Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
New Lawrence laboratory expected to bring millions in additional research dollars from the Department of Defense
KU is working to build a multimillion dollar, high-security clearance laboratory that it hopes will become one of a handful across the country that develops new technology for the U.S. military and others.
According to a KU document and local economic development officials, renovation work is set to begin on a $4 million project to convert vacant space on KU’s West Campus into a National Security Laboratory that will enable KU scientists to concentrate on conducting research for the Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies.
“This is a big deal for KU and Lawrence,” said G.R. Underwood, president of the Bioscience and Technology Business Center on West Campus.
The National Security Lab will locate in a 7,000 square-foot windowless basement of the BTBC building, 2029 Becker Drive. Underwood said construction on parts of the project is expected to begin in the next few days.
“We were worried about how we were ever going to rent this space because it doesn’t have any windows,” Underwood said. “They looked at it and said, ‘this will be great for security.’”
Local economic development leaders are optimistic the facility also will be great for the Lawrence economy. According to the KU document, the laboratory is expected to have about 30 to 40 employees and an annual payroll of about $12 million by 2021. KU hopes to open the laboratory in the spring of 2018.
A more eye-popping number, though, is the amount of federal research dollars the facility is expected to attract. KU currently does about $1 million a year in research related to the Department of Defense. With the laboratory in place, KU believes it could see that total grow to about $20 million within three years. KU officials have noted that while federal research dollars from institutions like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are relatively flat, Department of Defense research dollars are growing nationally.
“It makes good sense for KU to to pursue defense-related projects,” according to the KU document, which is a fact sheet distributed to certain members of the community.
If KU is successful in attracting that level of Department of Defense funding, Underwood is confident Lawrence will attract several private companies that want to be close to the laboratory.
“There are very large members of private industry who will want to be near that research,” Underwood said.
Larry McElwain, president and CEO of the Lawrence chamber of commerce, said the laboratory could be a major driver of high-tech business growth in Lawrence for years to come, especially if the laboratory can win a special designation from the Department of Defense.
The KU document confirms a goal of the laboratory is to become a University Affiliated Research Center. The Department of Defense provides that designation to university laboratories where critical research is conducted. Currently, there are only 13 of those laboratories in the country, with many of them at top research universities, including MIT, John Hopkins, Penn State and the University of Texas. Closer to home, the University of Nebraska established a center in 2012 that has gained the designation. It researches technology to combat weapons of mass destruction.
It is a little unclear to me what the mission would be of a KU/Department of Defense Laboratory. The KU document states likely research areas could include “radar, remote sensing, math, unmanned aerial vehicles, signal processing and sensors.”
I’ve heard two particular KU components have played major roles in getting the project to this point. One is the Information and Telecommunications Technology Center that is located on KU’s West Campus. It has been a longtime research center that has done work on some of the first Internet search engines, bioinformatics, radar, radio frequencies and other such subjects.
I’ve also heard that the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets is a player in all of this. KU is the lead agency for seven institutions that conduct research on the melting ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. Maybe the Department of Defense is taking a keener interest in those melting ice sheets, or perhaps the remote sensing technology that the scientists have developed has military applications. I’m not sure.
I’ve got a call into a KU official to learn more about the project. I’ll let you know when I hear more.
As for the money part of all this, the KU document states the Bioscience and Technology Business Center — which is a joint venture between KU, the city, the county, the chamber and the state — will pay to build the lab. But, BTBC will get a $4 million loan from the KU Center for Research Inc. that will be used to finance the improvements. BTBC will pay off the 20-year loan by charging rent to the KU researchers who use the lab, according to the document.
It is probably not coincidental that while this laboratory project is gaining steam BTBC leaders are becoming more serious about planning an expansion of the BTBC building.
Underwood confirmed that planning work is underway for a phase III of the building. But unlike the previous two stages, the addition likely would not be set up to be an incubator for new and emerging businesses. Instead, it may focus on having space for two or three larger, well-established businesses who want to be close to the the research that is underway at KU. That could be the Defense Department type of research that would occur in this new lab, pharmaceutical research that occurs at the pharmacy school across the street or companies who want to be close to the large engineering school that KU houses.
In the past, expansions of the BTBC building have meant major financial commitments from the city of Lawrence and Douglas County. Underwood stopped short of saying that would be the case this time. He didn’t rule it out, but he did say there is likely more potential for a private partner helping to build the space this time around.
Underwood said there is space at the current BTBC site to house an expansion. No decisions have been made about whether to move forward with such an expansion, but it sounds like those could be coming.
A look at a unique eastside housing development and why the city may spend nearly $60K to save a tree in it
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the City Commission took action on the purchase of the lot at its Tuesday meeting. The item was on the agenda for consideration but final action was deferred pending more research.
A new Lawrence housing development is going to have a very special tree. It has to be special. The city of Lawrence is considering spending nearly $60,000 to save it.
Forget the old question of “have you hugged a tree today?” The new question is whether you have talked to your banker about one?
But this tree may be worth the trouble. It is estimated to be about 100 years old and one of the largest bur oak trees in the entire state. Soon, one of Lawrence’s more unique housing developments will sprout up next to it.
The owners of Struct/Restruct, a Lawrence-based design and construction firm, will build eight new houses on the property just east of 12th Street and Haskell Avenue, on the site that used to house the salvage yard for the 12th and Haskell Recycling Center. Original plans called for the development to have nine houses, but city officials are considering buying one of the lots to save the big oak.
Struct/Restruct owners Eric Jay and Matt Jones didn’t have plans to cut the tree down, but they did plan to build a house on the lot where the tree sits. City officials expressed concern that homebuilding on the lot may harm the tree’s root system or require some of its massive canopy to be disturbed.
Ultimately the city may decide the solution is to buy the lot to ensure a home would not be built on it. The city is considering to pay $58,000 for the lot, which is what a private appraiser pegged its value at. As part of the deal, the Struct/Restruct duo is donating an additional 2.3 acres of open space that is just north of the housing development. The property would have been difficult to develop, and Struct/Restruct hopes the city someday will use the property for a park.
To find out more about the tree, I’ve got a call in to a couple of Parks and Recreation officials, who I believe were instrumental in convincing the city to purchase the lot. In the information provided to commissioners, there wasn’t a whole lot of detail about the tree, other than it is estimated to be more than 100 years old and is a “majestic” and “large, towering specimen.”
Jay said he had heard that it was the second largest bur oak in the state, but I haven’t been able to confirm that. In case you are curious, the champion bur oak tree in Kansas is in Pottawatomie County and has a nearly 21-inch trunk, stands 93 feet tall and has a crown of nearly 90 feet, according to a recent publication from the Kansas Forestry Service. The second-place finisher is not published, but it seems like the Lawrence oak is in that ballpark.
The tree, though, isn’t the only thing to watch for in that neighborhood. As I mentioned earlier, the housing development will be unique. Struct/Restruct builds modern homes, and a requirement for buying a lot in the development is that Struct/Restruct will be the builder and the design will have to meet certain guidelines established by the company.
The homes can be kind of tough to describe, as Jay struggled to put the design philosophy into words. I did an article on the company and its string of renovations in the 900 block of Delaware in 2012. Back then I described their designs as featuring unique peaks, sheets of glass, and nontraditional exteriors of concrete, stainless steel cables and distinctive timber.
Many of the homes often use timber that came from Lawrence trees or reuse items that have a history in the community, such as the roof sheathing that was removed as part of the renovation of the Poehler Lofts building in East Lawrence. It now serves as ceiling planks in one of the homes along Delaware Street.
Jay said interest in the housing development — which has land prices of about $70,000 per lot — is strong, with a few lots already having letters of intent signed.
“They range from a couple in their early 40s with no kids to a couple who are nearing retirement,” he said. “It is all over the board, really. I think people want to be closer to walkable stuff, including downtown.”
Jay said he thinks the entire Brook Creek Neighborhood is on the rise. The neighborhood is only a few blocks from the burgeoning Warehouse Arts District, which includes the Poehler Lofts and other new living units. Brook Creek also was the neighborhood where KU’s Studio 804 architecture class built its new concept house, which Jay said has been attracting strong interest from buyers.
“I think you are going to start seeing a lot more buying of properties in Brook Creek,” Jay said.
Some of you may be wondering about what the city’s plans are for the lot it purchased and the more than two acres of open space that was donated. I haven’t seen any specific plans, and they likely will be a while in the making. The properties are adjacent to the city’s Brook Creek Park, so it would be natural for it to be an extension of that space.
Some of you may remember that there briefly was talk about using the 2-acre site to house a BMX bicycle track. Jones, one of the co-owners of Struct/Restruct, is a BMX fan. Back in 2013, I reported that he was considering using the 2-acre site to house a BMX pump track.
Jay said folks shouldn’t necessarily count on that happening. He said the city has been made aware that there is an interest in such a BMX track, but Jay said the city hasn’t made any commitment to use the land that way.
“I think they are probably skeptical from an accessibility standpoint, getting emergency vehicles in and out of there, plus other traffic issues,” Jay said.
Once the land is transferred to the city, it will be up to the city to decide what to do with it, and Jay said the deal wasn’t contingent on any BMX plans.
Did you hear about the time that ...
The city of Lawrence once got a $1,000 check in the mail and didn’t know why? It sent the check back to the company. The company then turned around and sent the check back to the city again, this time with a copy of a 1997 agreement proving that it really did owe the city $1,000.
Or the time the city in 2004 was owed about $1.2 million by Douglas County for its share of construction costs for a new fire station? For reasons that still aren’t clear, it took eight years for the payment matter to get resolved.
Perhaps you have heard that the city has hired an auditor to investigate concerns that the city’s accounts receivables department has not properly been sending out thousands of dollars worth of invoices for several years.
The two examples above, though, don’t come from that recent report. Instead, those were discoveries made years ago by the city’s own in-house auditor. There were other findings as well about how the city staff handles billings, cash and other financial matters. But none of those findings sparked a broader review, and now the embattled city auditor — the city manager is recommending his position be cut in the 2018 budget — is expressing some disappointment about that.
“I’m very glad they are working on this,” City Auditor Michael Eglinski said of the city manager’s decision to hire an outside accountant to review the city’s accounts receivables operations. “I’m a little frustrated that they didn’t work on it earlier.”
As concerns have grown about the city’s accounts receivable practices — thus far it has been discovered that the city had forgotten to send bills to a variety of companies that lease property from the city — Eglinski has compiled a memo detailing several instances where he previously raised concerns about the city’s financial practices.
Among the findings from past Eglinski audits:
• A $75,000 contribution that developers were required to make to the city’s affordable housing trust fund was collected past its deadline in March 2016. An invoice for the amount was only sent after Englinski inquired about it, he said. Eglinski reported that incident to city commissioners in a July 2016 audit.
• In May 2014, the city was due to receive a $460,000 payment from Douglas County related to infrastructure at the East Hills Business Park. But by July 2016, the county had still not received the payment, Eglinski found. City officials contend that they had not lost track of that issue, but rather were trying to decide whether to forgive the county of the payment. However, it is unclear why that issue wasn’t addressed in 2014, at the due date of the payment. Eventually, after Eglinski’s audit came out in 2016, the city waived the payment requirement for the county.
• The city failed to collect a $1,000 application fee from a development group led by Thomas Fritzel as part of the Rock Chalk Park project. The fee had been due in February 2013, but the city did not seek to collect until July 2014, after Eglinski made his finding in an audit that was presented to city commissioners.
• In a 2013 audit, Eglinski noted that in 2004 the city was due a $1.26 million payment from Douglas County for its share of the construction of Fire Station No. 5. The county shares in fire station costs because the stations also house the ambulance service, which serves the entire county. In the audit, Eglinski found that “the city never received the original payment and may have never requested it.” In 2012, the issue was still outstanding, and the city ended up receiving a $1.26 million credit from Douglas County. That credit was applied to the city’s share of the construction cost related to work at the Emergency Communications Center, which serves both the city and the county. It is still unclear why there was an 8-year gap in resolving the payment issue. As far as I know, the city did not receive any interest on the more than $1 million for the eight years.
• As part of his work on a 2014 audit, while looking for something else, Eglinski inadvertently discovered a situation where the city received a check for $1,000 from a company in 2013. The staff couldn’t figure out the purpose of the payment. The city kept the check for eight months before returning it to the company. The company then sent the check to the city again, this time with a copy of a 1997 agreement showing that the $1,000 payment was due to the city. I know, you want to know the company and what the check was for. Eglinski didn’t have those details immediately available, but I’ve asked for them.
Eglinski doesn’t raise these issues in a vacuum. He raises them at a time when the future of the city auditor position is in question. For the second year in a row, City Manager Tom Markus has recommended eliminating the position from the city’s budget. City commissioners last year rejected that part of Markus’ budget. They’re set to start debating the 2018 budget next week.
Eglinski points to his past findings as evidence that that position can alert commissioners to significant problems. However, he also acknowledges that despite the past findings, he did not make a recommendation that the city undertake a full-scale audit of its accounts receivables department.
Markus also noted that, and said that is one of the shortcomings of the city auditor position. It often finds individual problems, but does not do as good of job of finding systemic problems.
“He can make the argument that we should have surmised there was a larger problem, but the way the process is set up, he lists specific recommendations, staff deals with them, moves on and waits for him to reveal some other shortcomings,” Markus said.
Markus said he’s comfortable eliminating the auditor position because he thinks there are other ways to evaluate the city’s performance. He also noted that residents shouldn’t be confused that eliminating the position would eliminate the city’s annual financial audit. Eglinski is a performance auditor, not a financial auditor or certified public accountant. The city contracts with a financial auditing firm to conduct its annual audit.
Markus, who has been Lawrence's city manager since March 2016, said he's committed to finding such problems and correcting them. He notes that the city's finance director uncovered the current billing issues, and the city immediately made public the concern.
Unlike other city employees, Eglinski does not report to the city manager, but rather reports directly to the City Commission, which gives the position a unique amount of independence in City Hall.
Eglinski contends that his audits can and have been used to make systemwide improvements. But he said the auditor position could be improved if the city commission would create an “audit committee.” That would be a group that involves up to two city commissioners and several community members who have some expertise in either finance, public administration or other such subject.
“That group would help with audit topic selection and follow-up,” he said. “They would have more time to spend looking in detail at the audit recommendations.”
Silicon Valley tech firm reaches deal to bring jobs, ‘center of excellence’ to KU campus; local companies win top biotech awards
An emerging Silicon Valley tech company plans to hire about 20 engineers for its new operations center on KU’s West Campus.
Rubrik, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company that specializes in managing data for cloud computing users, has plans to open The Rubrik Center for Excellence in the technology incubator building — the Bioscience and Technology Business Center — on KU’s West Campus.
In talking with an official from Rubrik, it sounds like the center will play a key role in providing customer support for the company’s clients. But in a twist, the company is going to use actual engineers to provide that customer support rather than people who may have a lesser understanding of the technology.
“We don’t want customers to get the basic support services of asking whether everything is plugged in, ‘have you restarted your computer,' that sort of thing,” Gerry Garwood, regional sales manager for Kansas and Missouri told me. “We feel like customer support is an area of tremendous deficiency in the IT world right now.”
It is an interesting idea. My father-in-law is an engineer, but I’m not sure I see him in a customer support role. Every time I ask for advice, he just mumbles something about a time machine to take him back to the day I married his daughter.
But I also sense that the company plans to do more than just customer support at the center. In the press release announcing the creation of the center, Garwood said the hope is the center becomes a larger hub for research.
“Inspired by the Research Triangle in North Carolina, we expect the Rubrik Center for Excellence adjacent to the University of Kansas in Lawrence to become a hub for research, innovation and training in the Midwest.”
As for why Lawrence and KU was chosen for the center, Garwood said some of the company’s first clients actually were in the Kansas City area. That led company founders to become familiar with the area, which put KU on their radar screen when they came up with the idea of having a center that was located on a university campus.
Whatever the reason, Rubrik now is a company local economic development leaders will want to keep an eye on. The company has only been in business for about three years, but it has generated significant interest in the Silicon Valley tech world. According to an April article in Bloomberg, the company recently raised $180 million in venture capital funding, which now puts the total value of the company at $1.3 billion.
According to the article, the company had about 330 employees at the time, and was adding about 70 to 80 employees per quarter. The company also was adding about 75 to 85 new customers per quarter, according to Bloomberg.
You may be wondering, though, what is it that the company actually does. Well, it is data management. I’ll explain, but you should know that I have an email inbox that proves data management is not my strong suit. (It also proves that if robots ever take over the world, they’ll do so while us humans are checking the 25,000 emails they’ve sent us about the one food you should never eat if you want a flat belly.)
But based on what I’ve read about the company, it has created a software product that allows for the easy backup, security, recovery and management of data. Importantly, the software program works for both data that is stored on a server that is on-site or for data that is stored off-site as part of cloud servers hosted by Amazon, Microsoft or others. That seems to be a key selling point for the company, which says it is approaching $100 million in annualized bookings.
The company hopes to hire the engineers by the end of 2017. Garwood said the workforce likely would be a mix of new engineering graduates and some more experienced engineers. Garwood is supposed to be getting me more information about expected pay ranges for the new positions. I’ll let you know what I hear.
I believe officials at the Bioscience and Technology Business Center — which is a partnership between, KU, the city, the county, the chamber and others — are pretty excited about the new tenant. GR Underwood, president of the BTBC, said in a statement that Rubrik can be a centerpiece to a much larger vision of uniting “private industry, academia, local researchers, and entrepreneurs” on the KU campus.
I’ve got a call into Underwood to find out a bit more and to get a general update on the BTBC. I’ll let you know when I hear more.
I do have one other piece of BTBC news. Two companies that are based at the BTBC recently won top awards at an international agriculture biotech event.
PrairieChar and Integrated Animal Health took first and second-place awards respectively in the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s 2017 Ag Biotech Entrepreneurial Showcase.
PrairieChar won first-place and a $10,000 cash prize as part of the event, which featured about 500 businesses competing for the top prize. PrairieChar is developing a technology that deconstructs animal manure and turns it into useful products. One product is fertilizer, while another is as a fuel source. PrairieChar is touting it is a cleaner burring fuel alternative to coal. The award is expected to give the company a boost beyond just the $10,000 cash prize.
“The North Carolina International Ag Biotech Showcase turned out to be a much bigger deal for PrairieChar than expected, and we were humbled to win first place,” CEO Robert Herrington said in a statement.
Integrated Animal Health was one of the other 12 finalist chosen to compete for the top prize. It received a runner-up award. Integrated Animal Health is a firm we’ve reported on before. In April 2015 the Australian firm announced it was moving its headquarters to Lawrence. The company has a product that reduces antibiotic use in dairy herds, and also conducts research related to foods, medicines and other products for livestock, pets and even wildlife.
Development group wins legal victory related to downtown grocery store; Price Chopper project expected to gain steam
A plan to build a downtown grocery store at Seventh and New Hampshire streets is closer to becoming a reality after the development group won a recent legal victory in Douglas County District Court.
If you remember, we reported in December that a lawsuit had been filed by two owners of condos in the Hobbs Taylor Lofts building. The two owners were objecting to how the development was trying to change a set of covenants that prohibit a grocery store being constructed on the former Borders Bookstore site, which is adjacent to Hobbs Taylor Lofts.
The two condo owners — Brian Russell and Brent Flanders — argued that in order for the covenants to be changed to allow a grocery store, every condo owner had to agree. The development group — led by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor — argued otherwise. Douglas County District Court Judge Kay Huff sided with the development group.
Now, look for work to accelerate on building a Queen’s Price Chopper on the site.
“We’ll really start the process of going through city approvals now,” said Bill Fleming, an attorney who represents the development group.
As we have reported, plans call for the former Borders bookstore site to be razed. It would be replaced with a three-story building that would include a ground-floor grocery store and two levels of apartments above. The project also would have a below-ground parking garage, in addition to some surface parking.
Plans call for a full-service store, including a pharmacy, a Mongolian grill, a salad bar and lots of other grab-and-go items that likely will be a game-changer in the busy downtown. The lawsuit was a potential stumbling block. If the court had ruled in favor of the condo owners, the project could have been in jeopardy because there is little dispute that the current covenants won’t allow for a grocery store.
There is always a chance that the condo owners will appeal the decision. One of the owners, Russell, is an attorney, so you can’t rule out an appeal. I’ve got a call into him for comment. (UPDATE: I heard back from Russell, and he said he will file an appeal with the Kansas Court of Appeals seeking a reversal of the decision. How such an appeal would impact the ability of the project to move forward is a bit unclear to me, but Russell said the issue will continue to be a major hurdle for the project. "If you were hoping to buy groceries there soon, I'm sorry. I think it will be months or years before anybody is buying groceries over there, even if we lose the case," he said.)
Regardless of the lawsuit issue, hurdles for the project remain. I assure, you the laws of nature and collusion among health insurers dictate that it can never be easy to put in an all-you-can eat food bar across the street from my office. (The Borders building is catty-corner from the J-W offices.) The new hurdle is now about financial incentives for the project.
Developers have been upfront that the project is going to need some financial help.
“There is a reason there is not a grocery store there now,” Fleming said.
Even at about 40,000 square feet, the grocery store still will be smaller than many of the grocery stores in other parts of Lawrence. Grocery stores make their money on volume, and a smaller store cuts down on that volume. Plus, the fact this site will need some underground parking to be feasible also adds to the costs, Fleming said.
The development will seek Tax Increment Financing. That is a program where new property and sales taxes generated by the development are rebated back to the development for several years in order to help pay for infrastructure, like the parking garage.
The project also plans to seek a $2.25 million low-interest or no-interest loan that would be given to Queen's Price Chopper company. The loan would be used to equip the store. It would be paid back to the city, as long as the store met certain financial benchmarks. But if the store doesn’t perform as well as expected, the loan would perhaps not have to be paid back. The details on that arrangement likely will be important.
Incentive requests at Lawrence City Hall can be stickier than that unfortunate incident involving my “experimentation” with the grocery store’s self-serve peanut butter machine. But if there is ever going to be a smooth-sailing incentives request, this may be it. People have been talking about the need for a downtown grocery store for decades. The talk has intensified in recent years as wellness advocates have said many central Lawrence and North Lawrence residents live in a “food desert,” meaning they don’t have easy access to fresh, healthy food.
So, expect several community members to speak in favor of this request. But, I’m also picking up on certain segments of the community who may think the food desert idea is overblown — they note there is a Dillons grocery store at 17th and Massachusetts. History also has shown that building a multistory building in downtown also can spark debates about design guidelines, encroachment on neighborhoods and other such matters.
In some ways, we are set to find out how much some people hate financial incentives and how much other people really believe in the idea of a grocery store being the lynchpin for downtown becoming a hip 24-hour district that has far more people living in it than is the case today.
Fleming said the development group already is filling out the applications for the city incentives. The group also will be seeking federal tax credits through a program that is designed to support community initiatives, such as eliminating food deserts. Those tax credits are awarded as apart of a a competitive process, but the development group has expressed optimism about receiving the credits.
One incentive that won’t be sought is a special taxing district that would add up to a 1 percent special sales tax on the purchase of groceries at the site.
Fleming said the development group also is in the process of filing the paperwork needed for the city to conduct design review to ensure the project meets the historic design guidelines that are required for downtown projects. That means the project will have to go through the Historic Resources Commission, which at times can be a lengthy process.
Fleming hopes to have city approvals within the next four months, which could allow construction to begin in the spring.
As for the court’s decision on the lawsuit, it was pretty technical in nature. However, Judge Huff did note that 38 of the 40 condo owners seem to be in favor of the project. She also noted that the two objecting condo owners hadn’t provided good evidence about why living next to a grocery store would be harmful.
“Petitioners provided no evidence indicating how living next to a grocery store would differ dramatically from living next to a bookstore or any other commercial development, for that matter,” Huff wrote in her opinion.
Thankfully, I was not called as an expert witness in this case because I can attest that Tolstoy has never added 25 pounds to me, but the year I lived next to the Dillons fried chicken counter sure did. (Now, Harry Potter books have proved to be dangerous, but that is mainly because I didn’t realize how pointy my wizard’s hat was.)
If I hear more on whether the case will be appealed, or other matters related to the incentives, I’ll let you know.
The idea of a major new shopping center south of the South Lawrence Trafficway has new life — and a new plan that is much larger than the one city commissioners already have rejected for the site.
Plans have been filed at City Hall for a 585,000 square-foot shopping center for the southeast corner of the interchange of the SLT and U.S. Highway 59. Plans call for about 395,000 square feet of retail development, about 50,000 square feet of new restaurants and 140,000 square feet of new hotels. The development would be one of the largest in the city, with plans showing room for more than a half-dozen large retailers and another 15 or so smaller retailers and restaurants. In the past, Academy Sports, Old Navy, HomeGoods, and Designer Shoe Warehouse have been among the firms the developer has identified as having a strong interest in the project.
The same North Carolina-based development group that previously has tried to develop the property — Collett development — is behind this proposal. The development group currently is suing the City Commission over its January 2016 denial of a 250,000 square-foot shopping center development for the property. But the new proposal may be an indication that the city is ready to rethink its past denial. City Manager Tom Markus confirmed to me that he has talked with the development group.
“I indicated to them that my preference would be for them to plan the whole site, and not just a piece of the site,” Markus said.
However, just because the city manager has shown an interest in the project doesn’t mean that it is set to win city approval. The city’s planning staff has recommended approval of the other two previous plans for the site. It was at the Planning Commission and the City Commission where those plans met their downfall. That could still happen with this proposal.
“It still has to go through the process, and the public process still has to be honored,” Markus said.
Markus, though, does think there are some significant differences between this proposal and previous ones. “I think it is substantially more environmentally designed in terms of protecting the (adjacent) wetlands and the watershed,” Markus said.
Dan Watkins, a Lawrence attorney who represents the development group, highlighted several differences between this plan and the previous ones. They include:
• The potential relocation of a frontage road would allow more of the development to be on the northern part of the site, which means it would be farther away from the Wakarusa River.
• The development group has a tentative deal for Baker University to take ownership of 55 acres of property on the southern portion of the site. That property, which is in the floodplain and near the river, would be dedicated as open space and would be managed by Baker, which also manages the Baker Wetlands to the east. The area would have a public easement to allow for a trail or other such use to be built on it.
• The project would be developed under a special part of the city code called a development overlay district. That gives the city greater ability to apply certain design guidelines to the project.
What hasn’t changed from the past plans is that the development group is not asking for any city incentives or tax breaks to build the project, Watkins said.
City commissioners in January 2016 rejected the smaller proposal on a 4-1 vote. So, obviously, at least two votes will have to change for this project to win commission approval. It will make for interesting political drama, especially given that this project will be happening during the middle of a City Commission campaign. Three of the five seats are up for election. A primary will be in August and the general election in November.
But if you are more interested in shopping than politics, there’s plenty to talk about on that front too. The plan would make way for several new big box retailers to come to town. And while the development group hasn’t specifically mentioned Costco or Sam’s Club, a representative seemed to hint at that when I talked with him Tuesday.
Brian Sturm, a planner with Lawrence-based Landplan Engineering, noted that there are a number of buildings between 12,000 and 65,000 square feet that could accommodate a number of national retailers. The group previously had said it had interest from tenants including Academy Sports, Old Navy, Designer Shoe Warehouse, HomeGoods and others. But Sturm also noted that the plans included one large building that he said could be “devoted to a membership wholesale club type of store.”
There has been a lot of smoke for a long time about Costco locating in Lawrence, but nothing has come up, even though the rumor has been in the wind for a couple of years. Certainly a competing development group — led by the local Schwada and Fritzel families — has been working to get Costco to come to its commercially zoned property near Rock Chalk Park in northwest Lawrence. At this point, I’m not sure I’ll believe any Costco rumblings until I see them break ground.
As for potential tenants, Sturm said Collett reports that interest from retailers has been strong as they’ve seen the South Lawrence Trafficway open.
“They’ve been in discussions with a number of different retailers who are anxious to locate in Lawrence,” Sturm said.
Watkins is hoping that the completion of the trafficway — the state completed the SLT late last year after more than 25 years of debate and delay — will cause commissioners to rethink their positions. “In past conversations, the trafficway wasn’t there,” Watkins said. “It is today, and it has made this is a logical place for this type of development.”
As City Commission candidates get ready to talk about adding jobs, here’s a look at how Lawrence is actually doing
We are now officially in campaign season for the Lawrence City Commission. There are several things you can count on: There will be free cookies at the North Lawrence Improvement Association candidate forum; all candidate forums would be improved with the addition of free cookies; and candidates will talk about how adding jobs to the community is critical.
Indeed, adding jobs to the community is important, but I’m not sure there are many people in the community who could actually quote you any statistics on how we’re doing in that regard. To be fair, it is difficult because job numbers are a bit like the presidential Twitter account — ever in motion and subject to interpretation.
The most common job number you see for Lawrence/Douglas County is the unemployment rate. As part of its calculation, it includes a jobs number. But that number is not particularly meaningful if you are trying to hold city commissioners' feet to the fire on promises to bring more jobs to town. The jobs numbers used in unemployment figures don’t measure how many jobs exist in Douglas County. Instead, they measure how many people in Douglas County have a job. That means the local unemployment rate could drop but we haven’t added any jobs at all. Instead, Kansas City has added jobs, and residents of Douglas County are driving over to K.C. to work at them.
But fear not. There are bureaucrats who measure how many jobs exist in Douglas County. The problem is they are measured monthly, and one month’s worth of data isn’t very useful.
The latest such numbers were released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics a couple of days ago, and they are for April. They show Lawrence/Douglas County nonfarm businesses had an estimated 56,200 people on their payrolls — an increase of 200 people from April 2016. That’s an increase of 0.4 percent. That was a better performance than the state as a whole, which saw job numbers decline by about 7,200 people or 0.5 percent. Compared with other regional metro areas, Lawrence didn’t fare as well. Here’s a look:
— Iowa City: up 2.8 percent
— Kansas City: up 2.2 percent
— Boulder, Colo.: up 2 percent
— Ames, Iowa: up 1.5 percent
— Topeka: up 1.4 percent
— Lawton, Okla.: up 1.1 percent
— Manhattan: up 0.9 percent
— Columbia, Mo.: up 0.6 percent
— St. Joseph, Mo.: up 0.5 percent
— Lawrence: up 0.4 percent
— Wichita: down 0.2 percent
— Grand Junction, Colo.: down 0.8 percent
— Joplin, Mo.: down 1.1 percent
But again, that is just one month. In Douglas County, the increases may be entirely attributable to the increase in forklift operators who help my family stack the candy we buy at post-Easter sales. Once the candy is gone, so are the jobs. In other words, there can be a lot of seasonal variations.
So, what I’ve done below is look at each month’s data going back to January 2017. I looked at the percentage of increase or decline for the number of jobs in each of the communities. That allowed me to create an average. It gives us an idea of whether we’ve been constantly adding or losing jobs compared with the same period a year ago.
The good news from the numbers is that Lawrence has added jobs every month in 2017. The bad news is that Lawrence is adding jobs at less than half the rate of either Kansas City or Topeka. Here’s a look:
— Iowa City: 2017 Average: up 3 percent
— Kansas City: 2017 Average: up 2.6 percent
— Topeka: 2017 Average: up 2.3 percent
— Boulder: 2017 Average: up 2.3 percent
— Ames: 2017 Average: up 1.6 percent
— Lawrence: 2017 Average: up 1.1 percent
— Manhattan: 2017 Average: up 1 percent
— Columbia: 2017 Average: up 1 percent
— St. Joseph: 2017 Average: up 0.9 percent
— Lawton: 2017 Average: up 0.6 percent
— Wichita: 2017 Average: down 0.4 percent
— Grand Junction: 2017 Average: down 0.5 percent
— Joplin: 2017 Average: down 1.1 percent
Now that I’ve done the initial leg work on this, I’ll try to keep it updated monthly — or, I may get sidetracked by the cookies.
Kansas City firm seeking financial incentives from City Hall to construct industrial buildings at VenturePark
A Kansas City real estate company is seeking city tax abatements and free land to construct up to $31 million of industrial buildings aimed at luring the first tenant to Lawrence VenturePark.
Officials with VanTrust Real Estate have filed an application seeking up to a 70 percent property tax break and up to six free parcels of land in the city-owned industrial park on the eastern edge of Lawrence. VanTrust doesn’t have a tenant for any of the proposed industrial space, but rather it would be built on speculation.
“Spec” industrial buildings have become a trend in the Kansas City market, and involve a developer constructing a large building and hoping that the presence of the building will entice companies to consider the area for their next project.
“I think this building would open people’s eyes,” Steve Kelly, vice president of economic development for the Lawrence chamber of commerce, said. “I think it will get us a lot more looks. We get a lot of requests from companies who want to see existing space, and in this market that doesn’t exist right now.”
City of Lawrence officials have sought to capitalize off the speculative building trend in Kansas City to spur development at Lawrence VenturePark, which continues to be vacant nearly three years after its opening. The City Commission recently approved an incentives program — called the Catalyst Program — that would offer several financial incentives to qualified companies who would build a spec industrial building in VenturePark or adjacent East Hills Business Park. VanTrust is the first applicant seeking to use the program.
The program offers a 50 percent, 10-year tax abatement for the construction of a standard industrial buildings or a 70 percent, 10-year tax abatement for the construction of a building that meets certain environmental and energy-efficiency guidelines. Importantly, the incentive program also would provide free land to the developers, as long as they follow through on the project.
According to the application filed at City Hall, VanTrust would like to build three industrial buildings at VenturePark. The first would be a 152,000 square-foot building located at the northeast corner of 23rd Street and O’Connell Road, which is at the entrance to the business park. The second building also would be 152,000 square feet in size and would be located just east of the first building. The third building would be about 250,000 square feet and would be built on four smaller lots that are north and west of 23rd and O’Connell.
The application indicated the buildings would be built in phases, perhaps meaning that the second and third buildings would not be built until a tenant had been secured for the first building.
I’ve got calls into VanTrust and to city economic development officials. I’ll let you know when I hear more about the project.
City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday will be asked to accept the application for incentives, and set a date of July 11 to consider granting the incentives. The incentive process will be an unusual one for the city. Typically, the key determinant in whether the city grants a tax break has been the number of jobs and the quality of jobs that a company is proposing to bring to town. In this case, commissioners will be asked to approve the tax abatement before knowing what company may occupy the building.
Instead, commissioners will have to evaluate VanTrust and its ability to bring high-quality tenants to the facility. VanTrust is based in Kansas City but has developments across the country, including retail and apartment developments. The company has about 11 million square feet of industrial developments, according to its application.
Kelly said the company has been successful at constructing and leasing industrial buildings.
“I think they are well-respected, and they are well-positioned to do a quality project,” Kelly said. “They also should have a good pipeline of potential tenants.
The company has attracted some high-profile tenants to other industrial buildings that it has constructed on spec. According to its website, the company landed UPS as a tenant for a 275,000 square-foot warehouse near Cincinnati. It also landed Tower International, an automotive parts manufacturer, as a tenant in a 500,000 square-foot warehouse near Louisville. Closer to Lawrence, the company owns the Woodend Industrial Building in Edwardsville that houses Alphabroder, a distributor of sportswear and accessories.
According to VanTrust’s website, the company has about a half dozen industrial sites under development across the country, including in Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Indiana.
VanTrust’s Lawrence project is potentially asking for about 45 acres of free property in VenturePark, which is located on the former site of the Farmland Industries fertilizer plant. If the project was approved, there would still be 11 additional lots — totaling about 210 acres — that would still be available for other development.
While VenturePark doesn’t yet have a tenant, Menards previously had committed to build a warehouse and distribution center that would employ about 100 people at the park. The home improvement retailer, however, has put those plan on indefinite hold. Kelly said there has been no new information from Menards on whether it may again consider the Lawrence project. However, Kelly noted that the VanTrust project is not seeking any of the lots that Menards has sought.
If my wife and I decided to start a business where we had to share space in the kitchen, the specialty of the house would be earplugs. But a desire to work with his wife and children was one of the driving forces behind Jose Pepe Lopez’s decision to open a new Mexican restaurant in west Lawrence.
Acapulco Mexican Restaurant opened a couple of weeks ago in the shopping center at Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive. For the last couple of years Lopez had been looking for a location downtown to open a small Mexican market that would sell food and drink items for people to make their own Latin creations. But he never could find the right spot or for the right price, so he shifted gears and went back to his restaurant roots.
Lopez for several years has been part of the group that operates Cielito Lindo in downtown Lawrence. But that restaurant was missing something: Lopez’s family.
“My wife has been wanting to work for quite awhile, but she hasn’t been able to because of the kids and the language barrier,” Lopez said. “Now we can all work together. My kids want to work and they are happy to work.”
Everybody in the family has a role, including one of the older children who watches the youngest member of the family, a 3-year old. Lopez’s role is in the kitchen. Lopez admits the menu for Acapulco is very similar to the menu for Cielito Lindo. But he also notes that he’s prone to experimentation in the kitchen. If he hears from diners that they would like a little something different, he’s game for taking requests.
“I like to do things that go beyond the menu,” Lopez said. “Some cooks go by the book only. But if I have the ingredients to make it, I will try to make it.”
The menu as it is, though, already is large. It, of course, includes all the traditional tacos, burritos and enchiladas. But it also has some more complex dishes. The menu includes about a dozen seafood dishes, with a heavy emphasis on shrimp but also several dishes with fish and scallops. The lunch menu includes four egg dishes, including the traditional huevos rancheros and the less common huevos divorciados. Yes, that sounds like a dish that would be on the menu if my wife and I ran a restaurant. However, the recipe does not include alimony and me living in a cardboard box. Rather, it is one over-easy egg covered in green sauce, one over-easy egg covered in red sauce, and beans and tortillas.
Lopez said perhaps the best dish in the restaurant also may be a surprise to some, in part, because it doesn’t come wrapped in a tortilla or a shell. It is pollo fundido, which is a Mexican-style chicken breast served with rice, beans, chorizo and cheese sauce.
If you want something in a tortilla, though, Lopez is pretty proud of the tacos pepe, which are named after him. Those are three tacos filled with steak, chorizo, and pico de gallo. There is also a version that comes with pineapples and onions.
Then there is the salsa. Meals are served with three varieties and three colors — a jalapeno, a habanero and a tomatillo salsa. This sounds great, but for someone like me who is required to coordinate his ties with the color of the salsa, it requires a lot of changing just to get through one basket of chips.
Lopez said so far the idea of bringing his family under one roof to work together has worked out as planned.
“It is good,” he said. “It definitely feels like a family restaurant. We are all here to support each other.”
Lawrence real estate market declines as available homes become scarce and buyers are forced to act quickly
If you have ever had luck in the world of speed dating, then maybe Lawrence’s real estate market is right for you. Speed home buying — out of necessity — appears to be the new trend in the local real estate market. In April, Lawrence homes were only on the market for an average of 11 days before they sold.
But while speed dating can lead to a wonderful evening talking about the companionship of cats, life lessons of Star Trek, and a worldview centered on the immeasurable benefits of “covfefe,” speed is not doing great things for the local real estate market. The latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors found that while the market has become fast-moving, it produced fewer Lawrence home buyers in April.
April home sales fell by 9.4 percent compared with the same period a year ago, according to the Board of Realtors. Real estate agents report that demand for homes remains strong in Lawrence, but there just aren’t enough people putting their homes on the market.
“Buyers aren’t finding homes to buy, or are competing with multiple offers on homes,” Mark Hess, president of the Board of Realtors, said in a release. “These market conditions cannot support the current demand, and sales are lower this last month as a result.”
The number that best shows the tightness of the Lawrence real estate market is the number of active listings available to buyers. In April, there were 228 active listings. That was down from 250 in April 2016 and down from 346 in April 2015.
But there is one other force in the market that may turn around that trend: Homes are becoming more expensive, which may cause more homeowners to consider selling. Of course, rising home prices run counter to the efforts of politicians to battle Lawrence’s affordable housing issues. Regardless, home prices are on the rise, and particularly so in April. The median selling price of homes in April rose to $177,000, up more than 7 percent from the same period a year ago.
How high home prices rise, whether more people put their homes up for sale, and whether home builders start building significantly larger amounts of new housing in Lawrence, are all interesting questions to monitor in the coming months. It also will be important to see whether April is the beginning of a new downward trend for the local real estate market.
Despite the market being tight all year, home sales in the early part of 2017 were still making gains. Even with the poor April, home sales year to date are still up compared with the same period in 2016. Here’s a look at year-to-date numbers:
• Real estate agents have sold 325 homes thus far in 2017, which is about a 5.5 percent increase from the same four months in 2016.
• Sales of newly constructed homes are now driving the entire increase in home sales in Lawrence. There have been 40 sales of newly constructed homes, compared with 23 at this time last year. The number of existing homes that have sold in Lawrence is stagnant.
• Year to date, the median selling price of Lawrence homes is $177,500, which is up from about $168,000 a year ago. Interestingly, though, the median selling price for newly constructed homes has fallen considerably to $298,700. That’s down more than 8 percent from last year’s level of about $326,000.
• Thus far in 2017, the median number of days a home sits on the market before selling is 18. That's down from 28 in 2016 and 43 in 2015. But as I noted earlier, the pace is quickening. The median number of days for homes sold in April was just 11 days.
In case you are wondering whether the trends in Lawrence are unique, they are not. According to a report from the Kansas City Regional Association of Realtors, home prices are rising even quicker in Johnson County, and the number of sales are also falling at a faster rate.
Through April, the number of sales in Johnson County has dropped by 3 percent, and in April alone they were down by 11 percent. Year to date the median selling price for Johnson County homes has risen by 9 percent to $260,000. The number of homes on the market is down by 15 percent compared with the same period a year ago.
When Ken Burns’ much-anticipated 18-hour documentary on the Vietnam War premieres in September, viewers will see the face of Baldwin City resident John Musgrave.
Musgrave, a Vietnam veteran who turned into a war protester and then an acclaimed poet, is featured in the Burns film. But for Musgrave, who has already seen a screening of the film, his face isn’t the one that stands out.
“It is hard to watch that footage and not see your buddies,” Musgrave said. “Even though it is not them, it looks just like them. They are in the same gear, and doing all the same things.
“I thought a lot about my friends and remembering how many of them are still 18 or 19, and will be forever.”
I have introduced you to Musgrave before. I wrote a story back in 2013 called “A poet warrior fights to tell story of Vietnam.” In that article, Musgrave was kind enough to tell me his wounds of war. He used a phrase that sticks with me as much as any I’ve ever heard in an interview: “It was an intimate ambush.”
That’s Musgrave’s way of saying that the man who shot him was about six feet away from him. In the jungles of Vietnam, Musgrave found himself in a familiar situation. He was a member of the 1st Battalion 9th Marines, an infantry unit that took such heavy casualties in Vietnam that it gained the nickname of “The Walking Dead.”
A hell of a cool nickname, as long as it is someone else’s.
The nickname was only partially appropriate for Musgrave on that 1967 day. Musgrave wasn’t walking anymore, and he had become something even worse than a dying soldier. He was bait. The enemy machine gunner who had shot him now was shooting the Marines who were coming to get him. Two of the men in Musgrave’s unit — buddies — already had been killed trying to reach him.
Two more men did reach him. They carried him back, and “even though they knew I was going to die and I knew I was going to die,” they would cover his body with theirs as they stopped and returned fire as they fought their way back to safety.
I wrote about Musgrave in 2013, in large part, because I had heard he was in the running to be included in Burns’ Vietnam documentary. After I heard the story of the “intimate ambush” and the heroism that went into saving him, I thought he was a shoo-in to be included in the documentary. The sacrifice, the commitment, the brotherly love. To me, it was one of the greatest stories I had ever heard. To Musgrave, it had a different meaning.
“That,” he said simply, “happened every day in that war.”
But Musgrave did make the cut. I haven’t seen a screening of the film, so I can’t say with certainty what Musgrave’s role is in it. But it sounds pretty significant. Musgrave has gotten a national book deal out of the film. He has written his autobiography and the giant publishing house Knopf is scheduled to release the book — working title “The Education of Corporal John Musgrave” — near the premiere of the documentary or a bit after it.
Musgrave said Burns — whom he never met but rather talked with on the phone — personally assisted in Musgrave getting the book deal. Musgrave said the experience of working on the film “blew him away,” although he admitted it often was difficult.
When I asked him what emotions he had when he viewed the film, he answered without hesitation: “I remembered a lot of fear.”
That fear didn’t stop once he exited the jungles. Musgrave, who grew up in the Kansas City area, came to Baker University in Baldwin City after spending about two years in military hospitals. It was at Baker that he began writing poetry. The alternative was to kill himself. Eventually, he ended up writing a poem titled “Notes to the Man Who Shot Me.”
“The poetry came about when I realized I had to negotiate a cease-fire with myself,” Musgrave said.
Many Lawrence residents still remember Musgrave from the early 1970s when he became an active protester to end the war. Musgrave said he opens up in the film about “making the painful decision that I had to do something to stop the war.”
Painful may be the right word to describe much of this.
“The war was an American experience and an American nightmare,” Musgrave said. “It is tragic that something that meant so much to so many of us — we gave everything we had — is now considered by most Americans to be a mistake or a nightmare. It is not much of a legacy.”
But Musgrave said he’s grateful for the film, and he thinks most Vietnam veterans will be too.
“It was an extraordinary piece of history,” he said. “It deserves to be remembered, and with an open mind and an open heart. And it will be now. It is a Ken Burns documentary. It will live long after any of us. I think this will be our legacy.”
Musgrave is hopeful the film will make an even bigger impact with those who weren’t involved with the war. That number is considerable, even for those who lived through it. Musgrave said the war was mainly just a nuisance for many Americans. They or their loved ones weren’t waging it, and they weren’t protesting it. For many, the war was largely just a scene on the evening news that made for some discomfort at the dinner table.
He hopes the film will open some of those eyes. But Musgrave particularly hopes it will cause Americans to think about the wars that America continues to fight. There are still U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. There are still soldiers who have returned from Iraq or elsewhere trying to negotiate their own personal cease-fires.
“We have a forever war once again,” Musgrave said. “It just seems to go on and on. Once again, America is pretty unaffected by it. The people who are serving are mostly the same kids who served in Vietnam — working class and poor. The upper class has next to no involvement in this. They aren’t troubled by it. They are just looking at their stock returns.
“I think people will see a lot of similarities. Hopefully, they will take away from this what Vietnam veterans have been telling them since this started: Don’t confuse the war with the warrior. We should never confuse the gift that these young men and women give us with the politics that started this war.”
A story of war, politics, division, apathy. I wonder what faces we will see when we watch this film.
One quick but important side note to this story. When I wrote about Musgrave in 2013, he was active with a group of other Lawrence residents who were meeting at Bigg's BBQ on a monthly basis with wounded warriors from the First Infantry Division that is based at Fort Riley.
The Vietnam veterans would talk through issues of returning to civilian life with the wounded soldiers. Burns’ crews filmed segments on that group too. Musgrave said they didn’t make the cut for the 18-hour, 10-part miniseries, but he said he’s been told the interviews will be part of the bonus footage available in the DVD set. So there may be some other area faces you’ll see as part of that.
What you won’t see, however, is a continuation of the get-togethers at Bigg's BBQ. Musgrave said the program ended several years ago. Musgrave said he’s not sure about all the reasons why, but the Army simply stopped cooperating and would no longer bring the handful of soldiers interested in the program to the meetings. The ending of the program coincided with some changes in command of First Infantry Division and its wounded warriors barracks.
“We never received an explanation from the Army,” Musgrave said. “We were told otherwise, though, that the new command’s philosophy was that the Army could handle its own problems.”
To be fair, I don’t know if that is the reason why the Army stopped the program, or whether it was budget cuts or something else. I’ve got a call into an official at Fort Riley to try to learn more. Regardless, Musgrave isn’t convinced that official Army programs are always the best way for soldiers to deal with such issues.
“I know the men we were dealing with did not trust the Amy’s programs that were connected to their commands,” Musgrave said. “They said they knew there were reports being made about their progress or their lack of progress. They knew when they met with us that it wasn’t going any further than us.”
The discontinuation of the program bothers Musgrave greatly. When I interviewed Musgrave in 2013, he shared a mindset that is perhaps difficult for nonsoldiers to understand: When you give up on the future, you become a much better combat soldier.
“The future is a pipe dream,” he told me then. “That is how you had to operate in the bush. You couldn’t be a good Marine if you believed in the future.”
But that lack of a belief in the future almost killed Musgrave when he tried to navigate civilian life at Baker University. Or as Musgrave puts it: “It is tragic when you realize how many warriors could survive combat but couldn’t survive peace.”
“Now,” Musgrave said this week, “we just have to hope those soldiers have found something else that is helping them.”
If I hear additional information from the Fort Riley official, I’ll let you know.
UPDATE: I did hear back from Patti Geistfeld, a public affairs specialist at Fort Riley. She said she did not have information about that specific program and its demise. However, she said it was the type of program that would not have been funded with government dollars, but rather would have been funded through a private donation or perhaps just the donation of a staff member's time. As people come and go, sometimes those programs fade away as a result, she said.
For me, a partnership on the golf course involves one player yelling “timber” while I do the hard work of improving my lie. For the president, a golf partnership used to mean a hotel deal but now involves his playing partner keeping the launch codes next to the scorecard. The point is, there are all types of golfing partnerships, and a Lawrence firm has signed one with a Kansas City organization.
The Twin Oaks Golf Complex — the short nine-hole facility along Kansas Highway 10 between Eudora and Lawrence — has announced a partnership with The First Tee of Greater Kansas City. The nonprofit golf organization has chosen Twin Oaks to become its Douglas County affiliate, meaning it will be the only course in Douglas County to offer The First Tee’s popular youth golfing classes.
The golf course will be kicking off the first of those classes soon. The course will offer a nine-week program for any youths between the ages of 7 and 17. The entire nine week program — it meets every Wednesday from 5:45 p.m. to 7 p.m. — cost $75, and the course will even loan students golf clubs, if needed. Parents who are interested in enrolling their children in the program are encouraged to attend a parent’s meeting at 2 p.m. Saturday at Twin Oaks Golf, 1326 E. 1900 Road.
Jeff Burey, an owner and head pro at Twin Oaks, said the affiliation with The First Tee is a big deal for the small course, which also includes a driving range. But Burey said he believes the partnership can be an even bigger deal for area youth.
“Being the facility that gets to do this is quite a privilege,” Burey said. “I know we are going to impact some lives. That is the mission.”
The First Tee program serves about 15,000 kids in the Kansas City area, but it hasn’t been operating in Douglas County, said Gianna Augustine, program director. Augustine, though, said she thinks the program will be a hit in the Lawrence area. She said the program teaches good golf skills, but really emphasizes several core values that can be used both on and off the golf course.
“There are no umpires or referees in the game of golf,” Burey said. “It is a game of integrity. There are temptations in life, and hopefully you learn how to deal with some of them by playing this game.”
The program being offered at Twin Oaks is the entry-level course for anyone wanting to become a part of The First Tee program. But the organization offers several other advanced courses at its Kansas City locations. Augustine said the plan is to begin offering those courses in Douglas County next year and beyond.
“As we continue to grow in Douglas County, we will grow with the participants. We will follow them through college and beyond,” Augustine said, noting the organization has a significant college scholarship program. “We think we give them opportunities they wouldn’t have had if they didn’t have golf.”
As for the golfing part of the program, kids should be excited about that too. Burey — who previously was the head golf pro at the prestigious Pinehurst golf club in North Carolina — plans to serve as an instructor for the program. He said several KU students who are studying to be instructors also will be on hand, as well as some from the Kansas City program. The program operates with one instructor for every six students, Burey said.
Burey also is optimistic the program will do good things for the Twin Oaks Course. The course — right at the intersection of County Route 1047 and K-10 Highway — has been for sale for many years as the golf industry has gone through some peaks and valleys. Burey said nothing is active on the sale front, and he said business has been picking up significantly recently. Despite some bad weather on the Memorial Day weekend, he said business at the course was strong.
“Sunday and Monday were our two best days ever at the course,” he said.
The local golf industry certainly is going through some significant change. The former Alvamar Country Club has changed its name to the Jayhawk Club and has converted its public course into a private course. That means there are 18 fewer holes of public golf available in the county. Burey said that is expected to mean a big bump in business for the city-owned Eagle Bend Golf Course, the Orchards Golf Course on Bob Billings Parkway and his course.
The industry probably will have another round of change to deal with next year, though. Perhaps you have forgotten, but another nine holes of golf are being built in the county currently. The Links project is underway just east of Rock Chalk Park in northwest Lawrence. As we have reported, that is an apartment complex that is being built around a new nine-hole golf course. Residents of the apartments will have unlimited ability to play the golf course, but the Arkansas-based development group has told me that the public also will be able to book some tee times on the course. I’ve never gotten an official word on when the course is expected to open, but it appears to still be a ways off.
The industry, and especially the city-owned course, will take all the help it can get to grow the game locally. I did a quick look at the city’s revenue numbers at Eagle Bend and they show some of the struggles. Revenues at the course below the Clinton Lake Dam in 2006 were about $971,000. In 2015, revenues had dropped to about $734,000 and bounced up to about $770,000 in 2016 after an increase in greens fees. City officials have been cutting expenses to try to keep the course operating at a break-even level, but it still lost about $20,000 over the last two years.
Lawrence tied for tops in the state for population growth; most Kansas communities continue to shrink
While many parts of Kansas continue to see population declines, Lawrence is tied to be the fastest growing community in the state, according to new Census Bureau numbers.
From July 1, 2015, to July 1, 2016, a little more than 1,400 people moved to Lawrence. The city had a growth rate of 1.5 percent for the year, which represents a significant increase from what the community experienced during much of the decade of the 2000s. During that 10-year period, Lawrence averaged population growth of a little less than 1 percent per year.
Do you remember the “shot of adrenaline,” i.e., state tax and economic policies, that were supposed to create growth of all sorts across Kansas? Well, these numbers don’t show that. If anything, folks from across the state may be thinking that the hippies and the soccer moms are hogging all the adrenaline. That’s because Overland Park is the other community tied with Lawrence for the fastest growth rate in the state. Overland Park is a longtime, prosperous suburban Johnson County community. It is kind of interesting. Lawrence and Overland Park share some similar geography but are different in many other ways.
The new Census estimates show that small towns in the state generally got smaller, while larger cities mainly got larger, with a couple of notable exceptions. Plus, growth rates of the cities varied widely. Out of the 13 cities with a population of 30,000 or more, only four posted growth rates of 1 percent or better. Here’s a look how the state’s largest cities fared:
• Overland Park: 188,966, up 2,915 people or 1.5 percent.
• Lawrence: 95,358, up 1,468 people or 1.5 percent.
• Olathe: 135,473, up 1,473 people or 1.1 percent.
• Lenexa: 52,902, up 542 people or 1.0 percent.
• Leavenworth: 36,154, up 209 people or 0.5 percent.
• Kansas City: 151,709, up 658 people or 0.4 percent.
• Shawnee: 65,194, up 304 people or 0.4 percent.
• Wichita: 389,902, up 842 people or 0.2 percent.
• Leawood: 34,565, up 75 people or 0.2 percent.
• Topeka: 126,808, down 485 people or 0.3 percent.
• Hutchinson: 41,310, down 219 people or 0.5 percent.
• Salina: 47,336, down 327 people or 0.6 percent.
• Manhattan: 54,983, down 1,370 people or 2.4 percent.
When you look at how communities have grown since the 2010 Census, the order changes a bit, but Lawrence still is faring pretty well. It is the fastest growing community not in Johnson County. Here’s a look at those numbers, again for the 13 communities of 30,000 or more.
• Lenexa: up 9.7 percent
• Overland Park: up 8.9 percent
• Lawrence: up 8.8 percent
• Leawood: up 8.4 percent
• Olathe: up 7.6 percent
• Manhattan: up 5.1 percent
• Shawnee: up 4.8 percent
• Kansas City: up 4.0 percent
• Leavenworth: up 2.5 percent
• Wichita: up 1.9 percent.
• Topeka: down 0.5 percent
• Salina: down 0.7 percent
• Hutchinson: down 1.8 percent
Perhaps the most important part of the report is what’s said about everywhere else. Not that population is the only measure of prosperity, but it is one measure. Without population it is hard for a community to support basic services such as grocery stores, health care and a host of other businesses. These numbers show that prosperity is really unevenly distributed in the state.
The small towns around Lawrence are a mixed bag. Here’s a look at 2016 population totals:
• Baldwin City: 4,677, up 13 people
• Basehor: 5,651, up 259 people
• Bonner Springs: 7,665, up 71 people
• De Soto: 6,071, up 11 people
• Eudora: 6,379, up 3 people
• Gardner: 21,110, up 290 people
• Lecompton: 638, down 1 person
• Oskaloosa: 1,078, down 6 people
• Ottawa: 12,356, down 8 people
• Perry: 906, down 1 person
• Tonganoxie: 5,326, up 88 people
It is one thing to see really small towns — places of just a few hundred people get smaller — but now we also are seeing traditional centers of commerce for western, central or southern Kansas shrink as well. For example, Garden City has seen population declines for five straight years. Great Bend has lost nearly 3 percent of its population since 2010. Liberal, in far western Kansas, has lost population six years in a row.
By my count from the numbers released Thursday, only 97 Kansas communities — out of 627 measured — posted a population gain. The rest all declined or held steady. That sure seems like a significant long-term problem for the state.
It also seems like a responsibility for Lawrence. We’re one of the fortunate ones to have growth. Given that what we have is so rare, it seems more important than ever to capitalize off of it all we can.
• One housekeeping note. Town Talk didn't appear for a few days because I was on an assignment for work. Now the column won't appear until Tuesday because I'm on an assignment that will involve a hammock, a fishing pole and probably misfortune with both. Regardless, have a happy and safe Memorial Day weekend.
Kids don’t watch TV anymore, and the reason is obvious: You can’t fit a 52-inch flatscreen in your pocket. Given that, there may be a whole generation confused about those “As Seen on TV” stores in the mall. What the younger generation may understand, though, is a “As Seen on Amazon” store. Lawrence is getting such a store.
The store won’t be named “As Seen on Amazon,” but that is the concept behind the soon-to-open UniDoor store, which will be located in The Malls Shopping Center near 23rd and Louisiana. Operators of the store will monitor what are popular sellers on Amazon and then stock those items in their store.
I’m not sure I completely understand how the retailer operates, but it appears that the key to the business is the ownership group has deep connections with a a host of companies in mainland China. Here’s a news flash for you, a lot of stuff sold on Amazon comes from China.
Rice Cheng is one of the chief buyers for the company, and was at the store when I stopped by earlier this week.
“We have strong connections with thousands of sellers on Amazon,” Cheng said.
UniDoor often creates consignment arrangements with the sellers, meaning UniDoor doesn’t have to buy all the inventory, which means it can stock a wide range of items. And talk about wide ranging. I could buy a hover board, decorate it with LED light strands, get a pair of new shoes, and buy a makeup kit to cover the inevitable scars from the hover board crash without ever leaving one corner of the store.
In other words, the store has an eclectic mix of items. There are a number of electronics, including Bluedio earphones, high-tech digital watches, computer cables and accessories, and other such items. But the store on this particular day also had some clothing, shoes, purses, toys, hover boards, LED lighting, makeup kits and a bunch of other items.
What items the store will have in the future is tough to know. Cheng said the inventory will change significantly with the season and with what is popular on Amazon.
As for how the store ended up in Lawrence, I’m not entirely sure. Cheng said Lawrence was deemed to be a good community and that the store hopefully will appeal to the large college-age population.
If you are like me and have read how Amazon is eating the lunch of brick-and-mortar retailers, you may be wondering why Amazon sellers are interested in having their products in a brick-and-mortar store. Cheng said there are a surprising number of companies that don’t want to put all their eggs in the Amazon basket. Selling on Amazon isn’t necessarily cheap, with some of the fees, commissions and other items that retailers must pay. Plus, some companies remain convinced that some consumers want to touch and see an item for themselves before they buy it.
Plus, it is worth noting that Amazon is building brick-and-mortar stores. They aren’t anything like UniDoor, and I don’t think we’ll see an Amazon store in The Malls shopping center anytime soon, even though there is space available. But the idea that brick and mortar retail is dying may not be quite right. Rather, it may be that the industry — courtesy of giants like Amazon — may be preparing to completely change it through technology. This relatively recent article by The New York Times quotes several sources about what Amazon is working on. Think of stores with so much technology that cashiers aren’t even needed. That would change the viability of brick and mortar retail in a big way, plus create a lot of new questions for the employment market.
The company is exploring the idea of creating stores to sell furniture and home appliances, like refrigerators - the kinds of products that shoppers are reluctant to buy over the internet sight unseen, said one of several people with knowledge of the discussions who, in conversations with The New York Times, spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans were confidential.
But look what has happened: The idea of a store run by robots has gotten me off topic. (It won’t work, by the way. The robots and the cash registers will spend all their time flirting, and the lines will get way too long.) As for UniDoor, look for the store to open in the next week or two, Cheng said. Much of the store was stocked while I was there, but some interior sprucing up was still underway. The store is in the far southwest corner of the shopping center, where Hume Music used to be years ago.
Clothing retailer coming to 23rd Street; Lawrence a finalist to be named the best food town in the Midwest
Whenever I think of the phrase “a melting pot of shoes, clothing and accessories,” I’m reminded of the bonfire my wife set using my favorite 1980s wardrobe. Fortunately, there’s another such melting pot. The clothing reseller Plato’s Closet describes itself as a melting pot of fashion, and it has announced plans to move its Lawrence store closer to one of its main audiences.
Plato’s Closet has signed a deal to move into the 23rd Street space previously occupied by the Jock’s Nitch sporting goods store at 1116 W. 23rd St. Plato’s Closet currently has a Lawrence store in the shopping center next to Hy-Vee at Clinton Parkway and Kasold. That store will close once the new Plato’s Closet opens, local franchise owner John Nichols said.
“This will be a high visibility location that really will be more convenient for the college students,” Nichols said.
If you aren’t familiar with Plato’s Closet, that is probably a sign that you don’t wear enough hip clothing. (I can loan you a pair of parachute pants, if needed. They are made of a material that fortunately didn’t burn.) What Plato’s Closet does is buy good quality used clothing from area residents. It focuses on brand name items that fit certain fashion trends. They pay cash for the clothing, then turn around and sell it to other area residents. Prices generally are less than half what the items sold for new.
The fact the store’s inventory comes from people within the community is where the melting pot idea comes from. Nichols, who also owns a Plato’s Closet in Mission, said he thinks the melting pot idea will be even stronger at the new location.
“The cool thing about buying clothing from college students is they come from all over,” Nichols said. “They come from the coasts, from other countries, and you really get a lot of variety that way.”
Nichols hopes to have the new Lawrence store open sometime in September. Plato’s Closet, though, won’t be the only tenant in the building. The store plans to occupy 4,000 square feet in the building, which will leave enough space for at least one other tenant. Nichols said he hadn’t received any word of who else may be locating in the building. If I hear more, I’ll let you know.
As for Jock’s Nitch, it has ended its presence on 23rd Street, but the retailer of sporting goods apparel and other such items still has a store in downtown Lawrence.
In other news and notes from around town:
• We go from melting pots to great dishes. Lawrence is trying to get some national recognition for the latter.
Lawrence is one of 12 regional towns chosen by Midwest Living magazine to compete for the title of Greatest Midwest Food Town. Like many of these contests, online voting will ultimately determine the winner. Voting is now open and people can vote once per day through May 31. The winner will get a big write-up in the September/October issue of Midwest Living magazine.
The magazine provides a brief description of each town’s food scene. For Lawrence the editors say the city has a “whiff of inland Portlandia about it.” (I think the editors at Midwest Living wear hipper clothes than I do because I don’t know what that means.) The blurb also states the culinary soul of Lawrence is on Mass Street. It mentions Free State Brewery and how it started doing craft before everyone thought it was cool. It also highlights Mass Street Soda, 715 and its practice of chefs butchering hogs in-house, Wheatfields Bakery and The Burger Stand.
As for Lawrence’s competition, here’s a look:
• Toledo, Ohio, which has something called a Tony Packo’s hot dog, which you may remember was a favorite of Cpl. Klinger on M.A.S.H. (Now, Portlandia fans are confused.)
• Bloomington, Ind., which is home to the University of Indiana, apparently has a trend of pop-up restaurants. According to the blurb, diners are invited into private homes for one-time only meals.
• Ann Arbor, Mich., home to the University of Michigan, has a Zingerman’s Deli that is supposed to be a big deal. But it also has Chef Takashi from the Food Network’s Iron Chef show.
• Champaign, Ill., home to the University of Illinois, proves that every self-respecting college town needs a downtown establishment named after a pig. Lawrence, of course, has The Bourgeois Pig. Champaign has The Blind Pig, which I believe is a brewery.
• Sioux Falls, S.D., evidently is the Paris of the Dakotas. Think outdoor bistros that serve bison burgers and a “patisserie” that has the feel of an art gallery.
• Springfield, Mo., which has the title of the Ozark’s biggest city, has everything from crepes to Texas barbecue to Peruvian fare. I would not know because every time I’m in Springfield it is on my way to Branson. And trust me, you’re a fool if you go to Dolly Parton’s dinner show on a full stomach.
• Madison, Wis., home to the University of Wisconsin, has farmers' markets, a supper club, “rumpled coffeehouses,” and four chefs last year that landed James Beard nominations.
• Des Moines, Iowa, regularly closes its streets to host massive food events, including the The World Food and Music Festival, where you can get Salvadoran pupusas, Nepalese dumplings and several other international dishes.
• Duluth, Minn., on the shore of Lake Superior, boasts some good fish, but also diners that serve dishes like a wild rice burger, bowls of wild mushrooms and maple bacon jam.
• Lincoln, Neb., has a Railyard entertainment district, which editors note has become the first in the state that allows people to walk throughout the district with alcoholic beverages in hand. Perhaps you noticed that Kansas lawmakers are considering a law that will allow cities to designate such areas as well. I believe it is on its way to the governor's desk. I wonder whether Lawrence will seek to have such a drinking district.
• Fargo, N.D., is described as a “an outpost of cool in the far reaches of the Midwest,” and to prove it the city has a Jewish/Icelandic-inspired deli.
After reading that list, Lawrence diners, you surely know what your civic duty requires. People can vote at midwestliving.com/vote.
New owners to close longtime cable news channel this summer; one of city’s largest employers gets new boss
Lawrence soon will be losing its local equivalent of a television news channel. Officials at 6News have announced that the new owners of the cable system have decided to close Channel 6 and its associated news website, 6lawrence.com.
According to what the company has posted on its website, look for the shutdown to occur later this summer. The new owner of the cable system is Midco, which is a cable and broadband provider that owns several systems in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
As part of its operations, the company currently operates a channel called the Midco Sports Network. Based on its website, it looks like you can find all the North and South Dakota sports coverage that you would want. According to the 6News story, Midco plans to expand that sports network to the Lawrence market later this summer. I would assume the expansion would mean that the network will begin carrying some Lawrence area sports because I can’t imagine the demand for Dakota sports is too high in Lawrence.
I’m guessing the closure will mean some job losses for some news and production people at the station. I’ve got a call into an official at Channel 6, but haven’t yet heard back. Perhaps some of the sports staff will stay on board, but that is just a guess on my part. Sports Director Kevin Romary is the longest tenured on-air personality on the channel. I haven’t heard word of what his future involves yet.
The closing of Channel 6 will bring to an end a longtime venture. The channel is celebrating 45 years in operation. The channel has never been an over-the-air broadcaster, but rather has always been part of the local cable system, which includes Lawrence, Eudora, Tonganoxie, Basehor, Linwood and Piper.
Full disclosure, some of us at the Journal-World have a history with Channel 6, including me. The former owners of the J-W — the Simons family — also owned the cable system and started Channel 6. For a longtime, Channel 6 and the Journal-World shared a newsroom, and it wasn’t uncommon for newspaper reporters to do a few television stories. (It was learned that my face was so ill-equipped for TV that it was more effective to apply the makeup directly on the camera.) The Journal-World, though, ended its relationship with Channel 6 in late 2010 when the Simons family sold Sunflower Broadband to Knology Inc.
Since then, the Lawrence cable system has been on a bit of a merry-go round. In 2012, the entire Knology company ended up being bought by WOW Internet Cable and Phone based near Denver. But it did not seem that the Lawrence market really fit with WOW’s plans. WOW in October announced the sale of the Lawrence operations to Midco. Technically, Midco took over operations of the system a few months ago, I believe, but there has been a transition period where the WOW brand is continuing to be used in the Lawrence market. You may look for that to change in the future. (The service trucks of the cable company have been repainted more times in the last couple of years than any vehicle in town).
We’re reaching out to officials in Midco’s corporate offices to learn a bit more about what the company’s plans are for Lawrence and the reasoning behind shuttering Channel 6. We’d also like to get an update on whether the company is serious about bringing gigabit broadband service to Lawrence.
According to the company’s website, it has launched gigabit internet service in Fargo, Sioux Falls, Grand Forks and Rapid City since late March. The company at one time said it was exploring offering the super fast internet service in Lawrence, but we haven’t heard an update for awhile.
Now that the company is launching service in other communities, there may be additional details available about what the service includes and its pricing. When I was looking around on the company’s Fargo, N.D. page it looks like stand alone gigabit Internet service for a residential user costs about $100 month. It appears the gigabit service is for download speed. Upload speed — like if you want to post a large file online to share with others — is limited to 20 Mbps, according to the information on the website.
I don’t know whether the Fargo system would be similar to one in Lawrence or whether such discussions are still occurring with Midco. But if we hear more, we’ll let you know.
In other news and notes from around town:
• One of the largest employers in Lawrence has a new person in charge. Hallmark has announced that Steve Eck has been named production center manager for Hallmark’s large plant at 101 McDonald Drive. Eck replaces David Millen, who retired in March.
Eck has been with Hallmark since 1999 in a variety of engineering roles. He most recently was operations director, dealing with supply chain management issues for the company.
Hallmark probably exports the most famous-made Lawrence product that doesn’t involve a basketball. The 650,000 square-foot plant and warehouse near I-70 produces most of the Hallmark greeting cards sold in North America. Spokesman Andy DiOrio said the Lawrence plant actually produces and packages about 70 percent of all greeting cards for Hallmark.
“Each week millions of cards are produced in Lawrence, including the Shoebox humor line, the Sunrise brand and cards for Hallmark’s DaySpring subsidiary,” DiOrio said via email.
I’ve long thought that Lawrence tourism leaders ought to do something to highlight Lawrence’s Hallmark connection, especially near the Christmas holiday season. Lawrence: The Capital of Christmas Cards. We could do something fun with that. (The other famous product produced in Lawrence is Kibbles ’n Bits dog food, but it doesn’t have the same Christmas appeal. Trust me, kibble was not as popular as I had hoped that year I burnt the turkey.)
But Hallmark has a lot of devoted fans, especially for its Christmas ornaments and other collectibles. Lawrence legitimately can say it has been a Hallmark town for a long time. The Lawrence plant was opened in 1958, just four years after the company changed its name from Hall Brothers to Hallmark. Maybe Hallmark could loan us some of its Norman Rockwell originals to be on display in downtown Lawrence, which many feel is one of the few downtowns that still have a Norman Rockwell feel to it, especially around the holidays.
Regardless, Hallmark’s biggest impact on the town is the number of jobs it provides. DiOrio said the Lawrence plant now has about 800 employees. That number represents a good increase from the past few years. In 2013 we reported how Hallmark was closing its Topeka location and would transfer some jobs to the Lawrence plant. In 2013, the company had about 500 workers at the Lawrence location. It had estimated the total could grow to about 700. So, those estimates have been exceeded.
As for Eck, who also will oversee the company’s Leavenworth plant, he received his industrial engineering degree from Kansas State. But don’t worry, not all the greeting cards are going to come out purple. Eck has his MBA degree from KU.
School district won’t say what it plans to pay Hayden in new COO position; new questions about timing of superintendent’s resignation
Lawrence school district leaders won’t say how much they intend to pay soon-to-be ex-Superintendent Kyle Hayden in his new role as chief operations officer.
When news broke on Friday that Hayden intended to resign as superintendent of Lawrence Public Schools — a position that pays him $205,000 annually — and take a new position of chief operations officer for the district, spokeswoman Julie Boyle declined to provide expected salary information for the new position, which still requires board approval. On Monday, board president Marcel Harmon told me he also wouldn’t disclose what salary number the school board will be asked to approve at an upcoming meeting.
“The contract will not be released,” Harmon said via email in response to a question about whether the public could see the proposed COO contract prior to board approval. “It is not standard policy for boards to release administrative or teacher contracts, including salary information, to the public prior to the board’s approval.”
Board members are scheduled to approve the COO contract at their special board meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
The district’s refusal to provide advance information about the salary of the COO position creates questions about what already is an unusual personnel move by the district. District officials have said they expect the creation of the COO position to be “budget neutral,” but they have not provided any details to back up that assertion.
The salary figure is the key piece of information the public needs to evaluate whether the district is meeting its goal of making the position budget neutral. As it stands now, the public is not likely to receive that information until after the board has voted or, at best, perhaps a few minutes before the vote, if board members choose to mention the salary number as part of their public meeting.
The district’s refusal to release the salary information is odd, given than Hayden’s salary and other employment terms will be required to be released by law. The contract will be subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.
When pressed for a further explanation, Harmon said via email that he believed there is good reason to not release contract details prior to a board vote for this position or any other position. He said the board’s refusal to release salary information or other such details “is based in part on not bogging things down.”
“If the community needed to have systemic input on every hire, including overviews of contracts/salaries, even just administrative hires, that would bog the system down,” Harmon said via email.
However, state law seems to be designed to give the public that very opportunity to comment on individual hires made by school districts. State law generally requires all employment contracts to be approved by the Board of Education. Superintendents, for instance, don’t have the administrative authority to commit the district to an employment contract without the approval of the Board of Education. Such approvals of employment contracts must be done during a public meeting.
Given that state lawmakers went to the trouble of creating a system that requires elected officials to approve the contract, and to do so as part of a public meeting, would seem to indicate that lawmakers intended for the public to have some say in the matter.
The Lawrence school board routinely approves many employment contracts throughout the course of the year. In the vast majority of those approvals, the public cares little about the details. However, I had always assumed that if members of the public did care to see the details of a pending contract, that they would be allowed to do so. Now it appears that the board has a policy that creates an awkward situation: Board members are approving a contract that the public can’t see beforehand. The contract, of course, commits the district to spend public funds.
Harmon said he’s not sure the public is all that interested in having the information about the COO position beforehand. If the board hears otherwise from the public, he said there’s a chance additional details may be released.
“If we were to receive a significant amount of public input that they wanted a chance to provide feedback prior to the board’s vote, we would consider that,” Harmon said via email.
The salary figure is a key piece of information but it may not be the only detail members of the public want to know. There are also questions about how much overlap the new COO position will have with a position that is already on the district’s payroll — executive director of facilities and operations.
When details were announced on Friday, the district described the COO position as the manager of the recently approved $87 million in bond improvements. The position also will oversee the facilities and operations department, capital improvement planning, planning related to enrollment projections, school boundaries and other issues. The director of facilities and operations currently handles many of those duties.
When board members on Friday were asked about the potential overlap of the COO position with that of Tony Barron, the current director of facilities and operations, they largely said it would all work out for the best.
“Tony’s plate is full, without these upcoming projects,” school board member Jill Fincher said. “Tony really is at capacity doing what he’s doing.”
Harmon has doubled-down on that talking point. I asked Harmon about the timing of Hayden’s resignation. Hayden’s resignation is scheduled to take affect July 1. The board believes it could take the district until February to hire a replacement. The board will have to spend time and money to hire an interim superintendent.
Given that Hayden is remaining with the district, it creates a question about why Hayden simply wouldn’t agree to stay on as superintendent until a replacement is found. Board members have said they aren’t forcing Hayden to resign from the superintendent position. I asked Harmon for an explanation of why Hayden wasn’t staying until his replacement was found.
“We need him to step into that role sooner rather than later,” Harmon said via email. “The bond implementation process will be underway by July 1, and we need the COO at the helm of the bond implementation.”
That statement creates another question: If Hayden hadn’t decided to resign and accept the COO position, was the district going to need to hire a COO to manage the $87 million bond issue?
If that is the case, many voters likely were not aware of such a need. During the course of the months-long campaign for the bond issue, the need for the new position was not a point highlighted to voters.
Car lot wants to build at East Hills Business Park; update on gun range near jail, new restaurant on Ninth Street
There’s news of a potential auto deal at the East Hills Business Park. No, don’t look for a major plant from Ford, Tesla or even one of the companies who are trying to make the world’s scariest technology — self-driving cars. (Think how many more doughnuts I’ll be able to eat while driving.) Instead, plans have been filed to locate a large car lot near the entrance of the industrial park.
A site plan has been filed by the group that operates the relatively small Crimson & Blue Motors at 1120 E. 23rd St. Plans filed at City Hall, though, show the company would like to build a much larger car lot at 2200 East Hills Drive. That is the roughly 5-acre vacant piece of property that is at the northwest corner of the 23rd Street entrance to the business park.
Plans call for an 18,000 square-foot building that would be used as a showroom and offices for the car lot. I am assuming that the car lot will be a used car lot and not any new dealership that is coming to town. The plans indicate that, but I wasn’t able to get details when I talked to an owner of the company. He declined to discuss the project because he said it was still preliminary since the plans had not been approved by the city yet.
This is the first development proposal for what is a fairly high-visibility location. For years, the property carried the standard industrial zoning that the rest of the East Hills Business Park has. But in 2013, the City Commission approved a new light industrial zoning designation for the 5.4 acre site. The new zoning allows for a variety of industrial uses, but also allows some commercial businesses. At the time, there was talk — but no firm plans — that a convenience store, day care, fast food or some other similar business that would serve the employees of East Hills could locate there.
A car lot also is an allowable use under the zoning, and its high visibility makes it attractive for that type of use. The way the plans have been submitted, it looks like the car lot would not take up the entire site, meaning that other commercial development could occur at the site in the future.
Based on the reaction I got from the owners when I tried to talk to them, I would consider this deal less than a sure thing. We’ll see how it progresses. If approved, it would be a new wrinkle for the city’s largest industrial park.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While we are in the general area, I do have news of one other project I previously had reported on. I had reported an indoor gun range and gun shop had filed plans to locate near the Douglas County Jail.
At the time, that plan also sounded a bit preliminary, but it is taking a big step forward. The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission at its May 24 meeting is being asked to approve the final development plan for the project at 2350 and 2400 Franklin Road.
As a reminder, Lawrence businessman Steve Robson — who owns Ace Storage and Ace Bail Bonds — has filed plans to build the 12,000 square-foot indoor gun range and gun shop. The building plans to have a dozen 25-yard shooting panes. Plus, the range will be built to accommodate tactical shooting. When I last talked with him, Robson also said he planned to buy a high-tech simulator that will allow a person to experience various scenarios where they may need to defend themselves.
• One other brief update: I reported in March that the owner of the Basil Leaf Cafe was close to signing a deal to open a new restaurant in the former Presto gas station building near Ninth and Louisiana streets.
That deal has happened, although I’m still trying to catch up with Basil Leaf owner Brad Walters to get more details about the concept. But I do know the name: Sully and Hanks. Walters has filed for a drinking establishment license with the city of Lawrence. The city is having a special hearing on the license request at its Tuesday meeting because the drinking establishment would be less than 400 feet away from a church, the Ninth Street Missionary.
When I’ve talked with Walters before, he has only said the new restaurant won’t be Italian. His Italian restaurant Basil Leaf is essentially next door to the site. Through other channels, I have heard the restaurant may have a unique outdoor area that takes advantage of the canopy that used to cover the gas pumps of the Presto station. I’ll let you know when I hear more details.
High-tech firm files plans for Lawrence expansion; LMH provides more details on plan to tear down houses for parking
Finally, a Lawrence business that makes something smaller, other than my wallet. I’ve reported several times over the years about Crititech, a Lawrence-based high-tech firm that makes drug particles smaller. The latest news on the company is it has filed plans to expand its North Lawrence headquarters and laboratory.
Crititech has filed plans with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department to build a 4,100 square-foot laboratory, research and production building at 1849 E. 1450 Road. If you are having a hard time picturing the location, it is just north of the North Lawrence city limits, next to the large Heetco propane station.
I’m waiting to hear back from Crititech officials to learn more about the project, but it appears to be a significant expansion. The company currently operates out of an approximately 10,000 square-foot laboratory, research and office building. The application for the project states the need for the expansion is due to company growth. It also says the company will be processing two types of products, and FDA regulations require the work to be done in separate building. Hence, the expansion.
The big question is whether the expansion will result in any new jobs at the company, which generally employs researchers and other good-paying scientific positions. I haven’t heard on that, but I’ll let you know when I do.
The company moved from west Lawrence to North Lawrence in 2013 to give itself more space for growth. At that time, the company had about 10 Lawrence employees, but company leaders then said they could envision that growing to about 50 in five years.
What does the company do that has it growing? In a nutshell, it provides technology to other drug companies that are looking to make their pharmaceutical products more palatable to the body. Often times, that means making the drug particles smaller. For instance, if you can make a drug particle smaller, a pharmaceutical that once had to be taken orally might be able to be delivered through a patch, an inhaler, injections or some other type of less invasive delivery method. Sometimes the smaller particles actually help the body better absorb the drug, making it more effective.
The company ended up in Lawrence because its founder is Bala Subramaniam, a renowned KU researcher. The company continues to have some strong Lawrence ties. Longtime Lawrence entrepreneur Sam Campbell is the chairman of the company, and Matt McClorey, who led the efforts to get the Lawrence Bioscience and Technology Incubator off the ground, is Crititech’s president.
I did a longer article on the company in 2012 when it added McClorey and had signed a deal to put some of its technology into India. The company at that time was reaching a stage that has become dangerous to some Lawrence startups: They become successful enough that outside investors begin looking to buy the company and move it to one of the more traditional high-tech hubs on the coasts.
Campbell back then said he couldn’t make any promises, but that he was working to figure out ways to keep Crititech based in Lawrence for the long term. Keeping promising tech companies in Lawrence is a prime goal of local economic development leaders. These latest expansion plans seemingly provide some evidence that the company continues to have its needs met in Lawrence.
I’ll let you know if I get more details from the company.
In other news and notes:
• On Tuesday I reported on a plan by Lawrence Memorial Hospital to tear down six houses along Michigan Street to make way for an approximately 100-space parking lot. At the time I told you I was waiting to hear some more details from hospital officials. Well, I have heard from the hospital, and the hospital spokeswoman confirmed LMH has heard from quite a few members of the public.
Tearing down any house in Lawrence can become a controversial subject.
“We recognize it is a very sensitive issue,” spokeswoman Janice Early said.
But Early said the hospital is working hard to balance several issues. Among the points she expressed:
— The hospital has considered building a parking garage on site rather than expanding into the neighborhood with another surface parking lot. However, the numbers for a parking garage get big in a hurry. She estimated a surface parking lot costs about $4,000 per parking space, while a parking garage usually costs a minimum of $15,000 per space and often more.
Plus, the hospital is unsure that it really will need a parking garage in the future. New LMH President and CEO Russ Johnson has talked about the need for LMH’s geographic footprint to be more varied in Lawrence. That could mean some ambulatory services would be removed from the hospital’s main campus and relocated elsewhere in the community. That could cause a reduction in parking demand near the hospital.
— On the six houses that are slated to be demolished, Early said the hospital did study whether they could be made available to people who wanted to move them to another site. A consultant, however, recommended against such a strategy. The consultant determined they are not really in a movable condition. Some of the houses also would require significant improvements to meet current standards. For instance, some of the houses have asbestos siding, Early said. The hospital, however, will hire a firm to remove fixtures and other such items from the interior of the homes for recycling, she said.
— The plans submitted to City Hall showed several angled parking spaces would be added along Arkansas and Maine streets. Early said the hospital has decided not to move forward with building those new spaces. She said the new lot along Michigan Street is expected to be adequate to meet parking demand.
— Early said the new parking lot will include a substantial amount of landscaping, and the project will install a new sidewalk along much of the east side of Michigan Street, according to the plan.
— The parking shortage that the hospital faces can be severe at times, Early said. The hospital has expanded its free valet parking service for patients and visitors, but that doesn’t address staff parking issues.
“We definitely are spilling over in the neighborhood today,” she said. “Both staff and visitors are parking on residential streets in front of people’s property.”
Neighbors have noticed that. She said LMH has met with the Pinckney Neighborhood Association to discuss the parking lot proposal. She said the hospital heard supportive comments about the proposed parking lot because it would cut down on the amount of on-street parking that occurs in the neighborhood.
If the plans are approved — both the Planning Commission and the City Commission will have to consider them — the hospital hopes to have the lot completed by early fall.
I’ve long joked that everybody who enters Lawrence Memorial Hospital has high blood pressure not because they are ill but because they’ve tried to find a parking space. The hospital has filed plans at City Hall to help address the parking shortage at LMH, but it will involve tearing down a half-dozen homes in the surrounding neighborhood.
LMH leaders are seeking a variety of zoning and special use permits to convert a large portion of residential property along Michigan Street into a parking lot that will accommodate about 100 cars. The new parking lot would begin near the northeast corner of Fourth and Michigan streets and would stretch to the southeast corner of Third and Michigan streets. The new parking lot would be adjacent to an existing parking lot that runs along Arkansas Street between Fourth and Third streets.
The new parking lot, though, won’t take up the entire block along Michigan Street. There are two property owners along the east side of Michigan Street that evidently are not interested in selling to the hospital. As a result, those two homes will be surrounded on three sides by a parking lot. (Insert your own Joni Mitchell joke here.) One of the property owners is listed as the City of Lawrence. I confirmed it is a property managed by the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority and is part of its affordable housing rental program. The other house appears to just be a traditional single-family home owned by a couple.
If there is a sticking point on this LMH parking plan, it likely will be the demolition of the other six single-family homes on the block. Tearing down existing housing stock — especially as the city has a goal of promoting more affordable housing — can be tricky in Lawrence. I haven’t yet heard back from a hospital official, but it appears that five of the six houses are occupied. The hospital does own all the houses at this point, according to the plans filed at City Hall.
Affordable housing is an important goal, but so too is having a functional hospital. The current parking situation at LMH doesn’t grind functions at LMH to a halt, but it is an issue that I’ve heard hospital leaders express concern about for a number of years. It is not uncommon for hospital visitors to park on residential streets around the hospital.
I haven’t yet gotten a definitive number from LMH, but by reading through plans it appears the project will add about 190 new parking spaces to the area around the hospital. The new lot along Michigan Street would be the largest contributor with 97 new spaces. But the hospital also proposes to add some angled parking spaces along a couple of major roads near the hospital.
LMH plans to add angled parking stalls along the east side of Arkansas Street, on the portion of the street that is near the northern end of the hospital. Currently, 24 angled parking stalls are there, but the number would grow to 62 if the plan is approved. The hospital also plans to begin using angled parking stalls along Maine Street, which is the busy city street that runs along the eastern edge of the hospital. Plans call for 34 angled stalls to be built along the west side of Maine Street.
The hospital will need to win a variety of approvals from City Hall before it can go ahead with the project. The plans are scheduled to go before the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission on May 24. The hospital is seeking approval of a special use permit for the parking lot and is requesting that the property be rezoned from single-family to a special hospital zoning designation. If approved by the Planning Commission, the plans would need to win approval from the City Commission before work could begin.
We’ll see how the request goes. The larger question may be what the hospital’s long-range plans are for parking. It is not uncommon for hospitals to have a parking garage. LMH does not, but conceivably it could convert a surface parking lot into one. Understanding whether a parking garage is part of LMH’s future or whether expanding surface parking lots into the surrounding area is in the cards are issues that may interest planners.
I’ll let you know if I hear more from the hospital.