingly would do me no good. I would still have a financial interest in real property that is behind on its taxes. I suppose I could pay 100 percent of the back taxes even though I own only 10 percent of the company, but that doesn’t seem reasonable.
Of course, the city’s response very easily could be, so what? It is not like I have a constitutional right to receive a financial incentive from the city. What I may have, though, is a good project that could benefit the community for decades to come, but I need some help in bringing it to reality.
How this policy will impact the future of good projects in the city is unclear. It is possible that even if my business interests aren’t behind on any taxes that this policy may still kill future deals. That’s because this policy could become really problematic for bankers.
Say I have a good idea (I know, I’m asking you to stretch your imagination), and I go to a banker to get a loan for that idea. I tell my banker that I think I’m going to get $3 million worth of city incentives as part of this project. My banker factors that $3 million of relatively secure money into the equation when she considers whether she can loan me the money. Then she becomes aware of the city policy. That policy makes it clear that the city incentives could be revoked, if one of my business interests falls behind on taxes.
At that point, my banker needs to see all my business interests. She may trust me to stay current on my taxes, but she may not trust my business partner Joe Blow. Joe is the majority owner of several partnerships that I’m involved in. That creates a situation for my banker where actions of a company controlled by Joe may cause my project to lose my city incentives, which may be the difference in whether I can make my loan payment in full.
It seems like this policy could create a lot of uncertainty. Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong. This part of the policy is very new. Other parts of the policy went through a review process by various groups, such as the Public Incentives Review Committee or the Joint Economic Development Committee. This part of the policy was added after those reviews were completed.
To me, it seems like the city is in a struggle many of us often find ourselves in: a battle between idealism and pragmatism. There is little debate that this city policy is an idea that makes us feel good. No incentives to people behind on their taxes. Whether it is an idea that looks good for the future of development in the city is still an open question.
A Hilton hotel planned for west Lawrence; Eldridge files plans for outdoor expansion; signs of a new doughnut shop downtown
All-you-can-eat doughnuts, a pool table, free Wi-Fi and a host of other amenities all across the street from Free State High School: It sounds like a heck of a teacher’s lounge. Or maybe it just sounds like the plans for a new Hilton hotel in Lawrence. (That noise you heard was a teacher throwing an apple against the wall.)
Indeed, Lawrence City Hall has received a plan for a new Hilton hotel to be built in west Lawrence, but this may not be the type of Hilton you are used to. Plans call for a hotel dubbed Tru by Hilton. (The English teacher threw another apple over that spelling.) It is a relatively new concept for Hilton. It dubs the hotel as a place where you can discover “what cost-conscious meets cool-conscious looks like.” From what I’ve seen, the brand uses quite a bit of modern design and hip phrases, like calling its lobby a “Hive.”
More on the concept in a moment, but first some basics about the project. The hotel is slated for the vacant lot at the corner of Wakarusa Drive and Overland Drive, or, in other words, the property that is just north of the tunnel car wash business. That puts it basically across the street from Free State. Plans call for the hotel to be four stories, include 82 guest rooms and an outdoor recreation area, which I assume will include a pool and other amenities.
The project will be part of the Bauer Farm development, and, at the moment, would be the most western hotel in the city. Bill Fleming, an attorney for the Bauer Farm development, said hotel developers became more interested in the Bauer Farm project after the Rock Chalk Park sports complex opened about one mile to the west in far northwest Lawrence.
“It is the type of activity that we thought would be spurred by Rock Chalk Park, and now we are seeing it,” Fleming said. “I think Bauer Farm is a good area for it. It has some shopping, it has the community theater, it has quite a few amenities nearby.”
The project, though, serves as a good reminder of the uphill battle developers are facing to bring commercial development to the area near Rock Chalk Park. The property adjacent to Rock Chalk Park has been zoned for commercial development for years, but has remained vacant, even though Rock Chalk Park is attracting good crowds. It is difficult to get a business to take the risk and expense associated with being the first to locate at a site. Some people have thought a hotel would be the first to take that chance, but not yet.
The development group behind the Tru by Hilton is an Ardmore, Okla.-based company called Apollo Hospitality, according to the development plan filed at City Hall. According to its website, it looks like the company has about five hotels in Oklahoma and Texas.
As for the concept behind a Tru by Hilton, it looks intriguing. I don’t believe that there is a Tru by Hilton in Kansas yet. I found on Hilton’s website where one is under construction near the Oklahoma City airport. No guarantees that the Lawrence one will be exactly like that one, but let’s take a look anyway.
As I mentioned earlier, the hotel calls its lobby a Hive. It features a breakfast area that includes a “topping bar” that has 30 “sweet, savory and healthy ways to sprinkle your food with personality.” The hive also includes a lounge area, a market to buy snacks and other items, and a game room, complete with a pool table. Here are some images from the hotel’s website.
And here is a look at what the exterior of the hotel in Oklahoma City is slated to look like. I haven’t seen a rendering for the Lawrence project, but they both are four-story facilities.
Oh yeah, there also are guest rooms. They’re touted as having 55-inch TVs, hardwood-like floors and extra large bathrooms, among other amenities.
The proposed site for the Lawrence hotel already is zoned commercial. The project just needs to receive final development plan approval from City Hall, which usually is just a technical approval related to site layout and such. No official word on a timeline for the project, but I would suspect construction wouldn’t begin until spring, at the earliest.
If the project does move forward, it would be just the latest news in Lawrence hotel development. As we have reported, Country Inn & Suites plans to build an 89-room extended stay hotel on the property previously occupied by Don’s Steakhouse near 23rd and O’Connell in eastern Lawrence. I also continue to hear that Candlewood Suites continues to be interested in building a hotel in Lawrence, perhaps near the Sixth and Iowa site that previously housed the Ramada Inn.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Add one more hotel project to the mix. I’m still gathering some details, but a plan has been filed to build a large outdoor seating area in the vacant lot next to the Eldridge Hotel in downtown Lawrence.
Over the years, the Eldridge has proposed to add rooms and amenities by undertaking a multimillion dollar expansion into the vacant lot, which is just south of the hotel. But those plans have not gotten off the ground.
Now, Lawrence-based architect Paul Werner has filed plans for a more modest expansion. This one calls for about a 2,700 square foot addition that would house an enlarged kitchen for the hotel’s restaurant, plus an area to house a number of outdoor dining tables that would have a view for people watching along Massachusetts Street.
If I’m reading the plans correctly, it looks like there would be space for about 20 outdoor tables, which probably would make it the largest outdoor dining area in downtown. It looks like the area also would have some nice landscaping.
I’ll work to get some more details from Werner and Eldridge officials after the holidays and pass them along. It will be interesting to see if the expanded kitchen is a sign of a major change to come in the offerings and concept behind the hotel’s Ten restaurant. I’ll let you know when I hear more.
• I also don’t have many details on this at the moment, but couldn’t let it sit through the holidays. A development permit filed at City Hall indicates a new doughnut place is coming to downtown. A sign permit has been filed for a business called Wake the Dead Donuts. It would be located at 918 Massachusetts St., which formerly housed Burger-Fi.
A doughnut shop is plenty intriguing, but a picture of the proposed sign took intrigue to a whole new level. The sign lists that the business will serve chicken, doughnuts and whiskey.
Trust me, I'm working to get more details on this one. If need be, I’ll even experiment with the concept myself.
• One last note of a housekeeping nature: Town Talk will be a bit sporadic for the next few days, as I will take some time off for the holidays. Merry Christmas and happy holidays.
New downtown shop with Kansas and Lawrence apparel opens; new art space along Mass Street; sandwich chain opens on 23rd
There are reasons unrelated to a Jayhawk to show your Kansas pride: It is a natural segue to talk about the Wizard of Oz, it gives people from the coasts an opportunity to tell us how beautiful the state was when they flew over it, and, of course, it is affirmation that we don’t live in Missouri. If Kansas pride is your thing — or even better, Lawrence pride — there is a new downtown shop for you.
Mass St. Mercantile has opened at 738 Massachusetts, in the spot that formerly housed Kieu’s clothing boutique. Mass St. Mercantile also has a lot of clothes, but of a different nature than Kieu’s. Mass St. carries lots of T-shirts and hats that have a Kansas slogan or something about Lawrence. Yes, there will be some Jayhawk apparel too, but mostly the shop will focus on items that promote Kansas but not necessarily the Jayhawks.
Lawrence businessman Matt Lomshek, a co-owner of the mercantile, said the shop also will have plenty of Lawrence High and Free State High apparel. Lomshek is in a good position to produce shirts, apparel and other branded merchandise of about any kind. He is an owner of Varsity Team Apparel and Destinations Apparel, a pair of businesses that serve as a wholesaler to a variety of boutiques and retailers across the country, and also provide merchandise for resorts.
Lomshek said he had been interested in figuring out a way to sell some of his company’s merchandise closer to home, then was approached by the owners of Junque Drawer Boutique, an Olathe-based retailer that long has been looking for an opportunity to expand into Lawrence. Junque Drawer provides some of its merchandise for Mass Street Mercantile. When you add it all up, the store has T-shirts, hats and a lot of novelties ranging from wall hangings to decorative wine bottle stoppers to more wall hangings.
“We try to have fun with it,” Lomshek said of the novelty items. “There’s a lot of stuff to laugh at.”
To wit: a postcard that says “We’ll always be friends, you know too much,” or a can koozie that says “If you can read this, bring me another beer.” (My experience tells me you perhaps should be prepared to catch it, or at least be prepared to duck.)
In other news and notes around town:
• Maybe you want to show your Kansas pride in a slightly different way. There is a somewhat new art gallery in downtown that may be able to help. I say somewhat new because The Phoenix Underground has opened in the downstairs space beneath the longtime downtown occupant The Phoenix Gallery at 825 Massachusetts St. The underground space will be operated by the same folks who operate The Phoenix Gallery.
The Underground may be a good spot for you Kansas lovers because it is now carrying Louis Copt’s work, the noted Lawrence artist who specializes in Kansas landscapes. Lawrence artist John Sebelius also has his work at the Underground.
But the space also is allowing The Phoenix Gallery to expand its presence in the craft market. Part of the downstairs space is devoted to work produced by artists in the Lawrence Craft Collective.
“We’re really calling it handmade market,” said Sue Shea, director/manager of The Phoenix Gallery.
That part of the store carries items such as candles, soaps, gloves, jewelry and other items made by craftsmen and women selected by Craft Collective leader Jill Stueve, said Shea.
“The space gives people a lot more places to explore for art and crafts,” Shea said.
• We have mentioned a few times before that the chain Potbelly Sandwich Shop has plans to open in Lawrence. Well, today is the day those plans become reality. The store opened for business this morning at 1618 W. 23rd St., in the spot that previously housed Dunn Brothers Coffee.
The business yesterday held a special pre-opening event where it served food and raised money for the PTA at Schwegler Elementary, which is right around the corner from the restaurant. As far as the restaurant goes, it serves a large menu of toasted sandwiches, and hand-dipped shakes also are a big deal. The restaurant also is touting that it will have lots of live, local music. It sounds like they have musicians playing during many of the lunch and dinner hours. A press release said local musicians interested in a gig should stop by the store to arrange for an audition.
The company, which got its start in a Chicago antique store in the 1970s, now has about 400 restaurants across the country. A press release said the Lawrence store employs about 20 people.
A conversation with Lawrence’s tourism leader; city set to give $150K to local events; advocate selling KU basketball tickets for affordable housing cause
When about 1,000 clarinetists descended upon Lawrence this summer for ClarinetFest 2016, they left more than $800,000 in the Lawrence economy.
When Lawrence CVB director Michael Davidson told me that figure, my first thought was I knew I should have followed through on that vision of opening a store that sells nothing but clarinet reeds. Then I realized most of the spending came from items like food, gasoline, lodging and maybe some retail spending, such as T-shirts with the slogan “Where clarinets go . . . Treble follows.”
What I mainly realized, though, is there are a lot of different ways Lawrence can attract visitors.
“Sporting events are great, and they have a high profile, but they are just one of the types of events we should be trying to bring into the community,” said Davidson, who began his job as director of ExploreLawrence in April.
In some ways, a clarinet festival may be an even bigger boon to the economy than some of the sporting events. That’s because the festival took place on weekdays, while many sporting events are limited to the weekends. Lawrence hotel operators love both types of business, but generally local hotels don’t have much trouble filling their rooms on an ordinary weekend. Filling rooms on an ordinary weekday, however, can be a struggle.
That’s why Davidson thinks a major strategy for Lawrence tourism needs to be working with KU, Baker and Haskell to bring more academic conferences and events to the community. Davidson said the lack of a true conference center limits the size of conferences the community can attract, but he said places like the renovated DoubleTree and other hotels in town can still accommodate sizable events.
“I think KU may have some low-hanging fruit,” Davidson said of the potential for conference business.
That was one takeaway I got from my recent conversation with Davidson. And that is the purpose of today’s article: To share a few takeaways from a relatively new community leader. I hope this becomes a semi-regular feature of Town Talk in 2017. I get a chance to chat with a lot of community leaders, and I hope to share some of those conversations with you. Here’s a look at a few other takeaways from Davidson:
— Lawrence will need to get comfortable with the idea of creating partnerships with Topeka, Overland Park and other area communities, if we ever want Rock Chalk Park to be all that it can be. Davidson — who previously led convention and tourism operations in Newark, N.J., and Walla Walla, Wash. — said Rock Chalk Park has great sporting facilities, but the Lawrence hotel market is not always in the best position to take full advantage of it. That goes back to the idea that hotels generally didn’t have high amounts of weekend vacancy prior to Rock Chalk Park’s construction. But, the park can still be a great host for large events, if some participants are willing to stay in other nearby communities.
“To take full advantage of Rock Chalk, we need to build regional partnerships because we don’t have enough rooms, and we shouldn’t build new rooms just for that because it is a seasonal business,” Davidson said.
But make no mistake, Davidson is impressed with the facility. He said the track at Rock Chalk Park particularly could be a national selling point for the community. He believes the facility is of high enough quality to host Olympic trials, but even with area partnerships we may be hard pressed to provide enough rooms for such an event. However, as a reminder, big time events already are booked for the track facility, including the U.S. Junior Olympics in July 2017, and the Big 12 Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Track and Field Championships in May.
— Davidson said he would love to have a major attraction like the outdoor adventure park and whitewater rafting facility proposed for a portion of Clinton Lake State Park. He said he’s talked with friends in the Charlotte area — where the proposed developers operate the U.S. National Whitewater Center — and they attest to the quality of that facility, although also noted some of the financial challenges the development had early on.
“I would love to have a destination attraction to market,” Davidson said.
But, like many other people, he’s not sure whether all the details will work out to make a good deal for the community. The project easily could be $70 million or more, and what amount would come from government assistance is unclear at the moment.
“Is Lawrence prepared for a project like this?” Davidson asked. “I don’t know. It is a lot of money. But we definitely should look at it.”
— Expect Downtown Lawrence’s monthly art event Final Fridays to get a marketing boost. ExploreLawrence has taken over the marketing of the art walk event. Plans for 2017 include an interactive map of artists that will be on the ExploreLawrence website, a program to promote Final Fridays in Topeka and Kansas City during those communities’ First Fridays art events, and high tech online marketing.
Davidson said ExploreLawrence will start using “geo fence” marketing techniques. That is where people who click on a Final Fridays online advertisement would have a cookie installed on their phone. That cookie would allow ExploreLawrence to see how many people who viewed their advertisement actually came to the downtown area during a Final Fridays event. Davidson admitted it all sounds a little Big Brotherish, but it is becoming a more common marketing device. He said he’s interested in it because he understands the local tourism industry needs good data to grow.
“We know we have to show a return on our investment,” said Davidson, whose agency relies heavily on transient guest tax revenues generated by hotel stays. “We want to try to do a better job of quantifying how much visitor spending we’re creating.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• Speaking of events, the city sets aside $150,000 from the transient guest taxes it collects from local hotel stays. It uses the $150,000 to fund local events. At their meeting on Tuesday, city commissioners are scheduled to approve the list of events to receive funding for 2017. Here’s a look at the events slated to get grant funding from the city, and a look at those that lost out:
— Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade (Dec. 1-2): $10,000
— Dedication of the Haskell Stadium and Arch (May 25-28): $15,000
— BuskerFest 2017 (May 25-28): $15,000
— Free State Foundations (unspecified): $15,000
— Lied Center: First Nations Student Association Pow Wow (April 1-2): $5,000
— The Lawrence Art Guild Art in the Park (May 7): $6,325
— Lawrence Downtown Olympic Shot Put (April 21): $15,000
— Theatre Lawrence 2017 Holiday Show (December): $15,000
— Lawrence Children’s Choir Concerts (April 2 and Nov. 19): $8,000
— Live on Mass concert event (Summer 2017): $15,000
— Roger Hill Memorial Invitational swimming meet (June 17-18): $5,000
— Lawrence Opera Theatre 2017 season: $9,000
— Spencer Museum’s Power and Pleasures of Possessions exhibit (April-June): $7,000
— Lawrence Art Walk 2017 (Oct. 21-22): $7,950
— Experience Haskell: Native Lawrence event (Oct. 15): $1,725
Events that didn’t get funded include:
— African American Quilt Conference, July 12-15
— Tails and Traditions event, Dec. 2
— St. John’s Mexican Fiesta, June 23-24
— Civil War on the Western Frontier, Aug. 19
— 2017 Lawrence Festival of Trees, Nov. 27-30
Apparently Lawrence also was in the running to host the Young Democrats of America Spring 2017 National Conference. The advisory board had recommended the conference get a $15,000 grant, but it was learned earlier this month that Phoenix was chosen as the host site for the conference.
Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
• I’ve gotten word of a way to go to a KU basketball game and make a donation to the city’s efforts to improve affordable housing options.
Longtime affordable housing advocate Steve Ozark once again has donated a pair of his KU basketball tickets to an online auction that begins today and runs through Christmas. Ozark is using eBay to auction off two home basketball tickets. The winner of the auction can select two tickets to any of KU’s home basketball games this season. Ozark said 100 percent of the proceeds from the auction will be donated to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Ozark is active with the city’s affordable housing advisory board, which is working to provide recommendations for how the city could spend approximately $1.65 million worth of city funding on affordable housing over the next several years.
“In most every single conversation and meeting I’ve been involved with over the past 17 years, the lack of safe and permanent affordable housing is the central reason people's lives continue in crisis,” Ozark said. “If you think about it, we can’t have a true community without the people who work here being able to afford to live here.”
This concept may sound familiar to you. Ozark last year donated his tickets to the KU vs. Kentucky game for the same cause.
In case you are curious, the tickets this year are in Section 3, Row 7, Seats 12 and 13. The auction is being conducted here. When I last checked, the winning bid was at $150.
Unique downtown Lawrence retailer to close by end of January; sporting goods store may be on the move
When it comes to the idea of “nonprofit,” I have always found the “non” is the easiest part of that equation. A unique nonprofit retailer in downtown Lawrence indeed has found the “profit” is hard to come by, and is closing by the end of January.
The retailer Ten Thousand Villages is closing its store at 835 Massachusetts after about four years in business.
“It is just very expensive to operate downtown,” said Scott Stutler, store manager. “We just weren’t making enough to support the business operations down here.”
The closing will create more than just a vacant space in downtown Lawrence’s retail scene. The closing also is a hit to the fair trade movement in Lawrence. In case you have forgotten, Ten Thousand Villages is unique because it is a certified Fair Trade Retailer. That means it carries only goods that have been produced in a way that allows them to be labeled as fair trade friendly. Those requirements include that the people who produce the product are paid a fair living wage, work in safe conditions, and that no free or child labor is used in the production of the product.
Promoting the idea of fair trade really was the overriding mission of the store. The business was set up as a nonprofit entity and is governed by a local board of directors, Stutler said. The organization will remain active, and will continue to promote the importance of fair trade, but without the store it will lose one of its most visible selling points.
However, the good news is that more Lawrence shoppers are aware of fair trade than before the store opened, Stutler said. He said the idea has spread to other shops as well. The Merc carries items that meet the fair trade definition. So does the downtown store Third Planet, as well as a few other retailers.
Lawrence’s Ten Thousand Villages store worked with about 40 artisans, mainly from Third World countries in Africa and South America. Stutler said it is important for the public to know that none of those artisans will get left holding the bag as a result of the sale. The store pays for all its items upfront, so the artisans aren’t owed any money by the store.
“We are sad for our artisans, though,” said Shannon VanLandingham, a part-time employee at the store and one of about 50 volunteers for the local nonprofit.
In terms of the types of products you can find at the store, they are varied. Chocolate and coffee, however, are among the largest sellers, in part because the public has begun to learn how brutal the working conditions can be in the coffee and chocolate industries, Stutler said. Other items include clothing, baskets, home decor and a lot of jewelry.
Stutler said the store doesn’t have any plans to reopen in another location in downtown. Instead, it is just focusing on selling its remaining inventory. The store will close when inventory levels become sufficiently depleted, but no later than the end of January, he said.
There also is a Ten Thousand Villages store in downtown Overland Park. It will remain open. It is run by a separate nonprofit board, Stutler said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Some of you may have noticed there is a "for lease" sign in front of the sporting goods retailer Jock's Nitch at 1116 W. 23rd St. That is not an indication that the company is closing down its Lawrence store, but it indeed may move.
Jock's Nitch executive Ryan Owens told me the landlord of the 23rd Street building — which is just a bit east of 23rd and Naismith — has an interest in subdividing the space. Owens said Jock's Nitch is still determining whether it wants to be part of the reconfigured space or whether it wants to find a new location.
Owens, though, said business remains good, and the company — which also has a store in downtown — remains committed to the Lawrence market. The sporting goods store, which stocks a lot of apparel, does strong business in the uniform market, selling to many area high schools and other teams.
Yes, those may be tears of salsa running down the cheeks of downtown Lawrence diners. Word came out this afternoon that La Familia Cafe, the longtime Mexican restaurant at 733 New Hampshire St., is closing.
A post on the restaurant’s Facebook page announced that the restaurant won’t have its lease renewed because there is interest on the part of the building’s owner to possibly sell or redevelop the property. And I just got off the phone with one of the owners of La Familia who confirmed the news: The restaurant’s last day of business will be Dec. 31. It does not plan to find a new location to reopen in Lawrence, at least not in the near future.
“My husband has been doing this pretty much his entire adult life,” said Keri Rodriquez, who owns the business with Phil Rodriquez, who is the son of the restaurant’s founder. “We’re not saying never. We’re just saying not right this minute. He deserves to take a break and see if there is something else he wants to do in life.”
La Familia dates back to 1987 when Phil’s mother, Jenny Reyes-Hepner, opened the restaurant in North Lawrence. It moved to its New Hampshire Street location in 1991. Reyes-Hepner retired in 2003, and Phil and Keri have owned the restaurant since then.
My math says the restaurant has been open 29 years, which is a long, long time in the fast-changing world of Mexican restaurants in Lawrence. La Familia is somewhat related to El Matador restaurant in North Lawrence. Reyes-Hepner’s family opened that business. Keri said that is one of the reasons La Familia has stayed open so long — there was no shortage of good recipes in the family.
“She really came from that environment,” Keri said.
And the restaurant hasn’t tried to change it much through the years either.
“Anybody who has been in the restaurant knows we have that shabby-chic thing going on,” Keri said. “We have just focused on having home-cooked meals.”
As for what is next with the property, I’ll keep my ears open for that. There certainly is talk that the redevelopment wouldn’t just involve the La Familia building but also would involve the two vacant storefronts on either side of La Familia. (Don’t worry, music fans. I haven’t heard of any talk of The Bottleneck being involved.) There certainly have been rumblings that it will be another food type concept, but that information is all pretty speculative at the moment.
In terms of the final days of La Familia, Keri said she and Phil just hope lots of longtime customers come by at least one more time before the restaurant closes.
“We would love to see everybody,” she said. “We greatly appreciate everything Lawrence has done for us. We have so many loyal customers. Our employees and our regular customers are what we will miss most of all.
“We have loved serving Lawrence all this time — and who knows, we’ll see what happens in the future.”
Lawrence shoppers slow spending pace a bit, but city still hottest retail market in the state; where Lawrence ranks as a great college town
It is a little early yet for data to show how retail spending is going this holiday season in Lawrence. But my family’s credit card statement must be encouraging. President-elect Trump somehow saw it and tried to appoint me Secretary of Commerce. All this is to say I have the latest report on local retail sales, and it shows that shoppers are still spending more than they did last year, but their pace has slowed a bit.
City officials have received their November sales tax check. The money represents sales taxes collected primarily in September, so it is still a bit early to say this report provides an indication of holiday shopping (unless you count the pre-Halloween candy sales, which I know some people who do.) The latest report shows sales tax collections were up by 1.7 percent compared with the same month a year ago. That growth is positive, but it is not nearly as large a number as what the city has been posting for most of the year. Many of the monthly reports have shown increases of 5 percent or 6 percent, and some even have been double-digit increases.
It will be interesting to watch whether Lawrence’s retail spending flattens out to end the year. Retailers already know whether that’s the case or not, but we can’t really know until we see the reports that will be released over the next few months. (I used to ask retailers for updates on how holiday sales were going, but they inevitably reported everything was going well. In their defense, they had just seen my credit card walk through their front door, so they had reason to be optimistic.)
Thus far for 2016, the city is sitting pretty when it comes to sales tax collections. The state report shows Lawrence sales tax collections year-to-date are up 5.7 percent compared with the same period a year ago. If the city can at least maintain that pace for the rest of the year, the city’s budget will have some unexpected money coming its way. City officials had projected a 3.7 percent increase for the year. Thus far, the city already has collected $1.2 million more in sales tax revenues than it did during the same period of 2015.
The question, though, is whether Lawrence can continue on this pace? Time will tell on that, but in the meantime, something is happening in Lawrence that has it near the top of the charts in terms of retail activity among the big markets in the state. Here’s a look at how Lawrence’s year-to-date growth totals stack up:
— Lawrence: up 5.7 percent
— Olathe: up 3.8 percent
— Topeka: up 3.4 percent
— Overland Park: up 2.7 percent
— Kansas City: up 1.8 percent
— Johnson County: up 1.9 percent
— Manhattan: up 1.7 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 1.3 percent
— Lenexa: down 3 percent
As has been the case most of the year, city officials point to three areas that have spurred the significant increase in sales tax collections: a 25 percent increase in the sales of building materials; a 7 percent increase in the sales of motor vehicles and parts; and 6 percent increase in sales at food and beverage stores, i.e., grocery stores, not restaurants and bars.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Whatever is happening in Lawrence, a new report that ranks the best college towns in America found it only mildly impressive.
The financial website WalletHub has released its annual list of the best college towns in America, and Lawrence ranks No. 69 out of the 415 cities studied.
Obviously, a ranking of No. 69 puts Lawrence solidly in the top quartile of the rankings, but I guess I’m still a bit ho-hum about it because the report ranks a lot of communities that you wouldn’t consider college communities. For instance, Olathe — home to MidAmerica Nazarene University — is ranked as part of the report. Yes, it has a university, but, gentlemen, paint your school’s mascot on your bare chest and walk through downtown Olathe, and you’ll find it is not really a college town.
What’s more notable about this ranking is where Lawrence compares with other big time college communities. Here’s a look at some regional college communities:
— No. 14: Ames, Iowa, home to Iowa State
— No. 17: Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa
— No. 18: Austin, Texas, home to the University of Texas
— No. 28: Morgantown, W. Va., home to the University of West Virgina
— No. 37: Manhattan, home to Kansas State
— No. 48: Boulder, Colo, home to the University of Colorado
— No. 49: Stillwater, Okla, home to Oklahoma State
— No. 51: Columbia, Mo., home to the University of Missouri
— No. 57: Fort Collins, Colo., home to Colorado State
— No. 63: Norman, Okla., home to the University of Oklahoma
— No. 69: Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas
— No. 78: Waco, Texas, home to Baylor University
— No. 82: Lincoln, Neb., home to the University of Nebraska
— No. 110: Fort Worth, Texas, home to Texas Christian
— No. 112: Lubbock, Texas, home to Texas Tech
If you are interested in the top 5 overall, they are:
— No. 1: Oxford, Ohio, home to Miami University
— No. 2: East Lansing Mich., home to Michigan State
— No. 3: West Lafayette, Ind., home to Purdue
— No. 4: Athens, Ohio, home to Ohio University
— No. 5: Amherst Center, Mass., home to University of Massachusetts
So, as the list above demonstrates, there is a reason to allow Texas schools to be in our conference. Without Waco, Fort Worth and Lubbock, Lawrence would have been last of the Big 12 towns in this study.
But, of course, it is just one study and, like all rankings, it is highly subjective. But WalletHub does generally use solid data from the Census Bureau and other government agencies to compile its rankings, so that is why I pass some of them along.
Unfortunately, this report doesn’t provide a lot of specifics about what areas Lawrence excelled in or struggled in as part of the ranking. It does rate Lawrence as No. 138 in ‘wallet fitness” rank, which includes items such as housing and living costs. Lawrence scored worse in the “social and environmental” rank, coming in at No. 212. That category includes everything from number of bars and restaurants per capita to crime rate statistics. Lawrence’s best area was “academic and economic opportunities” rank, at No. 76. That includes, among other topics, a look at rankings of the university itself, unemployment rates and job growth numbers.
So, make whatever you will of it. My takeaway is it probably is still going to be awhile before I can return to downtown Olathe.
More information about the group behind the proposal to build large whitewater rafting, outdoor adventure park at Clinton Lake State Park
I’ve been getting questions about whitewater rafting, and for once, they don’t involve the phrase “can you swim to the lifeline?” No, this is about a 1,500-acre outdoor recreation facility that would feature a man-made whitewater rafting course, kayaking, zip lines and other outdoor activities at Clinton Lake State Park.
In case you missed it, City Hall reporter Rochelle Valverde reported on the project in today’s paper, and alerted us that developers will be in town Tuesday to pitch the concept to city commissioners.
The question I’ve been getting is: Who are these developers?
The simple answer is they are part of a company — Plei — that developed the large U.S. National Whitewater Center on the Catawba River near Charlotte, N.C.
More on that project in a second, but first I should remind you that this whitewater idea didn’t just suddenly materialize. You may remember that the secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism has brought the idea up before. We reported back in August of 2014 that state leaders were hosting officials with the U.S. National Whitewater Center. At the time, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism Secretary Robin Jennison said such a development “probably would be the second biggest thing the state has done for tourism, next to the NASCAR track.”
So, that’s how we got here.
Jennison, at the time, also said the state needed to get more aggressive in offering nontraditional outdoor activities to keep up with the changing tastes of tourists. That may be where this discussion is headed next.
If you start searching for information about the U.S. National Whitewater Center, you’ll find quite a few news articles out of North Carolina. Certainly there have been some good reviews of the project. Parks and recreation officials in the Charlotte area call it a world-class recreational attraction.
Most of the recent articles, however, were about how the park this summer drained its whitewater course for a time period in response to reports that a rafter had the facility had died from a brain-eating amoeba.
But it also doesn’t take much reading to determine the project has been in the news for financial reasons too. The project has been heavily subsidized by local governments there, and still has had some financial difficulties. The last such article I found was in March 2014 when The Charlotte Observer wrote about county officials there debating whether to make a final $1 million subsidy payment to the development.
According to the article, a combination of six local governments agreed to provide the project up to $12 million in “service fees” as part of the project, which opened in 2006. In addition, the article noted that a group of lenders in 2010 ended up forgiving about $38 million in debt — or about two-third’s of the project’s mortgage — after the development suffered during the Great Recession.
But, if you also carefully read The Observer article, there are signs the development had begun to turn around its financial performance. In 2014, the article indicated the development turned a $4 million operating profit.
So, none of this is to say that the idea behind this development is good or bad. I mainly was interested in finding out whether Tuesday’s study session is the beginning of what could turn into a request for a large subsidy or incentive package from local governments.
City Manager Tom Markus told me that is not necessarily the case. The project may need some incentives, but he has other thoughts about who could provide them.
“This really is an initiative by the state, and the state came to us with it,” Markus said. “Quite frankly, they may be in search of a partner on this. I would like to see the state take the lead on this. Maybe more of the funding could be provided on their (the state’s) end.”
City officials likely would have a role to play in the development, though. The project, which is proposed to include a conference center with about 6,000 square feet of meeting space, a restaurant beer garden and other amenities, likely will need city water and sewer service.
Extending city utilities to the site will come with a cost, but Markus said his staff hasn’t yet begun to make any analysis of whether it would be beneficial for the city to extend those services.
“The only objective I have at this point,” Marcus said of Tuesday’s study session, “is to expose the concept in a very public way. We haven’t figured out anything in terms of whether we participate or not.”
Markus, though, said the idea is intriguing.
“I think it is the type of project that could be an attractor for the whole state,” Markus said. “I actually like the idea of going to a more natural setting for this type of activity. Obviously there will be persons who will push back that they don’t want this much activity in the natural areas. But if we are going to get people interested in our wild areas, you have to have things to bring them there.”
Members of the U.S. National Whitewater Center are expected to be at Tuesday’s study session to present the concept and answer questions from commissioners.
Douglas County visitor spending grows to $244 million; a look at how Lawrence compares to state’s top tourism spots
With the polar vortex arriving, the top tourist attraction in Douglas County may be watching me jump-start my electric long johns. But most times of the year there is far more than that on the local tourism front, and a new report shows the industry has been growing.
The Lawrence convention and visitors bureau — officially the group is called eXplore Lawrence — has commissioned a report to measure how much impact tourism spending had on the local economy in 2015. Perhaps not surprisingly the commissioned report found that tourism has a lot of impact on the local economy. But the report does contain some specifics, so let’s take a look:
— Visitor spending increased by 7.6 percent — or about $17 million — in 2015. That was a significantly better growth rate than the statewide tourism industry. According to the report by Tourism Economics, the state as a whole saw visitor spending increase by 4.2 percent. In total, the report estimates there was $244 million in visitor spending in Douglas County in 2015.
— 2015 was the first full year of operation for Rock Chalk Park, which was designed, in part, to attract out-of-town visitors to youth sporting events and such. So, perhaps Rock Chalk is responsible for the strong 2015 showing. No doubt the facility played a role in the overall numbers, but it is worth noting that Douglas County’s tourism industry actually grew at a quicker pace in 2014. Visitor spending grew at 7.8 percent in 2014, which was also well above the statewide average of about 4.5 percent.
— The report provides a glimpse at how some specific sectors of the tourism industry are growing: Visitor spending on lodging grew by $4 million — or about 10 percent — in 2015. That was a slightly slower growth rate than what was posted in 2014, when the industry grew by $4.4 million or about 13 percent. But a 10 percent growth rate isn’t too shabby. That number is probably one of the reasons why we are seeing several hotel projects in the city. Visitor spending on recreation, which includes the arts, grew by about $1.8 million, or about 7 percent in 2015. That compares to 4.2 percent growth in 2014.
— The report also breaks down how much visitors spend on various types of goods and services. Shockingly, spending on Honk for Hemp bumper stickers did not take the top spot. That distinction went to food and something to wash it down with. Restaurants probably are the biggest winners when tourism surges. The report found 27.4 percent of all visitor spending (about $67 million) goes toward food and beverages. Gas stations, though, aren’t far behind. The transportation category accounts for 27.3 percent of visitor spending. Here’s a look at the other categories: Lodging 17.4 percent; retail 16.7 percent; recreation 10.9 percent; and the report even measures the amount of spending on second homes in Douglas County. The report estimates that 0.3 percent of visitor spending goes toward buying a vacation home in the county. (I know every time I go on vacation I set aside 0.3 percent to buy a vacation home, which is why I own cardboard boxes in some of the best locales in America.) In case you are curious, the report estimates about $700,000 was spent in 2015 on second homes in Douglas County, which actually seems a bit low considering the price of some of the condos on the market.
— The report estimates that about 2,700 jobs in the county are directly linked to the tourism industry. It estimates those job totals grew by 5.1 percent in 2015. The report also calculated that the tourism industry generated $22.5 million in taxes that went to state and local governments.
— The report also ranks Douglas County’s tourism industry against all the others in the state. Douglas County has the fifth largest amount of visitor spending of any county in the state. Douglas County captures about 3.8 percent of all the visitor spending in the state of Kansas. That’s up from about 3.5 percent in 2013. I find this an interesting number. I frequently harp on the community setting goals, and this seems like one measurement where a goal could be set. Being the fifth largest tourism county in the state is nice enough, but we are, after all, the fifth largest county in the state in terms of population.
It may be tough for Douglas County to ever become the top tourist destination in the state. We would have to knock off Johnson County, which of course attracts SUV-aficionados by the millions. Actually visitor spending also includes the spending of business travelers, so both Johnson and Sedgwick counties get boosts in that regard. But could Douglas County be something better than No. 5? After all, it has three universities, a unique downtown, a federal reservoir, unmatched basketball history, important Civil War history, and several other amenities. It will be interesting to watch what type of discussion tourism receives as the city embarks upon its strategic planning process. On the one hand, you may have some people say tourism doesn’t produce the type of high-paying jobs the community wants. But on the other hand, we have some attributes, and it should be noted the community already has invested quite a bit of money for incentives. Part of the $25 million spent on Rock Chalk Park certainly was done with attracting visitors in mind, and the city has provided tax breaks to at least two hotel projects in recent years.
In case you are curious, here is a look at the nine counties that have more than $100 million in visitor spending, and their growth rates for 2015, according to a statewide report from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism.
Johnson County: $1.6 billion visitor spending, up 6.2 percent
Sedgwick County: $1.4 billion, up 5 percent
Wyandotte County: $451.4 million, up 9.1 percent
Shawnee County: $323.6 million, down 5.3 percent
Douglas County: $244.4 million, up 7.6 percent
Saline County: $196.9 million, up 6.7 percent
Riley County: $140.3 million, up 11.2 percent
Ellis County: $122.0 million, up 7.1 percent
Ford County: $120.8 million, up 0.4 percent
A law that would make the city’s incentive process more transparent; trying to figure out the City Commission’s new take on incentives
I’ve never been exactly sure what “deck the halls” means, which became abundantly clear with that unfortunate incident in study hall. So, I think I’ll just stick with passing along some notes from City Hall.
• City commissioners on Tuesday approved the city's legislative priorities statement for the upcoming year. The headline item in our recent article was about the city’s support for making the western leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway four lanes. That indeed should be a top item for local officials to lobby for during the next several years.
The statement also included a general topic titled “greater transparency in the legislative process.” While city officials primarily were urging lawmakers to stop the practice of passing tax bills in the wee hours of the morning, I have a more specific proposal I hope city officials will advocate for: The city should seek a change in the law that would allow for greater transparency with the special taxing districts that have become a common part of Lawrence’s development scene.
The Oread hotel incident serves as a perfect conversation starter on this issue. Long before the Oread incident came to light publicly, I received a tip from an anonymous source that a company called Oread Wholesale was operating out of the hotel and was inappropriately taking advantage of the TIF and TDD tax districts that exist at the hotel site.
The first thing I tried to do in confirming the tip was to request a list of every business that filed a sales tax return with a business address of 1200 Oread, the site of the hotel and the special taxing districts. I was told by city officials that state law prohibits the release of such information.
I went ahead and told my city contact what my anonymous source was alleging, and a few months later the city did publicly announce that it had found some troubling things at The Oread. City staff followed up on the tip, and for that we should be thankful. I’m not sure it would work that way in every city.
The question seems to be this: What harm would be caused by the public knowing what businesses operate at a particular address? Perhaps you can argue that a business has some right to privacy as well, but does that argument apply to a project where the public is a partner? That is the case in the instance of projects that receive public incentives. The public is forgoing the collection of some future tax revenues in order to help the project succeed. Oftentimes, the amount of tax runs into the millions of dollars. Anyone making that type of investment in a project should be entitled to basic information such as who is operating there.
This may be just one example where we learn that as incentives become more commonplace, the law needs to be tweaked to keep pace.
• On the incentive front, local developers probably are trying to figure out what to make of City Hall policy right now. The last 30 days or so have provided an interesting opportunity to compare and contrast how the city handles incentives request.
On Nov. 1, the City Commission approved a 50 percent tax rebate for an East Lawrence project that would convert an old warehouse building into a microbrewery, a restaurant and 14 apartments. Two of those apartments will be enrolled into an affordable housing program, although it has been noted the projected rent rates for the new one-bedroom apartments will still be greater than median rent rates charged in the city. The project also included the creation of 33 new angled parking spaces in front of the building.
The project initially asked for an 85 percent tax rebate, but commissioners cut it to 50 percent. When the outside consultants hired by the city reviewed the project, it said the 85 percent abatement request penciled out OK for the city. The project would return $1.36 in benefits to the city for every $1 in public incentives that was granted. The city’s threshold is $1.25 in benefits for every $1 of incentives.
Commissioners approved the 50 percent rebate on a 4-1 vote with Commissioner Matthew Herbert voting against it.
Contrast that with this week’s denial of a tax rebate for a downtown office and condo project that former City Commissioner Bob Schumm had proposed. Schumm was seeking a 75 percent tax rebate for a project that would include office space on the first two floors and 12 condominiums on floors three through five. One of the one-bedroom condos would be enrolled in an affordable housing program, selling for about $95,000. Outside consultants hired by the city gave Schumm’s project a thumbs up. The consultants said the project would deliver $1.78 in benefits for every $1 in incentives.
Importantly, the project included a 22-space, underground parking garage for use by the condo owners and other tenants of the building. That’s important because downtown zoning doesn’t require projects to provide any off-street parking. It is legal for new projects to be built and simply fight for the spaces in the existing public parking lots and garages.
The Vermont Street project got rejected on a 3-2 vote, with Herbert, Lisa Larsen and Leslie Soden voting against. The projects in many ways seem pretty similar, so you may be wondering why one got an incentive and the other didn’t. The answer likely is in the percentage. Commissioners reduced the amount of incentive in the East Lawrence project from 85 percent to 50 percent. I’m told by City Hall reporter Rochelle Valverde that Schumm’s attorney early in the meeting said his client wasn’t willing to go below the 75 percent level. Commissioner Lisa Larsen had inquired about whether Schumm was willing to go below the 75 percent level. There also was some concern that one of the condos was set to be Schumm’s personal residence, but that seemed like an easy problem to fix: Just reduce the amount of the rebate by the projected tax value of that one particular condo, if you don't want to give someone a tax break on his personal residence.
The takeaway from the rejection seems to be the price sheet has changed with this commission. It used to be that a residential project in downtown Lawrence that provided its own parking garage was worth about an 85 percent tax rebate. Look at the development at Ninth and New Hampshire for example. That’s how bad the past city commissions wanted additional residential development in downtown, and they placed a high value on projects that provided their own parking. It now looks like 50 percent is closer to the going rate.
Good, bad or indifferent, getting people to live downtown, and getting private developers to help add to the parking inventory in downtown, isn’t worth as much as it once was. Maybe the commission has just seen there is no shortage of apartment construction going on in the city without incentives.
Still, adding living units to downtown has been a major policy goal of past commissions. It will be interesting to see if this change in practice is a sign of other changes in downtown thinking from the commission. At some point, the city may get asked to support a fairly significant incentive request for a downtown grocery store. The downtown grocery store has been an important project, in part, because it would attract more residences downtown. I’ve long thought that a downtown grocery project probably would have the easiest time of any project in the city when it comes to garnering incentives. But, maybe not. There is no denying this City Commission is taking a harder line on the issue.
Marwan Chebaro thinks the future of gas stations is food, and he’s set to test it out in Lawrence. ( I once thought that too, but then changed course after realizing a Slim Jim diet really wasn’t the weight loss plan its name suggests.) Don’t worry, though, Chebaro has a much better plan. He’s converting a Lawrence convenience store into a Mediterranean grill.
“It will be a serious eatery,” Chebaro said of his plans to open Chebaro Fresh Mediterranean Grill in the Cenex gas station across the street from the Dillons on 23rd Street.
Chebaro, whose background is in the restaurant and food-processing industry, has partnered with a friend who has experience in the convenience store industry. They have gutted the old Cenex store and installed all new fixtures and a brand new commercial kitchen and food service area. That food service area will be the basis for a new concept that Chebaro hopes to eventually roll out in convenience stores across the country.
The concept will involve us Slim Jim eating Americans to perhaps learn a new name: shawarma. If you don’t know what shawarma is, look for a man with a big, long knife cutting juicy meat off a vertical spit. That may be shawarma. (I say may be because there are other types of cooking styles that use a vertical spit.) Chebaro described the method as a Turkish/Arabic style of cooking. He plans to use the meat — most often beef, lamb and chicken — to make sandwiches that could be called a Turkish version of a Greek gyro.
The sandwiches are served either in pita pockets or flatbread, and they’ll come with a choice of five sauces, Chebaro said. Those include a traditional Lebanese garlic sauce called toum, a Jewish, Yemen jalapeño cilantro sauce, a harissa red chile sauce, and tahini sauce that involves sesame seeds, garlic and lemon juice.
But Chebaro said what will set the sandwiches apart is how the meat is prepared. Chebaro’s background is as a food scientist, which he said helped him learn that there is only one good way to marinate meat. You must use a food tumbler. He said simply mixing spices, oil and vinegar and coating the meat with such a marinade does little to cause the spices to penetrate the meat. But a food tumbler creates a vacuum that opens the pores of the meat, all while tumbling it in a machine that looks a bit like a cement mixer with a sealed door. (I too am a bit of a food scientist, and I have contributed greatly to the field by proving that sticking a brisket in the dryer — even on the delicate cycle — is not a great substitute for a food tumbler. It also is not good for the whites.)
Chebaro said many restaurants that serve shawarma don't take the time to marinate the meat with a tumbler. He thinks that and other attention to detail will be his recipe for success.
“We are going back to square one and the origin of this type of food,” Chebaro said. “We’re going to give the public what it deserves: the real thing.”
The Cenex station will continue to operate as a gasoline station and convenience store, so seating in the food area will be limited. There will be a communal table, but Chebaro said all the food items will be designed to be grab-and-go meals.
In addition to the shawarma, the menu also will include falafel — a deep fried ball of chickpeas or beans — and about five Mediterranean salads. Chebaro said he has a successful Kansas City business that serves about 3,000 meals per week on the Sprint and KU Med Center campuses, and he said the salads are his biggest sellers.
He said he thinks Lawrence will take to all the ethnic dishes.
“It was time to clean up that gas station, and I think it is the right time for this type of food,” Chebaro said. “Everyone is looking for diversity in food. When I first came to America in 1978 there were probably only two cooking shows on TV. Now look at it. The American public is looking for new and fresh stuff.”
As for a timeline, the gas station portion of the business is now open. Chebaro said he expects the Mediterranean grill to open in the next two to three weeks.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While one food venture is starting in a Lawrence gas station, another is closing. I confirmed this morning that Amici Italian Market and Deli, located in the convenience store at 3300 W. Sixth St. is closing. Importantly, so is the gas station and convenience store part of the business.
Owner Jess Maceli told me the business likely will close no later than the end of next week. He’s selling off the remaining meats and cheeses out of his Italian deli case at a 25 percent discount. Once those inventories are depleted, he’ll shut the doors for good. Maceli said demand for the business just wasn’t enough to keep the operation going.
The business already has shut down the gas station. No word yet on whether another convenience store company will move into the building.
Report shows Lawrence sets new record for apartment construction; more than 1,000 apartment units set to open in city
The boom you heard in September was Lawrence exploding with new apartments. We have been reporting all year about new apartment construction in Lawrence, but a new report from City Hall delivers a nice, easy to understand number: For the first time in its history, Lawrence has built more than 1,000 new apartments in a single year.
September is the month that pushed Lawrence over the top. The city recently released its building permit report for September and it included $40 million worth of new apartment construction. Permits were pulled for two projects that we have been reporting on for quite some time: The Links at Lawrence apartment development just east of the Rock Chalk Park sports complex and a new set of apartments being constructed along the Alvamar golf course.
Through September, the city has issued building permits for 1,191 apartment units. Never has that number been so high. The new total beats the record of 972 apartment units built in 1996. And don’t forget, this year’s number is just through September, so it's a lot like a credit card bill in November — subject to grow.
The Links project was the big one. In case you have forgotten, it is an apartment development that will be constructed around a private nine-hole golf course that is just east of the Rock Chalk Park sports complex. Arkansas-based Lindsey Management has these types of developments around the country where the selling point is your monthly rent includes unlimited greens fees on the golf course. The company in September pulled building permits for 30 apartment buildings, plus a clubhouse. All 30 apartment buildings are three stories tall and have 18 to 24 living units apiece. The city issued permits for construction totaling $26.4 million.
The other big project was an upscale residential development along the Alvamar golf course, which has been bought and is being redeveloped by a group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel. A project labeled Alvamar Apartments pulled permits for three apartment buildings, each four stories tall with 56 living units apiece. Each apartment building also has underground parking. The city has issued permits for $14.4 million worth of construction for that complex. And, remember, that won’t be the last of the building that occurs around Alvamar.
Between them, the two projects add 762 new apartment units to the city. To put that in perspective, the city has only had one year in it history where it ever issued permits for more than 762 apartment units That was in 1996 when 972 were issued. But, remember, that was over the course of an entire year. This happened in one month.
The Links project and the Alvamar project rank No. 1 and No. 2 on the city’s list of largest building permits for 2016. It is worth remembering that the city’s list doesn’t include any building projects on the KU campus, since those projects are permitted by the state rather than the city. It is worth noting that all of the top 5 projects on the city’s list are apartment projects, although one is more a retirement complex than a traditional apartment. Here’s a look at the top 10:
— The Links at Lawrence Apartments, 5400-5401 Rock Chalk Drive: $26.48 million
— Alvamar Apartments, 1575-1675-1775 Birdie Way: $14.4 million
— West End Apartments, 5400 Overland Drive: $14.22 million
— Village Cooperative retirement complex, 5325 W. Sixth Street: $8.35 million
— Bauer Farms Residential, 4541 Bauer Farm Drive: $6 million
— Maple Street Pump Station, 547 Maple St.: $5.93 million
— Pinckney Elementary School additions and renovation, 810 W. Sixth St.: $5.7 million
— Bethel Estates of Lawrence, 2140 E. 25th Terrace: $5.51 million
— 800 New Hampshire multifamily addition, 800 New Hampshire: $4 million
— KU Tennis Facility, 6100 Rock Chalk Drive: $3.965 million.
There are a few other numbers of note in the report:
— Perhaps Lawrence now is routinely going to be a $200 million city. Last year was the first time in the city’s history that more than $200 million worth of building permits were issued by City Hall.But it looks like it won’t be the last time. The September report shows the city has issued permits for $190.6 million worth of construction. That puts the city on pace to top the $200 million mark in 2016.
— Lawrence is posting record numbers without a lot of activity in what used to be the city’s bread-and-butter industry: Single family home construction. Through September the city has issued 128 permits for single family or duplex construction. That is actually a slowdown from the 181 permits the city had issued at this point in 2015. Still, this year’s showing is a little above average. The five-year average at this point in the year is about 111 units. The city’s single-family housing industry, though, has not bounced back from the housing bubble of the 2000s. As we have been reporting, real estate agents report the number of homes for sale is getting tight, so we’ll see if 2017 is the year that single-family builders start to pick up the pace.
Or, maybe we all will just live in apartments. Apartment builders tell me the majority of these units aren’t being built for students anymore. The tenants are people who traditionally would be buying a starter home, or perhaps downsizing to a smaller retirement home. There are many people who are choosing to pass on home ownership for whatever reason. Whether that is a trend that continues is uncertain. What is certain is that the look of Lawrence is being changed dramatically. In the 1990s and early 2000s it used to be that single-family home construction routinely outpaced apartment construction. But that is no longer the case. Now, it is not even a contest. From 2016 to 2012, Lawrence has built 2,279 apartments compared with 665 single-family homes.
I’m not saying that is a good or a bad change. But it certainly is a change, and one that will leave its mark for a long time.
There are a variety of reasons we ought to care about a new orthopedic clinic that is opening in west Lawrence: klutziness on a ladder, ill-advised attempts to actually jump while grabbing a rebound in pick-up basketball, and a disturbing trend of hurting ourselves while rising from an afternoon nap. But there is one reason that may trump them all: The clinic will be affiliated with the University of Kansas Hospital, marking the first time the giant KU medical complex has expanded into Lawrence.
I have confirmed that construction work that's underway at the Wakarusa Corporate Centre at 18th and Wakarusa is indeed for a new KU facility. A building permit from the city lists the location as the future home of University of Kansas Orthopedic Clinic, although I’m not sure if that is the official name or just a placeholder for building permit purposes. Folks in the local development industry also are talking privately about the KU project.
It is a buzzworthy project. On the one hand it is just an orthopedic clinic. It is not like KU Hospital has announced plans to create a satellite hospital in the community. But, it is notable that KU Hospital has decided to have a fairly significant facility in Lawrence. For whatever reason, KU’s medical center operations have stayed out of Lawrence proper.
Over the years, KU Hospital has become the regional behemoth in the health care industry. More recently, the hospital has become more aggressive in expanding its footprint. In September KU Hospital announced that it had reached a preliminary agreement with the leaders of the Hays Medical Center to jointly operate that key hospital in western Kansas. Then in November the KU Hospital announced a partnership with Stormont-Vail Health of Topeka. That “collaborative partnership” will allow KU Hospital to enhance and expand its radiation oncology services in Topeka.
There are a couple of reasons the clinic is attracting attention. One is that the facility apparently has wooed a big-time name in Lawrence orthopedic medicine. My understanding is that Dr. Jeffrey Randall, who often does orthopedic work for KU athletes and others, will be part of the new practice. An official at OrthoKansas, has confirmed that Randall has left that practice. I have a call into Randall.
UPDATE: I have received some information from KU Hospital, and the spokesman there has confirmed that Randall will be part of the new clinic. Here is the complete statement from KU Hospital spokesman Dennis McCullough: "Dr. Jeff Randall, an Orthopedic Sports Medicine physician in Lawrence, Kansas, will be joining The University of Kansas Health System in mid-December, fulfilling a career goal to practice and teach at an academic medical center. We have identified clinic space at 18th and Wakarusa and are working with other health care organizations in Lawrence to identify collaborative practice opportunities."
Another reason the deal is attracting attention is it is unclear just how big of a presence KU Hospital wants to have in Lawrence. The building permit filed at Lawrence City Hall notes that the work underway is phase one of a three-phase project. My understanding is that KU officials are building a temporary orthopedic office in one part of the building so that the practice can open quickly, perhaps later this month. A larger portion of the Wakarusa Corporate Centre also will be renovated to house the permanent facility. The temporary orthopedic offices then can be converted into other space, perhaps a physical rehabilitation facility. In all, I think the KU operation will have about 6,000 square feet of space, but I’ve heard rumblings that the group was interested in even more space.
I did talk briefly with the office manager for OrthoKansas. She said the Lawrence practice is gearing up for the new competition.
“We are always growing,” said Dani Aitken. “We just added two new surgeons in August, and we’re looking to expand our services here in town. We want to make sure people understand there are plenty of options to have their procedures done here in Lawrence.”
Where people choose to get their ACLs repaired and their hips replaced is big business. I don’t know how the new facility will operate, but, given its ties to KU Hospital, I would think it is possible that it would try to steer its patients to have procedures done at the KU Hospital facility in Kansas City, Kan.
For that reason, I’m certain that Lawrence Memorial Hospital leaders are watching this new development closely. I’ve got a call into LMH leadership. I, of course, asked the KU Hospital spokesman about what KU Hospital's broader plans were for the Lawrence market. All I got was the statement that is printed above. However, the part of the statement that says KU is "working with other health care organizations in Lawrence to identify collaborative practice opportunities" is intriguing. I'll let you know if there is anything interesting to report on that front.
• While we’re talking about health care issues, let me pass along this article: It talks about how the concept of “micro hospitals” is coming to Johnson County.
The only thing I have ever found to be micro in a hospital is the gown in certain places that it shouldn’t be. But evidently there is a new concept in the hospital world: hospitals that have an emergency room and eight to 10 beds for patients who need overnight stays.
The Kansas City Star reports that St. Luke’s Health System of Kansas City has plans for at least four micro hospitals — in Roeland Park, Overland Park, Leawood and Kansas City, Kan.
I’m not suggesting that Lawrence is poised to get another hospital or needs another hospital. But the idea has come up before. The longest and largest meeting I’ve ever covered as a reporter was actually 20 years ago this month. It was a 1996 City Commission meeting about a plan for Columbia HCA to build a hospital in west Lawrence near Sixth and Folks Road. The City Commission meeting attracted such a crowd that it was held in the ballroom of the Holidome. The idea of a new for-profit hospital to compete with LMH sharply divided the community. HCA had first proposed a partnership with LMH, but when that was rejected it sought to build its own $20 million hospital. City commissioners, though, ultimately rejected the development proposal.
The article from The Star highlights that the micro hospitals cost about $10 million to $30 million to build, and can be brought to market much quicker than a traditional hospital. The micro hospitals often are located in areas where residents have good health insurance. They often have emergency rooms because the smaller hospitals sometimes can avoid the long lines that are frequent at larger ER departments.
Again, none of this means the Lawrence market 20 years later is poised to have another such debate about a second hospital, but it is worth noting how the hospital market is changing. Perhaps the most important aspect to note is that two very large players — KU Hospital and St. Luke’s Health System — appear to be in particularly active modes right now.