Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
Longtime Lawrence bar closes; the surprising statistic about local liquor sales; fitness center finds new home
Thankfully there are still plenty of opportunities around the house for me to wear my captain’s hat and talk like Thurston Howell III. But there’s one less opportunity to do so in the Lawrence nightlife scene. All indications are that the longtime Lawrence bar The Yacht Club has closed.
The phone line for the business has been disconnected, and I’ve chatted with a business associate of the owner who said the bar’s not just on short break. Attempts to reach the owner haven’t yet been successful.
If you are having a hard time picturing where The Yacht Club was located, don’t feel bad (unless you have driven your car into a deep body of water looking for it.) You do have to be able to navigate by the stars a bit to find the spot at 530 Wisconsin. It is a short block off Sixth Street behind the shopping center that houses Subway.
But I’m guessing many of you knew exactly where the business was at, especially if you spent any time at KU. I don’t know exactly how long the business has been in operation, but I know from personal experience that it has been more than 20 years. Many Jayhawk fans at some point made their way into the business to see the old replica scoreboard that back in the day listed the final score of the Jayhawks’ 1988 national championship triumph over Oklahoma. I think later the score was changed to show the 2008 national championship over Memphis. No, I don’t know what is happening to the scoreboard, but I’ll ask if I get in touch with the owner.
While looking at the scoreboard, you perhaps would rekindle your interest in chemistry. At least that’s how I always explained it to my folks. The Yacht Club featured a giant beer that was served in something that looked like an oversized beaker or test tube. (I guess. I’m no expert in chemistry, although there were a few times at the club when I put in the effort to be one.)
The bar underwent a pretty significant remodel in the early 2000s, and began offering a much larger menu. It really became a bar and grill at that point. No word yet on whether there are any plans for the building.
In other news and notes from around town:
• This is probably a good time to share one of the more interesting statistics I’ve found about the city recently. I know for a long time it has been thought that the bar business in Lawrence is better than alchemy. You sell a beaker of beer for $11 and watch the bank account grow. But surprisingly, the numbers show that liquor sales in Lawrence are in a bit of a funk.
The city recently released its tally of liquor sales tax collections for 2014. They actually dropped by 0.1 percent compared to 2013 totals. More significant is that the 2014 totals mark the second year in a row that liquor tax collections have declined in Lawrence. From 2012 to 2014, liquor tax collections have declined by 0.5 percent.
That’s a sharp reversal from what Lawrence bars had experience not long ago. From 2010 to 2012, the city’s liquor tax collections grew by 8.2 percent. That was generally a bad time for the economy as a whole, but it was a period of growth for the bar industry. I’ve talked to bar owners before who have said that it is not unusual for business to be good during downturns in the economy. Add your own social commentary here. What would be unusual, though, is for a prolonged decline in liquor sales in Lawrence.
One thing to keep in mind is that these liquor tax numbers don’t capture all liquor sales that occur in the city. This tax is charged just on the drinks served at bars and other drinking establishments. Liquor bought at liquor stores does not show up in these numbers.
• Practice enough chemistry, and a body at some point will need a little bit of exercise, especially around the midsection. Well, there’s news from an exercise business in Lawrence. The local Jazzercise business has a new owner and a new location.
If you remember, the Jazzercise Lawrence Fitness Center was next to the Christal K-9 pet business that caught on fire in December. The Jazzercise facility suffered damage from that fire. That fire left the Jazzercise owner looking to exit the business. Longtime Jazzercise instructor Amy Sand decided to purchase the business, and she also looked to move it to a new location.
The business has now opened at Bob Billings Parkway and Kasold Drive in the Orchards Shopping Center. Sands said the move has come at a good time. The Jazzercise business is undergoing a rebranding effort to highlight more classes that involve strength training in addition to the traditional cardio workout that the exercise program has been known for.
The Lawrence location is now offering about 37 classes a week at the new location, Sands said.
Latest plans show hundreds of new apartments, condos, retirement units near Alvamar golf course; city looks to get in gear on transit changes
The future of the Alvamar Golf and Country Club is becoming clearer: It involves several hundred new apartment or condo-style residences around the course.
Also on tap is a 15,000 square-foot banquet facility with 24 guest rooms attached to it and a large retirement community that would be built on the southern portions of the golf complex.
A development group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel has filed more detailed plans at City Hall about how it would like to redevelop property around the golf course. The development group has signed a contract to purchase the West Lawrence golf club, but the purchase is contingent upon the group having the ability to rearrange some of the 36 holes of golf at the complex and develop some vacant areas around the course.
The development group still must win approval from city planners and the City Commission before it can proceed with its plans. With this latest plan, developers are stressing the point that significant changes need to be made to the Alvamar area if the golf course is going to remain a viable business in the future.
“While this is a land use item, you can’t really forget that what they are doing here is buying a business,” said Paul Werner, a Lawrence-based architect who is leading the design team. “I don’t know if struggling is the right word or if failing is a better word, but Alvamar needs some changes for the future.”
Werner said the idea of adding residences around the course is designed to create more members for the club and ultimately more players for the golf courses.
The latest proposal shows significant amounts of new construction both north and south of the current clubhouse area of the course. Here’s a look:
— Nine new multistory buildings, ranging in size from two stories to four stories, would be built north of the clubhouse area along the existing Crossgate Drive. The development would add 292 living units to the area. The buildings likely would house a mix of apartments and condominiums, Werner said. Plans call for the multifamily buildings to be constructed on both sides of Crossgate Drive. Existing residences along the street would remain. Construction of the buildings would begin just south of the existing residences and would end just north of the current clubhouse area.
— A new public street would be built from Bob Billings Parkway south to the current clubhouse area. The street would become the new entrance to the club from the north. The new street also would be designed to serve the new multifamily buildings. The new street would be just west of the existing Crossgate Drive. Portions of the existing Crossgate Drive would be rebuilt but would function as a private street to serve the existing residences along the road.
— To the south of the clubhouse area, a mix of independent living and assisted living facilities would be built. Plans filed at City Hall show 415 units of retirement-style development. Werner, though, cautions that some of those living units are assisted living units that are relatively small. Plans call for two large buildings to house the new units: a large single-story building and another single-story building with a walkout basement.
The development would be located south of the clubhouse area and east of Crossgate Drive behind existing residences on Crossgate. The development will be near the current location of the No. 1 and No. 9 fairways. Werner said the No. 1 will remain unchanged but the No. 9 hole will be redesigned.
• A 15,000 square-foot banquet facility would be be built near the current location of the public pro shop. The banquet facility would include 24 guest rooms that could be rented as part of wedding parties or by golfers who want to play multiple days at the course. Previously, the development group had proposed building cabins at various locations along the course that would serve as short-term lodging for visitors. The latest plan removes those cabins, although Werner said they could be added back to the plan, if the city believes that is a more appropriate way for the development to accommodate short-term visitors. Werner said the development plans don’t currently include a full-scale hotel.
Werner said the 15,000 square-foot facility is being designed to accommodate events of up to 800 people. He said the facility perhaps could be used for conferences and other similar events, but he said it really was not being designed as a conference center. He said the facility is being designed more with wedding receptions and other social events in mind.
• A new swimming pool would be added to the area around the clubhouse. Details on that portion of the project are still being developed. Werner said his office is working on plans that include anywhere from one to three pools on the site.
• Previously discussed plans to build residential units along Quail Creek Drive are not included in this development proposal. Werner said that portion of the project has been indefinitely deferred.
The next step for the proposed development is for the plans to be reviewed by the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission. Following that group’s review, final approval would be needed from the Lawrence City Commission. The earliest that the Planning Commission is expected to review the plans is in July.
Werner said he’s optimistic that the latest proposal will be well received by existing residents in the area. He said if this plan is denied, he thinks redevelopment pressures will continue for the area around Alvamar, and plans by other groups likely would result in more significant changes to the golf courses.
“I’m not sure anybody else who has looked at this project could make the commitment to keep all 36 holes of golf, but that is what our group really wants to do,” Werner said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• We go from golf to buses, which, of course, frequently go hand in hand. (What? I always take a transit bus when I go golfing because any course that allows me to play is a course that is difficult to find safe parking.)
City commissioners at their study session Tuesday afternoon had a significant discussion about the city’s transit system. Their takeaway: They can’t delay any longer a decision on where to locate an approximately $4 million transit hub.
If you remember, the City Commission has received a recommendation to build a new transit hub on Kansas University Endowment property near 21st and Iowa streets, on land that is just south of Fire Station No. 5.
That recommendation has ended up a lot like the majority of my tee shots: It hasn’t gone very far but still has managed to get lost in the weeds.
But commissioners on Tuesday were told that the lack of a decision on a transit hub is holding up lots of future planning for the transit system at a time when it really needs to do a lot of planning.
Commissioner Matthew Herbert made several comments that have become a theme with him: He doesn’t think the transit system works very well. He thinks it takes too long to get from one location to another. He said he may be in favor of spending money that has been set aside for a transit hub on making improvements to existing routes instead. Specifically, the city has several routes that still operate on a one-hour time schedule rather than the more convenient 30-minute time schedule.
Robert Nugent, the city’s transit administrator, however, told commissioners the best way to convert the system over to 30-minute routes is to get a centrally located transit hub. Currently, the city uses the downtown area as a transit hub, which is just a way of saying that most of the buses come to downtown and that is where the majority of transfer points happen. While downtown may be the “heart of the city,” it is not anywhere close to the center of the city anymore. Nugent said that has caused the system to become unbalanced from a geographic standpoint, which makes the chore of creating 30-minute routes more expensive.
But whether the 21st and Iowa area is the right location is still an open question with some commissioners. Both Herbert and Commissioner Stuart Boley have expressed concerns about the 21st and Iowa location. Both have said they want more of a “destination hub.” They’ve said that means they want a location with amenities and places where people can shop and spend their money. They note, after all, that the transit system is funded by sales tax.
But I wondered about the logistics of people shopping while they are waiting for their next bus. I asked Nugent what the average wait time is for someone waiting for a bus transfer. He said if — and this is the big if — the system could find a transit hub location that would allow for 30-minute routes systemwide, the average wait time for a transfer would be three minutes. I know certain members of my household can do a lot of shopping in three minutes, but I’m not sure that is the norm. In other words, I’m not sure how much opportunity for commerce would really occur at a transit hub.
I asked Herbert and Boley about it. Boley said he does believe a transfer hub that was located at a shopping center, for instance, would make the system more desirable. He said if the hub were located next to a grocery store, for example, people could do a little shopping on their way home. They obviously wouldn’t get done in three minutes, but they could catch the next bus that comes along in 30 minutes or so.
That’s certainly true. But what’s also true is if your route goes by a grocery store, you can get off at the appropriate bus stop, shop and catch the next bus in 30 minutes or so. Boley, though, does note that in that scenario you would have to pay another $1 fare, where you wouldn't if you were using your transfer pass. In talking with Nugent, he’s not sure how important it is to make the hub a destination vs. making sure that the system takes people to destinations of their choice.
Another question to ask is whether transit users are doing much shopping while waiting for buses today. The current hub is located in a major shopping destination: downtown. Is there any evidence that the presence of the hub in downtown is adding to downtown’s commercial activity? Certainly people take the bus to shop downtown, but they’ll be able to do that regardless of whether the hub is in downtown. Are many people deciding on their way home to take advantage of the fact that they are in downtown Lawrence to do a little shopping or grab a bite to eat? I don’t know.
Nugent says what is clear is that no one in downtown is clamoring to have the buses near their businesses.
“Everybody in downtown is kind of looking at it like a ‘not in my backyard’ type of situation,” Nugent said.
Boley and Herbert both have asked city staff members to take another look at the shopping center at Ninth and Iowa. Staff members previously had said a location right behind The Merc could serve as a transit hub. But city staff was not successful in getting the owners of the property to enter negotiations with the city. Boley and Herbert would like to make another effort at that location.
In terms of timing, there was agreement among commissioners that something needs to happen sooner rather than later. The sales tax that funds the T expires in 2019. It is assumed that voters will be asked in 2018 to renew the 0.25 percent sales tax. The sales tax won by overwhelming margins in 2008, but commissioners on Tuesday said the environment could be much different in 2018. Commissioners said if the state increases its sales tax, they are worried that voters may balk at renewing existing city sales taxes. Commissioners said getting the transit system operating as efficiently as possible as soon as possible likely will be important in gaining voter support.
Kinedyne to close plant later this year; Heartland health clinic moving to space near LMH; a ranking of Lawrence fans
UPDATE 1:15 P.M. Indeed the speculation is correct. A Kinedyne official has confirmed the company has decided to close its Lawrence production plant later this year.
In response to questions from the Journal-World, New Jersey-based Kinedyne released a statement saying the company has made a decision to transfer its Lawrence manufacturing facilities to a Kinedyne plant in Prattville, Ala. The company expects 23 Lawrence-based production and warehouse workers will lose their jobs by late 2015. An undisclosed number of administrative and office workers are expected to remain in Lawrence through December 2016, but those positions also will be phased out. The company said "many employees" were offered the chance to transfer to Prattville, and "some have accepted the opportunity to relocate."
The news marks an end for a longtime Lawrence manufacturer. Kinedyne has been in Lawrence since 1989 when it bought the Lawrence-based Aeroquip Corporation. The company has become a leader in the manufacturing of cargo straps, winches and other devices used by shippers and cargo haulers.
"The decision to close the Lawrence-based business was absolutely no reflection of the employees or the work they produced," the company said in its statement. "The decision was based upon factual data and a business need to have all of our manufacturing in one location."
I'll bring your more details as I sort through them.
Earlier post: • I’m definitely working to get more information on possible changes to a major employer at the East Hills Business Park. For several weeks now I have been hearing speculation that Kinedyne, a manufacturer of cargo straps and other devices for the shipping industry, may be shifting some production away from its longtime Lawrence plant. I’ve been working to get confirmation from the company for the last several weeks. I still don’t have that confirmation, but I was successful in making contact with company leaders yesterday. They told me they are preparing a response, which indicates to me that it is a situation economic development leaders will want to keep an eye on.
Kinedyne has been a longtime presence in the manufacturing sector in Lawrence. It was one of the first companies to locate in the East Hills Business Park when it opened in 1989. The company has its production plant in the building that sits right at the entrance to the business park. I’m not certain of employee totals at the plant currently, but the Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence & Douglas County lists the local plant with 93 employees.
In other news and notes from around town:
Lawrence’s health care industry is set to become even more focused on the area near Fourth and Maine streets. I’ve gotten confirmation that the Heartland Community Health Center is moving from its longtime home in the former Riverfront mall to space across the street from Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
Heartland has signed a deal to locate in about 10,000 square feet of space in the Medical Arts building on the northeast corner of Fourth and Maine, said Sean Hatch, communications coordinator for the not-for-profit health clinic.
“It is exciting for us for so many reasons,” Hatch said. “It gives us a prominent location and will offer greater access for patients.”
The new location is not only across the street from LMH, but basically is next door to the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and a host of other medical providers.
“We receive a lot of referrals from those places,” Hatch said “And now when we refer people to LMH for lab work, it will just be across the street.”
Heartland provides primary care services to patients without insurance, but also acts as an affordable care provider for patients who do have insurance. It also operates a food pantry and utility assistance program out of its offices, and has partnerships with Bert Nash to provide mental health care as part of the primary medical care it provides to patients. Last year the center had about 9,000 patient encounters, and Hatch said the clinic’s patient volumes have climbed every month thus far in 2015.
Hatch said the clinic plans to make the move in early July. The renovation work will take place in phases. When completed, the center will occupy 10,000 square feet of space for its clinic and administrative offices. That’s up from about 7,000 square feet of space the clinic had on the ground floor of the Riverfront building.
Full disclosure: The Riverfront building is owned by a group led by members of the Simons family, which owns the Journal-World and LJWorld.com.
• Here’s something for you to really gnash your teeth about. Lawrence has landed on another ranking list, and I don’t know how we’ll ever be able to show our faces again. The personal finance website WalletHub — in its efforts to make sure we understand the complex beast known as the economy — has done a study to rank . . . the best cities for baseball fans. I know I’ve certainly made many a personal finance decision wishing I had better information about that very subject.
Well, now I’m beginning to rethink my choices in life because Lawrence ranks a stinking 155th out of 272 communities that were ranked. Folks, that’s a little bit less than average.
I don’t know what to do about this. I know Lawrence has given baseball many chances. But the ball doesn’t bounce worth a darn on the hardwood court; it is very difficult to rebound when it comes off the glass backboard; and when the ball went into the stands one time, I nearly had to fight a guy to get him to give it back.
The ranking primarily focused on communities that have either a major league baseball team or a Division I college baseball team. The good news is that our friends in Kansas City apparently have figured it out better than we have. Kansas City is ranked as the 11th best city for baseball fans in America. Other cities in Kansas seem to be catching on quicker than us as well: Manhattan is tied for 61st and Wichita 98th.
I was pretty concerned about this for awhile, until I saw which city was ranked No. 1: St. Louis. Then I realized maybe this ranking was just a joke. After all, how can a city that gets so excited about a single arch win any type of award? Most every community of a decent size has at least two arches, and they’re golden, and next door to them you can get cheap hamburgers and good French fries. I’ve been to the very top of that single arch in St. Louis, and there were no cheap hamburgers to be found.
Signs point to pending closure of 300-employee call center downtown; new proposal to emerge to locate police HQ in former Riverfront Mall; update on city’s rental licensing program
It sure looks like downtown Lawrence is set to lose about 300 jobs, and City Hall is about to get a new twist when it comes to the debate over how and where to build a new police headquarters building.
The ownership group of the former Riverfront Mall has confirmed that The Results Companies has provided notice that it will not renew its lease for a call center that it operates in the building. The last information we had is that the call center employed about 300 people.
A spokesman for Florida-based The Results Companies declined to comment on the call center’s future, but did confirm the lease for the space expires at the end of August. My understanding is that a "for lease" sign will go up on the building today.
Full disclosure: The ownership group of the former mall is led by members of the Simons family, which owns the Journal-World and LJWorld.com.
“Our first thought is for the employees and the loss of jobs,” said Dan Simons, who leads the ownership group of the building. “This is a huge impact on those families, Lawrence and downtown Lawrence businesses. We will obviously try and find new tenants.”
But Simons said the loss of the call center will cause his group to put forward another proposal for the city to renovate the former Riverfront Mall into a police headquarters facility. With the pending loss of the call center, the western end of the former mall building now has 66,000 square feet of space available for purchase. The last report from a city-hired consulting firm estimated the police needed about 62,000 square feet of space.
Simons said the building is listed for sale at $5 million. Certainly, the city would have to spend several million dollars more on renovating the space, which is spread out over three floors. But, the latest cost estimate for a custom-built police headquarters is $26 million. That estimate includes covered parking for police vehicles. The Riverfront site is adjacent to a city-owned parking garage that could provide covered parking for police vehicles, if the city chose to designate the spots for that use. The land that the Riverfront building is located on already is owned by the city and is leased back to the building’s owners.
It will be interesting to see what the views of the new commission are regarding renovating an existing facility versus building new. The previous commission was inclined to follow their consultant’s recommendation that a new, custom-built facility would be most efficient for the police department. But two major factors have changed since then: Three of the five city commissioners are new to the debate, and voters rejected a sales tax proposal to fund a new police headquarters.
At the moment, I don’t see three votes on the current commission to put forward another sales tax plan. Are commissioners willing to raise property taxes enough to cover $26 million in construction? Legally, they could do so without putting the matter to a public vote, but would they? The answer to those questions are unclear. The other scenario being talked about is finding a way to restructure the city budget to pay for the $26 million project without a tax increase. But I’m hearing from some commissioners that they are concerned $26 million worth of restructuring will affect too many departments and too many city functions.
Commissioners are scheduled at their Tuesday meeting to discuss whether to create an ad hoc committee that would study the police headquarters issue and provide some recommendations by mid-November.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As previously reported, city commissioners are expected to have a debate about fire code requirements for businesses that house pets and other animals. As just so happens, commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting are scheduled to receive a separate report that serves as a reminder that pets aren’t the only city occupants facing fire hazards these days.
Commissioners are set to receive an update on the city’s rental licensing and inspection program. As has been the case in past reports, the No. 1 code violation city inspectors are finding in rental properties is either a lack of smoke detectors, inoperable smoke detectors or smoke detectors not in the proper places.
In January and February, city officials inspected 82 rental units. During that period, they found 53 smoke alarm violations. Other major violations found included:
— Lack of GFCI electrical outlets: 40
— Lack of electrical outlet covers: 15
— Ventilation problems: 14
— Mechanical appliance problems: 11
— Electrical system hazards: 10
Thus far, city officials report that landlords are getting violations corrected in fairly quick order. During the first two months of 2015, the city found that 70 percent of violations had been corrected within 30 days and about 98 percent of violations had been corrected within 60 days.
The city also is finding that most units they are inspecting have a relatively few number of violations. About 88 percent of units inspected have five or fewer violations. Units with five or fewer violations qualify for a city incentive that will allow their properties to be inspected every six years instead of every three years.
We’ll see whether those numbers remain steady as the summer progresses. July is a big month for the rental inspection program. That’s when the city begins inspecting a whole new crop of rental units. Currently, the primary focus has been inspecting rental units in single-family zoned areas. So, think of a house that is serving as a rental. But in July, multifamily units will become a bigger part of the city’s inspections process. Think of multi-unit apartment complexes, and some of the converted houses that exist in the Oread neighborhood and other areas around the university.
It also will be an interesting few months to watch the reaction of city commissioners to the rental licensing and inspection program. Two of the three new city commissioners — Commissioners Stuart Boley and Matthew Herbert — both made statements during the campaign indicating they had some uncertainties about how well the program would work. Commissioner Mike Amyx didn’t vote for the inspection program in the first place. So, we’ll see whether the new commission shows a long-term commitment to the licensing and inspection program.
News of a Mexican restaurant for 31st Street; city commissioners struggle with idea of ad hoc committee for police headquarters issue
I know you felt it. Lawrence’s world was a little bit out of balance, especially near the 31st and Iowa area. A Mexican restaurant —El Potro — had moved from its location along 31st Street to a new location near 33rd Street. And get this, no Mexican restaurant had taken its place. Fear not, the world is set to be right again. I’ve got news of a new Mexican restaurant going into the spot that used to house El Potro.
Charritos Taqueria is coming to the location at 2351 W. 31st St., which some of you may remember as the former Backyard Burger location, which failed because it did not serve tacos. Commercial broker Allison Vance Moore of Lawrence’ Colliers office signed Charritos Taqueria to the 31st Street spot, and all indications are that it will be authentic Mexican food.
In fact, it is so authentic that my 16 hours of Spanish classes at KU still left me with a bit of a communication problem as I talked with one of the principals of the business, Francisco Cortez. (My Spanish vocabulary sometimes gets me in trouble, which I’m assuming is the reason the Mexican consulate recently requested that the U.S. revoke my passport.) Regardless, you don’t have to travel to Mexico to test the cuisine of Charritos Taqueria. You can go to Independence Avenue in Kansas City, Mo. The company operates a true taqueria style restaurant in that neighborhood.
Francisco and I had too much difficulty in communicating for me to get a good understanding of the business’ menu. (At one point I think I inadvertently promised to bring a very large donkey to his home. I swear, I was just trying to ask about the grande burrito.) But I did find some information online about the KCMO restaurant. At one point The Pitch had Charritos on its Top 10 list for the best cheap tacos in the KC metro. It described its Tacos Aztecas as having “skirt steak and roasted cactus” served with a spicy salsa made of poblano peppers.
Another Kansas City food blogger talked about a steak taco that was slow cooked in pineapple sauce, and a Mexican drink called horchata, which somehow involves rice and cinnamon flavors.
Francisco said he hopes to have the Lawrence restaurant open sometime in June. As for other Mexican restaurant news, I want to be clear that the popular Mexican restaurant El Potro didn’t go out of business. As we previously reported, it moved to 3333 Iowa St., which indeed did house another Mexican restaurant previously.
Back in January I reported that a site plan had been filed at City Hall for a Mexican restaurant to go into the building at 1606 W. 23rd St., which formerly housed the taco-less Pizza Hut. According to the plans on file, Panchos Restaurant, a drive-thru style Mexican restaurant, was slated for the spot. Moore at Colliers International was the broker on that deal as well. She told me recently she believes that project is still moving ahead. Some work has taken place at the site, but it does not appear that an opening is imminent.
As we’ve previously reported both in Town Talk and on the food page, Taco Zone has opened its downtown restaurant at 13th E. Eighth St. It is billing itself as Lawrence’s first “Southern California style taqueria” with a menu featuring tacos, tortas sandwiches and burritos. (Please, be careful ordering those if you insist doing so in Spanish.)
And then there is Port Fonda. Construction work is well underway on about $500,000 worth of renovations on the ground floor of the Marriott hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire. The last word we had is that the highly successful Mexican restaurant in Kansas City is expected to open its Lawrence location in “late summer.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• A big bowl of chips and salsa probably would solve whatever differences Lawrence city commissioners have about how to move forward with a new police headquarters plan. I know when I’m struggling with an issue, my dry cleaner tells me to put on a nice white dress shirt and sit down with a big bowl of chips and salsa. (My dry cleaner is a great guy, and somehow has managed to buy a lavishly expensive house.)
City officials aren’t likely to take that approach, but they are trying to figure out whether to create a new ad hoc committee to provide some recommendations on how to move forward with a multimillion dollar police headquarters facility. As we reported earlier this week, the ad hoc committee is the idea of Commissioner Stuart Boley.
Some of his fellow commissioners, though, said they wanted to have a better idea of what this committee would actually study. So, Boley has created a draft resolution that spells out seven topics. They are:
— Review the consultant reports and documents that have been prepared related to a new police facility;
— Consider assumptions made related to staffing and needs that were taken into consideration in the development of those reports/plans.
— Review facility plans for possible efficiencies with other law enforcement agencies or functions. Specifically, the resolution mentions Municipal Court. Has the city studied whether now is the time to move its Municipal Court functions into the same building that houses police officers? There’s an argument that a move would cut down on the amount of time officers spend traveling to court dates.
— Review how plans for a new facility would help the department in providing services to the community;
— Review any other appropriate topic that relates to the group’s report and recommendations on this subject;
— Consider funding options for improving police facilities;
— Deliver a report that provides recommendations related to police facilities, taking into account the information reviewed and considered during its discussions. Recommendations should specifically relate to how the City Commission should proceed with next steps related to the police facilities issue.
Boley is recommending that the committee complete its report by Nov. 17. That puts the report well past the city’s budget process for 2016. That process wraps up in August.
A big question facing the City Commission is whether 2016 is a year that is going to include any significant funding for a new police headquarters, or whether 2016 is going to be a year where the groundwork is laid for a new proposal that would be funded in 2017.
At Tuesday’s City Commission study session, there definitely was some skepticism from some commissioners about the need for an ad hoc committee. Commissioner Matthew Herbert said he’s not sure how ordinary residents are going to be much help in making recommendations on an issue such as a how a police department is best structured.
“I don’t pretend to have any idea of how to run a police facility, and I don’t think my neighbors do either,” Herbert said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Herbert talked about showing the proper amount of respect for the police chief’s professional credentials and judgment. Boley said an ad hoc committee wouldn’t be a sign of a lack of respect toward the police department, but rather would be an effort to have another set of eyes review a large number of documents prepared on the subject. He’s recommending several skilled executives serve on the committee. He’s suggested former Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, former Kansas Board of Regents president and CEO Reggie Robinson, and Charles Epp, a professor in KU’s School of Public Affairs and Administration, among others.
If commissioners reject the ad hoc committee idea based on Herbert’s concerns, it will be interesting to see if that marks a change in direction in how the city uses advisory boards. The city has about 40 advisory boards or task forces that advise the City Commission. Many of those boards exist despite the city having skilled professionals in those positions. For example, the city has a Traffic Safety Commission, despite having a city traffic engineer. It has a Public Transit Advisory Board, despite having a public transit administrator. When it comes to planning items, the City Commission routinely receives two sets of recommendations: one from the city’s professional planning staff and one from the ordinary residents who serve on the Planning Commission.
I think there is also concern among some that an ad hoc committee may become focused on issues less about facilities and more about operations and police conduct, given the national news in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. That already has struck a nerve with one of the leaders of the group that led the Vote Yes campaign for the failed sales tax in November. She wrote a letter to commissioners offering a pre-emptive defense of any such allegations against Lawrence police.
There’s a lot to sort out with the police headquarters issue right now. I plan to talk with commissioners in more depth soon. I’ll report back what I hear.
Lawrence construction totals on pace for record year; more details on costs of large apartment project; eco devo leaders confirm details of new manufacturer
It is time to keep our eyes open for a possible Lawrence record in 2015, and it involves the use of hammers and saws, which is usually the type of record that causes my insurance agent to lose his job. But no worries here because the record in question is whether Lawrence will have its best building year in history.
The latest figures from Lawrence City Hall show that city building inspectors have issued permits for $89.3 million worth of projects through the end of April. That puts Lawrence within striking distance of the all-time record of $175.03 million worth of projects built in 2000. (Granted, the 2000 numbers aren’t adjusted for inflation, but for those of you hung up on that, I suggest you spend the rest of this column playing with your pocket protectors.)
It is probably a bit of a long shot that the record will fall in 2015 because two of the larger projects expected this year are already included in the $89 million total — a $45 million permit for the HERE at Kansas apartment project across the street from KU’s Memorial Stadium, and an $18.7 million permit for the new multistory apartment and office building under construction at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets.
We’ll have to see whether there are another $86 million worth of construction projects that materialize in the final eight months of the year. Regardless, it looks like Lawrence is poised to have a building year that is well-above average. To put the numbers in perspective, Lawrence in the first four months of the year had almost as many projects underway as it had for the entire 12 months of 2014. The city issued permits for $99.7 million worth of projects in 2014. For further perspective, look at the downturn Lawrence was in during the depths of the recession. For all of 2009, the city issued permits for only $75 million worth of projects.
Here’s a look at some other facts and figures from the latest building permit report from City Hall:
— The number of single family and duplex units under construction is up slightly in 2015. The city has issued permits for 49 single-family or duplex units thus far in 2014. That’s up from 42 at the same time period last year.
— Apartment construction is back with a bang. The city has issued permits for 351 new units of apartments. The HERE project and the Ninth and New Hampshire project have been major drivers of those numbers.
— April was a busy month for new construction. During the month, city inspectors issued permits for $8 million worth of work. Among the larger projects were $1 million for renovations at the new Peaslee Technical Training Center at 2920 Haskell; $700,000 for the new Chick-fil-A building near 27th and Iowa; $600,000 for a new Ulta Beauty at 27th and Iowa; $540,000 for a new grain storage bin at the Ottawa Co-op at 2001 Moodie Road; and $500,000 for renovations for Port Fonda restaurant, which will be on the ground floor of the new Marriott hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Perhaps some of you remember that during the debate over whether the City Commission should approve financial incentives for the HERE at Kansas project, the development was frequently described as a $75 million project. So, perhaps you are confused why the building permit for the project has come in about $30 million less than that.
It did catch my eye, but city officials have provided me an explanation. They said that the $45 million is the estimated cost of building the actual structure. The rest of the costs are for other items related to the development. Britt Crum-Cano, the city's economic development coordinator, said the developer of the project provided these estimates on the other project costs: $420,000 in utility connection fees; $1,000,000 in public improvements that are being paid for by the developer; $7.9 million to acquire the land; $2.7 million in architectural, engineering and legal fees; $2.1 million for fixtures, furnishings and equipment; $4.4 million for equipment to run the automated parking garage; $1.6 million in interest costs; $2.4 million for contingencies; and $6.7 million in other soft costs.
Those soft costs include items such as demolition, asbestos abatement, specialty engineering; renderings, insurance, marketing, travel, developer overhead, loan fees and a host of other items.
I’m not saying any of this was done wrong here. I’ve never given much thought to how the city determines the value of a project for building permit purposes. But I do watch permits fairly closely, and many times the value listed on a building permit is pretty close to the dollar value that is presented to city commissioners when they are considering issues such as incentives and such. The most recent project I’m thinking of is the hotel development at Ninth and New Hampshire. That was frequently discussed as being about a $12 million to $14 million project. In the end, the city issued a building permit for $13.8 million. The county appraiser lists the fair market value of the project in 2015 at about $13 million.
The only real consequence of the value listed on the permit is the value is used to determine the building permit fee due to the city. If another $30 million were added to the permit value, the developer’s building permit fee would have increased by about $30,000.
The bigger question probably relates to what the project ultimately will be valued at by the county appraiser. The City Commission approved an 85 percent, 10-year tax rebate for the project, in part, based on the idea that the project was going to go on the tax rolls somewhere near $75 million. Once the tax rebate period expires, a $75 million building produces a lot of property tax. I’m assuming that the expectation is that the building will go on the tax rolls at $75 million or so, but I’m double checking on that.
• Last week we reported that an Iowa-based company has filed plans to open a foam manufacturing plant along Haskell Avenue. Well, I’ve gotten a few more details about that project.
As we previously reported, EPS Products plans to locate in 60,000 square feet of space in the former E&E Display building at 910 E. 29th St. I had been told that the project likely would include about 20 jobs. Now, an official with the Lawrence chamber of commerce is confirming that information. Brady Pollington, economic development project manager for The Chamber, said at a chamber event this morning that he expects 15 to 20 jobs with an average wage of about $15 per hour.
Pollington also confirmed another piece of information I had heard. The company is coming to Lawrence to be closer to Amarr Garage Door’s Lawrence manufacturing facility. The new EPS facility will manufacture foam that is used as interior insulation for garage doors.
Look for the project to take shape in the next few months.
Lawrence home sales surge in April; new report finds local housing value growth lagging region; new sights coming to downtown sidewalks
Perhaps I need to fire my Leavenworth-based tax preparer (his motto: I wish I had an open door policy) because it sure looks like a lot of people’s tax refunds in April were bigger than mine. Or at least something spurred a surge in home buying in Lawrence, according to the latest figures from the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
Lawrence real estate agents sold 113 homes in April, which is an increase of 25 percent from April 2014. April is a key month in the home-buying market as many buyers are on the market in the spring looking to get settled into a new home during the summer.
The strong April numbers are the latest sign Lawrence’s real estate market is in full bounce-back mode. For the year-to-date, Lawrence’s home sales are up 18 percent from the same period a year ago. Last year, the Lawrence market ended the year with home sales down slightly from 2013 totals. The city’s real estate market, though, experienced growth in 2013 and 2012, so the latest numbers are indicating that last year’s slowdown may end up being just a small road bump rather than the beginning of a new trend.
In fact, the most recent figures include several signs that buyers are back in a big way. Here’s a look:
— Sales of newly constructed homes entered positive territory in April. Real estate agents sold seven newly built homes in April, up from four in April 2014. For the year-to-date, sales of newly constructed homes total 16, which is up from 13 in the same time period a year ago. Those numbers aren’t great — they’re still down by 10 homes from 2013 figures — but any type of bounce-back would be welcome by homebuilders. The sale of newly constructed homes was the weakest part of the market last year. Sales in that category fell by 19 percent in 2014.
— The median number of days a home sits on the market unsold has fallen significantly. Thus far in 2015, the median is at 43 days, down from 60 days in 2014.
— The number of pending contracts at the end of April totaled 257, which is up 29 percent from April 2014. That likely is a sign that sale numbers in May and June also should be strong.
— The number of active listings on the market in April totaled 346, which is down nearly 20 percent from April 2014 totals. The declining number of active listings, and the declining number of days a home sits on the market are indicators that there’s been an influx of buyers.
One thing we haven’t seen, however, is an increase in home prices in Lawrence. The numbers from the Lawrence Board of Realtors show the median sale price thus far in 2015 is $158,900, which is basically unchanged from the $158,500 mark at this time last year. The median selling price of newly constructed homes is up significantly. It checks in at $337,495, which is a 10 percent increase from a year ago.
It has been interesting to watch what has happened to the selling prices of newly constructed homes in Lawrence over the last several years. At the end of 2011, the median selling price for a newly built home was $245,000. We’ve seen an increase of 37 percent in median price in less than four years. Back in 2011, the gap between the median selling price of an existing home and a new home was about 45 percent. Thus far in 2015, the gap is about 110 percent. As I’ve been known to say when my key no longer works in my home lock: I don’t know exactly what this means, but it seems significant.
• On the subject of housing prices, there’s an even better set of numbers that have been recently released for the Lawrence market. They show an even more pronounced stagnation of housing prices in Lawrence.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency has released its first quarter numbers for home prices in metro areas across the country. These numbers give a better indication of whether home values are rising or falling than the Board of Realtor numbers. That’s because the Board of Realtor numbers simply look at all the homes sold in a given time period, compute and average and then compares that average to the same period in previous years. That, however, doesn’t take into account the type of homes being sold. If in 2015, 40 percent of the home sales in Lawrence consisted of five-bedroom homes while in 2014 they only accounted for 30 percent of sales, it is likely the average selling price is going to be higher. But that doesn’t mean home values in general are rising. It just means the mix of housing sales is different than it used to be. The Federal Housing Finance Agency has access to more detailed mortgage information, and it is able to account for such factors and conduct a more apples-to-apples comparison.
The latest numbers show that Lawrence home values in the first quarter of 2015 actually declined slightly. Prices dropped by 0.2 percent in the first quarter of the year. For the last 12 months, home values in Lawrence have risen by 2.43 percent. Compared to other metro markets, that’s not a lot. Lawrence ranks 237th out of the approximately 275 metro markets that are measured.
The agency also provides information on housing values over the last five years. Here’s a look at how Lawrence stacks up compared to some other regional markets:
— Lawrence: down 0.2 percent (1Q); up 2.4 percent (1yr); up 3 percent (5yr)
— Boulder, Colo.: up 0.4 percent; up 7.5 percent; up 20.7 percent
— Columbia, Mo.: up 0.2 percent; up 4.6 percent; up 6.8 percent
— Fort Collins, Colo.: up 1.4 percent; up 9 percent; up 22.3 percent
— Greeley, Colo: up 2 percent, up 9.2 percent; up 23.2 percent
— Iowa City: up 0.9 percent; up 2.3 percent; up 6.6 percent
— Joplin, Mo.: up 3.1 percent; up 3.4 percent; up 9 percent
— Kansas City, Mo.-Ka.n: up 0.6 percent; up 5.1 percent; up 3.1 percent
— Lincoln, Neb.: up 1 percent; up 4.1 percent; up 12.4 percent
— Topeka: down 1.9 percent; up 1.8 percent; down 0.8 percent
— Wichita: up 2 percent; up 5.7 percent; up 3.8 percent
So, looking at those numbers, there are two obvious conclusions: 1. We need more mountains; and 2. The beautiful Kaw River isn’t the selling point it used to be.
The mountains are easy to see. Over the last five years, the Colorado communities have seen their home values soar by about 4 percent to 5 percent a year. Back in the 1990s, such appreciation of home values was fairly common in Lawrence too. Clearly, someone has stolen our mountains.
In terms of the Kaw, I say that because look at the three communities that line the Kansas River. Lawrence, Topeka and Kansas City all have seen pretty stagnant home values over the last five years. When you average the growth rates for the three communities, it comes out to 1.7 percent for the five-year period. Not 1.7 percent per year, but 1.7 percent cumulative.
How fast housing values should grow in a community is a matter of debate. Grow too fast and you can price a lot of people out of your market. But grow too slowly, and some people may take a pass on your market because they want their home to be somewhat of an investment in addition to a place that provides shelter. Maybe Lawrence’s growth rate is just right, but it does appear to be slower than a lot of other communities in the region. It would be interesting to know what that says about our community.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I’ve had some people ask what is going into the former Yellow House building at 1904 Massachusetts Street. Construction work is underway to renovate the building. Well, according to documents filed at City Hall, a tattoo parlor is opening in the location. A business called Miller Tattoo has filed for a sign permit at the location.
• Funny things are set to happen on Lawrence’s downtown sidewalks, and I’m not even talking about what happens to them after happy hour becomes a bit too happy. The Free State Festival — the big arts, culture and entertainment event set for June 22-28 — plans to get creative in how it promotes the event.
That means you’ll start seeing some advertisements and art show up on city sidewalks. The festival has requested city permission to place vinyl lettering and signs on sidewalks and parking lots across town. The festival organizers list about 25 different locations across town, but primarily concentrated in downtown, where they would like to use the vinyl lettering and signs. Organizers say the letter is non-slip, so it should not create any safety issues. The lettering and signs would be removed from the sidewalks once the festival is over.
But there may be an even funkier item coming to downtown sidewalks. Festival organizers are seeking permission to use “GOBO” lights to project images onto downtown sidewalks. The plans calls for each intersection on Massachusetts Street from Seventh to 10th streets to have at least one GOBO display. To be clear, the display would be on one of the adjacent sidewalks next to the intersection, not in the intersection itself.
What is a GOBO, you ask? Well, a GOBO is a stencil that is placed over the lens of a light. The result is the light emits a certain pattern. Probably the most famous GOBO is the bat signal that is used to call Batman in times of need. Unlike the bat signal, these GOBOs will be used to project light down onto the sidewalk rather than up in the sky.
But don’t let that difference fool you. I’m almost certain that this means Batman will be making an appearance at the Free State Festival. I strongly suggest you all get your Robin costumes ready.
Plans filed for meat-smoking business in rural Douglas County; large apartment complex near KU tweaks plans; long list of appointments to city boards
Perhaps your barbecue experiments this long, rainy, holiday weekend have left you looking for a new place to buy smoked meats. (As I’ve said multiple times, I didn’t know we used the laundry room that much, and in my defense, I did fully open the window.) Well, plans are in the works for a new Douglas County business to become a regional supplier of smoked meats.
Brian Strecker, a former chef at the now-defunct Pachamamas, has filed plans to open The Burning Barrel on the site of a former Christmas tree farm west of Lecompton. Strecker plans to produce a variety of bacons, hams, sausages and other products that will be sold to restaurants and grocery stores throughout eastern Kansas. Most of the products will be produced from livestock raised right here in the area.
“My main focus is to provide people with a product that is from Kansas, processed in Kansas and that stays in Kansas,” Strecker said.
The idea of farm-to-table is a popular one with the the restaurant industry. Strecker said he has had good response from restaurants thus far. He said The Roost in downtown Lawrence has expressed a strong interest in buying its breakfast meats from The Burning Barrel. Bacon and sausage is expected to be a big seller, but Strecker said the possibilities for products are numerous. He said he’s talking with one restaurant that is interested in a variety of pizza toppings.
Strecker thinks hams will be a big part of the business. He said the large number of smoke and spice combinations offers possibilities for unique hams. He said in addition to traditional hams, he’s been perfecting an Asian-inspired ham that is smoked with green tea leaves and is infused with ginger, soy and Asian-varieties of peppercorns. Other varieties also will be offered.
Strecker plans to use “heritage” breeds of hogs for many of his products. The breeds, such as Durocs, are significantly different from the breeds used by the major pork producers. Strecker said the heritage breeds often produce a darker, more flavorful cut of meat.
Pork products are expected to be the bulk of the company’s offerings, but Strecker said he plans to have some beef products as well.
Strecker’s business plans, however, still need to win approval from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission and the Douglas County Commission. Strecker is seeking a conditional use permit for the property at 292 North 2100 Road. Strecker is only seeking approval to process meat at the facility. There will not be any slaughtering of animals at the location. Strecker has a supplier that provides the local meat already slaughtered.
Strecker hopes to have the approval process completed in August, and the business open sometime in September. The business won’t do any retail sales at the location, but Strecker said he does expect to participate in farmers markets, and reach some retail deals with some area grocers. Strecker said he plans to sell to restaurants throughout eastern Kansas and as far west as Wichita.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Plans are changing slightly for the large apartment complex under construction at the southwest corner of 11th and Mississippi streets. The project, known as HERE at Kansas, has submitted new building elevations for the city to approve. According to an analysis by the city’s planning staff, the major change is that about two-thirds of the building becomes about one story shorter. The number of living units in the project — 237 living units — and the number of bedrooms — 624 bedrooms — are not changing as a result of the design. The project also is not changing its number of parking spaces, which is 577. So, I’m not sure if the height of each story is changing, or how the project is able to reduce its height without reducing its unit count.
Other changes noted by planning staff include a reduction in the number of windows in the parking garage portion of the project, replacement of some brick with cement-fiber panels, and minor revisions to windows and doors on the exterior of the project.
Here’s a look at a before and after version of the plans. This is for the west elevation, which is the part of the building that faces Mississippi Street. Click here to see the elevations for the other sides of the building.
• City commissioners at their meeting this evening will make a host of appointments, including a couple of people who are frequent City Hall participants. Former City Commissioner Aron Cromwell is slated to be appointed to the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee, which provides recommendations on tax abatements and other such issues. Melinda Henderson, who was once active in the Progressive Lawrence Campaign and has been a frequent advocate for neighborhood issues around town, is slated to be appointed to the Joint Economic Development Council, which makes recommendations on eco devo matters for both the city and the county.
Mayor Jeremy Farmer also has submitted a list of names for the new Pedestrian-Bicycle Issues Task Force. Those include: Dee Boeck, Carol Bowen, Charlie Bryan, Clint Idol, Marilyn Hull, Mike Kelly, Erin Paden, Bonnie Uffman, Marianne Melling, Patricia Weaver and Adam Weigel.
• Here is perhaps the number of the day: From Jan. 1 to April 30, the city’s police department responded to approximately 750 calls that were “suicide-related or requests to check on an individual’s welfare.” That’s a little more than six per day.
The number is part of a memo city commissioners will be studying as part of a 3 p.m. study session today. Commissioners are holding the first in a series of study sessions related to setting goals for the city. Today they will focus on public safety and mental health issues. As the number above suggests, there is some crossover between the two.
We’ll see how the discussion proceeds, though. There is a growing debate in City Hall about whether the city’s efforts to build a new police headquarters facility should be linked to the community’s efforts to address mental health care.
On the one hand, a complete review of the police department, including how it can be part of the mental health care system, might be helpful in planning how the department should be structured in the future. But on the other hand, advocates for a new police facility say that the facility needs are immediate. It is uncertain how long a complete review of the department may take.
I’ll be at today’s study session and will report back on the discussion that ensues.
Iowa firm likely to create about 20 jobs at Lawrence foam manufacturing plant; Breezedale markers getting restored; Housing Authority seeks to buy apartment building
It sure looks like Lawrence is going to be in the foam insulation business and will get perhaps 20 new manufacturing jobs as a result.
As I briefly reported Thursday, I’ve seen signs that an Iowa company has plans to open up a manufacturing facility in Lawrence. Des Moines-based Iowa EPS Products indeed has filed paperwork at Lawrence City Hall to renovate about 60,000 square feet of space for manufacturing purposes at 910 E. 29th St. That’s the former E&E Display building just north of 31st and Haskell.
I haven’t yet had any luck getting in touch with officials at Iowa EPS Products, but I’ve done digging otherwise, and I’m told that the Lawrence project likely will mean about 15 to 20 new jobs in Lawrence.
The company manufactures a variety of foam products related to the building industry. Based on some items I’ve read online, it looks like one of the uses for the foam is for the interior of garage doors. In case you didn’t know it, Lawrence is one of the capitals of garage door construction in all of America. Amarr Garage Doors has a major manufacturing facility in the East Hills Business Park, and it seems likely that Iowa EPS Products is seeking a Lawrence presence to be closer to a key customer.
It has been awhile since Lawrence has had an announcement of a new manufacturer. Back in the 1990s, Lawrence got on a pretty good rolel with manufacturing announcements. Then post 2001, we started losing more than we were gaining, and it has been a bit stagnant since.
But there are some signs that manufacturing is making a comeback in Lawrence. The two biggest have been with existing firms that have expanded. Plastic cup manufacturer Berry Plastics has added a large new distribution center along Interstate 70 northwest of town, and Hallmark Cards has moved large amounts of work from its Topeka and Leavenworth facilities to its Lawrence plant. Both have been positive for Lawrence on the job front. Now we’ll see whether we’re about to begin a nice streak of outside companies moving into Lawrence.
The old E&E Display building — that was a company that we lost post-2001 as the market for products displays withered — will be a building to watch. With the completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway in 2016, that building will suddenly have much better transportation access. The building is owned by the group Big Industrial, which repurposes vacant industrial buildings. The building has a little more than 300,000 square feet of finished industrial space. I think the company has a few smaller tenants in the building now, but my understanding is additional space is available.
The area to watch most closely, however, is the Venture Park project. That’s the site of the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant that has been repurposed into a business park. Larry McElwain, president and CEO of The Chamber, has confirmed his staff is now working with two promising prospects for that property. I don’t have a lot of details about those prospects, other than they are both in the manufacturing sector.
Thus far, I have not seen any applications by Iowa EPS Products for a tax abatement or other financial incentives from City Hall. That likely won’t be the case with prospects looking at Venture Park. Larger projects usually come with incentive requests that could involve tax abatements and offers of free land at Venture Park. The new City Commission likely will get a test on how aggressive it wants to become in attracting new manufacturing jobs.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Perhaps you are like me and have long noticed the ornamental stone markers at the intersection of 23rd and Massachusetts welcoming people to the Breezedale neighborhood just south of 23rd Street. If so, you probably have noticed that someone is tearing them down. Well, don’t worry. The markers are just getting restored, not removed for good.
As we’ve previously reported, the city won grant money from the Kansas Department of Transportation. The old Breezedale signs technically are along a state highway — 23rd Street still serves as Kansas Highway 10 until the eastern leg of the SLT opens — so there was state grant money available for their restoration.
Work on the project began earlier this month and is anticipated to be completed in August. City engineer David Cronin told me the work involves some dismantling of the monument signs, cleaning of the stones, and installing new mortar that matches the original. Some new stones may have to be used to replace stones that were too badly deteriorated. Lawrence-based Hernly Associates, an architectural firm noted for its historic preservation work, is overseeing the project.
The city received $96,954 in grant money from KDOT for the project. The Douglas County Community Foundation also provided $16,000 in grant money, while the city’s guest tax reserve fund is being used to pay for about $8,200 of the project.
• The need for an affordable housing trust fund has been a hot topic at City Hall, but city commissioners on Tuesday will be presented with a more concrete project to add new affordable housing units to the city’s inventory.
The Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority is seeking permission to buy an existing six-unit apartment complex at 1725 New Hampshire St. The Housing Authority would use its own funds to make the $485,000 purchase. But the the way the authority is structured, any real estate purchases must be approved by the City Commission. Technically, the property also will be in the name of the city.
Once purchased, the Housing Authority will operate the complexm and the units will be available only to low-to-moderate income residents. Rents will range from $300 to $600 per month, depending on the income level of the tenant.
The Housing Authority is working on a possible arrangement with state officials that would designate the apartment units for foster children who have aged out of the foster program. Finding affordable housing for foster children who have become adults has been problematic in Lawrence.
The property, which is just south of the Housing Authority’s Babcock Place facility, currently is owned by Woodoc Investments, LLC, which is led by Lawrence businessman Rob Farha, according to county and state records. The property is appraised for about $180,000, according to the Douglas County Appraisers office. UPDATE: Just as a reminder, the value of the property probably isn't solely being driven by its use as an apartment complex. The adjacent Dillons store also has had an interest in the property, and has had it under contract at various times, Farha told me. That corporate interest has driven up the fair market value of the property, but as is sometimes the case, that interest hasn't yet showed up in the county's appraisal process.
This isn’t the first time that the Housing Authority has bought an existing apartment complex to use as affordable rental housing. Back in 2006 it also bought and renovated the 58-unit Clinton Place Apartments near Clinton Parkway and Iowa Street.
It will be interesting to watch how many more opportunities like this become available in the future. There may be a significant number. Lawrence has seen a lot of new apartment units built in recent years, which has put pressure on older units to upgrade or change uses. In some cases, owners may be willing to sell to a group like the Housing Authority, which sometimes can get federal dollars to help make such purchases.
If a housing trust fund is established at City Hall, those funds also may be used to help make such purchases. Technically, the city could be on the lookout for such purchases today. As we mentioned last week, the city had a housing trust fund in the early 2000s, but struggled with how to spend the approximately $500,000 that was in the trust fund. As I was doing reporting on the city’s recently released financial audit, I did notice a line item about the housing trust fund all these years later. The fund still technically exists, and it has a little more than $102,000 in it.
Family fun center opening along 23rd Street; Census says Lawrence population growth among tops in region; word of a new manufacturer along Haskell
I’m an expert on lasers, no matter what people tell you about that unfortunate incident when I borrowed a laser pointer for a Rotary presentation. So trust me when I say that a new laser tag business is coming to Lawrence, and I’m almost certain that no one will lose their eyebrows this time.
Plans have been filed for a new family fun center called Epic to open in The Malls Shopping Center at 23rd and Louisiana streets. The fun center will open in the former Family Dollar space. Co-owner Travis Jacobsen told me work has begun to renovate about 4,000 square feet of the building into a massive laser tag area. The building also will include a 3,000 square foot video arcade, although it will operate a bit differently from many arcades.
“Instead of tokens or quarters, you buy access to all the arcade,and then it is unlimited game play,” Jacobsen said. “It is like when you go to the carnival and you buy a wristband to ride all the rides.”
Jacobsen, a recent business school graduate from KU, is opening the business with his father, Terry Jacobsen of rural Lawrence. Travis said he hopes to have the business open by early July, but no later than early September. He said response from people who have heard about the concept has been great.
“We believe Lawrence needs more things to do,” Travis said. “It needs wholesome things that can entertain an entire family. It has been an overwhelmingly positive message we’ve gotten back from the community.”
In addition to the laser tag and the arcade, the center also will include about 1,200 square feet of party room space that can be divided into three separate rooms. Lawrence has had a laser tag business before, but it has been awhile. The bowling alley at Ninth and Iowa used to have a laser tag space years ago before the space was converted into Wayne & Larry’s sports bar.
“Lawrence is as big as it has ever been, and KU is big,” Travis said. “With the right marketing plan, we think it will work very well in Lawrence. I remember going to these type of places with my family when I was a kid. It was a blast. This has been a longtime dream of ours.”
Travis and his wife, Ellen, also hope the business has a secret weapon. Travis and Ellen, as we reported on Tuesday, were first in line to adopt one of the puppies of Penny, the Lawrence dog who gained fame on social media when she ran away, pregnant, from her foster home in midwinter. The couple plan on the puppy becoming a fixture at the fun center.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The U.S. Census Bureau has released its 2014 population estimates for cities across the country, and they show that Lawrence may be getting some of its growth mojo back. The latest numbers estimate Lawrence’s population stood at 92,763 people in 2014. That’s up by 1,587 people from 2013. That’s good for a growth rate of 1.7 percent. Lawrence’s growth rate had slowed to less than a half percent a year in 2010, but has been on the rise since then. The 2014 numbers are the strongest showing for Lawrence this decade, and is near Lawrence’s historic average of the last 20 years or so.
Here’s a look at how the city’s population growth compares with some other Kansas communities.
— Baldwin City: 4,585 up 0.5 percent
— De Soto: 6,038 up 1.8 percent
— Eudora: 6,303 up 0.9 percent
— Gardner: 20,667 up 0.6 percent
— Kansas City: 149,636 up 0.6 percent
— Leavenworth: 36,000 up 0.2 percent
— Leawood: 34,395 up 4.2 percent
— Lecompton: 637 up 0.6 percent
— Lenexa: 51,042 up 1.3 percent
— Olathe: 133,062 up 0.8 percent
— Ottawa: 12,403 down 0.8 percent
— Overland Park: 184,525 up 1.7 percent
— Tonganoxie: 5,192 up 0.6 percent
— Topeka: 127,215 down 0.2 percent
— Wichita: 388,413 up 0.3 percent
• There’s another good sign that is a bit of a blast from the past. I’ve gotten word that Lawrence has landed a new manufacturer. I’m still working to get details, but I’ve gotten word than an Iowa-based company that manufactures foam insulation and other foam products has reached a deal to take about 60,000 square feet of space in the former E&E Display building near 29th and Haskell. I don’t yet have word on how many jobs the new enterprise may create for Lawrence. I’m working to get in touch with the company, Iowa EPS Products, and I’ll report back when I have more information.
Doug Compton’s latest project and the debate over downtown parking; high tech traffic solutions presented to City Hall
City Hall watchers are still trying to figure out this new Lawrence City Commission. Those of us who had our City Hall watching gear on last night (the most important piece is an emergency bottle of NoDoz hung around your neck) may have gotten a clue that future economic development incentives are going to be more hotly debated.
Why do I say that? Because last night the City Commission debated whether it should even accept an application for a future economic development incentive. The project in question is the previously reported plan to add four stories to the former Pachamamas building at Eighth and New Hampshire to accommodate a new apartment project.
The development group, which is led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton, has applied for an economic development incentive that would allow the development group to receive an exemption from paying sales tax on construction materials for the approximately $9 million project.
Normally, accepting an application for an economic development incentive is pretty routine business for the City Commission. The commission formally acknowledges an application has been filed, and then it ships the matter to the Public Incentives Review Commission for a recommendation. That recommendation comes back to the City Commission, and that’s when the debate usually begins in earnest.
But on Tuesday, the application — at the request of East Lawrence resident KT Walsh — was pulled off the consent agenda and commissioners had a debate about whether they even wanted to accept the application for future consideration. Ultimately, commissioners did accept the application, but on a 4-1 vote. Commissioner Leslie Soden voted against it, saying she didn’t see that the proposal was yet worthy for consideration.
The issue will come back to the commission in a few weeks. It looks like the issue is shaping up to be one of parking. The project is proposing to add 55 apartment units but not add any new parking to the site. Residents of the apartment building will be expected to hunt parking spaces in existing public parking lots, parking garages or other parking areas in the downtown area.
That has created consternation among some, which is interesting. I think some members of the public have a mistaken belief that the project is being cut some sort of break by being allowed to build without providing additional parking. But that’s not the case. For decades, city code has allowed downtown development to occur without off-street parking. Downtown is special in that regard. You can build in downtown without providing off-street parking, and that’s been the case for a long time.
It is true that some developers — including Compton — have chosen to build off-street parking with their projects because they have believed they wouldn’t be feasible without additional parking. But at the Pachamama’s site, Compton seems to be making a new type of bet. He’s betting that the Lawrence apartment market has evolved enough that there’s a market of tenants who are less dependent on cars and won’t have a problem parking a few blocks away.
I would think there are some folks in town who are hoping that he’s right. I can’t swing my bottle of NoDoz at City Hall these days without hitting someone who is lobbying for Lawrence to become more pedestrian friendly. Does that mean apartment buildings that place less emphasis on auto usage? I don’t know. During the recent City Commission campaign, there was some talk about whether the city should change its downtown zoning code to require new developments to provide off-street parking.
How does that fit with a city looking to become more pedestrian friendly? How would such a change work? Would downtown become a two-tier system? Businesses that had the good fortune of existing for a long time would get the benefit of having their parking provided by the public, while businesses that are investing new money into downtown would be forced to provide private parking? Perhaps that would work; perhaps it wouldn’t.
What may be interesting is some sort of analysis about how much new development could be supported with the existing public parking system in downtown. I think there is a thought that a new 55-unit apartment building will overwhelm the city’s parking system. Maybe that is the case, but I’m not sure. I’ve driven to the Journal-World’s private parking lot at Seventh and New Hampshire for a long time now. Each day I go through the city-owned long-term lot that is just east of the J-W lot. It is routinely almost empty. The same goes for the dozens of spaces on the ramps leading to the Riverfront Parking garage. They are empty most every day as well, plus finding a spot in the Riverfront Garage is not difficult. Just for fun, I counted this morning as I went through the area. Between the long-term parking lot behind the J-W lot, the ramps on the parking garage, and the spaces in the lower level of the Riverfront Parking garage, there were about 150 empty parking spaces at about 10:30 this morning. That seems pretty typical of what I often see.
Those are spaces the public has paid for. Who did the public intend to use them? What’s the plan for having them used on a more consistent basis?
There may be good reasons why the downtown rules regarding parking should be changed. People smarter than me will figure that out. I’m just trying to create a conversation here, because any change would be a big one.
Don’t expect any parking rule changes to come prior to this Pachamamas project, however. It is further along than people may realize. The project already has won its approvals from the Historic Resources Commission, minus a couple of technical details. The project still needs to receive site plan approval from the city’s planning office, but that isn’t difficult. As it stands now, there won’t be any big City Commission meeting where commissioners have to decide whether this project can move forward. The property is already correctly zoned for an apartment project. The last time I talked with Compton, he said he planned to start construction this summer.
The issue commissioners will get to decide, though, is whether the project is worthy of an incentive. That may be how this parking issue plays out. Perhaps this new commission will make a policy that says if downtown projects want to receive financial incentives of any kind, they need to provide their own off-street parking. I think that’s how some people on the commission view incentives: You offer them to get something over and above what is required.
We’ll see how the commission deals with this one. Commissioners were careful to say on Tuesday that their acceptance of the application wasn’t a sign that they were going to approve the incentive request. Commissioner Matthew Herbert said he certainly had concerns about what’s been proposed. Commissioner Mike Amyx and Mayor Jeremy Farmer indicated the incentive process may lead to negotiations with the developers about how the project could be be changed to better address parking.
If the commission does tie incentives to private parking, it will be quite a shift. The previous commission right before it left office in April approved a large incentives package for an expansion at The Eldridge Hotel. That project is adding a significant number of new rooms to downtown, but is not providing any additional parking. But that was the old commission. Timing at City Hall is important
In other news and notes from around town:
• When it comes to parking and other transportation issues, city commissioners got some high-tech advice on Tuesday. Commissioners approved a new Intelligent Transportation System Plan that lists about $10 million worth of technology projects that could be implemented to improve area transportation in the future. Commissioners approved the plan, but certainly didn’t approve any funding for any of the projects. The plan lists a lot of projects so that the city can apply for federal transportation money in the future. The feds are big on plans, and they often won’t give you grant money unless you have an idea written down in a plan.
So, don’t expect $10 million worth of new intelligent transportation projects in the near future, but there are some interesting ideas that may get future consideration. They include:
— Continued use of traffic cameras and traffic signals that are connected via fiber optic cables. The cameras and the fiber optic cable allows the city to better coordinate those traffic signals. The cameras also may have other uses in the future. But before you get worked up, there isn’t a plan to use them to start issuing red light tickets to motorists. State law doesn’t currently allow that. The city is in the process of installing 12 more traffic cameras in the city. New cameras currently are being installed on parts of western Sixth Street, Wakarusa Drive and Clinton Parkway.
— Digital bus signs at key transit stops that tell transit riders when a bus is expected to arrive at the location.
— Digital message signs posted at key entrances to town that would provide real time traffic information. Planners have said these could be particularly useful on KU game days and other big event days.
— Electronic fare boxes on transit buses that would allow riders to pay in ways other than cash.
— Traffic signal modifications that would allow transit buses to encounter fewer red lights at key areas in town.
— Parking management system that would include digital signs and other devices that would show how many available parking spaces exist in certain parking lots or in the entire downtown area, for example.
New report finds Lawrence among the top destinations in America for college graduates; new child care center opens
Kansas University’s graduation ceremonies are done for another year, but there’s still plenty of recent grads hanging around the city. Before you start thinking that they’re still here just because they are trying to remember where they parked their cars, know this: A new report has found that Lawrence is one of the more attractive cities in the country for recent college graduates.
The nonprofit economic research group AIER has ranked Lawrence as the No. 3 Smallest Metro Area in the country in its annual Employment Destinations Index. Lawrence ranked behind only Iowa City, and Ithaca, N. Y., in the category that measures metro areas with populations of less than 250,000 people. The Employment Destinations Index is geared toward helping college graduates figure out where to start a career.
Some of the reasons Lawrence ranked high in the study are interesting. One of them is Lawrence’s great wages. No, I didn’t have too much of the “punch” at the graduation reception. The report uses U.S. Census data from the American Community Survey program that measures people’s incomes based on their age and educational attainment. It found that the average wage for a 22- to 35-year-old with a BA degree in Lawrence was $51,732. That was the fifth-highest ranking among the 30 small communities that were ranked.
That statistic runs counter to the common narrative about wages in Lawrence. We’re generally thought to be a laggard in the area of wages. But that’s only true depending on what you measure. A lot of the wage consternation in Lawrence centers on the wages paid for jobs that are based in Lawrence. The Census data in this report doesn’t exactly measure that. It measures how much someone who lives in Lawrence makes regardless of where the job is located. In other words, a recent college grad who has a sweet job in JoCo but lives in Lawrence gets counted for this report.
One group that may not be surprised by this finding is local landlords. It appears they already have it figured out that college grads are making good money because the study also found that Lawrence college grads are paying a pretty penny in rent. The average monthly rent in Lawrence for a 22 to 35 year old with a BA degree was $1,252, according to the Census information. That was the fifth highest in the survey. Only Napa, Calif., Ocean City, N.J., Midland, Texas, and Santa Fe, N.M., had higher average rents. What was particularly interesting was how some Midwest college communities compared. The average rent in Columbia, Mo., was $865 a month, $960 in Bloomington, Ind., and just $822 a month in Iowa City.
One other interesting statistic had to do with public transportation and walkability of communities. It found that 6.9 percent of Lawrence commuters aren’t dependent on a car. That ranked 15th among the 30 communities ranked. But the numbers showed that percentage could be much higher. Ithaca, N.Y. ranked No. 1 with 27.7 percent who were not dependent on a car. Fellow Midwest neighbor Iowa City was No. 2 with 19.5 percent. In total, there were seven communities that were at 10 percent or above.
The one area that Lawrence ranked No. 1 on in the survey was the percentage of people 22 years old or older who have a bachelor’s degree. In Lawrence, that’s 53.1 percent of all people 22 and older. So, there really are a lot of college graduates here. As someone who came to school here 23 years ago and never did leave, the reason for it is clear: After a long graduation weekend, it really is hard to find your car in the Oread neighborhood.
In other news and notes from around town:
• We go from the Oread neighborhood to news of a large new child care center. (I’ll give you a moment to compare and contrast.) Indeed, a new 88-kid child care center has opened at 2333 Crestline Drive, which is the former location of Kindercare.
The Lawrence Child Development Center opened earlier this month. Teresa Prost is the owner of the business, and this is her second child care center. She has owned and operated the Carbondale Child Development Center in nearby Osage County for a number of years. But Prost has lived in Lawrence since 2002, and jumped at the chance to buy the building on Crestline Drive when it became available.
The business provides care for children ranging from infants to 12 year olds. She said she particularly wanted to provide infant care because that seems to be an area of the Lawrence child care market that is underserved.
City Commission to decide fate of debated ‘Quonset hut’ in East Lawrence; more on a food truck bistro in Warehouse Arts District
Hut, hut! In some places that phrase signals the delivery of an under-inflated football, but not here in Lawrence, where we like our footballs round and orange. Instead, we’re just getting warmed up for a City Hall debate over whether an old Quonset hut in East Lawrence should be torn down.
We’ve previously reported that Black Hills Energy would like to tear down a Quonset hut at 620 E. Eighth St., which previously served as the natural gas company’s maintenance facility. But the proposed demolition has been met with resistance, including from the city’s Historic Resources Commission.
City commissioners on Tuesday are set to decide the issue. Both the city’s Historic Resources Commission and the city’s planning staff are urging city commissioners to deny the demolition permit and instead require Black Hills to come up with another plan of action.
On a 3-1 vote, the Historic Resources Commission determined that the old Quonset hut — which was built in 1955 — was an important part of the Eighth and Penn Neighborhood Redevelopment Zone. Several neighbors have said the building is a good example post WW II architecture and helps convey the retro industrial character of the neighborhood.
But officials with Black Hills say they need to demolish the structure in order to do some necessary testing of the soil. The property in the late 1800s was a manufactured gas plant, and those operations left some environmental residue. Black Hills hopes to sell the property, but before that happens attorneys want a thorough testing of the property to determine what environmental liabilities still exist.
City staff members, though, are offering some alternatives to demolition. They include: sell or give the structure to someone who would move it to a compatible site; move the structure to a different part of the Black Hills site that has already been tested; remove the concrete slab of the building and conduct the tests with the building still standing; or do a few core samples to determine if further testing of the site is warranted.
It does seem like you should be able to remove the floor and do some testing without removing the building, but Black Hills officials have said that there’s reason to believe testing crews may have to drill fairly deep, and leaving the building standing will limit bringing a large drilling rig to the site.
Black Hills officials have argued the city’s Historic Resources Commission didn’t even have authority to review the demolition permit, but rather has overstepped its bounds. It also says the Historic Resources Commission has misidentified the property as a Quonset hut. It is not an actual Quonset hut, but rather just a metal building with a slightly rounded roof. Indeed, it does look different from a typical Quonset hut.
The property is adjacent to the Warehouse Arts District, which is part of the Eighth and Penn historic district. But Black Hills notes that the old maintenance building was not considered a contributing structure to that historic district, and thus the district won’t be harmed if it is removed.
This will be the first historic preservation test for the new City Commission. Everybody has a different definition of what is worthy of protection, so we may start to get a read on that issue from commissioners on Tuesday.
Then there is the question of what would happen to the building if it remained on the site. I’ve heard some area residents say it could be a cool art gallery as part of the Warehouse Arts District. I’ve heard another say it could be a neat restaurant, perhaps an old style diner or hamburger joint with a 1950s theme to match the era of its construction.
Hamburgers may be neat, but since it already is shaped like a hot dog, maybe a place that serves footlong coneys with cheese, onions, peppers and, of course, lots and lots of chili. Given the history of the building, there’s even a perfect name for such a place: The Gas Hut.
Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It will be East Lawrence night at City Hall on Tuesday. Also on the commission’s agenda is a request to allow a new bistro/drinking establishment at 804 Pennsylvania St. At issue here is whether the city should waive a previously established requirement that the location make at least 55 percent of its sales in food. That requirement was put in place to stop any future establishment from becoming a straight bar use.
A group led by Tony Krsnich, the developer of the Warehouse Arts District, owns the small building, which is just west of the large Poehler Lofts building. Krsnich has proposed creating a bistro that also serves beer, wine and cocktails. The establishment would be unique because its food would come from food trucks parked in a special area just outside the business. The building is small, which makes it tough to install a kitchen, Krsnich has said.
Originally Krsnich agreed to the 55 percent food requirement as a compromise with neighbors who were concerned about having a bar open in the neighborhood. But now Krsnich said he can’t find anyone willing to operate a bistro at the location with that requirement. He said he has no interest in operating a rowdy bar at the site, but he said no one wants to make the investment in this location with the chance that they could fall a few percent short on food sales and be forced to close.
Commissioners dealt with the items a few weeks ago, and it looked like they were ready to uphold the 55 percent food requirement. But they instead asked the neighbors and Krsnich to meet again to see if another compromise is apparent.
As the item comes back to the commission, Krsnich is sharing more details about how the food truck portion of the business is likely to work. Five food operators have provided information about their plans to locate at the bistro, if the 55 percent food requirement is removed. They are: Drasko’s Food Truck & Catering; KanBucha; Optimal Living; Torched Goodness; and Wilma’s Real Good Food.
Three of the five appear to be food trucks.
Drasko’s often is outside The Granada Theater in downtown, and promotes its puffy taco and brisket cheese fries, among other dishes.
Torched Goodness sells creme brûlée at a variety of events, but also has done other food truck creations as well.
Then there’s Wilma’s Real Good Food. That appears to be a prominent food truck in Kansas City. Well, actually, it looks like it operates out of a highly decorated Airstream trailer.
In a letter to commissioners, owner Brett Atkinson says he’s moving his personal residence to Lawrence’s Warehouse Arts District, and Lawrence will become his new home base of operations for the food truck. He said he plans to serve food at the bistro at least one day per week for the next five years. In terms of the food, his Facebook page lists items like meatloaf sliders, bourbon pecan pulled pork sandwiches, and some type of towering pastrami creation.
It will be interesting to see how commissioners deal with this issue. The city long has had a 55 percent food requirement for new drinking establishments in downtown. (There are a few building locations that are grandfathered in, but any drinking establishment seeking to go into a new location has to meet the requirement.) But until now the city had not really shown a desire to expand that 55 percent food requirement to other parts of the city. The concern is that without the requirement an area could become a bar district. Theoretically, any strip mall could become a bar district as well. Some strip malls are pretty well separated from neighborhoods, but some are pretty close to residential housing. If approved Tuesday, is this the beginning of a new trend in Lawrence? Will you have to meet a food requirement if you want to open a bar anywhere in the city?
• One last word about food trucks. Krsnich also is one of the organizers of the Kansas Food Truck Festival that took place in the Warehouse Arts District on May 2. Krsnich said the success of that event has him more convinced than ever that a bistro built around the food truck concept will work well.
Krsnich said his staff has finished tallying the results of the festival. About 4,000 people attended the one-day event, which produced $23,000 in proceeds for the local food bank Just Food, which is led by Mayor Jeremy Farmer. That’s up from $7,500 the event produced for the food bank last year, which was the first for the event.
Chamber of commerce wants chance to run convention and visitors bureau; longtime Lawrence security company purchased
Figuring out who is best at selling Lawrence to tourists and visitors may become a hot topic at City Hall.
As we reported last month, there’s a proposal out there that the convention and visitors bureau should become an official department of Lawrence City Hall. Currently it is a standalone entity that is run by the nonprofit board of Destination Management Inc., which also oversees the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area.
Now I’ve gotten word that the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce is making a pitch to have the CVB become part of the chamber’s organization.
“We feel Lawrence could lose a competitive edge if it becomes a part of City Hall,” Larry McElwain, president and CEO of the chamber told me. “We don’t feel Lawrence is as competitive for conferences and workshops — especially during that Sunday night to Thursday morning timeframe — as we could be.”
McElwain said if the CVB is part of City Hall, many of the bids it submits for conferences and conventions and such will be subject to open records law. If competitors have access to that sort of information, it may be tougher for Lawrence to produce winning bids for conferences and such.
City officials told me they wanted to better understand that concern. From their viewpoint, there are some efficiencies to be gained by having the CVB join the city’s ranks. Diane Stoddard, assistant city manager, said the CVB already works closely with the Parks and Recreation and Public Works departments on hosting a variety of events. The city’s communications office works closely with the organization to publicize many events, and the city’s communications staff also includes graphic designers and web producers who would be able to provide services to the CVB.
“There are a lot of issues to look at,” Stoddard said.
McElwain confirmed that the chamber brought up the idea of the CVB becoming part of the chamber about three months ago, which is about the time that director of Destination Management Inc. resigned. McElwain said City Manager David Corliss wasn’t in favor of the idea. Corliss, however, is leaving for a new position in Colorado at the end of the month, Stoddard is taking over as interim city manager, and the make-up of the City Commission has changed since then too. So, a new discussion may produce new results. The CVB was part of the chamber of commerce for decades until Destination Management Inc. was formed in 2008.
Stoddard said she doesn’t have a specific timeframe for a decision to be made on the CVB future. How long it drags out will be interesting to watch. McElwain said he's talked to multiple operators who are concerned that the number events their hotels have been asked to bid on has slowed significantly in the last six months.
Ultimately the City Commission holds the hammer on this issue. The CVB is funded through proceeds of the city’s 6 percent guest tax that is charged on all hotel rooms in the city. The City Commission directly controls that funding.
Under the chamber’s proposal, the city would continue to control that funding, but the city would create a contract with the chamber to manage the CVB operations for a fee. That’s similar to how the city has a contract with the chamber for economic development marketing activities. UPDATE: A chamber representative called me. They don't really like the word 'fee.' The chamber wanted to make it clear that none of the transient guest tax money would be used to fund other chamber operations. That funding would be segregated from the rest of the chamber's funding.
We’ll see what happens, but I think the issue of tourism is going to be a surprisingly active one during this summer’s budget season. I definitely got the impression from last night’s budget forum that there is city commissioner interest in raising the guest tax rate. I also picked up on some interest in using portions of the guest tax revenue to fund items that you normally wouldn’t think of as tourism related. For instance, maybe some of the money could be used to help parks and recreation maintenance, with the idea that parks and their various amenities are certainly important to the tourism industry.
All in all, the 2016 budget process could be one of the more interesting ones in years because of how many new people will be involved. (That means it will be more like watching grass grow rather than watching paint dry, but you take your City Hall excitement where you can get it.) There will be three new commissioners, an interim city manager and a new finance director all involved with the budget this year.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There has been a change in the world of Lawrence security, but no, that doesn’t mean my wife has given me access to our ATM code. The longtime Lawrence firm of Overfield Security has been purchased by Select One Security.
Overfield had been in business for 20 years in Lawrence. SelectOne also is a Lawrence-based firm that dates back to 2003. It is owned by Ryan Kruse. He said the purchase of Overfield’s business triples the size of SelectOne. He said the purchase will allow the company to continue to expand with is mobile platform security business that allows homeowners or business owners to monitor their property through mobile devices.
“These are very exciting times for our customer base and the future of our company,” Kruse said in a statement.
Overfield owner Scott Overfield said he plans to temporarily stay on with the SelectOne as an adviser.
“Thank you for all of the memories and dedication from my first customer to my last, and all of my staff over the years,” Overfield said.
Lawrence’s retail sales growth near the top in the state; update on Dale Willey expansion on South Iowa; city commissioners seek more info on solar power
Whether it be new events held in town or just a new outlook on life, Lawrence shoppers continue to spend more these days, according to the state’s latest report.
According to the Kansas Department of Revenue, taxable sales in Lawrence were up 6.4 percent for the April reporting period. That period generally covers sales made from about mid-March to mid-April.
For the year, sales tax collections are up 5.8 percent compared with the same period a year ago. That puts the Lawrence market near the top of the list when it comes to growth totals for major retail areas in the state. Here’s a look at several other large markets:
— Johnson County: up 2.9 percent
— Kansas City: up 5 percent
— Lenexa: up 7.5 percent
— Manhattan: up 3.8 percent
— Overland Park: down 0.1 percent
— Salina: up 4. 4 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 2.7 percent
— Topeka: up 1.7 percent
Retail sales have been on a hot streak in Lawrence lately. In 2014, retail sales grew by 4.1 percent. It is still early, but if Lawrence stays on its current pace, 2015 will be the fourth time in the last five years that the city has posted retail sales growth above 4 percent. I would think chances are good that Lawrence will see strong retail sales growth throughout 2015. Menards is set to open at some point this year (I’m still guessing late summer), and that will be one of the largest new retail stores built in the city in recent years. Plus, 2015 is the first full year for tournaments and other events being held at Rock Chalk Park.
The city expects to host more than 30 tournaments or camps at Sports Pavilion Lawrence in 2015. It is tough to estimate how much new retail spending those events are creating, but they’re certainly adding some. I’ve heard talk that city officials have been seeking some information from tournament organizers about how many of their families are spending the night in Lawrence and other information such as how often they eat out while attending a tournament. I’ll do some looking to see if any of that information has been compiled yet. I’ve also heard talk at City Hall that more efforts are on the way — through signs or other means — to make sure tournament participants known they have plenty of time to get downtown or elsewhere in the community while they are at these daylong tournaments.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Some of you may be wondering about more changes you are seeing on South Iowa Street. Demolition work has begun at the car wash between Dale Willey Automotive and the now defunct Payless Furniture building.
As we previously have reported, Dale Willey Automotive is going to use the property to expand its dealership. I’ve recently confirmed with Dale Willey officials, however, that they’ve decided to keep the two automatic car wash bays that are located at the site. They’ll continue to be open to the public after the dealership takes over the property.
The dealership also has bought the Payless Furniture building. Expect renovations to begin on that site in a matter of days. The building will become a showroom and offices for the dealership’s used car headquarters. Yes, the change in ownership will mean an end to the bright red and blue paint job on the building. Managers at Dale Willey said the exterior of the building will be remodeled to closely resemble Dale Willey’s main showroom just down the street.
The big open space where the car wash currently sits will be used to store more cars. General Manager Jeff Hornbeck told me the new space will allow the dealership to stock both more new and used cars. Hornbeck is hopeful renovation work will be completed by July 1, but certainly by the time students start arriving again in early August.
By the way, when it comes to the strong growth in sales tax receipts, don’t forget the local car dealers. If I had to bet on the one factor that is the strongest contributor to sales tax growth in the last year or two, it would be increased car sales. Car dealers have pointed to a lot of numbers that show the average age of vehicles on the road are the highest they have been in decades. Combine that with the fact most of the Lawrence car dealers have undertaken major renovations to become more attractive, and you have to figure auto sales in Lawrence have been on the rise.
• Someday, the sun will shine again, and when it does there may be a larger discussion at City Hall about whether solar panels on city buildings make sense. City Commissioner Leslie Soden made a point at Tuesday’s meeting to question city staff about whether any city buildings use solar panels today. She did so after noticing that the city’s payment to Westar Energy was about $270,000.
The city has a pilot project, funded by Westar, that has placed solar panels at the Prairie Park Nature Center. But other than that, the city doesn’t have any of its other buildings using solar panels.
The city, however, has been looking at whether some of its street lighting projects could be powered via solar. City engineers have considered using solar powered street lamps for a lighting project along 23rd Street. They did so after Lawrence school board member Kristie Adair came to a meeting and suggested the city was missing an opportunity to use solar powered lights.
The city last week got bids back for that project. The city hasn’t yet brought those bid totals to city commissioners for consideration, but public works director Chuck Soules told commissioners on Tuesday the solar option didn’t look too promising.
“That didn’t come back too well,” Soules said. “The lighting isn’t as powerful as we want for street lights, and the costs are significant.”
Soden said she would like staff members to look at whether there are opportunities to add solar panels to existing city buildings.
As for the street light project, it proposes to add new LED street lights to the north side of 23rd Street, roughly from Iowa Street to Alabama Street. If the project proceeds, work likely would begin in July, and some temporary lane closures would occur on 23rd Street while the work is underway.
Lawrence-based fundraising company buys building to accommodate expansion; Minuteman Press moving to east side; Sixth Street to get another traffic signal
Fraternities and sororities are big business in Lawrence, and I’m not just talking about T-shirts and tutoring lessons in the Greek alphabet. Lawrence-based Pennington & Company is one of the larger fundraisers for fraternities and sororities in the country, and now the firm has inked a deal to buy the office building at 501 Gateway Drive that houses Minuteman Press.
The deal continues a trend of the company grabbing office space in the area just north and east of Sixth and Kasold. Pennington already has office space in part of the 501 Gateway building and also leases an entire building across the street on Mesa Way. The company plans to keep that space as well.
Patrick Alderdice, president and CEO of the company, said the company needs more space because employee totals continue to grow. By June 1, the company will have 80 employees. That’s up from 46 employees in 2010 and six employees in 2000. The company has been one of Lawrence’s hidden growth stories, and Alderdice said he expects the growth to continue.
“We got our start working with organizations here at KU, but now we’re really coast to coast,” Alderdice said.
The company works with more than 550 fraternities and sororities across the country. (Can you imagine what his T-shirt drawer looks like?) The company primarily assists the organizations with raising funds to build new houses, expand existing ones, or to help the organizations boost their endowment or scholarship funds.
The company, though, has started to expand into new markets. Alderdice said it is beginning to work with private schools and churches on their fundraising needs.
The office deal does mean changes are in store for Minuteman Press. But don’t worry; the company is going to remain in business. Owner Dee Bisel has signed a lease for space at 1404 E. 24th St. That is one of the industrial buildings right near the Lawrence Kia dealership on 23rd Street. Bisel said the printing shop will be moving on May 28-29, and will be open in the new location shortly thereafter.
“Everything will remain the same with the type of services we’re offering,” Bisel said.
The company is a digital print shop that does postcards, business cards, banners, direct mail pieces, stationery, envelopes, posters and other such items that businesses rely on.
Bisel has been at the 501 Gateway location for 18 years. She said she decided to sell the building because the opportunity was just too good to pass up. She said business at the shop has bounced back strong since the economic downturn of 2008-2010.
“The last three years have been outstanding,” Bisel said. “We just recently got a new contract that we’ll be doing from that location. We’re excited about that. We think we’re going to have another banner year.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• Motorists on West Sixth Street are likely going to have a new traffic signal to deal with in the future. City officials are starting the process to install a traffic signal at Sixth Street and Champion Lane. If you don’t know where Champion Lane is, you’ve evidently never had a Starbucks coffee in one hand and a Taco Bell biscuit taco in the other while driving with your knee and somehow still texting your buddy to ask him if he knew you could now get a taco in a biscuit. In other words, Champion Lane is the road that leads to Starbucks in the Bauer Farm development, and is just east of the Taco Bell on Sixth Street.
City officials say that as traffic volumes into and out of the Bauer Farm development grow — Sprouts, the new grocery store, is set to open July 1 — the need for a traffic signal is increasing. It will take awhile, though, for a traffic signal to emerge on the site. The project is estimated to cost about $400,000. The city will fund $250,000 of the project, primarily with one-time funds the state provided the city as part of an agreement in which the city will take over the full maintenance responsibilities for Sixth Street. The state previously provided some annual maintenance dollars for Sixth Street because it served as U.S. Highway 40. The remaining $150,000 is set to come from property owners near the intersection. The city is establishing a benefit district where property owners can pay their share of the project through a special assessment on their tax bills.
It looks like it will be mid-August before the process to create that benefit district is completed. No word yet on whether the city will install the traffic signal shortly thereafter, or whether it will wait until later in 2015 or early 2016. The project also is scheduled to include some new sidewalks and a crosswalk.
• While we’re talking about Sixth Street, I’ll throw in this reminder about what is going on at the former Spangles location. The former fast food diner at 3420 W. Sixth St. has been demolished. As we reported in April, the location is set to become a MedExpress urgent care center. You’ll be able to walk into the clinic to receive treatment for all types of ailments, presumably including an unfortunate mishap while creating your own Mexican breakfast sensation, the Pop-Tart chalupa.
A waffle house coming to downtown Lawrence; city engineers seeking money to rebuild 23rd and Haskell
I’m getting that paranoid feeling that I’m assuming cattle sometimes get: Someone is trying to sell me by the pound. All this is to say that I’ve gotten news that a waffle house is opening in downtown, right across the street from the Journal-World offices.
Back in January, we reported that the Waffle Iron was opening inside the East Lawrence coffee shop Decade. Well, that experiment was met with success and a whole lot of maple syrup in a fellow’s whiskers. Proprietor Sam Donnell, though, said it was becoming clear the Waffle Iron was outgrowing the relatively small spaces of Decade. So, Donnell has signed a deal to move the restaurant into larger space at 7 E. Seventh St.
If you are having a hard time picturing the location, it is in that stretch of buildings between the Java Break and Hobbs. More specifically, it is the space that is directly above John Brown Underground, which is the speakeasy-style bar and restaurant that I wrote of back in August. John Brown Underground and the Waffle Iron will both use the space. John Brown uses the space — which has old wood floors and giant windows overlooking Seventh Street — for private events. Like at Decade, the Waffle Iron will be open only three days per week — from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday through Sunday. But the new space also will give the Waffle Iron a chance to do some nighttime waffle events. Donnell said he hopes to do at least one per month, and he may partner up with other local chefs for those projects. One other thing the move will do: Brunch-like cocktails will be available with the waffles. John Brown Underground will be serving some of the specialty cocktails in the space. (That’s not helping with the feeling of paranoia, by the way.)
As for the waffles, Donnell said he’s plans to stick with the same strategy that worked at Decade. He’ll offer three types: A leavened, a buttermilk and a gluten-free. He’ll have eight to 10 toppings available each week, and the toppings frequently will change. And the toppings go well beyond just your traditional fruits and butters. Donnell said one of the more popular waffle dishes he offers is called the Benedict, which involves a leavened waffle, grilled ham from Hank Charcuterie, and two farm-fresh poached eggs with a whipped hollandaise sauce. He’s also offered waffles with smoked salmon and capers, and also one called the French dip that features roast beef, horseradish sauce and au jus.
Don’t worry, though, the restaurant also offers a lot for people who like their waffles on the sweet side. Donnell has a house-made Nutella, and something that he calls cookie butter.
Donnell hopes to have the restaurant open by this weekend, but renovations and preparations are still underway on the space. Hopefully by the time it does open, this sense of paranoia will have gone away. I’m just being silly. I’m sure it is nothing. And look. Someone left me a piece of cake for breakfast. I’m feeling better already.
In other news and notes from around town:
• When the South Lawrence Trafficway is completed next year, traffic patterns are going to change significantly in Lawrence. One intersection that may become even more prominent than it is today is 23rd and Haskell. The only interchange on the SLT between Iowa Street and its eastern end will be at Haskell Avenue.
So, city engineers have added the intersection of 23rd and Haskell to their list of areas that may need some beefing up. City commissioners at their meeting tonight will consider applying for a state grant that would allow for the entire 23rd and Haskell intersection to be rebuilt in the summer of 2017.
Preliminary ideas call for the entire intersection to be rebuilt with durable concrete, and for eastbound and westbound right turn lanes to be added on 23rd Street. Plans also call for the portion of Haskell just south of 23rd Street to be widened a bit. That would make it easier to eventually widen Haskell Avenue, if traffic volumes in the future call for it. New traffic signals and handicapped-accessible sidewalk ramps also are included in the project's plans.
The city is seeking a $1 million grant from the Kansas Department of Transportation. Engineers estimate that the city would have to come up with an additional $760,000 to complete the project.
The city, however, is expected to ask for more money from the state when it comes to 23rd Street. Currently, 23rd Street serves as Kansas Highway 10, and the city receives some state money for annual maintenance of the highway. When the SLT is completed, 23rd Street no longer will be designated as K-10. The city is hoping the state will provide a one-time payment to bring the street up to good condition before it is turned over to the city.
City commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. tonight at City Hall. If they agree to submit the grant application, the city expects to hear whether it has received funding for the project in late summer.
A prominent goodbye sign from defunct Payless Furniture that labels Lawrence ‘Obamaville’ and much more
Well, the folks at Payless Furniture at 2800 Iowa St. long have been famous for their crazy signs and the dancing fellows who hold them. As the company closes its doors, it has one final set of signs for the community that it did business in for around two decades: “Lawrence: Commie and Candy Ass Capitol of Kansas. Goodbye Obamaville.”
That’s the big sign that thousands of motorists driving on South Iowa Street will see today. The sign is pasted to the side of the furniture store’s delivery truck and is prominently displayed in the business’ parking lot.
That’s the most visible side of the truck. But if you use your KGB sleuthing skills, you can see what else is written on the truck if you pull into the parking lot. One side of the truck says: “Restore Freedom. Even Retards Want to be Free.” Of course, that sign displays the American flag as well. (Actually, if you look closely, it is not the U.S. flag. It has too many stars.)
Then’s there the third side of the truck. You’re going to have to put down your hammer and sickle and restock your candy supply because that side takes awhile to read. Among the highlights: One panel titled “Lawrence City Lib Facts” touts Lawrence as the No. 1 “city in the U.S. to be a homeless bum,” and being a “magnet for urban rats from Chicago & East Coast.” Not to be a geographic snob, though, the panel also points out that Lawrence is a “refuge for welfare lowlifes from KCK and Topeka.”
There’s a second panel on that side that is titled “Lawrence Lib Profile.” It talks about “urban snobs who have never done any real work but expect redistribution from those who do real work.” It also has language about “unpatriotic, amoral, materialistic, self-centered judgmental, busy bodies” and “brainwashed Marxist zombies.” (Geez, we wish. Have you seen how much zombies are making on TV these days?)
I went out to the site this morning to see all of it firsthand. While I was there taking notes, a man comes up behind me and tells me one thing on there is a misprint. One of the signs talks about how Lawrence voted 61 percent Obama in the 2012 elections. The man said that was actually the Douglas County number. Lawrence was higher than that.
I asked the fellow if he was associated with the store. He said he wasn’t, and then pulled a set of keys out of his pocket and opened the door to the locked store. I told him I thought that might be a sign he was associated with the store. I asked him about his signs, and he said he thought they spoke for themselves.
A man from a nearby business who saw our conversation said that was Bob, the owner of the place. Indeed, the going out of business permit from the city lists a Robert Fyfe as the owner of the store. I’ve got his cell number, so I’ll try to call him shortly for additional comment.
As for how long the signs may be up on South Iowa Street, it looks like it may be a few more days. As we previously have reported, Dale Willey Automotive has purchased the building at 2800 Iowa St. and will convert it into a new used car sales center. But officials at the auto dealership told me the Payless folks have a lease on the property that runs through Friday. They said there obviously won’t be any such signs on the property once they take control of the site.
As for what’s next for Fyfe, I’ve heard multiple things from multiple people. Some have said he’s moving to Texas, some have said he’s moving to a different state, but everyone I’ve talked to has said he’s moving. Imagine that.
— When reached, Fyfe explained why he would send such a message to a community where he had done business since 1978: “I appreciate the business they gave me. It is not everybody, but it is a majority in Lawrence. It is not the young people’s fault. They are just so brainwashed.”
— Lawrence's Ladybird Diner quickly baked up a "Candy Ass Donut" in response to the Payless signs.
— A steady stream of Lawrence residents stopped by the truck throughout the day, including several folks with signs of their own.
— And a "Last Dance of Obamaville" protest/flash mob broke out at 5:30 p.m.
Soul food restaurant opens in eastern Lawrence; don’t let signs of redevelopment worry you at The Bottleneck; more than $200K of traffic calming considered for 27th Street
I try to keep my ear to the ground when it comes to new restaurants in town, and now I’ve found one where you can keep an ear to your mouth too. A soul food restaurant has opened in the shopping center at 19th and Haskell, and one of its menu items is a unique pig ear sandwich.
Kingfish Soul Food and Bistro opened a couple of months ago at 1910 Haskell. The owner simply gives his name as Kingfish, and who am I to press harder? (Ask the pig how well that works. Just be sure to speak really loudly.) He said he had worked for about 20 years with the noted soul food restaurant Niecie’s in Kansas City, Mo. He said he was looking for an opportunity of his own, and his wife had connections to the Lawrence area.
“And you guys have never had soul food here before,” Kingfish said. “People are catching on to it.”
Don’t worry, you don’t have to embrace the idea of a pig ear sandwich in order to be a soul food fan. The menu includes a lot of other dishes you may be more familiar with. Among the top sellers are catfish nuggets and filets, meatloaf, fried chicken, and a specialty dish called the Kansas City Po Boy. That involves a sandwich stuffed with catfish, tomato, shredded lettuce and Louisiana sauce.
Other dishes that you may not commonly find at other restaurants include liver and onions, a neck bone entree, grits, greens, yams, and sweet potato pie for dessert.
Kingfish said many of the recipes he learned from his grandmother and uncle, who both were longtime cooks. He said what’s really neat about the recipes, though, is how they’ve been passed down through the generations.
“Soul food has been around for at least 400 years,” Kingfish said. “People used to call it slave food, and now it has grown into a great American culinary tradition.”
The restaurant is open from noon to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Let’s face it: There have been times all of us have wished we had an extra ear when we’ve attended a really loud concert at The Bottleneck.
Some of you may have noticed recently that there is a city-issued sign in the window alerting folks of pending development coming to the site. No need to worry, though. Nothing major is happening to the longtime bar and music venue at 737 New Hampshire St.
Instead, the venue has applied to add sidewalk seating to the establishment. New Hampshire Street is undergoing significant redevelopment, so I wanted to stop rumors before they got started. It used to be that only restaurants were eligible for sidewalk seating areas in downtown. But the city changed that requirement a few years ago. Bars now are eligible in some instances, and there are a few who have taken advantage of it.
In case you are keeping a scorecard of sidewalk seating issues in downtown, I might as well note that the city also has received an application from KC Smoke Burgers, the relatively new restaurant at 1008 Massachusetts St. City commissioners are expected to hear that request in the next week or so.
• Some speed humps and traffic calming circles may be in the future for a busy section of 27th Street in southern Lawrence.
City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday will receive a report on how much it would cost to build some traffic calming devices on 27th Street between Iowa and Louisiana streets. The estimate: $170,000 to $230,000. None of the money currently is in the city’s budget.
But the issue of traffic on 27th Street has become a hot one ever since the Kansas Department of Transportation temporarily closed 31st Street west of Ousdahl as part of the South Lawrence Trafficway project. The amount of traffic on 27th Street has increased substantially as motorists have looked for other ways to get between Iowa and Louisiana streets. How substantial? Well, in 2012 — prior to the 31st Street closing — average traffic volumes were about 3,300 cars per day, I believe. The report didn’t specify per day but I think that is the case, and am working to confirm it. The city rechecked the street a few days ago and found average traffic volumes had grown to 9,450 vehicles. Average speeds were around 35 mph on the street, which is surrounded by residences.
City engineers report that a number of traffic calming devices could be appropriate for the street. There are traffic calming circles, which are smaller than roundabouts, but they cost about $50,000 apiece. The city said traffic calming circles may be appropriate at 27th and Ridge Court and 27th and Alabama. Speed cushions, a man-made bump in the road, also could work on the street, at the price of about $8,000 per cushion. Engineers have identified five locations for cushions on 27th Street.
Although not technically traffic calming devices, engineers said there are other improvements that could be made to improve pedestrian safety in the neighborhood. Those include a $60,000 pedestrian hybrid beacon, which allows pedestrians to push a button and activate a traffic signal. That would be near the area where the Naismith Park trail intersects with 27th Street. Another improvement would be to construct a sidewalk on the north side of 27th Street between Belle Haven and Arkansas Street. That has an estimated cost of $80,000.
One issue to keep in mind, though, is that it is unlikely any of these improvements could be constructed prior to 31st Street reopening to traffic. KDOT has estimated that 31st Street west of Louisiana Street will reopen midsummer. City engineers estimate it would take a “couple of months” to design the improvements on 27th Street and “several months” to construct the improvements.
There has been a suggestion that the city simply add some stop signs along the 27th Street route. City engineers, though, have offered some caution on that strategy. “Stop signs are not considered a traffic calming device since they do not physically require a motorist to adjust their driving,” David Woosley, the city’s traffic engineer wrote in a memo to commissioners. “In fact, studies have shown that they can have the opposite effect by increasing midblock speeds.”
I’ll work to check in with some city commissioners and residents in the neighborhood to find out what they’re thinking about the latest proposal.
New proposal for 120-foot tall tower in eastern Lawrence; hotel owner confirms Holiday Inn to become DoubleTree by Hilton
Representatives with Verizon have filed plans to build a 120-foot tall communications tower just a few blocks from the site of a previous proposal that brought strong opposition from neighbors and landed City Hall in a federal lawsuit.
According to paperwork filed at the city’s planning office, Verizon is seeking permission to build a new tower on the site of the Ottawa Co-op grain elevators at 2001 Moodie Road. I don’t know if Verizon still uses the catch phrase “Can you hear me now?” but if it does, the company may be hearing from east Lawrence residents, “We told you so.”
If you remember, in late 2014 Verizon and neighbors sparred over a proposal to build a 120-foot tall tower at 1725 Bullene Ave. That’s about three blocks away from the Ottawa Co-op site. Neighbors during the debate frequently said the co-op site would be a more appropriate location for the tower, but Verizon officials insisted they studied the site and it wouldn’t work.
Now, in fairness to Verizon, perhaps they are trying to do something a little different with this new tower, and that has changed the analysis. It is unclear from the application whether this tower is meant to replace the previously proposed tower on Bullene Avenue. City commissioners in December rejected the plans for the Bullene site. A few weeks later, Verizon filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking an order requiring the city to approve the plans. City Attorney Toni Wheeler told me that the federal lawsuit is still pending. So, it is going to take a little more time to sort all this out.
As for the new tower, a Verizon official said in a letter to City Hall that the tower will help ease capacity problems at surrounding towers, including a primary one that serves the KU campus.
“Without the addition of this communications facility Verizon could realize significantly reduced services and very possibly lack of services in an emergency situation,” the company wrote in its application to the city.
The debate over the Bullene site largely centered on how close the tower would be to houses. The co-op site is in more of an industrial area. But the project will involve building a new tower rather than putting an antenna on top of of the co-op’s existing grain elevator. Engineers for Verizon previously said they were not comfortable that the grain elevator could adequately host the antennas. We’ll see whether anybody has a problem with tall structures in that area. The area has long been home to one of the taller structures in the city. The grain elevator is 130 feet tall, according to information submitted to the city. If you remember, the co-op also has filed plans to build a new 75-foot tall grain bin at the site. Here’s a look at the proposed location.
As required by city code, the proposed tower would have space for at least two other wireless phone companies to place their antennas on the tower as well. The tower proposal will seek approval from the planning commission and ultimately the City Commission in the next several weeks.
In other news and notes from around town:
• A couple of weeks ago, we reported there was a lot of speculation that Lawrence’s Holiday Inn and Convention Center was going to become a DoubleTree by Hilton hotel. Well, it is speculation no longer. The ownership group of the hotel has confirmed that it will change the brand in March.
Hulsing Hotels — the Asheville, N.C.-based company that operates the Holiday Inn — said in a release that it plans a “multimillion dollar” renovation of the entire property. The release didn’t provide many details about what will change with the property, other than an extensive renovation.
“The dramatic changes are expected to raise the standard for all hotels and convention centers in the area,” the release states. “The total renovation of the hotel will provide the city with a modern convention facility. Every aspect of the property will be upgraded, including an expansion of the majority of the guest rooms to better accommodate guests.”
Management at the Holiday Inn previously has confirmed that the project won’t involve an expansion of the convention center or banquet space, which currently can host events of around 600 people. Currently, the hotel has 192 guest rooms, which makes it the largest in the city. No word on whether that number will change, given that it sounds like some of the room sizes will expand. The hotel also has 15,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space, which is the largest hotel-based conference and event space in the city.
The DoubleTree brand will bring another upper scale hotel offering to the city. DoubleTree by Hilton has 415 properties across the globe. It is best known for providing guests with a chocolate chip cookie upon their arrival.
The remodel continues a trend by Hulsing Hotels. Although based in North Carolina, its ownership has its roots in Topeka and Manhattan. CEO Dennis Hulsing grew up in Topeka and attended Kansas State. The company owns about 10 hotels, with several of them in the northeast Kansas area. Those include: the Four Points by Sheraton at the Kansas City Sports Complex in KCMO, the Four Points by Sheraton in Manhattan and the Four Points by Sheraton at KCI.
It will be interesting to see how the changes at the Holiday Inn affect the discussion about whether to build a new conference center downtown. Full Disclosure: Owners of The World Company, which publishes the Journal-World and LJWorld.com, have proposed building a conference center, hotel and mixed-use project on downtown property owned by the company.
The city in recent weeks received a report from its conference center consultant that reviewed the Holiday Inn and other conference spaces in town. The report found the community could support 30,000 to 37,500 square feet of new conference center space. Further, the report said the downtown area is where many event planners have expressed an interest in new space. As part of that conference center space, the report estimated the city needed 10,000 to 12,500 square feet of meeting room space to host modern-day conferences. The Holiday Inn, the report noted, has only about 600 square feet of meeting room space. No word yet on whether the renovation will reallocate space within the hotel to address that issue. (Some clarification on the meeting room issue: The Holiday Inn clearly has more than 600 square feet of space to host events. As we noted earlier in this article, it has around 15,000 square feet. But the consultant's report also tried to differentiate that space between exhibit space, banquet space, breakout meeting room space and other such uses. The city-hired consultant listed the amount of meeting space at the Holiday Inn at 600 square feet. Stephen Horton, general manager at the Holiday Inn, though told me this morning that he disagrees with that assessment. He said the hotel has the ability to configure space in a way that has much more room for breakout meeting space than that. So, we'll see, perhaps the consultant's report will be updated with different numbers. You can see the current report here. )
But the City Hall report also noted that some level of public support would likely be needed to build a downtown conference center of 30,000 square feet or more. Given other budget issues the city is dealing with, that will be a major point of discussion at City Hall — assuming commissioners choose to have the discussion at all. The next step in the process is for the City Commission to decide whether it wants to hire the consulting firm to do a phase II report. That report would produce cost estimates for a facility, and give the city a better idea of what type of assistance may be sought. The city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau Advisory Board has recommended the phase II study be conducted, but there is no word yet on when that issue will get a vote by the City Commission.