Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
New Thai restaurant set to open along 23rd Street; Chinese restaurant coming to once-popular Sixth Street spot
I normally wouldn’t recommend traveling to Thailand via a Topeka connection. But this may be the exception, and, no, it doesn’t involve an 82-hour layover and a crop duster from Forbes Field. A longtime Topeka restaurant duo is opening a new Thai restaurant in Lawrence that they promise will give you a real taste of the Far East cuisine.
Chira and K.C. Piyassaphan are keeping the name of their new Lawrence restaurant simple: Thai Diner. It will be located in the Louisiana Purchase shopping center at 23rd and Louisiana, in the spot that used to house DonDon, the Japanese noodle restaurant.
“It is not a franchise at all,” Chira said. “We’re a husband and wife team. It is not just a way to make money for us. It really is a way of life for us.”
The couple owned and operated Tuptim Thai Restaurant in Topeka for a dozen years, and Chira said she grew up in the restaurant business and has worked actively in it for at least 20 years. The family got out of the Topeka restaurant in May 2015, and began looking for an opportunity to move closer to their daughter, who is a now a med student at KU.
The restaurant likely is still a few weeks away from opening, but the sign for the establishment is up, and construction work is underway to renovate the relatively small space that DonDon occupied for a number of years before the owner of that restaurant retired this summer.
“I want people to feel like this is their little place that they can come to and be comfortable,” Chira said.
As for the food, Chira didn’t have a menu to share with me yet. That’s in part because a large part of the menu will be on a chalkboard that hangs in the dining room. Chira calls it the “Chef’s Selection” board, and it will change often as certain ingredients come in and out of season and as Chira’s creative mood changes.
But there also will be certain dishes that customers can count on seeing on a regular basis. Pad Thai, Panang curry, and pineapple fried rice are a few of the classic dishes that Chira said are expected to be part of the regular menu.
“But I really want to offer several dishes that are little more modern,” Chira said.
She said she hopes the restaurant will change some attitudes about what Thai cuisine is all about. The Americanized version of Thai food often is associated with a lot of spicy dishes.
“That’s really more of a myth,” she said. “Thai food doesn’t have to be spicy. It can be as mild as you want it to be. The real thing with Thai food is lots of fresh herbs and spices. We have a lot of grilled dishes. I tell people Thai food offers a lot more variety than Chinese food.”
• Those may be fighting words for a new Chinese restaurant that is set to open in Lawrence. (For some reason I envision a new Food Network show called Cuisine Cage Matches, and cannons filled with grains of fried rice. To be fair, though, most of my visions involve fried rice.) Regardless, I have a bit of of news to pass along about a new Chinese restaurant.
A restaurant called Szechuan House Chinese Cuisine is preparing to open along Sixth Street in the former home of Panda Garden, which closed after its owners retired earlier this year.
The sign is up for the new restaurant, but it is not yet open. I stopped by the site, 1500 W. Sixth, and talked to a construction worker, but I wasn’t able to connect with the owner or operator. Based on the amount of renovation work that was underway, it looked to me like the restaurant was still at least a couple of weeks away from opening.
As far as what the restaurant will be like, I don’t have much there. I typed “Szechuan House Chinese Restaurant” into Google, and the robots laughed at me and said “Dude, there are a thousand places named Szechuan House Chinese Restaurant.” But I’ll let you know if I hear more.
I’m still waiting for the boom to come. Yes, those were the last words I remember saying before waking up on July 5 with a head bandage and a patriotic ringing of the ears. But what I’m talking about this morning is a Lawrence boom in single-family housing construction.
New numbers are out for home construction in Lawrence, and they show that the Lawrence home-building scene is quite a bit different from what is happening in the Kansas City market. Through July, Lawrence builders have received permits to build 105 single-family or duplex homes in 2016. That’s a good number compared with the post-recession doldrums of 2009-2012. But the number is not so good compared with last year. Thus far in 2016, single-family and duplex construction is off 30 percent compared with the same period a year ago.
What’s more interesting is what is going on in Kansas City. Single-family home construction in Kansas City actually is booming. The Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City hasn’t yet released its July report, but through June the numbers are impressive. Single-family construction in the KC metro is up 29 percent compared with the same period a year ago. (If you are wanting to compare apples to apples, Lawrence single-family home construction at the June mark was down about 34 percent.)
Home building is an important economic activity in Lawrence, but for whatever reason it has had a hard time sustaining any momentum recently. Compare that with the Kansas City market, which is in its fifth straight year of increases for single-family home construction.
Perhaps the most interesting difference between the Lawrence and Kansas City markets has to do with apartments. The construction of apartments in Lawrence has been much more robust than single-family construction. In fact, it has become almost routine for the number of apartment units built in Lawrence to exceed the number of single-family and duplex units built in the city. That didn’t used to be the case, but now the numbers most years aren’t even close.
It is not hard to find national stories about how more Americans are choosing to live in apartments rather than single-family homes. There is a generation of Americans who don’t like the idea of owning and maintaining a property as much as their parents did. Plus, as the number of retirees rise, more of them are seeking to get away from some of the responsibilities of home ownership. But the trend is particularly pronounced in Lawrence.
Since 2009, Lawrence every single year has built more apartment units than single-family or duplex units. Contrast that to Kansas City: In the eight-county area that comprises the KC metro market, single-family home construction has exceeded apartment construction every single year.
Here are some numbers to put in perspective just how different the Lawrence market has become: From 2009 through June of 2016, about 33 percent of all new residential construction in Lawrence was single-family or duplex homes, while 67 percent was apartments or other multifamily units. During the same time period in the KC metro, 61 percent of all residential construction was single-family, while 39 percent was apartments.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying what is happening in Lawrence is bad. More apartment construction theoretically means we’re becoming a denser community, which is one of the strategies to fight urban sprawl. But since apartments are generally always rentals, it also means that the ownership of our community is becoming more concentrated too. That probably has implications.
Regardless, we long have said Lawrence should be different from Kansas City. These numbers show that’s the case. Kansas City residents are the ones with yards.
Here’s a look at other numbers from Lawrence’s July building permit report:
• Thus far in 2016, the city has issued permits for 105 single-family or duplex homes. That’s down from 152 units in 2015, but is still better than the seven-year average of 86 units.
• The city year-to-date has issued permits for 377 apartment units. That’s down from 431 units in 2015. But don’t kid yourself, this is still a very good year for apartment construction. The seven-year average is 188 units.
• The city thus far has issued permits for $126.8 million worth of construction in Lawrence. That’s down from $167.6 million at this point in 2015. But remember, 2015 went on to be a record-setting year. The seven-year average is about $78 million.
There are many emotions the Lawrence Public Library evokes: joy in gaining new knowledge; pride in the community gathering place the library has become; fear that a librarian will whack me in the knee upon seeing my unpaid overdue book fines.
Warm and fuzzy, however, was not one of the emotions the last time Lawrence Public Library leaders appeared before the City Commission. Perhaps library leaders pulled out their copy of "The Art of the Deal." (Unless the topic is hair, warm and fuzzy is not a chapter that author writes often.) Library leaders went into the City Commission’s budget hearing with a recommendation from the city manager for a $26,000 increase — a fraction of what library leaders sought. Library leaders, though, left the meeting with about $255,000 more.
Library leaders used the concept of leverage. For years the library’s board of trustees has been making a recommendation of how much funding the library should receive. But this year, library leaders produced an attorney who said the city’s library ordinance actually states the City Commission must agree to the library’s funding recommendation, as long as the amount is no greater than 4.5 mills of property tax. (My wife would make a fantastic library board member. In my household, she puts the “mend” in recommendation, as in mend is what you will need to do if you deviate from it.)
The library’s stance was contrary to what has long been believed by city officials, but ultimately the city attorney said library leaders were interpreting the ordinance correctly. Thus, the library got its full funding request, and city taxpayers got a bit of a property tax rate increase.
It is hard to blame library leaders for pushing the issue. They feel the library’s staff is grossly underpaid, and city funding in general is inadequate. When I spoke with library director Brad Allen a few days ago, he was pretty vocal about it.
“I would say by far this is the poorest funded library I have worked in,” Allen said. “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t do more to get more funding.”
Allen said library leaders decided to push the issue this year. He said the law has been on the books for about 35 years and never has been “properly honored.” But he also concedes the action seems to have “opened a huge can of worms.” Indeed, I think commissioners and the public are concerned about non-elected library board members — they are appointed by city commissioners — having such control over tax rates.
There was talk by city commissioners of a review of how the library is governed. I would suggest that is a good idea, and could become an even better one if commissioners and library leaders allow themselves to think big.
The library has a big, new and rather expensive building in downtown. Maybe it is time for the library to think about being bigger in another way. Perhaps it is time for the Lawrence Public Library to become the Douglas County Public Library.
Every day there are quite a few people who don’t live in the city limits of Lawrence — and thus don’t pay the city-imposed library property tax — who use the library. In the parlance of the day, there is no “extreme vetting” that is required to enter the library. Many of those users live in the rural parts of Douglas County or perhaps in the smaller communities of Eudora and Baldwin City.
Eudora and Baldwin residents pay a tax to support their communities’ smaller libraries. Folks in rural Douglas County, depending on where they live, may pay a tax to the Northeast Kansas Library System. Some of those tax dollars get returned to the Lawrence Public Library in the form of a grant, but Allen made it sound like the grant dollars weren’t a great deal for the Lawrence library.
“They help the smaller libraries a lot more than they help the larger libraries,” he said.
So, would it be a good deal if there was one tax charged throughout Douglas County that supported one library system?
“That is a fantastic question,” Allen said.
Allen is ready to at least study the idea of a countywide library system.
“It is something we should get together with the county staff and County Commission and the city staffs, and examine what the tax bases look like,” Allen said.
A countywide library system could take on at least a couple of different looks. One would be a true countywide system that would include the smaller communities of Eudora, Baldwin City and Lecompton. Both Eudora and Baldwin City already have their own tax-supported libraries — Lecompton’s is a volunteer-run facility, I believe — so they probably would have to be assured that a countywide system would include branches in those communities. Even that assurance may not be enough to get those communities to go along. They may view it as too much of a loss of local control. If so, a countywide system could include just the city of Lawrence and the unincorporated parts of Douglas County. The smaller towns would keep their existing systems.
Under either system, the benefit to the Lawrence Public Library would be that it would have a large tax base to rely on for support. The result for taxpayers likely would be that the city’s mill levy would go down, but the county’s mill levy would increase. A big unknown is the amount of the increases and decreases.
The biggest unknown is how the public would respond to all of this. The library has great support from the public, but some taxpayers may be miffed that the library feels like it is underfunded. Lawrence voters approved a tax increase to build the new library, and library leaders at the time said a half-mill increase in their budget would take care of operating costs. Allen wasn’t the library director at the time, and he told me he believes the half-mill estimate was too low in retrospect. Those sorts of shifts drive some taxpayers crazy.
The idea of a countywide system of anything creates the potential of a rural/urban split. There’s long been a fear of Lawrence running the whole county. I get that, but I also understand that government leaders have an obligation to be as efficient as possible with taxpayer dollars. Are there efficiencies that could be gained by having one countywide library system?
I’m not qualified enough to answer that question. I don’t know whether a countywide system is the way to go. But it sure seems like now is the right time to have a serious discussion about it.
I know of one taxpayer who would prefer they have that discussion rather than one about library fines.
New apartment complex planned for south Lawrence; city’s library lands on list of most spectacular libraries in the world
There are times I think it would be wise for me to live directly across the street from a home improvement center. The quicker I get my supplies, the quicker the project starts, the quicker the ambulance arrives, and everyone wins in that situation. Well, plans have been filed for a new apartment complex across the street from Menards.
A group led by Lawrence businessman Tim Stultz has filed plans for a 55-acre apartment development that would house about 240 apartments. The project would be built on the farm field that is on the south side of 31st Street, across the street from the new Menards home improvement center.
Stultz said he thinks the site offers a good chance for a different type of apartment complex to be developed. He envisions a complex with lots of one-bedroom units that could be marketed as affordable apartment units. These are my words, not his, but it kinds of sounds like a “starter apartment,” much like some neighborhoods are full of “starter homes.” Stultz noted there are lots of employment opportunities within walking distance of the site, and the Peaslee Tech vocational center is just a few blocks down 31st Street.
Stultz, however, hasn’t completed a full design for the project. First, the project must win both annexation and rezoning approvals from City Hall. An annexation isn’t always the easiest process to go through at City Hall, but this piece of property is about as close to being in the city limits as you can be without being in it. The property already is served by highly improved streets — the rebuilt 31st Street and the new Michigan Street. City utilities are right next to the site, as not only is Menards across the street, but the large Connection at Lawrence apartment complex is just west of the property. The soon-to-open South Lawrence Trafficway is just south of the project. The site does have some floodplain issues that would have to be dealt with.
This project probably will get watched closely by others in the development community. Whether it is fair or not, there is a certain amount of unease in some development circles that the current City Commission wants to clamp down on growth, especially on the edges of the community. Those concerned cite the denial of the shopping center proposal for just south of the SLT and Iowa Street intersection. They also point to the fact the commission was less than unanimous in accepting an application for annexation for a proposed apartment complex west of the SLT at the Bob Billings interchange. Acceptance of an application for annexation has always been pretty routine, so when Commissioner Leslie Soden said she didn’t even want to consider the annexation request, that raised some red flags with some.
Again, some of this concern may be fair and some may not. Retail is different from apartments, and the west of the SLT apartment complex is still in process. It hasn’t been denied anything by the city. But if the development of this site becomes an issue, that will be a more concrete sign that there is a changing growth philosophy at City Hall.
Either way, this project continues a trend. South Lawrence is hot with development interest right now. That’s what happens when an area has about $350 million worth of infrastructure investment. Think about it for a moment: The completion of the SLT is about a $190 million project; the widening of U.S. Highway 59 was about $110 million; and the new sewer treatment plant under construction south of the Wakarusa River is about $50 million.
The SLT probably is driving most of the interest at the moment. It is officially scheduled to open in November, but I keep hearing talk that the project is ahead of schedule. I know driving through the construction zone on Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence, signs advertising the new exits for the SLT and such are being put in place.
“It is going to change a lot,” Stultz said of the opening of the bypass project. “I just hope we embrace it as a community and see the potential for it to grow our community.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• I hope this doesn’t say anything about my health, but I’ve now visited one of the 21 libraries you should visit before you die.
The lifestyle website Insider has put the Lawrence Public Library on the list of must see libraries not just in America but around the world. Of the 21 libraries listed, only seven were in the U.S. Lawrence was really the only small-town U.S. library on the list, although perhaps you might consider the rare book library in New Haven, Conn., as qualifying as such. Otherwise, the U.S. entries included: the Library of Congress; the New York Public Library; the Boston Public Library, and a space-aged looking library in Seattle.
About the Lawrence library, the website says “it used to be a big, gray, concrete slab.” It notes, however, that the building was redesigned in 2014 and now sports a “sleek, modern look.”
“Now it is like a community center,” the website reads. “It has quiet spaces, lounges, and brings people together on the lawn for outdoor events.”
This list is just the latest the library has landed on. The website Tech Insider created a list of the most beautiful libraries in each state. The Lawrence Public Library represented Kansas on the list. That’s in addition to the previously reported award from the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association. I know when the design of the library was unveiled it wasn’t universally loved — although, what is in Lawrence? — but you could now make the case that the Lawrence Public Library is becoming the most critically acclaimed piece of architecture in the city.
South Iowa Street scuttlebutt: National fabric store to locate in Lawrence, boutique changes focus, chain restaurant set to open
Let’s get caught up on some south Iowa Street scuttlebutt . . .
• As a man who lives in a family with quilters, I can tell you there is some sewing table gossip that will get you a needle in the nose if you repeat it. But I think I can safely report this, and technically it is not gossip anymore: Lawrence soon will have another national fabric store chain as part of its retail mix.
For weeks, I’ve been reporting on speculation that Jo-Ann Fabric and Crafts was going to locate at 27th and Iowa streets in the location of the now defunct Hancock Fabrics store. Well, that speculation ended up being accurate. Jo-Ann has put up a “coming soon” sign at the location, and construction work is underway.
We’ll see what type of store it ends up being. Jo-Ann seems to be a chain that is a bit broader in scope than Hancock’s was. According to its website, Jo-Ann stocks not only fabric and sewing supplies but also scrapbooking materials, art and painting supplies, jewelry-making accessories, baking and party needs and several other categories.
No word yet on when the store may open, but I would guess certainly before the Christmas holiday shopping season.
• A shop just a couple doors down from the future Jo-Ann location is undergoing some significant changes. The boutique Sweet Tea and Caviar is remaking itself from a store that focused on women’s clothing — particularly college-branded clothing — to a store that now focuses on baby items.
Owner Leslie Stauffer said the store always had a small section of baby items, but customers started asking for more after the downtown baby store retailer Blue Dandelion closed. But the biggest factor in the store’s change was that Stauffer became a mother about five months ago.
“About 98 percent of the decision was based on me becoming a mom,” Stauffer said. “I was ordering everything online and I didn’t get to feel and touch the items before I ordered.”
The store will carry a lot of baby clothing, but also will have baby gift items and practical baby care needs. For example, the store carries something called a FeverFrida, which is a product that uses a small Bluetooth patch that can take a baby’s temperature. The patch goes under the arm and can stay there all night. The patch takes the temperature and alerts your phone when the temperature rises above a certain level. The benefit, Stauffer said, is that parents don’t have to wake their sick children to take their temperatures.
The store also carries items such as high-tech baby soothers that emit a sound similar to what babies heard in the womb. (What I want to know is what baby came out of the womb with a pad full of notes on womb sounds.) The store also has a wellness spray that helps pregnant women with issues of nausea.
“We are all baby, but we also have a little bit for mom too,” Stauffer said.
The store has been closed for the last several days to transform its inventory. The shop, located at 2108 W. 27th Street, is set to reopen at 10 a.m. Saturday.
• I feel like this column has been a bit girly today. So, I’ve been searching of news for a south Iowa Street tractor pull to get the testosterone levels in balance. I did not find one, but perhaps news of a restaurant that lets you throw peanut shells on the floor, has lots of Lone Star items, and serves hunks of red meat the size of your face will help.
We’ve been reporting for awhile that work appears to be wrapping up on the new Texas Roadhouse restaurant at 2329 Iowa St. Well, I still don’t have word of an official opening date, but I’ve got a good sign that it is probably next week.
I know that Texas Roadhouse is hosting an invitation-only event at the restaurant this weekend. Those events are common for new restaurants because it helps them control the crowd and get their staffs trained for the official opening. Usually, those events happen just a few days before the opening, so I would expect the restaurant to open sometime next week. I’m still reaching out to the restaurant. I’ll let you know if I hear a specific date.
• For what it is worth, I’m still hearing speculation that Men’s Warehouse plans to locate along south Iowa Street. I think the most likely location for the shop is in the strip center near 33rd and Iowa streets. That is the one that is in the parking lot of Bed Bath and Beyond, Kohl’s and other retailers in the Pine Ridge Plaza. There is a significant amount of vacant space a bit south of the Jason’s Deli location. But, I still have no official word from the retailer, which sells suits and other men’s clothing.
• One other retailer to keep an eye on is Office Depot. In the last few days, Office Depot has announced it plans to close another 300 stores in the next three years. It has not released a list of store closings, however. Office Depot has about 1,800 stores worldwide.
Lawrence doesn’t exactly have a plethora of office supply stores, and I’ve heard nothing specifically about the Lawrence Office Depot store, which is at 25th and Iowa streets. But I pass it along in case you want to start hoarding paper clips and Scotch tape now.
I suspect the idea of upscale dining for John Wilson — the founder of North Lawrence’s Johnny’s Tavern — may have involved extra salt on the bowl of peanuts at the bar. Or if it was an anniversary dinner, or something like that, perhaps some tomato juice in the pitcher of beer. But Wilson’s alter ego — a new west Lawrence restaurant called J. Wilson’s — has a decidedly different take.
J. Wilson’s is in the spot at the southeast corner of Sixth and Wakarusa that previously housed Marisco’s. The same owners and staff that operated Marisco’s continue to operate J. Wilson’s, but there have been changes to the menu and a major makeover to the interior of the building. The restaurant spot was closed for about a month for the remodeling, and opened in the last few days.
“I would call it chic but casual,” owner Nancy Renfro said of the restaurant’s concept. “You can still walk in in shorts and feel comfortable. But we think there are lots of sophisticated features that will make people feel special.”
Renfro, and her husband, Rick, are owners of Johnny’s, thus the nod to Johnny’s founder John Wilson. But you won’t ever confuse the two establishments. J. Wilson’s is not about the burgers, pizza or sports bar atmosphere that have been staples for the Johnny’s franchise.
The menu has words on it such as confit fingerlings, focaccia croutons, and seafood tomato bath. (I may once have had a seafood tomato bath at Johnny’s, but my lawyer advises me to stop the story right there.) J. Wilson’s menu has a host of items that Renfro describes as falling into the category of new American cuisine.
“We get to delve into the finer points of food and drink here,” Renfro said. “I hope that we get to open up the world of dining to younger people in this community. When you live at home, you eat Mom’s food. When you are in college, you eat fast food, and then you get out and you realize there can be a lot more to it.”
Among the chef’s specialties on the menu is a cedar fired trout that is grilled in cedar paper, doused in drawn butter, and served with lemon and herbs. The menu also features three cuts of steak, including a 24-ounce tomahawk, bone-in ribeye. Renfro said that much like Marisco’s, J. Wilson’s will continue to place an emphasis on seafood dishes. That includes a shrimp and grits dish, crab cakes, mussels, and a seafood pan roast that features mussels, crab, cod and other ingredients. The menu also includes several sandwiches, including a mango jerked chicken and a pork belly grilled cheese.
The restaurant continues to have a full cocktail bar, but Renfro said there is an even greater emphasis on wine. The restaurant now has a full-time sommelier, and Renfro estimated that there are about 50 different wines in the restaurant’s collection.
“But the number is not as important as the ones we have chosen,” Renfro said. “We like to buy wines from boutique wineries that get really good scores. We like to find the up-and-comers.”
As for the interior makeover, the restaurant has moved its entrance to the west side of the building, creating a new glass-encased lobby. The dining room continues to feature a lot of the stone work that existed in Marisco’s, but features new lighting, tables and other accessories.
“We had this vision when we started that we were going to try to create a New York supper club type of feel,” Renfro said. “We’re looking to create a lot of low-key elements.”
The Renfros had owned Marisco’s since 2001, and they’ve owned Johnny’s since 1978. Nancy said both she and Rick continue to love the work.
“I love food, I love wine, I love cocktails, I love new beers,” Nancy said. “And I love that I still learn something every day.”
West Lawrence grocery begins new program to allow customers to order online, pick up groceries at the curb; an odd KU ranking
The two most dangerous words on the internet: Buy now. When Amazon was created, my house ended up with a library, complete with lobby furniture. And one thing I can assure you is that my household likes food a lot better than we like books, so I wonder what will happen now that a Lawrence Dillons store has become one of the few in the state that take online orders.
Dillons has announced that its store at Sixth and Wakarusa has become the second in the state that is using a new online ordering system called ClickList. Shoppers log onto dillons.com/clicklist and start perusing the approximately 40,000 grocery items on the website’s list. Shoppers then can hit the magical “buy now” button, then select a time they want to pick up their groceries. The Sixth and Wakarusa store now has a drive-up lane where a store associate will bring the groceries to your car and load them. (This will be particularly helpful in my household because my wife still struggles with parking an 18-wheeler.)
Shoppers pay at the curb. According to a release from Dillons, the associate is equipped to handle coupons as well. (With my wife, “equipped to handle coupons” means the associate has a pillow because that is needed while she goes through her file cabinet of various clippings.)
There is an important detail in all of this: Dillons will charge online customers a $4.95 service charge for each order, although the company is waiving the charge for the first three orders as part of a promotion.
I plan to be out at the store this morning to get a rundown from Dillons officials about the new system. Based on information provided by the grocer, here are some details I know now:
— Orders placed before midnight are available for pick-up the next day at a specific time chosen by the customer.
— The online order service is available 24/7, but curbside pickup must be scheduled for a time between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.. Dillons has created four designated parking spots for online shoppers on the east side of the building. Each spot has a sign with a telephone number. Shoppers call the number, and tell an associate that they are here to pick up their order. Payment is done at the curb, but must be done with some form of a credit or debit card.
— The service has about 40,000 items available for purchase, but Dillons is adding to that list regularly. Some items that aren't included are beer, tobacco products, hot food items, and prescription drugs. But meat and produce items are included in the service. I was told that shoppers can provide specific instruction on how they want their steaks cut, for example, or what type of firmness they want in their produce. One Dillons executive told me there is an online customer that routinely orders 10 bananas — five of them green and five of them yellow.
Dillons started the Clicklist program at a Wichita store in June. The Lawrence store and one in Topeka recently became the second and third stores in the state to add the program. Dillons parent company, Kroger, has been testing the online ordering system since late 2014. Dillons officials say the service has been very popular with senior citizens, parents with young children, and busy professionals.
The service certainly is a trend in the grocery industry. The Hy-Vee store on 23rd Street has been offering online ordering through its Hy-Vee Aisles Online program for about a year, said Daniel Chang, assistant store operations manager. An official with the Sixth Street Hy-Vee said that store has been offering an online shopping service since October.
Thus far, there aren’t any indications that Dillons is starting a door-to-door delivery service for groceries. But that's probably worth keeping an eye on. The Hy-Vee service does offer a delivery option. As grocery companies start becoming more advanced online, it will be interesting to see if that is the thing that eventually leads to a major change in how we buy our groceries.
I get a little misty at this thought, but the day really is coming where I can sit in my easy chair, ask for a bag of Doritos and a cold beverage, and have them brought to me in a way that I don’t have to duck upon delivery.
Look for Dillons to begin rolling out the online service in many other stores across the state later this year.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I'm optimistic that the KU football team will provide plenty to cheer about this year, but in case you are looking for a backup plan to show your Jayhawk pride, I have news of an unusual ranking: KU has one of the best looking fountains in all of college landscaping.
The website lawnstarter.com ranked the 15 most picturesque college fountains because, I assume, they were tired of all the fights that were breaking out over the topic at tailgate parties across the country.
The fountain that got the attention at KU is the Chi Omega fountain at the western entrance of Jayhawk Boulevard. The Chi O fountain was ranked No. 12 on the list. It got high marks for its English-inspired design and the lush landscaping that surrounds the fountain.
But it did not beat out Drumheller Fountain at the University of Washington. It has Mt. Rainier in the background, so that's not really fair.
Both Texas and TCU landed on the list ahead of KU, but thankfully our rivals at K-State and Missouri did not, although they protest that they have beautiful fountains. They are located outside of almost every restroom, and when you push the right button, the water shoots up in the air and provides hours of entertainment.
Forget the robots. A bulldozer is set to solve the serious parking problem at the massive HERE Kansas apartment complex near the University of Kansas campus.
If you remember, the multistory apartment/retail project near 11th and Mississippi streets was to have a robotic, Jetson-like parking garage. Then, earlier this year, the company responsible for producing that robotic system went bankrupt. HERE officials have been looking for a solution ever since. What they’ve come up with is decidedly more low tech: Bulldoze a couple of houses in the Oread neighborhood and build a surface parking lot.
Plans have been filed at City Hall for a 68-space parking lot to be built at 1029 Mississippi St., which is basically caddy-corner from the HERE Kansas apartment/retail project. The Mississippi Street property currently has three multifamily housing structures on the property. Plans call for those structures to be razed. Half of the property — the portion that is west of the alley — already is an old parking lot that is rarely used except for big game-day crowds at nearby Memorial Stadium. It too will be replaced with a new parking lot.
If approved, the new parking plan would give the HERE apartment project enough parking spaces to allow for all 624 bedrooms of the project to be occupied. But a key city official told me that won’t happen right away. Scott McCullough, the city’s director of planning and development services, said it likely will take at least three months for the parking project to go through the approval process. Then the parking lot would have to be built.
That means the HERE project won’t be able to lease all of its apartments for quite some time. Back in May, the City Commission said about 12 percent of the apartment complex’s bedroom must go unleased until additional parking could be found for the project. When bankruptcy caused the robotic parking system to be scrapped, the apartment developers decided to put a unique human-operated valet system in its place. That system, however, is able to accommodate fewer vehicles than what was planned with the robotic system. City commissioners said they weren’t comfortable allowing the apartment project to open without additional parking, and thus placed the occupancy limits on the building.
Whether this plan for a surface parking lot will win city approval is unknown. McCullough said the parking lot does meet the basic city requirement of being within 600 feet of the structure it is serving. But the property will need to be rezoned to high-density RM-32 apartment zoning, and the Oread neighborhood plan will need to be slightly altered to allow for that zoning.
None of the houses on the site are historic or in a historic district, McCullough said. But it is easy enough to predict that there may be some neighborhood opposition to the idea of tearing down houses to accommodate surface parking lots. The Oread neighborhood has major parking problems, and I’m sure there are many property owners who would like to tear down an old home to serve as a parking lot.
McCullough said he thought the circumstances around this request were unusual enough that it would not be setting a precedent, if approved.
“I think this request is uniquely tied to the robotic parking problem that HERE has faced,” McCullough said.
I didn’t get in touch with the Chicago-based development group that is building the HERE project, but it makes a couple of key points in its application to the city. It notes that the parking lot should provide convenient parking for the apartment project that will “ensure that its residents are not contributing to the parking problems which trouble the Oread neighborhood.”
I still think parking will be something to keep an eye on with this project. We’ve reported that the development group will charge an extra monthly fee for those residents who need a parking space. In other words, if you don’t have a car, you won’t have to pay as much to live in the complex. I know this isn’t the only apartment project in town that does this, but is perhaps the largest one to do so. It will be interesting to see if tenants try to game the system and simply use on-street parking in the Oread neighborhood to avoid the monthly fee charged by HERE.
The development application also makes one other key point: If the use of the property at 1029 Mississippi St. is to ever change from a parking lot, it will require a whole new round of approvals from the City Commission.
If the parking lot is approved, both the city and KU would get something they’ve long wanted out of the project: a realigned Fambrough Drive. Fambrough drive is the street that runs along the northern edge of Memorial Stadium. Where it connects with Mississippi Street is currently a three-way intersection. But if Fambrough Drive could be rerouted a bit to the south, it could align with 11th Street and create a traditional four-way intersection.
As for the overall progress on the HERE project, McCullough confirmed that the city has not yet granted an occupancy permit that would allow residents to start moving into apartments. HERE officials have been pre-leasing the apartments, with a goal of having the apartments ready for students who would begin the new semester later this month. McCullough said the project is now shooting for an occupancy date of Aug. 17. The first day of classes for KU is Aug. 22.
This ending was easy enough to predict. When we reported in June that the Hastings bookstore chain had filed for bankruptcy and had put the entire business up for sale, it wasn’t hard to predict that a buyer wouldn’t be found. Folks interested in buying national bookstore chains probably have all their money tied up in Packard and telegraph collections.
Indeed, Lawrence’s Hasting’s store at 23rd and Iowa streets will close in the coming months. With its closing, Lawrence will be without a national bookstore chain. That’s the part that would have been hard to predict a decade or so ago.
Those of you in town long enough remember when Lawrence was so sharply divided over whether a Borders bookstore should be allowed to locate at Seventh and New Hampshire streets. Lots of smart people were betting that the Borders store would put all the locally owned bookstores out of business, and the only bookstores in the community would be chains. I’ll admit, it sounded plausible back then. But now, the exact opposite has happened. In fact, today, two of the larger retailers on Massachusetts Street — by physical size anyway — are the locally owned bookstores The Dusty Bookshelf and Signs of Life. The Raven, of course, is still operating in downtown Lawrence too. Local bookstores seem to have found their niche by offering the customer service that internet and chain stores can struggle with.
There were lots of folks who used the fear that local businesses would be put out of business by a chain to argue that Borders shouldn’t be allowed to locate at the Seventh and New Hampshire location. To be fair, there also were folks fighting the project for historic preservation reasons because they didn’t want to see an old building on the site demolished. The City Commission vote in the late 1990s to allow the store was a contentious one, but it was approved.
I’ve brought all this up before, but do so again because the takeaway from it still seems relevant: None of our crystal balls are very good when it comes to predicting the future of business and commerce in our community. When we argue that new businesses shouldn’t be allowed to locate in Lawrence because of the impact they will have on existing businesses, we are really doing nothing more than making a guess. Sometimes we are right that a new business puts another out of business. But other times we are wrong. Borders is the example that comes to mind today, but the Sixth and Wakarusa Wal-Mart, which has a grocery store, is another good example. Concerns were expressed that it would harm the Dillons across the street. But in fact, the Dillons has since expanded and another grocery store, Sprouts, has located at the intersection. Not sure many folks saw that coming.
Everybody guesses wrong from time to time. That’s not the point. The question is whether city officials should rely much on those guesses to determine whether new retailers should be allowed to locate in the city. It could be argued that some commissioners over the years have relied too heavily on those guesses. It is relevant today because there seems to be a lot of national retailers looking at Lawrence. Most, I suspect, aren’t interested in playing a guessing game.
As for the Hastings store, there’s not much to report. The going-out-of-business sign is up. Discounts are up to 40 percent at this point. National press reports indicate all Hastings stores will be closed by Oct. 31. I suspect it could be sooner depending on how quickly inventory is depleted.
The more interesting thing to watch will be what comes next for the location. The Hastings store — located at the northeast corner of 23rd and Iowa streets — is highly visible at perhaps the busiest intersection in town. It is one of the larger retail spaces on 23rd Street.
I’ve chatted with some folks in the real estate and development industries, and they said there’s certainly been speculation that Whole Foods is interested in the site, and has been for quite some time. At about 40,000 square feet, it is the right size for a Whole Foods. I don’t believe there is any deal for the property at this time, and I would note that just because Whole Foods is interested doesn’t mean it will ultimately end up there. The site, even though it has some access challenges, is so visible that it is expected to draw interest from multiple prospects. I’ll let you know as I hear more.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe a jet pack store will go in at 23rd and Iowa. If you are looking to buy a home in Lawrence, you certainly could use a jet pack or something else to help you move fast.
The latest numbers are out from the Lawrence Board of Realtors, and homes sales posted a nice increase in June. But the report also highlighted that the number of homes on the market continues to dwindle, and in some price points homes are selling in a just a matter of hours.
In the popular price category of $150,000 to $200,000, the median number of days a home sat on the market in June was just three days, according to figures from the Board of Realtors.
Here’s a look at some other numbers from the June report:
— Lawrence home sales in June totaled 176, up 8.6 percent from June 2015.
— For the year to date, Lawrence home sales are basically stagnant compared with the same period a year ago. Sales total 625, down 0.5 percent. The dollar value of sales, however, is up about 3.8 percent. About $130 million worth of homes have sold in the first six months of the year.
— Sales of newly constructed homes are having their best year in awhile. Year to date, 46 newly constructed homes have sold. That’s up nearly 40 percent from the same period a year ago.
— The number of homes on the market in June totaled 283, down 15 percent from the same period a year ago.
Commissioners urged to backtrack on Sports Pavilion Lawrence court policy; Rock Chalk Park numbers and a look at its emerging competition
I certainly understand how a pickup basketball game can lead to a discussion. (Lawyers in the room kept calling it a “deposition,” but whatever.) Well, city commissioners are set to have a discussion that has pickup basketball games at its core — kind of.
If you remember, city officials caught some heat last week for an administrative decision that allowed all eight basketball courts at Sports Pavilion Lawrence to be used by the organizers of the large basketball tournament, the Hardwood Classic, which attracted about 300 youth basketball teams to the city. That administrative decision ran contrary to the promises that a previous city commission made during the contentious approval process for SPL and the associated Rock Chalk Park project. Commissioners back then said at least one of the eight courts always would be open to public free-play, since local residents are paying for the bulk of the facility.
At Tuesday’s meeting, relatively new City Manager Tom Markus apologized for the administrative decision. He said he wasn’t fully aware of all the history related to the court issue. He said future requests to close the court during large tournaments won’t be granted, unless the City Commission decides to create a formal policy allowing it. Importantly, though, Markus said he thinks the city should consider such a policy. (My 13-year old son also plans to lobby for a policy that would prohibit me from wearing my 1980s workout shorts during games.)
Markus noted that the city doesn’t have a written policy on the court usage issue. Rather, staff has just been making decisions based on what has been said in past commission meetings. Markus said a written policy is important to have. He also said the city needs to be mindful of how to have tournaments help pay for the facility, which has about a $1.5 million annual debt payment that the city has to pay for about 20 years. Plus, Markus said the facility has good potential to become a major tournament facility in the region, if it can successfully work with tournament organizers.
“One thing I will tell you about the facility is that it is a hit,” Markus said. “It is a huge attraction for our community. It gets so much heavy use that I think you need to think about some other streams of revenue to support it.”
The tournaments — in addition to creating sales tax revenue generated by visitors who come to town for the tournaments — also pay several thousand dollars in rental fees for the facility.
As I’ve noted before, I thought the promise by the past City Commission was going to be a tough one to keep. It seemed a bit more like something you say to quiet a crowd rather than one that was based off of a thoughtful discussion about the best way to run the facility. But, commissioners were emphatic that one court was going to be left open for public free-play at all times. Some residents will be mad if the city backtracks from that position, although staff members note that they ensured other courts at other city owned recreation centers were open for free-play at that time.
Most of the people who will be mad about the issue, though, don’t care much about the availability of basketball courts. Instead, they will be mad that elected officials said one thing because it was advantageous to do so to help win public support for a contentious project. Now that the project is a reality, the position changes. Some members of the public will feel played.
Markus acknowledged the rough history of the project, which was controversial, in part, because the city deviated from its standard bidding practices for large portions of the infrastructure work done at the site. In total, the city spent about $22.5 million on the project.
“When this project was developed,” I understand there was a lot of consternation and some divisiveness,” said Markus. “I’m here to tell you that I wasn’t a part of any of that, and didn’t see any of that. I’m trying to figure out how to make that place work.”
• The city is producing some numbers that show that Sports Pavilion Lawrence is doing well in attracting tournaments to the city. Thus far in 2016, the fieldhouse has hosted 29 tournaments. Original projections made by the city during the development of the project, called for 32 tournaments a year. The city is on pace to go well beyond that total.
Using several sets of spending assumptions, the city estimates that the economic impact of those tournaments has been about $4.4 million in new money injected into the Lawrence economy. The large Hardwood Classic that created the court debate was the biggest contributor with just more than a $1 million economic impact.
Those are good numbers for the community, but they may not be enough. The information I don’t have is how SPL’s operating budget is looking. The city estimated that SPL would need a $1 million operations budget. It estimated $650,000 of that operating budget would come through facility rental fees. I would think that the city is on track to collect that level of fees, since the number of tournaments is exceeding original projections. What’s less clear, though, is whether the $1 million operating budget was a sound estimate. Does it actually take more than that to run the facility? We’ll look into that, but I heard enough at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting to make me wonder.
Remember Markus’ comment from above: “It gets so much heavy use that I think you need to think about some other streams of revenue to support it.” That could be more tournament rental fees, but, absent that, it could be user fees that the general public pays to use the workout facilities and such. The idea has been brought up before but hasn’t ever garnered enough support to move forward. It would be a change in philosophy about how the city treats its recreation centers. The idea didn’t come up specifically at Tuesday’s meeting, but it may be something to keep an eye on.
• One thing that city officials likely are thinking about is competition. Lawrence got into the game early on the idea of a sports complex to attract youth tournaments, but it certainly isn’t the only city making that play.
The one that has been in the news most recently is the Gateway Village project in the Kansas City suburb of Grandview, Mo. It mainly is getting buzz as a large soccer complex, but plans also call for an 86,000 square-foot fieldhouse. Already open and competing for tournaments is a new $14 million youth fieldhouse in Wichita called the Wichita Sports Forum. It has six basketball courts, 10 volleyball courts, a turf soccer field, a trampoline park and other amenities. It is a privately operated venture. The competition for tournaments is likely to do nothing but get more competitive. What type of policies the city creates for use of the facility could become a factor in that competition.
But there’s also something else interesting about these projects. Both projects are part of larger retail and commercial developments. What caught my eye about the Gateway Village project — which breaks ground on Tuesday — is that it recently announced a deal for a Best Western Plus hotel to also break ground.
Rock Chalk Park has commercial property zoned and awaiting development. As we reported earlier this week, a new hotel has plans to build in the city, but it is locating on the eastern edge of Lawrence, far from the northwest location of Rock Chalk Park. The new hotel plans to locate next to VenturePark, the city-owned business park along 23rd Street. Who would have thought that VenturePark would attract a hotel development before Rock Chalk Park?
For whatever reason, commercial development is not progressing well around Rock Chalk Park. The zoned commercial property is still awaiting its first tenant. It seems that the city should figure out why the commercial part of this venture isn’t prospering. I’m certain that previous commissioners were counting on it to do so when they agreed to spend $22.5 million to support Rock Chalk Park. Spurring a new retail and commercial area to develop was one of the hopes of the project.
Will the city have to consider offering some incentives to get that first business to locate at Rock Chalk Park? I suspect there are significant costs related to being the first business to break ground in the development. Retail incentives, however, are not a popular concept with this current City Commission, which doesn’t have a single member who voted for the Rock Chalk Park project.
But, can Rock Chalk Park be considered a success if the commercial development doesn’t happen? Different people probably have different opinions about that. It is kind of a $22.5 million question.
Lawrence ranks high in places for entrepreneurs; a look at job growth totals; another deal for a local bank
I bet you Bill Gates is hearing the footsteps now. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the latest issue of Entrepreneur magazine. The publication lists the top 50 cities for entrepreneurs, and Lawrence checks in at No. 23.
Despite not having invented Microsoft or having figured out how to charge approximately $180 for a cup of coffee, Lawrence is just one spot behind the technology and Starbucks hub of Seattle.
The magazine lauds Lawrence for being a combination of all the rights things for an entrepreneur: centrally located; a small city next to a large metro; easy access to major highways; and home to a major research university.
University communities got a lot of love from the report. Boulder, Colo., was ranked No. 1 in the survey, and the top six communities all are home to major universities: Austin, Texas; Provo, Utah; Charlottesville, Va.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Ann Arbor, Mich. The report looked at about 2,200 cities with populations greater than 20,000.
Some other cities in the region also did well. They include:
— No. 8 Columbia, Mo.
— No. 18 Lincoln, Neb.
— No. 19 Kansas City, Mo.
— No. 27 Omaha, Neb.
— No. 32 Manhattan
— No. 43 Iowa City
— No. 45 Norman, Okla.
— No. 48 Oklahoma City
As always, you will have to decide how much stock to put into these rankings. This one was conducted in conjunction with the website Liveability.com, which measures a lot of quality of life factors. Unfortunately, the authors didn’t get real detailed in how they measured each community. They did say they looked at 17 economic indicators that included growth in businesses and employees from 2011 to 2015; unemployment rates, the number of venture capital deals, business tax rates, SBA loan amounts, the percentage of college-educated locals, access to high-speed broadband and a few other factors. The rankings also looked at a host of quality of life factors.
The online article highlights a couple of statistics. One is employment growth from 2011 to 2015. The article states Lawrence has seen 16 percent employment growth in that time period. The article, however, doesn’t state what set of employment numbers it is looking at. The federal numbers I look at generally have not shown that type of increase for Lawrence.
For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has released its preliminary figures for Douglas County job totals through 2015. Those numbers show the average number of jobs in Douglas County — including Lawrence — grew by just 5.9 percent since 2011.
That’s not meant to throw cold water on the latest ranking. It is great national publicity for Lawrence, and it makes sense that the city will start showing up on more of these lists. Community leaders have invested in projects such as the business incubator facility on West Campus, and the private sector and nonprofits are creating things such as the makers spaces and other programs aimed at helping startup businesses.
But Lawrence probably shouldn’t use such rankings to get a false sense of confidence on the job front. I’ve been aiming to report the latest job numbers from the BLS, so here’s a good chance to do so. These are countywide numbers, and they measure jobs that are located in the county. A Lawrence resident who has a job in Johnson County won’t be counted in these numbers, for example, while a Franklin County resident who has a job in Lawrence will. I don’t know why the Livability study looked at 2011 to 2015, but I’m going to look at 2015 compared with 2010.
— Douglas County: 48,358 jobs, up 4.6 percent
— Johnson County: 334,682 jobs, up 12.9 percent
— Riley County: 28,879 jobs, down 0.2 percent
— Sedgwick County: 248,287 jobs, up 4 percent
— Shawnee County: 96,963 jobs, up 3.4 percent
— Wyandotte County: 88,302 jobs, up 8.4 percent
Those numbers aren’t bad for Lawrence, and the better news is that job growth totals were more robust in 2015 than they were in previous years. Douglas County had a job growth rate of 1.6 percent from 2014 to 2015, which was the third highest on the list above, trailing Wyandotte (2.2 percent) and Johnson (2 percent).
In other news and notes from around town:
• I have news of another bank deal. Sunflower Bank, which has a branch in Lawrence, has signed a deal to merge with Texas-based Strategic Growth Bancorp.
Sunflower long has been known as a Salina-based bank, but the new corporate headquarters for the combined company will be in Denver. The combined company will have about 60 locations in Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico and Texas. The company will have approximately $4 billion in banking assets and about $3 billion in net loans and deposits, according to a press release.
Mollie Hale Carter, current chairman and CEO of Sunflower, will serve as CEO and president of the new holding company. The company’s 10-member board will be split equally between appointments made by Sunflower and SGB.
The press release doesn’t specifically address whether there will be a name change for the actual banks. Currently, the two companies operate banks and financial institutions under the brand names of Sunflower Bank, First National Bank of Santa Fe, Capital Bank, SSB, and Guardian Mortgage Company Inc.
Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. The deal is expected to be finalized in the first quarter of 2017. Customers are not expected to see a disruption in services as a result of the merger, company officials have said.
There were certainly days when I could have used a hotel room after dining at Don’s Steakhouse in eastern Lawrence. (A double order of twice-baked potatoes is a good recipe for a nap in the parking lot.) Well, the timing is a bit off, but plans are in the works for a new hotel — and possibly a restaurant — at the 23rd Street location that formerly housed Don’s Steakhouse.
A development group led by area businessman Mark Gwaltney wants to build an 89-room extended stay hotel on the property that housed Don’s Steakhouse and also on the property that formerly housed Diamond Everley Roofing’s shop facility. Gwaltney is an owner with Diamond-Everley. Gwaltney moved the roofing company’s operations to a site in Perry a couple of years ago, and the 23rd Street property has been fairly underutilized ever since. Don’s Steakhouse, of course, has been closed for a number of years, and the property has generally deteriorated in that time. In case you have forgotten, the site is just a bit west of 23rd and O’Connell on the north side of 23rd Street.
I don’t have word yet on the particular brand of hotel that is planned for the site, but documents submitted to the city indicate that Gwaltney’s group is working with Intercontinental Hotels Group, which is one of the giant worldwide hotel companies. The company operates a number of different brands, such as large upscale hotel chains like Crowne Plaza and smaller boutiques like Hotel Indigo.
The information provided to the city says the hotel will be an extended stay type of facility. That may make it more likely that it would be one of the IHG’s other brands, which include Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, StayBridge Suites and Candlewood Suites. Lawrence already has a Holiday Inn Express, but it recently lost its Holiday Inn brand (if you remember, the property is being converted to a DoubleTree by Hilton) and it does not have a StayBridge or a Candlewood. Both Candlewood and StayBridge specifically market themselves as extended stay hotels, so those may be ones to keep an eye on.
The deal for the new hotel is not yet done. Gwaltney’s group — a company called Cave Inn LLC — is seeking to buy some city-owned property to make the project feasible. The Don’s Steakhouse and Diamond Everley sites both are adjacent to the city’s new business park, Lawrence Venture Park. The group is seeking to buy 63,000 square feet of property from the business park to better accommodate the design of the project. The group is proposing to pay just less than $75,000 for the property, which is consistent with other sales the city has made.
Staff members are recommending approval of the sale. They note that the project isn't seeking any city incentives, such as tax breaks. City commissioners will consider approving the sale at their 5:45 p.m. meeting on Tuesday at City Hall. City officials want to be careful about selling off property in VenturePark for nonbusiness park uses. But city staff members say this particular piece of property is not likely to be highly sought after by businesses because it is not yet directly connected to one of the business park’s new streets. The city has sold some VenturePark property previously for nonbusiness park uses. The city in late 2014 sold a small section just west of this site for an existing office building that needed additional parking. That group paid $1.19 per square foot for the property, which is the same rate the city is using for this proposed sale.
Gwaltney’s group has shared a concept development plan with the city. You can see a tentative rendering of the hotel below. The plans also show that a portion of the site would be reserved for a future development that could include a freestanding restaurant building. No word on what that may be.
The Don’s Steakhouse site and the adjacent Diamond Everley location have been candidates for redevelopment for quite some time. A hotel, though, may catch some people by surprise. The hotel will be the most eastern hotel in the city, and Gwaltney said in his letter to the city that was desirable. He believes there are business travelers who would rather be on the east side of the city because of the presence of Kansas City.
Surely the development also is betting on increased business activity in adjacent VenturePark, which could drive some hotel stays. Thus far the park doesn’t have a tenant. Menards has announced plans to build a warehouse and manufacturing facility at the park, but that project hasn’t broken ground. We’ve reported it has been put on hold by Menards, and it is uncertain when it will get started.
It will be interesting to see if this is the catalyst that spurs more development at the site. The former Knights of Columbus building that is just east of the proposed hotel site has been on the market. The sign is now down. The county’s records still show the Knights of Columbus association owning the property. I’m not sure how actively the association is marketing the property currently, but it is a big piece of property that is fairly underutilized.
The city also may eventually change the landscape out there. At some point the city is likely to begin discussions about a new police headquarters building. City Manager Tom Markus has expressed his opinion that it ought to be built on property the city already owns. VenturePark, along with a city-owned site behind the Wal-Mart near Sixth and Wakarusa, have been the leading candidates in the past.
I’ve got a call in to Gwaltney to find out more details about the project. I’ll let you know when I learn more.
In other news and notes from around town:
• This isn’t news so much as a public service reminder. Today is Aug. 1, which means lots of students are moving back into apartments after having gone home for the summer. Watch out for drivers learning their way around town.
I don’t know if the influx of new residents in town caused this, but somebody was trying to sell something on Massachusetts Street that I had never seen before. I was in a barbershop this morning and an unknown fellow popped his head in the door and inquired if any of us wanted to buy some chicken. We believe it was a bag of frozen chicken — we didn’t hear clucking anyway — but we were all too hesitant to ask for a peek inside the sack.
Anyway, expect the town to get livelier.
I’ve certainly been getting questions about what is happening with Which Wich, a sandwich chain that we have reported is locating in the shopping center at 2540 Iowa St. (That’s the one next to Applebee’s.) We reported months ago that the location was under construction, and looked fairly complete. But the sandwich shop has never opened.
Well, it looks like it soon will. New signs have been put in place advertising that interviews are taking place on site this week to staff the restaurant. I managed to get in touch with an executive with the owner of the local franchise for the Lawrence Wich Which, and he told me he hopes to have the store open the second week of August. He said the project was delayed a bit, but that was only because the company has several projects it is working on at once, which caused a few things to move slower at the Lawrence location.
The franchise company, in case you are interested, is Leiszler Oil Company, which is a Manhattan-based group that has been in the convenience store business for a long time but has expanded into other areas such as Wich Which franchises, Dunkin' Donut franchises and other such opportunities.
As for Wich Which, as we have reported, it is a sandwich chain that got started in Dallas in 2003 and has been growing rapidly ever since. The company makes sub sandwiches but does so in a way that's a bit different from, for example, Subway. Customers go to a wall that is full of empty bags. Each bag has a different number that corresponds to a broad category, such as ham, beef, chicken, seafood, vegetarian, Italian and other types of sandwiches.
Then, you take a Sharpie pen and start marking up the bag with your specific sandwich instructions, like your choice of toppings and such.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Look for Texas Roadhouse to soon open its Lawrence location as well. The steakhouse/Western dining chain (I think just created a new restaurant category) has signs up announcing that they are now hiring to staff the Lawrence location. Usually, an opening is just a few weeks away at that point.
In case you have forgotten, Texas Roadhouse is locating where Saints Pub + Patio formerly was located near 23rd and Iowa streets. Or maybe some of you remember it as where Old Chicago Pizza used to be located.
The project has greatly changed the look of the shopping center, which has struggled with some vacancy in recent years. It will be interesting to see if this development sparks further redevelopment in the center. Here’s a look at the building, for those of you who haven’t driven by recently.
I’m guessing many of you are familiar with Texas Roadhouse. If not, get ready for a fairly high-energy dining option. As I described it in September when we first reported the chain was coming to town: Among its signature offerings are free peanuts in the shell that you are encouraged to throw on the floor (warning: my wife may still yell at you,) all-you-can-eat dinner rolls, and the staff sporadically begins line dancing. (Originally, I thought that was an effort to get me to pack up my sleeping bag and quit ordering rolls, but I’m told that is just part of the routine.)
As for the food, the restaurant offers a variety of hand-cut steaks ranging from sirloins to ribeyes to T-bones at price points from about $10 to $25. Ribs also are a big part of the menu, as well as plenty of country sides such as potatoes almost anyway you like them, their version of a blooming onion and hand-battered, deep-fried pickles.
• Perhaps there is a strategy for Southern states to slowly invade Lawrence. First Texas Roadhouse, and now I have news of an Oklahoma-based bank that is opening in Lawrence.
RCB Bank has taken ownership of all the CornerBank locations in Kansas, including the small office CornerBank operates at 1201 Wakarusa Drive.
RCB is based out of Claremore, Okla. It is a sizable operation. It operates 51 branches in Oklahoma and Kansas. CornerBank once made a push to establish itself in Lawrence with a fairly large branch in west Lawrence, but it then moved out of that location and began operating a more limited-service banking office off Wakarusa Drive.
I’ve got a call into an official with RCB Bank to inquire whether it plans to increase its presence in Lawrence in the future. I’ll let you know if I hear more. The press release from the bank said customers will see no interruption in service as the transition occurs.
The deal includes CornerBank’s nine location in Lawrence, Arkansas City, Winfield, Douglass, Oxford, Wellington and Wichita.
For years as a reporter who worked a Tuesday night shift, I regularly had my Tuesday mornings off. I have to admit that I did not spend many of them in Lawrence’s Tuesday Morning store, although in hindsight I might have been well-served to purchase some closeout bedding supplies. (I covered City Commission meetings, and sometimes a comfortable pillow could be a real asset.) Regardless, your days of being able to shop Lawrence’s Tuesday Morning store are numbered.
The store at 2525 Iowa St. is set to close in the near future. The store closing sign is now up, and the store has begun discounting merchandise.
For those of you not familiar with Tuesday Morning, you don’t know what you have been missing out on. For instance, you probably don’t have a storage shed in your backyard devoted to storing those unexpected bargains that you come across. Tuesday Morning is the type of store that you don’t know exactly what you will find when you enter. Its niche is closeout merchandise for the home. Since it is closeout material, its merchandise varies significantly from one month to the next.
But the store has several key categories, including furniture, bedding, home decor, small appliances and other items related to the home.
I received no real word on why Tuesday Morning is closing its Lawrence store. An employee there told me she expects the store will close sometime in September. Other stores in the area are remaining open. The closest stores are in the Wanamaker shopping district of Topeka, plus one in Lenexa.
The shopping center has been one I’ve been keeping an eye on for awhile. It was purchased a couple of years ago by a locally based development group that includes members of the Hatfield family. It has since redeveloped a portion of the space that formerly housed Discovery Furniture into a new Planet Fitness workout facility, which recently opened for business.
The development group still has about 23,000 square feet of space that was occupied by Discovery Furniture that is now waiting to be redeveloped. The pending closure of Tuesday Morning adds a few thousand more square feet that is up for grabs by retailers.
Longtime commercial real estate agent Christian Ablah — who has been involved with bringing stores such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Best Buy and others to Lawrence — is part of the development group. He told me Thursday that he doesn’t have anything new to report on tenant activity at the site, but he previously has said interest has been strong in the location. Chain retailers interested in Lawrence definitely are focused on south Iowa Street at the moment.
It will be interesting to see if a larger redevelopment play is made at that corner of 25th and Iowa. Directly behind the Planet Fitness building is a small and rather dated retail strip development that houses several small businesses. It doesn’t have good visibility from Iowa Street, but as retail interest along south Iowa increases, this may be the time that changes happen to that center.
The most beautiful place in Kansas is in Lawrence; new numbers show Kansas economy strongest in the region, creating questions for Brownback
The most beautiful place in Kansas is in Lawrence. Sure, I’ve uttered such a statement before — “the most beautiful place is the mirror closest to you, dear” — mainly out of necessity when the florist cancels my line of credit. But the national magazine House Beautiful has come up with an actual list of the most beautiful places in every state, and a Lawrence locale that doesn’t always get its due has been named tops in Kansas.
The Baker Wetlands on the southern edge of Lawrence was named as the top spot in Kansas in a recent article titled “The Most Beautiful Places in all 50 States.” The magazine states that the waters of the wetlands are “the perfect environment for a variety of flowers, plants, birds, and insects. Visitors using the surrounding trails might just be able to catch a glimpse of a beautiful blue heron.”
Such a list by definition is subjective in nature. I don’t think there was much scientific method in how House Beautiful determined what made the list. But I’m passing it along anyway because it is a nice piece of national publicity for Lawrence, and it is also kind of rare for Lawrence to get this type of publicity for things that don’t involve a Jayhawk or Massachusetts Street.
Plus, it is a good reminder about the wetlands. As we have reported, Baker University is trying to increase the prominence of the wetlands. It has opened a new wetland Discovery Center that was funded by mitigation money related to the South Lawrence Trafficway project. Plus, the mitigation money also is funding a significant amount of trails at the property. Baker’s website indicates about 10 miles of trails will snake through the wetlands and along the adjacent Wakarusa River in the near future. The entire wetlands — which basically are southwest of 31st and Haskell Avenue — are 927 acres, with a mix of longtime wetlands and newer ones that were built as part of the South Lawrence Trafficway mitigation project. In addition, I think those numbers don’t likely include what I consider to be a separate set of wetlands that is owned by Haskell Indian Nations University. Those wetlands are on the north side of 31st Street.
In case you are wondering what made the list of most beautiful places in our neighboring states, here’s a look:
— Colorado: Mesa Verde National Park, which features about 5,000 archaeological sites and about 600 cliff dwellings.
— Missouri: Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the distinctively designed arts and performance center in downtown Kansas City.
— Nebraska: Holy Family Shrine, a small, glass chapel in the middle of the prairie between Omaha and Lincoln along Interstate 80.
— Oklahoma: Philbrook Museum, a modern and contemporary art museum housed in a 1930s mansion in Tulsa.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Kansas was beautiful in more ways than one during the first part of 2016. New federal figures are out that show Kansas’ economy during the first quarter of 2016 grew at a faster rate than any other state in the Plains Region. And to be fair, it grew by a lot faster rate.
According to the latest report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Kansas’ GDP grew by 2 percent for the quarter. The Plains region as a whole saw a decline of 0.8 percent, so Kansas really bucked the trend. Here’s a look at how other states in the region fared:
– Missouri: up 0.5 percent
— Minnesota: up 0.2 percent
— Nebraska: down 1.9 percent
— Iowa: down 2.6 percent
— South Dakota: down 2.8 percent
— North Dakota: down 11.4 percent
A couple of our neighboring states aren’t in the plains region. Oklahoma saw GDP decline by 0.5 percent, while Colorado saw a 3 percent increase.
As for why Kansas’ economy has grown more robustly than others in the Plains Region, the numbers suggest it is because the agriculture sector has performed better here than elsewhere. The first quarter numbers show that of the 2 percent annual increase in Kansas, the agriculture sector accounted for 1.16 percentage points of the gain. In other words, the majority of our gains came from the agriculture sector. Compare that to what was happening in the other Plains states, where the agriculture sector reduced GDP by about 1.4 percentage points.
Why has Kansas’ agriculture sector performed better than others? I don’t know. (I thought it was Colorado who legalized a new cash crop.) Kansas performed better than the region in a couple of other areas too. One was durable goods manufacturing — that’s things like airplanes — where we posted an increase while the region posted a decline. Our retail trade sector also grew a bit more robustly than the region’s. One area where we underperformed quite a bit was construction. The sector did grow — it added 0.15 percentage points to our growth — but Kansas’ growth rate was the second slowest in the region.
All in all, this is good news for Kansas. GDP is the broadest measure of an economy, so it gives us a good look at whether business activity is on the upswing. But in a sign of the times for Gov. Sam Brownback, these numbers could be interpreted as bad news for his administration. The reason: These numbers are for the first quarter of 2016. Thus far, 2016 hasn’t been a good year for tax collections in Kansas. The governor has said that’s because the three most important parts of the Kansas economy — agriculture, oil and gas, and manufacturing — have all been hit by negative economic forces. But this report shows Kansas had the best economic growth rate in the region. That type of performance would lead you to believe that tax collections should be on the rise. If they aren’t, that will suggest to some that we have a tax policy problem rather than an economy problem. The governor has strenuously rejected that thinking, holding firm to the idea that his tax cuts are sound policy.
This one could be spun many different ways, and probably will be as election season heats up. Perhaps these first quarter numbers are the canary in the coal mine, and future tax returns are about to see an uptick.
I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out what Kansas farmers are growing behind the barn.
Another fast-food chicken restaurant sets its sights on Lawrence; basketball court promise broken at Rock Chalk Park
Keep your eyes open and your wet wipes handy. There’s rumblings of yet another fast-food chicken chain coming to Lawrence. I’m hearing that the chain Slim Chickens is close to signing a deal to locate in west Lawrence.
I hear the restaurant hopes to locate in the former spot of — wait for it — Kentucky Fried Chicken near Sixth and Wakarusa. If you think it is odd that one chicken restaurant is replacing another, don’t worry. Slim’s is not from Kentucky — it is from Arkansas — and it doesn’t have a hat-wearing colonel either. Instead, its logo appears to have a fedora-wearing bear that I think is holding a guitar. I’ll investigate that more, if the company indeed comes to town. It is important to note that I haven’t received any official word from the company yet, so we’ll have to wait and see if the deal gets finalized.
But there seems to be magic in the air in Lawrence when it comes to completing chicken deals. In case you have forgotten, here’s a list of some of the recent developments: a new Buffalo Wild Wings, now open on south Iowa Street; a Chick-fil-A, now open on south Iowa; a Popeyes, now open on south Iowa; a Wing Stop, now open at 23rd and Louisiana; a Raising Cane’s, now open on south Iowa; and a Zaxby’s that has received approval to build at Bauer Farms near Sixth and Wakarusa.
I had reported earlier that the sandwich chain Schlotzsky’s was considering the former KFC location, along with others, to make a return to Lawrence. I’ll have to check with the Schlotzsky’s folks to find out their latest plans for Lawrence, but I don’t think this derails them. The Scholotzsky’s official I talked with told me they were facing competition for the Sixth and Wakarusa space, and thus were looking at other Lawrence locations too.
As for Slim Chickens, its website indicates it specializes in chicken tenders and chicken wings. And, in what has become a trend — one that I am almost certain is being fueled by the Dry Cleaners Association of America — the restaurant features lots of dipping sauces that easily can stain a tie, a shirt, socks and numerous other pieces of a wardrobe. The menu lists standard offerings such as ranch, barbecue, honey mustard, blue cheese and sweet-and-sour sauces. But it also has some slightly more original ones, such as cayenne ranch, mango habanero and something called Slim’s sauce. In addition, it also has what I’ve always considered to be the original and ultimate sauce — gravy.
Other menu items include a couple of salads, chicken and waffles, chicken wraps, about nine different flavors of chicken wings and side dishes that include your traditional potato salad, cole slaw and French fries, but also feature dishes such as fried pickles and fried okra. The dessert menu includes fried pie and something called “jar dessert,” which appears to be cake, fruit and other sweet items served with whipped cream in a jar.
The company got its start in Fayetteville, Ark., in 2003. For the first several years the company was confined primarily to Arkansas, but in 2008 it started opening in other states. By 2014, the company had hired a franchising director and set a goal of having 600 restaurants by 2025, according to the news website Fayetteville Flyer.
The chain now has restaurants in Arizona, Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. The closest location to Lawrence is a store at 9001 W. 135th St. in Overland Park.
As I noted before, the deal for the Lawrence location still has to be finalized. I’ll keep an ear open and let you know when I hear more.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There were lots of folks in town for basketball this past weekend. As we reported, the Hardwood Classic has moved its tournament from Overland Park to Sports Pavilion Lawrence at Rock Chalk Park. The event attracted about 300 youth basketball teams and an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people in total for multiple days.
That no doubt made hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other such businesses happy. But the tournament may have created a little heartburn for some. I’ve been copied on some email exchanges between some city officials and a resident who is expressing displeasure that all eight of the basketball courts at Sports Pavilion Lawrence were closed to the public as part of the tournament.
That may not seem like a big deal to everybody, but folks who followed the controversial Rock Chalk Park approval process through City Hall understand. During the course of the project — which involved about $22 million in city funds for the recreation center and related infrastructure — city officials made a big deal about promising that one of the eight basketball courts in the facility always would be open to the public for free-play use. Commissioners and staff members made a point to say that promise included during busy tournament times.
The promise was made because there were members of the public who said they were concerned Sports Pavilion Lawrence eventually would only serve tournament organizers and would not function as a community recreation center. City officials responded that they were crystal clear that Lawrence residents are paying the bulk of the bill for the center, so it always will be open to Lawrence residents.
At the time, I remember thinking it seemed like a promise that could be tough to keep. Sports Pavilion Lawrence always was built with a dual purpose: serving the recreation center needs of Lawrence residents and acting as a magnet for visitor spending by attracting large youth tournaments. It was easy to predict that tournament organizers were going to ask to use all eight courts of the facility.
Indeed, it didn’t take long for that to happen. In June 2015, city commissioners were presented with a request from Parks and Recreation staff to let a tournament organizer use all eight courts at the facility. They were told it would help tremendously with scheduling and would be a good gesture for the city to show how valuable these tournaments are to the city’s economy. Commissioners, though, held their ground and unanimously voted to deny the request. One court was left open for use by the general public.
But that is not what happened with this large tournament this past weekend. What changed? The biggest thing, it seems, is that commissioners weren’t asked this time. According to the email exchange I was copied on, staff members stated the decision to close the one court to public use was an administrative decision and was done, in part, because of the large number of teams and the economic impact the tournament has on the city. This is the first year Lawrence has landed this particular tournament, and it is trying to make a positive first impression in hopes of keeping the tourney in Lawrence.
My sense from the emails is that relatively new City Manager Tom Markus wasn’t aware of the promise that was made to always keep one court open. But other staff members certainly were aware of it. Given that the city commission has denied the one previous request to deviate from the policy, it seems odd this request wasn’t brought before the commission.
I’m guessing that other such requests in the future will be. A larger question, though, is whether the promise made by city commissioners to keep one court open is worth keeping? Staff members noted there were other options in town for people to play basketball on a city-owned court. The city had courts available at various times at the Community Building, the East Lawrence Center and at Holcom Park Recreation Center. The walking track and fitness center at Sports Pavilion Lawrence also were open to the public throughout the tournament.
I suspect staff members are being sincere when they say that it would help Lawrence attract more tournaments if organizers could be guaranteed use of all eight courts. Lawrence needs for Rock Chalk Park to be a magnet for visitor dollars, especially since plans to develop a large retail area around the park have thus far fizzled. The city spent too much money on the project for it to be just a recreation center.
I also suspect, though, that there is still a significant number of people in Lawrence who remember the promise that was made, and still aren’t happy with the manner in which past city officials pushed the Rock Chalk Park project through the approval process. The Rock Chalk Park project, more than anything else, led to a house cleaning on the City Commission, and officials said it helped them understand trust needed to be rebuilt between City Hall and residents.
That leads to a few questions. Do significant numbers of Lawrence residents still care about the basketball court promise? Would breaking it erode some trust? Can Lawrence residents and their high-cholesterol chicken diets survive a game of pickup basketball?
I know I’m personally not sure of the answer to some of those questions. We’ll have to wait and see what happens when the next big tournament comes to town. Perhaps we’ll have to tell them we can’t promise them a court, but we can give them all the chicken they care to eat.
• A couple of housekeeping matters. First, let me apologize to anybody who showed up at the Journal-World’s booth at the Downtown Lawrence sidewalk sale hoping to talk to me. We advertised it as an opportunity to ask me some questions and give me your feedback. I was there for a couple of minutes, but I had a minor medical emergency that required me to go the hospital for a bit. I’m feeling better now, but missed out on the sidewalk sale. I’m confident I’ll be out at some other events in the near future. And the other positive is that even though I racked up a bill of a few thousand dollars at the emergency room, I still saved money because I didn’t have the chance to buy all my normal street food at the sidewalk sale.
Also, Town Talk this week will have a bit of a sporadic schedule. It is Douglas County Fair week, which of course means that I again am “helping” my kids with their 4-H hogs. This is usually the time of year that I begin to believe we should have fewer chicken restaurants in Lawrence and more pork joints. But look for Town Talk to return to its normal daily schedule next week.
Keeping an eye on the possibility of a new west Lawrence grocery store; building project slated for west Lawrence business park
As a man with a 13-year old son who eats his meals not by the plate but rather by the pallet, I’m always keeping my eyes open for word of new grocery stores. Last week I provided an update on the latest efforts to land a store in downtown Lawrence, but that’s not the only place to keep an eye on. West Lawrence may be a dark horse contender for a new store too.
The area near the new Bob Billings Parkway and the South Lawrence Trafficway interchange has some of the more interesting development possibilities in the city. As we reported long ago, the northeast quadrant of that interchange has about 15 acres of property that is zoned for commercial and retail use. A grocery store certainly is high on the list of users the local development group is seeking. I don’t want to create false expectations — no deal is imminent — but the site is starting to draw interest.
“We have had a lot of conversations with grocers,” said Tim Herndon, a representative of the development group, and a longtime Lawrence land planning professional who is now working with Kansas City-based Wallace Engineering. “The time is just not quite right.”
But that may be changing. The interchange has only been open for a few months, and retailers are just now starting to see the new traffic counts that travel by the site each day.
“Everybody is still waiting to see what the traffic really will be,” Herndon said. “But they are beginning to understand that we now have an interchange connected to the front door of KU via parkway.”
With the opening of the interchange, city and KU leaders are planning on Bob Billings Parkway becoming the key gateway to the KU campus for travelers coming from the west.
In addition to grocery stores, Herndon said hotel operators also have been very interested in the property. Again, no deal is imminent, but the property is drawing good interest, and could really take off depending on how the City Commission deals with one issue. Commissioners in the coming months will be asked to decide whether to allow new apartment development on the west side of the SLT. That project potentially could add 2,000 apartment units to the area over several years, although I’m hearing some talk the proposal may shrink some in size. Regardless, adding a thousand or more living units next door to the commercial area, plus the possibility for more as other areas west of the trafficway develop, would get the attention of even more retailers. Whether the project can win the support of city commissioners, though, is uncertain.
“Needless to say, that project would be fabulous for our project,” Herndon said. “But everything takes time.”
The project Herndon is working on — which is dubbed Langston Heights and is being led by members of Lawrence’s Raney family — also has a residential component that is well underway. It also is interesting because it is bucking a bit of a longtime trend. In recent years, residential construction in Lawrence has been skewed toward apartments and townhomes/duplexes. There are some of those uses at Langston Heights, but the development has taken the unusual step of downzoning some property to accommodate single-family development.
Herndon has filed plans to have about five acres that already are approved for townhouse/duplex construction downzoned to allow for single-family construction. The change will remove 28 duplex units from the project and replace them with 17 single-family homes.
“It has been a surprise to me that that the single-family market has outpaced the town home market far and away,” Herndon said. “It is the first time I have been involved in a master plan to downzone duplex zoning to single-family housing.”
Some of the single-family lots in Langston Heights — although not all of them — are using a relatively new zoning category that allows for a 5,000 square-foot lot rather than the more traditional 7,000 square-foot lot. Herndon said that’s been popular with builders. The smaller lot comes at a more affordable price, and buyers haven’t been concerned about having less space.
“The fact is you can put as big of a house on the smaller lot,” Herndon said. “The significant difference is you just have less lawn to maintain. It is a sign of the times that some people are looking for that.”
Herndon said construction is about 80 percent complete on the first phase of the project, which is 30 acres of residential development. He said utilities are now being installed for the second and final phase, which is another 15 acres of residential development.
In other news and notes:
• While I was talking with Herndon, I also learned details of one other west Lawrence development. Look for Lawrence-based Rainbow International of NE Kansas to build a new office and shop building on a vacant lot in the 1300 block of Research Park Drive.
Rainbow is a company that specializes in restoring properties that have been damaged by water, fire, mold or other such hazards. It has space along Wakarusa Drive currently, but Herndon said the company has outgrown the location.
A tentative deal has been reached for Rainbow to build a new facility just southeast of the intersection of Legends Drive and Research Park Drive. The property is basically behind Neu Physical Therapy.
The deal does need city approval, though. The property currently is zoned for an industrial business park use. In order for Rainbow to have the shop component of their business, the property needs to be rezoned to a light industrial zoning category, which allows for a broader range of industrial uses. Herndon has filed plans for the rezoning at City Hall, and also has agreed to limit some of the types of industrial uses that could be located on the property in the future.
• I’m sitting in a bath of Gatorade, and I suggest you do the same. It is good preparation for tomorrow’s Downtown Lawrence Sidewalk Sale. Get ready for thousands of shoppers to be in the downtown area from sunup to sundown. Come see me with your questions, comments or story tips at a Journal-World booth near Eighth and Massachusetts. I’ll be there from about 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.
I’ll be the guy with the Gatorade-colored tie.
Despite concerns to the contrary, Lawrence is still a city of the arts. These days, the newest creation from artists are arrows — available for free if you promise to shoot them at City Manager Tom Markus’ proposed 2017 budget. Or, perhaps, Markus would tell you they seem to be aimed a bit more at the architect than the document.
City commissioners tonight will take another important step in crafting the 2017 budget. Tonight is the night they essentially have to figure out whether they are going to raise property taxes to support the budget. Markus has presented a recommended budget that keeps property taxes steady, but makes several cuts, including eliminating the city’s director of arts and culture and reducing some funding for the Lawrence Arts Center.
This is the most contentious budget process we have had in several years. Normally a debate over whether to put a stop sign at the corner of Po and Dunk draws more public comment than the nearly $200 million budget the city approves. This year, though, commissioners have gotten what they say they always want: A public that cares about the budget.
I spent some time on Monday talking with Markus — who is going through his first Lawrence budget process but is a veteran at crafting budgets for other cities — and I’ve also been spending time reading the document. Here are a few observations:
• City Commissioner Matthew Herbert got his hand slapped for saying he thought this budget was putting us on a path to becoming Topeka. It certainly wasn’t a great strategy on Herbert’s part for creating neighborly relations. (He has since apologized.) But I guess I will say something similar: This budget debate is starting to sound like the kind they have in the statehouse in Topeka. It is clear that there are some people who don’t like Marcus’ idea of cutting some arts funding. That’s perfectly fine. It may not be a good decision.
What happens in Topeka when you don’t like an idea somebody has proposed is this.
Step 1: Compare the proposer of the idea to someone who is unpopular. In Topeka, that is usually President Barack Obama. In Lawrence, it works much better to compare the person to Gov. Sam Brownback. Read social media or some of the comments city commissioners are receiving, and you’ll see some arts supporters are comparing Markus to Brownback.
Step 2: Tell people if they support this idea, they can’t be considered a true (fill in the blank here.) In Topeka the blank is usually filled in with conservative. There are certain things you can’t say and still be considered a conservative, we are told. In Lawrence, it is a bit more complicated, but what I’m hearing in this debate is that you can’t propose a cut to the arts and claim to understand “Lawrence values.” To be fair not everyone who has opposed the budget cuts has used these tactics, but there has been more of it than normal in Lawrence. There have been social media chains circulating asking people to ask commissioners to fire Markus.
I guess I would point out a couple of things. These proposed cuts to the city budget are predicated on Markus’ strong belief that the city should not dip into its reserve funds to balance the budget. A reticence to dip into reserve funds has not been a hallmark of the Brownback administration. And on the subject of “Lawrence values,” there is no doubt than an appreciation for the arts is among them. But I think the overriding value in Lawrence is tolerance and an openness to beliefs different than your own.
Again, this isn’t meant to say that people shouldn’t oppose the proposed cuts to the arts or anything else. The recommendation may not be a good one. But it seems like the opposition could be argued in a way that sounds less like those we so often criticize in Topeka.
I believe Markus is holding up fine from some of the personal criticism he is receiving for this budget proposal, but he did say something interesting in my interview with him: “I do have a mantra of attacking the issue and not the person.”
But Marcus has been in this game long enough to know that doesn’t always happen.
“It is fine to focus on me,” Markus said. “I’m the one making the recommendations.”
• It will be interesting to see if city commissioners start taking some of the heat soon. A large reason Markus’ recommended budget is crafted in this manner is because of a directive from the city commission. The arts funding and other cuts could be reversed if commissioners are willing to raise the property tax rate. I asked Markus why he didn’t propose that. The answer was simple: “The commission has expressed a strong desire not to have a tax increase. That has been my motivation.” Markus said he understands why the commission doesn’t want to have a tax increase. But I didn’t sense that Markus thinks the community will fall off a cliff if a moderate tax increase is implemented. I think he is worried, though, if the city decides to forego a tax increase, forego the cuts, and instead just dip into its reserve funds.
“The state has put itself in fiscal peril, it seems to me,” Markus said. “My concern is what else might happen. We are supporting a lot of issues and people in this community. They’re depending on us to be able to make good on the things we say we can fund. A healthy fund balance helps ensure we can do that.”
• The numbers, especially as they relate to arts funding, are pretty interesting. Some of the opponents of the arts cuts have made it sound like the city is completely defunding the arts. That’s not the case. It is true that the director of arts and culture position would be eliminated. Those responsibilities would have to be absorbed by other city staff members or the director of the Lawrence Arts Center — Markus said both options are feasible — or those duties simply won’t get done. When the position was created several years ago, arts leaders were ecstatic because it was seen as a sign that Lawrence was elevating itself to a different level as an arts community. The position has some symbolic value, and that is making this debate an emotional one as well.
The arts center also is proposed to receive a cut in funding. It would lose $55,000 in funding, and some have characterized that as a slashing of 50 percent of the Arts Center’s city funding. That’s not accurate. It is a loss of 50 percent of one line item of the Arts Center’s city funding. Specifically, it is the line item for general maintenance of the facility. Other line items, such as the $30,000 the city provides for scholarships for kids to attend Arts Center programming was not cut. Neither was the line item to pay for utilities and other service contracts that the Arts Center has. The city also is not making any changes to the more than $230,000 a year it spends to retire the debt on the building that houses the Arts Center in downtown Lawrence. (Arts Center officials remind there also was a multimillion dollar private fundraising campaign that helped construct the building too.)
In terms of how much funding the Arts Center will receive under Markus’ recommended budget, it totals just more than $445,000. The $55,000 cut amounts to about an 11 percent reduction compared to 2016 totals. None of these totals include city funding for the Free State Festival, which is likely to receive city grant money again in 2017.
How much money various outside agencies receive from the city historically has been a hot potato. Recently, the Arts Center has fared better than some. For instance, in the proposed 2017 budget the new Peaslee Center vocational school is set to receive about $150,000, the Lawrence Humane Society about $360,000, and the Lawrence Community Shelter about $200,000.
• In my conversation with Markus, I heard two things about the future that caught my attention: Markus thinks more cuts to the City Hall workforce are likely, and he thinks the community needs to adjust its thoughts on economic development.
On the employee front, Markus said he’s implemented a plan where every position that becomes vacant at City Hall now must come to him for a review of whether the position can be reshaped, reduced or eliminated. He noted personnel costs are the city’s biggest expense.
“We have to take a hard look at that,” said Markus, who said cutting positions through attrition is much more preferable than cutting filled positions.
On the economic development front, Markus noted the city’s growing dependence on sales tax as a revenue source. He said that should cause the city to think carefully about its economic development strategies.
“I think our attitude about economic development will have to change,” Markus said. “I know there is a vocal group of people in town that won’t like me saying that.”
He went on to say: “I don’t like incentives but they are part of the environment. I don’t want to pay a dollar more than we have to in incentives. But, in my view, compared to other places, Lawrence has been fairly fiscally conservative in how they use them.”
Lawrence has a city manager who is not afraid to speak his mind. It likely also will have an arrow factory that remains pretty busy.
It is the time of year at city halls, county courthouses and other seats of local government where one of two items usually gets thrown: Sofa cushions get tossed in search of loose change, or rotten tomatoes get hurled at those who instead choose to find their money by raising taxes.
It also is the time of year where residents ask the natural question of: Are taxes too high here?
It is a question that may come up at Lawrence City Hall soon. City commissioners haven’t yet proposed a property tax increase, but they may as they continue to receive pushback from some residents on a series of proposed cuts that includes reduced funding for the arts and the elimination of several City Hall positions. County commissioners already are considering a recommended budget that would increase property taxes by a little more than 2 mills.
So, back to the question: Are taxes too high here? For some, the default answer is always yes. But for others, they like to pause and consider a community’s quality of life, its amenities, and how it stacks up against the taxes of other cities.
About every two years or so, I try to check in on what taxes look like in other Kansas communities, using property tax data from the League of Kansas Municipalities, sales tax information from the Kansas Department of Revenue, and housing and income statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. I examined numbers for the 15 Kansas communities that have a population of at least 25,000 people or more. They are: Dodge City, Garden City, Hutchinson, Kansas City, Lawrence, Leavenworth, Leawood, Lenexa, Manhattan, Olathe, Overland Park, Salina, Shawnee, Topeka and Wichita.
I don’t know about yours, but my abacus is lubed and ready to go, so let’s take a look at the numbers.
Property tax rate
This is a look at the total property tax mill levy for communities. That means city, county, school district and other agencies such as fire districts, cemetery boards, and other similar entities that exist in some communities. Indeed, out of the 15 communities reviewed, Lawrence has one of the lower property tax rates. This is the one category Lawrence probably will feel the best about.
Highest: Dodge City, 186.606 mills
Lowest: Overland Park, 115.206 mills
Median: 133.202 mills
Lawrence: 131.054 mills, 9th highest out of 15
Property tax rates and housing values
A lot of times when politicians talk about property taxes, the mill levy gets all the attention. But that is kind of like me budgeting for a home improvement project without factoring in the emergency room costs.
With property taxes, the hidden costs come from the value of your home. Property taxes are charged by the mill, which means $1 for every $1,000 of assessed valuation of your home. To explain it any further would require more oil for the abacus, but what’s important to understand is that you are charged based on the value of your home.
These 15 Kansas communities have dramatically different home values. I used the median home values listed for each community by the American Community survey. They ranged from a high of about $388,000 in Leawood to a low of about $88,000 in Kansas City. Lawrence checked in at just under $178,000, which was seventh highest on the list.
What I did next is apply the mill levy in each community to the median home value. That gives you an idea of what a person who owns an average home in that community pays in property taxes. Lawrence doesn’t fare quite as well in this category, but is still pretty middle-of-the-pack.
Highest: Leawood, $5,748 in property taxes
Lowest: Wichita, $1,660 in property taxes
Median: $1,948 in property taxes
Lawrence: $2,681 in property taxes. 7th highest out of 15.
As I noted earlier, I’ve crunched these same numbers before. The last time was in 2014. It is interesting to note that Lawrence was 7th highest on the list back then too, but the amount of tax a person pays on an average home has increased. The property tax bill on an average home in Lawrence has increased by $113 in the two-year period, or a little more than 4 percent.
Just like this time around, Wichita had the lowest property tax bill in 2014, and it must be serious about keeping that standing. The property tax bill on an average home in Wichita decreased by $24. Not surprisingly, the affluent Johnson County community of Leawood had the highest property tax bill in 2014 too, but it evidently has worked at keeping tax bills steady. The bill for an average home in Leawood has increased by $3 in the last two years.
The income equation
In case you are wondering how many plasma banks there are in Leawood to help a fellow pay nearly $6,000 a year in property taxes, let me explain something important: The average Leawood resident earns a lot more than the average Lawrence resident. Just like housing values, the average income in each community varies widely.
What I do here is use a Census number that measures the median earnings for a full-time, year-round worker in each community. (Technically, it is a male worker. Data that combines earnings for females and males were a little tougher to get a hold of for each community.)
I used this number because more ordinary numbers, like per capita income, catch a lot of college students in Lawrence who don’t have much income because they are being supported by their parents or living off student loans. I think the more ordinary numbers artificially deflate Lawrence’s income totals, so I use this figure for full-time workers to try to account for that.
One last caveat: This method really is just a way to rank the communities. It isn’t meant to show how much of the average household’s paycheck goes toward property taxes. I recognize many households have dual incomes. For the purpose of this ranking exercise, I’m only using a single income from the average male worker. So, while the percentages may not be as meaningful as I would like, I believe the ranking of the communities is meaningful.
For Lawrence, the results may be particularly meaningful. We don’t fare too well, but this category does give us a chance to utter a phrase that we often enjoy: At least we’re not Manhattan.
Highest: Manhattan, 7.2 percent of income toward property taxes
Lowest: Wichita: 2.65 percent of income toward property taxes
Median: 4.51 percent of income toward property taxes
Lawrence: 5.78 percent, 2nd highest of 15.
Lawrence and Manhattan probably share some of the same problems in this category. The demand for rental housing in a college community pushes up the overall price of houses. Unless your economy becomes loaded with high-tech jobs connected to the university, home prices often can get ahead of incomes. Lawrence, thus far, hasn’t seen that type of income growth. Its median earnings were squarely in the middle of the pack at about $46,000, or 7th on the list of 15.
Sales tax rates
For some of us, we easily spend more in sales taxes in a year than we do in property taxes. So, if you are trying to figure out whether taxes are too high in a place, it pays to look at the sales tax rates too.
Since I last crunched these numbers in 2014, Lawrence voters rejected a proposed sales tax for a new police headquarters building. That rejection kept Lawrence in the middle of the pack — actually, slightly below the average — when it comes to sales tax rates. (Note: Many of these communities have special taxing rates that apply to only certain districts of town. However, I factored those out and just looked at the standard sales tax rate for the entire community.)
Lowest: Wichita, 7.5 percent
Highest: Leavenworth, 9.5 percent
Median: 9.1 percent
Lawrence: 9.05 percent, 9th highest
The whole ball of wax
This last category is my effort to try to tie property taxes, home values, incomes and sales taxes all together to create an overall picture of local taxes in a community. I tried various methods, but the one that I’ve settled on is this: I have a list that ranks the communities based on how much an average homeowner pays in property taxes compared to their incomes. I also have a list that ranks communities based on their total sales tax rates. To my way of thinking, if a community ranks well on both lists, it probably is a lower-tax community. If a community ranks poorly on both lists, that is probably a higher-tax community.
So, I have given each community points based on where they ranked on each list. The higher the point total, the lower the tax burden. Here’s an example: Lawrence had the second highest property taxes paid compared to its income, so it gets two points. Wichita had the lowest out of 15 in terms of property taxes compared to income, so it gets 15 points.
Here’s how the communities came out after combining the two lists, ranked from lowest tax communities to highest.
Wichita: 30 points
Garden City: 26 points
Overland Park: 22 points
Salina: 21 points
Leawood: 19 points
Hutchinson: 17.5 points
Topeka: 17 points
Leavenworth: 15 points
Manhattan: 13 points
Lenexa: 11.5 points
T.11. Lawrence: 11 points
T. 11. Kansas City: 11 points
Thirteenth. Shawnee: 10 points
Fourteenth. Olathe: 9 points
Fifthteenth. Dodge City: 7 points
Compared to two years ago, Lawrence has improved slightly in the overall rankings. There were 16 communities I ranked in 2014 (Junction City dipped below 25,000, so I removed it from this year’s study). In 2014, Lawrence was tied for 13th place. This year it is tied for 11th. Like this year, Wichita was the low-tax leader in 2014. Dodge City also was near the bottom of the list in 2014.
As for communities that have changed significantly in the last two years, Garden City moved up from No. 6 to 2 on the list, while Olathe went from tied for ninth in 2014 to No. 14 this year.
So what does it all mean? Should people move from Olathe to Garden City? That certainly could be an interesting sociology experiment. What do these numbers tell us about whether taxes are too high in Lawrence?
As you may have guessed, I’m not going to answer that question. There is a difference between price and value. Everyone has to figure out for themselves whether what they are paying for in Lawrence is a good value.
I suggest you start figuring it out. It appears city and county commissioners may need the help this year.
A look at the city’s gravel road that runs by millions of dollars in new homes; work begins on west Lawrence apartment project
Every queen hides something, and west Lawrence’s queen is no different. Whoa, whoa, before you start dishing on that soccer mom with the bedazzled sweatshirt, know that I’m talking about Queens Road. It is time for an update on that area of the world, as a major apartment complex has started construction along the road, at the same time that city commissioners are considering backing away from one of their commitments to the growing area.
So, what’s Queens Road hiding? Well, to the passerby on Sixth Street, Queens Road — which is the second road west of Wakarusa Drive — looks decent enough. The portion that connects with Sixth Street is paved and looks about like most other city streets that are in fair condition. But drive just a short two-tenths of a mile to the north, over the hill, and you see that Queens Road is actually a mishmash of broken asphalt, gravel and ruts that may appeal to Bubbas on ATVs, but not to many other drivers.
Here’s a look at some portions of the road.
As you can see, there is some building underway right next to Queens Road. That’s part of a 172-unit apartment complex named West End Apartments being developed by local businessman Tim Stultz. We had reported that plans had been filed for that complex, but now construction is well underway. (I’ll provide you more of an update on that project in just a moment.)
Just a bit farther to the north is the site for a long talked about apartment development that will be built around a small nine-hole golf course. The city has approved plans for approximately 600 apartment units in the first phase of the development and about 400 in the second phase. The development stretches from Queens Road to George Williams Way, just east of Rock Chalk Park. Most of the development will be concentrated along the end of the property closest to Queens Road. The project has been on the drawing board for years, but it sure looks like it actually is going to happen this time. There are pallets of pipe sitting on the property, which I assume are for the project.
What may not move ahead, however, is the reconstruction of Queens Road. The city tentatively has about $1.75 million in its capital improvement budget to pay for its share of the reconstruction costs of Queens Road (developers would pay a share as well). But now the city is contemplating pulling that funding from the budget and transferring it over to the much-debated proposal to rebuild a portion of East Ninth Street into an arts corridor. City officials have said that could delay Queens Road reconstruction all the way to 2019 or beyond.
Stultz, the developer of the West End apartment complex, said that doesn’t seem fair.
“Improving that road has been talked about for at least five years,” Stultz said. “To cut it out now would be pretty ridiculous. The road is in terrible shape. It is a washboard. It needs constant improvement. We keep hearing that next year will be the year.”
I’ll leave it to others to determine what is fair, but it certainly is an interesting situation. One point to remember is that developers are ready to pay for a large portion of the road. Developers on the west side of Queens Road have signed agreements not to protest a benefit district to pay for the road. A special assessment would be added to their property tax bills to pay for about half the road’s estimated cost, which is about $3.5 million.
Even more interesting is that technically the city has it set up in a way that it wouldn’t have to use any general tax dollars to pay for the construction of the road. Developers on the east side of Queens Road also signed agreements not to protest the creation of a benefit district. The east side of the road already is heavily developed with a single-family neighborhood. Those agreements not to protest run with the land, so the people who bought those homes agreed to not protest a benefit district too.
The city could assess the entire $3.5 million worth of costs to all the surrounding property/home owners, and add a special assessment onto their property tax bills. I wrote about that possibility all the way back in 2009, and the article highlighted that many of the single-family homeowners weren’t aware of that their homes could be subject to such a special assessment. Subsequently, City Hall leaders took the position that the city at-large would pick up the costs for the homeowners. The developers on the west side of the road would still be expected to pay special assessments, but the unwitting homeowners would be spared the special assessment.
Seven years later, that’s still where the situation stands. Queens Road has been planned to be reconstructed several times, but it has always gotten pushed off the planning list for one reason or another.
All that history is noteworthy, but the current situation is what likely will cause some to scratch their heads. Look at those photos of Queens Road again. With just the two projects mentioned above, the city has signed off on approximately $100 million worth of new development that will take access off Queens Road.
Now, it is important to note that there are other access points that serve this area too. People who live in these new developments could drive another quarter-mile to the west and use Stoneridge Drive, which is a good city street. So, the world won’t stop spinning if Queens Road isn’t improved, but it is likely to create questions about the city’s development process. How is it that the city approves $100 million worth of construction along what is essentially a poorly maintained gravel road, developers have agreed to pay their share of the reconstruction costs, and yet the city isn’t able to complete the project in a timely manner?
Obviously the East Ninth Street arts corridor project comes with potential benefits too. I’m not trying to gloss over those, nor am I suggesting the only choice is Queens Road or East Ninth. But it could end up that way, and if the city has brand new development right next to a road that is poor even by middle-of-nowhere, farm-road standards, it will send a message to others who may be thinking of investing in Lawrence.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Now for the update on the apartment project. Plans for the West End Apartments call for 172 apartments, with about half of them being one-bedroom units and half being two-bedroom units. All of the apartments will come with a one-car garage, Stultz said.
All of the apartments will be “garden-style” units that allow residents to walk up to their front doors rather than having entrance inside a larger apartment building.
Stultz has developed apartment projects in Lawrence for years, and he said demand for new apartments continues to be strong. He said much of the demand is coming from people who previously would be looking to own homes, but instead are delaying or foregoing that option.
“We keep filling all of our nicer apartments,” Stultz said. “We have waiting lists. It seems like a good time to keep going with this “move up” trend in apartments. We have very few students in our apartments these days. That market is being met by others.”
Stultz said he hopes to have all the apartments finished by August 2017, but said some may be available as early as May 2017.