Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
More signs of expansion for south Iowa auto dealership; work begins on eastern Lawrence Dollar General store
Everybody responds a little differently when the "check engine" light comes on. I’ve found that duct tape works well to fix the problem. Put enough of it on your instrument panel, and you’ll never see that light again. Others, apparently, buy a new vehicle. The car-selling business must be good because there’s more renovation work underway in the Lawrence Auto Plaza along south Iowa Street.
As we have reported several times over the last few months, Manhattan-based Briggs Automotive has been acquiring property around its dealerships and filing plans that will give the business additional space for more automobiles. That work is now accelerating and getting more aggressive.
Briggs recently tore down an old, red barnlike building at 2103 W. 28th Terrace. I knew the building well because I used to work around the corner from it, and it housed a flower shop. That meant I stopped there about every night. (You can either assume I love flowers or dislike sleeping on the couch.)
Briggs has now filed plans at City Hall to re-use the space for an “outdoor sales area.” In other words, a car lot. It is just the latest move by Briggs. As we have reported, the company — which operates multiple dealerships in Lawrence, including Nissan, Chrysler and Subaru — has filed plans to use the old Jane Bateman Interiors building as an auto reconditioning shop. That building is just east of the area that has been proposed for the new car lot. Briggs also owns the old Bud Jennings Carpet building — or more recently it was Advanced Homecare — that is along south Iowa Street. Plans haven’t been filed for that high-visibility location, but I’m told they soon will be.
I’ve been told the pending plans don’t include a new dealership for Briggs, but what the building will be used for is still unclear to me. But it certainly does seem like it is all part of a larger plan. Briggs has made one other filing at City Hall. The company is seeking to convert the small grass strip between Iowa Street and the frontage road leading into the Auto Plaza into a display area for vehicles.
Plans filed at City Hall show the grass would be replaced with pervious pavers, and the area could accommodate about 45 vehicles. Those plans, however, haven’t yet been approved by city officials and are subject to change.
It is interesting to note that the stretch of grass that Briggs is proposing to use is directly in front of Jack Ellena Honda. With Briggs’ recent purchase of the old Bud Jennings Carpet and Jane Bateman Interiors buildings, Briggs now pretty much completely surrounds the Honda dealership. That may be a situation to watch in the future.
As for the little grass strip, it will be interesting to watch how that plays out. It is kind of like the grass strip that is in between the road and the sidewalk of many Lawrence homes. The city limits what a homeowner can do with that property. That’s been the case with commercial properties as well. But city officials may be willing to let commercial businesses have more leeway. After all, nothing produces sales tax revenues like vehicle sales.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It sure looks like there soon will be another place for me to stock up on cheap duct tape. Work is underway at 19th and Haskell streets for a new Dollar General Store.
I reported in January that Dollar General had filed plans to build a store in the parking lot of the shopping center at the southeast corner of 19th and Haskell. But then work never began on the site, and Dollar General was a bit shy about confirming its plans or timeline for the project.
Now, however, excavation crews are on site and have removed a large part of the parking lot and fenced the area off for further construction. A Dollar General sign hasn’t yet been placed on the site, but it is the same location, so I think it is safe to assume Dollar General is on the way.
As for the store, the previous plans showed a 9,100 square-foot store that would be just south of the existing convenience store. The convenience store will remain in business, and all the other commercial space in the old shopping center also will remain. The parking lot will just get smaller.
Dollar General previously has confirmed that the store won’t be one of its super stores, which sell produce items. But the store will provide a new option for some food and general merchandise items that eastern Lawrence currently doesn’t have. The stores carry a little bit of everything, including a line of nonperishable food items, health and beauty supplies, cleaning supplies, diapers and other baby items, pet food, school and office supplies, and other items.
The Dollar General certainly is the most significant redevelopment plan for the shopping center at 19th and Haskell for quite some time. It will be interesting to see if the rest of the center, which certainly has begun to show its age, also will redevelop.
Changes on tap in operation of historic Castle Tea Room; new report finds Kansas economy unremarkable
No, the folks at The Castle Tea Room haven’t taken my suggestion to add a moat, but there is change happening at the historic building at 1307 Massachusetts St. A longtime Lawrence-based catering company has taken over many of the day-to-day operations of the building.
The Castle, of course, is one of Lawrence’s more distinctive buildings. Built in 1894 by a Lawrence businessman of Scottish descent (some people wear a kilt, some people build a castle), the building is owned by a nonprofit trust designed to preserve its uniqueness and keep it open for public enjoyment. The trust will continue to own the building, but Steve Maceli has told me that his Maceli’s catering firm has struck a deal to run many of the operations of the facility, which primarily serves as a reception hall and meeting space.
“We’ll book the space, we’ll advertise it, we’ll give tours of it,” Maceli said. “I think the trust is looking to maximize the potential of the space. They were looking for people who could operate it on a grander scale than they could.”
Maceli’s is based in downtown Lawrence, just a few blocks from the Tea Room, which is just south of downtown. Maceli said the proximity of the two buildings will allow them to share many of the same staff and achieve other economies of scale that the Castle couldn’t on its own. The nonprofit trust that owns the Tea Room uses revenue from event rentals to help maintain the property.
The Castle — it once used to be a restaurant operated by longtime businesswoman Libby Kriz-Fiorito — primarily is used to host wedding receptions. (That’s why I lobby for the moat. That fellow who ate three pounds of my roast beef and gave us monogrammed paper napkins, never would have gotten past a moat.) Maceli said he expects wedding receptions will continue to be a major part of the business.
“It has real history,” Maceli said of the property. “People love that. It is really a part of Lawrence in so many ways.”
As for a little bit of trivia related to the building’s history, here’s one question for you: What product made a fortune for the original owner of the Castle? Answer: Berry Baskets. John Roberts, who built the home in 1894, had received a patent for a basket-making machine, but also made butter containers, butter platters, cheese boxes and broom handles, according to a biography on the Castle’s website. Berry baskets, though, were the big item. By 1881, the company was making about 2 million of them per year.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe Kansas needs more basket makers. Whatever the case, Kansas’ economy showed up as being pretty unremarkable in a new ranking.
The online financial website WalletHub has published a new ranking of the states with the best and worst economies. Kansas ranked No. 35 in the report. The report used government statistics from a variety of sources to look at factors such as state gross domestic product growth, export numbers, unemployment rates, income levels and several other factors.
Unfortunately, WalletHub didn’t provide a breakdown for each category it measures, so I can’t tell you specifically how Kansas performed on all measures. But it did provide a top five and a bottom five for many of the categories. Those rankings show Kansas still has a ways to go to reach its goal of becoming a top destination for business startups and other such activity. Kansas didn’t rank in the top five of any category, including highest business startup activity, lowest unemployment rate or highest GDP growth. The state also didn’t rank in the bottom five of any of those categories.
As for the overall rankings, here’s a look at how states in our region fared:
— No. 5: Colorado
— No. 30: Missouri
— No. 34: Iowa
— No. 35: Kansas
— No. 36: Nebraska
— No. 43 Oklahoma
Utah was the No. 1 ranked state, while Mississippi was ranked last. To see the full report, click here.
New sandwich chain to locate on 23rd Street; cookie business moves, sparking new downtown restaurant rumor; yellow signs invade Oread neighborhood
If the great inventor Thomas Edison would have come up with this first, we would never have the lightbulb. Picture this: You order a shake. It comes in a cup with a straw, and — I advise you to sit down for this part — the straw has cookies on it. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it too, but apparently it is one of the features of a new chain sandwich and dessert shop that plans to open on 23rd Street.
Plans have been filed at City Hall for Potbelly Sandwich Shop at 1618 W. 23rd St., which currently is the location of Dunn Brothers Coffee.
My understanding is that Potbelly is a big deal in Chicago, where it got its start as a mom-and-pop sandwich shop that started in an antique store. Sandwiches are its main thing, but it also has a dessert menu, and I would have my journalistic credentials revoked if I didn’t immediately share information about straws with cookies on them. Here’s a picture:
As for the sandwiches, the hook there is that they are all toasted. The menu is full of traditional offerings, such as turkey, roast beef, meatball, an Italian, and a chicken salad that the restaurant says is made on site each day. But the restaurant also offers a few that you may not find at other chain restaurants, such as a grilled chicken Mediterranean with hummus, artichoke hearts, feta cheese and several other ingredients. The restaurant also offers a special brand of sandwich called a Skinny. It features less meat and cheese and skinnier bread. The selling point is that each sandwich is under 400 calories.
The restaurant also offers a half-dozen salads, including a few that are beyond the ordinary, such as a chickpea veggie salad and an “Uptown Salad” that includes grilled chicken, grapes, apples, dried cranberries, candied walnuts and blue cheese. Soups also are on the menu, and the breakfast menu features breakfast sandwiches and steel cut oatmeal.
The company’s website also touts that each restaurant is a bit different too. I noted that the original restaurant was started by a couple who owned an antique shop and started selling sandwiches to their noontime customers. As a result, each restaurant now has a little bit of an antique store look. In addition, the website indicates that most restaurants typically have live music at various times, often during the lunch hour.
As for the Potbelly part of the name, every restaurant in the chain includes a potbelly stove. (This is much better than how I tried to pull off the concept. I had no idea a potbelly pig could become so unruly, especially around the sight of bacon.)
The restaurant chain expanded into Kansas City a couple of years ago. The closest locations are in Overland Park and Mission.
No word yet on when the Lawrence restaurant will open. The project needs to win some site plan approvals to do a small addition onto the building. Plans call for about a 360 square-foot addition to the dining area, an approximately 600 square-foot patio area and changes to the configuration of the drive-thru lane.
As for Dunn Brothers Coffee, there is a sign on the door saying the business has lost its lease. It says the shop's last day of business will be June 24. The sign makes no mention of a new Lawrence location for Dunn Brothers, which has been open in the location for a little more than 10 years.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There is other news on the cookie front. Hot Box Cookies has closed its store in downtown Lawrence and has reopened inside The Oread hotel at 1200 Oread Ave. In case you have forgotten, Hot Box Cookies was located at 732 Massachusetts St. I have no official word about what will locate in that space, but word on the street says to keep our eyes open for a wing-oriented restaurant. I’ll let you know if I hear more.
• If you have been in the Oread neighborhood lately, you perhaps have noticed a few yellow yard signs that the city requires to be placed on property when new development has been proposed. When I say a few signs, I mean 308.
There are yellow signs everywhere in the Oread neighborhood currently, but, no, plans have not been filed to build a giant cookie factory in the historic neighborhood. Instead, new design guidelines have been proposed for the neighborhood. Actually, the design guidelines already have been approved once, but city officials realized after the fact that they had not met the letter of the law when it came to notifying residents of the proposed changes. City code requires the yellow signs to be posted on property that will be affected by zoning or development code changes. That wasn’t done the first time the design guidelines were heard. If the city placed a yellow sign at every property in the Oread neighborhood, that would be several thousand signs. My understanding is city officials have determined that placing a sign at every intersection in the neighborhood will meet the requirement. More specifically, every corner of every intersection has been the thought process. That means that there are eight signs at every intersection.
In case you are wondering, the signs advertise public hearings that will take place in June and July about the design guidelines.
Although the design guidelines were approved previously, there was dissent, especially from some landlords. Concerns were raised about parking requirements and zoning regulations that would limit the number of residents in each home.
• A quick housekeeping note: Town Talk will not appear on Friday. I’ll be conducting experiments with straws, cookies, yellow signs and an overly perturbed potbelly pig. I hope to return on Monday.
Large pet supply chain files plans for store near Sixth and Wakarusa; Lawrence gasoline prices still the highest in the state
Somewhere in Lawrence, I picture a dimly lit, smoke-filled room full of canines. They’ve probably just gotten done playing pool or poker, and, of course, that big bulldog who chomps on his cigar is the leader. Let’s not kid ourselves, they run this town. How else do you explain that PetSmart — just months after opening a store on south Iowa Street — has now filed plans to build a new store in west Lawrence?
Whatever the reason, PetSmart indeed has filed plans to build a new 18,000 square-foot store near Sixth and Wakarusa. More specifically, the project will be in the Bauer Farm development on a vacant lot just west of the Sprouts grocery store. Plans at one point had called for a multitenant retail building there, but it looks like the developers have landed a bigger fish.
No word yet on when the store will open, but it obviously will be several months to perhaps a year in the making. The project does need to win approval from city planners. Thus far, though, it looks like a fairly routine approval process. The zoning is already in place, and the development group is taking steps to avoid a fight over the lingering question of how much retail should be allowed to develop at the northeast corner of Sixth and Wakarusa. City officials have placed a cap on the amount of retail that can be built at the northeast corner. Originally, the PetSmart proposal would put the development over the cap, but developers now are modifying their plan to remove some planned but unbuilt retail from a different part of the Bauer Farm development in order to keep the total under the cap.
The cigar-chomping bulldog cares nothing about that, though. (I know, you want to see a picture of the bulldog, so at the end of this article, I’ll allow you a peek inside my gallery.) The numbers must show Lawrence is a big pet town in order for PetSmart to propose a second store so soon after opening its first Lawrence store at 27th and Iowa streets, next to Dick's Sporting Goods.
In case you have forgotten, PetSmart is the largest chain retailer of pet supplies in the country. It operates about 1,500 stores. The stores carry food and supplies for dogs, cats, fish, reptiles and a variety of small pets. The Lawrence store also operates a grooming service, and a limited number of PetSmart locations also operate a kennel service, or what the company calls a PetsHotel. I can’t tell from the plans whether that service is planned for the new Lawrence location. I’ll reach out to the company, and if I get more information about the project and its timeline, I’ll let you know.
But enough with that: On with the art. This is one of my favorites. It is titled “That’s Not a Biscuit!”
In other news and notes from around town:
• Forget what the calendar officially says, it is summer. How do I know? Yes, the Gatorade stations in my home — in place of actually turning on the air conditioner — are one sign. But the surer sign is that readers have started to ask me to look into why fuel prices in Lawrence are higher than they are elsewhere.
That is the question that never goes away in Lawrence. Not to spoil the ending, but there is no definitive answer to that question. But I’m happy to share data with you. Here’s a look at the average fuel prices of major Kansas markets, as measured by AAA Kansas.
— Lawrence: $2.26; One year ago: $2.57
— Kansas City, Kan. $2.23; One year ago: $2.55
— Topeka: $2.09; One year ago: $2.43
— Wichita: $2.16; One year ago: $2.48
— Statewide average: $2.16; One year ago $2.50
As you can see, one thing hasn’t changed in the last year. Lawrence still has the highest average price of any major market in the state. What has changed is the gap between Lawrence and other markets is growing. Topeka is the leader in cheap gas in Kansas. Last year, prices were 14 cents per gallon higher in Lawrence than Topeka. Now, the average price is 17 cents higher in Lawrence. The gap between Lawrence and the statewide average also is up from 7 cents a year ago to 10 cents today.
The simplest answer to why this continually happens is supply and demand. Reporter Nikki Wentling last year did some digging at my request to look at why Lawrence’s market is different from Topeka’s. A big finding was the number of gas stations. Lawrence has about one gas station for every 3,000 residents. Topeka has about one gas station for every 2,000 residents. That’s a big difference, and leads you to believe that Topeka gas stations have to be more aggressive in pricing gasoline in order to attract customers.
Another factor that we haven’t gathered information on, but that may be more important, is the number of gasoline chains operating in a community. For example, the last time we checked, Lawrence had 33 gas stations, but a lot of them were all owned by the same corporation: Kwik Shop, which is owned by Dillons grocery stores. Kwik Shop surely has to be the largest seller of gasoline in Lawrence. Do other communities have a greater variety in retailers and thus have more natural competition? I would think they might.
You probably would see downward pressure on gas prices, if Lawrence had more QuikTrips, or if places like Wal-Mart started selling gasoline. If you remember, I noted a few months ago that both Wal-Marts in Lawrence made an inquiry with City Hall about whether their Lawrence stores had the proper zoning to sell gasoline. Thus far, I haven’t seen any plans filed for gasoline pumps to be installed at either Wal-Mart, but I’ll continue to check on that.
Furniture store opens at Ninth and Iowa; apartment construction has Lawrence building totals off to strong start; pizza trivia
Perhaps you are like me and last week’s rain caused you to cut up the furniture to use for building the Ark. If so, you are probably wondering when you are going to get your circular saw returned to you and what your Lawrence furniture buying options are. Well, there’s news on the Lawrence furniture store front.
Over the years Lawrence has lost several large furniture stores, but there has been a pretty strong trend of smaller, secondhand furniture stores coming into the market. Add one more to the list. Phoenix Furniture and Home Goods has opened in the Hillcrest Shopping Center at Ninth and Iowa streets.
The store sells bedroom sets, couches, desks, dining room tables, rugs, lamps, wall hangings and other such items, said owner McKenzie Widner. Except for a few smaller items, all of the furniture is used.
Widner said she sold antiques as a side business for years while she worked as a Montessori school teacher in Lawrence. She said finding unique items has been something she’s long enjoyed, and she believes it is a service Lawrence shoppers are seeking.
“I tend to collect things that have a story,” Widner said. “I think shoppers these days like items with a little bit of character. The cool thing is the stuff in the store is stuff you can’t find anywhere else.”
Lawrence has a few used furniture stores that cater to the college crowd, and Widner said some of her items are at prices aimed at that audience. But she said the store also seeks to have a good inventory of items for families and others that are wanting to stock their home with quality furniture.
A big part of the store’s business is that it buys furniture as well as sells it.
“Lawrence is a town where people are always coming and going, so I think it is important that there always be a store where people can go to sell their items,” Widner said.
The store is located at 925 Iowa, Suite L. If you haven’t memorized your Hillcrest Shopping Center suite locations, the store is right next door to a shop that has caused me to expand the size of some of my furniture: Munchers Bakery. (It is funny how mini-cinnamon rolls do not make you “mini-er.”)
In other news and notes from around town:
• When it comes to building homes to put more furniture in, activity is up a bit in Lawrence, according to figures from City Hall.
I have city building permit totals through April, and they show new single-family and duplex construction is thus far off to its best start since 2013. The city has issued 53 permits for single-family and duplex construction, up from 49 the same period a year ago. The recent high-water mark was 59 in 2013. So, activity is up but not actually booming at this point.
The story in the Lawrence building world continues to be apartments. The city, through April, has issued permits for 377 apartment units. This marks the third time in the last four years that the city has issued more than 350 apartment permits during the spring building season. Last year the city issued 351 building permits through April and issued 374 during the time period in 2013.
The construction activity has Lawrence on pace to have an above-average year in construction projects. The city thus far has issued permits for $77.7 million worth of projects. That’s below last year’s pace of $89.3 million, but remember that construction activity hit an all-time high in Lawrence in 2015. Since 2009, the spring season — January through April — has produced an average of $39 million worth of projects. So, Lawrence is nearly doubling that pace.
As for large projects that got started in April, an approximately $940,000 renovation of the Delta Chi Fraternity at 1245 West Campus Road tops the list. Also, as we’ve reported, work has begun on an approximately $825,000 renovation of the Hampton Inn at 2300 W. Sixth St.
• It is now after 8 a.m., so of course pizza is on my mind. Fun fact time regarding pizza. Pizza Hut was founded on this date in 1958 in Wichita. The company was once a very important Kansas-based company, but it has long ago moved its headquarters out of state. On its birthday, the company announced it is making some changes to its menu. It is removing all artificial preservatives from its cheeses by the end of March 2017 and removing something called BHA/BHT — both food preservatives, I think — from all its meats by the end of July.
That's fine enough, but I mainly bring up Pizza Hut because of its birthday and because I've been trying to track something down about the chain for awhile. I've had someone tell me that the former Pizza Hut store on Massachusetts was the first Pizza Hut in the country to offer delivery service decades and decades ago. I've even heard that it may be the first location — or at least one of the first — of any pizza places in America to offer delivery. I haven't ever been able to confirm that, though, but it would be a neat bit of Lawrence trivia, if true. So, if you happen to have a box of Pizza Hut delivery documentation in your attic, let me know.
New federal numbers show Lawrence housing prices on the rise; a peek at what they say about Lawrence’s affordability question
I have news about Lawrence home values. They’re going up, but not yet booming, according to the latest federal figures.
It seems like it is time to keep a closer eye on home values in Lawrence. Real estate agents are talking about a low supply of available homes putting pressure on housing prices. Community leaders are talking about spending potentially millions of dollars for affordable housing projects. And then there are those of you who treat your homes like ATMs. (My wife doesn’t understand that term. She thinks it means she gets to charge me a fee to live in the house. She calls it an inconvenience fee.)
Regardless, here’s a look at home value totals as calculated by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The agency takes data from both homes sales and mortgage refinancing activity that is processed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. So, the agency has access to lots of home prices and appraisal reports for properties all across the country.
The report found that in Lawrence home prices accelerated at a pretty decent pace in the first quarter of 2016. Home values increased on average by 2.3 percent compared with the fourth quarter of 2015. That was nearly the top growth rate in the state. Topeka actually just edged out Lawrence. It posted a 2.55 percent growth rate. But home prices in Lawrence rose more rapidly than they did in the KC metro area, which saw appreciation of just 0.17 percent for the quarter.
But when you look at a longer term period you see that Lawrence’s home values have been pretty moderate. Here’s a look at growth rates over the last year for Lawrence and few regional metro areas.
— Lawrence: 3.10 percent
— Topeka: 6.05 percent
— Wichita: 1.33 percent
— Kansas City: 5.81 percent
— Manhattan: 0.34 percent
— Columbia, Mo.: 4.4 percent
— Joplin, Mo.: 0.4 percent
— Lincoln, Neb.: 4.64 percent
— Omaha, Neb.: 4.82 percent
— Iowa City: 3.89 percent
— Ames, Iowa: 5.76 percent
— Oklahoma City: 4.85 percent
For some perspective, the top ranked metro area in the country was Port St. Lucie, Fla., at 14.68 percent appreciation over the year. Boulder, Colo., was No. 2 at 14.4 percent. Greeley, Colo., a town we sometimes compare ourselves to, was No. 10 in the country at 13 percent, and Fort Collins, Colo., was No. 13 at 12.5 percent growth.
When you look at the five-year growth rate, Lawrence is even more moderate.
— Lawrence: 8.14 percent
— Topeka: 6.04 percent
— Wichita: 5.55 percent
— Kansas City: 11.39 percent
— Manhattan: 8.04 percent
— Columbia: 11.97 percent
— Joplin: 9.14 percent
— Lincoln: 14.85 percent
— Omaha: 12.74 percent
— Iowa City: 12.49 percent
— Ames: 18.27 percent
— Oklahoma City: 16.03 percent
For perspective, the Colorado communities I mentioned above — Boulder, Greeley and Fort Collins — all had five-year growth rates of 39 percent or more.
In that light, Lawrence’s housing prices aren’t considered particularly out of line. But folks shouldn’t use these numbers to make broad conclusions about whether Lawrence has a housing affordability problem. For one thing, rent rates are important when examining housing affordability. These numbers don’t look at rent rates at all. But more importantly, you can’t look at housing affordability without looking at income levels in a community.
Still, I find these numbers interesting. As the community continues to discuss affordability issues, it's numbers like these that may lead us to ask an important question: Does Lawrence have a housing price problem or does it have an income problem?
Whatever the case, have a good Memorial Day. Town Talk won’t appear on Monday but will be back on Tuesday.
Let’s get in the time machine and set the dial to 2008. No, I’m not looking to relive the decision about a Mario Chalmers tribute tattoo or other such common KU National Championship celebration issues. Something else happened that year: Voters went to the polls to approve a new sales tax for infrastructure projects. Just like the tattoo, there are questions that linger from that vote.
As the headline implies, I believe there is a question about whether city commissioners are breaking a political promise about how they’re using that sales tax money and paying for street maintenance.
That question has come up from time to time, but has been renewed by the City Commission’s recent discussion of a five-year capital improvement plan. As proposed, that plan calls for the city to spend $3.14 million in 2017 for its contracted street maintenance program. It also calls for that same annual funding level for the life of the five-year plan.
What’s interesting is that in 2008 — before voters approved the 0.3 percent sales tax for infrastructure — the city approved $4.83 million in spending for contracted street maintenance.
Before we get too deep into the weeds here, a quick word about the city’s contracted street maintenance program. It is the program that seals the cracks in streets, puts a new coat of pavement on sections of streets, repairs portions of curbs and gutters and other such maintenance issues.
Engineers deem this program critical. I’ve frequently heard it is just like caring for your house. You have to do the mundane maintenance in order to avoid or delay the really big, expensive rebuilding projects. Simply put, the city is spending less money on those type of projects than what they were before voters approved millions of dollars in new sales tax funds for streets.
Here’s where we get into the weeds a little bit: Overall, the city certainly is spending more money on streets now than it did prior to the sales tax vote. It darn sure better be. The sales tax in 2015 alone provided almost $5 million for infrastructure projects.
But, as I’ve already noted, there are different types of street spending. There is spending on street maintenance and there is spending on rebuilding streets. The city has been spending more money on the high-profile street rebuilding projects — think Kasold Drive, think Iowa Street — but has been spending less on the more mundane street maintenance projects.
Does that, however, mean city commissioners are breaking a political promise? Well, some pretty specific things were said during the campaign to convince voters to approve this sales tax. I covered that campaign, and remember pretty well the environment we were in. A key talking point was that the city hadn’t spent enough money on street maintenance historically, and as a result we had lots of streets that needed to be rebuilt. We were behind the curve. The last thing politicians were telling voters is that they were going to spend less money on street maintenance.
Just to reconfirm my memory, I looked for a written statement on the subject. I went back to the documents from the City Commission’s Aug. 5, 2008, meeting, when commissioners agreed to put the sales tax issue on the ballot. There is a memo that explains how the infrastructure sales tax would be used. A reminder: It is used for more than just streets. The Burroughs Creek Trail received sales tax money, firetrucks have been purchased with it, a major drainage project in North Lawrence is being funded by the tax.
The memo explains all that, and then includes a paragraph that addresses a key point of philosophy: “Remaining funding is anticipated to provide new funds for street and storm water infrastructure which would enhance rather than supplant existing general fund, gas tax or storm water funding for these infrastructure projects.” Yes, city memo language can be a cure for insomnia. But let me translate for you: The key phrase is “enhance rather than supplant.” In other words, we are going to keep spending all that we spend today on streets, and this sales tax money will be new money that we’ll add on top of it. That sentiment was expressed many times on the campaign trail.
But that is not what is being proposed, and it is not what has happened the past few years. I’ve already told you the city’s contracted street maintenance fund is scheduled to receive $1.69 million less in funding in 2017 than it did in 2008 before the sales tax was approved.
But let’s take a look at the specifics. The street maintenance fund gets money from a variety of city sources.
— In 2017, it is proposed to get $2 million from the general fund, which is primarily property taxes. In 2008, it received at least $2.1 million in general fund dollars. (I think it is closer to $2.55 million, but the records are little difficult to understand on that point.)
— In 2017, it is proposed to receive $140,000 in storm water funds, which comes from a special fee on your utility bill. In 2008, it received $540,000 in storm water funds.
— In 2017, it is proposed to receive $200,000 in gas tax funds, which comes from a state-imposed tax on gasoline. In 2008, it received $690,000 in gas tax funds.
— In 2008, the street maintenance fund also received $850,000 from the countywide 1-cent sales tax, which is a different sales tax from the infrastructure sales tax approved by voters in 2008. As proposed for 2017, the street maintenance fund will receive no countywide sales tax dollars. Much of the countywide sales tax dollars that the city had available to it have now been committed to paying for Rock Chalk Park.
It is important to note that the city is proposing to use $800,000 in infrastructure sales tax money for the street maintenance fund. That is money that wasn’t available in 2008. But, as you can see, the city has reduced funding from other sources by an amount much greater than $800,000. Basically, for every new dollar the city has put into the fund, it has taken two old dollars out.
If you think this is something the new city manager has come up with, you are incorrect. The city started doing this well before Tom Markus arrived earlier this year. We reported last year that the 2015 contracted street maintenance budget had dropped to $2.8 million after city officials took money from the fund for other purposes.
So, are city commissioners breaking a political promise when it comes to streets? Honestly, I’m not that interested in answering the question. The answer will be subjective, and won’t have much bearing on what happens in the future. It certainly appears that street maintenance funding is different from what voters were told in 2008, but a lot of things have changed since 2008. The city has had financial issues it has had to address. The truth is, the folks who campaigned in 2008 for the sales tax had no way of promising what future city commissions would do with future budgets. That’s why when it comes to promises, there are many I would prefer rather than political ones.
What happens going forward, though, is important. City engineers say they ought to be spending about $6 million a year in contracted street maintenance to stay ahead of the curve. Whether that number is entirely accurate is probably debatable too.
But it seems there is a reasonable question to ask at City Hall these days: Is the city going to fall behind on street maintenance again? If the answer is yes, you need to answer another question: What city spending are you going to cut, or what taxes are you going to raise?
Don’t ask me. I think it may be easier to figure out the tattoo.
Lawrence startup launches product to compete with Keurig coffee maker; update on proposed fried chicken chain for west Lawrence
Technology is wonderful. Although we don’t have flying cars or paperless offices, we have figured out how to use it to make coffee infinitely more expensive. The engineers at Starbucks once developed a high-tech machine to print money, but decided it would be more profitable to create a new espresso maker. Of course, the technology extends to your home or office too. You can buy a single-cup coffee maker, like a Keurig, for a little more than $100 and enjoy one cup of coffee at a time.
That’s where a new Lawrence company comes into the equation. It has launched a product that is taking aim not only at the Keurig, but also at the drink. Lawrence-based Yannie Tea has begun selling a single-serving tea maker. The product is called Yannie’s Delta Tea Maker. The machine also can be used to brew a single serving of coffee, but Yannie owner Annie Lin will try to convince you that you should dump the coffee for healthy green tea instead.
“We are focusing on the tea now because it is just so good for you,” Lin said. “I think it is our mission to spread the word about tea.”
Lin is hoping the Delta competes with the Keurig both in the price and environmental friendliness categories. Yannie’s is selling the tea maker for $30 to $40, depending on the retail outlet, while Keurigs usually sell for at least twice that amount.
On the environmental front, the Keurig uses a brewing system that includes inserting into the machine a plastic cup pre-loaded with ground coffee. The Delta doesn’t require the use of a plastic cup. Instead, when using it for tea, you insert a paper tea packet. The packets are triangle shaped, thus the Delta name, Lin said. The company also produces those packets, under the brand name Yannie Tea. The tea is imported from the Wuyi mountains of China, which are known for their prized tea production. For coffee, people can use a paper filter and the coffee of their choice in the Delta, Lin said.
“We thought paper would be better because we are trying to promote a healthy lifestyle and a clean earth,” Lin said.
Like a Keurig, the Delta is based on quick brewing. The Delta will brew 12 ounces of tea in about three minutes, Lin said. Of course, Lin said the machine is designed to get the water to just the right temperature to create just the right brewing process.
“People are amazed that it is isn’t bitter,” Lin said. “Good tea brewed right is not supposed to be bitter.”
Don’t expect Keurig to go out of business anytime soon, though. The Lawrence company is still in its infancy. It began receiving its product about a month ago, and thus far has limited retail outlets. The Delta brewer and Yannie Tea packets are available at Lawrence’s Checkers, the two Hy-Vee stores in Lawrence and a few of the Hy-Vee stores in Kansas City.
“Right now we are just hoping the Kansas City and Midwest area will notice our brand,” Lin said. “We realize we are new and don’t have a lot of budget to do advertising.”
Lin isn’t new to the business world, though. For 14 years, she and her husband were in the coffee business. Her husband has professionally designed other food devices and has a doctorate in food science, Lin said.
The company is in patent-pending status on the Delta tea maker. Currently, the product isn’t being made in Lawrence, but rather is being produced in China.
Who knows, perhaps the world of tea will get as crazy as the world of coffee, and Lawrence will have a household hit on its hands.
“We know from experience that people want their tea quick and easy,” Lin said. “They don’t want to mess around.”
Either way, add Yannie to the list of Lawrence startup companies that are trying to break onto the big stage.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As far as I know, no one has ever made a single-serving fried chicken-maker. Who would want to have just one serving of fried chicken?
As we have reported multiple times, there are many fried chicken chains betting that Lawrence residents want plenty of chicken. Here’s an update on one of the fried chicken projects: Zaxby’s has won a key approval from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission for its proposed restaurant on West Sixth Street.
The Planning Commission earlier this week unanimously approved a final development plan for the project at 4661 Bauer Farm Drive. If your fingers are too greasy to operate the GPS, that is just east of the Burger King near Sixth and Wakarusa.
We’ve previously reported that Zaxby’s had filed plans to come to town, but now with the approval of the final development plan, I would expect to see work begin on the site soon, although I haven’t received a timeline from the company. Based on the other chicken construction that has occurred in Lawrence, it seems like a lot of these fast-food projects are six- to eight-month construction projects.
If you have forgotten about Zaxby’s, it is a chain that has a heavy emphasis on chicken fingers and chicken wings. And, as is often the case with these sorts of places, there’s enough sauce there to make dry cleaners drool over the number of stained ties I soon will be generating. That’s another way of saying there are about 10 sauces for the chicken. For good measure, the menu also has a few chicken sandwiches, some foreign dish called “salads,” and fries, onion rings, ice cream and cookie desserts and other such offerings.
The company has submitted a rendering of the proposed Lawrence store. Here’s a look:
New cheese shop opens in west Lawrence; home sales gain steam in April, but shortage of houses persists
I have news of cheese and also news of people buying new homes. And though it may sound like it, this isn’t a follow-up to the wild cheese party that ended up with Gouda in places that was no Gouda.
First, the cheese news. Look for a new store inside the Dillons at Sixth and Wakarusa. The longtime New York-based purveyor Murray’s Cheese has signed a deal with Dillons’ parent company to open cheese shops across the country. Lawrence has landed one of them.
The Murray’s Cheese shop at the Dillons at 4701 W. Sixth St. opened last weekend. According to information from Dillons, the cheese shop will stock more than 175 varieties of cheese, plus it will carry other items such as local honey and preserves, olives, crackers and charcuterie.
That is right, charcuterie. My, how far we have come in a short time. I honestly had never heard of the word before late 2013 when I wrote about plans for Hank Charcuterie to open at 19th and Massachusetts. I thought it was a critter that we may find the fellows on "Swamp People" chasing down. But now I have learned that charcuterie is French for “too expensive to serve to my friends.” (Don’t let that dissuade you, though. That’s more of a commentary on my friends than the prices.) In case you somehow don’t know what charcuterie is, it refers to sausages, pates and other specialty meat products that go well with cheeses and other appetizers.
To be honest, I also hadn’t heard much about Murray’s Cheese shop before, but that's mainly because I have tried to cut way down on the number of cheese conversations I have during the course of a day. According to Dillons, though, Murray’s is one of the more famous cheese shops in New York. It has been open since 1940, and has drawn large crowds to its original location in Greenwich Village.
The deal with Dillons calls for Murray’s to stock its most popular cheeses at Dillons. Looking at the store’s website, it appears varieties include: Parmigiano-Reggiano; English Cheddar; Irish Cheddar; Roquefort blue cheese; Havarti, Alpine style Grand Cru cheese; a variety of BellaVitano cheeses; marinated mozzarella; and more than a half dozen styles of Gouda, including smoked, aged, farmhouse, double cream and others. They even have a cheese platter called “Life is Gouda.” (Wait a minute. I thought I had the market cornered on Gouda puns.)
One other point to note about the new cheese shop: It encourages people to sample a different variety of cheese on each visit.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If I took Murray’s up on that offer, I may need to buy a house with wider doors. Maybe that is what is going on with other folks in town. Whatever the case, Lawrence home sales were up in the important month of April.
Home sales in Lawrence grew by 10.5 percent in April, compared with April 2015 totals, according to the latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors. I’m sure that was a welcome site for Lawrence real estate agents because 2016 sales had started off a bit sluggish. During the first quarter of the year, sales were down by 1.1 percent.
But with April’s strong showing, homes sales are now up for the year. Through April, sales are up 3.7 percent compared with the same period a year ago.
The report, though, does provide reason for concern. The number of homes on the market in Lawrence continues to decline significantly. At the end of April, 250 homes were on the market, which is down from 346 in April 2015 and 429 in April 2014. Real estate agents believe a small supply of homes ultimately will lead to a reduction in sales and also an increase in home prices. At the moment, it is making for a seller’s market.
The result is homes are not sitting on the market for long. Thus far in 2016, the median number of days a home sits on the market before selling is 28. That’s down from 43 in 2015 and 60 in 2014.
“The pace of this market can be challenging for everyone,” said Carl Cline, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
Other statistics from the recent report include:
— Sales of newly constructed homes were up slightly in April, totaling nine versus seven in April 2015. For the year, sales of newly constructed homes are up 37 percent, totaling 22.
— The median selling prices of homes this year is $167,565, up 5.4 percent from the same period a year ago.
— The total dollar value of homes sold in Lawrence thus far in 2016 is $61.1 million, up 6.7 percent compared with the same period a year ago.
Developer raising red flag about slow pace of East Ninth Street corridor project; plans for new East Lawrence microbrewery moving ahead
East Ninth Street has seen some odd things before, but surely on the list of the top five would be when there was a social club that combined beer drinking and gymnastics.
As I’ve reported before, that is the history behind the old 1869 stone building at Ninth and Rhode Island streets. It used to be home to the old German-American social club called Turnverein, which housed a beer garden but also required members to partake in a certain amount of gymnastics at the club. (If you think that needs more of an explanation, you can read some of its history here.)
To the disappointment of many, not even the advent of light beer could keep alive the idea of beer-drinking men wearing Spandex gymnastics leotards. Now the building — generally thought to be one of the oldest in the city — sits empty, and its owner is raising a red flag to the City Commission.
Lawrence businessman Tony Krsnich leads a development group that owns the Turnhalle. He’s also the leader of the group that has developed the Warehouse Arts District at the eastern end of East Ninth Street. Not surprisingly, Krsnich is a big supporter of the idea of an approximately $4 million project that would remake East Ninth Street into an arts corridor, complete with a new street, new pedestrian and bicycle features, and plenty of spaces for art.
City commissioners are scheduled to receive a much-debated design plan for the East Ninth Street project at their meeting Tuesday. Krsnich is now warning that if commissioners don’t approve the plan, he will lose a large investor in an approximately $1 million renovation project for the Turnhalle building.
Details were a bit lacking — Krsnich only identified the investor as a private business group — but he said the investor has placed a timeline of the end of the month for whether to proceed with the investment, which Krsnich has said would be in the high six figures.
“Our investor is going to move forward on our project or another project at the end of this month. That’s kind of the crux of it,” Krsnich said.
Krsnich said he’s worried commissioners aren’t going to vote on the project’s design at Tuesday’s meeting, but rather take several more weeks to consider the project. If that’s the case, Krsnich said the Turnhalle likely will sit empty for quite a bit longer because he’ll be forced to put the renovation project on hold.
“We have several interested tenants,” Krsnich said, noting a restaurant was the most likely use for the basement level, while a unique theater or performance space could happen on the ground floor. “The problem is everybody is making it contingent upon the Ninth Street corridor project moving forward. They’re only interested if Ninth Street is improved.”
You will have to make of this what you will. Krsnich obviously has a lot of financial reasons to lobby for the project. But he is becoming more vocal with his frustrations that it is taking the city so long to develop a plan for the street. The Lawrence Arts Center won a $500,000 ArtPlace America grant for the project in June 2014.
“I thought the street would be completed by now, or at least underway,” Krsnich said. “Now, I don’t even know if it is going to happen.”
The project has received a positive recommendation from the city’s Historic Resources Commission, but it still must win funding and key approvals from the City Commission.
Concerns of some neighbors, though, must factor into all of this, too. The process has been a contentious one, in part, because some residents of East Lawrence didn’t feel like they were included in the idea from its early stages. Concerns have lingered with some who believe the corridor will serve as a way to tie downtown and the Warehouse Arts District together, which they fear could be detrimental to the single-family neighborhood that lies in between.
Krsnich has begun characterizing that group as a very small minority, but city commissioners may view it differently. It does appear that the City Commission is split on the idea of the East Ninth Street project. The city would find itself in an odd position if it had to give back the $500,000 ArtPlace grant because it couldn’t agree on the corridor project. I would think that the commission would figure out a way to avoid that scenario, but it will be interesting to watch.
You do have to wonder whether more time will do any good on this project, or whether everyone’s opinions are set in stone.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Where did I put that leotard? Plans for a new microbrewery and apartment complex in East Lawrence are moving ahead.
As we reported in December, plans were filed by Lawrence businessman Adam Williams and Lawrence brewer Matt Williams to convert the old SeedCo building at 826 Pennsylvania Street into a brewery, restaurant and apartment building.
Well, those plans are becoming more definite. The group has recently purchased the property, and now is awaiting site plan approval from Lawrence City Hall. The new plans show the SeedCo building — which is next door to the Cider Gallery — growing by two stories in height. The new floors would house three two-bedroom apartments and 12 one-bedroom apartments.
The remaining ground floor and basement space would be devoted to the microbrewery and restaurant, plus the needed space to actually manufacture and store the beer. As we reported in December, the new venture would be called the Lawrence Beer Company.
Adam Williams said he hopes to receive city approvals in July and have the project completed in about 12 months.
“We just feel like the Warehouse Arts district is such a good fit for this project,” Williams said. “A brewery is really something that trending to being more neighborhood driven these days. We just feel like that is a good neighborhood to be in.”
As for the apartments, Williams said the group is looking at making some of the apartments part of an affordable housing program, but he said the details for that still need to be finalized.
Lawrence makes return as one of the top growing cities in the state, new figures show; Topeka, not so much so
I don’t know if we need to buy a new SUV and start talking about soccer a whole lot more, but Lawrence is part of the Johnson County crowd in one way these days. Lawrence is once again seeing population growth that rivals the ever-growing Johnson County communities.
New population estimates from the Census Bureau report that Lawrence’s 2015 population stands at 93,917 people. That’s an increase of 1,250 people since 2014. That’s a growth rate of 1.3 percent, which was one of the top annual growth rates for any major city in the state. Of the communities with a population of 50,000 and over, only Lenexa had a better one-year growth rate of 2.8 percent.
But the more interesting totals are the longer-range ones. We’re at the halfway point of the decade, and thus far it has been a good one for Lawrence. The city has gained 6,274 people since the 2010 Census, federal officials estimate. That’s a growth rate of 7.1 percent. That doesn’t put Lawrence at the top of the list, but it puts it in the top tier. Here’s a look at growth rates since 2010:
— Lenexa: 52,490 people, up 8.9 percent
— Overland Park: 186,515, up 7.5 percent
— Manhattan: 56,308, up 7.7 percent
— Lawrence: 93,917, up 7.1 percent
— Olathe: 134,305, up 6.7 percent
— Shawnee: 65,046, up 4.5 percent
— Kansas City: 151,306, up 3.7 percent
— Wichita: 389,965, up 1.9 percent
— Topeka: 127,265, down 0.1 percent
The numbers mean Lawrence is on pace to have a growth rate of 14 percent to 15 percent for the decade. That would be an improvement over the last decade, when Lawrence saw growth of 9.4 percent. That was one of Lawrence's slower growth rates in modern times. A rate of 14 percent to 15 percent would still be lower than the 20 percent growth rates the city posted in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. But growth overall in Kansas has slowed down since that time period, too. If Lawrence finishes the decade as one of the faster-growing communities in the state, I think community leaders will take that as a good sign.
The numbers above surely are creating concern for our neighbors to the west. Topeka’s negative growth rate for the decade sticks out like a sore thumb. To some degree, Lawrence officials also ought to be concerned. Lawrence probably doesn’t care much about Topeka’s population, but it does care that Topeka has a relatively strong economy. Lawrence for a long time has been home to many people who work in Topeka but live in Lawrence. These Topeka population numbers probably suggest weakness overall in Topeka. Granted, Lawrence would rather have people work in Lawrence and live in Lawrence, but given that won’t happen overnight, a stronger economy in Topeka probably would be useful for Lawrence.
The Census bureau released population estimates for every city and the state, so let’s take a look at some of the smaller communities:
— Baldwin City: Population 4,669, up 1.9 percent for the year; up 3.4 percent for the decade
— De Soto: 6,074 up 0.6; up 6.1 percent
— Eudora: 6,378, up 1.3 percent; up 3.9 percent
— Gardner: 20,686, up 1.0 percent; up 9.1 percent
— Tonganoxie: 5,248, up 1 percent; up 5 percent
— Ottawa: 12,387, down 0.1 percent; down 2 percent
— Leawood: 34,579 up 0.5 percent; up 8.5 percent
— Leavenworth: 35,980 up 2 people; up 2 percent
— Lecompton: 640 up 0.6 percent; up 2.4 percent
If you want to see the full list of Kansas cities, you can do so here.
A familiar face at Lawrence City Hall may end up being the test case for new thinking about tax breaks for downtown residential projects. Former City Commissioner Bob Schumm has confirmed to me that he’s filed a request for tax breaks for a multi-story office/condo project he hopes to build on Vermont Street.
We’ve reported multiple times that Schumm has filed plans to build a five-story building on a pair of vacant lots in the 800 block of Vermont Street, just south of the old Headmasters salon building. Plans call for a ground floor of office space, and Schumm says he has a tentative deal for a bank to be the anchor tenant of that space. The second floor would house about 30 small, high-tech office spaces. The remaining floors would consist of 11 condos that Schumm would sell, and one top floor living space he plans to keep for himself.
Plans also call for 22 underground parking spaces. Schumm has said the underground parking garage likely would require him to seek some financial incentives from City Hall. Well, that incentive request has now been filed.
Schumm is seeking 10 years' worth of tax rebates under the Neighborhood Revitalization Act. The first five years would include an 85 percent tax rebate on the new tax value added to the property as a result of the project. In the final five years, the tax rebate would shrink to 50 percent. Schumm also is requesting industrial revenue bonds, which would allow him to receive an exemption from paying sales tax on about $2.8 million worth of construction materials for the project.
The request comes at an interesting time. City commissioners are considering a host of changes to the policies that govern financial incentives, especially those offered to residential projects. The city is seeking to draw a brighter line that it won’t offer tax breaks greater than 50 percent for residential projects. The commission is also considering a provision that would require such projects to have at least 10 percent of its units be rent-controlled to serve as affordable housing units.
That new policy isn’t in place currently, so technically Schumm’s project doesn’t have to meet the provisions. But that’s really just a technicality. Approving or rejecting a tax incentive is entirely discretionary on the part of the commission. Commissioners can set the amount of the tax incentive and the terms however a majority of them choose.
So, it will be interesting to see what type of incentive package this commission thinks a major downtown development should receive. Most of the other downtown development projects that have received incentives were approved by the previous city commission.
Schumm says his project has a strong argument for public incentives. It can be summed up in one word: Parking. Schumm says he has received bids for the underground parking garage. They have come in at about $1.1 million for the 22 spaces of parking. Schumm says it is clear to him that he can’t pass along the cost of the parking spaces — about $52,000 a stall — to the owners of the condos. In the Lawrence real estate market, people simply don’t pay that much for parking, he said.
“The thing is, nobody wants to pay for parking,” Schumm said. “And in downtown, there is no requirement to provide parking, but the city wants you to provide parking.”
That is where things get really interesting. Schumm is correct that downtown zoning does not require projects to provide any off-street parking. The city decades ago — like many cities — decided public parking spaces would serve downtown.
But downtown has changed over the years, and the city is urging more residential projects in downtown. As more people live in downtown, more of a strain gets put on the public parking supply. Developers have said they they’re willing to put in in their own private, below-ground parking garages to accommodate some of the new parking demand they are creating. But they often say they can’t put in the parking and still have a financially-viable project without some assistance from the city.
That’s where this project stands. Schumm knows the drill well. He’s been a downtown businessman since the 1970s, and until he lost his re-election bid last year, he was one of the longer serving city commissioners in the community.
Schumm says he thinks he has a strong case to get the incentives, but if he doesn’t, the project could still proceed under a different path. He could change the development from one that has condos to one that has apartments. By doing that, he thinks he could eliminate the below-ground parking garage. In other words, he’s confident that renters will be willing to hunt and peck for a parking spot in nearby public parking lots, but condo owners likely will expect a dedicated spot. Lawrence developer Doug Compton is already making that bet. He’s adding apartment units to the former Pachamamas building at Eighth and New Hampshire, and he’s not adding any private parking spaces.
“I’m confident he’s not going to have a problem renting those units,” Schumm said.
Schumm said he’s confident he could rent apartment units too. His proposed project is right across the street from a large, public parking lot, and it is only a short block away from the new public parking garage at the library. Schumm notes that as a downtown property owner, he’s already paying a special assessment on his property tax bill to pay for a portion of that new parking garage.
“I wouldn’t feel bad about using the garage,” Schumm said.
And perhaps he shouldn’t feel bad about it. Did commissioners build the garage only for certain types of parkers to use, such as library patrons or people using the nearby municipal swimming pool? I’m not sure that they did. But parking is in high demand at times in downtown. If residents of downtown are taking larger amounts of public parking, that will make it more difficult for visitors to find parking, and that could have ramifications.
That’s the type of tradeoff that commissioners have to weigh.
As for the affordable housing component, Schumm said his project doesn’t have any plans to set aside units for affordable housing stock. He noted most of the City Hall talk with affordable housing has been focused on rental units, and his project doesn’t call for any rentals. He said if such a requirement is put on his project, he’ll try to meet it. But he said it probably would require a greater incentive in order for the project to pencil out. As it is currently planned, Schumm said the condo units are projected to be marketed at $275 per square foot, or about $275,000 for a 1,000 square foot condo.
Schumm has been following this closely. He has even went up to Iowa City, where new City Manager Tom Markus came from. He’s talked to developers up there, and quickly learned that developers in Iowa City had figured out how to make a similar affordable housing requirement work because they received large incentive packages, often times significantly larger than what has been offered in Lawrence.
I think that is a point that hasn’t quite got full discussion yet in Lawrence: If Lawrence wants to require affordable housing in projects, does it need to increase the amount of incentives it has historically offered?
For those of you who have been following along with City Hall reporter Nikki Wentling’s series on affordable housing, there have been signs that Markus thinks that discussion needs to be had too.
“Our incentives packages tend to be pretty conservative [in Lawrence],” Markus said in an article earlier this month. So, that too will be interesting to watch.
Schumm said he is hoping that through all of this, city commissioners remember the importance of having people living in downtown. Schumm said he’s become convinced new living units in downtown are the primary factor that will protect downtown from increased competition of new development on the edge of the city.
“The pressure from development on the periphery will never end,” Schumm said. “The way to take care of downtown for the longterm is to ensure people are living here. Then you have people here 24 hours a day, and that will bring in the different mix of retailers to downtown.”
We’ll keep you updated on Schumm’s incentive request. City commissioners will receive it soon, but won’t act on it right away. It will go to city staff and also to the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee for a recommendation before it is voted on by city commissioners.
I’ve been wondering what that odd feeling is every time I drive by the small retail center near the northeast corner of Sixth and Wakarusa. Now, I know. It is my cholesterol count preparing for what’s to come. How’s this for a line up: Burgers and barbecue at Biggs, then next door frozen yogurt at Orange Leaf, and now I have word that next door to that will be cupcakes and ice cream, if you choose.
A sign has gone up announcing that Smallcakes Cupcakery and Creamery plans to open a shop in the Bauer Farm development near Sixth and Wakarusa.
Smallcakes is a national franchise, but it is based out of Kansas City. Its founder, Jeff Martin, found fame by appearing on the popular television show "Cupcake Wars." According to various web reports, he gained particular notoriety on one episode by forgetting to add the pumpkin to a pumpkin cupcake. (Don’t feel bad: I think without fail I have forgotten to add the broccoli to broccoli and cheese.)
He’s recovered from that mistake, though, and the chain has more than 100 locations across the U.S. and a few international ones too. The chain touts 18 different flavors of cupcakes baked fresh each day. The company more recently has gotten into the ice cream business. Its website says it has 15 different flavors of small-batch ice cream made on site. The ice cream largely takes cupcake recipes and turns them into ice cream. That means flavors such as red velvet, lemon drop, cookies and cream, salted caramel crunch, peanut butter cup and traditional flavors such as chocolate and strawberry.
No word yet on who the franchise owner will be, or when the shop plans to open. But renovation work is underway in the small space. In case you are trying to picture the location for the new store, it is in the spot previously occupied by Alterations by Sarah. No word on what has happened to that business, but perhaps it was just slightly ahead of its time. Soon, though, it may work. Burgers, frozen yogurt, cupcakes. It sure seems like the fourth door ought to be a place to have your clothes altered.
In other news and notes from around town:
There’s news of some changes at the Lawrence chamber of commerce. Larry McElwain, president and CEO of The Chamber, has sent out an email to some leaders of the chamber notifying them that Brady Pollington, the leader of The Chamber’s economic development efforts, has resigned, and is no longer on the staff. The note wished Pollington well on his future endeavors, but provided no other details. I put a call into Pollington this morning, but haven’t heard back from him.
Pollington served as the key staff member for both The Chamber and the Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence and Douglas County. He was responsible for day-to-day operations of the economic development program, which is the primary point of contact for large businesses seeking to relocate or expand in the community. For instance, he was leading the efforts to find possible tenants for Lawrence VenturePark, the new business park on the eastern edge of the city. No word yet on a timeline for replacing Pollington.
Also, McElwain confirmed what we previously had reported was a strong likelihood: The chamber is moving its offices to a new downtown location. The chamber is finalizing a lease to move into the Hobbs Taylor Lofts building near Eighth and New Hampshire streets. My understanding is the organization will occupy ground-floor space in that multistory building. The chamber is currently located in second-floor space at Seventh and Vermont streets.
I’ve got a call into McElwain. I’ll let you know if I hear of more details.
One 23rd Street restaurant closes, another opens, with elaborate dishes including something called an Avocado Bomb
I’m no expert, but I do know that balance is important in the cultures of the Far East. That is why if I have a pound of rice on the right side of my plate, I always strive to have a pound of noodles on the left side. I don’t know if the same principle applies here, but I do have news of one longtime Lawrence Japanese restaurant closing, but a new one opening up right across the street.
First, the closing. DonDon, the Japanese rice and noodle bowl restaurant in the Louisiana Purchase Shopping Center at 23rd and Louisiana, is set to close at any time now. Ikuko Fox, the owner of the establishment, told me she is negotiating a closing a date with the landlord currently. She said the restaurant may stay open until the end of July to satisfy some lease requirements, but will close sooner, if possible.
The restaurant — which features Donburi (rice bowls) and Udon (noodle bowls) — has been in business for seven years. Fox said she’s closing the business simply because she is ready to retire.
No word yet on what may take its place in the strip center, which is between Mr. Goodcents and Panera.
Noodle and rice lovers, though, shouldn’t fret much. A new Japanese restaurant has opened across the street in The Malls Shopping Center.
New York sushi chef Vincent Yu has moved to Lawrence and opened Nagoya Japanese Cuisine at 711 W. 23rd St. But if you think Japanese food has to be served in a bowl, think again. The restaurant is looking to make a name for itself with some visually stunning dishes. Take a look at some of these photos that the restaurant provided me during a brief visit recently.
That’s something called an Avocado Bomb, which I once tried to use as an excuse for why guacamole ended up on the kitchen ceiling. This is a different dish though. It features spicy crabmeat, mango, cucumber and other ingredients wrapped in thin avocado with hot sauce.
If you are truly international, like I am, you sometimes mix your Japanese with your French, as in filet mignon. Here’s a teriyaki version that is on the menu.
Also, if you are like me and look wonderful in a ship captain’s hat and can effortlessly work the word “dinghy” into any conversation, check this dish out. It is called the Love Boat, and features eight pieces of sushi, nine pieces of sashimi — thinly sliced raw fish — and a couple of Japanese rolls.
And finally here is a look at a variety of sushi rolls. The restaurant has more than 40 different rolls, and I apologize for not having the names of all these. (I got distracted and was trying to hire a crew for my Love Boat.)
In addition to the sushi and sashimi, the restaurant also offers multiple dishes for those who aren’t into that style of food. Those include multiple teriyaki and hibachi versions of chicken, steak, shrimp and salmon. Also on the menu are a variety of soups, noodle and fried rice dishes.
Yu said he previously worked at several sushi and Japanese restaurants in New York City, but this is his first venture at owning his own restaurant. He is running the restaurant with his family, who on the day that I was there also served as his translator.
“I came to this town and I just really liked Lawrence,” Yu said of his decision to open the restaurant.
For those of you trying to picture where the restaurant is located, it is next to the Westlake Ace Hardware store in the spot that for many years housed the Royal Peking Chinese restaurant.
Think of the possibilities: tacos with breadsticks and marinara; chicken parmesan with chips and salsa. I know it sounds like an impossible dream, a world where you can have your cake and eat it too (maybe with queso dip,) but I assure you it is not. Instead, it is Lawrence's newest restaurant concept.
The word is out that the old El Mezcal restaurant near 23rd and Iowa streets soon will be Vecinos Italian & Mexican Cuisine.
“You can get lasagna with a side of beans and rice, if you want,” said Kevin Jones, the chef and one of the owners of the new venture.
I had not thought of that one, and now I won’t be able to sleep. Understand, though, you don’t have to mix and match your Italian and Mexican cuisines. It is an option, but perhaps a more likely scenario is you want Mexican food, while someone else at your table wants Italian. Jones said the concept has been well-received with the people he’s shared it with.
“A lot of people tell me that those are their absolutely two favorite types of food,” Jones said. (They are certainly two of my top four. Free and plentiful also make the list.)
The concept isn’t unprecedented. Downtown Eudora long has been home to a unique Chinese/Mexican restaurant. And, of course, I can’t ever forget Furr's Cafeteria, where you could spend hours at an all-you-can-eat buffet loading your plates full of spaghetti and mashed potatoes, fried chicken and enchiladas and other such combinations. You know, the El Mezcal site is just one lot east of where Furr’s used to stand. My heart gets a funny tingle every time I think about Furr's. (My doctor’s given me pills for it.)
Remodeling work is well underway on the old El Mezcal location. Jones said he hopes to have the restaurant open sometime in June.
Jones’ two partners in the restaurant are members of the family of that operated some of the El Mezcal restaurants. (There were lots of El Mezcals, operated by many different people.) But Jones said the Mexican food won’t be a copy of the El Mezcal dishes, although the salsa and queso dip may be similar recipes. The other dishes, though, will have more of an authentic Mexican flavor, Jones said.
What does that mean? Well, the food may be a bit spicier than you find at other Americanized Mexican restaurants, Jones said.
“Flavor-wise, it is bolder, I think,” said Jones, who has been working in the restaurant industry for more than 30 years. “In America, they tone the dishes down a bit. It won’t be so spicy that you can’t eat it, but we are going to use more spices.”
As for the Italian side of the menu, Jones said he grew up in New Jersey where there was seemingly an Italian restaurant on every corner. He said he has been surprised at how few Italian restaurants there are in Lawrence. He said the Italian menu will include traditional favorites, such as homemade meatballs, spaghetti, lasagna, chicken parmesan, multiple fettuccine dishes, an antipasto plate and tiramisu. (Tacos and tiramisu? You ought to try it for the alliteration alone.)
In other news and notes from around town:
• Call it a fried chicken false alarm. Perhaps you were like me and noticed a lot of activity at the new Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen fried chicken restaurant near 26th and Iowa streets in recent days. Perhaps you bought a new pair of stretchy pants, and broke out your best Cajun accent for the occasion. If so, you were just a tad early. The restaurant was undergoing training, but wasn’t open to the public, an employee there told me. But an employee at the restaurant told me the restaurant does have an opening date: May 23, which is also known as a week from today. Whether that is an opening date for the entire public or a special sneak peek party, I'm not sure. But either way, an opening is imminent.
So, put the stretchy pants away for just a few days, although I think it is safe to keep the Cajun accent.
Topeka-based bank opening branch in downtown Lawrence; city’s rental inspection program operating at a deficit, but finding lots of violations
I know I’ve tagged along on a few downtown shopping trips where it would be useful to have a bank on every block. Well, we’re getting a bit closer to that in downtown Lawrence. A Topeka-based bank is opening its first Lawrence branch, and it has chosen a Massachusetts Street storefront to house the facility.
Silver Lake Bank has signed a deal to locate at 643 Massachusetts Street, which previously housed a branch of Meritrust Credit Union. Minor renovation work is already underway, and a bank official told me the branch is scheduled to be open this summer.
Silver Lake Bank has had a presence in Lawrence for the last few years, but hasn’t actually had an office or branch here.
“I’ve been working out of my car and going to the customer,” said Michelle Fales, vice president and business development officer for Silver Lake Bank. “It has gotten to the point where we need an office. They may want to do a loan with us, but they don’t want to bring a deposit to us if we don’t have a location in Lawrence.”
The downtown branch will be a full-service branch, meaning it will make loans, take deposits and offer a range of other banking services. Fales said plans call for seven employees to work at the branch.
Silver Lake Bank is a family-owned bank, rather than part of a large bank holding company. The bank has its roots in Silver Lake, a small community north of Topeka. The bank still has its Silver Lake branch, but is now based in Topeka and has three branches there. The bank is led by Patrick Gideon, who is president and CEO and is part of the family ownership group. Gideon has been with the bank since 1981 after graduating from Kansas University.
Fales said Gideon’s ties to Lawrence have made him familiar with the Lawrence banking market.
“The Lawrence market is one he has ventured into a little bit already,” Fales said. “He saw the potential for additional growth, and believed we could fill a niche.”
Fales said residential lending is a big part of the bank’s strategy. She said she has done quite a bit of lending for homebuilders that build homes on speculation. She also said the bank is trying to fill a niche of making loans for east side home renovation projects.
“Where I’m really keeping busy is in East Lawrence with people who are buying older homes on the east side and rehabbing them for their personal residences,” Fales said. “I have a lot going on over there and really love those type of projects.”
It is interesting to see another bank coming to Lawrence. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was difficult to keep up with all the banks that were establishing locations in Lawrence. That trend slowed significantly as the housing market also slowed. Not that this deal is the start of a new trend necessarily, but the housing market will be interesting to watch.
Making loans for spec houses means that Fales watches the market fairly closely. She said there certainly are signs that builders may need to increase their pace of construction. She noted that the reports she sees shows that the inventory of homes in the $175,000 to $200,000 price point now stands at just 1.3 months worth of supply. At less than $150,000, it is less than a month’s worth supply.
“We feel real good at this point about the Lawrence market,” Fales said. “We do watch the market studies, and we’re constantly asking ourselves whether there is another bubble coming. But right now, we haven’t seen that. In certain price points, the inventory is very slim right now.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• Let’s shift gears and talk rentals, for a moment. An interesting report has just been released from City Hall about the city’s rental registration program. The city wrapped up its first full calendar year of the program at the end of 2015. That means the city has had a chance to look at a full year’s worth of revenue and expenses for the program, which is designed to register every rental in the community and inspect a sampling of rental units to ensure they are meeting life and safety codes.
The new report praises the improvements in living conditions that the inspections are creating, but the program did not cover its costs in 2015. The report notes that the program operated at about a $127,000 deficit in 2015. The program received about $326,000 in licensing and inspection fees, but had expenses of about $453,000.
The deficit isn’t necessarily surprising. There are many city services that don’t pay for themselves on a cash basis, but are deemed to be valuable because of the service they provide. But this is a program to keep an eye on. The rental registration and inspection program was approved by a split vote of the last City Commission. During the last City Commission elections, Commissioners Stuart Boley and Matthew Herbert both made comments that made you think they were a bit lukewarm about the idea. Certainly, some landlords also were unenthused about the program. I have not, however, heard as much concern from the landlord community as I had expected. Perhaps that concern is still there, but is not being expressed publicly. Regardless, I suspect the program’s deficit will get at least some talk during the upcoming budget session.
The report notes that revenues for the program are expected to increase in 2016 because about 700 new apartments are expected to come on line this year. That may increase some costs, but remember that the city only inspects a sampling of apartment projects but all apartments are required to pay the registration fee. So, as more apartments come on line, there is not a dollar-for-dollar increase in the costs needed to inspect those apartments.
The other factor to keep in mind is that the report did find that the inspection program is finding and correcting a lot of violations related to basic health and safety issues in rentals. Most of them are pretty easily fixed, but create a danger if left unfixed. Topping that list is smoke alarms that don’t work. The city conducted inspections of 975 rental units in 2015. The inspections found 655 smoke alarms that weren’t working properly. (Remember, most rental units have multiple smoke alarms.) Looking more broadly, about 60 percent of all units inspected had some type of problem found.
Here’s a look at the top violations found during the year:
— Smoke alarms: 655
— Electrical outlet problems with GFCI receptacles: 363
— Problems with electrical outlet covers: 133
— Window locks: 90
— Mechanical appliances: 84
— Combustion air problems: 62
— Handrails and guardrails: 54
— Plumbing fixtures: 52
— Egress windows: 48
— Electrical system hazards: 41
“Staff believes the program has yielded measurable, quantifiable statistical data that clearly demonstrates the program is achieving valuable results in the community,” the report states.
You can read the full report here. We’ll have more on the program in coming days. City Hall Reporter Nikki Wentling already has been checking in on the program, and will provide a more detailed report about what City Hall leaders have to say.
Lawrence industrial plant files plans for expansion; Lawrence No. 2 in the country for new college graduates, despite economy questions
There is a theory that cardboard boxes are a bellwether of the economy. Indeed, there was that time we had lots of boxes on Christmas morning, and then I briefly ended up living in a box after the credit card statement arrived. But today I have news of a more straightforward bellwether: A Lawrence manufacturer of cardboard boxes is expanding, which may be a positive economic sign on multiple fronts.
Lawrence is a big cardboard box town because of the Lawrence Paper Company. The manufacturing plant just north of the Kansas Turnpike is one of the pioneers in the cardboard box business. Now company officials have filed plans at City Hall to build an approximately $3 million expansion onto their cardboard box plant at 2801 Lakeview Road.
Justin Hill Jr., president of the Lawrence Paper Company, told me the approximately 40,000-square-foot expansion is designed to give the plant more capacity to store rolls of paper. Hill said there aren’t any current plans to add jobs at the plant, which employs about 200 people. But Hill said that could change in the future.
“We have had some inquiries from customers that would require us to add more space,” Hill said. “There is nothing definitive on that front, but it takes time to build the space. If we have the space, we may find a customer that will help us fill it. It is an investment in the future.”
That’s exactly the type of talk that local economic development leaders love to here. At 200 jobs, the company is a major employer, but more so than that, it is a company that has its headquarters and leadership based in Lawrence. The company sells a lot of cardboard boxes that leave the city limits, which means the money that pays for those boxes comes from somewhere else and gets deposited in Lawrence’s economy.
Hill is part of one of Lawrence’s more important industrial families. Justin Hill — along with his brother Stephen — is a great-grandson of J.D. Bowersock, who built an industrial empire along the Kansas River in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Much of the industrial complex is where Lawrence City Hall and the former Riverfront Mall is today, and was powered by the hydroelectric dam that still carries the Bowersock name.
The Lawrence Paper company was among those Bowersock businesses, and it went on to — at least in one way — change the look of American business forever. The Lawrence Paper Company is the firm that convinced the influential Ball Brothers — makers of the Mason jars — to use cardboard boxes instead of wooden crates to ship their fragile wares. If cardboard boxes were good enough for glass jars, surely they were good enough for almost anything else. And indeed, cardboard box use took off. Basketball and boxes — just two of Lawrence’s gifts to America.
In terms of today’s economy, Hill is in a bellwether business because companies usually start ordering more boxes when they see signs the economy is about to boom. Hill said he can’t report that a big boost in the economy is imminent.
“Business has been a little flat,” he said. “Nothing spectacular.”
As for the expansion project, the warehouse is proposed for an area that already has an existing concrete pad. The property also already has the proper zoning, so the project just needs some technical approvals from City Hall. Hill said he hopes the project will be completed by the end of the year. Once the project is completed, The Lawrence Paper Company will have a little more than 400,000 square feet of production and warehouse space under roof at its Lawrence facility.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe those KU students who will graduate this weekend won’t need a cardboard box to pack up all their belongings. A new study ranks Lawrence as the second best small metro for job-seeking college graduates.
The American Institute for Economic Research ranks Lawrence as the No. 2 spot among all metro areas that have fewer than 250,000 people. This study appears to be a little bit different than some other studies that primarily focus on financial data — wages and such — to rank a community. The group said its rankings are based on “migration patterns and city characteristics from 2005 to 2014.” In other words, it looks at where well-educated, young professionals are moving, and apparently Lawrence is doing well in that category.
The study touts Lawrence’s “progressive politics” and its “indie music clubs,” and also says Lawrence has “maintained a free-thinking spirit.” But even though Lawrence ranked No. 2 on the list, there are some concerning words in the report. “Although over half of Lawrence’s population is highly educated, and its quality of life ranks high, the city does not have the most favorable economic conditions,” the study reports. “Rents are high for a small city, and average earnings are the second lowest on our list.”
In other words, I think it says Lawrence really excels in quality of life, but has not yet fully turned those quality of life advantages into economic advantages. That is not a new theme in Lawrence, but it is one that I expect will get significant discussion by community leaders.
One of Lawrence’s newer community leaders has particular reason to be proud of this latest list. Tom Markus, Lawrence’s new city manager, previously held that job in Iowa City. The institute ranked Iowa City as the No. 1 small metro for job-seeking college graduates. The study says Iowa City scores high on both quality-of-life and economic conditions.
“Among the smallest metros, Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, won with a growing technology corridor, and abundance of bike paths and city accessibility due to transit, low rents, lots of restaurants and bars, and a diverse population,” the study reports.
In general, the study said it found three large drivers that influence where young college graduates decide to land: 1. A strong economy is a lure; 2. Millennials want work-life balance and value things such as low commute times and green lifestyles; 3. Neighborhood diversity is important, including racial and ethnic diversity and communities that have a reputation for tolerance.
Here’s a look at how other regional communities ranked. The study broke communities into major metro areas of more than 2.5 million residents, midsize metros of 1 million to 2.5 million, small metros of 250,000 to 1 million, and smallest metros of less than 250,000.
— Denver: No. 4 on Major Metro list
— Austin, Texas: No. 2 on Midsize Metro list
— Kansas City: No. 8 on Midsize Metro list
— Oklahoma City: No. 19 on Midsize Metro list
— Lincoln, Neb.: No. 3 on Small Metro list
— Fort Collins, Colo.: No. 4 on Small Metro list
— Omaha, Neb.: No. 9 on Small Metro list
— Des Moines, Iowa: No. 11 on Small Metro list
— Colorado Springs: No 15 on Small Metro list
— Columbia, Mo.: No. 6 on Small Metro list
It is a big weekend for Lawrence hotels, and it sure looks like it is going to be a big year of change for the hotel industry. Yet another Lawrence hotel is undergoing a complete facelift and renovation.
The big weekend, of course, is KU’s graduation ceremony on Sunday. My kids already know I’m kicking them out of their rooms, so I can rent the space to giddy KU parents who may be having trouble finding a hotel room. (Don’t worry, there is a 1960s pup tent in the yard for the kids, and if it keeps raining, I’ll give them snorkels.)
One Lawrence hotel that doesn’t have as many rooms to offer is the Hampton Inn near Sixth and Rockledge. You have perhaps noticed some construction work at the site. The hotel is undergoing a complete renovation, and currently about half of the hotel’s 89 rooms are out of commission.
Derek Felch, general manager of the Hampton Inn, said the 20-year old hotel is getting a new facade, and every room will be getting new carpet, new furniture, more outlets and several other additions.
“The outside will have a totally different appearance, and basically everything in the rooms will too,” Felch said.
The renovation is part of a process the hotel is going through to be re-licensed as a Hampton Inn. The Hampton chain has a new initiative called “Forever Young” that requires Hampton hotels to revamp their look to include more modern furniture, more storage spaces for guests, an exterior that uses more LED lighting and other modern accents.
Renderings for the Lawrence project aren’t yet available, but here’s a look at some general renderings of the new style that Hampton is promoting. (Renderings courtesy of Hampton's website.)
I particularly like the one that highlights the saying “It’s a good day for a good day.” I try to promote that type of positivity early in the mornings at my house, and then I often find myself picking muffin out of my nose.
As for a timeline for the Hampton project, Felch said he expects work to last until late fall.
The Hampton project is just the latest Lawrence hotel project. Work is underway to convert the former Lawrence Holidome into a Doubletree by Hilton. That large hotel also is operating at less than full capacity this weekend due to the renovations. We’ve also reported that plans are in the works for a new hotel — perhaps a Fairfield Inn — near Sixth and Iowa streets, where the Ramada Inn used to be. Those projects are in addition to the new Marriott that has opened in the last year in downtown Lawrence. I also understand the SpringHill Suites by Marriott along the Kansas River in downtown has completed some renovations. I also hear at least one other hotel renovation may take place along south Iowa Street. I’ll let you know if that turns into reality.
Felch said the hotel business in Lawrence certainly is becoming more competitive.
“I think people see the rates on the weekends and see the demand for rooms on the weekends, and they think there is more room for other hotels in Lawrence,” Felch said. “I’m not sure I agree with that, but that is what is happening.”
Felch said weekend business has been good in Lawrence, but he said the market still struggles with filling rooms Sunday through Thursday night.
In other news and notes from around town:
• KU isn’t the only place where learning is happening in the community. The new vocational education center Peaslee Tech is continuing to expand. The vo-tech near 31st and Haskell is adding a new laboratory for a heating and cooling technician degree.
Peaslee Tech — which is a joint venture between area development groups, the city, the county and the chamber of commerce — is holding a ribbon cutting 4:30 p.m. Thursday at the school site at 2920 Haskell Ave. to unveil the new laboratory.
The new laboratory was primarily funded through a donation from the Smitty Belcher family. Belcher is the CEO of P1 Group Inc., a large mechanical, electrical and construction services firm that has a large office in Lawrence.
The size of the donation wasn’t disclosed.
Peaslee Tech officially opened its doors last fall, with about 150 students enrolling in technical training classes. The facility has had lab space for construction and manufacturing degrees, but lacked lab space for HVAC degrees.
The HVAC program is taught through a partnership with Neosho County Community College.
Downtown restaurant owners to open bistro in East Lawrence; city named one of best small college towns in America
Even though plans for my Magnum P.I. mustache got vetoed, I’m still working to solve the mystery of a new bistro that is now under construction in East Lawrence’s Warehouse Arts District. Here are two new clues: The project involves a 33-foot long food truck and the owners of downtown Lawrence’s The Burger Stand restaurant.
Simon and Codi Bates, the owners of The Burger Stand at 803 Massachusetts St., told me they indeed have signed a lease to operate a new bistro in the small building that is just west of the Poehler Lofts building at Eighth and Pennsylvania streets.
We’ve reported multiple times that Tony Krsnich, who leads the group that has developed the Warehouse Arts District, wants to have a bistro in the small, historic stone building. But until now, we haven’t known who would operate the business.
We still don’t know exactly what the new restaurant will include. Codi and Simon said they weren’t ready yet to announce a name for the project or to provide many details about the proposed menu. But one thing is clear: The bistro won’t be The Burger Stand East.
“We love burgers, but we also love other things too,” Codi said.
“We may put one burger on the menu, but no more than that,” Simon said. “We are friends with so many restaurant owners in downtown, and we don’t want to step on what other people are doing. It is going to be something that is different than what is offered currently.”
Codi said the menu will focus on “what we like to make for ourselves when we are home.” (I tried to get a loan for just such a concept once, but the banker said he didn’t think a restaurant that served sticks of butter dipped in sugar would pencil out.)
Simon said he’s reluctant to discuss details of the menu, in part, because he still has to figure out what can be made in a food truck. The stone building for the bistro is so small that it can’t accommodate a kitchen, so all food will be made from a food truck that is parked outside the bistro. Simon said a North Lawrence company currently is converting a 33-foot long U-Haul truck — the largest they could find — into a food truck. Simon, who is a classically trained chef who has worked in New York and Chicago, has never operated in a food truck before.
“We’re still a week away from getting the truck,” Simon said. “I really want to get in there and see what we can do with it.”
In addition to the food truck, the bistro also will have a coffee bar and pastries, Codi said. The plan is for the restaurant to offer a lot of grab-and-go options, especially for breakfast and lunch to serve the growing office crowd in the Warehouse Arts District.
The restaurant also will serve liquor, but both Simon and Codi said they are not looking to create a bar atmosphere for the business.
“First and foremost everyone is invited,” Simon said. “It will be a family-friendly place. We’re not looking at being a loud bar scene at all.”
Codi noted that she and Simon live in the neighborhood near the bistro. That is how they became interested in the project. She said they had watched as neighbors expressed concern that the bistro would become more of a bar than a restaurant. Codi said she and Simon started wondering what the project would look like if they became involved.
“We didn’t really need another project,” Codi said, “but we have 55 people on staff (at The Burger Stand) who are really talented. We feel like we can create another opportunity for some of our staff members.”
“We wanted something fun,” Simon said. “We love burgers and we really have become tied to that, but we also love to do different things. This is a passion project for us. We want to have fun with it, and we want it to be good for the neighborhood.”
The project does have to meet a city requirement that it make 55 percent or more of its sales from food rather than from alcohol sales. Codi said that wasn’t going to be a problem for the business.
As far as a timeline, interior demolition work on the building began this week. Codi and Simon are hoping for a late summer opening. I’ll let you know when I hear more details about the name and menu plans for the restaurant.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If you have felt a special aura around town the last few weeks, it probably is because Lawrence has received another high ranking as a great place. This one slipped up on me, but Lawrence has been voted the fifth best small college town in America by readers of USA Today.
The contest looked a communities of fewer than 100,000 people that also are home to a university or college. The article, which ran on USA Today’s 10 Best website, called Lawrence “an eclectic mix of residents — students, musicians and retirees.” It also said Lawrence was home to one of the top music scenes in the Midwest and touted the Free State Festival and the BuskerFest.
Lawrence finished just above Iowa City, Iowa — which is where new City Manager Tom Markus came from — and just behind Flagstaff, Ariz. Athens, Ohio — home to the University of Ohio — was top on the list. The list ended up having some towns that you don’t necessarily think of as college towns. Santa Fe, N.M., was on the list at No. 8, and Williamsburg, Va., was No. 3.
Williamsburg — which is home to the College of William & Mary — is best known as a tourist town with lots of Revolutionary War-era re-enactors in Colonial Williamsburg. I guess that makes sense. Nothing says you have a town full of smart people like funny hats and wool britches in July.
Lawrence sales tax collections post big gains; numbers suggest new Menards may be adding big totals to city; fast food chain reopens on 23rd
There are new sales tax figures out that will make you wonder whether my wife finally gave me the PIN code for the ATM at the bank. Yes, for the second month in a row, retail sales totals in Lawrence have grown dramatically.
Lawrence sales tax collections grew by 8.4 percent during the most recent monthly reporting period. Most of those sales took place in February or early March. (It is a big-ticket time period: Boxes of Valentine’s Day chocolates, March Madness big-screen TVs, cranes to move both.)
Whatever the case, the 8.4 percent growth in sales tax collections was one of the larger growth rates in the state. This is the second month in a row that’s been the case for Lawrence. Last month’s sales tax report showed growth of 7.4 percent.
As a result, Lawrence’s sales tax growth is outpacing all of the other large retail communities in the state thus far in 2016. Here’s a look at year-to-date growth percentages for some of the state’s larger retail centers:
— Lawrence: up 4.2 percent
— Kansas City: down 0.1 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 1.5 percent
— Johnson County: up 0.6 percent
— Salina: down 3.8 percent
— Manhattan: down 0.7 percent
— Lenexa: down 11.8 percent
— Topeka: up 1.9 percent
— Overland Park: down 0.1 percent
— Olathe: up 3.2 percent
The numbers are good news for Lawrence’s budget. City Hall is projecting sales tax growth of 3.7 percent for the year. So, at 4.2 percent, sales tax collections are on pace to come in above projections. If Lawrence continues to have a couple more months where growth is above the 7 percent mark, sales taxes could come in well above projections.
That would be helpful, because as we have reported, the city’s 2016 budget is facing challenges in other areas. The city’s general fund — the fund that pays for many of the city’s largest services — is projected to spend about $990,000 more than it receives in revenue in 2016. City officials aren’t likely to let that happen, which would mean city departments would need to make some midyear spending cuts to get spending in line with revenues.
As for what is driving the increased amount of sales tax collections in Lawrence, city officials are still studying that. One factor appears to be greater sales of construction materials. Sales tax collections from sales of construction materials are up 26 percent compared with the same period a year ago, according to preliminary numbers from the city. (Those numbers are from last month’s report. The detailed figures for this month’s report haven’t yet been released.) The big change that has happened in the past 12 months has been the opening of Menards on 31st Street. Is Menards bringing in that much more in retail sales? Is the presence of the retailer cutting down on the number of shoppers that previously were traveling outside of Lawrence for some of their home improvement needs? Or, is there another explanation for the large increase?
I’m not sure, but it would be interesting to get a more definitive answer. It could be instructive as the city weighs other retail proposals that may come to town. There has been a lot of debate about whether a store like Menards actually brings new dollars to town or simply takes dollars from existing retailers. Perhaps sales tax figures could help shine some light on that important debate.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If you like square hamburgers, then perhaps you like misshapen American flags as well. Yes, I am pretty sure the Constitution says something about hamburgers should be round, but since I can’t quite find that reference, I will share news about Wendy’s, the largest purveyor of square hamburgers.
There had been concern in the comrade community that the Wendy’s on 23rd Street was going out of business, as it had been closed for several days. Well, no need to worry. The business reopened on Friday. An employee there told me the restaurant had to close for some emergency maintenance repairs. It looked like a new sewer or water line had to be installed at the property.