Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
If you see me standing alongside a Lawrence street holding a whiteboard that reads "Anyplace warm," you'll soon understand I'm not crazy. Instead, I'm just taking part in a new pilot project aimed at transforming hitchhiking into a reliable form of public transportation.
City commissioners this week are being asked to help. Commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting will consider changing an existing ordinance that technically makes it illegal for people to stand along a street for the purpose of soliciting a ride.
The group behind the project is a relatively new nonprofit organization called Lawrence OnBoard. Based on an information packet its director, Jennifer O'Brien, has provided to city officials, here's a look at how the program is designed to work:
— The basic concept is that hitchhiking will become a more reliable form of ridesharing. But instead of simply sticking your thumb out and hoping for the best, members of Lawrence OnBoard will be equipped with a folding white board with a logo. The rider will write his or her destination on the white board, and then pick a safe place to stand alongside a city street.
— Riders will be asked to register with Lawrence OnBoard before they begin using the system. They'll be issued a photo I.D., and a background check will be run on each member. As for the drivers, people also can register to be a driver, but any motorist can choose to pick up some one holding a whiteboard. For security purposes, Lawrence OnBoard suggests that riders send a text message to the Lawrence OnBoard office when they get into a vehicle. The text message could include the membership number of the driver — if the driver is a member of Lawrence OnBoard— or the license plate of the vehicle.
There are other details about the program that you can read here, but I've pretty much given you the gist of it. Supporters of the program point out that the city's public transit system is a bit limited in area and doesn't run on Sundays. Plus, the T doesn't really aid people who have to make a trip outside the city limits. Certainly, there are ways people can arrange to carpool to Topeka or Kansas City, for example, but the OnBoard officials point out that such arrangements often really limit people's flexibility.
"With a system like Lawrence OnBoard, the carpooling is done from the side of the road at the convenience of the rider, and the time, effort and expense for the driver is minimal," according to the Lawrence OnBoard brochure.
Organizers of Lawrence OnBoard have been doing some testing of the concept over the last few months. They report they've attempted 121 rides and have been unsuccessful only six times. The 23 riders that took part in the experiment travelled a total of 573 miles. The average time they spent waiting alongside the road was about seven minutes per ride.
O'Brien and a KU professor, Anne Dunning, have been invited to present a scholarly paper on the program at the annual meeting of the 2014 Transportation Research Board.
I have no idea how Lawrence city commissioners will react to this idea, which seems like the sort of thing that could add to Lawrence's progressive/funky (or you can choose the appropriate adjective) reputation. We'll find out Tuesday.
In the meantime, I've got bigger issues to figure out. Is it spelled "Acapulco" or "Acapolco"? And if I wore a swimsuit, do you think that would increase or decrease the amount of time I would have to wait for a ride?
In other news and notes from around town:
• Commissioners also will be discussing more traditional public transportation at Tuesday's meeting. As part of their consent agenda, commissioners are scheduled to approve a new five-year contract with MV Transportation to continue running the city's public transit system. The new contract will run through 2018.
Based on a city memo describing the contract, it appears the rate MV will charge the city per revenue hour will average out at about $35.80 during the term of the contract, which is up about 8 percent from what the average revenue per hour rate was during the last contract term. The city is expecting to pay MV between $3.4 million and $3.6 million per year during the term of the new contract.
The payments to MV represent only a portion of what it costs the city to run the transit system. Based on the city memo, transit officials are expecting it will cost between $5.8 million and $6.0 million per year to run the transit system over the next five years. In addition to the operating contract, the city also must pay for fuel, major repairs to buses, the purchase of new buses, and various other operational expenses.
The city funds the system with about $3 million a year in local sales taxes and about $2.8 million a year in federal and state grants. Fares paid by riders add about $330,000 per year.
• The Rock Chalk Park sports complex in northwest Lawrence has been in the news again lately. City commissioners in the next couple of weeks will have to figure out how to resolve concerns a neighbor of the property has about lighting. But this week, commissioners will continue spending money to outfit the city's 181,000-square-foot recreation center at the site. If you remember, the city is agreeing to pay about $22.5 million to a group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel to build the project. The $22.5 million includes the construction of the actual recreation center, and through an unusual agreement, the city also is paying for essentially all the parking, roads and other such infrastructure that serves both the recreation center and the various sports stadiums and field that will be used by KU and Fritzel.
The $22.5 million, as anticipated, doesn't include all the items needed to equip the center. At their Tuesday meeting, commissioners are set to accept a $74,215 bid from Overfield Corp. to install security cameras in the building and parking lots. The city also will accept a series of bids totaling $44,300 to install a phone system. Last week, the city approved about a $45,000 bid to install bleachers in the building.
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New proposal emerges to reduce scope of rental inspection program; city commissioners to debate increasing salaries of commissioners
Getting a new rental licensing and inspection program approved at Lawrence City Hall has become a bit like me trying to walk down my icy driveway this morning: It can be painful on the backside of the anatomy.
Commissioners have been struggling for more than a year to pass a program that essentially would require inspections of every rental unit in the city. Now, a new proposal has emerged. Mayor Mike Dever and Commissioner Mike Amyx have proposed a significant set of changes to the scope of the program. The changes likely will be met with favor from those in the landlord community but may spark concerns among some of the more fervent supporters of the rental licensing program.
Here's a look at some of the larger proposed changes:
— The licensing and inspection program would have an automatic sunset at the end of 2017. In other words, the commission in place in 2017 would have to vote to extend the program, or else it would automatically end.
— The list of items city inspectors could cite as violations would be reduced by more than half. Dever and Amyx are proposing to eliminate 38 items that previously could have been cited as violations. The new list includes 28 violations. Some of the items that no longer would be violations for the purposes of the rental license include: missing handrails on balconies or stairways; clothes dryers that are not properly vented; minimum standards for kitchen and bathroom spaces; and minimum ceiling heights for habitable rooms. You can see the complete list of what was eliminated and what remains by clicking here.
It is important to note that the items that are proposed for elimination still would be a violation of city code, but they wouldn't be held against a landlord for purposes of issuing a license for a rental unit. I talked a bit with Mayor Dever this morning and asked him what would happen if a city inspector saw an item that was a violation of city code but wasn't one of the items he was instructed to look for as part of the rental inspection. For example, an inspector notices a third-story balcony has a missing or very loose railing. Dever said a process will have to be established to deal with those situations, but he said one possibility is that the inspector would note it, and a follow-up inspection would be scheduled. The follow-up inspection would have no bearing on whether the rental unit could receive a license, but the landlord could be found in violation of a city code and be forced to fix the issue and pay a fine.
— There is new language in the proposed ordinance that may make it more difficult for city officials to prosecute a landlord for having too many residents living in a rental unit. Language was added to the ordinance that says a landlord is only in violation of the occupancy code if the landlord knew there were too many people living in the unit. In other words, the city could still take action to reduce the number of people living in the unit, but it couldn't seek to prosecute the landlord for the violation, unless the city could prove the landlord knew about the over occupancy. The city has found it difficult to prosecute over-occupancy cases under the current system. This additional level of proof likely will make the task more difficult.
— The city would be required to give tenants of rental units at least 72 hours notice before any inspection is conducted in their apartments. The ordinance also makes it clear that the tenant has the right to refuse an inspection, but the city also has the right to seek an administrative search warrant, which would allow an inspection to occur against the tenant's wishes.
I'll seek to bring you more reaction to the proposed changes later today. But I'm guessing it will be a spirited meeting on Tuesday. Previously, Commissioners Bob Schumm and Terry Riordan had expressed general support for the previous proposal. Dever and Amyx had expressed concern over the last draft. That leaves Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, who has said he believes an inspection program is needed but has questioned some of its elements. The meeting is set for 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Lawrence City Hall may be a ball of fun on Tuesday. In addition to the rental licensing program, commissioners also will be discussing a topic too hot to touch for the last 14 years: commissioner pay.
Over the years, several commissioners, as they were leaving office, have suggested that the commission really ought to examine the pay scale for the City Commission. Currently, commissioners are paid $9,000 per year, although the mayor gets $10,000. It has been that way for the last 14 years.
Ideas have been floated that commissioners should make anywhere from $19,000 a year to near $30,000 a year. The $30,000 a year range would put Lawrence in the upper tier of salaries for other cities surveyed by Lawrence officials. But it would be in line with what Douglas County commissioners are paid. You can see a list of salaries for commissioners in area cities, by clicking here.
Dever told me this morning that his proposal will be that no pay increase takes place until after elections are held again. In other words, sitting commissioners would not receive a pay increase, unless and until they were re-elected.
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Wichita barbecue chain slated to take portion of former Blockbuster video store; gift wrapping service opens downtown
A barbecue restaurant right next door to a mattress store. It sounds like a prescription for hibernation. It also is the latest plan to renovate the former Blockbuster video store on 23rd Street.
Plans have been filed at Lawrence City Hall that call for the building, 1516 W. 23rd St., to be roughly equally divided between a Wichita-based barbecue restaurant and a mattress store.
Hog Wild Pit Bar-B-Q is set to go into the western half of the old Blockbuster building. An employee at the restaurant's corporate office confirmed the company has signed a lease for the space, but a timeline for the restaurant's opening wasn't immediately available.
According to its website, Hog Wild has locations in Wichita, Hutchinson, Salina and El Dorado. And it also has the type of traditional barbecue that you would expect. That includes brisket, pulled pork, hot links, turkey breast, pulled chicken, ribs and ham. It appears the menu also will include giant stuffed potatoes and something called "salad." I speak fluent barbecue, but I'm not familiar with this thing called salad.
As for the mattress store, which will occupy the east half of the building, I don't have any information on who that may be. For whatever it is worth, back in July I was hearing quite a few rumblings in the development sector that the national chain Mattress Hub was exploring possibilities in the Lawrence market. No confirmation on whether that is the tenant, but it might be one worth keeping an eye on. I have a call in to the owner of the building, which is a trust controlled by successful Wichita businessman Larry Fugate.
I'll keep my ears open for news on that front. In the meantime, I suppose I ought to find out one other important piece of information: Is the restaurant going to look at me funny when I come to eat BBQ in my pajamas?
In other news and notes from around town:
• Holy fruitcake, there are only 13 more days until Christmas. If you are one of those people who have already started Christmas shopping, you may have a few presents that need wrapped. Now, downtown Lawrence has a new business that specializes in wrapping presents of all sorts.
It's A Wrap has opened in a portion of the Extra Virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar store at 937 Massachusetts St. Ellen Frantz-Wolfe has opened the store, and will keep it open through the Christmas season and perhaps beyond, if demand calls for it.
Frantz-Wolfe used to work in a high-end Dallas gift wrapping shop that routinely used to wrap about 4,000 gifts during the holiday season.
"I've just always enjoyed creating the designs and matching the ribbons and the wraps," Frantz-Wolfe said.
She said said she has about 18 designs featuring combinations of paper and bows, but also can create custom wrapping designs. Prices range from about $3.50 to $12 per package, depending on the size of the item being wrapped.
"I just think an expertly wrapped present makes a gift more special," Frantz-Wolfe said. "It is like having a fabulously cooked dinner and also having it presented in a beautiful way."
• One quick piece of Lawrence City Hall news for you. Sometimes I swear Lawrence City Hall has a set of catacombs where issues go to never be heard of again. And I thought the issue or providing a pay raise to Lawrence city commissioners may have been one of them. But it appears not. Mayor Mike Dever has said he wants to bring the issue of city commissioner pay back up for debate, perhaps as soon as Tuesday's meeting. The city's agenda for Tuesday's meeting will be out shortly, so I'll keep an eye out for that.
If you remember back in April, outgoing City Commissioner Aron Cromwell suggested the commission take a look at raising the annual salary for commissioners. Commissioners are paid $9,000 per year, or $10,000, if you are serving as mayor. Cromwell said that level of pay isn't commensurate with the amount of work that goes into the position, and he worried that the low salary effectively keeps some very qualified people from even considering running for the position.
Cromwell said he thought the commission should consider raising the annual salary to be somewhere between $25,000 to $35,000 per year. Commissioners, at the time, said it was an issue they likely would consider. Now, about eight months later, it looks like they might.
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Signs that Chick-fil-A seeking store site on South Iowa Street; Dick’s Sporting Goods likely opening in June
Grab ahold of your drumsticks, Lawrence. There are real signs that Chick-fil-A is seriously considering building a new restaurant here.
A company representative has filed paperwork with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning office inquiring about the zoning of the former Sears site at 2727 Iowa St.
The former Sears site, of course, is where Dick's Sporting Goods plans to open a store. (An update on that in just a moment.) But plans for the project also include constructing a new building in a corner of the parking lot. The plans I've seen call for the restaurant building to be constructed in the southeast corner of the lot, kind of next to the Midas auto repair building that sits on Iowa Street.
Certainly, I've heard rumors that Chick-fil-A was interested in the site, but if I had a dollar for every time I heard a Chick-fil-A rumor, I would have at least seven or eight dollars. It is important to note that this latest development doesn't seal a deal that Chick-fil-A is coming to Lawrence, but it is evidence that the company is fairly far along in its evaluation of Lawrence and the former Sears site.
What the company has sought from the planning office is a "zoning certification letter." We're deep in the planning weeds here, but basically those letters further clarify what type of uses are legally allowed. Often, the letters are required by lenders before they will finance a project.
So, I'll keep my eyes open for any more developments on the deal. Certainly there have been rumors of other restaurants interested in the site, and I do believe interest in the location has been high. It's possible that the development group may be in the envious position of having more than one restaurant vying for the location.
If a Chick-fil-A does build in Lawrence, it will mark the end of one of the more frequent questions I've been asked in the 20-plus years I've reported here: When is Chick-fil-A going to build in Lawrence? I remind folks that Chick-fil-A operates a location in the food court of Wescoe Hall at KU, but that small location with limited hours isn't satisfying Chick-fil-A fans, based on the number of questions I get.
For those of you not familiar with the chain (your cholesterol levels must be fantastic, by the way), it's famous for its chicken sandwich, but it also has salads, wraps and serves breakfast.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The other big question I've been getting lately is, "When is Dick's Sporting Goods going to open?" A source close to the development tells me that June is now a likely opening date for the store.
Indeed, a building permit has been issued and work is underway at the site. The plans I've seen show Dick's occupying about 50,000 square feet in the middle portion of the building. That leaves space for an approximately 30,000-square-foot retailer on the southern end of the building, and about 10,000 square feet of space in the northeast corner of the building.
There certainly has been speculation that Old Navy may be a target tenant for the smaller space. But we'll have to take a wait-and-see approach on that one. I'm told no deal has been reached on the other spaces in the development.
But certainly the site — which was purchased by a group led by veteran Wichita real estate developer Michael Boyd — has some momentum currently. It will be interesting to watch what other national companies have an interest in Lawrence.
• It appears it also will be interesting to watch whether Lawrence City Hall ends up with a director of arts and culture position. As we reported, city commissioners last night received the final report from the city's Cultural District Task Force. A key recommendation of the report is for City Hall to hire a new position that will coordinate and market the community's efforts to become a major arts and culture destination for visitors.
Commissioners didn't take any action on creating the new position, but they sent plenty of signals that the position may stand a real chance to win approval. Commissioners said they may not want to wait until budget hearings this summer to have the discussion about whether to add the position to the 2015 city budget. Instead, commissioners asked staff to bring a report back in the next several weeks. There is grant possibility the Kansas Department of Commerce could pay for part of the first year expenses for the director. The city needs to make a decision on the grant, which would require matching dollars from the city, by early February.
City Manager David Corliss told commissioners last night that he supports the idea for a director of arts and culture. He said he's confident there's plenty of work such a position could undertake. It has been estimated that the position would add about $100,000 to the city budget, once salary, benefits and an operating budget for the position is created.
A large contingent from the local arts community came out in support of the idea at Tuesday's city commission meeting. Task force members also stressed that they believe the position is critical, and is a common city government position in communities that are thriving arts destinations.
Members of the city's Cultural District Task Force are: City Commissioner Bob Schumm; local marketing executive Cindy Maude; Lawrence Arts Center Director Susan Tate; downtown Lawrence business owner Mike Logan; East Lawrence neighborhood representative and artist KT Walsh; East Lawrence neighborhood representative Jacki Becker; East Lawrence neighborhood representative Brenda Nunez; Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission member Grace Peterson; and Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission representative Mandy Enfield.
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Lawrence no longer second-worst performing small city, new report concludes; rental registration supporter accuses landlord of ‘dirty politics’
It is not exactly the type of thing you put on a banner, but Lawrence is no longer the second-worst performing small city in America. We're now a middle-of-the-pack community.
If you remember, we previously reported on a report by the Milken Institute that found Lawrence ranked 178 out of 179 small metro areas in terms of its economic performance in its 2012 report.
Well, the Milken Institute now has put together its 2013 report, and Lawrence checks in at No. 105 out of 179 small metro areas. The report measures communities based on a number of economic statistics compiled mainly by the federal government.
Lawrence continues to suffer in the categories that measure job growth and wages. Lawrence ranked 87th in job growth for the period of 2007 to 2012. But from July 2012 to July 2013, Lawrence ranked 69th in job growth, so perhaps that is a sign the local economy is picking up.
The numbers are less encouraging on the wage front. Lawrence ranked 115th in wage growth for the period between 2006 and 2011. The report also measured wage growth for the 2010 to 2011 period. Lawrence came in 160th in the category.
But there are some notable improvements in Lawrence's numbers. In the 2012 report, Lawrence didn't crack the top 100 in any of the categories. This year, Lawrence ranks high in two categories that will please economic development leaders. Lawrence was ranked No. 2 in the category of high-tech GDP growth for the 2010 to 2011 period. Lawrence also ranked No. 34 in high-tech GDP growth for the period of 2007 to 2012. There wasn't any one big new company that has caused that spike, but it is worth noting that most of the jobs that have been created out at the incubator facility on KU's West Campus probably fall into that high-tech GDP category.
It also is worth noting what community took the top spot in this year's report. (It certainly isn't anything to put on a banner.) Columbia, Mo., was ranked as the No. 1 small performing metro in the country, up from No. 10 in the 2012 report.
Other regional cities of note included:
— Iowa City: No. 15
— Waco, Texas: No. 22
— Joplin, Mo.: No. 61
— Ames, Iowa: No. 71
— Topeka: No. 121 (up from 144 last year)
The report also ranks the top performing large metro areas. Austin, Texas, ranked No. 1. The Kansas City metro area ranked No. 68, up from No. 104 last year. Wichita ranked No. 183, down from No. 146 a year ago. The report ranked 200 large metro areas.
People can make whatever they want of the rankings. The Milken name — remember Michael Milken and junk bonds in the 1980s — sometimes raises eyebrows, but this Milken report is generally well-respected. Regardless, Lawrence's near-bottom ranking last year had a lot of locals talking, so I wanted to pass along this year's numbers.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I'll tell you what else has people talking these days: the late surge in opposition to the city's proposed rental licensing and inspection program. As we reported last week, the city received about 40 letters of opposition, mainly from tenants, who were concerned about the program possibly violating their privacy.
Now, it appears landlords have been doing their fair share of letter writing as well, sending out letters to their tenants that paint a scary — and city officials say inaccurate — picture of what city inspectors will do once in a tenant's home.
An official at the large northwest Lawrence apartment complex Hutton Farms confirmed leaders there sent out an email to all its residents last week. It included the following paragraph:
"If approved, a city inspector, trained by a former police officer, will enter your apartment and document and photograph their findings. This documentation will include not only code issues but your personal information and photographs of your personal items."
City officials have taken exception to that language. When I shared the letter with city officials, Scott McCullough, the city's director of planning and neighborhood resources, crafted a response to make it clear that any photographs that would be taken as part of a rental unit inspection, won't include photos of personal items. Instead,the photos are close-up shots of code violations — anything from mold on a wall to an improperly wired outlet. Plus, city officials said the tenant or the property owner is always welcome to accompany inspectors, and monitor what photos are being taken.
The letter really has created hard feelings with some supporters of the proposed rental inspection program.
"I would characterize it as a scare tactic that is most unfortunate," said Candice Davis, an Oread neighborhood leader who has been a longtime supporter of a rental inspection program in the city. "I think they are playing dirty politics. It was an extreme distortion of the truth."
She noted the city has run an inspection program for rental properties that are in single-family zoned neighborhoods for about 11 years. The issue of inspectors taking improper photographs of personal items has not seemed to create many concerns as part of that program.
I've got a message into an executive with Hutton Farms' management group for further comment on the letter.
What isn't known is how widely the letter may have been distributed to tenants around town. The Hutton Farms employee — she declined to give her full name — said Hutton Farms' sister complex, Tuckaway Apartments, sent out a similar letter. Plus, the employee said there were some indications the letter had been distributed at other apartment complexes around town.
Davis said she's confident fear mongering by landlords has been the main reason there has been a surge in opposition from tenants. It is worth noting that while many complaints have come from tenants recently, the Kansas chapter of the ACLU also has expressed concerns about some parts of the program.
Regardless, city commissioners still have a decision to make on the proposed program. Commissioners delayed action on the program last week, while staff members gather more information. The program is set to come before the commission again at its Dec. 17 meeting.
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Lawrence is many different types of towns. We're a university town. We're a basketball town. And as a quick peek into any of those glass recycling Dumpsters around the city can attest, we're also a beer town.
The folks at Kansas City-based Boulevard Brewing Co. are hoping to capitalize on that reputation more than they already do. Boulevard Brewing Co. is part of a new venture to open a Boulevard Grill inside the Lawrence Holiday Inn and Convention Center, 200 McDonald Drive.
The restaurant and bar will replace the Paddy O'Quigley's that has been in the hotel for several years.
Stephen Horton, general manager of the hotel, told me the switch will occur this week. The restaurant has a ribbon cutting scheduled for Dec. 19.
Horton said the restaurant always will have a minimum of six Boulevard beers on tap, and also will feature bottles of several of Boulevard's premium beers, such as its Smokestack Series, its IPA, its 80-Acre Hoppy Wheat and its Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale.
The restaurant also will have several dishes that incorporate Boulevard Beer, such as a bratwurst dish with a Boulevard Pale Ale mustard, and a fish and chips dish that uses a Boulevard brew in its batter. Plus, the restaurant will make suggestions on which Boulevard beer goes best with certain types of dishes.
(See, as I tell my wife, I'm not going there to drink beer. I'm going there to get a culinary education. Lawrence is an education town too, after all.)
Horton said the Holiday Inn became interested in a Boulevard Grill after the hotel's parent company opened one in the Sheraton Four Points hotel near Kansas City International.
"And Boulevard was very eager to get more exposure into Lawrence," Horton said. "As they said, it is a great beer town."
Horton said the restaurant will have a sports bar theme, and he hopes the establishment will appeal to local residents in addition to hotel guests. Plans call for the restaurant to be open only for evening meals, with an opening time of 5 p.m. on Sundays through Fridays. The restaurant, however, will open at noon on Saturdays.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I don't know if there is an actual policy needed on whether I should have two Boulevards with every bratwurst I consume, or three, but we do have a Douglas County Food Policy Council. (No word on whether the bratwurst issue is on a future agenda.) Soon, the Food Policy Council will be a joint endeavor with the city.
City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday will consider adopting a resolution making the council a joint board of the city and county. City commissioners will appoint nine of the 23 members of the council. Some city commissioners had expressed an interest in the city becoming more involved in food policy issues.
County commissioners agreed, noting that the city already is making available city-owned land for the Common Ground program, which provides a place for urban gardening and farming to take place. The Food Policy Council, all joking aside, considers issues such as the population's access to locally grown food, issues related to agricultural sustainability and other such topics.
• Speaking of the Common Ground program, leaders of the effort have put together their annual report for 2013. The big number in the report is 40,000. That's the number of pounds of produce grown by gardeners in the program in 2013.
Organizers of the program are estimating about 120 gardeners took part in the program and tended gardens at nine different sites. Those sites produced an estimated 40,000 pounds of food that had a market value of about $80,000. About 2,000 pounds of food were donated to organizations such as Just Food, the Ballard Center, LINK and Central Middle School.
The program had 5.6 acres of ground in production in 2013, but that number is slated to grow in 2014. The city is adding three more sites in 2014, with each site ranging in size from 0.4 to 1.5 acres. People interested in farming on a site need to submit an application to the city by 5 p.m. on Jan. 6. The city is hosting an informational meeting about the program at 5 p.m. today at City Hall.
Applications can be found here.
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On a cold day like today, thoughts of a little beach volleyball help keep me warm. Thoughts of volleyball — sans sand — also apparently are warming the hearts of leaders of the city's new Rock Chalk Park Recreation Center.
City officials have begun accepting reservations for the 181,000-square-foot center under construction north and east of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway. And volleyball teams are the first ones to jump on the bandwagon.
City Manager David Corliss told me the city already has booked almost $70,000 in rental fees for the facility, and that's just for events scheduled from January 2015 through April 2015. Heart of America Volleyball and Blue Valley Athletic Association have booked a total of 10 weekends. Lawrence-based Kaw Valley Soccer also has booked the center for a weekend.
Lots of people have associated the recreation center and its eight full-court gyms with basketball. But volleyball always has been a big part of the plan. The eight gyms are designed to also accommodate 16 volleyball courts. During the planning process, I had several city officials tell me that there probably was a bigger shortage of volleyball courts in the region than basketball. Heart of America Volleyball is based in Kansas City, and I believe the Blue Valley Athletic Association is based in Johnson County.
City officials still believe basketball will be a big player at the center as well, but it is slower to materialize because of some logistical issues. Parks and Recreation officials said they have had multiple contacts from basketball tournament organizers, but those groups are inquiring about the center for the summer and fall of 2014. City officials hope to have the center open by July of 2014, but they can't guarantee it. Officials are confident the center will be open by January 2015.
A quick reminder here: When the city rents the center for a weekend, that doesn't mean the facility will be closed to the public. The center has been designed so that two full-court gyms, a fitness area, walking track and other amenities always will be open to the public, even when a large tournament is at the center.
It is fair to say that the early success of the center has come before the city really has started a full-fledged marketing campaign. Corliss confirmed the city has a contract with Lawrence-based Miller Meiers Communication to work on marketing and branding strategies for the center.
The city also is in the process of hiring a center manager. My understanding is about 100 applicants from all over the country applied for the position, and the city is set to make announcement on a hiring soon. The position not only will oversee the staff of the center, but also will be involved in attracting tournaments and events.
One issue that hasn't been resolved is what the official name of the center will be. Right now it shows up on the city's website and such as the Lawrence Recreation Center at Rock Chalk Park. But city commissioners haven't voted to name it that or anything else. I've heard some people say that is a bit of a mouthful, but others at City Hall say it is a pretty functional name. I'm not getting any indications that the city is going to try to sell naming rights for the entire center, although I think they will offer naming right for courts and other areas inside the center.
In other news and notes from around town:
• City commissioners have committed to spend $22.5 million to build the recreation center and infrastructure that will be shared with the Kansas University-oriented facilities that will be next door. But that $22.5 million doesn't get the city everything it needs to operate a recreation facility, and now the city is starting to spend money to outfit the center. At their Tuesday evening meeting, commissioners are expected to approve a bid for about $45,000 in bleachers and benches for gymnasiums. The city also has bids out for about $60,000 to $70,000 worth of security cameras and devices. Other items that aren't included in the $22.5 million master development agreement include fitness center equipment, office furniture, and balls, nets and other such equipment.
• Lawrence loves its recreation, but one recreational activity that apparently isn't too popular is snow shoveling. City officials are reporting that it continues to have trouble attracting volunteers for a program that pairs up able-bodied snow shovelers with senior citizens who need assistance. The city reports that it had 87 seniors request service through the Safe Winter Walkways Program, but only 26 people volunteered to shovel. Some volunteers agreed to shovel for more than one household, so the city is able to provide a shoveler for 35 of the 87 people who have requested assistance. That leaves about 60 percent of the people seeking assistance out of luck. Technically, the deadline to sign up to help residents has passed. But if you are starting to feel guilty, you may be able to call Douglas County Senior Services, which is a partner in the project, to inquire about volunteering. Douglas County Senior Services can be reached at 842-0543.
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Pair of shopping centers sell on South Iowa as retail momentum picks up; city trash crews to do curbside collection of toys, food on Monday
In my household, I've found that it is a good idea to get the disappointment out of the way early. That's why I have my wife open my Christmas gift to her first. (Who knew that tennis and bracelet weren't the most important words in the phrase "diamond tennis bracelet.) So, I'll disappoint you right off the bat: I don't know when Dick's Sporting Goods is going to open yet on South Iowa Street.
Lots of people want to know, and I'll work to find out. What I do know is that the pending arrival of Dick's at the former Sears location at 27th and Iowa streets already is shaking up the retail world in that area. Two shopping centers near the site have sold in recent weeks.
A group of Lawrence and Wichita investors have bought the Holiday Plaza Shopping Center at 25th and Iowa streets. That's the shopping center that has Paisano's Italian restaurant, J. Lynn Bridal and several other stores and businesses.
Local resident Susan Hatfield is a part of the ownership group and the new manager for the approximately 50,000-square-foot shopping area. She said the idea of a big box store locating just a couple of blocks down the street certainly played a role in the group's decision to purchase the property.
"We have been looking at for awhile, but we absolutely love seeing what is going on in the area," Hatfield said.
She said no major changes are planned for the center, other than an increase in general maintenance to "spiff it up a bit." The center was 80 percent leased when the deal was closed last month, but leases for some of the vacant space is in the works. My understanding is a new martial arts studio will be the latest addition.
The Tower Plaza shopping center across the street at 2540 Iowa St. also changed hands. Longtime Lawrence real estate investor Bob Hopkins sold the center to a group that includes several executives of the R.H. Johnson commercial real estate firm in Kansas City. The center, for those of you who navigate more by your stomach than by address, is the one that includes the First Watch restaurant and is just south of the Applebee's on Iowa Street.
Hopkins, who has had the property since he opened a VW dealership on it in the 1970s, is in his 70s. He said he was simply looking to sell some of his investments. But he said now is a good time to own property on South Iowa Street.
"The future is very good for that area," Hopkins said. "There's not a lot of land left, but there is still some potential for infill development."
As for the new owners — the group name is Iowa 33 LLC — they bring some significant retail development experience. The R.H. Johnson Company has done deals all over Lawrence and the K.C. metro area. The company was a major player in developing the areas around the two Hy-Vee stores in Lawrence, and more recently, it has been involved in developing some of the outlying property around the Wal-Mart on South Iowa Street. The group seems to have good connections with national retailers and chains.
I've got a call into one of the group's members.
Hopkins said the R.H. Johnson group has been interested in the site for a long time. He said it is becoming clear that despite efforts to develop new retail sites in northwest Lawrence, large national retailers are still most interested in the South Iowa corridor.
"It sure seemed liked Menards' position was that we get on South Iowa Street or we don't come to Lawrence," Hopkins said. "I think retailers understand that in the course of a week, an incredibly high percentage of the population of Lawrence drives by the sites on South Iowa Street."
Menards, of course, is locating just off of South Iowa Street, just east of the existing Home Depot at 31st and Iowa. In addition to the Menards store, the development will include several "outlots" that could attract significant retailers. I've already heard that Menards is tweaking the lot lines on some of those parcels to accommodate stores that may need a slightly larger footprint. No word on who those stores may be, but it will be an area to keep an eye on.
As we have reported, the area just south of the South Lawrence Trafficway but north of the Wakarusa River also has developer interest. A portion of that property is under option, and developers are shopping it to potential big retail tenants. Whether those retailers make a play for that area, and whether Lawrence city commissioners would provide the necessary zoning for a major retail development to occur there, may be the next big questions for South Iowa Street and the city's retail scene.
Well, I can think of one other question: Will any of these new stores have a wider selection of tennis bracelets? I've bought about every color of nylon I can find.
In other news and notes around town:
• It's the season for food drives and toy drives, and now there is a new twist to that traditional way of giving. Simply set out a few new toys and a few cans or boxes of nonperishable food items at your curb, and members of the city's trash collection crew will come pick them up.
On Monday, the city's solid waste division will be picking up toys and food while they are out and about running their regular yard waste collection route. A couple of members of the crew came up with the idea and managers at City Hall green-lighted the project.
"We're kind of looking at it as pilot program," said Duane LaFrenz, one of the crew members. "We definitely know that the community is looking for a way to give, and we're just looking for a way to make it as simple as possible."
Crew members ask residents to place the toys and food in a sack next to their bags of leaves, grass clippings or other yard waste. If a household doesn't have any yard waste for the week, it is still eligible to leave a donation of toys and food along the curb. LaFrenz suggest that items be set out at the curb no later than 6:30 a.m. to ensure they'll be collected.
The toys will be donated to the Blue Santa program, a nonprofit organization founded by Lawrence police officers that helps provide Christmas gifts and food to families in need.
The food will be donated to Just Food, the local food bank.
City trash crews did a test run of the collection system last Monday, and collected 65 toys and 323 pounds of food. LaFrenz said crews are hoping to more than triple that amount on Monday.
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Expect new twist for parking situation at Saturday’s Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade; new truck dealership open on 23rd Street
If you are looking for a parking space in downtown Lawrence on Saturday, I hope it is for a horse.
The annual Downtown Lawrence Old-Fashioned Christmas parade is set for 11 a.m. Saturday, and as you know, it is an all horse-drawn parade. (No, kids, that's not candy in the streets.)
In fact, keeping the parade crowd out of the street is a big part of having a safe parade, and organizers are taking a new step this year. For the first time, barricades will be erected along the sides of Massachusetts Street. Parade organizers are spreading the word that the barricades will have an impact on people coming downtown to park.
Marty Kennedy, one of the organizers of the parade, said barricades would start going up at 8 a.m. Saturday. They'll be placed behind cars that already have parked along Massachusetts Street. So, if you park in downtown Lawrence on Saturday, you'll need to get there before 8 a.m. and you'll need to be prepared to remain parked until past 11 a.m.
Kennedy said the decision to use barricades this year was based on the safety of parade watchers and the horses.
"A lot of our horses are used to being in corrals," Kennedy said. "The barricades will give them the idea that they're supposed to go nice and straight down the street."
Kennedy said he doesn't think the barricade situation is going to cause any problems for people wanting to get a parking spot along the parade route. He said the parade has become so popular that people already know they have to come early in the morning to get a spot along Massachusetts Street.
"In the past, there really haven't been many parking spots to be had after 6 a.m.," Kennedy said.
The barricades will be removed as the street sweepers travel down the parade route. Kennedy estimated people would be able to leave their parking spots about 15 minutes after the parade had ended.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If you are going to a horse parade, it just seems like you ought to go in a one-ton pickup truck with a good tool box to sit upon and a jug of grandfather's special sipping cider to keep you warm.
I'm still working on securing the sipping cider, but there is news on the big truck front. The longtime Lawrence business Kaw Valley Industrial, 1105 E. 23rd St., has expanded into truck sales.
The new business is running under the name of Kaw Valley Truck Sales. Ryan Lauber, a son of the owners of Kaw Valley Industrial, is running the new venture. Lauber said the business is trying to focus on larger used trucks — mainly three-quarter ton and one-ton trucks — that can be more difficult to find on traditional car lots. The business also is offering service work on diesel engines and truck and four-wheel drive accessories. The business also hopes to be a player in the agricultural truck market, with bale haulers and other farm trucks.
The business, which carries only used vehicles, usually has an inventory of around 15 to 20 trucks, Lauber said.
Lauber said the new focus seems to fit well with Kaw Valley Industrial's business, which includes ATVs, chainsaws, mowing equipment and other such items.
"We're kind of a one-stop shop now," Lauber said. "You can come in and buy a one-ton truck and a chainsaw."
As they say at the horse parade, "Whoa, there." That sounds like a lot of work. How about we sip some more cider first?
Here's a chance to play with the crayons in your desk drawer. Take out your Brick Red (or, heck, even your Razzmatazz or Razzle Dazzle Rose) and circle all the Lawrence neighborhoods that will have easy access to Johnson County, Topeka and the South Iowa Street shopping district once the South Lawrence Trafficway is completed.
There will be several areas circled, but none should be circled more brightly than the Prairie Park neighborhood in southeast Lawrence. We're already getting a glimpse of the changes a completed SLT may bring to the area.
If you remember, we reported in August that a pair of Lawrence businessmen had filed preliminary plans for a new multifamily complex near 28th Street and O'Connell Road in the Prairie Park neighborhood.
Well, those plans have advanced and are now up for a round of approval at Lawrence City Hall tonight. City commissioners are set to approve an annexation of about 11 acres of ground just north and east of the roundabout at 28th and O'Connell. Commissioners also are set to approve a request to rezone the property to RM-15 multifamily zoning.
Jeff Hatfield and Heath Seitz are the developers of the new project, and Hatfield recently gave me some details. Plans call for the project to be built in two phases. Phase one would start work soon on building 38 to 40 one-bedroom apartments on the site. Phase 2 would come later and would accommodate about 60 to 65 additional apartments on the site. Whether they would be one-, two- or three-bedroom units hasn't yet been determined.
Not surprisingly, the completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway in the next couple of years is one of the factors Hatfield is citing in moving forward with the project. The eastern interchange for the South Lawrence Trafficway will be just a minute or two east of the 23rd and O'Connell intersection. Once the trafficway is built, Prairie Park suddenly becomes a convenient home for commuters not only to Johnson County, but also to Topeka. As part of the South Lawrence Trafficway project, the city also is extending 31st Street from Haskell Avenue to O'Connell Road. That means Prairie Park residents will have an easy new route into the South Iowa Street retail district as well.
But Prairie Park also has another factor going for it. It is the closest neighborhood to the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant, which is being converted into Lawrence VenturePark, the city's next big business park. Developers are betting that new companies will locate in that park, and workers at the companies will jump at the chance to live in a neighborhood that is just a stone's throw from the office.
Hatfield, who is a real estate appraiser and a veteran in the local housing and apartment markets, envisions a gradual 10-year transformation of the area out there.
"I think what really will control the growth out there is the number of new businesses that locate in the business park," Hatfield said. "If we get some employers out there, then the rooftops will follow, and then I'm really hopeful a grocery store will say this is where we need to be."
Property at the southeast corner of 23rd and O'Connell already is zoned for retail uses, including a grocery store, but a company hasn't yet stepped forward.
As for the apartment development, Hatfield and Seitz have drawn up a plan that uses single-story four-plex units that are designed to look more like houses than an apartment complex. Hatfield said the design is trying to create an "Aspen craftsman" type of look that features lots of stone, exposed wooden beams and rough-sawn lumber. As currently designed, about half the units will come with garages. You can see one of the proposed renderings below.
Hatfield said he expects the development's target market to be either young couples who don't yet need a larger unit, or single professionals who either are working in the area or want a convenient home to commute to either Kansas City or Topeka.
As we have previously reported, look for other activity in the area as well. The Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority has partnered with a private development group led by Lawrence businessman Bill Newsome to develop about 125 rent-controlled apartment units near the southwest corner of 23rd and O'Connell Road.
So, you may want to keep those crayons out. There may be more to circle in this area in the future. Now, where did I put my Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown and my Mango Tango? I've got serious work to do.
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Southern fried chicken restaurant coming to West Lawrence; an overview of city’s proposed rental licensing program
It is time for me to restock the supply of wet wipes in the F-150's glove box. A new fried chicken place — with a drive-thru — is coming to west Lawrence.
The spot inside the Miller Mart gas station at 3300 W. Sixth St. is ready for its latest culinary adventure: D-Lux Southern Fried Chicken. Over the years, the gas station spot has served as the launching pad for several notable Lawrence restaurants. The Basil Leaf Cafe, Tortas Jalisco and Biemer's BBQ are the better-known of the group.
Well, a trained chef who has traveled the country is betting that fried chicken will be the next culinary trend to take hold in the spot. Robert Douglas has worked as a chef and culinary executive in several resorts and casinos in the western U.S. But he's originally from Georgia and South Carolina, which are better known as Fried Chicken Country.
Douglas plans to open D-Lux Southern Fried Chicken next week, and when he does, he'll be touting a unique 48-hour fried chicken process. (I'm familiar with it. It usually takes me 48 hours to eat enough fried chicken to satisfy my appetite.) Actually, I'm told that is not the process he's talking about. Instead, he's talking about a process taught to him by his grandmother where the chicken sits in a brine for at least 24 hours.
"The big difference between this chicken and other chicken is that we take the time to brine it," Douglas said. "That is how you make sure it gets seasoned all the way to the bone."
The chicken also uses a wet batter of hydrated peppers, garlic and other spices, Douglas said.
In addition to the chicken, Douglas said D-Lux will be making its own side dishes, which include mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, braised greens, pickled beets, applesauce, and even homemade pickles, spicy mushrooms and spicy pimento cheese. By the way, there also will be homemade hot sauce. (If you are driving by the F-150 and see me sucking on a wet wipe, you'll know what's up.)
Although the whole process from start to finish takes 48 hours, Douglas and his business partner, Lawrence's David Bennett, are designing the restaurant to be quick-service oriented. (Just to clarify, there are a couple of Lawrence businessmen by the name of David Bennett. This is the one that also is an executive with Blue Sky Satellite in Lawrence.) Chicken will be made in batches so that it can be served without a long wait. That also will allow for the restaurant to have a drive-thru.
"You will be able to get a six pack of beer and a whole fried chicken to go," Douglas told me.
I haven't yet seen a menu for the restaurant, but Douglas said he's planning for an average meal to cost between $6 and $10. Douglas hopes to be open next week, and he plans for hours to be 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday thru Saturday.
In other news and notes from around town:
• We had an article this weekend about the city's proposed rental regulations and some privacy concerns that are being raised related to the program's inspection process. As I was researching that article, several items came up, and not all of them made them into the article. One was a story about how the city of Manhattan, which had a rental inspection program and then repealed it, sent four student renters to jail for violations related to its rental ordinance. I wasn't able to interview Manhattan officials about that case (it didn't come to my attention until pretty late in the reporting process), but I did find a 2011 news article about it. I thought I would pass it along because some opponents of the Lawrence proposal are citing the case as an example of government overreach when it comes to these types of programs. You can make of it what you will. The article comes from Manhattan's weekly newspaper, which was one of the staunchest opponents to the city's rental registration ordinance.
• Lawrence's proposed rental registration program has been quite the talk recently because commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting will consider giving final approval to the program. A big part of the discussion likely will be what inspectors are instructed to look for as part of the inspections of rental units. The city has been tweaking the list of proposed violations for more than a month. They have created a list of major and minor violations, but, as it is proposed now, a unit can have an unlimited number of minor violations and still be eligible to receive an incentive from the city, as long as the minor violations are fixed within a reasonable period of time. (City staff is proposing 30 days for most violations.) The incentive is that the property owner won't have to go through a city inspection for six years. Properties that don't receive the incentive are subject to inspection every three years. Click here to see the complete list of minor violations, as proposed by city staff. Here's a sampling:
— Inoperable bathroom ventilation fan;
— Clogged drains;
— Dirty furnace filter
— Improperly fitting interior or exterior doors;
— Extension cords used for permanent power source;
— Grass or weeds in violation of the city's weed ordinance;
— Lack of deadbolt lock on exterior doors;
— Missing covers on light switches or electrical outlets;
— Smoke detectors inoperable;
— Upholstered furniture on a deck or porch.
The city staff also is recommending a list of major violations. If a property has one or more major violations, it would not be eligible for the incentive program. Click here to see a complete list of the major violations, as proposed. Here's a sampling:
— Backed up or collapsed sewer line;
— Ceiling height requirements not met;
— Dryer, furnace or hot water heater not properly vented;
— Egress requirements not met for bedrooms;
— Large amounts of mold or other fungus;
— Smoke detectors not present on each floor and in each sleeping room;
— Badly leaking roofs;
— Structural deficiencies with the building's roof, foundation, stairs or other components;
— Lack of a heating system that can keep the property at a 68 degree temperature;
— Exposed or frayed electrical wiring.
• For those of you who want more details, here's a pretty good city memo that outlines how the program is proposed to work. It also provides details on how the city's current system of rental inspections work. That system — except for rentals in single-family zoned neighborhoods — requires a tenant to call and ask for an inspection. The city conducted 34 of those inspections in 2012. Nineteen of them were related to a North Lawrence trailer park that had badly deteriorated. The memo provides details on the other 15 inspections, and some of the violations inspectors found. They ranged from a broken staircase bannister to large amounts of mold, inoperable toilets, and leaking roofs.
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Move over turkey. It is time to grab our trusty forks, knives, bibs and wet wipes to tackle another animal. Plus, this one has the bonus of being familiar to longtime Lawrence residents. I'm talking about a Bum Steer.
That's right, a restaurant with the name Bum Steer BBQ Cafe is opening up in Lawrence about 20 years after it last shut down here. Chris Lemmon, who owned Bum Steer BBQ on Iowa Street from about 1980 to 1992, has opened a new version of the restaurant in the shopping center at 19th and Haskell.
And hold onto your elastic waistband, but plans are in the works for him to bring back the concept of a barbecue buffet as well.
Bum Steer currently is operating in the space that used to house the Haskell Diner and a few other diners that have come and gone in the past few years. But by early next year, Lemmon plans to expand into the space that is being vacated by longtime tenant Miracle Video. As we've previously reported, Miracle Video is going out of business. The signs on the store say the business will shut down for good at the end of this month.
When it does, Bum Steer will expand into the space, and it will become a bit like it was in the old days. Lemmon said he'll have a buffet set up each day that will have a heavy emphasis on barbecue and smoked meats, but also will feature traditional "country food" items as well. So, perhaps soon I'll finally have my chance to live my reoccurring dream of filling a kiddie-size pool with mashed potatoes and gravy. But take notice, Lemmon isn't planning on operating the buffet as a traditional all-you-can-eat affair. Instead, he's planning to charge by the pound — one price for meats and another price for side items.
Right now the restaurant is opening in a traditional diner style, with a menu that includes smoked brisket, pork, turkey and other barbecue items, plus hamburgers, pork tenderloins and other diner fare. Plus, the diner is serving a breakfast menu that includes bacon, sausage, eggs, cinnamon rolls, biscuits and gravy, French toast and other traditional items.
"I just like to call it a country breakfast," Lemmon said. "I don't want to get too fancy with it."
Lemmon said he plans to serve breakfast under the new format as well, although he won't be offering a breakfast buffet. (My pharmacist is sad. She could already see the vacation home she was going to buy after the prescription for my cholesterol medicine quadrupled.)
The restaurant currently is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. No word yet on whether it will have later hours once the buffet opens.
For about the last 20 years, Lemmon has been operating a catering business and serving concessions at KU Athletic events. Lemmon said he decided to get back in the restaurant business now that he no longer is serving KU concessions. As we previously reported, Lemmon had opened a catering kitchen in the Haskell shopping center several months ago, but decided to expand into a full service restaurant when space became available in the center.
"I'm excited," Lemmon said. "It has my blood pumping again."
Mine too, or maybe that is just barbecue sauce going through my veins.
Talk about your synergy: A good barbecue buffet always leaves me in search of a comfy couch. Now, there is a new business right next door to Bum Steer where I can find a couch and several other items at bargain prices.
A new thrift store has opened in the shopping center at 19th and Haskell. The Something for Everyone Thrift Store opened earlier this month. Bobby Riley, who owns the store with his wife, Margaret, said the store plans to carry everything from DVDs and knickknacks to appliances and furniture. In addition to those items the store also is stocked with toys, cookware, electronics and several other smaller items.
Riley spent years in the auction business, and also has managed other thrift stores in the area. He said he gets most of his items from auctions or by purchasing pallets of merchandise from wholesalers, which means the store carries a mix of new and used items.
Unlike some other thrift stores in the area, this one isn't connected to a nonprofit organization. It is being run as a for-profit enterprise. But Riley said there will be a nonprofit component to the business. The store will accept donated items from the public. When those items are sold, 15 percent of the sale price will be donated to a local nonprofit. Riley said the store will hold a contest each month allowing customers to vote on which nonprofit should be the beneficiary.
Riley said business has been good so far, and he said he thinks a thrift shop near the blue collar neighborhoods of eastern Lawrence makes a lot of sense.
"We want to deliver affordable items to middle class and low-income families," Riley said. "We like helping people. We really love that side of the business."
The store is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
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This is the time of year where I'm in the market for a good, heavy-duty cargo strap. After all, I have to do something to secure my full plate of turkey and stuffing as I move it from the kitchen to the couch.
Perhaps you didn't know it, but the cargo strap business injects millions of dollars into the Lawrence economy. (No, I don't eat that much turkey.) Kinedyne is one of the leading manufacturers of cargo straps and other such equipment used by the trucking industry, and its main U.S. operations facility is in the East Hills Business Park.
It may be a facility worth keeping an eye on in the future. It has taken me awhile to sort it all out, but Kinedyne and its Lawrence plant have been purchased by a large Illinois-based conglomerate that also owns one of Kinedyne's chief competitors.
The Heico Companies — a conglomerate that owns about 35 companies that produce about $2 billion in revenues — has purchased the Kinedyne corporation and its Lawrence real estate and production plant. The deal closed in mid-August, but has been a bit under the radar screen.
The Heico Companies also owns Ancra International. If you have spent a lot of time on the back of a flatbed trailer, you perhaps know that Ancra and Kinedyne have been pretty stiff competitors when it comes to cargo straps, come-alongs, webbing and other such products that make a trucker's heart go pitter-patter.
The deal keeps both Kinedyne and Ancra as separate companies, but they now operate as part of the same division within The Heico Companies, according to Heico's Web site.
At the moment, it is tough for me to say what the impact may be on Kinedyne and its Lawrence operations. I've chatted with a couple of Kinedyne officials who indicated there haven't been major changes at the Lawrence plant, and that they generally are optimistic that the new ownership will be a positive development for the Lawrence operations.
But I'm still waiting to get an official statement from Kinedyne officials. Amy Bellerive, human resources manager for Kinedyne's North America operations, told me the Lawrence facility has about 60 employees currently.
That is down from previous years. Back in 2009, we reported that more than 100 people worked at the Lawrence facility, which is located at 3701 Greenway Circle. But I've been told the reduction in Kinedyne's workforce came well before the deal with Heico. Instead, sales have slowed as the economy has struggled, and Kinedyne likely has been affected by cutbacks in government spending because military contracts have been a big part of the company's business in the past.
Kinedyne has been a longtime employer in the community. Kinedyne has been around since 1968, but it didn't enter the Lawrence market until 1989, when it purchased the cargo control division of Lawrence-based Aeroquip, according to Kinedyne's website. A year later, Kinedyne broke ground on a new 47,000 square foot facility in East Hills, giving the fledgling business park a big boost. The plant became the main operational facility for Kinedyne, which has kept its headquarters in New Jersey.
Today, the plant is one of four U.S. facilities for Kinedyne, which also has locations in Canada, Mexico and China. In addition to manufacturing and assembly work, the Lawrence plant also houses the customer service division for Kinedyne and also does quite a bit of quality control testing for the company, Bellerive said.
So, we'll have to wait and see what new ownership has in store for Kinedyne and its Lawrence operations. In the meantime, I need to find a local fork lift manufacturer. (Bonus points if you know the name of the Douglas County-based forklift manufacturer.) After all, I need to figure out how I'm going to move my dessert plate this Thanksgiving.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The city's public works department is competing for about $125,000 to build new sidewalks in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods in Lawrence. The department is seeking approval from Lawrence city commissioners tonight to apply for Community Development Block Grant money to fill in gaps in the city's sidewalk network. The department over the last several years has received about $500,000 in CDBG money to build about four miles of sidewalks in several neighborhoods east of Iowa Street. Here's a map that shows where that work has taken place.
Sidewalks always have the potential to become an interesting issue at City Hall. Residents have become more vocal in recent years about making Lawrence more pedestrian friendly, and the city has created projects like this to fill in gaps in the sidewalk network.
But a frequent topic also is the condition of existing sidewalks in the city. State law makes sidewalk maintenance the responsibility of the adjacent property owner, not the city. It is not cheap to pour new concrete for a sidewalk, and thus there are a quite a few property owners who have let their sidewalks fall into a poor state of repair.
There is now a group of residents trying to draw awareness to that issue. The group is called the Pedestrian Coalition, and its leaders recently gave a presentation to commissioners. Commissioners frequently talk about how they want to improve the condition of existing sidewalks, and the city tries to take some enforcement action against property owners who have particularly bad sidewalks.
The other idea that comes up is that there is nothing that would stop the city from taking over the maintenance responsibilities of sidewalks. Well, nothing but money. Back in 2009, City Manager David Corliss proposed creating a new sidewalk maintenance fee that would be charged to property owners who have a public sidewalk traveling through their property. The proposal called for a half-cent to full cent for every linear foot of public sidewalk on their property; so, for many typical residential lots about 25 cents to 50 cents per month. Back then, the fee was anticipated to raise about $200,000 to $400,000 a year that the city could use to begin repairing sidewalks.
I can't say that the idea of a sidewalk maintenance fee will come back up again, but this new Pedestrian Coalition has quite a few experienced neighborhood association leaders who know how to push issues at City Hall. So, given that, sidewalks may be a topic that will get more discussion from commissioners in the future.
As for tonight, commissioners are expected to approve the request from the public works department. At that point, the city advisory board that makes recommendations on how to spend the city's Community Development Block Grant money will consider the sidewalk request against all the other funding requests it receives. The board will make its recommendations early next year.
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It's time to start keeping an eye on one of Douglas County's larger employers.
A leading trade publication is reporting that Berry Plastics has made a decision to close five plants and make a $100 million investment in another one. Thus far, Berry's operations in Douglas County aren't on either the expansion or closure lists, but two more plant closings are still to be announced.
The trade publication Plastics News is reporting that Evansville, Ind.-based Berry Plastics is set to close five production plants in an effort to cut about $27 million in annual operating costs. At the same time, Berry is in the process of making a $100 million investment to expand its production capacity of a growing polypropylene cup line.
Berry operates two facilities in Douglas County: a manufacturing plant that years ago was part of the Lawrence-based Packerware Corp. and a large new warehouse and printing operation just west of the Lecompton interchange on the Kansas Turnpike.
Thus far, Berry has only announced three of the five plants it intends to close. They are in Houston, Kent, Wash., and Alsip, Ill. The other two plants will be announced in the coming months, according to the article in Plastics News.
I talked with a spokeswoman at Berry's corporate headquarters, and she gave the fairly standard line that she couldn't comment on whether the Lawrence plant is under consideration for closing. An economic development professional at the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, however, told me this morning that he also had talked with a Berry official and was assured that Lawrence wasn't one of the plants being considered for closure.
So make of that what you will at the moment. One factor that seems to be in Lawrence's favor is that Berry, within the last couple of years, invested more than $20 million to build a major distribution center near the Lecompton interchange of the Kansas Turnpike. For Berry to close its production plant after making such a major investment in a distribution center would seem to be an odd course of action.
What is clear is that Lawrence didn't win an internal competition within Berry to land a major $100 million project. The Plastics News article reports that Berry is converting a once shuttered plant in Madisonville, Ky., to receive $100 million in upgrades to make its Versalite line of beverage cups. The expansion, which began in late 2012, is expected to create about 400 jobs.
The Versalite line of cups seems to be the hottest part of Berry's business right now. It is a new process for making recyclable plastic to-go cups. The Subway sandwich chain already uses the cups. I'm not sure whether the development of the Versalite product is good news or bad news for Berry's operations in Lawrence.
Back in 2009 we were reporting one of the major reasons Berry needed a new distribution center is because of high demand for a new drink cup line that was being produced in Lawrence. It was lighter weight and more environmentally friendly. But company spokeswoman Eva Schmitz confirmed that Lawrence does not produce the Versalite line of cups.
That's significant because it appears that Versalite is the product the company is betting on for the future. When Douglas County officials approved a tax abatement and other incentives for the project 2011, the hope was that the new distribution center would create more jobs in the future by opening up space in Berry's production plant. The distribution center itself only created about a dozen new jobs, although it transferred about 200 jobs out of the Lawrence production plant to the distribution center.
Schmitz said she did not know whether the Lawrence production plant was ever in the running to land the $100 million Versalite project and its 400 jobs. She said the Kentucky facility was chosen because it was closer to Berry's research and development labs in Evansville.
At the moment there appear to be two questions Lawrence leaders will want answered: 1. Is the Lawrence plant being considered for closure? 2. If not, have Lawrence's hopes for a major expansion by Berry been dashed?
Perhaps Berry already has expanded all it can at the Lawrence plant. It has been difficult over the years to keep track of how many employees Berry has in Lawrence. In 2007, a company representative said it had about 500 employees in Lawrence. By 2009, when the company was adding equipment for a drink cup line, it had about 950.
The Lawrence Chamber of Commerce's latest job survey, which was taken last year, showed about 740 employees. Schmitz is working to confirm the company's current Lawrence workforce totals. (UPDATE: Schmitz at Berry confirmed the company has about 650 employees currently. The 950 number of years ago included a large number of temporary workers, she said.)
I'll let you know when I hear more. But this one will be an interesting one to watch. A closure of the plant, of course, would be a major blow to the local economy. I think local officials feel a closure is unlikely. The larger question may be whether Berry will be expanding in Lawrence like officials had once hoped when county commissioners approved a significant amount of incentives for the company.
We'll see. At the moment, it is kind of feeling like the 2012 National Championship game: Kentucky over Kansas.
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Construction work really is underway on the South Lawrence Trafficway project, but building roads isn't the only thing that will be going on near 31st and Haskell.
Crews also will be building wetlands. If you have followed the South Lawrence Trafficway project, you know that the Kansas Department of Transportation has been building about 300 acres of wetlands to replace the approximately 55 acres of existing wetlands that will be disturbed by the trafficway project.
KDOT, however, won't get to have all the wetland fun. The city of Lawrence needs to build wetlands too. That's because the city's is responsible for building part of 31st Street that will stretch from Haskell Avenue to O'Connell Road. That project will disturb about five acres of wetland and stream riparian areas, mostly south and east of the Mary's Lake area.
Like KDOT, the city is planning to contract with Baker University to construct and manage the area. Baker has been managing the existing wetlands south of 31st Street for several decades.
City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday are scheduled to finalize a deal with Baker, and also a land purchase with KDOT. City staff members recommend that the city buy about 11 acres of low-lying ground near the Wakarusa River, just east of where the East 1500 Road bridge crosses the Wakarusa River. The city is proposing to pay $71,500, or about $6,500 per acre.
The city then proposes to pay Baker up to $60,925 to do all the planting (about 1,400 trees and shrubs will be planted in the riparian area), maintenance and federal reporting that is required with the project. Baker ultimately would be given ownership of the property and the responsibility of caring for it into perpetuity. As part of the $60,925, the city is proposing to pay about $27,000 into an endowment fund that would be used to care for the area in the future.
The project will expand the natural areas near the Wakarusa River that are under the control of Baker University. The 300 acres of wetlands that have been built south and west of 31st and Louisiana will be an active public area with a visitors center. No word yet on whether this little area will be one that Baker opens up to the public.
Commissioners are expected to give routine approval to the plan. The mitigation work must be done to meet federal requirements, and the city already has approved a $3.9 million bid to build the extension of 31st Street, and also has agreed to the financing of the project. Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Perhaps we'll see some falcons at Tuesday's city commission meeting. No, I'm not thinking they'll show up to speak on behalf of the wetland project, although it may produce a nice new neighborhood of mice and snakes and other fast food for falcons.
Instead, city commissioners are scheduled to approve an ordinance that would make it legal to house falcons in the city, if certain conditions are met. If you remember, we reported last month that a Lawrence attorney had sought a change in the city's law that would allow people who have a state license to work with falcons to keep them in the city limits. The attorney had a client with such a state license who is planning to move to the city.
City Hall staff members reviewed the request and recommend approval, with the conditions that any raptors kept in the city must be in a locked cage and that it would be illegal for falconers to allow their birds to actually fly in the city.
• If falcons were allowed to fly in the city, I bet you the City Hall Web masters could create a neat GPS map that would allow you to log on and see their locations. The city's website is fairly advanced, and it now has a new look.
The city in recent days has unveiled its new design for the website — lawrenceks.org. Megan Gilliland, the city's communications manager, told me recently that one of the biggest improvements to the site is that it now automatically adjusts to fit the size of the device you are using to access it. That means the site should be friendlier for people who are accessing it via smart phones or tablets. The city estimates about 50 percent of its Web users access the site by mobile devices. (That explains the crazy drivers on 23rd Street. Everybody is reading city planning documents on their phones. Too much excitement.)
Gilliland said the site also was moved to a new server that should increase the speed at which the site works. It is a data heavy site with about 6,500 different pages and about 150,000 documents that can be accessed.
The site also has a different look with a new navigation bar and enhanced search functions. The redesign has been in the works for about two months.
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Shiver me timbers, matey. My credit card soon may be under attack. Downtown Lawrence is now home to its first — at least as far as I know — pirate-themed store.
The jewelry and gift store Treasure Chest has opened at 1109 Massachusetts St., across from the Douglas County Courthouse.
Perhaps you wonder why this worries me. Well, yes, I do like nautical-themed decorations, but that is not my big concern. My real fear is that this store may sell life-size cutouts of Captain Jack Sparrow — a.k.a. Johnny Depp. If so, my wife will buy one for every room in the house. And no, I don't think she's buying it for the nautical theme.
I believe you can find plenty of Jack Sparrow stuff at the Treasure Chest, but there are also plenty of items for folks who aren't into the pirate lifestyle. Owner Denise Bosch told me that at its core the Treasure Chest is a jewelry and gift store. That means a large amount of sterling silver and stainless steel jewelry, in addition to "body jewelry," wooden and shell designed pieces, novelty items and other gifts.
"Our inventory changes as trends change," Bosch said. "That's one of the things that makes us fun."
But make no mistake, pirates are a big deal here. There's a large Captain Hook standing in the front of the store behind a turn-of-the century ship's wheel. There's a also an eight-foot mermaid mural on one of the walls.
"You kind of have that bottom of the ocean, sunken treasure feel," Bosch said.
Bosch is a veteran of the gift store business. She's owned a gift shop in the Houston area for the past 14 years, and decided to open one in the Lawrence area when one of her children decided to attend KU.
Bosch originally had the store in The Legends in Kansas City, Kan., but she said it became obvious that being located in the younger, hipper Lawrence scene would be a benefit to the business.
As for the pirate fascination, she said it is a definite trend that has some staying power with consumers right now.
"I think people like it just because it is fun," she said. "We're already seeing lots of interest here, and it is not just the college kids. We're getting a good mix."
News and notes from around town:
• One of the many advantages to being a pirate is you don't have to buy much gasoline for your vessel. The rest of us, though, spend plenty of time at the gas station, and I've been getting questions about whether a rebuilding of the Kwik Shop at 19th and Massachusetts Street is still in the works.
The latest information I have from the Lawrence-Douglas County planning office is that Kwik Shop still is pursing plans to raze the existing building, and construct a larger store at the corner. But the plans are changing.
We reported back in January that the company wanted to build a convenience store with six gasoline pumps. But several neighbors began expressing concern about whether the company was trying to squeeze too much onto the site. The plan did require several zoning variances. The city's board of zoning of appeals granted the variances, but also added a requirement that the project have no more than four gasoline pumps, Lawrence-Douglas County planner Mary Miller told me.
If I'm doing my math right, the doubled-sided pumps will accommodate up to eight vehicles fueling at a time, and that is double what the store can handle today. Miller, when I talked to her a few days ago, said her office is still waiting a new set of plans that meet the zoning board's conditions. So, I don't have a good timeline on when the project may get underway.
As for the store itself, it is slated to be about 3,300 square feet compared to the 2,700-square-foot store there today.
• My longtime theory is that gasoline is only the third most popular fuel in Lawrence. It trails beer and pizza. Well, I've got a quick bit of news on the pizza front. A new pizza shop has opened in West Lawrence. As we reported last month, the New York-style pizza chain Johnny Brusco's was scheduled to open in the former Godfather's pizza location at Sixth and Wakarusa. According to the building's landlord, Lawrence businessman Greg DiVilbiss, the shop is now open. Check out this article from last month to get a sense of the place.
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New battery store slated for west Lawrence; city provides report on snow preparations; Mother Earth News Fair seeks to return to city
I'm sure you've already experienced this, but basketball season is rough on batteries. There are the batteries for the TV remote, there are the batteries for the electronic beer delivery device, there are the batteries for the portable nacho cheese warmer, and don't even get me started about the batteries for the Andrew Wiggins robotron.
But, of course, you know all this because you deal with it too. What you may not know, though, is a new west Lawrence store is set to open that specializes in all types of batteries. Batteries Plus Bulbs is set to open at 6534 W. Sixth St. in the space that used to house the Blockbuster video store.
"We're looking to sell every kind of battery," said Ed Patel, owner of the Lawrence franchise. "If we don't carry them, we definitely have access to them."
When the store means batteries, it means batteries both big and small. The store plans to carry car, truck, motorcycle and golf cart batteries, for example. It plans to stock cellphone, camcorder, digital camera and laptop batteries as well. Patel said the business also thinks the store will do well with the construction industry. The store plans to carry a large selection of batteries for cordless tools, two-way radios and other such devices.
The store also will offer a battery refurbishing service, and it will recycle any type of battery for free.
As the name suggests, the store also will carry a large amount of light bulbs. Patel said the store's bulb stock will include automotive headlights and bulbs, and all the LED, CFL and halogen light bulbs that are used in home and business applications.
Patel decided to get into the battery and bulb business after he used a similar store in Topeka extensively during a remodeling project he undertook for a hotel he owns. He chose Lawrence for the store's location because he thought there was a niche to be filled in the market.
When I talked to Patel, he was still stocking the store, but he hoped to be open by the end of this week. Once open, the store will have hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.
In other news and notes from around town:
• We may need some batteries for the electric ice scraper come Friday morning. The weather forecast is calling for some Thursday night precipitation that may turn into Friday morning ice or other wintry conditions.
At least that's what the crews with the city's public works department are keeping an eye on. City commissioners at their meeting last night were briefed on the city's annual snow plowing and winter weather preparations. There will be a change to the city's system this year, but one that officials are betting residents won't notice: A new manager is in charge of ensuring the city's streets are safe for winter driving.
Longtime street division manager Tom Orzulak retired earlier this year. He's been replaced by Mike Perkins, who previously was responsible for overseeing snow removal operations for Douglas County. Perkins spent about 12 years with the county before making the move over to the city earlier this year.
"We feel like we're in good shape," Perkins said of the upcoming winter season. "We would like to keep the snow away, but we think we're prepared."
As part of its annual report to city commissioners, the public works department did share some numbers about past snow seasons. Here's a look:
— The city spent $534,257 on snow and ice removal last season, which was up significantly from the $95,608 spent during the the 2011/2012 season.
— About 29 inches of snow fell in Lawrence last season compared with just 2.5 inches in the 2011/2012 season.
— The city used 3,462 tons of salt last season and 1,886 tons of sand. The city starts this year with 4,000 tons of salt, 1,000 tons of sand and about 2,500 tons of salt and sand mix.
• I bet you there is some sort of environmentally friendly product for removing snow — I'm thinking a team of alpacas with a plow made out of wheat straw — and I bet you that you could have found it at this year's Mother Earth News Fair in downtown Lawrence.
City commissioners also got an update on that event at last night's meeting and learned that there is a question about whether the popular event will return to Lawrence for a second year.
Bryan Welch, publisher and editorial director for the parent company of Mother Earth News magazine, said the event was a big success in downtown. An estimated 10,000 people showed up at Watson Park for the two-day fair in October. Based on ticket information, Welch estimated about 4,500 of the attendees had never visited Lawrence before, with many of them traveling more than 100 miles for the fair. That indicates the fair pumped a sizable amount of new money into the city's tourism industry and perhaps created some future visitors.
Welch said Mother Earth News, which is based in Topeka, is very interested in having another fair in Lawrence next fall, but there are questions about whether an appropriate downtown venue can be found. Welch would like to move the fair to South Park, which is significantly larger than Watson Park.
"We more than filled Watson Park this year," Welch said.
Based on experience with fairs in other communities, Welch is expecting ticket sales to grow by about 20 percent in year two. That would mean about 12,000 attendees at next year's fair.
He said he hopes to determine in the next few weeks whether South Park is available at a time that will work for the fair's schedule. City commissioners on Tuesday indicated they wanted to do what they could to bring the fair back to town.
Commissioners said they heard from several merchants and hotel owners across town that business was up during the fair.
"I'm sure we can be pretty accommodating with the location next year," Amyx told Welch at last night's meeting.
Former Lawrence Mayor Boog Highberger planning to run for Statehouse seat; 650 collegiate runners to be in city this weekend
It looks like Boog will be back.
Those of you who have followed Lawrence politics know who I'm talking about. Dennis "Boog" Highberger is a former Lawrence city commissioner and mayor, and now it appears likely that he'll make a run to become a state legislator.
Highberger told me last night that he is planning to soon file for the state House of Representatives seat currently held by Lawrence lawmaker Paul Davis. Davis, of course, is leaving the seat to run for governor.
Highberger will run as a Democrat in a district — House District 46 — that includes quite a few Democrats. The race already has attracted at least one other Democratic candidate, Abbie Hodgson, who was a former staff member with Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson and now works in the communications department at KU. We'll see how big of a field the race may draw. If two Democrats do file, there would be a primary election in August. The general election is in November.
Highberger served six years on the Lawrence City Commission in the 2000s, including a stint as mayor. Highberger is an attorney by trade. He previously was a staff attorney for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and now is a partner in his own private practice in downtown Lawrence.
The deadline for candidates to file for the race is June 2.
In other news and notes from around town:
• We go from talking about running for political office to just plain running. About 650 collegiate cross country runners will be in Lawrence this weekend for the NAIA Men and Women's Cross Country National Championships.
The event will be held at the esteemed Rim Rock Farm cross country course just north of Lawrence. This is the first time the event has been held in Lawrence, and event organizers said the Rim Rock Farm course, which was designed by former KU track coaching legend Bob Timmons, played a major role in landing the competition.
Officials with the the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau are projecting the event will provide about $200,000 in economic impact to the city's hotels, restaurants, shops and other businesses that will cater to the athletes and crowds. It will be interesting to watch the impact because my understanding is that the Lawrence Sport Corp. has a multiyear contract to host the event, although I'm not sure whether it will be held in Lawrence every year or just in selected years.
The event is open to the public. At 10:30 a.m. Saturday, the men's 8,000 meter race will start. The women's 5,000 meter race will begin at 11:45 a.m. Rim Rock Farm is at 2276 Burnett Lane, which is just west of Wellman Road, north of U.S. Highway 59/24.
• I still get people asking me what new business is heading into the building being constructed next to Taco Bell on 23rd Street. As we previously have reported, a Chipotle restaurant is slated for the space. I still don't have an official word on when the restaurant may open, but signs point to it being soon. Lawrence city commissioners at their meeting tonight are set to approve a drinking establishment license for the restaurant at 1420 W. 23rd St. Let the Mexican food wars soon begin.
After showing signs of cooling off in September, Lawrence's residential real estate market heated right back up again in October.
October homes sales in Lawrence rose by 17 percent compared with the same time period of a year ago. Home sales in Lawrence have increased for nine of the 10 months on record in 2013. But the one month that showed a decline was September, which meant real estate observers were waiting to see whether that was the beginning of a new slowdown in the market.
October's numbers suggest the Lawrence market has dodged a late season slump. Now, the question turns to whether the Lawrence market can dodge something even nastier: the impact of the federal government shutdown.
John Esau, the president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors, noted the only negative in this month's report is that the number of new contracts real estate agents wrote during October was down about 12.5 percent compared with the same period a year ago. Esau speculated that was because during October the government shutdown created concerns about lenders being able to timely process loans and also created economic concerns among buyers.
The shutdown happened during the early parts of October, but most of its impacts on real estate sales likely won't show up until the November report. That's because October's report largely shows sales that had contracts written in September, before the shutdown. November's report will have sales that had contracts largely written in October. (There's no set formula, but generally it takes a few weeks for a sale to be finalized on a house.)
So, it will be interesting to see if November's home sale numbers take a hit, but it likely won't be too much to be worried about since the shutdown is now over. Indeed, the Lawrence real estate market for all of 2013 has been pretty worry free. Here's a look at several of the most recent statistics:
• Through October, Lawrence home sales for all of 2013 total 948, up 20.5 percent from a year ago. Compared with 2011, home sales are up nearly 53 percent.
• Sales of newly constructed homes are up about 21 percent compared with a year ago. A total of 86 new homes have been sold, up from 71 at this time in 2012 and 55 in 2011. It is worth noting, however, October 2013 wasn't a good month for new-constructed home sales. Only four sold in Lawrence in October, down from 11 in October 2012.
• The median selling price for a home in Lawrence is $170,000, up 7.3 percent from a year ago. Interestingly, the median selling price is about where it was in 2011, when it checked in at $168,250. Last year's rebound in the market partially was fueled by a significant drop in housing prices. This year's strong market, however, is happening as average home prices increase.
• The median number of days a home sits on the market is down to 42, compared with 61 in 2012 and 59 in 2011.
• The supply of homes available for sale continues to shrink. At the end of October there were 428 active listings, down from 490 in October 2012 and 575 in October 2013. Based on current sales activity, there is about a 5.9 month supply of homes currently on the market. In October 2011, there was about a 13.4 month supply of homes on the market.
The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, has gotten so much positive press lately, I can understand why the government may not have taken the time to highlight the good news the act has created here in Lawrence.
I'm obviously being facetious about the positive press that has come Obamacare's way lately, but I'm being serious about the boost the act may be giving to the Lawrence economy.
Thanks to the General Dynamics call center in the East Hills Business Park, it appears Lawrence may have several hundred new jobs as a direct result of the Affordable Care Act.
If you remember, we reported back in May that General Dynamics was awarded a $530 million contract to provide customer support for the Affordable Care Act. It was confirmed at the time that the Lawrence call center, which previously has operated under the names Vangent, Pearson, and NCS, would receive new positions as part of the contract. But it wasn't known how many.
I still don't know how many positions have been or will be added at the center, but I've talked to several local leaders who have been led to believe that the impact is very significant.
I've heard estimates range from "more than 500" to approximately 900 new positions at the Lawrence call center. An announcement of 900 new jobs easily would be one of the larger single job announcements in recent Lawrence history.
I've reached out to both General Dynamics and also to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees the contract. But thus far I haven't been able to get any confirmation on the new jobs. So, take the numbers with a grain of salt at the moment.
But there certainly are reasons to think the number of new jobs at the center is substantial. The press release announcing the contract in May estimated 7,000 to 9,000 jobs would be created nationwide by the contract. It estimated the jobs would be housed at about 14 call centers. That would be an average of 500 to 600 new jobs per center, if the jobs are evenly distributed.
An even distribution is probably not the case. One of the few articles I've been able to find about call center hiring was from the newspaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where a U.S. congressman was making a big deal out of 120 new jobs that were added to a General Dynamics call center in Iowa. That article indicated there would be "several thousand jobs" added to General Dynamics call centers in other states.
Another reason to think Lawrence may be a landing spot for a significant number of the new jobs is that the company has the space for them here in Lawrence. According to my understanding, one of General Dynamics' two buildings at East Hills was largely vacant at the time of the contract award.
The final reason to suspect the contract has had a big local impact, though, is more obvious. Drive by the company's parking lot in East Hills, and it sure appears to be a lot fuller than it used to be. In May, General Dynamics had about 650 employees in Lawrence, down from a high of about 1,500 in 2011.
As for the quality of any new jobs at the center, the local leaders I talked to were optimistic they were good middle-level positions for the community. They indicated that because this contract is funded by the federal government that General Dynamics would have to meet certain wage and benefit levels set by the federal government.
There's also optimism that the contract could provide some long-term work. The contract was awarded for one year, but it is renewable for up to nine more years, according to the information released in May.
Based on the current national news, it seems like there should be some good job security with a contract that is responsible for answering questions about Obamacare.
Obviously, I'll let you know if I get any official information from either the company or the federal government.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Mark your calendar for 6 p.m. on Dec. 2 if you are interested in the future of a new transit hub for the city and the university's public transit system. City officials will host a meeting at Fire Station No. 5 at 19th and Iowa to discuss a new proposal to locate the hub near 21st and Iowa streets.
As we reported last month, a new proposal has emerged to place the hub, which will be the main transfer point for the two bus systems, at the northeast corner of 21st and Iowa streets. Originally, city officials were focusing on a site near Ninth and Iowa streets near the The Merc. But I had heard KU officials were more interested in a site closer to campus, and it now appears City Hall officials are ready to adopt that line of thinking as well.
The Dec. 2 meeting is mainly geared toward neighbors of the site, but eventually the decision will affect the entire community, or at least everyone who uses the transit system. Transit officials have told me that a move to 21st and Iowawill require a significant rerouting of buses, and likely will mean a significant change in the amount of service provided to downtown Lawrence.
I'm not sure all those details will be figured out by the Dec. 2 meeting, but it is something to keep an ear open for.
• Another item to keep an eye on with public transit is the idea of compressed natural gas buses. As we reported in August, city commissioners directed staff members to do more research on the feasibility of CNG buses. I believe that research is still underway, but I was at a transit meeting a few weeks ago where the subject came up. It appears staff members believe the challenges of converting the fleet — even gradually — to CNG are significant. The latest estimate for a CNG fueling station that could quickly fill the city's buses now stands at about $2 million, up from a previous estimate of about $1 million. Plus transit officials expressed concern that switching to CNG would be a financial gamble. Even though CNG is significantly cheaper than diesel fuel today, there is a concern that as demand grows for CNG, so too will the price. Ultimately, city commissioners will have to weigh in on this issue too because the transit system will need to replace buses one way or another. I'll keep you posted.