Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”

The top 10 local stories of 2015

It was a battle between former Lawrence mayor Jeremy Farmer and President Barack Obama.

Farmer got the victory, but he may not spend much time celebrating it.

The downfall of Farmer, and the shakeup that it produced at Lawrence City Hall, has been chosen as the top local story of 2015 in a vote of Journal-World editors and reporters. Farmer’s stiffest competition in the voting was Obama, who drew thousands of onlookers to the Kansas University campus in January for a presidential address.

As we flip the calendar and put away those pointy party hats for another year, let’s take a look at some of the top stories of 2015, and make some guesses about what stories we may be talking about a year from now. (Yes, you can keep your hat on, if you want.)

1. Farmer’s resignation

Lawrence Mayor Jeremy Farmer looks to the crowd at a City Commission meeting, April 14, 2015, at City Hall.

Lawrence Mayor Jeremy Farmer looks to the crowd at a City Commission meeting, April 14, 2015, at City Hall. by Richard Gwin

On Aug. 10, the Journal-World reported that Jeremy Farmer had unexpectedly resigned his position as executive director of Just Food, the largest food bank in the county. Upon being questioned by the Journal-World, Farmer and food bank leaders acknowledged that about $50,000 in federal payroll taxes had gone unpaid during Farmer’s tenure at the nonprofit. Two days later, Farmer would resign his seat on the Lawrence City Commission, and his spot as mayor. A subsequent investigation and audit by Just Food alleges that Farmer overpaid himself by more than $52,000. Just Food officials have turned their findings over to law enforcement officials, and indications are that federal officials are reviewing the case for possible criminal charges. In addition to his troubles at Just Food, Farmer also repaid the city about $1,100 for travel expenses that city officials determined were inappropriate. Farmer’s resignation led to political newcomer Lisa Larsen being selected by commissioners to fill Farmer’s unexpired term. Larsen’s appointment — coupled with the results of the April City Commission elections — helped create the least experienced Lawrence City Commission in recent memory. Spoiler alert: That issue will show up again on this list.

2. Obama’s visit

President Barack Obama gives remarks on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015 at Anschutz Pavilion on the campus of Kansas University in Lawrence, Kan.

President Barack Obama gives remarks on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015 at Anschutz Pavilion on the campus of Kansas University in Lawrence, Kan. by Nick Krug

More than 7,000 people crowded into KU’s Anschutz Sports Pavilion to hear Obama speak on Jan. 22. Thousands more gathered outside to wave signs of support, and a few more to protest or to promote their particular causes. (I’m sure the president was watching closely and taking notes while driving by in the limo.) One group that likely won’t need any notes to remember the day are the folks at the preschool at the Plymouth Congregational Church in downtown Lawrence. Obama stopped by to surprise some toddlers at the school, with one 4-year old telling the president: “I saw you on my TV.”

3. Lengthy Legislature

Senator Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka, puts her head in her hands as she talks on her cell phone following the Senate's morning recess on Tuesday, June 9, 2015 during the 110th day of the legislative session.

Senator Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka, puts her head in her hands as she talks on her cell phone following the Senate's morning recess on Tuesday, June 9, 2015 during the 110th day of the legislative session. by Nick Krug

Most other schools in Kansas didn’t get a presidential visit, but instead got a different piece of news from Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Legislature. Lawmakers implemented major changes to the way schools are financed. That new financing system wasn’t kind to the Lawrence district. The Lawrence school district added 249 students for the 2015-2016 school year, but the new state formula did not provide any additional funding for the school district. Legislators didn’t limit their work to school finance. Lawmakers also passed a sales tax increase and other provisions to try to balance the state’s budget. Kansas lawmakers were in session for 113 days, the longest legislative session in the state’s history.

4. Murder trial

Sarah Gonzales McLinn gives a statement Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, in Douglas County District Court before her sentencing for the first-degree murder of Harold “Hal” Sasko in January 2014.

Sarah Gonzales McLinn gives a statement Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, in Douglas County District Court before her sentencing for the first-degree murder of Harold “Hal” Sasko in January 2014. by Richard Gwin

Lawrence residents in March watched the details of a murder mystery unfold. Jurors found 20-year old Sarah Gonzales McLinn guilty of first-degree murder in the January 2014 killing of Harold “Hal” Sasko, who at the time owned the Lawrence CiCi’s Pizza restaurant. Jurors heard McLinn’s videotaped post-arrest interview in which she detailed drugging Sasko with sleeping pills and then killing him with a knife. McLinn’s defense attorney told jurors about a multiple personality disorder McLinn suffers from, and how she had been the victim of sexual abuse at a young age. “We all know she is broken,” Carl Cornwell, McLinn’s attorney told jurors. Ultimately, jurors handed McLinn a “Hard 50” sentence, meaning she won’t be eligible for parole until she has served at least 50 years in prison.

5. Same-sex marriage

Same-sex marriage supporters hold up balloons that spell the word "love" as they wait outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, June 26, 2015, before the court declared that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the US.

Same-sex marriage supporters hold up balloons that spell the word "love" as they wait outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, June 26, 2015, before the court declared that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the US.

For many couples, Lawrence became a place of celebration in June when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian Americans have the same right to marry as any other couples. Back in 2005, when Kansas approved a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, Douglas County was the only county in the state where a majority of voters rejected the amendment. Douglas County residents were involved in lawsuits challenging the validity of the law, and Lawrence politicians were among those promising to ensure conservatives in power in Topeka fairly enforced the new law allowing same-sex marriages. “We’ll make sure it is legal in Kansas too, whether the governor likes it or not,” Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, said.

6. Rock Chalk Park

Concrete infrastructure is shown outside Sports Pavilion Lawrence at Rock Chalk Park.

Concrete infrastructure is shown outside Sports Pavilion Lawrence at Rock Chalk Park. by Mike Yoder

The beginning of 2015 left city commissioners facing multiple questions about how much money they owed a private development group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel for infrastructure work at Rock Chalk Park. City commissioners hired an auditor to help untangle the finances, but that audit then came under question after the auditor conceded portions of the report were incorrect and had to be restated. Ultimately, commissioners said they were confident they were paying a fair price for the infrastructure work, which was exempted from going through the city’s normal bidding process. But many voters weren’t so sure. The payment was made in the middle of City Commission election season, and many voters expressed their displeasure with City Hall at the polls.

7. School inspections

Contrary to city codes, no safety fencing was in place when an 8-year-old Lawrence boy was injured in an Aug. 13 fall at New York Elementary. It has since been installed.

Contrary to city codes, no safety fencing was in place when an 8-year-old Lawrence boy was injured in an Aug. 13 fall at New York Elementary. It has since been installed. by Mike Yoder

In August, an 8-year old child wandered onto the construction site of New York Elementary School, and was injured when a 350-pound gate fell on him. That sparked questions about why the site didn’t have adequate construction fencing. The lists of questions about the project, however, grew as the Journal-World investigated the matter. A review of documents found that an agreement between the school district and Douglas County created a situation where the chief building inspector for $92.5 million worth of bond projects had no authority to actually order that building codes be followed on the school district projects. Ultimately, the Lawrence school board agreed to have the projects inspected by standard city building inspectors who have full authority to order codes to be followed. The board also terminated the contract of the construction firm doing the work at New York Elementary.

8. City elections

The Lawrence city commissioners from left, Stuart Boley, vice mayor Leslie Soden, Mike Amyx and Matthew Herbert  hold a special meeting Friday, Aug. 14, to take formal action on the resignation of Mayor Jeremy Farmer and receive public comments on filling the vacancy and filling the position of Mayor.

The Lawrence city commissioners from left, Stuart Boley, vice mayor Leslie Soden, Mike Amyx and Matthew Herbert hold a special meeting Friday, Aug. 14, to take formal action on the resignation of Mayor Jeremy Farmer and receive public comments on filling the vacancy and filling the position of Mayor. by Mike Yoder

Voters made it clear they wanted fresh faces in City Hall. Three incumbents on the five-member City Commission had terms expiring. One incumbent, Mike Dever, chose not to seek re-election. The remaining two, Terry Riordan and Bob Schumm, lost their bids for re-election. Voters elected three first-time office holders: Leslie Soden, Stuart Boley and Matthew Herbert. With Farmer’s resignation, the commission got another new face and first-time commissioner in Lisa Larsen. To top it off, longtime City Manager David Corliss in April announced that he was leaving to take a similar position in Castle Rock, Colo. Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard declined to apply for that position, which means at least one more new face is coming to Lawrence City Hall.

9. Oread finances

The Oread Hotel, 1200 Oread Ave.

The Oread Hotel, 1200 Oread Ave. by Mike Yoder

In February, the Journal-World, acting off an anonymous tip, asked City Hall leaders about why state records indicated a wholesale construction company was operating inside The Oread hotel. In December, City Hall released a report from a city-hired auditing firm that alleges the wholesale construction company — owned by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel — was operating in a manner designed to inflate the amount of sales taxes collected in The Oread’s special taxing district. That special taxing district allows a development group led by Fritzel to keep a large amount of the sales taxes generated at The Oread. This story is at No. 9 on this year’s list, but depending on what happens in the next few weeks, it may land higher on the 2016 ranking.

10. Gold medal

Team USA coach Bill Self, center, hugs Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr. (1) as Frank Mason III carries an American flag after a Team USA double-overtime win against Germany Monday, July 13, at the World University Games in South Korea.

Team USA coach Bill Self, center, hugs Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr. (1) as Frank Mason III carries an American flag after a Team USA double-overtime win against Germany Monday, July 13, at the World University Games in South Korea. by Mike Yoder

We’re in Lawrence, so the year would feel incomplete without having a KU basketball story on the list. This year it is a golden one. A team comprising mainly KU coaches and players won the gold medal in the World University Games in South Korea in July. The KU men, though, had some competition for the attention of fans this year. KU’s women’s volleyball team made its first appearance in the Final Four, captivating thousands of Jayhawks along the way. You can probably debate which one of those seasons is most deserving of a spot on this list. But that’s OK. Debate away. This list is designed to be the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of one.

I’m guessing we’ll have plenty to talk about in 2016. We’ll have a new city manager, a new superintendent of schools, a new president and CEO of Lawrence Memorial Hospital, and a new provost at KU. It has been a long time since we’ve had that much turnover in key leadership positions in the community.

Guns also may be a big topic of conversation in the community, particularly guns on the KU campus, city recreation centers and other such places. An exemption that allows universities, cities and other such public bodies to prohibit people from carrying a concealed weapon into public buildings expires on July 1, 2017. Public agencies will still be allowed to prohibit concealed carry, if they equip their buildings with metal detectors, security guards and other such measures. Those measures will be expensive, so 2016 will be the year that City Hall, KU and others will have to figure out whether they can afford it. Get ready for debates about whether we should allow guns in places like Allen Fieldhouse, recreation centers, libraries and a whole host of other places.

While we are at it, we might as well have a conversation about jail. This year is expected to be a big one for Douglas County and its efforts to expand its jail. It likely will be a project that costs tens of millions of dollars, so figuring out how to pay for it will be a big deal to taxpayers. Beyond that, though, expect a debate about how the project should be designed. The county has said it doesn’t want to just build a typical jail expansion. It also wants to address the concern that we’re incarcerating many people with mental health issues that would be better served receiving treatment. How much of a jail we build versus how much of a mental health care facility we build, will be a key conversation in 2016.

And, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s some excitement about the KU basketball team this year. A gold medal is nice, but a big trophy following the final game of the season will get this town talking like nothing else.

But, as is often the case, it is usually the unexpected that gets us talking the most. The list above included several items that none of us saw coming at the beginning of the year. So, let a new round of conversations begin.

I’ll start with this: I really do think it is time for you take off the pointy party hat now.

Here’s a look at the 10 stories on LJWorld.com that received the most views in 2015:

  1. KU professor who uses 'n-word' in class discussion is placed on leave: 150,955 views (Nov. 20)
  2. Town Talk: A prominent goodbye from defunct Payless Furniture that labels Lawrence 'Obamaville' and much more: 114,092 views (May 11)
  3. Pet World fire kills many small animals; python, some other survive: 74,849 views (May 25)
  4. Two armed suspects at large after Sunday shooting; Three victims conditions improved: 53,994 views (Feb. 8)
  5. Police stop two groups of men carrying unconscious women to fraternity homes; call ambulances for alcohol poisoning: 50,568 (Sept. 14)
  6. KU’s McCollum Hall comes down Wednesday in 18 seconds with 750 pounds of explosives: 39,065 views (Nov. 22)
  7. Town Talk: Payless Furniture owner who said 'Goodbye Obamaville' back selling furniture in Lawrence: 34,884 views (Aug. 6)
  8. 19-year old Lawrence man killed in K-10 accident: 33,388 views (Aug. 11)
  9. Video of demolition crews bringing down KU’s McCollum Hall: 32,291 views (Nov. 25)
  10. Inside McCarthy Hall, the KU basketball team’s 'insane' new home: 31,236 views (Oct. 17)

Here @ Kansas apartment project proposes new, above-ground parking garage for Oread neighborhood

When I first reported that plans for a robotic parking garage in the massive Here @ Kansas apartment project near the KU campus had fallen apart, I thought for sure the solution would involve hover boards and reruns of The Jetsons. But new plans filed at City Hall are indicating a more terrestrial solution: Tear down an existing apartment building and replace it with a new, traditional parking garage in the Oread neighborhood.

As we previously reported, the massive Here @ Kansas apartment project that is under construction across from KU’s Memorial Stadium has run into some parking problems. The vendor that was supposed to supply the project with a high-tech, automated parking garage system has filed for bankruptcy, and left Here officials scrambling to figure out how it is going to accommodate the hundreds of tenants that will be part of the multistory apartment/retail building.

The Chicago-based development group that is building the Here @ Kansas project has filed plans at City Hall seeking rezoning for a small apartment building at 1137 Indiana St., which is just to the south of the massive, 500,000-square-foot, multistory Here building. The development group is proposing to raze the apartment building and construct a new 96-space parking garage in its place.

Here officials are promoting the new garage as a solution that actually will provide more parking than was originally planned for the development, which will feature 237 apartments with 624 bedrooms, plus commercial space for restaurants or retailers that want to locate next to the KU campus. With the addition of the 96-space garage, Here officials believe the total project will have 712 parking spaces. That’s up from the 685 spaces that were proposed as part of the original development.

What’s going on here, it appears, is that the space in the building for the once-planned robotic parking garage will continue to be used for parking, but it won’t be able to accommodate as many spaces as once planned. The proposed parking garage at 1137 Indiana St. will make up for those lost spaces and then some.

At the moment, I’m unclear whether the Here project will include an automated parking garage of any kind, or whether that space is simply being converted into a traditional parking garage. At one point, the development group said it was looking for a different vendor for an automated garage system. Whether an automated garage will be part of the project may be an important point to some. The idea of using new technology to tackle the parking challenges in The Oread neighborhood was one of the selling points the project used to garner an 85 percent, 10-year property tax rebate for the project. (UPDATE: I got in touch this morning with project leader Jim Heffernan, and he confirmed that the project no longer will include the automated parking garage, but instead will feature a more traditional parking garage.)

If the project doesn’t have an automated parking garage, I suppose the City Commission could use that omission to modify the controversial tax rebate package, which was approved by the previous City Commission. But such a move likely would send shivers through the development community, given that the project is still meeting its original parking obligations and then some.

Instead, the debate at City Hall may be a more traditional one: Will this parking garage fit into the Oread neighborhood? I don’t have great renderings to share of the proposed garage currently, but you can see a little bit of the shape and size from this one below. The garage is not proposed to be a tall one, but rather is planned to have one level below ground and one level above ground.

Renderings of the proposed Here @ Kansas parking garage that would be located at 1137 Indiana Street. This is the view that would be seen from Indiana Street. Courtesy: City of Lawrence

Renderings of the proposed Here @ Kansas parking garage that would be located at 1137 Indiana Street. This is the view that would be seen from Indiana Street. Courtesy: City of Lawrence by Chad Lawhorn

The Oread is a neighborhood that is familiar with parking garages. KU already operates a parking garage in the neighborhood near 11th and Indiana streets, in addition to having some surface parking lots in the neighborhood. So, it will be interesting to see how the neighborhood responds to this proposal.

"We think it will be a very low profile building," Heffernan told me on Thursday. "We'll also be trying to use identical materials that were approved by the city for our other building."

City commissioners will have to give their approval to the plans in order for them to proceed. The property at 1137 Indiana — which currently is owned by a group led by Lawrence resident Ed Carter — must be rezoned to accommodate the parking garage. The property currently is zoned for RM 32 apartment zoning. The group is seeking the property to be rezoned to a mixed-used zoning designation.

Look for the project to get hearings at City Hall — first at the Planning Commission and then at the City Commission — in the next couple of months. Heffernan said he hopes to have city approvals by the end of March, which would keep the project on track to open by the beginning of the next KU school year.

"The project is being very well received," Heffernan said of the early response from renters.

A rendering of the HERE Kansas luxury apartment complex, currently under construction at 1111 Indiana St.

A rendering of the HERE Kansas luxury apartment complex, currently under construction at 1111 Indiana St.

• One other quick item of note with this project: The latest plans filed by the Chicago development group say that when the Here project is completed, it will be the “largest privately owned enclosed structure in the city of Lawrence.” I’ve heard that claim or something similar to it before, but it is not accurate. The Here project is slated to be about 454,000 square feet, according to the development group. I’ve always thought that the Kmart Distribution center along the Kansas Turnpike was quite a bit larger than that. I checked with the Douglas County Appraiser’s office this morning, and they confirmed that’s the case. The Kmart Distribution Center has about 1.05 million square feet, according to the county’s records.

(UPDATE: I chatted with Heffernan this morning, and he said the statement in the plans should have read that the building will be the largest privately-owned residential structure in the city. That may be accurate. I haven't checked that out.)

The issue isn’t really important to the matter at hand, except this project at times has attempted to “sell the sizzle” to city commissioners. That’s fine, but that means it is important that commissioners understand the true situation.

The development group in its filings also has stated that when completed, the project will “represent the single largest taxpaying parcel in the city.” That claim will take a little more time to fact-check, but it seems like one that should be examined.

Reply 9 comments from Richard Heckler David Holroyd Dorothy Hoyt-Reed Ann Hamil

Unique furniture, home decor store set to open in downtown Lawrence; news of escape room businesses, cigar lounge

Sarah Kellogg has a business plan for her soon-to-open retail store in downtown Lawrence: “We take something terribly dated and that nobody wants, and make it really awesome.” My wife is loading up my closet currently, but actually it is not that type of store. Kellogg is opening a new brand of furniture store in downtown.

Kellogg and her mother, Susan Clark, have signed a deal to open Vintage Chic at 823 Massachusetts St., which is the space that Foxtrot shoe shop soon will be vacating. Vintage Chic has been operating in a corner of the Fine Design interior design shop at Bob Billings Parkway and Kasold Drive. The new space will allow Vintage Chic to more than double in size, and the store’s owners plan to fill the space with furniture, a workshop and booth space for other home decor-oriented sellers.

“It is going to be quite a bit different than booths at an antique mall or something like that, though,” Kellogg said. “We’re not going to have people who just buy a desk at a garage sale and then try to simply sell it again.”

Instead, Vintage Chic will focus on selling products that have been remade in some way. That could mean old furniture that is given a more modern finish, or jazzed up with stenciling, or has its design modified in some way.

Kellogg said the shop will carry a variety of pieces, but buffets, china cabinets and storage pieces of any kind are very popular. The store also will be a retailer of the CeCe Caldwells paint brand, which is an environmentally friendly, chalk and clay-based brand of paint that has become popular in the DIY community. Kellogg said Vintage Chic will host classes in its workshop to teach different painting and refinishing techniques that people can use to liven up their furniture pieces.

In addition, the shop will offer both in-store or in-home wood and furniture refinishing services.

“A big item for us is refinishing people’s cabinets,” Kellogg said. “We don’t just do painting. We also do staining and all types of woodwork refinishing.”

As for the vendor part of the business, Kellogg said she expects the shop to accommodate about 15 booths. She said she’s had lots of area residents who sell on the online site Etsy wanting space in the new store. Vendors could range from other furniture dealers to artists who make unique and interesting home decor pieces to people who produce handmade soaps and other similar products.

Kellogg said Vintage Chic takes possession of the downtown building on Feb. 1, and would like to have the shop open sometime in March.

In case you have forgotten, we reported last month that Foxtrot is closing by the end of January.

In other news and notes from downtown:

• Just a couple of quick updates on downtown spaces that I will try to bring you more information on in the next few weeks. We reported earlier this month that the comic book and gaming store Astrokitty had moved from its longtime location at 15 E Seventh St. Well, the owner of Astrokitty tells me he’s been informed a new tenant for the building has been found. It will be a massage therapy business, which is expected to complement the hair and nail salon that is in the space above the former Astrokitty space. No word yet on which massage therapy business will take the space, but I’ll keep my eyes open.

We also previously have reported on the new trend of escape room businesses coming to Lawrence. Those are businesses where you can pay to get locked into a room and then you have an hour to try to solve several riddles and other tasks to get out. There are two coming to town: Breakout Lawrence and Locked In. We briefly had reported speculation that one of the two businesses was going to locate in the former Mass Street Sweet Shoppe at 727 Massachusetts St.

Well, we now know that it is the Breakout business. The company has put its sign in the window, and construction work is well underway at the location. The other escape room business, Locked In, is up and operational, according to its website and advertisements I’ve seen. It is located at 1414 W. Sixth St., which is in the small strip retail center near Sixth and Florida streets.

I’m also getting word that a new cigar lounge may be coming to downtown Lawrence. Issachar Cigar Shop has recently joined the Lawrence chamber of commerce under the category of a “premium retail cigar store and lounge.” It lists its location as 726 Massachusetts St., which is the former location of Creation Station. I don’t currently know anymore about the new business, but I’ll let you know when I do.

• One housekeeping note: Perhaps I’ll be painting furniture or maybe I will just lock myself in my closet in order to protect my “vintage” wardrobe. Whatever the case, Town Talk will be a bit sporadic between now and the new year. I’ll return to my regular daily schedule after Jan. 1.

I hope all of you have a very happy and safe holiday season.

Reply 6 comments from Richard Heckler Bob Smith Bob Forer Mike Edson

Developer still working on parking solution for large apartment project near KU; man hands out $50 bills at Wal-Mart

Anybody who has ever picked up a hammer or saw has had it happen: You start your home improvement project and then realize you forgot a part. I usually fix such matters with duct tape, and if that doesn’t work, with an expensive jewelry purchase. Most of the time, though, the missing part is not a multimillion dollar automated parking system. But when it is, figuring out a solution can be a real head-scratcher, as one Lawrence apartment developer can attest.

We reported in October that the Here @ Kansas apartment project near Memorial Stadium ran into a major problem with its proposed, high-tech, robotic parking garage system. The problem is the company that makes the system went bankrupt and never delivered the equipment. That left a major question about how the multistory apartment complex — it will have 237 apartments with 624 bedrooms — is going to provide parking in an area that already is congested with KU traffic.

Well, the answer to that is still unclear, but the developer for the project said he expects to propose a solution to Lawrence City Hall in the next couple of weeks.

A rendering of the HERE Kansas luxury apartment complex, currently under construction at 1111 Indiana St.

A rendering of the HERE Kansas luxury apartment complex, currently under construction at 1111 Indiana St.

“We’re working very diligently on a comprehensive solution that actually will provide more spaces than before,” said James Heffernan, who is a leader of the Chicago-based development group that is building the $75 million apartment/mixed use project at 11th and Indiana streets.

When I chatted with Heffernan in October, the main plan was to find a new vendor for the automated parking system, which uses a series of elevators, tracks and other devices that allow motorists to drop off their vehicles and have them parked and retrieved completely without the assistance of a human. Heffernan wouldn’t go into any details about whether that is still the plan. He said the issue was a bit like a Rubik's Cube, and he didn’t want to comment on specifics until all the details were figured out.

“But we understand that is an important issue for the community, and we plan to rise to the occasion and provide a solution for it,” Heffernan said.

What will be interesting to watch is whether the solution will be confined to parking on site, or whether the development group will propose some off-site solutions. Heffernan didn’t provide such details, but when I chatted briefly with interim City Manager Diane Stoddard, she indicated the company was considering both on-site and off-site options.

“They appear to be looking at all those different options,” Stoddard said. “They have indicated to us that they will submit a plan by the end of this year or early next year.”

The Here group ran into the same problem for a similar project it was constructing in Champaign, Ill. That project, though, was much further along when the parking system company went bankrupt. Here officials have been forced to rent space in a city-owned parking lot a few blocks away, according to news reports in Champaign. Simply replacing the automated parking system with a traditional parking garage is difficult because the space for the automated system is significantly smaller than for a traditional garage because the automated system doesn’t need much space in the way of driving lanes or ramps.

Stoddard emphasized that any new parking plan for the Lawrence project will have to win the approval of the City Commission.

That could get interesting too. The project was a political hot potato when it was approved last year. The previous city commission approved a 10-year, 85 percent property tax rebate for the project, but did so on a 3-2 vote. There was significant opposition from neighbors who said even with the automated parking garage, they were concerned there would be significant overflow parking into the neighborhood.

Now, without the parking system, I suspect that concern is heightened. The interesting part is that four of the five members on the City Commission are new since that vote was taken. The one holdover — Mayor Mike Amyx — didn’t vote for the incentive package either.

Commissioner Leslie Soden back in October said she “absolutely” could see the commission debating whether to reduce the size of the incentive package to Here, if the project can’t deliver on its original parking plan.

It seems certain at this point that the new parking plan for the project will be different from what was proposed. Whether that means it is likely city commissioners will want to adjust the incentive, though, isn’t clear.

As Heffernan noted, he’s optimistic about finding a solution that will provide for more parking than what was originally proposed. The details will be important but, who knows, there might be a really creative solution out there.

After all, who would have ever thought that a diamond tennis bracelet could fix a stairway that ended four feet too short?

In other news and notes from around town:

• This is the time of year where unexpected things can happen, and apparently that was the case for some kids at a Lawrence Wal-Mart on Saturday.

I received a voicemail from Journal-World reader Denise Sellers that explained she had taken her grandson Christmas shopping at Wal-Mart on Saturday. The grandson always insists on putting a dollar into the Salvation Army donation bucket. When he did this time, there was a man standing next to the bucket, who gave the young boy a $50 bill as a thank-you for being generous.

Sellers said that it appeared he was giving out several $50 bills that day.

“He had kind of a huge stack of them,” Sellers told me in the voicemail.

Seller said she saw him give money to a couple of young children. She indicated he would wait until a child had put money in the bucket, then surprise the child with the $50 bill.

Sellers said she tried to get his name when she and her grandson thanked him, but he said he wasn’t interested in giving it.

I’m a little short on details beyond that because I haven’t been able to get in touch with Sellers this morning, so I don’t know if it was the Wal-Mart on south Iowa or the one on Sixth Street.

I checked in with a leader of the local Salvation Army. She hadn’t heard about it, but said it is always heartwarming to hear stories of generosity.

“I think that is awesome,” said Lt. Marisa McCluer. “A lot of parents want to instill the virtue of giving back. We love when kids volunteer to ring the kettle too. We know they are doing it out of the goodness of their heart.”

The Salvation Army could use some folks sticking $50 bills into the red kettles. McCluer said that with four days left on their bell ringing campaign the Lawrence kettles have collected about $55,000. The goal is $100,000.

As for the generous man with the $50 bills, I’m curious to know if that happened to anyone else. If so, share the details in the comment section below.

Reply 13 comments from Richard Heckler David Holroyd Bob Forer Clara Westphal Dorothy Hoyt-Reed Jhorus Brett McCabe Randall Uhrich Steve Jacob

Italian dessert shop coming to Massachusetts Street; Lawrence gets ranking from LGBT civil rights group

Gelato. Sorbet. Cannoli. Am I showing off my bilingual skills here? Of course. Am I pointing to stains on my tie? Well, yes, but neither of those are really the point. I’m mainly working up to tell you that a new dessert shop — with a specialty in Italian dishes — is coming to downtown Lawrence.

Lawrence businessman Dan Blomgren has signed a deal to open Crema Dolce — Italian for Sweet Cream — in the spot that Bloom Bath & Body is vacating in the coming days. In case you have forgotten, that’s the space at 704 Massachusetts St., right above Rudy’s Pizza. We previously have reported that Bloom is closing its Lawrence store

Blomgren owns Cibo Sano Italian Grille at Sixth and Wakarusa. In the last three-months, he’s begun offering a homemade line of gelato at the store.

“The response has been so strong,” Blomgren said. “People have really loved the product, and I know there is so much activity downtown. I just told myself that I really needed to be downtown.”

Perhaps I should back up. I sometimes forget not everyone is as bilingual as I am. Gelato is basically Italian ice cream. Blomgren notes that it is actually made from milk rather than cream, which makes it “a little bit healthier.” The bigger difference, though, is that it has a lot less air whipped into it, making it a heavier, denser dessert than ice cream. (I knew air was what made ice cream unhealthy. That’s why I hardly ever take a breath while I’m eating it.)

As for sorbet, it also is a frozen dessert, but it is dairy free. Blomgren expects to have about 16 flavors of the dessert available. He’ll also offer the gelato in the forms of malts and shakes. All the desserts will be made in the store. Blomgren went to a culinary school in North Carolina earlier this year to get a crash course in gelato making.

Our offerings! #lawrenceks

A post shared by Crema Dolce Gelateria (@cremadolceku) on

Our offerings! #lawrenceks by cremadolceku

Blomgren said he eventually wants the business to become a full dessert bar business. That doesn’t mean the business will be serving alcohol, but rather patrons would be able to belly up to a bar and order a variety of desserts. Blomgren said he’s been experimenting with tiramisu, creme brûlée, cannoli and other dishes.

“I’ll probably start out doing mostly Italian desserts, but I’ll go where the market takes me,” said Blomgren, who previously was in the liquor store business in Lawrence.

Blomgren said he plans to have the business open until 10 p.m. or so to take advantage of diners who are in downtown and want to cap the night off with something sweet. That seems to be a trend in downtown. I can think of five other dessert oriented businesses in downtown off the top of my head, and I very well may be forgetting someone: Sylas & Maddy’s ice cream; TCBY frozen yogurt and cookies; Hot Box Cookies; Cold Stone Creamery; and Billy Vanilly Cupcakes.

As for a timeline for Crema Dolce to open, Blomgren said he hopes to open sometime in March. He will get access to the space Jan. 1, and plans to begin renovations soon thereafter. That tells me that if you want to get any shopping done at Bloom, you had better do so in the next few days.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Lawrence has made another ranking, and this one — perhaps more than most — shows how Lawrence is different from its neighbors.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization, has released its annual Municipal Equality Index. It found Lawrence scores better than the national average in terms of equality issues for the LGBT community. What’s more interesting is how much more highly it scores than other cities in the state.

Lawrence received a score of 69 out of 100 in the report, which examines 41 factors that fall into categories such as nondiscrimination laws, municipality’s employment policies, inclusiveness of city services, law enforcement and municipal leadership on matters of equality. Lawrence’s score of 69 was better than the national average of 56. It also was significantly better than the Kansas average of 25.

The next highest ranked city in Kansas was Manhattan, with a score of 26. Others ranked were Kansas City, Kan., 24; Topeka, 24; Wichita, 21, Olathe, 8, and Overland Park, 8. It is interesting to note that of the 408 cities ranked by the organization, only 5 percent of them received a score below 10. Two of them were in Johnson County.

But just a few miles to the east, Kansas City, Mo. received the highest possible score from the group. KCMO was one of 47 cities that received a perfect score of 100 on the ranking.

As for Lawrence, its report card shows that it scored well for its nondiscrimination laws it has on the books, but missed out on points in some categories by lacking a nondiscrimination ordinance related to city contractors, by not having a LGBT police liaison or task force; and the absence of an LGBT liaison in the mayor’s office.

Other cities of note and their scores:

— Boulder, Colo.: 76

— Ames, Iowa: 70

— Iowa City: 100

— Columbia, Mo. 74

— Independence, Mo.: 17

— Lincoln, Neb.: 54

— Omaha, Neb.: 71

– Norman, Okla.: 43

— Stillwater, Okla.: 12

— Austin, Texas: 100

— Lubbock, Texas: 0

— Waco, Texas: 25

Reply 6 comments from Scott Criqui Scott Quenette Steven Berger Marc Wilborn Bob Forer

A list of past Thomas Fritzel controversies and the $10 million question that comes with the latest allegations

It has become a routine at Lawrence City Hall. Every few months, the city finds itself embroiled in a controversy with Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel at the center of the storm. This most recent one — an alleged $500,000 worth of sales tax misdeeds at The Oread hotel site — is one of the more interesting ones yet. But, it could get a lot more interesting before it is over because this controversy has at least $10 million at stake for the city and Fritzel’s development group.

As our reporting over the last few days has explained, The Oread hotel site is in a special taxing district. What is special about it is that Fritzel’s development group gets a large percentage of all local sales taxes generated at the site rebated back to it. The city has been sending rebate checks to the development group since 2009, when the hotel opened. But what is important to note is that the city is scheduled to send rebate checks to Fritzel’s development group until about 2029, or until the development group receives a total of $11 million in rebates, plus the interest costs the development group has paid on loans used to build the private parking garage and other pieces of infrastructure. The project has received about $3 million in rebates thus far, and when you factor in the interest costs, there’s probably at least another $10 million it is eligible to receive in coming years.

Lawrence developer Thomas Fritzel watches a video presentation of a Rock Chalk Park proposal during the city commission meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, at City Hall.

Lawrence developer Thomas Fritzel watches a video presentation of a Rock Chalk Park proposal during the city commission meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, at City Hall. by Nick Krug

As those numbers show, taxpayers are a major partner in this project. I predict this latest controversy will cause taxpayers to soon ask an important question: Should they continue to be partners?

If the allegations in the auditor’s report prove to be true, it seems likely that the city would have legal grounds to terminate the entire incentive package being provided to the Oread project. At that point, this becomes about more than just a $500,000 repayment. The development group would be at risk of losing $10 million it presumably is counting on to repay loans it has undertaken on the project.

If the allegations are proved to be true — and the city seems to be convinced the allegations are true because the city is seeking the money by the end of the month — the situation essentially would be this: The development group was trying to deceive the public into providing larger than required tax rebates. That’s the sort of thing that causes trust to erode in a partnership. And, partnerships without trust have made divorce attorneys a lot of money.

Whether the city will go so far as to cancel the entire incentive package of the Oread project is unclear. I asked both interim City Manager Diane Stoddard and Mayor Mike Amyx that question yesterday. Stoddard said all options are on the table, but the city wants to first focus on getting paid the approximately $500,000 it has demanded. Amyx said much the same.

It will be interesting to hear what the public has to say about this. I would think one factor the public will weigh is the long list of controversies that Fritzel has been involved in. Here’s a reminder of a few, in no particular order:

Artificial turf is pictured at the Tuckaway at Frontier Apartments on Thursday, May 5, 2011.

Artificial turf is pictured at the Tuckaway at Frontier Apartments on Thursday, May 5, 2011. by Nick Krug

Fake Grass. Fritzel in 2012 became embroiled in a controversy over whether he improperly installed artificial turf at one of his west Lawrence apartment complexes. The city staff said he did and told Fritzel while his crews were installing it that it was impermissible under city code. Fritzel disagreed and continued to install it anyway. Commissioners eventually agreed that the fake grass wasn’t allowed under city code, but the commission allowed Fritzel to keep the fake grass anyway.

The reconstructed Varsity House is pictured at the northwest corner of 11th and Indiana streets.

The reconstructed Varsity House is pictured at the northwest corner of 11th and Indiana streets. by Mike Yoder

Varsity House. In 2012, a Fritzel group agreed to a $50,000 settlement to end a dispute over whether the old Varsity House was improperly dismantled and removed from its site in the Oread neighborhood. The city and historic preservationists thought Fritzel was going to move the old house to a different part of the lot to make room for a new apartment project. But what happened instead is that Fritzel’s crews completely dismantled the house and stored its parts offsite until it was reassembled onsite. Historic preservationists were angry because they said the dismantling ruined the integrity of the old home. Fritzel disagreed, but ultimately agreed to pay a $50,000 settlement in order to get the needed occupancy permit for his apartment project.

The exterior Indiana Street entrance to the Cave nightclub is shown in this photo from 2014.

The exterior Indiana Street entrance to the Cave nightclub is shown in this photo from 2014. by Mike Yoder

The Cave. Fritzel is part of the ownership group of the student-oriented nightclub The Cave, which is located in the basement of The Oread. In February, the operators of The Cave pleaded guilty to four counts of violating the state law prohibiting establishments from giving away free liquor or advertising free liquor. In addition, Lawrence police department officials previously have expressed concerns about some of the large melees they have to respond to at The Cave or just outside of The Cave’s premises.

Drywall contractor. Early this year, a Fritzel attorney — when questioned by the Journal-World — acknowledged that one of Fritzel’s firms had used a drywall contractor that is at the center of an alleged multimillion dollar scheme involving money laundering and undocumented workers. The contractor was used for portions of the Rock Chalk Park stadium construction. Fritzel has denied knowing anything about the alleged money laundering and undocumented worker scheme. When I last checked with the U.S. attorney’s office a few weeks ago, I was told the matter is still under investigation.

Sports Pavilion Lawrence at Rock Chalk Park

Sports Pavilion Lawrence at Rock Chalk Park by Mike Yoder

Rock Chalk Park. A Fritzel-led group was the key private partner in the public-private partnership that built the city recreation center and KU sports facilities at Rock Chalk Park. Fritzel faced significant criticism from the public over his demand that he would only partner with the city, if the city agreed to waive its bidding practices for large portions of the project. An auditor eventually had to be hired to review questions surrounding payments the city was required to make to Fritzel’s group.

It would be unfair, however, if I didn’t note that Fritzel has been credited with several positive developments in the community too. The Eldridge Hotel, a jewel of the community, is in better shape than it was before his group purchased it. He has been part of successfully redeveloping portions of the 600 block of Massachusetts Street. He was a key partner in landing the Berry Plastics distribution center in rural Douglas County. He has been involved in philanthropy in the community.

Let me be clear: I don’t know whether the city should revoke the incentive package for The Oread project. Doing so very well could put The Oread in financial distress. The city could lose some transient guest tax revenues as a result. The development community may shudder, believing this is a sign the city will revoke other incentive packages in the future.

On the other hand, I have said several times that I believe the biggest issue facing the City Commission currently is low levels of trust with some community residents. (A quick note: The city staff deserves some credit for bringing this Oread tax issue to light. In February, I told a city staff member I had received a tip about a company called Oread Wholesale that was operating at The Oread. It seemed odd. The city staff, which I have found over the years to be a hard-working and professional group, took that information and got the ball rolling on this audit. State laws were stymying my efforts to get the necessary information to get to the bottom of this, so, absent this audit, I’m not sure the public would have found out about this.)

If the city believes that these allegations are true and that Fritzel was seeking to deceive the city, it is hard to see how the city can simply ask for its money back and move on. That would create a new round of trust concerns with the public.

As I look at this, I don’t see where the city has proposed any penalty for these alleged actions at Oread. The city is basically asking to be made whole. The payment of interest is not a penalty because the development group earned interest on the money while it had it. Paying $27,000 for the audit the city had to conduct hardly seems like a penalty.

Imagine if the IRS handled situations in this manner. How many people would not pay their taxes if they thought the end result of getting caught was simply they would have to pay what they owed?

Again, I don’t know what the City Commission should do. It has some tough decisions to make. This much seems clear: The City Commission will be sending a message by what it does or by what it does not do. That’s been the case every time the city has had to deal with a Fritzel controversy.

Now, the question seems to be whether the City Commission will send a message that causes this list of Fritzel controversies to stop growing.

UPDATE: The Douglas County District Attorney’s Office on Thursday said it had received a high volume of calls regarding the city’s investigation into the 12th and Oread Tax Increment Financing District Redevelopment Agreement. The DA’s office noted it is not an investigative agency. Criminal investigations are commenced by law enforcement agencies, and the results are forwarded to the DA’s office for review and consideration for prosecution. The DA’s office said it had been contacted by the City of Lawrence and informed of the general nature of this matter.

Reply 49 comments from Bob Forer Richard Heckler David Holroyd Stacy Napier Will White Jon Bierig Kristine Matlock Theodore Calvin Samantha Martin Jhorus and 14 others

Lawrence tops $200 million in building projects for first time in city’s history; longtime construction company to close Lawrence operations

The number that has caught my eye this morning is $200 million, and thankfully it didn’t come from my friends at Visa. It is from the city’s latest building permit report. The city has topped the $200 million mark in construction projects for the first time in history. (The true total is actually a lot higher because the city's figures don't include the bulk of the school projects underway or the work happening on the KU campus. Plus, building permit totals don't capture other types of construction, like the more than $190 million worth of road work as part of the South Lawrence Trafficway project.)

The latest report shows building permits issued in October, and the fall season was a good one on the construction front. The city issued permits for $12 million worth of projects in the month. That brought the year-to-date total to $206.9 million.

We previously have reported that the city had set a new building total record. Back in August the city broke the previous record of $171.9 million that was set in 2013. So, now the city is just adding to the record.

Perhaps the most noteworthy number in the report is that single-family home construction experienced its best month of the year in October. Builders pulled permits for 28 single-family homes, topping the previous high mark of 21 set in June. When you add duplex construction to the mix, the city has issued 211 permits for single-family and duplex construction in the city thus far in 2015. That’s the highest total in at least the last six years, according to figures from the city. Not only is the number higher; it is a lot higher. At this time in 2014, the city had issued only 88 permits for single-family and duplex construction. The five-year average has been 112 units.

The numbers seem to be a sign that the construction industry is betting that the housing market in Lawrence is in for a pretty good run.

The city report also noted a couple of projects worth keeping an eye on. Permits have been issued for a new industrial building in front of the Comfort Inn and Suites near McDonald Drive and Princeton Boulevard. As we previously have reported, a group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel is building a storage unit facility there. Based on the plans I’ve seen, it won’t be mini-storage units; rather, the plans show three climate-controlled buildings that will be constructed on the site. My understanding is Fritzel plans to relocate some of his construction firms that are using some downtown space into those buildings. I suspect some of the buildings also may be for lease to other firms that have storage or warehouse needs, but I don’t have any definitive word on that. That project pulled permits for about $775,000 worth of work, which made it the largest project of October.

The city’s report also notes a building permit has been issued for remodeling work at Sports Pavilion Lawrence, the city-owned recreation center at Rock Chalk Park. The work is part of Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s plan to renovate vacant space in the center into a sports therapy location for the hospital. The city issued permits for about $150,000 worth of remodeling work at the center.

In other news and notes from around town:

During this season of holiday buffets, I pretty much always carry the equivalent of a concrete block in my stomach. But if you want the real deal, there’s soon going to be one less option in Lawrence. A concrete block company that has had ties to Lawrence for more than 50 years is leaving the city at the end of the month.

Capitol Concrete Products has confirmed it is closing its North Lawrence facility at the end of the month and transferring workers to the company’s Topeka plant. Capitol Concrete sells concrete blocks, bricks, pavers and other types of materials to contractors and the general public. It has been in the Lawrence market since 1998, but its Lawrence lineage dates back much further. The company bought the Lawrence-based Morton’s Building Materials in 1998. Morton’s had been in operation in Lawrence — primarily on East 15th Street — since at least the 1940s.

Capitol Concrete had closed the production part of the Lawrence operation years ago and had just four employees at the Lawrence location, which served as a distribution and retail center. Jon Forsberg, manager at the Lawrence center, told me three of the four employees are transferring to other positions with Capitol Concrete, which has a production plant in Topeka.

Forsberg said the concrete block business did see a decline during the recession, but said business had picked back up. He directed questions about why the company is leaving the Lawrence market to Capitol’s parent company, which is The Monarch Cement Company in Humboldt. I put a call into an executive down there, but haven’t heard back yet.

UPDATE: I did hear back from Kent Webber, executive vice president of Monarch. He said the fact that the Lawrence office no longer produced any products but rather was only a sales office led to the decision. He said the company will keep its sales representative stationed in Lawrence, and the representative will continue to call on commercial accounts. The North Lawrence business was open to the public, but Webber said the big box home improvement retailers had cut down on the amount of retail business the location did.

Capitol Concrete’s North Lawrence facility is in the small industrial park that is just north of the Tee Pee Junction, which also is known as the intersection of U.S. Highway 24/40 and U.S. Highway 59. Forsberg said Capitol Concrete owns the facility and would be seeking a buyer for the several-acre site. Webber said the company has had conversations with a couple of potential buyers, but has not made any decision about what to do with the property. The company several years ago sold its East 15th Street facility. It is owned by the city of Lawrence.


More questions about Oread special taxing district; commissioner says city working to make sure ‘everyone pays their fair share of taxes’

I think we are getting closer to figuring out what the concerns are with the special taxing district at The Oread hotel. But I don’t think that means we are near the end of the questions about this project.

If you remember, we reported in November that the city had hired a Wichita accounting firm to complete a report on how the special taxing district — which has generated more than $2 million and counting for the development group that built the hotel — is operating. Then, last week we reported there were signs from City Hall that the auditing firm had found some concerning information, but no details have been publicly released.

If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, city commissioners are going to again discuss the issue behind closed doors tonight. They have an executive session planned for their meeting this evening, and the general description of the session leads me to believe it is about The Oread issue. That session, I believe, should clear the way for the city to release the findings of the report in the coming days.

Since I last wrote about the topic last week, I have had a chance to talk with some more commissioners about the subject, and also to come up with some more questions.

Mayor Mike Amyx and I chatted Monday, and he stood by his decision to have a vote in October for an approximately $500,000 public incentive for The Eldridge Hotel expansion project. The Eldridge project and The Oread project have become linked because the two properties have a lot of cross ownership, and both are led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel. My theory is this: If the auditors find problems at The Oread taxing district that point back to Fritzel and his group, the public is going to be mad that the City Commission gave Fritzel and his group another round of public incentives just weeks before the results of this audit came out.

On Monday, Amyx said he felt allowing The Eldridge incentive request to proceed was the right thing to do.

“I didn’t give a lot of thought to that,” Amyx said of delaying The Eldridge vote. “They are completely different projects. I know there is a lot of cross ownership, but they are technically different owners.”

Not all commissioners are of that opinion. Commissioner Leslie Soden said she wishes the city would have waited until after the auditing firm had completed its work. Soden ended up voting against The Eldridge request.

“If delaying the vote was something I could have accomplished, I would have,” Soden said. “But it is the mayor’s prerogative of what to put on the agenda.”

Amyx noted that when The Eldridge vote came up in October there was a lot of discussion about how the City Commission needed to follow through on a promise that the previous commission had made to The Eldridge project. The previous commission had passed a resolution of intent to grant the approximately $500,000 sales tax exemption for the project. But because of the April elections, it fell to the new commission to actually approve the final paperwork on the incentive.

“We were receiving a lot of recommendations that we had to stand up to the commitments that were made,” Amyx said. “That decision was one of honoring a commitment made by the commission.”

The commission certainly did receive some comment from the public urging the city to approve the incentive on those grounds. But it is worth remembering an important fact: The public didn't know there was an audit underway.

I think that is one of the questions to be answered here: Why wasn’t the public made aware that an auditing firm had been hired to look into the issue?

Normally, when the city engages a contractor, the City Commission approves of it through an agenda item. That would cause us to see the agenda item, write about it and inform the public. But the city manager’s office has confirmed to me that the hiring of this audit firm was not the subject of an agenda item. The city manager has the authority to hire some firms to do work for the city, as long as the amount is below certain levels. The estimated cost of this audit is $15,000, which I think falls within the city manager’s purview to do without formal City Commission approval.

In talking with interim City Manager Diane Stoddard, she noted there are a lot of state-imposed confidentially requirements involved with examining sales tax reports of private businesses. But those confidentiality requirements don’t prevent the city from acknowledging that it has hired an auditor to review the district. The city did acknowledge that an auditor had been hired when the Journal-World asked the city about it in November. But the only reason we knew to ask was because we received an anonymous tip alerting us to the audit’s existence.

Perhaps the city handled this the way it did out of an abundance of caution. I can understand that the city wouldn’t want to embarrass a company by announcing it was conducting an audit without knowing whether the audit was actually going to find anything.

But, the issue of tax incentives has been a very important one to the public. It was a hot-button issue during the elections. I’m certain that there are members of the public who would have liked to have had that information when they gave public comment to commissioners on The Eldridge tax incentive request in October.

That brings me to my second question: How much information should the public be entitled to receive about businesses that are benefiting from a public tax incentive?

Here’s some background on this Oread issue: I called the city many months ago — before the audit was ordered — telling them that I had received a tip that a company called Oread Wholesale LC was using a business address of 1200 Oread Ave., which is the address for the hotel. I found that odd because Oread Wholesale appears to be a construction material wholesale company owned by Thomas Fritzel, and there doesn’t appear to be an active construction material wholesale company operating at 1200 Oread. But understanding special taxing districts, I knew it could be advantageous to list all the sales of Oread Wholesale as being made at 1200 Oread. That’s because Fritzel’s development group gets a large percentage of any sales taxes generated at 1200 Oread rebated back to it as part of the special taxing district. That could be problematic on a couple of fronts. Is that really the type of business the city intended to provide an incentive to? And, unless construction materials actually were changing hands at 1200 Oread, there probably would be some questions of whether the state’s sales tax laws are being followed. Normally, construction materials are delivered to a job site, which means sales tax should be charged at the location of the job site, not the location of the wholesale company.

So, I wanted to find out if there was anything to this tip I had received. I knew state law wasn’t going to let me see the actual sales tax reports filed by an individual business. That would give me access to private business information, such as how much the company is doing in sales. But I thought I might be able to see a list of all companies that are filing sales tax reports from that address. The city checked for me, and told me state law wouldn’t allow them to release that information either.

That creates an interesting situation. The public is providing an incentive worth millions of dollars to this project, but the public faces considerable difficulty in determining what businesses benefit from that public incentive. What harm would be created by the state releasing information about whether a business is filing a sales tax report from a specific location, particularly if the public has invested in that location through a public incentive?

The issue is more directly tied to state law than anything the city controls, but some city commissioners said they did think that businesses seeking incentives need to be ready to share more information with the public than they would otherwise.

“If you don’t want us in your business, don’t come asking for anything,” Commissioner Matthew Herbert said. “If you don’t ask for incentives, we will basically stay out of your hair. I think a company that asks for taxpayer subsidy needs to be prepared to be more transparent than an ordinary private company.”

Soden said she’s interested in exploring whether the city could create a requirement that any project receiving a public incentive is regularly required to file information listing what businesses are operating within the project. That way, the city would not find itself in a situation of thinking it was providing an incentive to benefit Business A, when in fact it was providing an incentive to benefit Business A, B and C.

“I’ve been frustrated by this issue for awhile,” Soden said.

If the city starts adding more requirements related to public incentives, that likely will create debate. There will be arguments that too many requirements will decrease the effectiveness of an incentive. If someone receives an incentive for a multitenant office building, for example, how much information are tenants of that building reasonably going to want to provide to City Hall?

Of course, the biggest question in all of this is: What did the auditing firm find? Amyx didn’t provide a specific timeline for the city to release the information, but said it will come out in a “timely fashion.” He said he's committed to making the findings public.

I don’t have any good insight into what the firm has found, other than sources have told me there are some significant findings. Whether those findings involve the development group, the city or something else, I don’t know. But Soden did make one comment that I found interesting.

“I want people to understand that the city has been working on this for awhile, and we are not trying to keep this hidden for any ugly reasons,” Soden said. “The city has always been on top of the issue, and has been working to make sure everybody pays their fair share of taxes.”

Reply 13 comments from Dorothy Hoyt-Reed Jerome Bradley Richard Heckler Lesblevins David Holroyd Chad Lawhorn Paul Silkiner Theodore Calvin Will White Richard Crank

City ramps up vehicle purchases to replace aging fleet; more than $1.75 million in vehicle purchases approved thus far in December

I know for most of us, December is marked as the month for accumulating five-pound cheese logs, yule logs and the multitude of other fine culinary logs. But for the city of Lawrence, December is the month for new vehicle purchases. Thus far in December — once commissioners approve a few items at their Tuesday meeting — the city will have purchased $1.75 million worth of vehicles.

December has long been a month for vehicle purchases for the city. Departments either have budget money they’ve held in reserve until the end of the year, or else they have money in the 2016 budget for vehicles, and they want to make a December order so the vehicles will arrive early in the new year.

But it looks like the city has stepped up its vehicle purchasing program this year, which wouldn’t be surprising. During the last budget sessions, city officials warned commissioners that the city’s vehicle and equipment fleet was really suffering. For years, the city has postponed making vehicle purchases in order to balance some budgets. Back in April, we reported that the average age of the city’s vehicle fleet in recent years had risen to 9.5 years, up from about 5.8 years in 1999. In June, we reported that the city’s recommended budget would include an extra $1.25 million in vehicle and equipment purchases in 2016 compared with 2015.

It looks like the ramp-up is beginning in December. I did a few quick calculations and the city — thus far in December — has placed orders for $1.75 million worth of equipment compared with about $900,000 in December 2015.

As for what the city is buying, here’s a look:

• Two rear load refuse trucks for the sanitation division from Downing Sales and Service: $230,164. The city received bids from four vendors. The city took the lowest bid.

• Two half-ton pickup trucks for the Public Works Department from Laird Noller Ford: $45,118. The city received bids from two vendors. Laird Noller was higher than Shawnee Mission Ford’s, but fell within the 1 percent local preference policy. The city has a policy that if a locally based company comes within 1 percent of the low bid that the city commission has the option of taking the bid from the local bidder. The thought process is the city and the community receive more benefit from shopping local than they save by the 1 percent price difference.

• 14 police utility interceptors — the sport utility police vehicles that have become standard in the police department — from Laird Noller Ford: $378,559. Laird Noller was the only bid received.

• One half-ton 4x4 extended cab truck for the police department’s investigation’s division from Laird Noller Ford: $26,008. The city received bids from two vendors. Laird Noller’s was the highest but was within the 1 percent local preference policy.

• One Ford Transit prisoner transport van for the Police Department from Shawnee Mission Ford: $43,813. The city received bids from two vendors and took the lowest bid.

• One Ford Transit standard van for the Police Department from Laird Noller Ford: $23,972. The city only received one bid.

• Two 4x4 pickup trucks for the Utilities Department from Laird Noller Ford: $45,118. The city received bids from two vendors. Laird Noller’s was the highest, but fell within the 1 percent local preference policy.

• Four dump trucks equipped with snow plows and salt and sand spreaders: $636,588. The city didn’t go out for bid on the project, but rather took advantage of a bid that the Kansas Department of Transportation had received for dump truck/snow plow vehicles.

• One compact SUV Ford Escape for the Planning and Development Services Department: $23,444. The city received bids from three vendors. Laird Noller’s was the No. 2 bid in terms of price, but it was within the 1 percent local preference policy.

• Two F-350 and one F-450 truck from Laird Noller Ford for the Parks and Recreation Department: $114,762. Laird Noller was the only bidder on the project.

• One automated, side load refuse truck for the city’s sanitation division from Downing Sales and Service: $187,747. The city did not bid the project but rather took advantage of a bid that already was received by a regional sanitation cooperative.

We’ll see what the rest of the month brings, and also what the rest of 2016 brings, in terms of new vehicle and equipment purchases. It will be interesting to see if it brings a greater number of bidders. It was interesting to note the low number of bidders for some of these projects. Laird Noller was the only local car dealer that even placed a bid for any of the vehicles purchased in December.

In some cases, the city is pretty committed to a particular brand of vehicle. For example, the city sees some value in having all Fords for its police car fleet because it makes training and maintenance more efficient. But why other local bidders didn’t emerge for some of the pickup truck purchases and the SUV purchase for the Planning and Development Services Department is unclear to me.

But, I’m unclear about a lot of things this time of year. Don’t even get me started guessing what that last log was.

Reply 7 comments from Floyd Craig Todd Kennedy Thomas Moore Stacy Napier Greg Cooper Tom Thomson Norman Bell

Audit results about special taxing district at The Oread expected soon; questions about Eldridge tax break; eco devo leaders seeking firms to work on Menards project

Concerns about the operation or management of The Oread hotel’s special taxing district are expected to come to light soon, I’ve learned.

If you remember, City Hall reporter Nikki Wentling reported last month that the city had hired an auditor to review the special taxing district, which has generated more than $2 million thus far for the local development group that built the hotel.

The audit by the Wichita-based firm Allen, Gibbs & Houlik has now been completed, and city officials are promising to release its results. The city hasn’t yet provided any details on the audit, but there are certainly indications that there are some significant findings.

“The position we are in now is that we are contacting all parties that were involved in the audit, and we want them to hear everything we have found and what we intend to tell the public, so that there won’t be any surprises,” Commissioner Matthew Herbert told me.

Commissioners thus far haven’t said whether concerns center on how the private businesses have used the special taxing district or whether they are related to how the city has managed the district, or whether they are some other set of concerns. They have been tight-lipped about the audit, and, in fact, the audit only came to light due to an anonymous tip that the Journal-World received about its existence.

One issue the J-W’s article last month pointed out is an oddity with one business that is listed as having a home in the district. Records from the state indicate a business called Oread Wholesale L.C. is located at 1200 Oread Ave., the address of the hotel. Information from web listings and other sources indicate Oread Wholesale L.C. is a wholesale supplier of construction materials.

But, there are no signs of a wholesale construction material supplier operating at the upscale Oread. When the J-W went to the hotel last month seeking information about Oread Wholesale, a clerk at the hotel told our reporter that Oread Wholesale was listed as the address “just to get stuff shipped in.” The clerk said there was no warehouse on site.

What makes this element interesting is that the latest annual report on file with the state of Kansas for Oread Wholesale lists Thomas Fritzel as the primary owner of the company. Fritzel is also the leader of the development group that benefits from the special taxing district at The Oread.

The way that special taxing district works is that the development group gets a rebate on a large percentage of every sales tax dollar generated at the 1200 Oread address. When you buy a meal at The Oread, a large percentage of the sales tax gets rebated back to the development group, which then is supposed to use the money to pay for infrastructure projects and the private parking garage that were built as part of the project. If a wholesale construction supplier is selling materials at that address, then Fritzel’s development group would get a rebate on the sales taxes charged on that material as well.

A couple of questions come to mind:

  1. Are construction material sales actually happening at 1200 Oread, or is the address just being used to take advantage of the benefits of the special taxing district?

  2. If construction materials are being sold at 1200 Oread, is that the type of business that city officials intended to provide an incentive to? It certainly wasn’t the type of business ever mentioned publicly when Fritzel was lobbying commissioners to approve the incentive. That lobbying effort was all about providing an incentive for an upscale hotel that would help the city attract more visitor dollars. We previously have tried to talk with Fritzel about this issue, but with no luck.

It is important to remember that I don’t know what the audit’s findings are. Oread Wholesale may or may not be a part of the report. Either way, it is an interesting issue.

Another interesting issue may be brewing on this front. As we previously reported, this audit began in April. City commissioners in October approved a tax break for The Eldridge Hotel. The Eldridge Hotel and the Oread development group have a lot of cross ownership. Fritzel is the leader of both groups. I confirmed with interim City Manager Diane Stoddard that commissioners were aware of the Oread audit that was underway at the time the commission was voting on The Eldridge tax break. Commissioners approved The Eldridge tax break — valued at about $460,000 — on a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Leslie Soden and Lisa Larsen voting against it.

So, to summarize: The commission knew there was an audit underway regarding questions about the use of The Oread special taxing district, but it approved a new incentive that will benefit many of the same people who are involved in the audit at The Oread. If the audit comes back and finds that Fritzel and his development group have done no wrong in the Oread taxing district, then I suppose no harm, no foul. But if the audit does raise concerns about Fritzel and that development group, I suspect the public is going to have questions about why the City Commission didn’t wait to act on the Eldridge request until the Oread audit was completed.

I asked some commissioners whether they thought about waiting. Herbert told me he did but ultimately decided against it.

“I have thought about that quite a bit,” Herbert said. “Even though there are certainly some elements of cross ownership, they are two separate entities, and I think they ought to be treated as separate on that matter.”

I asked Commissioner Stuart Boley the same question, and his answer was more confusing. When I asked him whether he had given any thought to delaying that vote, he referred me to Toni Wheeler, the city’s attorney. I told him I didn’t think Wheeler was in a good position to comment on why Boley did or didn’t vote on a particular matter. Boley said he just wasn’t in a position to answer questions about the subject. I asked him if he could explain why he wasn’t in a position to answer questions about his thought process regarding a vote he had taken, and he told me he wasn’t in a position to answer that question either.

Mayor Mike Amyx was the third vote to approve The Eldridge incentive. We’ve traded messages, and we’re scheduled to talk on Monday. I’ll report back on his thoughts.

Again, it is tough to know what is next because it is unclear what the audit has found. But I think the findings could be significant, and they could represent quite a test for the City Commission. From my view, the greatest challenge facing the City Commission currently is regaining the trust of the public. The process used to build Rock Chalk Park damaged the trust level with some residents. The resignation of Mayor Jeremy Farmer from the commission also hurt. If this audit does create questions about how this special taxing district has been used or managed, it will be a key moment for the commission as it relates to building trust with the public.

Herbert told me that the city plans to be straightforward in its findings.

“We have every intention of going public with every piece of it,” he said.

There will be some considerations the city has to take into account as it releases the information. It is against state law to release some types of private business sales tax data.

Herbert also said he thinks the information will be coming forward sooner rather than later.

“Based on the information I’ve seen, we have a very vested interest in dealing with this pretty quickly,” Herbert said.

Stoddard, the interim city manager, also told me her plan is for the city to provide a full briefing to the public on the matter.

“I would anticipate something will be forthcoming,” Stoddard said. “The city is trying to be as transparent as we can at the appropriate points in the process.”

In other news and notes from around town:

• A project that is going much smoother at City Hall is the public incentive request for Menard Inc. to build a new production and distribution plant at Lawrence VenturePark. As we’ve reported, the project has won a positive recommendation from the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee, and has won the necessary approvals from the Douglas County Commission. City Commissioners are scheduled to vote on the project’s incentive package — valued at about $2.3 million — at their Jan. 5 meeting.

Folks in the business community are looking ahead toward when the plant may be built and in operation. Officials with the Lawrence chamber of commerce and the Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence and Douglas County, have begun reaching out to local contractors on behalf of Menard Inc.

Brady Pollington, vice president of the EDC, said he’s looking to hear from any Lawrence area firms who have an interest in working with Menards on their project. That could include building contractors, earth movers, landscapers, engineers, equipment suppliers, staffing agencies, and a whole host of other businesses that may be needed to operate the facility.

Pollington said he’s gathering the names of the firms and presenting them to Menards.

“I’ve had those conversations with Menards and told them that we want to get this information out to our members and our community,” Pollington said. “Menards told me they wanted to use as much local as they can.”

Any business interested in working on the project should send its information to Pollington at bpollington@lawrencechamber.com.

Reply 20 comments from Jerome Bradley David Holroyd Richard Heckler Foodboy Richard Crank Sue McDaniel Mike Green Larry Sturm Will White Brett McCabe and 2 others

New three-story comic and game store coming to downtown; Lawrence home sales top 1,000 for the year

I probably need to spend more time reading comic books. As the "Star Wars" fever rises, some in my household are becoming frustrated that I keep confusing Count Dooku with Count Chocula. But fear not, we don’t have to be confused for long because the world of comics (yes, there are "Star Wars" comic books), board games and fantasy is becoming big business in Lawrence.

A new three-story comic and gaming store is opening in downtown Lawrence. Well, sort of. The Game Nut and Astrokitty Comics & More have merged, and an expansion project is underway at Game Nut’s longtime home at 844 Massachusetts.

Astrokitty recently vacated its longtime space at 15 E. Seventh St. when owner Joel Pfannenstiel sold Astrokitty to Game Nut. Joel, though, continues to be a part of the business. He’s helping design the expansion that will end up occupying all three floors of the Game Nut building at Ninth and Massachusetts.

“We plan to be the largest gaming store in Lawrence and really one of the largest ones in the Kansas City area,” Joel said.

The space already is occupying two of the three floors. The top floor of the building houses the comic book shop — now known as Astrokitty @ Game Nut — and it also includes the store’s action figure department. The main floor of the building continues to house the electronic video games. Work is underway to expand the shop into the basement level. It will include the board game selection, role playing games, the store’s High Score video game lounge, and a large area that can house up to 60 people who want to get together to play tabletop games.

“We want to create space where the community can meet and play,” Joel said.

The space, which is expected to be open in February, will be called The Dungeon, complete with the old stone walls of the basement that will be left exposed. Getting together to play board games or other tabletop games has become an emerging trend.

“There’s just a camaraderie and social aspect of it that you don’t really get as much with the video games,” Joel said. “We’re really going to push the aspect of community and interaction and people coming together.”

Video games, though, will remain a large part of the business. Joel said the number of people who play both video and tabletop games and read comic books is large. Television shows — everything from "Game of Thrones" to the multitude of zombie stuff — has led to greater interest in games and literature related to fantasy and other genres.

“There has been a huge upswing,” Joel said. “All this stuff that I’ve immersed myself in all my life, other people are doing it too. It is very cool.”

The Lawrence business community is certainly betting on the trend. This is the third major comic/gaming project I’ve reported on this year. Boom Comics opened an approximately 15,000 square-foot comic and gaming store earlier this year in the former Kief’s Audio Video space at 2429 Iowa St. In west Lawrence, Rolling Gnome Games — a store that focuses on a variety of board, tabletop and card games — opened at 3727 W. Sixth St.

Game Nut and Astrokitty, though, are two of the longer-term players in the Lawrence market. Both are celebrating their 10-year anniversaries this year, Joel said.

It sounds like the expansion in the industry isn’t quite done. Joel said Game Nut owner Gene Nutt is undertaking an expansion of his south Iowa Street store. Plans call for the amount of space for the south Iowa Game Nut, which is at 2540 Iowa, to approximately double. Work is likely to be completed in February, Joel said.

In other news and notes from around town:

• If I’m going to start reading lots of comic books, I’ll probably need a new house with an extra room to keep all my Count Chocula costumes. (Sorry, I’m still getting confused.) Regardless, I do have the latest figures on home sales in Lawrence.

For October, home sales in Lawrence were basically flat. (I didn’t say I had exciting figures. Why do you think I’m still making Count Chocula jokes?) Sales totaled 83 units, down from 84 in October 2014.

The numbers for the year to date are more exciting. The October numbers pushed Lawrence above the 1,000 homes sold mark for 2015. For the year, home sales in Lawrence are up 15 percent compared with 2014. Last year, the real estate market took a little dip in Lawrence, but it seems clear that 2015 will reverse that trend. Last year, home sales declined by about 0.2 percent. That was compared with a 17 percent increase in 2013 and a 28 percent increase in 2012. So, 2015 is on pace to return the market to more recent norms.

Here are some other numbers from the report put out by the Lawrence Board of Realtors:

• The number of newly constructed homes sold for the year have rebounded in 2015. New homes sales total 73, up from 60 at this time in 2014. However, sales of newly constructed homes continue to lag 2013 totals, when 86 had been sold at this time.

• The type of new home being constructed in Lawrence is slightly more expensive than in past years. The median selling price for a newly constructed home is $309,400, up about 1.5 percent from a year ago. It is up about $9,000 from 2013, when the median selling price was $300,620.

• The total dollar value of homes sold in Lawrence is up about 18 percent to $212.8 million.

• The median number of days a home sits on the market before it sells continues to fall. The median is now at 24 days, down from 33 last year and 42 in 2013.

• The number of homes on the market continues to fall, which real estate agents have said is depressing home sales in the city. The number of active listings stands at 317, down about 15 percent from last year and about 13 percent from 2013.

I also have one figure on real estate values. This one comes from the Douglas County Appraiser’s Office, instead of the Board of Realtors. The latest data from the appraiser’s office shows the average sale price for existing homes in Lawrence and Douglas County is $213,992 thus far in 2015. That’s up about 1.5 percent from a year ago. So, the real estate market is seeing some appreciation but isn’t going gangbusters, based on those numbers.

Reply 1 comment from Mitchell Schmidt

Large fitness center chain signs deal for big facility on south Iowa; more info on changes in the works at Genesis Health Club

Maybe they read about the pending explosion of fried chicken places coming to south Iowa Street and figured waistlines were sure to follow. Whatever the case, a new national fitness club chain has signed a deal for a large space along the south Iowa Street corridor.

Planet Fitness has reached a deal to lease 22,000 square feet of space in the shopping center that houses Office Depot at 25th and Iowa streets.

“We’re confident it will be a really good addition for the community,” said Greg Henson, managing partner for the Planet Fitness franchise in the Kansas City metro. “To us, Lawrence looks like a very health-conscious community. You have some great facilities there, but this will give people an option that will be very inexpensive.”

It sure seems like Planet Fitness is the type of player that could shake up the local fitness club market. The company has an aggressive pricing strategy. Its basic membership starts at $10 per month. Its premium membership is $20 per month, but it allows you to bring a guest with you as often as you would like. Both memberships also allow members to take an unlimited number of fitness classes at no additional charge. Plans call for the workout areas to be open 24 hours a day.

Henson said the Planet Fitness concept — his group owns seven of the clubs in the Kansas City metro — revolves around the idea that people don’t join fitness clubs for a combination of three reasons: 1. They feel intimidated in the workout area; 2. The costs are too high; 3. The clubs aren’t clean enough.

“I think people will be very impressed with the cleanliness, the friendliness, the judgment-free attitude, and it is cheap to join,” Henson said.

The club is expected to have more than 100 pieces of cardio equipment, plus weights, large locker rooms, an indoor tanning area and water massage tables, in addition to other amenities.

Henson has begun the process of applying for the necessary permits to renovate the space. Planet Fitness will be going into a portion of the former Discovery Furniture store. (Discovery moved its store to Johnson County, in case you have forgotten.) It will occupy the part of the building that is adjacent to Office Depot. If all goes according to plan, Henson hopes to have the club open this spring.

The Planet Fitness deal fills about half of the available space in the shopping center, said Christian Ablah, who is a commercial real estate broker for the project. Ablah said about 23,000 square feet remain, and interest from retailers in the property has been strong.

“We’re excited to have Planet Fitness, and we’re excited with the other retailers that are interested in the site,” said Ablah.

The deal is the latest sign that south Iowa Street continues to draw a lot of interest from retailers and others who want to take advantage of the high traffic volumes and the pending completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway. Henson said being on the south Iowa corridor was an easy decision for his company to make.

“To us, 23rd and Iowa is kind of a legendary intersection in Lawrence,” Henson said. “Everybody knows where that is at in Lawrence. Being near that intersection and having all the traffic and retailers on Iowa Street made it a really desirable location.”

In other news and notes from around town:

• Planet Fitness is entering the Lawrence market at an interesting time. As we previously have reported, Genesis Health Clubs— Lawrence’s largest fitness club provider — has reached a deal to convert the Jayhawk Tennis Center on Clinton Parkway into a fitness center. But now my understanding is the new Clinton Parkway facility will replace Genesis’ current facility at 23rd and Iowa streets.

Joe Oxler, regional director for Genesis, told me the plans were to close the 23rd and Iowa facility once the new Genesis club opens at the tennis center site, which is at 5200 Clinton Parkway in west Lawrence. Work on the tennis center site is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2016.

Now, I talked with Oxler before the Planet Fitness deal was announced, so I suppose a change of strategy is possible, but I doubt it. The company already has purchased the tennis center site, and is excited about being able to offer a different type of club to Lawrence. The tennis center site will continue to have tennis offerings, but now will have a full complement of cardio, weights, three group fitness studios and other fitness club components.

Oxler said six of the 21 clubs Genesis operates in the region include tennis courts. He said club members enjoy the competition and workout that the game provides.

“We’re big supporters of tennis,” Oxler said.

Oxler said Genesis had tried on multiple occasions to buy the building they're in at 23rd and Iowa, but had been unsuccessful in striking a deal for the location. Genesis generally invests large amounts of money into the interior design of its clubs and prefers to own the real estate when making a large investment in amenities.

Oxler said the Clinton Parkway facility will allow for the company to make a major investment in amenities at the location. Genesis' other facility on Sixth Street recently completed a major renovation. Oxler said he thinks the new Clinton Parkway facility will appeal to some users of the Sixth Street facility, which should open up some capacity at the Sixth Street location.

“We think it will be a great move for us and also for KU,” Oxler said.

In case you have forgotten, KU has announced plans to build a new tennis facility at Rock Chalk Park as part of a public-private partnership with a development group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel. Until that facility is complete, KU’s tennis team will continue to use the Clinton Parkway facility.

Reply 8 comments from David Holroyd Nathan Anderson Gregdivilbiss Bob Smith Nora McAfee Jake Davis Richard Aronoff

Cost of affordable housing project likely to be debated again; update on senior living project; Downtown Lawrence Inc. launches new gift card program

This is the season where I’m reminded that we definitely can have differences of opinion about the idea of what’s affordable. (This is also the season where I’m reminded that the First Amendment protects my right to have an opinion, but does nothing to keep me warm while sleeping in the garage.) All this is to say that a difference of opinion may be brewing again on an issue related to an affordable housing project.

I’ve seen a city memo that indicates city commissioners next week once again will consider allowing the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority to purchase a six-unit apartment building at 1725 New Hampshire St., near Dillons, to convert into rent-controlled housing units.

If you remember, the City Commission was asked to approve the purchase this summer, but a majority of commissioners balked because they thought the $485,000 purchase price was too high. The county had the property appraised at about $180,000.

Commissioners asked the Housing Authority to get a private appraisal of the property done. That appraisal has been completed and it comes back with a value of $290,000, based on it being used as a residential property.

The proposed purchase price of the property, however, hasn’t changed from the $485,000 mark, and the Housing Authority still wants to buy the property.

A couple of things to keep in mind here: The Housing Authority is not seeking city tax dollars to buy the property. The authority has reserve funds that it gets either from federal programs or that it accumulates through rental income of its other properties. But, with the way the authority is structured, city commissioners have to sign off on any purchase of real estate made by the authority, even though city tax dollars aren’t involved.

A second point to keep in mind is the location of the property. It shares a property line with the Dillons store on Massachusetts Street. The apartment complex easily could be demolished, and Dillons could use the property for additional parking. Rob Farha, who leads the local group that owns the property, has told me Dillons has a strong interest in purchasing the property. Farha’s preference — it seems — is to keep the property residential, but he’s not willing to take significantly less than what Dillons may pay for the property.

So, commissioners find themselves with an interesting question: Do you allow the Housing Authority to essentially overpay to get more affordable housing units in its program? The Housing Authority has made several points about why it believes the property is worth the money.

— The property is adjacent to Babcock Place, a large apartment complex already owned by the authority. The maintenance staff at Babcock will be able to maintain the property. If the authority were to buy a similar property elsewhere in town, it may have to add a new maintenance staff member to care for it.

— Residents of the six-unit apartment complex may be able to use some of the amenities — like a computer lab — that are available at adjacent Babcock Place.

— Owning the property may allow for the Babcock Place parking lot to be reconfigured and reduce the number of Babcock residents that are currently parking on neighborhood streets.

— The apartment building’s location next to Dillons and other services would be beneficial to low-income residents that would live in the apartment building.

If allowed to purchase the property, the Housing Authority hopes to work out a deal with KVC Health Systems and the Department for Children and Families that would allow youth who are aging out of the foster care program to live in the apartments. The Housing Authority is proposing to charge rents that range from $300 to $600 a month, depending on the income levels of the tenants.

The request comes at an interesting time. The commission is hearing more about the issue of affordable housing. The faith-based group Justice Matters is still actively calling for more to be done on the issue, the city has appointed a task force on affordable housing, and talk of a demonstration project to prove what could be done with city resources is underway.

This project at six units isn’t that large, but it may serve as a bit of a test to determine what commissioners are willing to do to add more rent-controlled units to the community’s affordable housing inventory. The past commission seemed pretty willing to provide incentives or make other accommodations for affordable housing projects. The most prominent projects have been in the Warehouse Arts District, where the past commission provided more than $1.2 million worth of infrastructure improvements to assist the Poehler Lofts and the 9 Del Loft projects, which both are rent-controlled affordable housing projects. The projects also have received some property tax rebates.

Commissioners are tentatively scheduled to discuss the latest request from the Housing Authority at the Dec. 15 City Commission meeting.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Some of you have asked me about the construction work that is underway behind the United Way building. As we previously have reported, that’s also an affordable housing project.

Tenants to Homeowners is constructing 14 living units that will be rent-controlled units available seniors who meet the necessary income guidelines. When I last checked with Tenants to Homeowners a few weeks ago, the project was going well. They hoped to have six of the units ready for occupancy by about March and the other eight ready by June.

Rents will range from $545 to $795 per month, depending on the income of the tenants.

The project — which is called Cedarwood Senior Cottages — is at 25th and Cedarwood. It is being built on a 2.2 acre site that Douglas County previously owned. In addition to the cottages, the approximately $2.3 million project also will include a small community center that will host a new piece of technology that will allow for residents to meet with their physicians via broadband connections. In other words, it will be telemedicine in action.

• If I don’t start getting some holiday gifts bought, even telemedicine won’t be able to save me. Well, there is news of a new gift card program in Downtown Lawrence. Members of Downtown Lawrence Inc. have launched a new program that allows them to replace their old paper gift certificates with plastic gift cards like you find from most major retailers these days.

Sally Zogry, executive director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., said Downtown Lawrence Inc. traditionally sells more than $100,000 in gift certificates each year. But the association has been looking for a way to make the program more efficient. With the old paper certificate, when shoppers redeemed the certificate, any unused amount was returned to the shopper in dollars and cents. That meant that money may not end up getting spent in Downtown Lawrence. The new card program, much like at any other retailer — keeps the unused balance on the card, meaning that money will have to be spent at participating retailers. The cards can be redeemed at more than 100 downtown businesses, Zogry said.

Reply 4 comments from Richard Heckler David Holroyd John Pultz

Check out how Lawrence and area cities fared in latest ranking of best college communities

Lawrence is a top 10 city when it comes to being a landing place for college students, according to a new ranking.

The financial website WalletHub has ranked Lawrence as the No. 10 small city in the country for college students. Lawrence also ranked No. 24 in the country across all city sizes, according to the study that was released today.

In a study titled Best and Worst College Cities and Towns in America, the folks at WalletHub attempted to measure which communities “promise the best combination of academic, social and economic opportunities for students.”

The study pegged Lawrence as No. 10 in the list of cities with populations of 125,000 or less. Communities had to have at least 7,500 college students as residents to qualify for the study. No. 1 on the list of small cities was Ann Arbor, Mich., home to the University of Michigan. A few college communities from the region also ranked high on the list. Iowa City — which is led by one of the three candidates for the Lawrence city manager’s position — ranked No. 3 on the list of best small cities, and Columbia, Mo., was No. 6. Lawrence was right between Athens, Ga., at No. 9 and Davis, Calif., at No. 11. Lawrence ranked ahead of regional communities such as Boulder, Colo., at No. 13, Norman, Okla., at No. 18 and Greeley, Colo., at No. 51.

It should be noted that the study isn’t comprehensive. For example, Manhattan, for some reason, wasn’t ranked. It has enough students to qualify, but I think statistics weren’t available for some of the smaller communities in order for WalletHub to rank them on all 22 metrics it used to create the study.

The report looked at factors such as average rental costs, tuition costs, number of students per 100,000 people, number of nightlife options per capita, crime rates, educational rankings for universities in the community, job growth rates, the number of graduates who move out of the community, and several other factors.

The report provided a few individual statistics for Lawrence. Here’s a look at how the community ranked in several categories compared with the 116 other small cities that made the list. A score of 1 is best, while a score of 58 ranks as average:

— No. 10 — Percentage of part-time jobs in the workforce

— No. 14 — Number of students per capita

— No. 17 — Quality of higher education

— No. 23 — Number of nightlife options per capita

— No. 24 — City accessibility, which measures public transportation, walkability and other such factors.

— No. 26 — Cost of higher education

— No. 40 — Adjusted cost of living for young people

— No. 41 — Brain drain, which measures the number of college graduates moving from the community.

As I mentioned earlier, the study also includes an overall ranking, which rates cities regardless of size. Lawrence finished No. 24 — out of 326 — in that ranking. Ann Arbor, Mich., finished No. 1 in the overall ranking. That overall ranking included several Kansas communities that have at least 7,500 students living within the city limits. Here’s a look at the ranking for several cities across the state and the region.

— No. 3 — Iowa City

— No. 8 — Austin, Texas

— No. 10 — Columbia, Mo.

— No. 11 — Champaign, Ill

— No. 14 — Madison, Wis.

— No. 26 — St. Louis, Mo.

— No. 28 — Fayetteville, Ark.

— No. 29 — Boulder, Colo.

— No. 31 — Fort Collins, Colo.

— No. 46 — Lincoln, Neb.

— No. 49 — Norman, Okla.

— No. 54 — Waco, Texas

— No. 65 — Lubbock, Texas

— No. 84 — Tulsa, Okla.

— No. 101 — Kansas City, Mo.

— No. 108 — Omaha, Neb.

— No. 114 — Springfield, Mo.

— No. 116 — Overland Park

— No. 120 — Oklahoma City

— No. 143 — Olathe

— No. 191 — Wichita

— No. 213 — Topeka

Reply 1 comment from Richard Heckler

Commissioners faced with big questions, high stakes as they prepare to decide fate of south Iowa shopping center

When Lawrence city commissioners meet on Tuesday, the shopping fanatics among us are going to be asking questions of whether Lawrence soon will get an Academy Sports, an Old Navy and a host of other big retailers that appear ready to move into a new shopping center proposed for south of the SLT and Iowa Street interchange. But commissioners will be facing larger questions than those.

Commissioners are set to decide the zoning issues related to the proposed KTen Crossing project, a 250,000 square-foot retail center slated for the southeast corner of the SLT and Iowa Street interchange. I don’t want to be overly dramatic here, but whether the commission decides to kill this project or let it proceed does come with some fairly high stakes.

Last month I wrote about some new numbers that create some questions about downtown Lawrence and its future as a major retail center. Commissioners will have to keep that issue in mind. But there are plenty of other numbers out there that create questions too. It will be interesting to see if the commission views this proposed project mainly on its own, or whether it tries to answer some bigger picture questions along the way.

What are some of those bigger questions? Well, here’s a look:

Why are Lawrence shoppers spending less now than they used to? The city’s most recent retail market study provided a lot of statistics on sales tax collections. One part of the study looked at sales tax collections adjusted for inflation. In 2014, the city’s 1 percent sales tax collected $14.4 million. When adjusted for inflation, the city in 2004 collected $14.3 million. In other words, when you take inflation out of the equation, Lawrence’s retail sales from 2004 to 2014 grew by a meager 0.6 percent.

To compound the issue, that is despite the fact that Lawrence had population growth during that time period. According to the city’s figures, there were about 9,100 additional people living in Lawrence in 2014 than in 2004, and yet, true retail sales growth was basically flat. The city’s per capita sales collections fell from $164 in 2004 to $149 in 2014.

One obvious answer could be that the Great Recession did take place during this decade in question. People did clamp down on their spending. Maybe this drop-off is similar to what every other city experienced. The city’s retail market report doesn’t provide information on whether other cities had such a drop-off.

But there are other numbers that create concern that more may be at play here than the recession. The further you look back at the numbers, the worse the picture looks. From 2000 to 2008 — a period where the economy was humming — per capita sales tax collections dropped from $178 in 2000 to $156 in 2008.

Another answer may be that Lawrence residents are just making less money, so they are spending less money. That, however, is not what’s the city’s numbers show. The retail market study lists per capita income numbers that also have been adjusted for inflation. The most recent data is for 2013. It shows income levels from 2003 to 2013 grew by 5.8 percent, after inflation. It is certainly debatable whether that is a healthy amount of income growth — it is about a half-percent a year, after inflation — but it is accurate to say that Lawrence residents had more money in their pockets.

Of course, a third answer is that more Lawrence residents are shopping out of town as the number of retail shopping outlets in the Kansas City and Topeka markets have grown at a faster pace than the number of shopping options in Lawrence. Obviously, that is the answer the development group for KTen Crossing wants the city to land on.

Just to be clear, I don’t know the answer to the question, but it sure seems like an important one for the City Commission to figure out.

How big of a player does Lawrence want to be in the retail world? The state produces a statistic called a trade pull factor for every major city in the state. It is basically a way of comparing a community’s per capita sales tax collections with the statewide per capita sales tax collections. It is not a perfect statistic, but it is a quick way to see if you are keeping up with the Joneses.

The most recent pull factor for Lawrence shows we’re at 1.04, which means our per capita sales tax collections are 4 percent better than the statewide average. Should commissioners be happy with being 4 percent better than average? That’s clearly a judgment call.

Lawrence is the largest city in the fifth largest county in the state. Lawrence, however, is not near the top five when it comes to pull factor rankings. Of the 25 first class cities in the state — a term used to describe some of the larger cities in the state — Lawrence ranks No. 16. Lenexa leads the pack. It is 55 percent above average. Some others of note: Overland Park is 43 percent above average; Topeka 32 percent above average; Manhattan 29 percent above average; Olathe 16 percent above average; and Wichita 12 percent above average. The two cities closest to Lawrence are Emporia at 8 percent above average and Coffeyville at 2 percent above average.

This is a one-year snapshot, which is not ideal. But, I have watched these numbers over the years, and Lawrence has always struggled to rank very high on the list. Some would say there is a reason that has been the case: our geography. Lawrence struggles to rise on the list because the draw of Kansas City and Topeka shopping is always going to depress the amount of shopping that occurs in Lawrence.

At some point, city leaders need to determine how much they buy into that argument. How far above average can Lawrence be? How much can we convince Lawrence shoppers to shop locally? Developers of the proposed shopping center are arguing this development will help keep shoppers in Lawrence, and may bring in some new shoppers from outside the city, most notably from Franklin County to the south.

Again, I don’t have the answer, but it appears Lawrence needs to figure out how much it wants to compete for the retail dollars in the region.

How do we want to tax ourselves? Cities usually get most of their money to pay for basic services through sales taxes and property taxes. Communities that rely heavily on sales taxes feel one way. Communities that rely heavily on property taxes feel a different way. Usually, communities have a strategy for what type of mix they want to have when it comes to sales and property taxes.

My perception of Lawrence city government over the last 20 years is that there had been a desire to make sales taxes a greater part of the mix in order to provide some property tax relief.

There is some evidence that was the case at one point. In 1995, the total number of dollars in the city’s general fund budget that came from sales tax collections were 38 percent. That percentage steadily grew over the years. I think the high point came around 2002 — I might be off a year or two — when 47 percent of budgeted general fund revenues came from sales tax dollars. By 2005, that number dropped to 44 percent. In the 2015 budget, it has dropped to 40 percent.

Again, I don’t know what the “right” number is for Lawrence. But I think it is important to note that our revenue strategy in the city is changing. Has it been intentional? What are the consequences of it? For instance, has our changing tax structure played a role in the affordable housing issue that community leaders are discussing? It seems that city commissioners need to figure out whether these numbers cause them any concern and, if so, whether they think increasing the supply of retail options in the city will help change those numbers? It is a big question, and a tough one.

The question that many folks are probably most interested in is whether this shopping center proposal can win three votes at the City Commission? It is uncertain. My view, for whatever that is worth is that Matthew Herbert is a strong yes and Leslie Soden is a likely no, based on comments both of them made during the campaign earlier this year.

I chatted earlier this week with Commissioner Stuart Boley. He told me he’s open to the proposal, which I think means he hasn’t made up his mind yet. He did note that he’s uncertain how much this development will end up costing the city. The development is not asking for financial incentives like tax increment financing or special taxing districts. But Boley mentioned items like the cost to extend water and sewer service to the site and road improvements.

I had City Hall reporter Nikki Wentling ask the development group about that issue while she was covering yesterday’s informational meeting about the project. The group told her that it plans to pay “its fair share” for those infrastructure costs. Often, development groups form a benefit district, where all property owners in the district that will benefit from the extension of utility services will pay a portion of the costs. The city sometimes pays a portion too, but not always.

But it is worth noting that the city has already annexed the property, which means it is in a poor position to argue that it is too costly to extend basic utility services to the site. If the city felt that way, the normal course would be to not annex the property.

Then there is Mayor Mike Amyx. I think he is struggling with an issue that several people are. Based on conversations I’ve had with him, I think he doesn’t want Lawrence to become too out of balance geographically in its retail offerings. If this project proceeds, how much more difficult will it become for a retail area to develop around the Rock Chalk Park property in northwest Lawrence? That is a question that people are struggling with. But on the flip side of that coin, people also are struggling with the fact that the property around Rock Chalk Park has been available for retail development for a number of years now, and the retailers just have not come to the table.

Amyx told me earlier this week that if his crystal ball was working better that this would be a much easier decision.

Reply 17 comments from Jake Davis Cindy Wallace Richard Heckler Sue McDaniel Chrissy Neibarger Cathy Tarr David Holroyd Kristine Matlock Brett McCabe John McQuitty and 2 others

Chamber releases year-end number on new jobs; discussion about environmental issues with Menards project

You can tell we’re getting close to the end of the year because the numbers are starting to pile up. And I’m not even talking about the fact the credit card statements are now coming on oversized pieces of paper to contain all the zeros. No, groups and organizations are starting to put out their year-end statistics. The latest is a report from the Lawrence chamber of commerce touting positive job growth totals.

Leaders with The Chamber hosted a meeting for about 40 key investors in the economic development arena on Wednesday afternoon, and the headline number from that event was 484 jobs. That’s the number of Lawrence jobs that are expected to be created as part of new companies that The Chamber has helped recruit to town in the past year.

“2015 has been a fantastic year,” said Larry McElwain, president and CEO of The Chamber. “It will be a hard act to follow in 2016.”

The three companies that are accounting for the projected 484 new jobs are: USA800, the call-center company that we reported in July was moving into the I70 Business Center in North Lawrence; Integrated Animal Health, which we reported in April was moving its world headquarters to the Bioscience & Technology Business Center on KU’s West Campus; and Midwest Manufacturing. As we reported last week, the company is part of home improvement retailer Menards, and it plans to build a production plant in Lawrence’s VenturePark.

Other numbers cited by the chamber include $19.8 million in new payroll that’s expected to be created by the three companies and $28.6 million in new capital investment that will be generated by the companies.

The numbers, though, should come with a fairly significant asterisk. The Menards deal — and the 100 jobs anticipated with the plant — isn’t yet a done deal, and economic development leaders were highlighting that fact at Wednesday’s meeting.

“The announcement took place, and that is a victory, but it is not done yet,” said Brady Pollington, vice president of the Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence and Douglas County, which helped broker the deal. “We still need support from the community.”

The project, and its related financial incentives package, has thus far been well received by community leaders. Chamber officials on Wednesday did acknowledge that there likely will be some community discussion about Menards’ record on environmental compliance at other locations around the country. City Commissioner Leslie Soden briefly raised the issue at Tuesday night’s City Commission meeting, at which commissioners unanimously agreed to accept Menards’ application for a tax abatement and other incentives.

McElwain said he was pleased that Soden raised the issue. He said the environmental issues should be examined, and he predicted they won’t end up being a major issue for the project.

“We have absolutely no concern on the environmental front,” McElwain said. “We think this is a good company, and our process is very well designed to deal with any concerns that people may have.”

To back up, concerns about environmental issues related to Menards primarily are coming from some folks who have commented on this website and others about some violations in other jurisdictions that show up when you do a Google search for the company and its environmental record. I’ve asked City Hall reporter Nikki Wentling to look into the issue further to see what environmental issues have arisen elsewhere with Menards. We’ll let you know what we find.

Soden brought it up at Tuesday’s meeting because she said she had heard some concerns expressed by some residents. She felt it was important to let people know that the city will examine the issue.

“I think it would be good to let people know that we do have things in our performance agreement that would address something like that,” Soden said.

The city requires any company receiving a tax break to sign a contract that it calls a performance agreement. Among the issues in a performance agreement is a statement that the company will operate in a manner that follows applicable laws and regulations. If the company doesn’t, the city has the option of reducing or eliminating the tax abatement given to the company.

As reported on Tuesday, commissioners unanimously agreed to accept the tax abatement application from Menard Inc., which means the incentive request will now go to a city-appointed review board that makes recommendation on such matters.

While Soden brought up the environmental issue, she also made it clear that she’s looking favorably upon the potential Menards project.

“I’m really excited about this,” she said. “I think it is going to be great.”

Other information The Chamber shared at Wednesday’s event at Maceli’s included:

• As we previously have reported, General Dynamics is going through a large hiring phase at its customer service center at the East Hills Business Park. McElwain said the company is in the process of trying to hire 2,000 employees for the center, which provides customer service for a variety of government programs.

• A private fundraising campaign to raise money for economic development initiatives is on pace to raise $750,000 over a three year period. Bonnie Lowe, chief operating officer for The Chamber, said the campaign is in its second year and pledges are coming in on budget. McElwain told the crowd that planning would soon begin for creating a new capital campaign that will stretch beyond 2016. The Chamber estimated it has spent about 70 percent of the proceeds so far on increasing marketing efforts to bring new companies into the community.

• McElwain said work is beginning to identify some sites in Douglas County that would be appropriate for future industrial development. If the Menards deal is completed, that will significantly reduce the amount of property available for industrial projects.

“We’re selling roughly a third of what is available out at VenturePark for that deal,” McElwain said. “There are some of us looking at more tracts of land for expansion at a later date. We hope to have conversations with the city soon. We’re trying to take a 30,000-foot view of what is possible in Douglas County.”

Reply 7 comments from Bob Smith Richard Heckler David Holroyd Clara Westphal Kristine Matlock

Plans filed for new brewery, restaurant, apartment project in East Lawrence

As anyone who has ever tried, failed and perhaps had to use a stomach pump will tell you, there is a definite art to brewing beer. So, it makes sense that a new brewery will be located in East Lawrence’s Warehouse Arts District. But plans filed at City Hall not only show a new brewery, but also are proposing another multistory building for the district near Eighth and Pennsylvania streets.

A pair of Lawrence businessmen have filed plans to convert the old SeedCo building at 826 Pennsylvania St. into a brewery, restaurant and apartment building. The renovation plans include adding two stories to the old building, which is just south of the recently renovated Cider Gallery. Here's a look at a couple of concept designs that have been submitted to the city for consideration.

Courtesy: City of Lawrence

Courtesy: City of Lawrence by Chad Lawhorn

Let’s start with the beer. Longtime liquor executive Matt Williams is planning to open the Lawrence Beer Company on the ground floor of the old industrial building. Plans call for the company to have space to brew about six varieties of beer, plus operate a restaurant. In other words, it will be a full-scale brew pub, although Williams said it won’t have as extensive a menu as, say, Free State Brewery in downtown.

Williams said plans call for a lot of outdoor seating areas, a simple kitchen, and a vibe that fits in with the growing arts district, which also is home to several small startup companies that have offices in the adjacent Cider Gallery building.

“I really love all the creativity and passion that comes with a small brewery,” said Williams, who has worked for a branding company that works with breweries across the country, and before that was in the liquor distribution business. “We will be a real family-friendly place. We just want to be a good place where people of all ages can feel comfortable to come and spend some time.”

As for the beer, Williams said Lawrence Beer Company — which also will brand itself as LBC — plans to be “pretty straightforward.” That means a focus on beers that appeal to a wide segment of the market rather than highly stylized brews that are aimed at the beer geeks of the world. But Williams said the brewery does plan to include several seasonal beer varieties as part of its offerings.

Now, for the apartment part of the project. Williams is partnering with Lawrence businessman Adam Williams — they are not related — to build a mix of 14 one- and two-bedroom apartments at the site.

Lawrence-based architect Paul Werner has designed plans to add two stories onto the building, which dates back to the early 1900s. The development group is arguing that the two-story addition actually will improve the historical integrity of the Warehouse Arts District because the building once was 2.5 stories tall before a previous owner removed them. I think there was a fire that caused the removal of the upper floors, although I’m not certain. (I am certain that my experiments with brewing didn’t cause that one.)

The development group says the 14 apartments are an important component of the project. Getting more people living in and near the warehouse arts district is an important part of creating more business activity in the district.

The project will have to win multiple approvals from City Hall. But if the project does move forward, it will be just the latest sign of momentum for the district. If you are not familiar with the district, it has the Poehler Lofts building, which converted an old warehouse into rent-controlled apartments, and it has the new 9 Del Lofts project that also are rent-controlled apartments housed in a brand new multistory building near Ninth and Delaware streets.

Both those projects received significant financial incentives from City Hall. I haven’t seen a request yet for financial incentives for this project, but I also didn’t check with Williams about that specifically. I’ll let you know if I hear any plans for an incentive request for the project.

It also will be key for the development to win some support from East Lawrence residents. Some East Lawrence residents have been fighting a proposal for a small bar and bistro to be installed in a small stone building near the corner of Eighth and Pennsylvania streets. There has been concern the use could become too much of a bar.

Williams said his group already has had preliminary discussions with the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association, and is working to assure the group that it plans to run a neighborhood-friendly establishment.

“We’re not going to be a night club,” Williams said. “We’re probably looking at a closing time of 10 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends.”

If the city approval process goes well, Williams said he hopes to have the project up and running by early September.

Reply 2 comments from Chris Warman Andy Craig

Details on new restaurant slated for Round Corner Drug building; city to settle sidewalk dining flap; update on downtown moves

One of downtown’s more iconic buildings is set to be back in business soon. As we’ve previously reported, the former Round Corner Drug building is set to become a restaurant. Now, I have more details after talking with the owners of the new establishment.

Kansas City restaurateurs Zach Marten and Bret Springs hope to have RND Corner Grille open by late next week. The duo told me the restaurant will be a classic American grill, and one of the features of the business will be the old building itself.

The Round Corner building, if you don’t know, is located at the southwest corner of Eighth and Massachusetts. The building dates back to 1866, and for most of those years it housed a drug store. When Round Corner Drug closed in 2009, it was the longest running pharmacy in the state.

Marten and Springs wanted to play up some of that history. The pair had an approximately 20-foot long mural commissioned for an inside wall of the restaurant. The mural is based off of a 1911 photo that shows Woodard Drug store on the corner and a trolley vehicle in the street.

None by MSM Systems

“We really wanted to create a design that highlights the building,” Springs said. “It is such a great building and we wanted to do something that was a bit of tribute to what has been here before.”

During the remodeling process, crews actually found an old porcelain sign advertising Round Corner Drug. It will be incorporated into the building’s interior. The interior of the building has undergone some changes since it was last used as Intorno, a short-lived Italian restaurant. The duo has added a new bar in the center of the room and rearranged some other spaces.

The pair hopes to create a casual atmosphere but something more upscale than your traditional sports bar and grill. In fact, they have a specific feel in mind.

“It is a restaurant, but we also really want it to feel like a hotel lobby bar where you can feel comfortable hanging out,” Springs said.

(No word yet on whether it will be the type where you are expected to tip the bellboy for giving you a ride back to your room on the luggage cart. I’ll let you know what I find out on that.)

As for the food and drink at RND Corner Grille, the bar will have 16 taps of beer, with a heavy emphasis on craft brews. Four of the taps will be seasonal that rotate often. Classic cocktails and a selection of wines also will be offered.

I didn’t get to see the full menu, but I’m told it includes a variety of sandwiches — a dish called Grandma’s Chicken Salad Sandwich is included — but there’s also some dishes that are a bit beyond the normal grill menu. For example, the appetizer menu includes a spread of smoked trout, and several entrees feature salmon, duck and trout, in addition to more traditional offerings like chicken and beef. Salads also will be part of the menu. The restaurant has hired Danny White, a former chef from The Capital Grille, to run the food operations. Prices are expected to be about $9 to $15 for lunch and about $12 to $25 for dinner. Eventaully, the pair — which operate Coal Vine on the Country Club Plaza and Westport Ale House in Kansas City — plan to offer a weekend brunch menu too.

“We’re going to work really hard to create the right atmosphere,” said Marten, who is familiar with Lawrence through his time as an undergrad and a law student at KU. “You can have a good meal with no ambiance, but when you have a good meal with good ambiance it really makes the experience so much better.”

Look for one significant change in 2016 that will add a different feel to the restaurant. Marten said the business has won approval from the city to install tilt-up windows along the north wall of the restaurant. That means the restaurant essentially will become an open-air establishment during certain times of the year. The tilt-up windows will allow free flow between the indoor space and the sidewalk dining area on the north side — the Eighth Street side — of the building.

The group tried to win the same approvals for the eastside windows that front along Massachusetts Street, but that proposal didn’t meet the city’s design guidelines for the historic district. Other downtown restaurants also have tried unsuccessfully to bring that open-air idea to Massachusetts Street, but have been turned down. If I’m remembering correctly, RND Corner will be the first downtown restaurant to install the specialty windows and try the open-air concept. It will be interesting to watch how that works, and whether city officials get more pressure from other restaurants to allow the concept on Massachusetts Street.

In other news and notes from around town:

• While we’re on the subject of possible changes to the streetscape on Massachusetts, city commissioners tonight will settle a dispute about whether an arch should be allowed in the downtown.

No, don’t call the moving truck just yet. We’re not becoming St. Louis with its odd pizza and a baseball team that hasn’t even won the World Series since 2011. It is not that type of arch. Instead, Jazz, the new restaurant that we previously reported opened in the former Buffalo Wild Wings spot, wants to install a wrought iron arch near the entrance of its sidewalk dining area.

City planners and the city’s Historic Resources Commission have both denied the project, saying it doesn’t meet the downtown’s historic design guidelines. Officials with Jazz are appealing the decision to the City Commission.

Here’s a look at the arch when it was temporally installed in front of the downtown restaurant:

Courtesy: City of Lawrence

Courtesy: City of Lawrence by Chad Lawhorn

None by Jazz Kitchen on Mass

As part of the denial, the city found that the proposed arch was not compatible with the architectural building design, and “was not in character with Lawrence’s downtown.” Officials with Jazz, as part of their letter appealing the denial, said they hope the City Commission can view the arch as "the piece of art that it is.”

If commissioners approve the arch, it will be fun to watch what ideas other restaurants in downtown have for drawing more attention to their locations. The downtown restaurant world is very competitive, and operators are always looking for a way to make their properties stand out.

Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. today at City Hall.

• Last week I reported on a few closings or pending closures of some downtown businesses. I’ve got a little bit more information to pass along about what may be coming in a couple of the spaces that soon will be vacated.

At Foxtrot, 832 Mass, store owner Caroline Mathias told me her understanding is some sort of interior/home store is going to occupy the space. I’ve also heard that from another downtown source, but I don’t have further details on who the new retailer will be. But I’ll keep my ears open. As for Foxtrot, the shoe retailer is expected to close by the end of January.

Another business we reported on was Mass Street Sweet Shop, which has closed at 727 Massachusetts. It looked like there was some work already underway there. A downtown source told me that location is going to house one of the escape room businesses that we previously have reported on. In case you have forgotten, there are two business people in town planning on opening escape room businesses, which is an entertainment venue that revolves around putting people in a themed room and giving them elaborate puzzles and tasks to solve to unlock the door in a certain period of time. I’m not quite clear on which one of the two escape room businesses will be locating in that space, but I’ll do some more checking.

Reply 7 comments from Mike Edson Richard Heckler Holly Goodman Thomas Moore Brett McCabe Rick Masters

Request for tax break on downtown project to create debate; a closer look at supposed parking problem in downtown

All we’ll need on Tuesday night at City Hall are the "Solid Gold" dancers because I suspect commissioners will hear a couple of classic tunes: a debate about downtown parking and questions about whether the city is business-friendly enough.

Commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting are set to finally hear an incentives request for the proposed remodeling of the Pachamamas building at Eighth and New Hampshire streets. As we previously have reported, a development group led by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor have plans to add four stories onto the existing one-story restaurant building. The four new stories would house about 55 apartments, while the ground floor would continue to be used as a restaurant, although a tenant hasn’t yet been found.

Rendering of proposed retail/apartment building at Eighth and New Hampshire. Plans call for a development team led by Lawrence businessmen Mike Treanor and Doug Compton to add four stories on top of the former Pachamama’s building at Eighth and New Hampshire streets.

Rendering of proposed retail/apartment building at Eighth and New Hampshire. Plans call for a development team led by Lawrence businessmen Mike Treanor and Doug Compton to add four stories on top of the former Pachamama’s building at Eighth and New Hampshire streets.

I say the commission is “finally” going to hear the incentive request because this item has been sitting in the commission’s to-do box for awhile. The development group asked for the approximately $300,000 in incentives — the city is being asked to exempt the project from paying sales taxes on construction materials — in May.

The city’s Public Incentives Review Board recommended in August that the incentive request be approved, but Tuesday night will be the first time the commission deals with the issue. That delay probably is not a good sign for the development group. Commissioners have been known to delay taking action on items that they really don’t want to do.

Bill Fleming, a Lawrence attorney who is representing the development group, told me he expects an uphill battle with the commission.

The tea leaves are not hard to read on this one. In April, voters elected Leslie Soden, Stuart Boley and Matthew Herbert to seats on the commission. All three campaigned on the idea that the city had been too loose with its tax incentives, with some of them particularly noting that apartment developers don’t need any incentives to build in Lawrence.

There’s one problem, though, Fleming says. The city’s economic development policy says otherwise. He notes that the city’s policy specifically talks about providing industrial revenue bonds to residential projects. The policy lists three preferred qualities for residential projects to receive the sales tax exemption that the project is seeking: 1. An infill or redevelopment project; 2. A mixed-use project; 3. A downtown location. A City Hall staff report notes the Pachamamas project meets all three of the preferred qualities.

As you may have guessed, this is where the argument about whether the city is business friendly enough is likely to begin.

“The city expects us to follow all their processes and procedures, so we we expect the city to follow its own process and procedure,” Fleming said. “The reason you have a policy is to send a message that if you do these things, we’ll do these things in return.”

Of course, policies can change, and that may be what is set to happen on Tuesday. Fleming, however, will argue that if the city changes its policy, it shouldn’t change for projects that are already in the pipeline. Changing the rules in the middle of the game has been a longtime rallying cry for folks who believe the city isn’t business friendly enough.

It will be interesting to watch what the commission does. This particular type of incentive — an industrial revenue bond that allows construction materials to be bought sales tax free — has been used a lot. In fact, here’s a number to help you remember just how much: $9.5 million. That’s about how much sales tax the state, city and county have given up since 2010 as a result of this incentive program.

The city put together a handy list of projects that have used the IRB sales tax exemption since 2010. The projects have totaled almost $212 million. The city uses a rule of thumb that about half of a project’s costs are related to building materials. That would mean about $106 million worth of construction materials were purchased with a sales tax exemption. At the current sales tax rate of 9.05 percent, that’s about $9.5 million in sales taxes that went uncollected. (I concede that the sales tax rate has been lower than that at times during 2010 to 2015 period, but there is only so much math I will do on a Monday morning.)

Now, folks at City Hall quickly will point out that not all of that money would have ended up in city coffers. The city only gets a portion of total sales taxes collected. The local sales tax rate — the city and county combined — is 2.55 percent. That calculates to $2.7 million in sales taxes that didn’t end up in the city or county’s coffers. That’s a little more than $500,000 a year that local officials would have had available for spending, if the exemptions weren’t granted. Of course, on the other side of the ledger, the community has more than $200 million worth of new projects, which surely are creating some benefits.

A question that is tough to answer, though, is whether any of those projects would have not proceeded if they would have been forced to pay sales taxes on their construction materials. Unlike some other city incentive programs, this one doesn’t make the builder show that the project would be unfeasible without the incentive.

We’ll see what type of line this relatively new City Commission takes on Tuesday. It will be a night where we will learn something about the economic development philosophy of commissioners.

• I’m also predicting a parking debate as well. That too is related to the proposed Pachamamas renovation. Plans call for adding about 55 apartments to the building, but there are no plans to add any private parking as part of the development.

Downtown zoning regulations don’t require developers to add parking as part of their projects. The city provides thousands of public parking spaces downtown. Regardless, several downtown projects have built parking as part of their projects. This development group has built underground parking garages for the Marriott at Ninth and New Hampshire and also is building a garage as part of the multistory office/apartment building under construction at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire. It also is worth noting, however, that both projects asked for and received much larger public incentive packages to help cover the cost of constructing underground parking.

You may be asking yourself, where is everybody going to park as part of this new project? A City Hall report is indicating it shouldn’t be that big of a problem because it points out a fact that often gets overlooked: Finding a parking spot in downtown Lawrence isn’t hard, if you are willing to walk just a little bit.

And the report found the area near the proposed Pachamamas site has a particular abundance of empty public parking spaces. The report broke downtown into quadrants. The northeast quadrant — everything north and east of Ninth and Massachusetts — has an average of 157 vacant, long-term parking spaces each weekday. During the evening hours, it is even higher.

The report serves as a reminder that the city is paying for some public parking lots that barely get used. Lot No. 16, which is the parking lot right at the entrance to the Riverfront Parking garage, has an average vacancy rate of 98 percent at any time of day, the report found. The Riverfront garage itself has a lot of 10-hour parking spots that aren’t being regularly used. It has about a 45 percent vacancy rate during the daytime hours and about 87 percent vacancy rate during the evenings. That’s a multimillion dollar structure the city built. It is even emptier on the weekends with about a 90 percent vacancy rate on the 10-hour spaces. Figuring out how to get people to pay to park in those spaces — you can buy an annual parking pass from the city for all 10-hour lots — would seem to be in the interest of the city. The city is spending money every year to maintain the parking lots.

Those two parking lots provide more than enough space to handle the approximately 55 new apartments that are proposed as part of the Pachamamas remodel. But both those lots will require a little bit of walking for tenants. I’ve timed the walk. It is five to six minutes, depending on which lot you park in. It is basically a walk of about two blocks.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know whether this project deserves a tax incentive or not. But I find the parking issue pretty interesting. Lawrence is spending lots of money on trails, bike lanes and other infrastructure to get people to walk more and rely on vehicles less. This proposed apartment project is making a pretty big bet that there are people in Lawrence who really want that lifestyle. They’re proposing to rent apartments that don’t guarantee you a parking space, and may require you to walk five minutes to get to your vehicle.

It will be interesting to see if that is successful in the Lawrence marketplace. But first, it will be interesting to see if city leaders embrace the idea, or whether the idea of a two-block walk is too onerous.

Reply 39 comments from Kristine Matlock Sam Crow Brett McCabe Carol Bowen Gregdivilbiss David Holroyd Richard Heckler Clara Westphal Leslie Rose Amy Mason and 5 others

Trio of downtown businesses announce closings; one set to reopen in west Lawrence

There are some things that never change in downtown Lawrence — both Santa and my F150 getting stuck on the roof of Weaver's are a couple of items that come to mind. (Hey, sometimes you have to get creative when parking downtown.) But for the most part, downtown is full of change, particularly at the end of the year as many business leases expire. This year is no different, and here’s a look at some of the changes already starting to surface.

— M. Street Interiors will be leaving its downtown location of 825 Massachusetts St. at the end of January. The business, which sells furniture, home accessories and offers interior design services, will be moving into a vacant space at Sixth and Wakarusa in west Lawrence.

The business will continue to be called M. Street Interiors, despite it no longer being on Massachusetts. (It will be near Wakarusa, though, and the female owners of the establishment could easily blame a man for hanging the W upside down, and many people would believe it.)

“We really wanted a space where we could get everything on one floor,” said owner Donna Steinman, noting that the current store has merchandise on multiple levels. “And parking spaces for us will be great.”

The new location will have about 5,700 square feet of space, all on one level.

The new location will be in a portion of the space that used to house Googols of Fun at the shopping center on the southwest corner of Sixth and Wakarusa. For those of you who are only able to take directions in Lawrence via bars and restaurants, it is in the same shopping center as Six Mile Chop House and Salty Iguana and others.

Renovation work is underway on the space. Steinman hopes to be open in the new location by early 2016. The shop has been in downtown Lawrence for five years, and there are mixed emotions about leaving.

“I hate the idea of leaving downtown, but it is just not the right spot for us anymore,” said Natashia England, lead designer for the store.

Steinman said she thinks downtown retailers that don’t cater to college students are having a harder time in downtown Lawrence. With the pending opening of the South Lawrence Trafficway — the Bob Billings interchange opens next month and the full bypass is scheduled to open late next year — she thinks west Lawrence retail areas are going to become a more viable option for businesses like hers that attract Kansas City and Topeka shoppers.

M. Street’s current location, which is next door to The Phoenix Gallery is currently for lease. No word yet on possible tenants to take the sizable space.

• The downtown shoe retailer Foxtrot, 823 Mass., is set to close by the end of January. Store owner Caroline Mathias told me her five-year lease on the storefront is set to expire, and she wasn’t ready to sign a new lease.

“But it has been a great experience, for sure,” Mathias said.

Mathias said she doesn’t have any plans to reopen the store in another location. She said she’s still considering her options for the future.

On the subject of downtown retailing and its current health, Mathias said she hadn’t drawn any firm conclusions from her experience.

“I know for me what was helpful was always focusing on carrying unique items that you couldn’t find in the big box stores,” Mathias said.

Mathias said the store plans to start placing items on sale in December, and the store will close before the end of January, if inventory levels become depleted.

• Somehow, I think a dentist is to blame for this next one: It sure appears Mass Street Sweet Shop has closed. The business at 727 Massachusetts has its windows covered, the door is locked, and no one answers the phone. Granted, that is exactly what I do when I find myself alone in a room full of candy, but I think in this case it is a sign that the business has shut its doors. The business carried a variety of hard candies, chocolates, ice cream and other novelties. The business, according to an old article of ours, opened in late 2012. No word yet on what may occupy the space.

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