Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
Former New York tech executive scouting Douglas County sites to host the ‘Woodstock of our generation’
Lawrence is used to seeing funky buses. On one end of the spectrum, there’s Lyle Lovett recently parking his posh bus in the Journal-World parking lot because he was making a downtown Lawrence doughnut run. On the other end, there’s the plethora of 1970s VW buses that leave a trail of smoke that smells very much like the 1970s, if you know what I mean. Residents in recent days, though, have noticed a new type of bus in town. It has a version of the word “gratitude” painted on its side, and the man inside it is intent on talking to you about your dreams.
You have heard of the Field of Dreams, I assume. Well, this old RV that is showing up on Lawrence streets could be called the Bus of Dreams. In a twist, though, the driver is looking for a field. I’ll try to explain.
The driver and owner of the bus is a former high-flying New York technology executive by the name of Stephan Cesarini. He was a co-founder of the company that became ReachLocal, a business that helps small businesses advertise on the internet. It went from a startup to a publicly traded company on Nasdaq.
I have verified all that, but I really don’t know much more about Cesarini. I met him because renowned artist and local resident Stan Herd encouraged me to do so. Herd told me Cesarini was driving around the area looking for a spot to host the Woodstock of our generation. And Herd said Cesarini is intent on holding the major music and cultural event in Kansas.
Indeed that is what Cesarini wants to do. He’s looking for at least a 750-acre parcel of land to hold what he hopes will become a one-of-a-kind music festival. Herd had him touring sites in the Flint Hills, but he wants something closer to Kansas City. Douglas, Johnson, Jefferson and Miami counties are all places he’s scouting.
Cesarini envisions a huge music festival that would attract top artists from many genres. The event would be free to attend and would draw tens of thousands of people over many days. Cesarini, though, hopes to use the event to launch an even bigger idea. He plans to launch a for-profit venture called 8 Billion Dreams.
The mission of that organization is basically to get every human on earth — about 8 billion people — to declare their dream by 2022. He actually carries note cards around, and people write their dreams on them. Cesarini’s organization will have a platform — think websites, job boards, investment circles, relationship sites and other such functions — that will help people achieve their dreams.
He wants the event to be in Kansas because its central geographic location is good from a travel standpoint. Its “center of the U.S.” status also is good from a symbolic standpoint.
He ended up in Lawrence, in part, because he said he is friends with former Lawrence-based musician Jeffrey Goldford, who put him in touch with others in the Lawrence arts and culture scene.
Cesarini said his main efforts now revolve around finding a land owner who shares his vision for the event. Cesarini said he’s looking for a landowner who is open to leasing space for the festival, which he said would be run in a way to minimize the environmental impact to the land. But it does need to be a piece of ground that can accommodate a lot of people. How many? Cesarini was hesitant to say.
“I don’t want to scare people, but I do want this to be the Woodstock of our generation,” he said. “There will be a great pilgrimage to the heartland.”
People interested in talking with him about land can contact him at email@example.com.
How this large event would get funded is something I’m still a bit unclear about. It was unclear to me how much money Cesarini may be investing in the venture, but he did explain parts of the business model. While the concert would be free, the company that is putting on the concert — and which would own the 8 Billion Dreams organization — would be a for-profit venture. Cesarini said he’s confident he’ll find many investors for the effort, both through his connections in the tech world and also through a change in federal law that allows private companies to more easily solicit small investors through crowd sourcing.
Cesarini is likely to face some skepticism. He gets extremely excited about what the simple act of people sharing their dreams can accomplish. He even thinks it could be the key to promoting more harmony in our political system. He thinks by people sharing their dreams it will help disparate groups realize they have more in common than they think.
“We want the same thing for our children,” he said “Right now what we are getting out of the political system is a lot of rhetoric that doesn’t bring people together.”
But Cesarini understands some people are going to think the idea sounds a little too far-fetched. But that’s OK. He knows what is possible. Since he started traveling the country about seven years ago, he has asked more than 10,000 people about their dreams. Many have stayed in touch. He takes it as a sign that people are hungry for something different.
“We can solve so many of our problems outside of politics, outside of beliefs that divide us,” he said.
Who knows? Maybe the vehicle for change is a funky bus.
Based on recent history, slowing down apartment construction in Lawrence requires something akin to Kryptonite. Apartment construction has been booming and generally fast-moving, which may be why some of you began asking questions about what was going on with a project under construction at Sixth and Queens Road. Work slowed dramatically on the housing project, but the developers tell me it definitely is on track to become a reality.
The project in question is the Village Cooperative, a 52-unit senior living community at the southwest corner of Sixth and Queens Road. Construction on the project started in September of 2016, and its developers had hoped it would be ready for occupancy this summer. Instead, the project is still missing a roof and is still months away from completion.
The development group, Minnesota-based Real Estate Equities Development LLC, said the project wasn’t moving as quickly as it would like, but the slowdown wasn’t a sign the unique project had encountered a problem. Instead, it has had some bad construction luck.
The project includes a 57-space underground parking garage. Some untimely rains caused that part of the project to take longer than expected. More recently, the project has suffered from a problem that is beginning to emerge in the Kansas City area: a shortage of construction crews.
“We are hearing that across the KC metro area there has been a shortage of some types of labor,” Andrew Schaefer, a vice president for Real Estate Equities, said. “We are having to try to find some new subcontractors. That has slowed us down a little.”
Schaefer, though, said the project is now trending in the right direction, but the group is not yet ready to provide a projected opening date for the facility. That’s certainly become an issue in Lawrence. We have reported how apartment builders in the community have struggled to meet projected opening dates, leaving tenants looking for temporary living accommodations.
The Village Cooperative project has an extra twist. As its name implies, it is a cooperative, meaning it is not your traditional apartment project. The cooperative concept means each resident is actually a partial owner of the entire building. In this case, residents essentially will own a 1/52nd share of the building, since there are 52 living units in the facility.
The cooperative concept is a fairly uncommon one for the Lawrence market, but development officials said they’re pleased with how the market has taken to it. Shane Wright, another vice president with Real Estate Equities, said nearly 80 percent of the units have been sold. He said the average selling price has been about $135,000, although some of the smaller units have sold for about $85,000.
“The average price has been a lot less than the average price of a new home in Lawrence,” he said.
Residents do face other expenses beyond the purchase price. They are assessed a monthly fee that is their proportional share of the expenses for the entire building. That ranges from about $900 to $1,400 a month, Wright said. It includes items such a lawn care, building maintenance, water, sewer and trash service. But it also includes other types of expenses that normally would come out of a homeowner’s pocket. For example, the dishwasher breaks. Because the building is owned by the cooperative, it actually is the cooperative’s responsibility to replace or repair the dishwasher, not the resident’s. The monthly fee covers those types of expenses, Wright said.
The cooperative concept, which is fairly common in larger cities, is causing Lawrence residents to do some figuring on whether the structure makes financial sense for them. Wright said he challenges potential buyers to think about all the money they spend on their homes, not just what they pay on a monthly mortgage.
“If you take all the hidden costs of owning a house, you basically are eliminating that component, plus you are eliminating a lot of hassles,” Wright said.
The concept also requires prospective buyers to think about how they sell their shares, when that time comes. Unlike a house, you don’t simply sell it to the highest bidder. Sales are done through the co-op association.
It will be interesting to watch how the concept evolves in Lawrence. The community is billing itself as a retirement destination, and the cooperative model is one that gets used frequently in those types of communities.
As for what to expect once the facility opens, it will include a bar and pub, an exercise room, a multipurpose and crafting area, a woodworking shop and even a car wash. Wright said this will be the 22nd project the company has built — it has about a half-dozen in Kansas City — which has given developers a good idea of what amenities residents want most. Wright said the common gathering areas end up being near the top of the list.
“They love the camaraderie this type of living provides,” Wright said. “That ends up being a huge component of it.”
Soon the power of solar energy will be on vivid display in Lawrence. And, no, I’m not talking about what will happen when I learn the hard way that leftover 3-D glasses from "The Emoji Movie" don’t work to view the eclipse. Instead, I’m talking about a large project that will turn one of Lawrence’s grocery stores into a major solar energy producer.
The Merc Co-op has plans to add several hundred thousand dollars' worth of solar panels to its building at Ninth and Iowa streets. The grocery store has been talking about the project since this spring, but recently filed for the necessary permits at City Hall to make the project a reality.
The store, which is a true cooperative in that it is owned by its member customers, plans to install so many solar panels that it will generate about 30 percent of all its power needs from the sun.
“We talk about the impact we want to have in the community, and one of them is we want to care for the environment,” said Rita York Hennecke, general manager for The Merc Co-op.
But grocery stores are notorious for using a lot of energy, in part because of all the refrigeration equipment and the large footprints of their buildings. That means The Merc will have to install a lot of solar panels to meet their goal.
Plans call for much of the roof of the building to be covered with solar panels, and a solar panel-covered pergola will be built above the outdoor seating area of the store’s cafe. But perhaps the most noticeable part of the project will be two large carports that will be built in the store’s parking lot. They too will be covered with solar panels. The carports will cover 32 parking spaces in the store’s main parking lot. The canopy will incorporate a charging station for an electric car also.
In total, the project will have just fewer than 700 solar panels, and it is being billed as the largest solar project to ever be built in Lawrence. Lawrence-based Cromwell Solar is designing and installing the project. Owner Aron Cromwell is a member of The Merc Co-op, and has been talking with the business for years about the project. He particularly convinced the store to add the carports to the project because they would create a unique visual.
“He’s very knowledgeable about our operations,” Hennecke said. “He really convinced us it would be a great statement for The Merc.”
Plans call for the installation of the solar panels on the building’s roof to begin in September. Installation of the solar panels in the parking lot likely won’t begin until October, depending on City Hall approval.
York said the grocery store is using a leasing program through Cromwell Solar and Mid-America Bank to make the project financially feasible. The program uses the money saved in energy bills to pay for the financing of the project.
When it comes to daydreams of exclusivity, I’m sure some people’s thoughts turn to pompadours and membership at the Mar-a-Lago club. But for me, I just aspire to go to the member’s night of the Friends of the Lawrence Public Library Book Sale. Come to find out, I don’t even have to wait until then. The Friends group has recently opened a used bookstore inside the Lawrence Public Library.
In the basement of the library at Seventh and Vermont streets, there’s a relatively new venture called DownHall Books. It is about 35 feet of book shelves just down the hall from the elevator that leads to the basement. There, you will find approximately 500 titles, including a mix of fiction, nonfiction, children’s books and both hardcover and paperbacks.
What you won’t find is a store clerk. Instead, there is just a sign listing the prices. You put your money in a lockbox on the shelf. Exact change is recommended because you can argue all you want with the box, but it won’t give you change back. There is, however, a change machine just down the hall from the bookshelves.
You likely won’t need a lot of change. DownHall uses a pricing system similar to what you find at the annual used book sale: $2 for a hardcover, $1 for paperbacks, DVDs and CDs. Children’s books are sold for half those prices.
The store, which quietly got started in the spring, came about because several members were concerned that, despite the annual book sales, the Friends group still was recycling a lot of quality books. One of DownHall’s goals is to reduce the number of donated books that are going to the recycling pile, according to the organization.
As for the type of books on the shelves, the inventory changes frequently, Celia Heintz, coordinator of DownHall told me via email.
“It is a treasure hunt,” she said. “One day you might find the travel book of your dreams. The next day there might be a book by George Will on baseball or the latest Dan Brown mystery.” (It is titled "The George Will Code: What do these big words mean?")
On the particular day that I was there, I noted fiction titles by Janet Evanovich, Michael Connelly, Tony Hillerman, Danielle Steel and others. There were nonfiction titles too, including a George Will baseball book, and something called the "Idiots Guide to Getting Your Romance Published." There was even the Kansas City Steak Company’s "Grilling and Barbecue Guide," and then just a couple of books down, the provocative "The Art of Veterinary Practice." I really hope those aren’t bought by the same buyer.
Because the store has no clerk, it has no real hours either. It is simply open anytime the library is open. Money raised at the store will benefit the Friends of the Public Library, which in turn uses the money to support the Lawrence Public Library. Overall, the Friends group raises a significant amount through its three, large, annual book sales, which will continue to be held. Last year, the group generated nearly $145,000 in income from the sales and other fundraising activities, according to the group’s annual report.
You can tell when I go on a honey binge: The natural sugars put an extra pep in my step, every door knob in the house has an extra layer of stickiness to it, and there are so many plastic bear bottles littering the floor that you would think Sarah Palin had been hunting from a helicopter. Soon, fellow lovers of honey will have a Lawrence store devoted just to them.
Plans are in the works for The Bee Store to open in The Malls shopping center at 23rd and Louisiana streets. The store will be run by the folks who own Anthony’s Beehive, the rural Lawrence business that has been selling honey in grocery stores and farmers markets for more than a decade.
The store will sell honey in many different forms. That includes just bottles of the “Kansas Honey,” that is produced from the rural Douglas County hives. It also will include 37 flavors of honey straws, which are basically single-serving packages of honey, and something called creamed honey, which is honey that is thicker and more easily spreadable. The store also will have about 24 flavors of lip balm made with beeswax, and a good assortment of candles made from beeswax. There even will be a station where you can make your own candle. The store also will have a corner devoted to other locally made products, and the shop will include a commercial kitchen that might be available for use by other local food producers.
The other thing inside the store will be a feel-good story. Anthony’s Beehive is operated by Anthony Schwager, a 30-year old rural Lawrence resident who was born with developmental disabilities. Anthony learned about bees in the third grade and convinced his parents to buy a couple of beehives shortly thereafter. The business now has about 60 beehives, although in some years it operates more than 100. The operation has been a full-fledged business for quite a while now, with its products on the shelves of many stores. Anthony plays an active role in it.
“It has made a huge difference in his life,” said his father and business partner Tony Schwager. “He is kind of famous in Lawrence. You will find him every Saturday at the farmers market.”
The store hopefully will take the business to a new level, Tony said.
“Ideally it will be something attractive enough that one of Anthony’s siblings will come back and help Anthony with the business once we are gone,” Tony said.
The store will be unique in another way too. It will sell items to help people get started with creating their own beehives. As news has begun to spread about the environmental dangers associated with a declining bee population, Tony believes the opportunity to get more people into beekeeping is ripe.
“There has been a huge upswing in interest,” Tony said. “There are a lot of people wanting to help the bees.”
In addition to selling some of the supplies needed for beekeeping, the store will actually have an area where people can build their own boxes for the beehives. The store will supply jigs, tools, materials, and most of all advice. Tony said the store also will offer several classes on beekeeping, with some of the learning done at the store but much of it done at the company’s beehives.
“The thing about beekeeping is it is fairly inexpensive to get into, but you really do need a mentor,” he said.
The store expects to open next week on a limited basis, but it plans to have its grand opening in September. The store is located in the southwest corner of the shopping center, near Sarpino’s Pizzeria.
People who hate property taxes have more to hate in Lawrence following Monday’s special school board meeting.
Most people who had been following the Lawrence school district and its financial affairs expected the board to be presented with a budget that raised the mill levy by 2.4 mills. That was the number that was touted by district officials throughout the campaign for an $87 million bond issue.
But when district officials finally revealed their recommended budget on Monday it showed a property tax increase of 3.503 mills. What happened? Did the district pull off a bait-and-switch? I wouldn’t go that far.
Instead, you could say that the district practiced good salesmanship. During the course of the campaign district officials highlighted what they thought would be helpful in pushing the bond issue to victory. The main financial point they pushed was: They were confident they would only have to raise property taxes by 2.4 mills to pay off the $87 million worth of bonds. They even pointed to their past record. In 2013 they had a $92.5 million bond issue, and they said it wouldn’t involve a tax increase. Sure enough, there wasn’t a tax increase with that bond issue.
What district officials didn’t really highlight this time is that while a 2.4 mill property tax increase may cover the bonds, there may be a need to raise property taxes in other parts of the district’s budget to cover other expenses unrelated to the bond issue.
Indeed, that’s what is set to happen. The school board accepted a recommended budget that raises the district’s local option budget by 2.8 mills. That was unexpected by many district residents. School district officials, though, say it has to be done if the district wants to take full advantage of the new school finance formula state legislators approved this year.
That is probably a fair enough statement. It also is fair to note that the school finance formula wasn’t done in May when voters were approving the bond issue, so the district didn’t know how much its local option budget might increase at that time.
But I think it also is fair to say that district leaders didn’t do much to warn voters that the 2.4 mill increase may only be part of the property tax increase puzzle. I think some district residents now feel like they’ve just bought a new car, thought they negotiated one price, and now have learned about all the fees that get added on. But as buyers, I guess we should always assume the undercarriage coating fee is going to bite us in the rear.
The 3.5 mill increase could have been higher. District officials are recommending a step to stave off an even larger mill levy increase. Instead of issuing bonds for the entire $87 million worth of projects this next budget year, the district is going to issue bonds for only about $43.5 million. It will issue bonds for the other $43.5 million in the following budget year. So, instead of raising the mill levy 2.4 mills to pay for the bonds, the district will raise the mill levy 1.2 mills this year to pay for the bonds, then tack on another 1.2 mill increase the following year to pay for the rest of them.
Without that step, the district’s mill levy would have soared by 4.7 mills. The adjustment, though, is not without long-term risks. District officials likely will be keeping their fingers crossed that interest rates don’t go up in the next year. Even a 1 percent increase in interest rates would add millions of dollars in interest expense that the district would have to pay over the life of the bonds. Interest rates are pretty low now, but it is anybody’s guess whether they will be a year from now.
That’s a problem for another day, though. In the meantime, local residents need to figure how much more they are going to be paying in taxes. As we have reported, when you combine tax rates for the city of Lawrence, Douglas County and the Lawrence school district, residents are facing their largest property tax increase in recent memory.
With the school board surprise from Monday, that increase is now larger. Lawrence residents now are looking at an increase of 6.66 mills. On a $200,000 home that is an increase of $153 a year in taxes. And that is assuming your home didn’t go up in value since last year. Property values did go up for most homeowners, so the actual tax increase will be a bit more for most.
Such a tax increase is what happens when all three governments decide to do their projects at once. The school decided this was the year for school facility improvements. The city decided this was the year for a new police headquarters. The county decided this was the year for more than $1 million worth of new mental health services.
Some taxpayers may decide it is the year for an aspirin.
The county finalizes its budget at a hearing tonight at the Douglas County Courthouse. The school district finalizes its budget at a meeting on Aug. 22.
Here is the alphabet soup of marijuana. (Apologies Lawrence grocers. I’ve inadvertently created a stampede in the soup aisle.) Marijuana has a chemical compound called THC, which produces a high. In Kansas, selling a product with THC results in OTJ — off to jail. Kansas has some of the strictest laws in the country regarding THC products.
But the cannabis plant also produces another chemical compound called CBD. It does not produce a high, but many people swear it helps relieve inflammation, pain, stress and other ailments. That chemical compound is legal, and Lawrence residents soon will get to find out for themselves whether it works. A store that specializes in CBD — more commonly called hemp oil — is opening at 19th and Massachusetts streets.
CBD American Shaman Lawrence is set to open today at 1901 Massachusetts Street, next door to the popular Alchemy coffee shop. Co-owner Trevor Burdett said the store will sell creams, liquids and other edibles that have the CBD oils in them. What the store won’t be selling is anything that will get you high. Burdett said the CBD products are completely free of THC. That's an important disclaimer because products with THC are illegal in Kansas and also run afoul of federal law. The American Shaman company previously was selling products that had a trace amount of THC, but after a store in Mission got busted for selling them, the company changed its production processes to remove all THC. Thus far, that seems to have satisfied Kansas regulators, and the feds also have not stepped into the fray. Burdett said the new business will make it clear that marijuana is not the store's business.
“That is not our market,” Burdett said. “We’re not looking for people to come in and get high. If they just want the euphoric aspects of getting high, that is fine. They can go smoke somewhere else.”
Burdett and his business partner, Corey Landreth, though, know they will have to do some explaining to people who may mistake hemp and marijuana. “We understand there is a market in Lawrence that we will have to talk to and tell them that they aren’t going to eat some medical gummies and get loopy.”
Lawrence, however, may be better educated than most communities on the subject. There is the guy with his pro-hemp signs frequently in downtown Lawrence. (No word yet on whether we have to honk every time we go by the store at 19th and Massachusetts.) Burdett said the company looked at both Lawrence and Manhattan for the store and settled on Lawrence, in part, because it is a town open to alternative medicine.
At this point, I should remind you that hemp oil does fall into the realm of alternative medicine. The products are not FDA approved. You should think of them more like a supplement. Everybody will have to make their own decisions about the safety and effectiveness of the products. While stressing that more research needs to be done, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has noted CBD’s potential to be a nonaddictive treatment option for certain types of conditions, although the article notes it doesn’t seem to work for everybody.
Regardless of its status in the medical world, there is no denying CBD products are catching on with many people.
CBD American Shaman, which is based in Kansas City, has about 70 products. They include water-soluble hemp oil that you can drink, hydrating body lotions, hemp oil capsules, face creams, lip balms and even hemp candy. (You know your grandpa is from the 1970s when he pulls out hemp candy from his pocket instead of a Werther's Originals.)
The store also has hemp-based products for pets. There are canine, feline and equine hemp oils for sale. Burdett said he knows of some weight lifters or people who suffer from extremely high levels of pain who take the stronger equine formula.
People who are wanting to control pain are expected to be a big market for the store. There is an American Shaman store that has opened in Topeka, and Burdett said it serves a lot of people with severe arthritis, fibromyalgia or other conditions that produce chronic pain.
Burdett said he spent some time at the Topeka store, and some of what he saw convinced him to open his own store.
“We had people come in the store that didn’t know where they were at, couldn’t tell you who their family was because they were in so much pain,” Burdett said. “They would take a water soluble, and to see them come around in 10 or 15 minutes was amazing.”
Besides pain relief, Burdett said there are some other frequent users of the products. Some believe CBD is effective in controlling seizures, which causes some people who have epilepsy to use the products. Some athletes also use the products with the idea that they help reduce inflammation and pain that come from particularly hard workouts. A particularly large market in a college town may be students who are looking for the purported stress-relieving benefits of CBD products.
As for how much all of this relief will cost, Burdett said many of the products are in the $40 to $70 range, but often last for multiple weeks.
Burdett believes the store will do plenty of business once folks catch on to what it is selling.
"Everybody hears about the medical benefits of marijuana," Burdett said. "We have a form now that is 100 percent legal that people can take on an everyday basis."
The latest report is out, and Lawrence sales tax collections continue to be good — but not good enough in one key regard. They aren’t good enough to avoid a property tax increase from City Hall.
The city recently got its July sales tax check from the Kansas Department of Revenue. It showed it collected 2.8 percent more in sales tax revenue than it did during the same period a year ago. Monthly totals vary wildly, so the more important figure is the year-to-date calculation. Through the first seven months of 2017, the city has collected 3 percent more in sales tax revenue than during the first seven months of 2016.
That’s not bad. It is about twice the rate of inflation. But, it is not as good as it has been in past years. Sales tax collections in 2016 grew by 5.5 percent. The slowdown comes at an inopportune time for Lawrence taxpayers. In a roundabout way, it is one of the reasons Lawrence taxpayers are set to see a 1.25 mill increase for the 2018 budget.
Here’s the quick version of the city’s proposed 2018 budget: In May city staff recommended a budget with a 1.25 mill levy increase to help pay for a new police headquarters building. The city built the budget with the idea that sales taxes would grow by 4 percent but property values would only grow by 2 percent. In June, the city got word from the county that the city’s property tax base actually grew by 6 percent. That meant if the city made no other changes to its budget, it would get an extra $1.4 million in property tax revenues that it wasn’t expecting.
In the past, this may have been good news for taxpayers. City officials would take some of that $1.4 million in unexpected revenue and use it to reduce the 1.25 mill levy increase. Here’s an example of what happened this year. Of the $1.4 million total, about $948,000 of it goes into the city’s general operating fund. The city took a second look at its proposed budget for the general operating fund and decided that some other revenues projections needed to be adjusted downward by $485,000. On the expense side, it decided some projections needed to be adjusted upward by $485,000. The result: That $948,000 in unexpected revenue is all gone, and then some.
But back to the sales tax issue. The biggest change the city made from May to June is it reduced its projections for sales tax collections in 2018. That one change wiped out $590,000 of the unexpected money. It probably was a reasonable change. The city was budgeting to see 4 percent sales tax growth in 2018. Sales tax collections in 2017 may not even grow 4 percent, so it would be unwise to assume they will in 2018.
But there is another sales tax number to pay attention to. How much does the city collect in sales taxes compared with how much it budgeted to collect? For years the city has consistently underestimated how much money it will collect in sales taxes. The result is the city ends up with money that it hasn’t budgeted to spend at the end of the year.
Two key questions: How much money, and where does that money go? The how much isn’t really easy to figure out. But after looking at several line items of several years worth of budgets, I’m comfortable estimating the city has collected at least $3.5 million more in sales and use tax revenues from 2012 to 2016 than what it budgeted to collect. The number is almost certain to go up in 2017. Current projections have the expected excess at a little more than $1.5 million for 2017.
Where the money goes is easier to answer. It basically goes into a series of rainy-day accounts called “fund balances.” They are basically used to cover unexpected expenses, unexpected revenue declines or calamity.
It is good to have an account like that, but it also would be good to have a discussion about whether it needs to continue to be funded by excess sales tax revenues. Sales tax revenues are tough to predict, but when the city has a sales tax prediction fall short, it often results in residents paying more in property taxes than they really need to.
But what if the city kept all of its excess sales tax collections from past years in a separate fund? It could be called the excess sales tax fund. The city would still have to make sales tax projections, but the stakes would be lower if the projections are wrong. If there is a year that taxes come in below the projection, the city pulls money out of the excess sales tax fund. If it comes in above the projections, the fund grows. It would have been helpful this year. Remember that $550,000 last-minute reduction in sales tax projections? Such a fund could cover it, if it even materializes.
As for the city’s rainy-day fund, that would still exist. The general operating fund balance has more than $15 million in it, and it can grow in ways that don’t involve excess sales tax revenues.
Certainly, flaws can be found in this type of system too. But I believe taxpayers — especially those who don’t like property taxes — are finding flaws with the current system. Sales tax collections have been really good for a lot of years in a row now, yet the property tax rate continues to rise. This year both sales tax collections and property values are up, yet the property tax is set to rise.
From 2012 to 2017, a time when sales tax collections have come in millions over budget, the city’s property tax rate has grown from 29.5 mills to 33.2 mills upon approval of this budget. Everything else being equal, that is a 12.5 percent increase in taxes, which isn’t that bad, until you look at one other statistic: incomes.
In 2012, the federal Housing and Urban Development department estimated the median family income in Douglas County at $71,500. In 2017, the estimate is $68,500.
That’s perhaps the most important number for budget-makers to keep in mind.
After more than a year of what seemed like constant reports of new chicken restaurants in Lawrence, there has been a lull lately. Don’t let that silence fool you, though. There is game-changing news on the fowl front: The chickens have mobilized. In other words, there is a new chicken restaurant in Lawrence, and it will have a food truck too.
Southern Poppy has opened in the VFW building at 1801 Massachusetts St. Southern Poppy is not a full-on chicken restaurant, but rather is a southern and Cajun-style restaurant. But owner and chef Amber Brown said her signature dish definitely is chicken and waffles.
“I make all of my own spices and seasonings, and the waffle batter is homemade,” Brown said.
Chicken also plays a prominent role in a couple of other dishes, including what Brown calls a “Midwest gumbo.” It features smoked sausage and chicken rather than shellfish. The dish does still include Cajun rice, and it comes with a cornbread waffle, which is cornbread batter fried like a waffle.
You may be picking up that waffles also are a big theme for the restaurant, and they are not married to chicken. Brown expects one of her more popular dishes to be a waffle burger, which is a hamburger that is served between two waffles. Somewhere, there is a chicken laughing.
Southern Poppy opened a few weeks ago in the VFW building, which has hosted several restaurants over the last couple of years. Although the VFW is a private club, you don’t have to be a member to enter the restaurant portion. But Southern Poppy is only open from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The restaurant is reserving its weekends for a new food truck or, more accurately, a food trailer.
The food trailer has been built — complete with smoker, barbecue grill, flattop, fryers and other accessories — and is just awaiting its final inspections. Brown said it will be unveiled at a grand opening event on Aug. 12 at the VFW.
But in the future, look for the food trailer at locations other than the VFW. Initially, the food wagon will be in the parking lot of the shopping center at 19th and Haskell, but Brown expects to find other locations around town as well.
“We’ll probably be popping up all over town,” Brown said.
The food trailer will do the chicken and waffles, gumbo, sandwiches and other items that are on the brick-and-mortar restaurant menu. But it also will do breakfast. Brown said that means both early morning breakfast and late-night breakfast. Brown has good experience with the late-night crowd. She got her start in the Lawrence food scene operating a chicken and waffle delivery service that catered to the college crowd.
Brown said she plans to restart that delivery service once the food trailer business gets off the ground. That will give students the option to come visit the food wagon late at night or simply call in an order for delivery.
“I would rather bring the food to some of them,” Brown said of the after-party crowd. “There are some of them that don’t need to be driving.”
The restaurant and food wagon represents Brown’s biggest jump into the Lawrence culinary scene yet. About 15 years ago, she came to Lawrence at the age of 15, got her GED and made her way into the culinary program at Johnson County Community College. After learning that it was hard to make money while working for someone else in the food business, she started on her own making cookies and pies for the holiday season, and somehow that “morphed into ‘let’s do a delivery service for drunk college kids.’”
With her new business, Brown thinks she has found a niche that will please both customers and herself.
“I eat a lot of spicy food, so I just started playing with the things that I like to eat,” Brown said. “I just love cooking it.”
I could take over all the cooking duties at my house, but family members grow weary of my chef’s hat, and I’ve learned a man with my eyebrows really shouldn’t do flambé. The reasons may be different, but a west Lawrence business is betting lots of households are finding that cooking at home doesn’t work as well as it used to.
The Fit Flavor by Optimal Living has opened in the shopping center at Bob Billings and Kasold Drive. For about four years, the business has been operating out of Baldwin City as an online company that delivers ready-to-eat meals to area residents, usually a week at a time.
That system worked well for people who took the time to plan their meals at least a week in advance, but owners Jeremy and Amelia Rodrock found there also were people who not only were too busy to make food, but also had a hard time planning for it as well.
The solution was the business’ first storefront location. While people can still order food online, they also can just drop by the store and pick up some meals. As for the food they’ll find, the menu changes each week, but it always includes a heavy dose of dishes with local ingredients.
Jeremy said some variation of a grass-fed hamburger is always on the menu. Chicken, beef or pork burrito bowls also are popular items, as well as a variety of chicken salads that feature homemade mayonnaise.
Many of the menu items are dairy free, gluten free and processed-sugar free, said Jeremy. That makes sense given the business got started more than four years when Amelia began competing in fitness events. She would spend a lot of time doing meal planning ahead of the events. Fellow competitors took note, and asked if she could make meal plans for them too. Soon, she was selling them a week’s worth of meals.
As a result, the business has long had a lot of athletes as its customers. But now the Lawrence storefront is expected to help the business tap into just ordinary people who are too busy to cook for themselves.
“I think the No. 1 trend is our fast-paced society and people relying on eating out all the time,” said Jeremy, who also is the owner and operator of Lawrence’s Rodrock Chiropractic. “But now people are realizing it is hard to get healthy food at a restaurant. I think we are in a perfect niche, especially in Lawrence because so many people are looking for local food.”
Jeremy said most of their customers sign up for one of the company’s plans that provide a week’s worth of meals at a time. Prices, according to the website, range from $135 for a one-person plan to $255 for a two-person plan.
But the storefront is allowing the company to get into more a la carte sales and to highlight products other than full-blown meals. The company sells cold-pressed juices and cold-pressed coffees. Or, if you like your coffee in a slightly different form, one of the business’ better sellers is something called a Ball of Joe. It is chocolate, coffee and other ingredients that are combined and shaped into what the store calls a "power ball."
“It is a coffee-based snack, and it it gives you a jolt of energy,” Jeremy said.
The store makes a variety of power ball snacks. They include peanut butter, chocolate almond, and a pumpkin spice version during the holidays, and a cookies-and-cream power ball is in development. Jeremy said those products have taken on a life of their own. He said 37 grocery stores in the region are now carrying the product, which is touted as a healthier snack alternative.
While the the Rodrocks are pleased with their new west Lawrence location, some East Lawrence residents may be sad to hear the news. Optimal Living originally had planned to open a storefront as part of the project that is aiming to revitalize the former Sunrise Garden Center site at 15th and Learnard.
Rodrock, though, said getting approvals for that project was moving too slowly, and the company has abandoned those plans. East Lawrence residents, though, shouldn’t worry. Eat a few Balls of Joe, and you can probably sprint to that side of town in no time.
You may have heard the city’s proposed property tax increase is less than the rate of inflation; you heard wrong
This may shock you, but a tax idea that was hatched in Topeka hasn’t exactly gone according to plan.
Those of you who are really good citizens — or maybe you just have insomnia and watch City Commission meetings all the way to their conclusion — know that this is the first year that local governments are dealing with a new state-imposed property tax lid.
To hear state legislators describe the lid, its purpose is to help ensure that local governments don’t raise property taxes at a rate greater than inflation, unless voters approve of the increase as part of an election.
But, in this first year of the tax lid, both the Douglas County Commission and the Lawrence City Commission are set to raise property tax rates, and neither is holding an election. So, what gives?
Well, if you’ve read social media in recent days, you may have heard an explanation from City Commissioner Matthew Herbert, who is running for re-election. A commenter on Facebook asked how the city will be able to raise its mill levy by 1.25 mills without first getting permission from voters. Herbert’s response: “My understanding is that the property tax lid rule does not allow the city to raise property taxes beyond the inflationary rate without an election. We are not raising beyond the inflationary rate.”
The commenter thanked Herbert for his quick response, and seemed to leave thinking the city wasn’t raising property taxes more than the rate of inflation. That is far from accurate.
For the purposes of the tax lid, the rate of inflation is 1.4 percent. The city of Lawrence is proposing to raise property taxes by a little more than 10 percent as part of the 2018 budget. The city’s 2017 budget called for collecting $29.7 million in property taxes. The proposed 2018 budget plans to collect about $32.7 million. I called Herbert, presented the numbers to him, and he acknowledged that he made a misstatement.
“In that context, my response isn’t accurate,” Herbert said.
The response showed a misunderstanding of the tax lid law, and I suspect Herbert isn’t the only elected official in that boat. It is a myth that the tax lid law doesn’t allow local governments to raise property taxes greater than the rate of inflation without an election. There are many exemptions built into the law that allow for property taxes to be raised far above inflation without an election. The city is using at least three of them in the building of the 2018 budget: 1. Spending for police activities; 2. Spending for fire department activities; 3. Spending to support new debt. Basically, the spending that happens in those three categories — which are really big categories for the city of Lawrence — don’t count against the tax lid.
The city is proposing to significantly increase spending in all three categories in 2018: $1.4 million for police; $2.3 million for “fire protection expenses”; and $1.7 million for debt payments, including new debt for a police headquarters facility. None of that increased spending was subject to the tax lid. As far as lids go, this one is easy opening.
The other factor in the 10 percent increase in property taxes is that home values are on the rise. The city is getting about $1.8 million in new property tax revenues simply because the city’s tax base has increased. Some of that is because of new construction in the community, but most of it is because the home you own today is worth more than it was last year.
Herbert initially told me it was unfair to attribute all the property tax increase to actions of the City Commission, given that some of the increase comes from rising home values. His argument is the city doesn’t control home values so that shouldn’t be held against the city.
That statement too shows a misunderstanding on Herbert’s part. Just because home values go up doesn’t mean the total amount of property taxes the city collects also has to go up. The city controls the property tax rate that it charges residents. If the property tax base in aggregate increased by 6 percent, then the city could reduce the property tax rate by a corresponding amount. The end result would be the city collects the same amount of property taxes as it did before home values increased.
“I suppose that is true,” Herbert said when I presented such a scenario.
True, but not likely this year. City commissioners are set to finalize the 2018 budget at a 5:45 p.m. hearing Tuesday at City Hall. Commissioners may find some cuts to make to the proposed budget, but it would be surprising if they find enough to eliminate the mill levy increase. For the record, I’m not saying they should. Taxes pay for a lot of needed services. Everyone should measure the value of those services before they immediately complain about taxes.
But on the other hand, don’t fall for any measurements that say Lawrence property taxes are only going up by the rate of inflation. Topeka’s tax lid doesn’t fit nearly that tight in Lawrence.
We’re in the heat of Lawrence City Commission campaign season, as the primary election is Tuesday. Perhaps you have noticed some of the slogans: “Hello, is this microphone on?” “Ill give you a free cookie if you come to my campaign rally.” And perhaps the best one is the simplest one. It isn’t a word at all. Instead, a big yawn may be the most appropriate image for this campaign.
This is the first year for a City Commission primary in August, and interest has been lackluster. We reported on Monday that advance voting for the election was “extremely low,” according to the County Clerk’s office. Only about 275 people had voted.
Candidates recently were required to turn in reports detailing their campaign contributions thus far, and those show lackluster interest as well. But it also shows that three candidates are in the lead when it comes to raising money, which many times can be a good indicator of who has momentum with voters. The top three money-raisers thus far are incumbents Lisa Larsen, Matthew Herbert and challenger Dustin Stumblingbear.
There is an asterisk to this: Candidate Christian Lyche missed the deadline and didn’t file the state-required campaign finance report, County Clerk Jamie Shew said. No word yet on why Lyche didn’t file the report.
Here’s a look, though, at the details of the reports for the other seven candidates in the race. The reports require candidates to state how much money they have received in contributions, and to identify whom the contributions came from, if the contributions are of a significant size. All the reports cover the time period from Jan. 1 through July 20.
— Lisa Larsen: Larsen was appointed to the commission in October 2015 to fill the unexpired term of Jeremy Farmer. So, this is her first campaign for the City Commission, and thus far she is the leader in collecting campaign donations. She raised $6,125 in contributions during the time period. The report shows about $500 came from herself or other people who shared her last name. She had three contributors give the maximum $500 amount: Philip Reihle, who is listed as a teacher from Lawrence; Sarah Merriman, a retired Lawrence resident; and Michael Wasikowski, a military analyst from Lawrence.
– Matthew Herbert: Herbert is seeking his second term on the City Commission. He finished third in the last election and received a two-year term as a result. He has raised $5,025 in contributions. He had two people give the maximum $500 amount: Wasikowski, the Lawrence military analyst who also gave to Larsen’s campaign; and Jack Graham, a Lawrence resident who is listed as a downtown property owner. City Hall watchers often look at these reports to see if businesses or people in the development industry who often are before City Hall for approvals have given to particular candidates. Thus far, the number of businesses giving sizable donations to campaigns has been limited in this primary season. But Herbert did receive contributions totaling $400 from three companies — Radol, LC, DSJ Corp., and Oread LC — controlled by the Duane Schwada family. Schwada is one of the largest developers in town, owning multiple apartment complexes and commercial centers, and is the leader of the group seeking to develop the commercial area around Rock Chalk Park.
— Dustin Stumblingbear: A retired Army veteran who is making his first run for the City Commission, has raised $3,406.23 in contributions. About $550 came from himself or from people who share his last name. Stumblingbear had one other contributor who gave the maximum $500. That was Wasikowski, the Lawrence military analyst who also gave to Larsen and Herbert.
— Mike Anderson: Anderson is making his second run for the City Commission, after falling short in the 2015 elections. He has raised $2,375 in contributions, including $1,500 from himself and others who share his last name. Anderson received $500 from the Cider Gallery, an arts and events space in East Lawrence’s Warehouse Arts District.
— Bassem Chahine: Chahine unsuccessfully ran for the Douglas County Commission during the last election, and is making his first run for the City Commission. He has raised $2,000 in contributions. All of the money came from himself, according to the report.
— Ken Easthouse: Easthouse is making his first run for the City Commission. He has raised $1,100, with all of it coming from himself.
— Jennifer Ananda: Ananda is making her first run for the city City Commission. She has raised $814.56 in contributions. She gave herself $100. The bulk of her contributions — about $415 — were donations of $50 or less where she did not list the name of the donor, which is allowed by state law for small donations.
People can see the full campaign finance reports for each candidate at the Douglas County Clerk's website at douglascountyks.org
As for details on the election, when voters go to the polls — either through advance ballots or on election day — they can vote for up to three candidates. Six of the eight candidates in the field will move onto the general election. The Nov. 7 general election will determine the winners of the three seats up for grabs on the five-member City Commission. The top two vote-winners receive four-year terms, and the third-place finisher receives a two-year term.
Local restaurant set to open with a menu that features everything from a classy hamburger to a chicken-fried hot dog
Those of us with a certain amount of cholesterol in our bloodstream know that a flat top isn’t just a haircut for people who don’t like combs. It also is the name for a large, seasoned hunk of metal where hamburgers, onions and other creations can be fried to perfection. A flat top grill will be at the center of Lawrence’s newest chef-inspired restaurant, Sully & Hank’s.
I have been telling you for awhile now that Brad Walters, chef and owner of the popular Italian restaurant The Basil Leaf, is opening a new restaurant called Sully & Hank’s in the former Presto gasoline station near Ninth and Louisiana streets. But Walters hadn’t provided any clues about what type of restaurant it would be. He has now, as the restaurant prepares to open next week.
“There will be lots of burgers, sausages, brats,” Walters said. “We will make a limited number of bierocks each day. It will be good, simple, Kansas food. It will be unique, though. It will have a big Brad Walters twist on it.”
If you are dubious about twists, eat this and then get back with me: a footlong chicken-fried hot dog, covered in sausage gravy, bacon, smoked cheddar and caramelized onions. Walters calls it the Home Wrecker.
If you want, you can finish it off with a dish that is kind of hard to find elsewhere: deep-fried pork belly with cracker jacks.
“We’ll have a whole menu full of twists,” Walters said.
But he’ll also have a menu full of some more recognizable dishes. Walters said a lot of the inspiration for the place comes from Kansas diners or bar food in central and western Kansas where Walters grew up. That means a good hamburger is expected to be one of the restaurant’s top offerings.
The Basil Leaf, which is basically next door to the new restaurant, has a lunch menu that features a lot of sandwiches. The hamburger — which includes a heavily seasoned patty, deep fried prosciutto, a tomato basil compote, a five cheese blend and brioche bun — is one of the top lunchtime sellers at the Italian restaurant. So too is a fish sandwich, a Sicilian steak melt, and several other sandwiches.
All those sandwiches will be moving over to Sully & Hank’s, which will be open for both lunch and dinner. The Basil Leaf, however, will stop serving lunch beginning Aug. 1. It will just focus on its dinner menu and also will serve as an extra prep kitchen for Sully & Hank’s.
Other creations that Walters plans to offer include a pig in a biscuit with a smoked tomato ranch sauce; a Guinness melt, which involves corned beef, rye and a demi-glace made from Guinness beer; sloppy joe sandwiches; smoked chicken salad sandwiches; peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made with French toast; some smoked salmon dishes; and several vegetarian and vegan dishes, including an eggplant Parmesan and salads.
Of course with items like pork belly — chili and jerked chicken wings also are on the menu — beer will be a part of the offerings. Walters said he plans to have about 50 varieties of canned beers that will be rotated through the restaurant’s drink menu, plus four draft beers that largely will be Kansas-based brews.
The former gas station spot has undergone an extensive remodeling. One thing that wasn’t removed, though, is the large canopy that covered the gas pumps. That canopy now covers an outdoor seating area that Walters thinks is one of the larger restaurant patios in town. It could become one of the more unusual ones too, if Walters follows through on one idea. Currently, the area has a large TV, but Walters said he is toying with the idea of eventually getting a large screen that would drop down from the canopy that could show movies or other events.
The fact that Walters is opening a restaurant — which, by the way, is named after his 3- and 5-year old sons — in a former gas station, is appropriate. The Basil Leaf Cafe got its start in the corner of an operating gas station more than seven years ago. People would go into the Phillips 66 station at 3300 W. Sixth St. and find a couple of tables in the corner and Walters and his crew cooking up pasta dishes in a tiny kitchen.
Now, Walters finds himself the owner of multiple restaurants. He told me he hasn’t quite processed all of that yet.
“Right now, I’m so tired and worn out that I haven’t had a chance to reflect much,” he said. “But it is going to hit me, and I’m going to realize how blessed I am. It is just hard work and finding good, dedicated people and a strong family to stand and work with you every day.”
Walters plans to open the restaurant on Tuesday.
June is often a month where you find yourself looking for a new home. Maybe it is a change in jobs. You’re taking advantage of the kids being out of school. The disaster recovery company wasn’t able to clean up your Memorial Day party after all. There are lots of reasons, but none of them panned out to produce strong home sales numbers in Lawrence.
According to the latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors, home sales in June fell by 8 percent compared with June 2016. Real estate agents sold 162 homes during the month. The decline was one of the larger ones of the year. The poor month gave back many of the gains that the market had garnered earlier in the year. But not quite all of them. This report represents the halfway mark for the year. Year to date, home sales in Lawrence are up 2.7 percent compared with the same period a year ago.
Realtors are kind of like a broken record on this point, but they continue to insist the reason for the slowdown is a lack of available homes, especially those priced at $250,000 and below. That seems to be the case in many markets. Lawrence actually is weathering it better than some. In neighboring Johnson County, home sales for the year are down by 2 percent.
The one thing that is up in both Johnson County and Douglas County is home prices. The median sale price for a home in Lawrence is about $184,000, which is an increase of about 5.5 percent compared with the same period a year ago. For comparison purposes, median home prices are up 8.4 percent in Johnson County.
Normally, such large increases in home prices would lead to a surge in home building. That hasn’t happened yet. Home-building numbers in Lawrence are up, but they haven’t skyrocketed. The Kansas City area report I read indicated the same was true there. But that report also stated confidence levels of builders seemed to be rising, so perhaps it will be a busy fall for homebuilders.
However, there is still an issue in Lawrence. As noted earlier, the market’s biggest need for new homes is in the $250,000 and under category. It does appear that Lawrence homebuilders are trying to build a different type of home to meet that lower price point, but they still haven’t been able to get the average price close to that $250,000 mark. The median selling price of a new home is about $296,000, which is down from about $310,000 a year ago.
The other issue I hear that is holding Lawrence homebuilders back is a lack of available construction crews. The last downturn in the housing market put many subcontractors — think framing crews, drywall crews, painters, etc. — out of business. The smaller supply of subcontractors means it is taking longer to complete a house.
Other numbers from the report include:
• The median number of days that a home sits on the market before selling is down to 11. That’s the average for 2017 thus far. If you look at only the homes that sold in June, the pace was even quicker. Homes that sold in June sat on the market for only six days, on average.
• The number of newly constructed homes that have sold thus far in 2017 is 62. That’s an increase of about 26 percent, compared with the same period a year ago.
• Active listings on the market in June numbered 279 homes. That was down about 1.4 percent compared with June 2016 totals. There are some signs, however, that the trend may be changing a bit. The number of new listings added to the market in June was 187 homes. That’s an increase of about 20 percent compared with June 2016. In other words, quite a few more people in June 2017 decided to put their homes on the market than was the case in June 2016.
• Despite the poor June, don’t feel too bad for local real estate agents. Because of the rising home prices, the industry is still doing pretty well. Year to date, the dollar value of homes sold in Lawrence is about $140 million. That’s up about 6.4 percent compared with the same period a year ago.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Economic development officials are touting a new deal that involves a Chinese manufacturer of propellers relocating to Lawrence. I’m still working to get some additional details on what the deal means to Lawrence in terms of jobs and whether the company plans to open a manufacturing plant in the city or such.
The Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence and Douglas County has announced that Lawrence-based DARcorporation has agreed to a joint venture with Sterna Composite Aircraft Inc. Sterna currently operates out of China, but the new entity will be based in Lawrence, according to the EDC.
Sterna makes carbon fiber propellers for the ultralight, light sport aircraft and airboat markets. It sounds like the company has been around for just under 20 years. DARcorporation is an aeronautical engineering and software firm that has been in Lawrence for several decades. From its west Lawrence offices, it has worked on a variety of business jet, aircraft and military projects.
“This agreement represents each organization’s strong commitment to provide customers with a single source for the best in composite propellers and airframes,” Willem Anemaat, president of DARcorporation said in a statement. “This joint venture expands the DARcorporation services into a total product solution, from design, to prototyping, to testing to production.”
It sounds like the deal does expand DARcorporation’s capacity quite a bit, but the statement doesn’t address any impact on Lawrence jobs or whether some of Sterna’s manufacturing will move here. I’ve got a call into Anemaat to find out more.
A new Lawrence restaurant is opening in a spot that is not quite in downtown and not quite in East Lawrence’s Warehouse Arts District. It is caught in between, and it will serve food from a land that knows a thing or two about that: Israel.
The folks who own the popular Lawrence catering service Culinaria Food and Wine are opening a restaurant at Ninth and New Jersey streets in the building that houses their catering kitchen. It is right by the Lawrence Creates Makerspace building, meaning I probably can make myself a new pair of elastic stretchy pants right on site.
But I may not need to. The restaurant will serve Mediterranean food, which often gets touted for its health benefits. Yes, I know I told you it will serve Israeli food, but for those of us who slept through geography class, Israel is indeed a Mediterranean nation. It just doesn’t get mentioned nearly as often as Greece, Italy or some other countries when the topic turns to Mediterranean cuisine.
The new restaurant, dubbed Culinaria Mediterranean Kitchen, hopes to change that.
“Israel is like the youngest First World country in the world,” Aaron Pillar, chef and co-owner of the restaurant, said. “The cuisine is young, but it is really a great melting pot. You have Jewish, you have Arab, you have African, Lebanese and really a lot of Eastern Europeans who have come to the country too.”
But what is Israeli food? Pillar — who owns the restaurant with his wife, Regan Lehman Pillar — said people are often surprised to learn that barbecue is popular, although there barbecue often refers to grilled meats rather than the saucy Kansas City-style we are used to. He said the restaurant will try to take that philosophy and add its own twist. One example: smoked brisket served on a latke — a potato pancake — with Lebanese hot sauce.
“That is kind of our take on brisket served on white bread,” Pilar said.
The restaurant doesn’t plan to operate an entirely kosher kitchen, but the traditions of kosher eating will come through. For example, the region doesn’t combine meat and dairy products, which means cooks have to look for other ways to add some creaminess to their dishes. Thus, look for quite a few dishes featuring tahini, which is a form of ground sesame paste.
“They use that instead of dairy a lot,” he said. “You can get really creative with that.”
In addition to the Israeli dishes, the restaurant also will serve some Italian, some Spanish and other popular dishes from the Mediterranean region. How they will serve it also will be a bit different. Regan said the restaurant will be open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday, and it will feature a counter-style service. That will mean lots of to-go items, including salads, kebabs, humus and flat bread, grilled vegetables and other such fare.
The restaurant will be open for dinner service Thursday through Saturdays. The dinner meals will be served tapas style, meaning small plates.
“The idea is to order a bunch of plates and share them with the table,” Regan said.
Liquor service also will be part of the equation, featuring a selection of wines that pair well with Mediterranean dishes, plus some cocktails and beers.
The restaurant is scheduled to open on Aug. 15 but plans to have a sneak-peek as part of the Final Fridays event on July 28. Samples of its food will be available at the restaurant, 512 E. Ninth, and cocktails will be for sale at the bar.
The catering space has been remodeled to accommodate seating for about 40 people. It also will accommodate art and some live entertainment acts, said Sybil Gibbs, general manager of the restaurant.
Culinaria will also continue to operate its catering business, which has been open for about eight years. But Regan said she often lamented that the catering business didn’t always allow her to get to know customers as well as a restaurant would have.
“We have been dancing around this option for awhile,” Regan said. “But as we have finally decided to go for it, it really does feel like the right next step for us.”
Once popular restaurant chain closes west Lawrence location; more reasons to keep an eye on Lawrence’s Kmart distribution center
America’s Neighborhood Bar and Grill is now in one less Lawrence neighborhood. Applebee’s has closed one of its two Lawrence locations.
The Applebee’s at Sixth and Monterey Way — in the shopping center that houses Hy-Vee — closed on Wednesday, and crews were taking the signs down on Thursday. A sign in the window said the store indeed was closed for good rather than just remodeling or such. The Applebee’s on south Iowa Street remains open.
As for why the west Lawrence Applebee’s closed, I’m not sure (much like I was confused about what a Riblet actually was, other than a darn good excuse for a wet wipe.) Applebee’s corporate made no announcement about the closing. However, it is easy to speculate that business simply wasn’t stellar at the location. There have been lots of reports about underperforming Applebee’s locations closing across the country.
The restaurant industry publication FSR Magazine reported in May that Applebee’s may close about 3 percent of all its stores in 2017. It had already closed 19 stores in the first quarter of 2017 and was scheduled to close another 20 to 40 before the end of the year, the magazine reported.
Applebee’s relatively new president told investors earlier this year that the restaurant chain had made some “missteps” by trying to become too much of a modern bar and grill. Instead, the restaurant needs to get back to its roots of “middle America, middle income.”
I first heard a rumor of the pending closing on Tuesday. When I chatted with other restaurant executives, they seemed a bit surprised by the closing and said they hadn’t heard of any rumors of another restaurant to take its place. I’ll keep my ears open for that.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While we are talking about chains to keep an eye on, local leaders very much should still be watching Kmart. While Lawrence no longer has a Kmart store, it is home to one of the retailer’s larger distribution centers. Located just north of the West Lawrence interchange on the Kansas Turnpike, the distribution center employs about 320 people, according to figures kept by economic development officials.
But the retailer is clearly fighting to survive. As we reported in March, the annual report for the company — which also owns Sears — included language warning investors that the company may not be able to continue as a going concern.
The latest news is the company has had to increase the number of store closings. The company announced earlier this month that it was closing another 35 Kmart stores and eight Sears stores. That is in addition to about 250 locations it already had closed in 2017.
Thus far, though, the company hasn’t announced any changes to its distribution centers. Based on information I’ve seen from the company, Lawrence is one of six distribution centers for Kmart.
In a recent blog post from Eddie Lampert, president and CEO of Sears Holdings, which is Kmart’s parent company, said the company was on track to achieve its goal of $1.25 billion in cost savings. However, he also noted that “we have reached the point in the past 12 months where some of our vendors have reduced their support thereby placing additional pressure on our business.”
The stock of Sears Holdings, however, did receive a boost on Thursday, as the company announced a deal to begin selling its Kenmore appliance brand on Amazon. Maybe that will be the beginning of a streak of good things to come for the company. Or maybe it is a sign the company is about to surrender to the new retail king.
Either way, the stakes are big for Lawrence. In addition to the jobs, the distribution center along Kresge Road is one of the largest industrial buildings in the county, with about 1 million square feet of space.
I’m confident there is going to be a turnaround this season in the fortunes of KU football. Why? No, it is not the new offensive coordinator. No, it is not better players. It will be something much more fundamental than that: tater tot pizza. All of it you could ever hope to eat will be in a new restaurant just across the street from Memorial Stadium.
I had reported earlier that the chain Toppers Pizza had signed a deal to locate in the HERE apartment building just east of Memorial Stadium. But I was a little shy on details. Now, I have heard from the owner of the restaurant.
Sally Milligan holds the franchise rights for Toppers in the Kansas City metro area. She currently has a Toppers in Mission, and she is jumping at the chance to open in Lawrence, especially when a spot became available in the huge, new apartment building at 11th and Mississippi streets.
“You are on campus, you are right across from the stadium, and you have like 600 apartments above you,” she said. “It was a no-brainer.”
Plus, Toppers traditionally does well in college markets. Milligan said the late hours — most stores are open until 3 a.m — appeal to college students, but so too do its trendy offerings. Or some may call them unusual or adventurous. At the the top of the list may be a creation called the Loaded Tot-Zza. It is a pizza topped with tater tots, mozzarella cheese, bacon, ranch sauce, green onions and drizzles of nacho cheese sauce. It will be great for a tailgate, or put it in the locker room of the opposing team just before kickoff.
Milligan said the restaurant will be open by football season. She said all the equipment and flooring for the restaurant has been installed. She said the restaurant would be open by mid-August. The store is going into the HERE building’s middle, ground-floor retail space along Mississippi Street.
As for other details about Toppers, it is a Wisconsin-based chain, and it makes a big deal out of using Wisconsin cheese for all of its pizzas. The restaurant — which focuses on delivery and carryout — gives diners three crusts to choose from and all the traditional pizza toppings, plus several others. Those include a buffalo mac ’n’ cheese pizza, a taco pizza, a Maui pizza, a bacon cheeseburger pizza and a smoky barbecue chicken pizza.
The restaurant also has about 16 dipping sauces for the pizza. They too include the traditional, such as marinara and garlic sauces, bacon honey mustard, salsa and sweet chili, and the full-on unusual including vanilla or chocolate frosting.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While we are speaking of sauce, maybe barbecue sauce and west Lawrence dry cleaning bills just don’t go together. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit near Sixth and Wakarusa has closed.
The landlord for the building told me the owner of the restaurant closed both the Lawrence location and one in Overland Park.
The restaurant is a chain, but it has it roots in a 1940s Dallas barbecue shack that was started by the Dickey’s family. No word on what caused the Lawrence location to not work out. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a lack of free ice cream. In addition to the barbecue — which was a bit unique because the sauce was served warm instead of out of a bottle — the restaurant had free, self-serve ice cream for guests. (Now, I’m starting to feel guilty about the size of some of the cones I ate.)
The landlord, local businessman Greg DiVilbiss, told me he is in some early discussions with other restaurants about taking over the space. He’s also not ruling out another barbecue restaurant, noting that the store still has all of the barbecue equipment in place.
The annual Downtown Lawrence Sidewalk Sale is set for Thursday, which means you should plan on temperatures being approximately equal to those on the surface of the sun, and you should start developing your parking strategy now. (Note: Driving down Massachusetts Street at 1 mile per hour while looking for a space is not a great strategy, but is an effective way to organize the annual Downtown Lawrence Parade of Horn Honkers.)
Soon, though, motorists may have to rethink their downtown parking strategy for every day of the year. As City Hall reporter Rochelle Valverde reported, City commissioners at their meeting this evening will receive a new parking study that will require big changes to parking downtown, if commissioners decide to follow the plan.
I know how much people like to talk about parking, so I decided to use the report to highlight five changes that may be in store for downtown parkers.
First, though, here’s one finding from the report to keep in mind: Downtown parking really isn’t that hard to find. “There is not currently a shortage of parking in the whole of downtown, however localized shortages do exist,” the report from the consulting firm Desman Design Management found. In other words, you can’t always park in front of the store you want to go to.
The report also found that, despite predictions to the contrary, the trend of new residential development in downtown isn’t creating major parking problems. “The impact of future downtown development on parking appears to be minimal over the next 10 years.”
What the report did find is that parking in downtown Lawrence is cheap, not particularly technology-friendly, and sometimes is managed in a way that doesn’t make a lot of sense. The report makes a lot of recommendations. Commissioners likely will approve the report at their meeting tonight, but that doesn’t mean the recommendations automatically will be implemented. Commissioners will have to give more approval — and in some cases, find money — before the changes can be made.
But if commissioners follow the plan, the changes will catch the attention of parkers. Here’s a look.
• Expect to pay more. The report recommends that the city double the fee required to park at a meter on Massachusetts Street. That would mean it would be a $1 per hour instead of the current 50 cents. The report also recommends doubling the fee to park at a 10-hour meter on the various side streets and long term lots. That would bring the rate to 20 cents per hour. The changes would generate about $400,000 more per year in parking revenue for the city. The fine for staying too long in a parking meter would increase to $10, up from $5 currently.
• Charge it. If we all had a dollar for every time we had to explain to a visitor how our dual-headed parking meter system works, we all could afford to pay our past-due parking tickets. The report isn’t a fan of the meters. For one, the dual-headed system is confusing for motorists to figure out which meter goes with which space, and they only accept coins. Coins to the young generation are what Werther’s Original are to my generation — only old people carry them in their pockets. The report recommends taking the parking meters down and replacing them with about 100 kiosks throughout downtown. The kiosks would allow you to enter your license plate number. You could pay with cash, coin or credit card, and they would be enabled to accept payment remotely through a smartphone. The system would cost about $900,000 to install, plus the city would need to spend about $60,000 to equip a couple of vehicles with license plate-reading technology. Instead of meter readers, city employees would drive by to see who has paid and who hasn’t. That would mean the city wouldn’t need as many meter readers, but the report already has an idea on that front.
• Pay later. Currently, you only have to feed the meter in downtown Lawrence from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The report recommends that in most areas of downtown that be changed to 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays. (Sundays would still be free.) The city wouldn’t need to hire any new meter readers to implement the program because the license plate system means fewer meter readers are needed per shift.
• Where’s my car? If you have three or more unpaid parking tickets, the report suggests the city either tow your car or put a locking boot on it until you pay. The city is nowhere near that aggressive now. The most the city has done on that front was last year it raised the penalty for parking too long in a meter from $3 to $5. The report said that increase has done next to nothing to decrease the number of people parking illegally. In fact, the report said Lawrence issues an “extraordinarily high” number of parking citations. The city writes about 100,000 overtime parking violations a year. A city Lawrence’s size normally would have half to two-thirds that many tickets, according to the report. The boot and tow policy would be designed to make people think twice about not paying their parking tickets. Evidently lots of people have found it easy to ignore the city’s parking tickets. The report estimates “tens of thousands of parking citations” are currently outstanding. The report noted the city may need to have an amnesty program before the boot-and-tow policy begins — where people perhaps would only have to pay half their fines. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to find a parking space in downtown due to all the tow trucks.
• Change it up. There are several smaller changes that may catch the attention of motorists and others. They include: 1. Change about 100 two-hour meters to 10-hour meters. Those meters primarily are along portions of New Hampshire, Vermont, Eighth and Ninth streets. 2. Get rid of those 15- and 30-minute meters on Massachusetts Street and replace them with two-hour meters. Some merchants lobbied City Hall for the meters, saying customers need a spot to pop in and out of a store. But the report found the meters too difficult to enforce. 3. Downtown events often close off a street and the parking meters that go with them. The city currently charges $1 per space, regardless of how many days the event may last. The report recommends charging at least $5 per space, per day.
Commissioners meet at 6 p.m. tonight at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., to discuss the report.
LMH completes deal to buy one of the largest doctor groups in Lawrence; talk of more health care shakeups continues
There is a new trend in the Lawrence medical industry, and thankfully this one doesn’t involve a doctor trying to convince me that Doritos — hello, they’re corn — aren’t part of the vegetable group. Instead, it involves independently owned doctors’ offices being bought by hospitals. The latest deal involves one of the largest primary care practices in the city being bought by Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
LMH and The Reed Medical Group have finalized a deal in which five of the doctors at Reed have become employees at LMH. The hospital took ownership of the practice on July 1, and the name changed to Reed Internal Medicine. The practice continues to be located in its longtime building at Fourth and Maine, which is essentially across the street from the hospital.
Janice Early, vice president of communications for LMH, said the transition for patients should be relatively seamless. The doctors involved in the deal are Donald Hatton, Joan Brunfeldt, Lida Osbern, Philip Hoffmann and Walter Farrell. Drs. Elaine Kennedy and Eric Huerter will be affiliated with the group but won’t be LMH employees. As we have reported, those two doctors have been operating under a different business model. They offer “concierge” service, which confused me because I thought I had found a doctor who not only would endorse my Dorito intake but actually deliver them to me on my couch. Instead, the service refers to more of a membership model for health care. The doctors take on a limited number of patients, and each patient pays an annual fee to have extended access to the physician and to receive more in-depth treatment and preventive services. Huerter and Kennedy will continue to operate out of the Reed building and will continue to have privileges at LMH. They’ll operate their practice separately, though, under the name Reed Medical Group MDVIP Affiliates.
Early said the other doctors in the Reed Group approached LMH about taking over their practices. She said that is becoming a more common scenario as regulations, information technology demands and other such items become more demanding for independent practices.
“I think they look to the hospital as a potential partner because we have the infrastructure in place to handle those issues, and they can focus on practicing medicine instead of the business side of medicine,” Early said.
Reed becomes the eighth primary care practice owned by LMH. In addition, the hospital owns 13 specialty care practices. The deal comes on the heels of news that LMH is in negotiations with OrthoKansas to form a partnership to build a new state-of-the-art orthopedic facility in Lawrence. We reported in March that the two sides were in serious negotiations to build a multimillion-dollar facility that provides services in hand, shoulder, elbow, foot, ankle, hip and knee replacements and other such services.
Early confirmed that those discussions are still underway, and the hospital remains confident that a deal will be struck with OrthoKansas, perhaps by the end of the summer.
Talk of an OrthoKansas partnership came after KU hospital reached a deal with Dr. Jeffrey Randall — a sports medicine doctor who previously was with OrthoKansas — to open a new orthopedic practice in Lawrence. Randall’s practice, which is part of the University of Kansas Health Systems Sports Medicine and Performance Center, has moved into its new facilities at the Corporate Centre off of Wakarusa Drive. The practice represented the first time KU medical system set up operations in Lawrence, but it may not be the last such partnership. KU medical system officials have said they “are working with other health care organizations in Lawrence to identify collaborative practice opportunities.”
KU’s move into the market may spur a host of strategic moves in the Lawrence health care market. Russ Johnson, the relatively new CEO at LMH, has made exploring partnership opportunities an important part of LMH’s strategic plan. Early said the deal with Reed was a significant one because of Reed’s long history in the community and its standing as one of the largest primary care practices in the city. Primary care practices are particularly valued because those doctors often are a patient’s first point of contact with the health care system.
All the talk of strategic partnerships has created questions about whether LMH is looking to create its own deal with another larger, metro hospital. The KU hospital certainly could be a player on that front. The KU medical system has reached deals with hospitals in Hays and Topeka recently to expand services there. But there could be other players as well. The Kansas City market includes large hospitals, including Overland Park Regional Medical Center, the St. Luke’s System, the Olathe Medical Center and others. In Topeka, Stormont Vail is a large player.
Johnson, who previously was a health care administrator in the Denver area, came from an environment where partnerships were common. Early confirmed the hospital engages in a variety of discussions with other area hospitals, but stopped short of saying there were any current talks of a merger.
“Literally from day one, Russ has reached out and been open to talking to other hospitals and other providers, both east and west,” Early said. “It is a discussion. I don’t know what the future will hold. Are we in active discussions about joining another hospital? No. But we are talking with other hospitals about how we can work together. That door is open and we will keep that door open.”
A look at a new downtown shop that will sell you jewelry, candles and point you to the man with the straight-blade razor
When Nicole Manriquez thought about a name for her new downtown store, “Eclectic Magnificent Unique Unicorn” came to mind. In other words a shop full of items unique even by unicorn standards. But it would take an awful big window to house that sign, so she and the owners came up with an alternative: Striped Cow. (They too are fairly unique animals, unless your neighbor’s zebra gets in the pasture again.)
The Striped Cow opened at 835 Massachusetts St. — the former home of 10,000 Villages — a few weeks ago. The shop certainly is eclectic. There is handmade jewelry in one corner of the store, purses in another, body lotions, bath salts, soaps and other such items spread throughout, a few vases here and there, some stationery, and then there are the candles. There are enough candles in the store to give a fire marshal nightmares, and they have names that can make a fellow feel unsophisticated. A Goji Tarocco Orange candle? Is that a particularly rare type of orange? Is that why orange juice costs so much at a restaurant? I don’t know, but you could entertain yourself just reading candle names at the Striped Cow.
Manriquez, who is the manager and the buyer for the store, said part of the shop’s philosophy is to surprise you. That becomes more apparent when you go to the backroom of the store. There’s a man there with a straight-blade razor, and that’s a good thing.
The back room houses a barber shop that specializes in hot shaves. Dan Fitzpatrick has been a downtown barber for years, but he is one of the few providing hot shaves. If you have ever stuck your can of shaving cream in the microwave to warm it up, you’ll understand why hot shaves aren’t that common.
If you are unfamiliar with the process, a hot shave involves warm towels being applied to your face, shaving cream that has been warmed and brought to a lather, the use of a straight-blade razor and the application of fine after-shave lotions to soothe your skin.
Fitzpatrick, who also provides haircuts and other barber services, charges $20 for a hot shave, which is done by appointment. He said the service has been well received.
“It makes it a more enjoyable experience instead of just taking care of a necessity,” he said.
The back room also may attract some male shoppers. In addition to the barber services, the back room also sells a collection of pocket knives and other such items.
Downtown leaders are always happy when another retailer adds to the mix of offerings, but this one may generate some additional excitement because a longtime downtown retailer is behind the shop. The owners of the Third Planet own the Striped Cow. Manriquez was a manager and buyer at Third Planet, which is an eclectic place in its own right. The two stores, though, have different vibes.
Thus far, Manriquez said she’s pleased with the reception the shop has received.
“I think people are picking up on the energy that is inside the store,” Manriquez said. “We try to make solid human connections with our customers, and we try to have a little something for everybody.”