Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
I promise, at some point I’ll quit writing about fried chicken restaurants. (The grease on my fingers will make it too difficult to type.) But more fried chicken restaurants keep opening in town, and the subject continues to be one I get asked about a lot. So, I have news on the opening date for Lawrence’s latest fried chicken restaurant, Zaxby’s.
Zaxby’s has announced that its grand opening will be Feb. 18. Although I left my Sherlock Holmes hat at home, a little bit of detective work indicates you can get some of Zaxby’s chicken well before that. When I was taking a photo of the new building, there was a sign taped to the drive-thru message board that said the store was opening at 10 a.m. Monday. My guess is the grand opening is Feb. 18, but the restaurant will have a soft opening on Monday.
If you have forgotten, Zaxby’s is located in the Bauer Farm development near Sixth and Wakarusa. Chicken fingers, chicken wings, chicken sandwiches, and an indiscriminate use of the letter ‘z’ are hallmarks of Zaxby’s menu. Chicken fingers are “fingerz,” salads are “zalads” and appetizers are “zappetizers.” The menu also includes about five dipping sauces ranging from marinara to its signature zak sauce. Also available are about 10 wing sauces ranging from mild to “insanely” hot.
• If you are keeping track at home, the Zaxby’s opening may be the end of the chicken rush for awhile. All the other chain restaurants that have announced plans for Lawrence already have opened. Those include: Chick-fil-A, Wing Stop, Popeyes, Raising Cane’s, and Slim Chickens, although Slim Chickens has filed plans for a second Lawrence location. As we have reported, that location would be along south Iowa Street where Barb Wire Steakhouse previously was located.
There is probably at least one more chicken restaurant development to keep an eye on. We reported in early January about plans for Wake the Dead: Chicken Whiskey, Donuts to open at 918 Massachusetts St. in the former location of Burger Fi.
Not long ago, though, the business’ Facebook page announced the location was changing to the spot above the tavern John Brown Underground on East Seventh Street. (Yes, across the street from my office.) Then, more recently, the business posted on Facebook again that it was back at 918 Massachusetts, but its name was changing to Harold's.
You may remember that Harold's was a small fried chicken restaurant in the gas station building near Sixth and Kasold in west Lawrence. As we’ve reported, Nick Wysong of Lawrence’s Ingredient restaurant, is one of the leaders of the group opening Wake the Dead. He also was the guy who opened Harold's. I haven’t talked with Wysong since the name change, but something caused him to drop the Wake the Dead theme.
What hasn’t changed, though, is the restaurant still will serve fried chicken, doughnuts and whiskey. The restaurant’s website has a menu now. It lists about 20 doughnut flavors, including some traditional maple-glazed ones, but also more unusual ones such as an Arnold Palmer, and Oreo explosion, pink champagne pistachio, and something called The Elvis.
Beyond doughnuts, the restaurant lists a handful of fried chicken dinners, chicken wings, a Louisiana catfish plate and about a half dozen dipping sauces, including country gravy. Sides seem to be fairly traditional with potatoes and gravy, mac-n-cheese, coleslaw, a few salad options, french fries and even chicken noodle soup among the options.
Yes, some of you who ate at the old Harold’s may remember the Grilled Glazer sandwich, which was a toasted maple glazed doughnut topped with fried chicken, cheese and a secret sauce. That too is on the menu, and so is hamburger version of that concoction.
Look for the restaurant to open soon, according to the latest info on the company’s Facebook page.
UPDATE: I talked to Wysong Friday afternoon, and he said he plans to begin frying chicken and doughnuts next week. He may even set aside a day to give free doughnuts away late in the week, he said. As for the name change, he said after the Journal-World ran the original article about Wake the Dead, he heard from a lot of people who said they really loved Harolds Fried Chicken. That feedback caused him to reconsider changing the name. It also sounds like the ownership group that had come together to create the Wake the Dead concept is no longer fully intact.
Final numbers in for city’s record-setting apartment building boom; a look at the $1 million-plus projects in Lawrence
We already have reported it has been a record-setting year for apartment construction. By the end of September Lawrence builders already had constructed more apartments than in any year in the city’s history. But perhaps you are asking: What ended up being the grand total of apartments built in Lawrence in 2016?
What? You hadn’t asked that question? Maybe this why I don’t get invited to dinner parties anymore. Regardless, the answer is 1,205 apartment units were built in the city last year. (And, for what it is worth, inauguration crowd estimators believe the number could be closer to 1 billion.) Lawrence didn’t just set a new record for apartment construction; it obliterated the old record. The previous high-water mark was 972 apartment units built in 1996.
Whether you think Lawrence needed that many new apartments, one thing not in dispute is apartment construction added a lot of dollars to the local economy in 2016. The highest dollar value project in the city last year was an a apartment complex — $26.4 million for The Links at Lawrence project just east of Rock Chalk Park. In case you have forgotten, that is the complex that will have apartment buildings built around a nine-hole private golf course.
In fact, the five largest construction projects in the city were all apartments — either the traditional kind or those focused on retirement living. This number also is interesting: $80.7 million. I looked at the 25 largest construction projects in the city in 2016, and added up the value of all the apartment projects on that list; $80.7 million is what I came up with. Another interesting number that comes from that: $1.2 million. Let’s assume $80.7 million is the fair market value of all the new apartments built in the city. Property in the Lawrence city limits pays property taxes at a rate of about 130 mills. That would mean local governments are collecting about $1.2 million in new taxes from the new apartment complexes.
But, hey, if you want big numbers, I’ve got lots of them to share. I’ve been touring Lawrence’s other building boom — fried chicken restaurants — and I just had a cholesterol test. Actually, I won’t share those numbers. Instead, here are some facts and figures from the 2016 year-end building permit report produced by Lawrence City Hall:
• The city issued permits for $220.8 million worth of building projects in 2016. That was nearly a record. It fell just short of the $227.8 million record that was set in 2015. There has never been a two-year period in Lawrence where there has been so much construction. And remember, none of these numbers includes huge amounts of construction underway on the KU campus. That construction is inspected by state officials, and thus does not show up in the city of Lawrence’s building permit totals.
Here’s a look at how 2016 stacked up to past years:
— 2016: $220.8 million
— 2015: $227.8 million
— 2014: $99.7 million
— 2013: $171.9 million
— 2012: $100.6 million
— 2011: $115.7 million
— 2010: $101.8 million
— 2009: $75.3 million
• There were a lot of building projects constructed on the public’s dime in 2016, but not quite as many as in 2015. The city issued permits for $25.6 million worth of publicly financed construction projects, ranging from city, county, school and Lawrence Memorial Hospital projects. That was down a bit from the $35.4 million total in 2015.
• Single-family and duplex construction had a better-than-average year but declined a bit from 2015 totals. The city issued permits for 171 single-family homes or duplexes. That was down from 239. The average since 2010, though, has been about 150 permits per year.
• The city’s building inspections department is setting records for the number of fees it is collecting. The city department collected $1.3 million in building permit inspection fees in 2016, up about $300,000 from the 2015 totals. Compared with 2009, when the community was still feeling the impacts of the recession, fee revenues are up about $735,000. In addition, builders will be paying higher fees in some cases in 2017. The city increased some of its fees on Jan. 1, primarily for multifamily and commercial construction projects.
• There were 26 construction projects valued at $1 million or more in Lawrence in 2016. I think we have written about all of them at one point or another. Here’s a look:
The Links at Lawrence apartments, 5400 Rock Chalk Drive: $26.4 million
Alvamar Apartments, 1575 Birdie Way: $14.4 million
West End Apartments, 5400 Overland Drive: $14.2 million
Village Cooperative, 5325 W. Sixth St.: $8.3 million
Bauer Farms apartments, 4541 Bauer Farms Drive: $6 million
Maple Street Pump Station, 547 Maple St.: $5.9 million
Pinckney Elementary School addition and renovations: $5.7 million
Bethel Estates of Lawrence, 2140 E. 25th Terrace: $5.5 million
800 New Hampshire apartment addition: $4 million
KU Tennis Facility, 6100 Rock Chalk Drive: $3.9 million
Clinton Water Treatment Plant improvements: $3.8 million
Sunflower Elementary School renovations: $3.3 million
Growing Smiles Dental office, 4320 W. Sixth Street: $2.8 million
Douglas County Fairgrounds Pavilion: $2.7 million
PetSmart, 4820 Bauer Farm Drive, $2.3 million
Retail center at 525 Wakarusa Drive (Spin pizza et. al): $2 million
Lawrence Paper Company addition, 2801 Lakeview Road: $1.8 million
Lawrence Beer Company brewery and apartments, 826 Pennsylvania St.: $1.7 million
Regal Cinema renovations, 3433 Iowa St.: $1.5 million
Clinton raw water pump station improvements, 1316 E. 902 Road: $1.5 million
M&M Office Supply building renovation, 623 Massachusetts: $1.4 million
Popeye’s Restaurant, 2540 Iowa: $1.3 million
Wakarusa Township Fire Station No. 1, 300 W. 31st St.: $1.1 million
Broken Arrow Elementary School renovations: $1 million
KU Golf Practice Facility at Alvamar, 1610 Birdie Way: $1 million
Mid America Credit Union, 550 Wakarusa Drive: $1 million.
Effects of KU’s construction boom soon may become a little more evident on downtown’s Massachusetts Street. No, construction crews still seem disinclined to let me take a bulldozer for a spin, but you should look for a new high-profile office of an engineering firm that is expanding, in part, because of all the work going on at KU.
Perhaps you have noticed construction work is underway on the old M&M Office Supply building at 623 Massachusetts. Well, part of that work is to accommodate a new office for Professional Engineering Consultants.
For a number of years, the company — which primarily goes by PEC — has had a Lawrence office at Sixth and Vermont streets in the building that houses the local accounting firm The McFadden Group. Jarrod Mann, principal and Lawrence office lead for PEC, told me the engineering firm was quickly outgrowing that space.
That led the company to sign a deal to lease the entire second floor of the old M&M Office Supply building.
“We’ve been having a lot of growth in our staff,” Mann said. “This will let us almost double the amount of square footage that we have available.”
PEC’s Lawrence office has grown from just a handful of employees since it entered the Lawrence market in 1999 to 18 employees currently. The new space easily will allow the firm to grow to 30 employees. Mann offered no timetable on when the company may see that type of growth, but he said business has been good.
The historic amount of construction underway at the University of Kansas campus has certainly played a role in the company’s growth. PEC is working on parts of the Central District construction projects, and the company has an on-call contract to do work for the university. Mann also cited several projects by hospitals in the region that have aided the company’s growth, and the Kansas Department of Transportation continues to be a good customer, despite the strained finances of the state.
The Lawrence office serves the greater northeast Kansas area, Mann said. The company is based in Wichita, but also has offices in Topeka, Pittsburg, Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Fort Collins.
The company is an example of the type of firm that economic development leaders would be wise to keep an eye on. When I talk about Lawrence striving to be the “Creative Capital of the Great Plains,” this is an example of a company I’m talking about. Engineers, architects, software designers, marketing firms and other such businesses that rely on a large number of creative minds are attractive types of jobs. And Lawrence may be an attractive type of community for those types of workers, who often place a high value on quality-of-life factors.
The engineering industry also is a good example of where Lawrence may have something that Kansas City can’t offer. The Kansas City metro does not have an engineering school that can compete with KU’s. If you are an engineering firm that wants to be close to a pipeline of new talent, Lawrence may have some advantages over KC.
In talking with Mann, the other thing I noted is that companies are starting to notice a synergy in downtown Lawrence. Mann told me that when PEC started looking for new office space, it definitely wanted to stay in downtown Lawrence. The reason: Many of an engineering firm’s largest clients are architects, and downtown Lawrence has a lot of architects. Treanor, Gould Evans, Sabatini, and Paul Werner are all fairly large firms that are based in the downtown area.
Communities with successful economies usually find a synergy they can exploit to their advantage. Who knows, maybe this is one for Lawrence.
As for the PEC project, look for the company to move into its new offices sometime in May.
• PEC remodeling work is not the only thing going on with the M&M building. As we have reported, the facade of the building is getting a whole new look. The stucco, 1970s style largely will be gone, and more bricks and windows will take its place.
The big unanswered question, though, is what else may go into the building. PEC is taking the entire second floor, but the ground floor may be primed to bring in new retailers. In case you have forgotten, the building is unique in downtown because the building — which used to be a car dealership years ago — is set off of Massachusetts Street a few feet. That allows for private parking stalls at the front door of the building, rather than the metered parking spaces that dominate the rest of Massachusetts Street.
Allison Vance Moore with the Lawrence office of Colliers International is marketing the ground-floor space to retailers. She said the space could accommodate one larger retailer or two smaller ones, but she said she didn’t have any updates on potential tenants yet.
The confusing speed limit situation on the eastern edge of Lawrence, and whether it is set to change
Perhaps you are thinking the city of Lawrence has a secret plan to deal with the feared fiscal problems that await once a new property tax lid and other state budget woes filter down to City Hall. The plan: a speed trap on the section of 23rd Street just east of O’Connell Road.
If you have driven that stretch of 23rd Street, which turns into Kansas Highway 10 just east of town, you perhaps have noticed that it has a 45 mph speed limit, despite the road being designed much like a four-lane highway. You also may have noticed that if you actually drive 45 mph on that stretch of road, you will have an SUV in your backseat.
The stretch of street kind of has the feel of a potential speed trap, in part, because prior to the area becoming a construction zone for the South Lawrence Trafficway, the road had a speed limit of 55. It was assumed that once the construction work ended, which was late last year, the speed limit would be restored to 55. That didn’t happen, though. To make the situation odder, the westbound portion of the road — the section from the SLT to O’Connell Road — is 55 mph. So, if you are heading east out of town, the speed limit is 45. If you are heading west into town, it is 55.
To the city’s credit, though, police officers have not been running a speed trap along the stretch of street. Despite the fact it is very hard to find a vehicle that actually travels less than 45 mph on the street, I haven’t seen or heard of any signs of a large number of tickets being written in the area.
I have heard from several readers, though, questioning why the speed limit is so low.
Also to the city’s credit, I’ve been told it is working with the Kansas Department of Transportation to get the speed limit raised to 55. City Engineer David Cronin told me this morning that he made the request to KDOT a few weeks ago. He said KDOT officials told him they intend to change the speed limit, but he wasn’t given a timeline. It sounds like signs have to be ordered, and a time has to be scheduled for them to be installed. (It could be awhile. KDOT officials are very busy hiding their couches from the governor, who keeps going through the cushions looking for loose change.)
It is not clear why KDOT put the 45 mph signs up to begin with. Cronin said it wasn’t simply a mistake of construction crews forgetting to take down the construction speed limit signs. Cronin said the design plans for the road show that stretch being 45 mph. But Cronin said there aren’t any traffic standards or particular road conditions that would make a 55 mph speed limit unsafe.
“We feel like the signs need to be consistent with what people feel is the comfortable speed for that street,” Cronin said.
A long-held theory in traffic engineering is that speed limits should roughly be equal to the 85th percentile of vehicle speeds on the street. (That is why mathematicians and other people who understand percentiles always drive 120 mph.) The 85th percentile on that stretch of road definitely isn’t 45 mph.
At some point the stretch of street will be a full-fledged city street, and there won’t be a need to get KDOT’s permission to change the speed limits. The state is the controlling party on the road currently because it used to be Kansas Highway 10. The South Lawrence Traffiway is now Kansas Highway 10. At some point the state will transfer the old K-10 — basically all of 23rd Street — back to the city. But as we have reported, the city is currently negotiating with the state on maintenance work the state should conduct on the street before it is turned back over to the city. Cronin said those negotiations are still underway.
Shop that sells quick, healthy food coming to west Lawrence; update on Blue Moose Bar & Grill; Lawrence to be on Fox Business Network tonight
There is a new menu item coming to Lawrence called “Look Good Naked Smart Chicken.” No, the battle between the plethora of Lawrence fried chicken restaurants hasn’t devolved into a clothing-optional battle (never a good idea around a fryer). Instead, there is a new business coming to west Lawrence that says it makes ready-to-eat meals so healthy that you will like how you look in the mirror, even sans clothes.
The growing Omaha-based franchise Eat Fit Go has signed a deal to locate near Sixth and Wakarusa in the retail building that houses Spin Pizza, just east of Wal-Mart. Eat Fit Go isn’t really a restaurant, though. Instead, it is a shop where you can buy ready-to-eat meals that just need warmed up.
The business will have coolers full of ready-to-eat meals. You can buy one at a time or sign up for the store’s weekly meal plans where you can get several days' worth of food. Each meal has nutritional information on it, and instructions for reheating. If you are hungry at that moment, though, the store will have a few tables and a microwave.
David Baumann — who is opening the Lawrence location along with business partners Joel Jacobs and Jeff White — said that on any given day there will be about 40 different meals or food items to choose from. The menu currently has breakfast items like a southwest scramble, a steak and eggs dish and breakfast burritos. The lunch and dinner menu includes items like a chicken pesto pasta, chicken fried rice, enchiladas, jambalaya, beef tenderloin and potatoes, and several salads. Then there is the “naked” portion of the menu. The store sells a popular dish called Look Good Naked Smart Chicken and also a Look Good Naked Salmon dish, both of which feature something called roasted vegetables and a low number of calories.
Folks who are looking to eat healthy are obviously a big part of the business’ target market. The meals even have a barcode that can be scanned into the Weight Watchers app and other fitness programs. But Baumann thinks the market will be bigger than just healthy eaters.
“Our target market is pretty broad,” Baumann said. “Initially it is just busy people on the go. That can be the busy millennial or it can be the sports mom. We find there are a lot of young professionals who don’t really engage in cooking full meals very much. But we also find that the 50 and older crowd don’t cook as much either and don’t want to eat out every night. This is a healthy way and a portion-controlled way to eat.”
Baumann estimated most meals will cost between $6.75 to $9, depending on whether you get the small or large version. The menu includes some staples that are available week after week, but new items are rotated in about every quarter. All the meals are made off-site at a commercial kitchen supervised by a chef.
Baumann is part of the group that owns the franchise for Lawrence, Manhattan and Wichita. Allison Vance Moore, a broker with the Lawrence office of Colliers International, negotiated the deal to bring the company to the west Lawrence site. Baumann said Lawrence is his group’s focus currently, but plans to add locations in Manhattan and Wichita.
“We felt Lawrence was a great market,” Baumann said. “It is a progressive town. The university helps with that, and there is good growth with the number of young professionals living there.”
Baumann said he hopes to have the shop — which will employ about 20 people and is hiring now — open by the end of March.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Since we are in the neighborhood, I thought I would give you an update about plans for a Blue Moose Bar & Grill in west Lawrence. As we have reported, the Kansas City-based restaurant is slated to go in the same building as Eat Fit Go and Spin Pizza.
Several of you, however, have called worried that the restaurant had decided not to come to Lawrence after all. We reported that it was slated to open in October or November, and it clearly did not.
Well, be patient. It takes a long time to cook a moose (the antlers make the oven door hard to close). Actually, I always get confused: the moose isn’t on the menu but rather is the mascot. Regardless, it takes a fair amount of time to build a new Blue Moose Bar & Grill from scratch.
But Ed Nelson, who is the president of the Kansas City restaurant company KC Hopps, which is the parent company of Blue Moose, told me work is still underway and going well.
“It is going to be amazing,” Nelson said. “It is a real treat to have a brand new space to work with.”
The new construction, though, is just taking longer than expected. Nelson said he now expects the restaurant to open in late April or early May.
In case you have forgotten about the Blue Moose or have never been to one of its locations in Kansas City or Topeka, I described it last year as being “fancy but not full-on-fancy.” Yes, the restaurant does serve items such as chicken wings, hamburgers, pizza — the flatbread variety — and even fried pickles. But you’ll also find more upscale items such as a baked brie appetizer, several salmon and fish dishes, a couple of pasta offerings and a dish called lemon chicken saltimbocca.
• Look for Lawrence, and one of its newest attractions, to get some national television time tonight. The cable channel Fox Business Network will feature Lawrence as part of its program called Strange Inheritance.
A network spokeswoman alerted me that tonight’s episode will feature the story of Naismith’s original rules of basketball. The episode — called the “Basketball Magna Carta” — was partially shot in Lawrence and includes interviews with members of the James Naismith family. Of course, it also tells the tale of how KU alumnus David Booth ended up purchasing the rules and allowing them to be housed in a new building connected to Allen Fieldhouse.
The episode airs at 8 tonight, and of course, will be shown in reruns too. Fox Business is on channel 139 on the local cable system.
If you have done contortionist acts with a coat hanger in one hand and a radio dial in the other, you may be an AM radio listener. (If you're not, I'm really curious what you are doing.) Well, there’s news on that front. One of Lawrence’s AM stations is expanding over to the FM dial.
The parent company that owns Lawrence’s KLWN 1320 has confirmed that it is launching a new FM station that will simulcast all KLWN programming, including Jayhawk athletics and the Kansas City Royals.
Tim Robisch, general manager for Great Plains Media, said the new radio station will broadcast at 101.7 on the radio dial. The station actually is already on the air some, but its signal may be intermittent while technicians are tweaking signal strength and doing various other tests required by the FCC.
Beginning Tuesday morning, the station is expected to be fully operational. Robisch said the new station is big news for Great Plains, which in addition to KLWN 1320 also operates pop music station 105.9 KISS FM, and country music station 92.9 The Bull. KLWN is a news and sports talk radio station, with much of its morning and afternoon programing consisting of locally produced shows. Robisch said that will continue to be the case. The difference will be that people can now listen to it on an FM frequency, which is expected to producer greater audience both geographically and demographically.
“We know because of the technology that our signal now will get into Johnson County and Topeka, but we’re not going to change our focus on Douglas County,” Robisch said, although he thinks the change will be attractive to Lawrence commuters who work in Topeka or Kansas City. The station’s transmitter is attached to the KANU public radio tower on west campus.
Robisch is hoping the FM frequency will attract some listeners who are otherwise hard to reach on the AM dial.
“There are a lot of people under the age of 40 that may never tune into AM radio,” Robisch said. “This will give us a chance to reach them.”
In addition, AM radio continues to face signal challenges as tall buildings, Bluetooth connections and other issues can cause interruptions in the AM signal. KLWN took advantage of the federal AM Revitalization Act, which allows certain AM stations to purchase the frequency of an FM station to use as a simulcast channel for AM programming.
People who still like the AM experience, though, won’t have to change. KLWN programming will continue to be broadcast on the 1320 frequency. That means there now will be three Lawrence-based radio stations broadcasting KU sports — 1320, 105.9 and soon 101.7. Robisch said the Kansas City Royals also will be broadcast on the 101.7 frequency.
“But it also will include the high school football and basketball games that we do,” Robisch said. “I think people will really be excited about that.”
A talk with the newest Douglas County commissioner about the timing of jail expansion election, and how voters may be inundated with ballot questions in 2017
Surely you all have started to have election withdrawal by now. The symptoms include a smile on your face and giddiness. Well, fear not, 2017 is going to have plenty of local elections. In fact, in some ways, it may have too many.
As part of my series of conversations with local leaders, I met recently with new Douglas County Commissioner Michelle Derusseau. The big takeaway from our chat is that Derusseau is not yet convinced it is a good idea to have an election in 2017 to seek taxpayer approval for a jail expansion and mental health crisis center.
“I don’t know yet,” Derusseau said when asked whether 2017 was the year the approximately $40 million jail and crisis center project should be put to voters. “It is going to be a tough year to do it. I can say that.”
There are at least two factors that may make 2017 particularly challenging for the jail issue. The first is that there are already visible signs of opposition to expanding the jail. There are two groups actively working to convince leaders that a jail expansion shouldn’t be undertaken now, but rather alternative efforts to incarceration need to be further explored. If you are keeping track at home, they are the faith-based group Justice Matters and a separate group that is affiliated with the nonprofit Kansas Appleseed Project. Organized opposition before an election date has even been set is always a red flag, but certainly not insurmountable.
Issue No. 2, though, is that by the time Douglas County commissioners conceivably could be prepared to put this on the ballot, Douglas County voters may already be tired of supporting tax increases for projects. That’s because the Lawrence school district is positioned to beat everybody to the punch in asking for a tax increase. As we have reported, the Lawrence school board has authorized a May 2 election for an $87 million school bond issue that likely would increase property taxes by about 2.4 mills.
If the county decides to ask voters to support a tax increase for the jail project, it won’t happen before that May 2 school election. So, the county would be at least second in line, and that usually is not the best political position to be in. If voters approve $87 million in school funding, are they going to be eager to approve another tax increase in such short order?
A wild card in all of this is that it is possible there might be yet another tax issue for voters to decide. The city has three sales taxes that will automatically expire unless voters in a citywide election agree to extend them. There is one sales tax that helps fund the city’s road and infrastructure repair program, and two taxes that provide the bulk of the funding for the city’s public transit system.
The taxes are not set to expire until early 2019, but conventional thinking is that city officials will want to know well in advance of that date whether they can count on the sales tax funding for the future. City officials will start putting together the 2019 budget in about May 2018. That has caused some people to wonder whether the city would ask voters in late 2017 to extend the sales taxes, giving the city more time to plan in case voters reject the sales taxes.
I haven’t heard anything definitively from the city on what its plans are for a sales tax election, but we’ll start asking more questions about that soon. Regardless, whether it is this year or early next year, it seems likely Lawrence voters will be participating in a sales tax election. To summarize, that would be three big taxing decisions for voters to make in a short time period: $87 million in school bonds, $30 million to $40 million for jail and mental health improvements; and a decision on whether to renew sales taxes that total 0.55 percent.
Derusseau, who took office in early January, said she’s not sure how voters would react to so many taxing issues in such a short time. Instead, most of her comments were focused on how she thinks many members of the public still need more convincing on the jail expansion.
“I know we are going to need the time to make sure we educate voters on the need,” Derusseau said.
Derusseau said there are unanswered questions about both the jail expansion and the construction of a mental health crisis intervention center. How that mental health facility would be staffed and how it would operate are key questions. Some of the answers are still fluid. Case in point, if Lawrence Memorial Hospital decides to become more involved in mental health care, that could cause the crisis intervention center to look different. Derusseau said county officials are having discussions with LMH.
“How the hospital could be involved could change everything,” Derusseau said. “We really need to look at everything. I think there is a lot of work to do to make sure the right message is out there.”
Other takeaways from my conversation with Derusseau included:
• The city has been going through a strategic planning and visioning process, so I thought it would be interesting to get Derusseau’s take on what Douglas County’s vision ought to be. Derusseau mentioned several things, but came back to the idea of using the county’s diversity to its advantage.
“There ought to be a way for us to market that we are a community for everybody,” Derusseau said.
She noted that the county has a variety of city types, ranging from the almost 100,000 population of Lawrence to the approximately 600 people in Lecompton. She also noted that Douglas County still has a much different feel than many places in the Kansas City metro.
“There are a lot of places in Johnson County where it is a 20- or 30-minute drive to get out into the country,” she said. “It is not that way here.”
• On economic development, Derusseau said she does have concerns about local governments adopting a bunch of new policies that may cause potential companies to scratch Douglas County off their search list early in the process.
“Getting businesses to come to your community is not like it was in the old days,” Derusseau said. “They start with such a large number of communities now. You have to get the site selectors here to visit. You don’t want to do something to get yourself eliminated early on. We have to figure out a way to get people here to see our communities. We have nice communities. We have safe communities.”
Derusseau said she thinks there is a lot of good growth going on in the community, and she said it is important to keep that growth continuing. Growing the county’s tax base will become more critical as state resources continue to become less certain.
“The more business-friendly we can be, the better,” she said.
• Derusseau said the county will soon have to figure out how to deal with the state’s new concealed carry law, which will allow people to carry concealed firearms into many public places beginning July 1. Governments can prohibit concealed carry, if they take adequate security measures, such as metal detectors at the entrances to public buildings. Derusseau said figuring out how to secure the Bert Nash Mental Health Center and other agencies that are in the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department building is one of her priorities.
When I was in college, pizza, beer and abacus stores were the most likely type of businesses to locate next to the KU campus. In a sign of changing times, I’ve gotten word that the first two tenants in a new retail development next to KU will be an international coffee house and a unique shop that sells fancy fruit.
Two deals have been signed for retail space inside the massive HERE apartment complex at 11th and Indiana streets, Allison Vance Moore, a broker with the Lawrence office of Colliers International, told me. Topeka-based PT’s Coffee Roasting and Edible Arrangements have signed leases to locate in the building’s commercial space that fronts Indiana Street, according to Moore, who brokered the deals.
Look for more commercial businesses to come. The building — which has apartment space totaling more than 600 bedrooms — has about 5,000 square feet of commercial space along Mississippi Street, and Moore said she’s already got about half of that space leased. No word on what tenant will go into the location, but the Mississippi Street space — which is right across the street from Memorial Stadium — has been marketed to restaurants.
As for the two confirmed tenants, let’s start with the fruit. Edible Arrangements is a shop that sells “bouquets” of fruit. Francis Katzer owns the Topeka franchise, and will be opening the Lawrence store, hopefully by March 1, she said.
Katzer challenged me to think of all the times I’ve needed to buy flowers. OK ... birthdays, apologies for forgotten birthdays, anniversaries, apologies for forgotten anniversaries and several other things that I’m sure I will remember once my key no longer opens the front door. Well, for all those things, I could have bought a bouquet of fresh fruit instead of flowers. Katzer has a simple argument of why that’s a good idea.
“Flowers are pretty, but you don’t eat them,” she said.
She promises that the fruit bouquets will be pretty too. Pineapples are made to look like daisies. Strawberries, melons, grapes and other fruits are manipulated to look like plants and flower arrangements too. Plus, the store stocks gourmet chocolate that is used to dip strawberries, apples, bananas and other fruit.
Katzer has had the Topeka store for about four years, and she said it received a lot of orders from Lawrence, so much so that the store started delivering to Lawrence once a week. When the spot near the KU campus became available, she decided to expand into the city. In addition to the fruit bouquets, the store will sell fresh fruit smoothies and frozen yogurt.
Next, the coffee house. PT’s Coffee Roasting is Topeka based, and, yes, I did call it an international coffee house. Sometimes the proposals coming out of the Statehouse in Topeka sound like they’ve come from Make Believe Land, but that is not the international aspect I was referring to. Instead, I’m talking about how the company gets coffee beans from around the world, roasts them, then gains international recognition for its work. The company has been named roaster of the year by Roast Magazine, and it sells its coffee beans in shops, restaurants and select grocery stores nationwide.
PT’s, however, only operates two coffee shops of its own — one near the Washburn campus in Topeka, and one in the Crossroad District of Kansas City. I’ve got a call into the folks at PT’s, but haven’t yet heard back from them. So, I don’t know an opening date or details about what the shop plans to offer. Both the Topeka and Kansas City locations have breakfast and lunch menus with lots of grab-and-go items like sandwiches, pastries, breakfast burritos and other such items. The Topeka location also has a bar that serves microbrewery beer, wine and specialty cocktails. No word yet on whether the Lawrence location will have a bar.
UPDATE: I heard back this afternoon from Jeff Taylor, president of PT’s. He said renovation work on the space is expected to start soon, and he hopes the shop opens in March or April. Taylor said PT’s recently decided it wants to have more retail locations, but Taylor said the company made a decision to stay off of Lawrence’s Massachusetts Street.
PT’s provides coffee to shops in 32 states, and some of those shops are in Downtown Lawrence. He said he didn’t want to open a shop in Downtown Lawrence for that reason. But when the space became available in the HERE building, he thought that would be a way to enter the Lawrence market without competing against his wholesale coffee buyers in Lawrence.
In addition to coffee, the Lawrence location will carry several grab-and-go items for breakfast and lunch. It also will have a small selection of beers on tap, but Taylor said the location doesn’t have any interest in becoming a bar. He said the establishment likely will close at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. on most nights.
PT’s will be at the space right at the corner of 11th and Indiana. Edible Arrangements will be in space farther along Indiana Street.
As I hear more about the other businesses going into the building, I’ll let you know.
Lawrence housing market posts increase for 2016, home prices rise; question about whether homeowners will see higher property tax values
The final numbers for 2016 are in, and real estate agents sold 1,210 Lawrence homes. From the podium, though, it looked like at least a million to a million and a half. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Either way, it was enough for Lawrence to post its fourth consecutive year of growth in home sales.
The new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors shows home sale totals grew by 2.2 percent compared with 2015 marks. That’s not a record-setter by any means, but there were times in 2016 that it was questionable whether the market was going to grow at all. So, real estate agents are likely happy with the end result.
Here’s a look at how this year’s home sale totals compare with previous years:
— 2016: 1,210, up 2.2 percent
— 2015: 1,184, up 11.4 percent
— 2014: 1,063, up 0.2 percent
— 2013: 1,061, up 17.2 percent
Some of the more interesting numbers in this report are on the pricing front. The end-of-year numbers show the median selling price of a home in Lawrence was $178,000. That was an increase of 5.3 percent from the 2015 median of $169,000. Here’s a look at some recent history on median selling prices in Lawrence.
— 2016: $178,000, up 5.3 percent
— 2015: $169,000, up 1.2 percent
— 2014: $167,000, down 1.8 percent
— 2013: $170,000, up 6.6 percent.
A couple of things you may notice about those numbers are that the housing market did seem to break through a bit of a ceiling in 2016. The market hit a recent high in 2013 with a median selling price of $170,000. Then it dropped in 2014, and home prices weren’t able to increase enough in 2015 to get the median equal to or above the old high. The market gained back all of its losses plus some in 2016. The other notable trend is that Lawrence now has had two consecutive years of increases in selling prices. It will be interesting to watch whether that trend starts showing up in the tax values that the county appraiser assigns to each home. Those tax values are supposed to be based on the fair market value of homes, and while homeowners may not want to see their tax values increase, local governments are likely eager to get the additional tax revenues that higher values would produce
The rising price of housing, though, was most evident in the new construction market. The median selling price of a newly constructed home rose to $324,900 in 2016, an increase of 6 percent from 2015 values. Since 2013, the median price of a newly constructed home has risen by 8 percent, while the median price of existing housing stock has grown by 4.7 percent. The figures illustrate some of the difficulties the city may face if it has an affordable housing strategy that is heavily reliant on new construction. The numbers also show the new construction market struggles to build smaller, more entry-level homes. The difference in price between an average existing home and the average newly constructed home is nearly $150,000. Obviously, the new stuff that is getting built is a lot bigger, and perhaps fancier, than the older housing stock.
But despite the rising prices, sales of newly constructed homes posted their best totals in a long time. Real estate agents sold 99 new homes in 2016, a 22 percent increase from 2015.
Here is a look at a few other statistics from the end-of-year report:
— The median number of days an existing house sat on the market before it sold was 16. That’s the shortest time period in recent memory. In 2013, existing homes were on the market for 40 days on average. The number has been falling ever since. The statistic shows the market becoming more and more of a sellers market.
— There are mixed signals on the new construction front. While more newly constructed homes sold in Lawrence than in past years, they took longer to sell. The median number of days a newly constructed home sat on the market before selling was 94. That’s up significantly from the 76 days in 2015. As local homebuilders decide how many houses to build in 2017, they may be trying to figure out what statistic to put their faith in: an increasing number of sales or a slowdown in how long it is taking to sell a home.
— The year ended with 180 homes actively on the market. That too is a recent low. At the end of 2015 there were 240 homes on the market. At the end of 2013 there were 303. The shrinking number of homes on the market is a main factor driving up prices in the market, local real estate agents tell me. Unless something changes in the market — and who knows, facts and “alternative facts” could produce a shift — the low inventory of homes for sale makes it likely that Lawrence may see a third year of price increases in the real estate market.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If you are wondering whether the Douglas County Appraiser is going to attach a higher tax value to your home, you’ll have to keep wondering a bit longer. The county will send out its change of value notices on March 1. But the appraiser’s staff currently is going through the process of assigning a tax value to the approximately 40,000 real estate parcels that exist in the county.
County Appraiser Steve Miles put out a report recently updating the process, but he didn’t provide any firm guidance on what homeowners should expect. But it sure sounds like some sort of increase in tax values is in play.
“When the entire year is analyzed, there has been upward movement in the overall market value of existing real property over that period,” Miles wrote in the report. “As staff proceeds with the process of establishing the valuations for Douglas County properties, we are seeing an upward trend in total valuations on average.”
But Miles did not offer guidance on how large of an increase in values his staff is seeing. In a separate part of the report, Miles notes that through November, the average sale price for residential property throughout Douglas County was $214,895, which was up about 1 percent from the 2015 average. These numbers look different from the ones above for a couple of reasons: 1. They are for the entire county. 2.The appraiser uses a mean average instead of a median average. (No, I’m not going to explain the difference. You should have paid attention in math class.)
The appraiser’s office is scheduled to wrap up its annual review of values in the next couple of weeks. We’’ll check in with the appraiser after that to see if we can get a better idea of what homeowners should expect.
East Hills Business Park manufacturer files plans to expand; an update on enrollment growth, possible new programs at city’s vo-tech school
In my house, when you want to add some bling to a package, equip my wife with a Be Dazzler and take to the root cellar to avoid the rhinestone explosion that is to come. In the world of industrial packaging, though, you are more likely to turn to Lawrence-based API America, and I’ve gotten word API is expanding its local bling-producing operations.
API officials have filed plans with City Hall to build an approximately 11,000 square-foot, $750,000 expansion onto its manufacturing facility at East Hills Business Park. Jaime Bryant, vice president of operations for API, confirmed to me that the expansion likely would result in three to five new jobs at the plant, which is located at 3841 Greenway Circle. The company currently has about 100 employees at its Lawrence location.
If you are still confused about what API actually makes, think of some of the shiny products that are used on packages these days. The company’s website says the firm specializes in making foils, films, laminates and holographic finishes that are used on labels, cartons, containers and other such packages. Among its clients are some of the big names in the liquor, candy, tobacco, perfume and cosmetics industries. I don’t know what the case is today, but previously I was under the impression that a good amount of product also got shipped across town to the Lawrence Hallmark plant that is the primary producer of greeting cards in North America. The company serves a variety of industries, Bryant said.
“Just about anything that you want to add a little bling to your packaging, that is what we make out here,” Bryant said.
The new space will be devoted to additional production, Bryant said. The company has long had operations in New Jersey, but the company for several years has been considering consolidating more of its work at the Lawrence plant.
As part of the project, the company also will be moving some of its distribution and warehouse space out of the East Hills Business Park and into vacant space at the Peaslee Tech building near 31st and Haskell. Peaslee Tech — the vo-tech center operated by local economic development entities — is located in the former Honeywell Avionics manufacturing facility. Peaslee Tech occupies only a portion of that building. A key part of Peaslee Tech’s funding strategy is to lease the vacant space to private companies.
Marvin Hunt, executive director at Peaslee Tech, said API has signed a lease for nearly 23,000 square feet of space. API will occupy about all the vacant space in the facility, except for about 15,000 square feet that Peaslee Tech is reserving for future expansion of the vo-tech center.
“Having API as a tenant will help stabilize our finances for the next several years,” Hunt said. “We can really count on them as a good partner for a lot of years.”
Bryant said API hopes to have the expansion project completed in about 18 months. The property already is properly zoned to accommodate the industrial project. The development just needs some technical site plan approvals from the city’s planning and development services department.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Since I’ve mentioned Peaslee Tech, now seems like a good time for an update on the vo-tech center. Hunt tells me that the center has a little more than 300 students — both the high school and adult variety — enrolled for its vocational programs this spring. That number is steady from the fall semester, but is up from about 150 students at this time last year.
Hunt is projecting that next fall’s enrollment will be between 350 to 400 students. He said the center likely will have two new programs to offer students: an automotive repair major and a program to train people wanting to work in power plants, green energy or other utility fields.
We’ve reported on the automotive initiative previously. A group of local auto dealers has committed funding to the project, and Hunt is now seeking to secure some additional support from auto parts stores, automotive repair shops and other similar types of businesses. The center hasn’t yet begun construction of the new laboratory space that will be needed for the automotive program, but Hunt said a request for proposals will be issued in the next couple of weeks.
On the power plant program, Hunt said Peaslee Tech is in serious discussions with Emporia-based Flint Hills Technical College to bring its power plant technology program to Lawrence.
“That program helps people gain careers in areas like gas, hydroelectric, solar and nuclear power plants,” Hunt said. “We’re really looking at all the companies associated with utilities and the potential that exists there.”
The center currently is undergoing several construction projects. Work is concluding on the remodeling of nine offices and a conference room to house the operations of Douglas County senior services while its longtime home next to the Lawrence Public Library prepares for renovations. The center also will be installing fire sprinklers in the warehouse area that API is leasing, Hunt said.
Update on the future of East Lawrence’s debated Quonset hut; longtime Lawrence chef joins local brewery project; more plans for affordable housing
Yesterday I told you about plans for a pair of new, architecturally interesting apartment buildings that developers hope to construct in East Lawrence’s Warehouse Arts District. Today, I have news in the same neighborhood about another piece of interesting architecture: the old Quonset hut-like building at the former Black Hills Energy site.
You perhaps remember it. The old metal building is across the street from the Poehler Lofts building near Eight and Delaware streets. Black Hills Energy once tried to tear the building down, but some neighbors and historic preservationists objected. Some people think a Quonset hut is a good example of period architecture. Other people think Jabba the Hutt is more appealing. (To not offend either Quonset or Jabba the Hutt, it probably is best to call this building Quonset hut-like. It is not a Quonset brand, but looks similar.)
Regardless, the property has a new owner. A group led by Lawrence businessman Adam Williams has purchased the old Black Hills Energy maintenance yard near Eighth and Delaware streets.
Williams told me he doesn’t have any plans to tear down the building. He said, at the moment, he doesn’t have any real long term plans for the property. He said he thought it would be a good investment given the momentum of the Warehouse Arts District. Plus, the site can come in handy for one of Williams’ current projects.
Williams is part of a group that is renovating the old SeedCo building at 826 Pennsylvania St. into a brewery, restaurant and apartments. Construction work — which involves adding two stories to the building — is underway, and Williams is using the old Black Hills Energy site to store construction material.
Down the road, the site could be used to bottle and can beer made at the brewery, which will be dubbed the Lawrence Beer Company. Williams said there could be a number of other uses for the property too. A residential use may not be in the equation, as the property in the late 1800s had a facility that burned a lot of coal to produce gas. In the late 1990s, remediation work was done on the site, and state environmental officials have said the property poses no significant risk to the public. But the state did require deed restrictions that prohibit residential construction on the site.
The property is about two acres, and the building is about 7,000 square feet, Williams said. Williams said he was well aware of the Quonset hut debate when his group bought the property.
“We do like the building,” Williams said. “It an interesting building that is in decent shape. We think it has multiple uses. We’re just not sure which ones we want to pursue yet.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• I have additional news about the Lawrence Beer Company project. Ken Baker, the longtime Lawrence chef who previously owned Pachamamas restaurant, has signed on to be a partner and lead the food operations of the Lawrence Beer Company.
For 15 years, Baker owned Pachamamas, which gained a reputation as one of the leaders in fine dining in Lawrence and the region. Pachamamas closed in 2015, and Baker said he had been enjoying his “semi-retirement” from the food business.
“I had a lot of offers to do other projects, but nothing really excited me,” Baker said. “When I met these guys, it sounded like something I could really throw my back into.”
Pachamamas was known for having fancy food, or, perhaps more accurately, new world cuisine. (To this day, when I want to look international I wear a tie with stains on it from a Pachamamas meal.) But don’t expect the same type of menu at the Lawrence Beer Company.
Baker didn’t give me a full rundown of the menu, but he gave me some hints. He said a rotisserie is being installed, and there would be “a lot of open fire cooking” and a wood-fired oven, all situated where patrons can easily watch the cooking process.
Baker said the menu will feature some entrees but will have a heavy focus on small plates and shared plates. As for the type of food, I didn’t get a lot of hints there, although Baker said some of the dishes would take advantage of the spent grains used in the brewing process.
“It is going to be a little bit different than standard brew pub fare,” Baker said. “But it should all be familiar too. We definitely want it geared to eat with beer.”
Baker joins the brewery group that includes Adam Williams, a local real estate developer, Matt Williams, a local liquor executive, and Brendon Allen, who among other things will bring some local history to the project as the grandson of Phog Allen. Adam Williams said all the partners were excited to get Baker on board.
“Everybody knows Ken Baker and Pachamamas and the quality and service he created there,” Adam Williams said. “He just brings instant street cred to the venture.”
As I was writing this, I also got a bit more information from Matt Williams, who will serve as president of the brewery, about the beer offerings. Williams said the beer production will be overseen by a a brewer who learned his craft at Half Acre Beer Company in Chicago and at Boulevard in Kansas City. The lineup is expected to focus on a few core styles with a lot of rotating varieties, and a mix of “classic styles tweaked with different hop and malt varieties.”
Construction work on the site is well underway. Matt Williams said to look for a midsummer opening. When completed, the old building, he said, will feature large windows and garage doors that open onto a large wraparound deck. The deck will lead to a beer garden that will include Adirondack chairs, picnic tables, trees, casual sitting areas and yard games.
• Yesterday’s news was about how the developers of the Warehouse Arts District hope to again use state income tax credits to partially finance their affordable housing apartment projects. Well, there is at least one other local affordable housing project that also is seeking income tax credits from the state of Kansas. The Wheatland Investment Group out of Gardner is seeking tax credits for a project it hopes to build on the east side of O’Connell Road.
The project, dubbed the Estates of Lawrence, would have 38 apartment units. About 32 of them would be enrolled in the state’s rent-controlled program that requires they be offered at below-market rates to people who have incomes between 50 percent and 60 percent of the average median income in the county.
This project, though, wouldn’t involved traditional apartment buildings. Instead, it envisions more townhouse -like units. Plans call for a mix of two- and three-bedroom, two-story town homes with a garage. The town homes would be built in a four-plex style.
The project would be built on property just north and east of East 27th Terrace and O’Connell Road.
If this project sounds familiar, it may be because we reported on it around this time last year. Wheatland last year applied for the income tax credits but didn’t receive them. The process is a pretty competitive one, so it is not unusual that a project has to apply multiple times before it is successful.
Wheatland also is the group that is building the townhome-like units on the west side of O’Connell Drive, just a bit south of 23rd Street. That project is called Bethel Estates of Lawrence. It will feature one and two-bedroom units for qualifying seniors 55 and older. Construction work is well underway on that project. I’ve put a call into Wheatland officials for an update, but I would think some of those units will be ready for occupancy this spring.
Pair of multimillion dollar affordable housing projects proposed for Warehouse Arts District; see architectural renderings for area
I always thought living in a warehouse district was cool, although that time my crate and I woke up in Cleveland wasn’t that great. Something tells me the living arrangements in East Lawrence’s popular Warehouse Arts District are quite a bit different. Regardless, there’s a new plan for many more apartments in Lawrence’s hip warehouse district.
A group led by Warehouse Arts District developer Tony Krsnich is in the early stages of securing financing for two new multistory apartment buildings that also would include commercial space for the area near Eighth and Pennsylvania streets.
City commissioners at their meeting tonight will be asked to get the process going. Krsnich is seeking a resolution of support from the commission that he can use as part of an application for affordable housing income tax credits from the state of Kansas. Krsnich — as he he did with the Poehler Lofts project and others — hopes to use to the tax credits to help finance the construction of two new apartment/retail buildings. Here’s a look at the two buildings he has on the drawing board:
— Penn Lofts would be located on a vacant lot at the southwest corner of Eighth and Pennsylvania streets. It would be a three-story building with about 70 apartments, with a mix of studio, one-bedroom, and some two- and three-bedroom units. About three-quarters of the apartments would be enrolled in the state’s rent control program, which would require that they be offered at below-market rates to people who are at or below 60 percent of the average median income in the county. The ground floor could include as much 12,000 square feet of commercial space, and Krsnich said plans currently call for seven work-live units to be located on the ground floor, meaning there could be space for someone to own a shop and live in the building too.
— Delaware Coop would be located on a vacant lot at the northwest corner of Ninth and Delaware streets. It would have 15 apartments, and 13 of them would be enrolled in the state’s rent control program. The two and a half story building would include a mix of two- and three-bedroom units, and also could include some work-live units. The ground floor is expected to have about 2,300 square feet of commercial space.
Krsnich has long said he doesn’t like the idea of building new buildings that look old, so look for these two structures to have distinctive architecture.
“They will be period appropriate,” Krsnich said. “People 100 years from now will look back and say that is really interesting architecture and engineering.”
Krsnich said the buildings will make extensive use of solar panels and they will be incorporated into the aesthetic of the building. Here’s a look at a few concept plans that have been designed by el dorado inc., the Kansas City architecture firm that Krsnich has used on other projects.
“We probably have 250 people on a waiting list trying to get a rental in the Warehouse Arts District,” Krsnich said. “People want to live and work in the area ... there are lots of small business owners and entrepreneurs who want to be part of the greater downtown area.”
The tax credits, however, will be a critical part of the project. Krsnich said he’ll hear from the Kansas Housing Resource Corp. in May whether the projects have been awarded the tax credits. If awarded, construction would begin by the end of 2017, and the projects could be open in the fall of 2018.
Krsnich said he will seek some city incentives too. The main incentive would be a request for a 95 percent, 15-year property tax rebate through the city’s Neighborhood Revitalization Program. Krsnich has received similar incentives for his other projects in the Warehouse Arts District.
Krsnich has envisioned asking for a larger incentive package that would have allowed him to build underground parking for the new projects. But he said his read of City Hall is that such a request would not be met favorably. Instead, he’s building some surface parking into the projects, and he plans to convert a gravel parking lot just east of the Poehler Lofts building into a paved parking lot that can serve as overflow parking for the new apartments and for other uses in the district.
These two projects may help the district grow its number of uses. The two apartments will be a bit different from Krsnich’s other projects because they will include commercial space on the ground floor. Krsnich said he didn’t know yet what to expect on that front. He said some of the space could be retail, but he also noted that demand for office space in the district is high. The district houses architects, engineers, attorneys and other professionals in some of the smaller warehouse space along Pennsylvania Street. Of course, the district also has a strong art gallery presence, and that could grow too.
“I’ll leave those details up to the market,” Krsnich said. “I want to build the space and begin conversations with people about it.”
Krsnich said the market has thus far produced some great results for the district. Krsnich first became involved in the area about five years ago when he decided to renovate the then-dilapidated Poehler Grocery Warehouse building into loft-style apartments through the state’s affordable housing program.
As that project became successful, Krsnich’s company began acquiring other old warehouse buildings along Pennsylvania Street and converted those into various uses, including office space, the Cider Gallery and the recently opened Bon Bon bistro.
“I think this district is a lot about the cool factor and the potential of Lawrence,” Krsnich said. “It is important to understand the idea of smart growth and talent-driven growth. That’s what is happening here. I have just tried to get out of the way of it. It has taken on a life of its own, and it has exceeded any of my expectations.”
Update: Commissioners approved the resolution of support at their meeting Tuesday. The resolution was removed from the commission’s consent agenda, and passed on a 4-1 vote. Mayor Leslie Soden voted against the resolution, but only on procedural grounds. She said she thought the process should be examined to determine whether the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board should first review such requests.
The resolution of support does not give the projects all the approvals they would need from City Hall. The projects would require proper land use approvals, and the City Commission would have to approve any tax rebates or other incentive requests.
— City Hall reporter Rochelle Valverde contributed to this report.
The wait is over for a commercial project to locate next to the city and KU’s Rock Chalk Park sports complex in northwest Lawrence. Developers have announced they’ve signed a deal for a $14.5 million hotel project.
A Wichita group has plans to build a 120-room Best Western Plus hotel on the property, which is just south of KU’s track and field stadium and the city’s Sports Pavilion Lawrence recreation center and fieldhouse.
More importantly, the hotel project represents the first commercial development to happen at the property. City officials have been eagerly awaiting commercial development to occur at the site, after having invested about $23 million in public money to build the parking and other infrastructure for the Rock Chalk Park sports complex. The sports complex was envisioned to be a magnet for commercial development, but the commercially-zoned land has sat empty since the sports complex opened in late 2014.
“We’re excited to be the lead-off tenant in this project,” Steve Martens, CEO of The Martens Companies and its hotel subsidiary, Hospitality Development of America, said in a release.
Martens, who is a 1975 graduate of KU, said he’s enjoyed watching the “dynamic and quality growth in west Lawrence” over the past several years. He said the new hotel will be designed to tap into two key markets in Lawrence: travelers coming for athletic events, and families with teens touring potential college locations.
The Best Western Plus brand features an indoor pool and an expanded fitness area and emphasizes an open, airy design in rooms and public areas of the hotel. The hotel will be operated by Hospitality Management LLC, which operates four other Best Western and Choice Hotel properties in Kansas and Oklahoma. It recently opened a Best Western Plus in Norman, Okla., next to to the University of Oklahoma campus.
Plans call for the hotel to be near the southwest corner of George Williams Way and Rock Chalk Drive, or basically right at the entrance of the sports complex.
The property slated for the hotel already has the necessary zoning for the project to proceed. Look for construction of the four-story building to begin this summer, and for it to open in early 2018.
It will be interesting to watch whether this hotel development serves as a catalyst for more development to come. The area near Rock Chalk Park can accommodate several hundred thousand square feet of retail development. Local businessmen Steve Schwada and Tim Fritzel are leading the group that is trying to attract tenants to the property.
The site is one of the few in town that is properly zoned to accommodate big box retailers, and the development group hasn’t been shy in making it known that it has tried to court Costco for the site. But several big box retailers — Menards and Dick’s Sporting Goods, to name two — have bypassed the property in favor of the south Iowa Street corridor.
Pat Peery, a broker with Kansas City based Lane 4 Property Group, is part of the team that has been hired to market the property to potential retailers. The hotel project is welcome news for their efforts to lure retailers to the site.
“I think it certainly will help,” Peery said. “We are glad to have a hotel. It always was in our plan to have at least one hotel. We still have a couple of major retail businesses that are considering the location. We are anticipating at some point we’ll be able to make an announcement on that front. And when that happens, that really will help things along.”
Retail developers have expressed concern that the property near Sixth Street and George Williams Way doesn’t yet have enough homes around it, but that is changing. Single-family homes are being built in the Oregon Trail addition just east of the property, and nearly 600 living units worth of apartments are being built just east of Rock Chalk Park as part of new golf course/apartment development.
“The more rooftops you have, the better the site shows,” Peery said. “And it is showing better all the time. We have had a large number of inquiries from out-of-town developers.”
Peery said the property’s selling points for retailers are that it has good access to Sixth Street and to the now-completed South Lawrence Trafficway.
“The growth on the west side of town is very positive,” Peery said. “It is where the future is heading, and people can see that.”
Peery said the site’s location also allows it to market to retailers who want to attract the eastern Topeka market. He said that was a selling point for the hotel project. The hotel company believes it is close enough to the Kansas Statehouse to compete well with hotels that are situated on the far west side of Topeka.
Thus far, the traffic generated by Rock Chalk Park hasn’t been a big selling point for traditional retailers. the amount of traffic coming and going from the complex isn’t likely to be enough to be a deciding factor on whether a big box store locates at the site. But Peery said the sports complex traffic will be a major selling point for restaurants. He predicts several restaurants will want to locate on the property, but he said the development needs that first big retailer to come in and build out infrastructure before the group can aggressively market to restaurants.
Getting that first big retailer is always the hardest part of any development. But if the first retailer — especially if it is a big one like a Costco — does come, the area is poised to be a major shopping area.
One concept plan that often is pitched to potential tenants shows a 140,000 square foot big box store on one end, a 100,000 square foot store on the other, with space for 13 other smaller retailers in between. In total, the concept plan shows about 640,000 square feet of commercial space around about 3,000 parking spaces.
The concept plan is almost certain to change, as the hotel project will require some alterations, but it does give you an idea of the scope of development the group is hoping for. As for the timing of when the next major announcement may come at the site, Peery directed me to Schwada. I haven’t yet heard back from him, but I’ll let you know if I do.
The Russians are at it again. They apparently are hacking into Mother Nature in an effort to give us Siberia. (There is not unanimity on that point. Some leaders believe the pending ice storm may be the result of some guy in New Jersey leaving his freezer door open.) I can’t sort that out, but I do have some news and notes for you to ponder while you try to stay warm and safe this weekend.
• Perhaps the memories of Don’s Steakhouse can keep you warm. Soon, that is all you will have left of the once popular restaurant along Lawrence’s eastern edge. Demolition crews on Friday were tearing the building down.
For those of you have forgotten, Don’s Steakhouse was just west of 23rd and O’Connell. Crews earlier this week tore down the old Diamond Everley Roofing building that was just east of the Don’s Steakhouse building. A development group led by an executive with Diamond Everley is redeveloping the old roofing business site and the Don’s Steakhouse site into an 89-room Country Inn & Suites Hotel.
Crews were tearing into the backside of the restaurant building early this morning, and there probably won’t be much left of it by the end of the day. Don’s Steakhouse was open from 1962 to 2008, with founder Don Scott running it for several decades and then Lawrence businessman Gary Bartz taking over in about 1990.
In addition to the 89-room hotel, development plans for the property also call for a restaurant to build on the site. The last I heard, however, a deal had not yet been struck for a restaurant to locate on the site, and the development group was focusing on getting the hotel project completed.
• Don’s was the second high-profile demolition to take place in Lawrence this week. The former BarbWire's Steakhouse and Saloon building on south Iowa Street also was reduced to a pile of rubble. (It is like an angry herd of bovines got their hooves on some demolition equipment this week.)
As we reported in October, a group led by the local franchise owner of the new Slim Chickens restaurant chain purchased the property. He told me then that he likely was going to tear down the building to make way for a new Slim Chickens restaurant.
How soon that will happen, though, isn’t entirely certain. The chain is opening its first Lawrence restaurant in late January in the former KFC building near Sixth and Wakarusa. Back in October, owner Mark Killeen told me he wanted to get that restaurant open, and he also is working to open a Slim Chickens in Wichita before he turns his attention to the south Iowa Street location.
But it looks like there is every reason to expect a Slim Chickens to be on the site sooner rather than later. In addition to tearing the building down, Killeen has filed a site plan with the city for a new restaurant building to be constructed on the site.
In case you are having a hard time picturing the location, it is at 2412 Iowa St. After BarbWire's closed several years ago, it was most recently a dance club called Wilde’s Chateau 24.
• Now, this is just getting scary. In the time that I started writing this column this morning, I’ve since learned that Montana Mike’s Steakhouse has closed its Lawrence location. If you are scoring at home, that is three either current or former steakhouse locations that have gone by the wayside. If a bovine gets hold of a snow plow this weekend, chicken places will be the only thing left in town.
An employee at Montana Mike’s, 1015 Iowa St., confirmed that the restaurant has shut down. But he also said the company behind Montana Mike’s plans to open a new restaurant at the location this spring. Look for remodeling work to begin soon. The employee said the new restaurant would be a different concept than Montana Mike’s but he said he wasn’t authorized to speak about that. I’ll reach out to the corporate headquarters at a later time to see if I can learn more.
As for Montana Mike’s, it may not be coincidence that it has closed just a few months after Texas Roadhouse opened its chain steakhouse on south Iowa Street. But the closing does end a long run for the budget steakhouse. The employee I talked with didn’t have an exact date of when the restaurant opened in Lawrence, but it has been in town for more than 15 years, he said.
When this hick from the sticks arrived in Lawrence in 1992, I became excited when I saw the sign for the downtown store The Buckle. I went in to buy a dinner-size plate one, with big steer horns, but quickly learned the place really wasn’t selling belt buckles. Soon, it won’t be selling anything in Lawrence. The longtime retailer is leaving town.
Claire Little, manager of The Buckle at 805 Massachusetts St., confirmed that the chain has decided to close its downtown store and won’t seek another spot in Lawrence to replace it. An exact closing date hasn’t been set, but Little said it likely would be in April or a bit before.
Little said she wasn’t privy to all the details behind the decision by the Nebraska-based chain to close the Lawrence store. But she indicated the company had decided it could serve the Lawrence market with its Kansas City and Topeka stores. None of those stores are closing, and the approximately 10 to 15 employees of the Lawrence store will be offered a chance to transfer to those locations, if they so choose, Little said.
Little wasn’t quite sure how long The Buckle had been in downtown Lawrence, but it is a 25-year plus member of Lawrence’s retail scene. It also occupies a larger than average space in downtown. At the moment, I don’t believe there is anything lined up to take the place of The Buckle. The Buckle becomes at least the third fairly large space seeking a tenant: the former Buffalo Wild Wings spot is vacant, and the former M&M Office Supply building also is vacant, although construction work has started there. (You may remember in April we reported on a plan to put a new facade on the building, with the apparent goal of making a multi-tenant office or retail building. I have heard some rumors about office users. I’ll report back when I hear more.)
The Buckle’s pending closure comes on the heels of at least two other announcements: The closing of the TCBY store and the pending closure of the Ten Thousand Villages retail store in downtown. The closing also comes just after I reported that Lawrence had the best sales tax growth of any major retail market in the state in 2016. The two are not contradictory, but rather just a reminder that success is rarely distributed equally.
It will be interesting to watch for other closing signs. We are in that time period where many downtown leases are set to expire. That’s often when a business decides to close shop.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I’m not sure anyone is really going to toast Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal to close the state’s budget gap. I’m quite sure one group that won’t is the liquor store industry.
As J-W statehouse reporter Peter Hancock reported yesterday, the governor’s plan calls for the state to raise its “liquor enforcement tax” to 16 percent. In case you are unfamiliar, the liquor enforcement tax is the special type of sales tax that you pay on purchases made at a liquor store. I have written about this topic several times before, most recently in March.
The current liquor enforcement tax is 8 percent. That’s the only tax you pay when you buy a product at a liquor store. The city’s standard 9.05 percent sales tax is not charged at a liquor store. That has created the odd situation where Lawrence residents pay more in taxes for groceries than they do for liquor.
Back in March, I sought to highlight how common that situation was across the state. Back in March — and I don’t suspect the numbers have changed much since then — I found that more than 300 jurisdictions in Kansas had sales tax rates greater than 8 percent. In more densely populated areas, it was the norm.
Kansas had 23 cities with a population of 20,000 or more. Of those, 21 cities have sales tax rates greater than 8 percent. The majority of Kansas’ population pays more in taxes for bananas than bourbon.
If Brownback’s plan is approved, that will no longer be the case. The price of drinking in Kansas will go up. A $25 bottle of liquor would have an extra $2 in tax attached to it. Bars and restaurants also pay the liquor enforcement tax on the bottles of booze they buy, so expect them to try to pass along the extra cost in the form of higher cocktail prices.
The liquor enforcement tax would rise from 8 percent to 16 percent under the plan. That’s a big increase, but in some ways it brings the liquor enforcement tax back in line with its original standing. For whatever reason, the liquor enforcement tax hasn’t been increased since 1983. Back in 1983, the 8 percent liquor tax was nearly double the normal sales tax that consumers were paying for groceries and other items. Brownback’s proposal will roughly restore that type of ratio.
It won’t be popular in all circles. The liquor industry — which in many ways is headquartered in Lawrence with two major distributors, one of the top lobbyists for the industry, and a very large bar community based here — will note liquor already is taxed a lot. The state charges a gallonage tax at the wholesale level. Plus, there is an entirely separate 10 percent tax called a liquor drink tax that consumers pay when they buy a cocktail at a bar or restaurant. No doubt, the state does a fair amount of milking of the liquor industry.
But still, the optics aren’t good on this. When I go to the counter with a bottle of bourbon and a batch of bananas, the clerk is going to add more tax onto the bananas than the bourbon. It is not for me to say whether that is the right message to send, but it should be interesting to watch how politicians navigate it all.
Or maybe we should watch for this: bourbon-infused bananas. It might be the answer to the state’s budget problems. We could tax that product twice.
The sales tax numbers for 2016 are in, and they show Lawrence was perhaps the hottest retail market in the state — and that is before sales of the Donald Trump inauguration T-shirts and the replica Meryl Streep Golden Globe statuettes.
As we have been telling you all year, Lawrence’s monthly sales tax collections have been growing at a faster rate than any of the other major retail markets in Kansas. Well, cities across the state have received from the state their final sales tax check of 2016, and Lawrence has retained that distinction.
Lawrence finished 2016 with sales tax revenues growing by 5.5 percent, compared with 2015 totals. When you combine sales and use taxes (use taxes are the tax you pay when you buy something online and the retailer doesn’t charge you a sales tax) the city’s total collections grew by 6.4 percent. That’s not a record year, but it is close to it. Here’s a look at the growth rates from recent years and the total amount of sales and use taxes received by the city:
— 2016: up 6.4 percent to $27.3 million
— 2015: up 4.4 percent to $25.7 million
— 2014: up 5.5 percent to $24.6 million
— 2013: up 1.9 percent to $23.3 million
— 2012: up 5 percent to $22.9 million
The 2016 growth rate ended up being the best since 1998, when sales tax collections grew by a whopping 8.5 percent. (You all remember the glorious year of 1998, when we were buying Beanie Babies and our only Russian worry was whether Boris Yeltsin inadvertently would become trapped in a vodka bottle.) Those were good times for Lawrence’s retail scene. But it may surprise people that this last five-year period has been every bit as good. Even though it may not have felt as fun, Lawrence’s sales tax collections from 2011 to 2016 have grown by 23 percent. From 1997 to 2002, they grew by 21 percent.
If local governments have funding problems, they should not blame consumers or sales tax collections.
In 2016, Lawrence definitely didn’t have anything to complain about on the sales tax front. Here’s a look at how Lawrence performed compared with the other major retail communities in the state:
— Lawrence: up 5.5 percent
— Olathe: up 3.6 percent
— Topeka: up 3.3 percent
— Overland Park: up 2.7 percent
— Manhattan: up 1.8 percent
— Johnson County: up 1.8 percent
— Kansas City: up 1.7 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 1.1 percent
— Lenexa: down 2.5 percent
For what it is worth, it also appears sales tax collections strengthened as the year went along. For example, when I reported on sales tax collections in April, Lawrence had posted just a 2.9 percent increase, and Topeka, Johnson County and Overland Park all were in negative territory. All those communities saw significant growth in sales tax collections since then.
As to why Lawrence had such good sales tax numbers, 2016 was the year Menards opened its large home improvement store in south Lawrence. City reports note that sales tax collections on building materials sold in Lawrence were up 24 percent compared with 2015. Sales tax collections on vehicles and car parts sold in Lawrence were up 9 percent. And sales tax collections on grocery items were up 5 percent.
The building materials number is the most interesting. It is not definitive proof that the Menards store is causing people to keep more of their dollars in Lawrence, but that is what it suggests. If the city wants to study something else, a good topic would be how much money do Lawrence residents spend outside the city, and have developments such as Menards and Dick’s Sporting Goods helped lessen that number? You would think city commissioners would want to have that information before they decide whether to reject new shopping center developments, like the proposal south of the SLT and Iowa Street interchange, which is now the subject of a lawsuit.
• Now that we have year-end numbers, it also is interesting to look at just how much business the largest retail markets in the state did in 2016.
— Johnson County (Home to Overland Park, et al): $11.44 billion
— Sedgwick County (Home to Wichita): $9.01 billion
— Shawnee County (Home to Topeka): $2.94 billion
— Wyandotte County (Home to Kansas City): $2.59 billion
— Douglas County: $1.71 billion
— Manhattan (Manhattan is in two counties so I used the city totals instead of trying to combine the two county totals): $1.12 billion
— Saline County (Home to Salina): $1.11 billion
— Reno County (Home to Hutchinson): $947.73 million
— Leavenworth County: $685.85 million
— Finney County (Home to Garden City): $673.75 million
— Ellis County (Home to Hays): $622.11 million
— Ford County (Home to Dodge City): $575.84 million
— Lyon County (Home to Emporia): $465.41 million
— Geary County (Home to Junction City): $427.35 million
• And just because the warm weather has done wonders for my arthritic fingers and toes, I decided to do one more math exercise to pass along. Here’s a look at per capita spending levels in the large counties. I find the numbers interesting because they provide a little more context. A county like Johnson County should have a lot more retail sales than a county like Douglas County, if for no other reason than it has a lot more people. The per capita numbers give you an idea of how well a market is doing in terms of pulling in outside residents to shop, and they also may give you an idea of whether residents of the county have more disposable income to spend.
— Ellis County: $21,430 per capita
— Saline County: $19,931 per capita
— Johnson County: $19,718 per capita
— Finney County: $18,320 per capita
— Sedgwick County: $17,612 per capita
— Ford County: $16,660 per capita
— Shawnee County: $16,449 per capita
— Wyandotte County: $15,853 per capita
— Manhattan: $14,884 per capita
— Reno County: $14,873 per capita
— Douglas County: $14,485 per capita
— Lyon County: $13,959 per capita
— Geary County: $11,540 per capita
— Leavenworth County: $8,647 per capita
Lawrence obviously finishes in the lower half of that list. Some people would argue Lawrence is destined to always be low on that list because we are too close to major shopping districts in Johnson County and Topeka. Others argue that Lawrence could move up the list if it allowed more shopping developments to occur in Lawrence, thus giving people less incentive to drive to Topeka or Johnson County.
That’s an argument that likely is to continue. One thing that is a little more concrete: State numbers show that out of the 93 Kansas counties that have a local sales tax, 56 of them saw their sales tax totals decline in 2016. Douglas County ought to be pleased that it is not yet among them.
West Lawrence pizza location closes, and an update on other comings and goings in the world of Lawrence pizza
Perhaps you remember that time period when seemingly all of west Lawrence turned into New York City. If not, I’m talking about that period in 2012 and 2013 when nearly every restaurant that opened was a New York-style pizzeria serving “pie slices” big enough to cover a Donald Trump comb-over.
There was Morningstar’s New York Pizza at Sixth and Wakarusa, Tad’s Pizzeria at Bob Billings and Kasold, and Johnny Brusco’s also at Sixth and Wakarusa. You may recall that Johnny Brusco’s closed before I could even get the marinara sauce off my tie. The other two duked it out, though, for a good long time. But no more. Tad’s Pizzeria at 1410 Kasold closed in recent days.
Owner Tad Gellender told me the business’ lease was up at the end of 2016, and he decided he wanted to spend more time with his four children than at the restaurant. Gellender said business was fine, and actually he sold the name, the recipes and the equipment to an operation called KC’s Neighborhood Bar and Grill in Merriam.
“I tried to sell it locally, but nobody really looked at it,” Gellender said.
So, folks will be able to go to Kansas City to get that particular style of New York Pizza. But you really don’t need to leave town at all. There are still plenty of places near Sixth and Wakarusa that serve pizza crust like Facebook serves facts — thin. The southwest corner of Sixth and Wakarusa has Morningstar’s and Johnny’s Tavern, both of which serve New York-style pizza, and the northwest corner has the newly opened Spin pizza, which serves Neapolitan style pizza, which also is a thin-crust variety.
Some of you, though, may be more worried about Gellender’s other business venture: Tad’s Shaved Ice, which has operated for decades out of a small food trailer along Iowa Street. Tad said not to worry. The decision to get out of the pizza business won’t affect the shaved-ice business, which operates seasonally near the NAPA Auto Parts store south of Ninth and Iowa streets.
“That business is still good to go,” he said.
Gellender said he’s had that business for 22 years, opening it right after he graduated from Pittsburg State and moved to Lawrence.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While we are near the Sixth and Wakarusa intersection, I have news of Lawrence’s other favorite food: fried chicken. We’ve reported that the Arkansas-based chain Slim Chickens is locating in the former KFC location at Sixth and Wakarusa. Well, evidently Slim is quick at construction. According to the Facebook page for Slim Chickens, the Lawrence restaurant plans to open before the end of the month. As we have reported, Slim Chickens focuses on chicken fingers and chicken sandwiches.
• Back to pizza. Domino’s Pizza is probably not what you would consider New York pizza, but it is cheap and of better quality than Mariah Carey’s last New York performance. There is good news for fans of Domino’s near Ninth and Iowa streets.
The company’s store near the northeast corner of the intersection has been under renovation since August. Look for it to open soon. General manager Neal Coomes said he couldn’t provide an exact timeline, but he indicated it would be just a few weeks.
The renovation has taken about twice as long as expected, but Coomes said the location will have some dramatic improvements. Prior to the renovation, the location was strictly take-out or delivery. There will be some dine-in options at the new location. Coomes said there will be counter seating, plus two or three booths and tables for diners.
The renovation includes a complete makeover of both the interior and exterior space, and the design will be similar to the newly renovated Domino’s on 23rd Street, which is owned by the same franchisee. (Win a trivia contest with this knowledge: The owner of the Lawrence Domino’s is the brother of former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Trent Green.) Coomes said the Ninth and Iowa location will include a much more open kitchen concept that allows customers to see their pizzas being made.
“We call it the dough show,” Coomes said. “You can watch us slap out the dough and make the pizza.”
One other thing to note about the renovation. Coomes said the parking lot will become one way, with motorists able to enter only off of Iowa Street and able to exit only onto Ninth Street.
• This last item is speculation, but if you can’t speculate about pizza, what can you speculate about? (I once speculated that anchovies, habaneros and pickle chips would be a good pizza combo, but a stomach pump proved me wrong.)
For whatever it is worth, keep an ear open for a chain called Marco’s Pizza moving to Lawrence. The company sent me a press release saying it has plans to open 35 new stores throughout the greater Kansas City area in the next five years. The press release specifically mentioned the communities of Lawrence, Ottawa, Blue Springs and Shawnee as targets for expansion.
The company touts itself as the fastest growing pizza chain in the country, opening a new store about every three days. It also touts itself as the only American pizza chain founded by a native Italian. The company currently has five stores in the Kansas City market, and serves pizza, subs, wings, salads and a few desserts.
I have heard no news of an imminent deal in Lawrence, but I’ll let you know if that changes.
In today’s technological age, it probably is not wise to brag about the quality of your Rolodex. It makes people think you’ve dropped your iPhone in the toilet. But whether you have them stored on your smartphone or on a crumpled up cocktail napkin, it still is important to know who to contact and how to do it. In the ultra competitive industry of economic development, it is vital.
Lawrence officially has a new leader of economic development that comes loaded with a ton of contacts. I sat down for a good conversation with Steve Kelly on just his third day on the job as the new vice president of economic development for the Lawrence chamber of commerce.
To be clear, Kelly did not brag about his Rolodex. Kelly may end up being one of Lawrence’s most important salesmen. His job is to interact with and help close the deals with new and expanding companies that will produce new jobs in Lawrence and Douglas County. But I got the impression that Kelly is the type of salesman who doesn’t oversell anything. Instead, he’s the type who will always remember your name, where you met, and figure out a way to make a connection whenever your paths cross.
While he didn’t tout his connections, I know there are many in the community who are excited about them. Kelly came to The Chamber after having served as the deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Commerce and director of business and community development for the agency. When asked, he can rattle off a list of big deals he has been a part of: the Mars candy plant in Topeka; the Kansas Speedway and surrounding retail development; General Motors expansions in Kansas City; and many aviation deals in Wichita.
The complete list would be much longer. He had been with the Department of Commerce for 26 years. He was the guy who always survived the change in administrations. Political appointees have short shelf lives, but deal makers last longer than the fat-free mayonnaise in my refrigerator.
Lawrence has had experienced economic development leaders in the past decade, but often their experience was in different regions of the country. Not only does Kelly know the players in Kansas, he’s lived in Lawrence for nearly 30 years.
Economic development and the jobs its produces are always important, so it would be hyperbole for me to say the community is at some sort of crossroads. But this is an important hire for The Chamber. There has been a lot of turnover in both this position and the Chamber CEO and president position. It is not coincidental that the turnover has coincided with some fairly stagnant job growth numbers over the last decade.
As I’ve said before, I like to share some of the conversations I have with community leaders, so here is a look at three takeaways from my meeting with Kelly:
It is a common refrain that Lawrence has a poor reputation in broader economic development circles. What you hear is that projects are more difficult to do here than they are elsewhere. I’ve heard that refrain through both good times and bad, so I am never sure what to make of it. Business executives, I suspect, always want to move faster.
But there is no doubt that such a reputation could be damaging to Lawrence's and Douglas County’s efforts to grow jobs. Kelly was diplomatic about the topic but certainly didn’t dismiss the complaints.
“I think there probably is some work to do in that area,” Kelly said of Lawrence's reputation in economic development circles. Some of that commentary is out there. It is not a real large group of folks who work on these projects. There are a lot of conversations. Both good words and bad words get around pretty quickly.
“I think there has been a perception that Lawrence hasn’t been as easy or as amenable or as welcoming as some other communities have.”
Kelly, though, also said that Lawrence is a well-planned community. It hasn’t traditionally done things “willy-nilly.”
“One of the reasons Lawrence is cool is maybe because the community hasn’t done some of these things that people sought,” Kelly said. “But I would say there is a perception out there that there are easier places to do things than Lawrence.”
I’m confident that there is a subset of the population who has no problem with that perception. But that reputation comes with a question: Will it hold Lawrence back from being a jobs leader?
I didn’t ask Kelly that one. It was only his third day on the job. But he knows what he has signed up for.
“The world is pretty competitive right now,” Kelly said.
VenturePark, the city-owned industrial park on the eastern edge of the city, opened for business in October 2014. The park, though, is still seeking its first tenant.
Menards, the large home-improvement retailer, has announced plans to construct at the park a center that manufactures and distributes certain building materials. But the company has put those plans on indefinite hold. I don’t have much of an update for you on that, other than chamber officials previously have said they were hopeful the company would re-evaluate after the presidential election. I do know that Kelly has worked with the Menards folks in his state capacity, and I’m sure they are among the first calls he is making in his new job.
Kelly said, despite the park being empty, there is no reason to second guess the city’s decision to proceed with Venture Park. It is right next door to the East Hills Business Park, it has easy access to the recently completed South Lawrence Trafficway, it has a rail spur, and it was on old industrial property that was going to need to be cleaned up regardless. (You may remember, it was the old Farmland fertilizer plant.)
“I think the decision they made at the time was a very good decision,” Kelly said.
In terms of what the public’s expectations should be for the park in 2017, that’s a tough one to answer.
“It is not something you can put a magic timeline on,” Kelly said. “If it hasn’t happened by a certain time, you can’t say it is a failure. I don’t think it works that way. I have seen enough examples to know that getting over that first hurdle is typically the hardest one. Once you get that first tenant, it usually takes care of itself.”
Regardless, I still think it is an important year for VenturePark. At some point, an empty business park becomes demoralizing. I think a key question will be how aggressive the city is willing to become with incentives to get over that first hurdle. It is worth remembering that through the Farmland bankruptcy process, the city got the land for free, plus received a multimillion-dollar trust fund to clean up the property. Granted, the city has spent millions on the roads and infrastructure at the site, but the deal the city got on the property may allow it to be fairly aggressive.
Kelly did not weigh in much on the new policy the city has adopted as it relates to economic development incentives. He said he hasn’t studied it enough to offer specific comments. But he did talk about how incentives are an “important” piece of the puzzle in attracting a company, with other big pieces including workforce availability, workforce training and the “general climate or vibe” of the community.
“When you are changing a policy like that, you want to understand what you are trying to accomplish, and then be very diligent in trying to determine what the unintended consequences may be.”
The policy changes at City Hall, though, are just one item to keep an eye on with the City Commission. City Manager Tom Markus has talked about the need for the City Commission to do more big-picture, strategic planning, and 2017 seems to be the year that is going to happen. Such a process will encompass many topics, but certainly jobs and economic development will be a part of the discussion.
It will be interesting to see what type of vision the community comes up with for economic development. Throw into the mix that at the same time the University of Kansas will be getting a new chancellor. Some of KU’s strategic planning has opened the door for the West Campus to become more business and entrepreneurial oriented. If the next chancellor has a passion for that, an exciting plan could be crafted. Imagine if Lawrence’s next business park was on West Campus, where companies that want to have close access to talent among the university’s faculty and students could locate.
Kelly didn’t get into any of those specifics, but I know forging relationships with the university the city and the county is a priority for him.
“We can sit here and talk about and know about a lot of our assets, but what’s important is to have a real plan on how to take advantage of those attributes that set us apart or give us an advantage,” he said.
Update on doughnut, whiskey and fried chicken place; pingpong, cheap beer among changes at music venue
Doughnuts and whiskey might become the new Breakfast of Champions. Exactly what you are a champion of might be an interesting debate. But, yes, proving that anything is possible in downtown Lawrence, we indeed are getting a doughnut shop that also will serve you fine whiskey. Proving that we are intent on giving doctors everywhere a certain salute, it also will serve fried chicken.
I alerted you last week that I had seen a City Hall application for a future downtown business that wanted to sell doughnuts, fried chicken and whiskey, but the permit application didn’t provide much information. (To be clear, it a was permit for a sign. You don’t have to pay for a city permit to fry a chicken. If you did, the south Iowa corridor alone would solve all city budget problems for a generation.)
Well, now I know more. Longtime downtown restaurant owner Nick Wysong is leading a group that will open Wake the Dead: Chicken, Whiskey, Donuts at 918 Massachusetts St., which is the former location of Burger Fi.
Wysong is the co-founder and owner of the popular downtown restaurant Ingredient. Perhaps more importantly for this venture, he’s also the former owner of Harolds Fried Chicken & Donuts. That was the short-lived restaurant that operated out of the Miller Mart gas station on West Sixth Street.
Wysong said the concept of fried chicken served with a doughnut developed a bit of a cult following during the year that Harolds was open. Wysong said he always wanted to continue with the idea, but was looking to tweak both the concept and location a bit.
Wysong has partnered with Lawrence businessman Ryan Robinson, who brings a lot of marketing experience to the table as a promoter of Color Run races across the country. Josh Kurzdan, who was part of the Lawrence Burger Fi restaurant, also is part of the group, Wysong said.
What won’t change with the business is the chicken recipe. It will continue to be “honest, Southern-style fried chicken.” It will be fried in the old-fashioned manner and will come with a choice of about a dozen sauces. Traditional sides such as potatoes and gravy or macaroni and cheese will be on the menu.
At Harolds, the doughnuts were a bit of a side dish. But that won’t be the case at Wake the Dead. Wysong said the restaurant will be a fully functioning doughnut shop. People will be able to come in of a morning and get a few dozen doughnuts to take to the office. If the thought of going to the office requires a shot of bourbon, Wake the Dead also will serve you that. The shop will have a large selection of “top shelf whiskeys,” Wysong said. It also, obviously, will have evening hours. It isn’t betting on whiskey for breakfast becoming a hugely popular trend. (It is trend-disadvantaged because people who partake in it don’t remember it well enough to tweet about it.)
As for the doughnuts, Wysong said he expects to have a stable of about 60 recipes, although he plans to start out by having about a dozen varieties available daily.
“We’re going to do this right and do it well,” Wysong said. “But the doughnut element is going to be huge. We’re super stoked about that.”
But perhaps what will blow your mind is that the fried chicken and the doughnuts truly will come together. (See, there is hope for a divided America.) Harolds served a sandwich called the Grilled Glazer. It was fried chicken covered in cheese sauce, a secret sauce, sandwiched between two maple-glazed doughnuts. Are you understanding this? The doughnuts served as the bread for the sandwich. I always assumed Harolds closed after a year in business because it was miffed that it had not yet won a Nobel Prize for this innovation.
Well, the Grilled Glazer will be on the menu of Wake the Dead. Wysong also said the menu will include a line of other sandwiches, some of which also will use doughnuts in place of bread. He didn’t give me details on what those will look like. (Or perhaps he did, but I was too busy renting a semi to carry my next order of cholesterol medicine.)
Remodeling work is already underway at the site. Wysong hopes to have the restaurant open in late January.
• Wake the Dead, however, isn’t the only venture Wysong is working on. Wysong also is part of a group that has purchased the Jackpot Music Hall and Saloon at 943 Massachusetts St.
You may have noticed that Jackpot was closed for a couple of weeks in November. That’s when Wysong’s group purchased the business. The group did a bit of remodeling on the interior and installed new exterior signage.
Wysong said Jackpot still will function as a bar and music venue. Wysong called himself a “good music fanatic,” and he said the venue will host a variety of genres including rock, bluegrass, funk, hip hop, country and others.
The business is next door to Wysong’s Ingredient restaurant and his Five Bar and Tables establishment that has been hosting live music, particularly jazz, for awhile now. Five Bar and Tables also has been host to regular pingpong gatherings. Those pingpong tables are moving to Jackpot, and he said the bar soon will announce a weekly special involving pingpong and cheap beer.
“I’ve always had a big crush on Jackpot,” Wysong said of the decision to buy the establishment. “We feel like we have had a lot of good luck promoting jazz at (Five Bar and Tables.) Now we have a bigger stage and venue to promote music.”
Ed Forman had been warned about downtown Lawrence.
It was about 2005 when Forman began looking for a spot in an idyllic downtown where he and his wife could work together in a sweet shop, share some smiles and maybe create a few too. But those in the regional business community had cautioned Forman about downtown Lawrence. They told him two factors consistently drove businesses out of business in downtown: high rents and a City Hall that was terrible to work with.
By 2012, Forman and his wife took the leap. They opened the TCBY frozen yogurt shop at Ninth and Massachusetts. In the last few days, they closed it. The couple no longer could make the TCBY franchise work. Forman said he had a plan to open a business called Free State Frozen Coffee and Desserts, but a noncompete clause with TCBY won’t allow it. For the moment, the building sits empty while Forman works to find a new idea or someone to take over his lease.
Another downtown business out of business. Remember the warning? Come to find out, it wasn’t accurate. Yes, the result was the same — a closed business — but the reasons behind the closure weren’t high rents and a difficult city government.
Forman, who has a business in Branson, Mo., and has owned businesses in more than a half-dozen other cities, said Lawrence City Hall was among the best he has worked with. He also had no complaints with the rent or his landlord, the late George Paley and his family.
When Forman spoke to me, he was insistent that people understand those old, familiar reasons weren’t behind this closure. Instead, he thinks it is important for Lawrence residents to hear something that he knows several merchants in downtown think but aren’t always comfortable saying.
“The people of Lawrence,” Forman said when asked about what needs to change with downtown. “The west-siders need to reinvest in downtown Lawrence.”
Forman said he believes downtown is becoming a bit like The Strip in Las Vegas. He said the last place residents of Las Vegas want to go on a regular basis is The Strip. They go when they have visitors from out of town or when there is a special event, but many other times they avoid it.
Forman said it always was surprising how many of his shop’s customers were from out of town — many Johnson County residents coming over for a weekend outing. That’s good. Lawrence will take all the Johnson County money it can get. But unlike Las Vegas, Lawrence doesn’t yet have a tourism industry large enough to entirely support the downtown that we want to have.
A bit of perspective is probably important here. There has been a lot of new building in downtown in the last several years. Vacancy rates are not particularly high in the district. Downtown is not in crisis. And there probably are a multitude of reasons why the TCBY shop didn’t work, including the fact that a Kansas winter doesn’t always put a fellow in the mood for frozen yogurt.
But I’ve certainly heard the concerns whispered before that Lawrence consumers don’t support their downtown businesses like they used to. Worse yet, Forman thinks Lawrence residents have become a bit blasé about it.
“I think too many Lawrence people are content with the idea that businesses come and go in downtown, but that is not how you build a strong downtown,” Forman said.
Certainly there are Lawrence residents concerned about the long-term health of downtown. A certain subset of that group likely have a predictable response to this issue: Don’t allow frozen yogurt shops to locate anywhere but downtown. One possible strategy has always been to protect downtown at the expense of all other areas of town. Going that path, however, puts the community at odds with perhaps the most prevalent trend in America: the need for everything to be convenient. For that reason, the strategy might not work. If a frozen yogurt place wasn’t allowed to open at Sixth and Wakarusa, for instance, I’m not sure whether TCBY would have sold more frozen yogurt or whether Lawrence would have just eaten less frozen yogurt.
Another option is to embrace the idea of downtown Lawrence retail being supported primarily by visitors. If that is the case, though, Lawrence’s tourism industry is likely going to have to grow substantially.
The strategy that it seemed like the city had settled on was to encourage more people to live downtown, which in turn would be good for downtown retailers. The most convenient place for people who live downtown to shop would be downtown.
But as the apartment development along New Hampshire Street has illustrated, such a strategy relies on the city providing financial incentives, especially to address the parking issues that are caused by more people living downtown. It is less clear whether the current City Commission believes in that strategy. It rejected incentives for Bob Schumm’s apartment project on Vermont Street, and it seems the new incentives policy passed by the commission will make the use of incentives more difficult in downtown.
What to do? Hard to say. Downtown, like many beautiful things, is complex.
But Forman — who said he still loves downtown and may open a future business in the district — contends that Lawrence residents could make the situation better by doing something very simple: Find more reasons to go downtown and spend.
“We do wish the people of Lawrence would invest as much in downtown as the merchants do,” he said.