Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”

Renderings show dramatic changes on tap for area across from Memorial Stadium

You know what they say about a picture: It probably will get you fired if it ends up on Facebook. (Wait, that's not the saying.) Regardless, take a look at these pictures below, and you'll start to get a sense of just how big of a change is proposed for the area across from KU's Memorial Stadium.

As we've reported several times, plans have been filed for a new five-story apartment and retail building at 1101 Indiana St., which currently is the home of the Berkeley Flats Apartments complex. Plans call for about 175 apartment units and about 11,000 square feet of retail development.

As we briefly reported last night, city commissioners unanimously approved the rezoning and preliminary development plan for the project. As part of that discussion, commissioners were shown several renderings that give you an idea of just how big of a change to the streetscape is on the way.

"The building design is reminiscent of a downtown," said Jim Heffernan, a leader with the Chicago-based student housing firm HERE LLC. "We think it will look similar to what a downtown in the 1950s would look like."

But as the pictures show, there will be a few amenities that weren't common in the 1950s. Plans call for not only a rooftop pool, but also an entire rooftop garden. The project proposes to have about 58,000 square feet of open and green space, including the rooftop garden and two interior courtyards.

Heffernan told commissioners the amenities are part of a plan to tap into a new market for student housing.

"Lawrence does not really have what we would consider A-plus student housing," Heffernan said. "We would be the first to the market, and we think this location is perfect for it. Part of bringing the best and the brightest to a university is having world-class housing, and this will bring that to the university."

In addition to the courtyards and rooftop gardens, the project will feature a 592-space, underground, automated parking garage system that will eliminate the need for residents to enter a parking garage to retrieve their vehicles. An automated system of lifts and tracks parks and retrieves the vehicles while residents wait in a secured lobby.

The project also will feature an extensive security system, live-work spaces, and retail space that is connected to the building. Plans call for retail along both Mississippi and Indiana streets.

Now that the zoning has been approved, Heffernan said his company will start arranging financing for the project. The company has had luck in finding financing for at least one other similar project. Work is underway on a 26-story student housing project near the University of Illinois, Heffernan said.

He said the company hopes to begin construction by the end of this year. The project is expected to take about 18 months to build. As we've previously reported, though, commissioners are likely to receive a request for financial incentives for the project. Heffernan confirmed that the company is likely to file an application with the city in the next few weeks. He said a 95 percent property tax rebate through the Neighborhood Revitalization Act is a possibility, but the company was still reviewing its options. Commissioners, of course, will have to approve any type of incentive package.

In other news and notes from around town:

• The big apartment project has a twist to it that has been played out many times in sitcoms over the decades: Giant project builds around a single house. If you have ever studied the current Berkeley Flats apartment complex, you may have noticed that the apartment complex has built up around an old single family home at 1115 Indiana St.

The property's owner, Georgia Bell, has lived in the house for more than 60 years. She didn't sell the property when Berkeley Flats came knocking decades ago, and, thus far, she hasn't sold to the Chicago-based company behind this latest proposal.

According to her son, Norman Bell, Georgia is 91 years old. For years there has been an apparently unwritten understanding that she could drive through the parking lot of Berkeley Flats to access the back door of her home. But with the new development, there will be no parking lot to drive through. It will be covered by a multistory building. City officials have searched, but there is no easement on file for the property. That leaves Bell's only access to the property off Indiana Street. Because of the steep slope, there is a set of stairs that leads from the street to her house. Norman said he did not think his mother could navigate those stairs.

That obviously creates a bad situation, and city commissioners at their meeting last night expressed a lot of concern for Ms. Bell.

"She has the right to be there and we wouldn't try to do anything to make her move," City Commissioner Bob Schumm said. "But I'm afraid she is not going to be very happy there."

Heffernan said his company very much would like to purchase the property, and has had multiple discussions with Ms. Bell. He even took the unusual step of telling commissioners how much the company has offered Ms. Bell for the property: $600,000. The property currently is appraised for taxation purposes at about $93,000.

But Heffernan also told commissioners the property is becoming less valuable to the company by the day. Once construction begins, it will be too late to change any design plans, and thus the only use for the property would be as open space.

Norman Bell attended last night's meeting and told commissioners he is advising his mother to get an attorney and sell the property. But he also noted that she is "pretty independent." The city manager, the city's planning director and other city officials have all had conversations with Ms. Bell to make sure she understands the scale of the proposed project and the amount of disruption it is likely to cause to her residence. But City Manager David Corliss said the city is committed to protecting her rights under the law, if she decides to stay.

City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, though, seemed to say what was on a lot of people's minds when he urged Norman to really get his mother to consider the company's purchase officer.

"She is getting a heck of a deal at $600,000," Farmer said. "I don't think the company is trying to screw her over at all."

To that, Norman said he agreed. We'll see how it plays itself out.

A view looking down Mississippi Street and down 11th Street. A portion of The Oread hotel is in the background.

A view looking down Mississippi Street and down 11th Street. A portion of The Oread hotel is in the background. by Chad Lawhorn

A view from 11th and Indiana streets.

A view from 11th and Indiana streets. by Chad Lawhorn

A view from Indiana Street. Memorial Stadium is in the background. The white house near the left edge of the picture is the Bell home.

A view from Indiana Street. Memorial Stadium is in the background. The white house near the left edge of the picture is the Bell home. by Chad Lawhorn

Another view from Indiana Street.

Another view from Indiana Street. by Chad Lawhorn

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Carlos O’Kelly’s closes Lawrence location; city set to put more bite into weed ordinance

When I was courting my lovely wife, I quickly realized that a dinner at Carlos O'Kelly's Mexican restaurant worked even better than roses for getting out of a jam. In other words, we ate there a lot. The Suiza con Pollo — a brick of cream cheese wrapped in a burrito with some chicken — saved me many of times.

Well, those are just memories now. According to a company spokesman and a sign on the door, the Carlos O'Kelly's Mexican restaurant at 707 W. 23rd St. has closed.

I got a phone call at the house last night giving me a tip about the closing, and I was a bit apprehensive to pass the news on to my wife. But she took it pretty well. I think I heard her whisper "Vaya con Dios, Suiza con Pollo." And then I think she soaked in a vat of cheese sauce.

The closing does end a longtime restaurant in Lawrence. The restaurant had been in Lawrence for nearly 26 years. The restaurant is a regional chain that dates back to 1981. A company spokesman told me this morning that 17 restaurants were closed yesterday. The only two in Kansas were in Lawrence and Hays. The company now has 22 locations in six states. The closest to Lawrence is in Topeka. Gift cards can be redeemed at that location or any other Carlos O'Kelly. Or, the spokesman said, the company will offer a refund. Customers need to call 316-978-9509 to inquire about the refund.

The Mexican restaurant industry has become pretty competitive in Lawrence over the past several years. Dave Phillips, director of restaurant marketing for the Wichita-based chain, told me the decision to close the stores came down to economics. But in Lawrence, he said, it wasn't just about the increased amount of competition.

"When we built nearly 30 years ago, we built on the east side of town, which we thought was an intelligent choice," Phillips said. "We thought the town was more likely to grow toward Kansas City than toward Topeka. But we were wrong. The volume of business just hasn't been enough."

But Carlos O'Kelly's hung in there well, which doesn't surprise me. (I never knew the complete backstory on the namesake Carlos O'Kelly, but with that unique Mexican/Irish heritage, I always figured he was tough. You try wearing a green sombrero on St. Patrick's Day, muchacho.)

The closing does leave a large and pretty visible location along 23rd Street vacant. According to property records at the Douglas County courthouse, the Lawrence location is owned by the Rolph family, which is the founder and operator of Carols O'Kelly's. Phillips said there were no plans yet to fill the location.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Perhaps some of you saw national news stories yesterday about a Supreme Court ruling that puts in jeopardy thousands of miles of rail-trails across the country. I spent quite a bit of time checking on that yesterday, but it appears the ruling won't impact any rail-trails in Lawrence or the state. Lawrence has both the Burroughs Creek Trail and the Haskell Rail-Trail that are built on railroad easements.

But Lawrence resident Clark Coan, an officer for both the Sunflower Rail-Trails Conservancy and the Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy, said the ruling only applies to federally-granted rail corridors, which most typically are in places like national forests and such. Neither of the Lawrence trails fall into that category, nor does the nearby Prairie Spirit Trail, which begins in Ottawa.

Toni Wheeler, the city's attorney, said she was still reviewing the Supreme Court decision, but does not expect it to have an impact on the Lawrence trails.

• I would perhaps consider allowing a trail to be built in my backyard, on the condition that it sufficiently covers the dandelions. As spring nears, so does weed season, and the City Commission at its meeting tonight will consider a change to the city's weed ordinance.

Commissioners are being asked to approve an increase in the fee the city charges when it must go and mow a person's yard because it is in violation of the city's weed ordinance. Staff members are proposing a $75 administrative fee, up from $25.

The administrative fee hasn't been raised in more than $20 years, and staff members are expressing a concern that it actually may be cheaper for some property owners to pay the current administrative fee, plus the $35 per hour that a city contractor charges for mowing, than it would be for the property owner to hire a firm to mow the lawn.

In case you are wondering, the city's weed ordinance generally comes into play when weeds or yard grasses are allowed to grow more than 12 inches in height.

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    Proposed ecological observation station may create concerns for airport; city in running for more than $500,000 in arts grant

    Forget global warming. Forget global cooling. Forget all these pending ecological disasters. We've had one happen right here and now. Somehow, an hour of our weekend disappeared, and it created cataclysmic results this morning for my ecosystem: a smashed alarm clock, grumpy kids and a tube of something that certainly wasn't toothpaste.

    I'm not sure a proposed project north of Lawrence is going to study how an hour of our weekend was stolen from us, but it does plan to make a host of other ecological observations. It also may spark a round of protest from local leaders.

    Plans have been filed with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department for an ecological observatory tower on a portion of the Kansas University Field Station property, which is in the hills just north and east of the Lawrence Municipal Airport.

    That's an important fact because airport leaders are expressing concern over the 136-foot tall tower that would be built as part of the project. They are worried, among other things, that the tower may occasionally make it difficult for the LifeStar helicopter based at the airport to fly.

    The plans have been filed by NEON Inc., which is a Boulder, Colo.-based company that plans to build about 20 of these stations across the country as part of a project to "understand and forecast the impacts of climate change, land use change and invasive species," according to the application on file at City Hall.

    The observatory, which will include the tower and a host of soil sensors, is expected to be in use for about 10 to 12 years, according to the application.

    That's assuming that it gets approved for construction. Airport leaders already have begun to file objections to the project because it could cause the Federal Aviation Administration to change a key set of rules for the airport.

    Richard Haig, the chair of the city's Aviation Advisory Board, told me the tower would be close enough to the airport that the FAA likely would change the airport's visibility requirements. Currently, aircraft can take off and land at the airport if there is at least 1.5 miles of visibility. With the tower, however, the new standard likely would be 2 miles of visibility, Haig said.

    Haig said the LifeStar air ambulance service based at the airport is the entity that most likely would be affected by the new rules. The airport is located in the valley of the Kansas River, which makes it susceptible to periods of ground fog. Currently, as long as there is still 1.5 miles of visibility, the helicopter can take off in the fog, Haig said. If the rules are changed, the helicopter could not take off if there were less than 2 miles of visibility.

    it is a little tough to predict how often this would be an issue, but Haig said it likely would ground the LifeStar service several times per year. Given the nature of its business, any time a LifeStar helicopter can't fly, the ramifications could be serious.

    The city has filed an objection with the FAA about the tower, but Haig said he recently was notified that its objection was received past the comment deadline. The project, however, must still win land-use approvals from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission and the Douglas County Commission. So, airport leaders likely will have another chance to speak against the tower.

    Members of the scientific community, however, also may speak up in favor of the project. The observatory may produce some useful information for local researchers. According to the application, the data collected at the station will be available to the general public through an online portal.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • The Lawrence Arts Center has cleared one hurdle in its quest to win a $500,000 grant that would bring more public art to the area. The Arts Center has been notified that it is one of 97 finalists for an ArtPlace America grant. Yes, with 96 other projects in the running, Lawrence still has some work to do. But more than 1,200 projects had expressed an interest in the grant, so Lawrence survived one big cut.

    The project up for consideration is called Free State Connection: The Ninth Street Corridor Project. The project would involve several elements to improve Ninth Street from downtown to the new Warehouse Arts District in East Lawrence. For those of you who have forgotten, that's the area near Ninth and Delaware streets that includes the Poehler Lofts, Cider Gallery and several artist studios.

    The $500,000 would be used to line the corridor with pieces of public art, and would serve as a model for how Lawrence could incorporate more art into its public projects. The city also would play a role in the project by making improvements to the street, sidewalks, lighting and other such infrastructure.

    Look for more details on the project by mid-April, which is when the Arts Center has to submit a more detailed budget as part of the grant application.

    • Finding grant money to do arts and culture stuff is a priority at Lawrence City Hall these days. (The use of words like "stuff" is why I don't have a career as a grant writer, by the way.) One place city leaders are now looking is just down the street to the Douglas County Courthouse. The city is applying for a $110,000 grant from the Douglas County Natural & Cultural Heritage Grant Program.

    The money would be used to hire a "professional urban planning facilitator," who will host several meetings and identify "natural, cultural and historic sites" within the new Lawrence Cultural District. That district is basically the downtown area and large parts of East Lawrence.

    Once interesting sites are identified, the city then will work to connect the sites through signs, marketing materials, a smartphone app, and other aspects that would make it easy people to visit all the sites.

    City commissioners at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday will consider authorizing the grant application.

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    Compton makes proposal for downtown mural; KU pulls plug on popular downtown shot put event; a tax rebate for apartment project looming

    A downtown mural, a shot put and possibly a few million dollars in taxpayer-funded incentives: That's either one really strange pre-St. Patrick's Day party, or else it is the current stew of issues brewing at Lawrence City Hall.

    Indeed, there are several interesting issues slated for the Lawrence City Commission's meeting next week. Here's a look:

    • A development group led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton was given until April 8 to provide an update on how his group could save a prominent downtown mural that is on the site of a planned multistory apartment building.

    Well, Compton said he didn't need until April 8 to spell out the situation. He has sent a letter to city officials saying it will be impossible to allow the wall that houses the mural to remain standing during the construction project at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets.

    As part of the construction of the seven-story apartment building, crews will dig a hole more than 30-feet deep to accommodate an underground parking garage. Digging that deep hole and leaving the wall in place aren't compatible, Compton said.

    But Compton said he's willing to provide up to $20,000 to split the existing wall into sections and have it moved to another location. If that isn't deemed acceptable, he said he also would commission Lawrence artist Dave Loewenstein to recreate the mural on a designated space on the proposed building. The mural, however, would be significantly smaller than it is today.

    I haven't had a chance yet to talk with supporters of the mural to determine whether any of Compton's proposals seem like a workable solution. I'll let you know when I hear back on that. City commissioners are scheduled to discuss Compton's letter at their meeting on Tuesday.

    "I hope the commission agrees that we have made reasonable offers to resolve the issue," Compton wrote.

    The city already has given the bulk of the approvals needed for the seven-story apartment building, which will be built on the site of the former Black Hills Energy headquarters. The city, however, must still approve a site plan for the project. It is unclear how much authority the city has to insist on preserving the mural as part of the site plan. The more important approval for the project is more than $4 million in tax increment financing incentives for the building. The city has given preliminary approval for the incentives, but final approval isn't expected to come until April. Those incentives are completely discretionary on the part of the city. City commissioners, though, have been big supporters of the proposed apartment project and the idea of new residents living in downtown. So, I wouldn't expect this mural issue to put the project in any jeopardy, but it will be interesting to see what tack commissioners take on this.

    • Over the past few years, the intersection of Eighth and New Hampshire streets has turned into an odd scene even by downtown Lawrence standards: World-class athletes have used the intersection to conduct a shot put competition.

    It has been part of the Kansas Relays, and when the weather has cooperated, it has been a boon to downtown. Some of the events have brought about 3,000 people to downtown for the competition and a street festival afterward.

    But this year's event has an unexpected complication: The Kansas University athletics department is pulling all financial support for the downtown shot put event, according Jim Marchiony, a spokesman for KU Athletics. In fact, the KU Relays this year won't have any professional athletes. Marchiony said the decision was made for budgetary reasons. He estimated the Relays previously spent about $200,000 a year related to bringing in professional athletes to compete.

    "It is a significant amount of money," Marchiony said. "It speaks to fiscal responsibility."

    KU Athletics has an annual budget of about $70 million, Marchiony said.

    Bob Sanner, the sports marketing manager for the Lawrence Convention & Visitors Bureau told me the CVB plans to keep the event alive. But it needs to raise $60,000 in sponsorship money to pay for it. A bulk of that is to pay appearance fees for eight to 10 professional shot putters to compete. The professional athletes have been a big draw to past events. Many times the event featured multiple athletes ranked in the top 10 in the world. Reece Hoffa, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, has been a frequent competitor at the event.

    Marchiony said KU's decision to pull out of the downtown event was in no way a reflection of the event. He said the shot put competition was viewed to be a success. He said KU likely will revisit the issue of having professional athletes compete at the Relays in future years. But at the moment, he said budget issues won't allow it.

    The timing of KU's decision to cut back on the relays likely will create some questions. KU is making a major investment in its track and field program, but so too are city taxpayers. The new Rock Chalk Park sports complex will include a world-class track and field stadium, among other facilities. In case you have forgotten, the city is paying for more than $10 million worth of roads, parking lots, sewer lines and other infrastructure to support the track and field stadiums and the other facilities.

    It is a bit difficult to put into context the amount of financial incentive city taxpayers are providing to the project because certainly some of the infrastructure being built at Rock Chalk Park will support the city's new recreation center at Rock Chalk Park. But there is an incentive being provided to KU. When the project was first proposed, it was projected that the city and the university (and its private partner Bliss Sports) would somehow split the costs for the infrastructure needed at the park.

    But when the final development agreements were signed, city taxpayers had agreed to pay for about $10 million in infrastructure costs, Bill Self's charitable foundation had agreed to pay for up to $2 million in infrastructure costs, and KU and its private partner are not expected to pay for any of the roads, sewers and other infrastructure needed to support the track and field stadium and other facilities.

    On Friday, Marchiony said taxpayer support for the track and field stadium shouldn't be a factor in the athletics department deciding whether to support the downtown event.

    "I don't see a connection," Marchiony said. "I think Rock Chalk Park will be a tremendous facility that for years will benefit the Lawrence community and the area. That will happen."

    As for the downtown event, Sanner is approaching private businesses and other groups to provide the funding for the event. He said he has raised about $30,000 so far. He doesn't plan to ask the city of Lawrence to donate money to the event. The city, however, as it has done in past years is being asked to donate its time to set up and tear down the shot put venue.

    If approved, the event would take place on April 18, which is the Friday of the Kansas Relays, but the event would not be an official part of the Relays.

    • While we're on the topic of incentives, it looks like city commissioners will have another request for a property tax break to consider. This one is still developing, but there is word that the large multistory apartment complex proposed for a site across the street from KU's Memorial Stadium has an interest in a property tax rebate.

    An application hasn't yet been filed, but City Manager David Corliss said the Chicago-based development group has indicated it will seek a 95 percent property tax rebate through the Neighborhood Revitalization Act. In the meantime, the rezoning for the project, which will include a five-story building with about 175 apartments and some retail space, will be up for approval at Tuesday's City Commission meeting.

    When the tax rebate request comes, commissioners will have an interesting decision to make. The city is poised to give tax incentives to an apartment project — the one at Ninth and New Hampshire mentioned above. But that is in downtown, and the idea of bringing new residents to downtown has been a big part of that incentive request.

    Whether the city wants to start offering tax incentives for apartment projects in other parts of the community will be an interesting discussion.

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    El Sol Mexican restaurant opens in West Lawrence; update on chamber CEO search

    There is no denying that Lawrence is extremely health conscious. It has long been proven that chips and salsa probably is the healthiest dish you could ever hope to eat. You can eat as much as you want because it is entirely made of vegetables. (They're called CORN chips, people.) It is clear Lawrence agrees with me, because, forget Rome, in this town all roads lead to a Mexican restaurant.

    West Lawrence residents now have a closer health fix. El Sol Mexican restaurant has opened in the shopping center at Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive. It occupies the spot where El Mezcal Mexican restaurant used to be.

    El Sol is owned by the same group that operates Tres Mexicanos at 23rd and Harper in eastern Lawrence. The menus are similar, but not identical.

    "This gets us in the east and the west," said Luis Ojeda, manager for El Sol.

    Ojeda said he thought West Lawrence, especially near the Bob Billings and Wakarusa intersections, was generally lacking not in Mexican cuisine but eateries in general. In case you haven't heard, Bambino's, the one other restaurant at the intersection, has closed. No word yet on what may go into that spot, but the fixtures were being moved out on Wednesday. That spot has gone through a few restaurants in the last several years. I remember Tanner's sports bar, Zig & Mac's, Bambino's Italian restaurant, and I may be forgetting one. It will be interesting, though, to see how much business picks up for that shopping center once the Bob Billings Parkway and South Lawrence Trafficway interchange opens. The $17 million interchange project is supposed to open in 2016. When it does, Bob Billings Parkway will become a new gateway onto the KU campus, which may boost the commercial prospects along the corridor.

    As for El Sol, its ownership group is a longtime player in the Mexican restaurant business. In addition to Tres Mexicanos, the company also has an El Sol restaurant in Ottawa. Ojeda said the company's owners got their start with the longtime Topeka Mexican restaurant Tacos El Sol, which has been in business since 1998.

    Hours for El Sol are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

    Now, I have to get back to being healthy, although some Richard Simmons type (meaning he was very hairy) has alerted me that corn is a grain, not a vegetable, when harvested to make chips. One, that sounds like voodoo to me. And two, if corn chips aren't healthy, why is the leading brand named Tostitos? I'm almost certain that is the Spanish word for healthy.

    In other news and notes around town:

    • The Lawrence Chamber of Commerce has provided an update on its process for finding a new president and CEO for the organization. The group hasn't set a timeline for the process to unfold but, as expected, Chief Operating Officer Bonnie Lowe will handle all CEO duties while the search is underway. As we previously reported, Lawrence banker and former chamber chair Doug Gaumer will lead the search committee. According to the update, membership on that committee hasn't been finalized. It is, however, expected to include some community officials — both the city and the county provide funding to the chamber — in addition to including chamber board members.

    As for timing, it doesn't look like the search process will move at a real quick pace. The chamber is in a bit of a different position than it has been in past searches. Lowe's position of chief operating officer is a fairly new one for the chamber. She has been handling some of the duties related to day-to-day operations of the organization that previously were handled by the CEO. Lowe, in case you have forgotten, is a former Lawrence bank president and former Lawrence mayor. She brings a good understanding of the community to the position.

    I think search committee members will spend some time figuring out exactly how they want to define the chamber CEO position. During the search process that brought departing CEO Greg Williams to town, the chamber put a high priority on finding someone with a strong background in economic development. They really were looking for someone who had extensive contacts with site selectors and others who make decisions about where projects are going to be located. By all accounts, Williams brought that to the table. As we reported last week, Williams is resigning, effective March 14, to move back to Springfield, Mo., where his wife and children had remained.

    I think the search for a new CEO also comes at an interesting time. The city and county are updating Horizon 2020, their long-range plan. One chapter is on economic development. It is possible that there could be serious discussion about significantly revising that chapter. Some of that talk may center on creating some measurable goals for the community. For example, how many jobs do we expect to have in Douglas County ten years from now? What do we expect our local gross domestic product to be 10 years from now? What do we expect our average household income to be? What about retail sales per capita? There are a host of others as well.

    We'll see whether the community uses this time period to take stock of itself in those areas. I'll do my part in the near future to write an article that details some of those numbers.

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    All-natural hamburger restaurant to go into former Chutney’s space downtown; future of Lawrence RadioShacks uncertain

    You have heard of Wi-Fi. (I know I have. It takes a good part of my morning to get the RadioShack Tandy 1000 hooked up to it.) And perhaps you even have a few brain cells that survived the 1970s and still remember the phrase Hi-Fi. But now there is something called BurgerFi?

    Indeed there is, and Lawrence hamburger lovers will get a chance to check it out by midspring. The Florida-based restaurant chain BurgerFi has plans to open at 918 Massachusetts St. in the space that formerly was occupied by Chutney's.

    Franchise owners Josh and Michelle Kurzban believe Lawrence will take to the chain's philosophy of producing tasty hamburgers in an all-natural way.

    "We figure that college students like eating hamburgers, and if they can eat them from a source that is natural, that is going to resonate well with them," Kurzban said.

    The restaurant makes all of its hamburgers out of free-range, hormone-free, never frozen Angus beef. But the natural theme doesn't stop there. The restaurant carries a line of ice cream, concrete desserts that are made with natural sugar cane instead of high fructose corn syrup. Even the furniture gets in on the act. The plastic chairs are made from recycled Coke bottles.

    As for the actual hamburgers, the menu indicates a variety. In addition to the standard hamburger and cheeseburger, there also is something called the Breakfast All Day Burger. It includes hickory bacon drizzled with maple syrup, a fried egg and hashbrowns. (I can think of nothing more natural than me sitting in front of the Tandy, playing a game of Turtle Racer and eating three or four of those hamburgers.)

    Also on the menu: a brisket burger, made from 28-day, dry-aged ground brisket; five different styles of hot dogs, hand-cut fries that can be ordered regular, well-done or limp; tempura, beer-battered onion rings; and a host of craft beers and wines.

    The restaurant also has signed a marketing deal with the Sporting KC soccer club, which means the restaurant plans to have some team events at the Lawrence location, and also at a Leawood location that is scheduled to open this spring.

    BurgerFi, which takes its name from the founder's vision of the "burgerfication of the nation," has 36 restaurants open currently, but plans to have 75 by the end of 2014. The Leawood and Lawrence locations are the first for the company in this region.

    It's entry into the market will continue a trend of restaurants that build their menu around a higher quality hamburger. There's Dempsey's and The Burger Stand, which were among the first to bring the idea to town. Outside of downtown, there's everything from Five Guys, Burgers by Biggs, Culver's, Freddy's, and probably several others that I'm just not thinking of at the moment.

    But now I can look them up. I think the Tandy is finally connected. Of course, I don't have time now. I have to get the wheels put on the Tandy. I don't care what anybody says: This trend toward mobile is a real pain in the rear.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • Perhaps you noticed that I mentioned something about RadioShack. Well, that company is producing news. The retailer announced yesterday that it will be closing up to 1,100 of its approximately 5,200 stores. RadioShack has several locations in Lawrence, but it is not known yet whether they are among the stores slated to close. The company hasn't yet released a list of the specific store closings. (I understand that. It takes my dot matrix a long time to print a list that long.) No, USA Today reports the company will have to have discussions with its landlords and lenders before it can finalize a list of store closings. So, I'll keep an ear open.

    • Here's another reminder that we're hosting a chat with Lawrence City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer to discuss the latest proposal to create a rental licensing and inspection program in the city. The chat is set for 11 a.m. on Thursday at LJWorld.com. But you can submit questions now by clicking here.

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    Real estate sales, home building off to decent start in 2014; new numbers about county’s housing values, tax base released

    Perhaps you are like me, and this winter weather has you in the market for a very specific type of home: one with a heated driveway and sidewalks. (Or I would even settle for one equipped with a 10-year old son who doesn't feel faint at the sight of a snow shovel.)

    I'm not sure any of those types of homes have sold recently, but the latest series of real estate and building reports indicate that 2014 got off to a decent start for home builders and real estate agents.

    Here's a look at a few reports:

    • Although January is one of the slower months for local real estate agents, home sales increased by a little more than 10 percent, compared with January 2013 totals, according to a new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors. Home sales totaled 41 for the month, including five sales for newly constructed homes. The most important number of the report, however, may be the number of homes on the market. Active listings in Lawrence are down 320 homes, which is a decline from 380 in January 2013 and 460 from January 2012. That's a positive sign for the market. More homes are selling, but if the number of listings doesn't move upward, look for prices to rise.

    • Lawrence home builders took out permits for nine new homes in January, compared with eight in January 2013. January obviously isn't a big month for starting new home construction, but, for what it is worth, the nine is the highest January total in at least the last five years. The five-year average for January home starts is 5.4 new homes. (Rumor has it, the guy who lived in the 0.4 of a home, spent all his money on heated sidewalks.)

    • When it comes to numbers, the one homeowners usually care most about should be arriving in the mailbox at any moment. The Douglas County Appraiser's Office sent out change of value notices on Friday. The notices tell homeowners how much the appraiser's office thinks their property is worth. That number, of course, is key in determining how much a homeowner pays in property taxes. I haven't yet got an update from the appraiser on what most homeowners should expect. When I get that information, I'll pass it along. But his most recent report did include some other interesting numbers:

    — The total value of real estate in Douglas County is on the rise. Total assessed valuation — that's the taxable value, not the fair market value — was $1.04 billion dollars on Jan. 1. That's up 2.2 percent from Jan. 1, 2013. Appraiser Steve Miles said most of the increase was due to new construction and an increase in the value of agricultural land in the county. If that number holds — it generally goes down a bit as people appeal their tax values — it will be good news for local governments who use the tax base to help build their budgets.

    — The median value of all residential property in the county — excluding big apartment complexes — was $161,700 in 2014. That's up 2.9 percent from the $157,000 median in 2013. The median value had declined in 2013, 2012 and 2009. The report shows that median values still have a ways to climb before they reach the levels seen during the housing boom. In 2008, the median value of residential property in the county was $164,900.

    — The report provides a median residential value for each of the four communities in the county, plus the rural area. Those values: Baldwin City, $140,000, up 5.5 percent; Eudora, $137,900, up 9 percent; Lecompton, up $109,860, up 30.8 percent; Lawrence, $160,200, up 0.3 percent; $199,800, up 30.2 percent.

    — Housing, of course, is just one part of the county's real estate tax base. Commercial real estate, agricultural land and a few other miscellaneous categories also make up the tax base. But residential property is certainly the giant among the bunch, which has been a bit of a concern to economic development leaders for a long time. The idea is that commercial real estate produces more jobs and pays a higher tax rate. So, having more commercial, job-producing real estate in the community has been a goal.

    Well, I've done some figuring. (It wasn't pretty. Those were really big numbers, so I had to call on my neighbors to take off their shoes as well.) Regardless, here's a look: In 2014, residential property made up 68.5 percent of the tax base compared with 68.1 percent in 2013. Commercial real estate made up 25.6 percent in 2014 compared with 25.7 percent in 2013. So, we didn't go in the right direction.

    Just for fun, I also went back to 2004 to see how the numbers have changed. In 2004, residential made up 67 percent of the tax base and commercial made up 25.9 percent. These really are big numbers, so you shouldn't expect big swings. But it is telling that for an entire decade we lost ground on the goal of strengthening our commercial tax base.

    In other news around town:

    • Maybe all these numbers have made you want to be a renter. If so, you might have some questions about the city's proposed rental licensing and inspection program. Whether you are a renter, a landlord or just an interested resident, we want your questions about the program. City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer will participate in an online chat at 11 a.m. Thursday. Click here to submit some questions in advance.

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    Kief’s Audio/Video plans to downsize as longtime owner retires; city’s bus service tops 1 million riders for year

    Look for some changes at one of Lawrence's longer running retail operations. John Kiefer, the owner/operator of Kief's Audio/Video on south Iowa Street, is in the process of retiring after 54 years in the business.

    Both Kiefer and his son, Rob Kiefer, tell me that they expect Kief's to downsize in the process.

    "I don't know all the changes that will take place yet, but we'll definitely be downsizing," said Rob, who will take over management of the business. "We need to adapt not only to the current economy but just the buying habits of the public when it comes to buying electronics."

    Rob said he is considering focusing the business on designing and installing custom entertainment systems, rather than having a large showroom floor for walk-in retail customers. But he said he is still in discussions with several of the business' dealers before he makes any final decisions.

    The store, 2429 Iowa St., is beginning an inventory reduction sale to prepare for the eventual downsizing, Rob said.

    As for John, he said that at 82 years old it is simply time to retire. Kiefer has seen everything from eight-track tapes to 3-D televisions come on the market during his 54 years in the business. The store spent its first 18 years in business at The Malls Shopping Center at 23rd and Louisiana streets. Then it moved to 25th and Iowa Streets and finally to its current location, about a block south of the busy 23rd and Iowa intersection.

    John has seen a lot of changes in the Lawrence retail world over the last half century and has met a few interesting people too. I'm hoping to feature him in a Lawhorn's Lawrence column here in the near future.

    I also plan to keep an eye on the future of the Kief's property. The store plans to maintain some sort of presence on the site, but the downsizing will open up some space for redevelopment. The business has about 11,000 square feet of retail space that John owns.

    "I've had people look at it for a restaurant site because we have fantastic visibility from the street and are pretty close to the campus," Kiefer said. "I'm at the point that if someone wants to put in X, Y, or Z business, I will customize the space for them. I'm just hoping for a good quality tenant that likes to pay its bills."

    It also will be interesting to see if even larger redevelopment plans get talked about for the area. Kiefer, along with a business partner, also owns the retail/restaurant space directly south of Kief's. Plus, the partnership owns a significant amount of the parking lot that serves the area.

    South Iowa Street has become a hot real estate play of late. As we've reported, the Holiday Plaza Shopping Center, which at 25th and Iowa streets is adjacent to the property that Kiefer and his partner own, has recently sold. So too has the Tower Plaza Shopping Center, which has First Watch and a host of other businesses. It is basically just a block from the Kief's location. Plans also have been filed for a new restaurant (documents indicate a Buffalo Wild Wings) and retail development on the northeast corner of 27th and Iowa Street.

    The redevelopment of the former Sears building at the southwest corner of 27th and Iowa is spurring a lot of the interest in the south Iowa Street corridor. The construction of a Menards home improvement center just east of 31st and Iowa also has helped.

    But there also may be one other potential development that could affect the area greatly. People certainly are beginning to wonder what KU has planned for the northwest corner of 23rd and Iowa streets. It largely is a series of outdoor soccer and recreation fields. A little farther to the west, it houses the university's relatively new park and ride lot.

    But, as we've reported, KU is in the process of developing a new master plan for its campus. Most folks are betting that the master plan process won't end up calling for one of the busier intersections in the city to house a series of soccer fields. There's been talk of a convention/conference center at the site. There's been talk of the corner housing a new public-private research park. There's probably been lots of other talk that I haven't heard about. A KU official told me recently that a new draft of the master plan should be released soon.

    If KU sends a signal that it plans to do something significant at the northwest corner of 23rd and Iowa, the private development community may decide to do a significant redevelopment of the southwest corner of the intersection. There have been concept plans in the past that have shown a redevelopment of the entire area from 23rd Street to 25th Street. I haven't heard anything that indicates such a deal is imminent, but I suspect it is at least getting some consideration in certain circles.

    UPDATE: I got word today that KU has scheduled a public forum to discuss the campus master plan. It is set for 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. on March 14 at Spooner Hall on KU's main campus.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • Maybe you were too busy listening to old eight-track from Kief's Audio/Video to notice, but a city department reached a milestone in 2013. The city's public transit service had annual ridership above the 1 million passenger mark for the first time in its history.

    The T, the name for the city's fixed-route bus service, had ridership of 1,063,128 passengers in 2013. That's quite a turnaround from just a few years ago. From 2006 to 2008, ridership declined on the T, hitting a low of 437,671 passengers in 2008. Since then, ridership has increased by 142 percent. The reason: It was about that time that the city and KU created a policy where KU students could ride the city's bus service simply by showing their KU ID card. The city has been readjusting routes since that time to make more stops at apartment complexes and other locations heavy with students.

    The new transit report also provides a glimpse at numbers for the city's new NightLine bus service. The city in June began testing the idea of specialized, on-demand service that runs from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. Monday through Saturday. The service is geared toward nightshift workers who need public transportation to get to and from their jobs.

    According to the report, the service attracted about 600 riders per month when it began in June. Ridership grew steadily and peaked at about 1,250 riders in October. Ridership fell to about 900 riders in December. Transit leaders said public transit ridership typically does fall during the holiday season.

    The NightLine service was set up to be a one-year pilot project. No word yet on whether these numbers wlll cause the city to continue the service for the long term.

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    Burger King on Sixth Street hopes to open within eight weeks; more details on proposed rental inspection program

    Of all the days to misplace my three-foot long trumpet . . . here goes anyway. Hear ye, hear ye: The King lives. The King lives. The King lives. Let us rejoice with Whoppers, fries, and copious amounts of breakfast sandwiches in defiance of the witch doctors known as cardiologists. (This would have sounded much better with the trumpet.)

    Regardless, I'm obviously referring to the Burger King at 1107 W. Sixth St. If you remember, it has been closed since a fire significantly damaged it on Aug. 12. The delay in reopening the facility has caused some to worry that the days of Burger King at that location may be over. No need to worry about that, says Lance Zach, regional manager for the Burger King franchise. Zach said he hopes to have the store open in about six to eight weeks.

    "It is a popular location in Lawrence," Zach said. "We're anxious to get rolling on it."

    Zach said delays with insurance payments related to the fire have been the big holdup in getting the restaurant remodeled and reopened. But Zach said those issues appear now to be settled. He said officials have determined that an electrical connection in a can light in the dining room caused the fire.

    Zach said some construction work had taken place on the site earlier, but that was just to gut the building. He said the remodeling plans have now been filed with the city and are awaiting a building permit. Plans call for a new look on the inside and the outside. Zach said the exterior will look more like the relatively new Burger King in the Bauer Farms development near Sixth and Wakarusa. The inside also will have a more modern look, and will feature a countertop area where people can plug in their computers and other electronic devices.

    Zach said the location receives a good amount of university-related business, and area customers have been pretty vocal in their support for reopening. I know I have gotten numerous calls inquiring about the store's future.

    "You think you get calls," Zach told me. "I probably get that question three or four times a day when I'm in Lawrence."

    Zach said the store is currently interviewing for new staff members, and expects to begin training new employees at the other two Lawrence locations in the next couple of weeks. He said the store will hire about 25 employees, including seven managerial positions. People can apply at work4BK.com

    Now, the trumpet. What the . . . how did it get in my neighbor's Dumpster?

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • I'm not sure that there will be trumpets involved, but the most recent list of land transactions in Douglas County has an interesting buyer on it. Country Jam USA Inc. has purchased about 3 acres of property at 1129 East 1264 Road — which is south of Lawrence, just south and west of the County Route 458 and U.S. Highway 59 intersection.

    I don't think the company is in the business of making good strawberry jam, for instance, although that would be a fantastic development (despite the fact my wife won't let the kids and I eat anything sticky in the house anymore). Instead, our friend Mr. Google tells us that there is a Country Jam USA that is in the business of hosting outdoor music concerts. It looks like it currently has sites in Grand Junction, Colo. and Eau Claire, Wisc. Whether this is the same company that bought the Douglas County property, I can't say for sure, but it seems like a reasonable bet.

    I wouldn't be too quick to jump to any conclusions about what the company has in mind in Lawrence. For one, there's been nothing filed at the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning office for the address. In other words, no special permits have been sought to have a concert on the site. For another, the property is in a rural subdivision with several homes nearby. I would think Willie Nelson would have a better chance of landing a Gillette razor sponsorship than a concert company being allowed to host an event in a rural neighborhood. And finally, the site is only 3 acres and it has a house. So, it is possible that an owner of Country Jam USA simply wants to have a house in rural Douglas County. I called the company yesterday, but haven't received a call back.

    But, the property transfer list is published in the newspaper, and I figured the name might catch the eye of some other folks as well, so I wanted to tell you what I knew about it. I'll let you know if I hear more.

    • Get ready for some noise at Lawrence City Hall. Commissioners are scheduled on March 25 to vote on the latest proposal for an expanded rental licensing and inspection program that would basically cover every rental unit in the city.

    As we have reported, Commissioner Jeremy Farmer has come up with a new proposal that seeks to limit the types of violations that could be used to deny a landlord a rental license. He's talked in broad terms about how the rental licensing program should be limited to issues that are of an immediate threat to health and safety. But he also has said city inspectors should have the ability to cite landlords for other types of violations, if the inspectors note them while conducting the rental licensing inspection. The big difference would be those other types of violations — think unpainted siding, for example — couldn't be used to deny a landlord a rental license. A rental license will become very important under this new system. Without a license, a landlord can't offer the unit for rent.

    Now we have the list of specific violations Farmer has in mind. There are 27 violations that could cause a landlord to not receive a rental license. Here's a list of the 27 violations. (They're the ones at the top.) They include items such as: missing windows; exterior doors without locks; badly leaking roofs; issues of structural integrity; missing handrails; missing or nonworking smoke detectors; improper venting of furnaces, water heaters and dryers; a host of electrical issues; over occupancy of tenants; and several others.

    Farmer, however, also has provided a list of 42 other violations, as an example of what inspectors may be looking for over and above the city's rental licensing program. If units are found to have these violations, they won't be used against the landlord license application, but the landlord could face a fine or other enforcement action if the violations aren't corrected. You can see that list here. (Scroll to the end.)

    I hope to have more on the details of Farmer's proposal later today.

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    Genesis plans $1 million renovation of health club along West Sixth Street

    In my small basement gym, the only thing that is granite are my abs. (Excuse me for a moment. My wife seems to be choking on her Cheerios.) Regardless, members at Lawrence's Genesis Health Club off of West Sixth Street soon will be getting a whole lot more granite and other high-end finishes.

    The club recently received a building permit for $1 million worth of renovations at the gym, which formerly was operated by the Lawrence Athletic Club. The Wichita-based Genesis chain took over operations in December 2012, and has had plans for a major renovation on its mind ever since.

    "The layout of this building made it hard for us to get the drawings just right," said Joe Oxler, the regional club director for Genesis. "The club is doing very well, but it is not a Genesis product yet. The classes and services are, but the overall look of the facility isn't there yet."

    Among the planned renovations are entirely new locker rooms that will be about double the size of the current ones. The design will feature granite countertops, high-end shower stalls and other amenities.

    Oxler said the club also will have a much more open feel. The renovation will remove many interior walls. Plans call for the weight room, cardio area and childcare area to grow larger. The club will add a shake bar and hopes to carve out an area to add massage therapy.

    Some club members have been worried that the gym could lose other amenities such as the basketball, racquetball and indoor pool areas, but Oxler said all those features will remain.

    Oxler said he hopes construction can begin in mid-March. He said the work will be done in phases so the club will not have to be closed. He hopes to have the bulk of the construction finished by late fall.

    Genesis has two locations in Lawrence, with the other one being the former location of the Maximus club at 2339 Iowa St. Oxler said the company would like to make improvements to that club as well, but is still working on a deal to purchase the real estate there.

    "Our plan is to always have two facilities in Lawrence," Oxler said. "We want one on the north end and one on the south end of town. We're working everyday to try and buy that (south) location."

    The fitness industry has been an active one in Lawrence lately. The Summit at 901 New Hampshire shook up the market about two years ago by opening the first true, full-service fitness club downtown. More recently, there has been the addition of RydeBarre, a cycle-oriented fitness facility in West Lawrence, and plans for about a $700,000 expansion at Body Boutique, the all-female fitness facility near Ninth and Iowa.

    I guess everyone wants abs like granite these days. (Really, again? She's got to quit eating Cheerios.)

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    Improvements planned for North Lawrence grain elevator, but towers aren’t coming down; new schedule for city compost and woodchip sales

    North Lawrence's skyscrapers aren't going anywhere. In case you aren't familiar with North Lawrence's chic skyscraper district, it also is known as the Ottawa Co-op grain elevators at North Third and Locust streets. And some of you have been worried that their time may be limited because demolition crews have arrived on the site.

    But there is no need to worry, Adrian Derousseau, general manager of the Ottawa Co-op, told me this morning. The massive grain silos that tower over North Lawrence absolutely aren't going to be torn down.

    "They're actually in good shape," Derousseau said.

    But the scale house and old milling plant that are on the west end of the towers are in the process of being demolished. Derousseau said the milling plant hadn't been used for at least 25 years, and it made navigation of the elevator site more difficult than it needed to be.

    "It is just a mess, and we can't keep it clean the way we want to," Derousseau said.

    Derousseau said the plan is to tear down both the scale house and milling plant, and then build a more efficient scale house prior to this year's fall harvest. When that is complete, Derousseau said the elevator may become a busier place. Recently, the co-op has only used the North Lawrence elevator as a transfer station, meaning that farmers haven't been directly delivering their crops to the facility. Instead, all crops are delivered to the Midland Junction elevator north of North Lawrence.

    Once the scale house has been built, Derousseau said the co-op will consider opening up the North Lawrence elevator full-time during the harvest season. That may take some pressure off the Midland facility and allow farmers to get back into the fields quicker.

    Even if you aren't a farmer, you may benefit some from the project. Derousseau said removing the scale house and milling operation will greatly improve the visibility for motorists at the corner of North Third and Locust.

    Derousseau said the North Lawrence grain towers, which store about 840,000 bushels of grain, are an important part of the co-op's storage system. Derousseau said if anything, more grain storage in the Lawrence area is needed. He said the company would like to add more towers at the Midland Junction site, but the soil type near the Midland site is creating engineering difficulties.

    The North Lawrence towers have become a Lawrence landmark. They can be seen from quite a distance, and they're one of the things that reminds us that we're still in Kansas. Just how long they have been in place was a little tough to determine this morning. Derousseau said he's been in the grain elevator business in this area for 37 years, and he noted the North Lawrence towers certainly weren't new when he first saw them.

    They are old enough that people have become attached to them, I guess. When the demolition trucks started to show up, I got several inquires from people worried about what was going on.

    "We have thought about painting a big Powercat on them," Derousseau said jokingly of the K-State mascot. "They may feel different about them after that."

    I don't expect to see that anytime soon, but construction work on the new scale house is expected to begin by early summer.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • I know of some gardeners who build something similar to an 840,000 bushel elevator in their backyards to store the compost that the city sells twice a year. Compost is black gold to some gardeners, and now the city is announcing changes to how it will run both its compost and mulch sales.

    For years, the city has held two sales per year for woodchips and compost that are produced from yard trimmings and tree limbs picked up through the city's curbside yard waste program. Now, the city plans to cut back to one major sale per year but offer the material for sale every Saturday for those people who want to bring their own shovel and load it themselves. At the one big sale per year, the city will still provide a big scoop loader that will allow people to buy the material by the pickup truck load.

    The Saturday self-load sales will begin in March — this Saturday — and run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.. The site will be open each Saturday through mid-December. Plans are to charge $10 per pickup load. I'm not sure whether the city will offer a discounted rate for people who buy significantly less than a pickup load. I'm also not sure how long it takes to get a full pickup load of mulch or compost loaded by hand. If it becomes a common practice, though, I already can envision mean gangs of gardeners roaming the city with bulging biceps from all the heavy loading they do. (Good gardener gang name: The Germinators.)

    The big compost and woodchip sale where the city will do the loading for you is set for 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on March 27-29. The city will charge $10 for a big two cubic yard bucket scoop load. The sale and Saturday events will take place at the woodchip and compost facility, which is just east of the 11th and Haskell intersection.

    The city also has changes planned for when residents can drop off woody debris, lawn clippings and garden waste at the facility. The woodchip and compost area will open a month earlier than normal and will have expanded hours. The area will be open to residents beginning on March 1 and will have hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The cost for residents to drop off debris will be $5 per pickup truck load.

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    Preservation Alliance seeking owner for city’s oldest community building; city to award funds from Varsity House dispute tonight

    Maybe the idea of a social club built around gymnastics and beer will make a comeback. (Fortunately, I've already got a pommel horse with a cup holder.) Or maybe it will be something else, but the search is now officially on to find a user for East Lawrence's old Turnhalle building.

    The Turnhalle building at 900 Rhode Island St. is thought to be the oldest standing community building in the city, built in 1869. For decades it housed the German social club called Turnverein, which had a fantastic beer garden but also had the rather odd requirement that all male members between 18 and 30 participate in gymnastics.

    The Lawrence Preservation Alliance purchased the old stone building in late 2012 in an effort to stabilize what had become a deteriorating structure. Now, LPA president Dennis Brown tells me stabilization of the building is expected to be completed by May, and the LPA has officially put the building on the market.

    The historic preservation organization is asking interested buyers to submit proposals detailing how the building will be used. The eventual buyer also will have to abide by a preservation easement that prohibits certain defining characteristics of the building from being changed.

    But just what type of user can be found for a building whose main floor includes a stage, a balcony and an old wood floor that used to house gymnastics equipment?

    Brown said that is what the group hopes to find out through the RFP process, which will start evaluating proposals on March 10 but will run until a buyer is found.

    Certainly, though, preservationists have some dreams for the building. A German deli in the basement and an event space and gallery that highlights some of Lawrence's significant German history would be ideal, Brown said. The RFP does state that extra consideration will be given to proposals that keep the building open to the public in some way.

    "We're thinking event space, gallery space, meeting space, maybe even a business incubator," Brown said.

    The RFP process also makes it clear that the group won't make the sale price of the building the most important consideration in selecting a buyer. The LPA has an approximately $86,000 mortgage on the building, Brown said. LPA has spent about $300,000 on the project thus far, including the mortgage and a $125,000 cultural heritage grant received from the Douglas County Commission.

    Brown said LPA hopes to be made whole on the project, but recognizes that may not be likely given that any future buyer will face significant costs to make the building viable.

    LPA's work on the building, which will reach its peak this spring, mainly has been to stop water infiltration into the structure. That will include major work to the roof and around the building's foundation.

    It will be interesting to watch what type of proposals the LPA receives. The purchase of the Turnhalle building has been the largest project undertaken by the LPA in recent years. Brown noted that the plan always was for LPA to stabilize the building and then find a new "preservation-minded owner."

    "We're talking to a handful of people right now," Brown said of possible buyers. "They're all local, but the word is being spread into Kansas City and also to groups across the country that are connected to other Turnvereins. If at the end of the process, we had five serious proposals to consider, we would be pleased.

    "It is a big project, and I think it will take a big plan."

    People interested in submitting a proposal or learning more can go to the organization's website at lawrencepreservation.org.

    In the meantime, I've got my own research to do. What goes better with the high bar: a pale ale or a dark stout? And how the heck do you hang on with just one free hand? And spills? So much to learn.

    UPDATE: This talk of the Turnhalle building has renewed some questions about the future Lawrence's Free State Glass. For years, Free State Glass had its studio in the basement of the building. But that changed in Septembers when Free State was forced to move from the building because of a mold problem that had developed in the basement.

    I talked Tuesday with Dick Rector, a co-owner of Free State. He said the future of the business that has gained national attention for everything from glass paperweights to chandeliers is still uncertain. He said the business has been able to move all of its equipment to a new location, but he said that location is just being used storage of the equipment. Rector said he didn't have a timeline for when the business may set up a new studio space to start blowing glass again.

    "We have relocated all our stuff and have had some people want to buy the business, but I don't really know what will happen yet," Rector said.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • Lawrence city commissioners at their meeting tonight will hand out some historic preservation money.

    If you remember, Lawrence builder Thomas Fritzel's handling of the old Varsity House in the Oread neighborhood created quite a stir in the historic preservation community when he dismantled the house as part of the process of moving it a few feet to accommodate his apartment project. That uproar resulted in Fritzel — at the city's insistence — making a $50,000 donation to the Douglas County Community Foundation for historic preservation efforts.

    Part of that agreement was that the City Commission would have a say in how those funds would be spent. At tonight's meeting commissioners are set to approve a recommendation that distributes the $50,000 to three community projects:

    — $16,000 to the city of Lawrence to help restore the Breezedale neighborhoods monument sign near 23rd and Massachusetts streets.

    — $2,970 to the Castle Tea Room, 1307 Massachusetts St., to repair windows and a porch on the historic building.

    — $31,030 to the Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Massachusetts St., to repair windows on the building.

    Click here to see a full list of the 10 projects that were considered for the money. Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. today at City Hall.

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    Large apartment building near KU’s Memorial Stadium, family fun center in West Lawrence face key votes tonight

    From a big apartment building to miniature golf, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission is set to provide recommendations tonight on several million dollars worth of proposed development.

    Here's a look:

    As we reported in December, plans have been filed for a five-story apartment building and retail development at 1101 Indiana St., which is basically across the street from KU's Memorial Stadium.

    Well, the project is facing its first key review tonight, and thus far the early indications are that there is smooth sailing ahead for the project, which is being proposed by a Chicago-based student housing developer.

    The city's planning staff is recommending approval of the project. If it comes to be, KU football fans will notice a major new addition to the stadium area by 2016. The project will include space for at least one, but possibly more restaurants or retail shops on the ground floor of the building. The plans call for about 11,000 square feet of retail or restaurant uses.

    But the bulk of the project is driven by apartments — a lot of apartments in a relatively small space. The development is proposing 171 to 176 apartment units, depending on the mix of two-bedroom or four-bedroom units. Either way, the development would have 592 bedrooms. The entire project is proposed to sit on just 2.39 acres. That's about 74 dwelling units per acre, which is a lot more than the 24 to 32 units per acre seen in many traditional apartment developments in Lawrence. But unlike most other apartment buildings in Lawrence, this one will be about 80 feet tall, which allows you to create more density per acre. For years, city officials have said more density is needed in projects in order to cut down on the amount of urban sprawl in the community.

    This project will test that notion. The development group, Chicago-based HERE, LLC, is asking for a bonus density that city commissioners have the discretion to grant as part of the relatively new mixed-use zoning district. Commissioners can allow a 25 percent increase in density over and above the normal maximum, if commissioners determine "such an increase is warranted to support the public benefit likely to result from the proposed development."

    City commissioners will have to decide what that nebulous phrase means, but the project definitely will have a unique element to it that could end up being a benefit for the cramped Oread neighborhood. It will be the first development in the city to use an "automated, robotic parking garage system." The 592-space parking garage would be on three levels and partially underground.

    The system involves the motorist pulling into a large elevator-like box and exiting the vehicle. The garage then uses an elevator system to place the vehicle on the appropriate floor, and a lift-and-track system that moves the vehicle to the right space.

    A representative with the development group told me in December that the garage will use about 40 percent less space than a traditional parking garage because it doesn't have to use entrance and exit ramps.

    It will be interesting to see how the project is received by the commission tonight. Thus far, I haven't heard of any real opposition to the large development from the Oread neighborhood. That, of course, can change, but it probably is worth noting the development would be replacing a fairly old apartment complex, Berkeley Flats, that is in need of some attention.

    If this project happens, it could be a real game-changer for Mississippi Street, and the northern gateway into the university. Look at the map below to see exactly where this project would be. Then look at some of the properties on either side of it. A lot of them are starting to show some age. If this project happens, how much redevelopment pressure will it create on the entire area?

    Maybe that will be the big question over the next few years: What is going to improve first: the KU football team or the area next to its stadium?

    As we reported in December, plans for a family fun center — think minigolf, batting cages and possibly go-karts — have been filed for vacant ground near the corner of Clinton Parkway and Inverness Drive. Well, that project also faces its first key vote tonight. We'll see how that goes, but sometimes at Lawrence City Hall, our idea of fun is to fight over how vacant ground that is next to a neighborhood should be developed. There are some indications that is the type of situation that is brewing. All this may still get worked out, but the Wimbledon Terrace Townhomes Association, which is across Clinton Parkway from the project, has sent a letter to city officials to "strongly object" to the proposed fun center.

    Among the reasons cited in the letter are bright lights, increased traffic and the fact that the project — which, I remind you, proposes go-karts, batting cages, minigolf, an arcade and other such games — is located just a few blocks from four schools in the area. (Bishop Seabury, Raintree Montessori, Sunflower elementary and Southwest Middle School, if you are scoring along at home.)

    The letter notes there may be "hundreds of little children who might be intimidated by the large numbers of teenagers and young adults who would frequent the project." The letters suggests it would be more appropriate for the center to be built in a more commercial area or on the edge of the city, "such as was done for the youth soccer complex south of town and the new recreation center to the west."

    The project, however, has received a recommendation for approval from the city's planning staff. One of the reasons cited is because it would create an amenity that residents of the neighborhood could walk to. It is isn't clear how neighbors on the south side of Clinton Parkway feel about the project though. They have long fought to stop the vacant ground from housing more apartments. This project would accomplish that.

    Regardless, a few more details are available about the project than when first reported in December. They include:

    — The southeast corner of Clinton Parkway and Inverness is planned to become the site of a dining establishment with a drive-thru lane. The zoning that is being asked for would allow for a fast-food restaurant, but planners don't think a high-volume fast-food restaurant would fit in well with the adjacent neighborhoods. The architect for the project, Lawrence-based Paul Werner architects, also has said the site isn't the type to attract interest from a fast-food restaurant anyway. Instead, the development group is more interested in a coffee shop with a drive-thru or some other similar use. A tenant, however, hasn't been found. It will be interesting to see if planning commissioners come up with some way to zone the property so that a coffee shop could be allowed, for instance, but a fast-food restaurant could not.

    — The first phase of the family fun center development would include a two-story club house that would have private party rooms, arcade and snack area on the ground floor. The second floor would include a bar that serves 3.2 beer and has a NASCAR driving experience arcade and miniature bowling.

    — Also in the first phase is an 18-hole, outdoor miniature golf course, six batting cages, a patio area and a children's "tot lot" play area.

    — A second phase of the development is proposed to have a 33,000 square-foot, outdoor go-kart track. The carts are proposed to be electric, which the manufacturer says produces about as much noise as an automobile traveling 20 to 30 miles per hour down a street. No information has been provided on when the second phase of the development may be built.

    — Hours of operation are proposed for 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to midnight on Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m. to midnight on Saturday; and noon to 9 p.m. on Sunday. City planners are recommending that outdoor lighting be shut off by 10:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and by 11:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

    Planning commissioners meet at 6:30 tonight at City Hall.

    A satellite image of the proposed site for a five-story apartment and retail building near KU's Memorial Stadium.

    A satellite image of the proposed site for a five-story apartment and retail building near KU's Memorial Stadium. by Chad Lawhorn

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    Deal struck to bring new grocer to Sixth and Wakarusa; Google’s latest announcement and its impacts on Lawrence

    A deal has been struck to bring a new grocer to Lawrence. And it is not coming to downtown. Not North Lawrence, either. Instead, it's slated for what has become the city's new grocery magnet — Sixth and Wakarusa.

    Plans have been filed at City Hall for a 27,000-square-foot building that would house a specialty or "farmers market-style" grocer in the Bauer Farm development at the northeast corner of the intersection.

    Bill Fleming, a Lawrence attorney and member of the development group, tells me they have a tenant lined up for the building, but can't yet release its name. With the general description that has been released, I know some of you are speculating that a Trader Joe's is coming to West Lawrence. I'm almost certain, however, that's not the tenant. I think it's one less familiar to this part of the country, but I'll refrain from speculating further. Of course, I'll keep hounding those involved for an official announcement.

    Whatever grocery chain emerges at the intersection, it will be the third grocer for Sixth and Wakarusa. Dillons has a store on the southeast corner of the intersection, and the Wal-Mart on the northwest corner has a full-line grocery department. (It is interesting to note that several people who opposed the construction of the Wal-Mart said it would run the Dillons out of business. Since that time, Dillons has expanded at the corner and now a third grocer wants to join the mix.)

    But before any new grocer comes to the corner, the project does have to win some significant approvals from City Hall. The biggest is that the City Commission will need to increase a retail-zoning cap that has been placed on the corner. Currently, the northeast corner is limited to 72,000-square-feet of retail development. The development group has filed a request to raise that cap to 112,000 square feet.

    Fleming, though, notes the development group is not seeking removal of a condition that prohibits big box stores at the corner. The zoning of the property prohibits a single retail building of 50,000 square feet or larger. Fleming said the group doesn't have any plans to bring a traditional big box store to the corner. But he said changing the zoning to allow for the grocer is critical.

    "We have always said the intersection needs a little more retail to make it successful for the long term," Fleming said. "We still need an anchor tenant, and this will give us the anchor we need."

    In addition to the 27,000 square feet for the grocer, the plans also call for an 11,000-square-foot, in-line retail building that could house a host of smaller shops. Both the grocery building and the in-line retail building would be just north and east of the Hurricane Alley Car Wash, near the southeast corner of Wakarusa and Overland Drive. But not right on the corner. Plans still call for a 108-room hotel to be built at the corner. Fleming, though, said a tenant hasn't been found for the hotel, and those plans are subject to change.

    "We're hopeful though that with Rock Chalk Park down the road that there will be a need for some hotel space," Fleming said.

    The new zoning for the property will reduce the number of residential living units in the Bauer Farm development by about 70. But Fleming said the development still will have a significant amount of housing. The area between the Theatre Lawrence building and the Meadowlark retirement community is slated to be a mix of apartments and townhouses.

    It will be interesting to watch the reaction to the latest development proposal. Development at the intersection has sparked many a battle. It is one of the larger intersections in the community, but there has been concern by some neighbors that too much retail will create a traffic mess. If you a remember, a plan for a Lowe's home improvement center in the Bauer Farm development was rejected after neighbors and others objected. Fleming, though, said this is a much more modest proposal.

    "Honestly, we would love to build more office out there," Fleming said. "But there is just not much demand for that. We're trying to build what the market is looking for right now."

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • Supporters of a downtown grocery store may be left scratching their heads over this latest development. If you remember, there has been a group circulating a petition about how downtown Lawrence needs a grocery store. At the same time, apparently there has been a grocery store company already scouring Lawrence for sites. It needs about a 25,000-square-foot building, which happens to be about the size of the former Borders building in downtown. That building, which is the temporary home to the library, is scheduled to become vacant again in the summer.

    It would seem to be a safe bet that the grocery company could have acquired the Borders building for less than it can build new in West Lawrence. Yet, it did not do so. I have heard from good sources that the out-of-town brokerage firm that is marketing the Borders building has shopped the heck out of it to grocery store companies. None of this is to say the petition drive isn't worthwhile, but it may be worth noting that the market perhaps has already spoken on the subject.

    On the other hand, downtown grocery supporters may want to keep an eye on what is happening in downtown Salina. A commercial real estate agent there called me recently to get some information about downtown Lawrence's hunt for a grocery store. Apparently, that community is close to announcing a new tenant for a former Dillons store downtown. It sounds like it may be much more of a discount grocery chain that may like the downtown and East Lawrence market. I'll let you know if I hear more.

    • Yesterday, Google Fiber announced it has plans to perhaps expand its super-fast Internet service into 34 communities across the country. If you remember, Kansas City won a fierce competition to be the first city for the Google Fiber project.

    At that time, many people thought the Google Fiber project was just an experiment. Now, as USA Today notes, this most recent announcement by Google seems to indicate that the company is looking to build a new, profitable, stand-alone business that reaches many parts of the country.

    For people who like fast Internet, that is good. For people who were hoping that Kansas City would have a unique piece of infrastructure that would attract companies from far and wide, perhaps not so good.

    Among the new cities are: Phoenix; Atlanta; Palo Alto, Calif.; Nashville; Charlotte; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Portland, Ore.; San Antonio; Salt Lake City; and a host of other smaller communities around those metro areas.

    It will be interesting to see if Google's most recent announcement has any bearing on the city's thinking regarding spending city tax dollars to try to attract 1-gigabit Internet service to Lawrence. I suppose there are several ways to look at Google's most recent announcement. They include:

    — Google has no interest in Lawrence. If they did, they would have included the city in this most recent list of cities up for expansion.

    — Google is just getting started with its announcements. Many more are on the way.

    — Perhaps Google already considers Lawrence part of the Kansas City market. That may mean Lawrence already is under consideration as part of the Kansas City project, or could be, if the city approaches Google. I recently confirmed with City Manager David Corliss that the city hasn't done formal outreach to Google, such as sending a letter asking the company to consider Lawrence for its service. But the city, as we recently reported, has issued a request for information from companies interested in providing enhanced broadband service in Lawrence. City officials have said they'll make sure that request gets in the hands of Google officials.

    The bigger question now may be how ubiquitous is 1-gigabit Internet service going to become? If Google gets serious about creating a new business model for 1 gigabit service, how will other private Internet service providers react? Certainly, they are going to work to protect their market shares. What role will taxpayer-supported subsidies play in this battle among huge private sector companies?

    As you've probably guessed by the fact that I'm still writing this column instead of making billions of dollars, I don't know the answer to any of those questions. But it looks like Lawrence leaders are going to get a chance to answer them.

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    Soda shop with 1,100 varieties plans to open on Massachusetts Street

    My bladder already is doing cartwheels. A new business is coming to downtown Lawrence, and it will bring with it 1,100 varieties of soda to Massachusetts Street.

    Mass Street Soda plans to open by St. Patrick's Day at 1103 Massachusetts St., the vacant storefront just south of Englewood Florist. Self-described "soda dorks" Matt Baysinger and Luke Thompson will open the business, and Baysinger told me the store really will stock about 1,100 varieties of soda.

    Yes, I know what you are thinking. The store had better have a really big bathroom. Oh, you were thinking that you couldn't believe there are actually 1,100 varieties of soda in the world. (If you have ever stood behind my kids at a self-service soda fountain, you would think there are 1,100 varieties to choose from at McDonalds.)

    Baysinger said the specialty soda business really has taken off as the craft brewing industry has exploded. He estimated that about 50 percent of the brands that the shop will carry are produced by companies that also brew beer. He said small breweries have taken to brewing root beer so they have a product to offer children or others who don't partake in alcohol. But he said there's also a surprising number of small soda companies that still exist from the 1800s, back in the day when all soda brands were local or regional in nature.

    "We'll have every variety of orange soda, orange cream soda, watermelon soda, grape soda," Baysinger said. "We'll even have a beef jerky soda. I think it is gross, but surely some people will like it."

    The store is even trying to work out a contract to get the Butterscotch Beer soda that was made popular in the Harry Potter movies.

    But expect a heavy dose of root beers and cream sodas. In fact, it was cream soda that partly got Baysinger involved in this venture. Baysinger said he has never consumed alcohol, but has attended many parties where his friends would be drinking fancy craft beers. So, he decided he would start bringing craft versions of cream soda. About four years ago, his love of cream soda led him to start his own website: [drinkcreamsoda.com][1]. The site would post reviews of various cream soda brands.

    "I got a lot of cream soda out of it, so that was pretty cool," said Baysinger.

    Baysinger said there are a few other specialty soda shops in adjacent states, and he thinks the concept will benefit from the same ideas that have fueled the "foodie" movement.

    "People really are going back to the idea of wanting quality stuff," said Baysinger, who has been in Lawrence since 2004 when he came to KU to run track. "We want to be part of that as well."

    In the beginning, the store won't have a food menu, but Baysinger said it may expand into food, and also may stock a variety of hard candy and candy that is hard to find. The shop will have ice cream to serve root beer and soda floats.

    Baysinger said the store also will have a traditional soda bar, although all the soda will be served in bottles. He said the shop will have a definite feel of a 1930s or 1940s soda shop, although with WiFi.

    It also will have somewhat of a sports feel at times. During the NCAA tournament, the shop plans to host what it calls "Parched Madness," an event where sodas will square off in a 16-soda tournament. Patrons will be able to sample one-ounce versions of soda and then vote on which brands should advance in the tournament.

    The store also will have one other twist. During the evening hours, the shop will convert over to an art-party business. Baysinger's wife is an art instructor, and has been hosting art parties at their home for years. That seems to be a bit of an emerging trend as well. If you remember, we reported on a West Lawrence company, Painted Kanvas, that plans to get into that business. The idea is a group of friends gather to learn how to create a piece of artwork. Baysinger said in their shop, the art won't just focus on painting, but also will include other crafts such as leatherworking or Pinterest parties or other such stuff.

    Who knows, maybe it will even include creative readings. I could read a piece that I believe was inspired by drinking 1,100, one-ounce samples of soda: Dash to the Restroom. By Willie Makeit and Betty Don't.

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  • [1]: http://HARD 50 LAW TOPEKA, Kan. — A proposal to make a minimum of 50 years in prison the presumed sentence in Kansas for first-degree murder rather than an option for juries to consider is up for debate in the state Senate. UPCOMING: 300 words.

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    Speculation increases that site near The Oread hotel may be in running for convention center

    Ike and Hoover may end up having a say in whether the city of Lawrence and Kansas University move ahead with a new convention center.

    No, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Herbert Hoover aren't cryogenically frozen in the basement of Lawrence City Hall. (I'm 80 percent certain of that.) At Lawrence City Hall, Ike and Hoover are the nicknames for two very old and important water tanks that serve the central part of Lawrence. You've probably seen them. They are just north of Kansas University's Adams Alumni Center.

    The two tanks were constructed in the Hoover and Eisenhower administrations, which means they are due for either major repairs or replacement. As we've previously reported, KU officials have inquired as to whether the tanks could be moved to another site, and city officials are open to exploring the idea.

    Well, at Tuesday night's meeting, there were indications that one of the possible KU uses for the property may be a new convention or conference center. (You'll have to decide what you want to call this potential new facility, but I note that for decades we have had the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau, not the Lawrence Conference and Visitors Bureau.)

    No plans for a convention center at that site have been formally proposed, but City Manager David Corliss made a point to mention the water tank property as he was briefing commissioners on locations a consultant may be asked to study.

    It makes sense with what I've been hearing in certain circles as well. For a few weeks, there's been talk that KU leaders and members of the Fritzel family have been in discussions about a convention center partnership. In fact, some folks close to those discussions had said a deal was near. I asked Tim Caboni, vice chancellor of public affairs for KU, whether there was any truth to that assertion, and he said that wasn't accurate. He said KU was still in the stage of determining the feasibility of a convention/conference center in Lawrence, and wanted to explore possible sites in conjunction with the city.

    But Caboni also didn't deny that some university leaders had been in discussions with members of the Fritzel family. Caboni said he had "heard of the same conversations" I had, but he said he hadn't been a party to any of them. But he said it is clear there are individuals who have some pretty specific sites in mind for a convention/conference center.

    "But we're not going to focus in on one site," Caboni said. "We're going to keep our options open."

    It would make sense that the Fritzels may have an interest in having a convention center at that site. Brothers Thomas and Tim Fritzel are major owners of The Oread hotel, which is almost caddy-corner from the water tank site. I say almost because the Ecumenical Campus Ministries building is right at the corner of 12th Street and Oread Avenue, just north of the water tank site. There certainly was talk in real estate circles a couple of years ago that a Fritzel-led group inquired about purchasing the longtime ECM site, but a deal obviously never materialized.

    If the water tank site and the ECM site were combined, that would create the space for a substantial project., But even without the ECM site, there still would be significant space for development, especially given the city's recent trend of approving tall buildings with underground parking garages.

    Of course, the first step is for the city to determine that it is feasible to move the water tanks to a new location. Corliss said that option is being studied by an engineering firm, but a conclusion hasn't yet been made. The most likely location is to move the tanks across the street, just north of the Kansas Union parking garage.

    It will be interesting to watch. If this idea of a convention center continues to move forward, the issue of where it should be located could become thorny. City Commissioner Terry Riordan noted at Tuesday's meeting that his biggest concern is the location issue. He suggested that KU and the city may have different criteria on what makes for a good location.

    Generally, it appears there is going to be a debate about whether this project should be downtown-centric or campus-centric. On one hand, campus-centric puts it close to a host of ancillary meeting space — such as the Kansas Union — and it also would make it convenient for the academic community who may be a major generator of conference business. On the other hand, downtown is clearly the entertainment center of Lawrence, and half the fun of a convention is skipping out on the meetings to experience a little bit of entertainment. (For the record, I would never do that.)

    I certainly don't want to gloss over the fact that one of the downtown sites that have been mentioned is property owned by The World Company, which owns the Journal-World and LJWorld.com. No formal plans have been proposed, but the company's property that stretches between Sixth and New Hampshire and Sixth and Massachusetts streets became a candidate for redevelopment after the newspaper moved its printing operations from the site earlier this year.

    I do know that company leaders have had conversations with City Hall leaders about that site. What may come forward in the future, I don't know. City commissioners are expected to bring up the issue again in late March when they will consider hiring a consulting firm to study the feasibility of a convention center. (On Tuesday, they just agreed to send out the request for proposals.)

    Corliss, though, said he thinks this is an issue that will occupy some attention at City Hall in the coming months, and likely will take quite a bit of study. He noted that Manhattan already has built a conference center, Topeka has convention space near the ExpoCenter, and Olathe is getting ready to proceed with some conference space. Plus, there is speculation that a conference/convention space may be in the works for the The Legends development in Western Wyandotte County. Add those competitive factors onto the fact that the city is still interested in pursuing a multimillion dollar project to build a police headquarters building, and it makes for interesting times at City Hall.

    "I think it is likely that we're going to get proposals from the development community," Corliss said.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • For those of you in economic development circles, it also may be worth keeping an eye on Springfield, Mo. Longtime Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce President Jim Anderson announced yesterday that he is retiring from the position.

    That's significant up here because Lawrence Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Greg Williams served as Anderson's right-hand man for economic development for many years in Springfield. Williams still has deep ties to the Springfield region.

    I got in touch with Williams yesterday evening and he told me he was "not planning to seek the job" in Springfield. But Williams — who served for 15 years as the senior vice president of economic development in Springfield — said the job is a very attractive one. He called Anderson the "very best chamber executive in America," and noted that the Springfield Chamber was honored as the best Chamber of Commerce in the country in 2012.

    "In my opinion, it is a top five job in America," Williams said. "And they'll recruit a fantastic new leader."

    Williams said he is happy in Lawrence.

    "Those 15 years (in Springfield) prepared me to go my own direction and try my best to implement what I learned under the best leader I've ever known, in our chamber here," Williams said.

    This screen shot from Google Maps shows the water tank site in the center. The Oread hotel is near the top center of the site.

    This screen shot from Google Maps shows the water tank site in the center. The Oread hotel is near the top center of the site. by Chad Lawhorn

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    Eudora resident featured as a ‘Hero Among Us’ in People magazine; Lawrence hopes to undertake solar project

    If I ever make it into People magazine, I figure it will be about my keen sense of fashion. (Or perhaps for that unfortunate time I confused Princess Kate and Katy Perry.)

    Regardless, I'm still waiting, but 87-year old Eudora resident Eugene "Westie" Westerhouse is not. Last year, the Journal-World featured Westerhouse and his efforts over the last 35 years to build wheelchair ramps for folks in need. Well, now he's getting national recognition for those efforts. People magazine chose him as one of its "Heroes Among Us."

    The article also features Lawrence residents Deb and Gary Jennings, who recently received a wheel chair ramp from Westerhouse and the Kingdom Builders group that he belongs to as part of the Eudora United Methodist Church. The Jennings unexpectedly needed a ramp after Gary suffered a stroke, People reports.

    "We call our ramp 'The Freedom Ramp,'" Deb said in the People article. "And I can't say enough good about Westie. He started the ball rolling on how we were going to enter into this new world."

    Since building his first ramp in 1978, Westie has built more than 300 of them. Often a ramp would cost upwards of $3,000 if a contractor were hired to build it. Westie and the church group donate their labor, and often they raise donations for the $700 or so in materials needed to build a ramp.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • The City of Lawrence has a project it hopes to build too: Solar panels at the Prairie Park Nature Center. At their meeting this evening, commissioners will formally apply for a grant from Westar Energy to install a host of solar panels at the nature center, 2730 Harper Road.

    As we previously reported, Westar plans to provide grant funding for 10 to 15 solar projects at schools, government buildings and nonprofit facilities across the state. Lawrence officials think the Prairie Park Nature Center is a prime candidate for a solar project because the facility already attracts people wanting to learn about nature. The city said solar energy could be incorporated into the programs they already teach at the center. About 45,000 people a year visit the center in southeast Lawrence.

    The city also sees the project as a way to save a bit on utility costs. The city is proposing to install solar panels that would produce about 30 kW of electricity at their peak. That is expected to be enough to meet about half of the building's annual electricity needs. The city estimates the panels would reduce the electric bill at the center by about $4,300 per year.

    It is an interesting time for solar power and Topeka-based Westar Energy. The company is undertaking demonstration projects on solar, but right now I think solar advocates have concerns about Westar's attitude toward solar energy. Westar is among the companies sponsoring a bill in the Kansas legislature that would negatively impact the economics of solar panel installations.

    Currently, the state has a net metering law that requires utility companies to pay the owners of solar panels for any electricity over and above what they use at their residence. A pair of bills introduced in the legislature would reduce the amount that utility companies must pay for that excess electricity, according to a report in the Topeka Capital-Journal.

    The proposals have drawn opposition from solar advocates, but Westar has said the current law essentially is requiring utility companies to buy the power at retail prices instead of wholesale prices, which it says isn't fair to the rest of the utility's ratepayers.

    You'll have to sort out all the arguments on this one. I've got my own solar project to undertake: Laying in the sun, and maybe even reading about Princess Katy.

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    Lawrence’s Free State Brewing Co. to celebrate 25 years; how that boat in your driveway may become a problem

    Do you remember where you were 25 years ago this month? I've already got my shoes off, so I'll do the math for you. That was February of 1989, so perhaps you were still recovering from the party following Kansas University's 1988 National Championship.

    Or maybe you had already shifted gears, and were talking like KU's new coach, Roy Williams, by saying things like Doggonne it, we got to play defense like a tick grabs on to a hound's ear."

    Or maybe some of you were spending time at Lawrence's newest establishment, which at times has served me a beverage that has helped me talk like Roy Williams, like a pirate, like a parrot, and like a pirate's parrot coaching basketball like Roy Williams.

    Yes, Free State Brewery is 25 years old this month, and it plans to celebrate this week. I'm still working to get all the details, but Free State founder Chuck Magerl tells me that Sunday, Feb. 23, will be the big celebration. Look for concerts, birthday discounts, prizes, free cake and 25 different Free State brews. UPDATE: I talked with Chuck, and he gave me a few more details. Look for some special brews to begin showing up on the menu on Thursday. From Thursday through Sunday, Free State will offer 25 different brews, although not all at the same time. In other words, they'll roll out different brews on different days, and when they are gone, they are gone. Sunday will be the big day for the celebration. At 5:25 p.m. on Sunday, Magerl plans on giving everyone in the restaurant a free piece of birthday cake. As for the concert that was alluded to, Magerl said Free State is the major sponsor of Saturday evening's concert at The Bottleneck that will feature former Lawrence resident and BR549 founder Chuck Mead.)

    Any business that survives 25 years is worth celebrating, but the story behind the beginnings of the Free State Brewing Co. is more unique than most. Magerl had to lobby Kansas legislators to get a Prohibition-era state law changed to allow brewing to even return to Kansas. Then he had to convince investors to put their money into something called a microbrewery, which in 1989 probably sounded like a made-up word. After all, local investors perhaps had never seen one. Magerl notes that Kansas "was a hinterland" as far as breweries go.

    "There was one in Chicago and one in Denver," Magerl said of craft breweries in 1989. "Nothing in the nearly 1 million square miles of U.S. in between."

    Today, I think I can say without much argument that Free State Brewery, 636 Massachusetts St., is one of the more popular restaurants in Lawrence and the state. (It was named one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Cuisine by the Kansas Sampler Foundation.)

    But in recent years, it has become a much larger brewery. The company has a production facility in East Lawrence where it bottles its beer, and it now is sold in every Kansas county that has a liquor store and in some adjacent states as well.

    Free State Brewing Co. truly has a national reputation in brewing circles. (A tour guide at the Coors plant in Golden, Colo., saw me wearing a KU hat during a tour of the plant, and explained to the group the greatness of Free State beer.) Magerl is one of the driving forces behind the Lawrence-based Kansas Craft Brewers Exposition, which will attract several hundred people to downtown Lawrence on March 8. The craft brewing business is booming, and it will be interesting to watch how it booms locally.

    "Consumers are making the leap from craft to local craft," Magerl said. "Beer drinkers have been gravitating to local brands. We feel like 25 years is a good start, but just a start."

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • Perhaps there have been times where a little too much of the beverage that made Free State famous has caused you to be temporarily banished to a tent trailer in your driveway.

    Well, city officials now are beginning to wonder whether you should be able to park that tent trailer or boat or RV in your driveway for long periods of time. The city's planning department currently is hosting an online survey seeking opinions about the appropriateness of recreational vehicles being stored in residential neighborhoods.

    As the city's code is currently written, there basically are no standards for where you are allowed to park a recreational vehicle, such as a fifth-wheel camping trailer, boat, tent trailer or such vehicles. (There are regulations about how long you can park them on a street, but not on your property.) The city previously did have a regulation, which put some prohibitions on parking them on nonpaved surfaces and prohibited them from being within four feet of your house or within 10 feet of your neighbor's house, among other restrictions.

    But when the city's development code got rewritten in 2006, that language wasn't included in the new code. Planning staff doesn't recall any intentional decision to leave out those regulations but rather think it may have been an unintentional omission.

    Sheila Stogsdill, an administrator in the planning department, said the office has been receiving complaints about how some recreational vehicles are stored in some neighborhoods. She said sometimes the complaints focus on the condition of the recreational vehicles, and how having them parked in the front driveway may be lowering property values in the area. Other complaints have focused on the size of some of the vehicles and how having them parked in a driveway can create sight-distance problems for motorists.

    You can express your opinion about the issue by taking the online survey here. The deadline to respond to the survey is Feb. 28. Planners will use the survey results as they craft proposed regulations. Any new regulations will have to be approved both by the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission, and also by the City Commission.

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  • Reply 3 comments from Betty Bartholomew Fredthemechanic1213 Evan Taylor Lawrence Morgan

    Retail sales for holiday period in Lawrence up 5 percent; an update on rental licensing proposal

    The number of the day is $125 million. No, it only seems like the price of a dozen roses for those of us just now remembering that today is Valentine's Day.

    Instead, a new state report indicates $125 million is the amount of taxable sales that occurred in Lawrence during the heart of the Christmas shopping season. That means Lawrence retailers had a pretty fair Christmas season

    The latest sales tax report measures sales for the period of mid-November to mid-December. The $125 million in sales is up about 5 percent from the same period a year ago.

    The $125 million does capture some spending that is not what you would call traditional holiday retail spending. For instance it includes the sales tax you pay on your utility bills. (Although, that's kind of holiday related. Christmas is the one day of the year my wife lets the kids and me turn the thermostat up to 65 degrees.) But the majority of the $125 million are retail sales — everything from purchases at the grocery store to the jewelry store.

    While a 5 percent increase for the season is solid, it is not spectacular. Over the previous three holiday seasons, the average increase has been 6.4 percent. If retailers feel like this year didn't quite have the same zing as past seasons, that may be what they're feeling. In fact, over the last six seasons, sales during the holiday period have grown by more than 6 percent every year but one. That one year, however, was a doozy. At the end of 2009, holiday shoppers clamped onto their wallets like my kids clamp onto their Valentine's Day candy stashes. Taxable sales for the season fell 13.2 percent. So, that makes 5 percent look a little better.

    Here's a look at how Lawrence's totals stacked up with some other large retail markets across the state:

    • Dodge City: down 8.5 percent

    • Emporia: up 4.8 percent

    • Garden City: down 5.5 percent

    • Hays: down 27.7 percent

    • Hutchinson: down 4.6 percent

    • Junction City: down 0.4 percent

    • Kansas City: up 2 percent

    • Leawood: up 5.2 percent

    • Lenexa: up 4.4 percent

    • Manhattan: up 0.9 percent

    • Olathe: up 0.1 percent

    • Ottawa: up 1.3 percent

    • Overland Park: up 1.3 percent

    • City of Shawnee: up 4 percent

    • Topeka: down 0.6 percent

    • Sedgwick County: up 1.5 percent

    These numbers are just for a one-month period, so you should use caution in interpreting them. But it appears shoppers in many locations slowed down this holiday season. Lawrence retailers may have reason to feel lucky as 2014 gets underway.

    Which is more than I can say about myself, if my banker doesn't lend me money for some roses by the end of the day.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • Look for March to be a key month to determine the fate of the city's proposed rental licensing and inspection program. The program, which would expand the city's limited inspection program to all rental units in the city, has been on hold since Commissioner Jeremy Farmer in late January said he wasn't ready to vote on the program.

    Farmer said he wanted more data about how the city's current rental inspection program, which covers only rental units in single-family neighborhoods, has performed. The data from the city should be available soon, and Farmer said he then anticipates hosting a public forum to discuss the program in early March.

    At that forum, Farmer hopes to have a compromise plan to talk about. He confirmed this week that he's been talking with both supporters and opponents of a rental licensing and inspection program. Details of a possible compromise are a bit sparse at the moment, but Farmer previously has said he had some interest in removing some violations that aren't related to life and safety from the inspection list. For example, rotting siding or an overgrown yard may not produce a violation that would prohibit a landlord from getting a rental license for a property. But inspectors would still note those violations of the city's code and could take appropriate enforcement action. The main difference is that the city couldn't deny a landlord a license over such violations. That's important because in the future landlords will have to have a license for every unit they intend to rent.

    Again, Farmer hasn't released the details of the compromise yet, so we'll see if that is the path it is still on. Farmer, though, did make it clear that he is intent on passing a licensing and inspection program.

    "This public meeting that we'll have will not be to talk about whether rental registration is a good idea or not," Farmer said. "We're way past that point."

    "I don't think we are too far away from a really, really good compromise, though," Farmer said.

    Farmer said he hopes to be ready to vote on the issue "in the next month."

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  • Reply 1 comment from Richard Heckler

    City getting serious about a downtown ice rink; update on naming rights at Rock Chalk

    Maybe by the next Winter Olympics I won't have to convert my kitchen floor into an ice rink to participate in the beautiful sport of figure skating.

    As we reported in December, leaders with Lawrence Parks and Recreation had some interest in a downtown, outdoor ice skating rink. Well, the idea has gained momentum.

    The department is spending about $1,200 to have the architects of the Lawrence Public Library expansion determine how the plaza area between the library and the new parking garage could be modified to accommodate a rink.

    Jimmy Gibbs, one of the department's division managers, said it appears the plaza could accommodate a 60-by-80-foot rink if one of the three planned terraces is removed.

    The rink, which could hold about 125 skaters at a time, would be designed to be disassembled when not in use so the plaza could be used for summer concerts and other such events.

    But parks and recreation leaders also are considering artificial ice. The parks and recreation department in Grandview, Mo., operates a rink with artificial ice and the reviews apparently have been good. The product is a slick, smooth plastic like material that allows skaters to use regular ice skates.

    "We could have a Christmas in July event in downtown if we wanted to," Gibbs said.

    Bringing more people to downtown Lawrence, especially during the winter, is a big reason behind the ice rink idea, which has received preliminary support from City Manager David Corliss.

    The idea of artificial ice may make the project more financially feasible. It is estimated that electricity for a real ice rink could cost about $5,000 a week, especially during a mild winter when temperatures are frequently above freezing.

    City officials are researching the cost of an artificial rink, but they think there would be around $100,000 in upfront costs. The city would try to recoup those costs through skate rentals and by finding an area company to sponsor the rink, Gibbs said.

    Parks and recreation leaders should know more in the next few weeks about the feasibility of the plan. Ultimately, city commissioners will be asked to weigh in.

    In the meantime, I'm going to keep practicing. The Olympics have so inspired me, I think I'll try one of these triple sow-cow jumps I've been hearing about. What's that? It's spelled Salchow. Oh.

    Boys, load those pigs back up.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • Let's stay in the world of recreation and provide an update on the 181,000-square-foot recreation center at Rock Chalk Park. City officials are trying to figure out what to name that center, and it appears they are at least open to the idea of allowing a corporate sponsorship type of name for the facility.

    Ernie Shaw, leader of the parks and recreation department, told me that a consulting firm has told the city that it may be able to garner $75,000 to $125,000 a year for the naming rights at the center. City commissioners haven't made a decision that they want to go in that direction — in fact, the commission hasn't publicly discussed it — but I'm told that city officials at least want to explore the idea.

    Shaw said his department will recommend that the center have a sort of secondary name as well, so that if a sponsor drops out in future years that the city doesn't have to start over from a marketing and branding standpoint.

    The consulting firm estimates that the city could generate another $75,000 to $125,000 a year in naming rights for certain indoor areas of the center, such as the gymnastics area, indoor track and other such areas.

    It will be interesting to see if the Lawrence has the corporate base to support such sponsorships, and even more interesting to see which corporations or other organizations may want to have their name on the facility.

    • Gov. Sam Brownback should expect to hear from the Lawrence City Commission soon. At the suggestion of City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, the commission will send a letter to Brownback urging him to expand the state's Medicaid program under the provisions of Obamacare.

    Farmer, who works with a host of low-income families as the director of Just Food, said he's frustrated the state isn't accepting the federal government's offer to pay for the vast majority of an expansion of the state's Medicaid program. Farmer said he's generally not supportive of the City Commission telling the state how to spend its money — the city does not like it when the state does that to them — but Farmer said this is different because the state is rejecting federal funding for the program.

    Some state officials have expressed concern that the federal funding for the program may not always be in place, which then would leave the state with a difficult funding decision to make.

    Commissioner Terry Riordan, a Lawrence physician, strongly supported Farmer's suggestion for a letter. Other commissioners also said they were fine with it. None of the commissioners, however, were real optimistic that a letter from the city of Lawrence was going to do much to change the governor's thinking.

    Farmer said he thought the city should be on record as supportive of the idea nonetheless. The idea of writing a letter to the state wasn't part of last Tuesday's city commission agenda, but Farmer suggested the idea near the end of the meeting. I'll let you know if I see a copy of the letter.

    Reply 8 comments from Michael Dennis Bob Forer Wayne Kerr James Howlette Kingfisher Rick Masters

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