Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
$500k grant to Wicked Broadband up for debate at City Hall; tax abatements and Santa Fe Depot project also on tap for discussion
Get out your favorite pie chart (yum, pie) and your best laser pointer because it is going to be a day of numbers and economic development discussions at Lawrence City Hall.
I've doubled-checked and there won't be any actual pie, but here is a look at what's on tap (yum, on tap) today for a couple of City Hall meetings.
• After months of process, the city's Public Incentives Review Committee at 4 p.m. today will consider a request from Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband to receive a $500,000 grant to help the company create a super-fast Internet project that is similar to what Google is doing in Kansas City. As we reported in November, Wicked, formerly known as Lawrence Freenet, has chosen the downtown and East Lawrence neighborhoods as the site for a pilot project to bring super-fast 1 gigabit service to about 1,100 homes in the area.
But Wicked leaders say for the project to move forward they need a $500,000 grant from the city, along with several other incentives that include long-term, low-cost lease agreements that would allow the company to use a portion of city-owned fiber.
The city's public incentives committee, which normally looks at requests like tax abatements, is being asked to weigh in on the request. City staff members already have evaluated the request and are recommending against it. They note the unusual nature of providing a direct payment of $500,000 to a company, and they recommend that if the city wants to spend that type of money to advance fiber technology in the city, it ought to send out a request for proposals to hear what other companies may be able to provide.
This one may get very interesting, though, because Wicked leaders are using the request to highlight how little success the community has had in creating new jobs over the last decade. As we have documented several times over the past few years, it has been a bad decade for job growth in Douglas County, even though communities like Manhattan and Columbia, Mo., have seen some significant job gains.
"Clearly, our economic development policies are not working here," said Kris Adair, an owner/operator of Wicked Broadband and a Lawrence school board member. "I'm not going to say there is one person to blame, but I feel like the city may not be looking at things in an innovative, 21st century way. Other economies our size have been growing during this time period."
Adair said she is confident that if Lawrence had better access to high-speed Internet, it would get more consideration from companies looking to move to the community and also would foster more expansion and business startups. Wicked is projecting that once the pilot project is successful, it would seek up to $30 million in capital from private investors and the debt markets to undertake a project that would bring high-speed Internet service to a wide swath of the city.
Adair said Wicked in 2012 offered to donate all of Wicked's assets — a few strands of fiber and a significant amount of wireless Internet equipment totaling about $2.5 million — to the city. The city, however, would have been responsible for taking over Wicked's debt on the equipment, which was about $1.2 million at the end of 2012. Adair said she was disappointed that Wicked's offer never received public consideration from the commission, because she believes it could have helped the city create an innovative broadband network.
City officials, though, also have been miffed, it seems, at certain dealings with Wicked. The staff memo notes that Wicked's parent company, Community Wireless Communications, had signed a contract with the city committing to pay 5 percent of its gross receipts to the city as part of a license agreement for use on certain city structures and rights-of-way. The city notes it has not received a payment since the second quarter of 2012. Adair confirmed Wicked has not made the payments. She said that was partly because the company has incurred some out-of-pocket expenses as part of its efforts to get this pilot project off the ground. She said this latest proposal attempts to address those payment issues. The proposal would provide Wicked a $20,000 per year exemption from franchise fees for each of the next five years. If the proposal isn't approved, company leaders said today, they will pay the balance due to the city within 90 days.
Like I said, all of this may get interesting. But today, it is just getting started. The Public Incentives Review Committee is only an advisory board. It will make a recommendation on the $500,000 grant request and the other incentives. But ultimately, the issue will be brought to the City Commission for a final vote in the coming weeks.
• On to Issue No. 2. (Still no sign of pie.) This one has to do with traditional tax abatements. At their 6:35 p.m. meeting today, city commissioners will consider changing their tax-abatement policy so that projects of smaller dollar amounts can apply for tax abatements.
Currently, the policy states that a project needs to include at least $5 million in new, local investment before it can apply for a city tax abatement. The city late last year, though, deviated from that policy by approving a tax abatement request for a $2.3 million project by Sunlite Science & Technologies, a local manufacturer of LED lighting. Commissioners approved the request, in part, because the company had been housed in the Bioscience and Technology Business Center, which has a goal of being an incubator for startup companies. Commissioners reasoned that it is likely that those startup companies may need tax abatements and other incentives as they move out of the incubator. At tonight's meeting, commissioners will consider whether they want to formally change their tax-abatement policy to allow for the smaller projects.
• Finally, Issue No. 3. Commissioners will need to decide how much money they want to spend on rehabilitating the old Santa Fe Depot in East Lawrence. As we previously reported, the city has been awarded a $1.2 million state/federal grant to rehabilitate the depot at Seventh and New Jersey streets. The grant came with a $350,000 matching requirement from the city.
But upon further review, it has been determined by state transportation officials that some of the city's plans for the depot project aren't grant eligible. That means that if the city wants to complete the project as envisioned, it will need to come up with about $650,000 in local matching money instead of the $350,000 that was originally projected.
Items that have been ruled ineligible for grant funding include work on the eastside parking lot of the building and a host of interior improvements that would be in a space that would still be occupied by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. City staff members are recommending that the city eliminate those elements from the project, in order to keep local costs in line with the original estimates. Commissioners will be asked to concur at tonight's meeting, which begins at 6:35 p.m. at City Hall.
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The idea of condo living in West Lawrence already has made a good comeback, and now developers are poised to test whether it can make an even bigger one.
Plans have been filed at Lawrence City Hall for a new 22-unit, upscale condo development to be built on the vacant lot east of the Bella Serra condos near Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive.
Jason Todd, of Hedges Realty Executives and a spokesman for the development group, said the new project would be called Bella Mattina and may share some amenities with the adjacent Bella Sera. (In case you fell asleep in Italian class dreaming of linguini, Lamborghinis, and Sophia Loren, Bella Sera is Italian for "beautiful day," and Bella Mattina is Italian for "beautiful morning." According to my Italian teacher, Mr. Googleguini, that is.)
At this point, perhaps you are thinking you don't understand Italian. You thought Bella Sera was largely empty. Well, that was under old management. As we've previously reported, and as the weekly land transfers regularly show, buying activity has been strong at the condo development since new ownership took over in the spring of 2012. At that time, 24 of the 37 condo units in the building were vacant. Now, all 37 have been sold, Todd said.
"If we would have had 10 or 12 more units this summer, we could have sold them," Todd said.
But Todd said the development group will be careful not to oversaturate the market. That means the group won't build one large building, but rather will build four smaller buildings that will allow the development to be constructed in phases. The initial construction, however, could begin later this year, if the project wins the necessary approvals.
Todd said prices for the new units likely will range from about $225,000 to $500,000. Sizes will range from about 1,000 square feet to about 3,200 square feet. The project will feature some innovative design as well. Todd said a handful of the condos will be three-story units, with a garage on the ground floor and living and bedroom space on the second and third floors. Those units will have private elevators. He said it's a design that has started to take hold in several urban areas and is being used on this project to help increase the number of condo units with premium views.
The project isn't a done deal. Todd said he's continuing to work with existing condo owners at Bella Sera to ensure the new development fits in well, and the project must win approval from both the Planning Commission and City Commission before it can move ahead.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As we reported earlier this month, a 90-unit senior rental community near 23rd Street and O'Connell Road also is on the drawing board. But this project comes with a twist. The Olathe development group proposing it wants a 100 percent property tax abatement. Technically the project could qualify for one under state law because the project is proposed as an affordable housing project subject to rent levels set by the state. But city staff members aren't so sure they want to open the door to offering tax abatement to housing projects. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday evening will be asked to give some guidance.
In a new memo, staff members suggest that providing Industrial Revenue Bonds for the project may be appropriate, which would allow the project to be exempt from paying sales tax on building materials. But the memo expresses concern about granting a property tax abatement because that may give the development an unfair advantage over other complexes.
On Tuesday, commissioners will be asked whether they want to begin formally processing and reviewing the property tax abatement request or nix that idea now.
As part of the request, the development group, Olathe-based Bethel Estates, has estimated rents will range from about $460 a month to $575 a month for one-bedroom apartments and about $700 a month for two-bedroom units.
• This news item about wind farms caught my eye because the idea of wind energy is one Douglas County may need to start thinking more about. As we previously have reported, a wind farm developer has some preliminary interest in property in southwest Douglas County. I think some people have kind of scoffed at the idea of a wind farm in Douglas County. For years we've been told this part of the state does really have much wind energy potential.
But technology is an interesting thing. We're drilling for oil and natural gas in places we wouldn't have thought of 10 years ago, thanks to technological advances. Perhaps the same will happen with wind energy. Or perhaps it already has. The article that caught my eye in The St. Joseph News-Press reports on how a 200 megawatt wind farm development outside of St. Joseph, Mo., near Oregon, Mo., is expected to begin construction this year. The project has about 25,000 acres under lease, and is providing payments to about 100 landowners. The project is expected to be about a $400 million project, according to the report in the News-Press. Maybe the wind is completely different in northwest Missouri, but in the grand scheme of things, Douglas County is in the same region.
Douglas County planners are coming up with regulations that would apply to wind farm development in Douglas County. I think it will be an interesting project — and an interesting set of reactions — to watch.
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City may leave downtown Christmas lights up until Valentine’s Day; update on Rock Chalk Park construction
Next year, I'm going to have the folks at the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department write a note for me. I need something to convince my wife that my reluctance to put away the Christmas lights isn't laziness. Well, now the parks and recreation department is proving that I simply was trying to give the public what it wanted.
A good portion of the Christmas lights strung in downtown Lawrence will remain up for at least a few more weeks, parks and recreation leaders have decided. Mark Hecker, assistant director of parks and recreation, said the lights would remain up through at least the end of January and perhaps through Valentine's Day.
"I think people may start getting tired of them in a week or so, but right now people really like them and want us to keep them up," Hecker said.
Several downtown merchants have expressed an interest in the lights remaining on, and visitors seem to like the idea too.
"I think it is a great idea because it is just so dark out right now," said Kevin Loos, chair of the city's parks and recreation advisory board, which was recently briefed on the decision. "I was downtown recently and came out of a restaurant, and it was great to have some light."
As we previously reportedd, the city has a real interest in trying to get more people into the downtown area during the winter season. City officials even are considering the idea of a temporary ice rink in future years. Perhaps the lights will become part of a "Winter Wonderland" theme that city officials are trying to create.
Once again, I think I may be a step ahead of the city on that one. I use the Winter Wonderland moniker frequently. I tell my wife that's what I'm trying to create by not shoveling the snow out of the driveway.
I may need a note for that one too.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The next time you are out by Sixth Street and George Williams Way, take a look to the north. Work on the city's 181,000-square-foot recreation center at Rock Chalk Park is progressing to the point that you can get a sense of how large the facility is going to be.
Parks and Recreation officials recently were updated on the construction project, which has reached the point where cranes are lifting the pre-poured concrete walls. Already, about 60 of the walls have been stood up and put in place. By next week, steel girders will start being placed atop the building to support the roof.
Plans still call for the facility, which will have eight full-court gyms, an indoor turf field, a gymnastics room, a walking track, cardio and weight room and several other features, to be open by late summer.
Members of the city's Parks and Recreation Advisory Board did ask parks and recreation leaders about the recent news regarding concerns with the concrete work on a portion of the project. Engineers raised concerns about one concrete pour on a small portion of a key entrance road to the complex.
But board members were told that overall city officials are very pleased with the work the contractors are doing at the site.
"I have been involved with a lot of construction projects, and there is nothing that is ever perfect," said Ernie Shaw, the city's acting director of parks and recreation. "But from our standpoint, this project has been as good or better than any I have been involved in."
• While we are on the subject, there has been talk going around in some construction circles in the city that a stop-work order has been issued for a major portion of what is commonly referred to as the KU side of the Rock Chalk Park complex. Upon hearing that rumor, I checked in with the city's inspection department, and it is partly accurate and partly not.
Scott McCullough, the city director of planning and development services, confirmed that construction crews have been instructed not to proceed on a small portion of the locker room/clubhouse building that is between the track and field and soccer facilities. But McCullough said the city has not issued a stop work order that shuts down all construction on the project.
Instead, he said the issue involves the type of building material being used to construct a few walls inside the facility. During their routine checks, inspectors on site determined that the stud material for a handful of walls did not meet fire code. McCullough, though, said the problem wasn't found on all the walls in the building. Instead, it just showed up in some minor structures such half walls built around locker room hot tubs, built-in benches and other such areas.
McCullough said the contractor a plan is developing a plan to replace that stud material with material that meets the fire standards. (I'm not sure of all the details on this case, but one example of such an issue is replacing wooden studs with metal studs.)
In talking with McCullough, I really don't think this is a major issue and shouldn't produce any significant delay on the project. But the project is the subject of quite a bit of public interest, and I heard the talk, so I wanted to clear it up.
• Construction work hasn't yet begun on the system of walking and running trails to be built on the Rock Chalk Park property, but architects have started getting more serious about designing potential paths for the trails. A preliminary set of plans has been drawn up that allows for a certified 5K running course on the property. It is also believed that the property can also host a 10K course. Designers have said the walking/running trails will be a nice feature for parents who have some time to kill between the games of youth tournaments at the site.
But with a certified 5K course, I also would expect that the city will try to convince many of the 5K runs that are held downtown to consider using the Rock Chalk Park property. That would alleviate the need for the city to provide police officers to control traffic downtown during the races.
It will be interesting, though, to see if race organizers want to leave the downtown area and all the shops and entertainment that comes with the district.
"This site will have a lot of potential to host events, but a lot of events want to run downtown," Hecker said. "That is a big draw for a lot of the events."
More than $30 million in public projects push local construction industry to banner year in 2013; Mass. Street gets recognized by Country Living magazine
The idea of a new federal stimulus program got nowhere in 2013 in Washington, D.C., but the concept was alive and well when it came to the Lawrence construction scene.
At least that's one way to read the year-end numbers for the city's building industry. The city's construction industry had both a bounce-back year and an unusual year. The latest report out of City Hall shows $171.9 million worth of new construction projects were started in Lawrence in 2013, easily shattering any marks set over the past five years.
But the report also notes $30.5 million of the projects were government funded. In other words, nearly 18 percent of all the projects in the city were funded by the public sector. The city has only starting keeping track of public vs. private sector projects in the past few years. So I don't have a lot of data to compare these numbers to. But compared to the average of the previous two years, the amount of public sector construction has grown by about 230 percent.
And if you wanted to argue over Rock Chalk Park — now there is a phrase that is both cocked and loaded — you could debate that the public sector numbers are much higher. The largest construction project in the city was the $31 million in permits issued for what is commonly referred to as the KU portion of the Rock Chalk Park sports complex — i.e., the track, softball and soccer fields and facilities. For building permit purposes, the city is counting that as a private-sector project. That is fair because the project is being financed privately by a group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel, and that group will own the facilities. As we've reported, KU merely will lease the facilities.
But in almost every other way, the city has treated the project like a public project. For example, the city has agreed to give the privately-owned facilities a 100 percent tax abatement and a rebate on building permit fees accrued by the project. Normally, only public construction projects get such tax and fee breaks, but commissioners at the time of approval contended the Rock Chalk Park complex was essentially a de facto public project since KU would be it main user.
So, if you treat Rock Chalk Park as a public project, the amount of public sector construction in the community grows to $61.5 million, or about 35 percent of all construction that took place in the city. (Well, construction of buildings. These numbers don't include road construction or utility construction, nor do they include most of the construction KU does on its campus.)
This year may be the beginning of a trend. Don't forget that the school district still has lots of construction work to do as part of its $90-plus million bond project approved by voters, and the city will spend tens of millions of dollars in coming years to build a new sewer plant south of the Wakarusa River.
Now, please, don't mistake my pointing out these numbers as my making a judgment about them. Certainly, all the public projects went through a public process to win approval. Some went before the voters — like the expansion of the library — while others — like Rock Chalk Park — were simply approved by the City Commission. And all of them were approved for reasons that went well beyond providing the local construction industry a boost. But it does seem worth noting how much of a boost the public coffers have given the industry this year.
And to a degree, a lot of this is pretty subjective. The Marriott TownPlace Hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire was the second largest building project in the city with $13.8 million in permits issued in 2013. It is counted as a private project, but it is receiving a variety of public tax incentives. So, determining where private ends and public begins can be a bit difficult in today's environment.
Here are some other figures from the year-end report:
— The $171.9 million worth of projects is up from $100.6 million in 2012, $115.7 million in 2011, $101.8 million in 2010 and $75.3 million in 2009. I haven't had time to fully research it, but the $171.9 million may be the highest total in more than a decade, although to be fair the numbers should be adjusted for inflation.
— As we have been reporting all year, single-family home construction had its second bounce-back year in a row. The city issued 165 permits for single-family and duplex homes. That's up from 126 in 2012 and 99 in 2011. The numbers are still off the 300 homes that were being built per year during the real estate boom, but at least the 200 level is within sight, and that would be a significant milestone in the industry's recovery.
— Construction of new apartments was through the roof in 2013. The city issued permits for 374 living units. That's up from 184 units in 2012. The mark also surpassed the previous five-year high of 363 units in 2011. In case you want to keep track, the community since the end of 2008 has added 1,313 apartment units compared to 672 single family or duplex units.
— Here's a look at the 12 projects that received more than $1 million worth of building permits in 2013: 1. Rock Chalk Park (the non-city portion): $31 million 2. Marriott Town Place Hotel, 900 New Hampshire: $13.8 million 3. Apartment complexes near Sixth and Congressional: $13 million 4. City recreation center at Rock Chalk Park: $10.5 million 5. Lawrence Public Library addition: $9.9 million 6. Bioscience and Technology Incubator expansion: $6.6 million 7. Camson South Apartments, 525 Congressional Way: $5.5 million 8. Hallmark Cards manufacturing plant renovation: $4.5 million 9. Dick's Sporting Goods, 2727 Iowa: $3 million 10. Neuvant House of Lawrence, 1216 Biltmore: $2.5 million 11. Dillons Food Store renovation: 3000 W. Sixth Street: $1.2 million 12. Discount Tire, 4741 Bauer Farm: $1 million
In other news and notes from around town:
• My Shirley Temple dimples may not be in full form today, but I guess I can be cute in another way: I can take a stroll down Massachusetts Street. The downtown drag recently has gotten a dose of national publicity by being named the "Cutest Small-Town Street in Kansas" by Country Living magazine. The short article about downtown Lawrence mentioned several businesses as hot spots, including The Toy Store, Sarah's Fabrics, Sylas and Maddy's, Mass Street Sweet Shop, and Liberty Hall.
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If you have been in Lawrence long enough, chances are you have a memory of the old Jennings Daylight Donuts in downtown Lawrence. Mine was how it saved me from a Paradise Cafe omelet that had salmon and spinach and probably other things green in it. (If I want green eggs, I'll use the carton in the back of the fridge, thank you.)
It was my first trip into hip Paradise Cafe, and you'll have to forgive me. I wasn't the picture of sophistication that I am today. All I knew was that it wasn't anything like the BETO Junction truck stop breakfast I had grown up on. So, I went across the street to the Jennings Daylight Donuts and had a donut — or five.
I'm probably still not cool enough to go into the Paradise, even if it existed today, but I can get saved again by a Daylight donut. A new Daylight Donuts shop opened recently at 935 Iowa St. In case you are having a hard time picturing the location, it is just east of the Royal Crest Lanes bowling alley. Or, if you are a donut connoisseur, this surely will help: It is across the parking lot and up a few doors from Munchers Bakery.
That's right. Two donut shops within staring distance of each other. Perhaps they can meet in the parking lot and duel with long johns or cinnamon twists. Mike Daniels, owner of the Daylight Donuts, said don't count on it. He said he didn't choose the location to compete head-to-head with Munchers.
"It wasn't something that was planned at all," Daniels said. "This just happened to be one of the few locations that met our criteria."
So far, business has been good, said Daniels, who also owns the Daylight Donuts shop in Ottawa.
"We have a lot of people who have some pretty good memories of Daylight Donuts in this town," Daniels said.
He said many of the recipes for the donuts are still the same from past decades when Jennings Daylight Donuts was an institution on Massachusetts Street. (It was where Lids, the hat shop, is today. I think the donut shop closed in the early 1990s, but I'm not certain of the timing.) Daylight Donuts is a franchise based out of Tulsa, but the franchise provides each shop with the special Daylight donut mix, which some donut fans say has a lighter texture than most.
At the Lawrence shop, Daniels said he routinely makes a variety of cake donuts, glazed donuts, baked cinnamon rolls, fried cinnamon rolls, bear claws, raspberry twists, turnovers, and a classic that is called an old-fashioned cake donut or sometimes it is referred to as a sour cream donut.
"It is pretty good for dunking in coffee," Daniels said.
The business also serves breakfast sandwiches, breakfast pies and biscuits and gravy. Hours are 5 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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Bullwhip, glass-walking school to open in North Lawrence; city to sign settlement to end airport sewer project
My wife hasn't necessarily suggested I go join the circus, but she has mentioned something about shooting me out of a cannon. Well, no promises that you'll learn the cannon trick, but a new North Lawrence business is planning on teaching people the life of a circus performer.
The Last Carnival plans to open next month at 315 N. Second St., one of the stone buildings just north of the downtown Kansas River bridges and next to Johnny's Tavern. The business bills itself as the "first and only school for circus arts and aerial dance in Lawrence." I have nothing to dispute that claim, since I don't think my wife's efforts with a bullwhip to get me to pick up my dirty clothes technically qualify as a circus art.
Plans for bullwhip classes — seriously — are in the works at the Last Carnival. The business also plans to have classes on walking on glass, laying on a bed of nails, and dancing with fire. All those classes fall into the category of what the business calls "sideshow workshops." The more mainstream classes will be ones such as aerial acrobatics, trapeze, contortion exercises, and advanced hula hooping.
"I have always been interested in the circus," said Sihka Ann Destroy, owner of the new business. "I figured I'm probably not the only person in Lawrence interested in this."
By the way, that name is pronounced kind of like "Seek and Destroy," if you were stumbling over it.
Destroy said she thinks the school may attract people who are serious about joining up with a circus or carnival, but she thinks a large portion of her business will come from people who are looking for an alternative way to exercise.
"I've already had a group of ladies who do Zumba classes who think this will be a unique way to work out," Destroy said. "Instead of running a marathon or lifting weights, you can say that you work out on the trapeze. How fun is that?"
One of the classes that Destroy expects to be popular is something called AcroYoga. Based on what I've read, it involves everything from massage to handstands to holding people up in the air with your legs and other such activities that would be fun to break out at your next party. Click here to see more, and be sure to watch the videos.
As for the danger level involved in all this, I'm not sure I can really speak to that. Destroy said there certainly will be a progression of classes required for certain activities. For example, trapeze training will start just a few feet off the ground, although the building will be equipped with aerial equipment that reaches 15 feet in height. The trapeze work, however, won't be of the flying kind. Instead, it will focus on teaching people how to do certain flips and hanging moves, all with a gymnastics floor and crash mats below. Precautions will be taken in other classes as well. For example, the fire dancing, Destroy said, will teach people the technique of the dance, but without the fire.
Destroy has attended various circus schools, but she is not an expert in many of these activities, so she is bringing in instructors for most of the classes. Some of the performers at Lawrence's Busker Fest will be among the faculty at the school. Destroy said classes likely will range from about $8 to $25 per class, and students normally will be required to sign up for four to six weeks worth of classes at a time.
Destroy plans to have a public open house Feb. 1.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It hasn't exactly been like lying on a bed of nails, but a project to install a new sewer system at the Lawrence Municipal Airport has been a difficult one. As we previously have reported, crews have been installing about a 6,000-gallon underground sewage holding tank at the airport. But the process took much longer than expected. Work began in May 2011, and was expected to be completed about 80 days later. But when crews dug the deep hole for the tank — it is about 25 feet — they encountered large amounts of water.
At that point, a dispute began to brew between the city's engineers and the construction company, Schmidtlein Excavating of Topeka. There was disagreement over whether the construction company should have reasonably expected the large amounts of water it encountered at the job site. Long story short, it took until October 2013 for the project to be completed.
Now the question has become whether there will be any legal ramifications from the project. It appears there won't, because city commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting will consider approving a settlement agreement with Schmidtlein Excavating. The agreement calls for the city to pay the construction company an extra $24,777 for extra work required to complete the project. That brings the project's total to about $435,000. The city also is agreeing to accept the current condition of the storage tank, which has begun to list in the hole. The holding tank is about 15 inches out of plumb, according to a city report. The condition will make it necessary to modify future pumping equipment that will be attached to the tank. The main part of the settlement agreement is that both sides essentially agree not to sue the other over this project.
In case you had forgotten, the sewer project was designed to increase the airport's attractiveness to aviation-related businesses that may want to locate at the North Lawrence facility. Back in 2011, there were a couple of companies that had expressed an interest, but at last check, economic conditions have put those projects on hold. Airport leaders, though, remain confident the improved sewer capacity will open up more opportunities for the airport.
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Firehouse Subs set to open in late January near 31st and Iowa; city set to spend nearly $1 million for new trash truck facility
If you are like me and you enjoy using phrases like "hook and ladder," "lug that hose," and "let's slide down the pole," you won't have to wait long until there's a Lawrence restaurant where you can impart such gems of wisdom.
As we briefly mentioned earlier this week, Lawrence is getting its first Firehouse Subs franchise, and the company now has confirmed to me that it plans to open on Jan. 24. The sandwich shop is set to go into a portion of the long vacant building that is in front of Home Depot at 31st and Iowa streets.
As the name suggests, the business will have a definite firefighter theme, and not just on its menu. The restaurants are full of firefighting memorabilia, and the Lawrence location will have a mural of firefighters battling the 1991 blaze that burned Hoch Auditorium on the KU campus.
The menu also will have a firehouse feel. Firefighters are in the business of dealing with heat, and apparently that extends to their sandwiches. Most of the restaurant's sandwiches are steamed, hot sandwiches. They come with names like the Hook and Ladder, the Firehouse Meatball, the Engineer and the New York Steamer, which features a couple of meats that don't always make the cut at a Midwest sandwich shop: corned beef and pastrami. And the restaurant gives you at least one other chance to talk like a firefighter. If you want the works on a sandwich — all the mustard, mayo and veggies — you call that "fully involved."
The Lawrence restaurant is being opened by a pair of brothers, Christian and Trevor Smith. Christian said he had been looking for an opportunity to move to Lawrence for several years, after living in Manhattan. He said the 31st Street location was appealing because activity is sure to pick up in the area as Menards and other retailers build along the 31st Street corridor.
He said he also thinks the restaurant's concept is going to help it stand out in the market.
"It really is not a themed restaurant," Christian said. "It really is the heritage of the brothers who started the first restaurant."
The restaurant is a bit unique in that it prominently promotes its nonprofit foundation that provides funding to fire departments and public safety organizations across the country. The restaurant sells unique buckets that their pickles come in for $2 apiece. All that money goes to the nonprofit Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation. Since 2005, the foundation has raised $8.3 million.
In other news and notes from around town, there's a lot on the Lawrence City Commission's Tuesday agenda. I'll get you more details on many of these in the near future, but here's a quick look:
• The sights and sounds of trash trucks soon may be less common in East Lawrence. City commissioners will consider signing a contract to buy about 10 acres of property in the Santa Fe Industrial park north of the Kansas Turnpike to house a new solid waste facility. That means all the trash trucks that currently are housed at 11th and Haskell would move to the new location, which is right next to the large Kmart Distribution Center. No word yet on how the city may use its property at 11th and Haskell in the future. The city is proposing to pay $995,000 for the site, which includes a 9,200 square foot building, which has been used by the Koch Trucking Co.
• Navigating the 900 block of New Hampshire Street may get a little more difficult this winter. Crews that are constructing the multistory hotel at the southeast corner of the intersection are now asking for a good portion of the block to be entirely closed to traffic until March 1. Currently, only the northbound lane of New Hampshire is closed from Ninth Street to the mid-block crosswalk that leads to the Lawrence Arts Center. The new proposal would close both the north and southbound lanes of traffic from Ninth to the crosswalk. The extra space is needed for a crane and a loading area. Commissioners will consider the request at their Tuesday evening meeting.
• The city's latest draft ordinance to create a rental licensing and inspection program is now available for the public to review. Click here to see all the details. There is a lot to wade through there, and I'll provide a more detailed report later. But even a quick glance shows that staff members are not recommending an idea by Commissioner Jeremy Farmer to place informational placards in every rental unit in the city. The placards would have had contact information on how tenants could request a city inspection of their property at any time. Instead, staff members are recommending an educational campaign that involves sending letters to every rental unit each September. Commissioners won't take any action or discuss the proposed ordinance at Tuesday's meeting. Instead, the issue is scheduled to be discussed at their Feb. 4 meeting.
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Hostel and banquet hall proposed for site near North Lawrence; updates on Menards and other commercial real estate sales
A little bit of Europe may be coming to rural Lawrence. My wife is rooting for a Cadillac-sized chunk of Swiss chocolate. I'm rooting for a meet and greet with the women's Swiss ski team. (Big fan of skiing.) But some of you are rooting for the European idea of a hostel. You are the apparent winners.
Your prize is that you may be able to sleep in a small bunkhouse with people you don't know, but do so for a very low price. That's what a hostel basically is, for those of you who aren't as steeped in European culture as I am.
Plans have been filed for a new banquet facility and hostel to be located near the Lawrence Municipal Airport in North Lawrence. Work already has begun to remodel portions of the old farmhouse that used to house University Photography at 1804 E. 1500 Road, which is along U.S. Highway 24-40 and caddy-corner from the Airport Motel.
Lawrence resident Shane Powers is the man behind the project. He said his first priority for the business, which will be called The Fete, will be to get established as a banquet and reception facility. But the conditional use permit that he has filed for from the county also would give the property the ability to function as a hostel, and he said he hopes work can begin on that part of the project in about a year.
"I don't think Americans, in general, are really used to the hostel concept yet," Powers said. "But I know a lot of people who travel around Europe or really the rest of the world, and it is common for people to open up their homes to travelers or at least rent a room out."
Powers said his plan is to remodel a second-story portion of the property for use as a hostel. Plans call for a bunkhouse room that could house up to five people, plus a separate room that would house a queen-sized bed that could be rented by a couple.
Not all the details have been worked out on the pricing for the hostel, but Powers said it likely would be in the $15 per person range.
"We're not trying to make it like a bed and breakfast," Powers said. "The idea is to provide some cheap lodging."
Powers — whom I've written about before when he was running a pedicab business in downtown Lawrence — thinks the location will work well. The property is just off of the Kansas Turnpike, and Powers hopes the location becomes popular with some of the touring musicians and such who travel through Lawrence and may be looking for a cheap place to stay.
Powers thinks the location also will serve the banquet and reception business well. The property is technically outside the city limits, and Powers and his girlfriend plan to raise chickens at the site and have some other agricultural elements on the property. Powers thinks the location will fill a bit of a niche for people who want to have a country setting for a wedding reception, but don't want to travel far outside the city.
The business also will focus on smaller receptions and events. The facility will have space for about 85 people indoors, plus will offer an outdoor reception area.
"We would love to have it where people could have a wedding on the lawn and then retreat indoors for a reception," Powers said.
The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will consider the project's conditional use permit later this month. The Douglas County Commission ultimately will be responsible for granting final approval to the project.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Perhaps you have seen the sign already, but it looks like a former funeral home is going to become the site for an expanded veterinarian clinic. Gentle Care Animal Hospital has plans to move from its longtime location in the Westridge Shopping Center at 601 Kasold Drive into the former Lawrence Funeral Chapel space at the corner of Sixth and Monterrey Way. I had seen recently in the land transfers where a group led by veterinarian Marguerite Ermeling had purchased the building. A group involving Ermerling and longtime businessman George Paley also have bought the vacant lot between the funeral chapel building and the old Stone Canyon restaurant buidling as well. When I talked with Paley about the purchase, he said there were no immediate plans for development of that lot.
• While we're talking about land transfers, here are some other commercial real estate transactions that have accumulated recently, according to the listings from the Douglas County Register of Deeds.
— For those of you nervous that the proposed Menards home improvement store really isn't going to happen, rest easy. Menard Inc. recently finalized the purchase of the old Gaslight Mobile Home Village and also of the Snodgrass property just to the east of the mobile home park. As we've previously reported, the project won its major zoning approvals from City Hall. Now it officially owns the real estate too, so I would think we'll start seeing work at that site sooner rather than later.
— It looks like folks connected with the Runza fast food restaurant have bought the restaurant's site at 2700 Iowa St. Land transfers show a Lincoln, Neb.-based land holding company — Lawrence Properties LLC — bought the site from a Lawrence-based company led by local businessman Doug Compton. Lawrence Properties LLC is run by a member of the founding family of Runza, according to documents on file with the Kansas Secretary of State's Office.
— There is a good chance that Luminous Neon, the sign company in the 600 block of Vermont Street — may be moving out of downtown and onto 23rd Street. The commercial building at 801 E. 23rd St. — it used to house the G-Force gymnastics academy — has sold. A Hutchinson company, 801-23rd, LLC, has bought the property. Ron Sellers, the president of Luminous Neon, which is based in Hutchinson, confirmed to me recently that he had an option to buy the property. He said Luminous Neon has been looking for better configured space in Lawrence. No word on what may go into Luminous Neon's downtown space. I'll do some more checking and report back.
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Maybe some of you have seen the signs advertising a new deli coming to the 600 block of Vermont Street in downtown Lawrence. Maybe some of you even know the backstory. It certainly is an old one — like about 2,000 years old.
Plans call for the Yellow Deli to open at 619 Vermont St., the former Heartland Community Church building. For others of you, it may be easier to describe it as the building just north of Dempsey's Burger Pub.
I got in touch with one of the organizers of the Yellow Deli, and he confirmed the sandwich shop is affiliated with an organization called The Twelve Tribes, a group of believers who live together and share their possessions, much like some tribes did in biblical times.
"The Yellow Deli is owned and operated by a local group of believers who live together and share all things like the believers in Acts II and IV written in the Bible," Phil Patmon, a member of the group, told me.
They also make sandwiches, and quite a few of them. According to its website, the Yellow Deli has nine locations across the U.S. plus one in Canada and one in Australia. My understanding is they are all associated with The Twelve Tribes organization. The nearest one to Lawrence is in Boulder, Colo. The first one was opened in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1973. Click here to read some pretty interesting history.
Although the restaurant's marketing tag line is "We serve the Fruit of the Spirit, Why not Ask?", the restaurant will just serve you a sandwich, too. (No, prices aren't from 2,000 years ago.) Patmon said the restaurant's menu will feature sandwiches made on bread baked fresh in the store, a few breakfast items, coffee and an energizing Brazilian tea known as Yerba Mate.
The hours of the business also are worth noting. All the Yellow Delis are open continuously from noon on Sunday until 3 p.m. Friday, which I believe goes back to the group's belief structure. Click here to read how The Twelve Tribes describes what it believes in.
"We want to be a place open 24 hours a day so people have a place to come when they don't have any other place to go," said Patmon, who grew up in the Kansas City area and has been a member of the Twelve Tribes for 18 years.
As for when the Lawrence deli will open, I don't have a very specific answer for you yet. Patmon kept his answer in a big ballpark.
"We want to build it just right for every kind of person to be comfortable here," Patmon said. "That will take some time. It took Noah 100 years to build the ark, but we expect to get this deli open before then."
It will be an interesting process to watch. I'm hopeful that I'll get a chance to chat with Patmon some more regarding how large the group of followers are in the Lawrence area and perhaps give you a peek at how they live their lives.
We'll see whether that comes to fruition. The Twelve Tribes organization has been in the media before. As you can imagine, the organization takes exception to how some people have labeled the group a "cult." There also have been media reports over the years involving law enforcement removing some children from Twelve Tribes communities. In all honesty, I don't have a good handle on the type of controversies that may have sprung up around the organization, but I know there have been some because the Twelve Tribes organization makes a point to note them on its website.
I'll let you know when I learn more.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While we are on the subject of sandwich shops, I'll quickly note that it looks like Lawrence is going to get its first Firehouse Subs shop. A sign for the business has gone up in the long vacant building in front of Home Depot at 31st and Iowa streets. I've got a message into who I think is the owner of that local franchise, and hope to report back more information soon.
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Signs indicate Freebirds Burrito has closed downtown Lawrence location; new plan emerges for affordable housing near 23rd and O’Connell
The free bird has perhaps decided to fly away. There's a new sign hanging from the window of the Freebirds World Burrito in downtown Lawrence that indicates the restaurant has closed.
The sign came to my attention yesterday, and I've been trying to get in touch with the restaurant's spokeswoman ever since, but with no luck. The sign apologizes for the inconvenience and reads, "Freebirds has closed indefinitely in Lawrence. Please come visit our other locations in Kansas City."
Make of that what you will. That's the thing about indefinitely. It is just not definite enough for my tastes. But assuming that the restaurant's run in Lawrence is over, it is a bit of an unexpected departure. The restaurant — which served a variety of burritos, tacos, adult beverages and the like — opened its doors in late January of 2013.
Freebirds went into a big space — the former Maurices clothing store — that had sat vacant for a long time after the clothing retailer moved to South Iowa Street. It sure looked like Freebirds spent some good money to renovate about two-thirds of the space. The other third was put up for lease, but a tenant hasn't yet been found. If Freebirds is done, then downtown Lawrence once again has one of its larger Massachusetts Street storefronts sitting vacant.
It will be interesting to watch. The space sat vacant for about three years after Maurices left downtown Lawrence in 2009. The economy was much different back then, so who knows what the prospects for the building may be now. Although I haven't heard any rumblings, I suppose it is possible Freebirds is leaving because someone has expressed interest in the entire Maurices space.
I'll keep my ears open for news on the space. In the meantime, it is probably best that we all remember the words of a famous poet — who we have forgotten the name of — who wrote: Set the bird free. If it is true love, it shall return. Or something like that.
For those of you who loved Freebirds, I'm not sure where that leaves you. I guess, watch the sky for a bird with an overstuffed burrito hanging from its beak.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The idea of Lawrence becoming home to senior citizens and retirees continues to be a strong one. An Olathe senior housing company has confirmed it is trying to put together a deal for a 90-unit senior living community near 25th Terrace and O'Connell Road in southeast Lawrence.
The proposed developer is Wheatland Investments, which has about 500 apartment units across the region, according to a letter from its managers, David and Suzanne Rhodes.
The project isn't a done deal, however. In addition to needing the necessary city approvals, it also is competing for affordable housing tax credits from the state. Without those tax credits, I would guess the project may have to go back to the drawing board. The credits would make the apartments rent controlled, and would mean that tenants would have to meet some income guidelines.
The credits also can be used to provide housing for low income individuals, but, according to the letter, Wheatland is interested in making the project exclusively for senior citizens 55-years and older. The concept plan calls for 15 buildings, each housing six garden/ranch style apartments. The project would be spread out over nine acres near the intersection.
Lawrence city commissioners at their meeting tonight will receive a request from the developers to issue Industrial Revenue Bonds, which would qualify the approximately $8 million project for a property tax abatement. But commissioners aren't being asked to approve the request tonight. Instead, they're being asked to send the request to city staff members for review and analysis.
The site is just south of of the proposed site for another affordable housing project. As we previously have reported, the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority has been working on a partnership with a group led by Lawrence businessman Bill Newsome to develop an approximately $15 million affordable housing project for working families.
But Shannon Oury, executive director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, told me this morning that project has suffered a setback. Interest rates have risen, and that has created complications for the financing of the project.
"We're in a situation of reevaluating how we make that work," Oury said.
She said the group didn't have a timeline for determining when or if that project would move forward.
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Ah, I can almost feel the sun's rays now: The crack of the bat, the pop of the catcher's mitt, sunflower seed spittle on my shirt, peanut shells in my shoes. All I need now is a good chance at a foul ball and some needle and thread to reattach my frostbit finger.
An indoor baseball training facility might be helpful too. Well, now Lawrence has a major new facility that is open to the public. Four area couples have banded together to open an indoor baseball and softball training facility in a former warehouse in south Lawrence.
Team Performance opened its doors at 1811 W. 31 St. — it used to be the home to electrical supply wholesaler Western Extralite near 31st and Ousdahl — on Saturday.
"We had more than 100 kids through the facility this weekend, and that was just completely word of mouth," John Delfelder, one of the partners in the facility, said. "We think demand for it is going to be really high."
The idea is that teams and individuals need a place to practice their skills when the weather is not cooperating or when access to field space is limited. The new facility has about 10,000 square feet of turf space, six batting cages that can be adapted for either baseball or softball and two pitching lanes that also can work for either baseball or softball.
Teams or individuals can rent practice time in the facility. Individuals can rent space in a batting cage or pitching lane for $15 for 30 minutes or up to $35 for 90 minutes. Team options range from about $70 to $180 for a 90-minute session, depending on what parts of the facility teams want to use.
The new business was formed by four couples who all either have children playing in baseball or softball or who have long histories with the sports: John and Laine Delfelder; Jim Moore and Allison Vance Moore; Aaron and Sarah Clopton; and Christy and Jarad Cruse.
"I've been thinking about doing this for a few years now," said Jim Moore, who will continue to work as a financial adviser in Lawrence as well. "As our kids have gotten older, we've definitely seen the need. You hate to have to start over on all the fundamentals at the beginning of every season because there hasn't been a place to practice."
Moore said he hopes the business will offer several clinics and camps throughout the year, including coaching clinics that will feature college coaches who will serve as instructors.
Delfelder said the facility also has space set aside for agility training for baseball and softball athletes. The business hopes to have an instructor in place for that program soon, he said.
Hours of the business are 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
In other news and notes from around town:
• On snowy days like we had this weekend, I guess you can understand why you are seeing more Lawrence police officers patrolling in SUVs instead of the standard police sedans. That's a trend that began about a year ago, and it looks like it is one that will continue in 2014. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday will approve the purchase of 12 new police vehicles for 2014, and nine of them will be of the SUV variety.
The city will spend $241,018 on the nine Ford Police Utility Interceptors, or $26,773 per vehicle. The city will spend $74,937 on the three Ford sedans, or $24,979 per vehicle. By the way, Lawrence-based Laird Noller Ford won the bid for both sets of vehicles. Actually, Shawnee Mission Ford bid a slightly lower price for both sets of vehicles. But since Noller's bid was within 1 percent of Shawnee Mission's bid, the city is able to evoke a local preference clause in its purchasing ordinance in order to do business with a Lawrence-based company.
Group raises $55k in private funds for trail project; retirement center in northwest Lawrence set for final approval
Get your hiking boots laced up and start hoping for warmer weather — or heavier long johns. Either way, it really is looking like Lawrence is going to have a new nature park and hiking trail.
Officials with the Lawrence nonprofit group Outside for a Better Inside have announced they've successfully raised $55,000 in private funds to match a $55,000 grant that will be used to fund a central Lawrence trail project.
As we've previously reported, the Sunflower Foundation has agreed to provide grant money for a project to build a nature park and trail on about eight acres of the former Veterans of Foreign Wars post in the Pinckney neighborhood.
The Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center is donating the property to the city, and Outside for a Better Inside has committed to find the grant money and the private money to build the trail through the property, which has an old pond and a good amount of hardwood forest.
The Sunflower grant, however, was contingent upon local leaders matching the grant money with private funds. Longtime Lawrence real estate executive John McGrew leads the Outside for a Better Inside group, and he predicted it wouldn't take long to come up with the necessary $55,000 in matching funds. And it didn't. It was only announced in mid-December that the group had been chosen for the grant. The group now hopes to raise another $20,000 to make other improvements to the trail project.
I haven't heard anything definitive from city officials yet, but Outside for a Better Inside now believes that work could begin on constructing the trail this spring. Previously city officials have said they believe this new city park, which will be named in honor of the late Bert Nash leader Sandra Shaw, could be open to the public by the fall.
The idea for trails in the area may not be done yet. The property, which is at about Second and Alabama streets, is adjacent to Burcham Park. There's been talk of extending a trail from Burcham to Constant Park, which is the piece of greenspace along the Kansas River at Sixth and Kentucky streets. Marilyn Hull — a staff member with the Douglas County Community Foundation, which administers a fund for Outside for a Better Inside — said private fundraising is being contemplated for that project. I haven't heard an estimate yet of how much money needs to be raised. If successful, the project would create a river-walk area that would be just a block or two away from Massachusetts Street.
As we previously have reported, there also have been discussions at City Hall about creating a new East Lawrence trail that would connect the Burroughs Creek Trail near 11th and Haskell with the Constant Park area near Sixth and Kentucky. Hull said those discussions also are continuing.
The idea of a robust trail system throughout the community has supporters on the Lawrence City Commission. And given that more than $50,000 in private money was raised in less than half a month, it sure appears there's support in the private sector as well. It looks like an issue to keep an eye on.
In the meantime, though, I'm going to put another layer of long johns on.
In other news and notes from around town:
• In October, we reported that plans had been filed for a new assisted living retirement community near the intersection of Peterson Road and Monterey Way in northwest Lawrence.
Well, those plans are about to get finalized. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday are expected to approve a rezoning request and a preliminary development plan for the project, which is being built by the Columbia, Mo.-based Americare Corp.
As a summary, the project is slated for vacant ground at the southwest corner of Peterson Road and Monterey Way. The property is just west of the exclusive Fall Creek Farms neighborhood. The development plan calls for 30 units of assisted living facility that will be housed in a 20,000-square-foot single-story building. Sixteen units of memory care — where Alzheimer's patients and others will live — is planned for a 13,000-square-foot building. The development plan gives the company the option to double the memory care space in the future. The plan also calls for 22 independent living units that will be housed in a mix of duplexes and triplexes. The entire property will be served by a 2,200-square-foot clubhouse as well.
No word yet on when construction may begin on the project, but Tuesday's meeting essentially will clear the way for work to begin.
• On Thursday we reported that there were signs the popular Kansas City-area breakfast spot The Big Biscuit will open near Sixth and Wakarusa Drive. I've since gotten in touch with one of the owners of the business, and he said a February opening is in the works.
"We're thinking probably the middle to end of February," said Chad Offerdahl, one of the owners of the restaurant chain. "We're under construction now."
The site is in the shopping center at the southeast corner of Sixth and Wakarusa, which includes Marisco's, Glory Days Pizza and other restaurants. Offerdahl said he and his partners have been looking for expansion opportunities since buying the business in 2010. This will be the company's sixth location. Offerdahl said the business seems to be filling a niche.
"We're feel-good food," Offerdahl said. "You come here to get the kind of food your mom made when you were growing up."
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Breakfast restaurant The Big Biscuit to open near Sixth and Wakarusa; Spangles closes its lone Lawrence location
We're just two days into 2014, and already this new year is conspiring against my utter devotion to high fashion.
Signs have emerged that the popular breakfast eatery The Big Biscuit will be opening a restaurant near Sixth and Wakarusa. That's of course a major fashion story in my household because biscuits and gravy are the ultimate Thai food. Check that. I mean Tie food, as in if there is a bowl of sausage gravy anywhere within a mile of me, my necktie will find its way into it.
According to signs that are up on the building, The Big Biscuit will be opening in the Westgate shopping center, which is the center that has Marisco's, Glory Days Pizza and several other longtime businesses. The restaurant will be taking the large, center anchor position of the shopping center. It will be the restaurant's sixth location. The other five are in the Kansas City metro area, with the closest one in Shawnee.
I've been out of the office for nearly two weeks, so I'm playing catch-up on this story. (Not to be confused with ketchup, which also makes a frequent appearance on my tie.) But I'll put a call into the business today to see if I can get more details about when the restaurant plans to open.
As its name suggests, the restaurant specializes in breakfast fare. According to its website, the restaurant has nearly 60 breakfast dishes on its menu. I'm talking about 11 omelets, ranging from your traditional Western omelet to one called a Ranchero that actually has grilled steak, jalapeno peppers and other ingredients. There are also nearly 10 kinds of pancakes, including a cinnamon roll version, blueberry, strawberry and banana pecan.
The restaurant also is open for lunch with a menu that includes a variety of burgers, sandwiches, chicken dishes and wraps. Of course, breakfast is also served during the lunch hour as well.
I'll let you know when I hear more details. In the meantime, I'll start shaving this beard off that I had started to grow over my vacation. What? You know what a beard and biscuits and gravy are, don't you? A to-go meal, without the to-go box.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If your New Year's resolution involved dressing up like Elvis and having a Turkey Turkey on Pita, it appears you now have one less option in Lawrence. According to the signs in the window, the Spangles near Sixth and Kasold has gone out of business. (What? You don't dress like Elvis when you go to a 1950s-style diner?)
As I mentioned earlier, I've been away growing a beard, so I don't have any info from Spangles yet on its decision to close the Lawrence restaurant, or whether it has any plans to reopen at another location in town. But I'll try to get in touch with the Wichita-based chain, which has restaurants in many of the larger cities in Kansas. The Spangles at 3420 W. Sixth St. was its only location in Lawrence. (SEE UPDATE BELOW.)
The restaurant made a big splash when it entered the Lawrence market. About 250 people camped outside the doors — I'm talking about in actual tents in the parking lot — when the restaurant opened in April 2006. Campers, who stayed through a thunderstorm, were hoping to win a contest where the first 100 people at the restaurant would win certificates for a year's worth of free meals.
It will be interesting to see what was behind the decision to close the Lawrence location some seven years later. I wasn't there often, but the restaurant seemed busy when I was there.
But, of course, a crowd always follows The King.
UPDATE: I chatted with Dale Steven, one of the owners of the Spangles chain this afternoon, and he confirmed the restaurant has no plans to reopen in another location in Lawrence.
"We're very disappointed but we would sure like to come back," Steven said. "We would like to look at other locations in town."
Steven said the company — which operates 28 restaurants across the state — decided that the location near Sixth and Kasold simply wasn't producing the sales the business expected. Steven said he thinks a location closer to Kansas University would be a better fit for the business.
Steven said Spangles leases the location at 3420 W. Sixth Street, which used to house a Runza restaurant. He said Spangles is trying to sub-lease the space to another tenant.
East Lawrence’s Sunrise Garden Center set to close doors; Lawrence home building up nearly 30 percent for year
The sun is setting on the longtime East Lawrence business Sunrise Garden Center.
Owner Greg McDonald told me that the business' last day of operation is planned to be Christmas Eve. As we reported in June, McDonald put the business and its 3.5 acres at 15th and New York streets up for sale.
A buyer hasn't yet been found for the site, but McDonald said having a business up for sale and trying to continue to operate it is difficult, especially for a garden center that must start growing some of its inventory well before it is ready for sale.
McDonald said he knows one rumor that is floating around town is that the corner property will be converted into an apartment complex. He said that's not in the plans.
"This is a single family area," McDonald said. "I don't think that will be happening."
McDonald has owned the business for the past 14 years, but the location has served as a nursery since the 1920s, he said. Longtime florist Jim Owens operated it for many years, and early on it served as the nursery that supplied flowers to local shops, long before flowers were routinely flown or trucked in from other locations. (The business also has a long history as Pence's Garden Center.)
McDonald said he still thinks the best use for the property is as a greenhouse. He said if a new owner doesn't want to operate it as a retail center, the size of the greenhouse — there is about a football field under glass — makes it viable for other types of growing operations.
"I think it could make a very good incubator location for local, urban farmers," McDonald said. "I think it would work well for somebody who wanted to gain contracts growing local produce for area restaurants and markets. But I haven't had that person walk through the door yet."
Veteran commercial real estate agent Doug Brown of McGrew Commercial Real Estate is marketing the property. McDonald said the asking price has been reduced to $725,000.
McDonald said he's selling the business because he wants more time to pursue other interests. The business employs anywhere from about nine to 24 people, depending on the season. McDonald said there are mixed emotions about the decision to close.
"If I had a quarter for every person who told me they were sad that we were closing, it would be enough to make a mortgage payment," McDonald said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• A business on the upswing in Lawrence is homebuilding. While it is still not booming, the latest report from City Hall continues to show it is rebounding.
Lawrence builders pulled permits for 20 new homes in November, making it the second busiest month of the year for single-family construction.
For the year, Lawrence builders have been issued permits for 156 single family or duplex units. That's up nearly 29 percent from the same period a year ago. The 156 total is the highest in at least the last five years.
The really big numbers in the Lawrence construction world, however, have come on the commercial and apartment side of the industry. The city has issued permits for 374 new apartment units, also a five-year high. Many of those apartment projects have run in the tens of millions of dollars, which has helped push the total value of construction projects in the city to a new five-year high as well. The city has issued permits for $163.3 million worth of projects thus far in 2013. That's up 77 percent from the same period a year ago. It also well surpasses the previous five-year high of $108.5 million, which was set in 2011.
As a reminder, some of the big projects of the past year have included about $41 million at Rock Chalk Park and the city's recreation center, $13.8 million for a downtown hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire, $13 million for apartments near Sixth and Congressional Drive, and $10 million for the expansion of the Lawrence Public Library.
• I'm going to have to fire my agent. (Actually, I'm going to have to find an agent, so I can then fire him. But you get the point.) Apparently a production company was in Lawrence earlier this year to shoot a pilot episode for a new television series. And somehow I didn't receive a casting call. Well, now there is word that the program has been picked up by MTV, and the Lawrence episode will air sometime in March 2014.
Patti McCormick, a former Los Angeles television producer who now is a Lawrence marketing executive, is my source on this. She said she helped the production company find a filming location in Lawrence this summer. The spot ended up being at the private residence of Thomas and Dru Fritzel. The production company was in search of a gazebo area to shoot, but all the gazebos in city parks were reserved on the day of the shoot, so the Fritzels provided an area that worked.
McCormick said the crew also spent quite a bit of time taking shots of downtown Lawrence to work into the pilot episode. Other details about the show — I don't know if it is a reality program, drama, comedy or what — haven't been released. But McCormick said the production company told her the pilot episode includes several shots of Lawrence and that the city looks "amazing." I'll keep an ear open for more details as the air date gets closer.
• I will be spending the next week or so preparing for my close up. In other words, Town Talk will be on hiatus for a few days. It will appear again after the New Year. Thank you all for your readership and tips over the past year. Best wishes to all of you for a safe and happy holiday season.
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A new Lawrence park and a new Lawrence trail are beginning to look more likely all the time.
A grant totaling up to $55,000 has been awarded to the local nonprofit group Outside for a Better Inside, group founder John McGrew has told me. The grant, from the Topeka-based Sunflower Foundation, will be used to help build a nature trail on the central Lawrence property that used to house the Lawrence VFW.
The trail is a key part of a plan to convert 8 acres in the Pinckney neighborhood into a nature park that will be donated to the city. City officials last month preliminarily agreed to accept the donation of the property, once private funding arrangements could be made for the trail.
The Sunflower grant is a key cog in the funding of the trail. McGrew has estimated the paved trail will cost a little more than $100,000 to build. McGrew — who is a longtime Lawrence real estate executive — has said he is confident the Outside for a Better Inside organization can successfully conduct private fundraising to complete the project.
McGrew believes the trail can be completed by Spring of 2014. I haven't yet talked with city officials since word of the grant, so we'll see what their timelines are. Previously they had expressed optimism that the park, which is around Second and Alabama streets, could be open by late 2014.
Plans call for the trail to go through a hardwood forest and partially around a small lake that used to be a clay pit for an old-time brick factory. As we recently reported, the site has an old cabin and an interesting history as a Lawrence zoo.
The property is owned by the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. Bert Nash plans to donate the back half of the property to the city, but still has long-range plans to develop the front half of the site with a new building that could house medical offices for Bert Nash and the Heartland Community Health Clinic.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Some people sing Home for the Holidays, while other people buy a home for the holidays. Lawrence home sales in November were relatively strong, according to the latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
Lawrence home sales in Novembers were up almost 13 percent compared to November 2012 totals, according to the report. For the month, 53 homes were sold.
November's showing continues what has been a real good year for the Lawrence real estate market. In fact, November's sales pushed the market past a key milestone: Total sales for the year stood at 1,001 at the end of November. Lawrence has tried to break the 1,000 home sale barrier for a few years now.
Through November, Lawrence home sales for the year were up 20 percent compared to the same period a year ago. Compared to the same period in 2011, sales are up a remarkable 53 percent. The rebound in the Lawrence real estate market really has been one of the more important business stories of the last couple of years.
It is not only sales that have rebounded, but prices are up too. The median selling price thus far in 2013 is $170,000, up 7.3 percent from the same period a year ago. That's a change from what we saw in 2012. Basically what happened in 2012 is that the local real estate market started to pick up steam, in part, because selling prices of homes had dropped. At this point last year, home prices were down by almost 6.5 percent. But it seems clear that price correction was a one year event. It will be interesting to see how the county appraiser values people's homes here in the next few months. This is a key time for the appraiser's office. State law requires him to set a value for every home as of Jan. 1 of each year. We usually get those change in value notices mailed to us in March.
As for other statistics from this month's report:
— The number of listings on the Lawrence market is down to 380. That's down nearly 17 percent from the same period a year ago. If that trend holds, that also likely will put upward pressure on home prices.
— The median number of days a home stays on the market before selling is now down to 42. That's compared to 60 days in 2012.
— The number of newly constructed homes sold thus far in 2013 is 92. That's up nearly 18 percent from the same period a year ago.
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Here in another couple of months, my household will be in full Winter Olympics mode. That will mean several things: Jokes about communists (the games are in Russia this year); spontaneous performances of the Olympic theme song, complete with cymbals, by my wife; and whether I like it or not, figure skating on the TV.
Perhaps in the future, though, we can get our ice skating fix locally. I've gotten wind of an ice skating idea that is percolating at Lawrence City Hall. Folks in the parks and recreation department are exploring the feasibility of a seasonal, outdoor ice rink in downtown Lawrence.
Mark Hecker, assistant director for parks and recreation, told me several areas are getting a look. They include an area near the Outdoor Aquatics Center and part of South Park. But the most intriguing location is the plaza area that will exist between the city's new parking garage and the expanded Lawrence Public Library once it's completed next year.
The idea has some momentum at City Hall, in part because City Manager David Corliss is intrigued by it. He said he's interested in finding a way to bring more people to downtown Lawrence in winter. The idea of placing a temporary rink in the plaza area has some synergies, he said, because there would be adequate parking in the adjacent garage, restrooms are available in the new garage, and nonskaters could easily find something to do in the library or make the quick walk over to Massachusetts Street.
Whether the plaza area will be big enough to accommodate a rink isn't known. The financial feasibility of all this is also a question. To be clear, city officials aren't thinking of simply flooding an area and waiting for it to freeze. They do that occasionally in a low lying area of Watson Park, but it usually is only worth the time if there is going to be three to four weeks of freezing weather.
Instead, city officials are exploring renting a portable ice rink that comes with the appropriate ice making equipment. The financial feasibility of the idea likely will involve finding a corporate sponsor, and also charging a fee for skaters. Obviously, Crown Center in Kansas City has done well for years with its rink. Even for people who don't skate, it seems to add to the area's reputation as a holiday shopping destination.
That's certainly behind some of the thinking at Lawrence City Hall.
"We like the idea of a Winter Wonderland type of concept in the downtown core," Hecker said.
It's far from a done deal, but city officials seem to be serious about exploring the concept.
If it comes to be, I know somebody who can provide the theme music.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There is something else that is slipping and sliding just a bit in Lawrence: Retail sales numbers. The latest city sales tax report shows that taxable sales in the city fell by about 7.5 percent during the most recent reporting period. Totals for the entire year are still decent, but this does mark the third month out of the last four that the city has registered a decline in taxable sales in the city.
The most recent report details the taxes the city received from the state's Department of Revenue in November, but due to a lag in reporting and processing, it really measures sales that occurred from mid-September to mid-October. So, it appears really early-bird Christmas shoppers weren't out in full force, and, let's face it, Jayhawk football fans weren't roaming the city in the numbers they used to either. I never put too much stock in one month's worth of numbers, but the 7.5 percent decline is fairly significant.
For the year, sales tax collections are up about 1.6 percent. It's worth remembering that 2012 was a strong year for retail sales locally, so the fact we're above last years totals is encouraging. But, it also is worth noting that Lawrence in 2013 is performing worse than the state as a whole when it comes to retail sales. The statewide growth rate for taxable sales is 2.6 percent so far in 2013.
Lawrence isn't alone. It has been a mixed bag for several of the larger retail communities in the state. Here's a look at some of the winners and losers:
— Dodge City: up 1.6 percent
— Emporia: up 2.5 percent
— Garden City: up 5.2 percent
— Hays: down 12.3 percent
— Hutchinson: up 3.2 percent
— Junction City: down 1.0 percent
— Kansas City: up 5.1 percent
— Leavenworth: up 4.1 percent
— Leawood: up 0.9 percent
— Lenexa: up 5.2 percent
— Manhattan: down 1.2 percent
— Olathe: up 3.4 percent
— Ottawa: up 4.5 percent
— Overland Park: up 1.8 percent
— Salina: up 1.4 percent
— Shawnee: up 3.4 percent
— Topeka: up 0.4 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 2.3 percent.
• It was a late night at the Lawrence City Commission meeting on Tuesday, so news of the commission's discussion on a pay raise for commissioners got a little bit short-changed in our coverage. As we reported, staff members were directed to create an ordinance that would bump the annual commission salary to $20,000, up from $9,000 today. The mayor would get a bump to $25,000, up from $10,000 today.
The proposal, however, is a bit different than some had envisioned. Previously, there was a thought that none of the pay increases would take effect until after a new commissioner had been elected or an existing commissioner had been re-elected. In other words, no one would be guaranteeing themselves a pay increase.
But Commissioners Terry Riordan and Bob Schumm lobbied for a slightly different idea. The new proposal is that the pay increase would go into effect for all five commissioners after the April 2015 election. Three of the five seats — those held by Schumm, Riordan, and Mike Dever — are up for election in 2015. Mike Amyx and Jeremy Farmer's seats aren't up until 2017. Riordan said it wouldn't be fair for some commissioners to be making $20,000 while others are making only $9,000.
Ultimately, Dever sided with Riordan and Schumm to move the proposal forward. Amyx and Farmer abstained from the vote because they did not want to be in a position of voting for a proposal that would guarantee themselves a pay increase.
None of this is official yet. Commissioners still will have to vote on the actual ordinance that increases the pay. That vote likely will happen sometime in January. As for the concept of city commissioners getting paid more, it was widely accepted at Tuesday's meeting. Two members of the public spoke in favor of it. None spoke against it.
Although there was a city survey that showed Lawrence's proposed salaries would make Lawrence among the higher paying in the area, Riordan said he thought the survey results mainly showed that commissioners in other communities are "grossly underpaid."
Probably the most interesting item of the discussion is that one member of the public commented that if City Hall wants to do something to encourage more people to run, it should place some limits on campaign spending for City Commission races.
Commissioners didn't take any action on that idea, but Riordan said he was intrigued by it.
"That may be worth looking at, at some point," Reardon said. "That probably would affect it more than anything else."
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Go-Karts, batting cages, mini-golf planned for new West Lawrence Family Fun Center; new info on high-speed Internet plans
I need to find my Mario Andretti sunglasses, my Chi Chi Rodriguez slacks and my Alex Rodriguez cologne ASAP. There are plans for a new West Lawrence development that includes electric go-karts, miniature golf, batting cages, and even mini-bowling. (I'm not sure what I'm supposed to wear for mini-bowling, but I promise it will be small.)
Plans have been filed at Lawrence City Hall for a proposed Family Fun Center at 4300 W. 24th Place, which basically is the vacant ground near the corner of Clinton Parkway and Inverness Drive. The plans call for the development to be on about 11 acres near the multitude of apartment complexes that have developed over the years between Inverness Drive and Crossgate Drive.
Based on the drawings submitted to City Hall, preliminary plans include about a 36,000 square-foot area for a go-kart track, about 7,200 square feet for batting cages, 87,000 square feet for miniature golf, and a 6,800 square-foot "tot lot." (I'm assuming it is an area for toddlers, but a pit full of warm tater tots would be excellent as well.)
In the center of the site is a proposed two-story, 28,000 square-foot clubhouse, which I assume would have the mini-bowling area. Information submitted to City Hall also indicates there also will be lots of area for birthday parties, arcade games, snack areas and that sort of thing. The information also indicates preliminary plans are to have a small bar area that would serve 3.2 beer.
The plans filed don't make it clear who the developer is behind the project. Lawrence-based Paul Werner Architects has filed the plans and is shepherding the development through the city approval process.
The development will require some significant approvals. I'm confirming with city officials, but it looks like the project will need not only a change in zoning to a commercial designation, but also a special use permit and a text amendment to the zoning code that would allow outdoor recreation centers in CN2 commercial zoning district.
It will be an interesting development to watch. Neighbors in the general area have fought hard against apartment development in recent years. So, the fact that this prime piece of property is being proposed for something other than apartments is probably welcome. Whether neighbors will take to the idea of an outdoor recreation center will be a key issue to watch.
Outdoor developments usually bring up the issue of noise and light pollution, and Werner's firm has indicated it will make limiting those issues an important part of the design process. The plans note that the go-karts will be electric rather than gas powered. The go-kart manufacturer advertises that the machines make noise equal to or less than a vehicle traveling down a road at about 20 to 30 mph.
The plan also will include significant landscaping to address lighting issues. Preliminary plans call for the business to be open well into the nighttime hours. According to a document submitted as part of the plans, the current thinking is for the business to be open until 10 p.m. on most weeknights, but open until midnight Thursday through Saturday.
Again, we'll see how the development progresses, but certainly the question of why Lawrence doesn't have a miniature golf business has been one that people have asked me frequently over the years (It probably was because I was wearing my Chi Chi Rodriguez slacks at the time.) Many of you probably remember that Lawrence did have a miniature golf and batting cage complex at 31st and Iowa streets well into the 1990s. But that site eventually was redeveloped as the location for Douglas County Bank. I had always been told high land prices had made such developments difficult, but the economic downturn may have changed that equation a bit.
In other news and notes around town:
• I'm still gathering some details on this, but city commissioners are being asked to work with another company that has plans to bring super high-speed Internet to the area.
City commissioners at their 6:35 p.m. meeting tonight will consider approving a right-of-way agreement with Baldwin City-based Dawn Fiber LLC. The company wants to install about 19,000 linear feet of conduit and fiber on city rights-of-way in various parts of central and eastern Lawrence. Locations include: Fifth and Tennessee; 11th and Tennessee; 11th and Haskell; 19th and Haskell; 19th and Harper; and 23rd and Harper. Plans call for the fiber also to be extended across the rural areas of the county and connected with Dawn Fiber's headquarters in Baldwin City.
City staff members are recommending approval of the deal because the right-of-way license agreement would ensure that a portion of the fiber could be used by the city of Lawrence for governmental uses. That opens up the possibility of the city high-speed Internet connections to traffic signals in central and eastern Lawrence, water towers in the area, an a multitude of city buildings, including: the Fire Training Center at 19th and Haskell, the central maintenance garage at 11th and Haskell, the East Lawrence Recreation Center at 1245 E. 15th Street, the Carnegie Building at Ninth and Vermont streets, and several other parks and recreation and maintenance buildings. Importantly, the new fiber route also would allow the city to easily connect with the statewide Kansas Fiber Network, which is an association of 29 rural Kansas telephone companies that offer a variety of services including wholesale Internet services to large users like governments.
What I'm still gathering details on is whether Dawn Fiber, which operates under the name Free State Broadband, plans to use the Lawrence fiber to offer residential and commercial Internet service in Lawrence, or whether this fiber installation is just part of its previously announced plans to bring high-speed Internet service to Baldwin City. I'll update you when I get more information.
UPDATE: I talked with an executive at Dawn Fiber, and current plans don't call for the company to offer residential or commercial service in Lawrence. The company plans to use the new fiber to support its efforts to wire Baldwin City with high speed Internet service.
• There's also news regarding the request by Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband for $500,000 city grant to help with a pilot project to bring super-fast Internet to parts of downtown and East Lawrence. Originally, the city's Public Incentives Review Committee was scheduled to meet and discuss the request today. But that meeting has been postponed to Jan. 21.
I'm not sure what has caused the delay, but based on the last city memo I saw, the city's staff members are not recommending approval of the grant request. I won't get into all of that now because I'm still gathering information from city and Wicked officials on the request, but I'll hope to have more on that in the coming days.
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If you see me standing alongside a Lawrence street holding a whiteboard that reads "Anyplace warm," you'll soon understand I'm not crazy. Instead, I'm just taking part in a new pilot project aimed at transforming hitchhiking into a reliable form of public transportation.
City commissioners this week are being asked to help. Commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting will consider changing an existing ordinance that technically makes it illegal for people to stand along a street for the purpose of soliciting a ride.
The group behind the project is a relatively new nonprofit organization called Lawrence OnBoard. Based on an information packet its director, Jennifer O'Brien, has provided to city officials, here's a look at how the program is designed to work:
— The basic concept is that hitchhiking will become a more reliable form of ridesharing. But instead of simply sticking your thumb out and hoping for the best, members of Lawrence OnBoard will be equipped with a folding white board with a logo. The rider will write his or her destination on the white board, and then pick a safe place to stand alongside a city street.
— Riders will be asked to register with Lawrence OnBoard before they begin using the system. They'll be issued a photo I.D., and a background check will be run on each member. As for the drivers, people also can register to be a driver, but any motorist can choose to pick up some one holding a whiteboard. For security purposes, Lawrence OnBoard suggests that riders send a text message to the Lawrence OnBoard office when they get into a vehicle. The text message could include the membership number of the driver — if the driver is a member of Lawrence OnBoard— or the license plate of the vehicle.
There are other details about the program that you can read here, but I've pretty much given you the gist of it. Supporters of the program point out that the city's public transit system is a bit limited in area and doesn't run on Sundays. Plus, the T doesn't really aid people who have to make a trip outside the city limits. Certainly, there are ways people can arrange to carpool to Topeka or Kansas City, for example, but the OnBoard officials point out that such arrangements often really limit people's flexibility.
"With a system like Lawrence OnBoard, the carpooling is done from the side of the road at the convenience of the rider, and the time, effort and expense for the driver is minimal," according to the Lawrence OnBoard brochure.
Organizers of Lawrence OnBoard have been doing some testing of the concept over the last few months. They report they've attempted 121 rides and have been unsuccessful only six times. The 23 riders that took part in the experiment travelled a total of 573 miles. The average time they spent waiting alongside the road was about seven minutes per ride.
O'Brien and a KU professor, Anne Dunning, have been invited to present a scholarly paper on the program at the annual meeting of the 2014 Transportation Research Board.
I have no idea how Lawrence city commissioners will react to this idea, which seems like the sort of thing that could add to Lawrence's progressive/funky (or you can choose the appropriate adjective) reputation. We'll find out Tuesday.
In the meantime, I've got bigger issues to figure out. Is it spelled "Acapulco" or "Acapolco"? And if I wore a swimsuit, do you think that would increase or decrease the amount of time I would have to wait for a ride?
In other news and notes from around town:
• Commissioners also will be discussing more traditional public transportation at Tuesday's meeting. As part of their consent agenda, commissioners are scheduled to approve a new five-year contract with MV Transportation to continue running the city's public transit system. The new contract will run through 2018.
Based on a city memo describing the contract, it appears the rate MV will charge the city per revenue hour will average out at about $35.80 during the term of the contract, which is up about 8 percent from what the average revenue per hour rate was during the last contract term. The city is expecting to pay MV between $3.4 million and $3.6 million per year during the term of the new contract.
The payments to MV represent only a portion of what it costs the city to run the transit system. Based on the city memo, transit officials are expecting it will cost between $5.8 million and $6.0 million per year to run the transit system over the next five years. In addition to the operating contract, the city also must pay for fuel, major repairs to buses, the purchase of new buses, and various other operational expenses.
The city funds the system with about $3 million a year in local sales taxes and about $2.8 million a year in federal and state grants. Fares paid by riders add about $330,000 per year.
• The Rock Chalk Park sports complex in northwest Lawrence has been in the news again lately. City commissioners in the next couple of weeks will have to figure out how to resolve concerns a neighbor of the property has about lighting. But this week, commissioners will continue spending money to outfit the city's 181,000-square-foot recreation center at the site. If you remember, the city is agreeing to pay about $22.5 million to a group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel to build the project. The $22.5 million includes the construction of the actual recreation center, and through an unusual agreement, the city also is paying for essentially all the parking, roads and other such infrastructure that serves both the recreation center and the various sports stadiums and field that will be used by KU and Fritzel.
The $22.5 million, as anticipated, doesn't include all the items needed to equip the center. At their Tuesday meeting, commissioners are set to accept a $74,215 bid from Overfield Corp. to install security cameras in the building and parking lots. The city also will accept a series of bids totaling $44,300 to install a phone system. Last week, the city approved about a $45,000 bid to install bleachers in the building.
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New proposal emerges to reduce scope of rental inspection program; city commissioners to debate increasing salaries of commissioners
Getting a new rental licensing and inspection program approved at Lawrence City Hall has become a bit like me trying to walk down my icy driveway this morning: It can be painful on the backside of the anatomy.
Commissioners have been struggling for more than a year to pass a program that essentially would require inspections of every rental unit in the city. Now, a new proposal has emerged. Mayor Mike Dever and Commissioner Mike Amyx have proposed a significant set of changes to the scope of the program. The changes likely will be met with favor from those in the landlord community but may spark concerns among some of the more fervent supporters of the rental licensing program.
Here's a look at some of the larger proposed changes:
— The licensing and inspection program would have an automatic sunset at the end of 2017. In other words, the commission in place in 2017 would have to vote to extend the program, or else it would automatically end.
— The list of items city inspectors could cite as violations would be reduced by more than half. Dever and Amyx are proposing to eliminate 38 items that previously could have been cited as violations. The new list includes 28 violations. Some of the items that no longer would be violations for the purposes of the rental license include: missing handrails on balconies or stairways; clothes dryers that are not properly vented; minimum standards for kitchen and bathroom spaces; and minimum ceiling heights for habitable rooms. You can see the complete list of what was eliminated and what remains by clicking here.
It is important to note that the items that are proposed for elimination still would be a violation of city code, but they wouldn't be held against a landlord for purposes of issuing a license for a rental unit. I talked a bit with Mayor Dever this morning and asked him what would happen if a city inspector saw an item that was a violation of city code but wasn't one of the items he was instructed to look for as part of the rental inspection. For example, an inspector notices a third-story balcony has a missing or very loose railing. Dever said a process will have to be established to deal with those situations, but he said one possibility is that the inspector would note it, and a follow-up inspection would be scheduled. The follow-up inspection would have no bearing on whether the rental unit could receive a license, but the landlord could be found in violation of a city code and be forced to fix the issue and pay a fine.
— There is new language in the proposed ordinance that may make it more difficult for city officials to prosecute a landlord for having too many residents living in a rental unit. Language was added to the ordinance that says a landlord is only in violation of the occupancy code if the landlord knew there were too many people living in the unit. In other words, the city could still take action to reduce the number of people living in the unit, but it couldn't seek to prosecute the landlord for the violation, unless the city could prove the landlord knew about the over occupancy. The city has found it difficult to prosecute over-occupancy cases under the current system. This additional level of proof likely will make the task more difficult.
— The city would be required to give tenants of rental units at least 72 hours notice before any inspection is conducted in their apartments. The ordinance also makes it clear that the tenant has the right to refuse an inspection, but the city also has the right to seek an administrative search warrant, which would allow an inspection to occur against the tenant's wishes.
I'll seek to bring you more reaction to the proposed changes later today. But I'm guessing it will be a spirited meeting on Tuesday. Previously, Commissioners Bob Schumm and Terry Riordan had expressed general support for the previous proposal. Dever and Amyx had expressed concern over the last draft. That leaves Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, who has said he believes an inspection program is needed but has questioned some of its elements. The meeting is set for 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Lawrence City Hall may be a ball of fun on Tuesday. In addition to the rental licensing program, commissioners also will be discussing a topic too hot to touch for the last 14 years: commissioner pay.
Over the years, several commissioners, as they were leaving office, have suggested that the commission really ought to examine the pay scale for the City Commission. Currently, commissioners are paid $9,000 per year, although the mayor gets $10,000. It has been that way for the last 14 years.
Ideas have been floated that commissioners should make anywhere from $19,000 a year to near $30,000 a year. The $30,000 a year range would put Lawrence in the upper tier of salaries for other cities surveyed by Lawrence officials. But it would be in line with what Douglas County commissioners are paid. You can see a list of salaries for commissioners in area cities, by clicking here.
Dever told me this morning that his proposal will be that no pay increase takes place until after elections are held again. In other words, sitting commissioners would not receive a pay increase, unless and until they were re-elected.
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Wichita barbecue chain slated to take portion of former Blockbuster video store; gift wrapping service opens downtown
A barbecue restaurant right next door to a mattress store. It sounds like a prescription for hibernation. It also is the latest plan to renovate the former Blockbuster video store on 23rd Street.
Plans have been filed at Lawrence City Hall that call for the building, 1516 W. 23rd St., to be roughly equally divided between a Wichita-based barbecue restaurant and a mattress store.
Hog Wild Pit Bar-B-Q is set to go into the western half of the old Blockbuster building. An employee at the restaurant's corporate office confirmed the company has signed a lease for the space, but a timeline for the restaurant's opening wasn't immediately available.
According to its website, Hog Wild has locations in Wichita, Hutchinson, Salina and El Dorado. And it also has the type of traditional barbecue that you would expect. That includes brisket, pulled pork, hot links, turkey breast, pulled chicken, ribs and ham. It appears the menu also will include giant stuffed potatoes and something called "salad." I speak fluent barbecue, but I'm not familiar with this thing called salad.
As for the mattress store, which will occupy the east half of the building, I don't have any information on who that may be. For whatever it is worth, back in July I was hearing quite a few rumblings in the development sector that the national chain Mattress Hub was exploring possibilities in the Lawrence market. No confirmation on whether that is the tenant, but it might be one worth keeping an eye on. I have a call in to the owner of the building, which is a trust controlled by successful Wichita businessman Larry Fugate.
I'll keep my ears open for news on that front. In the meantime, I suppose I ought to find out one other important piece of information: Is the restaurant going to look at me funny when I come to eat BBQ in my pajamas?
In other news and notes from around town:
• Holy fruitcake, there are only 13 more days until Christmas. If you are one of those people who have already started Christmas shopping, you may have a few presents that need wrapped. Now, downtown Lawrence has a new business that specializes in wrapping presents of all sorts.
It's A Wrap has opened in a portion of the Extra Virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar store at 937 Massachusetts St. Ellen Frantz-Wolfe has opened the store, and will keep it open through the Christmas season and perhaps beyond, if demand calls for it.
Frantz-Wolfe used to work in a high-end Dallas gift wrapping shop that routinely used to wrap about 4,000 gifts during the holiday season.
"I've just always enjoyed creating the designs and matching the ribbons and the wraps," Frantz-Wolfe said.
She said said she has about 18 designs featuring combinations of paper and bows, but also can create custom wrapping designs. Prices range from about $3.50 to $12 per package, depending on the size of the item being wrapped.
"I just think an expertly wrapped present makes a gift more special," Frantz-Wolfe said. "It is like having a fabulously cooked dinner and also having it presented in a beautiful way."
• One quick piece of Lawrence City Hall news for you. Sometimes I swear Lawrence City Hall has a set of catacombs where issues go to never be heard of again. And I thought the issue or providing a pay raise to Lawrence city commissioners may have been one of them. But it appears not. Mayor Mike Dever has said he wants to bring the issue of city commissioner pay back up for debate, perhaps as soon as Tuesday's meeting. The city's agenda for Tuesday's meeting will be out shortly, so I'll keep an eye out for that.
If you remember back in April, outgoing City Commissioner Aron Cromwell suggested the commission take a look at raising the annual salary for commissioners. Commissioners are paid $9,000 per year, or $10,000, if you are serving as mayor. Cromwell said that level of pay isn't commensurate with the amount of work that goes into the position, and he worried that the low salary effectively keeps some very qualified people from even considering running for the position.
Cromwell said he thought the commission should consider raising the annual salary to be somewhere between $25,000 to $35,000 per year. Commissioners, at the time, said it was an issue they likely would consider. Now, about eight months later, it looks like they might.