Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
I know one type of veterinary clinic expansion I would like to see: Some type of serum that teaches my dog that the box of Pop-Tarts on the kitchen table is mine. (I tried to electrify the box, but, come to find out, he’s more resistant to the shock than I am.) I don’t think that is what is going on, but I do have news of one of Lawrence’s oldest vet clinics expanding.
Perhaps you have noticed that work is underway at the Bradley Animal Hospital at 935 E. 23rd St. The business is expanding its animal hospital space by about 30 percent — or about 800 square feet — Dr. John Bradley told me.
Among the changes on tap are a doubling of the size of the intensive care unit and treatment area, a dedicated dental suite featuring digital dental radiography, and new equipment including a CO2 surgical laser, digital enoscopy and cystoscopy. (I’m not sure what all of that is, but I assume some of it will detect traces of cherry Pop-Tarts.)
Feline fans also are getting something out of this expansion. Bradley said the clinic’s “cat ward” is being remodeled. It will feature sound reduction walls and a larger “cat-run” area with vertical perches for lounging. The area will continue to be completely separated from the dog area.
The clinic also is making an upgrade to its fire detection system, which is an issue that has been in the news as fires have damaged a pet store and a boarding facility in the last year or so, resulting in animal deaths. Bradley said his facility has had monitoring for the last 10 years, but he’s using the renovations as a chance to upgrade the sensors, which will send alerts directly to Lawrence-Douglas County Fire-Medical.
If you remember, city commissioners in 2015 had discussions about requiring fire sprinkler systems for all animal hospitals or overnight boarding facilities, but commissioners balked at the idea after hearing concerns from veterinarians and others about the cost of retroactively installing sprinkler systems.
The exterior of the clinic, which is just a bit west of 23rd and Haskell, also will get a facelift and a new design, Bradley said.
The renovation comes at a good time. The business plans to celebrate a bit in 2017. It will celebrate its 60th anniversary in Lawrence. Bradley recalled that his parents moved to Lawrence in 1957 and purchased 1.5 acres on the eastern outskirts of town. The business operated out of a white wood-frame farm house until the existing building was constructed in 1965. Bradley came back to Lawrence 1991 to run the family business, after his dad — Dr. William “Bill” Bradley — retired.
“Business has been good,” John Bradley said of the practice, which focuses on dogs, cats and other small animals. “We have been here 60 years, and Lawrence has been really good to us in that time. This will let us stay here for a long time.”
I know in my household that the word “affordable” is one that can have varying definitions. For example, unlike some, I do not consider a 5 percent off coupon to the Coach store to be a de facto definition of the word. The extra large value bag of Doritos? No brainer. It says ‘value’ right on the bag. My struggles with the definition, though, are probably less important than the struggles city commissioners may soon have.
City Commissioner Matthew Herbert recently had an interesting post on his Facebook account about the issue of affordable housing. Herbert was the lone vote against a 50 percent tax rebate for a brewery/apartment project in East Lawrence’s Warehouse Arts District at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting. The project included a provision that two of the 14 new apartment units would be set aside as qualified affordable housing units with a monthly rent of $840 a month.
The gist of Herbert’s post was: Since when is $840 a month the definition of affordable for a one-bedroom apartment? Herbert, who is a public school teacher, also owns a rental business. Herbert notes that he has apartment units all over the city, including just a couple of blocks from the East Lawrence site. He said none of his properties rent for $840 for a single bedroom.
“In fact, 100 percent of my properties are half that cost or less,” Herbert said in his post. “I don’t do that to the save the world. I do that because that is the market rate.”
Now, my understanding is Herbert is more in the house rental business than the apartment rental business, so rental rates might not quite be apples to apples, so take that for whatever you think it is worth.
However, there is a housing organization that does track rental rates for apartment units in the county. The Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority lists 2016 fair market rent rates. The fair market rate for a 1-bedroom unit is $639, which also includes utilities.
So, Herbert may have a point. Why is an apartment that is about $200 above the fair market rent rate in the community considered affordable? One answer could be that because the other units in the East Lawrence project are expected to rent for $1,000 to $1,200 per month. That indeed would make the $840 unit a good deal; however, a good deal and affordable are not synonyms. I can point you to a closet full of purses and a lien on my house held by Coach to illustrate that point.
With the word “affordable” there is always the question: Affordable to whom? Different answers to that question may be what’s going on here. I talked briefly with Shannon Oury, executive director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority. She sits on the city’s affordable housing task force, which recommended approval of the East Lawrence project.
She said the units could be considered affordable because it allowed someone who makes 60 percent of Douglas County’s median income to live in the apartment and not spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Technically, it takes a household of two people in order to do that. The median income for a single person household isn’t quite great enough to stay below the 30 percent threshold.
A key part of this though is that the person makes 60 percent of Douglas County’s median income. That is not the typical person that you think of as being part of an affordable housing program. At the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, the majority of their clients make 30 percent or less of the median income. In other words, these two units are for households that make about twice as much as the typical client at the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority.
“You can kind of see that we are talking about two different groups here,” Oury said.
Maybe that group of 60 percent earners also are facing an affordable housing issue. There does seem to be less evidence of that, though. Oury’s organization can point to a substantial waiting list of people at the 30 percent and below level who are seeking housing. A key question seems to be: What is the evidence that 60 percent earners are having difficulty finding an average one-bedroom apartment that rents for about $640 a month, or $750 a month, for that matter? Census data from 2014 estimated that nearly 40 percent of all rental units in Lawrence — that’s one bedrooms to four bedrooms and beyond — rent for $750 or less.
Maybe one bedroom units priced below $840 a month are in really tight supply, but near as I can tell, there is no report out there that estimates vacancy rates for that type of apartment.
This seems to be another reminder of just how complicated of an issue city officials are wading into with affordable housing.
Now, whether this means the city shouldn’t provide a tax rebate to the East Lawrence project is a different question. Hopefully the affordable housing component wasn’t too large of a factor in the city’s vote. After all, we’re talking about two units in a town that has about 40,000 housing units. You would have to do 20 of these projects a year for 10 consecutive years to even get to 1 percent of the city’s housing units. Presumably more than 1 percent of the city’s population is facing affordable housing problems.
Hopefully, city commissioners approved the incentives because they think the project will create good economic activity in an area that needs it, and that the project wouldn’t have happened without the incentive. If the the project results in a couple of rent-reduced apartments, then that’s icing on the cake.
What would be dangerous, though, is if commissioners are approving these projects thinking they are making a significant dent in Lawrence’s affordable housing issue. Both the number of units and their rent rates may suggest otherwise.
Budding business may cause school board member to leave board early; a six-mile traffic backup; chamber elects new leaders
A budding business may cause Lawrence school board member Kris Adair to end her term on the board early, Adair has told me. Some of Adair’s comments also may spark some discussion about what Lawrence does or doesn’t do to keep budding technology companies.
As we have reported, Adair and her husband, Joshua Montgomery, are founders of the artificial intelligence company Mycroft, which is working to create a device that allows consumers to do a variety of tasks on the internet through voice-activated commands.
As we reported in October, MyCroft won a $50,000 grant as part of the LaunchKC technology competition. As part of that grant award, it also received free office space in the Crossroads District in Kansas City, Mo.
On top of that, the Kansas City-based technology website Startland recently has reported that Mycroft has opened an office in Silicon Valley, and “senior Mycroft leadership” will work out of that California office.
Adair certainly qualifies as senior leadership of the company, so that begged the question of whether she would be staying in Lawrence and completing her school board term, which expires at the end of 2017.
Adair did confirm to me that her husband, Montgomery, is working in Silicon Valley full time. She said she could not yet say with any certainty whether she would move to California before the end of her term.
“There have been no definite decisions made,” Adair said. “It really is going to depend on how things go for him.”
Adair added that she hopes she’ll be able to finish out the term.
“It has been something that has brought me a great amount of pleasure,” Adair said of serving on the school board. “I’m hoping that we will not have to move until my term is up.”
The Silicon Valley office is primarily focusing on raising venture capital and establishing business relationships with Silicon Valley’s famed tech industry. So, Adair is rooting for those efforts to go well too, which may lead to a move before her term is up.
“It all depends on how things go with Mycroft, and right now it is going better than we really anticipated.”
Either way, Adair expects there will be more travel back and forth to California. Adair’s duties with Mycroft already have created some concerns about her ability to fulfill school board responsibilities. In March, then-school board president Vanessa Sanburn suggested Adair consider resigning from the board, unless she could start attending board meetings more regularly. That suggestion followed an announcement by Adair that she would be taking “a less active role” with the board through May, and after she had been absent from various board engagements, including the final stages of the board’s search for a new superintendent.
Adair had said that her decreased level of attendance earlier in the year was related to a 90-day business accelerator program that she was participating in as part of her Mycroft duties. She told me this week her attendance at recent school board meetings has become more regular.
So, we’ll have to wait and see how this all plays out as it relates to Adair’s school board term. What seems clear, though, is Mycroft’s presence in Lawrence is coming to an end, and Montgomery and Adair’s presence seems set to.
Adair said that there are no plans to keep any part of the Mycroft operations in Lawrence.
“There is nothing really for Mycroft in Lawrence anymore,” Adair said. “We are a high-tech startup and Kansas City, Mo. really has a tremendous startup program.”
Adair continued: “We think Kansas City, Mo. is really focusing on the high tech sector that is going to be the future. Lawrence just seems to be focusing on smaller projects like apartments and hotels. That may be where a small community like this can focus.”
But Adair made it clear she thinks Lawrence can do more on its economic development front. She said the type of programs offered in Kansas City that have been helpful to Mycroft have included the LaunchKC grant program and free office space, a mentorship program at University of Missouri-Kansas City, and venture capital and other assistance from the quasi public-private Missouri Technology Corporation.
“I think Lawrence focuses more on tax abatements for economic development and less on how spending in other ways could help the community,” Adair said. “I think it is just a difference of opinion on whether you think a tax incentive is going to bring in more economic development or a grant program is going to be more beneficial.”
While Lawrence doesn’t have anything quite like the grant program being used in Kansas City, economic development leaders have made some major efforts to attract technology startups. The city, the county, the chamber, the university and the state have created partnerships to invest $20 million to build and then expand the Bioscience and Technology Incubator on KU’s West Campus. It has had good luck in attracting both startup companies and well-established companies — like Garmin — who want to be on or near the KU campus.
So, there probably will be some difference of opinion about whether Lawrence is doing enough in that regard, but certainly Adair isn’t the only one urging the community to think more creatively in the incentives it provides and the programs it offers. It is always a conversation worth keeping an ear open for.
Adair also said two other changes are likely to occur as Mycroft moves its business out of Lawrence. Adair and Montgomery are founders of Wicked Broadband, which previously was known as Lawrence Freenet. Adair confirmed the company is seeking to sell the business, although no deal is imminent. The business provides broadband service primarily to apartment complexes, fraternity and sorority houses, businesses and some residential subscribers. It has been in the news a lot over the years, primarily over disputes about whether the city should provide it grants, or low interest loans or other such assistance to expand its services in the community.
“I like to explain it this way: It is like having a child in a sense,” Adair said. “Wicked has been around for 11 years now. We feel like it is time to send it off to college.”
Adair also said it was likely that she and Montgomery would shut down the Lawrence Center for Entrepreneurship that they operate in office space near Ninth and Iowa streets. The center was designed to offer low-cost office space and maker space services to startups and small companies. Adair said the center has stopped taking new members for the space.
“I see that project probably folding in the future,” Adair said.
As for Mycroft, it will be interesting to watch how that company develops. Its device is similar to devices offered by Amazon, Microsoft and others. It allows you to use voice commands and the internet to turn off lights at your home, start a coffee maker, search for answers online and a number of other tasks that are part of this new technology called the Internet-of-Things. So, Mycroft will face major competition in becoming a player in the space, but it has received some early funding, in part, because it uses an open-hardware and open-source system that allows software developers from around the world to build features that can be added onto Mycroft’s functionality.
In other news and notes from around town:
• More of an observation than anything else, but it will be interesting to watch how the new South Lawrence Trafficway function on KU basketball game nights. In particular, the east end of the road where you can exit K-10 and enter 23rd Street will be worth watching.
Last night I noticed traffic at about 6:30 p.m. — a half hour before the tipoff of last night’s KU game — was backed up from approximately Noria Road to just west of the main Eudora exit on K-10. That is about six miles that traffic was backed up on the westbound lanes. That is largely due to a long section of road being one lane due to the SLT construction. But, as several people have noted, even after the road is completed, exiting K-10 and entering 23rd Street will have to funnel down to one lane for a significant stretch.
Those of you who drive the road now know what I’m talking about. The portion of road that goes under the new bridge where Noria Road used to intersect with K-10 is one lane and doesn’t become two lanes again until about East Hills Business Park entrance. I’m guessing the one-lane stretch is a little less than a mile in length.
That stretch probably won’t create a 6-mile backup every KU basketball game, but it probably will create some back up. However, people may quickly adjust their routes to get to the fieldhouse. Instead of taking 23rd Street, motorists may find it easier to take the South Lawrence Trafficway all the way to Iowa Street and Iowa Street to the either 19th or 15th streets, which both lead to the fieldhouse.
I keep talking to people who say traffic patterns in Lawrence are going to undergo their largest changes in years once the SLT opens and people learn how to use it. As a reminder, the ribbon cutting for the road is Friday, although it won’t immediately open for traffic. A full opening is expected by Thanksgiving.
• The Lawrence chamber of commerce has announced its board members for the upcoming year. Here’s a look at the leadership positions:
— Chair: Jason Edmonds, Edmonds Duncan Registered Investment Advisors;
— Incoming Chair: Michele Hammann, SS&C Solutions;
— Treasurer: Joe Caldwell, Bartlett & West engineers
— Past Chair: Cal Karlin, Barber Emerson attorneys
— Government and Community Affairs: Beth Easter, Intrust Bank
— Communications: Kristin Eldridge, Snap Promotions
— Operations: Kirsten Flory, Colliers International
— Joint Economic Development Council: Rick Hird, Petefish, Immel, Heeb & Hird attorneys
— Leadership Lawrence: Tom Karasek, CEK Insurance
— Economic Development: Mike Orozco, US Bank
— Membership: Crystal Swearingen, McGrew Real Estate
A presidential poll that shows how different Lawrence is than the rest of Kansas; new study ranks best small cities in America
In case you hadn’t noticed, it is polling season. I think we probably agree that poll season would be more enjoyable if it involved politicians and pollsters climbing tall poles. Instead, it involves trying to predict a winner of the presidential race, which now appears is being controlled by Fidel Castro and a pair of voodoo dolls.
We reported Sunday on a statewide poll that showed Donald Trump was ahead of Hillary Clinton by 8 points in Kansas. That was before the latest pin prick, also known as the FBI’s announcement regarding new emails potentially related to its investigation of Clinton. So, the results may be different now.
But we also have a Douglas County poll on the presidential race, and it does a good job of illustrating just how different we are from the rest of the state. Among a sample of registered voters in Douglas County, Clinton is ahead of Trump by about 42 percentage points. In other words, there is a 50 point difference in Lawrence’s preference versus that of the state as a whole.
That sounds like a new bumper sticker to me: Lawrence: 50 percent different than the state of Kansas. (I know what the rest of the state is thinking. That bumper sticker will never work in Lawrence. It is too long to fit on a Prius bumper.)
Of course, all of this depends on these two polls being reasonably accurate. The statewide poll was conducted by Fort Hays State University’s Docking Institute of Public Affairs. The Douglas County poll was conducted by the Journal-World in partnership with Google Surveys. The Fort Hays State poll was a traditional telephone poll. The Journal-World poll was a form of internet polling. I guess I would label the poll as quasi-scientific. (There are science teachers choking on their cereal over such a phrase, especially the ones who know I only quasi-passed several science courses.)
The Google Survey poll is much different than a standard Internet poll that allows people to vote when they want to vote and as many times as they want to vote. Instead, Google uses a program that randomly samples a portion of the approximately 35,000 daily users of the LJWorld.com website. Users have no ability to choose whether they are asked to participate in the poll or not. The survey is presented when people click on an article, and they are asked to complete the survey before they view the article. And yes, we know some of you just quickly click on an answer to get to the article. Google factors that into its analysis by red-flagging the answers that were given very quickly.
So, since we will have election results in a week, this may be a good test to see how accurate the Google Survey poll is. As a side note, we’re conducting another one currently since it is possible the FBI story may change the race some.
Regardless, here is a look at the findings from the Douglas County poll, which ended up with a sample of about 700 registered Douglas County voters who say they are likely to vote in the upcoming election:
— 62.7 percent plan to vote for Clinton; 19.8 percent for Trump; 6.8 percent for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson; 4.3 percent for Green Party candidate Jill Stein; and 6.4 percent plan to vote for none of the above.
— In the U.S. Senate race, 62.8 percent plan to vote for Democrat Patrick Wiesner; 26.3 percent for Republican Sen. Jerry Moran; 6.7 percent for Libertarian Robert D. Garrard; and 4.2 percent for none of the above.
— In the 2nd Kansas Congressional district race, 61.5 percent plan to vote for Democrat Britani Potter; 26.2 percent for Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins; 8 percent for Libertarian James Houston Bales; and 4.2 percent for none of the above.
— And when respondents were asked to rate their level of confidence that the election process in Kansas will produce results that accurately reflect the will of the voters, 60 percent of respondents ranked their confidence level 7 or higher on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest confidence. Just under 30 percent ranked their confidence level a 3 or below.
As for the presidential results, if Clinton does win about 63 percent of the Douglas County vote, that would be in line with past results. Obama won 60 percent of the Douglas County vote in 2012 and 64 percent in 2008. The difference comes on the Republican side. Trump’s 20 percent showing would be well below other Republicans in past elections. Romney in 2012 won nearly 36 percent of the Douglas County vote, while McCain won 33 percent in 2008.
Related stories — Journal-World Voter Guide: 2016 Douglas County ballot
In other news and notes from around town:
• This may not mean much more to you than any of the presidential polls, but there is a new report out that attempts to rank about 1,000 small cities in the U.S., and Lawrence is on it.
The folks at the financial website WalletHub ranked 1,268 cities with a population between 25,000 and 100,000 using primarily Census data and other federal statistics to measure income, housing, health and other categories.
Lawrence ranked in the 34th percentile of the study. Top-ranked communities are in the 99th percentile. Average cities are in the 50th percentile. So, the 34th percentile is in the bottom half of the ranking. Interestingly, we ranked last among all the Kansas communities ranked.
However, Lawrence ranked in the top 20 percent in the country in several categories including: economic health, No. 183; education and health No. 198 and quality of life No. 229. Lawrence received an incomplete in the category of safety rank. I’m guessing that is because the WalletHub folks couldn’t find Lawrence’s crime statistics on the FBI site. When we did our report on Lawrence crime trends, we couldn’t find information on the FBI site either. We had to get the data from the Kansas Bureau of Investigations.
The area where Lawrence performed poorly, though was in the “affordability rank.” We ranked No. 910 out of 1,268. More on that in a moment. But first, here is a look at how other Kansas communities ranked overall in the report.
— Leawood: 99th percentile
— Shawnee: 92nd percentile
— Lenexa: 88th percentile
— Salina: 60th percentile
— Dodge City: 59th percentile
— Leavenworth: 51st percentile
— Hutchinson: 50th percentile
— Garden City: 46th percentile
— Manhattan: 40th percentile
— Lawrence: 34th percentile
I’m dubious about some of the findings of this report. I’m pretty confident there are several cities on this Kansas list that would trade overall situations with Lawrence today. Lawrence and Manhattan both may be hurt some by being college communities and naturally having some income statistics that are skewed downward by the large number of students who don’t earn much at this point in their lives.
But, the affordability issue is one that is drawing a lot of attention from Lawrence leaders. This report actually serves as a good reminder about how differently affordability can be viewed. Any guesses on what the third most affordable small city in America is, according to this report? Answer: Leawood.
Let me assure you home prices in Leawood are far higher than they are in Lawrence. By my calculations, the average wage earner in Lawrence could afford a home in Leawood as long as the human body can withstand giving about 182 quarts of plasma per day.
The median value of a home in Leawood is $210,000 more than the median value of a home in Lawrence. Leawood’s median home checks in at about $388,000. But the median household income in Leawood is also about $87,000 more than it is in Lawrence. Leawood’s median income checks in at about $134,000.
So, while it is still a little tough to hear affordable and Leawood together, the report does highlight that affordability doesn’t necessarily hinge on how much a home costs, but rather how much you have left over after you pay your housing expenses.
That means there are a couple of different ways to address affordability. You can look at lowering how much homes sell for, work to increase the amount people earn, or some combination of the two. Lawrence leaders understand that equation. Doing any of those things on a large scale, though, is difficult. Lawrence leaders have a lot to think about to truly find an answer for Lawrence’s affordability issues.
When I was a student walking around KU, I know what I always hoped to find “at the top of the hill”: an oxygen tank. Instead, I would find the Jayhawk Bookstore, which thanks to a long-running advertising jingle, everyone knew was “at the top of the hill." The bookstore is no longer open, which has left many wondering what will take its place. There is some news on that front.
As we reported in June, the Jayhawk Bookstore closed its doors for good as textbook sales continued to decline. The property at 1420 Crescent Road — it is just west of the Chi Omega fountain and the main entrance to Jayhawk Boulevard — had no shortage of interested buyers. A Kansas City based equity firm, though, is the group that has finalized a deal to purchase the prime piece of real estate.
Axiom Equities, an investment firm that has about a $200 million portfolio of strategic real estate investments, has closed on the property and now is figuring out what to do with it.
“It is a front and center location in Lawrence,” said Ben Kalny, co-founder of Axiom. “Whatever happens on the site needs to fit with the neighborhood. Our general posture is to lease the property in the near term with an eye on long-term optimization.”
The company is fielding multiple offers from potential tenants for the approximately 10,000 square feet of commercial space. That includes conversations with restaurants, coffee shops, retailers and others. The building has about 2,300 square feet of apartment space on its upper floor. That use will continue.
“The range is pretty broad at this point,” Kalny said of potential commercial tenants. “It really has to be the right fit. It is important to us that the end result is something the university is proud of and that we can be proud of.”
Whether one user takes the entire space, or multiple tenants fill the property, is unknown at this point. Mike O’Connell, acquisitions manager for Axiom, said a timeline for reaching deals with tenants also is uncertain. Axiom is still in the evaluation stage. Axiom has contracted with Allison Vance Moore of Lawrence’s Colliers International office to market the property to prospective tenants.
It is pretty easy to see how a restaurant could be part of the mix. The Kansas Union provides quite a bit of food options on the other end of Jayhawk Boulevard, but there are fewer such options on the western end. Imagine a Chick-fil-A or some other restaurant basically just a stone’s throw from all those fraternity and sorority houses. You might need to create a special route for the Brinks truck and add a defibrillator or two.
The more interesting item, however, may be the talk of “long-term optimization.” That could mean a complete redevelopment of the site. The property is intriguing not just because of its location but also its zoning. The property has the city’s mixed-use zoning designation, which means it can house a combination of residential, commercial and office development. That zoning designation is key because it gives the development group multiple paths forward without having to go through a full-blown zoning battle at City Hall.
Kalny said a redevelopment of the site, about a half-acre, is possible.
“I expect we will have dialogue with folks who have ideas along those lines,” Kalny said. “With what is going on with campus right now, my goodness, it is really impressive. We would be remiss if we didn’t entertain the notion of a higher and better use. But it would have to be the right use too.”
Any redevelopment at that location likely would be watched closely. The bookstore site is adjacent to the West Hills neighborhood, which traditionally has served as a home to lots of university professors and administrators. I know the neighborhood was pretty active in the City Hall proceedings that resulted in the mixed-use zoning for the property. Neighbors raised some concerns about what that zoning designation could allow in the future.
Kalny said he understands any redevelopment of the site is going to have to include significant conversations with the neighborhood.
“We know we have a terrific neighborhood next door,” Kalny said.
So, that’s something to keep an eye on. In the meantime, I’ll let you know when I hear more about potential tenants for the building.
A shakeup at local United Way; a new beer event for Lawrence; an update on Bowersock power plant; downtown trick-or treat set
There is a brief bit of important news on the social service front today. The No. 1 and No. 2 leaders of the local United Way have submitted their resignations.
Erika Dvorske, CEO of the United Way of Douglas County, and Colleen Gregoire, vice president of resource development for the organization, submitted their resignations at a board meeting Thursday night, according to an email from the United Way.
Dvorske will stay on board through the end of January, while Gregoire will step down at the end of the year. The email said Dvorske plans to do consulting work for nonprofits while Gregoire will pursue “creative interests and other career opportunities.”
I don’t have any more details than those. Obviously, the joint resignation of the top two leaders of the organization will create some questions among the public. We’re putting calls out to various people to provide you a more complete report later today.
• Drink craft beer and get to know your watershed. No, that is not some odd euphemism for the strain beer sometimes puts on your bladder. Instead, it is the theme of a new beer festival in downtown Lawrence — and the latest reminder that Lawrence really will find any excuse to get together to share some suds.
A unique fundraiser is coming up for the Friends of the Kaw group. On Nov. 6, the organization will host its first Beers of the Kaw beer festival at Abe & Jake’s Landing in Downtown Lawrence. The idea is simple, if not unusual: Invite breweries that are located in the Kansas River watershed to bring their beers to Lawrence for a festival.
If you don’t know what a watershed is, congratulations. Those of us who have had to sit through drainage board meetings or listen to a storm water engineer know that a watershed is the area that collects and drains water into, in this case, a river. Think of it this way: A drop of rain falls, the drop drains into a stream, the stream flows in a creek, and the creek dumps into the Kansas River. The land that the drop of water first touched is in the Kansas River watershed, and so are the stream and the creek.
“So many people don’t even know what a watershed is,” said Sarah Hill-Nelson, leader of the Bowersock Mills and Power Company, which operates a hydroelectric power plant on the portion of the Kansas River that flows along downtown Lawrence.
And, as has been well documented, beer is excellent at helping people understand complex topics, which is why the public has turned to it in large quantities while watching this year’s presidential debates.
Well, maybe I’m confused on some of that, but one thing that is clear is the Kansas River watershed is big. The watershed covers about 53,000 square miles. In Colorado it stretches nearly to Limon, in Nebraska it goes north of Hastings, and it ranges almost to McPherson to the south of here.
Come to find out, there are several breweries in that large area. The upcoming event will have nine of them:
— Free State Brewing Company, Lawrence
— 23rd Street Brewery, Lawrence
— Yankee Tank Brewing Company, Lawrence
— Boulevard Brewing Co, Kansas City
— Blind Tiger Brewery, Topeka
— Kansas Territory Brewing Co, Washington
— Tallgrass Brewing Company, Manhattan
— Blue Skye Brewery, Salina
— LB Brewing Company, Hays
Tickets for the event cost $20 and can be bought online at abejakes.com or in person at Sunflower Outdoor & Bike in downtown Lawrence. Proceeds will go to Friends of the Kaw, the nonprofit group that works to care for the river and educate the public about it.
In addition to the beer tastings, the event will have three local food vendors on site: Drasko's Food Truck, Fine Thyme Food and Terrebonne Cafe. Organizers are hoping the Beers of the Kaw event catches on and that attendees get a bit more out of it than the food and the beer.
“If a drop of water fell in eastern Colorado and it wasn’t used for irrigation, it would eventually flow by the Bowersock Dam in Lawrence,” Hill-Nelson said. “We’ve been thinking about the importance of clean water, and we thought if we showed them the beers of the watershed, that might be a fun way to get their attention.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• You may remember that about a year ago we reported Hill-Nelson’s new hydroelectric power plant along the Kaw was facing some serious challenges.
We reported the four generators in the power plant on the north side of the Bowersock Dam weren’t working well at all, and that combined with sparse rains had the plant producing little electricity.
Hill-Nelson, though, told me this week that the plant is in a much better position.
“July and August were the best months we’ve ever had,” Hill-Nelson said.
Hill-Nelson said she ended up making a big decision to have two of the four units removed from the plant, refurbished in Idaho and re-installed. Plus, Mother Nature has been cooperating. River flows have been just right — strong enough to turn the turbines but not so strong as to create dangerously high water levels that force the plant to shut down.
“The big questions we were facing really have been eliminated,” Hill-Nelson said. “Now it i just tweaking and having good water. We have good water right now. We’ll produce twice as much power as we did last year.”
The new power plant, along with Bowersock’s historic plant on the south side of the Kansas River, have a contract to produce power for the Kansas City, Kan., Board of Public Utilities. The power plants are an example of economic development in its truest sense: A Lawrence product is used to generate revenues that come from people who live outside the community.
While Lawrence residents ship plenty of dollars to Kansas City, it is nice to know that with at least some households in Kansas City, they send some money back to Lawrence every time they turn on a light switch.
• I may dress up as a watershed for Halloween. After all, it sounds like they have lots of beer. Whatever you dress up as, you can parade the costume around in downtown Lawrence. Leaders of Downtown Lawrence Inc. have announced that member businesses once again will be handing out candy to children on Halloween, which is Monday.
Businesses plan to begin hosting trick-or-treaters at 5 p.m. and will continue until the candy runs out. Downtown Lawrence Inc. advises businesses to buy 500 to 1,000 pieces of candy. (What? Buy a 1,000 pieces of candy? Who doesn’t have 1,000 pieces of candy lying around?)
In addition to the trick-or-treating, Watkins Museum will be hosting a scavenger hunt. The Lawrence Police Department also will be at 11th and Massachusetts with a vehicle, giveaway and fun information about the department, according to DLI.
New fabric and craft retailer opens in south Lawrence; sales taxes continue to surge, while questions persist about SLT shopping center
Nothing says fall like pumpkin spice and a head-to-toe wardrobe of fleece. There is obviously no shortage of pumpkin spice, as intravenous drip bags of it are now available on every corner. But I do have news on the fleece front. A national chain fabric and craft retailer has opened along south Iowa Street.
Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Store has opened its Lawrence location in the shopping center at 27th and Iowa streets. The store officially opened at 9 a.m. Thursday with a ribbon-cutting and several giveaways. Apparently there are people who love fleece even more than I do (or perhaps they thought there was a pumpkin spice giveaway) because there was a line outside the store of several dozen people about a half-hour before opening.
Whatever the case was, the competition level in the fabric and craft world has increased in Lawrence. Jo-Ann occupies the space that formerly housed Hancock Fabric, a national chain that went bankrupt. Hancock primarily was a fabric and sewing store. Jo-Ann has a full line of fabrics and sewing supplies, but also has a larger inventory of crafting items. I got to take a special pre-opening walk through the store (it may or may not have ended prematurely when I rolled in a pile of fleece). Among the categories of crafting items were scrapbooking items, food crafts like cookie cutters, holiday decoration kits, craft paints and several other categories.
The store is broader than Hancock’s but not as large as Hobby Lobby and Michaels, the two large craft and fabric superstores in town.
In addition to the numerous customer giveaways, local schools are set to get something from the store. The company plans to provide a $2,000 grant to one school in the community, according to a press release from the company.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe it was pumpkin spice sales. Maybe it was fleece sales. Hold the phone, could it be sales of pumpkin spice-scented fleece? Surely not, but something continues to have retail spending in Lawrence on a hot streak.
The latest one-month report from the Kansas Department of Revenue shows Lawrence sales tax collections are up 11 percent compared with the same one-month period a year ago. The report was the October report, but that’s not really when the sales were made. Because of the delay in sales tax reporting, the sales are more likely reflective of activity in August.
The 11 percent increase is impressive; the city collected about $220,000 more in sales tax during that one month than it did the previous year. But at this point, such an increase is not all that surprising. Sales tax collections in Lawrence have been really strong for pretty much the entire year. As we have reported month after month, Lawrence has seen the most robust sales tax growth of any of the major retail markets in the state. That continues to be the case.
Year to date, Lawrence sales tax collections are up 6.1 percent compared with the same period a year ago. Thus far, Lawrence has collected about $1.2 million more in sales tax revenues than it did during the same period a year ago. Importantly, the 6 percent growth is far exceeding what the city budgeted to receive in 2016. The city budgeted for a 3.7 percent increase. If my abacus is working correctly, the city has about $470,000 more in sales tax revenues than it expected to receive, and that number could grow more before the end of the year.
Here’s a look at how Lawrence’s sales tax collections stack up to some of the other large retail centers in the state:
— Lawrence: up 6.1 percent
— Olathe: up 3.6 percent
— Topeka: up 3.4 percent
— Overland Park: up 2.5 percent
— Manhattan: up 2.3 percent
— Kansas City: up 1.7 percent
— Johnson County: up 1.6 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 1.3 percent
— Lenexa: down 3.6 percent
One of the more interesting questions in town continues to be why are sales tax collections up so much? It is a bit of a guessing game, but the city does try to analyze each month’s reports. The city hasn’t yet released its report for this most recent batch of sales tax data, but the analysis for last month’s data is available. It shows the same thing we have seen most of the year. Three areas of the economy are performing pretty well. Sales taxes collected on building materials are up 25 percent; sales taxes from retail stores are up 9 percent; and sales taxes from grocery stores and other food and beverage stores are up 6 percent.
As we have noted before, Menards — a major seller of building supplies — is a new entrant into the market. That certainly could be playing a role in the increase in that category. Evidence continues to mount that there were people leaving the community to buy building supplies and now they are keeping more of those dollars at home.
You also could argue that the addition of Dick’s Sporting Goods, Ulta Beauty, The Boot Barn and PetSmart at 27th and Iowa streets has helped boost the retail totals. But it can’t be said definitely. It could just be sales of pumpkin spice chewing gum at Wal-Mart. It could just be that Lawrence’s slightly better population growth of the last few years is paying off.
Whatever is happening, though, is eye-catching. Add that to the pending completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway — it is scheduled to open by Thanksgiving — and you can see why Lawrence may be drawing some good interest from retailers who want to be in the market.
But, for all those positives, the city also has to contend with what potential retailers must surely view as a negative: a lawsuit over potential retail development at the intersection of the South Lawrence Trafficway and U.S. Highway 59.
As we have reported, a shopping center was proposed for the site, with thoughts that it would bring everything from an Old Navy to Designer Shoe Warehouse. The property already is in the city limits. The city’s long-range growth plans label the area as being appropriate for “auto-related” commercial development. It is not entirely clear what that means, but it is different from plain old regular commercial development. A debate ensued, the project gets rejected by the City Commission, and a lawsuit is filed by the out-of-state development group. That lawsuit is still in its early stages.
The City Commission’s rejection of that project in January left a lot of uncertainty about what is the appropriate use for that very high-profile piece of property. Nearly 11 months later, none of that uncertainty has been cleared up. Once the lawsuit was filed, city officials have hardly uttered a peep about what the future of that land should be.
Think about this: The South Lawrence Trafficway project has been more than two decades in the making. Now that it is completed, we don’t know what we want to have happen at its premiere intersection.
The iron is hot, but it seems that the community is paralyzed on whether to pick up a hammer to strike it.
Worries about the future of Lawrence’s Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade; a new amenity for Downtown Farmers’ Market
You should never need an excuse to break out the cowboy hat and yell “Hi Ho Silver,” but you again will have one. The Lawrence Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade for the 24th year will be in downtown Lawrence this holiday season. But organizers are in need of some silver — and not just horses with that name. (Confused younger generation: Google the phrase “Lone Ranger,” and let’s all vow to work the phrase “hi ho” into more conversations.)
The parade is set for 11 a.m. on Dec. 3 and will follow the same route as usual, with the prime viewing locations being along Massachusetts Street between Seventh and 13th streets. For those of you unfamiliar with the parade, it is one of the few entirely horse-drawn parades in the country. Horses, wagons, carriages, buggies and surreys (confused younger generation: none of us know what a surrey is either) come from all over the Midwest, and many of them are decked out with their finest Christmas ornamentation.
There was a bit of a rumor that the parade wouldn’t take place this year. That was never true, but there is worry about the financial future of the parade. Unfortunately, financial worry about the parade has become commonplace in recent years. But this year’s worry comes with a different twist.
Back in 2014, I reported that the parade was facing financial difficulties after its prime corporate sponsor pulled out. But then an anonymous donor came riding in on a white horse with a pledge of $5,000 per year for the next three years. The donor, however, didn’t make the pledge directly to the parade, which never has organized as a 501(c)3, but instead made the pledge to the Lawrence Arts Center. The Arts Center passed the money along, had its name added to the parade’s marketing materials, and all was good.
But then in July, parade organizers received an email from then Arts Center CEO Susan Tate notifying them that the $5,000 donation would not be available this year. The letter made no mention of the anonymous donor, but rather bemoaned a cut in Arts Center funding proposed by City Manager Tom Markus. Tate labeled the cut to the Arts Center funding as “unnecessary,” and said it showed “little awareness on the part of the city that the Arts Center is an enthusiastic and generous partner in many outside efforts that enhance quality of life, economic development and awareness of our cultural district.” For good measure, Tate’s letter also criticized the Journal-World’s coverage of the proposed cut.
All that was a lead-up to notification that the parade would not receive the $5,000 donation. Parade organizers, though, were confused. They thought the anonymous donor had specifically earmarked the donation for support of the parade.
Marty Kennedy, the former Lawrence mayor who is one of the organizers of the parade, said he reached out to the Arts Center but the Arts Center was in transition — Tate was in the process of leaving and new CEO Kimberly Williams was in the process of arriving — and he didn’t hear much.
I reached out to the Arts Center recently and got more clarification. After doing some checking, chief communications officer Sarah Bishop told me that the anonymous donor changed the earmark on his donation after learning of the center’s approximately $55,000 cut in city funding.
“The donor stipulated that the donation stay with the Arts Center,” Bishop said.
Upon learning that, parade organizer Patty Kennedy told me she was understanding. And to be clear, parade organizers were more confused than angry at the Arts Center. And for their part, Arts Center officials say they are sad that they aren’t able to donate to the parade this year.
“The $55,000 cut in city funding made it hard for us to do some of the extra things that we do,” Bishop said. “We love the parade and really value it, but it is not essential to our operations. We have had to repurpose that money. But we would love to find a way to support it in the future.”
All that aside, the parade is facing an unexpected $5,000 deficit. The shortfall won’t sink this year’s parade because it has some reserves that it can use to put on the event that costs about $30,000 in actual cash and another $20,000 in donated services. (The parade draws a large number of participants because it undertakes the expense of providing a hotel room, a meal and horse boarding to each participant.)
The funding concern is mainly related to the 2017 parade. If this year’s parade depletes all its reserves this year, it could be in a perilous position for 2017. Plus, this year’s parade only has about 15 of the normal 60 small business and individual sponsors that it normally receives, although the solicitation process isn’t yet complete. (That’s a nice way of saying potential donors are still likely to get a few more calls.)
“To make up the $5,000 that we’ve lost, we would need to get about 20 more individual sponsors,” Patty Kennedy said. “Quite frankly, I don’t know where we are going to come up with 20 more sponsors.”
The parade does receive $8,000 in transient guest tax money from the city of Lawrence. The parade has asked for $10,000 in guest tax funds, but didn’t have its request fully funded during the 2016 cycle.
Marty Kennedy said parade organizers would rather find a major corporate sponsor than ask for more city funding.
“I know the city doesn’t want us using that guest tax fund every year,” Kennedy said. “They would like us to find that corporate sponsor.”
The parade at various times had had a bank and a financial services firm serve as lead sponsors for the parade. But finding a major corporate sponsor has been difficult. Lawrence is lots of things, but a town with lots of large corporations, it is not.
Seeking more money from the city’s guest tax fund seems like a possibility. The parade always draws tens of thousands of people to downtown Lawrence. How many of them stay the night in a hotel room and thus pay the guest tax is a little unclear. Parade organizers said they hope to gather better data about that this year.
The city has a relatively new grant application program for events seeking guest tax funding. It has a $15,000 cap on how much any one event can receive. That cap didn’t receive much public discussion, but perhaps should have. I think there may be some questions of philosophy on how that fund should be used. Among them:
— There is a belief that the guest tax fund should be used to fund events that generate lots of hotel bookings, since hotel stays are what produces the guest tax revenue. There’s some logic to that, but there’s a counter argument too. If we used that logic with regular old sales tax collections, we would only use sales tax money to fund things that produced more retail spending. The city certainly hasn’t taken that approach with sales tax dollars. Even if the Christmas parade doesn’t put a lot of heads in hotel beds, it undoubtedly helps build the image of Lawrence as a unique and vibrant community. That image, more than any one event, is probably the most valuable asset to the Lawrence tourism industry.
— City officials need to decide whether the guest tax grant program is meant to simply be an incubator for new events. In other words, is the grant program designed to provided some needed seed money to new events? That’s one idea. Another would be that the grant program is used to significantly support a handful of signature events in the community. Determining what is a signature event probably would be a messy political process. The parade certainly doesn’t have the market cornered in that regard. As we have reported, the Arts Center’s Free State Festival is worried about its funding future too. There would be no shortage of events that believe they should be considered a signature event worthy of city funding. Truth be told, there is no shortage of events in Lawrence today. There is a shortage of businesses able to fund them all.
Where that leaves funding for future parades is unclear. Those of you wanting to make a donation to the parade can do so by getting in contact with Marty or Patty Kennedy at Lawrence’s Kennedy Glass.
For those of you wanting to take my advice and Google the Lone Ranger, I have bad news: My wife has discovered Johnny Depp was in the 2013 Lone Ranger movie. The internet may be tied up for awhile.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Well, we know where horses go to the bathroom at in downtown Lawrence, but I’m pretty sure they are the only ones that can get away with that. Attendees of downtown’s Lawrence Farmers' Market have good news on that front. For the first time in it its history, the Farmers' Market now has nice bathrooms for patrons and vendors.
As part of the recently completed 888 Lofts building at Eighth and New Hampshire street, the Lawrence-based development group First Management Construction agreed to install first-floor bathrooms that would be open to the patrons of the Farmers' Market. The market operates in the city-owned parking lot adjacent to the new apartment/office building.
The market held a ribbon-cutting last weekend for the bathrooms. As far as I know it is one of the very few ribbon-cuttings that used toilet paper in place of the ribbon.
The market previously could only offer portable toilets on site. Leaders of the Farmers' Market said they’re excited about the addition.
“This is not just a celebration of some new bathrooms. It is also a celebration of how a business does something special for our community,” said Olivia Taylor-Puckett, manager of the Farmers' Market. “Real bathrooms may seem like a simple addition to the market, but this is of great support to our vendors and customers. The more people feel comfortable coming to the market, the more they stay and bring their business to local farmers.”
After a week of vacation, I’ve got hotels on my mind and my credit card. (I learned that in southern California you’ll spend $70 to park your rental car at the hotel. But, on the bright side, it didn’t cost me anything other than blood pressure medicine to park for hours at a time on the freeway system.) All this is to say I’ve got a few more details on Lawrence’s latest hotel project.
We reported in August that a deal was in the works for a new hotel to be built in eastern Lawrence where Don’s Steakhouse used to be near 23rd and O’Connell. But back then details were slim on what hotel was coming to the location. Well, I’ve now learned that a Country Inn & Suites is slated to go on the property.
Area businessman Mark Gwaltney, who is leading the development group, confirmed that the hotel chain has approved moving ahead with the project. Country Inn & Suites is kind of a late entrant to the project. Back in August, Gwaltney had told city officials that he was working with the large IHG hotel group on an extended-stay hotel, which led to speculation that IHG was bringing its Candlewood Suites brand to town.
But my understanding now is that IHG has a different Lawrence location in mind for that project. If you remember, we’ve also reported that the former Ramada Inn site near Sixth and Iowa streets is looking for a new hotel brand. A Candlewood could be a real possibility for that site.
As for Country Inn & Suites, it is part of the hotel group that has the various Radisson brand of hotels. The company describes Country Inn & Suites as an “upper midscale” hotel. Plans filed at City Hall call for a three-story building and 89 hotel rooms, plus a separate structure for an indoor pool. According to the hotel chain’s website, other amenities include a fitness center, free high-speed internet, free cookies and, importantly, complimentary hot breakfasts. (No, breakfast was not complimentary at my Disneyland hotel, and Donald Duck did not take it as a compliment when I asked if he came with orange sauce.)
The site plan application filed at City Hall lists the project to have about a $5.5 million construction value.
Gwaltney said he hopes to break ground on the project before the end of the year, but said that may be optimistic. The project will occupy the site where Don’s Steakhouse previously was located, which is on the north side 23rd Street, just west of O’Connell. The project also will demolish the old Diamond Everley Roofing headquarters, which is just east of the Don’s Steakhouse business.
Plans filed at City Hall show that portion of the property housing a restaurant. Gwaltney confirmed no deal has been struck for a restaurant yet. He said now that the hotel company has committed to the project, they’ll start reaching out to potential restaurant operators. He said they’ll look at both sit-down restaurants and fast food chains for the location.
Gwaltney is predicting the area around 23rd and O’Connell will change quite a bit in the future. He said he’s trying to get ahead of the changes by redeveloping the old Diamond Everley site — he’s an executive with that company — and the old steakhouse property.
“I just envision the area becoming more of a hub, more like what you would see on south Iowa Street or Sixth Street,” Gwaltney said. “I think the whole area is going to see a lot of renovation. I think the land will become more valuable than many of the old businesses that are on it.”
Others are thinking that way too. In recent weeks, the old Knights of Columbus building has again been listed on the market. As we reported last year, the Knights closed its longtime banquet facility that is just north and east of 23rd and O’Connell. The approximately two-acre property had been on the market, but then the for-sale signs disappeared. They have now reappeared. I talked briefly with Lance Johnson, the commercial broker listing the property. He said no deal is imminent, but said the changing nature of the area should attract interest in the property.
Both the Knights of Columbus property and the proposed hotel site are adjacent to the city’s new Venture Park business park, which is one of the reasons that Gwaltney said a hotel development makes sense for the site. But what is more likely to spark development in the area is the pending opening of the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway next month.
Others have been predicting new development near the 23rd and O’Connell intersection for quite awhile. A development group led by Doug Compton and Bill Newsome helped build the development at the southeast corner of the intersection that houses Tractor Supply. The development has additional space for retailers — a grocery store has long been on the wish list — but the project has failed to attract any new tenants since Tractor Supply came to the site more than five years ago.
One of the reasons why that development hasn’t taken off is because there are still lots of open green fields near the site. But that may be changing. It will be interesting to see if an eastside housing boom takes place on the large amounts of open land west of O’Connell Road.
Already construction work is underway on apartments on the east side of O’Connell Road, a bit south of 23rd Street. Lawrence businessman Roger Johnson also has begun building homes in a new subdivision west of O’Connell Road behind Tractor Supply and a bit west of the Douglas County Jail. I’ve had real estate agents tell me those homes will sell well because they can come in at lower price points than homes in west Lawrence.
There’s lots of open land west of O’Connell Road. The area will be more accessible when the eastern interchange of the SLT opens just a few blocks away. Some of you remember when the eastern part of Lawrence went through a housing boom in the 1990s and the Prairie Park neighborhood was created. That neighborhood was billed as working-class homes that were more affordable than what was being built further west. As affordable housing becomes the buzz phrase at City Hall, we’ll see whether developers turn to eastern Lawrence again.
Report predicts biggest jump in years for Lawrence home prices; date set for SLT ribbon cutting; update on local’s effort to win Kelly Ripa contest
I once was in the market for a beachfront home. I told the realtor my price range. I was encouraged when she didn’t laugh. I was less encouraged when she showed me a blanket. Lawrence’s real estate market hasn’t reached that extreme, but realtors are seeing significant price increases. A new report is predicting even more in 2017.
Home prices in Lawrence are expected to finish 2016 up 5.1 percent, and are predicted to rise another 4.1 percent in 2017, according to a new report from the Wichita State University Center for Real Estate.
Lawrence hasn’t seen that type of growth in home prices in quite some time. Since 2012, the average annual increase in Lawrence home prices has been just 0.8 percent. Rising home prices are consistent with what local real estate agents have been reporting throughout 2016: the supply of homes is in short supply, thus prices are rising.
The WSU report, which was delivered to the Lawrence Board of Realtors on Thursday, confirmed that trend. The report called Lawrence’s supply of homes for sale “incredibly tight.” The trend of an undersupply of homes isn’t a new one for Lawrence. The report highlighted that the number of homes available for sale in Lawrence has consistently trailed the national average since 2014.
The spike in home prices will create several questions. Perhaps the largest is whether Lawrence homebuilders will increase their pace of building. Even as home sales have increased in Lawrence in recent years, the number of new single family homes under construction has remained pretty flat, or has fallen in some years. The report predicts 2016 will finish relatively flat — 225 new housing starts in Lawrence and Douglas County compared to 221 in 2015. The report is predicting a slight decline in 2017 to 220 single family housing starts.
That’s in contrast to what is happening in the Kansas City market. As home sales increase in the metro, so too has home construction. Kansas City home starts are estimated to rise by 22 percent in 2016, and another 4 percent in 2017.
The report wasn’t real clear on why Lawrence home construction isn’t surging more, but in my talks with some real estate professionals, I hear a couple of factors. Local homebuilders still remember the pain that the recession created and are being cautious. Plus, Carl Cline, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors, said there is probably an even more practical reason the numbers haven’t surged.
“We only have so many builders, and so many builders can only build so many homes,” Cline said. “We lost a large number of builders in the financial debacle.”
But I also hear that the average price point of a new home in Lawrence is making it tough on builders.
For example, through August, the median selling price of a newly constructed home in Lawrence was $314,450. The median selling price for an existing home was $171,000. That’s a big gap, and I’ve had real estate agents tell me buyers may not be seeing enough value in new homes. That may change, though, if the price of existing homes rise but builders are able to keep the price of new homes relatively steady. It also will be interesting to see if builders undertake more projects outside of west Lawrence neighborhoods, which traditionally come with some pretty big price tags. New construction out near 23rd and O’Connell in eastern Lawrence, for example, won’t be producing many homes of more than $300,000.
There is one other important reason to keep an eye on home prices. If home prices do increase at the rates predicted by the WSU report, that would make it more likely that homeowners will see higher assessed values on their property tax bills.
The Douglas County Appraiser’s office is tasked with determining what the fair market value of every home in the county is as of Jan. 1. That work is underway. Property owners will receive change of value notices in March. For the last several years, tax values for most properties haven’t gone up much. Now, tax bills have still increased in many cases because several governments have increased their property tax rates, i.e. mill levies.
Property owners from the 1990s and early 2000s, though, still remember when tax values often did rise by 5 percent or more. If that happens, and mill levies continue to rise, that would be a double whammy for taxpayers. But, I still think it is too early to predict that tax values actually will rise by 5 percent.
The Douglas County Appraiser’s most recent report had mixed signals on that front. The report said the office had analyzed all the sales made during the first half of 2016. It compared the selling price of those homes to the tax value that had been assigned to those homes. The selling prices were, on average, about 1.7 percent higher than the tax values. That would indicate some upward adjustment of tax values may be warranted, but that’s quite a bit less than 5 percent.
The appraiser’s report, though, did note that it also had evaluated the selling prices of some homes through the end of August. That analysis found the selling price of an average three-bedroom, two-bath home with 1,300 to 1,800 square feet was $184,987. That’s up 9.5 percent from the same time period a year ago. What the data shows in the next few months probably will be key in determining how much tax values rise.
Other findings from the WSU report include:
— Home sales in Lawrence and Douglas County are expected to finish 2016 at about 1,400 homes, up about 1 percent from 2015 totals. Home sales for 2017 are predicted to come in at 1,510 units, which would be about an 8 percent increase.
— Mortgage rates are predicted to remain low through 2017, with rates for a 30-year mortgage predicted to remain below 4.5 percent. While 4.5 percent is historically very low, that would represent an increase. Mortgage rates for 30-year loans are closer to 3.5 percent nationally.
The WSU report also provided projections for other Kansas communities. Those include:
— Kansas City: Sales growth of 4.4 percent, and an increase of 4.2 percent in home prices in 2017.
— Manhattan: Sales growth of 6 percent and an increase of 4.7 percent in home prices in 2017.
— Topeka: Sales growth of 2 percent and an increase of 1.9 percent in home prices in 2017.
— Wichita: Sales growth of 5 percent and an increase of 3.5 percent in home prices in 2017.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I’ve gotten word that a date has been set for the ribbon cutting of the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway. KDOT plans to have a ribbon cutting at 10 a.m. on Nov. 4 near the eastern end of the SLT, or near the intersection of E 1750 Road, which is also known as Noria Road.
Do not, however, plan to start driving on the SLT right away. My understanding is the road won’t actually open to traffic on Nov. 4. KDOT is still saying the road will open before Thanksgiving, but an exact date hasn’t been set. The road looks largely completed, but there is some ancillary work still being done on the site. Also, KDOT has said it wants to make various safety improvements to the intersection of the SLT and Kasold Drive extended. That intersection is on the western portion of the SLT, which has long been open. KDOT officials, though, expect traffic on the western leg of the SLT to increase significantly once the eastern leg of the trafficway is open. Thus, KDOT wants to complete those improvements before the eastern leg opens. Those improvements shouldn’t take long — they involve some barriers to limit turning motions — but work hasn’t yet started on that project.
Expect the ribbon cutting on Nov. 4 to be a big deal. The SLT project has been in the works for more than two decades, has been the subject of at least two major federal lawsuits, and many more protests. It also has been touted as one of the most important regional transportation projects for the state, providing a more direct route from Topeka to Johnson County. Look for the road to change traffic patterns in Lawrence significantly. It already is creating development pressure, evidenced by the new and proposed retail development along south Iowa Street.
U.S. Sen Pat Roberts, as we reported, was in Lawrence Thursday. In a brief conversation I had with him, he told me he plans to attend the ribbon cutting. His office was instrumental in securing federal funding for the project. Roberts estimated he worked a good 11 years on funding issues for the road. Given that, he said he knows what one of his messages will be at the ribbon cutting.
“Sometimes you just have to be persistent,” Roberts said.
Roberts said he remains convinced that the trafficway will play a key role in creating a high-tech corridor between Manhattan and the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility there and Kansas City and the large animal health sciences industry that exists in the metro.
• Since we are speaking of U.S. senators, just a quick note that Kansas’ other senator, Jerry Moran, also was in Lawrence on Thursday. Moran was getting a briefing on some federal research grant money at KU. We tried to catch up with Moran to ask him a few questions about his campaign, the current environment and other matters, but were unsuccessful. His press representatives said Moran didn’t have any media availability during his visit to Lawrence.
• Just like I’ve had to put that beach house dream on hold (someday I’m going to be able to afford a blanket and an umbrella), it looks like one Lawrence resident will have to put on hold her dream of being a co-host on Kelly Ripa’s popular daytime talk show Live! with Kelly.
As we have reported, Lawrence resident Courtenay DeHoff was named a finalist in a competition to be a co-host for a day on the “Live! with Kelly” talk show. This week she was named one of the 10 finalists based on a video tape she sent in and voting by the show’s audience.
On Friday, though, DeHoff was not among the five finalists announced by the show.
• One housekeeping note, Town Talk will be off next week. Unless I find a really cheap beach house, the column should resume Oct. 24.
More on the latest chicken chain; update on a Lawrence resident’s effort to win Kelly Ripa contest; local business awards and Habitat for Humanity fundraiser
As promised earlier this week, I’ve talked with the executive who is bringing the chicken chain Slim Chickens to Lawrence. Yes, I’ve got more detailed information about when and where that chain will locate in Lawrence, but more importantly we may be one step closer to figuring out why we may wake up one morning to learn Lawrence is being run by fingerless chickens.
In talking with Slim Chickens franchisee Mark Killeen — who was an executive in the Applebee’s chain for many years — there are at least two reasons Lawrence is seeing an explosion of chicken restaurants and menus of chicken fingers: There is only so much more you can do with a hamburger, and millennials love chicken.
“I think we have gone through the burger revolution,” Killeen said. “There are plenty of those restaurants. Chicken tenders became a big staple with millennials. It just seems like a natural progression.”
As for Slim Chickens’ pending entry into the Lawrence market, look for it to happen near Sixth and Wakarusa. Killeen confirmed his company has purchased the former KFC location along Wakarusa Drive. Renovation work will begin soon, and Killeen hopes to have the restaurant open by mid-January.
Killeen also confirmed he has a deal to purchase the former BarbWire Steakhouse building at 2412 Iowa St. Killeen said demolition of that building could begin in the near term, but he said it will be a bit longer before the company opens a Slim Chickens at that location. Killeen said he also has franchise opportunities in other communities. The Wakarusa Drive store will be his first, a location in Wichita likely will be his second, and the Iowa Street spot may be his third. He’s not ruling out that it all could happen relatively quickly.
“We need to get our feet underneath us with the store on Wakarusa,” he said. “But we probably could have three restaurants in Kansas in the next six months or so.”
Killeen said the explosion of chicken restaurants in Lawrence doesn’t worry him. In case you have forgotten, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chick-fil-A, Wing Stop, Popeyes, Raising Cane’s, and Zaxby’s have all either opened in Lawrence or are under construction.
Killeen said Slim Chickens uses high quality chicken that has never been frozen, and its dips and sauces set the restaurant apart. They are all made on site, and there are up to a dozen dipping sauces and about 10 wing sauces available.
“You are going to have choice,” Killeen said. “You are not going to have to stick to two or three items. You have a lot of flavors to choose from, and great variety is something people really like to have.”
Indeed, the millennial generation may well be the sauce generation. Years ago I remember wondering what was in my younger cousin’s Fruit Loops that caused her to order ranch dressing so she could dip her pizza into it. Now, everything gets dipped. (Yes, I realize I am getting very close to sounding like a grumpy old man complaining about those “dang dipping kids.”) If you read marketing or restaurant industry websites, you will see that them come up. One said chicken wings may be the “ultimate millennial food.” The variety of sauces available at most wing locations — and now chicken tender restaurants — speaks out to the generation.
“It allows them to create their own experience and therefore speaks out more than other restaurants,” Jeff Fromm at Millennial Marketing wrote in 2013. “While they want to be served, they also want the freedom to put their own signature on the dishes they’ll later devour alongside their friends or family.”
So, for what it is worth, those are the best guesses about the chicken explosion we’ve seen in Lawrence. The bigger question may be whether it is done. I’m not sure, but there are a couple of other locations to keep an eye on for fast food additions. I’ve certainly heard that restaurants are interested in the former Jayhawk Bookstore location, which sits atop Mt. Oread and is a rare piece of commercial property adjacent to the KU campus. I’ll try to get you an update on that location. I do believe the property has changed hands since the store closed earlier this year, and it is being marketed to potential tenants.
The other location is the former site of the Cadillac Ranch, 2515 W. Sixth St. I’ve heard a redevelopment into a fast-food location is a possibility, although no deals have been struck.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe Lawrence’s fried chicken phenomenon will make it on national TV. If you recall, Lawrence resident Courtenay DeHoff is a finalist to be a co-host for a day on the “Live! with Kelly” talk show.
If DeHoff is chosen, and host Kelly Ripa asks how everything is in Lawrence, surely she will bring up the chicken situation. That’s what I always lead with, although it is kind of necessary to explain why I have wing sauce on my glasses. What will DeHoff do? As they say in the TV business, stay tuned. As we reported earlier this month, DeHoff — a Tonganoxie native — was one of 20 finalists selected from across the country to serve as Ripa’s special co-host for a day.
Well, the latest on DeHoff is that she still very much is in the running to win the competition. The show has announced that DeHoff is one of the 10 remaining finalists. According to DeHoff’s Facebook page, she expects to learn on Friday whether she is one of the Top 5 finalists. If she makes that cut, the show’s producers will fly her to New York to be on an upcoming episode where the winner is announced.
We will update you on Friday.
• It is not chicken and it doesn’t involve Kelly Ripa (as far as I know) but a Lawrence restaurant has been named a big winner. Lawrence’s Leeway Franks has been named the Minority-Owned Retail Firm of the Year by the Kansas Department of Commerce.
As we reported, Leeway Franks opened last year, and it has since become a real hit in Lawrence. The business makes homemade bratwursts, hot dogs, plus other sausages and sandwiches, and also has gained a following for homemade tater tots that can come with brown gravy or cheese sauce.
Even though it may not be able to compete in the gravy category, one other Lawrence business won a big award at the Department of Commerce’s Minority Enterprise Development ceremony. Lawrence-based A.S.K. Associates was named the Women-Owned Professional Service Firm of the Year.
The company provides conference and event planning services for clients across the country, and also has a division that provides information technology services to clients.
• Speaking of efforts that involve women leading the way, there will be a fundraiser tomorrow evening celebrating such a program with Lawrence’s Habitat for Humanity.
The Happy Homes Happy Hour is the biggest fundraiser of the year for Habitat’s Women Build program. In addition to food, drinks, live music and an auction, the event also will feature the unveiling of the 2017 Women Build calendar that features 12 prominent Lawrence women modeling ‘40s style looks.
The event is set from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at The Oread. Tickets for the event are $35, which includes a calendar, or $20 without a calendar. Tickets are available at Habitat’s website.
Let’s be honest: We members of the public sometimes can be annoying.
After having covered Lawrence City Commission meetings for more than two decades, I saw that firsthand on many Tuesday evenings. So many public comments about so many different topics. Even though the length of those public comments, or their tone, or their repetitive nature could become annoying, they are a very important part of the process. They help ensure that public officials don’t govern in an echo chamber.
One public government that receives little public feedback is the Lawrence school board. The amount of public participation in a Lawrence school board meeting pales in comparison to the amount of participation at a Lawrence City Commission meeting. Think about it: There have been far more public debates about roundabouts and stop sign placements than there have been about how our children are educated. Granted, the school board does get public comment. Talk about closing a school, and the meeting room is packed. But on a week-in-week-out basis, public participation in a school board meeting is negligible compared to a City Commission meeting.
I’ve been thinking about why that is. It could be that everybody agrees the board is doing a great job, so no need to come say anything at a meeting. I do think the school district does a good job at many things — as the city does, as well — but I don’t think that is the answer. I believe it is because the public often has a hard time knowing what the school board is talking about.
Recently, the newspaper opined about the lack of notice the public received regarding the school board’s decision to allow condoms to be available through the health offices of Lawrence High and Free State High. The public received no meaningful notice that issue was going to be discussed at that board meeting. When the agenda was posted, and when the Journal-World reported on that agenda, the condom issue wasn’t on it. It was added after the fact with no notice to the public that the topic had been added. Regardless of how you feel about the condom issue, it is unfortunate the public wasn’t better notified.
Another example occurred at Monday’s school board meeting. The school board was scheduled to receive a report, which is a big part of what the school board does. This one was on the district’s efforts to have a more racially diverse staff. The agenda listed that the board would receive such a report, but, as is often the case with the school board, the report itself was not included on the agenda. That is far different from how the city operates. If the City Commission is to receive a report, the public almost always has the benefit of seeing the report at the time the agenda is released.
The Journal-World’s K-12 education reporter on Friday contacted a district official to find out what the report said because she knows her editor is a stickler for such things. I’m a big believer in providing details before a meeting so that the public can make an informed decision about whether it wants to add its opinion to the topic.
Based on that interview, we wrote an article about how the data shows a 25 percent increase in the number of people of color employed by the district in the last two years. But that is a broad number that includes everything from cooks to janitors to teachers. Parents may be more interested in how the district is doing at attracting teachers or principals of color. The article included a caveat that those numbers weren’t yet available.
By Monday’s meeting they were, and they didn’t sound quite as good as the 25 percent growth rate that was the headline of our article. The report found that of the district’s classroom, or certified, staff there were: 965 who are white, 32 who are Hispanic; 20 who are black; 11 who are American Indian; five who are Asian and two who are Pacific Islander.
To their credit, district leaders aren’t saying these numbers are good. But it would have been good for the public to see them in advance. Members of the public could have decided whether they wanted to come hear the discussion for themselves and offer opinion. Certainly matters of race, equity and diversity have been known to draw large amounts of public opinion.
Perhaps more importantly, it would have been good for school board members to see the numbers in advance. School board members receive the numbers the same time the public does. To give school board members exclusive access to the numbers would be a violation of open government laws. If school board members have the full report ahead of time, they could come to the meeting better prepared with questions.
There has got to be a way to improve upon this situation. Many governments figure out how to supply adequate information to the public before their meetings. It will just take a bit of planning and commitment to do so.
It will be well worth the time, because an engaged public can be a valuable asset for any government. There is no government in Douglas County more in need of a valuable asset than the Lawrence Public School District. Public schools are facing a funding crisis. To avert it will require the political will of legislators and the governor.
The body that forges political will is the public — also known as the people who don’t attend school board meetings.
New sushi restaurant opens near Sixth and Kasold; new Chinese restaurant with lots of spice, exotic dishes opens near Sixth and Iowa
Fortunately, I’ve never had a problem finding people to throw food at me. But if you rely on one of those Japanese steakhouses with a theatrical chef who slices, dices and then uses a spatula to throw an octopus into your mouth, you have one less option in Lawrence. Lawrence’s Kokoro Japanese Steakhouse has closed, but a new restaurant that aims to bring the taste of California sushi has opened.
Under the Sea has opened in the Westridge Shopping Center at Sixth and Kasold in the location that until a couple of weeks ago housed Kokoro. The new restaurant will focus on sushi and less so on the Japanese steakhouse style of food.
“We’ve got really good quality sushi, and that is what we want to focus on,” said owner Kevin Park.
Park said he’s been a sushi chef for the last eight years in California, and another chef at the restaurant has been a sushi chef for the last 15 years, also in California. So, I guess you could say that the restaurant is California-style sushi, although I don’t know exactly what that means. Some of you, however, may. Park said the perception on the coasts is that sushi is growing in popularity in the Midwest, and that is one of the reasons he decided to start the Lawrence venture. He said he came to Lawrence, in part, because it had a fair number of sushi establishments, which he said was a sign that the market had a taste for the Japanese cuisine.
As for the menu, Under the Sea features about 20 sushi varieties, including tuna, salmon, yellow tail, octopus, and more exotic offerings such as smelt roe, surf clam and fresh water eel. The menu also includes more than 30 classic and fresh sushi rolls, including snow crab, California and Spicy Salmon rolls. The restaurant also serves tempura (or batter-fried) dishes, among several other combination platters and other offerings.
And, if you like watching your food be made, there is still an opportunity for that. While the elaborate Japenese steakhouse routine is gone, the restaurant does have a sushi bar where you can watch as a chef prepares your dish.
• The Asian food market has been a busy one in Lawrence. I also have news of a new Chinese restaurant that has opened on Sixth Street. Szechuan House has opened in the former home of Panda Garden, 1500 W. Sixth St., which closed earlier this year after its owners retired.
It too comes to Lawrence from afar. I chatted briefly with Tina Wei, who described herself as the operator of the restaurant. She said she came to Lawrence from New York to open the restaurant. Just like Under the Sea, it wasn’t clear to me what caused Lawrence to stand out over other communities, but whatever the case, there is no shortage of Asian cuisine entrepreneurs who are coming to Lawrence. This is at least the fourth one I’ve written about in the last few months — Nagoya Japanese Cuisine in the Malls Shopping Center at 23rd and Louisiana and the Thai Diner in the Louisiana Purchase shopping center near 23rd and Louisiana are a couple of others I’ve reported.
As for Szechuan House, I believe the “house” part of the name may refer to overnight living quarters for people who want to fully read the menu. In other words, the menu is huge. There are more than 200 dishes listed on the menu. That includes appetizers, soups, rice and noodle dishes, vegetarian, chicken and duck, beef and lamb, seafood, pork, pickled pepper dishes, poached dishes, something called gan guo served in a “hot pot,” black curded bean dishes and several others.
The menu lists about 20 house specialties and some of them will test your desire for the exotic, including: intestines and fish; one dish that makes marketing professionals squirm because it is simply labeled seaweed, mussel, fish ball, fatty beef and pork blood; and another dish that may make the annoying AFLAC duck squirm but may intrigue the rest of us who are tired of those commercials — spicy duck tongue.
Spicy is a key word on the menu. The menu explains that Szechuan cuisine is “characterized by its spice and pungent flavors,” and emphasizes the use of chili. A spice called prickly ash also is often used, along with garlic, ginger and fermented soybeans. So, if you don’t like spicy food, beware, although I’m sure there are some ways to avoid the heat. The duck found one, although he may not recommend it.
Hot spending pace continues in Lawrence with sales up $70 million so far; eastern Lawrence retailer opens; signs of expansion at tech center
The latest retail sales report shows spending totals surged in Lawrence, and they don’t even yet include the expenditures on earplugs, blinders and vulgarity detectors needed to get through the last month of the presidential campaign.
Instead, the latest report from the Kansas Department of Revenue shows spending that primarily happened in August. The report builds on a nearly yearlong theme of Lawrence being one of the hottest retail markets in the state.
For the month, sales tax collections in Lawrence were up 7.1 percent compared with the same month a year ago. The more impressive number is the year-to-date total. Thus far in 2016, local sales tax collections are 5.5 percent — or about $1 million — ahead of last year’s total. To put that in perspective, the totals show that Lawrence consumers have spent nearly $70 million more in 2016 than they did during the same period of 2015.
The sales tax totals are good news for Lawrence City Hall. The city budgeted for a surge in sales tax collections, but it did not plan on an increase of more than 5 percent. Instead, it budgeted for a 3.7 percent increase. If the city can finish the year with an increase of 5 percent or more, it will result in a windfall of several hundred thousand dollars to the city budget. But we are about ready to enter the key period for the retail season. A poor Christmas shopping season could quickly reverse these numbers.
Here’s a look at how Lawrence is stacking up compared with other large retail centers in the state. All numbers are year-to-date, compared with the same period a year ago:
— Lawrence: up 5.5 percent
— Olathe: up 3.4 percent
— Topeka: up 3.0 percent
— Overland Park: up 2.4 percent
— Manhattan: up 1.6 percent
— Kansas City: up 1.4 percent
— Johnson County: up 1.4 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 1.0 percent
— Salina: down 2.8 percent
— Lenexa: down 4.7 percent
In other news and notes from around town:
• As we have been reporting for several months, the shopping center at 19th and Haskell is set to get a boost with the opening of a new Dollar General store. Well, the wait is over for eastern Lawrence residents. The Dollar General store has opened in the past few days. The store has announced that it is holding a grand opening ceremony at 8 a.m. Saturday, which will include several giveaways.
As I suspect you already know, Dollar General sells housewares, cleaning supplies, health and beauty, basic apparel, and some food, among other items. The new store, which was built in a portion of the parking lot of the old shopping center, employs about 10 people, the company said.
The new store definitely is the most significant development for the old shopping center in years. It will be interesting to see if the store and the additional traffic it brings to the area spurs more redevelopment of the rundown property.
• Keep your ears open for what could be an exciting development at the Peaslee Tech vocational education center in southeast Lawrence. I’m hearing that officials there are working on a deal to add a new automotive technician degree program, and may be close to finalizing a deal.
The program would teach students — likely both adult and high school — the necessary skills to enter the automotive repair industry. I think the program would involve a partnership between an area community college, local automotive dealers and others.
I’ve got a call in to the Peaslee Tech center to get more details, but I have heard from multiple sources that such a deal is in the works. I’ll let you know when I hear more.
In case you have forgotten, Peaslee Tech is the relatively new vocational education center that is run through a partnership with community colleges, local economic development organizations, and city and county tax dollars. It also has been successful in tapping into private fundraising from industry leaders to make improvements at the center, which is near 31st and Haskell.
Another fast-food chicken chain coming to south Iowa Street; maybe Lawrence has more vacant apartments than once thought
Heaven help us, the chickens are multiplying, and this time they’ve gotten their hands on a wrecking ball. Plans are in the works for another fast-food, fried chicken chain to open on south Iowa Street, and the project will involve tearing down a fairly large building along the corridor.
I’ve been telling you for weeks that I’ve heard speculation that a fried chicken chain called Slim Chickens wants to come to Lawrence. I had heard the chain was looking to locate at the old KFC building near Sixth and Wakarusa, but this Slim Chicken may be a wily bird. It now appears the restaurant is set to locate in the former Barbed Wire Steakhouse building at 2412 Iowa St.
City officials have confirmed that a demolition permit has been filed for the 2412 Iowa building, and the permit provides information that says the replacement structure on the site will be a Slim Chickens restaurant.
But I also think that there is a strong possibility that Slim Chickens also will open a restaurant at the Sixth and Wakarusa site. No, that doesn’t sound very slim. It sounds like this chicken has some weight behind it, and plans to throw it around in what is becoming a crowded Lawrence chicken market. In case you have forgotten, the market recently has added Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, a new Buffalo Wild Wings, a Wing Stop, Raising Cane’s, and a Zaxby’s is under construction in the Bauer Farm development near Sixth and Wakarusa.
As for Slim Chickens, I’ll find out more about that chain soon. I’m tentatively scheduled to meet with one of the Lawrence leaders of the chain next week. I’ll get the official scoop then, but if there is one thing I’ve learned about chicken in this town, it is that news of it cannot wait. (If there is a second thing I have learned, it is that pointing to an empty bucket of chicken in the passenger seat and grease on the steering wheel will not get you out of a reckless driving ticket.)
I do have a bit of information about Slim Chickens from the chain’s website. The restaurant’s tag line is “tenders, wings and more,” so not surprisingly the menu has lots of combinations of wings and tenders. It looks like it has almost 10 dipping sauces, ranging from honey mustard to mango habanero to cayenne ranch. In addition, there are about 10 other wing sauces with various levels of heat. The menu also features some salads, sandwiches and wraps.
I should be able to let you know more next week.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The project on the old Barbed Wire site will eliminate one of the larger vacant properties along south Iowa Street. In case you are confused about the location, it more recently has been Wilde’s Chateau 24, a bar and dance club that I never entered because you had to know the hip way to spell Wild to gain entry. The building, though, was built for Barbed Wire Steakhouse, an earlier version of a Texas Roadhouse style chain. But as someone mentioned to me, that was a long time ago.
Regardless, the vacancy rate along south Iowa Street is set to go down. The commercial vacancy rate is one that city leaders try to keep abreast of. However, that’s not the case with another key vacancy rate: the apartment vacancy rate. It seems like it is a guessing game to know how many vacant apartments there are in Lawrence.
Well, I have some new data on that front, although I’m not willing to declare it definitive. The Census Bureau last month released its 2015 American Community Survey results for cities of 65,000 population and greater. That survey includes an estimated vacancy rate for apartments.
Lawrence’s estimated rate checked in at 10.5 percent. The Census Bureau survey has some limitations, and as a result its margin of error is 3.5 percent. That means the vacancy rate could be as low as 7 percent or as high as 14 percent. Regardless, any of those numbers are significantly different from what we’ve reported. We had a recent article about the number of potential new apartments that could be built in Lawrence, and a privately produced report estimated the vacancy rate at 3 percent and on the decline since 2011. An older Census Bureau survey estimated it at 5.3 percent with a margin of error of 1.5 percent plus or minus.
I couldn’t tell you what number is accurate. I doubt anyone at City Hall can either. It seems like an important issue. City Hall leaders are contemplating two issues where having an accurate vacancy rate would be important: 1. They’re considering regulations that could make it more difficult to build apartment complexes on the edge of town, in an effort to limit urban sprawl; 2. They are trying to come up with solutions on affordable housing.
If the city really does have a vacancy rate of more than 10 percent, that likely means there are a significant number of empty apartments in older complexes in the central part of the city. It seems like that would be good information to know before the city embarks on a plan to provide incentives or other assistance to build new affordable housing units. Perhaps it is time to for the city to contract for a comprehensive vacancy rate study of the apartment market.
For what it is worth, here is the Census Bureau's estimates of vacancy rates for some other Kansas communities, with the margin of error in parenthesis.
— Lawrence: 10.5 (3.5)
— Overland Park: 7.9 (3.5)
— Olathe: 2.6 (2.4)
— Topeka: 12.5 (4.2)
— Wichita: 8.1 (1.9)
“Affordable housing” is as big of a buzzword at City Hall as “Halloween candy” is in my household. So, city leaders don’t need any extra push to work on the affordable housing issue, but they have gotten a national reminder anyway. A new report is out that lists Lawrence as the most expensive city in the state of Kansas.
The financial news site 24/7 Wall Street — which provides its content to large national sites like USA Today, MSN, Time and others — has listed the most expensive city in every state, based on 2014 cost of living data from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The report, which was getting big billing on MSN.com earlier this week, has good news and bad news in it for Lawrence. The good news is that the cost of living in Lawrence is 5.7 percent less than the national average. So, it is still cheaper to live in Lawrence than in lots of other places in the country. However, lots of those other places are not in Kansas. The report found the average cost of living in a Kansas community is 9.3 percent less expensive than the national average. So, a little math tells us that Lawrence is about 3.6 percent more expensive than the average Kansas place.
Although that is not a great number for Lawrence, it isn’t terrible either. Sometimes when you hear people talk about Lawrence you would think it costs 30 percent more to live here than elsewhere in Kansas, not 3 percent. Think of it this way: If Lawrence residents just made 3 percent more than the average Kansan, Lawrence’s higher prices essentially would be negated. But that’s not the case. Instead, Lawrence’s median household income is about 15 percent lower than the statewide average.
In other words, if Lawrence has an affordability problem, it may not be because goods and services cost so much more here. It may be because we just make less money than other communities. I know this is not a new revelation, but it is one I find worth repeating nonetheless.
One other point to note about this report: I’m not sure it really can definitively state that Lawrence is the most expensive city in the state. I think it would be more accurate to state that it is the most expensive metro area in the state of Kansas. The report’s authors didn’t look at every city in the state, but rather every metro area. That’s significant because every Johnson County community is included in the Kansas City metro area, which for the purposes of this study was counted toward Missouri. I still think it is more expensive, for instance, to live in Overland Park. I would guess that’s definitely the case for a place like Mission Hills, which I’m pretty sure is a real place, but can’t confirm because every time my old beat-up F150 and I ask for directions, we end up in Edgerton.
But there are other numbers that put Lawrence’s cost of living into perspective. The U.S. Census Bureau last month released new 2015 figures for cities greater than 65,000 in population. So, here’s a look at some data related to housing, rentals, and incomes: (Note: Manhattan, one of my favorite cities to compare us with, isn't large enough to have been included in this latest Census report.)
Median value of owner-occupied housing
— Lawrence: $179,100
— Overland Park: $249,000
— Olathe: $207,700
— Topeka: $102,800
— Wichita: $124,400
— Lawrence: $814
— Overland Park: $1,022
— Olathe: $912
— Topeka: $744
— Wichita: $734
Median household income:
— Lawrence: $46,564
— Overland Park: $81,144
— Olathe: $80,242
— Topeka: $43,860
— Wichita: $46,894
— Kansas: $53,906
Make of those numbers what you will. Certainly, Lawrence’s household income numbers are affected some by Lawrence being a university community that has lots of students who don’t earn full-time livings. But that doesn’t account for all the difference. As we’ve reported, there’s also some reason to believe Lawrence has an inordinate amount of part-time employees even for a university community.
One thing the numbers tell me is that it may not be accurate to say Lawrence is the most expensive city in the state. Clearly, housing and other goods cost more in Johnson County.
Measuring how expensive an item is only looks at its cost. Measuring how affordable something is also looks at your ability to pay for it. It seems like that is where Lawrence’s struggles are. Perhaps it is an obvious distinction to everyone. Hopefully it is clear to those who are studying affordable housing issues in Lawrence because trying to make housing cheaper in Lawrence will require one set of strategies while trying to raise incomes will require a different set.
A Lawrence resident — thanks to a carrot-eating horse and perhaps even a white pantsuit — is in the running to be a co-host on the national morning talk show "Live! with Kelly."
No, Courtenay DeHoff is not in the running to be the full-time co-host with Emmy Award-winner Kelly Ripa, but she is one of 20 finalists to serve as a co-host for a day on Ripa’s top-rated morning television program. Ripa announced the finalists on the air on Wednesday, and now viewers of the show will vote online — through Oct. 9 — to determine the winner.
If voters like horses, white pantsuits and a combination of the two, DeHoff has to be a front-runner. In her video that she submitted as part of the competition, DeHoff introduced viewers to a workout "cowgirl style." That involved feeding the horse some carrots, some vigorous riding while training her horse to cut a calf (don’t worry city folks, a switchblade is not involved), and some stretching in her white riding suit. DeHoff told viewers a white pantsuit makes every workout a bit more challenging.
I talked just briefly with DeHoff, who confirmed she is a Lawrence resident, which a certain person (perhaps her mother) had called and already told the newspaper. In fact, DeHoff is a native of the area. She grew up in Tonganoxie, and the horse riding scenes were filmed at her parents’ home there. DeHoff has her own production company in Lawrence, and she has been a correspondent on the Better KC program for KCTV5. She also has had various other broadcasting jobs for Rural-TV and other networks.
Ripa, who came to fame as a morning talk show host when she joined forces with Regis Philbin on "Live! with Regis and Kelly," is interviewing multiple celebrities to become her new permanent co-host after Michael Strahan left the show to join Good Morning America.
But Ripa also is hosting a contest where one viewer will serve as a co-host for a day, likely on an episode in mid-October. Viewers can vote once per day until Oct. 9, after which the winner will be announced. People interested in voting can do so here: http://livekelly.com/live/kelly-and-you/
Fire safety in the 1970s largely consisted of a crushed velvet smoking jacket to protect the polyester dress shirt — top six buttons inoperable, of course — from stray ashes. A lot has changed in the fire safety world, which is one of the major reasons Wakarusa Township officials have filed plans to replace a 1970s-era fire station with a larger, higher-tech building.
Plans have been filed with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department to build a two-story, approximately 12,000 square-foot fire station next to Broken Arrow Park, near the intersection of 31st and Louisiana streets.
“The trucks are bigger and we have more of them,” Wakarusa Fire Chief Mike Baxter said of why the station built in 1972 no longer is adequate. “We probably have about $200,000 worth of equipment that sits outside on a pretty regular basis because we don’t have the room for it.”
The new fire station will replace an existing station on the same piece of property next to Broken Arrow Park. The existing fire station will remain and be used by the township’s road and maintenance department.
Plans call for the new fire station to have two more equipment bays than the current facility, a training room, and expanded living space for the crews that staff the station 24 hours a day. The station houses anywhere from three to eight firefighters at a time, Baxter said. The department is a mix of full-time firefighters and a crew of 32 volunteer firefighters. Volunteers are required to spend a certain number of hours in the station for training purposes.
Wakarusa Township — which is the township that essentially surrounds the city of Lawrence — will continue to operate a second station north of the city, near the Westar Energy power plant, Baxter said.
According to the paperwork filed with the Planning Department, the project is expected to cost about $1 million to construct. But Baxter said a tax increase won’t be necessary to pay for the new building. Wakarusa Township taxpayers already pay into a fire protection fund. Baxter said that fund has built up a reserve that will be used to help pay for the fire station construction.
If the project wins the necessary approvals, Baxter hopes the new fire station will be operational in early 2017.
The fire station project would be the latest in a line of upgrades for the township fire department. Baxter said new equipment and training have been paying off. The township earlier this year had its ISO fire rating improved from a 9 to a 5. The better rating should help reduce homeowners' insurance premiums.
"People ought to check with their insurance agent to make sure they are getting the benefit from it," Baxter said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• You may notice a new name on a relatively new Italian deli in west Lawrence. As we reported last fall, Miceli Market and Deli opened in the old Miller Mart gas station and convenience store at 3300 W. Sixth St.
But if you drive by the location now, you may notice a new name, Amici Italian Market and Deli. (I’m not sure if the signs are up yet or not. I haven’t driven by because my banker has cut me off from driving by places that sell meat by the pound.) The deli hasn’t, however, undergone a change in ownership. Instead, it has undergone a lesson in legal wrangling.
The deli is owned by Jess Maceli. He called the business Miceli because his keyboard had so much marinara sauce on it that it was difficult to ascertain the A’s from the I’s. Wait, that’s why I misspell most things. Maceli spelled the business differently because his family generations ago used to have two spellings of the name, largely because that was a sound business strategy in the bootlegging business.
But another reason for the different spelling is Maceli was looking to avoid confusion with the longtime Lawrence business Maceli’s Catering. Jess is not related to Steve Maceli, who owns the catering business.
Well, apparently confusion did result, though. Jess Maceli said he did receive a cease and desist letter from the catering company insisting that the deli quit using the Miceli name.
Jess Maceli said he is a little disappointed by having to change the name of the business, since it is, after all, his name too.
“But I don’t want people confused either, and I just thought I would be better off not fighting it,” Maceli said.
So, the name changes to Amici Italian Market and Deli, and avoiding the name fight will give Maceli more time to expand the business. Maceli owns the entire building that Amici is located in, and Maceli continues to operate the convenience store side of the business.
But the Italian deli part of the operation has taken off, he said. In addition to selling meat and cheeses by the pound, he said the business is finding a niche with panini sandwiches. The deli serves a dozen panini sandwiches made from a variety of the 17 Italian meats the business stocks and 20 cheeses. But the deli also has expanded into pasta. The menu includes a different pasta dish each weekday, such as Fettuccine Alfredo, Penne alla Vodka and good old-fashioned penne pasta with marinara sauce and meatballs. Maceli said the next venture will be for the business to buy the necessary sausage production equipment to begin making homemade Italian sausages.
Update on Menards manufacturing plant for Lawrence; Chamber narrows field in search for eco devo leader
I think everybody but late-night comedians and attention-craving 400-pound hackers are ready for this presidential election to be over. Lawrence economic development leaders may have another reason to root for the finale: They still haven’t heard anything from Menards officials about if or when the home improvement retailer plans to start a project to build a new Lawrence manufacturing plant.
“Our hope is they would take a harder look at the project after the election is completed,” Larry McElwain, president and CEO of the Lawrence chamber of commerce, told me.
In case you have forgotten, Menards in January received approval to build a manufacturing facility on about 90 acres of property in Lawrence VenturePark. The facility — which would manufacture trusses, stone blocks and other products — would employ 100 to 150 people.
But work has never begun on the project, and the company has never activated its approximately $2.3 million in incentives that were approved for the project. In May, local leaders told me the company had notified them the Lawrence project was indefinitely delayed.
The idea that the project could get moving again after the election is more guesswork than anything else. McElwain said he still believes the decision to delay the Lawrence project had nothing to do with Lawrence in particular but rather was part of a broader national outlook. Often companies delay some investments if they are nervous an election will affect the economy.
“They told us that they would tell us if the project is no longer viable,” McElwain said. “They haven’t told us that. We still feel like it will occur. But it is on their timing, not ours.”
It would be a great boost to Lawrence economic development efforts if the Menards project moves forward. Officials need a project to blaze a path for new development at Lawrence VenturePark, which is the industrial park located on what used to be the Farmland Industries fertilizer plant in eastern Lawrence.
Local leaders held the ribbon cutting for VenturePark in October 2014. Back then there was great optimism for the center. There certainly was realistic hope that a project would be in place by the time the South Lawrence Trafficway was completed, which will make the park much more accessible to Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 59. But it has been two years since that ribbon cutting, and the park continues to be empty. The trafficway will open by Thanksgiving.
Fortunately, city and county leaders did not bet the farm on the success of the project. The city received the land for free, plus gained access to a multimillion dollar trust fund to pay for environmental cleanup of the property, which had been contaminated by years of nitrogen fertilizer spills. But the roads, water lines and other utilities that were needed for the park were built with public money. The city has spent around $7 million on that infrastructure.
But the dollars probably aren’t what weighs on local leaders the most. Instead, the question of why the park hasn’t attracted tenants is the real nagging issue. It is not like the Lawrence economy has been in a standstill for the last two years. Sales tax collections have been on the rise, and Lawrence posted its best ever construction year — in terms of the dollar value of projects constructed — in 2015. Nationally, job totals have risen during the time period.
Perhaps you noticed J-W reporter Rochelle Valverde’s article about the city’s plans to hire a consultant to study economic development. It looks like most of the consultant’s studying will be about incentive packages that are offered to Lawrence projects. That’s a topic certainly worth studying, but figuring out why VenturePark hasn’t had more success is also one worth exploring. If the city has a lengthy debate about whether it is too generous with economic development incentives, and no discussion about why its new business park is empty, that would be a shame.
• One person who could provide some insight into Lawrence’s strengths and weaknesses in economic development is the Chamber’s vice president of economic development. That position has been empty since the sudden resignation of Brady Pollington in May. McElwain, though, tells me the Chamber is getting closer to making a hire.
McElwain said the Chamber’s search committee has basically narrowed the field to two candidates, although a third candidate who “is not directly in economic development right now,” also may be considered. The position drew 65 applicants.
McElwain confirmed none of the candidates under consideration is local, but all are from the Midwest.
“I think we are better off when we search in the Midwest where people are perhaps more likely to understand our values and our community,” McElwain said.
The position is the community’s top salesperson in trying to attract new companies to town, and also serves as a key contact for existing businesses that want to expand in the community. Connections in the economic development world — knowing the site selectors that companies use — is a key attribute. McElwain, though, said there are skills the committee is looking for other than a great Rolodex.
“It would be good to have somebody who understands the economic development process we use in Lawrence and who can adapt to that process,” McElwain said.
McElwain said he thinks a hire could be made in the next 30 days.
New report says Lawrence one of the slowest growing cities in America; local company wins big round of venture capital funding
I believe my TV room couch recently was ranked as a top destination for empty Dorito bags and crushed Dr Pepper cans. Yes, there is a ranking for nearly everything. Some make you feel good. Some make you feel bad. Rarely, a few of them make you think. There’s a new ranking out about Lawrence’s growth that might be a prime candidate for a little thought.
Here’s why: Currently, Lawrence City Hall leaders are beginning to debate about whether we need new regulations to combat urban sprawl and to promote infill development. It is a classic type of conversation for a community that is experiencing a good amount of growth. But, at least according to one new report, Lawrence is one of the slowest growing cities in America.
The report analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, among others, to evaluate both population growth and economic growth. The report ranked Lawrence growth at No. 479 out of 515 U.S. cities.
Lawrence’s ranking was the lowest in Kansas and the broader region, although many of our neighbors also ranked middle-of-the-pack or worse. Here is a look:
— Columbia, Mo.: No. 123
— Norman, Okla.: No. 232
— Olathe: No. 287
— Iowa City: No. 304
— Kansas City, Kan.: No. 336
— Overland Park: No. 341
— Topeka: No. 371
— Wichita: No. 388
— Kansas City, Mo.: No. 438
— Independence, Mo.: No. 462
— Lawrence: No. 479
In case you are wondering, a few of our usual suspects for comparison purposes — Manhattan and Ames, Iowa, for example — were not part of this report.
The report looked at two broad categories. The first was called “sociodemographics” and it measured total population growth, working-age population growth, and college-educated population growth. Lawrence ranked No. 479 in that part of the study. The second category was a “jobs and economy” ranking. It looked at median household income growth, changes in unemployment rates, poverty rates, job growth totals, full-time vs. part-time jobs, gross domestic product growth, business establishment growth, startup numbers, venture capital totals, housing price growth and foreclosure data. In the jobs and economy category, Lawrence ranked No. 421.
For most metrics, the report looked at data from 2009 to 2015, in order to account for any one-year blips. I’m still not sure that I buy that Topeka is a better growing city than Lawrence, but the results are a good conversation starter.
As the city and county get closer to officially rewriting Horizon 2020 — the comprehensive plan that addresses policies on growth, development, urban sprawl and a host of other topics — it will be important to see what numbers government officials have about our recent growth performance.
Is Lawrence really one of the slower growing communities in the country? Are we either urban or sprawling? This report from WalletHub shouldn’t be viewed as definitive on any of those questions. But Lawrence leaders do need to do research that gets at some of those answers. If Lawrence really is one of the slowest growing cities in America, a discussion about urban sprawl regulations might be the wrong discussion to have.
In other news and notes from around town:
• One of the measures in the WalletHub report looked at the amount of venture capital local companies have raised. Well, one local company has gotten a boost in that area. Lawrence-based Mycroft AI recently completed a $335,000 round of venture capital funding, with many of the investors coming from the Kansas City area, according to an article on the website Startlandnews.com.
Then in September, Mycroft got another big win by being named one of 10 companies to receive a $50,000 grant as part of the LaunchKC technology competition.
Mycroft, as we have reported, is the latest venture for Lawrence entrepreneurs Josh Montgomery and Kris Adair, who also is a member of the Lawrence school board. The couple also are well known for their Wicked Broadband service — formerly Lawrence Freenet — that operates in Lawrence.
The new Mycroft startup company is developing a device similar to Amazon Echo, which can be used to complete a number of Internet-based tasks. For example, the device can be programmed to remotely turn off or on lights in your home, lock doors, start the coffee maker or provide answers to any number of questions. The device, like Apple’s Siri, uses voice recognition technology.
Obviously, there are some big players already in this market, but it appears Mycroft is getting good interest from investors. I’m not smart enough to know what is differentiating Mycroft front the bigger players, but several technology sites note that company is using an open source software philosophy that allows developers from around the world to modify and distribute the platform.
The company is based in Lawrence — Montgomery and Adair also operate a Lawrence technology incubator near Ninth and Iowa streets — but the LaunchKC grant does give the company a greater Kansas City presence. In addition to the $50,000 grant, the company receives a year of free office space in the Crossroads Arts District of downtown Kansas City.