Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
Back in the day, when the little space in the Orchards Corner Shopping Center at Bob Billings and Kasold housed the Brass Apple restaurant, there was a lot of stretching going on in the space. Mainly, stretching of my elastic waistband.
Well, now there is stretching of a different type. The Lawrence dance academy Point B Dance has moved into the long vacant space at 3300 Bob Billings Parkway.
The new space represents an expansion for the dance studio that started out about five years ago, and most recently was located in the Sunset West shopping area along Sixth Street. The new location about doubles the amount of space for the business.
The dance studio is unique in town because it focuses on teaching dance to adults 16 years and older. Lots of studios in town are in the children’s dance market, but studio owner Cathy Patterson said the adult market is a growing one.
“There are more and more people interested in the art of dance,” said Patterson, a former professional dancer in California who was trained at KU’s dance department. “People danced when they were young, and now they are coming back to it.”
The studio offers recreational classes and also operates an approximately 25-member dance company that is geared toward performance-oriented dance. The business offers multi-week sessions, but also has several classes where people can just pay by the day.
The new space is allowing the business to expand into the market of providing fitness-oriented dance classes. But the studio’s main emphasis continues to be on contemporary dance — a mixture of modern and ballet dances — jazz dance, turning and leaping classes, and a host of hip hop dance classes.
Now, I may have done some hip hop in that space too. But that was after it changed from the Brass Apple to a short-lived Cajun restaurant that was spelled something like Loo-zee-ana’s. Those Cajuns may have been questionable on their spelling, but they sure had a hot sauce that could make you move in some funny ways.
If you are like me and you need a burrito break every once in a while as you navigate the traffic on 23rd Street, you’ll soon have a new option.
The folks from Chipotle Mexican Grill have filed plans to tear down an existing retail building on 23rd Street and build a new restaurant.
The company has filed a site plan to redevelop the old multi-tenant retail building at 1420 W 23rd Street. In case you can’t picture that building (you might have salsa on your glasses; it happens to me a lot while driving on 23rd Street), the building is an older wooden structure that sits back off the street a bit, and has housed an insurance agency, tobacco store, wireless phone company and other various tenants recently. It is right next door to . . . wait, wait . . . Taco Bell.
Can you say, “Let’s get ready to rumble!.” (But can you say it really cool like that one guy? And if so, are people in your office looking oddly at you right now?)
According to the site plan on file at City Hall, the development will replace the approximately 6,000-square-foot, multi-tenant building with a 2,200-square-foot, standalone Chipotle restaurant. The restaurant, it appears, also will have a sizable outdoor seating area.
No word yet on a timeline for the project, or any plans for existing tenants in the building. But I’ve got a message into a representative with the development and will let you know if I hear anything interesting.
City lays off one employee in Planning Department; creates new position of Small Business Facilitator
The folks who oversee the planning of the city’s growth and development are drawing up a new plan about how to run their department.
Scott McCullough, director of the city’s Planning and Development Services Department, has confirmed his office recently laid off one employee as part of a reorganization plan.
The city eliminated the department’s GIS Analyst position — held by Renee Yocum — as part of a reorganization that has created a new position to help small businesses navigate their way through the city’s planning and development process.
The new position, which has been given the title of Small Business Facilitator, hasn’t yet been filled. McCullough said the position won’t be an actual planner who does reviews of proposed development projects, but rather a person who can be brought into the process at any time to provide extra assistance to small businesses that are trying to get a necessary permit or approval from City Hall.
“The idea is that we’ll have a concentrated focus in the small business arena so we can provide those applicants enhanced customer service,” McCullough said.
The reorganization also has resulted in a decision to move the department’s assistant director — longtime planner Sheila Stogsdill — into a new position called a Planning Administrator.
The Planning Administrator position will be responsible for overseeing all planning applications made to the office and ensuring they are processed in a timely manner. The position will oversee applications made to the Planning Commission, the Historic Resources Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals, McCullough said.
He said the city will start advertising to fill Stogsdill’s current position of assistant planning director within the next few days. McCullough said the assistant director position will become more responsible for reviewing the policies and customer service functions of the department.
The city actually has two assistant director positions to fill in the department, with the other being the assistant director for the development services division. Longtime city employee Margene Swarts — who recently retired — occupied that position, which oversees building inspections, code enforcement and other related matters.
McCullough said he hopes to have all the positions filled by mid-summer.
The moves come shortly after city commissioners asked City Manager David Corliss — as part of his annual review — to look for ways to strengthen and streamline the city’s planning and development services process.
It will be worth watching to see whether other initiatives occur in the department this year. City officials for the better part of a decade have been talking about the need to create a “one-stop shop” for people looking to do development projects. Currently, the city’s planning department and building inspections department are in two different offices. The city for several years has been looking for space and funding to consolidate the two functions.
In case you had forgotten, today — April 15 — is tax day. But I hear that a high-ranking federal official will be in town on Friday, so perhaps you could save yourself some postage and just ask him to take it back to D.C. with him.
Let me know how that goes.
In the meantime, let’s talk taxes of a different type. The city of Lawrence now has received sales tax revenue through the first quarter of 2013, and the city’s retail sales totals are showing growth over and above what was a robust 2012.
Through the March report, the city has tallied $354.1 million in retail sales, up 2.1 percent from the same period a year ago. In case you are scoring along at home, these totals don’t represent sales actually made from January through March. The state’s reporting system has a lag, so these totals represent sales made in late 2012 up to about mid-February.
If you are looking for a reason to be negative ( and why wouldn’t you, it is tax day), the city’s March numbers are down about 1.2 percent from March 2012 numbers. But worrying about one month’s worth of sales tax numbers would be like me worrying about my wife buying $150 worth of leftover Easter candy. It's just something that happens in life.
If you are really looking for a reason to be negative (geez, how much do you owe the federal government?), you also could point to the fact that the city’s sales tax collections are growing more slowly than they did a year ago. But that may just be you being a grump because the city posted a blistering growth rate of 5.24 percent in 2012, which was the city’s best retail growth since 1998. Over the past five years, the average growth rate of retail sales in Lawrence has checked in at 1.8 percent. So, the first quarter was about average.
Compared to other places in the state, Lawrence’s performance in the first quarter was mixed. Statewide, retail sales grew by 3.7 percent. Here’s a look at some of the larger retail markets in the state:
• Overland Park: up 1.2 percent
• Olathe: up 4.9 percent
• Kansas City: up. 6.3 percent
• Topeka: up 1.3 percent
• Emporia: up 3.5 percent
• Salina: up 1.7 percent
• Hays: up 5.0 percent
• Manhattan: down 4.0 percent
(Look what happens when your football team goes to a bowl game. Everybody leaves town and spends their money somewhere else. I knew KU football knew what it was doing all along.)
A little closer to home, here’s a look at totals for some smaller communities around Lawrence. But take these figures with a grain of salt. The totals are often so small that it takes only a few dollars to produce a sizable change.
• Baldwin City: up 5.5 percent
• De Soto: down 5.9 percent
• Ottawa: up 7.7 percent
• Tonganoxie: up 8.1 percent
• Eudora: up 16 percent. I actually did the math on that one, and the increase represented an extra $1 million in retail spending during the first quarter. Eudora has been running an aggressive “buy local” campaign, with signs everywhere in town. So maybe that it is it, or perhaps my wife simply found a leftover Easter egg candy outlet in Eudora.
And finally, it wouldn’t be a sales tax article unless I got out my inflation calculator. (You should see the size of that thing.) Here’s a look at Lawrence’s retail sales totals since 2008 — just prior to the financial crisis. The numbers in parentheses are the total adjusted for inflation, in order to give you an idea of how much retail sales have grown above and beyond inflation.
• 2013: $354.1 million
• 2012: $346.6 million ($350.4 million)
• 2011: $333.2 million ($343.9 million)
• 2010: $309.1 million ($329.1 million)
• 2009: $327.9 million ($354.8 million)
• 2008: $334.7 million ($360.9 million)
So, we haven’t quite rebounded back to the levels seen prior to the financial crisis, but we’re very close. And we clearly have bounced backed from the lows of 2010.
If you want more analysis than that, you are going to have to do it on your own. I’ve got breakfast to eat — Cadbury eggs and chocolate bunnies, of course.
I-70 Business Center has new owners; VFW purchases south Massachusetts Street properties; Habitat for Humanity completes land deal
Spring has brought some new activity to the commercial real estate market, according to the lastest report of land transfers from the Douglas County Courthouse. So, let’s get right into some of the more notable deals.
• The I-70 Business Center in North Lawrence — formerly known as the Tanger Outlet Mall — has new ownership. Lawrence Gateway Investors LLC has purchased the property from I-70 Business Center LLC. I-70 Business Center LLC was a group led by several local businessmen, including contractor Bo Harris, retired insurance executive Bob Johnson and North Lawrence commercial property owner Samih Staitieh.
Lawrence Gateway Investors — the new ownership group — is a recently formed company, so documents aren’t yet on file with the state showing the members of that company. But the resident agent for the company is Thomas Boyd, who is a noted real estate agent and developer with the Wichita-based Walter Morris Companies.
The former mall property — which is at the North Lawrence interchange on the Kansas Turnpike — long ago was converted from a retail center to a business center.
The I-70 Business Center group has had good success in finding tenants for the property. For many years the property was largely vacant, but that is no longer the case. The center has three anchor tenants: the corporate headquarters of Protection One security; a call center operated by Home Oxygen 2-U; and the Rezolve Group, a company that provides services for the student loan industry.
“It has been a good property to own,” Johnson told me. “I think it is a better property now than it has ever been. I think the new group bought it because they can see the future in it.”
Johnson confirmed to me that none of the members of the I-70 Business Center LLC was part of the new ownership group, but he said he wasn’t familiar with the principals in the new group. I’ve reached out to Boyd, the Wichita real estate agent, and will report back if I hear anything interesting.
• It looks like the Lawrence VFW Post has shifted gears on its plans for a new facility. The Alford-Clarke Post #852 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars has purchased 1741 and 1801 Massachusetts St. from Bruce Banning. That’s the former location for Bambinos Italian Restaurant and the current location for Beat the Bookstore.
The purchase comes after the VFW had filed plans with City Hall to build a new club near 27th and Haskell in eastern Lawrence. But as we reported a couple of months ago, VFW leaders said they also were looking at other locations. Now we know what other location they were looking at.
The group has filed a site plan to use the former Bambinos building for its clubhouse. It hasn’t filed any plans for the Beat the Bookstore building. I’ve got a call in the VFW post, but haven’t yet heard back. A member of the VFW told me the plan that has been described to members involves using the former Bambinos property as the bar and club for the facility, and the Beat the Bookstore property would continue to be leased to the bookstore or other businesses in the future to generate revenue for the VFW. I’ll let you know if a VFW provides me new information.
• Lawrence’s Habitat for Humanity has made a purchase that gives the nonprofit a multi-year supply of housing lots in eastern Lawrence. Habitat for Humanity purchased nine vacant lots from Steven George near 17th and Lindenwood. Lawrence’s Habitat for Humanity has been building about three to four homes per year, said Lindsey Slater, community outreach coordinator for the organization. Habitat was looking for more property, in part, because it has only two available lots left in the Comfort Neighborhood in North Lawrence.
Slater said George donated a portion of each lot to Habitat in order to help make the purchase financially feasible for the organization. Habitat builds affordable housing for families that meet certain income guidelines and who are willing to invest “sweat equity” by helping build the home and others for Habitat.
“We’re really targeting hardworking families that wouldn’t be able to qualify for a traditional home loan otherwise,” Slater said.
• To see a complete list of the land transfers for the week ending April 8, click here.
Regal chain buys Lawrence’s Hollywood Theaters; speculation begins on whether upgrade is in the future
If I were at the movie theater pulling contraband Walgreens candy out of my coat pocket and eating $7 popcorn (I haven’t yet perfected the process for sneaking a popcorn popper into the theater), this may be the point in the movie where the heroic-type of music starts to build.
There’s growing speculation — but no confirmation yet — that a knight on a white horse is going to come dashing onto the scene and make some improvements at Lawrence’s Hollywood Theaters on South Iowa Street.
Regal Entertainment Group, the country’s largest theater chain, has purchased the Hollywood Theaters chain. The deal closed on April 1.
The acquisition has launched speculation that Lawrence’s Hollywood Theater location is going to get an upgrade at the very least. The Hollywood Theater at 34th and Iowa streets continues to be the only chain-operated theater in the city. Liberty Hall in downtown is an independent theater that shows a lot of the independent productions. If I wanted to be a snob, I would say it shows films, not movies. (I would explain the difference, but I was trying to figure out how to sneak a popcorn popper into my History of Film class when that subject came up.)
Local officials at the Hollywood Theaters location weren’t saying much about their plans. I’ve got a call into Regal’s corporate office, and I will let you know if I hear anything interesting.
But I can tell you it is a location several members of the development community are keeping an eye on. They have seen indications that a project may be on the horizon.
It would make sense because it certainly appears that the Lawrence theater is facing stiffer competition from several upscale theaters in Kansas City, particularly the multi-screen theater at The Legends in nearby Wyandotte County.
Hollywood built its Lawrence theater in 1997, and recently people have been asking why the company hasn’t made improvements as the area competition has stiffened. Well, the recent acquisition by Regal may have provided some clues. Simply put, Hollywood — based in Portland, Ore. — was a pretty small player in the movie theater business. It had 43 theaters with a total of 513 screens. Regal has 537 theaters with about 6,800 screens.
The acquisition also made it clear that Hollywood was pretty heavily leveraged. Regal paid $191 million in cash for the Hollywood chain, and of that, $167 million went to pay off Hollywood’s debt.
Regal, on the other hand, posted a strong financial year in 2012. Due to debt management and some acquisitions, the company posted earnings of about $145 million, up more than 250 percent from a year earlier. One of Regal’s chief competitors in the theater industry is Kansas City metro-based AMC Theaters. So, maybe Lawrence can benefit from a rivalry. Plus, you have to figure that at least one person with Regal connections knows Lawrence. For years, Philip Anschutz, one of KU’s most successful alumni, has been the largest shareholder of Regal.
It is too early to say what Regal may do in Lawrence. But it sure appears this may be Lawrence’s best chance in awhile to see an upgrade in its largest movie theater. Personally, I hope they at least add more electric outlets near the seating area. Sneaking a popcorn machine in there is one thing. Sneaking an extension cord in is another.
UPDATE: I spoke briefly Thursday afternoon with Regal spokesman Russ Nunley. He said the company doesn't currently have any capital improvement plans to announce for the location. He said company officials had been on site at the Lawrence property, and found it to be a high quality facility that was well located.
"We are impressed with Southwind," Nunley said. "We think Southwind is an exceptional theater."
Nunley said the company has kept the same staff in place as it transitions to Regal ownership. Nunley said the company's current plans are to keep the Hollywood Southwind name in place for the theater.
Maybe our future includes a mole sauce made out of the glaze from the famous donuts once served at Joe’s Bakery.
Well, probably not. But the old Joe’s Bakery building at 616 W. Ninth St. is getting a new restaurant tenant that has a history of trying about anything. After all, it has been serving high-end food out of a gasoline station for the last three and a half years.
That’s right, the Basil Leaf Cafe has signed a deal to locate in the former bakery building near Ninth and Indiana streets that was a late-night college institution for decades. Basil Leaf chef and owner Brad Walters told me he hopes to have the restaurant open by June, although the timeline may get stretched to early July.
If you are not familiar with the Basil Leaf, you must drive some sort of miracle hover craft that allows you to ignore gasoline stations. Basil Leaf is located in the small kitchen space of the convenience store gas station at Sixth Street and Frontier Road in West Lawrence.
The restaurant is looking to become the third establishment to launch a successful eatery from the space. (Alex, I’ll have Gas Station Cuisine for $500: What are Tortas Jalisco and Biemer’s BBQ?)
Figuring out how to categorize Basil Leaf is a bit of a trick. The restaurant’s take out menu certainly has several standard Italian dishes on it, but it also is not unusual to find soups, house-made moles, risottos, dumplings and other things I frequently watch being made on the Food Network while I sit on my couch and partake in the fine cuisine of Doritos and Slim Jims.
In fact, Walters said you could find anything from Cajun to French to Korean to diner food on the menu.
“I try to play with all cuisine. Nothing is off limits,” Walters said. “I guess I would say it is seasonal Kansas cuisine with some world flavors in there.”
Currently, the best way to categorize Basil Leaf is to call it small. The restaurant’s current space has six tables that are “pretty cramped right now.” Even though the Joe’s Bakery building isn’t overly large, it will about double the space of the restaurant, and Walters expects business to triple.
The dining room of the new restaurant will have space for about 50 diners, and Walters said he’ll be working to create a more full-service in-house dining menu. But don’t worry Basil Leaf take-out fans. Walters said the carry out menu will remain.
But Walters is excited to see what the extra space can allow him to create. He said he expects to add more seafood, chicken, pork and steak dishes. Importantly, he said the space will allow him to have a full bar, including wine offerings.
“On our carryout menu, we’ll get something set in stone, but our in-house menu definitely will be seasonal and we’ll probably be doing some monthly wine dinners in there.” Walters said.
Walters said he hopes the restaurant will fall into the category of “super casual upscale.” (Wait a second. I didn’t know we could make up our own categories.)
“It will be fresh and prepared in-house, but as far as upscale pricing, I’m not going to focus on that. It will be good local cuisine and local comfort food.”
Walters didn’t mention anything about donuts, but he did say something about taking the building back to its roots in one way: He’s going to consider a late-night breakfast menu.
A stop at that building after a night on the town would create some nostalgia for some. (Alex, I’ll have Drunken, Late-Night College Memories for $1,000: What is donut glaze on my . . . )
During much of the 1990s and into the 2000s, it was a scene as common as dandelions in spring: Optimism about the local real estate market would increase, and so would the number of banks in the city.
Well, it is certainly not the 1990s or 2000s again but the optimism meter has gained a level or two, and residents should look for another West Lawrence bank in the next few weeks.
Baldwin-based Mid-America Bank has finalized a deal to purchase the former location of the Lawrence branch of Bank of the West, 4114 W. Sixth Street. Allison Vance Moore, a broker with the Lawrence Colliers International office, negotiated the deal for the location, which is just a block west of the Hy-Vee on Sixth Street.
Mid-America has had a small mortgage-processing office in Lawrence for several years. But when this full-service bank location became available after Bank of the West left the market, Mid-America President Dave Hill decided to put a Lawrence expansion plan in place.
A larger loan production office will be operating in the space by the end of the month, and Hill said he plans to have a full-service bank — including a drive-thru, deposits and loans — operating in the building by Dec. 1. It will be the third full-service banking location for Mid-America. The company has its main branch in Baldwin City, and it opened a Wellsville branch in December.
“The last three years really have been record years for us,” Hill said.
He said construction loan activity has declined significantly during the period, but it has been more than made up by refinancing activity. Now, he said loans for custom homes are starting to pick back up.
The bank — which grew from a start-up in the late 1990s to an institution with $75 million in assets today — manages about $130 million in real estate loans, with most of them primarily in a 30-mile radius of Lawrence. When the full-service branch opens, Hill said the bank will have seven employees in Lawrence, up from two currently.
• Maybe you are like me (an expert dandelion grower), and are curious to see a snapshot of the local banking market. Even if you are not, I’m going to provide one because I took the time to look up these numbers.
Deposits aren’t necessarily the best way to gauge the health of a banking market, but they aren’t bad either. There obviously have been some struggles for individual banks in the past few years, but the amount of deposits in Douglas County has continued to grow during the recent economic downturn. Still, as the numbers below will indicate, deposit growth has a long way to go to get back to the numbers we were seeing in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The numbers below are from the FDIC’s annual June market-share report. The numbers in parentheses are the amount of deposits adjusted for inflation. In other words, I’ve put all the deposits into 2012 dollars.
— June 2012: $1.92 billion in deposits in Douglas County among 24 institutions;
— June 2007: $1.55 billion ($1.72 billion adjusted for inflation) among 25 institutions;
— June 2002: $1.27 billion ($1.62 billion adjusted for inflation) among 23 institutions;
— June 1997: $920.3 million ($1.32 billion adjusted for inflation) among 18 institutions.
Click here, and you can see the amount of deposits broken down by institution. There have been several changes in the rankings over the years, but one thing has remained constant for more than a decade: Three banks hold more than 50 percent of all the deposits in Douglas County: U.S. Bank, Capitol Federal Savings Bank and Douglas County Bank.
Some things, it seems, never change — which leads me to predict that I’ll soon delight my neighbors with a wonderful carpet of beautiful yellow flowers. At least I assume that expression on their faces is delight.
Library expansion bids come in below budget, allowing for coffee shop concept to be added back to project
When the Lawrence Public Library opens early next year, be prepared to find more than a good book. Perhaps a good cup of Joe awaits too.
And you almost certainly won’t be able to miss the 25-foot piece of art hanging from the ceiling.
City commissioners on Tuesday are set to approve the last major batch of bids for the $19 million expansion of the Lawrence Public Library.
As has been the case with other recent projects, contractors came in with competitive bids. The bids for construction of the library building totaled $9.09 million, which is about $622,000 — about 6.5 percent — lower than the budget for the project.
Architects and the city’s library design committee are recommending commissioners use the savings to add several design elements that will enhance the project. (Perhaps my wife is serving as a consultant on this project because that seems to be her advice when I happen to find a savings somewhere.)
Actually, most of the “enhancements” were included in the original design, but they were broken out of the main bid package in case bids came in higher than expected. If you remember, bids on the parking garage portion of the project did come in higher than expected, and a few items had to be removed. Architects would rather add things than remove them, so the design team adjusted these bids accordingly.
Some of the enhancements will be fairly technical, but at least one will be pretty noticeable, especially to those early-morning library users who may need a little bit more than a Stephanie Meyer novel to wake them up. The design team is recommending that a coffee bar be installed in the main lobby area of the library.
Library director Brad Allen told me that the concept is to have a private vendor come in and operate the facility. He said the amount of space devoted to the coffee bar makes it likely that the shop mainly will focus on coffee and beverages rather than having a large menu of food and pastries.
“There has been quite a bit of public interest in the idea,” Allen said.
No vendor has been selected yet, but Allen said the library has started to receive inquires from potential vendors. Once they find one, perhaps I will pitch my literary-themed name for the coffee shop — Fifty Shades of Black. (Never mind. I thought the best-selling Fifty Shades of Grey was the memoir of a conservative suit salesman.)
Other design enhancements included as part of the recommended bid package:
• A more acoustical-friendly ceiling for the library’s auditorium.
• Tile and wood flooring for the main lobby and reference desk area.
• The insertion of “tubular daylighting devices” that will allow more natural light into the building.
Speaking of light, it is going to be a major theme in the building. A 25-foot piece of art hanging from the ceiling will ensure that. As we previously reported, a committee of artists, library leaders and city staff members have recommended the glass artist team of Dierk Van Keppel and John Shreve be awarded a $75,000 contract to create public art for the new building.
Commissioners are set to finalize that contract on Tuesday, and more details about the proposed artwork are becoming available. The artists plan on having several pieces of glasswork in the library, but the main piece will hang from the ceiling above the atrium area of the library.
The piece is entitled “A Ribbon of Light,” and will be constructed of clear and colored glass that will be suspended by a stainless steel structure. Its length will be about 25 feet, and it will be from 3 feet to 8 feet wide. A rendering of the proposed artwork isn’t yet available. But you can get a sense of what the team likes to do by looking at some of their previous work here.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. on Tuesday to accept the bids and approve the contract.
As for how many local companies won bids on the project, I don’t know yet. The list of winning bidders is still being compiled, but it will be released prior to Tuesday’s meeting. Lawrence-based B.A. Green Construction is serving as the construction manager of the project. (UPDATE: A preliminary list shows several Lawrence firms did win bids as subcontractors for the project. In addition to work done by B.A. Green, Lawrence-based companies R.D. Johnson Excavating, Diamond Everley Roofing, Kennedy Glass, HiTech Interiors, and Commercial Floorworks are all set to win bids on the project.)
In case you have forgotten, the city already has accepted bids on the parking garage portion of the project. Those bids came in at $6.10 million. With these latest bids, the bulk of the project has been bid, and the total stands at $15.81 million. I’m sure there are still more expenses to come, but the project appears well-positioned to come in at or below the $19 million total price tag that was presented to the public.
Allen hopes the library will be ready for the public in spring or early summer 2014.
For a man who now owns two pigs (technically, my 4-H children own them but I have yet to be paid), this is news of note: The large pharmaceutical company Merck Animal Health is setting up a Lawrence laboratory.
Details are slim right now, but the company has pulled a building permit to do about $110,000 worth of work in a small industrial building at 2415 Ponderosa. The permit indicates the company is adding laboratory space to the building, which is about two blocks south of 23rd Street.
Merck has a fairly significant operation just off Kansas Highway 10 at De Soto, but a Lawrence presence is something new. I haven’t yet found a good contact at Merck, but I’ll put in a few phone calls and see what I can find out. Based on the size of the building, it doesn’t appear that this facility will employ lots and lots of people. Nonetheless, the project will create excitement among economic development leaders in Lawrence because it is in the community’s wheelhouse of bioscience development. In that arena, any new company is a benefit because it helps to build what economic development leaders call a critical mass. In other words, bioscience companies like to locate where other bioscience companies are located.
The area of animal health doesn’t immediately pop to mind as an area of research strength for Kansas University. But LaVerne Epp, executive chairman for the Bioscience and Technology Business Center, told me KU’s strength in human pharmacueticals can translate over to animal health companies as well.
And this part of the country is a target for animal health development. Leaders in both Kansas and Missouri are working to brand the area from Columbia, Mo., to Manhattan as the Animal Health Corridor.
Lawrence has at least two significant players in the animal health arena currently: Argenta, a New Zealand-based animal health company has a laboratory in the Bioscience and Technology Business Center; and IdentiGen, a company that provides DNA tracing products for meat producers, has its U.S. headquarters in Lawrence.
“I think we do have good potential in the animal health arena,” Epp said. “We’ve had other inquiries from companies that you would recognize as animal health firms. They like the location and the potential for collaboration with KU.”
Epp said Merck has expressed some interest in Lawrence in the past, but he doesn’t have information about its current project.
I’ll let you know when I hear more. Who knows, maybe there is a beautiful relationship that can be had between my pigs and Merck. I’m willing to do about anything to get my money back on these. A little extra meat at the 4-H fair wouldn’t hurt. I would even name one Barry and the other Bonds, if you know what I mean. Wink, wink.
New report compares Lawrence’s economy to others in the region; latest numbers show local economy shrank in 2011
Watch out Cleveland, Tenn. We’re right on your heels.
What? When you think of cities similar to Lawrence, you don’t think of Cleveland, Tenn.? What’s that? You don’t think of Cleveland, Tenn. — population 42,000 people along the Ocoee River — at all. Well, by one standard, that city is our closest of kin.
The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis recently released its annual report on the size of local economies. (They call it the Gross Domestic Product for metropolitan areas, but it basically is just a measurement of all the economic activity in a community.)
I normally find the report interesting because it reminds me of something that we perhaps forget from time to time. We’re small — at least when it comes to the size of our business community.
The latest report — which measures 2011 economic activity — shows Lawrence had an economy of $3.56 billion. That ranked Lawrence 339 out of the 366 metro areas.
That’s where we are ranked currently. We won’t be ranked there long, unless we start to see a rebound. The BEA report found Lawrence’s economy actually shrank in 2011 by 1.7 percent. (Note: The BEA uses some inflation-adjusted dollars to determine if an economy has grown or shrunk. Without that inflation adjustment, we grew a bit.) The negative 1.7 percent growth rate ranked us 338 out of the 366 metro areas. We also were well below the average growth rate for a metro area, which checked in at 1.6 percent.
But back to our cousins in Cleveland. I mention them because we have the 339th largest economy in the country and Cleveland has the 338th largest. So — if like all great coaches say — you take ’em one at a time, Cleveland should be our next aspiration.
I’m, of course, just having a little bit of fun here. Cleveland and Lawrence aren’t much alike. Cleveland likely would gladly take our major research university, and Lawrence probably would take Cleveland’s batch of industrial businesses: Coca Cola, M&M Mars, Dr. Scholl’s foot products, Tappan appliances, Duracell Batteries, and something called Catnapper recliners. There are a lot of different ways to have a $3.5 billion economy.
But what is interesting about the BEA list is just how much smaller Lawrence is — at least in economic size — to several other cities that we compare ourselves to. A few that jumped out at me included Columbia, Mo. Columbia has an economy of $6.91 billion compared to Lawrence’s $3.56 billion. Even Joplin, Mo., is quite a bit bigger than Lawrence, checking in at $5.97 billion. But the one that really stuck with me was — you guessed it — Manhattan. The home of Kansas State University has an economy of $6.5 billion. Manhattan’s economy is nearly twice as large as Lawrence’s. That seems hard to believe, but that is what the numbers show. While that sinks in, here’s a look at several other cities of interest:
• Lawrence: $3.56 billion in 2011. Rank: 339
• Ames, Iowa: $4.24 billion; Rank: 309
• Austin, Texas: $90.91 billion. Rank: 34
• Boulder, Colo.: $19.35 billion. Rank 111
• Columbia, Mo.: $6.91billion. Rank 218
• Fort Collins, Colo: $12.0 billion. Rank 159
• Iowa City: $7.90 billion. Rank: 208
• Joplin, Mo.: $5.97 billion. Rank: 246
• Kansas City, Mo./Kan.: $108.1 billion. Rank 26
• Lubbock, Texas: $10.53 billion. Rank: 173
• Madison, Wis.: $36.52 billion. Rank: 63
• Manhattan: $6.5 billion. Rank: 230
• Oklahoma City: $60.99 billion. Rank: 46
• St. Joseph, Mo.: $4.67 billion. Rank: 296
• Springfield, Mo.: $15.38 billion. Rank: 133
• Topeka: $9.50 billion. Rank: 187
• Waco, Texas: $8.75 billion. Rank: 198
• Wichita: $27.36 billion. Rank: 82
As I’ve already mentioned, Lawrence did not do well in terms of its GDP growth in 2011. (There were signs of some positive economic activity in 2012 and they continue in 2013, so perhaps next year’s report will show a reversal in fortunes.) One-year growth rates always should be taken with a grain of salt, but here’s a look at some in our region:
• Lawrence: negative 1.7 percent Rank: 338
• Ames: 3.2 percent Rank: 42
• Austin: 4.4 percent. Rank: 20
• Boulder: 3.6 percent. Rank: 31
• Columbia, Mo.: 1.7 percent. Rank: 117
• Iowa City: 3.5 percent. Rank: 34
• Joplin: 0.1 percent. Rank: 234
• Kansas City: 0.0. Rank: 243
• Manhattan: 5.0 percent. Rank: 17
• Topeka: 1.0 percent. Rank: 160
• Wichita: 0.5 percent. Rank: 209
What about our cousins in Cleveland, you ask? Well, their economy grew at a 3.5 percent rate in 2011. Yes, that will make it a little more difficult to catch them, but don’t worry. We’re talking about a town that makes Coca-Cola, M&Ms candy and comfortable recliners. We’ll catch ’em because at some point they’re going to have to take a break to go to the cardiologist.
Little noticed state law change will require one week delay of swearing in of new city commissioners
There won't be a change of power at Lawrence City Hall next week after all. But no, were not in the midst of a coup.
Instead, local election officials are now realizing a change in state law impacts how quickly Tuesday night's election results can be made official. Those results won't be made official until Thursday, April 11, which means Jeremy Farmer and Terry Riordan can't be sworn into office on Tuesday, April 9, as originally planned.
The two new members of the commission — along with holdover Mike Amyx — will take their oaths on April 16. That's also when the new city commission will hold its election to select a mayor from its ranks.
Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew said the change comes from the Voter ID law that became law in January 2012. That law gives counties the option of delaying the canvassing of the vote until the second Thursday after the election. In past years, the vote was canvassed and made official on the first Friday after the election.
Shew said his office believes in taking the extra time because it gives people more time to find their IDs and bring them to the courthouse. The Voter ID law allows people who don't have an ID with them when they visit a polling site to cast a provisional ballot on election day. But they have to provide an ID to the county clerk before the votes are made official.
If you are not familiar with it, the canvassing process is where election officials go over each provisional ballot and rule whether it is valid.
The provisional ballots aren't likely to change the outcome in the Lawrence City Commission race. There were 119 provisionals cast in Lawrence. (Technically, the difference between third and fourth place in the City Commission race is 97 votes, which means nearly all the provisional ballots would have to go to fourth-place finisher Leslie Soden in order for the results to change. That's highly unlikely.) But process is process, and you can't swear someone in until the election results are official. And the provisionals may play a role in some other races. The Baldwin City mayoral race has just a 12-vote margin.
So, if you were planning on rolling out a red carpet for the new commissioners, keep it in storage for another week. If you were planning on bringing lots of treats and beverages to City Hall to celebrate, feel free to go ahead and do that next week. Drop them off at the media table and I'll keep an eye on them for you.
Downtown Lawrence Inc. soon will be looking for a new leader.
DLI Executive Director Cathy Hamilton announced today that she’s leaving the organization this summer to retire.
“I’m fortunate that I am able to retire a couple of years earlier than I had expected,” said Hamilton. “But I have the chance, and I’m going to take it.”
Hamilton said she will stay on through Downtown Lawrence’s big sidewalk sale, which is set for July 18, and she hopes to be able to provide about four weeks worth of training to the next director.
Hamilton has been with the organization — which provides marketing, event planning and other services to merchants and other downtown businesses — for about 2.5 years. Before that, she was a longtime employee and television personality on Sunflower Broadband, back when it was owned by The World Company, which is the parent company of LJWorld.com. (In other words, that’s my way of disclosing that I know a television personality.)
Serving as the director of Downtown Lawrence Inc. could be described as being a chief cat-herder. Downtown Lawrence merchants are an independent bunch, but Hamilton said the job has been a “great job.”
“And for the right person, it will be a great job for them too,” Hamilton said. “I’m nothing but optimistic about the future of downtown.”
Hamilton said the large amounts of new residential development being built downtown — particularly at the intersection of Ninth and New Hampshire — is adding a new level of excitement to downtown merchants.
“There seems to be a real optimism on the street, which is different than when I started,” Hamilton said. Downtown Lawrence Inc.’s board already has begun advertising for a new director on its Web site.
It is time to clean out the City Commission election refrigerator. There are canned speeches, moldy questionnaires and calorie-laden political advertisements in here. But I’ve had enough of all that, so I’ll just pass along some leftovers of a different type — leftover notes from my notebook.
• Let’s set the table for who is who in this new City Commission. First, Hugh Carter and Aron Cromwell will finish their terms at next Tuesday’s City Commission meeting. Mike Dever and Bob Schumm were the two incumbent commissioners who were not up for re-election. Mike Amyx and newbies Jeremy Farmer and Terry Riordan will be sworn into their terms at next week’s meeting. That’s your five.
• Schumm’s one-year term as mayor will end on Tuesday. If tradition holds — and it will — vice mayor Dever will be elected by his fellow commissioners to serve a one-year term as mayor. Also, it is expected that Mike Amyx, as the top vote winner in the election, will be elected as vice mayor. That means he’ll be in line to be the mayor in April 2014. If tradition holds, Farmer, as the second-place finisher, is in line to be the vice mayor in April 2014, which means he’ll be mayor in April 2015.
• There was so much action with the political newcomers last night — Farmer, Riordan and fourth-place finisher Leslie Soden — that it was easy to overlook the accomplishment of Amyx. The downtown barber shop owner won his fifth term on the City Commission. His first term on the commission was a two-year term in 1983. All the rest have been four-year terms. So, at the end of this new term, he will have served 18 years on the City Commission, although not consecutively. I’ll have to brush up on my history to determine who, if anyone, has served longer on the City Commission. In addition, Amyx served four-plus years as a Douglas County commissioner in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
“I woke up at 1:15 in the morning (election morning),” Amyx told me at last night’s vote counting. “I was so excited I couldn’t go back to sleep. I’m as excited today as I was in 1983.”
• Political pundits (in Lawrence, I think that is just code for guys who sit on bar stools and talk about politics) will spend a bit of time figuring out what impact the new political action committee Lawrence United had on the race. Two of the three candidates it endorsed won election, but the question will be whether they won because of the PACs endorsement or in spite of it? The PAC endorsed Farmer, Riordan and unsuccessful candidate Rob Chestnut.
For Farmer, the numbers didn’t change much from the primary election, when he finished second by about a 400-vote margin. On Tuesday, he finished second with about a 440-vote margin. Farmer was solidly in the top three all night long, and that pretty much was the case during the primary election too.
For Riordan, the situation was different. He won third place only by 97 votes after having secured third place in the primary by 310 votes. And Riordan definitely had a tension-filled night. Until the last West Lawrence returns came in, it appeared he was going to lose to Soden, who was seeking to become the first candidate in recent memory to go from sixth place in the primary to the top three.
Riordan told me last night that he thought some voters did react negatively to a well-funded PAC becoming involved in a City Commission race. But Riordan, a Lawrence physician, also pointed out that people who believed PAC funding would influence him perhaps were forgetting something. The biggest contributor to Riordan’s campaign was Riordan himself. He estimated that once all the figures are totaled, he will have provided about 60 percent of the funds — about $18,000 — for his campaign.
The third candidate endorsed by the PAC, Chestnut, certainly didn’t get a boost. He was in fourth place after the February primary but fell to sixth place on Tuesday. One difference between Chestnut and the other two is that Chestnut also was the subject of a supportive mailing by the Americans for Prosperity group in the days before the election. Perhaps the takeaway is that help from Americans for Prosperity is no help at all in Lawrence city politics. Or that may just be hokum as well. It is worth noting that Chestnut finished last in the ballots that were voted in advance as well, and a good number of them likely were cast before the AFP mailer. So, I don’t know. That’s the thing about political punditry — there’s a lot of guessing involved.
• Speaking of guessing, that's what some people will be doing to try to figure out Soden’s rise in the general election. Was it — as she suggested — an indication that Lawrence residents still are pretty divided over this proposed recreation center? Soden and Amyx were the most outspoken candidates on the issue. Or, was it that the Lawrence electorate really does want to have a female voice on the commission? There hasn’t been a woman on the commission since Sue Hack left the commission in 2009.
In the primary election there were two female candidates — Soden, who finished sixth, and Judy Bellome, who finished seventh. Between the two, they got 19.6 percent of all the votes in the primary. In the general, Soden, the lone woman in the field, got 16.3 percent of the vote. What does that mean in relation to our question? I don’t know, but I got the abacus out to create a number, so I’m darn sure going to use it.
• Finally, it is worth remembering that we have these elections to create a City Commission that presumably will go out and do something. Now the question is: What will this next commission do? It will be interesting to watch. I can tell you that some of the first words out of Riordan’s mouth involved discussion of a new police headquarters facility. The idea got more talk in this election than it did in the last election. For what it's worth, the three candidates endorsed by the police officers political action committee won the election.
But the new facility could cost between $20 million and $40 million to build. If it moves forward, it will follow an $18 million expansion of the Lawrence Public Library, a $25 million recreation center, a $64 million sewage treatment plant that will come with a multiyear increase in sewer rates, and a new curbside recycling program that comes with a $2.81 per month rate increase.
Probably one of the bigger issues the next City Commission will have to figure out is the mood of the public. Does it still have an appetite for large projects or will it want to take a pause?
• One last number for the election: the 16.3 percent voter turnout rate. The number is what it is, but Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew said it is worth noting that the rate is affected by several precincts that are dominated by KU students. It has been tough to get them interested in city commission or school board elections. The Burge Union, for example, had three voters, which produced a turnout of 0.25 percent.
Four Lawrence precincts saw turnouts higher than 30 percent:
• Brandon Woods, 1501 Inverness Drive: 33.6 percent.
• American Legion, 3408 W. Sixth: 32.9 percent.
• Liberty Memorial, 1400 Massachusetts: 31 percent.
• Pioneer Ridge Assisted Living, 4851 Harvard: 30.7 percent.
Who knows, this could be one of the last elections we have in April. There continues to be talk at the Statehouse of moving city and school elections to November. I asked Shew what he thought about that. He said he had concerns about combining the races with the partisan presidential and gubernatorial races that take place during the even-numbered years. He said that would make for a multipage ballot, and would add complications for both voters, who would have far more races to become educated about, and for election workers.
But he said an idea to move the city/school elections to November in odd-numbered years — when they would still have the ballot to themselves — is intriguing. He said it is possible that if residents knew that there would be an election every November, it might be easier for folks to remember to vote. But he’s unsure. It will be worth watching to see if such a proposal advances at the Statehouse.
This confuses me. Surely everyone already eats, sleeps and breaths Lawrence City Commission election news. My favorite item in the paper today is the On the Street question where we ask — on Election Day, mind you — how interested folks were in the City Commission race. One guy answered: “I’m interested. I didn’t realize the election was today, but I’ll definitely read about it tomorrow.”
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Nah, I think I’ll just find my seat and become a political pundit for the rest of the day.
UPDATE: I just recently received a new spreadsheet from the Douglas County Clerk's office showing the voting totals by precinct for the election. Click here to see them for yourself. They provide a lesson in Lawrence election mathematics: What's most important is not winning a precinct but always finishing in the top three.
Don't get me wrong, winning is good. Just ask Amyx. He won 41 of the 64 precincts in the city in route to a runaway first place finish.
But the next most frequent winner was Soden, and by a lot. Soden won 14 of the 64 precincts, but finished fourth in the vote totals. That's because in several precincts, she finished out of the top three.
To show how unimportant winning a precinct is, Farmer and Riordan — the second- and third-place overall winners — each finished first in just two precincts.
Riordan won the precincts at Langston Hughes Elementary and a very small precinct at the Lawrence Union Pacific Depot that had six votes.
Farmer won the precincts at the Lawrence Bible Chapel on Monterey Way and a small precinct at Prairie Park Elementary that had 21 votes.
Chestnut won at Corpus Christi Catholic Church and a small precinct at Free State High School. Soden won the precincts at: Pickney, Douglas County Senior Services; Carnegie Building (2 precincts); Trinity Lutheran Church (2); Hillcrest Elementary; Central United Methodist Church; Cordley Elementary; Centennial Adult Education; Liberty Memorial; Haskell Stidham Union; East Lawrence Center; New York Elementary. So, a strong East Lawrence and central Lawrence base.
Amyx won all the remaining precincts.
Lawrence City Commission elections aren't decided by wards. All five seats on the commission are at-large positions. If the city had a ward system, it seems likely the results would have been different this year.
The old F-150 and I have been out checking polling sites in Lawrence today, and the results are unscientific (almost everything that happens in the F150 is) but it sure appears that the west side of Lawrence is getting out better than the east side of Lawrence.
I was out over the noon hour at several east Lawrence polling places, and only at one did I encounter more than one voter. Shortly after lunch, there was a steady stream of voters at pretty much every west Lawrence site I went to today.
Here are some of the numbers I gathered:
• Checkers, 23rd and Louisiana, at noon: 29 voters of 921 registered; 3.1 percent turnout.
• Prairie Park Elementary, 2711 Kensington Road, at 12:30 p.m.: 123 of 3057; 4.0 percent turnout.
• Douglas County Fairgrounds 19th and Harper, at 12:40 p.m.: 65 of 1,877; 3.4 percent turnout.
• New York Elementary, 936 New York St., at 1 p.m.: 69 of 1,031; 6.6 percent turnout.
• East Lawrence Recreation Center, 1245 E. 15th St., at 12:45 p.m.; 62 of 1,193; 5.1 percent turnout.
• American Legion, 3408 W. Sixth St., at 1:20 p.m.: 142 of 987; 14.3 percent turnout.
• Mustard Seed, 700 Wakarusa Drive, at 1:30 p.m.: 204 of 1,751; 11.6 percent turnout.
• Langston Hughes Elementary, 1101 George Williams Way, at 1:45 p.m.: 325 of 2,450; 13.2 percent turnout.
• Corpus Christi, 6001 Bob Billings Parkway, at 1:50 p.m.: 125 of 1329; 9.4 percent turnout.
• 360 Church, 3200 Clinton Parkway, at 2:10 p.m.: 103 of 1,160; 8.8 percent turnout.
Polls are open until 7 p.m., so there's still plenty of time for this trend to change. But it would be no surprise if the votes from the west side of town far outweigh the number from the east side. That has been the trend the last few municipal elections. There were questions, though, whether the school bond issue would alter that balance a bit. We’ll see.
As for what a heavy westside turnout would mean for the races, I suppose there could be any number of interpretations. On the City Commission race, it probably makes the race more competitive for Rob Chestnut, who finished fourth in the primary election. The primary election numbers showed a good amount of his support came from the west side of town. As it is shaping up, I expect a close contest for that third and final spot on the commission.
Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew provided this report that showed totals for pretty much every precinct at 10:30 a.m. You can do your own ciphering with it.
As for me, I have to put gasoline in the F-150. Now I see why elections are so expensive.
Bids to convert former Farmland fertilizer site into new business park come in far lower than expected
If you have about 450 acres of an abandoned fertilizer plant, now is apparently a good time to convert it into a business park.
The city is in the process of awarding two key construction contracts to convert the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant on the east edge of Lawrence into a business park. And both bids for the contract came back well below what the city was expecting.
Last week the city awarded a $4.98 million bid to Lawrence-based R.D. Johnson Excavating for street construction, waterline installation and lot grading at the site. The city’s engineers had estimated the work to come in at $8.16 million. That’s a difference of almost 40 percent.
This week, commissioners are scheduled to accept bids to install the necessary sewer lines for the site. The low bid is from Amino Brothers at $601,089. The city’s engineers had estimated a cost of $1.41 million. That’s a difference of almost 60 percent.
I guess that is why you take bids.
City officials are hoping other construction firms are as hungry as these. The city in the next week or so is set to approve a set of bids for the $18 million library expansion project. Those bids have already come in, and my understanding is interest was extremely high by contractors.
On May 14, the city will be getting bids on an even larger project: the $25 million city recreation center. We’ll see how hungry recreation center builders are. But what we won’t see are any bids for the infrastructure work on that project.
The city negotiated a deal with KU Endowment officials and Thomas Fritzel’s Bliss Sports that calls for the recreation center building to be bid through the city’s normal bid process. But the infrastructure work for the KU and city project — things like streets, sewers, waterlines and parking lots — won’t be bid through the city’s open bidding process. Instead, Fritzel’s Bliss Sports will use its preferred contractors and will negotiate a price for that work. I’m sure the city will make Fritzel aware of these bids, assuming the price hasn’t already been fully determined. (Some dirt-moving work is under way at the site.)
The city has an interest to pass these bids along because the city likely will be paying for a portion of that infrastructure work. The Rock Chalk Park deal calls for the city to pay for 100 percent of the cost to build the recreation center building. The city then will pay for infrastructure work up until a point that the city’s total cost on the project reaches $25 million. So, if the city’s recreation center bid comes in at $19.9 million, which is the current estimate by the city, then the city will pay $5.1 million for the infrastructure/parking work. (I previously had said $7 million, which shows why I don't have a career in math.) That means the city would pay a little less than half of the infrastructure/parking costs that are estimated at $13.5 million. Some people have said that sounds about right, since the infrastructure will serve both the city-owned property and the property that will house the KU track, softball and soccer facilities.
But as the Farmland project has shown, estimates are more of an art than a science. If those estimates — much like the Farmland estimates — are 50 percent too high, then the city would be paying for about 75 percent of the infrastructure and parking costs for the entire Rock Chalk Park project. (That is assuming that the city’s estimate for the construction of the building comes in at $19.9 million. Perhaps that estimate is high also, which changes the dynamics even more.)
It will be interesting to watch but perhaps hard to sort out. What is clear is it seems to be a good time to be going out for bid on construction projects.
The city is taking advantage of the good prices on the Farmland project. Originally, the city thought it may only be able to install the streets, sewers and waterlines in this first phase. But because the prices were low, the city added an alternate that allows for about 12 pad sites to have preliminary grading work completed. That will speed up the process for future business park tenants to build on those lots.
Work on the streets and sewers at the Farmland site is expected to go on throughout the summer and into the fall. The city hopes to have lots ready to build upon at Farmland by late 2013 or early 2014.
It may end up being a good time to have industrial property to offer. I read this article today from the Washington Post about how European manufacturers are starting to relocate to the U.S. because of our cheap natural gas prices. Chemical companies, in particular, are among those migrating.
It is funny how quickly the world changes. When I covered Farmland’s bankruptcy about a decade ago, high natural gas prices were one of the leading factors that put the Lawrence fertilizer plant out of business. Not that I think it is very likely, but how odd would it be if the big new user for the revamped Farmland site is a fertilizer plant?
Advance voter turnout at highest level since 2005; update about which PACs have to report their spending for local races
Your time to have some Lawrence City Commission election fun is quickly winding down. For example, if you were hoping to vote in advance, you’ve just missed your window.
Advance voting ended at noon today for the April 2 local election, which also includes races for the Lawrence school board and the school bond election. Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew reports that 1,583 advance ballots were cast for the general election.
Those advance ballots are sometimes a good predictor of voter turnout, and, if that is true this year, then we should expect a few more people than usual to come to the polls for a local election.
The 1,583 advanced ballots represent a 49 percent increase over the number of advanced ballots cast for the 2011 city/school board election. In fact, this year’s total is the highest since 2005, when 1,619 voters turned out in advance.
Higher numbers for this election wouldn’t be a surprise because there is a school bond election on the ballot. That has provided a boost to voter totals in past years.
Couple that with the fact that a snowstorm created a very lightly attended primary election in February, and political observers have several questions about how tomorrow’s race will shake out. I would guess that the race for the third and final seat on the Lawrence City Commission will be a tight one.
We’ll know by tomorrow evening. The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, and this time it appears unlikely that voters will have to deal with snow.
• When it comes to election questions, a few of you have had some about political action committees. As we have reported, a new PAC formed this year, Lawrence United, to promote a pro-jobs/pro-business platform. We’ve detailed its fundraising activities, as they have been reported to the Douglas County Clerk’s office.
But there are other PACs out there as well. The most visible in the last few days have been the PACs created by the local employee associations (basically unions) of the Lawrence police officers and Lawrence firefighters.
Perhaps you have noticed they have been running advertisements asking you to vote for a slate of candidates. Both groups have endorsed City Commissioner Mike Amyx, Jeremy Farmer and Terry Riordan. Those three candidates were the top three finishers in the primary election.
But some of you have wanted to know how much money those PACs have raised and spent on this election. Well, you’ll find out, but not right now.
An oddity of state law gives those PACs until Jan. 10, 2014, to report their spending and fundraising during this election. That’s because both those PACs are registered as state PACs, meaning they can expend money on state legislative races, in addition to local city and school board races. The Lawrence United PAC, in contrast, registered only as a local PAC.
Local PACs have a reporting period that falls during the local election season. State PACs do not. That state law quirk has been a source of frustration for some.
“It puts the public at a disadvantage because you don’t know how much money is being raised or how much is being spent,” said Carol Williams, executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
But Williams stressed the groups are meeting all of the state laws. And it would be hard to argue that the groups should register only as a local PAC. With some of the bills before the Legislature this year, it is easy to see how police and firefighter groups may want to become involved in some Statehouse races. If they registered as a local PAC, they would be prohibited from doing so.
As for these two PACs, the police and firefighters, their past reports indicate their fundraising activity is pretty straightforward. During the 2011 local elections, the police PAC had $5,000. All of it came from the police association itself, rather than from special interest groups. The Lawrence Professional Firefighters PAC had $5,975. All of its donations came in the form of donations of $50 or less.
Both groups generally give $500, the maximum under state law, to each of the candidates ndorsed. The groups also generally run a few ads asking people to support those candidates. (UPDATE: Rob Neff, treasurer for the police PAC called me today and said that has been the case this year too. It has given $500 to the three candidates it has endorsed, and has spent a little less than $1,300 on advertisements and fliers related to the election.)
At least one other group makes a point to publicly announce endorsements. The Lawrence Board of Realtors has endorsed Amyx, Riordan and Rob Chestnut.
The Lawrence Board of Realtors doesn’t have its own PAC. But there is a Kansas Realtors Political Action Committee, and it has given donations to candidates in this race and in past city commission races. The Kansas Realtors PAC is a good example of how a truly statewide PAC sometimes will dip its toe into local races. The Kansas Realtors PAC in 2011 had just under $240,000.
Then there are some groups that do some election-season advertising but don’t have to report their expenditures because they aren’t specifically advocating for the election of a particular individual. Williams said that often is how the group Americans for Prosperity structures its advertisements. I haven’t seen it, but Jim Mullins, a field director for Americans for Prosperity, confirmed to me that the group did send out a mailer this weekend that dealt with some Lawrence City Commission topics and also had some mention of candidate Rob Chestnut. Again, I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know the specifics on its content. (UPDATE: I asked the folks at AFP to send me one, and they did. The mailer doesn't mention the election but instead talks about Chestnut's role in balancing budgets when he was on the commission. Instead of asking you to vote for him, it asks you to call him and then lists his cell number.)
The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission has a website that lists all the state political action committees and their most recent finance reports. There are about 250 of the PACs.
The only other one that clearly is Lawrence-based is the Lawrence Teachers PAC, which had $2,928 available during the 2011 campaign.
It will be interesting to see if more are formed in Lawrence in the future. The list from Governmental Ethics makes it clear that the idea of a PAC to support local jobs or local business growth isn’t unique. The Wichita Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Kansas City Area Chamber of Commerce are both examples of local chambers of commerce that have political action committees. Lenexa also had what was called a “Business Issues” political action committee, and the homebuilders in the Kansas City area had a couple of PACs.
What is unique about the new Lawrence United PAC is that it has registered as a true local PAC, meaning it has to show its fundraising activity now, rather than well after the fact.
Well, it looks like a certain basketball-oriented celebration that has been known to close downtown streets has been called off this year. But fear not, there will still be plenty of opportunities to celebrate — and close downtown streets — in the coming weeks.
What sort of a lineup have we got scheduled? What would you say if I told you that you could take out your hatred on tick-borne diseases by participating in a 5K race that will go through downtown and parts of East Lawrence? I would say if you are still ticked off about the KU-Michigan game, here’s your chance to actually take it out on the ticks. (Yeah, that joke sucked. Most tick jokes do.)
Mark your calendar for 8 a.m. on Saturday, May 11: The Kansas Tick-Borne Disease Advocates will host a race that will begin on Massachusetts Street at South Park, go through downtown to Seventh Street, head into East Lawrence, loop back onto Massachusetts Street at 15th Street and then finish at South Park. Massachusetts Street will be closed for a few minutes at a time as the runners come by in waves.
Several other events either have been approved or are in the process of being approved for the downtown in coming weeks. Here’s a look:
• At 8 a.m. on Monday, May 27 — Memorial Day — organizers will host The Home Run 5K in downtown Lawrence, an event that benefits Family Promise and the Lawrence Community Shelter. Perhaps the Royals pitching staff will participate. They usually are at the scene of a home run. (Yes, I’m a true Royals fan. I know Opening Day is not too early to lose your optimism about the team.)
The race will use the same route as the tick-borne awareness race. City officials, I believe, are trying to convince more events to use that route because it requires fewer resources from the Police Department to control traffic, and it introduces people to the city’s Burroughs Creek Trail that runs through East Lawrence.
• The Tour of Lawrence bicycle races will be back in Lawrence from June 28 through June 30. Once again, the events will happen both downtown and on the KU campus.
On Friday, June 28, downtown will host the Street Sprint portion of the tour. The 700 and 800 blocks of New Hampshire will be closed from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on June 28. That’s where the sprinting will take place. Eighth Street between New Hampshire and Massachusetts will be closed from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. on June 28. That's where the post-sprint celebrating will take place. The area will have a kids zone and live music, and adult beverages also will be sold.
A word of warning to people who park along New Hampshire Street: Be sure to move your car by 5 p.m. on that day, because towing will take place to ensure the race route is clear. (It's a Friday, so you can tell your boss that it's super critical you be out of the office by 5 p.m. I think I’ll park there.)
On Saturday, June 29, the racing will shift to the KU campus. Several streets on and near the campus will be impacted by the race but none will be completely closed. Here’s a look at that route and others used during the tour.
On Sunday, June 30, the event will finish with a Downtown Criterium, which is kind of like bicycle’s version of NASCAR short track racing, except the pit crews don’t fight at the end of each race. (The spandex must have a calming effect. Maybe NASCAR should try it.) It really is some action-packed racing, and it will require several streets in downtown to be closed from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. That includes much of Massachusetts Street and parts of New Hampshire and Vermont.
As in the past, the event will receive $10,000 from the city’s transient guest tax fund. The event will use the money to help attract elite teams to the race. This year the money also will be used to increase marketing to cyclists in the Chicago and Dallas areas.
• And finally, on the weekend of Sept.14-15, an estimated 2,000 cyclists once again will be camping overnight in downtown Lawrence. The 2013 Bike MS event is set to take place from 6 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, to noon Sunday, Sept. 15, in South Park.
In case you don’t remember the event — which will be making its third appearance in Lawrence — it is a fundraiser for the Mid-America Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Near as I can tell, cyclists ride miles and miles — from the Garmin headquarters in Olathe to South Park — to justify partaking in a large beer tent that has been sponsored by an area brewing company in the past. (Personally, I just drink light beer and skip the miles and miles of cycling part.)
In addition to riders coming from the east, a separate group also will be leaving from Topeka to ride to South Park.
The event will require Massachusetts Street from North Park and South Park streets to be closed from 6 a.m. Sept. 14 to noon on Sept. 15. The Community Building Parking lot also will be closed at that time. Both South Park and the Community Building will be used as an overnight “Cycle Village.”
• This last event isn’t a race and it won’t impact traffic in downtown. But I thought I would mention it anyway because it may impact traffic near 27th and Iowa streets. At least it is likely to when my wife is driving by it, becomes distracted by it and uses the Ford Taurus to create a new drive-thru at the nearby Runza restaurant. Beginning April 13 and lasting for the entire week, there will be 5,860 multi-colored flags stuck into the ground near the southeast corner of 27th and Iowa Streets — in front of Landmark Bank and Runza.
The flags — about 20 inches high — will be commemorating the Week of the Young Child. The 5,860 number is meant to be one flag for every child that is in childcare in Lawrence. The flag idea is being put together by Child Care Aware of Northeast and North Central Kansas, a nonprofit group based in Lawrence.
So, don’t be distracted. I’ve warned you. But Runza folks, if you see a maroon Taurus with a driver pointing at the pretty flags, I’d take cover behind the counter.
If you are like me and continue to set off crimson and blue confetti bombs in the TV room after every Jayhawk victory, you soon may be looking for a new house. So, how about some news and notes from the Lawrence real estate and building industry?
• The city has February’s building permit report out, and the numbers continue to be a tale of two types of construction. Single-family home construction continues to be pretty stagnant, but there are builders staying busy with multifamily construction.
The city issued 10 single-family building permits during the month. For the year, the city has issued 18, which is on pace with what the city did last year. (There were 19 issued during the first two months of 2012.) On the apartment front, though, the city issued permits for 22 new apartments in February, bringing the total number of units to 286. Apartment permits come in bunches though, and all the permits are for one project in the city — the new apartment development just west of Wal-Mart at Sixth and Wakarusa. That project, by the way, is being built by Lawrence-based Highland Construction, which indicates Lawrence’s Stultz family — longtime landlords in the community — are behind the project.
In total, the city issued $6.04 million worth of building permits in February. For the year, the city has issued $22.7 million worth of permits, which is up from $10.47 million a year ago. It’s early, so it is not wise to read too much into those numbers yet, but city officials certainly would love for that pace to continue.
• Sales of single-family homes continue a steady climb, according to a new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors. Lawrence homes sales in February checked in at 46, up from 44 during February of 2012.
For the year, home sales are up about 20 percent — 82 home sales during the first two months of the year vs. 69 for the same period a year ago. But the bigger story is that February marked the 11th consecutive month that homes sales have been higher than the same month a year earlier. That’s the type of statistic that begins to paint a picture of a rebound. Indeed, I’m hearing from some in the industry that agents are now starting to believe that more homes are needed on the market. That hasn’t been the case for quite some time. If that feeling continues, that’s the sort of sentiment that will fuel a rebound in the single-family construction industry.
In terms of other numbers from the monthly report:
— The number of active listings in Lawrence is down almost 30 percent from a year ago — 371 in February 2013 compared to 510 in February 2012.
— The median selling price for the year is $174,125, up from $145,000 during the same period a year ago. But the sample size this early in the year is so small that those numbers don’t mean much.
— The median days on market is at 99, which is up significantly from 79 days one year ago. That’s the one piece of the report that runs a bit counter to the recovery trend.
• You know the housing market has been slow when homes that are built to sell for prices below their market value were slow to sell. But that had been the case for awhile with the southeast Lawrence affordable housing project being built by Tenants to Homeowners.
In case you have forgotten, Lawrence-based Tenants to Homeowners has started construction on the Prairie Wind affordable housing community right near the corner of 26th and Haskell.
The development is listing brand new four bedroom homes for $125,000 to $130,000. The homes have an appraised value of about $175,000. But Rebecca Buford, executive director of Tenants to Homeowners, told me even those homes were moving very slowly in the Lawrence market for the last year or more.
But there are signs that is changing. Buford said the development has put four houses under contract in the last three weeks.
“It is like a switch was turned on in the last month or so,” Buford said. “I think people have just been scared. And it probably wasn’t a good decision to buy if they didn’t think their job was solid. But I think people are starting to feel better about that.”
The Prairie Wind development is set to have 18 homes when completed. Buford said five houses have already been sold and another seven are under construction, with four of those under contract. She said she hopes to have the project fully built and sold by this time next year.
The development does place income restrictions on who can qualify to buy the below-market rate homes. Buyers must have an income under 80 percent of the median income for the area. For a Lawrence family of four that means an annual income of less than $56,650.
• I have some catching up to do here on our listing of property sales as recorded by the Douglas County Register of Deeds. Click here to see the last few weeks worth of reports. There have not been many commercial sales of note, other than the ones we already have reported in past Town Talks. But here are few that caught my eye.
— Maybe James Naismith’s original rules of basketball will be housed in The Oread hotel. I rather doubt that, but it appears the man who bought the rules to bring back to KU has purchased a condo in the hotel building. The listings show a trust held by David and Suzanne Booth bought an upper story condo in the hotel that sits atop Mount Oread.
— The Midland Railway Historical Association in Baldwin City has purchased a piece of property, 1704 College Street, along the railroad tracks, about a block south of its historic station. No word yet on what the plans may be for that location, but the old-time train company has been busy lately. It launched its first dinner train in January.
— It looks like business must be going well for Biemers BBQ at 2120 W. Ninth St. The property transfers indicate the business has finalized a deal to purchase its restaurant location — which used to be the old Bucky’s hamburger joint — from a group led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton.
I don’t know about you, but a little BBQ and basketball sounds good right about now.
Business prepares to move to make way for South Lawrence Trafficway; details and speculation about what else the SLT may bring
Construction on the South Lawrence Trafficway is still at least six months away from getting started, but signs of the coming changes already are starting to show up.
The one known business that will have to relocate due to the SLT recently has signed a deal for a new southeast Lawrence location. The business formerly known as RSC Equipment Rental will move to 930 E. 30th St., which is the space that used to be the parking lot and maintenance facility for the city’s public transit buses.
RSC Equipment Rental now goes by the name of United Rentals, after the RSC chain of stores was purchased by United recently. The company rents aerial lifts and other types of construction equipment.
The company plans to use the existing 5,000-square-foot building on the site, but it will undergo about $250,000 worth of remodeling, according to plans filed at City Hall. An employee at United told me the move is likely to happen in the next month.
The business now is at the southeast corner of 31st and Haskell. But soon enough, a new road will run through that location. No, the new road won’t be the South Lawrence Trafficway. It will be the new road called 32nd Street, which will be the local road that will run just north of the SLT. It will replace the thinly paved joy of driving that we currently know as 31st Street.
If you have forgotten about that new street, you probably have forgotten about several others. The South Lawrence Trafficway project likely will produce the most change in the city’s street network of any project in decades. Take a look at the map on this page to see the details. Here’s a reminder of what you are looking at:
• A portion of Haskell Avenue will move about 1,000 feet east of where it is today. Haskell will start making its shift to the east at about the point where it intersects with 29th Street today. In other words, right near where Hiper Technologies is located, or — if you are an old timer — where the Honeywell avionics plant used to be. Haskell will shift back to its current alignment before it reaches the Wakarusa River bridge. (At that point the road is actually called County Route 1055 because it is outside the city limits, for all you geography sticklers.)
• The existing portion of Haskell Avenue between 29th Street and the current 31st Street will remain in place to serve as a frontage road for the businesses — such as the new United Rentals building — that are just west of the existing Haskell Avenue.
• The existing 31st Street between Haskell and Louisiana will be removed and the property will be converted back to wetlands. The new 32nd Street — which will be four lanes — will be the local route through the wetlands.
• Louisiana Street south of 31st Street will undergo major changes. The road will be moved a half-mile to the west, in order to get the road farther away from the Baker Wetlands. In other words, if you are driving on Louisiana Street north of 31st Street and want to continue south, you are going to have to turn west onto the new 32nd Street. You’ll take that new road — which turns into the existing portion of 31st Street in the city — for a half-mile. Then you can turn back south onto the new Louisiana Street. The new Louisiana Street eventually will curve back to the east and connect with the existing Louisiana Street (technically E 1400 Road outside the city limits) before it crosses the Wakarusa River. If you are trying to picture where the new Louisiana Street will intersect with 31st Street, it will be just east of the large apartment complex at 31st and Ousdahl.
The state plans to accept bids on the SLT project in September, and construction in the wetlands could be begin this fall. Work on the Haskell and Louisiana parts of the project wouldn’t begin until 2014.
All of these new roads — with the largest, of course, being the new four-lane SLT — will create a lot of question both in the business community and at City Hall. The best way to get a feel for some of them is to go to Google Maps and type in the area of 31st and Louisiana. Zoom in several clicks, and the map will show you the route of the SLT and of the new 32nd, Haskell and Louisiana streets. That map does a good job of highlighting several pieces of property that seemingly will have a lot more development pressure in the near future.
Some properties and questions that jumped out at me include:
• The former Gaslight Mobile Home Park just east of Home Depot. As we have reported, Menards has filed a plan to build a new store on the property, plus have lots for several smaller retailers or restaurants. This is going to be an issue very soon. The Planning Commission is tentatively scheduled to review the plans in April. In order for the project to be approved, the city is going to have to change its planning documents. The city’s planning documents call for the property to be developed as apartments.
Here’s the question: Will the city stick to those plans when a major retailer clearly wants to be on the site? Now that a new 32nd Street is going to be built just east of the site, the property will be on one of the most highly improved roads in the city. That’s generally where most cities want their retail.
The more political question is whether the City Commission will do everything it can to steer all new retail development to Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway in northwest Lawrence? After all, that is where the city will be investing $25 million for a new recreation center. But Menards has had plenty of opportunities to sign a deal to locate in the existing — and vacant — Mercato development at Sixth and the SLT. Company officials have told the city the site doesn’t meet their current needs. Will the city hold its ground on steering development to Sixth and the SLT, or will it blink?
• The former E&E Display building at 29th and Haskell. That’s a decent size manufacturing/warehouse building with some vacant/underutilized ground near it. When the SLT is built, it really will only be about a minute away from the freeway. I’ll keep my eyes open for some sort of jobs producing deal for that location. If one doesn’t materialize, given its location, economic developers should be asking what’s wrong with our community?
• The vacant ground directly behind Wal-Mart at 33rd and Iowa streets. Until you look on the Google Maps, it is easy to forget about that piece of property. But the map makes it clear that it is one to remember. The ground stretches all the way from the Walmart/Crown Toyota area on the west to the former Printing Solutions building at 31st and Louisiana on the east. The entire piece of property will have great visibility from the South Lawrence Trafficway. As a bonus, the new Louisiana Street will cut through the property as well.
City commissioners talk about the need for planning, but what is the plan for that area? I’m sure there is something in a plan somewhere about that area, but it is an area that hasn’t been talked about by city commissioners for awhile. It would seem — given its location next to major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kohl’s and others — that the market may have an interest in putting some retail there. Will the city share that interest?
It will be interesting to watch, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be the only one watching. In fact, if you see a tent staked up on that vacant property, that’s my wife. She wants to make sure she doesn’t miss out on any early-bird specials.