Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”

A once-popular retailer comes back to downtown Lawrence with a pop-up store for the holidays

For me, the early signs of the Christmas season are when the CEO of Mastercard stops by the house to check on my health. For the rest of you, it may be when merchants start opening pop-up stores — a relatively new trend of specialty shops that are open only for the Christmas season. Downtown Lawrence has a new pop-up store, though its name is familiar.

The unique, international gift boutique Ten Thousand Villages has opened a temporary store in downtown Lawrence. The retailer has reached a deal with Extra Virgin to locate in part of that store’s space at 937 Massachusetts St. Work is underway, and the Ten Thousand Villages store is expected to open any day.

In case you have forgotten, Extra Virgin is a store that specializes in high-end olive oils and balsamic vinegars. It will continue to have all of its regular offerings, but it has carved out some space in the back of its store for Ten Thousand Villages.

Some of you certainly remember Ten Thousand Villages. It had a store in downtown Lawrence at 835 Massachusetts St. for about four years. It closed at the beginning of this year after it struggled to pay the relatively high operating costs of a Massachusetts Street business. But it is using the pop-up model to keep a foothold in downtown during the busy holiday shopping season.

In this file photo from December 2012, Lawrence resident Kelsey Richardson looks over some of the fair trade items for sale at Ten Thousand Villages, 835 Massachusetts St.

In this file photo from December 2012, Lawrence resident Kelsey Richardson looks over some of the fair trade items for sale at Ten Thousand Villages, 835 Massachusetts St.

The store is a unique one because it is a nonprofit organization and it is a certified Fair Trade Retailer. That means it carries only goods that have been produced in a way that allows them to be labeled fair-trade friendly. Those requirements include that the people who produce the products are paid a living wage, work in safe conditions, and that no free or child labor is used in the production process.

As for what the shop actually sells, it is an assortment of items from Third World countries throughout Africa and South America, primarily. This shop plans to focus on items that include jewelry, scarves, baskets, bath and body products, wall art, textiles, sculptures and holiday decor.

The people who run the Ten Thousand Villages store in Overland Park are managing this pop-up location, but many of the Lawrence volunteers who used to staff the previous Lawrence store are expected to be on hand, Nathaniel Briggs, manager of Extra Virgin told me.

In terms of Extra Virgin’s role in all of this, Briggs said it made good sense for his business to partner with Ten Thousand Villages. The two stores shared a lot of customers, perhaps because both shops focused on imported goods.

“We always have people coming in asking what happened to Ten Thousand Villages,” Briggs said.

Extra Virgin also has added a line of fair trade items from Project Lydia, a locally based fair trade company that imports products from Uganda. Having a larger selection of fair trade items during the holidays just seemed to make sense, Briggs said. That is one of several product expansions the store has undertaken. The store also sells candied jalapeños, stuffed olives, holiday jams and some pastas.

It will be interesting to see if pop-up stores become more of a trend in downtown. It also would be interesting to see how that would be received by other merchants. Some may like it because it provides more shopping options in downtown during the busy season, while others may not like the idea of merchants only having a presence during the busiest time of the year, while year-round merchants do the hard work of keeping downtown on the minds of shoppers all year long.

Either way, the deal with Ten Thousand Villages is the latest sign of success for Extra Virgin. It was almost seven years ago that Extra Virgin opened its doors in downtown, and I’m sure some folks wondered whether a store that focused only on olive oils and balsamic vinegars could make a go of it.

But Briggs said business has been good. There are probably several factors. There is the foodie movement, which has created an appreciation for higher-end ingredients. There is the health movement, which comes into play because olive oil has some advantages over other oils. And there is the fact Lawrence has a bit of an international population. Briggs said many people — but especially those from overseas — have come to recognize the standard olive oil sold in grocery stores isn’t anything like the fresh olive oil they experienced in their countries.

“We had several KU students who were from Lebanon come into the store,” Briggs recalled. “They tasted our olive oil, and said ‘this is what it tastes like when we make it ourselves.’”

The store does import its olive oil in a way to ensure both its purity and its freshness. On the freshness front, the store gets olives six months of the year from the northern hemisphere and six months of the year from the southern hemisphere in order to get the freshest olives.

Reply 2 comments from richard yeakel Ralph Gage

Anderson leads the pack in recent campaign donations, but most wallets stay closed this City Commission election season

We are in the final days of the campaign for three seats on the Lawrence City Commission. That means it is time to count the money. Campaign finance reports have been filed, and the big story is there is a lot less money to count.

We started to see the trend two years ago that the amount of money being raised by candidates was shrinking some. Candidates may be spending more time reaching voters on social media rather than fundraising. Plus, there have been some examples of where campaign donations probably have hurt some candidates more than helped. There’s certainly a subset of voters who view campaign donations from developers and others in the growth industry as a negative.

Whatever the case (I don’t think it is the Russians, by the way), campaign donations are down. Consider this: As you will see in a moment, the top fundraiser during this last funding cycle garnered a little more than $5,000. Ten years ago, there were two candidates (Mike Dever and Rob Chestnut) who each raised more than $20,000 for their primary election, then raised significant amounts for the general election. A shift has occurred.

Six candidates are vying for Lawrence City Commission seats this fall. At top, from left: Lisa Larsen, Matthew Herbert and Dustin Stumblingbear. At bottom, from left: Jennifer Ananda, Mike Anderson and Bassem Chahine.

Six candidates are vying for Lawrence City Commission seats this fall. At top, from left: Lisa Larsen, Matthew Herbert and Dustin Stumblingbear. At bottom, from left: Jennifer Ananda, Mike Anderson and Bassem Chahine.

Here’s a look at campaign totals for the reporting period that runs from July 21 through Oct. 26:

Mike Anderson was the top fundraiser with $5,693 in donations. The former television host picked up an endorsement from the local Realtors group, which comes with a $500 donation from its political action committee and also usually leads to other individual donations from that industry. Anderson has ground to make up. He finished fifth in the primary election, and only the top three vote winners in Tuesday’s election win a seat. During the primary, he raised $2,375. He now has a total for the season of $8,086. Among his top donors during this most recent period were $500 from the Kansas Realtors Political Action Committee; $500 from former City Commissioner Aron Cromwell; $500 from Michael Wasikowski, a military analyst from Lawrence; $350 from Lawrence developer Jon Davis; $250 from former arts center director Susan Tate; and $150 from former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who is a Lawrence resident.

City Commissioner Lisa Larsen raised $3,245. Larsen was the top vote-winner in the primary election. She raised a little more than $6,000 in the primary election, bringing her $9,370 for the season. Among her top contributors in the most recent period: $500 from Lawrence resident and teacher Philip Riehle; $250 from Lawrence attorney Jerry Harper; $200 from Lawrence restaurant and bar owners Rick and Nancy Renfro; and $400 from retired Lawrence resident Sarah Merriman. Also of note is that Larsen, a retired geologist who used to own her own business in Lawrence, is self-funding a good part of her campaign. She lists more than $2,300 of in-kind donations from herself to pay for advertising and other campaign expenses.

City Commissioner Matthew Herbert was third in fundraising with $3,050. Herbert, a Lawrence teacher and owner of a rental real estate company, was the second-place vote winner in the primary. He raised $5,025 in the primary season, bringing his total to $8,075. Among his top contributors: $500 from the Kansas Realtors PAC, which endorsed him; $500 from Michael Herbert, CEO of Delta Dental; $250 from Tom Carmody, president of an entertainment company; $250 from Tate, former director of the Arts Center; and $100 from Mike Bosch, who owns an area broadband fiber company.

Dustin Stumblingbear was fourth with $2,352. Stumblingbear, a retired Army veteran, was third in the primary election. He raised about $3,400 in the primary, giving him $5,758 for the season. Among his top contributors were: $500 from the United Transportation Union PAC; $200 from Lawrence attorney Jerry Harper and his wife, Nancy; $200 from retired Lawrence resident Stephen Ellsworth.

Jennifer Ananda was fifth with $1,977. Ananda, who works in KU’s Title IX office, was fourth in the primary election. For the campaign season she has raised a total of $2,791. Among her top contributors: $200 from Lawrence attorney Jerry Harper and his wife, Nancy; $125 from former City Commissioner Mike Rundle; $100 from Lawrence residents Steve Lopes and Lois Orth-Lopes; and $100 from Lawrence resident Daniel Poull.

Bassem Chahine raised $820 in the period, and $700 of it came from himself. Chahine, who owns a tobacco and importing business in Lawrence, finished sixth in the primary.

You can see the full reports for each candidate on the Douglas County Clerk’s site, located here. The election is Tuesday.


Related stories: Voter Guide for the 2017 Lawrence City Commission Election

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Downtown Lawrence to get an old-fashioned soda fountain as part of major building renovation

Perhaps soon there will be brown and black cows in downtown Lawrence. Or maybe a hokie pokie cooler or a lime Ricky. If you have any idea what I’m talking about, you perhaps have spent some time being a jerk — a soda jerk, that is.

Brown and black cows, hokie pokie coolers and lime Rickys are all examples of soda recipes that were served at old-fashioned soda counters that were manned by “soda jerks” who made the concoctions by jerking on the shiny soda fountain handle. In the 1940s and 1950s, nearly every town had at least one of the soda fountains and a cadre of soda jerks to go with them. Today, both soda and jerks are still prevalent, but the combination somehow has faded away.

But, soon enough, downtown Lawrence will have an old-fashioned soda fountain and counter.

You maybe have noticed that Mass Street Soda no longer is located at its longtime home at 11th and Massachusetts streets. The building, which also used to house Englewood Florists (which moved to North Lawrence), is undergoing a major renovation. Mass Street Soda has moved to a new spot at 935 Massachusetts, which is where Jayhawk Spirit previously was.

The 935 Massachusetts location, however, is just a temporary spot for Mass Street Soda. It already has signed a lease to move back to the 11th and Massachusetts location once the renovations are complete. When the business returns — likely in the late spring or early summer of 2018 — it will have an actual soda fountain and counter.

Mass Street Soda store manager Maren Ludwig stocks the selection of root beer on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, at the shop's temporary location, 935 Massachusetts St. The store has relocated while its building in the 1100 block of Massachusetts Street undergoes a renovation.

Mass Street Soda store manager Maren Ludwig stocks the selection of root beer on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, at the shop's temporary location, 935 Massachusetts St. The store has relocated while its building in the 1100 block of Massachusetts Street undergoes a renovation. by Nick Krug

“It will allow us to do fresh soda,” said Lucas Thompson, owner of Mass Street Soda. “We’ll be making our own syrups.”

Currently, the shop just sells bottled soda, but lots of it. The store carries about 1,300 varieties of sodas during the summer, although the number can drop to a mere 900 during the winter, when specialty sodas get a little more difficult to come by.

“It is hard to bring soda in over the winter,” Thompson said. “It freezes during shipments.”

At the moment, the store has only 130 varieties of root beer.

The store will continue to have massive amounts of bottled soda in the future. But Thompson is excited about the soda fountain possibilities. He even recently traveled to New York state to an old pharmacy that still has a soda fountain. He learned a few tricks about making egg creams, which he said kind of taste like a carbonated chocolate milk. (My understanding is that La Prima Tazza, and perhaps some other local coffee shops, have egg creams available currently.)

Plans call for the soda counter to have four types of soda on tap at any given time. The flavors likely will rotate depending on the season. Thompson mentioned incorporating seasonal fruit into some of the recipes.

But don’t get the wrong idea about what type of place this is going to be. Soda counters sound like the type of thing that could get trendy and do to soda what baristas have done to coffee: require you to take out a home equity loan to have a cup.

“It won’t be super fancy or expensive,” Thompson said. “I won’t charge $6 for a cup of soda. It will be $2 or $3 for some soda. Our biggest market is families.” In addition to the locally made soda, Thompson said he’ll also have several other kegs of commercially made soda on tap as well. Expect the shop to have some ice cream available too, in order to facilitate root beer and soda floats.

The new project continues what has been a somewhat surprising run for Mass Street Soda. The business opened in 2014, and Thompson knows many people were wondering how a soda shop would make it in today’s world.

Well, there are lots of people who like soda, and even a larger number who like the idea of finely crafted items. Just as microbreweries have exploded in popularity because of the craft behind their products, some of that is happening in the soda world too.

Thompson now has three soda shops. In addition to the Lawrence store, he has one at The Legends shopping district near the Kansas Speedway and one in the City Market district of Kansas City. Both of those operate under the name KC Soda Co.

He gets his bottled soda from all over the country, and sometimes has to beg for it. He said many of the soda companies are small and produce sodas only a few times per year. They have limited quantities and aren’t always interested in selling to a shop in Kansas. That sometimes requires some unique deal-making skills.

“One guy told me no, and I told him it was my birthday,” Thompson said. “That worked.”

As for the renovations at 11th and Massachusetts, the building’s ownership group includes Lawrence landlord Dalton Paley, who said he and his partners plan to do a significant renovation that really highlights some of the historic character of the building.

I don’t have other details of the renovation. At the moment, I don’t believe the project has a tenant for the former Englewood space at the corner of the project. But Thompson said he thinks the renovation is going to be a game-changer for the 1100 block, which doesn’t get as much foot traffic as other parts of downtown.

“They are completely gutting the building,” Thompson said. “I don’t know everything they are doing, but I’ve seen enough to know it is going to be awesome when it is done.”

Reply 12 comments from Libtard_001 Megan Tugman Louis Kannen David Holroyd Jim Fisher Penny4mythoughts Clara Westphal Jayhawkluke Tadgh Renee Holl and 1 others

Where is the Rock Chalk Park bump? Sales tax numbers create questions about how much Junior Olympics visitors spent in Lawrence

There is no doubt that the Junior Olympics held at Rock Chalk Park in late July was a great event. More than 8,000 athletes competed, thousands of additional fans attended, and having track and field legend Carl Lewis as a guest speaker gave me an excuse to wear my 1980s sprinter shorts. But as new numbers suggest, there is quite a bit of doubt about how much the big event added to the Lawrence economy.

Every month I track Lawrence sales tax collections. For the last couple of months, I’ve been waiting to see a large spike in sales tax collections related to the influx of Junior Olympic attendees, who presumably were spending a lot of money in town. Thus far, there has been no spike.

And now the city’s top tourism official says he’s not necessarily surprised. He thinks about two-thirds of all the spending generated by the event probably went to other communities because Lawrence had only a fraction of the hotels needed to serve all the visitors.

“I think it was a bit of a learning curve in terms of what our expectations should be,” said Michael Davidson, executive director of Explore Lawrence, the local CVB organization.

More on that learning curve in a moment, but first let’s look at the numbers. Based on the sales tax figures, it is hard to see how even a third of the spending occurred in Lawrence.

Track and field athletes stop in the infield during the USATF National Junior Olympics opening ceremony on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. More than 8,000 athletes attended the Junior Olympics at Rock Chalk Park.

Track and field athletes stop in the infield during the USATF National Junior Olympics opening ceremony on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. More than 8,000 athletes attended the Junior Olympics at Rock Chalk Park. by Mike Yoder

Shortly after the event, Davidson’s group estimated the event pumped about $25.8 million into the economy. That number, though, should have an asterisk. It estimated direct sales from the event were about $17.7 million, but those sales created other indirect sales that brought the total to $25.8 million. Regardless, the report estimated the coffers of local governments would get about $450,000 in sales tax revenues.

There are two months the city of Lawrence would have expected to see their sales tax checks from the state reflect that bump. Because of the time it takes for the state to process and distribute sales tax money to the city, the October check is the one that is most likely show the bump. Instead, the city’s October sales tax collections actually were down slightly from October of 2016. They were down by about $16,000, meaning that total sales in Lawrence for that time period were down by $1 million compared with the same period last year.

Conceivably, some of the impact could have shown up in the September sales tax check. That month’s collections were up by about $45,000 compared with September 2016. The $45,000 in sales taxes equates to about $3 million in sales. That represented about a 2 percent increase, which is a fairly ho-hum month for the city.

And, it is a long ways from $25.8 million. To be fair, it was never realistic to think Lawrence was going to capture all the economic impact from the Junior Olympics. It was known early on that many people would be staying in Topeka and the Kansas City area because of a lack of hotel rooms in Lawrence. But when you actually see the numbers, it is a little stunning. Davidson estimates that about 41,000 hotel room nights were booked as a result of the weeklong event. Lawrence had a little more than 7,000 of them.

That’s under 20 percent of all the rooms. If you remember, Davidson is estimating that Lawrence captured about a third of all the spending from the event. But did it really? It is hard to see that in the sales tax numbers.

I think the hope was that even though people may have been staying in a hotel elsewhere, they would do a lot of exploring and spending in Lawrence. The city even created a special bus route to take people from the Junior Olympics event to downtown. But Davidson said that bus didn’t attract large numbers of riders most days.

“We didn’t see a lot of activity,” Davidson said. “We learned these were really serious athletes. They stayed on site a lot.”

Davidson said he did hear from discount retailers and other such stores that they had an uptick in business with spectators buying everything from bottled water to umbrellas. I’m sure restaurants were busy too. Our eyes didn’t deceive us; there were a lot of people in town.

I’ll be honest. I don’t understand why the sales tax collections didn’t see a bump. I’m just telling you that they haven’t received one thus far. (It is possible the event provided a boost, but sales were sluggish in all other parts of the month. I don’t think that is what happened because that would mean normal retail sales plunged by about 15 percent, which would be concerning for other reasons.)

But the numbers do give Lawrence leaders something to think about. If the event business is going to be a major part of our economic development efforts, we need to understand the paybacks. The city and the CVB spent more than $200,000 attracting the event to Lawrence. As we’ve noted, it is not clear the city’s coffers have received enough of a boost to cover those upfront expenses.

While sales taxes appear stagnant during the period, the city’s transient guest tax — a special tax charged on hotel rooms — has received a boost. But depending on which month you look at, the boost is closer to $25,000 to $50,000 in new revenue.

"Our hotel business was strong," Davidson said, pointing to those numbers.

Davidson said his office certainly is working on a strategy to convince area communities to help pay for some of the upfront costs associated with events. The pitch is that communities like Topeka and Kansas City benefit from the overflow visitors. While the number of hotel rooms in Lawrence is growing, it is unrealistic to think we’ll build enough to handle an event of this size. But, speaking of realistic, will governments in area towns really agree to provide funding to help Lawrence win a bid for a major event? Davidson thinks so.

“We definitely will have to educate, but I don’t think there will be a lot of hurdles,” he said. “They will be able to look at how their transient guest taxes go up during that time. The nice thing about this is the numbers don’t lie.”

If that is true, Lawrence needs to better understand what our numbers are saying.

For those of you who follow my monthly reports on sales taxes, here are those basic numbers:

Lawrence sales tax collections for the October period fell by 0.7 percent. For the calendar year, sales tax collections in Lawrence are still 2.2 percent ahead of where they were last year. The city is still on pace to collect more in sales tax revenues than what the city budgeted to collect for 2017. Lawrence sales, though, have been slower in the later part of the year, which creates questions heading into the holiday shopping season.

Here’s a look at how Lawrence’s sales tax collections year to date compare with other major retail areas in the state:

— Lenexa: up 7.2 percent

— Shawnee: up 4.4 percent

— Olathe: up 2.6 percent

— Lawrence: up 2.2 percent

— Topeka: up 0.7 percent

— Overland Park: up 0.6 percent

— Saline County (Salina): down 0.1 percent

— Kansas City, Kan.: down 0.7 percent

— Sedgwick County (Wichita): down 1.1 percent

— Riley County (Manhattan): down 2.5 percent

Reply 8 comments from Melinda Henderson David Holroyd Mikegant John Brazelton Reaperkp Richard Heckler Tc2587 Gary Pomeroy

Lawrence ranks only slightly above average in the list of great, small U.S. cities

Maybe it is because today is my anniversary (18 happy years, thank you) that I realize the description “slightly above average” is perfectly fine. If I were slightly above average at taking out the trash, that would be a real win. If I were slightly above average at picking up dirty clothes, a parade may be thrown. (You don’t want to know what is thrown now.) So, remember that as I report a new ranking of small cities in America shows Lawrence is slightly above average.

The financial website WalletHub has ranked about 1,200 U.S. cities that range in size from 25,000 to 100,000 people. After looking at factors such as housing prices, quality of schools, income levels, restaurants, health statistics and other metrics, Lawrence was ranked in the 54th percentile. That means we are better than 54 percent of all the other small communities in America. Not exactly the type of slogan to put on a T-shirt, but not bad either.

There are some other ways to spin the data, though. Of all the small cities ranked in Kansas, Lawrence is No. 4 in the state. It is the top ranked community outside of Johnson County. If your SUV isn’t nice enough to live in Johnson County, come to Lawrence. Now that would work for a T-shirt.

Here’s a look at how Lawrence stacks up compared with other Kansas communities:

• Leawood: 99th percentile. Actually, it was ranked No. 3 overall in the country.

• Lenexa: 88th percentile.

• Shawnee: 85th percentile

• Lawrence: 54th percentile

• Dodge City: 52nd percentile

• Salina: 46th percentile

• Manhattan: 45th percentile

• Garden City: 39th percentile

• Hutchinson: 29th percentile

• Leavenworth: 25th percentile

I also took a look at how other Big 12 communities fared in the ranking. Thankfully, mathematics awareness isn’t a category that is scored in the ranking because the Big 12 has only 10 communities. Of those 10, only five are below 100,000 in population. Of those five, Lawrence ended up being, basically, average.

• Ames, Iowa: 80th percentile

• Morgantown, W.V.: 67th percentile

• Lawrence: 54th percentile

• Manhattan: 45th percentile

• Stillwater: 38th percentile

As is the case with most of these rankings, they are really subjective. How much weight do you give to our coffee shops per capita statistic versus our median family income statistic? Change the weighting a bit, and the ranking changes a lot.

But looking at the underlying data used to create these rankings can be instructive. Looking at Lawrence’s it gives you an idea of what our strong suits are compared with other communities. Generally, we are pretty healthy and educated, and we have a lot of amenities for a small community. Here’s a look at the major categories that were scored and where we ranked among the approximately 1,200 communities that were ranked. So, any ranking less than 600 means we are above average. Any ranking greater than 600 means we are below average. (I’ve included this explanation for Big 12 mathematicians.)

• Quality of life: We ranked 100th in this metric. It looked at our per capita numbers for things like bars, restaurants, coffee shops, performing arts theaters, movie theaters and other entertainment type of establishments. It also looked at commute times to work, the percentage of people who walk to work and how many hours we spend working per week. Being a top 100 community in quality of life is notable. It helps drive the image that many people have of Lawrence: It is a fun place. We have the best quality of life rating in the state. Next is Manhattan at No. 157. Notably, the Johnson County communities all ranked 700 or greater.

• Education and health: We ranked No. 187 in this metric. It looks at the quality of the school system, the number of high school graduates in the community, the number of people who have health insurance, the percentage of the population that is obese, the share of people who are physically active and several other factors. This is a pride point in Lawrence, and this shows we are doing well nationally. However, we are fifth in the state. Leawood, Shawnee, Manhattan, and Lenexa all ranked higher than Lawrence.

• Economic health: We ranked No. 443. It looks at factors like population growth, income growth, unemployment rates, poverty levels and debt levels. We again ranked fifth in this category behind all the Johnson County communities and Manhattan.

• Affordability: This was our lowest category at No. 912. It looks at both average housing prices and average rent prices and compares them with average income levels. College communities always are at a disadvantage in this ranking because there are many college students who don’t receive income but aren’t necessarily facing a housing affordability issue because their parents are paying their rent, for example. Lawrence had the second worst affordability ranking in the state. Manhattan’s was worse at No. 1,042. Notably, of the five Big 12 sites that were ranked, Lawrence was the most affordable. All the other towns had rankings of 1,000 or above.

• Safety: The report measured safety, but Lawrence wasn’t scored on that metric. The report had trouble getting the data from the FBI on several communities, and Lawrence was one of them. So Lawrence got a pass on safety for the purposes of this report. As recent events have illustrated, community leaders can’t afford to pass over that subject. Many more tragedies like the mass shooting that occurred on Massachusetts Street will make every other ranking irrelevant.

Reply 3 comments from Dmedlock Dorothyhoytreed

My conversation about transparency with Lawrence school board candidates

Lawrence school board members receive no pay and probably less prestige. Every candidate who is running for a seat on the board deserves our thanks, and that is one of the reasons I called each of the five active candidates recently. After all, the easiest thing to do in Lawrence is to not run for public office.

But clearly I had another objective in mind too: I wanted to quiz each of them on a couple of disturbing incidents that have occurred over the past couple of years in the district. I could have picked more than two. There was the mismanagement of the New York Elementary remodeling project, which included a lack of a safety fence and a lack of city building inspectors. There was the district doing little to notify the public that the board was going to decide on a policy to allow condoms to be handed out at the two high schools. And then there was a decision to allow former Superintendent Kyle Hayden to go back to his old job as an operations manager after a year on the job as superintendent didn’t suit him. The public first learned of that through a press release that made it sound as if the move was a done deal, when in fact it still needed approval from the board.

But I settled on two other issues: one a specific incident and the other a process problem that plays itself out time after time. Here are some key takeaways from my good conversations with each of the board candidates.

Five candidates are actively campaigning for three open seats on the Lawrence school board in the Nov. 7, 2017, election. They are, clockwise from top left, Gretchen Lister, Kelly Jones, James Hollinger, Ronald "G.R." Gordon-Ross and Melissa Johnson.

Five candidates are actively campaigning for three open seats on the Lawrence school board in the Nov. 7, 2017, election. They are, clockwise from top left, Gretchen Lister, Kelly Jones, James Hollinger, Ronald "G.R." Gordon-Ross and Melissa Johnson.

Issue No. 1: The South Middle School incident. In November and December of 2016, a teacher was facing allegations that he had made racist remarks to his class. How the district handled the issue raised questions about the district’s commitment to transparency. Specifically, the board accepted the teacher’s resignation but refused to release his name when accepting the resignation. His name, at that point, had never been publicly released. The only way the board members knew his name is because they had been told it in a closed-door executive session. The board essentially came out and said “we agree to accept the resignation of that guy we were told about in a closed-door meeting.” Is that the way open government is supposed to work? That’s what I asked the candidates.

Gretchen Lister, a social worker who previously worked as a paraprofessional and transition specialist for the Lawrence school district, is a firebrand on this subject. She said the board clearly received bad advice from district administrators on how to handle the incident and the teacher’s resignation.

“I have felt all along that the legal department has done a poor job of advising our board,” Lister said. “We may need to seek our own legal counsel outside the district in the future.”

She said too much of how the district handled the incident was geared toward protecting the district from a lawsuit rather than really addressing the allegations.

“So much about how the district handled this was in poor taste,” Lister said.

Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross, a health care I.T. professional, agreed that the district didn’t handle the teacher’s resignation well.

“I think not naming him was kind of silly,” Gordon-Ross said. “I think they got some bad advice. I don’t know who they thought they were trying to protect or what they were trying to salvage at that point.” For the sake of full disclosure, Gordon-Ross told me that he is the parent of a South student who had been taught by the teacher in question, Chris Cobb. Gordon-Ross said he didn’t care for Cobb as a teacher.

“All that being said, I don’t think the board handled that situation correctly,” Gordon-Ross said.

Melissa Johnson, a Kansas City, Kan., elementary teacher who was appointed to the school board in March, said she initially was a “little disappointed” in how the district handled the matter. She said she wants to better understand the legalities of why the district acted the way it did. “But if we can give the information out, we should,” she said.

She said she believes the board is making “a step in the right direction” on improving its communication with the public.

Kelly Jones, who works at KU’s School of Social Welfare, also noted the advice that the board was receiving at the time.

“They did receive some advice from general counsel that appeared to be quite guided to protecting the identity of the teacher,” Jones said. “Even if they were going to refrain from sharing information, there were ways they could have reassured the public.”

Jones said she does believe in due process and is withholding judgment on some of the district's actions. But she said it was clear the way the district handled the issue left many community members hurt.

James Alan Hollinger, a landscaper and an employee of Douglas County, said “if I understand the law correctly, they could have been a little more open about the situation.” He has been a critic of the district’s reliance on executive sessions.

“Once the Kyle Hayden situation came up,” Hollinger said, referring to Hayden’s abrupt transfer, “I think the board got a wake-up call that the public is tired of the executive sessions and the lack of transparency.”

Issue No. 2: I’ve covered local government for about 25 years, and I can attest that a big part of the process is receiving reports. City, county and school board members receive numerous reports and then take action based on them. The city and the county do a good job of making those reports available at the same time the meeting agenda is released to the public. That way the media, the public and the elected officials themselves can read the reports beforehand, if they wish. Everybody comes to the meeting better informed.

The Lawrence school district rarely makes reports available prior to a meeting. That means not only are the press and the public not seeing the report, board members don’t either. Maybe the issue doesn’t sound that important, but I would argue it is one of the most important, if the district wishes to become more transparent.

The district’s current policy allows a lot of issues to go unquestioned. Most of us simply aren’t quick enough to hear a long report during the course of a meeting and come up with every question that needs to be asked. I asked all of the candidates what they thought about the job the district does in getting information to the public in advance of school board meetings.

Johnson said she has noticed that issue as a board member since March. She said she has asked about it and plans to continue to seek more information ahead of board meetings.

“That is something I definitely would like to push forth with,” Johnson said. “Certain things it takes me awhile to process. I’m capable of using information on the spot, but there are times that certain content areas do take more time. I would love to have more of that information ahead of time.”

Hollinger said the issue goes to the heart of open government.

“If you are going to talk about transparency, you have to be transparent,” he said. “You have to be more open with your agenda.”

He said, if elected, he would discuss the issue with a new superintendent once the new superintendent had gotten settled into the position.

Lister said there obviously needs to be a change in practice.

“You are singing to the choir here,” she said. “This board has to get together and decide that we are moving forward as an open book.”

She said the district leadership, in general, needs to be more approachable. As a former staff member, she said she knows there are teachers who don’t come forward with concerns because they fear there will be a price to pay. “If I’m elected, that will stop,” she said.

Jones said the lack of information prior to meetings is an issue she has noticed and brought up on the campaign trail. She thinks the district is making an effort to improve its practices, and she also said she understands that sometimes deadline issues make it difficult for staff to complete the work in time to be included with the agenda.

“But I agree that it is much better that everybody knows what is going to be discussed, and have time to ask informed questions,” Jones said. “I know that when we make decisions as a community and the board hires the next superintendent, these are areas that are going to be talked about.”

Gordon-Ross said he wasn’t aware of the differences of how the city and county distribute information prior to a meeting versus the school board. But he said he’ll now review that issue. Gordon-Ross said he instead has noticed how the board treats public comment at its meetings. He said it normally is one of the first items on the agenda, meaning the public doesn’t always have the opportunity to comment about discussions the board has later in the meeting.

“I just think that is weird,” Gordon-Ross said.

Gordon-Ross said how the board interacts with the public is an issue he intends to address.

“We have a great opportunity to challenge the new superintendent to change that culture,” he said.

Reply 2 comments from Richard Heckler

Grocery store files plans to demolish building, start anew along south Iowa Street

The Lawrence grocery store business is a competitive one, evidenced by what seems to be a continual upgrading of stores with new bells and whistles. One of Lawrence’s smaller players in the market, though, is taking that idea to a new level. Aldi has filed plans to tear down its entire store near 31st and Iowa streets and rebuild a new grocery on the site.

I’ve got a call into an Aldi spokeswoman to get more details, but the company has filed a plan at City Hall that says it intends to “demolish the existing building and parking lot in order to construct new Aldi store and associated parking lot.”

The plans call for Aldi to spend $2.5 million to build an 18,985 square-foot store on the property. That is just a bit larger than the current store, which is 15,780 square feet, according to the documents on file at City Hall. It is a little surprising that Aldi is tearing the store down rather than just remodeling and adding on. The building isn’t that old. I believe it was constructed in the late 1990s or early 2000s, meaning that I certainly have clothes in my closet that are older than that store.

The Lawrence Aldi store at 31st and Iowa streets has filed plans to tear down the existing store and build a new store at the same site.

The Lawrence Aldi store at 31st and Iowa streets has filed plans to tear down the existing store and build a new store at the same site. by Nick Krug

If you are not familiar with Aldi, it is a discount chain that has a reputation for taking frugality seriously. The store often had a smaller selection of products to help control costs. For years, the store did not take credit cards, although that has changed recently. It also has gained attention for charging shoppers extra for grocery sacks and for a unique system that threw me for a loop the first time I experienced it: In order to get a grocery cart, you have to insert a quarter into a locking device. You get the quarter back, if you return the cart to the store rather than leaving it out in the parking lot. (At first I hated this system but now I’ve found it is a great way to flaunt my wealth. I leave the cart in the parking lot, telling the world that I’m so rich I don’t care about that quarter.)

Aldi, though, does have a major U.S. project underway to upgrade its stores. The German-based retailer is huge in Europe, and the company announced in recent months that it is becoming more aggressive in the U.S.. It opened its first stores in southern California last year, and in February it announced that it was undertaking a $1.6 billion nationwide store remodeling project.

I’m assuming that the Lawrence store is part of that project, although most of the other stores have simply been remodeled rather than torn down and rebuilt. Again, I’ve got a call into Aldi to get a bit more information.

The nationwide plans announced in February call for improvements to the dairy, produce and bakery departments. New stores also are designed to have more space for growing product lines, such as gluten-free products and a new line of premium baby products. In addition, stores will feature a more “modern design, open ceilings, natural lighting, and environmentally friendly building materials, such as recycled building materials, energy saving refrigeration, and LED lighting,” according to a press release.

In reading up on Aldi, it sounds like it also has a new store design/concept that it is trying in some markets. An article by Business Insider reported the company late last year debuted a new store concept in Richmond, Va., that is designed to compete with Whole Foods. Lawrence, of course, doesn’t have a Whole Foods, but it has lots of similarly oriented retailers.

The article says the new Aldi design looks almost identical to Whole Foods’ discount chain called 365 by Whole Foods. The new Aldi design features softer lighting, larger amounts of fresh produce, wider aisles and and electronic displays on the walls, according to the article.

The new design also features modern shelving, where many Aldi stores rely on the warehouse system of stacked boxes and bins. The new stores still don’t include a deli, but do include a much larger selection of prepackaged meats and cheeses, plus premade dips, soups and salads. The stores also sell some household goods, like pillows and decorations.

I’ll let you know if I hear more details about the Lawrence store, including a timeline for when the current store may close for demolition.

Reply 10 comments from Brandon Devlin Cait McKnelly Larry Sturm Mommatocharlie David Holroyd Sue McDaniel Renee Holl Jennifer Alexander

Auto dealership on south Iowa Street files plans for expansion; a look at how much auto dealers paid in taxes

If my kids come into the TV room and find me crying, there are usually two possibilities. The batteries in the remote control are dead again, or, more likely, I’ve just watched a Subaru commercial.

You know the ones I’m talking about: There’s an innocent child running around a Subaru and then, boom, the camera angle changes and they’re all grown up and driving. To top it off, there is a dog that used to be a spry puppy and now he needs help jumping in the car. Meanwhile people are yelling at you because you’re leaving snot on the couch pillow, and you’re babbling “I just wanted to watch a football game.”

Whether it is those commercials or something else, Subaru sales are soaring, and the result is a dealership expansion along south Iowa Street. Briggs Auto Group has filed plans at City Hall to expand its Subaru dealership in the Lawrence Auto Plaza, which is just northwest of 31st and Iowa streets.

Briggs plans to add about 5,300 square feet of space to its Subaru dealership at 2233 W. 29th Terrace, increasing the size of the dealership by about half. Bobby Lubbers, general manager for Briggs Auto Group in Lawrence, said the expansion would double the size of the dealership’s service department, add a larger parts department and refurbish the customer lounge.

“Our business has just gotten to the point that we can’t handle the numbers anymore,” Lubbers said. “The Subaru business is just going crazy right now, and that is nationwide.”

The Subaru expansion still must win site plan approval from city planners, so construction hasn’t yet started on the project. However, you may have noticed another construction project at the Briggs complex.

Work is nearly complete on a used car showroom right along south Iowa Street. As we have reported, Briggs bought the building that housed Breathe Oxygen Supply at 2851 Iowa St. (That company has since moved to west Lawrence.)

For several months now, Briggs has been remodeling the building, and Lubbers told me the building will be used as an indoor used car show room. All the Briggs dealerships — i.e., Dodge, Subaru, Nissan and others — throughout the auto plaza have used cars as part of their inventory. That will continue to be the case, but Lubbers said the company needed a facility that focused only on used vehicles.

“You have an oversupply of used cars on the market right now,” Lubbers said. “There are a lot of cars coming off leases right now, and dealers are going to be pretty resourceful in moving them.”

Lubbers said the building would have space to display about 60 vehicles indoors and many more in the parking lot. Speaking of the parking lot, that may be one for environmentalists to keep an eye on. The lot is using the pervious pavers instead of traditional concrete or asphalt. Those are cement blocks that are designed to let rainwater drain through the block instead of running off into the storm water system. This certainly isn’t the first time those pavers have been used in Lawrence, but you don’t often see them on high-profile commercial projects. It will be worth watching to see how they hold up and look after being in use for awhile.

Lubbers said the used car showroom was about three weeks away from opening.

The Briggs projects are just the latest in what has been a busy few years for auto dealership remodeling and expansions in Lawrence. Local auto dealers now are doing a little bit of work to remind the community of the impact they’re having on the local economy.

Dale Willey, who is retired from the GM/Chevrolet dealership that carries his name, recently gave me a copy of a report that shows total taxes paid by the six new auto dealers in Lawrence.

In 2016, the auto dealers paid about $1.2 million in real estate taxes and collected about $18.2 million in sales taxes for the year. About $5.1 million of those sales taxes went directly into the coffers of the city of Lawrence and Douglas County, while the rest went to the state of Kansas. The report also estimates the dealerships employ 435 full-time employees.

As the city thinks about economic development issues, one issue to consider is whether there is room for another auto dealer in Lawrence. Most of the major brands are represented in Lawrence, but not all. Some of the luxury brands don’t have dealerships in Lawrence. That market has pretty much been the domain of Kansas City, but interestingly Topeka does have a BMW dealership now. In addition to BMW, there is Mercedes, Lexus, Volvo, Audi and several other brands that don’t have a presence in Lawrence.

It may be a stretch for Lawrence to land some of those, but it does appear the payoffs are pretty good for an economy that relies heavily on sales taxes. The numbers from the 2016 report indicate that the average new car dealership in Lawrence pays about $200,000 in property taxes and generates about $850,000 in new sales taxes for the city and the county coffers.

And, thus far, car dealerships haven’t sought economic development incentives — tax breaks — from the city.

Reply 2 comments from Michael Dennis John1047

New home decor store opens near Ninth and Illinois streets

There’s a new home decor store in Lawrence, and its owner already is teaching me something. I’ve learned the industrial look is in style, which is great news. My office has been stylish for years because nothing says industrial like piles of rubble.

Yes, there is probably a reason I’m not in the home decor business. Donna Madel, on the other hand, is in the business because friends would see her house and then talk her into giving them decor advice.

“It started out as something I just did for free, and then it kind of got out of control,” Madel said.

The result is Nestings Home Decor & Gifts Co., at 846 Illinois St. If you are having a hard time picturing the location, it is where the White Chocolate skateboarding shop used to be, or alternatively, a couple of doors down from Rick’s Place bar. (Should I stop getting my home decor advice from that establishment?)

Madel said her shop sells everything from pictures, lamps, trays, crocks, pillows and larger items such as benches, tables and many refurbished pieces of furniture that are given that vintage look.

“The industrial look is big right now, and the farmhouse look is big too,” Madel said.

In case you are confused about what an industrial look may entail, Madel offered up an example. The store keeps its eyes open for unique tools or devices that could be used as decoration. For example, old wooden pulleys are being used as wall art or are used to hang plants or other such items. (Now that makes sense. Have a pulley on the wall and then you don’t have to rent one at Thanksgiving to move the bowl of mashed potatoes.)

The farmhouse look should be more familiar as it is splashed on all sorts of magazines and television shows. Lots of barn items, shiplap siding, weathered wood and other such decor. Some of the items in Madel’s shop, though, come with the extra style points of being handmade by local artisans. For example, the store has handcrafted ladders made by an area craftsman.

By early next year, the store expects one of its callings cards to be as a supply store for people who like to do some of their own work when it comes to refurbishing furniture. The store has reached a deal to become a dealer for the original Chalk Paint brand of paint. If you are not familiar with chalked paint, it is a type of paint that allows you to paint over furniture with very minimal prep work — no sanding, no primer, and that sort of stuff.

If getting out your paintbrushes isn’t high on your to-do list, Madel does that type of work and offers such pieces for sale in the shop. She said she is always keeping an eye open for either genuine vintage furniture or furniture that can be made to look vintage.

“I just love it,” Madel said of the business. “I love the process of putting something together and making it look beautiful.”

Reply

2018 forecast calls for Lawrence home prices to shoot up, as competition for homes remains fierce

I understand why I’m discouraged from using hammers and saws (although I still contend “load-bearing wall” sounds like jargon you can safely ignore). What has been less clear is why local contractors aren’t using their tools to build more single-family homes in Lawrence.

A new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors and Wichita State’s Center for Real Estate paints an interesting picture. Lawrence’s real estate market has been one of the best in the state in 2017, which normally would give contractors optimism about building more homes. But the report found that Lawrence’s homebuilding market has been sluggish, especially compared to neighboring Kansas City.

A WSU professor offered a theory, though, at a Thursday morning real estate event in Lawrence: Home prices still aren’t high enough.

Selling prices for existing homes have been pretty stagnant for much of this decade. However, prices for construction materials — plywood, shingles, etc. — have gone up some, which means the prices of newly constructed homes have continued to rise. The result has been that newly constructed homes have cost a lot more to buy than existing homes. That’s always been the case, but the last few years, the gap has been historically large.

“Buyers have been asking themselves why they would pay so much more for a new home when they could get so much value for their money with an existing home?” Stan Longhofer, director of the WSU Center for Real Estate, told the crowd at the Lawrence Board of Realtors housing forecast event on Thursday.

The result has been there is fierce competition for existing homes in Lawrence, but the pace of construction for single-family homes remains stagnant. And don’t expect that to change next year. In fact, it actually may get worse.

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Here’s a look at some of the key findings from the WSU report.

• The number of Lawrence home sales is expected to rise by 3.9 percent this year. Of all the metro markets in Kansas, Lawrence is the only one projected to see an increase in home sales in 2017. All the rest have seen a tight inventory of homes scare off buyers. For whatever reason, people who want to live in Lawrence are staying persistent and overcoming the low number of homes available.

• In 2018, Lawrence homes sales are projected to increase by another 4 percent. That is the second best growth forecast in the state, trailing only Manhattan.

• Despite the strong demand from buyers, new home construction has been basically flat in Lawrence this year. WSU projects new home starts in Lawrence will rise by a meager 0.4 percent in 2017.

• The report expects 2018 to be slightly worse for new home construction. It projects new home starts will fall by about 5 percent, which amounts to about 15 fewer homes being built next year.

• After years of being stagnant, home prices are rising in a big way. WSU estimates home prices — as measured by the Federal Housing Finance Agency — rose by 7.3 percent in 2016. That was the largest increase since the mid-1990s. WSU is projecting home prices will increase another 5.7 percent in 2017 and 4.4 percent in 2018.

So, in 2018, look for competition to be intense for homes in Lawrence, and expect to pay more. However, don’t expect a lot more new homes to be constructed. Longhofer said it will take a few years for the value proposition between existing homes and new homes to equalize. In fact, it may get more out of balance in 2018 because prices for building materials are expected to soar as many of those products get shipped to areas ravaged by hurricanes.

The takeaway is, if you are looking to buy a home in 2018, be prepared to act fast. Thus far this year, 33 percent of all homes sold in Lawrence have sold in 10 days or less. Historically, the average has been about 15 percent of all homes sell in 10 days or less.

“I can’t get my brain around how fast homes are selling right now,” Longhofer said, although he noted homes with price tags of $400,000 or more still sell much more slowly.

Here’s a look at how Lawrence’s real estate market stacks up to the other metro areas measured by WSU:

• Kansas City: Homes sales projected to be down 2.9 percent for 2017. Predicted to rise 3.6 percent in 2018. Home prices projected to rise 7.2 percent for 2017. Predicted to rise 6.6 percent in 2018.

• Manhattan: Homes sales projected to decline by 1.2 percent in 2017. Predicted to rise 9.8 percent in 2018, as several new housing developments are completed. Home prices projected to rise 7.2 percent this year, and 6.6 percent in 2018.

• Topeka: Homes sales projected to decline by 1.2 percent in 2017 and rise 0.6 percent in 2018. Housing prices are projected to increase 3.6 percent in 2017 and 2.7 percent in 2018.

• Wichita: Home sales projected to decline by 0.7 percent in 2017 and rise by 1.5 percent in 2018. Housing prices are projected to rise by 4.1 percent this year and 3.7 percent in 2018.

Reply 2 comments from Ophelia_shorn Merriannie Carol Bowen

New furniture-making business that uses locally grown timber opens in East Lawrence

As North Lawrence residents have learned, there is a good way and a bad way for that walnut tree in the front yard to end up in your dining room.

Last weekend’s storm highlighted the bad way. The storm brought down a lot of trees, and some of them even crashed through roofs, landed on cars or damaged other property.

But what’s the good way for a walnut tree to end up in your dining room? Well, it would look great as a dining room table. A new East Lawrence business can make that happen. Form & Function has opened at 620 E. Eighth St., across from the Poehler Lofts building, in the old building that somewhat resembles a Quonset hut. Landon Harness and Greg Anderson are two area woodworkers who are using the building to mill lumber from area trees, and then they either sell that lumber to other woodworkers or use it themselves to make custom furniture creations.

Form & Function owners Landon Harness and Greg Anderson, along with their shop dog, Beavis, are pictured before a wall of reclaimed wood from various locations that the two will use for building furniture and other projects. The business will have a grand opening for Final Fridays on Oct. 27.

Form & Function owners Landon Harness and Greg Anderson, along with their shop dog, Beavis, are pictured before a wall of reclaimed wood from various locations that the two will use for building furniture and other projects. The business will have a grand opening for Final Fridays on Oct. 27. by Nick Krug

The timing on all of this is coincidental. Harness and Anderson didn’t open the business knowing that a big storm was coming, but the storm indeed may end up keeping the company busy. While National Weather Service folks aren’t willing to call Saturday’s storm a microburst, North Lawrence residents definitely will tell you it is a macro pain in the rear, with downed trees scattered throughout the neighborhood.

“We did hand out a bunch of business cards in North Lawrence the other day,” Harness said.

To be clear, the company isn’t a tree removal firm. Its standard way of operating is to work with tree removal companies. The tree company cuts the tree down, but instead of cutting up the trunk, it leaves it for Form & Function to pick up. Harness and Anderson take it back to the shop, where they have a Timber King sawmill that can handle logs as large as 30 inches. If it gets bigger than that, Anderson has a 60-inch chainsaw. (With that chainsaw and an XXXXL white hockey mask, I guarantee you’ll have the best costume at any Halloween party.)

The idea behind the business is simple.

“I just enjoy saving stuff,” Harness said. “That is what it all stemmed from for me. I enjoy seeing things not go to waste.”

Most trees taken down by tree service companies either go to the wood chipper pile or the burn pile. Harness thinks there are plenty of homeowners who would rather see the old tree made into something beautiful, and he thinks there are buyers who will be interested in the idea of buying furniture made from local wood. Look how big the locavore concept has become with food. Maybe this is the beginning of a similar concept: localoungers (people who only nap in chairs made of local wood.)

Well, maybe we’re not quite to that point. Harness said consumers do have to be reminded that you actually can turn a Kansas log into a beautiful piece of furniture.

“It is a lot of education because we live in a state where the lumber industry really doesn’t exist,” Harness said. “But people are wanting to move back to something that has beauty and soul.”

Among recent Form & Function projects is the standing bar at Lawrence Beer Co., which was milled from an oak tree cut down at 23rd and Tennessee streets in 2015. The business will have a grand opening for Final Fridays on Oct. 27.

Among recent Form & Function projects is the standing bar at Lawrence Beer Co., which was milled from an oak tree cut down at 23rd and Tennessee streets in 2015. The business will have a grand opening for Final Fridays on Oct. 27. by Nick Krug

Harness estimated the business has sawed about 15 varieties of timber. Local walnut, maple and oak are all very traditional types of furniture woods, but Harness said several other Kansas species can make for really interesting pieces. Mulberry, persimmon, and hackberry are all pretty common and interesting. Then there are some like a sweet gum, which produces a wood that looks a bit like a maple, but has distinctive gray streaks running through it that make it look vintage.

“And a Siberian elm was by far the prettiest that we’ve cut,” Harness said. “Once we cut into a log, sometimes we are amazed at what we find. Milling day is definitely the most fun.”

As for the type of furniture the business makes, Harnett said his is a bit more modern, “live edge,” furniture that leaves the wood as natural as possible. He does a lot of dining room tables, kitchen islands, fireplace mantles, shelving and other such projects. Anderson, Harness said, produces furniture that is more refined and features classical styling.

A lot of the business’ furniture is custom-order jobs, but the shop will have a showroom that will display some pieces that are for sale. The business is having its grand opening as part of the Oct. 27 Final Fridays activities. The business will be open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. and will have live music and refreshments.

Reply 2 comments from Ron Holzwarth Ophelia_shorn

USA Today ranks a Lawrence business as one of the top 10 in the country

When I think of escaping in Lawrence, I normally think of things like Memorial Stadium before halftime. But that’s not what USA Today had in mind when it ranked the city as having one of the best escape room businesses in America.

Breakout Lawrence at 727 Massachusetts St. has been voted one of the best escape rooms in the country, according to an article published by USA Today’s travel network.

If you are confused about the idea of an “escape room,” don’t feel bad. You probably are just un-hip. Escape rooms are an entertainment craze where you and a few friends get locked in a room and have an hour to solve several ciphers and clues that give you the secret code to open the door. (Leavenworth has a similar, thriving business, but you don’t go with your friends, and you get a lot more time than an hour.)

USA Today’s website 10best.com recently named Breakout Lawrence the seventh best escape room in the country. A team of travel editors and escape room experts picked 20 escape room businesses across the country, and then USA Today readers voted to determine the top 10.

Matt Baysinger, owner of Breakout Lawrence, is pretty excited by the ranking. He also owns the popular Breakout Kansas City business, which last year was ranked No. 5 by USA Today. Baysinger, a former University of Kansas track and field athlete, is pleased the Lawrence location is getting national recognition. The Lawrence business has grown from having a single escape room to now having four of them.

Breakout Lawrence, located at 727 Massachusetts Street, is an escape room business, which gives participants locked in a room an hour to complete various puzzles that will unlock the door.

Breakout Lawrence, located at 727 Massachusetts Street, is an escape room business, which gives participants locked in a room an hour to complete various puzzles that will unlock the door. by Nick Krug

Two of the rooms have quite a bit of local flavor. One is named "The Rules of Basketball Museum," capitalizing on the fact that KU is home to James Naismith’s original rules. From the Breakout Lawrence website: “Your Trip to the Rules of Basketball Museum takes a dramatic turn when you learn of a plot to steal the historic document.”

One of the other rooms plays off of Lawrence’s Civil War history. Although the room doesn’t require you to know about Lawrence’s Bleeding Kansas history, it does highlight for visitors that Lawrence was a major player in the war. The set up for that room is that you and your fellow soldiers are trapped in an enemy bunker, but you have an hour to try to escape before your captors return from a scouting trip. (I’m not sure if it is a Boy Scout or Girl Scout trip, or whether there is even a difference anymore.)

Baysinger does a lot of the work to come up with the scenarios, clues, ciphers and other gadgets that make the escape room concept work. He started the business about two and a half years ago in Kansas City, and has been operating in Lawrence for about two years. He said he comes up with the ideas in various ways. Sometimes it is simply an idea he gets from watching an adventure movie or a James Bond flick. Other times he does a bit of research.

“We spend an inordinate amount of time coming up with cool clues,” Baysinger said. “If you check out the cipher section in your library — admittedly it is a small section — you would find people in the military and government have been using cipher speak since the beginning of time. You can get ideas from that.”

Baysinger’s company builds all of its own props and gadgets for its escape rooms in a facility based in Kansas City. The company, though, has a more unique project underway. The company is outfitting a 53-foot-long semitrailer to serve as a mobile escape room. The trailer actually will house two escape rooms.

Baysinger said he thinks it will be the largest mobile escape room business in the world. The company plans to have the trailer in the parking lot of Topeka’s Westridge Mall for Black Friday shoppers. (I can picture it now: You have one hour to escape before your credit card debt swallows you.) Baysinger said he plans to have the trailer in Lawrence several times per year, and he expects it to do good business as part of regional festivals and events.

Reply 1 comment from Jeff Goodrick

Plan for large shopping center at SLT and Iowa Street interchange still alive, but delayed again

Figuring out how to get into a large shopping center is generally not a problem in my household. (A semi-truck and a desire to get discounted Halloween candy can smash a lot of obstacles.) But when it comes to plans for a large shopping center south of the SLT and Iowa street interchange, I have learned access issues are delaying that multimillion dollar project.

In case you have forgotten, a North Carolina development group has filed plans to build an approximately 585,000-square-foot shopping center that would include large retailers, restaurants and hotel space. The plans were filed in June, but have yet to have a hearing at City Hall. The proposed site is at the southeast corner of the interchange.

An area just southeast of the intersection of the South Lawrence Trafficway and Iowa Street is being proposed as the site for a large-scale shopping center. The center is being proposed by the North Carolina-based Collett Company, which is currently suing the Lawrence City Commission for denying a previous request for development of the property.

An area just southeast of the intersection of the South Lawrence Trafficway and Iowa Street is being proposed as the site for a large-scale shopping center. The center is being proposed by the North Carolina-based Collett Company, which is currently suing the Lawrence City Commission for denying a previous request for development of the property. by Nick Krug

The project was tentatively scheduled to go before the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission at its Oct. 25 meeting. But the city announced Thursday that won’t happen. Instead, the project’s hearing has been indefinitely delayed.

Sandra Day, the city planner who is overseeing the project, said the city, the state and the development group are struggling to come up with a plan that allows motorists to safely turn into and out of the proposed shopping center. The project wants access along Iowa Street, which is also U.S. Highway 59.

A traditional traffic signal may not work for the project because the proposed entrance point is already near the traffic signals that control the SLT and Iowa Street interchange. Day said a roundabout had been proposed for the site, but that didn’t garner favor with transportation officials. Day said the presence of the entrance and exit ramps for the SLT/Iowa Street interchange also complicates the access issues for the property.

Thus far, though, I believe the issues are all engineering-related. I haven’t heard of the parties arguing about who is going to pay for transportation infrastructure. When I’ve talked with the development group in the past, it has said it isn’t asking the city for incentives to build this project. Sometimes communities will chip in to pay for costs related to traffic signals and other such improvements. But I think that would be a deal-killer with this City Commission.

The project will have enough of a challenge getting a majority of city commissioners to approve the development under any conditions. The development group — Collett development — had a previous shopping center plan for the project rejected. It filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming the commission improperly rejected the project. That lawsuit is still pending, but in the meantime the group filed a new plan, likely because it received some encouragement to do so from some City Hall officials.

Thus far, the idea of whether the site is appropriate for a large shopping center hasn’t been a sticking point, I’ve been told. That may change once the project gets to the City Commission level, though. There have been opponents who argue the city already has enough retail space, and others who argue the city should be trying to steer new retail development to the area near Rock Chalk Park in northwest Lawrence.

But there are supporters for the project too. They note that large retailers don’t really get steered in particular directions. They instead just shift their focus to another community. Others in town simply want the new stores that the development group have been touting. Collett previously said Academy Sports, Old Navy, Designer Shoe Warehouse, a speciality grocer and others had expressed strong interest in the project.

Day said a date has not been set for the project to come before the Planning Commission for a hearing. But Day said she’s heard nothing from developers to indicate that they’ve lost interest in the project.

“They have not withdrawn the project by any means,” she said.

Reply 9 comments from Sylviejr Chris Jeter Brett McCabe Dorothyhoytreed Fred Whitehead Jr. David Holroyd David Hann Sue McDaniel

Downtown shooting causes city commissioner to talk about … panhandlers; are city leaders ready to tackle gun issues?

On a recent Sunday morning, there were pools of blood on the sidewalks of Massachusetts Street for all to see. That didn’t exactly make for the best dinner conversation at a Junior Achievement gala I attended on Wednesday.

But it did spark an interesting comment. It came from a community leader who told me she was surprised there weren’t more serious discussions in the wake of the downtown shooting that left three dead and two injured.

Come to find out, she was more right than I knew. About that same time, candidates for the Lawrence City Commission were participating in a forum for Downtown Lawrence Inc. There, you could find a community leader working hard to change the subject.

All candidates were asked a question about last week’s mass shooting and whether downtown needs more police presence. City Commissioner Matthew Herbert, who is seeking re-election, gave a thoughtful answer in some regards. He expressed sorrow over the tragedy, and perhaps correctly noted that more police officers in downtown likely wouldn’t have prevented the shootings.

Quite a few police officers were already downtown. They were so close to the shootings that no one had to call in the incident. Police officers heard the shots and came running.

But instead of explaining what he thought the community ought to be doing to prevent such tragedies, he did what politicians sometimes do. He pivoted. He pivoted to . . . panhandlers.

“Where we need our police presence is during the day,” Herbert said. “The biggest impact to downtown business owners is not happening at 1:40 in the morning. The biggest impact to downtown business owners is happening at 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon when everyday shoppers are feeling uncomfortable going into your storefronts because three or four people are sitting outside your front door begging for money.”

He did tell the crowd what Lawrence ought not to be doing.

“What we need to make sure we are not doing is killing downtown with the presence of police,” he said.

Somebody in the crowd — largely composed of downtown business owners — booed him at that point.

But perhaps the most important comments Herbert made were these:

“The events that happened Saturday evening/Sunday morning are, of course, awful,” Herbert said. “But I think we need to be very careful that we are not making decisions that legislate from a place of fear. If we as a City Commission are legislating from a worst-case scenario, I think we are making a huge mistake.”

Those comments should create a question for all of us: What makes us think this is a worst-case scenario? Why would we think this is a one-off incident — or an outlier, as Herbert also labeled it — to never be repeated?

For those who have been paying attention to crime news, plenty of red flags have gone up in downtown Lawrence just in the past three months. On Sept. 3, multiple gunshots were fired in the public right-of-way at 10th and Vermont streets in downtown. Two parked vehicles were damaged, but thankfully no people were in the way of those particular bullets. On July 17, two gun incidents occurred in downtown in one evening. A man inside Leroy’s Tavern revealed a gun as part of a fight that began in the bar. In a separate incident, a man at 10th and New Hampshire pulled a gun on a bystander. In the New Hampshire incident, the gun was a pellet gun. The perpetrator was a transient, so perhaps he didn’t have the money to buy a bigger one.

Look a bit outside of downtown, and you can find even more red flags. On Sept. 23, a man was apparently shot near Playerz sports bar near 19th and Haskell, although much about that shooting remains a mystery. It is not to be confused though with a previous shooting in the Playerz parking lot. That occurred in 2016, but the man was recently sentenced. He received a year’s probation and gets to keep his job at . . . a bar.

On Sept. 3, one man was killed and two others were wounded in a shooting incident at the Motel 6 in North Lawrence. On Aug. 11, a man was charged for attempted murder when he shot at an occupied car in the 3300 block of Iowa Street. I could list more.

There is a theme to all of those incidents: gun play in public spaces. It would seem that the chances of an innocent bystander getting shot in Lawrence are greater than we would care to admit. Why would we think such a thing wouldn’t happen in downtown, our most public and crowded of spaces?

Granted, coming up with solutions is not easy. But there are plenty of issues Lawrence leaders could be talking about. Here are four:

Are we doing enough to tell the public that we don’t want them to bring their guns downtown? I recently walked Massachusetts Street and looked at the front door of every business. I found only 11 businesses with a no-gun sign. Only one of them was a bar, The Red Lyon. Most of the other drinking establishments just off Mass didn’t have them either, with The Sandbar being an exception. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the bars have policies against guns, but for whatever reason, they are not putting the sign up. They should. The first step to stopping bad behavior is making it clear that you want it to stop. Lawrence needs to be very clear about this message: Guns and alcohol don’t mix.

Should the city issue security guidelines — or perhaps even regulations — for drinking establishments? Some places, like the Granada, use a metal detector wand to screen their patrons at the door. But there are many bars that don’t; they just rely on the doorman's eye. You may be noting at this point that the recent shootings did not take place inside a bar. True, but it also is important to recognize that people in downtown past midnight most likely were brought there by a desire to visit a drinking establishment.

Should Lawrence police change their tactics? Perhaps undercover Lawrence police officers should periodically work the doors of a few establishments. Do the police department and bars communicate well enough when a patron does have a gun? While Kansas law makes it exceedingly easy to legally carry a concealed weapon, you still must be 21 or older to do so. Plus, people with certain convictions aren’t allowed to carry either. Is there a system in place to check gun-toters to make sure they are meeting those requirements?

Can Lawrence effectively lead a lobbying effort for common-sense changes to gun laws? While concealed carry isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, could there be some modifications? Do lawmakers really think it is a good idea for people to be able to go into a bar, drink to excess and carry a gun? What’s the penalty if they do?

Or, we could talk more about panhandling. Indeed, it may be an issue worth discussing. But first, let's clean the blood off the sidewalks.

Reply 75 comments from Brock Masters Connected Scott  Morgan Bob Smith Dowser Bob Gent Pete Kennamore Richard Heckler Don Brennaman Pumpkincharlie and 25 others

Kansas City development company buys Lawrence golf course; west Lawrence Walmart gets a remodel

Lawrence’s golf course industry is changing again. A Kansas City development company — who traditionally has not been a golf course operator — has purchased a nine-hole course that is just down the road from the University of Kansas.

Block & Company, a Kansas City-based commercial real estate firm, recently bought the Orchards by Cobblestone Golf Course at 3000 Bob Billings Parkway. You remember the Orchards golf course. It is a nine-hole, relatively short course that you would play when you didn’t have enough money to play Alvamar or when the course marshall at Alvamar started eyeing you funny because your golf bag had a chainsaw in it.

In a press release, Block & Company said it will operate the course, and it hopes to improve its condition.

“We are planning to do a number of upgrades and improvements to the property in the upcoming year and give the course the attention it deserves,” said David M. Block, president of the real estate company.

Now, I’m the first to admit that when it comes to strategy on a golf course I’m often “befuddled.” (I think that is a fancy word for “in a creek.”) This transaction has left me a tad befuddled as well. In a normal situation, I would think that a commercial real estate company is purchasing a golf course like this for the land and not the course. The course sits on about 30 acres of property, which the release noted several times is very near the KU campus. Think of all the very profitable things you could build on 30 acres just a couple of blocks from KU.

But this isn’t a normal situation. As the Journal-World reported years ago, neighbors of the golf course were concerned that the struggling course was going to be sold and turned into apartments. So, the neighbors banded together, raised about $280,000 and gave it to the then-owner of the course in exchange for a covenant that ensured the course would either remain a golf course or open space. As far as I know, those covenants still exist. Although, I suppose Block could try to buy the development rights back from the neighbors.

Of course, it is possible that Block may just see an opportunity in the golf business in Lawrence. The community has lost 18 holes of public golf, as Alvamar has now converted to an entirely members-only golf course.

Block & Company noted several times that the Orchards course is set up for FootGolf in addition to traditional golf. FootGolf is a sport that uses a soccer ball and participants count the number of kicks it takes to get the ball to a specific spot on the course. Block says Orchards is one of only five FootGolf courses in the greater Kansas City area.

So, that could be a strategy for turning the business around. But generally, golf has been a tough business in Lawrence. The city struggles to make any money at Eagle Bend Golf Course, and that course has the advantage of not having a water bill or property taxes to pay. The former owners of Alvamar sold that course after they too struggled to make golf profitable. The new owners — led by Lawrence’s Fritzel family — have made it clear that the strategy for profitable golf is to build more apartments and living units around the course.

Plus, Lawrence soon will have nine more holes of golf in the market. The Links — the huge apartment complex under construction just east of Rock Chalk Park — will have a nine-hole golf course in the center of it. My understanding is that course will have some public tee times.

I’ve got a call into officials with Block. I’ll let you know if I hear more details.


In other news and notes from around town:

Walmart has announced that its remodeling project at is store near Sixth and Wakarusa is now complete. The project involved:

— A new electronics department that includes a lot of interactive displays.

— New LED lighting in the produce, deli and meat departments.

— Changes to the pharmacy department, including more service lanes and a new consultation room.

— Wider aisles and lower shelving in many parts of the store.

The store is hosting an event to celebrate the remodel from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Oct. 13. The event will include music, free food and lots of samples throughout the store.

Reply 2 comments from Dennis Novacek Jonathan Becker

Let’s get a roll of ice cream: New Thai ice cream shop set to open in downtown

I’m unclear on why Thailand hasn’t taken over the world. The Thai people clearly have made the most important technological advancement of our generation: They’ve perfected a way of making fresh ice cream almost instantaneously. Soon, Lawrence residents will get to see for themselves as a Thai ice cream shop is coming to downtown.

Work is underway to open 10° F Thai Ice Cream at 726 Massachusetts St. where Creation Station previously was located. Achen Chen, who previously ran a Thai ice cream shop in Philadelphia, said he hopes to have the Lawrence shop open later this month.

A pretty solid language barrier existed between me and Chen, so I didn’t get a ton of details about plans for his Lawrence venture. But it doesn’t take too much searching on the Internet to see that Thai ice cream is becoming a dessert trend.

Here’s how it works: A Thai ice cream store has something that looks like a small flat-top griddle, but it actually is an extremely cold griddle. I’m guessing in this case 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Atop the cold griddle, you pour liquid ice cream mix — the stuff you normally would pour inside a traditional ice cream freezer. Once the mix hits the griddle, you use a pair of spatulas to start moving the mixture around, kind of like you would with a stir-fry dish.

The mix starts to freeze while you move it around. At this point, you could just be a dumb American and pile it into a ball and put the ice cream in a cup or cone. Or, you could do it the Thai way. That involves spreading the ice cream out flat on the griddle, and then using a spatula to scrape it up in a manner that the ice cream comes off the griddle in a roll. Some people say it looks like a sushi roll. As someone who steers clear of sushi, I think that description is an abomination. I prefer to say it looks more like a large taquito. (Combining Mexican food references and ice cream is perfectly acceptable, as Taco John’s Choco Taco proved several pounds ago.)

Here’s a video from the "Today" show that gives you a sense of how this all works.

Why Thai ice cream rolls are our latest sweet obsession

My main takeaway from watching this is that for years people have told me to stop playing with my food, but evidently it is now OK for me to pay someone else to play with it. (It does look fun. I wonder if I got a counter top cold enough whether I could replicate it in the kitchen. It shouldn’t be a problem, as during the winter my wife keeps the thermostat at about 10 degrees.)

As you can see, the rolled ice cream allows for some pretty elaborate presentations. The process also allows for lots of ingredients — fruits, nuts, candy — to be mixed into the ice cream. In that regard, it is similar to what Cold Stone Creamery and other such ice cream shops offer.

I believe though that 10° F plans to offer some unique flavor combinations that are a bit traditional to Thailand. Chen told me that green tea would be one of the ingredients available. Indeed, Mr. Google tells me that green tea ice cream is a thing in Thailand and other parts of Asia. It sounded like some coffee-flavored ice creams also would be part of the mix.

Chen mentioned several other combinations, but I didn’t follow all of those. We’ll have to learn about those once the store opens. In the meantime, I’ve got to find my spatulas.

Reply 3 comments from Brian Seveland Chad Lawhorn

After a long wait, Lawrence to once again have a Veterans Day parade

Lawrence’s horse-drawn Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade is fantastic, except scurrying for candy in the streets can get a little messy. (Actually, don’t bother. That’s not candy, city slickers.) The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is a great tribute to the Irish and out-of-control grocery carts. And the Earth Day Parade is a reminder of what great fun we’ll have when the entire world starts riding bicycles and all yoga is free.

But despite Lawrence’s love of parades, there is one type the community hasn’t had for years: a traditional Veterans Day parade. A group of local residents plans to change that this November.

A Veterans Day parade through downtown Lawrence is set for 1 p.m. on Nov. 11, which happens to be a Saturday this year. The route will go down Massachusetts Street roughly from Seventh Street to South Park.

That’s your cue to line the streets and put your patriotism on full display. I thought I should explain because it has been a long time since Lawrence has had a Veterans Day parade. Organizers believe the last official one was in 1968.

Lawrence Daily Journal-World, Nov. 12, 1968

Lawrence Daily Journal-World, Nov. 12, 1968

The organizing group — which is co-chaired by American Legion member Don Weis and Lawrence Police Department employee Kim Murphree — already has the necessary parade permit from the city. Now, they’re just looking for lots and lots of veterans.

Mike Kelly, a retired Air Force colonel and member of the organizing committee, said the group is looking for anyone who has served in the U.S. Armed Forces, regardless of whether they served during a time of war.

Kelly, though, said he wants to make sure Vietnam veterans particularly feel welcomed. He said that the idea for the parade stemmed, in part, from hearing from people who knew Vietnam veterans who still struggle with the reception they received upon returning from the war.

“I think there are a number of people who now just say it has been too long,” Kelly said. “We ought to say thank you, especially to the folks who haven’t gotten a thank you. We think there are some people out there who didn’t get a thank you.”

Any veteran who wants to participate in the parade can get in touch with Murphree at themurphreenetwork@gmail.com or can leave a message on the group’s Facebook page, which can be found at The Lawrence Veterans Day Parade.

Local car dealers are providing several vehicles for veterans to ride in, several farmers are providing large flatbed trailers for veterans, and walking the parade route also is an option, Kelly said. He said the committee will accommodate whatever needs a veteran may have.

In addition to the veterans, Kelly said organizers hope to have a military band, honor guards from the sheriff’s office, police department, fire department and other organizations, and some military vehicles from the Army Reserve or another branch.

“It will be like a Humvee or something,” Kelly said. “No M-1 tanks on Mass. That wouldn’t be good for the pavement.” (It did give me a wonderful idea, though: a candy cannon.)

Kelly said people who would like to honor a deceased veteran can provide information to the committee via the Facebook page or email address. He said the tentative plan is for posters to be made with those names.

People who are interested in volunteering also can reach out via those same means. He said people would be needed to help clean up afterward and to help near the viewing stand, where an emcee will be announcing the names of veterans.

“But the main purpose of all this is just to say thank you,” Kelly said.

Marking your calendars to do that may be the most important role you can play.

Reply 5 comments from David Teska Hdaddy Kim Murphree Don Brennaman David Holroyd

What’s being built near Sixth and Wakarusa, plus other updates on Lawrence’s building scene

I don’t know what it means when a community’s top building projects are hotels and churches, but that’s the case thus far in Lawrence in 2017.

It has been awhile since we have looked at the city’s building totals, but there’s a new report out at City Hall that measures building activity through August. In a nutshell, it is not as robust as it has been the past couple of years. But remember, 2015 and 2016 were two of the best building years in the city’s history.

Thus far, city officials have issued building permits for $96.5 million worth of projects. At this time last year the city had issued permits for $145.5 million worth of projects and in 2015 it was at $187.8 million in new construction.

This year’s total is still pretty good historically. Dating back to 2009, this year’s total is the fourth highest, trailing only the two years mentioned above and 2013.

The largest project of the year, thus far, is one that people just now are starting to see come out of the ground near Sixth and Wakarusa. City officials have issued permits for a $4 million Tru by Hilton hotel at 510 Wakarusa Drive.

We reported on the Tru by Hilton back in December when plans were filed with the city. As a reminder, plans call for the building to be four stories tall and have 82 guest rooms. The hotel will be a bit of a different one. The Tru brand dubs itself as the place where “cost-conscious meets cool conscious.” (I always thought that meant wearing the $2.99 aviator sunglasses from the convenience store, but Tru may have a different idea.) As for how the hotel will be cool, look for a more modern flair in design, furniture and a lobby that is hiply called a “Hive.”

The second largest project in the city also is a hotel. The city has issued permits for $3.9 million in construction for a Country Inn & Suites hotel at 2176 E. 23rd St., where Don’s Steakhouse used to be. (Ah, Don’s. I don’t know if it was cost-conscious meeting cool-conscious, but I do miss briefly losing consciousness after eating about a half-dozen twice-baked potatoes at Don’s.) That hotel will be an 89-room extended-stay property. The project is well underway, with crews currently installing the exterior stone and other finishes on the building.

The third and fourth largest projects in town are both churches. Construction work began recently on Connect Church at 31st and Iowa. As we have reported, that’s the church that used to be known as Lawrence Wesleyan Church and is selling its church facility at 3705 Clinton Parkway to a group that will redevelop it as an office building. The city has issued a building permit for $3.6 million for the Connect Church.

An addition at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 1208 Kentucky St., is the fourth largest project in the city. The city has issued $3 million in building permits for a project that is adding a gymnasium and a performing arts center. You’ll be able to judge for yourself how big the addition is if you go to St. John’s popular Oktoberfest this weekend, although a certain German beverage has been known to distort judgments.

Even though it is not a church or a hotel, I might as well report on project No. 5, which in some ways is the most exciting. The city has issued $2.8 million in permits for a renovation at the Bioscience and Technology Business Center. As we reported in June, KU is converting the basement level of the BTBC building on West Campus into a multimillion dollar, high security clearance laboratory.

The hope is that the National Security Laboratory will enable KU scientists to do more research for the Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies. If you are scoring at home, we want Department of Defense folks on campus these days, not the FBI.

The Department of Defense work could be very lucrative. 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.

One last bit of building permit news, despite real estate agents continually talking about a shortage of homes on the market, builders have not responded with a surge in single-family home construction. In fact, the number of single family and duplex home permits is down a bit from last year. Thus far, the city has issued 118 permits, compared with 123 during the same period a year ago. This year’s total is also down from 170 permits that were issued through August of 2015.

Maybe builders aren’t constructing as many homes, but they are building some really big ones. The city already has issued three permits this year for homes that cost more than $1 million. The top one is a $1.75 million property in the 1700 block of Lake Alvamar Drive. There’s also a pair of $1.2 million homes: one in the 100 block of N. Wilderness Way and another in the 200 block of Running Ridge Road. Both of those are in the Fall Creek Farms development near Peterson Road and Monterey Way.

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Lawrence looking to set zombie world record as part of new ‘Hellaweenfest’ event

Lawrence may become a world record holder for zombies, and I’m not even talking about the hordes of college students who have to get up before noon. No, Lawrence’s popular Zombie Walk in downtown is getting a boost this year. The walk will be part of something called Hellaweenfest on Oct. 27.

Look for a downtown street to be closed, a local restaurant to be converted into a haunted house, an outdoor horror movie, and some version of a world-record attempt. The organizers of the festival are hoping to set a world record for the greatest number of people who are dressed up as zombies doing the "Thriller" dance.

If your 1980s brain didn’t get eaten by Charlie Sheen, you may remember the "Thriller" video that came out in 1983. The Michael Jackson video has a scene where a large group of zombies dance in unison to Jackson’s hit song.

Ryan Robinson — a Lawrence-based promoter who was part of The Color Run craze — came up with the idea of breaking a world record in this unique zombie category. As far as world records go, you may want to use your zombie brain and not overthink it. I don’t think Guinness World Records necessarily has a record for zombies doing the "Thriller" dance. It does have one for people in general doing the "Thriller" dance, and that is 13,597 people in Mexico City in 2009, according to the Guinness site. But, they maybe weren’t all wearing zombie costumes.

Robinson and others have done a little research, and the largest zombie dance they found was in 2009 when a group of more than 1,500 inmates in a Philippines prison donned zombie makeup and did the dance as part of their exercise routine to commemorate the death of Jackson. (When you have time on your hands . . . )

Robinson thinks Lawrence can beat that number by quite a bit and make the world record claim. There already are 2,000 people people signed up to participate in the Zombie Walk. Robinson thinks the event will draw 3,000 to 4,000 people. The walk had originally been scheduled for Oct. 12, but that date was changed to coincide with the "Thriller" event.

“Halloween has just gotten so big,” Robinson said. “There are a lot of weird people out there in the world.”

Participants in the 6th annual Lawrence Zombie Walk stumble along Mass. St. from South Park to downtown Thursday, October 4, 2012.

Participants in the 6th annual Lawrence Zombie Walk stumble along Mass. St. from South Park to downtown Thursday, October 4, 2012. by Mike Yoder

I’ll leave it to others to confirm the zombie record, but I can confirm this should be one of your five best opportunities to dress up like a zombie this year in Lawrence. Here are some details about the Oct. 27 event:

The block of Seventh Street between Massachusetts and New Hampshire street will be blocked off for a street festival. Inside the closed-off block will be a beer vendor, carnival games, face painters, food stands and other such items. The area will be free to enter, although there will be lots of merchandise and donation opportunities to support the Lawrence Humane Society and Headquarters Counseling Center. Gates open at 4 p.m..

Wake the Dead Breakfast Bar, 7 E. Seventh St., will convert itself into a haunted house for the event. Rachael Ulbrick, a co-owner of the restaurant, said organizers are close to signing a deal with one of the really large haunted house companies in Kansas City to come outfit the Lawrence restaurant. The haunted house will be free to enter, but will be accepting donations for the Humane Society, Ulbrick said.

The zombie action kicks into high gear at 6 p.m. (Well, zombies don’t really have a high gear, but you get what I mean.) Organizers are asking all zombies who want to participate in the dance to show up at Seventh and Massachusetts Street at 6 p.m. to learn the dance moves. Ulbrick plans to have an area cheerleading squad on hand to provide the appropriate instruction. The world record attempt will begin at 7 p.m.

The actual Zombie Walk — which is the 11th annual — will begin at 7:05 p.m. at Seventh and Mass. If you are a spur-of-the-moment zombie, that is no problem. Robinson said there will be several zombie stations near Seventh and Mass. People can make a small donation to the Humane Society, and volunteers will make sure you have on the appropriate zombie makeup.

About 10 p.m., Headquarters Counseling Center will show the classic "Rocky Horror Picture Show" on a big screen set up on Seventh Street. Ulbrick said plans call for a more kid-friendly film to be shown beforehand.

Robinson, who owns Lawrence-based Silverback Event Productions, said he’s excited to be involved with a Halloween-themed event in Lawrence. He said Lawrence’s Zombie Walk already is one of the largest in the Midwest. He thinks the community has a chance to use its popularity to create a weekend festival in the future.

“I think it could certainly pull in 5,000 to 10,000 people over a weekend, if it turned into something like that,” Robinson said. “Something as quirky and as unmistakable as a zombie fest would fit in well with the vibe of Lawrence.”

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A witch-themed store opens in eastern Lawrence to serve a growing pagan population

I’ll let you determine what “miracle” the once popular Miracle Video store at 19th and Haskell was promoting. But the new store that has taken its place also is in a business where the topic of miracles comes up. It is a religious supply store, but perhaps not the type of religion you are thinking of.

The store sells supplies for Wicca and other pagan religions. And it is not new at it, either. The store is the Village Witch, which previously was located in North Lawrence in a stone building a couple of doors down from Johnny’s Tavern. Owner Kerry Johnson said the store had been in the North Lawrence location for about 10 years. Pagan religion, it seems, is not a passing fad.

But what type of supplies do you need for it? I know in my religion two of the most important are a pillow to make the pew softer, or, conversely, a clock for the pastor. I’m not sure it is quite the same in the pagan religions. Johnson said the store sells a lot of candles and incense, which can be used in ceremonial rituals, including the casting of spells. Yes, spell casting is part of the religion, and Johnson said it makes sense if you think about it in the proper context.

“A spell is very much like a prayer,” said Johnson, who said she enjoys explaining the religion to people. “It is a petition to the gods to act in your favor. We bump it up a bit by burning incense.”

Other supplies sold at the store include books, tarot cards, statuettes of gods and goddesses, cauldrons and ritual knives. I’m not entirely versed in how the knives are used, but you shouldn’t assume the worst. As a reminder, some religions use staffs and rods as part of their rituals.

Johnson said not everyone who comes into the store is a practicing pagan. She said the store has a large jewelry selection, which brings in many nonpagans, as does its incense inventory. With the move, Johnson has expanded by bringing in daughter-in-law Ashlie Christianson, who operates the Green Goddess. That business sells a variety of herbal products, including homemade soaps, essential oils, bath and body products, herbal teas and other such items.

Johnson said she decided to move the business to 19th and Haskell after the other woman she was sharing the shop with in North Lawrence decided to go in a different direction. Plus, the new location is convenient for her family’s other business. Her family operates the Cosmic Cafe that also is located in the 19th and Haskell shopping center.

Johnson said she is confident her customers will find her in the new location. She said customers come from throughout the region. Although Kansas City has several pagan-based religious stores, she said many Kansas City residents frequently come to Lawrence to check out her shop. Johnson said there are fewer pagan-based stores west of Lawrence, so Lawrence ends up being a shopping destination for those folks.

As for the future, Johnson said the number of pagans in Lawrence seems to be on the rise. In particular, the pagan branch known as Wicca is a fast-growing religion. Johnson has been part of the Wicca religion for many years and now is a high priestess of one of the covens that meet in Lawrence.

Yes, Wicca does involves several pieces of terminology associated with witches, as the store’s name implies. Practitioners are commonly called witches. But Johnson said there are quite a few misunderstandings non-Wiccans have about the religion.

Probably the biggest is an assumption that Wiccans are Satan worshippers. Johnson said the Wiccan religion actually doesn’t believe in a Satan figure.

“If you did something bad, it is on you, not on Satan,” she said.

The religion does believe in Karma. Female figures play a central role in the religion, and practitioners of Wicca generally don’t proselytize, believing that religion is a very personal decision.

Johnson said Lawrence has been a great location for the store because the community is open-minded about ideas outside the mainstream.

“We’ve never had a problem with people being respectful in Lawrence,” Johnson said.

UPDATE: In reporting this story I’ve learned that Johnson’s old business partner has a similar venture operating in North Lawrence. Kacey Carlson is operating Third Eye Sadie’s at 311 N Second Street.

The store also sells supplies for Wicca and pagan religions. But Carlson said the store plans to be a little bit wider in its reach.

“We’re aiming the space a little more toward global spirituality,” she said.

That means the store doesn’t just have jewelry and items from the Nordic or European regions, which are popular in Wicca, but also has some Tibetan and African jewelry too. Carlson thinks the store’s inventory will appeal to a lot of people regardless of whether they are interested in the items for their religious purposes.

“Sometimes I call it a shiny object girl store,” Carlson said. “There is a lot of emphasis on gemstones here.”

Reply 14 comments from Dorothyhoytreed Teri Chambers David Holroyd Richard Aronoff Brandon Devlin Brock Masters Notewell Cait McKnelly Pete Kennamore Daniel Kennamore and 1 others

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