Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
Lawrence technology startup adds 15 employees, wins venture capital funding; a downtown parking question
A Lawrence start-up company that’s seeking to reduce the “creepiness” factor of Internet advertising has added 15 employees since January, and has landed another successful round of venture capital funding.
Bixy is a company we’ve told you about before. In January, we reported Lawrence resident Kyle Johnson had founded the company and had begun testing of a new platform that allows Internet advertisers to reach customers without the traditional targeting practices.
You are familiar with those targeting practices. Thanks to Google and others, advertisers have all types of insights into your web searching history, and then make inferences about what type of products you may be interested in purchasing.
Take, for example, the ads I was receiving during yesterday’s Royals game. Early in the game, when the Royals were ahead, I got ads for cheap champagne. Late in the game, when the Royals were behind, I got ads for cheap bourbon. In between, I got ads for cheap hot dogs. (That was mainly my fault. I was hungry and, of course, cheap.) By the end of the game, Google had become worn out by the back and forth, and reverted to its fallback for me: cheap Rogaine, which promises to grow hair but can’t guarantee the location.
Some people think such targeting is creepy (not to mention the places hair will grow), and Johnson’s company is trying to build a business around avoiding such ad targeting. The Bixy technology creates a system where people complete a form about their interests and can pick from a list of companies that they would be interested in receiving ads from. Advertisers then can buy access to that information and use it to deliver ads to those consumers. So, instead of having to infer what a person is interested in, consumers just tell advertisers what they’re interested in. Consumers can earn deals by voluntarily sharing their preferences.
When I chatted with Johnson in January, the company had about 10 employees and was seeking $750,000 in venture capital. Today, the company has 25 employees — a mix of full and part-time positions — has taken new office space in East Lawrence’s Cider Gallery, and has landed a significant portion of the $750,000 in funding, Johnson said.
“We have really been able to ramp up,” said Johnson, who said he couldn’t disclose the venture capital details, but described the amount raised as a “good six-figure amount.”
Johnson said the venture capital round included a number of local investors, but also some Silicon Valley money. Johnson, though, said the company is committed to remaining in Lawrence.
“We kind of have a chip on our shoulder about proving that people don’t have to move to Silicon Valley to make game-changing companies,” Johnson said. “Our cost structure here is a lot better than it would be if we moved to Silicon Valley.”
Johnson said the company has been using a variety of KU students to staff the company and has been converting some from part-time to full-time positions as they graduate. He said the company likely will get to 35 employees soon.
The company currently is doing its test marketing in Lawrence and Kansas City, but it has Dallas and Chicago on its near-term expansion list. The company also is developing a desktop system to go with its current technology, which focuses on advertising delivered to smartphones and other mobile devices.
The company also is in discussions with a national, publicly traded firm that Johnson said he couldn’t yet disclose.
“They’re a big company with millions of monthly customers, and that can help us reach a national audience faster,” Johnson said.
So, still early in the game for this company, but it is one of several in the Lawrence startup scene worth keeping an eye on.
In other news and notes from around town:
• During the euphoria of the Royals win, I decided to take a trip back in time by searching for George Brett’s famed 1980 postseason home run against the Yankees. Trust me, you don’t want to know what type of ads you get when you Google something called a Goose Gossage.
But that’s not the only time traveling I’ve been doing lately. I’ve had some readers pose a downtown parking question that has taken me back to 1997.
Some readers have noticed that the parking lot at the former Borders bookstore location at Seventh and New Hampshire streets has been posted as private parking. A few folks, though, remember that the city in 1997 helped pay for that parking lot when Borders was being constructed. The city for its $100,000 in funding got 67 public spaces in the lot as part of its contribution to the project. So, that led to the question of where are those public parking spaces?
The answer: They moved, but they’re still nearby. What some readers have forgotten is that in 2004 the owners of the Borders property came to the city and sought a modification of the parking arrangement. As the Hobbs-Taylor Lofts building was being constructed, the agreement was modified that all 67 public parking spaces would be located on the Hobbs-Taylor property instead of the Borders property. Indeed, there are public parking spaces behind the Hobbs-Taylor loft building and along the north edge of the building. I’m not sure I accurately counted every single space, but there are more than 60 of them, with a mix of metered spaces and long term spaces that require a city parking permit.
So, your days of parking in the Borders parking lot for free really may be numbered. There’s no loophole there that is going allow you to argue to the traffic court that this is really a public lot.
Now, I’ve got to get back to arguing with Google. That’s definitely not the Goose I was talking about.
There’s a new report out that says women in Kansas are getting a raw deal. I know I have heard a sentiment similar to that uttered in my house — sometimes with a bullhorn, which really is a rude thing to do to a fellow who is doing some closed-eye-thinking on the couch. But now there is a study based on a variety of statistical data that ranks Kansas as the 7th Worst State for Women in all of America.
The study is by the financial website 24/7 Wall Street, and, to be honest, I’m not sure the study is a great one. It attempts to tackle a pretty big topic: the overall environment for women, ranging from financial to health care to even the political environment.
So, I think there is plenty of reason to debate whether Kansas is the 7th Worst State in the country for women. Maybe it is, or maybe it isn’t. The study didn’t really convince me.
But some of the data the study used to describe Kansas did catch my attention. The study found — by compiling Census data — that Kansas has the 14th lowest earnings average for female workers when compared with male workers. Women, on average, earn only 77 percent of what men earn. (If you were wondering what that loud noise was, that is what it sounds like when someone in my house yells “Duh” through a bullhorn.)
In other words, that statistic isn’t shocking to some in the population, but it is interesting to note that we do rank nearly in the bottom quarter of the country. A more interesting number, though, is the percentage of management jobs held by women. The study found Kansas has the sixth lowest rate of management jobs held by women. The national average is about 40 percent, while in Kansas it is just over 35 percent.
What’s more, the report says a typical male manager in Kansas earns a median salary of $71,167 per year. The median annual income for a female manager in a similar position is $49,875, according to data the report gathered from the Census Bureau.
I thought it would be interesting to dive a little deeper and look at the pay equity issue at a city level. So, I looked at data from the Census Bureau’s five-year American Community Survey, which provides an estimate for median earnings of full-time, year-round workers by gender for a variety of cities. Here’s what I found:
— Lawrence: $36,865 for women; $45,359 for men. 81 percent of male earnings
— Topeka: $34,014 for women; $41,641 for men. About 82 percent of male earnings
— Olathe: $43,265 for women; $60,410 for men. About 72 percent of male earnings
— Overland Park: $45,426 for women; $67,205 for men. About 68 percent of male earnings
— Wichita: $33,908 for women; $45,288 for men. About 75 percent of male earnings
— Manhattan: $34,711 for women; $42,078 for men. 82 percent of male earnings
— Salina: $30,706 for women; $38,251 for men. 80 percent of male earnings
— Columbia, Mo.: $37,793 for women; $44,731 for men. 84 percent of male earnings
— Boulder, Colo.: $46,965 for women; $62,682 for men. About 75 percent of male earnings
All these numbers can be a bit tricky. You have to factor in that women and men aren’t drawn to the same professions in equal numbers. For instance, there may be more women interested in working in the field of social work than men. That’s a notoriously low-paying industry for both men and women, but if women make up a greater percentage of the social service workforce, it will drag down the overall average for female earnings more than it will for the male average.
The numbers, though, are interesting. The fact that Kansas ranks low compared with other states is worth more thought. It also is interesting to see how larger economies — Olathe, Overland Park, Wichita and Boulder — all have trouble maintaining equity rates. I’m not sure what that means. If I can just get some uninterrupted time to recline on my thinking couch, though, I'll get back to you on that.
Health club buys west Lawrence tennis center; plans advance for tennis expansion at Rock Chalk Park; more on Menards
This is indeed the weekend when many in Lawrence will start to shift their attention from that sport played with the funny shaped ball to one played with a round ball. That’s right. It is time to turn our focus to tennis. What? What were you thinking, and why do you have Beware of the Phog written on your forehead? Maybe you have something else on your mind, but tennis is where some multimillion dollar developments are occurring.
As we reported in July, KU Athletics is working on a deal to build a new 78,000-square-foot tennis center complete with six indoor courts and six outdoor courts at Rock Chalk Park in northwest Lawrence. At the time, KU officials said they weren’t sure what they would do with the university’s existing tennis center at 5200 Clinton Parkway in west Lawrence.
Well, it now looks like Genesis Health Clubs is going to get into the tennis business in Lawrence. The company has bought the Jayhawk Tennis Center and a vacant piece of ground next to the tennis center, according to land transfer filings at the Douglas County Courthouse. I’ve been hearing for weeks that Genesis was working on a deal to purchase the tennis center, and I’ve tried to get folks to talk to me about it. But they’ve avoided my phone calls like John McEnroe avoids pleasantries with a line judge. I’ve got a call into them now that the sale has been completed, so hopefully I’ll hear back and have more information to report.
When I originally heard of the deal, I assumed Genesis was buying the building in order to convert it into a far west Lawrence fitness center. But members at Genesis say they’ve been told the idea is to use the building as a tennis center. Who knows, maybe there also will be a fitness center component to the facility as well, and the vacant land gives the company quite a few options.
If the idea is to maintain it as a tennis center, that could get interesting. KU officials tell me their plans very much include selling public memberships to the new tennis center at Rock Chalk Park. If Genesis does so as well at Clinton Parkway, Lawrence will have two public tennis centers. As I’ve long said, there’s a reason why the inventor of tennis is buried in Lawrence. Am I confused again?
In all seriousness, I am told Lawrence does have a pretty active tennis community. The new facility at Rock Chalk Park certainly could put Lawrence in the running to host some sizable tennis events. Jim Marchiony, an associate athletic director at KU, said the new facility would give the university a chance to host the Big 12 Championships in Lawrence. The last time KU won the right to host the Big 12 meet, it used courts in the Plaza area of Kansas City, Marchiony said.
Marchiony said KU would make the facility available to noncollegiate tennis tournaments and events as well. The new facility could be paired with the eight existing lighted, outdoor tennis courts that are owned by the city and are adjacent to the city’s recreation center at Rock Chalk Park.
KU’s tennis center basically will just be at the other end of the parking lot from those courts. Plans call for the tennis center to be on the southern end of Rock Chalk Park, just south of KU’s soccer field.
In addition to the six indoor courts and six outdoor courts, plans call for the center to have an elevated seating area that can accommodate about 500 spectators in the indoor facility. The center also will have an expanded locker room for the KU women’s tennis team, and a special members lounge and locker room, according to Paul Werner, the Lawrence-based architect designing the project.
The new facility will be a significant upgrade over the current facility at Clinton Parkway. That facility has five indoor courts, limited spectator seating, and spectators often can’t see the play that is happening on all courts.
Marchiony said KU hopes to be able to move into the new center in time for the start of the KU women’s spring 2017 season. Marchiony said KU has struck a deal to continue playing at the Clinton Parkway facility in the interim.
As we previously reported in July, the KU tennis center at Rock Chalk Park will be built using a public-private partnership that is similar to what KU used to build its track and field, soccer and softball facilities at Rock Chalk Park. The tennis facility will be owned by an entity led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel. The Fritzel entity — Bliss Sports — also owns the track and field, soccer and softball facilities, but leases them to KU Athletics, although the Fritzel entity retains some rights to use the facilities for private uses.
The sale of the Clinton Parkway property is reflective of that partnership. KU Athletics — and its related entity Jayhawk Tennis Center LLC — did not directly sell the center to Genesis Health Clubs. Instead KU Athletics sold the property to Fritzel’s Bliss Sports. Bliss Sports later that day then sold the property to Genesis Health Clubs.
Marchiony said KU Athletics made the decision to sell the property to Bliss, and left it to Bliss to decide what it wanted to do with the property. Terms of the deal between Bliss and KU Athletics weren’t disclosed, but Marchiony said it was a fair market transaction.
As for the Rock Chalk tennis center, it already has won a positive recommendation from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission. It now needs to win special use permit approval from the Lawrence City Commission. That appears to be a pretty straightforward approval. There have been no requests for tax incentives or for financial participation from the city, which would complicate the approval process at City Hall. I look for the project to be on the City Commission’s agenda in the next few weeks.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I reported earlier this week that I thought we would get an announcement from Menards soon on the opening date for its new store near 31st and Iowa. I also told you that I had heard from some folks that Oct. 20 was a likely date. Since that report, I have heard from more employees of the store who say they definitely have been told to prepare for an Oct. 21 opening, although there may be some activity of a special nature on Oct. 20 as well. Like I said earlier, we should get an official announcement next week.
Parking questions loom for Here @ Kansas apartment project as high-tech parking company files for bankruptcy, stops work on project
When the previous Lawrence City Commission approved a controversial set of financial incentives for the $75 million Here @ Kansas apartment project near Memorial Stadium, one of the selling points was a high-tech, robotic parking garage that would be a showpiece for the project.
Well, that high-tech garage now appears to be a high-tech problem, which may leave neighbors of the apartment project worried about where everyone is going to park. The manufacturer of the parking garage system, Boomerang Systems Inc., has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In addition, it is suing one of its primary lenders, and in that lawsuit it has confirmed it has had to stop work on the parking system for the Lawrence apartment project, according to a report by the legal website Law360.
Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard told me this morning that the city is aware of the situation and is monitoring it closely. The concern, of course, is how the apartment project will handle parking for its hundreds of tenants if the parking system isn’t available. It is a big question because the project has 237 apartments, or 624 bedrooms. The project at 1101 and 1115 Indiana St. doesn’t have a surface parking lot. All the parking for the apartments was to be provided in a below-ground garage that was specifically designed for the Boomerang system.
“At this point, I know we have touched base with the developers to understand the status of things,” Stoddard said. “I don’t know that we have received a definite answer.”
Jim Heffernan, the lead representative for the project’s development group, said his group is diligently working on finding another provider for the parking garage equipment. He said the project still intends to use an automated parking garage model, but he said it won't wait for Boomerang to sort out its issues.
"We were most surprised to hear about the bankruptcy," Heffernan said. "We are in discussions with other providers."
Heffernan said the unexpected parking problem is not expected to delay the opening of the project. The project is scheduled to open for the start of the 2016-2107 school year at KU.
Stoddard said the technical issues with the parking system don’t relieve the project of meeting its parking requirements.
“The project at this point is obligated to provide that parking,” Stoddard said. “That will be something they will need to determine. If there is any request for a modification to the parking requirements, that would have to go through a process.”
Stoddard said any modification to the parking plan would have to receive City Commission approval.
The Lawrence project isn’t the only one affected by the Boomerang bankruptcy. The company also had to stop work on an automated system for a Here apartment project in Champaign, Ill. The apartment complex has since opened, and Here officials have resorted to renting space in a city-owned parking lot a few blocks away, according to an article in the News-Gazette in Champaign-Urbana. That article also reported that the Champaign project opened with unpainted walls and ceilings, exposed wiring, an unfinished gym and several uncompleted amenities.
Heffernan told me the situation in Champaign is significantly different than what exists in Lawrence. Boomerang filed for bankruptcy the day before it was scheduled to deliver the parking system to the Champaign project.
"They gave us no indication," Heffernan said of the bankruptcy filing. "We were talking with them up until the day before they filed. We were most surprised and disappointed."
Stoddard said the city has not received a request from the development group seeking to use off-site parking for the project.
“I think the ball is in their court on how to propose how they are going to meet the parking requirements,” Stoddard said. “If that is a strategy they want to employ here, they will need to go through the appropriate processes to accomplish that.”
If you remember, the project previously did propose using off-site parking to meet some of its parking needs. The development group tried to cut a deal that would allow students to use nearby Kansas University parking spaces, but the city rejected that proposal after neighbors strongly opposed it. The company also sought to reduce the size of its parking garage fairly late in the development process. Commissioners rejected that plan too, after neighbors said they were growing worried that tenants of the project would end up parking on city streets in the already congested Oread neighborhood.
If the project has to ask for an exemption from the city’s parking code in Lawrence, watch out. The project already has been a political hot potato. The previous City Commission approved, on a 3-2 vote, an 85 percent, 10-year tax rebate for the project. The incentive package created a lot of debate over whether the city should offer incentives to attract an apartment project in a town where lots of apartments are being built without incentives. The three winning candidates in April’s City Commission elections — Leslie Soden, Stuart Boley and Matthew Herbert — all expressed concerns about the incentives package during their campaigns.
There is not a single person on the commission currently who supported the incentives package. If the development group is forced to use off-site parking to meet the parking demands of the project — as is being done in Champaign — it is unclear whether the current City Commission would allow that. It also seems likely that the current commission would have a problem with giving an 85 percent tax rebate to a project that needs an exemption from the city’s parking code.
Soden said she can foresee the commission having a debate about whether the incentives are still appropriate, if the project is unable to deliver on the robotic parking system or fails to provide the number of parking spaces called for in the plan.
“Absolutely the incentives could come into play again,” Soden said.
But based on Heffernan's comments, it may be a moot point. Heffernan expressed confidence in finding another vendor for the project.
If you are thinking that another option is the space dedicated to the robotic parking garage could be developed as a traditional parking garage, that would seem to be difficult. The big advantage to the robotic parking garage system — it uses an elevator and systems of tracks to move vehicles around — is that it can fit more vehicles in less square feet than a traditional garage because it doesn’t need entrance and exit ramps and such.
The plans approved by the city call for about 460 parking spaces.
The city ultimately holds the hammer on this project. The apartment project — and the retail development that is planned for the lower floors — can’t be used until the city issues an occupancy permit, which happens after the city has determined the project has met all city codes.
Another ‘escape room’ business likely to locate in Lawrence; rumors, rumblings and other speculation about an opening date for Menards
Years ago, when my wife suggested I start sleeping in the basement, and then she boarded shut the only exit, I thought we were just having fun. Little did I know that we were missing out on a business trend. Indeed, figuring out how to break out of a locked room is becoming quite the trend in Lawrence.
Last week, we told you about Breakout Lawrence, a new business venture that is in the works. The idea is people pay for the challenge of figuring out how to escape a themed room full of puzzles, quizzes and other mind-bending exercises. Shortly after our article about Breakout Lawrence appeared, I got a call from another group of entrepreneurs who said they also are opening a similar business in Lawrence. This one will be called Locked In.
Shannon Buerger and her daughter Camas House will own the new business. The pair have been negotiating for a second-floor space above a retail shop on Massachusetts Street, but I don’t think that has quite been finalized. So, it remains to be seen where the business will land.
These businesses are becoming a trend not just in Lawrence. They’re called escape rooms, and the idea that started in the Far East is starting to find its way to metro areas across the country. They each work a little differently, but the general concept is that you and a group of friends pay a fee, enter a themed room — everything from a faux motel room to a haunted house — then have to solve a variety of challenges that give you clues that ultimately lead you to discovering a code or a key that will allow you to unlock the room. Generally, you have about an hour to complete the task. If you haven’t, they’ll let you out anyway. (I have found basement rules are a little more strict.)
“I was reading a Time magazine, and there was a short article about an escape room in New York City,” Buerger said. “It talked about how it was such a booming business, and I thought it would be a great thing for Lawrence.”
Buerger said the business hopes to have about 1,200 square feet of space that can accommodate two escape rooms. She said the first one will be built around a zombie apocalypse theme. Much like Breakout Lawrence, she hopes to have the business open by Thanksgiving. (Full Disclosure: I too am opening one of these businesses, but it will be open only on Thanksgiving. It will be called Breakout Elastic Waistband.)
Buerger said Locked In will charge $25 per session. The business hopes to be downtown and have late-night hours that will appeal to the college crowd. But Buerger said the business also will seek to be family friendly. Groups will be limited to eight people, but she said the company will have a policy of not putting strangers in the room together, so some groups may be smaller. She said most of the puzzles and challenges will be geared toward ages 12 and up. (Forget zombies, as the parent of 12-year old boy, I can attest being locked in a room full of them will provide a special type of motivation to escape.)
We’ll keep an eye on how all of this progresses. Both businesses have left some details unsaid here. (Breakout Lawrence also had not finalized a location when I spoke with them.) Both businesses are obviously in a race to capture the public’s attention. It should be fun to watch. I’ll let you know if I see any new details — once I get out of the basement.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If somehow I were to be locked in a room with seven other people for an hour, I would field an hour’s worth of questions about when the Menards store in Lawrence will open. Everybody wants to know, and I wish I had a definitive answer.
I don’t, but I think we all will have one soon. I’ve been told by a Menards official that a press release with details about the opening is set to be issued in the middle of next week. I’ve also been told by others that employees at the store are preparing for an Oct. 20 opening. I’ve gotten no confirmation of that from Menards.
But there are plenty of signs that opening day is near. Lots of delivery trucks are accessing the site. And it is pretty easy to keep track of the progress. Unlike Home Depot next door, a good amount of Menards’ lumber yard is in a covered, outdoor area that is easy to see when you drive by. You can start to see products piling up in that yard.
It will be interesting to watch whether area residents become the recipients of price wars between Menards and Home Depot as the two battle to gain or keep market share in the early stages of this new competition. As I’ve said before, I think it also will be interesting to watch whether Home Depot files plans at City Hall to expand its Lawrence store. Menards is more than twice the size of Lawrence’s Home Depot. Officials with Home Depot previously wanted a larger store in Lawrence, but Home Depot was unsuccessful in the early 2000s in winning city approval for a larger store.
We’ll see how that all plays out. But in the meantime, I think it is a safe bet that we’ll be able to shop at the new Lawrence Menards before Halloween. That’s a scary thought for my credit card indeed.
Downtown retailer celebrates 30th anniversary; update on fun center, office expansion, other construction projects around town
Everyone knows that Massachusetts Street is where the action is in downtown Lawrence. I’ve got the parking tickets, the zombie photos and a headache from all the hemp honking to prove it. But there are retailers that figure out how to exist just off of Massachusetts Street as well, and one of them has hit the rare feat of reaching its 30th anniversary.
Adorned Boutique, the shop at 5 E. Seventh St. that specializes in ethnic jewelry and hand crafts, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month. Is Adorned the longest running retailer — not bar or restaurant — on a downtown side street? I don’t know. I’ve been too busy collating my parking tickets to do the exhaustive research. But the store has to rank high on the list.
For many years the store was named African Adorned, but the store has always been run by the same family.
“My mother was a young traveler and ended up in Nairobi, Kenya,” store owner Alia Sachedina said of her mother, Elizabeth Kurata. “She lived there for 10 years.”
But then she came back to Lawrence, where she previously had lived. And she returned with quite a few items that were made by locals from African villages.
“She started peddling them out of her car and from store to store,” Sachedina said.
From there, the venture became a brick and mortar store, then added a wholesale operation that sold imported goods to other stores across the country. That wholesale business has since closed, and the store changed its named in 2007 to better reflect that it no longer just focused on African goods.
The store carries items from Nepal, Bali, India, Thailand, Mexico, Niger, Mali and others, while also still carrying items from some of the same markets in Nairobi that got the business started.
“I would attribute the success of the business to the kind of collection that we have from all over the world,” Sachedina said. “We know how to find items of very high quality craftsmanship. We’ve worked very hard over the years to develop those relationships.”
For years, the business has best been known for its collection of silver jewelry and semi-precious stones. That’s still a large part of the store, Sachedina said, but the shop also has large lines of textiles, handbags, accessories and other hand-crafted items.
The Lawrence location is the only one for Adorned, and thus far the store has been only a bricks-and-mortar operation. But Sachedina said work is underway to develop a website that will allow the store to begin conducting e-commerce and expand the business’ reach.
“We already get a lot of folks who have lived in Lawrence but moved to other places but they still want to shop with us,” Sachedina said. “They tell us they prefer our shop to the shops in larger cities. That makes us feel really good.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• I reported yesterday on several large projects that have helped Lawrence set a new building record in 2015, and has the city on pace to top $200 million in new construction for the first time. There are also several smaller projects underway or recently completed worthy of an update. Here’s a look at a few, and on some of these I’ll work to get additional information for a more complete update in the near future.
— Back in May I reported that a new indoor family fun center — complete with laser tag and a video arcade — was set to open in July in the former Family Dollar space in The Malls Shopping Center at 23rd and Louisiana streets. Well, July came and went, the center was not open, and I resorted to wielding my laser pointer on unsuspecting pedestrians in the shopping center. But fear not, my laser pointer has somehow become broken, and there are signs that the fun center is indeed still moving forward. The business has been issued a commercial building permit. No word yet on when the business may open.
— Construction work was underway at the Walgreens at 23rd and Louisiana. You may have noticed what looked like the construction of an exam room, but that’s not a sign that the drugstore is adding a medical clinic similar to what Walgreens has at its west Lawrence store or what CVS has at its 23rd and Iowa store. Instead, Walgreen added a small clinical room to provide some privacy for flu shot, immunizations and other such services the store offers. One item to note, though, with the 23rd Street Walgreens is that there has been a change in hours for the store. The location is no longer open 24 hours but rather is open from 7 a.m. to midnight.
— We reported this summer that Lawrence-based Pennington & Company — a large fundraising company for fraternities, sororities and and other nonprofits across the country — was expanding into a new office building at 501 Gateway Drive. That project is moving forward. The company received a building permit for $75,000 worth of renovation work to convert the building into new offices. We previously reported the company is getting the new office space to accommodate employee growth. The company was expected to have 80 employees this year, up from about 45 five years ago.
– A building permit has been issued for a unique office building in west Lawrence. A permit for about $670,000 worth of construction has been issued for the site at 4205 W. Sixth St. That is property that is across the street and a bit west of the Sixth Street Hy-Vee shopping center. Planning documents label the project the Summer Tree Office building. What caught my eye about it, though, is that it using a concept in west Lawrence that has become popular in downtown. The building will have a second story, and will include three living units above the office space. I’ll do some more checking on this one and see if the units are being marketed as work-live type of spaces or some other sort of concept.
City breaks record for most construction projects in a year; senior living community breaks ground on $12 million campus
It is now official: Lawrence’s construction industry has had a record-breaking year, and the city is on pace in 2015 to issue building permits for more than $200 million worth of construction for the first time in its history.
The latest building report shows Lawrence City Hall has issued permits for $187.8 million worth of construction. That’s better than the old record of $171.9 million set in 2013. This latest report tracks building activity through August, so Lawrence still has four more months to add to its record-setting total.
My abacus tells me that Lawrence needs only about $13 million of additional construction to get to the $200 million mark. That’s $3.25 million a month, and, thus far in 2015, every single month has produced that level of construction, and most of the time much more. So, absent a significant slowdown to close the year, Lawrence is going to reach a new stratosphere in the construction world.
In August, construction of another retirement community helped push the city over the mark. As we previously reported, Missouri-based Americare is building a new assisted living facility at Peterson and Monterey Way. That construction is now underway. The company pulled permits for $12.5 million worth of construction, including a 16-unit assisted living center, a 30-unit multifamily, independent living center, two triplexes, four duplexes, eight carports and a clubhouse. The Americare project was the largest new building project of the month. Americare officials previously have told us they hope to have the project open about this time next year.
Single-family home construction also has helped add to the party. As we previously have reported, home sales in Lawrence recently experienced their sixth straight month of increases. Home builders are responding by picking up the pace of new construction, although new home construction is still not what I would consider booming. But, the city issued 18 permits for single family homes and duplexes in August. That’s the best August total in at least six years.
Year-to-date single-family and duplex construction is having its best year in recent memory. The city has issued 170 permits through August. That’s up from 66 at this point last year. The 170 permits are also well above the the five-year average of 87 permits.
Apartment construction also is having its best year in quite a while. The city has issued permits for 467 living units of apartments. That’s the highest total since 2008.
A pair of apartment projects indeed have been the biggest difference makers in Lawrence’s record-setting year. The Here @ Kansas project — the multistory apartment and retail building across from KU’s Memorial Stadium — has been the largest project of the year at $45 million. The multistory apartment and office building under construction at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets is No. 2 at $18.7 million.
In total, the city has had 14 projects that have come in at $1 million or more. Here’s a look:
— Here @ Kansas apartment/retail building: $45 million
— 100 E. Ninth St. apartment/office building: $18.7 million
— Wakarusa River wastewater treatment plant: $13.3 million
— Americare Assisted Living Campus: $12.5 million
— Pioneer Ridge Independent Living: $12 million
— Wakarusa wastewater pump station: $7.5 million
— Hutton Farms residential development: $6.2 million
— LMH fourth-floor renovation: $3.8 million
— Single-family home 116 N. Wilderness Way: $2.7 million
— Phi Delta Theta renovation: $2.6 million
— Phi Gamma Delta addition: $2 million
— Kansas River wastewater treatment plant addition: $1.9 million
— Peaslee Technical Career Center renovation: $1 million
— Single-family home 3642 Buck Brush Court: $1 million
The list is kind of interesting to analyze. It shows major activity on two fronts: construction geared toward the young and construction geared toward the old. As you may expect in a university town, construction geared toward the young — the Here project and the greek house expansions add up to about $50 million — is in the lead. But it is interesting to note that Lawrence has about $25 million worth of construction work underway related to senior living.
And don’t forget about the sewer plant improvements. Sewer plant improvements are now at about $23 million. (Coincidentally, that is about equal to the amount of senior living construction underway. At least I think it is a coincidence. Or maybe it is in response to aging prostates. I don’t know.)
One other thing to keep in mind is that the building permit totals don’t fully reflect all of the construction that has been going on in Lawrence. As we have noted, the millions of dollars worth of school district renovations have not received a building permit, and thus don’t show up in these construction totals. Future projects will, though. Plus, as has long been the case, KU projects also don’t show up in the totals. KU projects go through the state-approved building process. So, the millions of dollars in dormitory work and construction of the new business school building aren’t included. Roadwork also isn’t included in any totals, but the South Lawrence Trafficway construction is one of the largest construction projects ever undertaken in the city. That is approximately $130 million worth of construction.
I’ve always considered 1996 to be the biggest building year in the 25 years or so that I’ve covered Lawrence’s construction scene. That was the year when we built 972 new apartment units in town, 338 new single-family homes and 122 new duplexes. It is interesting to note how much more reliant that building boom was on residential construction.
In total, there was $167 million worth of new construction that took place in 1996. (I spent most of the year wearing my neon orange blazer just so I felt like I could fit in with the crowd of construction workers wearing their orange safety vests. It was marvelous, until I started dating my future wife and the blazer somehow got lost.)
The 1996 total of $167 million, when adjusted for inflation, would be about $253 million in today’s dollars. So, we’ll see what the rest of the year brings in terms of new construction projects. You certainly could make the case that this year may be the best construction year ever for Lawrence.
I know I’m certainly going to look for the blazer.
Local businessman files plans to open indoor firing range, gun shop; questions about when police headquarters debate will start again; signs an eco devo deal may be brewing
Gun enthusiasts in Lawrence may have a new reason to get excited in the near future. A longtime Lawrence businessman is working on plans to open an indoor firing range and gun shop.
Rick Sells, the former owner of Lawrence Athletic Club, has filed plans at City Hall for a new gun business to be located in an industrial building near the new intersection of 31st and Haskell.
The deal isn’t done yet, and Sells declined to discuss his plans, but he’s filed paperwork with the planning department seeking a zoning change that would accommodate the business. Plans call for the business to be located at 1021 E. 31st St., although my understanding is he’s also evaluating another location in town for the business.
According to the details provided in the plan, the “Shooters Gun Club” would provide an indoor shooting range, gun sales and a repair shop. Sells is seeking to go into a vacant industrial building, but its current general industrial zoning doesn’t allow for retail gun sales. He and the building’s owner are seeking rezoning to a lesser industrial zoning that would allow for retail gun sales.
Gun sales certainly have been big business in the U.S. economy the last few years. The trend has started to come to Lawrence. As we previously reported, a new gun shop and “tactical supply store,” opened in west Lawrence in late 2013. A gun shop and supply retailers also has opened on Kansas Highway 10 near Eudora’s Church Street interchange.
But the idea of a business with an indoor shooting range is new in Lawrence. The idea of a firing range open to the public is not. The city of Lawrence actually owns one. It is in the basement of the Community Building at 11th and Vermont streets. The nonprofit Douglas County Rifle/Pistol Club operates the range. It generally is open Monday through Friday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The range — I’ve shot there once — does give you a chance to practice, but it is limited in what it can offer. It has five shooting stations, and is limited to target shooting of no greater than 50 feet. Sells didn’t provide any details of what he hopes his range will include, but I’m assuming it will be more substantial than what the city currently has to offer.
It will be interesting to see if the range will be designed to accommodate some of the needs of the Lawrence Police Department. An indoor firing range was part of the approximately $25 million police headquarters plan that ultimately was rejected by voters. In his application, Sells alludes to the police needs. “The community would gain a safe, confined shooting range for local police, fire and military people to maintain their gun training requirements,” he wrote in the application materials.
The project will have to win several approvals to proceed at the 31st and Haskell location. The project will need to go before both the Planning Commission and City Commission. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, it is possible that Sells may pursue the business at another location. I’ll let you know of any updates.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Speaking of a new police headquarters, how many of you had forgotten about that project? When you talk about collateral damage from Jeremy Farmer’s alleged misdeeds at Just Food, the police project ranks high on the list of those that have been hurt.
Following the November election where voters rejected the sales tax proposal for the police HQ plan, all the talk in City Hall was about how the commission was going to regroup and find another path forward on that project.
Fast forward to today, and it has been quite awhile since the commission has even had a significant discussion about the project. Granted, the commission has plenty of other items to talk about: the search for a new city manager, and Farmer’s bombshell. So, it is understandable why the issue hasn’t moved forward in recent weeks.
But it also is noteworthy that the project hasn’t gotten much discussion as part of the vacancy process. In other words, there hasn’t been a lot of focus on what views the candidates have on the police headquarters issues. But the new commissioner certainly could have a large impact on the issue. (UPDATE: I've been reminded that there was one question about police headquarters during the VEC forum for candidates. So, there has been some discussion, although perhaps not real detailed discussion.)
From where I sat, it appeared the commission was pretty split on the police issue when it was last discussed. All seem to agree that the department has some real needs, but how to address those appears to have divided the commission. I think there are two commissioners — Mike Amyx and Matthew Herbert — who want to stay focused on facility needs related to the police department. I think the remaining two commissioners — Stuart Boley and Leslie Soden — want to take a broader look at the police department as a whole. That would include facility, personnel and other issues. That broader look likely would be more time consuming and may create more resource challenges.
Between now and Tuesday’s meeting, we will try to report on what views the finalists — Lisa Larsen and Scott Morgan — have on the issue.
But the larger question may be whether this new commission decides to tackle the issue anytime soon. Finding a city manager will take some time. Is the police headquarters issue next on the list after that? I had one respected City Hall observer tell me shortly after the Farmer resignation that the police headquarters issue would be a moot at City Hall for two to three years. I wasn’t sure I believed that at the time, but he may end up being right after all.
• It might be time for us to keep our eyes open again on a possible economic development announcement. City commissioners have an unusual executive session scheduled for Tuesday evening’s meeting. They’ll meet in a closed-door session to “discuss confidential data relating to the financial affairs or trade secrets of a corporation.” That explanation doesn’t do much to explain why the City Commission would be discussing such matters, but one assumption is because they are learning about a company that they may want to offer financial incentives to.
I don’t have any direct knowledge of what commissioners will be discussing on Tuesday, but we previously have reported that they are working to land a major new tenant for Lawrence VenturePark, the new industrial park on the eastern edge of the city. Perhaps this is a sign that deal is getting closer.
I know many folks are hoping the VenturePark deal materializes. We’ve previously reported a VenturePark site was on the “short list” for a manufacturing company that would employ about 125 people over the next five years, and invest about $20 million into the site. That has been the status of that project since late 2014, however.
I’ll keep you posted if I hear of any new developments.
Lawrence home sales rise for sixth consecutive month; update on housing values; more on Free State Festival funding
The stock market has been lousy for the last few months, so maybe Lawrence residents are putting their money into real estate. New homes with cry rooms, so you can read your 401(k) statements, perhaps are the rage. Whatever the case, Lawrence’s home buying market remains hot.
Home sales are up 18.5 percent for the year, according to the latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors. The latest report tracked sales in August, and they were up nearly 18 percent from August 2014. That marked the sixth straight month of increasing home sales in Lawrence.
The market is hot enough that some real estate agents now have concerns about having enough homes to sell. The report shows the number of contracts written in August was down about 15 percent. That’s an indication that home sale numbers may fall in future months.
The number of active listings on the market fell to 322, down about 22 percent from levels a year ago. Crystal Swearingen, president of the local board of Realtors, said the declining inventory levels are putting pressure on the market.
“Inventory levels continue to be a concern and may very well be the lone reason for a decrease in the number of contracts written during August,” she said in the report.
The low inventory levels, though, have been a boon to home sellers. Homes are not staying on the market long. The median number of days a home is on the market is down to 23. That’s down from 34 a year ago and 42 days in 2013.
Swearingen said current inventory levels also will start producing upward pressure on prices. Pricing issues are more difficult to gauge from the board’s report because it only looks at overall pricing trends rather than a comparison of prices for similar homes. The overall pricing trend shows the median selling price is about $166,000, which is up about 1.5 percent from a year ago, but is still below the $170,000 median in 2013.
The August report also continues to show that sales of newly constructed homes are bouncing back somewhat in 2015. In August, 11 newly constructed homes were sold, up from nine in August 2014. For the year-to-date, newly constructed home sales are up to 57 sales, an increase of about 21 percent from the same time period a year ago. But new home sales continue to lag 2013’s pace by about 20 percent.
In other news and notes from around town:
• When it comes to tracking the price of homes in Lawrence, nobody does it more often than the Douglas County Appraiser’s office, the government agency responsible for setting a property tax value on your home.
The latest report from that office indicates homes prices are up just a bit in Lawrence and Douglas County. Through late August, the appraiser’s office has reviewed 870 home sales. The average price is up 1.8 percent compared with last year.
While that is not a huge gain, it is a turnaround of sorts for the market. At this point in 2014, the average selling price was down by about 1 percent.
The numbers from the appraiser’s office are always good to watch because that data is used to determine the tax value of your home. It is too early to guess whether home owners will see their property tax values rise much for the coming year. One number to watch is a measurement called the “median sales ratio.” (I know, it brings back memories of a back row of a high school math class.) The ratio measures how much a home sold for versus how much the county appraiser had it valued. The ratio currently stands at 96.7 percent. That means the value that the appraiser has on a piece of property is, on average, about 3 percent lower than what the property actually sold for.
When that ratio starts to get too low, that’s generally when the appraiser starts raising the tax values on homes. The goal is for the ratio to be 100 percent. At 96.7 percent, that’s still pretty close, although people who play horseshoes with me tell me my definition of close is flawed.
We still have a ways to go before we learn of any changes to the tax values of properties. Change of value notices will be sent out in early 2016.
• You will have to make of this one whatever you will. I had a reader ask me to check on whether the wife of City Commissioner Matthew Herbert works at the Lawrence Arts Center. Herbert told me she does, but only two hours a week as an instructor in a jewelry-making class.
The issue came up after the City Commission was fairly sharply divided last month over whether to provide $100,000 in funding to the Arts Center for the upcoming Free State Festival. Commissioners ended up giving the group $60,000, after the four-members of the commission couldn’t reach a consensus on the $100,000 request. Herbert advocated for the $100,000 request.
The issue will kind of come back up again tonight. Commissioners will be interviewing the six finalists to fill the vacant seat on the City Commission. Each commissioner gets to ask two questions of the candidates. They disclose their questions in advance. Herbert is using one of his two questions to ask candidates how they would have voted on this $100,000 issue.
The money is not much in the city’s overall budget — it also is worth noting the money would come from the city’s guest tax fund that is charged to hotel users, rather than from a general tax fund — but the issue has been contentious.
Following the meeting where commissioners failed to fund the $100,000 request, Herbert took to his Twitter account and said “Tonight was a sad night for Free State Fest. I never thought the Lawrence CC would wage war on Culture.”
I’m pretty sure the two commissioners who opposed the $100,000 request — but supported $60,000 in funding — didn’t think they were waging a war on culture. (They are Commissioners Stuart Boley and Leslie Soden, for the record.)
Herbert’s comments and his questioning tonight may open up a debate worth having at City Hall: What’s the right amount of funding for the arts in Lawrence? The city in recent years has made a push to fund more with the hiring of a new director of arts and culture position. The arts community also has been a strong advocate for greater arts funding, often noting the arts have positive spin-off benefits for the economy.
Whether the general public wants to see more arts funding is less clear. As part of its Citizen Survey, the city this year asked residents what three priorities they think the city should spend money on as part of its Capital Improvement Plan. The category of “support for arts and culture” was included as a top three priority by only 29 percent of respondents. That was the lowest score of the six priorities listed by the city. That is just one answer, though. Maintaining a high quality of life also scored high in the survey, and certainly the arts can play into quality of life issues.
So, like I said, it is unclear. But it seems like it is a debate that may be shaping up at City Hall.
As for the issue of Herbert’s wife working for the Arts Center, I think it is worth noting, but also worth keeping in perspective. It is two hours a week. It also is worth noting that Herbert hasn’t tried to conceal the fact that his wife is a full-time artist. That was known throughout the campaign, and he has mentioned it otherwise during his tenure on the commission. In a town the size of Lawrence, it is not uncommon for commissioners to have to vote on items that they have some tangential connection to. Downtown business owners, for example, vote on downtown items all the time. In the past, we have noted those connections, and moved on.
Consider this one now noted.
West Lawrence lands corporate headquarters for financial services firm; Lawrence, other Kansas cities mediocre in new economic ranking
A financial services firm with offices in Johnson County and Topeka is moving its corporate headquarters to Lawrence, and will be bringing about 20 jobs in the process.
DM Bruce Associates has completed a deal to buy a west Lawrence office building at 4911 Legends Drive to house its financial advisers, planners and administrative staff who provide financial planning services for families and small businesses across the country. The company plans to have 18 jobs in Lawrence when it opens later this year.
“Running two locations was quite the operation for us,” said Zach Stover, vice president of operations for the company. “There are a lot of things we feel like we can be more efficient at by consolidating. Lawrence is the halfway point, and it just made a lot of sense for us to make the move.”
The company is locating in the building that formerly was occupied by Harris Computer Systems. Stover said the approximately 6,500 square foot building was purchased with longterm plans in mind.
“I still feel like we have a lot of potential to grow,” Stover said. “We take on and launch new financial advisers when we see the opportunity. It is a nice piece of land, and we could build additional space if we need to down the line.”
Marilyn Bittenbender of Lawrence’s Colliers International brokered the sale of the building.
Stover said he hopes the company will be operating in the Lawrence office by December. The company plans to keep satellite offices open in Topeka and Overland Park.
The company has been in operation in one form or another since 1974, Stover said. The company provides services in investment management, insurance consulting, financial planning, and also has a company that provides consulting services to other, independent financial advisers, according to the company’s website.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I have more news from our friends at WalletHub, the financial website that as we reported yesterday ranked Kansas as the 9th best state in the country for teachers. This time, the company is ranking cities with the fastest growing economies. Despite all our teachers rolling in the dough, Lawrence didn’t fare that well. (Teachers, I jest. I would have thought six years of high school would have taught me that my humor is often lost on the education profession.)
Lawrence’s economy ranked No. 317 out of 515 communities that were studied.
The study looked at factors such as population growth, growth of working-age population, poverty rates, median household income growth rates; unemployment rates, job growth, the ratio of full-time to part-time jobs, growth in the number of business establishments, and median home prices. The report used data from the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Unfortunately, the report didn’t provide all the underlying statistics for each community, so I can’t tell you how Lawrence fared in each category.
But I can tell you how Lawrence did in comparison to other communities that we often track. Lawrence finished No. 118 out of the 211 small cities with populations of less than 100,000 people. Here is a look at how some regional cities did in the overall list of 515 cities:
— Columbia, Mo.: No. 32
— Lubbock, Texas: No 65
— Oklahoma City: No. 93
— Norman, Okla.: No. 103
— Boulder, Colo.: No. 123
— Iowa City: No. 165
— Lincoln, Neb.: No. 194
— Springfield Mo. : No. 238
— St. Joseph, Mo.: No. 243
— Olathe: No. 250
— Kansas City, Mo.: No. 255
— Wichita: No. 268
— Lawrence: No. 317
— Independence, Mo.: No. 321
— Des Moines, Iowa: No. 324
— Kansas City, Kan. : No. 342
— Overland Park: No. 363
— Topeka, No. 392
— St. Louis: No. 490
So, Lawrence wasn’t alone among Kansas cities that didn’t fare great in the rankings. Only one Kansas community — Olathe — finished in the top half of the rankings, and that wasn’t by much. One thing we have going against us, it appears, is we didn’t strike a lot of oil. Texas communities, which were booming as a result of a strong oil and gas economy, took nine of the top 10 spots. If the rankings were done on the current conditions, it likely would look much different as the oil industry is much weaker today.
I’ll throw in this reminder, as I often do with WalletHub studies: You have to figure out what you want to make of these. The ranking process is clearly subjective. The rankings are determined by how much weight you want to give any one statistic, and which statistics you want to look at to begin with. But I like passing along reports like this one because they are based on valid government statistics that are worth paying attention to.
Now, are the rankings a matter of debate? They appear to be, given some of the feedback I’ve gotten from teachers today who are not sure Kansas is the ninth best state in the U.S. for teachers. I had one invite me to a school lunch today to see firsthand how good teachers have it. I told her I may indeed come. Caviar and prime rib sounds good today.
All these years later, and they still don’t find me funny.
City set to approve 120-foot cell phone tower in eastern Lawrence; study finds Kansas among the top states in U.S. for teachers
Well, we have all heard about the dangers of talking on our cell phones while driving. Or about texting while driving. But for some reason, there is one cell phone-related driving danger that rarely ever gets discussed — a cell phone tower falling in front of your car. Fear not, Lawrence city commissioners will tackle that one tonight.
Commissioners will consider giving final approval for Verizon to build a 120-foot tall tower at 2001 Moodie Road, which is the site of the Ottawa Coop grain elevators. Commissioners gave the plans preliminary approval in July, but at that time asked Verizon to make a few changes to the exact location of the tower.
Commissioners at the time wanted to change the location of the tower to provide greater distance between the tower and a nearby building. Changes were made, but Verizon hasn’t been able to come up with a location that meets all the standard requirements for towers in the city.
Plans for towers are required to show where a tower would land in the unlikely event that a tower collapses. Standard city regulations call for the “fall zone” of a tower to be contained on the property where the tower is located. That’s not the case with these plans. The city’s planning staff has calculated that the fall zone for the proposed tower would extend five feet into the southbound lane of Moodie Road.
The issue, however, may not play much of a role in whether the tower wins approval. The city’s planning department, in a memo to commissioners, said “the risk of the tower falling into the southbound driving lane is very small in staff’s opinion.” The city can issue a waiver from the standard requirements, and that is staff’s recommendation on this project.
The Brook Creek Neighborhood Association also is recommending approval of the project. It likes this site much better than the previously proposed site at 1725 Bullene Avenue. City commissioners rejected that site after multiple concerns were expressed that the tower would be too near homes. Verizon has sued the city in federal court over that denial, but it is expected that case will be dropped if this location is approved.
So, while the chances of a cell phone tower falling in front of your car while driving are rare, I felt I should at least make you aware of the situation so you can have a plan. I know what my plan is: I’ll slow down to 45 mph and immediately take a picture and text “OMG!” and “WTF!” (which of course stands for “Why Tower Fall”) to everyone I know.
Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. tonight at City Hall.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There has to be a lot of teachers in Lawrence — the education capital of Kansas — feeling mighty good these days. After all, Kansas is one of the better places in the country to be a teacher. Maybe you have been too busy watching cell towers to notice, but Kansas has been ranked the 9th best state in the country for teachers, according to a new study by the financial website WalletHub.
The website looked at a variety of factors to compile their rankings. Here’s where Kansas ranked on the various metrics:
— 16th for average starting salary for teachers
— 25th for median annual salary for teachers
— 27th for the projected number of teachers per student by year 2020
— 11th for unemployment rate
— 17th for the 10-year change in teacher salaries
— 3rd for pupil to teacher ratio. The study found that only Vermont and North Dakota have better pupil-to-teacher ratios than Kansas.
The website used data from the Census Bureau, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Education Association, the National Center for Educational Statistics, among others to compile its findings.
Kansas fared better than any other state in middle America. Here’s a look at how others around the region performed:
— Nebraska: 18
— Missouri: 24
— Colorado: 28
— Oklahoma: 41
The latest study continues a trend – at least from WalletHub — of good marks for the state’s school system. Earlier this year, WalletHub ranked the state’s school system as the 12th best in the country. The website examined a host of federal statistics on test scores, pupil-to-teacher ratios, incidents of violence, dropout rates and other metrics. Kansas was the second ranked state in middle America in that study. Colorado beat Kansas by finishing as the No. 2 ranked system in the country. Other border states were Nebraska, 17th; Missouri, 28th; Oklahoma, 33rd.
See who the leaders are in the Journal-World poll of the six finalists for the vacant Lawrence City Commission seat
When it comes to filling the vacant seat on the Lawrence City Commission, a pair of past elected officials seem to have captured the attention of Lawrence residents, according to a new poll of 1,000 registered voters in the city.
Former City Commissioner Terry Riordan and former school board member Scott Morgan were the two candidates who received the most support in the poll, which was conducted by the Journal-World through Google Consumer Surveys. The poll isn’t an exact scientific sample of all of Lawrence’s population, but scientific sampling was done to collect the results. Margins of error for the individual results range from about 1.6 percent to 2.9 percent, and Google Consumer Surveys has certified the results as being statistically significant to a 95 percent confidence level, meaning if the poll was conducted 100 times, Riordan would come out on top 95 times.
Now, none of this means that Riordan and Morgan are the two front runners for the position. That’s because there won’t be a public election to fill the seat. Instead, the four remaining city commissioners will vote on their favorite candidates at the commission’s Oct. 6 meeting. In case you have forgotten, commissioners are filling the seat left vacant by Jeremy Farmer, who resigned after a host of financial concerns developed around his previous tenure as executive director of Just Food.
Despite the fact voters won’t be deciding this, the Journal-World thought it would be an interesting exercise to poll registered voters on their thoughts nonetheless. Here’s what we found when we asked 1,031 registered voters the following question: “The Lawrence City Commission has named six finalists to replace Jeremy Farmer on the commission. Who would be your choice?”
— Terry Riordan: 32.3 percent
— Scott Morgan: 27.6 percent
— Lisa Ann Larsen: 19.3 percent
— Joe O’Brien: 7.7 percent
— David Schauner: 7.3 percent
— Karl Watson: 5.8 percent
It is tough to say what these poll results mean at the moment. It could be that respondents have made some decisions based off the issues, or it could be more of a name-recognition factor at this point. Riordan and Morgan are the two finalists who have been in the news most often most recently.
Riordan finished a two-year term on the commission in April, but lost a re-election bid. He finished a distant fourth among six candidates in the general election. Morgan was on the school board as recently as 2011, and he ran for Kansas secretary of state in 2014. But he lost in the Republican primary to Kris Kobach.
Being a former elected official didn’t guarantee success in the poll. David Schauner served on the City Commission from 2003 to 2007, but he finished fifth in the poll and registered in the single digits. Though, if these results were mainly about name recognition, he probably has less of it because it has been awhile since his name has been in the news on a regular basis.
Riordan’s candidacy has been an interesting one to follow. There have been a significant number of supporters who say he should get the appointment because he finished fourth in the most recent election. Supporters say since the top three in that election won a seat on the commission, Riordan is rightfully next in line. I have heard opponents, however, say Riordan shouldn’t be selected because voters had the chance to elect him in April and chose not to do so.
Both positions seem a bit unfair to me. When people vote for somebody, they are choosing from a slate of candidates. Unless the slate of candidates is exactly the same, it doesn’t seem too relevant what the results of the last election were. You start the process over and determine who is best among those on the ballot now. Just because you lost an election a few months ago doesn’t mean you aren’t the best choice out of today’s slate. Conversely, just because you were runner-up a few months ago doesn’t mean you are the best among those who now are vying for the spot.
I’ll be interested to see if public opinion changes as the candidates are asked to explain their positions more thoroughly. J-W City Hall reporter Nikki Wentling will have a more in-depth look at each of the candidates in tomorrow’s Journal-World and on LJWorld.com. City commissioners at a special meeting on Thursday will interview their list of finalists, which may include all six candidates, or commissioners can choose to narrow the list prior to the interviews. On Oct. 6, commissioners will vote to fill the vacant term, which runs until January 2018.
I like numbers, so I suspect we’ll do another poll to see if people’s opinions change any as they learn more.
• Some of you may be interested in how we conducted this poll. Users of LJWorld and KUsports.com are familiar with the survey questions that sometimes pop up before you gain access to an article on the websites. Those are surveys run by Google Consumer Surveys, and, as a partners, we here at the J-W have the ability to create our own local surveys.
I know what some of you are thinking: You just click a name as quickly as you can to get done with the survey and on to the article. But it is pretty clear that these results are more significant than that. The reason I say so is because the list of six candidates did not appear in the same order for every person who took the survey. The list was randomized, so if people were just clicking on a random name, it doesn’t seem that Riordan and Morgan would have gotten the response levels they did.
Plus, if people really were just trying to get done with the survey, they probably were smart enough to answer ‘no’ to the first question that was asked, which was inquiring whether you are a registered voter in Lawrence. If you answered no, you weren’t asked the second question. About 3,000 people answered ‘no’ to that question. But a little more than 1,000 people answered ‘yes,’ and the responses from those people produced these survey results.
Bottom line, I think this is a far more accurate way of polling people than what the Journal-World has done in the past. Previously, we used to have online polls where anybody and everybody could vote and state their opinion. It was possible for people to vote more than once, and it was possible for people to call their friends and tell them to vote too.
The Google Consumer Surveys don’t work that way. You either get presented the question when you log onto our websites, or you don’t. In other words, the survey selects you. You don’t select the survey.
Mechanisms also are in place so that multiple votes from the same computer IP address aren’t allowed. Google’s technology also does its best to find a representative sample of respondents. It is no surprise that Google knows a lot about you based on your web searching history. It uses that information and the location of your IP address to “infer” a lot of demographic information about you. Those inferred demographics are used to try to create a representative sample.
The responses from this survey, though, did not produce what we would consider a fully representative sample. We had some success in the age category in terms of age ranges, but the survey was more heavily-weighted toward male respondents than the population as a whole would have been.
So, make whatever you want of the results, but the idea of locally produced surveys on Lawrence issues has piqued my interest. We may make a regular feature out of it. Would readers be interested in getting feedback on how people feel about a “road diet” for portions of Kasold Drive? Or whether people think the City Commission should approve a proposed retail development south of the South Lawrence Trafficway? Or maybe thoughts on Kris Kobach and his voter registration policies? The list of interesting survey questions is long.
I certainly don’t want to help create a community where all decisions are made based off of whatever is polling well. Polls are imperfect, and even when they are accurate, the general public can make some awful decisions. (See 1980s hairstyles, excluding my mullet, of course.) But getting more information about how Lawrence residents are thinking seems valuable.
So, keep your eyes open — and your clicking finger limber — for more local surveys.
Popular Breakout KC business to locate in Lawrence; city commissioners face questions on Eldridge Hotel tax break
You are in a locked room. You must solve riddles, complete mind-bending tasks and battle the forces of evil to receive a four-digit code that allows you to unlock the door and get to freedom. Yes, it does sound like how I must pick up my dirty laundry and empty the trash before I’m allowed to go outside and play on a Saturday. But this is different. This is one of Kansas City’s hottest entertainment trends, and a local entrepreneur soon will be bringing the business to Lawrence.
There is a five-month old entertainment business in Kansas City called Breakout KC that is getting a lot of buzz. Groups of up to eight pay for a unique adventure. Group members are put into a themed room — everything from a eerie hotel room to a 1940s Harry Truman-era scene full of espionage. While in the room, group members have 60 minutes to complete a series of tasks, puzzles, quizzes and other high-pressure scenarios. If the tasks are completed correctly and in time, the players will discover a four-digit code that will unlock the door, and allow you to brag forever about your superior intelligence, daring and future career as James Bond. (I will start that career any day now, but there is a certain amount of martini training that must be done.)
“People describe it as a video game but in real life,” said Matt Baysinger, one of the owners of the business. “It is like they feel like they are in the 'Bourne Identity' or something like that.”
If you are a super-spy, you’ve already figured out that Breakout KC — which is in the River Market District of downtown — has a strong Lawrence connection. Baysinger is one of the owners of Lawrence-based Mass Street Soda. Baysinger tells me the company hopes to have a Breakout Lawrence business open by Thanksgiving.
Baysinger isn’t yet announcing a location for the business. He’s still working through some zoning code issues with the city of Lawrence, and he hopes to reveal the location through a big citywide scavenger hunt. Baysinger said the business is close to signing a deal for about a 2,000 square-foot facility.
Breakout KC opened in April but has gotten a lot of buzz in a short time. Pretty much all the media outlets in KC have featured the unique business, and it has been ranked a top entertainment destination in Kansas City by Yelp, Trip Advisor and other sites.
Baysinger said he and his business partners — fellow KU grads Lucas Thompson and Ryan Henrich — think the breakout concept will be a popular addition to Lawrence’s entertainment scene. The trio expects Breakout Lawrence to be a hit with college students who are looking for something new to do on the nighttime scene. But in Kansas City, the business also has been popular with families. Baysinger said he thinks more and more people are looking for entertainment options that allow them to participate rather than just watch.
“At the end of the day, it gives you a better story to tell,” Baysinger said. “We see families or groups come in, and when they are done, we’ll notice that they walk all the way to their cars, and they are so busy talking they don’t even look at their phones to see what call or text they missed over the last hour. It is real entertainment. It is not passive entertainment.”
Plans call for Breakout Lawrence to charge $28 per person for the one-hour adventure. Baysinger is promising a challenge. He said only about 30 percent of participants actually have successfully cracked the code at the Kansas City facility. The record for someone cracking the code is about 40 minutes.
Baysinger said he got the idea for the breakout concept after going to a similar business in Nashville about two years ago. The breakout businesses have been in the U.S. for about four years. The concept got started in East Asia about eight years ago. (I guess they are not counting my dirty laundry missions because I’ve been working to break out of that chore for more than a decade.)
“We think Lawrence is going to be a perfect place for it,” Baysinger said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Some Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday will have some puzzle solving to do of their own on Tuesday.
As we previously reported, the commission has a decision to make on whether it wants to follow through on an incentive package for the Eldridge Hotel expansion. At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners are being asked to approve the ordinance that authorizes the issuance of $12.5 million in industrial revenue bonds for the the Eldridge project. The industrial revenue bonds will allow the project to receive an exemption from paying sales taxes on construction materials for the project. That’s estimated to produce about $460,000 in savings for the Lawrence-based development group that is undertaking the expansion.
Normally, such an ordinance is a mere formality at this point. That’s because the key vote is usually when the commission passes a “resolution of intent” to issue industrial revenue bonds. But the twist here is that it was the previous City Commission that issued the resolution of intent. This City Commission and that City Commission have some pretty dramatically different views on the use of tax incentives.
That’s where we get to the puzzle. Three of the four current city commissioners expressed concerns about tax incentives for hotel and apartment projects. Some even specifically criticized The Eldridge incentives during the campaign. But at the same time, no commissioner wants to be accused of being business-unfriendly. That charge certainly will be leveled if the commission decides to back away from this incentive at this point. Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard alluded to that in her memo to commissioners.
“Staff strongly recommends approval of this item,” Stoddard wrote. “Denial of this step would send a negative signal related to economic development projects as developers utilize the resolution of intent as a strong indication of support to proceed with the finalization of the required steps.”
The question here is whether commissioners would be unfair in backing away from the previous commission’s action. The question is not whether commissioners have the ability to back away from the action. The resolution of intent includes some pretty clear language that the IRB deal is not a done deal until the next commission approves it.
Under a section titled “No Reliance on Resolution,” the resolution reads: “This resolution only evidences the intent of the current governing body to issue the bonds for the project. The company should not construe the adoption of this resolution as a promise or guarantee that the ordinance for the bonds will be issued or that the project will be approved.”
Staff members are noting that most of the sales taxes that will be waived will be state sales taxes rather than local taxes. Of the approximately $460,000 in estimated waived taxes, about $110,000 would be city taxes and about $20,000 county taxes. The rest would be state taxes. It is dangerous, however — especially in a community where state funding is the lifeblood of the economy — to argue that eliminating state taxes doesn’t have an impact on local functions.
To be clear, the Eldridge project is going to receive a significant incentive regardless. The project already won approval from the previous commission for an 85 percent, 15-year tax rebate for the expansion project. That incentive already has been finalized.
To be fair, it was that property tax rebate that drew most of the criticism from candidates during the campaign. So, perhaps the commissioners don’t find the sales tax exemption incentive that troubling. If so, it will be interesting to watch how they handle a pending request.
A separate development group is seeking a sales tax exemption for its plans to expand the former Pachamamas building into a multistory apartment building in downtown. The incentive request has received a positive recommendation from the city’s key advisory board, but the request sits unprocessed by the City Commission currently.
Let the puzzle solving commence.
Texas Roadhouse files plans for Lawrence location; time for a hoedown fundraiser; downtown construction project to temporarily close about 40 parking spaces
It is time to let my Willie Nelson beard grow out, begin driving my dually pick-up truck on the shoulder of the road, and start bragging about how the Longhorn football team is going to win the next 10 national championships. (Always starting next year, of course.) That’s right, it is time to get our Texas on. After months of speculation, we now have confirmation that the restaurant chain Texas Roadhouse is coming to Lawrence.
We began reporting back in December that Texas Roadhouse was looking for a south Iowa Street location. Well, the company has now filed plans to occupy the space that formerly housed Saints Pub + Patio. That’s near the southwest corner of 23rd and Iowa streets. Yes, the busiest intersection in the home of the Jayhawks soon will be flying a Lone Star state flag.
There also will be line dancing going on, peanut shells thrown on the floor, and lots of free rolls. If you are not familiar with Texas Roadhouse, it is kind of a budget steakhouse chain. Among its signature offerings are free peanuts in the shell that you are encouraged to throw on the floor (warning: my wife may still yell at you,) all-you-can-eat dinner rolls, and the staff sporadically begins line dancing. (Originally, I thought that was an effort to get me to pack up my sleeping bag and quit ordering rolls, but I’m told that is just part of the routine.)
As for the food, the restaurant offers a variety of hand-cut steaks ranging from sirloins to rib eyes to T-bones at price points from about $10 to $25. Ribs also are a big part of the menu, as well as plenty of country sides such as potatoes almost anyway you like them, their version of a blooming onion, and hand-battered, deep-fried pickles.
In Kansas, the restaurant has locations in Olathe, Topeka, Manhattan and Wichita. The company has more than 400 restaurants across the country. Interestingly, the company didn’t get its start in Texas. It was founded in Indiana. But, I’m fairly confident, Lawrence is still going to adopt Texas ways. Many in the community already do their best to emulate Willie Nelson, although not necessarily by growing his beard.
No word yet on when the restaurant may open. Plans call for demolition of the building that housed Saints at 2329 Iowa St. The company plans to construct an approximately 7,200 square foot restaurant building as part of an approximately $900,000 project.
It will be interesting to see if this project spurs other redevelopment in that shopping center, which is at a very busy intersection but has struggled to maintain tenants in recent years.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe Lawrence is going country. South Iowa Street certainly is going to look a bit more country. In addition to the Roadhouse project, I remind you that just down the street at 27th and Iowa, the Boot Barn will be going in next to Dick’s Sporting Goods. The renderings we have show the facade will look kind of like a barn.
So, you had better start preparing your country ways. I can give you diction lessons. (Lesson No. 1: Never use that phrase in a country bar.) Or, you could just plan to attend the United Way’s newest fundraiser.
The United Way has announced it is going to host a Chili Hoedown and Cornbread Competition on Oct. 3 at St. Margaret’s Church, 5700 W. Sixth Street. In addition to the chili and cornbread eating, there also will be square dancing, complete with professional square dance callers.
Folks interested in competing in the chili and cornbread competition can register for $20 by going to this website. Tickets for the event also can be bought at the website. Admission is $25 for adults, which includes chili, cornbread and beer. Youth admission is $10 for kids 13 and over. Children 12 and younger are admitted free.
• I’ve gotten word from the city about a downtown project that motorists will want to keep an eye on. As we’ve previously reported, The Eldridge Hotel has filed plans to build a major expansion in the vacant lot just south of the historic hotel.
Now, plans are starting to come into City Hall about how the project will impact parking and traffic flow in downtown. Mark Thiel, assistant public works director, said the current plans call for about a dozen parking spaces in front of The Eldridge and the vacant lot to be closed from October until about December 2016. The sidewalk in front of the area also would be closed. The parking spaces will be used to house a crane for the construction project. The positioning of the crane also will be mean that northbound traffic on Massachusetts Street won’t be able to turn west onto Seventh Street. So, prepare a different route to the post office.
The city-owned parking lot behind The Eldridge also will be closed until about December 2016. The parking lot, which has 27 spaces, will be used to house construction materials. There will be some changes in access to the alley, but Thiel said a plan is in place that will allow delivery trucks to still access the alley to serve businesses in the 700 block of Massachusetts.
City commissioners will get a chance to review the traffic control plans for the project. The plans likely will be presented to commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting.
“We feel comfortable with what is proposed,” Thiel said. “There may be some things we tweak to try to accommodate other businesses, but we think they have submitted a pretty good plan.”
The idea of a downtown grocery store at the former Borders bookstore location is back in play. A leader with Lawrence’s Checkers grocery store has told me he’s now focusing his efforts on the former Borders building rather than a more aggressive proposal to build at 11th and Massachusetts streets.
In case you have forgotten, the former Borders store is at the southeast corner of Seventh and New Hampshire streets — catty-corner from the Journal-World offices. (Yes, engineers already are working on reinforcing the floor joists beneath my office to accommodate all the new “office supplies” I can get from a grocery store next door.) As we’ve previously reported, the Borders building is owned by a group led by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor. Those are the two leaders who want to build at the 11th and Massachusetts site as well.
But a representative for Treanor and Compton told me they’re open to now looking at the Borders site for a grocery store. That’s a significant piece of news.
“We would like to help downtown, and we think a grocery store would be fabulous for downtown,” said Bill Fleming, an attorney for Compton and Fleming.
Fleming, though, said the group is still doing some due diligence on the concept. It has hired a consultant to conduct a feasibility study to determine whether enough demand exists to support a grocery store in the downtown. He expects to have results from that study in two or three weeks.
“Nothing is set in stone yet,” Fleming said.
But it now does appear that efforts to get a downtown grocery store are going to be focused on the Borders site rather than the 11th and Massachusetts site. J.R. Lewis, an owner of Checkers, said the 11th and Massachusetts site had some real appeal, but it just doesn’t appear to be workable for a grocery store.
“It didn’t seem to be what the community wanted, and it wasn’t feasible from a parking situation,” Lewis said. “The location was a good one, but you couldn’t make the site work for a grocery store.”
Fleming said Compton and Treanor are still very interested in developing a project at 11th and Mass. Previous plans had called for a grocery store to be the ground-floor tenant of a multistory building that also would house apartments, offices and a below-ground parking garage. Fleming said a similar project could move forward with a different type of tenant for the ground floor.
“We’re not giving up on 11th and Mass. at all,” Fleming said. “But it will work better if we have something other than a grocery store, especially for the parking requirements.”
Lewis has long been interested in the Borders site. The Checkers group unsuccessfully tried to purchase the property from its previous, out-of-state owners. There has been some question of whether a grocery can locate at the site. There is a land-use restriction filed against the property that prohibits a grocery store in the building. (At one point in time neighbors were concerned about such a high-traffic use.) But Lewis said the group is committed to working with adjacent property owners to get their permission to remove the restriction.
“I think everybody can come together on this project,” Lewis said.
The former Borders building is 20,000 square feet. Lewis said that is the right size for a new-style type of grocery store. Lewis, though, emphasized that although the store would be considerably smaller than the Checkers at 23rd and Louisiana, the downtown store would be a full-service grocery rather than some type of trendy specialty grocer.
“It would not be a gourmet boutique store,” Lewis said. “We would still have an emphasis on low-price, high-quality fresh produce, and the type of items you find at our store today.” (To be clear, the existing Checkers would remain open too.)
Lewis said the new store would be designed to serve the day-in-day-out needs of residents in and around the downtown area.
That will be an important point of a citizens group — the Downtown Grocery Committee — that has formed to advocate for a downtown grocery store. It will be interesting to watch the political process on this one. There are some members of the grocery committee that don’t have warm and fuzzy feelings for the Compton and Treanor group. But I think the committee recognizes they’re the best hope to secure a grocery store for downtown. The committee has sent a letter to city commissioners outlining goals for the project. The letter includes more than 30 bullet points and gets into details ranging from parking issues to the structure of a lease for the grocery store. The letter also talks about future public incentives for the project. The committee says it will support some incentives for a grocery store but not all.
“City incentives should be mostly, if not entirely, limited to one-time investments in public infrastructure and the maintenance thereof,” the committee writes. “Ongoing incentives, such as tax abatements, should be avoided.”
That statement is not real clear, given that the phrase “tax abatement” has become kind of fuzzy. What is more common are tax increment financing districts that provide tax rebates for multiple years to help pay for infrastructure, parking and other such issues. Some consider those a tax abatement, and others don’t.
It is very early in this project, so I didn’t even attempt to ascertain what the developers are thinking about incentives at the moment. But it will be an issue to watch. The bigger one, though, will be whether neighborhood and development interests can work together to get a business that it appears both sides really want.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Some of you have noticed that a portion of the Borders parking lot has been fenced off, and that has created questions about what’s going on. Fleming told me that a portion of the parking lot will be used to store construction materials for the multistory building project that is underway at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets. The Compton and Treanor group also is developing that apartment/office project. The lot also may be used to store construction material for the planned expansion of the former Pachamamas building just down the street. The Compton and Treanor group plans to add multiple stories to that building and house apartments on the upper floors and either a restaurant or retail on the ground floor.
Lawrence sales tax collections are a bit like the Kansas City Royals these days: They’re still in good shape, but concern is starting to grow that I shouldn’t have ordered 150 pounds of bean dip for the World Series party. In other words, both are in a bit of a slump.
The latest report from the Kansas Department of Revenue shows that Lawrence’s sales tax collections for the year are still 4.2 percent above last year’s collections at this point in time. But the report shows that most of that growth came early in the year, and now sales tax collections are coming in slightly behind last year’s total. For the August reporting period, the city’s sales tax collections were down 1 percent.
A slight drop in sales tax revenue for a single month isn’t that concerning. But what is more noteworthy is that city officials are continuing to express some concern that the 2015 sales tax total may fall short of budget. The city staff had been projecting that sales tax revenues would grow by 5 percent over 2014 totals. Staff members are now not confident such growth will occur.
“Our 5 percent revised budget doesn’t appear as conservative as we once thought,” staff of the city’s finance department wrote in a memo to the city manager’s office. “Staff will continue to monitor sales and recommend adjustments to the budget if it appears projections through 2015 continue to drop below the the 5 percent revised budget amount for the year.”
As we previously have reported, the city may find itself making some spending adjustments in 2015, in part because it wants to enter 2016 with a certain amount of cash reserves. If sales tax grows less than expected in 2015, that means sales tax collection in 2016 will have to grow more than expected in order to meet their budgeted amount.
We’ll see how the rest of the year goes. This most recent report was for the August period, but because of a lag in the sales tax reporting process, the report reflects purchases that were made in the mid-May to mid-June time period. Lawrence traditionally sees a spike in sales tax collections when students and their families prepare to return back to school. When the state issues its next couple of reports, we’ll know how big of a bump the city got this year from back-to-school activity.
As for how Lawrence compares to other large retail communities, it is a bit of a mixed bag. The latest report shows that Lawrence is lagging while several other communities are picking up steam. Of the eight major retail markets we track, only Sedgwick County posted a decline of more than 1 percent (down 1.7 percent) for the August period. Johnson County, on the other hand, posted a 1.4 percent gain in August, and Topeka was up 0.5 percent. Manhattan was up 1.1 percent and Salina up 1.9 percent.
But when you look at the year-to-date numbers, Lawrence is still doing well, thanks in part to a very hot start at the beginning of the year. Here’s a look at how Lawrence’s year-to-date growth rate of 4.2 percent stacks up to several of the other large retail centers in the state:
— Johnson County: up 1.3 percent
— Kansas City: up 3.9 percent
— Lenexa: up 4.1 percent
— Manhattan: up 2.4 percent
— Overland Park: down 1.9 percent
— Salina: up 3 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 1.7 percent
— Topeka: up 0.8 percent
On that list, Lawrence is still having the best year of any of the other retail areas.
So, maybe the bean dip order will be all right after all. But I’ve become convinced that I definitely should not have practiced the championship celebration in the living room — at least not with Gatorade that didn’t match the carpet.
Credit union files plans to build new location in west Lawrence; city asked to spend an extra $78K for river trail
New windows for the house, a new ceiling for the basement, a back-up generator for the chocolate fountain: That’s the type of fall home improvement list — I learned this weekend — I’m facing at my house. Clearly only one of the three is reasonable, but it got me asking a question I often ask on a Monday: Are any new financial institutions opening in town? Indeed, there is news on that front.
Plans have been filed at City Hall for a new credit union branch near Sixth and Wakarusa. Wichita-based Mid American Credit Union is seeking to build a 2,100 square-foot credit union building that will include two drive-thru lanes and a drive-thru ATM.
Mid American Credit Union isn’t exactly a new player in town, but it is one that many folks maybe aren’t aware of. As we reported in April 2014, Mid American Credit Union took over the operations of the longtime Lawrence-based Jayhawk Federal Credit Union, after it fell on some hard times.
The lone branch for Jayhawk Federal Credit Union long had been located next to the production plant of the Lawrence Paper Company at 2901 Lakeview Road. The credit union was formed to serve the workers of the paper company years ago.
But Mid America now plans to close that location once it wins approval to locate in the Bauer Farm area in west Lawrence. Jim Holt, president and CEO of the credit union, said the credit union felt like it was time to get its Lawrence branch located in a more traditional retail area rather than in an industrial park.
“The location we have is OK for the folks who work out there, but it is not a high-traffic location, and it is not terrifically convenient for anybody else,” Holt said.
The new location will open up some growth possibilities for the credit union, although Holt said the credit union will take a conservative approach in adding new members. Technically, any resident of Douglas County is eligible to become a member of the credit union. But Holt said the credit union will be more selective in whom it targets as new customers.
“We’ll reach out to some other groups, some other businesses that don’t have credit union, and see if their employees would like to have an association with a credit union,” Holt said. “We target employers. We don’t really come in and say we’re for everybody in the community.”
The credit union has been very successful in doing that in Wichita. It has been operating there since 1936, and it has served as the credit union for large companies such as Learjet, Pizza Hut, Coleman and others.
Holt said the credit union likely will begin reaching out to several businesses in the west Lawrence area to see if their employees want to take advantage of the credit union’s new location.
“We have noticed it is a growing commercial area of the community,” Holt said. “That’s one of the things we liked about the location.”
As for details about the project, the building is slated for the lot directly behind the CVS drug store at Sixth and Wakarusa. Holt hopes the credit union will start operating out of the new building in May or June.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Well, I know how this goes. You start a construction project, then realize your original plans need to change a bit. (I should have known the smoke from the backup generator would waft over to the TV area.) Lawrence’s Parks and Recreation Department finds itself in a similar situation.
The department at Tuesday evening’s City Commission meeting will request an additional $78,000 to complete a trail along the south bank of the Kansas River between Constant Park and Burcham Park.
Commissioners in March approved an approximately $108,000 bid to construct the nearly seven-tenths of a mile long trail. But the parks department is now asking for additional funding so the entire trail can be constructed out of concrete. The original plans called for about a third of the trail to be constructed with concrete and about two-thirds with asphalt millings.
But now parks and recreation leaders are rethinking the feasibility of asphalt millings along the Kansas River.
“With the high rain totals and occasional flooding that has occurred in Lawrence in 2015, this area of park along the river has been constantly wet,” department leaders wrote in a memo to city commissioners. “After observing this site for nearly a year, staff believes concrete provides a better long-range surfacing option for this park area.”
Concrete is more expensive than asphalt millings; thus the price increase. The city has received about a $50,000 grant from the Sunflower Foundation that is paying for a portion of the trail. The city is proposing to take the unexpected $78,000 expense from a sales tax reserve fund of the city’s.
When the project is completed, the entire trail will be 10 feet wide and concrete. It is a pretty interesting trail project to watch. It will create a bit of a river walk that would be pretty easy for downtown visitors to access, if they choose. Constant Park is basically just north of Sixth and Kentucky streets.
My understanding is construction work is underway. I’m not sure when the new trail is scheduled to open. Work in that area is obviously very weather dependent.
Local employer seeking to add about 400 employees; longtime liquor store to close; update on Farmer fallout and City Hall
I’m getting word that one of Lawrence’s larger employers is seeking to add about 400 new employees in the next several weeks.
General Dynamics is looking to add about 400 employees to its call center operations in the East Hills Business Park, according to a source with good knowledge of General Dynamics’ operations. The company — which runs a customer service center that answers the telephones for several large government programs — wants to fill the positions within the next three weeks.
I’m told the jobs will pay about $12.95 an hour and will include benefits. About 230 of the positions will be part time, while the remainder will be full-time positions. I believe the majority of the positions are customer service representatives, but the company has other positions open as well. Its website shows analysts, software engineers, human resource positions and several others.
I’ve got a call into the folks at General Dynamics Information Technology division, but I haven’t heard back. The company is notoriously tight-lipped. (As tight-lipped as they are, you would think their company’s history is in making secret weapon systems for the military.) But 400 new positions, even if some are part time and likely seasonal, is a fairly big hire in Lawrence, so I wanted to pass it along.
For those of you still confused about General Dynamics’ presence in Lawrence, the company is the successor of Pearson Government Solutions, which was a long time call center in Lawrence. The company is a major employer in Lawrence. Until Hallmark’s recent realignment, which added jobs to its Lawrence production plant, General Dynamics was the largest private employer in the city. With these new jobs, it may be again.
I think the company’s employment totals have fluctuated quite a bit, but at one point it had about 1,500 employees at its East Hills Business Park facilities.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If your Friday evening routine involves stopping off at Jensen’s Liquor — the longtime store at 620 W. Ninth St. — you’ll soon need to find a new way to quench your thirst.
Jeff Jensen, owner of the store, has confirmed he’s shutting the business down after 24 years of operation. The reason? “Having three liquor stores within 200 yards of each other has a little bit to do with it,” Jensen said. “It is a pretty competitive scene.”
The liquor stores are right at the base of the Kansas University campus, but try as they might, keeping all three of those stores afloat is too big of a chore even for KU students.
“I have had my distributors tell me that they think it is the only place in Kansas that has three liquor stores in basically a single block,” Jensen said.
Jensen said the business model for a successful liquor store also has changed significantly. He said the idea of a small neighborhood liquor store is losing out to the idea of larger liquor stores that can stock the wide variety of craft beers, vodkas and other spirits.
“There has just been an explosion of products in the liquor industry,” Jensen said. “You have to have more offerings to be competitive. I have 10 beer doors (coolers), and that was plenty when I opened. One distributor told me a new store in Kansas City has 52, and they are not sure that will be enough.”
(Geez, and my wife is giving me a hard time about having a measly dozen coolers in the house?)
As for a timeline for closing, Jensen said he’ll likely shut down in the next two to three weeks.
Jensen leases the building, and said he hasn’t heard any news of another business that is coming in to take his place.
“I think it is probably safe to say it won’t be another liquor store,” he said.
• A quick update on a city issue from yesterday’s column. I opined about how the city may want to consider whether it needs to do any further reviews following the latest news about former Mayor Jeremy Farmer now that the Just Food board is pursuing criminal charges against Farmer related to his alleged financial misdeeds at the nonprofit food bank.
I had a chance to chat with interim City Manager Diane Stoddard, and she believes the city has a good understanding of any exposure the city may have had related to Farmer’s time on the commission.
As we’ve previously reported, the city already has conducted a review of Farmer’s use of a city credit card, and has requested and received about $1,100 in reimbursements for expenses that city staff deemed were not related to city business.
Stoddard told me that was the area where the city was most exposed to direct spending by Farmer. Other spending actions by Farmer were made as part of the standard City Commission process that requires three votes to move forward.
My impression, at this point, is the city doesn’t plan to conduct any further reviews related to Farmer and his tenure on the commission. Granted, it may be difficult for the city really to determine much at this point. And I do believe the city has much better financial controls than Just Food did. Abuse of power, though, goes beyond purely financial matters.
Fallout from Farmer allegations may create questions at City Hall; process to find City Commission replacement gets going tonight
It arrived with a thud, but it wasn’t exactly unexpected. I’m talking about the other shoe dropping on Jeremy Farmer and his troubled tenure at Just Food.
I think for weeks now it has been clear to many folks in Lawrence that there was more bad news to come from Just Food and what it would find about its former executive director. After several weeks of seeking more information and records from Just Food, the the Journal-World learned Wednesday that Just Food’s investigation alleges that Farmer overpaid himself by more than $52,000 over a two-year period, among other misdeeds.
Now, the question becomes whether there are more shoes to drop. An organization that surely has that question on its mind is Lawrence City Hall. Farmer, of course, was a city commissioner and, at the time of his resignation in August, was the city’s mayor.
I asked Mayor Mike Amyx on Wednesday whether he thought the new allegations against Farmer should cause the city to conduct its own inquiry to assure everyone that Farmer was not misusing his public office. Amyx told me it was an issue he wanted to discuss with City Hall staff, but that he would provide me an answer.
It will be an interesting decision. The city already has reviewed Farmer’s city expense account and credit card information. It requested and received about $1,100 in reimbursements from Farmer for expenses that staff deemed were not part of city business. But is there more to look at? Let me be clear: I’m confident the financial checks and balances that exist at Lawrence City Hall are much more significant than what existed at Just Food. But are the worries about Jeremy Farmer confined to just how he deals with other people’s money? Should the city look at the much broader issue of whether there was an abuse of power by Farmer?
I don’t have any particular instances to report, but I think it is fair to raise the question at this point. If allegations made by Just Food are proven to be true — and that still needs to happen — then it is clear that Lawrence’s one-time mayor and city commissioner was devious and unscrupulous. Unfortunately you don’t have to look very far — see the vote buying scheme in Junction City — to see the damage devious and unscrupulous elected officials can do.
That will create concerns for Lawrence residents, who already made it clear that they believed the previous City Commission had broken some issues of trust as it related to the no-bid work at Rock Chalk Park, and with other issues.
What can the city feasibly examine at this point, though? That may be a tough one. The city could review all of Farmer’s official emails on his city account. Unfortunately, I believe a lot of city business is conducted on the private email accounts of commissioners.
The city could look at the point where Just Food came before the City Commission for items. Those instances weren’t numerous, but there were some.
Was Farmer unduly involved in the recommendation of any contracts awarded by the city? I’m not saying that he was, but the city awards a lot of contracts not through a straight-bid process but rather through a request-for-proposals process that gives the city leeway in what firms it chooses.
Perhaps the most important thing the city could do is to make it clear that it wants to know about any concerns related to Farmer and how he used his power as a city commissioner. I think it is particularly important to send that message to city employees. The rank-and-file employees who do the day-in-day-out work of running the city see an awful lot. I do believe city leaders try to promote a culture where employees are expected to come forward anytime they see something that raises a red flag. But, let’s face it, it can be difficult to tell that type of news to your boss. City officials may want to consider creating a system that makes that easier in this case. And, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention this: If city employees don’t feel comfortable telling their bosses, they can sure tell me.
There are probably other things the city can do to ensure that it knows the truth about Farmer and his tenure on the commission. The good news is the city has its own performance auditor. Auditors across the country have had to conduct these types of reviews in the past, so Lawrence wouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel.
Perhaps city leaders will find that there is no reason to look further into Farmer and his time on the commission. But given that many of us have been burned by Farmer, it would be foolhardy to not have the conversation.
• A quick note to clear up a rumor. There certainly have been statements made on social media that the approximately $1,100 in checks that Farmer wrote to reimburse the city for his improper usage of city credit cards bounced. That’s not accurate.
I checked with interim City Manager Diane Stoddard about that topic in mid-August, shortly after Farmer resigned. She sent me an email on Aug. 18 confirming that the checks had cleared the bank and that the city had been reimbursed. Stoddard confirmed to me again today that the checks have cleared.
• The work to find a replacement for Farmer’s seat on the commission really gets rolling tonight. The advisory board that is helping the City Commission review the 14 applicants for the vacant position meets at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.
The city has released information about how that meeting will proceed. Basically, the 12-member committee will spend some time discussing any extra letters of reference that some candidates have submitted. Then, each committee member will be asked to disclose his or her top four to six applicants, then explain his or her rationale for the ratings.
Once that part of the process is done, the advisory board members will be asked to complete a written ballot where they will select up to 12 semi-finalists. That process means there could be fewer than 12 semi-finalists. City Attorney Toni Wheeler and Senior Assistant City Attorney Randy Larkin will tabulate the votes. State Rep. Boog Highberger, who also is a member of the advisory committee, will monitor the vote tabulation.
The semi-finalists then will be announced, and they will move on to a public forum that will be hosted by the advisory committee and the Voter Education Coalition on Sept. 24. At the conclusion of the Sept. 24 forum, the advisory committee will recommend six names for the City Commission to consider.
Ultimately, the successful candidate must win a majority vote from the City Commission. City commissioners will hold a special meeting on Oct. 1 to interview the finalists. Commissioners are scheduled to select a successor at their Oct. 6 meeting.
New Italian deli and market coming to west Lawrence; informal survey finds neighbors dislike proposed Kasold changes
For some of us, our experience with Italian food doesn’t go much beyond spaghetti, all-you-can-eat breadsticks and a carb-induced nap that usually ends with the waiter waking you up to tell you more breadsticks have arrived. But that’s not the only type of Italian food that is popular. Lawrence is going to get a taste of an Italian deli with the opening of a new west Lawrence business.
Work is underway to convert the Miller Mart gasoline station and convenience store into Miceli Market and Deli. Jess Maceli, who co-owns the business with his wife, Renee, said he hopes to have the renovations completed by mid-October. The business is at 3300 W. Sixth St., but you may know it best as the gas station with a small kitchen that has spawned a number of successful restaurants. Restaurants such as Biemer’s BBQ, Tortas Jalisco and The Basil Leaf Cafe all got their start there.
Maceli, though, is doing this venture a little differently. He’s not renting space in the Miller Mart, but rather he’s purchased the entire building and convenience store business. He’s going to maintain the fuel service and the convenience store aspects of the business, but he’s going to add Italian meats, cheeses and other specialty Italian food products to the business. He’s going to rename the entire business Miceli Market and Deli.
Maceli has wanted to own an Italian market ever since growing up in the southeast Kansas town of Frontenac, which has a strong Italian-American heritage. It also has longtime business Pallucca’s Meat & Deli, where Maceli spent a lot of time as a kid.
“We’ve been wanting to do something like this for 10 or 12 years,” Maceli said. “We want a location where you can get a good quality lunch meat and a good quality sandwich. We’re going to try to be more unique than what you can find elsewhere.”
As for the food the store will offer, Maceli said the store has a deal to become a retailer of Volpi brand Italian meats, which is a longtime St. Louis-based company that bills itself as America’s oldest manufacturer of hand-crafted Italian meat products. That means salami will be a big part of the store’s deli case, with multiple varieties featured. Also look for prosciutto, an Italian-style dry-cured ham; for capocollo, a salted cold cut that is often seasoned with wine, garlic, and a variety of herbs and spices that vary depending on the region it comes from; and mortadella, which is kind of an Italian version of bologna. (Italians everywhere are swerving their Ferraris and screaming that bologna is an American version of mortadella.) An Italian sausage also will be among the meat offerings, Maceli said.
Italian cheese also will be stocked in the deli cases, so I’m assuming that means everything from provolone to gorgonzola to parmigiano-reggiano. Both the meats and cheeses will be sold by the pound.
The deli also will offer made-to-order sandwiches and panini’s, plus Maceli said there will be some pasta specials on a regular basis. He said his family has a rigatoni and meatball recipe that will be a staple of the menu. Also look for pasta salads and garden salads available to take out. Eventually, he said some dessert offerings will be added to the deli case, including homemade cannoli.
The deli also may offer up some good tales from time to time, including why the “Miceli” in the business’ name is spelled differently from the “Maceli” in Jess’ name. Jess said that goes back to his grandfather being a bootlegger during Prohibition times, and let’s just say after dealing with certain authorities, Grandpa thought it would be best to change the spelling of the family’s name a bit. The different spelling also may help eliminate some confusion in the Lawrence market. Downtown Lawrence is home to the longtime catering company Maceli’s. The catering company and the deli, however, aren’t owned by the same people and aren’t connected.
During the renovation of the deli space, the gas station and convenience store remain open. Maceli is operating that side of the business as well, and said a lot of work has gone into cleaning the facility, repainting, remodeling the bathrooms and just generally giving the location a new look.
“When we are done, the left-hand side will be the convenience store, and the right-hand side will be the market and deli,” Maceli said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• You’ll have to figure out how an Italian deli will fit into your diet. Meanwhile, residents along Kasold Drive are trying to figure out how a “road diet” will fit into their daily routines. As we have reported many times, city engineers are recommending a “road diet” for the portion of Kasold Drive between Eighth and 14th streets, which means engineers are recommending the number of lanes be reduced from two in each direction to one lane in each direction, plus a center turn lane. The idea, in part, is that the narrower road will be more friendly for pedestrians and bicyclists.
The idea hasn’t been universally loved, though. Well, City Commissioner Matthew Herbert has decided to try to get a better idea of what residents near the section of street think of the idea of a lane reductions. Herbert said on his commissioner Facebook page that he and his family started walking in the neighborhood surrounding Kasold and conducted a brief survey with residents.
As of Monday afternoon, Herbert said he had received 27 responses from residents who were against the lane-reduction proposal and only three who were in favor of it. Granted, I don’t think the survey is scientific, but it is a pretty straightforward exercise to check in with people who live near the road. I haven’t had a chance to talk with Herbert about his findings yet, but on his Facebook page he expressed surprise at how lopsided the results are.
“I figured the neighborhood was opposed,” Herbert wrote. “I suppose I just didn’t realize they were nearly unanimously opposed.”
Herbert also sought to assure residents that no decision has been made on whether the Kasold lane reductions should move forward.
“City engineers may have decided what they will present as our best option, but without commission approval, they cannot go forth,” Herbert wrote.
For what it is worth, it is unclear to me when the Kasold project will come back up for discussion. It was scheduled to be voted on just prior to Jeremy Farmer’s surprise resignation from the City Commission. The fallout from that resignation, though, caused the city to pull the item from consideration because there were more pressing items for the commission to talk about at that meeting. But the item hasn’t shown back up on an agenda since then. The item does show up on the list of “future agenda items” that the commission keeps. But the Kasold project doesn’t have a date assigned to it.