Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
Lawrence library visitors up 55 percent; city agrees to final library construction bill; solar panels installed at Prairie Park
Perhaps we all should have just read a book instead of watching Tuesday night’s KU-Kentucky game. Book club selections for last night’s game include: Stephen Covey’s Eight Habits of Highly Effective People. (The little known eighth habit is disabling the Kentucky Wildcats team bus prior to it ever reaching the arena.) I can’t attest to how many people were checking out books at the Lawrence Public Library last night, but there are new numbers out that show business is booming since the library moved into its new space.
If you remember, the library held its grand opening for a completely renovated facility at Seventh and Vermont streets in late July. As expected, lots of folks came through the doors in the days that followed just to check it out. (Opening Day attracted 12,000 people, and 150,000 people have visited since the doors opened July 26. ) But Library Director Brad Allen now has numbers for September 2014, and they show library attendance remains much higher than normal.
Library visits were up 55 percent in September compared to September 2013. About 40,000 people visited the library during the month. New users of the library grew by an even greater amount. The library issued 1,060 new borrower cards in September, up 96 percent from September 2013 totals.
Other numbers from September include:
— Attendance at youth programs was up 160 percent to about 2,600 for the month.
— Program attendance for all types of events was up 31 percent to about 3,400 people.
— The number of total items is up 10 percent to about 115,000 items.
— The number of youth items — books, DVDs, etc. — is up 24 percent to about 37,000 items.
So, the early returns indicate the number of kids using the library is up significantly. That’s what library officials had expected. The renovation project included much more space devoted to children and teen materials and activities.
• City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting took care of one major library project item. Commissioners agreed to the final total costs for the project. The final bill ended up raising fewer questions than the final bill for Rock Chalk Park, which also was on Tuesday’s night’s agenda.
That’s mainly because the library project was fairly traditional and followed a city bidding process, and the costs came in within original estimates. Sort of. The record will show that the city spent just under $18 million for the library project. That is the amount voters were told when they went to the polls to approve the project in 2010.
But this project is like many other things involving money: It depends on how you count it. (I count my money from afar, at my wife’s insistence.) Everything that you see at and around the new library project did cost more than $18 million. The total project cost $19.8 million, but about $835,000 of that amount is for an extra level that was added to the design of the parking garage following the 2010 library vote. Commissioners at the time said none of the library bond money would be used to cover those costs. Instead, city commissioners said they would pay for the garage through a combination of existing city funds and a special property tax assessment that will be placed on downtown property whose owners the city believes will benefit from extra parking.
The other piece of math to be aware of is that private donations through the library’s endowment fund are paying for about $1 million of the library costs. That also is what was presented to voters in 2010. So, when you deduct those two items from the project’s total, you come up with $17.94 million of money that was spent from the voter-approved library bond issue. The remaining $52,041 in the library bond fund will be set aside for future library maintenance, commissioners determined on Tuesday.
So, by using those calculations, the library project came in slightly under budget. But it's worth noting that the project did end up costing a bit more than what was anticipated when the project was competitively bid. During the course of the project, city officials agreed to about $520,000 worth of change orders. Change orders typically are tweaks that are made to a project after construction has begun. You can see the entire list of change orders here, but most of them appear to be fairly technical items. In addition, city officials also agreed to spend about $170,000 on projects that were near the library but not really a part of the original project. That included traffic signal improvements near the library, additional street lights for the area, and even some new pavement work for the nearby Lawrence fire station, which city officials said could be done more cheaply because crews were already in the area. Those projects weren’t paid for through the $18 million voter-approved bond. They were paid for through other city funds.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If you head out to the city’s Prairie Park Nature Center anytime soon, you may notice some construction work. Crews with Lawrence-based Good Energy Solutions are installing an array of solar panels on the roof of the facility, 2730 Harper.
As we previously have reported, the project was selected as part of a grant program sponsored by Westar Energy. The grant aims to educate the public about the benefits of solar energy and place solar panels in places where the public can see them in action. (In fairness, solar panels are kind of like last night’s version of the Jayhawks: They’re not much to look at, and they shoot a really low field goal percentage.) The project, though, does include a kiosk where visitors can see how the solar panels work and how much energy they are producing at any moment. City officials also are excited about the potential cost savings the panels will provide. They’re estimating the panels will reduce energy costs by about 20 percent, or about $1,300 a year.
Under the terms of the grant, Westar is paying for the full cost of the panels and their installation.
Chamber CEO talks VenturePark prospects, other projects; questions raised about arts corridor application ahead of commission vote
Lawrence is in the running to land a large manufacturer that would employ an estimated 125 people over the next five years, and would occupy about 120 acres of property at the former Farmland Industries site that the city has converted into a business park.
I’ve been telling you for a couple of months now that economic development leaders have said they have a strong prospect for the former Farmland site, which is now called Lawrence VenturePark. But at a meeting this morning, Lawrence Chamber of Commerce President Larry McElwain gave the most details yet about the prospect.
McElwain didn’t provide the name of the company or a specific industry, but McElwain said the bulk of the jobs would be manufacturing in nature. He said the company would look to make a capital investment of about $20 million over five years.
“This is a really exciting company that is looking at us right now,” McElwain said.
McElwain, speaking at an economic development update breakfast, didn’t say when we will know if the company has chosen Lawrence for its new home. But in conversations I have had with other people knowledgeable about the situation, the current talks have been described as negotiations. Now, whether the company is in exclusive negotiations with Lawrence or also is negotiating with other communities, I don’t know.
I would assume the negotiations involve an incentive package to bring the company here, but I don’t know that for a fact. It has been assumed for quite a while that once the city developed VenturePark, it would become more aggressive in putting together packages to lure companies to the site. Other communities in similar situations have offered free or discounted land to companies that will produce quality jobs. We’ll see what is on the horizon here, but it sounds like economic development officials are still very much in the thick of what could be a significant deal. At 125 jobs, that would be one of the larger new employers to come to town in the last decade or so. A 120-acre site also would be a big one by Lawrence standards. That project would consume about a third of the available industrial property the city has at VenturePark.
McElwain provided updates on a few other projects as well. They include:
— An animal health company that wants to initially locate 11 jobs in the Kansas City area. Over five years, it could provide 55 jobs, with most of the positions being technical or managerial in nature and offering “very high salaries,” McElwain said. The company currently is considering the Bioscience & Technology Business Center on Kansas University’s West Campus, and also is looking at locations in Kansas City.
— An animal health company that is looking for a location to establish its North American headquarters. Initially, the company likely would add 1 to 2 positions, but would add more depending on how its business grows in North America. McElwain said economic development leaders are fielding a large number of inquiries from animal health companies as Kansas City’s reputation as a leader in that industry continues to grow.
“It is amazing the potential for clustering in that industry,” McElwain said. “The University of Kansas is a huge magnet for this, especially the School of Pharmacy.”
— Three local companies currently are considering expansion projects that could in total add more than 100 jobs over the next several years. McElwain said one of the companies is looking at sites in the Kansas City area. He said the companies in question are a mix of manufacturing and technology companies.
In other news and notes from around town:
• A couple of weeks ago, we reported how some East Lawrence residents expressed concern that the Lawrence Arts Center was declining to make public the application the agency submitted to win a $500,000 grant for a project to remake Ninth Street into a unique arts corridor.
Well, as city commissioners prepare to take a vote on the project tonight, the Arts Center has released a redacted version of the full application. It appears some of the new information released has created more questions for some East Lawrence residents who are trying to get a better understanding of the project in their neighborhood.
The application states in multiple places that the Kansas City architecture firm el dorado inc. would serve as the lead designer on the project. That’s despite the fact that el dorado inc. had not been selected yet by the city to serve as the lead designer on the project. In fact, the vote that is set to take place tonight is to authorize city staff to begin negotiating a contract with el dorado. The city is recommending el dorado receive the contract because a city-appointed committee selected it from six design teams that had submitted proposals.
The grant application was not made available to the city-appointed committee reviewing the potential design firms. At least one member of the city-appointed committee is now saying he thinks the application creates the perception that Arts Center officials wanted el dorado to lead the project all along.
Dave Loewenstein, a longtime East Lawrence resident and artist, said too many residents already have a perception that some city projects have involved “back room deals.” Loewenstein, who currently is out of town on a project, said he hopes commissioners will be convinced tonight to delay the project.
“I feel our city commissioners must postpone their vote on selecting a firm for this project until we have an opportunity to look further into how and why the city went forward with a competitive RFQ process even though a design firm had already been explicitly named as a project leader,” Loewenstein said in an e-mail.
Susan Tate, the director of the Lawrence Arts Center, said the application wasn’t meant to convey that el dorado inc. had been selected as the lead designer for the project. Instead, the name was meant as an example of the type of firm that would be leading the project. But nowhere in the application does it state that the decision on the design team was still pending.
Tate said it is common practice for arts organizations to list specific artists or designers as part of its grant application. In hindsight, Tate said she wishes she would have written the grant in a way to make it clear that el dorado was just an example of the caliber of company that would be hired for the project.
In addition, Tate seemingly misspoke when she was interviewed by the Journal-World about the subject in early November. At that time she said she had provided the City Commission and the public with a “word-for-word” version of the portion of the grant application that described the project. But upon further review, the document provided to the City Commission did have a slight change in wording. It removed any mention of el dorado inc. and instead simply said “ArtPlace will fund a professional Urban Planner to lead Creative Team . . .” The application that was actually submitted to the ArtPlace grant funders said “ArtPlace will fund el dorado architects to lead Creative Team . . .”
Tate said she didn’t intend to misspeak, and said the mention of el dorado was removed from the document released to the public because it would have been difficult to conduct a competitive request for proposals if the description of the project included a specific design firm. She said city officials were not aware that the ArtPlace grant application listed el dorado as the lead designer.
Tate expressed confidence that all six companies that applied for the city contract were given a fair chance at winning the proposal, and she said he entered the process with an open mind about who should be selected.
We’ll see what commissioners do with the issue tonight when they meet at 6:35 p.m. It is an unusual issue. Folks in the nonprofit world note that grant applications usually aren’t made public. But several people have noted this may be a different case because the $500,000 grant is only a small portion of what is needed to convert Ninth Street into a unique arts corridor. The city also will need to budget about $3 million worth of improvements to the street.
We all know what our Tuesday plans are: We paint our faces, get out our big foam fingers, eat what a physician calls a “disturbing” number of cheap tacos and settle in for a big fight. Oh, you think I’m talking about the KU-Kentucky basketball game. We can do that too, but first there may be a City Hall battle over whether to install a roundabout on a busy section of Kasold Drive.
Lawrence city commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting will begin discussing a major $5 million Kasold reconstruction project that could include a roundabout at the intersection of Kasold and Harvard. (Personally, I think a Jayhawk statue made out of bean dip and a nacho cheese fountain are better ways to have a pre-game party, but I’ll guess I’ll try roundabout fun on Tuesday.)
Commissioners on Tuesday probably won’t make any final decisions on whether to build a roundabout at the intersection, but their discussion should give us good insight into whether they are interested in the idea. In fact, it should give us a good idea of whether the trend of roundabouts are back in full force at City Hall.
If you have tried to drive on Wakarusa Drive in recent months, you perhaps have noticed three or four orange construction cones stuck in your grill. That is part of a roundabout project at Wakarusa and Inverness/Legends Drive. It was a controversial project. Several neighbors spoke against the project, but traffic engineers recommended the roundabout. Commissioners approved the project on a 4-1 vote.
We’ll see what the reaction is to a roundabout on this portion of Kasold Drive. Opinions are mixed on the devices. Engineers like the design of roundabouts because they say they cut down on the number of T-bone accidents and other serious collisions. Some motorists like roundabouts because they believe they cut down on the amount of time they spend waiting to get through an intersection. Some motorists despise roundabouts because they find them confusing and dangerous. Some bicycle advocates also have expressed concern about their safety. (Approximately three people in town are ambivalent about roundabouts, likely because they have a large supply of Dramamine and enjoy messing with our minds by insisting on using their turn signals at a roundabout.)
The potential roundabout is just one part of a larger project on Kasold. Engineers are proposing to spend about $5 million to rebuild Kasold Drive from Bob Billings Parkway to Sixth Street. The street was built in 1972 and has been repaved at least four times since then, and it now requires a significant amount of annual maintenance work. Several sections of the curb are “missing and deteriorated to gravel,” according to a city memo about the street.
Plans call for the new street to be built out of 10 inches of concrete on a much-improved base. Construction work would begin in 2016.
The city has qualified for up to $400,000 in federal highway money for the project. That grant money is specifically to make safety improvements at the intersection of Harvard and Kasold. It is not clear to me yet whether the city must build a roundabout to get the $400,000 in grant money, or whether there are other intersection improvements that would satisfy the grant requirements. I’ll check on that.
At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners are being asked to give staff the authority to begin seeking an engineering firm to design the project. Staff members also want commissioners to decide whether to accept the grant. So, that’s where the roundabout discussion will occur, but staff members have told commissioners that accepting the grant won’t absolutely commit the city to building the roundabout. A final decision on whether to build the roundabout won’t happen until the city decides to accept bids for the project, but Tuesday’s discussion is expected to provide some direction on the roundabout issue. Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There is a lot of good news on the City Commission’s agenda for folks who love trails. If you haven’t explored all the trails associated with the Rock Chalk Park sports complex, you had better get busy because the trail system in the area is set to grow.
The city has won a $320,000 federal grant that will build a new trail from Queens Road to connect with the trail system at Rock Chalk Park. The 0.7 mile trail will start a bit south of the Queens Road and the county road North 1750 intersection. It then will follow the route of Baldwin Creek, including five bridges that will cross the creek. In addition to the $320,000 grant, the city also will use $80,000 of sales tax money to build the trail. No word yet on when construction may begin.
The city also has won a private grant of about $54,000 to help build a new trail along the Kansas River between Burcham and Constant parks. The new trail would connect with the recently completed Outside for a Better Inside trail. In case you have forgotten, that is the new trail that circles the old pond that is behind the former VFW site near the Kansas River.
The new river trail — which will be a little more than a half-mile long — will be constructed partially of concrete and partially of milled asphalt. The total project is expected to cost about $106,000, with the city paying for half the costs and a grant from the Sunflower Foundation paying the rest of it. No word yet on when construction may begin.
The city also is finalizing plans to improve the existing Haskell-Rail Trail that runs between 23rd Street and 29th Street near the Haskell Indian National University campus. The Kansas Department of Transportation has a $189,575 bid from Sunflower Paving to make improvements to the trail, which largely will consist of making the narrow limestone trail into a 10 foot-wide shared use path. The city will pay about $40,000 of the project, with KDOT paying for the remainder. Look for construction work to begin this winter and be completed in the spring.
Let no one doubt that trails are a hot button item with both grant makers and politicians at the moment. In case your abacus is busted, that is nearly $525,000 in grant money the city has received for trails and about $175,000 in local taxpayer funds the city has committed to the three trail projects.
Final bill comes due for city on Rock Chalk Park improvements; first candidate files for City Commission
It is my day to wear green eye shade, and I’m not just talking about the makeup practice my daughter conducts on me when I fall asleep in front of the TV. No, today’s a big number day with the city, so I’ll do my best imitation of a number cruncher. The city has released the final numbers for Rock Chalk Park construction, and what has long been assumed is now official: The city is paying for nearly all the infrastructure costs associated with the public/private partnership.
I’ll do a more complete article later today, but here are some of the basics:
— Total infrastructure costs for all of Rock Chalk Park check in at $11.59 million. Infrastructure includes things such as parking lots, streets, sewer lines, water lines, lighting and other such items. The project was designed so that infrastructure could be shared between the city-owned recreation center and the privately owned track, soccer and softball facilities that are owned by a group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel, who then in turn leases the facilities to Kansas Athletics.
— For the shared infrastructure, the city will pay $10.45 million of the total.
— Early on, Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self said his Assists Foundation would donate $1 million to help fund a west Lawrence recreation center. That $1 million donation is now being applied to pay for the shared infrastructure cost for Rock Chalk Park.
— After those two payments are made, what’s left of the infrastructure bill is $145,835. The city memo on the subject doesn’t provide much detail on how that amount will be paid, but based on prior conversations, I’m assuming it will be paid by the Fritzel-led group that owns the track, soccer and softball facilities that will benefit from the infrastructure.
There are probably several ways to look at this, but for those of you trying to figure out what percentage of infrastructure the city paid for compared to what percentage of facilities the city owns at Rock Chalk Park, here are some numbers: The construction value of the city’s recreation center is $10.5 million. The construction value of the facilities owned by the Fritzel group is about $40 million. The entity that owns the $10.5 million worth of facilities at the park — the city — is paying for a little more than 90 percent of the infrastructure costs. Bill Self’s Assists Foundation, which own none of the facilities at the park, is paying for about 8.6 percent of the infrastructure costs. The ownership group of the track, soccer and softball facilities appears to be paying for about 1.2 percent of the infrastructure costs.
It is fair to note that the city’s recreation center likely will be the largest generator of day-to-day traffic at the complex, so people will have to determine on their own how that should be factored in to creating an equitable split.
City commissioners are being asked to make the infrastructure payment to Fritzel’s group at their Tuesday evening meeting. The amount comes as no surprise. Figures close to these have been projected for several months now. But the numbers are different from when the project was first proposed.
At several points in the process, the city believed it would be paying $25 million for a recreation center, infrastructure and other amenities that would have a value of $33 million. On several occasions, city commissioners said they were viewing the difference as a donation to the city that made this project a unique opportunity that warranted the city deviating from its standard bidding process. The final numbers have not quite worked out that way. The total amount of money the city has paid for the project is less than $25 million, but there does not appear to be any donation of the amount once anticipated by the city.
I’ll attempt to check in with city officials and Fritzel today to review the final numbers.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The ring of robo calls has not yet left my ears, but make no mistake a new campaign season has begun. It is for the Lawrence City Commission. The first candidate for the commission has filed. Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commissioner Stan Rasmussen has filed for one of the three seats up for election on the five-member commission.
Rasmussen and I have exchanged some emails, but I haven’t yet been able to conduct a full interview with him. He is an attorney with U.S. Army — officially he’s the regional counsel for the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations Energy & Environment — and he is tied up in some meetings that haven’t allowed us to meet for an interview. But we’ll chat in the coming days and I’ll bring you more about his campaign positions and such.
In terms of the basics, Rasmussen, 52, has been in Lawrence for about 35 years. He’s been active in the world of Lawrence city advisory boards. He’s a veteran member of the planning commission, and also has served on the Lawrence Board of Zoning Appeals, sign code board of appeals, and the Lawrence Historic Resources Commission. He currently is one of the 10 members on the steering committee looking at how Horizon 2020 may need to be rewritten.
Rasmussen is the first to file, but he certainly won’t be the last. I’m expecting strong interest in the seats this year. As we previously have reported, Leslie Soden, an East Lawrence resident who has been active in several City Hall issues, has said she is seriously considering another run at the commission. Kris Adair, a Lawrence school board member who also is an owner of Wicked Broadband, has said she is considering a run for the city commission.
Just recently, I also heard from Lawrence attorney and social service professional Eric Sader. He said he’s forming a committee to explore a run for the commission.
The three commissioners who have terms expiring are Mike Dever, Terry Riordan and Bob Schumm. None has said whether he intends to seek re-election, although Schumm has made comments that indicate he plans to.
If we have seven or more candidates file for a seat on the commission, we’ll have a primary election to whittle the field to six on March 3. The general election will be April 7. All the seats on the City Commission are at-large seats, so voters simply will pick their top three choices.
The filing deadline for the race is noon on Jan. 27.
Recreation center at Rock Chalk Park attracts more than 50k visits in first month; another development plan filed for south Iowa
If you see a bunch of grown men wearing high school letter jackets that accentuate just how much they have grown, perhaps you’ll now understand why: Adult flag football. It is the latest thing to come to the city’s new recreation center at Rock Chalk Park. But it certainly isn’t the only thing. Lots of people have been filing into the new center, according to recently tabulated numbers from the city.
From Oct. 5 through Nov. 9, the center — officially named Sports Pavilion Lawrence — has attracted 53,101 visits, according to numbers tallied by the city’s parks and recreation department. More specifically, the center has been attracting an average of 2,060 visits per day on the weekends, and about 1,300 visits on an average weekday.
But those numbers are likely larger now, said Ernie Shaw, the city’s director of parks and recreation. He said it has only been within the last week or so that the center has started hosting league play for volleyball, basketball and other sports. Those sports have increased the number of users at the facility significantly. Shaw was at the facility last Saturday and had staff members keep track of visitor totals on that day. By around noon, the center’s visitor total was at about 4,500.
“It has been crazy out there, but the staff and everybody are doing well with it,” said Tim Laurent, recreation operations manager.
Another number of note is that the city has issued 6,844 electronic key cards to residents. The key cards are used to access the fitness rooms, walking track and other such areas that can be cordoned off to keep out kids and other people who are at the center for a youth basketball tournament, for example.
Speaking of tournaments, none of these numbers include people coming to the center for big tournaments. Those will begin in the next few weeks, with the first big one that will occupy most of the center occurring in early January. Those tournaments have been touted as the economic development portion of the recreation center project. The hope is that the tournaments will become regional enough in nature that some folks will choose to spend the night in Lawrence and spend some money during their down times.
Most of the numbers being generated at the center currently are from local residents participating in parks and recreation classes and leagues. The department has added some new activities (calm down, don’t swallow your mouthpiece, I’ll tell you more about adult flag football in a moment,) and the department also has moved some classes from other recreation centers in town to Rock Chalk Park.
In this current session, the city has 161 programs at Sports Pavilion Lawrence, with about 2,300 participants signed up. But that number will grow. The city is taking registration for the winter and spring programs, and during that session there will be 329 programs at SPL.
There’s also going to be some nonsporting events at the center. The first one you may notice is the Holiday Extravaganza Arts and Crafts Fair on Dec. 6. Recently it has been held at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. But the event is moving to the Rock Chalk Park center, where vendors will set up on two of the eight courts that are the facility. The city has tarps that can be put down on the floors to protect them from damage. The move will allow the arts and crafts event to grow. At the fairgrounds, the city had to cap the number of vendors at 80. Now the city can accept significantly more vendors, and thus far the city has 97 vendors signed up for the event. It will be interesting to see how often the center is used for nonsporting events. The fairgrounds hosts several types of exhibitions, ranging from home shows to Comic-Con conventions. Rock Chalk Park would allow for larger events, and it has some of the most ample parking in the community. Plus, the city is creating a built-in marketing system for such events. Because people are required to get a key card to use certain areas of the facility, the city is building up a substantial database of e-mails (they ask for your e-mail address when you register.) The city is able to use that database to send out a e-mail blast about upcoming events at the center.
No word yet on whether they will send out e-mail blasts detailing the heroic exploits that occur on the flag football field. Registration is underway for the league, which will be played indoors at the recreation center, which features an indoor turf field. Costs are $370 per team. Each team will play with five players, but roster sizes are unlimited. (I’m assuming the number of oxygen tanks on the sidelines are unlimited as well.) Games will be held on Sunday afternoons, and play begins Jan. 11. Participants need to be 16 or older.
That ought to add to the excitement at the center. I hear that the facility already is a ball of noise on weekends. I can hardly imagine how much louder it will get when the crowds react to the parade of glorious letter jackets. Heaven help us if a highly decorated letter jacket from the mighty Marais des Cygnes Valley Trojans appears. (See below. I would have modeled it, but it is tight in an area that I will call the biceps, although anatomy was never my best subject.)
In other news and notes from around town:
• The commercial momentum on south Iowa Street continues to build. Plans have been filed to redevelop the site at 24th and Iowa streets that previously housed a Phillips 66 service station. Plans call for about $125,000 worth of work to remodel the building into a more traditional office/retail building. Property owner Brandon Haverty told me he wasn’t quite ready to announce the tenant. But based on information filed with the city, it appears a Georgia-based firm called Anderson Financial Services is the tenant. A source called Mr. Google tells me the company primarily operates LoanMax Title Loan businesses across the country. Again, no official word on whether that is what is slated for the spot, but it might be worth keeping an eye on. Haverty said he expects the site to be ready for business in the first quarter of 2015.
If it indeed is a title loan place, that may be what they call synergy in the business world. Lots of retailers, lots of cars going by, which of course equals one thing: I really do need to fit into my letter jacket so I can stay warm on my walks to work.
Alvamar reaches deal to sell course and club to group led by Rock Chalk Park developers; city to add larger snow plows for winter
Changes appear to be on the way for Alvamar golf and country club. As we previously reported, the board has been considering selling the course, and now we have confirmation that a deal has been struck to sell the business to the same group that has partnered with the city and KU to build the Rock Chalk Park sports complex.
Bob Johnson, chair of the Alvamar board told me a deal has been struck with Bliss Sports, the group led by longtime Lawrence builder Thomas Fritzel. Johnson said both sides are conducting their due diligence, and he expects the deal to be finalized in March or April. (Due diligence on a golf course can take time. Mine usually involves whether I can safely hit back onto the fairway from this lush stand of Berber carpet, or whether I’m going to have to break another window to do so. These guys may be talking about a more financial-oriented due diligence, although I can tell you windows aren’t cheap.)
This deal shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to folks who have been following the situation. We reported in September that there was a lot of speculation that a group led by Fritzel was seeking to buy the West Lawrence course. What most people watching the situation want to know is whether Fritzel has plans to keep all 36 holes of golf that currently exist at Alvamar, or whether one of the courses may be redeveloped into housing or other uses.
I’ve reached out to Fritzel, but have had no luck in talking with him. Johnson, though, said the board is operating under the assumption that all 36 holes of golf will remain.
“Obviously, it is the buyer’s decision,” Johnson said. “But we have heard nothing to believe that the golf course will be anything other than what it is now. If I were to predict, I would say the chances are overwhelming that it will be a 36-hole facility.”
But Johnson said he is aware that there is significant speculation that one of the courses will be removed to make way for more housing or other development.
“It makes a really good rumor,” Johnson said. “I know it would upset people. That is probably why it is such a good rumor.”
What does seem to be a likelihood is that Kansas University’s golf program will continue to have a home at the golf course. If I were a betting man (and I would be, if windows didn’t cost so much) I would bet that KU’s presence at Alvamar grows. Fritzel formed Bliss Sports, in part, to create new facilities for KU at Rock Chalk Park. Bliss owns the facilities but KU rents them. Plans certainly have been in the works to expand KU’s indoor practice facility at Alvamar. KU’s website list plans to make the facility nearly five times larger by adding team lounges, locker rooms, offices, training rooms and an indoor chipping and putting area.
Johnson said he’s excited about the future of Alvamar. He said the shareholders of Alvamar have had discussions in the past about selling to out-of-town golf course companies.
“For the community of Lawrence and the golfing community, it probably is the best thing that could happen,” Johnson said. “These buyers are people who have been in this community their whole lives and their futures are in this community.”
The deal includes about 300 acres that comprise the golf course and country club grounds, Johnson said. He said there likely are pockets within that 300 acres that are suitable for infill development. But he said the deal does not include any of the large amounts of raw, develop-able West Lawrence ground that is owned by Alvamar Inc.
It will be interesting to watch how Alvamar does change in the future. The courses and country club are a West Lawrence institution. Famed Lawrence businessman Bob Billings founded the course with business partner Mel Anderson in 1968. A second course was added in 1970. Today, Alvamar is one of only two 36-hole golf facilities in the state, according to Alvamar’s website. The courses also are a bit historic in the world of golf. The 1968 course, according to Alvamar’s website, was the first golf course in the world constructed with zoysia grass fairways. As for the country club, the members' clubhouse was built in 1984 by local builder Gene Fritzel, who is Thomas’ father.
As I have said many times on the golf course, things have a way of coming full circle (although usually I’m just talking about my nasty hook.)
In other news and notes from around town:
• When the snow starts falling, the Batmobile will not be plowing the streets of Lawrence, but do expect to see some winged vehicles tackling the job.
For the first time, the city’s Public Works Department will equip four of the department’s snow-plowing trucks with a device called a “wing plow.” The plow is mounted on the side of the truck and extends about eight feet. City officials are optimistic that the new piece of equipment will allow major roads like Iowa, Sixth and 23rd streets to be plowed more quickly.
“We think it will speed up the process by about a third,” said Mike Perkins, the street division supervisor for the city.
Larger cities have been using the wing plows for awhile, said Mark Thiel, the city’s assistant director of public works.
“We’re probably one of the smaller cities that are using them,” Thiel said. “We’re just trying to stay ahead of the game. It is another tool for us.”
Perkins said the new wing plows will make it more important than ever for the city to follow the advice of not passing a snow plow. The trucks will be equipped with special lights to draw attention to the fact that a blade is hanging off the side of the truck, but motorists will need to use care.
“It is a clear, clean path right behind the truck,” Perkins said. “That is the best place to drive.”
Crews earlier this month did mock snow-plow runs throughout the city to prepare for the upcoming snow season. Thiel said in addition to the wing plows, the city has made changes to increase the amount of salt the city can store. The city now has the capability to store about 10,000 tons of salt, which is about twice the amount the city would expect to use during a season. The extra capacity could become crucial in the future, Thiel said.
“That is a huge benefit to us because we don’t have to worry about re-ordering in midseason,” Thiel said. “Sometimes there can be a four to six week lead time for salt orders.”
Thiel also recently provided city commissioners with his best estimate on what type of winter we’ll have this year. He said the city looks at forecasts from the National Weather Service, the Farmers Almanac and a private subscription weather service. The forecasts are mixed this year, with the National Weather Service predicting a largely normal winter, while the subscription service is predicting below-average temperatures but about average snowfall totals. The Farmers Almanac is calling for “bitter and snowy” conditions in Kansas.
“I think we’re pretty much going to have a repeat of what we had last year,” Thiel said. “I think we’re going to have a lot of cold weather early and a lot of small events early.”
Thiel said he thinks the chances of major snow — six inches or more — will increase significantly in January and February.
That won’t be good news for the city budget. The last snow season was a fairly expensive one for the city. Thiel said the city spent about $1 million clearing snow in the 2013/2014 season. That was about twice the amount spent in 2012/2013, even though snow totals for the two seasons checked in at about 30 inches. The big difference is that in 2013/2014 there were 13 snow or ice events the city had to work, compared with just eight in 2012/2013. In addition, one of the events last season was a 14-inch snow in early February that required extra resources.
In case you have forgotten last winter, Thiel has gathered several numbers to help remind us. Here’s a look:
— The city had 30.2 inches of snow in 2013-2014, as measured in downtown. That was the second highest total of the last 10 years, trailing only the 36.4 inches in 2009/2010. The 10-year average is 17.4 inches. The smallest snowfall total of the last decade was 1.4 inches in 2006/2007.
— The city had 12 days in 2013/2014 with measurable snowfall. The average since 1981 is 13 days.
— February was the big month last year, with 16.2 inches of snow. That ranked the month as the fifth snowiest February on record in Lawrence. December had 5.3 inches, January 5.4 inches and March 3.3 inches.
Sometimes my job of covering Lawrence City Hall involves me reading the tea leaves. Sometimes it involves me turning to a beverage a bit stronger than tea. Sometimes it involves me dressing like the Great Carnac and holding city agendas, planning documents and other scrap paper to my head. (Sometimes the glass of the other beverage is a bit too big.) I’ll let you decide the best way to decipher this one, but there certainly is a City Hall question these days: Is a proposed $75 million apartment project actually going to be built near KU?
The project we’re talking about is the proposed multi-story building at 1101 and 1115 Indiana St., across the street from KU’s Memorial Stadium. The last we heard about the project was on Oct. 21, when city commissioners declined to grant a parking exemption for the 237-unit apartment complex. The Chicago-based development group, HERE, LLC, said the parking reduction was critical to the future of the project. After the meeting, a representative of the company declined to comment on whether the project would move forward.
In the days since, I haven’t had any luck in getting an update from the development company. But there have been a couple of recent signs that suggest the project is not yet dead. This is where your tea leaf skills may come in handy, but city commissioners at their meeting tonight are being asked to approve an ordinance authorizing the issuance of industrial revenue bonds for the project. The ordinance is mainly a technicality. The project is seeking the industrial revenue bonds not for financing purposes but to get a sales tax exemption on construction materials they purchase for the project. The key point in all of this is that company officials recently asked the city to process this piece of paperwork. The fact the company made the request after the Oct. 21 meeting seems to indicate the project is not yet dead.
Perhaps an even larger sign is that on Nov. 5 the development company filed for a demolition permit for the old house that sits on a portion of the property. That would seem to be another sign that the project isn’t yet dead.
Prior to the Oct. 21 meeting, the development group also had filed for building permits for the project. City officials tell me they are still doing the work to process those building permits. They said no one from HERE has asked the city to stop the processing work on the building permits.
I think it is probably is too early to say that the company has definitely decided to move ahead with the project. Neither one of these recent actions — the IRB ordinance and the demo permit — are particularly expensive for the company to undertake, so they could still nix the project. But it does appear that the company hasn’t nixed the project at this point. The city’s denial of the company’s incentive request hasn’t been fatal thus far.
I talked briefly with Georgia Bell, the 91-year old woman who lives in the home that is slated for demolition. The development company has reached a preliminary agreement to buy the property, but Bell said the deal hasn’t been completed yet. In other words, she hasn’t been paid the full purchase price for the property. She said she hasn’t heard anything definitive from the development group about when it may purchase the property.
“I’m sitting on pins and needles,” said Bell, who said she hasn’t yet found a new home to purchase.
It is an issue to watch. If I can get this darn Carnac hat to cooperate, I’ll keep my eyes on it.
Out in rural Kansas, where I am from, there have been some historic moments in Quonset huts that dot the farm landscape. Some of them perhaps have involved a Saturday night, a red Solo cup, a tractor, and an unfortunate article in the weekly newspaper. Well, Quonset huts — those metal buildings with a semi-circle roof — have been a part of Lawrence’s history too, and now there is an effort afoot to save one in East Lawrence.
As we reported a few weeks ago, Black Hills Energy is preparing to sell the East Lawrence site that formerly housed its maintenance facility. As part of the sale, Black Hills is planning to tear down the old Quonset hut on the property. But a group of East Lawrence residents and an area businessman are hoping to stop the demolition.
Longtime East Lawrence resident K.T. Walsh is asking city officials to take a hard look at any demolition permit that seeks to tear down the hut. Walsh said Quonset huts are a rare form of architecture worth preserving. She said she’s actually part of a statewide group that is seeking to save the structures. The huts were inspired by a British design that aimed to quickly construct buildings during WW I. The huts were popular in WW II as well, and Walsh said the Black Hills Quonset hut near Eighth and Pennsylvania street is particularly appropriate for the area because it is a reminder of the area’s industrial history.
The hut is across the street from the popular Poehler Lofts apartment building, which is in a multistory, former grocery warehouse building. Tony Krsnich leads the group that developed that property. He’s glad the Black Hills property is set to be sold, but he wants the Quonset hut to remain.
“It would be an absolute shame if that building was lost,” Krsnich told me.
He said he thinks the building could be an interesting music venue, art gallery, restaurant or a host of other uses. He said its wide open design could allow the interior of the building to be renovated in a number of ways.
“There are people in other cities that are trying to build new Quonset huts and make them look old because they are cool,” Krsnich said.
One group who I have heard does not think Quonset huts are cool is firefighters. I’ve had the local fire chief previously tell me that the structures are a real concern when they do catch on fire. The roof design makes them particularly susceptible to a collapse during a fire.
Whether that would play into a decision to tear the building down, I don’t know. Honestly, I’m not quite sure how much ability the city has to deny a demolition permit for this property. Walsh asked city commissioners about the issue last week, and they said they would look into it. We’ll see where the issue goes.
I’ve got a call into Black Hills Energy. A spokeswoman for the company said they were discussing several issues related to the site. If I receive an update from the company, I’ll pass it along.
UPDATE: I did hear back from Black Hills Energy. A spokeswoman with the company said via e-mail that Black Hills has been studying ways to properly sell the site for awhile. One of the issues is that the building sits on the foundation of a former manufactured gas plant that operated from 1869 to 1905. As we previously have reported, that gas plant left behind some environmental issues related to the site. The site has been brought into compliance with Kansas Department of Health and Environment standards, but Black Hills believes it is best to demolish the building so proper testing can be done beneath the building's foundation before the site is sold.
"We understand this property is located in the midst of a vibrant and growing part of Lawrence, and we believe it's important to keep it a safe and functional part of the community," Monique Pope, a spokeswoman for the company said via e-mail.
After that process is complete, Black Hills will evaluate the best uses for the site, Pope said.
Delaware tribal elections may change discussion on Lawrence property; city wins $15k school route grant; car dealers express concern over City Hall vehicle lease
Lawrence’s police headquarters plan isn’t the only project that has been complicated by recent election results. The Delaware Tribe of Indians held its elections last weekend, and now there is reason to question whether the tribe will be as aggressive in pursuing its plans to move to Lawrence.
So, what happened with the Delaware elections? Well, the same thing I tirelessly do every Saturday at my house: A complete housecleaning. (For the record, my wife is insisting on a retraction of that last statement, and is threatening to do terrible things to me with a feather duster.) Regardless, a housecleaning is one way to describe the Delaware elections. Every tribal council incumbent on the ballot was defeated in the election.
Chief Paula Pechonick was defeated by the tribe’s assistant chief Chester “Chet” Brooks. Three of the other six members on the tribal council also lost their seats, and since Brooks was a member of the council whose term hadn’t yet expired, the new majority on the council will get to appoint a member to his seat.
I obviously don’t closely follow Delaware Tribal politics, but I did talk with tribal council member Nate Young, who was one of the members not up for re-election this time. He left me with the impression that the new majority on the council may have different views about the future of the approximately 90 acres that the tribe purchased near the North Lawrence interchange on the Kansas Turnpike. I was left with the impression that they may be inclined to do less with the property, not more.
There has been all sort of discussion and speculation about what the tribe wants to do on the site. Originally there was concern among some residents that the tribe wanted to build a casino on the site. That talk has died down considerably. Instead, city, county and tribal officials have been meeting behind closed doors to talk about ideas for the property, which is the former Pine family sod farm. The latest idea to emerge is that the tribe would use about 30 acres for a tribal complex that would include offices for the tribal headquarters, classroom spaces, an area for a profit-generating “public interface,” and a kitchen to feed elderly tribal members. The other 60 acres would be devoted to agricultural uses that could include demonstration gardens, food hub distribution, a farm-to-plate restaurant and other such uses.
City, county and tribal officials had agreed to move into a new stage of discussions and host a design charrette to further refine the idea. Whether that happens now seems to be a bit of a question. Young didn’t get into details, but he said after speaking with the incoming chief, he was confident in saying that the new tribal council will consider different directions.
“I believe we may revisit some of the policies adopted by the previous council,” Young said.
What exactly that means, I don’t know. But in reading through some campaign literature from Delaware tribal candidates, I get the impression the purchase of the Lawrence property was an issue of contention in the election. Incoming Chief Brooks in a campaign advertisement expressed concern about spending $1.24 million to buy the Lawrence property. He said in the advertisement that it was done “without an appraisal and a proper resolution of the tribal council, only to learn later that 60 plus acres is in a floodplain and the rest has drainage problems which may prohibit its intended use.”
Bottomline: It looks like this is an issue worth watching because it appears the group dynamics are changing.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The city has received a $15,000 grant to study ways to make walking to school safer and more appealing.
The Kansas Department of Transportation has awarded the grant to the city through its Safe Routes to Schools program. The grant is considered a Phase I grant that will allow the city and various stakeholders to develop a safe route plan for each school in the community.
If the plan includes infrastructure improvements, such as new sidewalks, signals or other enhancements, the city would have to seek another grant or find other ways to pay for the improvements.
In a news release the city said the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, USD 497, the Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Organization, LiveWell Lawrence and the Lawrence Schools Foundation each have agreed to contribute funding, in-kind donations or staff time to develop the plan.
• We earlier reported on a plan for the city’s fire and medical department to lease seven Ford Explorers from Shawnee Mission Ford. Commissioners approved that lease agreement on Oct. 28, but now commissioners are being asked to rescind their approval. Staff members said they have since heard from some local auto dealers who said they were not aware the city was seeking bids for sport utility vehicles.
It appears what happened is that the city was using a previously bid procurement contract through the Kansas Department of Transportation to lease the vehicles. In other words, KDOT has a set price it can lease vehicles at, and KDOT allows other governments to use that contract. Upon further review, city staff members now are recommending that a more traditional bid process be used that opens the bidding up to any dealer who is interested. Commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting are expected to rescind their previous vote.
Downtown Lawrence retailer of 67 years to close its doors; city makes recommendation on team of artists and engineers to design Ninth Street project
It has been well established that there is no crying in baseball. But there may be a few moist eyes in coming weeks inside a Lawrence institution that has sold many a bat, glove, ball and other athletic items to area residents. Francis Sporting Goods is closing its downtown store after 67 years in business.
The company is not going entirely out of business. Owner Jon Francis told me the company now will solely focus on its team business, which sells uniforms and equipment to everybody from youth baseball teams to college football programs.
“The retail store has been a big part of our lives, but for us to succeed, we have to choose a business that is best for us,” said Francis, who followed his father and grandfather into the business. “That is our team business. That is where we make our money.”
Francis said plans call for the store at 731 Massachusetts St. to close by the end of the year. The historic building that houses the store will continue to be owned by the Francis family, but Francis said the store will move out of the space and a new tenant will be sought. Francis said he is close to signing a deal on an undisclosed location that will provide showroom and warehouse space for the team business.
The move comes just a few months after Dick's Sporting Goods opened its large store on south Iowa Street. Francis said the new competition did “solidify” the decision to close the store.
“It is sad,” Francis said. “Obviously there will be people upset, and I’m upset. But the town is growing and they elected to allow, or I guess they felt like they needed, a big-box option. That didn’t help us any. We have a loyal following, but we don’t have the size and selection.”
The business, which started out in 1947 selling boat motors and fishing tackle before expanding into other lines of sporting goods, plans to have a liquidation sale between now and the end of the year.
Francis said he’s sure he’ll see a lot of familiar faces come through the doors for the final sale.
“You get to know a lot of people,” Francis said. “I’ve watched a lot of kids grow up. You read about them in the paper with what they have done in this game or that game, and you know they have been in your store. That will be the tough thing to watch.”
The closure creates a bit of a hole in the middle of the 700 block of Massachusetts Street. As we previously reported, Lids, the store that specialized in team hats and other such merchandise, has closed. It was next door to Francis Sporting Goods in space that also is owned by the Francis family. Francis said a tenant has been found for that space. I hope to bring you details on that shortly.
The sporting goods market in Lawrence is changing. The sportswear retailer GameDay Super Store at 1008 W. 23rd St. also has announced it is closing its store. I’ve got a call into officials there to get more information about that decision.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The project to remake the portion of Ninth Street that runs through East Lawrence into a unique arts corridor is moving ahead. As an article I wrote Wednesday details, some residents are concerned about the process, but city officials are hopeful once a consultant is hired to start planning the project, concerned neighbors will be more at ease. Well, the city is getting closer to hiring a consultant, or actually a team of experts, to work on the project.
The city is hosting a meeting from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 13 to allow the public to meet the city’s recommended design team. A city-appointed committee is recommending a team led by el dorado inc., a sizable design firm out of Kansas City. The architecture firm is notable in Lawrence because it is the designer of a new multistory apartment building under construction near Ninth and Delaware streets in East Lawrence. The project is the latest development by Tony Krsnich and his group, which have developed the Warehouse Arts District on the eastern end of this proposed Ninth Street corridor.
The company is bringing on several consultants to help with the project. They include lead artists Charles Blanc and Tristan Surtees of the Calgary, Canada-based art studio Sans Facon. The duo has been working on a major public art project in Calgary called Watershed+, that adds public art to some infrastructure projects in the city. You can see more here, but it looks like the duo takes a pretty broad view of art. One project was to turn several fire hydrants along a city street into water drinking fountains. Another project talked about on the website was the creation of a life-sized water truck carved in ice. It would be colored with environmentally friendly dyes, then placed in a neighborhood. Through the winter the ice sculpture would melt and refreeze and the the dyes would flow into the city’s storm water system and through a prominent creek in the area. No word yet on what the duo has in mind for Lawrence, but at first glance, it looks like they believe in more than just traditional sculptures and other works you may associate with public art.
The proposed project team also includes Luke Dubois, who is a well-regarded digital musician and artist who teaches at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. Some of you may know Dubois from his stay as an artist in residence at the Lawrence Arts Center.
Other members of the proposed design team include Lawrence-based Bartlett & West engineers; Dennis Domer, a local architecture historian; landscape architects Coen + Partners from Minneapolis, and indigenous plant specialist Kelly Kindscher, of Lawrence.
The other two firms interviewed by the city for the design project were teams led by DRAW Architecture and Confluence.
Lawrence city commissioners are expected to make a decision on hiring a design team for the project later this month.
Emprise Bank to sell its south Iowa branch, talk of larger redevelopment ensues; Schumm floats idea of $250K challenge grant to bring super-fast Internet to Lawrence
A movement is afoot along south Iowa Street, and it involves more than the normal logistics of semi-trailers to accommodate my wife’s post-Halloween shopping. Instead, a development group has reached a deal to purchase another key south Iowa Street property, seemingly with redevelopment on its mind.
Officials with Emprise Bank confirmed they have agreed to sell their bank branch at 2435 Iowa St. to a development group. The bank will cease operations at the Iowa Street branch, likely in February. The Wichita-based bank will continue to operate its main Lawrence branch along Wakarusa Drive.
“We were not planning to close that bank,” Cindy Yulich, Lawrence president for Emprise, told me. “We were approached by a developer, and a contract was signed. We are committed to serving Lawrence and committed to being here. We’re thrilled with how our business is going statewide, and particularly with how it is going in Lawrence.”
(UPDATE: I got a little more specific information from Emprise this morning. The bank plans to remain open on south Iowa Street until Feb. 27, and it expects employees at the south Iowa branch to be reassigned to the bank's branch at 1121 Wakarusa Drive.)
Banks have shown a willingness lately to make do with fewer branches as online and mobile banking have become bigger parts of their business. Intrust Bank earlier this year agreed to sell its branch on Wakarusa Drive to a credit union. Emprise has operated that south Iowa location since 1991, Yulich said.
Yulich said she’s confident Emprise will be able to serve its customer base from its one location on Wakarusa. She said the bank may look for a second location in Lawrence, but she said no decision had been made on that.
As for the development group that is purchasing the property, Yulich declined to name it, but I’ve confirmed that it involves a group that includes Lawrence businessman Jeff Hatfield. That makes sense because Hatfield is involved in the group that owns the adjacent Holiday Plaza shopping center.
“It just makes sense,” Hatfield said of the purchase. “You hate to have a mouthful of teeth with one tooth missing.”
He confirmed that Emprise wasn’t looking to sell the location, but rather was approached by his group. He said his group doesn’t have any immediate plans to redevelop the property, but wants to keep its options open for the future.
“The piece is poised to change its complexion at some point,” Hatfield said. “Whether it is a retrofit or a complete change, I’m not really at liberty to say. We have had people approach us. It is a location where a lot of retailers and boxes would like to be.”
The development group includes Christian Ablah, a noted Wichita commercial real estate broker who has been involved in bringing Dick’s Sporting Goods, Best Buy and Home Depot to Lawrence. Ablah also is part of a group that involves Lawrence businesswoman Susan Hatfield that recently purchased the shopping center that includes Office Depot and the soon-to-close Discovery Furniture on south Iowa Street.
That’s a site that certainly seems poised for redevelopment and could attract a lot of interest from larger, national retailers. Jeff Hatfield, who is a longtime real estate appraiser in Lawrence, said momentum just seems to be building for south Iowa Street. He said he expects the momentum to build now that Menards has actually started construction on its store near 31st and Iowa streets.
“Ten years ago, I never would have thought we would be seeing this,” Hatfield said. “But it is interesting how timing works. It is interesting to see how retailers really want to build off the synergy of other retailers.”
We’ll see how far the south Iowa Street momentum theme gets at Lawrence City Hall. I’m still hearing that the group proposing to develop property south of the Iowa Street and SLT interchange wants a hearing with city commissioners this month. As I reported a few weeks ago, there is a lot of speculation that they’re going to present new information to City Hall that Sam’s Club wants to locate in their proposed development. Previously, the development group has said Old Navy, Academy sports, Ulta Beauty, and Designer Shoe Warehouse all are interested in the site.
The project, though, has failed to win a positive recommendation from the city’s planning commission. But that was back in July when the planning commission heard the issue, and because of some logistical problems only six of the 10 planning commissioners heard the issue. City commissioners haven't yet had a hearing on the proposal.
In other news and notes from around town:
• City commissioners next week are expected to have a hearing on whether to provide Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband a $300,000 loan guarantee as part of a pilot project to bring super-fast, gigabit Internet service to 300 homes and businesses in the downtown area.
Well, City Commissioner Bob Schumm is adding a twist to that debate. He’s said that he plans to float the idea of providing a $250,000 grant to any company who successfully delivers gigabit service to 500 Lawrence addresses by the end of 2015. In case your dial-up modem is acting up, gigabit service is the same super-fast Internet that Google Fiber is installing in Kansas City.
Schumm’s idea is kind of like a challenge grant. You only get the money if you successfully deliver the product in a timely manner. It will be interesting to see what type of traction the idea gets. Thus far, two companies have been vying to bring gigabit service to Lawrence: Wicked Broadband and Baldwin City-based RG Fiber. Wicked officials have said they need the loan guarantee to secure the private financing to start its pilot project. RG Fiber has not asked for a loan guarantee from the city.
Schumm said he likes the challenge grant idea better than a loan guarantee. He said he doesn’t like being in the position of picking a winner or a loser between two companies interested in the community. Nothing technically would stop both companies from pursuing their projects, but conventional thinking is that only one gigabit service is going to be feasible in Lawrence. RG Fiber officials have said they won’t offer the service in Lawrence if the city provides a loan guarantee to one of its competitors.
Schumm said he also likes the idea of the city not paying until a company delivers results. He said if a company can bring the service to 500 addresses by the end of 2015, he is confident the company can successfully expand the service to large areas of the city.
It will be interesting to see what traction Schumm’s idea gets at City Hall. Commissioners have really been struggling with how to land on the issue of a loan guarantee to Wicked.
Closing of longtime downtown office supply store may spark changes in 600 block of Mass.; update on construction at Peterson and Monterey
This may be the biggest news in the Lawrence office supply world since my unfortunate incident involving a “chain” of paper clips, our office mezzanine, and multiple additions to our employee handbook involving the words “prohibited” and “Tarzan.” Lawrence-based M&M Office Supply has closed its doors and transferred its customer list to a Wichita-based company after decades in business.
The closure of a longtime business — I’ve been told the business dates back to 1956, but haven’t yet confirmed that — is big enough news in itself, but this one has an added twist because it likely will create some interesting development scenarios in downtown Lawrence. M&M Office Supply owns a unique piece of property in downtown Lawrence. Its building at 623 Massachusetts St. has its own, private parking directly off Massachusetts Street. The building is one of the few that is set back off of Mass. Street, which allows for private parking right in front of the building’s main entrance.
Wichita-based Midwest Single Source has struck a deal to take over the customer list of M&M Office Supply, but the deal does not involve the real estate at 623 Massachusetts St. The property is owned by members of the Marsh family, owners of M&M. I’ve got a call into Craig Marsh, an owner of the business. My understanding is the Marsh family is exploring options for the future of the property. (Speculation that I’m going to purchase the building because it would be cheaper than continuing to pay the parking tickets of a certain someone in my house is not entirely accurate. I would prefer to lease.)
As for Midwest Single Source, it has taken over the phone number of M&M and has begun calling on the company’s customer list. The company is now looking for a new location to establish a retail presence in Lawrence. The 38-year old company is headquartered in Wichita and has had an office in Topeka for more than 20 years. Lawrence resident Sarah Strydom will serve as the branch manager for Midwest Single Source’s Lawrence operations. She said the company will establish itself as a local firm that serves as an alternative to the large national office supply chains.
“I think Lawrence is a developing community and is receptive to doing business locally,” Strydom said. “I think we can capitalize on that.”
Strydom said Midwest Single Source is significantly larger than M&M Office Supply and believes it will be able to be more competitive on price and selection. Strydom said the company expects to have a Lawrence storefront open by early 2015.
In other news and notes around town:
• I’ve had some readers submitting questions about the large amount of construction work that is underway at the southwest corner of Peterson Road and Monterey Way. As we reported about a year ago, a Missouri-based company is building a senior housing project on the corner. Officials with Americare have filed plans for a 46-unit complex that would would include 30 units of general assisted living, plus 16 units that specialize in assisted living for people who need memory care services. Plans also show a potential Phase II that includes another 16 units for memory care services and 22 units of “independent living cottage development.” I’m operating under the assumption that what is under construction currently is just Phase I. No word yet on when the project will be open for business.
Two retail projects drive construction totals to new high in 2014; another good report on Lawrence job numbers
A little more than $9 million is being added to the Lawrence economy as we speak, and that is not even counting the spending my wife is doing on the post-Halloween candy that is on sale. Instead, I’m talking about two new retail construction projects underway in the city.
Construction work is underway on a Menards home improvement center near 31st and Iowa and on a Sprouts grocery store near Sixth and Wakarusa. The latest building permit reports from City Hall show the Menards project has a construction value of $5.5 million, while the Sprouts project checks in at $3.75 million.
Those two projects led the way in September, and the month ended up being the busiest one yet in 2014 for the local construction industry. The city issued permits for $17.1 million worth of construction work in September. That topped the $14.8 million worth of permits the city issued in June.
For the year, the city has issued building permits for $78.56 million worth of construction projects. That’s well below the $152.9 million worth of projects that were started through the end of September 2013. But last year was one of the larger construction years on record for the city, which included tens of millions of dollars for work at the Rock Chalk Park sports complex. In 2012, the city had issued permits for $75.4 million worth of construction, so 2014 is shaping up to be on par with an average building year in Lawrence.
One area of the Lawrence construction industry that has been below average is single-family home construction. City officials have issued permits for 65 single-family homes thus far in 2014. During the same period a year ago, the city had issued 121 single-family permits. At this point, that number should be of some concern. At 65 permits, single-family home construction is below the pace in 2011, when the city hit a new low for single-family permits issued. In fact, this year’s construction is significantly below that pace. Through September of 2011, the city had issued 76 single-family permits, or about 17 percent more than this year’s total. We’ll see what the final three reports of the year bring, but builders will need to start 30 new homes before the end of the year to avoid setting a new low.
As for when Menards and Sprouts may open, Menards officials previously have said they expect construction to take about 10 months. I suspect that will be pretty dependent upon the weather cooperating this season. Sprouts officials have not said when they expect to open, but it is a significantly smaller project than the Menards store, so I think it might be the first to open.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While we are talking about construction projects near Sixth and Wakarusa, I know some of you have been wondering what the construction is on a pad site just east of the Walmart store. As we previously have reported, plans filed with the city say it is a medical office building. But I haven’t yet had any luck confirming what type of medical professional plans to locate there.
• While we are on the subject of specialty grocery stores, I will tell you I’m hearing the same things about Trader Joe’s that some of you are: Some employees of the Leawood store have been telling Lawrence customers that Trader Joe’s may soon come to Lawrence. I called over to Trader Joe’s and tried to get an official there to tell me the same thing, but she stopped short of that. She said there’s been talk around the store of such a project, but no announcements or anything that indicates that the idea is more than just talk, at the moment.
But it is worth keeping an eye on. As we have previously reported, the large retail project proposed for the area south of the Iowa Street and SLT interchange has drawn strong interest from a specialty grocer, the development group for the proposed project has said. I don’t have any insight into whether the grocer is Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or some other player.
• And while we’re talking about numbers, here’s one last set of them: monthly job totals for the Lawrence metro area. Putting stock in one month’s worth of numbers is never too wise (as a set of lottery numbers from my fortune teller proved), but recently we reported that Lawrence in August had the highest job growth of any metro area in the country.
So, I wanted to see how September’s numbers came in for Lawrence. The latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the numbers aren’t the best in the country, but they aren’t too bad. The report found the number of jobs in Lawrence and Douglas County grew by 1.5 percent — or 800 jobs — in September, compared with September 2013. That was better than the 0.7 percent average for Kansas as a whole. Lawrence ended up having the second highest job growth rate of any metro area in the state, although it is worth noting that the numbers are still preliminary.
— Manhattan: 2.1 percent
— Lawrence: 1.5 percent
—Topeka: 1.2 percent
— Kansas City, Kan./Mo: 0.5 percent
— Wichita: 0.3 percent
Lawrence also is outperforming the state when it comes to its unemployment rate. Lawrence’s unemployment rate in September was 4 percent, which is down from 4.7 percent in September 2013. That’s a significant drop. Lawrence’s unemployment rate in September was better than the statewide average of 4.4 percent, and tied Manhattan for the lowest unemployment rate of any metro area in the state.
As for Lawrence having the fastest job growth rate of any metro area in the country in August, hopefully you can get a refund on the 15-foot plaque you had ordered for the occasion. As we reported last month, the August numbers were preliminary. The August numbers have now been finalized, and Lawrence’s job growth total were adjusted downward a bit. The new figures show Lawrence jobs grew by 4.6 percent instead of the 5.9 percent originally thought.
That adjustment was enough to drop Lawrence from the No. 1 spot. Midland, Texas, topped us, and a few other cities may have as well. But the 4.6 percent figure was still a very strong showing for the local economy.
News on Buffalo Wild Wings opening date on south Iowa, closing date in downtown; Lawrence gets a peek at how other cities maintain sidewalks
Last night at a Lied Center Halloween costume contest, one of the winners was dressed like a piece of sushi. That costume would be safe at my doorstep, unless I was in the mood to fish. But as a court file somewhere can attest, a chicken wing ringing my doorbell is a different matter. (Who would have thought glazing someone with 55 gallons of wing sauce would cause “emotional scars?”) All this is to say that I have some news about Buffalo Wild Wings and its plans to leave downtown and open on south Iowa Street.
The regional manager for the company now tells me that Buffalo Wild Wings will open at its new location at 27th and Iowa on Dec. 8. It plans to close its downtown location on Massachusetts Street on Nov. 18.
“We’re thrilled about the move,” said Torey Wallace, regional manager for the chain. “It is something we have been trying to accomplish for four or five years.”
Wallace said downtown parking issues were part of the reason the company decided to move. The restaurant promotes itself as a great place to watch a game, and it became difficult for some customers to show up a little before game time and find an easy place to park, Wallace said. Plus, the company was interested in having a newer building with more space. Wallace said more outdoor space was particularly important. The new location will have a covered, heated patio that can seat 50. That’s a big upgrade from the approximately four outdoor tables that Wild Wings has at its downtown location.
Wallace said the higher ceilings with the new building also will allow for Wild Wings to create its more traditional arrangement of television sets. The downtown location has a lot of TVs, but some of them are a little small, Wallace said. The smallest in the new location will be 55 inches, and most will be a lot bigger than that. (I don’t even know why they make TVs smaller than 55 inches. Every room can accommodate a television at least that big. Even my bathroom fits a 60 inch TV, once I removed the vanity and the shower.)
In case you are confused about where Wild Wings is locating, it will be in the new building under construction at the northeast corner of 27th and Iowa streets. It basically will be caddy-corner from the new Dick’s Sporting Goods location.
The downtown location has been a popular location for college kids who want to catch a game on TV. Wallace said the new location may lose some walk-in business from people who make their way from the football stadium to downtown, but he said he’s confident the new location will continue to be convenient for students, noting the large number of apartment complexes in south Lawrence and the dorms that are just up the street from the new location. But Wallace said he’s particularly excited that the new location will offer easier access to a broader section of the community.
Wallace said all the existing staff members at the downtown location have been offered jobs at the new location.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There will be lots of folks using the sidewalks tonight for Halloween, and they may find some of those sidewalks in scary condition. Sidewalks are a topic of conversation these days with city commissioners.
The city auditor recently completed a sidewalk audit, but it didn’t get into a lot of detail about how bad the sidewalks are in certain areas of town or anything like that. Rather, it largely focused on whether the public works department was doing a good job of tracking the condition of sidewalks in the community. The audit largely found the department was doing a good job.
Tracking the condition of the sidewalks is good, but as several folks have noted, the city doesn’t have much of a plan for repairing sidewalks. The city builds a few sidewalks each year to fill in gaps, but it hasn’t done a lot in terms of repairing sidewalks. That’s because state law says sidewalk maintenance is the responsibility of property owners who have sidewalks that run through their properties. The law gives the city the ability to force owners to fix sidewalks, or else the city can fix them and place a special property tax assessment on their properties. But that is a time-consuming process and doesn’t win politicians a lot of fans among property owners. Plus, some of the worst sidewalks are in lower income neighborhoods, where a special assessment could create some financial hardships.
But the audit pointed out there are some communities that have figured out ways to create a maintenance program for their sidewalks. The audit found there is no standard formula for how cities deal with sidewalk issues, but the report highlighted three approaches.
— Iowa City uses a program that divides the city into 10 areas. The city inspects one area each year. Inspectors physically mark each section of sidewalk that needs repair. Property owners receive a written summary of the repairs that are needed. Property owners can choose to make those repairs on their own, or they can let the city make the repairs. The city seeks bids for all the repairs required in a district. The repairs are then made, and each property owner is billed for the cost of the repair, plus a $25 administrative fee. If property owners don’t pay, the amount is placed on their property tax bill as a special assessment. The city has had the system in place for about 20 years.
— Ann Arbor, Mich., received approval from voters to create an 1/8th of a mill property tax for five years to fund sidewalk maintenance work. Over the five-year period, repairs will be made across the city. It should be noted, though, that there is a twist here. Ann Arbor’s sidewalks had fallen into such disrepair that it is under a consent decree ordering it to bring its facilities into compliance with current ADA standards by 2018. Prior to this new program, it looks like Ann Arbor used a system similar to Lawrence’s, where it tried unsuccessfully to get property owners to make some repairs.
— Corvallis, Ore., does systematic inspections to identify sidewalks that need repair. The public as a whole pays for the repairs via a monthly fee that is added onto utility accounts. Currently, the fee is 80 cents per month. The fee system has been in place since 2011. City Manager David Corliss several years ago proposed something similar to this, but the idea never gained any political traction at City Hall.
But this commission operates with a different set of tires than past commissions, so we’ll see if the idea goes anywhere in the future. Commissioners haven’t yet said what plans they have for sidewalks, but I’m sure they’ll be asked about it during next year’s City Commission elections. It is a big issue with some neighborhood groups.
Group studying multimillion-dollar Lawrence retirement cooperative; large East Lawrence site to hit development market; 14 million Douglas County trees
There’s a new group in Lawrence promoting the benefits of retiring at a co-op. It took me a moment to wrap my head around the idea. Why would I want to retire at a grain elevator? Those, after all, are some of the larger examples of cooperatives in the area. Then I remembered that The Merc is also a co-op. Retiring next to its pastry case does sound appealing, although they are going to have to become a lot more tolerant of my bathrobe than they have been in the past. I’m not sure that’s what the organizers of a new cooperative in Lawrence have in mind, but they do think it is going to shake up the local retiree housing market.
Perhaps you have seen advertisements for Vintage Cooperatives and a new retiree housing project it has planned for Lawrence. I hadn’t seen any plans filed for such a project at City Hall, so I checked in with officials at Vintage. Indeed, the company hasn’t filed any plans yet because it is still testing the waters in Lawrence. But a company official told me he is optimistic Lawrence will become the site of a multimillion-dollar senior housing project by the Iowa-based company.
First, though, Vintage is taking some time to explain the idea of living in a cooperative. Curtis Jones, director of marketing for Ewing Development, said his company tries to build projects for seniors who want some of the benefits of home ownership but don’t want all the hassles of homeownership. The way the idea works is that Ewing Development constructs a large building usually housing 48 to 60 living units. Unlike a traditional condo development, however, residents won’t buy a specific unit. Instead, they’ll buy shares in the ownership of the overall building. At the end of the day, the building is owned by the people living in it, making it a cooperative. The residents of the building form their own governance group to manage the property, although Ewing provides professional help on the day-to-day management.
Part of the idea behind the concept is seniors don’t have to take out a mortgage to buy a unit. Jones estimated most units range in prices from about $150,000 to $300,000. Residents make an upfront payment of 40 percent to 50 percent of the unit’s value. They then make a monthly payment to the cooperative, which is used to help pay down the mortgage that the cooperative holds, and also to cover operating expenses of the cooperative. That includes maintenance fees and other amenities.
Jones said one of the advantages of the concept is when it is time for a resident to move out or sell their unit. Since you don’t own the actual unit, you aren’t technically conducting a real estate transaction. You’re instead just selling your shares in the building. Jones claims that will be easier than a real estate deal. A big part of the system seem to be that Ewing is confident that it can continually market the facility well enough that there will always be a waiting list for people wanting a unit. When it is time for a resident to leave, they simply sell their shares to someone on the waiting list. They sell the shares at a set price that is based on an annual 2 percent appreciation in share prices.
It sounds like there also may be some tax advantages with the system, but as my accountant, Vinny, tells me, I shouldn’t worry about all those details. (Do worry, however, if a car with government plates is in your driveway, he says.) I don’t understand all the details of this system, or whom it may work for or whom it may not.
My point in mentioning the project is to alert you to keep an eye out for another potential retirement development. The company is hosting its second meeting with potential co-op members today, and Jones said he expects a decision on whether to move forward will happen quickly.
He said the company has been looking at West Lawrence locations to build the project, but hasn’t yet secured any land. He said the company typically likes to have about seven to 10 acres because it ultimately wants to build a campus environment that would include a nursing home or other skilled-care units.
It looks like the company is aggressively pursuing similar projects in several other communities. It has had meetings in Liberty, Mo. and Independence Mo. It recently opened a cooperative living project in Ankeny, Iowa, and it looks like it has several other projects in various stages of development near Des Moines.
“We really like Lawrence because we like college towns,” Jones said. “People in college towns are often very committed to the community. They want to live in the community for a long time, and we really don’t see anybody offering something quite like what we have planned.”
I’ll keep an eye on whether the project moves forward, and report back.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Keep an eye out for some changes near one of Lawrence’s more popular loft-style apartment buildings. Officials at Black Hills Energy have confirmed they plan to demolish their old maintenance shop near Eighth and Pennsylvania streets and put the property on the market. The site is across the street from the popular Poehler Lofts building and the Warehouse Arts District.
Chuck Hoag, a Lawrence manager with the natural gas company, said he expected the site’s most likely use would be as a parking lot to serve the growing Warehouse Arts District. I could see that, but the site is several acres, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a developer tried to do something a little more ambitious as well.
One issue with the site is that there likely will be some environmental restrictions on the property. Based on past articles we have done, the site has issues related to coal tar. From the mid-1800s to early 1900s, the site burned a lot of coal to produce gas. In the late 1990s, remediation work was done on the site, and state environmental officials have said the property poses no significant risk to the public. But the state did require deed restrictions that prohibit residential construction or any other activity that would “necessitate frequent contact with the soil.”
So, we’ll see who is interested in that property and what plans may be in store for the area. Black Hills no longer needs the site because it has a new maintenance facility in northern Lawrence.
• It may be a busy couple of nights for trees. A few may house some toilet paper on Friday night, which is Halloween, lest you think my neighborhood just does odd things with toilet paper. But tonight, if a certain baseball team wins a certain game, you may find fans of this team hanging from the tree tops. (What? I’m admittedly bad at celebrating baseball victories.)
Well, a new study has pointed out that we sure do have a lot of trees to choose from. The Kansas Forestry Service recently conducted a study of Douglas County’s rural and urban forests. That means it looked at a lot of trees in Lawrence and other parts of the county.
How many trees? Well, the study estimates Douglas County has about 14 million trees. It also estimates that about 25 percent of the county has trees that are dense enough to create what is called a tree canopy. As for the types of trees, the most common are American Elm, Northern Hackberry, Eastern Red Cedar, Osage-Orange and Honey Locust.
The trees, of course, provide shade, protection from the wind and other such things that can help reduce the energy bills of homeowners. The report estimated that Douglas County trees reduce annual residential energy costs by $2.9 million a year.
The report also says Douglas County trees store 1.7 million tons of carbon, which has a value of $124 million. I don’t quite understand that, but I’m guessing maybe some of you scientific types do. Meanwhile, I am searching for loose carbon in my couch cushions.
You can read the entire report, here.
• Town Talk will be off tomorrow. I may or may not still be in a tree.
Downtown shop of 30 years changes name, look; campaign contributors to police vote likely won’t be known before election
There are still Lawrence residents who remember when the downtown shop Britches was the place to go to get a fancy pair of $300 jeans. (I remember. That might have been when I started using a morphine drip to help open the credit card statements.) But those types of prices long have been gone at Britches, and to drive home the point, the store’s ownership has closed the store and reopened under a new brand name.
Flirt Boutique opened about 10 days ago in the space that formerly housed Britches, 843 Massachusetts St. The closing of Britches ended a brand name that had lasted for more than 30 years in downtown Lawrence. Jeremy Furse has owned the Britches store for 30 years, and he said it operated under the name Britches Corner for eight to 10 years prior to his purchase of the business.
“We just thought after 30 years, it was time to do something different,” said Furse, who is the owner of the new Flirt Boutique.
The name change also involved a significant remodeling of the store. Furse said everything was done with the goal of reinforcing the idea that the store is a fun and casual boutique rather than a pricier, upscale retailer.
“Even though our prices have been pretty low for quite awhile, I think because of the look of the store, people would walk by and say that place is so expensive,” Furse said. “Our pricing structure now is about 25 percent below what we had at Britches.”
Furse said many of the styles and brands the store carries have remained the same, but he said the store is adding some new selections to try to appeal to a broader age group. He said the store now is trying to reach 18- to 40-year-olds, where before Britches was more focused on the 18 to 24 age range.
Furse previously operated a Flirt Boutique in Leawood. He recently closed that store to focus on the new Lawrence operations. As for the Britches name, it continues to live on elsewhere. Furse said he continues to operate a Britches in Columbia, Mo. Furse said he thinks the Flirt brand has good potential.
“If the first 10 days are any indications, it is looking very good,” Furse said. “People have been real receptive, and we’ve been able to keep a lot of our customers from the Leawood store.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• If you are the type who likes to follow the money when it comes to political campaigns, good luck in doing so with the campaigning that is going on for a new police headquarters.
As you probably know, there are two political action committees that have formed around the police sales tax issue: one for it and one against it. People have been asking me how much those two groups have been spending and, more importantly, who is providing the funding for the spending.
The answer: We’ll have to wait quite awhile to find out. Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew told me the local PACs fall under a vague state law that says they do not have to file their campaign contribution and expense reports until Dec. 31. That, of course, is nearly two months after the Nov. 4 election.
“If transparency is the idea behind this law, it doesn’t provide much transparency with this election,” Shew said. “By the time they are required to file, we will have counted the votes and everybody will have moved on.”
Shew said if the political action committee were running advertisements that specifically advocated for or against a candidate, they would have to file reports prior to the election, just like the candidates are required to do. But since the PACs are advocating and opposing an issue — not a candidate — the law doesn’t require them to file prior to the election.
I suppose the PACs could choose to file reports prior to the Nov. 4 election on their own volition, but they aren’t required to do so. I haven’t asked either group whether it plans to do so.
Following the money matters to some voters and likely doesn’t to others. The biggest question I’ve heard surrounding the money issue is whether the vote yes group is being supported by individuals who stand to personally benefit from the project, such as architects, consultants and building contractors. Not that there is anything wrong with that. They have as much right to support an issue as anyone else, but it is information some voters want to have. Seeing who is opposing the issue also could be enlightening.
As for the law behind all of this, Shew said it is not new. He said the problems of the law have been pointed out before but it would require an action of the state Legislature to change the current requirements.
• To lease or buy? I know that is always the question at our home, especially when it comes to the chocolate fountain. (We lease because with any piece of equipment that is running 22 hours a day, you have to guard against maintenance costs.) City Hall officials have that same question too, and at tonight’s meeting they’re going to give leasing a try when it comes to a key part of the city’s vehicle fleet.
City commissioners are set to approve a three-year lease agreement with Shawnee Mission Ford to lease seven new Ford Explorers for the Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical department. The city will spend about $71,500 a year for the vehicle leases. Over the course of the three-year period, the city will spend about $215,000 for the vehicles, which is about $10,500 more than the city would have spent if it bought the vehicles at their $29,075 purchase price.
At the end of the lease period, the city can buy the vehicles for $1 each. City officials said the lease doesn’t include any mileage penalties or other such penalties. Staff members are recommending approval of the lease agreement as part of the city’s efforts to study whether leasing versus buying makes more sense for the city’s vehicle fleet.
As for the vehicles, they are replacing a mix of SUVs and sedans that range in age from 1999 to 2006 and have between 52,000 and 111,000 miles.
Sponsor found for downtown Christmas parade; city plans for Winter Wonder Weekend; downtown shops to again hand out Halloween candy; construction set for industrial park
I don’t know about you, but my idea of a Winter Wonder Weekend in Lawrence would be Bill Self making me a steaming hot batch of biscuits and gravy, Big Jay and Little Jay shoveling my driveway and a new 12-volt battery for my heated long johns. I’m not sure that’s what organizers have in mind, but Lawrence residents should get ready for a Winter Wonder Weekend this holiday season.
The organizers of the Lawrence Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade are providing some details about how the parade will be part of a larger effort to attract more visitors to downtown Lawrence. The parade will serve as the kickoff event for the Lawrence Winter Wonder Weekend. I’m still gathering some details, but according to Elaine VanDeventer, one of the organizers of the parade, the Lawrence Public Library, the Lawrence Arts Center and the Watkins Community Museum of History all will be hosting special events during the weekend. How special are they? Well, they’ll be designed so you can drop your kids off, and go have fun in downtown Lawrence without your son or daughter slipping something in your hot chocolate that causes you to pass out with an open wallet in the downtown toy shop. That is special indeed.
VanDeventer said Downtown Lawrence Inc. is spearheading the event and is working to organize all sorts of extra activities to keep people in downtown longer. Preliminarily, those plans include plenty of opportunities for visitors to see Santa Claus, hear holiday carolers and take a whirl on the city’s new outdoor ice skating rink next to the Lawrence Public Library. VanDeventer said plans also call for old-fashioned horse-drawn wagon rides in South Park from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. following the parade.
But the fun gets started at 11 a.m. on Dec. 6. That’s when the Lawrence Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade will begin its march down Massachusetts Street. I’ve heard some of you were concerned that the popular parade wasn’t going to be around this year, but that was never the case. As we reported in July, the parade was looking for a new major sponsor, but the lack of a sponsor never threatened this year’s parade. It was creating worry for future years, however.
Well, since that time, an anonymous donor has stepped forward to provide a significant gift to the parade, which traditionally has about 70 teams of horses and carriages, and attracts several thousand visitors to downtown. The donor has made the gift through the Lawrence Arts Center, so look for this year’s parade to also help spread the word about the many programs and activities that are underway at the downtown arts center.
VanDeventer said the donor has made a three-year commitment to the parade, which she said will really allow organizers to focus on hosting a great parade rather than trying to raise funds to simply cover costs.
“We’re tickled to death with how everything has come together,” VanDeventer said.
So, go ahead and mark your calendars for Dec. 6, and plan to stay a little longer than normal. And plan to give me a helping hand if you see me moving a little slow. Twelve-volt batteries are heavy.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While we are mentioning downtown items, here is a quick one: Downtown Lawrence Inc. has announced that the tradition of downtown businesses handing out candy for Halloween will continue. Most businesses will begin handing out candy at 5 p.m. on Halloween, which of course is on Friday. The event lasts as long as the candy lasts, which can go pretty quickly because usually several hundred kids come to downtown for trick-or-treat.
• Look for some construction to begin in one of Lawrence’s industrial parks. Plans have been filed for about $500,000 worth of work to begin at the southeast corner of North Iowa Street and Packer Court. In case you can’t quite picture that location, it is basically across the street from O’Malley Beverage, the area Budweiser distributor.
Those of you who have used the vacant lot to hide and hope for product to fall off the Budweiser trucks will have to find a new location. The approximately 3-acre lot will house a maintenance shop for a growing property maintenance company, and also will include 40 self-storage units that will be open to the public.
E-State Management, which owns Northwinds, Crosswinds and Windgate apartments in Lawrence, is building a new maintenance shop for its operations. The new facility will allow the company to also expand its services, said Clay Kucza, a manager with E-State. He said the company plans to start offering maintenance services to other apartments and businesses in the area. The new facility, he said, should allow the company to add several maintenance employees in the future. Look for construction work to begin this fall.
National chain Pinot’s Palette signs deal for west Lawrence space; a new resolution related to police HQ; examining the city’s math on proposed sales tax
Despite that unfortunate incident with a step ladder, a half gallon of fandango pink and the kitchen ceiling, I still believe that a bottle of wine improves most painting jobs. A new business slated for Lawrence agrees.
The national franchise Pinot’s Palette has signed a deal to open a Lawrence location in a shopping center at Sixth and Wakarusa. The business is part of a relatively new breed of entertainment establishments: the paint and drink venue. An evening at Pinot’s Palette involves participating in an instructor-led class on how to create a painting on canvas. During the class, you are allowed to drink some wine and socialize with friends. (Parts of that sound like my experience at an art history class at a university that I’m legally not allowed to mention the name of anymore.) At the end of the experience, you’ll have a work of art you can take home to hang in the living room, or perhaps in the hallway closet, depending on how much wine you’ve had.
The business will be next door to Johnny’s West in the shopping center on the southwest corner of Sixth and Wakarusa. It will go into a space formerly occupied by a dental office, and will be next to the new Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, which is currently renovating vacant space in the center.
Olathe resident Victoria White and her husband, Waylon, are opening up the Pinot’s Palette in Lawrence. White said she went to a Pinot’s Palette in Leawood and fell in love with the concept.
“I’m not an artist, but I already have 15 paintings I’ve done,” she said.
The Lawrence location will be a franchise of the national Pinot’s Palette chain. The company got started in Houston in 2009 and has now spread to locations in more than 30 states. According to its website, the company has or is opening Kansas locations in Leawood, Prairie Village and Wichita.
White said she hopes to have the business open by January.
Each painting session at Pinot’s Palette lasts two to three hours and is expected to cost $35 to $45, White said. In addition to catering to a night out with friends, the establishment will offer private parties, corporate outings and classes geared toward kids.
White said she believes the concept will go over well in Lawrence because of the city’s love of art and creativity. Love of wine also won’t hurt. The business will allow patrons to bring their own bottles of wine and also will sell wine by the glass and nonalcoholic beverages on site, in case you have forgotten to bring your own, White said.
Indeed, the concept has some legs in Lawrence. A similar establishment called Painted Kanvas operates just up the street in the shopping center at Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive. I wrote about that business back in January. We’ll see how the two compete. (Perhaps this is how Van Gogh really lost his ear: Dueling paint bars.) Regardless, West Lawrence residents should have plenty of opportunities to hang custom art above the mantel.
In other news and notes from around town:
• At their meeting on Tuesday city commissioners will have an odd resolution up for approval related to the proposed police headquarters project. The resolution has an interesting back-story that involves a city commissioner uttering the word “asinine.”
First, the resolution: It basically states that the City Commission “intends, at its discretion” to sell some excess property that the city owns in order to offset “some or all” of the $2.25 million the city will spend to buy the 47-acre Hallmark Cards site to house the proposed headquarters facility. If you remember, the city only needs about 15 acres for the police headquarters. But the city is buying the entire 47-acre site because it believes it is the best available location for the facility, and Hallmark won’t agree to sell the city a smaller amount of acreage. That has caused some voters to cry foul.
Tuesday’s resolution is kind of odd because it doesn’t commit the City Commission to do anything. It doesn’t commit a future City Commission to sell any property because the City Commission can’t compel a future City Commission to sell property. And indeed, it likely will be a future City Commission that makes most of the decisions on whether to sell city property. There is a City Commission election in April where three of the five seats on the commission will be up for election (the seats held by Dever, Riordan and Schumm.) Certainly, they all may get re-elected, but that is far from certain since it isn’t even known whether all three will seek re-election. A big selling decision will be whether to sell the police department’s existing Investigations and Training Center once a new headquarters building is completed. Any action to sell the building likely won’t happen until 18 to 24 months from now, when construction is completed on the headquarters.
Basically, this resolution just is a written document expressing what city commissioners already have said: They think the city should sell some property to offset the $2.25 million purchase price of the Hallmark site. The resolution mentions the Investigations and Training Center and surplus property at the Hallmark site specifically. It also mentions that other city property could be sold. I’ve been told property the city owns near the intersection of Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive also likely will be put on the market by the city.
The resolution highlights that there are no guarantees the city will sell the property, but it seems reasonable that it will, especially when it comes to the ITC building. If the city builds a new police headquarters building, it doesn’t have a police need for the ITC building any longer. I suppose the city could use the building for its long-talked-about “one-stop shop” for the planning department and the building permit division, which currently are in separate buildings. But I’ve heard no real talk of that location serving that need. I suppose the city could use the building to house its Municipal Court operations, which are currently in leased space. But I’ve also heard no real talk of that possibility.
So, why did the idea of this resolution come up? It dates back to last week’s City Commission meeting. At that meeting, Greg Robinson, a Lawrence attorney who has been one of the more vocal opponents of the proposed police sales tax proposal, spoke during the public comment section. He raised several concerns about the police headquarters plan, including that the city hadn’t made its case that the project was really about improving public safety, that the city wasn’t fully considering KU students to be residents of the city, and that nowhere does the ballot issue commit the city to sell any land or use the proceeds of any land sales to reduce the cost of the police headquarters project.
Commissioner Jeremy Farmer said he wanted to respond to some of Robinson’s comments, and then proceeded to say “Mr. Robinson continues to make asinine comments.” That sparked a complaint from Robinson that Farmer was out of line, and Mayor Mike Amyx reminded Farmer to address the comments in a way that was respectful of the individual. Farmer addressed several of Robinson’s comments, but the issue of whether the city could somehow give voters more assurances that it plans to sell city property to help offset the costs of the project received more discussion.
City Commissioner Mike Dever said he would be supportive of putting that intention in the form of a resolution so that future commissions would understand the thinking of the current commission.
So, hopefully that helps you understand why this resolution has ended up on the City Commission’s agenda.
• While we’re on the police headquarters topic, I’ve been getting questions from people wanting an explanation on how the city has determined that about 30 percent of sales tax revenues from this proposed tax would come from people who live outside the city limits.
The city has done some mathematical computations to come up with that number. I’ll do my best to explain them: The city looks at state figures that show the per capita sales tax collections for the state as a whole during the course of a year. That was $859 in 2013. It then compares Lawrence’s average per capita income with the state’s average per capita income. Lawrence’s per capita income is about 7 percent less than the statewide average. So, city officials make an assumption that Lawrence’s per capita sales tax collections should be about 7 percent less than the statewide average. That creates a per capita number of $801. The city calls that number Lawrence’s expected per capita sales tax. The city then looks at the actual amount of sales taxes collected per capita. That number was $913. The difference between the two is assumed to represent sales taxes that are collected from people who live outside of Lawrence. Out-of-town shoppers, in other words. If you do the math, however, that is about 14 percent, not the 30 percent the city has touted.
But the city makes one other key adjustment. It says that the city’s expected sales tax collections need to be adjusted downward to account for the amount of spending Lawrence residents do outside of Lawrence. You can’t assume Lawrence residents spend all their money in town. But how do you figure out how much they spend outside of town? The city is estimating 21.8 percent of all their purchases occur outside the city limits. The city gets that number from a KU survey of Lawrence consumers, but it is important to note that those survey results are from 1999. They’re now 15 years old, and it is tough to say whether they are still accurate. I do believe it is the most recent survey that tries to get at that number. Anyway, when you make that adjustment, the math does show that 31 percent of sales tax dollars come from people outside the city limits.
If you have read this explanation to the end, you deserve some type of ribbon. It is complicated stuff. I don’t have any problems with the city’s math. There probably are questions about the assumptions the city has made. For example, is it reasonable to believe that just because Lawrence’s average income is 7 percent less than the statewide average that Lawrence residents are going to spend 7 percent less on taxable items? Considering that food is a large part of what people pay sales taxes on, that may not be a reasonable assumption. But I don’t know. Is 21.8 percent the right number for out-of-town spending? I don’t know.
I think this is a good-faith effort on the city’s part to come up with a number, but it is a tough number to produce with any certainty. It is one of several issues that voters will have to figure out.
Green energy company to locate headquarters on 23rd Street; a Mangino yard sign; possible changes to how city deals with downtown races
Expect one stretch of 23rd Street to become a little greener. Don’t worry, Lawrence construction crews aren’t changing from orange cones to green ones. Instead, a growing green energy company is setting up its headquarters in a 23rd Street building and plans to use the prominent site to show off its solar and wind technology.
Lawrence-based Good Energy Solutions has signed a deal to locate in the former Diamond Cabinetry building at 641 E. 22nd St. Even though the business has a 22nd Street address, it basically has 23rd Street frontage. It is the building just east of the 23rd Street bridge that was recently rebuilt.
The company plans to put solar panels and solar canopies on the building, have a prominently displayed, solar-powered electric car charging station, and a residential scale wind turbine on the site, company officials told me.
But the big reason for the move was that the company was running out of space in its current location in the 2100 block of Carolina Street. In the last year, the company has grown to 12 full-time employees, up from four a year ago. The company’s revenues have quadrupled in the last year, said David Thiel, the company’s office manager.
Thiel said the price of solar panels have dropped significantly, which combined with some tax credits has made solar energy a feasible option for many residences. He said about 60 percent of the company’s sales now are on the residential side of the equation. He said some of the company’s customers are people who have had their eye on the solar movement for decades.
“It seems like people of a certain age finally have the money to purchase solar, and they are doing it now,” Thiel said.
The company also does wind energy projects and recently has expanded into the LED lighting business.
The company plans to move into its new offices in the coming days, and look for some of the improvements on the site in the coming weeks.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It is campaign season, and yard signs are thicker than the glazed icing on my breakfast this morning. It is easy to become confused with all of them, which is why I almost threw my support for governor to former KU football coach Mark Mangino. You can’t blame me. He does have a yard sign. I was driving on 19th Street the other day and saw a Mangino yard sign, and made a point to go back and take another look at it. You can see it below, but it basically is lobbying for Mangino to be re-installed as the head coach at KU, now that the position is open again.
I have no insight or particular opinion about that. I’ll leave that to the sports guys. But the sign idea, I thought was interesting. The city has sign codes, but the country also has a First Amendment that lets you express your opinion in a variety of ways. Maybe the sign idea will catch on with other important issues as well. World peace, social justice, the creation of an all-you-can-eat country buffet in Lawrence.
As for the Mangino sign, I don’t know if it is an actual movement. I’ve only seen the one sign. But maybe there are more I just haven’t seen them. (I think I could probably get several hundred signs up for the all-you-can eat country buffet, by the way, and probably even sponsorship from a cholesterol drug firm.) Where was this sign, you ask? Well, I’ll give you a hint: It wasn’t in Lew Perkins’ yard. Instead it was in front of Silverback, a Lawrence business that organizes runs and other events across the country. It sets up a lot of the Color Runs around the country.
• Silverback and companies like it may have other issues than the KU football coaching search to keep an eye on. Lawrence city commissioners may have a debate about how they regulate the multitude of 5K races and such that occur in downtown Lawrence and across the city.
Commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday approved a route and necessary permits for the upcoming Kansas Half Marathon, which will benefit Lawrence-based Health Care Access. Commissioners also agreed to donate the services of the Lawrence police and fire departments to help staff the event. That is expected to come at a cost of about $8,200.
It is fairly common for the city to donate those services if the event is a fundraiser for a charity. But City Commissioner Bob Schumm said he wants to have a broader discussion about that policy. He said he’s heard from several residents who have concerns that some of the races that are promoted as nonprofit events have a large profit component.
Health Care Access officials said that is not the case with their event. The race is expected to raise more than $35,000 in funding for the organization that provides health care to uninsured or under-insured. That’s more than half the expected $60,000 in entry fees the event is expected to generate. The difference between the $60,000 and the $35,000 is the expenses needed to put on the event, which is expected to draw up to 1,300 runners. Part of those expenses is paying the for-profit company Silverback to manage the course. That includes providing people to help control traffic along the course, mark the course, and do the other things required to have a safe event.
Health Care Access officials told city commissioners that it wouldn’t be possible for their small staff to put on the race without the help of a for-profit company like Silverback. City commissioners said they understand the need for professional assistance, but Schumm said he wants to ensure that races that are promoted as non-profit fundraisers really do return a substantial portion of all revenues to the nonprofit agency. He said that appears to be the case with Health Care Access’ event, and he voted in favor of the necessary permits for the event.
But he said he also wants commissioners to consider policy that would require any race seeking the city’s donation of services to provide an income statement to the city showing the total amount of revenue raised by the event, and the total amount of money the charity will received. Commissioners took no action on that request, but agreed to look at the issue near the end of the year when the city compiles a report on how much it has donated to these various races.
I’ll also be interested to see if that discussion sparks another discussion on whether the city will try to steer future events out of downtown and onto the extensive trail system that exists at Rock Chalk Park. The trail system would not require city police officers and others to provide traffic control. But I know many race organizers like having the events in downtown Lawrence because of the atmosphere it provides. Some businesses like it too, but there are several businesses who express concern that the street closures that come with the races hurt their normal weekend business.
City collects 50 tons of recycling on first day of new program; update on Sixth and Iowa; Lawrence’s impressive job numbers
Lawrence’s new curbside recycling program is off and running, and city officials are pleased with the first day’s haul. City crews collected 50 tons of material to be recycled on Tuesday, which was the first day of operations. (Yes, upon hearing that number I was nervous that my wife had somehow recycled my collection of beer cans and pizza boxes from KU’s magical championship run in 2008. But fear not, it is still there, and I’ve now put a wheel lock on the semi trailer in the back yard.)
Lawrence Public Works Director Chuck Soules said the Day 1 operations went well.
“The crews did a great job,” Soules said. “And that is 50 tons of trash that will not be going to the landfill.”
Soules said crews are asking residents for a bit of help, however, when it comes to setting out their blue recycling carts. The city is asking residents to place their recycling cart at least two feet away from their green trash carts. In many neighborhoods, the city uses automated trucks that use a robotic arm to pick up the containers. If the containers are too close together, the arm cannot grasp the container.
The city hasn’t touted a lot of numbers about how much material they expect to collect as part of the program. But when the city was designing the program last year, it used a working number of 5,000 tons per year, according to some old memos I dug up. (I keep the memos in a separate semi-trailer.) If the 50 tons per day rate continues — that’s a big if because we’ve only seen one day’s worth of data — the city would more than double that 5,000 ton projection.
It is possible that Lawrence residents may end up recycling more than 50 tons per day. After all, the city takes about 60,000 tons of trash to the landfill in a year. In fact, if the city wants to meet one of its goals, it may need to recycle more than 50 tons a day. City commissioners have adopted a goal of having a 50 percent recycling rate by the year 2020.
Figuring out how much we need to recycle at the curb to reach that total can be tricky because we’re not just talking about trash when we are talking about recycling. The tons and tons of material the city collects through its yard waste program also are counted toward the city’s recycling rate.
Bottomline, I’ve taken my shoes off and I still can’t do the math on how much we need to recycle to meet that 50 percent recycling goal. But what little bit of arithmetic I did do on the subject indicates such a a rate is in the realm of possibility. The city in 2010 estimated it had a recycling rate of 38 percent, which was above the national average of about 34 percent. That was without a citywide, curbside recycling program. A lot of the recycling was the yard waste, and to be fair, there were some questions of whether the city’s method for estimating yard waste collections inflated the totals.
Regardless, it will be interesting to watch the numbers in the months that follow. We should have a good idea of just how much the city is recycling, and whether we can meet our goal of becoming one of the more recycling-friendly communities in the country.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The end is in sight for the road construction project at Sixth and Iowa streets. But motorists may want to avoid the intersection this weekend while crews do some paving work at the site.
On Friday evening, crews will begin milling the intersection, and that is going to create a major traffic issue. Crews will have to close Iowa Street where it connects to Sixth Street. Traffic will continue to be allowed on Sixth Street, but motorists won’t be able to turn onto Iowa Street. Motorists on Iowa Street won’t be allowed to turn onto Sixth Street. The work is expected to begin around 7 p.m. and be done by 10 p.m., Soules said.
On Saturday morning, paving work will begin. During paving, Iowa Street access will be closed just like it was for the milling work. That work is expected to take place throughout the day on Saturday. Some work will continue on Monday, but the Iowa/Sixth Street connection should be restored by then.
In case you have forgotten, the main purpose of the project was to add a left-turn lane on Sixth Street for westbound motorists wanting to turn onto Iowa Street. Longtime motorists understand why this lane will be useful. You are driving on Sixth Street, minding your own business, day dreaming about KU basketball ball, Free State beer and ways to combine the two perhaps using a large screen TV and a sanitized Jacuzzi. Then, bam, you open your eyes and realize you are in the left lane of Sixth Street even though you want to continue to go straight through the intersection. You stop and spend approximately 23 minutes waiting behind the yahoo in the F150 pickup truck with a U-Haul trailer waiting to turn onto Iowa Street so he can pick up his daily supply of doughnuts from the fine purveyors at Ninth and Iowa Streets. We’ve all been there, right?
Well, by early next week, a left-turn lane should be in place and operational, city officials tell me. The intersection also will have some new right-turn lanes, new striping and other things you’ll want to pay attention to. So, at least for the next few days, keep your eyes open.
• As I mentioned on Twitter yesterday (@clawhorn_ljw) Lawrence in August 2014 had the highest job growth rate of any metro area in the U.S. The numbers come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a group by the name of Talent Tribune took the time to rank the top 10 metro areas for the month.
Lawrence finished first with a 5.9 percent increase in jobs compared to August 2013. During the one-year period, the numbers show the Lawrence metro area (which is Douglas County) added 2,800 jobs. Lawrence was slightly better than Midland, Texas, which grew by 5.6 percent.
The numbers from the BLS are preliminary, so they may get revised at a later date. But as I reported earlier this month, an economist at Wichita State also had pointed out that Lawrence’s job numbers seemed to be on a rebound. So, it is definitely something to watch for.
I chatted with chamber president and CEO Larry McElwain about the numbers, and to his credit, he wasn’t unfurling the Mission Accomplished banner just yet. It is just one month of numbers, after all.
“I still have caution on those numbers,” McElwain said. “I want to make sure they are good jobs and not just temporary jobs. I want to make sure they are jobs that meet the needs of our residents, and not just minimum wage or slightly above.”
It is tough to point to what may have led to an increase of 2,800 jobs in the last year. But it is likely a couple of major employers have added to the totals. If you remember, Hallmark cards did some major reorganizing of its production plants in the region. Lawrence’s production plant ended up being a winner in that process. We reported in March 2013 that Hallmark expected to add about 200 jobs to its Lawrence plant during the course of 2013. That number may have grown some even, I’m told.
General Dynamics, which operates the former NCS/Pearson call center in East Hills also has been adding jobs. In September, we reported that General Dynamics may be adding about 400 jobs for a customer service contract related to the Affordable Care Act. Whether some new General Dynamics jobs started showing up in August, I don’t know.
Part of it just may be pent-up demand by hundreds of small businesses in the area. Lawrence has not grown jobs at the same type of pace several other communities have over the last few years. Lawrence companies may finally just be feeling that they are on a firmer footing and are now expanding. It will be interesting to watch the numbers that come out in the next few months. But for the time being, we can tout that our job growth rate is better than everybody else’s, if even just for a month. Here’s a look at how other area communities fared during August 2014.
— Manhattan: 2.8 percent
— Topeka: 1.7 percent
— Wichita: 1.2 percent
— Kansas City: 0.5 percent.
— Kansas as a whole: 1.1 percent