Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
New study shows Douglas County second least affordable in state; see which city has average mortgage payment of $217 a month
Maybe you have heard that Lawrence is one of the least affordable Kansas communities in which to buy a home. Maybe you have the empty Ramen noodle packages to prove the point. Well, a new study has come out that reaches much the same conclusion, but this one also tells you where you’ll need to move to get the most affordable home in Kansas.
Pack the bags for... Parsons.
A new study by the financial website SmartAsset ranked Douglas County as the second-least-affordable county in Kansas, bettering only Riley County, home to Manhattan. The study looks at home prices, insurance costs, closing costs and other similar factors, and then compares that to the median income in the community.
The study found that the cheap living in Kansas is to the south. The five most affordable communities all were in the southern part of the state. Parsons topped the list, but just how cheap can you live in Parsons?
The website calculated the monthly mortgage payment in Parsons is $217. In Douglas County, it is $702. When you factor in the median income in Parsons, a homeowner there spends a little less than 7 percent of his/her income on a mortgage. In Douglas County, the average homeowner spends about 16 percent. In Riley County, it is all the way up to 18 percent. (And remember, this is gross income. If we were actually talking about take-home pay, the percentage would be significantly higher.)
Here’s a look at the top 5 most affordable communities in the state, according to SmartAsset:
• No. 1: Parsons; avg. monthly mortgage: $217; median income: $37,948
• No. 2: Chanute; avg. monthly mortgage: $251; median income: $41,476
• No. 3: Ulysses; avg. monthly mortgage: $361; median income: $53,393
• No. 4: Mulvane; avg. monthly mortgage: $481; median income: $71,031
• No. 5: Independence; avg. monthly mortgage: $246; median income: $39,050
I can’t help but notice that your Samsonite is still empty, and you still have your cookbook copy of "Bologna: A Slice of (Processed) Heaven." Yes, Labette County, home of Parsons, does have an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent, compared with Douglas County’s 3.2 percent. And it is true that Allen Fieldhouse in Parsons is just a house owned by a wheat farmer named Allen.
So, perhaps you want to take a closer look at Douglas County to see what type of value you are getting. (Note: The study ranked the top 10 most affordable cities in the state, but thereafter only provided data on the county level. Thus, I don’t have statistics just for Lawrence.) Here’s a look at how Douglas County’s average mortgage payments and incomes stack up to some other large counties in the state.
• Douglas: avg. monthly mortgage: $702; median income: $50,732; 16.6 percent of income
• Johnson: avg. monthly mortgage: $817; median income: $75,017; 13 percent of income
• Wyandotte: avg. monthly mortgage: $353; median income: $39,326; 10.7 percent of income
• Shawnee: avg. monthly mortgage: $463; median income: $49,695; 11.1 percent of income
• Riley: avg. monthly mortgage: $668; median income: $44,522; 18 percent of income
• Sedgwick: avg. monthly mortgage: $486; median income: $50,326; 11.5 percent of income
One interesting part of this study, though, is it also goes beyond just mortgage costs. It also provides data on average closing costs, home insurance costs, and property taxes. Here’s how Douglas County stacks up in those categories:
• Johnson County: Avg. annual property taxes: $2,843
• Douglas County: Avg. annual property taxes: $2,494
• Riley: Avg. annual property taxes: $2,410
• Shawnee: Avg. annual property taxes: $1,933
• Wyandotte County: Avg. annual property taxes: $1,732
• Sedgwick: Avg. annual property taxes: $1,685
Now, closings costs:
• Johnson: Avg. closing costs: $3,542
• Douglas: Avg. closing costs: $3,348
• Riley: Avg. closing costs: $3,321
• Sedgwick: Avg. closing costs: $3,116
• Shawnee: Avg. closing costs: $3,083
• Wyandotte: Avg. closing costs: $2,591
Now, home insurance costs:
• Johnson: Avg. annual home insurance premium: $2,009
• Douglas: Avg. annual home insurance premium: $1,715
• Riley: Avg. annual home insurance premium: $1,654
• Sedgwick: Avg. annual home insurance premium: $1,186
• Shawnee: Avg. annual home insurance premium: $1,136
• Wyandotte: Avg. annual home insurance premium: $865
The study used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Bankrate, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, and various government websites. You can see the complete study here, and check out any Kansas county via an interactive map.
Locally owned coffee shop, cafe to open in former south Lawrence fast-food spot; timeline update on movie theater upgrades
Never underestimate the power of coffee. On a day like today, where the heat index is expected to top the century mark, some of us have ice cream on our minds. (And perhaps in our socks and in any other place that we think may provide some cooling relief.) But there are plenty of you who still will insist on having a cup of coffee, too. For those of you, I have word of a new, locally owned coffeehouse and cafe for south Lawrence.
Z’s Divine Espresso has signed a deal to open a new location along 31st Street in the location that formerly housed Backyard Burger, and, more recently, the El Potro Mexican restaurant before it moved to its new location. This will be the third location of Z’s, but this one is expected to be a bit different, said owner Sherry Bowden.
“This building has a kitchen,” Bowden said. “It gives us an opportunity to do all of our own baked goods and light lunches. It will be a little bit more of a cafe. We’re really excited about the kitchen.”
Bowden said she is still developing a lunch menu, but expects it to focus on sandwiches, salads, soups and other “lite bites.” She said the kitchen also will allow her to add more vegan and gluten-free options to the menu. The south Lawrence location — its actual address is 2351 W. 31st St. — also has a drive-thru that Bowden said the store will put to good use.
One thing that won’t change, Bowden said, is the coffee. The company will continue to do all of its own coffee roasting at its 23rd and Harper location. In addition to that location, Z’s also operates a coffeehouse in downtown Lawrence.
Bowden said she had been looking for quite some time to get a location in northwest Lawrence but struggled to find a suitable spot. She said she had no problem shifting gears to south Lawrence after seeing the rush of development that has occurred along the south Iowa corridor. That’s included a new Menards store, Dicks Sporting goods, and multiple restaurants including Pie Five, Popeyes, Raising Canes and others.
“There is a lot going on along south Iowa,” Bowden said. “People like the idea of a local brand, and right now there is not a lot of local on south Iowa, and there is not a lot of coffee.”
Bowden hopes to have the new location open sometime in August.
Allison Vance Moore and Kirsten Flory of Lawrence’s Colliers International brokered the deal for the new location.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I reported in April that a $1.5 million renovation project for Lawrence’s Southwind Theater had been approved, and that much of the plans looked to focus on adding reclining, Lazyboy-type seats to all 12 screening rooms.
At the time, though, I wasn’t able to get a lot of information from the theater’s ownership group, Regal, about the upgrades, although they did have the new chairs on display in the theater’s lobby.
Well, I have at least a bit of news to pass along: Regal has sent out a press release saying that the theater renovations are expected to be completed in September. The theater remains open during the renovations, although not all 12 screens are in operation during the time period.
Chain retailer on 23rd Street files for bankruptcy, seeks buyer; new report says Lawrence one of the more unique cities in the country
There are signs of trouble at 23rd and Iowa streets, and, thankfully, this time it doesn’t involve an orange construction cone stuck in my grill. Instead, one of the largest retailers at the busy intersection has filed for bankruptcy.
The bookstore and DVD chain Hastings has filed for bankruptcy protection, and is seeking a buyer to keep the chain of stores open.
The Wall Street Journal reports the Amarillo, Texas-based retailer has nearly $140 million in debt and posted a loss of more than $16 million in 2015. The Lawrence store remains open, while the company seeks to find a buyer for the chain. But the company did not sugarcoat the situation it is in.
“We have reached a point where we do not have the necessary cash on hand to continue operating our business,” Hastings president and COO Jim Litwak, said on the company’s website. “A sale process, facilitated by Chapter 11, will help us determine how we can best maximize the value of our assets for the benefit of our stakeholders.”
So, stay tuned on whether the 23rd and Iowa intersection will have a bookstore in the future. The company said it expects to complete its sale processes within the next 30 days.
Not surprisingly, Hastings cited weak demand for “physical media properties” such as books, movies and games, which has been the trio of major sales categories for Hastings, as the primary reason for the company’s troubles. In other words, lots more people are downloading that type of entertainment rather than driving to a physical store to buy it.
One quick note for you Hastings customers, the company says any gift cards that are outstanding are still valid, but only for a limited time. All gifts cards or types of store credit will expire on July 13, or earlier, depending on when the card was purchased. The company also has stopped renting games.
The company has about 125 stores across the country. And, in case you are ever on "Jeopardy!" and the category is Hastings, remember this factoid: The company is owned by a group controlled by Joel Weinshanker, who also owns the rights to Elvis Presley’s Graceland operations, according to The Wall Street Journal. And there you go. Isn’t that the answer? More outfits of the King surely would boost sales.
It is too early to say whether Hastings is gone for good, but if the store does close, it marks an interesting milestone in the city. Unless I’m forgetting something, Hastings is the last chain bookstore in Lawrence. (I’m not really counting the textbook stores.) For some of us, that is significant because we sat through a very long and contentious debate years ago about Borders bookstore opening in downtown Lawrence. It was really a divisive time. A common theme of the day was how Borders was going to put out of business all the local bookstores in town. That was in the 1990s, and back then you wouldn’t have found many believers that in 2016, Borders would be closed and the local retailers once again would own the market. (Well, Amazon may own the overall market, but local retailers own the physical bookstore market in Lawrence.)
I bring this up because it is a good reminder that when it comes to predicting the future — especially as it relates to whether retailers should or shouldn’t be allowed to locate in Lawrence — nobody’s crystal ball is very good. That doesn’t mean that Lawrence shouldn’t plan and that the community ought to say ‘yes’ to everything. But it probably is worth remembering that anybody who can truly predict future American business trends almost always has something better to do than share their views on a Tuesday night at City Hall.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Speaking of stores that went bankrupt, I’m hearing that another fabric store is likely to take the place of Hancock Fabrics near 27th and Iowa streets. As we reported, Hancock filed for bankruptcy and is in the process of closing its stores. I’ll work to get some additional information on the identity of the likely fabric retailer.
• Lawrence doesn’t exactly bleed red, white and blue, according to a new ranking. The folks at the financial website WalletHub do all sorts of crazy rankings, and they have one that tries to identify the cities that most closely resemble America as a whole. It sounds a little wacky, but really it is just a study that looks at how closely a community’s demographics mirror the demographics of the entire country. In that respect, it is kind of interesting.
What this year’s study found is that Lawrence is one of the cities least like America. Or, to say it another way, Lawrence is pretty unique. Take your choice of how you want to spin that.
Lawrence ranked No. 373 out of 379 communities in the report. The lower the ranking the less like America your community was found to be. Another interesting tidbit is that right next door is a metro area that is one of the most typical of American communities: The Kansas City metro area ranked No. 13 on the list. (This reinforces the idea that Lawrence kind of is like its own country and that Johnson County residents should be required to show a passport before entering. Although, I guess a visa would suffice, especially if it has a high credit limit.)
The website looked at a lot of demographics from the Census Bureau and housing data from Zillow to compile it rankings. Certainly, I think Lawrence’s status as a university community played a large role in the ranking, as it should. Being a university community is the main thing that makes us different. I do think it is interesting to remind ourselves just how different we are in some regards. Here’s a look at the areas where we were most different from the U.S. average, according to WalletHub:
• Lawrence has a lot more renters than the average community.
• Our population is more highly educated than the average community.
• We have a lot more young people than the average city, which is to be expected as a university community. But even by university community standards, we are pretty young.
• We have a lot more people living in nonfamily homes than the average community. The Census Bureau defines a family household as one where there are at least two people related by birth, marriage or adoption.
As for how some other communities in the region ranked, here’s a look:
— No. 3: Oklahoma City
— No. 10: Tulsa, Okla.
— No. 13: Kansas City
— No. 36 Wichita
— No. 73 Waco, Texas
— No. 82 Springfield, Mo.
— No. 106 Des Moines, Iowa
— No. 116 Joplin, Mo.
— No. 121 St. Joseph, Mo.
— No. 163 Topeka
— No. 223 Lubbock, Texas
— No. 349 Boulder, Colo.
— No. 351 Columbia, Mo.
— No. 352 Iowa City, Iowa
In case you are wondering, the metro area deemed to be most like America as a whole was Indianapolis. You can see the full list here.
Douglas County getting national attention for Zika virus risk; federal report shows how bad state’s economy was in 2015
Well, it looks like the Summer Olympics won’t be moving to Douglas County anytime soon. Douglas County is gaining some national attention as a hotspot for the type of mosquito that can carry the Zika virus.
I know Town Talk isn’t exactly the place you turn to for your health news, but I wanted to pass this along anyway because it seems like the type of information that may be spread far and wide. The Centers for Disease Control on Thursday published a map that shows a county-by-county breakdown of where scientists have collected Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the type of mosquito thought to be spreading Zika in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a report by NPR. (I’m afraid offending these dangerous mosquitoes by misspelling their species name, so from this point forward I will refer to them as Zika-eligible mosquitoes.)
The map shows Shawnee, Douglas, Johnson, and Wyandotte counties all are in the highest category for the Zika-eligible mosquitoes. Specifically, what the map shows is that scientists have found the Zika-eligible mosquito during three or more years in the past two decades. As you can see, that doesn’t exactly mean the county is swarming with these insects, but it is surprising to see Douglas County show up on the map.
As you can see above, the group of Shawnee, Douglas, Johnson and Wyandotte counties kind of stand out like a sore thumb in middle America. I suppose one explanation is all four of those counties are along the Kansas River, which may be a breeding ground for the type of mosquito in question. Atchison County, along the Missouri River, is the one other county in Kansas that shows up in red.
Another possibility is perhaps the trio of counties do a better job of cataloging mosquitoes than other counties in the area. I had no idea that anybody was tracking mosquito types in Douglas County. I’ll keep an eye out for people walking around, stabbing the air with tweezers. (If I duck, it is only because my wife and her eyebrow plucking have conditioned me to do so.) The NPR report does note that the map is likely incomplete because not every county has “mosquito surveillance programs,” and many that do are looking for the type of mosquitoes associated with the West Nile virus.
We’ll have someone on staff look into this more, and get some reaction from local health officials about what the mosquito situation really is in Lawrence. At the moment, this is interesting news, but it can benefit from being put into context a bit more. We’ll try to do that.
In other news and notes from around town:
• That sting you felt last year probably wasn’t from a Zika-eligible mosquito. It probably was just the Kansas economy.
The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis released a new report Tuesday, and it shows Kansas was one of the lower performing economies in the country in 2015. The report measures the gross domestic product of each state — basically the sum total of all the goods and services produced in a state — and Kansas’ GDP shrunk by 0.7 percent. It was one of only eight states that saw an actual decline.
Kansas, though, had company. Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa also were on that list. As you may guess, a decline in agricultural prices played a big role. The detailed numbers show that is what happened in Kansas. The agricultural sector posted a 1.82 percent decline, and the state wasn’t able to grow any of its other sectors fast enough to make up for that decline.
I may add more on this later as I go through the numbers, but take a look at this map to see how Kansas stacks up.
UPDATE: As promised, I looked at the numbers a bit, and there are four areas worth highlighting — two where the Kansas economy outperformed the region and the nation, and two where it underperformed.
First, the good news. Kansas had a pretty decent year in terms manufacturing growth. The production of durable goods — in Kansas that might be something like airplane parts — added 0.16 percentage points to Kansas' GDP. That was quite a bit better than the Plains region and the U.S. as a whole, which both saw GDP grow by 0.04 percentage points from durable goods manufacturing. The production of nondurable goods — food products would be an example — added 0.43 percentage points to Kansas' GDP in 2015. That outpaced the Plains region at 0.32 percentage points and the U.S. at 0.24.
Now, the not so good news. It appears Kansas underperformed in two key areas that often produce the highest paying jobs in an economy. Kansas really struggled in the sector titled "management of companies and enterprises." Think of this as a category that measures companies that basically serve as the corporate headquarters for multiple enterprises. The category subtracted 0.24 percentage points from Kansas' GDP. That shrinkage occurred at the same time the Plains region and the U.S. as whole were seeing gains. The category added 0.11 percentage points in the Plains region and 0.12 percentage points to the U.S. as a whole.
The other category that produced a less than stellar showing for Kansas was the Professional, Scientific and Technical Services category, which includes everything from legal and accounting firms to scientific research companies. It added 0.10 percentage points to Kansas' GDP, but it added 0.24 percentage points to the Plains region and 0.28 to the U.S. economy as a whole.
Once popular sandwich chain looking to make return to Lawrence, owner confirms; Lawrence innovator receives special invite to White House
Lawrence, maybe you really can have your buns of yesteryear. Wait, this is not me pitching my specially designed elliptical machine. (My attorney says I can never, ever sell one of those again.) Instead, I’m referring to talk of Schlotzsky’s — the sandwich shop known for its sourdough buns — making a return to Lawrence.
Perhaps some of you remember that there used to be a Schlotzsky’s in the Louisiana Purchase shopping center at 23rd and Louisiana several years ago. Well, it sure looks like Schlotzsky’s wants to come back to Lawrence.
Some renovation work is underway at the old Kentucky Fried Chicken location near Sixth and Wakarusa. If you remember, we reported KFC closed its west Lawrence location earlier this year. An alert reader has let me know that a vehicle wrapped in Schlotzsky’s logos has been parked outside the business at various times during the renovation work.
That indeed is a good sign that Schlotzsky’s plans to return to Lawrence, said Bart Hastert, a co-owner of two Schlotzsky’s locations in Olathe and Overland Park. Hastert said he hasn’t yet signed a deal for the Wakarusa Drive site that formerly housed KFC. Hastert said that location, along with locations at 23rd and Iowa and in the Bauer Farm development near Sixth and Wakarusa are under consideration. Hastert said his company already has signed a deal with Schlotzsky’s corporate offices to open three to five new stores in the near future.
“Lawrence is definitely in our sights,” he said.
Schlotzsky’s probably has been gone from Lawrence for about five years, and there’s been a major change since then. The chain has signed deals with dessert companies Cinnabon and Carvel ice cream to open mini-stores inside Schlotzsky’s. Hastert said the Lawrence store definitely would have the Cinnabon cinnamon rolls, and he said he would like to win corporate approval to have an ice cream brand in the store as well.
As for what Schlotzsky’s is offering these days, it is still a shop known for its sandwiches. The restaurant’s calling card has been a sandwich it calls The Original, which features multiple cheeses, salamis, ham, marinated black olives, a signature dressing and a toasted sourdough bun. That’s the sandwich that got the chain started 40 years ago as a small shop in Austin.
Today, the menu also includes about two dozen other sandwiches all served on either sourdough, rye, jalapeño cheese or other types of fresh-baked buns. The restaurant also includes, soups, salads, artisan flatbreads and several flavors of 10-inch pizzas.
Hastert said he hopes to sign a deal for a Lawrence location soon. His company already has signed a deal to open a new store in Liberty, Mo., and he wants Lawrence to be his next location.
“We’re on a time crunch already,” said Hastert, who did not own the previous Lawrence franchise. “I think folks will welcome us back to town.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• A Lawrence executive is heading to the White House for a special business event. Ben Smith, the director of social and emerging media for Lawrence-based Callahan Creek, will be representing Kansas at a White House event related to the National Week of Making.
The event is one that highlights the power of teaching and fostering innovation both in education and the business community. Smith has been recognized both locally and nationally for his efforts to empower creative thinking, including his work to create ConfabuLarryum, Lawrence’s Festival of Making and Creativity. The event is held in conjunction with the Lawrence school district, which uses it to showcase innovative projects produced by students.
Smith will be at the White House on Friday for a special meeting of individuals around the country who are involved in the maker movement. Smith also will be in Washington, D.C., for the National Maker Fair that is set for Saturday.
Running, clothing store set to move to Massachusetts Street; KDOT backs off plan to close SLT and Kasold intersection
There is a certain someone in my house who appreciates any new shoe store on Massachusetts Street, especially running shoes. She needs all the help she can get staying a step ahead of the parking meter patrol. If you are like her, you are in luck. One of Lawrence’s more popular running stores is undertaking a major expansion and moving to Massachusetts Street.
Ad Astra Running has signed a deal to move into the vacant space at 734 Massachusetts St. For those of us who are more into elastic waistbands than running shoes, you may know that as the space that is next door to the old Hot Box Cookies location. (I say old because as we have reported, Hot Box moved to The Oread hotel recently.)
Ad Astra currently is located at 16 E. Eighth St. in downtown Lawrence. The pending move will allow the store to more than double in size, said Grant Catloth, who owns the store with business partner J. Jenkins.
The expansion is coming just eight months after Ad Astra opened for business. Catloth said the store’s status as a locally owned establishment has resonated with the running community.
“We’ve had a great reaction from the public and the running community,” Catloth said. “Douglas County is just a very homegrown, populous-oriented type of community, and they have really supported us.”
Catloth said the larger space will allow the store to stock a larger shoe inventory, but really will allow the store to grow its athletic apparel lines. Catloth said the larger space also will make it easier for the store to host events. Ad Astra currently hosts a Thursday evening running event in downtown, along with several other classes or gatherings each week. Although the events usually take place outside, the store serves as a gathering place and a location for runners to store their belongings. Catloth said crowds — the Thursday event attracts upwards of 80 people — were filling the store to capacity during those times.
Catloth expects one of the larger benefits of the move will be greater visibility among shoppers.
“One of our biggest issues is that a lot of people just don’t know we exist,” Catloth said. “Getting on Mass, you will have a couple hundred people walking by every 10 minutes on a Saturday.”
Catloth said minor renovation work is underway on the space. He said the store hopes to be open in the new location by the end of June.
In other news and notes from around town:
• This just in this morning: The Kansas Department of Transportation is backing away from its one-time plan to close the intersection of the South Lawrence Trafficway and Kasold Drive in in southwest Lawrence. But KDOT leaders aren’t willing to go so far as to install an expensive traffic signal at the intersection.
Instead, KDOT plans to convert the intersection into a right-in, right-out intersection. That will mean no left turns will be allowed at the intersection, and it also means that traffic won’t be able to fully cross the busy SLT to get to either Kasold Drive or to the rural county road that is just south of the SLT. Access to those roads will be limited to motorists turning right off of the SLT.
KDOT has included its recommendation in a final report that was delivered to local officials yesterday, and was placed on the city of Lawrence’s website Friday morning.
The idea of closing the intersection sparked much concern from many rural residents who live southwest of Lawrence. They use the intersection as a way to get into Lawrence, via Kasold Drive. Lawrence Landscape, which owns a tree farm just south of the intersection, also had objected to its planned closure.
KDOT officials had lobbied for the closure because they fear accidents will increase at the intersection once the eastern leg of the SLT opens this fall. Traffic at the intersection is expected to more than double once the eastern leg of the SLT opens.
In their final report, KDOT leaders said closing the intersection still would be the best decision for motorist safety, but said the right-in, right-out proposal is a “compromise solution.” The project won’t involve widening the intersection at all, but will include restriping and other minor modifications to the intersection. It is expected to cost $70,000, and will be paid for by KDOT. The City Commission and Douglas County Commission are expected to receive a briefing on the project by KDOT at their June 21 and June 22 meetings, respectively.
Latest report shows Lawrence sales tax growth among tops in the state; are City Hall leaders paying attention?
It is the season for City Hall couch cushions strewn about and organ grinder music in the background. The city’s budget process is underway, and the last several years the theme has been that any loose change matters, as the city’s major operating fund in 2015 spent more than it received in revenue. It is budgeted to do so again in 2016.
That is happening despite a key positive trend: Lawrence is experiencing the best sales tax growth of any major retail area in the state.
State revenue officials have released their latest sales tax report — it basically measures sales through early April — and Lawrence continues to be on a roll. The report showed sales tax collections for the latest one-month period were up 6.2 percent compared with the same period a year ago.
The more important numbers, though, are the year-to-date totals. There have now been five sales tax reports issued by the state in 2016, so we are almost to the halfway point of the annual reporting period. Thus far, Lawrence’s growth rate is tops among the 10 large retail markets that we track. Here’s a look:
— Lawrence: up 4.6 percent
— Overland Park: up 3.6 percent
— Olathe: up 3 percent
— Topeka: up 2.5 percent
— Johnson County: up 2.1 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 1.4 percent
— Manhattan: up 0.8 percent
— Kansas City: up 0.3 percent
— Salina: down 3.3 percent
— Lenexa: down 8 percent
The most interesting number may be what’s driving Lawrence’s increase. The city has provided a breakdown of the industries that are seeing the largest increase in sales tax collections. The city noted three: grocery and beverage stores are up 6 percent from a year ago; bars and restaurants are up 7 percent; and sales taxes on building materials are up 29 percent.
The building material category is obviously an eye-catcher. There seems to be an obvious explanation to that large increase: Menards and its superstore near 31st and Iowa have entered the market.
But sometimes the obvious answer isn’t always the correct one. So, I looked a little deeper. Not all building materials are bought through home improvement centers. Many of them are bought through wholesale companies that deliver to job sites, and construction firms pay the sales tax on those materials. If Lawrence’s building scene is booming, that could account for the increase in sales tax collections, and it really wouldn’t have much at all to do with Menards. But the city’s building permit reports show that is not what’s happening. Construction totals are very high this year, but they are about 15 percent below the record-setting totals of 2015. Based off that, you would think sales tax collections for building materials would be down.
I also considered that perhaps there has been an increase in the price of building materials, which would cause the sales tax collections to increase, even though the amount of work has declined some. That doesn’t appear to be the case either. The construction cost index put out by the large construction company Turner indicates that the cost of building materials actually has declined some.
I don’t know definitively why Lawrence is collecting so much more in sales taxes for building materials, but it seems the Menards effect is a real possibility. It seems that what’s happening may be exactly what Menards officials said would happen: Lawrence residents who were leaving town to shop at Menards are now staying in Lawrence to shop at Menards. It seems likely some shoppers from nearby communities are coming to Lawrence to do their Menards shopping. Here’s a little fact that maybe has been overlooked: Menards really doesn’t have any stores in the Kansas City market. It has one in St. Joseph, but that is about it. That means the Lawrence store is the closest Menards store for lots of communities in Johnson County. Of course it also is the closest store for places like Franklin and Jefferson counties. The Lawrence store may be getting more out-of-town traffic than what you would think.
Again, I don’t know if that is what’s happening here. But I would think City Hall leaders would want to figure it out. If indeed Menards is keeping more retail dollars in Lawrence and attracting more retail dollars from outside Lawrence, then it seems possible other select retailers could do the same.
Perhaps this is causing you to think of the City Commission’s recent rejection of a proposed multimillion dollar retail center that would have brought several new brands to Lawrence near the Iowa Street and SLT interchange. The rejection has landed the city in a lawsuit filed by the proposed developers. The developers of that proposed center said their numbers showed 40 percent of all Lawrence retail dollars spent on apparel are being spent outside of Lawrence.
I can almost guarantee you that Menards had a similar study that told it that there were a lot of home improvement dollars leaving the Lawrence community.
Is the 40 percent number about apparel accurate? I don’t know. But I would think City Hall officials would want to find out. A trusted third party easily could be hired to figure it out, and many other retail questions. The problem is, Lawrence fights so much about retail development, it would be difficult to hire a third-party that both sides would trust. It is sad that we are so deep in the weeds that we can’t even get data.
But if the 40 percent estimate is accurate, then something else also is true: Millions of sales tax dollars are leaving the community every year.
Capturing them may be easier than operating the organ grinder.
I admit, I panicked this morning and tried to eat my cereal bowl. You can’t blame me. I had heard that Quinton’s — the longtime downtown restaurant that is famous in my book because you can eat the bread bowl that the chili comes in — had closed. But don’t worry, Quinton’s is not closed for good, but has sold to a new owner. (Also, I’ll be fine. I’ll sell plasma to pay for the crown I now need.)
Brandon Graham, an owner of the Jefferson’s restaurants in Lawrence, has told me his group has bought the Lawrence Quinton’s from longtime owner Steve Gaudreau. Graham said the restaurant currently is closed for some renovations, and also the new ownership group has to go through the process to obtain a new liquor license for the establishment.
When the restaurant at 615 Massachusetts St. reopens — hopefully by Aug. 1, Graham said — customers will notice a few changes, including new flooring, paint and other cosmetic items. But he said plans don’t call for major changes to the menu.
“We will keep the core items,” Graham said. “We may replace a few items that aren’t selling as well, but the stuff people have grown to love will still be there. The sandwich and soup vibe of the place certainly will go on without missing a beat.”
For those of you who haven’t been to Quinton’s, the establishment’s calling card is it menu of bread bowl soups and toasted sandwiches that range from reubens to BLTs to a turkey avocado club sandwich. Some of you may argue that the place's true calling card isn’t a food item at all. Quinton’s certainly has a bar scene as well, and Graham said that will continue. He said the business, which has been in operation for well over 20 years, has built up a lot of nostalgia with the Lawrence community.
“I think its success today may involve some memories of good times over the years. I’ll leave it to the reader’s imagination to figure that out,” Graham said, noting that both he and his business partner David Bennett frequented Quinton’s as KU students. “It is just a good college town joint.”
This has ended up being a big year for Graham and his restaurant business. Jefferson’s recently opened its second location in Lawrence, taking over the west Lawrence space that previously housed Legends at Bob Billings and Wakarusa. That location has chewed up several restaurants, but Graham said business at the new Jefferson’s thus far is exceeding expectations.
“That has been a great business for us,” Graham said. “The community has supported us in spades at the west location.”
As for Gaudreau, I’ve got a call into him to receive an update on his plans. My understanding, though, is that Gaudreau is focusing on his other restaurant venture, Dempsey’s Burger Pub. That would make sense. Dempsey’s has been growing, and Gaudreau said his goal is to grow it even larger. I last reported on the business in June 2015 when Gaudreau opened a Dempsey’s in the Westport district of Kansas City, Mo. That followed deals that opened locations in Lincoln and Wichita.
At that time, Gaudreau hinted that his time with Quinton’s may be nearing an end.
“I want to grow it as big as I can go,” Gaudreau said of the Dempsey’s brand. “Dempsey’s is definitely our future. I prefer the restaurant business over the bar business. That’s more of a young man’s game.”
UPDATE: I did talk to Gaudreau today, and he confirmed the sale was so he could focus more of his time on the Dempsey's brand. He said he's currently in negotiations to open a Dempsey's in Tulsa. Gaudreau said he still owns the Quinton's in Topeka, but is in negotiations to sell that restaurant as well.
"Quinton's has been a great run," said Gaudreau, who has had the business for 25 years. "It is where I met my wife, so there is an emotional tie there. But I'm excited for Brandon to take the reins and have it going for another 25 years."
More signs of expansion for south Iowa auto dealership; work begins on eastern Lawrence Dollar General store
Everybody responds a little differently when the "check engine" light comes on. I’ve found that duct tape works well to fix the problem. Put enough of it on your instrument panel, and you’ll never see that light again. Others, apparently, buy a new vehicle. The car-selling business must be good because there’s more renovation work underway in the Lawrence Auto Plaza along south Iowa Street.
As we have reported several times over the last few months, Manhattan-based Briggs Automotive has been acquiring property around its dealerships and filing plans that will give the business additional space for more automobiles. That work is now accelerating and getting more aggressive.
Briggs recently tore down an old, red barnlike building at 2103 W. 28th Terrace. I knew the building well because I used to work around the corner from it, and it housed a flower shop. That meant I stopped there about every night. (You can either assume I love flowers or dislike sleeping on the couch.)
Briggs has now filed plans at City Hall to re-use the space for an “outdoor sales area.” In other words, a car lot. It is just the latest move by Briggs. As we have reported, the company — which operates multiple dealerships in Lawrence, including Nissan, Chrysler and Subaru — has filed plans to use the old Jane Bateman Interiors building as an auto reconditioning shop. That building is just east of the area that has been proposed for the new car lot. Briggs also owns the old Bud Jennings Carpet building — or more recently it was Advanced Homecare — that is along south Iowa Street. Plans haven’t been filed for that high-visibility location, but I’m told they soon will be.
I’ve been told the pending plans don’t include a new dealership for Briggs, but what the building will be used for is still unclear to me. But it certainly does seem like it is all part of a larger plan. Briggs has made one other filing at City Hall. The company is seeking to convert the small grass strip between Iowa Street and the frontage road leading into the Auto Plaza into a display area for vehicles.
Plans filed at City Hall show the grass would be replaced with pervious pavers, and the area could accommodate about 45 vehicles. Those plans, however, haven’t yet been approved by city officials and are subject to change.
It is interesting to note that the stretch of grass that Briggs is proposing to use is directly in front of Jack Ellena Honda. With Briggs’ recent purchase of the old Bud Jennings Carpet and Jane Bateman Interiors buildings, Briggs now pretty much completely surrounds the Honda dealership. That may be a situation to watch in the future.
As for the little grass strip, it will be interesting to watch how that plays out. It is kind of like the grass strip that is in between the road and the sidewalk of many Lawrence homes. The city limits what a homeowner can do with that property. That’s been the case with commercial properties as well. But city officials may be willing to let commercial businesses have more leeway. After all, nothing produces sales tax revenues like vehicle sales.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It sure looks like there soon will be another place for me to stock up on cheap duct tape. Work is underway at 19th and Haskell streets for a new Dollar General Store.
I reported in January that Dollar General had filed plans to build a store in the parking lot of the shopping center at the southeast corner of 19th and Haskell. But then work never began on the site, and Dollar General was a bit shy about confirming its plans or timeline for the project.
Now, however, excavation crews are on site and have removed a large part of the parking lot and fenced the area off for further construction. A Dollar General sign hasn’t yet been placed on the site, but it is the same location, so I think it is safe to assume Dollar General is on the way.
As for the store, the previous plans showed a 9,100 square-foot store that would be just south of the existing convenience store. The convenience store will remain in business, and all the other commercial space in the old shopping center also will remain. The parking lot will just get smaller.
Dollar General previously has confirmed that the store won’t be one of its super stores, which sell produce items. But the store will provide a new option for some food and general merchandise items that eastern Lawrence currently doesn’t have. The stores carry a little bit of everything, including a line of nonperishable food items, health and beauty supplies, cleaning supplies, diapers and other baby items, pet food, school and office supplies, and other items.
The Dollar General certainly is the most significant redevelopment plan for the shopping center at 19th and Haskell for quite some time. It will be interesting to see if the rest of the center, which certainly has begun to show its age, also will redevelop.
Changes on tap in operation of historic Castle Tea Room; new report finds Kansas economy unremarkable
No, the folks at The Castle Tea Room haven’t taken my suggestion to add a moat, but there is change happening at the historic building at 1307 Massachusetts St. A longtime Lawrence-based catering company has taken over many of the day-to-day operations of the building.
The Castle, of course, is one of Lawrence’s more distinctive buildings. Built in 1894 by a Lawrence businessman of Scottish descent (some people wear a kilt, some people build a castle), the building is owned by a nonprofit trust designed to preserve its uniqueness and keep it open for public enjoyment. The trust will continue to own the building, but Steve Maceli has told me that his Maceli’s catering firm has struck a deal to run many of the operations of the facility, which primarily serves as a reception hall and meeting space.
“We’ll book the space, we’ll advertise it, we’ll give tours of it,” Maceli said. “I think the trust is looking to maximize the potential of the space. They were looking for people who could operate it on a grander scale than they could.”
Maceli’s is based in downtown Lawrence, just a few blocks from the Tea Room, which is just south of downtown. Maceli said the proximity of the two buildings will allow them to share many of the same staff and achieve other economies of scale that the Castle couldn’t on its own. The nonprofit trust that owns the Tea Room uses revenue from event rentals to help maintain the property.
The Castle — it once used to be a restaurant operated by longtime businesswoman Libby Kriz-Fiorito — primarily is used to host wedding receptions. (That’s why I lobby for the moat. That fellow who ate three pounds of my roast beef and gave us monogrammed paper napkins, never would have gotten past a moat.) Maceli said he expects wedding receptions will continue to be a major part of the business.
“It has real history,” Maceli said of the property. “People love that. It is really a part of Lawrence in so many ways.”
As for a little bit of trivia related to the building’s history, here’s one question for you: What product made a fortune for the original owner of the Castle? Answer: Berry Baskets. John Roberts, who built the home in 1894, had received a patent for a basket-making machine, but also made butter containers, butter platters, cheese boxes and broom handles, according to a biography on the Castle’s website. Berry baskets, though, were the big item. By 1881, the company was making about 2 million of them per year.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe Kansas needs more basket makers. Whatever the case, Kansas’ economy showed up as being pretty unremarkable in a new ranking.
The online financial website WalletHub has published a new ranking of the states with the best and worst economies. Kansas ranked No. 35 in the report. The report used government statistics from a variety of sources to look at factors such as state gross domestic product growth, export numbers, unemployment rates, income levels and several other factors.
Unfortunately, WalletHub didn’t provide a breakdown for each category it measures, so I can’t tell you specifically how Kansas performed on all measures. But it did provide a top five and a bottom five for many of the categories. Those rankings show Kansas still has a ways to go to reach its goal of becoming a top destination for business startups and other such activity. Kansas didn’t rank in the top five of any category, including highest business startup activity, lowest unemployment rate or highest GDP growth. The state also didn’t rank in the bottom five of any of those categories.
As for the overall rankings, here’s a look at how states in our region fared:
— No. 5: Colorado
— No. 30: Missouri
— No. 34: Iowa
— No. 35: Kansas
— No. 36: Nebraska
— No. 43 Oklahoma
Utah was the No. 1 ranked state, while Mississippi was ranked last. To see the full report, click here.
New sandwich chain to locate on 23rd Street; cookie business moves, sparking new downtown restaurant rumor; yellow signs invade Oread neighborhood
If the great inventor Thomas Edison would have come up with this first, we would never have the lightbulb. Picture this: You order a shake. It comes in a cup with a straw, and — I advise you to sit down for this part — the straw has cookies on it. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it too, but apparently it is one of the features of a new chain sandwich and dessert shop that plans to open on 23rd Street.
Plans have been filed at City Hall for Potbelly Sandwich Shop at 1618 W. 23rd St., which currently is the location of Dunn Brothers Coffee.
My understanding is that Potbelly is a big deal in Chicago, where it got its start as a mom-and-pop sandwich shop that started in an antique store. Sandwiches are its main thing, but it also has a dessert menu, and I would have my journalistic credentials revoked if I didn’t immediately share information about straws with cookies on them. Here’s a picture:
As for the sandwiches, the hook there is that they are all toasted. The menu is full of traditional offerings, such as turkey, roast beef, meatball, an Italian, and a chicken salad that the restaurant says is made on site each day. But the restaurant also offers a few that you may not find at other chain restaurants, such as a grilled chicken Mediterranean with hummus, artichoke hearts, feta cheese and several other ingredients. The restaurant also offers a special brand of sandwich called a Skinny. It features less meat and cheese and skinnier bread. The selling point is that each sandwich is under 400 calories.
The restaurant also offers a half-dozen salads, including a few that are beyond the ordinary, such as a chickpea veggie salad and an “Uptown Salad” that includes grilled chicken, grapes, apples, dried cranberries, candied walnuts and blue cheese. Soups also are on the menu, and the breakfast menu features breakfast sandwiches and steel cut oatmeal.
The company’s website also touts that each restaurant is a bit different too. I noted that the original restaurant was started by a couple who owned an antique shop and started selling sandwiches to their noontime customers. As a result, each restaurant now has a little bit of an antique store look. In addition, the website indicates that most restaurants typically have live music at various times, often during the lunch hour.
As for the Potbelly part of the name, every restaurant in the chain includes a potbelly stove. (This is much better than how I tried to pull off the concept. I had no idea a potbelly pig could become so unruly, especially around the sight of bacon.)
The restaurant chain expanded into Kansas City a couple of years ago. The closest locations are in Overland Park and Mission.
No word yet on when the Lawrence restaurant will open. The project needs to win some site plan approvals to do a small addition onto the building. Plans call for about a 360 square-foot addition to the dining area, an approximately 600 square-foot patio area and changes to the configuration of the drive-thru lane.
As for Dunn Brothers Coffee, there is a sign on the door saying the business has lost its lease. It says the shop's last day of business will be June 24. The sign makes no mention of a new Lawrence location for Dunn Brothers, which has been open in the location for a little more than 10 years.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There is other news on the cookie front. Hot Box Cookies has closed its store in downtown Lawrence and has reopened inside The Oread hotel at 1200 Oread Ave. In case you have forgotten, Hot Box Cookies was located at 732 Massachusetts St. I have no official word about what will locate in that space, but word on the street says to keep our eyes open for a wing-oriented restaurant. I’ll let you know if I hear more.
• If you have been in the Oread neighborhood lately, you perhaps have noticed a few yellow yard signs that the city requires to be placed on property when new development has been proposed. When I say a few signs, I mean 308.
There are yellow signs everywhere in the Oread neighborhood currently, but, no, plans have not been filed to build a giant cookie factory in the historic neighborhood. Instead, new design guidelines have been proposed for the neighborhood. Actually, the design guidelines already have been approved once, but city officials realized after the fact that they had not met the letter of the law when it came to notifying residents of the proposed changes. City code requires the yellow signs to be posted on property that will be affected by zoning or development code changes. That wasn’t done the first time the design guidelines were heard. If the city placed a yellow sign at every property in the Oread neighborhood, that would be several thousand signs. My understanding is city officials have determined that placing a sign at every intersection in the neighborhood will meet the requirement. More specifically, every corner of every intersection has been the thought process. That means that there are eight signs at every intersection.
In case you are wondering, the signs advertise public hearings that will take place in June and July about the design guidelines.
Although the design guidelines were approved previously, there was dissent, especially from some landlords. Concerns were raised about parking requirements and zoning regulations that would limit the number of residents in each home.
• A quick housekeeping note: Town Talk will not appear on Friday. I’ll be conducting experiments with straws, cookies, yellow signs and an overly perturbed potbelly pig. I hope to return on Monday.
Large pet supply chain files plans for store near Sixth and Wakarusa; Lawrence gasoline prices still the highest in the state
Somewhere in Lawrence, I picture a dimly lit, smoke-filled room full of canines. They’ve probably just gotten done playing pool or poker, and, of course, that big bulldog who chomps on his cigar is the leader. Let’s not kid ourselves, they run this town. How else do you explain that PetSmart — just months after opening a store on south Iowa Street — has now filed plans to build a new store in west Lawrence?
Whatever the reason, PetSmart indeed has filed plans to build a new 18,000 square-foot store near Sixth and Wakarusa. More specifically, the project will be in the Bauer Farm development on a vacant lot just west of the Sprouts grocery store. Plans at one point had called for a multitenant retail building there, but it looks like the developers have landed a bigger fish.
No word yet on when the store will open, but it obviously will be several months to perhaps a year in the making. The project does need to win approval from city planners. Thus far, though, it looks like a fairly routine approval process. The zoning is already in place, and the development group is taking steps to avoid a fight over the lingering question of how much retail should be allowed to develop at the northeast corner of Sixth and Wakarusa. City officials have placed a cap on the amount of retail that can be built at the northeast corner. Originally, the PetSmart proposal would put the development over the cap, but developers now are modifying their plan to remove some planned but unbuilt retail from a different part of the Bauer Farm development in order to keep the total under the cap.
The cigar-chomping bulldog cares nothing about that, though. (I know, you want to see a picture of the bulldog, so at the end of this article, I’ll allow you a peek inside my gallery.) The numbers must show Lawrence is a big pet town in order for PetSmart to propose a second store so soon after opening its first Lawrence store at 27th and Iowa streets, next to Dick's Sporting Goods.
In case you have forgotten, PetSmart is the largest chain retailer of pet supplies in the country. It operates about 1,500 stores. The stores carry food and supplies for dogs, cats, fish, reptiles and a variety of small pets. The Lawrence store also operates a grooming service, and a limited number of PetSmart locations also operate a kennel service, or what the company calls a PetsHotel. I can’t tell from the plans whether that service is planned for the new Lawrence location. I’ll reach out to the company, and if I get more information about the project and its timeline, I’ll let you know.
But enough with that: On with the art. This is one of my favorites. It is titled “That’s Not a Biscuit!”
In other news and notes from around town:
• Forget what the calendar officially says, it is summer. How do I know? Yes, the Gatorade stations in my home — in place of actually turning on the air conditioner — are one sign. But the surer sign is that readers have started to ask me to look into why fuel prices in Lawrence are higher than they are elsewhere.
That is the question that never goes away in Lawrence. Not to spoil the ending, but there is no definitive answer to that question. But I’m happy to share data with you. Here’s a look at the average fuel prices of major Kansas markets, as measured by AAA Kansas.
— Lawrence: $2.26; One year ago: $2.57
— Kansas City, Kan. $2.23; One year ago: $2.55
— Topeka: $2.09; One year ago: $2.43
— Wichita: $2.16; One year ago: $2.48
— Statewide average: $2.16; One year ago $2.50
As you can see, one thing hasn’t changed in the last year. Lawrence still has the highest average price of any major market in the state. What has changed is the gap between Lawrence and other markets is growing. Topeka is the leader in cheap gas in Kansas. Last year, prices were 14 cents per gallon higher in Lawrence than Topeka. Now, the average price is 17 cents higher in Lawrence. The gap between Lawrence and the statewide average also is up from 7 cents a year ago to 10 cents today.
The simplest answer to why this continually happens is supply and demand. Reporter Nikki Wentling last year did some digging at my request to look at why Lawrence’s market is different from Topeka’s. A big finding was the number of gas stations. Lawrence has about one gas station for every 3,000 residents. Topeka has about one gas station for every 2,000 residents. That’s a big difference, and leads you to believe that Topeka gas stations have to be more aggressive in pricing gasoline in order to attract customers.
Another factor that we haven’t gathered information on, but that may be more important, is the number of gasoline chains operating in a community. For example, the last time we checked, Lawrence had 33 gas stations, but a lot of them were all owned by the same corporation: Kwik Shop, which is owned by Dillons grocery stores. Kwik Shop surely has to be the largest seller of gasoline in Lawrence. Do other communities have a greater variety in retailers and thus have more natural competition? I would think they might.
You probably would see downward pressure on gas prices, if Lawrence had more QuikTrips, or if places like Wal-Mart started selling gasoline. If you remember, I noted a few months ago that both Wal-Marts in Lawrence made an inquiry with City Hall about whether their Lawrence stores had the proper zoning to sell gasoline. Thus far, I haven’t seen any plans filed for gasoline pumps to be installed at either Wal-Mart, but I’ll continue to check on that.
Furniture store opens at Ninth and Iowa; apartment construction has Lawrence building totals off to strong start; pizza trivia
Perhaps you are like me and last week’s rain caused you to cut up the furniture to use for building the Ark. If so, you are probably wondering when you are going to get your circular saw returned to you and what your Lawrence furniture buying options are. Well, there’s news on the Lawrence furniture store front.
Over the years Lawrence has lost several large furniture stores, but there has been a pretty strong trend of smaller, secondhand furniture stores coming into the market. Add one more to the list. Phoenix Furniture and Home Goods has opened in the Hillcrest Shopping Center at Ninth and Iowa streets.
The store sells bedroom sets, couches, desks, dining room tables, rugs, lamps, wall hangings and other such items, said owner McKenzie Widner. Except for a few smaller items, all of the furniture is used.
Widner said she sold antiques as a side business for years while she worked as a Montessori school teacher in Lawrence. She said finding unique items has been something she’s long enjoyed, and she believes it is a service Lawrence shoppers are seeking.
“I tend to collect things that have a story,” Widner said. “I think shoppers these days like items with a little bit of character. The cool thing is the stuff in the store is stuff you can’t find anywhere else.”
Lawrence has a few used furniture stores that cater to the college crowd, and Widner said some of her items are at prices aimed at that audience. But she said the store also seeks to have a good inventory of items for families and others that are wanting to stock their home with quality furniture.
A big part of the store’s business is that it buys furniture as well as sells it.
“Lawrence is a town where people are always coming and going, so I think it is important that there always be a store where people can go to sell their items,” Widner said.
The store is located at 925 Iowa, Suite L. If you haven’t memorized your Hillcrest Shopping Center suite locations, the store is right next door to a shop that has caused me to expand the size of some of my furniture: Munchers Bakery. (It is funny how mini-cinnamon rolls do not make you “mini-er.”)
In other news and notes from around town:
• When it comes to building homes to put more furniture in, activity is up a bit in Lawrence, according to figures from City Hall.
I have city building permit totals through April, and they show new single-family and duplex construction is thus far off to its best start since 2013. The city has issued 53 permits for single-family and duplex construction, up from 49 the same period a year ago. The recent high-water mark was 59 in 2013. So, activity is up but not actually booming at this point.
The story in the Lawrence building world continues to be apartments. The city, through April, has issued permits for 377 apartment units. This marks the third time in the last four years that the city has issued more than 350 apartment permits during the spring building season. Last year the city issued 351 building permits through April and issued 374 during the time period in 2013.
The construction activity has Lawrence on pace to have an above-average year in construction projects. The city thus far has issued permits for $77.7 million worth of projects. That’s below last year’s pace of $89.3 million, but remember that construction activity hit an all-time high in Lawrence in 2015. Since 2009, the spring season — January through April — has produced an average of $39 million worth of projects. So, Lawrence is nearly doubling that pace.
As for large projects that got started in April, an approximately $940,000 renovation of the Delta Chi Fraternity at 1245 West Campus Road tops the list. Also, as we’ve reported, work has begun on an approximately $825,000 renovation of the Hampton Inn at 2300 W. Sixth St.
• It is now after 8 a.m., so of course pizza is on my mind. Fun fact time regarding pizza. Pizza Hut was founded on this date in 1958 in Wichita. The company was once a very important Kansas-based company, but it has long ago moved its headquarters out of state. On its birthday, the company announced it is making some changes to its menu. It is removing all artificial preservatives from its cheeses by the end of March 2017 and removing something called BHA/BHT — both food preservatives, I think — from all its meats by the end of July.
That's fine enough, but I mainly bring up Pizza Hut because of its birthday and because I've been trying to track something down about the chain for awhile. I've had someone tell me that the former Pizza Hut store on Massachusetts was the first Pizza Hut in the country to offer delivery service decades and decades ago. I've even heard that it may be the first location — or at least one of the first — of any pizza places in America to offer delivery. I haven't ever been able to confirm that, though, but it would be a neat bit of Lawrence trivia, if true. So, if you happen to have a box of Pizza Hut delivery documentation in your attic, let me know.
New federal numbers show Lawrence housing prices on the rise; a peek at what they say about Lawrence’s affordability question
I have news about Lawrence home values. They’re going up, but not yet booming, according to the latest federal figures.
It seems like it is time to keep a closer eye on home values in Lawrence. Real estate agents are talking about a low supply of available homes putting pressure on housing prices. Community leaders are talking about spending potentially millions of dollars for affordable housing projects. And then there are those of you who treat your homes like ATMs. (My wife doesn’t understand that term. She thinks it means she gets to charge me a fee to live in the house. She calls it an inconvenience fee.)
Regardless, here’s a look at home value totals as calculated by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The agency takes data from both homes sales and mortgage refinancing activity that is processed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. So, the agency has access to lots of home prices and appraisal reports for properties all across the country.
The report found that in Lawrence home prices accelerated at a pretty decent pace in the first quarter of 2016. Home values increased on average by 2.3 percent compared with the fourth quarter of 2015. That was nearly the top growth rate in the state. Topeka actually just edged out Lawrence. It posted a 2.55 percent growth rate. But home prices in Lawrence rose more rapidly than they did in the KC metro area, which saw appreciation of just 0.17 percent for the quarter.
But when you look at a longer term period you see that Lawrence’s home values have been pretty moderate. Here’s a look at growth rates over the last year for Lawrence and few regional metro areas.
— Lawrence: 3.10 percent
— Topeka: 6.05 percent
— Wichita: 1.33 percent
— Kansas City: 5.81 percent
— Manhattan: 0.34 percent
— Columbia, Mo.: 4.4 percent
— Joplin, Mo.: 0.4 percent
— Lincoln, Neb.: 4.64 percent
— Omaha, Neb.: 4.82 percent
— Iowa City: 3.89 percent
— Ames, Iowa: 5.76 percent
— Oklahoma City: 4.85 percent
For some perspective, the top ranked metro area in the country was Port St. Lucie, Fla., at 14.68 percent appreciation over the year. Boulder, Colo., was No. 2 at 14.4 percent. Greeley, Colo., a town we sometimes compare ourselves to, was No. 10 in the country at 13 percent, and Fort Collins, Colo., was No. 13 at 12.5 percent growth.
When you look at the five-year growth rate, Lawrence is even more moderate.
— Lawrence: 8.14 percent
— Topeka: 6.04 percent
— Wichita: 5.55 percent
— Kansas City: 11.39 percent
— Manhattan: 8.04 percent
— Columbia: 11.97 percent
— Joplin: 9.14 percent
— Lincoln: 14.85 percent
— Omaha: 12.74 percent
— Iowa City: 12.49 percent
— Ames: 18.27 percent
— Oklahoma City: 16.03 percent
For perspective, the Colorado communities I mentioned above — Boulder, Greeley and Fort Collins — all had five-year growth rates of 39 percent or more.
In that light, Lawrence’s housing prices aren’t considered particularly out of line. But folks shouldn’t use these numbers to make broad conclusions about whether Lawrence has a housing affordability problem. For one thing, rent rates are important when examining housing affordability. These numbers don’t look at rent rates at all. But more importantly, you can’t look at housing affordability without looking at income levels in a community.
Still, I find these numbers interesting. As the community continues to discuss affordability issues, it's numbers like these that may lead us to ask an important question: Does Lawrence have a housing price problem or does it have an income problem?
Whatever the case, have a good Memorial Day. Town Talk won’t appear on Monday but will be back on Tuesday.
Let’s get in the time machine and set the dial to 2008. No, I’m not looking to relive the decision about a Mario Chalmers tribute tattoo or other such common KU National Championship celebration issues. Something else happened that year: Voters went to the polls to approve a new sales tax for infrastructure projects. Just like the tattoo, there are questions that linger from that vote.
As the headline implies, I believe there is a question about whether city commissioners are breaking a political promise about how they’re using that sales tax money and paying for street maintenance.
That question has come up from time to time, but has been renewed by the City Commission’s recent discussion of a five-year capital improvement plan. As proposed, that plan calls for the city to spend $3.14 million in 2017 for its contracted street maintenance program. It also calls for that same annual funding level for the life of the five-year plan.
What’s interesting is that in 2008 — before voters approved the 0.3 percent sales tax for infrastructure — the city approved $4.83 million in spending for contracted street maintenance.
Before we get too deep into the weeds here, a quick word about the city’s contracted street maintenance program. It is the program that seals the cracks in streets, puts a new coat of pavement on sections of streets, repairs portions of curbs and gutters and other such maintenance issues.
Engineers deem this program critical. I’ve frequently heard it is just like caring for your house. You have to do the mundane maintenance in order to avoid or delay the really big, expensive rebuilding projects. Simply put, the city is spending less money on those type of projects than what they were before voters approved millions of dollars in new sales tax funds for streets.
Here’s where we get into the weeds a little bit: Overall, the city certainly is spending more money on streets now than it did prior to the sales tax vote. It darn sure better be. The sales tax in 2015 alone provided almost $5 million for infrastructure projects.
But, as I’ve already noted, there are different types of street spending. There is spending on street maintenance and there is spending on rebuilding streets. The city has been spending more money on the high-profile street rebuilding projects — think Kasold Drive, think Iowa Street — but has been spending less on the more mundane street maintenance projects.
Does that, however, mean city commissioners are breaking a political promise? Well, some pretty specific things were said during the campaign to convince voters to approve this sales tax. I covered that campaign, and remember pretty well the environment we were in. A key talking point was that the city hadn’t spent enough money on street maintenance historically, and as a result we had lots of streets that needed to be rebuilt. We were behind the curve. The last thing politicians were telling voters is that they were going to spend less money on street maintenance.
Just to reconfirm my memory, I looked for a written statement on the subject. I went back to the documents from the City Commission’s Aug. 5, 2008, meeting, when commissioners agreed to put the sales tax issue on the ballot. There is a memo that explains how the infrastructure sales tax would be used. A reminder: It is used for more than just streets. The Burroughs Creek Trail received sales tax money, firetrucks have been purchased with it, a major drainage project in North Lawrence is being funded by the tax.
The memo explains all that, and then includes a paragraph that addresses a key point of philosophy: “Remaining funding is anticipated to provide new funds for street and storm water infrastructure which would enhance rather than supplant existing general fund, gas tax or storm water funding for these infrastructure projects.” Yes, city memo language can be a cure for insomnia. But let me translate for you: The key phrase is “enhance rather than supplant.” In other words, we are going to keep spending all that we spend today on streets, and this sales tax money will be new money that we’ll add on top of it. That sentiment was expressed many times on the campaign trail.
But that is not what is being proposed, and it is not what has happened the past few years. I’ve already told you the city’s contracted street maintenance fund is scheduled to receive $1.69 million less in funding in 2017 than it did in 2008 before the sales tax was approved.
But let’s take a look at the specifics. The street maintenance fund gets money from a variety of city sources.
— In 2017, it is proposed to get $2 million from the general fund, which is primarily property taxes. In 2008, it received at least $2.1 million in general fund dollars. (I think it is closer to $2.55 million, but the records are little difficult to understand on that point.)
— In 2017, it is proposed to receive $140,000 in storm water funds, which comes from a special fee on your utility bill. In 2008, it received $540,000 in storm water funds.
— In 2017, it is proposed to receive $200,000 in gas tax funds, which comes from a state-imposed tax on gasoline. In 2008, it received $690,000 in gas tax funds.
— In 2008, the street maintenance fund also received $850,000 from the countywide 1-cent sales tax, which is a different sales tax from the infrastructure sales tax approved by voters in 2008. As proposed for 2017, the street maintenance fund will receive no countywide sales tax dollars. Much of the countywide sales tax dollars that the city had available to it have now been committed to paying for Rock Chalk Park.
It is important to note that the city is proposing to use $800,000 in infrastructure sales tax money for the street maintenance fund. That is money that wasn’t available in 2008. But, as you can see, the city has reduced funding from other sources by an amount much greater than $800,000. Basically, for every new dollar the city has put into the fund, it has taken two old dollars out.
If you think this is something the new city manager has come up with, you are incorrect. The city started doing this well before Tom Markus arrived earlier this year. We reported last year that the 2015 contracted street maintenance budget had dropped to $2.8 million after city officials took money from the fund for other purposes.
So, are city commissioners breaking a political promise when it comes to streets? Honestly, I’m not that interested in answering the question. The answer will be subjective, and won’t have much bearing on what happens in the future. It certainly appears that street maintenance funding is different from what voters were told in 2008, but a lot of things have changed since 2008. The city has had financial issues it has had to address. The truth is, the folks who campaigned in 2008 for the sales tax had no way of promising what future city commissions would do with future budgets. That’s why when it comes to promises, there are many I would prefer rather than political ones.
What happens going forward, though, is important. City engineers say they ought to be spending about $6 million a year in contracted street maintenance to stay ahead of the curve. Whether that number is entirely accurate is probably debatable too.
But it seems there is a reasonable question to ask at City Hall these days: Is the city going to fall behind on street maintenance again? If the answer is yes, you need to answer another question: What city spending are you going to cut, or what taxes are you going to raise?
Don’t ask me. I think it may be easier to figure out the tattoo.
Lawrence startup launches product to compete with Keurig coffee maker; update on proposed fried chicken chain for west Lawrence
Technology is wonderful. Although we don’t have flying cars or paperless offices, we have figured out how to use it to make coffee infinitely more expensive. The engineers at Starbucks once developed a high-tech machine to print money, but decided it would be more profitable to create a new espresso maker. Of course, the technology extends to your home or office too. You can buy a single-cup coffee maker, like a Keurig, for a little more than $100 and enjoy one cup of coffee at a time.
That’s where a new Lawrence company comes into the equation. It has launched a product that is taking aim not only at the Keurig, but also at the drink. Lawrence-based Yannie Tea has begun selling a single-serving tea maker. The product is called Yannie’s Delta Tea Maker. The machine also can be used to brew a single serving of coffee, but Yannie owner Annie Lin will try to convince you that you should dump the coffee for healthy green tea instead.
“We are focusing on the tea now because it is just so good for you,” Lin said. “I think it is our mission to spread the word about tea.”
Lin is hoping the Delta competes with the Keurig both in the price and environmental friendliness categories. Yannie’s is selling the tea maker for $30 to $40, depending on the retail outlet, while Keurigs usually sell for at least twice that amount.
On the environmental front, the Keurig uses a brewing system that includes inserting into the machine a plastic cup pre-loaded with ground coffee. The Delta doesn’t require the use of a plastic cup. Instead, when using it for tea, you insert a paper tea packet. The packets are triangle shaped, thus the Delta name, Lin said. The company also produces those packets, under the brand name Yannie Tea. The tea is imported from the Wuyi mountains of China, which are known for their prized tea production. For coffee, people can use a paper filter and the coffee of their choice in the Delta, Lin said.
“We thought paper would be better because we are trying to promote a healthy lifestyle and a clean earth,” Lin said.
Like a Keurig, the Delta is based on quick brewing. The Delta will brew 12 ounces of tea in about three minutes, Lin said. Of course, Lin said the machine is designed to get the water to just the right temperature to create just the right brewing process.
“People are amazed that it is isn’t bitter,” Lin said. “Good tea brewed right is not supposed to be bitter.”
Don’t expect Keurig to go out of business anytime soon, though. The Lawrence company is still in its infancy. It began receiving its product about a month ago, and thus far has limited retail outlets. The Delta brewer and Yannie Tea packets are available at Lawrence’s Checkers, the two Hy-Vee stores in Lawrence and a few of the Hy-Vee stores in Kansas City.
“Right now we are just hoping the Kansas City and Midwest area will notice our brand,” Lin said. “We realize we are new and don’t have a lot of budget to do advertising.”
Lin isn’t new to the business world, though. For 14 years, she and her husband were in the coffee business. Her husband has professionally designed other food devices and has a doctorate in food science, Lin said.
The company is in patent-pending status on the Delta tea maker. Currently, the product isn’t being made in Lawrence, but rather is being produced in China.
Who knows, perhaps the world of tea will get as crazy as the world of coffee, and Lawrence will have a household hit on its hands.
“We know from experience that people want their tea quick and easy,” Lin said. “They don’t want to mess around.”
Either way, add Yannie to the list of Lawrence startup companies that are trying to break onto the big stage.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As far as I know, no one has ever made a single-serving fried chicken-maker. Who would want to have just one serving of fried chicken?
As we have reported multiple times, there are many fried chicken chains betting that Lawrence residents want plenty of chicken. Here’s an update on one of the fried chicken projects: Zaxby’s has won a key approval from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission for its proposed restaurant on West Sixth Street.
The Planning Commission earlier this week unanimously approved a final development plan for the project at 4661 Bauer Farm Drive. If your fingers are too greasy to operate the GPS, that is just east of the Burger King near Sixth and Wakarusa.
We’ve previously reported that Zaxby’s had filed plans to come to town, but now with the approval of the final development plan, I would expect to see work begin on the site soon, although I haven’t received a timeline from the company. Based on the other chicken construction that has occurred in Lawrence, it seems like a lot of these fast-food projects are six- to eight-month construction projects.
If you have forgotten about Zaxby’s, it is a chain that has a heavy emphasis on chicken fingers and chicken wings. And, as is often the case with these sorts of places, there’s enough sauce there to make dry cleaners drool over the number of stained ties I soon will be generating. That’s another way of saying there are about 10 sauces for the chicken. For good measure, the menu also has a few chicken sandwiches, some foreign dish called “salads,” and fries, onion rings, ice cream and cookie desserts and other such offerings.
The company has submitted a rendering of the proposed Lawrence store. Here’s a look:
New cheese shop opens in west Lawrence; home sales gain steam in April, but shortage of houses persists
I have news of cheese and also news of people buying new homes. And though it may sound like it, this isn’t a follow-up to the wild cheese party that ended up with Gouda in places that was no Gouda.
First, the cheese news. Look for a new store inside the Dillons at Sixth and Wakarusa. The longtime New York-based purveyor Murray’s Cheese has signed a deal with Dillons’ parent company to open cheese shops across the country. Lawrence has landed one of them.
The Murray’s Cheese shop at the Dillons at 4701 W. Sixth St. opened last weekend. According to information from Dillons, the cheese shop will stock more than 175 varieties of cheese, plus it will carry other items such as local honey and preserves, olives, crackers and charcuterie.
That is right, charcuterie. My, how far we have come in a short time. I honestly had never heard of the word before late 2013 when I wrote about plans for Hank Charcuterie to open at 19th and Massachusetts. I thought it was a critter that we may find the fellows on "Swamp People" chasing down. But now I have learned that charcuterie is French for “too expensive to serve to my friends.” (Don’t let that dissuade you, though. That’s more of a commentary on my friends than the prices.) In case you somehow don’t know what charcuterie is, it refers to sausages, pates and other specialty meat products that go well with cheeses and other appetizers.
To be honest, I also hadn’t heard much about Murray’s Cheese shop before, but that's mainly because I have tried to cut way down on the number of cheese conversations I have during the course of a day. According to Dillons, though, Murray’s is one of the more famous cheese shops in New York. It has been open since 1940, and has drawn large crowds to its original location in Greenwich Village.
The deal with Dillons calls for Murray’s to stock its most popular cheeses at Dillons. Looking at the store’s website, it appears varieties include: Parmigiano-Reggiano; English Cheddar; Irish Cheddar; Roquefort blue cheese; Havarti, Alpine style Grand Cru cheese; a variety of BellaVitano cheeses; marinated mozzarella; and more than a half dozen styles of Gouda, including smoked, aged, farmhouse, double cream and others. They even have a cheese platter called “Life is Gouda.” (Wait a minute. I thought I had the market cornered on Gouda puns.)
One other point to note about the new cheese shop: It encourages people to sample a different variety of cheese on each visit.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If I took Murray’s up on that offer, I may need to buy a house with wider doors. Maybe that is what is going on with other folks in town. Whatever the case, Lawrence home sales were up in the important month of April.
Home sales in Lawrence grew by 10.5 percent in April, compared with April 2015 totals, according to the latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors. I’m sure that was a welcome site for Lawrence real estate agents because 2016 sales had started off a bit sluggish. During the first quarter of the year, sales were down by 1.1 percent.
But with April’s strong showing, homes sales are now up for the year. Through April, sales are up 3.7 percent compared with the same period a year ago.
The report, though, does provide reason for concern. The number of homes on the market in Lawrence continues to decline significantly. At the end of April, 250 homes were on the market, which is down from 346 in April 2015 and 429 in April 2014. Real estate agents believe a small supply of homes ultimately will lead to a reduction in sales and also an increase in home prices. At the moment, it is making for a seller’s market.
The result is homes are not sitting on the market for long. Thus far in 2016, the median number of days a home sits on the market before selling is 28. That’s down from 43 in 2015 and 60 in 2014.
“The pace of this market can be challenging for everyone,” said Carl Cline, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
Other statistics from the recent report include:
— Sales of newly constructed homes were up slightly in April, totaling nine versus seven in April 2015. For the year, sales of newly constructed homes are up 37 percent, totaling 22.
— The median selling prices of homes this year is $167,565, up 5.4 percent from the same period a year ago.
— The total dollar value of homes sold in Lawrence thus far in 2016 is $61.1 million, up 6.7 percent compared with the same period a year ago.
Developer raising red flag about slow pace of East Ninth Street corridor project; plans for new East Lawrence microbrewery moving ahead
East Ninth Street has seen some odd things before, but surely on the list of the top five would be when there was a social club that combined beer drinking and gymnastics.
As I’ve reported before, that is the history behind the old 1869 stone building at Ninth and Rhode Island streets. It used to be home to the old German-American social club called Turnverein, which housed a beer garden but also required members to partake in a certain amount of gymnastics at the club. (If you think that needs more of an explanation, you can read some of its history here.)
To the disappointment of many, not even the advent of light beer could keep alive the idea of beer-drinking men wearing Spandex gymnastics leotards. Now the building — generally thought to be one of the oldest in the city — sits empty, and its owner is raising a red flag to the City Commission.
Lawrence businessman Tony Krsnich leads a development group that owns the Turnhalle. He’s also the leader of the group that has developed the Warehouse Arts District at the eastern end of East Ninth Street. Not surprisingly, Krsnich is a big supporter of the idea of an approximately $4 million project that would remake East Ninth Street into an arts corridor, complete with a new street, new pedestrian and bicycle features, and plenty of spaces for art.
City commissioners are scheduled to receive a much-debated design plan for the East Ninth Street project at their meeting Tuesday. Krsnich is now warning that if commissioners don’t approve the plan, he will lose a large investor in an approximately $1 million renovation project for the Turnhalle building.
Details were a bit lacking — Krsnich only identified the investor as a private business group — but he said the investor has placed a timeline of the end of the month for whether to proceed with the investment, which Krsnich has said would be in the high six figures.
“Our investor is going to move forward on our project or another project at the end of this month. That’s kind of the crux of it,” Krsnich said.
Krsnich said he’s worried commissioners aren’t going to vote on the project’s design at Tuesday’s meeting, but rather take several more weeks to consider the project. If that’s the case, Krsnich said the Turnhalle likely will sit empty for quite a bit longer because he’ll be forced to put the renovation project on hold.
“We have several interested tenants,” Krsnich said, noting a restaurant was the most likely use for the basement level, while a unique theater or performance space could happen on the ground floor. “The problem is everybody is making it contingent upon the Ninth Street corridor project moving forward. They’re only interested if Ninth Street is improved.”
You will have to make of this what you will. Krsnich obviously has a lot of financial reasons to lobby for the project. But he is becoming more vocal with his frustrations that it is taking the city so long to develop a plan for the street. The Lawrence Arts Center won a $500,000 ArtPlace America grant for the project in June 2014.
“I thought the street would be completed by now, or at least underway,” Krsnich said. “Now, I don’t even know if it is going to happen.”
The project has received a positive recommendation from the city’s Historic Resources Commission, but it still must win funding and key approvals from the City Commission.
Concerns of some neighbors, though, must factor into all of this, too. The process has been a contentious one, in part, because some residents of East Lawrence didn’t feel like they were included in the idea from its early stages. Concerns have lingered with some who believe the corridor will serve as a way to tie downtown and the Warehouse Arts District together, which they fear could be detrimental to the single-family neighborhood that lies in between.
Krsnich has begun characterizing that group as a very small minority, but city commissioners may view it differently. It does appear that the City Commission is split on the idea of the East Ninth Street project. The city would find itself in an odd position if it had to give back the $500,000 ArtPlace grant because it couldn’t agree on the corridor project. I would think that the commission would figure out a way to avoid that scenario, but it will be interesting to watch.
You do have to wonder whether more time will do any good on this project, or whether everyone’s opinions are set in stone.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Where did I put that leotard? Plans for a new microbrewery and apartment complex in East Lawrence are moving ahead.
As we reported in December, plans were filed by Lawrence businessman Adam Williams and Lawrence brewer Matt Williams to convert the old SeedCo building at 826 Pennsylvania Street into a brewery, restaurant and apartment building.
Well, those plans are becoming more definite. The group has recently purchased the property, and now is awaiting site plan approval from Lawrence City Hall. The new plans show the SeedCo building — which is next door to the Cider Gallery — growing by two stories in height. The new floors would house three two-bedroom apartments and 12 one-bedroom apartments.
The remaining ground floor and basement space would be devoted to the microbrewery and restaurant, plus the needed space to actually manufacture and store the beer. As we reported in December, the new venture would be called the Lawrence Beer Company.
Adam Williams said he hopes to receive city approvals in July and have the project completed in about 12 months.
“We just feel like the Warehouse Arts district is such a good fit for this project,” Williams said. “A brewery is really something that trending to being more neighborhood driven these days. We just feel like that is a good neighborhood to be in.”
As for the apartments, Williams said the group is looking at making some of the apartments part of an affordable housing program, but he said the details for that still need to be finalized.
Lawrence makes return as one of the top growing cities in the state, new figures show; Topeka, not so much so
I don’t know if we need to buy a new SUV and start talking about soccer a whole lot more, but Lawrence is part of the Johnson County crowd in one way these days. Lawrence is once again seeing population growth that rivals the ever-growing Johnson County communities.
New population estimates from the Census Bureau report that Lawrence’s 2015 population stands at 93,917 people. That’s an increase of 1,250 people since 2014. That’s a growth rate of 1.3 percent, which was one of the top annual growth rates for any major city in the state. Of the communities with a population of 50,000 and over, only Lenexa had a better one-year growth rate of 2.8 percent.
But the more interesting totals are the longer-range ones. We’re at the halfway point of the decade, and thus far it has been a good one for Lawrence. The city has gained 6,274 people since the 2010 Census, federal officials estimate. That’s a growth rate of 7.1 percent. That doesn’t put Lawrence at the top of the list, but it puts it in the top tier. Here’s a look at growth rates since 2010:
— Lenexa: 52,490 people, up 8.9 percent
— Overland Park: 186,515, up 7.5 percent
— Manhattan: 56,308, up 7.7 percent
— Lawrence: 93,917, up 7.1 percent
— Olathe: 134,305, up 6.7 percent
— Shawnee: 65,046, up 4.5 percent
— Kansas City: 151,306, up 3.7 percent
— Wichita: 389,965, up 1.9 percent
— Topeka: 127,265, down 0.1 percent
The numbers mean Lawrence is on pace to have a growth rate of 14 percent to 15 percent for the decade. That would be an improvement over the last decade, when Lawrence saw growth of 9.4 percent. That was one of Lawrence's slower growth rates in modern times. A rate of 14 percent to 15 percent would still be lower than the 20 percent growth rates the city posted in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. But growth overall in Kansas has slowed down since that time period, too. If Lawrence finishes the decade as one of the faster-growing communities in the state, I think community leaders will take that as a good sign.
The numbers above surely are creating concern for our neighbors to the west. Topeka’s negative growth rate for the decade sticks out like a sore thumb. To some degree, Lawrence officials also ought to be concerned. Lawrence probably doesn’t care much about Topeka’s population, but it does care that Topeka has a relatively strong economy. Lawrence for a long time has been home to many people who work in Topeka but live in Lawrence. These Topeka population numbers probably suggest weakness overall in Topeka. Granted, Lawrence would rather have people work in Lawrence and live in Lawrence, but given that won’t happen overnight, a stronger economy in Topeka probably would be useful for Lawrence.
The Census bureau released population estimates for every city and the state, so let’s take a look at some of the smaller communities:
— Baldwin City: Population 4,669, up 1.9 percent for the year; up 3.4 percent for the decade
— De Soto: 6,074 up 0.6; up 6.1 percent
— Eudora: 6,378, up 1.3 percent; up 3.9 percent
— Gardner: 20,686, up 1.0 percent; up 9.1 percent
— Tonganoxie: 5,248, up 1 percent; up 5 percent
— Ottawa: 12,387, down 0.1 percent; down 2 percent
— Leawood: 34,579 up 0.5 percent; up 8.5 percent
— Leavenworth: 35,980 up 2 people; up 2 percent
— Lecompton: 640 up 0.6 percent; up 2.4 percent
If you want to see the full list of Kansas cities, you can do so here.
A familiar face at Lawrence City Hall may end up being the test case for new thinking about tax breaks for downtown residential projects. Former City Commissioner Bob Schumm has confirmed to me that he’s filed a request for tax breaks for a multi-story office/condo project he hopes to build on Vermont Street.
We’ve reported multiple times that Schumm has filed plans to build a five-story building on a pair of vacant lots in the 800 block of Vermont Street, just south of the old Headmasters salon building. Plans call for a ground floor of office space, and Schumm says he has a tentative deal for a bank to be the anchor tenant of that space. The second floor would house about 30 small, high-tech office spaces. The remaining floors would consist of 11 condos that Schumm would sell, and one top floor living space he plans to keep for himself.
Plans also call for 22 underground parking spaces. Schumm has said the underground parking garage likely would require him to seek some financial incentives from City Hall. Well, that incentive request has now been filed.
Schumm is seeking 10 years' worth of tax rebates under the Neighborhood Revitalization Act. The first five years would include an 85 percent tax rebate on the new tax value added to the property as a result of the project. In the final five years, the tax rebate would shrink to 50 percent. Schumm also is requesting industrial revenue bonds, which would allow him to receive an exemption from paying sales tax on about $2.8 million worth of construction materials for the project.
The request comes at an interesting time. City commissioners are considering a host of changes to the policies that govern financial incentives, especially those offered to residential projects. The city is seeking to draw a brighter line that it won’t offer tax breaks greater than 50 percent for residential projects. The commission is also considering a provision that would require such projects to have at least 10 percent of its units be rent-controlled to serve as affordable housing units.
That new policy isn’t in place currently, so technically Schumm’s project doesn’t have to meet the provisions. But that’s really just a technicality. Approving or rejecting a tax incentive is entirely discretionary on the part of the commission. Commissioners can set the amount of the tax incentive and the terms however a majority of them choose.
So, it will be interesting to see what type of incentive package this commission thinks a major downtown development should receive. Most of the other downtown development projects that have received incentives were approved by the previous city commission.
Schumm says his project has a strong argument for public incentives. It can be summed up in one word: Parking. Schumm says he has received bids for the underground parking garage. They have come in at about $1.1 million for the 22 spaces of parking. Schumm says it is clear to him that he can’t pass along the cost of the parking spaces — about $52,000 a stall — to the owners of the condos. In the Lawrence real estate market, people simply don’t pay that much for parking, he said.
“The thing is, nobody wants to pay for parking,” Schumm said. “And in downtown, there is no requirement to provide parking, but the city wants you to provide parking.”
That is where things get really interesting. Schumm is correct that downtown zoning does not require projects to provide any off-street parking. The city decades ago — like many cities — decided public parking spaces would serve downtown.
But downtown has changed over the years, and the city is urging more residential projects in downtown. As more people live in downtown, more of a strain gets put on the public parking supply. Developers have said they they’re willing to put in in their own private, below-ground parking garages to accommodate some of the new parking demand they are creating. But they often say they can’t put in the parking and still have a financially-viable project without some assistance from the city.
That’s where this project stands. Schumm knows the drill well. He’s been a downtown businessman since the 1970s, and until he lost his re-election bid last year, he was one of the longer serving city commissioners in the community.
Schumm says he thinks he has a strong case to get the incentives, but if he doesn’t, the project could still proceed under a different path. He could change the development from one that has condos to one that has apartments. By doing that, he thinks he could eliminate the below-ground parking garage. In other words, he’s confident that renters will be willing to hunt and peck for a parking spot in nearby public parking lots, but condo owners likely will expect a dedicated spot. Lawrence developer Doug Compton is already making that bet. He’s adding apartment units to the former Pachamamas building at Eighth and New Hampshire, and he’s not adding any private parking spaces.
“I’m confident he’s not going to have a problem renting those units,” Schumm said.
Schumm said he’s confident he could rent apartment units too. His proposed project is right across the street from a large, public parking lot, and it is only a short block away from the new public parking garage at the library. Schumm notes that as a downtown property owner, he’s already paying a special assessment on his property tax bill to pay for a portion of that new parking garage.
“I wouldn’t feel bad about using the garage,” Schumm said.
And perhaps he shouldn’t feel bad about it. Did commissioners build the garage only for certain types of parkers to use, such as library patrons or people using the nearby municipal swimming pool? I’m not sure that they did. But parking is in high demand at times in downtown. If residents of downtown are taking larger amounts of public parking, that will make it more difficult for visitors to find parking, and that could have ramifications.
That’s the type of tradeoff that commissioners have to weigh.
As for the affordable housing component, Schumm said his project doesn’t have any plans to set aside units for affordable housing stock. He noted most of the City Hall talk with affordable housing has been focused on rental units, and his project doesn’t call for any rentals. He said if such a requirement is put on his project, he’ll try to meet it. But he said it probably would require a greater incentive in order for the project to pencil out. As it is currently planned, Schumm said the condo units are projected to be marketed at $275 per square foot, or about $275,000 for a 1,000 square foot condo.
Schumm has been following this closely. He has even went up to Iowa City, where new City Manager Tom Markus came from. He’s talked to developers up there, and quickly learned that developers in Iowa City had figured out how to make a similar affordable housing requirement work because they received large incentive packages, often times significantly larger than what has been offered in Lawrence.
I think that is a point that hasn’t quite got full discussion yet in Lawrence: If Lawrence wants to require affordable housing in projects, does it need to increase the amount of incentives it has historically offered?
For those of you who have been following along with City Hall reporter Nikki Wentling’s series on affordable housing, there have been signs that Markus thinks that discussion needs to be had too.
“Our incentives packages tend to be pretty conservative [in Lawrence],” Markus said in an article earlier this month. So, that too will be interesting to watch.
Schumm said he is hoping that through all of this, city commissioners remember the importance of having people living in downtown. Schumm said he’s become convinced new living units in downtown are the primary factor that will protect downtown from increased competition of new development on the edge of the city.
“The pressure from development on the periphery will never end,” Schumm said. “The way to take care of downtown for the longterm is to ensure people are living here. Then you have people here 24 hours a day, and that will bring in the different mix of retailers to downtown.”
We’ll keep you updated on Schumm’s incentive request. City commissioners will receive it soon, but won’t act on it right away. It will go to city staff and also to the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee for a recommendation before it is voted on by city commissioners.