Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
The changes keep on coming in the Lawrence Internet market.
The largest Internet service provider in Lawrence has just announced that it is removing all of its usage caps from its Internet service packages, as the company changes its name from Knology to WOW! That means customers no longer will be charged for going over their usage limits, according to a press release by the company.
Englewood, Colo.-based WOW purchased Knology back in July, but it had not converted Knology over to the WOW brand until today. Signs for the company around town are being changed today, according to WOW.
But the changes related to Internet usage caps are likely to garner more attention from hard-core Internet users. The caps had generated concern among many users because customers’ standard monthly rates could rise depending on how much Internet usage they had in a particular month.
The change in the cap policy comes at a time when both private and public officials have been talking about shaking up the city’s Internet service provider market.
A city-hired consultant recently completed a report that found that current broadband offerings in Lawrence generally are “costlier, slower and more limited than in other comparable communities.” City officials had the report commissioned because they have been interested in possibly allowing private companies to have access to a growing ring of fiber optic cable owned by the city.
On the private front, Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband — formerly known as Lawrence Freenet — has made a proposal to the city to further tap into that ring of fiber. (Ring of Fiber: Johnny Cash used to sing that song in his old age.)
At their meeting tonight, city commissioners will receive a request from Wicked for low-cost fiber leases with the city, and a one-time $500,000 grant to help the company build new broadband infrastructure in the city. The request is part of a pilot project Wicked is launching to bring to one Lawrence neighborhood the same type of superfast Internet service that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City. If successful, Wicked Broadband wants to extend the high-speed broadband project to all of the city.
So, we’ll see what cards the folks at WOW start playing in what appears to be an increasingly competitive game in Lawrence. Consumers, I suspect, will be keeping an eye on whether the competition starts having an impact on rates.
City estimates it may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to keep concealed weapons out of city buildings
It appears the city soon will have to buy hundreds thousands of dollars worth of security measures. Either that, or the city will have to learn to live with a new state law that would allow concealed-carry permit holders to bring firearms into City Hall and other city buildings.
City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting will consider formally asking the Kansas Attorney General for an exemption from the new state law until Jan. 1, 2014. The state law — approved by the legislature and signed by the governor this session — essentially contains an automatic one-year exemption period for local governments. The city also may be able to get three additional one-year exemptions, although that is less certain.
The law no longer allows city or county buildings to be posted with the "no gun" signs that make it illegal for anyone, including concealed-carry permit holders, to bring a concealed weapon into the buildings. Under the new law, governments can only post those signs if the buildings have adequate security measures, such as metal detectors and security officers.
Lawrence city officials have begun calculating the cost to purchase and staff such metal detectors. A memo from City Attorney Toni Wheeler estimates it will cost about $5,000 for each metal detector, plus at least $42,000 a year for a single police officer to staff the metal detector—and the Lawrence Police Department, Wheeler wrote, believes two officers may be necessary for each detector. That would place the annual operating costs for the program at more than $84,000 for each building with a detector. And the cost may be even greater, because the personnel numbers represent starting salaries and don’t factor in benefit costs or other costs to equip a police officer.
Wheeler says at least three city buildings — City Hall, Lawrence Municipal Court and the public access area of the Police Department’s Investigations and Training Center — all warrant consideration for security systems. Beyond those three, city commissioners also would have to decide whether recreation centers and other city offices need the security measures.
New security costs for the city are expected to be addressed in the City Manager’s recommended 2014 budget, which is scheduled to be released in July. The costs could add up. If the city decided to include recreation centers in the program, there would be a total of nine buildings to equip and staff. At a minimum of $42,000 per building, that's almost $400,000 a year, plus the cost of the metal detectors. At $84,000 per building — which would be the case if two officers are required — it would be more than $750,000 a year.
But say you wanted to have security measures in place for every city-owned building that currently prohibits concealed firearms. The city currently has 47 buildings listed in its administrative policy, which means it would cost $3.9 million to provide a two-member security detail at every location. That, of course, is not going to happen. It probably would be a bit odd to have a metal detector at the city’s Landscape Shop or the Wastewater Treatment Plant, for example. Those places probably will become buildings where concealed-carry permit holders can have a weapon.
It will be interesting to see how city commissioners react to the new legislation. The previous City Commission sent a letter to the legislature objecting to the bill while it was under consideration. Whether the city’s objections rise to the level of spending more than a half-million dollars on security each year, I don’t know. The city already spends some money on security: a police officer attends each Lawrence City Commission meeting, and a bailiff is employed by the Lawrence Municipal Court.
If the city gets serious about installing metal detectors, there will be quite a few items to discuss. It probably would require the public entrances at City Hall to be changed significantly, since there are three ways for the public to enter City Hall. The city also could have a discussion about whether security officers — rather than fully sworn police officers — would be appropriate to staff the metal detectors. That may reduce the personnel cost for a security program.
And then there are city buildings such as the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence Arts Center that attract large crowds on a regular basis. How would they be secured and staffed?
Of course, the city always could have the discussion of whether any harm would come from allowing licensed individuals to carry a weapon in city buildings. According to the Kansas Attorney General’s office, it already is legal for concealed-carry permit holders to carry a weapon on various pieces of city property. Every city-owned park, for example, is a place where concealed-carry permit holders are entitled to have a weapon. “Parks, parking lots and other open public property" are no longer able to be restricted through signs, according to the Attorney General’s Web site. That didn’t always use to be the case, but the law was changed, I believe, during the 2010 legislative session.
City commissioners won’t be the only ones that get to have this fun. Douglas County also will have to go through the same exercise with its buildings, although it already has a metal detector for the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. Public schools won’t have to install metal detectors under the new law. School officials can continue to post the "no gun" signs on school buildings, which will make it illegal for concealed-carry permit holders to bring a weapon into the building.
Wicked Broadband project seeks $500,000 city grant; downtown hotel project seeks adjustment to incentives package; historical society seeks $20k for new exhibit
Reading the agenda for Tuesday night’s Lawrence City Commission meeting is kind of like reading my household’s credit card bill: There are plenty of questions, and all the answers seem to have dollar signs.
There are three outside organizations requesting financial assistance from the city, with two of them each asking for a half-million dollars.
We’ll try to fill in more details later, but here’s a look at the basics of the requests:
• Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband announced last month that it will start a pilot project to bring super fast 1-Gigabit Internet service to a neighborhood later this year.
A kick-off event for the project spelled out a lot of details about how the company, which previously did business as Lawrence Freenet, could bring the same type of high-speed Internet service to Lawrence that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City. At that event, the idea of financial incentives from the city wasn’t envisioned. Well, it is now.
The company has filed an application for a $500,000 economic development grant from the city, plus is asking to receive up to a $20,000 a year rebate in franchise fees it pays to the city. It also wants to have the right to enter into $10 per year leases to use a portion of new fiber optic cables that the city plans to install throughout the community in future years.
Joshua Montgomery, co-owner of Wicked Broadband, said there are several factors that have caused him to rethink the need for city incentives for the project. But perhaps the largest is that he’s been contacted by several significant New York-based capital investment companies that are interested in investing in a locally owned, high-speed Internet service. Those investors have made it clear that the city of Lawrence needs to do something to show that it is committed to the idea of bringing a high-speed network to the city.
“If the city says that it is behind it 100 percent, that opens the door for the next $30 million in private funding that will be needed to spread this service to the rest of the community,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery said the $500,000, one-time grant would allow the service territory for the pilot project to grow to 1,000 households, up from 500. The neighborhood or neighborhoods haven’t been selected yet. Wicked is taking pre-registrations for the service on its website. The neighborhood with the highest percentage of residents pre-registered will serve as the pilot project. An announcement is expected June 15.
Montgomery said he and his business partner and wife, Lawrence school board member Kris Adair, are putting up $500,000 in private money for the pilot project.
City commissioners on Tuesday aren’t being asked to approve the request. Instead, Tuesday’s vote is just to direct city staff to begin analyzing it.
Wicked Broadband’s service will be a direct competitor to existing Internet providers, such as Knology and AT&T, which generally do not receive such city subsidies. So, it will be interesting to hear what those companies have to say as the process unfolds.
As for Montgomery, he said he’ll argue that the city won’t be making an investment in a private company as much as it will be making an investment in a new infrastructure system that will be critical to future commerce. “It is an economic enabler,” Montgomery said.
The second request comes from a group led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton, which is seeking to build a new hotel at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire.
It is a bit more complicated to understand, and I’ll try to get a better handle on the numbers before Tuesday’s meeting. But the request seeks to raise the amount of Tax Increment Finance dollars the hotel is eligible to receive to $4 million, up from $3.5 million.
Unlike the Wicked Broadband request, this doesn’t involve the city writing a $500,000 check to the development. Instead, a TIF allows the project to get a rebate on a certain percentage of the property taxes it pays. It is kind of like a tax abatement, except the money has to be used to pay for infrastructure type of expenses. In this case, that includes a private parking garage for the hotel.
What makes it a bit complicated is that the developers also have proposed a multistory apartment/office project for the northeast corner of the intersection. It also uses Tax Increment Financing. It looks like a likely option is to increase the amount of TIF money available for the southeast corner hotel project by reducing the amount of projected TIF revenues available to the northeast corner apartment project.
If that is ultimately what happens, then the overall amount of incentive basically would be a wash. We’ll have to see how those details work out.
The more interesting part is what developers have said about the hotel project. It has had its necessary building approvals for months, but hasn’t yet started construction. A letter to the city now makes it clear that there are financial questions the investors are trying to answer.
Bill Fleming, an attorney for the development group, told the city in a letter that “the hotel investors are keenly interested in the ‘cost per key,’ which is the average cost for each hotel room.”
If the additional $500,000 in TIF money is not available to the hotel project, then that will raise the average cost per room the investors must pay.
“The investors may conclude the project is not feasible at that cost per key, and the project in that case will not proceed,” Fleming wrote.
That would be a major turn of events for the project, which faced stiff opposition from the adjacent East Lawrence neighborhood, and had to fight hard to win city approval.
Maybe the folks at the Douglas County Historical Society are more than just masters of history. Perhaps they also are masters of timing. After those two big-ticket items, they are asking for a mere $20,000 in city funding. The money will be used to help fund a permanent exhibit on the second floor of the Watkins Museum commemorating the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence.
The new exhibit is set to open on Aug. 17, and will “explore Douglas County’s history, issues that shaped the development of the community, and events that made it a focus of national attention.”
Ultimately, the exhibit will be expanded to the third floor of the museum. The bulk of the nearly $257,000 in exhibit costs has come from private individuals, businesses and grants.
City staff members are recommending approval of the $20,000 in funding. The money would come from the city’s guest tax fund, which receives its revenue from the guest tax charged at hotel and motel rooms.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday.
Maybe I’ve been prospecting for oil wrong all these years. You remember how Jed Clampett on the Beverly Hillbillies struck it rich when he was out shooting at some food, and up from the ground came some “bubbling crude” (or “Texas tea,” that is)? I just figured that was the way to do it.
Well, others in Douglas County have been having more success with other methods, it seems. A new report from the Kansas Geological Survey at KU says oil production is up in Douglas County, just as it is statewide.
There were 51,715 barrels of oil pumped in Douglas County in 2012, up 12 percent from 2011. Douglas County’s rate of increase outpaced the state as a whole, which saw oil production increase by 5 percent in 2012.
Douglas County’s totals were the highest since 2010, when about 53,000 barrels were pumped. The numbers represent quite a turnaround from the early 2000s. From 2000 to 2007, the county didn’t pump more than 40,000 barrels in any given year.
The number of wells operating in Douglas County is also at a high. The county had 422 wells operating in 2012, which was the highest total since at least 1995.
Several of the new wells are actually old wells that had been abandoned but now have been restarted. But there also has been some new drilling in the county.
The area between Baldwin and Eudora in eastern Douglas County continues to be the prime area for oil production in the area. With oil prices remaining high, and recovery techniques improving, there have been some dramatic increases in the amount of oil that producers are able to extract from those fairly modest wells.
For example, there is a field called Eudora South in eastern Douglas County. Up until 2007, it had not had more than one well operating at a time, and the field did not produce more than 710 barrels in any given year.
Since 2007, the field has had anywhere from 19 to 22 wells operating, and it has produced a total of 21,100 barrels of oil. If extracting oil has become that much more efficient, it makes you wonder why the price of it has remained so high?
Folks may be surprised that there actually are oil wells just outside the city limits of Lawrence. There has been new activity just outside of North Lawrence behind the ICL Performance Products plant — or the former FMC plant, to you old-timers.
A new set of oil storage tanks has been built near the intersection of North 1650 Road and East 1600 Road in the past several months. There also appears to be a fairly new oil well just to the south of that location.
The idea that there is oil in the Kansas River valley is not a new one, and indeed there have long been some old wells near the North 1650 and East 1600 roads area. But Lynn Watney, geologist with the Kansas Geological Survey, said he expects drillers will start having more interest in what has been known as the “shoestring sands” that run through the valley.
Enhanced drilling techniques have made it more feasible to get through the 1,000 to 1,200 feet of sediment that covers the sand beds. But the biggest factor, Watney said, has been the sustained high price of oil over the past several years. That has been the main driver in Douglas County becoming more active in the oil business.
“There is plenty of incentive when you are talking about $80 to $100 oil,” Watney said.
Statewide, oil production rose to 43.7 million barrels last year, up 5 percent from 2011. Douglas County continues to be a minor player in the oil business, compared to counties in western and southern Kansas. Ellis County, in northwest Kansas, is the state’s top producer, with nearly 3.6 million barrels in 2012, an increase of about 5 percent over 2011. Following Ellis County were the counties of Barber, Barton, Russell, Ness, Rooks, Haskell, Finney, Graham and Stafford.
Douglas County is in the middle of the pack when it comes to oil production from area counties. Here’s a look at 2012 totals for area counties:
• Jefferson County: 20,285 barrels from 62 wells;
• Johnson County: 293,351 barrels from 779 wells;
• Leavenworth County: 64,912 barrels from 210 wells;
• Franklin County: 201,661 barrels from 1,861 wells;
• Osage County: 2,195 barrels from four wells;
• Miami County: 171,826 barrels from 2,327 wells;
• Neighboring Shawnee County has no oil wells.
The KU report also measured natural gas production. Kansas, unlike some other states, hasn’t seen an increase in natural gas production; in fact, it declined about 4 percent in 2012. Watney said that mainly was because natural gas prices have been low, which has halted new drilling in the expansive Hugoton gas fields in southwest Kansas.
Douglas County had no active gas wells in 2012, according to the KU numbers.
That’s good to know. I’ll put my natural gas hunting expeditions on hold for a while. And I need to explain to my wife why the tulips are full of buckshot.
Lawrence restaurant updates: La Parilla’s new location, plans for a Sandbar Sub shop and 60 years for Johnny’s Tavern
Downtown Lawrence’s restaurant scene is heating up. Here’s a look at a few updates:
• La Parilla has moved into its new location at 724 Massachusetts Street, which formerly was the home of Tapas.
Co-owner Subarna Bhattachan told me recently that the new space gives the Mexican/Latin American restaurant about double the space that it had in its old location at 814 Massachusetts.
But Bhattachan said lots of new space doesn’t mean lots of changes for the restaurant. He and co-owner/co-chef Alejandro Lule decided not to make any changes to the menu.
What you may notice, though, is the restaurant now has a full bar. It also has a second-story dining area, which Bhattachan said may be used for private dining and catering events.
Bhattachan said the restaurant eventually will start hosting some wine tastings featuring vintages from Spain, Chile, and Argentina. Bhattachan said he also wants to look into the idea of doing some rum and tequila tastings. That sounds very interesting, but I doubt I can afford to participate in a tequila tasting. No. Bhattachan didn’t share any prices with me, but it has been my experience that tequila tastings ought to involve bail money.
• Bhattachan confirmed to me that La Parilla — which will turn 15 this summer — wasn’t really looking to move. But the restaurant did not have its lease renewed at 814 Massachusetts.
That’s a good sign that the owner of 814 Massachusetts, veteran landlord George Paley, has another tenant lined up to take the space. Indeed he does.
Paley told me another restaurant is set to take over the space. I don’t have details yet on the name or type of restaurant slated for the location. Paley said the new tenant is someone who grew up in Kansas, but is coming back from the East Coast.
I’ll let you know when I get more details.
• Also in the category of needing more details, is a plan to redevelop the former Mirth Cafe space at 745 New Hampshire. If you remember, Mirth has moved to the old Pepperjack’s Grill location at 10th and New Hampshire streets.
A building permit has been issued to remodel 745 New Hampshire into a space to house a Sandbar Subs shop and a branch for Peoples Bank, according to the paperwork filed at City Hall.
I’ve got calls into representatives with both of those businesses, and will report back when I hear more. What I can tell you, though, is Sandbar Subs already has a presence in Lawrence. The restaurant has locations in the Zarco gas stations on W. Sixth Street and E. 23rd Street. It also has a location in the Zarco station along Interstate 35 in Ottawa.
It has sandwiches or wraps with names like Captain Hook, Pirate Steak, Sammy the Shark and Jimmy the Sailor. The restaurants play beach-lovers' music and have a very tropical theme to them. It's sort of like having Jimmy Buffett serve you a sandwich. (I don’t think the menu is salt free, so evidently he found his lost shaker of salt.)
As I said, no details yet on what the downtown location may involve, but I would be warming up your pirate voice and digging out your eye patch just in case.
I know I said this was going to be a restaurant update, and unless you do something different with your money than I do, Peoples Bank doesn’t fit that bill. But if Peoples indeed is opening another branch downtown, that would be significant. New bank locations were a hallmark of the 1990s and early 2000s when the economy was really humming. Over the past few years, however, it was more common to see a bank consolidate locations — Central National for example pulled out of downtown.
But recently there has been expansion activity. We reported on Baldwin-based MidAmerica Bank signing a deal to open a location on West Sixth Street, and Lawrence Bank will get a nice new facility in downtown as part of the multistory apartment building project slated for the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire.
So, maybe the banking industry is one to keep an eye on again in Lawrence. (I may even have to take this eye patch off.)
• Several of you have been asking for an update on The Roost, which is the breakfast- and lunch-oriented restaurant slated to take over the former space of Milton’s at 920 Massachusetts Street.
Well, Manda Jolly, a partner in the project, told me the restaurant is scheduled to have a late-June to early-July opening. Renovation work is underway.
Some of you may have seen that the restaurant has started a Kickstarter campaign to try to raise $20,000 in funding. That sometimes creates questions about the viability of a project, but Jolly told me some of the building plans for the restaurant would have to be readjusted if the campaign is not successful. Either way, the group is committed to opening the restaurant.
Jolly also gave me some other details about how the menu and ownership group of the restaurant is shaping up, as well as plans to get into the venue rental business are shaping up. I’ll pass those along in a later post.
• And finally, you can’t forget Johnny’s, although there have been times the establishment has made my memory a little fuzzy.
The venerable restaurant and tavern in North Lawrence is celebrating its 60th anniversary this week. There are a handful of old bars in Lawrence, but Johnny’s uses the phrase “the longest running tap in Lawrence,” to describe itself.
The bar will have a special concert on Friday night with Billy Spears and the Beer Bellies, and then will throw an anniversary party on Saturday.
The business got started in 1953 when John Wilson turned his father’s farm implement store into a tavern. For the past 35 years, Lawrence businessman Rick Renfro has been the lead owner of the operation, and has expanded the Johnny’s brand into West Lawrence and the Kansas City metro area.
“It’s extraordinary,” Renfro said of the business’ run. “The average life span of a bar or restaurant is 15 years. I think we have beaten the odds.”
One after another, speakers with fingertips that lighted up stepped to the lectern at Lawrence City Hall last night. It was like a herd of E.T.’s had come to watch the City Commission meeting.
I’ve seen odder things at City Hall, but, no, there wasn’t an extraterrestrial presence at Tuesday night’s commission meeting. These lighted fingers could only mean one thing: The contentious issue of lighted tennis courts in the Centennial neighborhood is back.
More than a dozen members of the Lawrence Tennis Association showed up at the meeting to lobby commissioners to reconsider the idea of placing lights at the Lawrence Tennis Center near Lawrence High School. (The fingertip lights are a device players use to play on unlit courts.)
And simply put, the game is back on. Commissioners agreed to put the lighting issue on a future City Commission agenda for discussion.
That’s despite the fact that it appeared for the last several months that the issue was done and decided. City commissioners have agreed to spend about $640,000 to build eight, lighted, outdoor tennis courts as part of the city’s recreation center at Rock Chalk Park.
The lights have been controversial because neighbors near the site — which is basically on the grounds of the former Centennial Elementary school at 2145 Louisiana Street — have objected to the amount of light the court lights would spill onto their properties.
But members of the Lawrence Tennis Association have been equally adamant that the city needs to follow through on a promise to light the courts. Renovations at nearby Lawrence High School caused the city to lose eight lighted tennis courts several years ago. The school rebuilt the courts in a new location, but when it came time to add the lights, neighbors voiced concerns and city officials backed off.
Some city officials thought they had solved the issue with the Rock Chalk Park project. On Tuesday, members of the tennis association said they were appreciative of the future courts at Rock Chalk Park, but said they still want lighted courts in the central part of town. Plus, they said a city of Lawrence’s size could support lighted courts both at Rock Chalk Park and the Lawrence Tennis Center. That argument upset at least one commissioner.
“When we started all of this, it always has been about the need for eight illuminated courts,” City Commissioner Bob Schumm said. “Now we have the conversation up to 16, and I’m not buying that.”
But the other four commissioners said they were fine with having a formal discussion about the idea at a future meeting. Two new members have joined the commission — Jeremy Farmer and Terry Riordan — since the commission last discussed the issue. Neither Farmer nor Riordan indicated a position on the idea Tuesday.
“But I had a meeting with the neighborhood group a few weeks ago, and it seems to be pretty adamantly opposed to this,” Farmer said. “I think the tennis court lights are the straw that is breaking the camel’s back, it seems.”
A date for the commission to discuss the issue hasn’t been set. When one is, I’ll pass it along. And when it does, forget “E.T. phone home.” It will be: Chad, phone home. It will be a late night.
Here’s one company that won’t be sad at all if it rains on its ribbon cutting.
The folks at the Bowersock Mills and Power Company will be celebrating the opening of its $25 million hydroelectric power plant on the north bank of the Kansas River at 4 p.m. Friday.
The public is welcome at the event, and so is rain. The company opened the plant — located near the north end of the downtown Kansas River bridges — in late November. But it wasn’t until early April that the plant started producing any meaningful amount of electricity.
“There was just no flow in the river,” said Sarah Hill-Nelson, an owner of Lawrence-based Bowersock Mills and Power Company. “We were in the middle of this epic drought, but since then, we have had good continued rains.”
Hill-Nelson even can remember the exact day the plant had enough water flowing through it to really crank up the turbines: April 10, her birthday. (Man, I need her to teach me how she blows out her candles. Thanks to my wife’s stubbornness, it appears a birthday wish is the only way I’m going to get a lifetime supply of Doritos and a new Lazy Boy recliner.)
The project, in case you have forgotten, has more than tripled the amount of electricity the Bowersock Mills and Power Company can produce on the Kansas River. The new plant can produce 4.65 megawatts of electricity, while the company’s turn-of-the century hydroelectric plant on the south bank of the Kaw produces 2.35 megawatts.
All of the power produced by the plant is sold to the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities, which uses it to power homes in the metro area and receive credit for having a green energy source as part of its portfolio. I know the fact that all of the power is shipped to Kansas City has bummed out some people. They thought it would be cool if Lawrence residents could use the green power that is produced in Lawrence. But the fact the power is shipped to Kansas City is one of the greater parts of the project, in my opinion. If Lawrence residents buy the power, we’re just trading money that already is in the community. If Kansas City residents buy the power, that is new money coming to a truly Lawrence-based company — and thus into the Lawrence community — on a daily basis. That’s economic development.
But my favorite part of the project is it gives us all a reason to root for dreary, rainy, muddy days in Manhattan on a regular basis. Bowersock officials keep a close eye on the weather in the Manhattan area because when it rains there, it will mean increased flows through the power plant in another day or so.
There is good news on that front, Hill-Nelson said. (No, Willie the Wildcat hasn't permanently gotten stuck in a mud wrestling pit, as far as I know.) She said Tuttle Creek Reservoir near Manhattan recently reached conservation pool stage, meaning the lake’s water level is basically back up to normal. As more spring rains come, Tuttle Creek will be able to release more water into the Kaw, which will benefit the power plant. But more rain would be helpful for a variety of reasons. Both Perry and Milford, two other reservoirs that help feed the Kaw, are still several feet below normal levels. (The latest readings I have show Perry down by about 2 feet, and Milford down by about 4.5 feet. Of course, I may be off. You try carrying that measuring stick around.)
As for Friday’s event, it runs from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., and will include tours of the new plant. Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism Secretary Robin Jennison will make remarks about the project, and so will an official from the national hydroelectric power association. The Lawrence Chamber of Commerce is hosting the ribbon cutting, but Hill-Nelson said the event is open to both chamber and non-chamber members. She asks that members of the public who want to attend send an RSVP to RSVP@bowersockpower.com.
City to use eminent domain to take over dilapidated East Lawrence property; Just Food seeks $25,000 in CDBG funding to expand dairy, meat offerings
Well, Town Talk is playing catch-up today. As I previously reported, I was off on Friday to help park cars at the annual Lawrence Auto Swap Meet. And I was off on Monday to clean mud out of places that I didn’t know I had. So, that leaves us with several items of note on tonight’s Lawrence City Commission agenda to update you on. Here’s a look:
• The city is continuing to move down an unusual road in its efforts to see that a piece of East Lawrence property is cleaned up. The city is going through the process of using eminent domain to take over ownership of the property at 1106 Rhode Island St.
For those of you trying to picture the location, it is just east of the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. Or perhaps some of you remember it as the property that for years had multiple old Packard automobiles stored in its overgrown backyard.
The property — owned by the Barland family, which once owned the city’s Packard dealership — has a house and a barn. The house hasn’t been lived in for years, and its condition has been deteriorating.
The city has taken code enforcement action against the Barlands, but the city finds itself in an odd situation. Usually, the big hammer in a code enforcement case of this nature is that ultimately the city can declare the property unsafe and order it to be demolished. But in this case, the property is of a historic nature. The house dates back to 1871, and was owned by one of the city’s more prominent Irish businessmen — Rhody Delahunty, who operated his successful dray wagon business from the site.
Such history makes it likely that the city’s Historic Resources Commission would balk at tearing down the structures. The city has asked the Barland family to come up with ideas to either refurbish/redevelop the property or sell it to someone who is willing to do so. The family hired an architect to come up with proposals, but it hasn’t committed to any of the ideas. It also hasn’t been willing to sell the property, although it has attracted interest from the Lawrence Preservation Alliance.
So, commissioners in February started the process to use eminent domain to acquire the property. At tonight’s meeting, commissioners are being asked to take the next step: authorizing staff members to file a petition with Douglas County District Court that would start the legal proceedings.
The way the process works is that the court will come up with a price that the city must pay for the property. The process can be stopped at any time, if the Barlands and the city come to an agreement on the future of the property.
As for what the city would do with this deteriorating piece of property, that’s not entirely clear. City officials have said their plan would be to accept proposals from parties interested in restoring the property. The most common ideas have been for the property to be restored as a residence, and the barn perhaps as an artist studio or some other type of work space.
We’ll see how the process goes. The city certainly uses eminent domain to purchase easements for roads and utility projects where it can agree on a price with a landowner. But in my 20 years of covering City Hall, this is the first time I remember eminent domain being used to purchase a rundown piece of property. It will be interesting to see if this is the beginning of a new trend because there’s certainly more than one rundown piece of property in the city.
• Here’s a case where eminent domain wasn’t needed. The city is beginning to purchase easements to run a major water line from the Kaw Water Treatment Plant, across the Kansas River and into North Lawrence.
On tonight’s agenda, the city commission is set to approve paying $80,600 for 25,530 square feet of property. The property is vacant commercial property at 1000 N. Third Street, which is just south of the I-70 Business Center. The property is owned by a trust controlled by Lawrence businessman Samih Staitieh.
The price for the property — it pencils out to $3.15 per square foot — was based on independent appraisals. More purchases for the water line project are expected. The multimillion-dollar project is designed to provide an additional main water line to North Lawrence.
• The recent election of City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer has created an extra piece of paper work for Lawrence City Hall. Commissioners tonight are being asked to approve a conflict of interest waiver that will allow Farmer’s employer to apply for Community Development Block Grant Funding.
Farmer is the CEO of Just Food, the not-for-profit food bank that serves the county. A city advisory board is recommending that Just Food be awarded $25,000 in CDBG funding to buy a refrigerated food truck. But in order for the organization to receive the funding, the city must send a form to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development disclosing the conflict of interest and why the money should be awarded to the agency.
The more interesting part is what the truck will allow Just Food to do. Farmer told me the truck will be used to go to grocery stores, restaurants, convenience stores and other locations that often have to dispose of aging meat, dairy and produce.
Currently, Just Food doesn’t have a way to transport refrigerated material from the stores to its distribution center in East Lawrence. Consequently, Farmer estimates grocers and other are throwing away “thousands of dollars of food per week.” Most of the perishable items are pulled off the shelves several days before their expiration dates, which gives Just Food time to distribute it to needy families.
Farmer said the program is expected to significantly increase Just Food’s ability to provide milk, eggs, butter, meat and some produce to families.
“This is going to be a huge, huge deal for us,” Farmer said. “I haven’t seen butter and eggs down here in a long time.”
Farmer hopes to have the truck later this summer, but he said the timeline is dependent upon Washington, D.C.. Administrators with the CDBG program are watching to see if the sequestration delays or cuts the amount of funding available to the CDBG program.
City commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. tonight at City Hall.
The Lawrence real estate community hit a significant milestone in March. It was the 12th straight month that the Lawrence real estate market has posted year-over-year sales gains.
According to the new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors, there were 76 homes sales in March, up nearly 29 percent from the 59 sales made in March 2012.
Those numbers helped make for a strong first quarter. During the first three months of the year, 159 homes sales were recorded in the city, a 24 percent increase from the same time period a year ago.
It was about this time last year that the real estate market started making an upward climb, but back then the market was being fueled, in part, by sellers lowering their pricing expectations.
Now, the numbers indicate homes prices are on the rise as well. The median sale price on Lawrence homes in the first quarter was $165,000, up about 7 percent from the same period a year ago. Average sale prices should be taken with a grain of salt, because they are pretty dependent on the particular types of home being sold at the time. But still it is a number still worth watching.
Another number showing signs of a rebound is the average number of days a home sits on the market before it sells. The median days on market in March dropped to 68 days, down from 94 during March of 2012.
Several Realtors report the number is dropping because many homes have sold in just a matter of days. That must be the forces of supply and demand kicking in, because the supply of homes for sale on the Lawrence market is now at a two-year low.
The report found the number of active listings in Lawrence fell to 408, down from 578 in March 2012 and from 615 in March 2011.
All in all, local real estate agents seem to be genuinely pleased with the numbers.
“We need more new-construction homes and resale home listings to satisfy the demand,” said John Esau, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors and an agent with Keller Williams Realty. “It has been a long time since we could say that.”
Now, we’ll wait and see how the rest of the important spring and summer buying season plays out. We'll see whether local agents can expand upon their streak of consecutive months of sales increases. But the report indicated that sales were going well in April. Real estate agents had written contracts for 123 homes sales in April, up from 98 in April 2012.
Let me take care of a quick housekeeping matter here. (My wife’s ears just perked up. She would tell you my idea of housekeeping is making sure I put a chip clip on the bag of Doritos I keep next to my La-Z-Boy.) Town Talk will be off for the next couple of days. It will return on Tuesday.
Feel free to find me on Friday. I’ll be parking cars as part of a Eudora 4-H project at the Lawrence Auto Swap Meet at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. (It runs Friday through Sunday.) Then you can help me find a fender for a ‘66 T-Bird.
You can also try to find me on Monday, if you want. I would look in a dog house. That’s where I 'm usually forced to keep house in the days following the swap meet.
Duo has plan to convert Teller’s into gastropub with heavy emphasis on craft beers; Papa Murphy’s opens with special event for Boys and Girls Club today
In Lawrence, beer is art. If you don’t believe me, drive through certain neighborhoods and behold the beer-bottle pyramids erected on many a front porch.
Well, it looks like Lawrence beer lovers may soon have another way to express their love for the beverage: a gastropub.
A deal is in the works to convert the longtime, downtown, upscale restaurant Teller’s into a gastropub that focuses on Midwest food and an extensive list of libations, led by a large lineup of craft beers.
The idea for the new restaurant comes from T.K. Peterson, the former executive chef of The Oread, and Philip Wilson, the operating manager of Teller’s.
Peterson left his position at The Oread last week, and if all goes as planned, he’ll join Wilson at Teller’s next month.
“It is a concept that I’m passionate about,” Peterson told me. “We feel like Lawrence needs a new restaurant concept like this, but really why it comes down to this is the type of food I like to cook.”
What type of food will that be? I don’t know. My mind was still on the beer. (What can I say? I’m a dedicated patron of the arts.) Peterson said the plan is for the restaurant to work with the usual brewers and develop relationships with many small-batch breweries, and perhaps even have some special batch brews created just for the restaurant.
Notice that I have used the word “plan” quite a bit here. Some details are still being worked out on this deal, but Peterson and Wilson agreed to share a few details with me because the rumor mill had started to crank up about the future of Teller’s and whether it was set to close.
As it is currently envisioned, Teller’s, 746 Massachusetts St., is scheduled to close temporarily for a major renovation. Wilson said the closing likely would take place around July 1 and the business would reopen in its new form before the students arrive in late August.
As for whether the new restaurant will keep the Teller’s name, Peterson said that hadn’t been decided. “We don’t know on that yet, but it is hard to ignore the kind of name recognition Teller’s has, not only locally but really with alumni across the country.”
The project will be a bit of a homecoming for Peterson. He worked at Teller’s while attending the Culinary Institute at Johnson County. In total, Peterson has about 12 years on the Lawrence food scene, including stints at the former upscale French restaurant Bleu Jacket at The Eldridge and for the last 17 months as the executive chef at The Oread.
It sounds like this project will be one to watch in the coming months. I’ll update you as a I get more information.
On another restaurant note, those of you who want some pizza and don’t want to get out of the car to get it are in luck. As we previously reported, Papa Murphy’s Take ‘N’ Bake Pizza is one of the tenants opening in the new retail building at 650 Congressional Drive, which is just west of the Famous Dave’s BBQ location at Sixth and Wakarusa.
Well, Papa Murphy’s is now open at the location. (Wireless Zone, a Verizon Wireless phone dealer, is also open at that site. Other tenants for the location will include Prime Martial Arts and Meritrust Credit Union.) But back to pizza. Papa Murphy’s is hosting a special event today, where 20 percent of all sales made at the shop will go to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence.
As for the part about having the pizza placed right in your car, the location has a drive-through, which is a new concept for Papa Murphy’s in Lawrence. But hopefully you realize the “Take ‘N’ Bake” in Papa Murphy’s name means you have to cook the pizza yourself.
I don’t know about your vehicle, but my old F-150 doesn’t have an oven (or a working cassette player or a rear view mirror or brakes), so you may still have to get out of your vehicle to enjoy the pizza.
Or maybe not. I’ll ponder on it a bit. It is a beautiful May day. Perhaps I’ll do some pondering with a piece of pizza and a healthy dose of art, if you know what I mean.
Call it a rankings rut, and this one is pretty deep for the city of Lawrence.
A new national study has ranked Lawrence as the second-worst-performing small metropolitan area in the nation, based on a variety of economic measures. The Milken Institute ranked Lawrence 178 out of 179 metro areas in its most recent Best Performing Cities index. A web site for The Atlantic this week had an article analyzing the results.
This latest report adds onto the negative news released earlier this month by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis about Lawrence’s gross domestic product. It ranked 339th out of 366 metro areas, and was shrinking.
The Milken report uses some of the same types of economic numbers to create its index. But it places a particular emphasis on an area in which Lawrence is supposed to be positioned to excel: high-tech, knowledge-based jobs.
Simply put, the report found we aren’t excelling in that area. In fact, Lawrence didn’t excel in any area.
Over the course of the past year, Lawrence’s ranking in the report fell 79 spots, from No. 99 in the 2011 report to No. 178 in the most recent index. Only three other cities — Ithaca, N.Y., Great Falls, Mont., and Hot Springs, Ark. — had sharper declines than Lawrence’s.
The report takes a look at nine different categories, and Lawrence didn’t crack the top 100 in any of them. Here’s a look:
• Five-year job growth: No. 107
• One-year job growth: No. 172
• Five-year wage growth: No. 101
• One-year wage growth: No. 158
• One-year job growth percentage: No. 156
• Five-year high-tech GDP growth: No. 170
• One-year high-tech GDP growth: No. 151
• High-tech GDP as part of overall GDP: No. 164
• Concentration of high-tech companies: No. 148
I know how you all like comparisons, so I have gathered the rankings for several regional communities. I would ask for a drumroll, but the drama already has been sucked from this. Since Lawrence is second to last — last place was Carson City, Nev. — I’m guessing you’ve already deduced that every city in the region ranked ahead of us.
On a positive note, Manhattan, which has been on a roll in these type of rankings, wasn’t included in this index, likely because its population wasn’t quite large enough to qualify. But fear not, here is something for you to gnash your teeth over: Columbia, Mo., ranked No. 10 on the small cities list. Here’s a look at others:
• Iowa City, Iowa: No. 16
• St. Joseph, Mo.: No. 29
• Waco, Texas: No. 31
• Joplin, Mo.: No. 44
• Ames, Iowa: No. 61
• Topeka: No. 144
Several of the cities Lawrence often compares itself to, or at least watches, were included in the list of 200 large cities. Here’s how some of those cities fared in the rankings:
• Fort Collins, Colo.: No. 12
• Boulder, Colo.: No. 15
• Lubbock, Texas: No. 20
• Oklahoma City: No. 32
• Madison, Wis.: No. 71
• Lincoln, Neb.: No. 81
• Kansas City: No. 104
• Tulsa, Okla.: No. 118
• Springfield, Mo.: No. 144
• Wichita: No. 146
Take these rankings for whatever you think they’re worth. These indexes all have their own biases about what they think are the most important economic indicators. This one seems to be heavily focused on wages and high-tech business indicators. For what it is worth, those are two areas I hear local leaders emphasize a lot as well.
Another factor to remember is that this index — like all of them — is based on data that sometimes has some age to it. Most of the job growth numbers date back to 2011, and some of the wage numbers date back to 2010. It was no secret that Lawrence struggled during those periods. It also is worth remembering that Lawrence basically has entirely revamped its economic development team since that point.
Plus, some recent indicators have been more positive. Retail sales tax collections in 2012 had their best growth since the mid-1990s, there’s been a significant decline in Massachusetts Street vacancies, Hallmark Cards is in the process of shifting about 200 workers to its Lawrence plant, and even home sales and building permits have showed signs of a rebound.
Yes, I’m trying to put a little cheer in your Kool-Aid. But only for a moment. I’ll leave you with a finding from the report that ought to leave Lawrence leaders scratching their heads. The authors of the report noted that there were two types of communities most likely to do well in this year’s index: communities benefiting from the country’s new natural gas and oil exploration; and communities with “high concentrations of public-sector employees, especially in prominent universities.”
That second one sure sounds like us. But maybe our definition of prominent is a bit different from others. The top ranked small city, for the second year in a row, was Logan, Utah, home to Utah State University. Prominent? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure our basketball team can beat theirs.
Costlier, slower, more limited: It is bringing back memories of the teacher comment section on my report cards.
Well, this is a report card of sorts, and "costlier, slower, more limited" is the key phrase in a new study of the city’s Internet broadband market. A consulting team hired by Lawrence City Hall found that the current broadband offerings in Lawrence generally are “costlier, slower and more limited than in other comparable communities.”
Fixing that situation, however, won’t be easy. Every once in a while the idea of the city owning and operating its own high-speed Internet broadband network is brought up. In other words, the city would jump into the Internet service provider market, and compete with the likes of Knology, AT&T and others. But the city would do it with high-speed, fiber-optic cable that runs directly to homes and businesses, as opposed to the slower, more traditional copper telephone and cable lines that serve much of Lawrence.
The idea is a recurring dream for technology geeks. But the latest numbers indicate it may be nothing more than a dream for quite some time. The consultants, CTC Technology & Energy, estimate that it will cost upwards of $70 million to build and deploy such a system in the city. That’s not an impossible number — it's about $25 million more than what the city is spending for a library and a recreation center — but the consultants are urging caution in the matter. Their analysis indicates the city would have to capture at least 50 percent of the entire market share in Lawrence to break even. That would be a tough number to reach, the consultants predict.
But there are other ways the city can make itself a more desirable high-speed Internet city – which not surprisingly, the consultants said will be very important in the future. Here’s a look at some of the recommendations:
• The city could spend around $320,000 to $640,000 to complete a 17-mile ring of fiber-optic cable around the city. The fiber would allow city, county, school and university facilities access to higher-speed Internet connections. The consultants say that alone is worth the cost of the project. But if built in the right way, excess capacity on the fiber ring could be leased out to private companies that have an interest in competing against the two large Internet providers in the city — AT&T and Knology. The report found there are at least three companies that have expressed an interest in such an idea: Level 3, Kansas Fiber Network and Wicked Broadband, which already leases some fiber from the city.
• New development regulations could be written that would require builders to install more fiber-optic infrastructure as a part of their projects. Loma Linda, Calif., has created development regulations that require “cable pathways, fiber connections and internal fiber wiring” be installed as part of any major residential or commercial building project. Sandy, Ore., goes even further. It requires developers to install conduit all the way from the public right-of-way to the home, and then deed that conduit to the city. The idea is that when fiber-optic projects reach a neighborhood, the most expensive part of the process already will be complete, courtesy of developers. The report estimates any new regulations would be a “small burden” to developers. We would see about that, but usually new regulations for developers produce something a bit larger than a “small debate” at City Hall.
• Sucking up to Google may be a good idea. The Google Fiber project in Kansas City is all the buzz in the tech world. The consultants said the city should at least make a more serious effort to have Google consider expanding the project to Lawrence. Google recently did announce that it was expanding the service to Olathe. The consultants reached out to the community manager for the Google Fiber project, and she asked that the city send a formal letter of interest to enter into discussions with Google about an expansion.
As for what the report had to say about Lawrence’s existing broadband providers, it wasn’t much different than what many ordinary folks say. The report found AT&T’s offerings are more limited than in several other comparable communities. With Knology, the consultants found the company’s base pricing is reasonably competitive with other markets, but its use of data caps on many plans makes it less competitive. The report didn’t provide any analysis of the recently-announced pilot project by Wicked Broadband to extend fiber to at least one neighborhood in Lawrence.
The report made several other recommendations and findings, but they were of a technical nature that went beyond my “costlier, slower and more limited” mind.
City commissioners will get a chance to digest the report soon. The City Commission is expected to formally receive the report and discuss possible next steps in the next several weeks.
Lawrence home builders have best first quarter since 2010, according to new report; Hallmark undertakes another $3.3 million in construction
Shine that hammer and sharpen that saw. There are signs that the Lawrence homebuilding industry is getting busier.
According to a new report released by City Hall, builders started 23 new single-family or duplex homes in Lawrence during March. That brings the total number of single-family and duplex permits to 42, which is the highest first-quarter total since 2010.
For decades, single-family home construction has been the bread and butter of the Lawrence construction industry, and a major driver in the overall Lawrence economy. But the industry has hit hard times. In 2011, only 95 single family building permits were issued for the entire year, snapping a 55-year streak of the city issuing at least 100 new single-family building permits annually.
Since then, the industry has been creeping back. But this latest report is the best sign yet that the industry is getting a new footing. The first-quarter single-family and duplex numbers are 40 percent higher than the 2012 first-quarter numbers and are double the 2011 first-quarter totals.
The latest report also had strong numbers for several other parts of the local construction industry. Here’s a look at other figures from the March report:
• The city issued permits for $12.1 million worth of projects in March, the highest March total since 2009.
• For the year, the city has issued permits for $34.9 million worth of projects, the highest first-quarter total in the past five years.
• As we’ve previously reported, Hallmark Cards is moving all of its U.S. greeting card production to its Lawrence plant as part of a reorganization. That project is continuing to pay dividends for the local construction industry. Hallmark took out a $3.3 million building permit to make interior renovations to the plant. That’s in addition to $1.2 million worth of permits Hallmark already had received for the project earlier this year. If your abacus is a bit rusty, that means Hallmark now has undertaken $4.5 million worth of work at the plant during the first three months of the year.
• The city didn’t issue any permits for new apartment construction in March, but for the first quarter, that sector has been busy. Through the first three months of the year, the city has issued permits for 286 apartment units, the highest first-quarter total of the past five years.
There are a few survival tips I’ve learned in nature: Never stare a feral hog in the eye; don’t get between a bear and her cub; and don’t block a Lawrence resident from his French toast.
That last one is courtesy of David Lewis, the former owner of the one-time downtown breakfast institution Milton’s. (I won’t tell you where the first one came from.)
Lewis confirmed to me that he’s bringing back Milton’s and all its old menu favorites, but it will be in Lewis’s new restaurant location in the ground floor of the 901 Building at Ninth and New Hampshire streets. That restaurant currently is called Loopy’s, but not for long. Lewis said he will rebrand the restaurant to Milton’s, as soon as he can get the details on signs and such worked out.
In November, Lewis closed Milton’s — which had operated for 15 years at 920 Massachusetts Street — and began focusing on the new Loopy’s concept.
Unlike Milton’s, Loopy's was a breakfast, lunch and dinner place that stayed open until 11 p.m. But there was a problem: Breakfast wasn’t what it used to be. It was frittatas, quiches and other similar dishes rather than hashbrowns, over-easy eggs and French toast.
“Our plan is to build on our old menu and really go with the things that have worked for us in the past,” Lewis said. “A lot of customers really missed it. We heard about it everyday since we opened.”
The new menu — which is basically the old menu — is already back in place. Lewis said the new Milton’s is serving breakfast seven days a week, and until 2 p.m. each day.
Unlike the past Milton’s, this location will stay open until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, and Lewis said the restaurant is keeping the liquor license it received to operate Loopy’s.
One of the bigger differences with the new Milton’s will be its size. The 901 location has just 28 seats inside, but it has a large patio area than can seat another 32.
“I love the space that we have with the windows and the light,” Lewis said. “We would like to get some nice weather, though, to take advantage of the outdoor seating. I think folks are really going to like that.”
Other changes include removing the pizza oven from the restaurant in order to accommodate the kitchen equipment to cook a full breakfast. The ownership of the operation also has changed. Lawrence chef Sula Teller and her husband, Lawrence marketing executive Billy Pilgrim, are no longer involved with the restaurant.
What hasn’t changed though, is all the old Milton’s recipes. Lewis said 20 of the 22 employees at the restaurant were former Milton’s employees, so the transition to the old dishes has not been difficult.
He said crowds have picked up at the location since the menu was implemented about a week ago.
“The Loopy’s concept just didn’t seem to resonate with a lot of people,” Lewis said. “When we were closing Milton’s, I started to see the sentiment and feelings people had for it. It was really pretty emotional.”
And many people would tell you pretty addictive too. Since its closing, we've heard from many people who seem to be having breakfast food withdrawals. Lewis said that might have something to do with the little bit of brandy that is a key ingredient in the French toast.
Yes, the return of Milton’s may mean downtown Lawrence becomes even more competitive on the breakfast scene. As we previously reported, a former manager of Milton’s is set to open up a breakfast restaurant called The Roost in the former Milton’s location on Massachusetts Street. I haven’t received an update on those efforts in awhile, so I’ll check in and report back.
In the meantime, I need to get my dose of breakfast brandy. Sure, I probably could go for some French toast too.
City seeking grant money to improve 23rd and Haskell intersection in preparation for increased traffic from SLT
If there is a special set of scissors out there that have been put aside to cut the ribbon on the completed South Lawrence Trafficway, it may be time to get them out and limber them up. You’ll probably have to knock the rust off of them too. After all, they’ve been sitting unused for more than 20 years.
Obviously, a ribbon cutting for the final leg of the SLT isn’t imminent, but there are more and more signs all the time that people now understand the day is coming. Construction is set to begin this fall, and the road could be open by the Fall of 2016.
The latest signs of preparations for the project are coming out of Lawrence City Hall. Commissioners at their meeting tonight will have three items on their agenda related to the SLT.
The largest is an item to begin the planning of significant upgrades to the 23rd Street and Haskell Avenue intersection.
Commissioners are being asked to submit a grant application to the Kansas Department of Transportation for $1.2 million worth of improvements to the intersection.
The project would include rebuilding the entire intersection with concrete and adding right-turn lanes on 23rd street to accommodate traffic turning both north and south onto Haskell. New traffic signals, storm sewer improvements and sidewalk ramps also would be installed.
The project also would include a widening of Haskell Avenue for the first several feet south of 23rd Street. That widening would make it easier for all of Haskell Avenue to be widened in the future, if traffic demand calls for it. Haskell likely will become a busier road once the trafficway is completed. The SLT plans call for an interchange to be built where Haskell and the SLT intersect. It will be one of the few places for motorists in eastern Lawrence to get onto the trafficway. The only other two interchanges for the SLT will be at Iowa Street and at the ending point for the SLT, which will be near Noria Road on the far eastern edge of the city.
The city is seeking $900,000 in state grant funding for the project. The city at-large would pay the other $300,000 for the improvements. The city should find out this summer whether it has been awarded the grant. Construction likely would occur in the summer or fall of 2015.
The second project is just a simple repaving of 23rd Street from Iowa to Ousdahl. At first glance, that may not seem to have much to do with the South Lawrence Trafficway, but it does. City officials are trying to get as much work done on 23rd Street as possible because currently 23rd Street also is designated as Kansas Highway 10. That designation means it is eligible for state funding for repaving or other similar work.
But once the South Lawrence Trafficway is completed in 2016, 23rd Street no longer will be designated as Kansas Highway 10, and the full cost of maintaining 23rd Street will fall on the city. At their meeting tonight, commissioners will apply for $200,000 in state funds to help repave the section of 23rd Street. If approved, construction work would take place in the summer of 2014.
That would tie in well with a larger project that already has been approved. A major rebuilding of the 23rd and Iowa street intersection is scheduled for 2014.
The third SLT project on tonight’s agenda is a wetland project. That perked up some ears in this town. One part of the SLT project that some people may have forgotten about is that a whole new east-west city street will be constructed at the same time the SLT is being built.
As most people know, 31st Street will move to the south a bit and become a new four-lane city street. But it no longer will stop at Haskell Avenue. Local officials will build the new 31st Street (it actually may be called 32nd Street) eastward all the way to O’Connell Road.
As part of that project, it is estimated about 4 acres of wetlands on the east side of Haskell Avenue will be disturbed by the construction. If you have followed the history of the SLT, perhaps you have heard that if you disturb wetlands you have to create new wetlands to mitigate the effects.
At tonight’s meeting, city commissioners are set to approve an approximately $25,000 contract with Wilson & Co. to begin creating the plan to mitigate the wetland damage. The working plan is that the city will buy 4 acres of excess property in the area from KDOT and turn the land over to Baker University to create new wetlands. But Wilson & Co. will hold a series of public meetings to get feedback on the issue.
Tonight’s City Commission meeting is set for 6:35 p.m. at City Hall.
Menard’s project highlights city rule on vacant space; a look at how Lawrence ranks in state retail report
Build it, and it will be empty. That's the motto of Lawrence, at least in one way.
City planners will be reminded of that tonight. The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will consider a proposal by Menard's, the large home improvement chain, to build a 190,000-square-foot store just east of 31st and Iowa streets. As we previously reported, the city's planning staff is recommending denial of the proposal.
But you may not be aware of one of the reasons the project has received a negative recommendation: When large retail projects are proposed in the city, planners are required to look at a retail market analysis to determine what the city's retail vacancy rate will be after the project is built. The way the rules are written, the vacancy rate is to be calculated by assuming the new project will be 100 percent vacant.
So when city officials do the calculations for this project, they put aside the fact that Menard's has no plans to build a 190,000-square-foot building and then leave it empty. Instead, the city adds the 190,000 square feet of the new store onto the city's estimated amount of vacant square footage, which stood at 643,000 square feet the last time it was calculated, in 2010.
When the city planners add on the 190,000 square feet, that pushes the city's supposed vacancy rate to 8.4 percent from 7 percent — which is just above the 8 percent total that is supposed to be a red flag when it comes to vacancy rates. According to a planning staff report, if you add in the approximately 65,000 square feet of smaller retail space proposed to be built along the outer edges of the Menard's project, the vacancy rate would jump to 9.6 percent.
But the city's planning rules also suggest planners go a step further. The city staff looked at all the retail zoning that currently is in place in the city, but doesn't yet have any buildings on it. That totals about 932,000 additional square feet. The city then makes the assumption that all of that will be built, and then be completely empty. That produces a frightening vacancy rate of 17.8 percent.
Planners, of course, don't think people are going to build large retail buildings without first having a tenant to occupy them. The city's planners understand the city's building market better than most because they are on the front lines of development proposals. But already I have heard people complaining about the city's Planning Department and why it would make this type of assumption. Well, city planners get the thankless job of being a referee in the city's politically charged development arena.
In other words, the job of a planner is to apply the rules to the project — not to rewrite the rules. Rewriting the rules is the job of city commissioners, and the rule that requires the city to assume large new retail buildings are going to be vacant has been on the city's books for at least the past decade.
Its days may be numbered, though. Scott McCullough, the city's planning director, told me the process has begun to change the rule. But it won't reach the City Commission in time to be considered for the Menard's proposal.
The rule change probably will get some opposition as well. There is certainly a group of local citizens that is very convinced the city's retail scene is overbuilt. They argue that even though a new Menard's building won't be empty, the addition of that much retail space in the city will cause an approximate amount of retail square footage elsewhere in the community to go vacant. That theory is how the rule got put in place to begin with.
In other words, the way the city's rules are written right now, retail is assumed to be a zero-sum game. For every one square foot of new retail space that comes into town, you must assume one square foot elsewhere will become vacant. Maybe that is the case in some economic climates. But maybe it isn't the case in other economic conditions.
What's certain is that retail zoning requests are a judgment call. The first round of judging will begin tonight at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall, when the Planning Commission meets. Ultimately, city commissioners will make the final decision on the Menard's request.
• One other piece of information that was included in the city staff's report was a mention of a state report that ranks how Lawrence's retail scene is doing compared to other Kansas cities. It is called a “pull factor” report, and it is basically a look at how Lawrence's per capita sales tax collections compared to the statewide average. It is called a pull factor because it is assumed that cities with averages much higher than the state are “pulling” customers from other communities to shop.
It is a perfect statistic for retail developers because it can be manipulated to fit the situation. When the pull factor is low, it can be argued that more retail development is needed in order to stop the amount of Lawrence residents who go outside of the city to shop. When the number is high, it can be presented as evidence that retail demand is high and the market can support additional retail development.
But the numbers are interesting because they do a good job of showing how Lawrence's per capita spending stacks up against other cities. The most recent report, which is for the state's 2012 fiscal year, shows Lawrence's numbers have rebounded. The city's pull factor was 1.07, which means it is 7 percent higher than the statewide average. As recently as 2000, the city's pull factor was .99. Going back farther, the city hit a high-water mark of 1.13 in 2000. So, we're somewhere in the middle of the range but trending upward.
Here's a look at how other large towns in the state fared. I'll leave the analysis up to you: Lenexa: 1.52 Overland Park: 1.51 Salina: 1.47 Garden City: 1.47 Manhattan: 1.40 Leawood: 1.40 Topeka: 1.37 Hutchinson: 1.27 Liberal: 1.23 Dodge City: 1.22 Olathe: 1.18 Pittsburg: 1.13 Junction City: 1.12 Wichita: 1.11 Fort Scott: 1.09 Coffeyville: 1.08 Emporia: 1.08 Lawrence: 1.07 Parsons: 1.05 Shawnee: .93 Atchison: .89 Kansas City: .86 Newton: .87 Leavenworth; .73 Prairie Village: .64
Finally, a gym where they won’t look at me funny when I wear my biker shorts with my tool belt.
No, it won’t have treadmills and weight benches. It will have something even better: tools and workbenches.
Eric Kirkendall, a local advocate for artists and inventors, has confirmed to me that a group he leads is finalizing a deal to lease an industrial building along East Ninth Street to house a new concept that tentatively is being called the Lawrence Community Workshop.
The concept, Kirkendall said, will be structured a lot like a workout gym. You’ll pay a monthly fee to access the shop’s equipment and training sessions.
The end result, Kirkendall hopes, is a place where artists, inventors, craftsmen and other creative types can strengthen their career potential.
“To me, this is really an economic development project,” Kirkendall said. “There is an incubator in town for biotech firms, but if you are a bright, creative, young person who wants to build something and make something, there is really no place for you to go.”
The Community Workshop group expects to finalize a lease by the end of the month for the vacant building at 512 E. Ninth Street. The approximately 4,000-square-foot building formerly was the workshop for noted artist Stan Herd, who recently moved his space down the street to East Lawrence’s Warehouse Arts District near the Poehler Lofts building.
The workshop will have all the basic woodworking and metal shop tools, but it also will have some advanced pieces of equipment that get expensive for start-up businesses to purchase. The space is expected to have a 3D printer and scanner, which is a high-tech piece of equipment that spits out (sorry to get so technical) three-dimensional objects based on a digital design you input into the machine. There is much talk about how the devices are going to revolutionize small-scale manufacturing.
The shop also is expected to have a couple of CNC machine tools. Those are devices such as high-tech lathes and routers that automatically cut out shapes and designs based on a pattern that is entered into a computer.
The workshop also is slated to have some more traditional computer capabilities — such as computers with Photoshop and other programs — for artists and designers.
The building will have one other additional component: an art gallery. The building will have space for about 400 linear feet of art gallery space that he believes can accommodate up to 100 artists. The gallery will be designed in a way that it can also function as meeting room and classroom space.
“Training sessions are expected to be a big part of what we do,” Kirkendall said. “We hope to train 1,000 people a year out of there.”
As for the financial aspects of this deal, Kirkendall said the group currently is contemplating a fee of $29 per month for people who want to have access to the workshop, and $20 per month for artists who want to have space in the gallery.
The workshop will function as a non-profit venture. The idea grew out of a previous idea for an arts, science and creative incubator that the group Lawrence Creates had about two years ago. Since then, Lawrence Creates has partnered with the well-established Lawrence Art Guild. The 51-year old non-profit has taken over the effort to find grant funding for the workshop idea. The group’s non-profit status also means people can make tax-deductible donations, including tools, to the project.
But Kirkendall said that an attractive lease rate on the building will make it possible for the workshop project to proceed even before grants are found. He hopes to have activity in the space by mid- to late summer.
The idea of a community workshop is a new concept to Lawrence, and it should be an interesting one to watch. The workshop is locating in an area of town with some momentum. Just down the street is the previously mentioned Warehouse Arts District, which includes some low-cost, small-scale office space for start-ups.
I was just telling someone the other day that the days ahead should be interesting for both Lawrence’s large-scale — think Farmland Industries business park and completion of the SLT — and small-scale business scenes.
But I don’t think he heard me. He was busy staring at my tool belt.
Back in the day, when the little space in the Orchards Corner Shopping Center at Bob Billings and Kasold housed the Brass Apple restaurant, there was a lot of stretching going on in the space. Mainly, stretching of my elastic waistband.
Well, now there is stretching of a different type. The Lawrence dance academy Point B Dance has moved into the long vacant space at 3300 Bob Billings Parkway.
The new space represents an expansion for the dance studio that started out about five years ago, and most recently was located in the Sunset West shopping area along Sixth Street. The new location about doubles the amount of space for the business.
The dance studio is unique in town because it focuses on teaching dance to adults 16 years and older. Lots of studios in town are in the children’s dance market, but studio owner Cathy Patterson said the adult market is a growing one.
“There are more and more people interested in the art of dance,” said Patterson, a former professional dancer in California who was trained at KU’s dance department. “People danced when they were young, and now they are coming back to it.”
The studio offers recreational classes and also operates an approximately 25-member dance company that is geared toward performance-oriented dance. The business offers multi-week sessions, but also has several classes where people can just pay by the day.
The new space is allowing the business to expand into the market of providing fitness-oriented dance classes. But the studio’s main emphasis continues to be on contemporary dance — a mixture of modern and ballet dances — jazz dance, turning and leaping classes, and a host of hip hop dance classes.
Now, I may have done some hip hop in that space too. But that was after it changed from the Brass Apple to a short-lived Cajun restaurant that was spelled something like Loo-zee-ana’s. Those Cajuns may have been questionable on their spelling, but they sure had a hot sauce that could make you move in some funny ways.
If you are like me and you need a burrito break every once in a while as you navigate the traffic on 23rd Street, you’ll soon have a new option.
The folks from Chipotle Mexican Grill have filed plans to tear down an existing retail building on 23rd Street and build a new restaurant.
The company has filed a site plan to redevelop the old multi-tenant retail building at 1420 W 23rd Street. In case you can’t picture that building (you might have salsa on your glasses; it happens to me a lot while driving on 23rd Street), the building is an older wooden structure that sits back off the street a bit, and has housed an insurance agency, tobacco store, wireless phone company and other various tenants recently. It is right next door to . . . wait, wait . . . Taco Bell.
Can you say, “Let’s get ready to rumble!.” (But can you say it really cool like that one guy? And if so, are people in your office looking oddly at you right now?)
According to the site plan on file at City Hall, the development will replace the approximately 6,000-square-foot, multi-tenant building with a 2,200-square-foot, standalone Chipotle restaurant. The restaurant, it appears, also will have a sizable outdoor seating area.
No word yet on a timeline for the project, or any plans for existing tenants in the building. But I’ve got a message into a representative with the development and will let you know if I hear anything interesting.
City lays off one employee in Planning Department; creates new position of Small Business Facilitator
The folks who oversee the planning of the city’s growth and development are drawing up a new plan about how to run their department.
Scott McCullough, director of the city’s Planning and Development Services Department, has confirmed his office recently laid off one employee as part of a reorganization plan.
The city eliminated the department’s GIS Analyst position — held by Renee Yocum — as part of a reorganization that has created a new position to help small businesses navigate their way through the city’s planning and development process.
The new position, which has been given the title of Small Business Facilitator, hasn’t yet been filled. McCullough said the position won’t be an actual planner who does reviews of proposed development projects, but rather a person who can be brought into the process at any time to provide extra assistance to small businesses that are trying to get a necessary permit or approval from City Hall.
“The idea is that we’ll have a concentrated focus in the small business arena so we can provide those applicants enhanced customer service,” McCullough said.
The reorganization also has resulted in a decision to move the department’s assistant director — longtime planner Sheila Stogsdill — into a new position called a Planning Administrator.
The Planning Administrator position will be responsible for overseeing all planning applications made to the office and ensuring they are processed in a timely manner. The position will oversee applications made to the Planning Commission, the Historic Resources Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals, McCullough said.
He said the city will start advertising to fill Stogsdill’s current position of assistant planning director within the next few days. McCullough said the assistant director position will become more responsible for reviewing the policies and customer service functions of the department.
The city actually has two assistant director positions to fill in the department, with the other being the assistant director for the development services division. Longtime city employee Margene Swarts — who recently retired — occupied that position, which oversees building inspections, code enforcement and other related matters.
McCullough said he hopes to have all the positions filled by mid-summer.
The moves come shortly after city commissioners asked City Manager David Corliss — as part of his annual review — to look for ways to strengthen and streamline the city’s planning and development services process.
It will be worth watching to see whether other initiatives occur in the department this year. City officials for the better part of a decade have been talking about the need to create a “one-stop shop” for people looking to do development projects. Currently, the city’s planning department and building inspections department are in two different offices. The city for several years has been looking for space and funding to consolidate the two functions.