Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
One of Lawrence’s older restaurants set to close at end of month; report says Kansas taxpayers getting good value on taxes paid
At an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, you know you have gotten your money’s worth when they replace the general’s chicken with a peace treaty. I’m not sure I ever quite got to that point at Lawrence’s Panda Garden restaurant, and now we have little time left to get there. After 30 years in business, Panda Garden is closing at the end of the month.
Owner Lucy White told me a deal has been struck to sell the Panda Garden property at 1500 W. Sixth St. to an out-of-town buyer who plans to open another restaurant at the location. I didn’t get other details from White about the pending restaurant. White, to be honest, was having a hard enough time discussing the decision to close Panda Garden after three decades in business.
“I have been very emotional,” White said. “We’ve had such a good run. We have so many, many, many loyal friends that have come from this business.”
White came to America from Taiwan more than 30 years ago. Eventually, she would bring her family members to America. Brothers, a sister and other relatives of White’s all work at the business, and also used to work at the Plum Tree, a restaurant on south Iowa Street that the family also operated until it closed in 2008.
White said that while the decision to sell was not easy, she said the family made the decision for the right reasons.
“It is really hard work,” she said of running the restaurant. “It takes a lot of dedication and devotion, and we want to do it well or we don’t want to do it.”
For those of you not familiar with Panda Garden, it is not your traditional Chinese buffet restaurant. Indeed, the buffet has been offered at times, but it has gained a following from its extensive made-to-order menu. The restaurant offers up some Americanized dishes, but also has a menu that is more focused on traditional Chinese dishes, or so I’m told. (I’ll be honest, my Chinese dining usually involves arming myself with a half-dozen egg rolls and going into battle with General Tso’s chicken.)
The Panda Garden’s closing will mark the end of one of the older restaurants in Lawrence. Over the years, I’ve had occasion to try to keep track of what restaurants have some of the older lineage. Panda Garden is part of a group that certainly qualifies as an old-timer, but it is not the oldest. The last time I did any real research on this topic was back in 2014 when Buffalo Bob’s Smokehouse closed in downtown Lawrence. It was perhaps the oldest downtown restaurant at the time, and one of the older in the city. For that story, I checked out an old Polk City Directory from 1977 to see what restaurants were listed then that still exist today. Before you read the next paragraph, make your guesses on the five oldest restaurants I found in Lawrence at that time.
In no particular order, they are: La Tropicana in North Lawrence; The Flamingo Club (yes, it serves food) in North Lawrence; the Wagon Wheel Cafe in the Oread neighborhood, the Taco Bell on 23rd Street and the McDonald’s on 23rd Street.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Not that folks in political circles need anything more to argue about, but this report probably will provide more fodder nonetheless. A new ranking is out that shows Kansas taxpayers have one of the best returns on investments of state tax dollars of any state in the country.
The folks at the financial website WalletHub have been doing a series of reports related to taxes and state governments. They came out with one today that tries to tie it all together and tries to measure the bang for the buck that residents get from their state and local taxes.
As I frequently caution, these rankings have a lot of subjectivity in them. But WalletHub generally uses good data sources, and it is a nonpartisan group. It is not trying to make one party look good or bad, so I think it is worth passing along.
The WalletHub study found Kansas has the 11th best return on investment of any state in the country. WalletHub looked at about 20 factors and other rankings to determine the quality level of state services. Those included rankings of the state’s public school system, its universities, its hospitals, life expectancy averages, health insurance premiums, crime rates, vehicle accident rates, incarceration rates, unemployment rates, household incomes, job growth totals, poverty rates, rankings of road conditions, commute times, air pollution measures, and a few other factors. It weighted those and combined those to come up with an overall “government services rank.” The study found Kansas had the 16th highest government services rank.
In case you are wondering, middle America was a mixed bag when it came to good government service. Here’s a look at how some other states from our region scored in the government services category:
— No. 4: Iowa
— No. 6. Nebraska
— No. 14. Colorado
— No. 16 Kansas
— No. 34 Missouri
— No. 45 Oklahoma
The WalletHub folks then looked at the total amount of taxes paid in each state and calculated a per capita tax number by using the adult population of each state. They call that their “total taxes per capita rank.” Despite Kansas making significant changes to reduce the amount of taxes business owners pay, Kansas was still middle of the pack on that ranking. Kansas ranked No. 24. Here’s a look at others in the region, with the lower the number meaning the lower amount of taxes per capita:
— No. 4: Missouri
— No. 12: Colorado
— No. 17: Oklahoma
— No. 24: Kansas
— No. 29: Iowa
— No. 28 Nebraska
So, if you are scoring at home, Missouri collects a lot less tax per person than Kansas does, but its quality of government service also is deemed to be less than what is offered in Kansas.
Next, WalletHub combined the two measurements — quality of service and amount of taxes paid — to create a return on investment ranking for each state. As I noted earlier, Kansas ranked No. 11 in that category. That is good, but it wasn’t good enough to be ranked top in our region. Many in our region fared well. Here’s a look:
— No. 3: Colorado
— No. 7: Missouri
— No. 9: Iowa
— No. 10: Nebraska
— No. 11: Kansas
— No. 33: Oklahoma
So, make of that what you will. There are a number of things the ranking didn’t measure — budget deficits, bond ratings and other measures of financial soundness come to mind — but it is interesting to see where Kansas and our neighbors rank, and to think about the tax policies and spending decisions that play into those rankings.
In case you are wondering, the top five states in the ranking are:
— No. 1: New Hampshire
— No. 2: South Dakota
— No. 3: Colorado
— No. 4: Virginia
— No. 5: Florida
The bottom five are:
— No. 46: Delaware
— No. 47: New York
— No. 48: Hawaii
— No. 49: Alaska
— No. 50: North Dakota
AT&T begins offering gigabit Internet service to select Lawrence neighborhoods; south Iowa retailer closing as part of bankruptcy plan
For those of you who want faster Internet speeds at your Lawrence home, here’s something to keep an eye on: AT&T has quietly begun offering gigabit Internet service in a few select Lawrence neighborhoods.
AT&T officials told me that the company recently began offering the service in a couple of newer neighborhoods on the western side of town, but they didn’t give me more precise details. Instead, the company has a website — att.com/gigapower — that allows you to check your address to see if the gigabit service is offered.
Most of you in Lawrence will find that it is not offered, yet. Chris Lester, a spokesman for AT&T, told me the Lawrence project is a more of a testing-of-the-waters type of effort rather than a large scale launch.
“It is in the hundreds,” Lester said of the number of Lawrence homes that are eligible for the super fast broadband speeds.
I realize some of you still may be confused about gigabit. (I saw Tom Silva on "This Old House" use one of them gigabits to drill through titanium bathroom tiles.) Gigabit service is the same type of super fast Internet speed that the much-touted Google Fiber project brought to parts of Kansas City. AT&T notes that with gigabit service that you can do things like download 25 songs in a single second, download your favorite TV show in about 3 seconds, and download an HD movie in about 35 seconds.
Quick download speeds and live streaming of video are a big selling point for the service right now. But home-based businesses that upload lots of content to the Web also have been clamoring for the service. Eventually, people believe the super fast Internet speeds also will lead to consumers having better access to things such as telemedicine, distance learning and other advancements that we haven’t even thought about yet.
If you remember, though, one of the debates at Lawrence City Hall is whether we’re on the cusp of another digital divide. In other words, will only the rich neighborhoods get access to this high-speed broadband service? Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband worked to get an incentives package to install gigabit service in parts of East Lawrence. Commissioners, though, balked at that idea after questions about the financial arrangement kept emerging. Some community leaders have mentioned the idea of the city providing broadband service, which has been done in a few communities. Others, though, have said to be patient and see if the large telecom utilities start offering the service on their own.
That’s why watching what AT&T does next will be important. Company officials didn’t provide me any details on how broadly they may offer the service in Lawrence in the future. But they did note that they have expanded the service in several other communities. The company has announced it is bringing the gigabit service to parts of Wichita, and is expanding its current offerings in the KC metro area to include parts of Belton, Blue Springs, Grain Valley, Lee’s Summit and Raymore. The company already offers the service in parts of Fairway, Leawood, Lenexa, Mission Hills, Olathe, Overland Park, Prairie Village and Shawnee.
One thing that seems likely is that Lawrence won’t be forgotten by company officials. AT&T’s Kansas president is a Lawrence resident.
“We think the service will get good use in Lawrence,” said Mike Scott, president of AT&T Kansas. “We certainly will keep our eyes open for other opportunities in Lawrence. We’re looking to expand, but it will depend on the response we get.”
AT&T officials said one of the reasons they chose the particular west Lawrence neighborhoods for the service is because they are newer neighborhoods that were built with fiber optic cable leading to each home. That’s not the case with some older neighborhoods. But as more neighborhoods are built with fiber to the home, the chances of gigabit service being expanded seem to increase. That, however, may lead some to become concerned again about that digital divide question. Will only newly built neighborhoods have that high-speed service?
There certainly has been talk by some companies, though, of retrofitting existing neighborhoods with the needed fiber. That is what is going in Baldwin City by RG Fiber. That Baldwin City-based company has agreements in place to do that type of work in Lawrence as well, but company officials have said Eudora is next on its list for expansion, in part because Eudora helped the company find a route for its key piece of fiber while Lawrence officials got caught up in a broader debate about what type of help it should provide to RG Fiber and Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband. RG Fiber has said it still plans to offer service in Lawrence, but not until it gets underway in Eudora.
As for AT&T’s current project — brand name GigaPower — it is advertising gigabit service for $120 month. That price includes a large package of cable television channels.
• I certainly do hear questions about gigabit service and its availability in Lawrence, but what I hear more frequently are questions about other options for cable television service. It looks like later this year that a significant option is going to arrive in the city.
Perhaps you remember something in the national news about AT&T and DirectTV merging. That happened a few months ago, but last month the combined company made another announcement that I didn’t fully grasp the significance of: AT&T plans on streaming DirectTV content.
What that means is that most of the channels you can get through a DirectTV subscription will be available without having to put up the DirectTV satellite dish. Instead, the channels simply will be delivered to your home through your Internet connection. The Internet connection doesn’t have to be one provided by AT&T. Some pundits are calling it BYOB: Bring your own broadband.
AT&T already offers cable television service in parts of Lawrence through its U-verse service. But that service is available only in select locations of the community. That has meant that WOW continues to be the dominant cable television and broadband provider in the city. But once this new program begins, you could use WOW broadband service to get AT&T cable television service.
The big question, though, is which cable networks will be part of the package. AT&T officials have said the channel offerings will be broad and large. But they haven’t provided details such as whether ESPN and other premium channels will be part of the package. Keep an eye out for those details, because depending on how they develop, Lawrence’s cable television market could be changing significantly.
AT&T plans to roll out the new service in the fourth quarter of this year.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I can’t tell you how many times I’ve waited in a hot car outside the Hancock Fabrics location in south Lawrence. I can’t tell you because I usually black out. My water dish usually runs dry before my wife’s fabric shopping spree does.
Well, that scene soon will come to an end. Hancock Fabrics is closing its Lawrence store at 2108 W. 27th St. Those of you who read Town Talk perhaps were prepared for this. We reported in February that the Hancock Fabrics chain filed for bankruptcy protection and was closing 70 stores. The Lawrence store was not on that list of 70 store closures. But we also noted that there was speculation that the bankruptcy process would take a nasty turn and become a complete liquidation.
That is indeed what has happened. Great American Group, a company that specializes in liquidating failing businesses, ended up with the winning bid in the bankruptcy auction for Hancock. Great American Group has announced that it will close all 185 stores in the Hancock chain.
Going-out-of-business signs showed up in Lawrence over the weekend, and the store has begun discounting its merchandise. The company said it expects the going-out-of-business sales to last for “several weeks” before all the merchandise is gone.
One cigar shop closes, while another plans to open premium lounge downtown; art event set to close portion of Mass. Street
I don’t have to remind fellow KU fans that we won’t be needing a celebratory cigar for this weekend’s Final Four — unless we want to stick it up the nose of a Sooner fan. (My apologies, as you may have sensed, I haven’t quite figured out whether to root for our fellow Big 12 member.) Regardless, west Lawrence’s upscale cigar shop and lounge has closed, but there is word of a new one heading to downtown.
Centro Cigars at 4811 Bob Billings Parkway has closed. I went to the location, and it was locked up, and a fellow at an adjacent business also confirmed the closing, although he said he’d been informed people were looking at the location with some hope of reopening the cigar shop and lounge in future months.
More certain is that plans are underway to open Issachar Cigar Shop at 726 Massachusetts St. Owner Michael McNellis, a Johnson County private equity firm manager, said the business will be a “premier cigar lounge.”
“Unfortunately, we are nowhere near opening,” McNellis said. “I wish we were.”
If you are confused about where the business is locating, it is going into the space that formerly housed Creation Station. (That still may leave some of you confused, as eliminating confusion wasn’t exactly the eclectic Creation Station’s calling card.)
The new business venture allows McNellis to combine a couple of things he really enjoys: cigars and downtown Lawrence.
“This is a flat-out homer call for me,” said McNellis, who grew up in Lawrence. “I’m a fan and love the downtown, and I just want to be part of that culture.”
McNellis said he plans on hiring several cigar experts to staff the business. Plans call for people to be able to purchase cigars there and also to be able to smoke them on the premises with other aficionados.
You may be confused again, since Lawrence does have an indoor smoking ban. But the ban does allow for smoking to take place at businesses that are designated as tobacco shops. Tobacco shops, though, have to meet some pretty strict definitions and have limitations on what they can sell. For example, the cigar lounge won’t be able to sell you a nice glass of wine or bourbon to go along with that cigar.
McNellis said patrons also won’t be able to bring their own bottle of wine or alcoholic beverage to consume on-site. He said the site will offer coffee and soft drinks, comfortable furniture and other amenities for cigar fans.
“It will be a very nice environment to enjoy a cigar,” McNellis said. “Unfortunately, it is still several months away.”
McNellis said he hopes construction work to remodel the building begins in earnest in April. Among the changes planned for the building is a new patio area on the back side of the building.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As I told you a couple of weeks ago, we are entering the season when street parties and road-closed signs will start popping up in downtown like dandelions in a Lawhorn lawn. The latest event to receive City Hall approval is a longtime Lawrence tradition. Art in the Park has received a permit to hold its annual event on May 1.
Plans call for the portion of Massachusetts Street that runs through South Park to be closed to traffic from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on May 1. The event will include vendors on the street, but also spread out through South Park.
The event is hosted by the Lawrence Art Guild, and as we have reported, that nonprofit has had some organizational troubles. But this permit seems to be a good sign that those troubles will not derail the popular Art in the Park event.
Expansion of Eldridge Hotel canceled; Douglas County regains status as state leader in population growth
It looks like one of downtown’s major expansion projects won’t be happening after all — at least not anytime soon. Plans to expand the historic Eldridge Hotel at Seventh and Massachusetts streets have been scrapped for the time being.
I had heard recently that the hotel ownership group had notified some city officials that plans for an approximately 50-room expansion of the hotel, and the addition of new banquet and restaurant space had been put on hold. Nancy Longhurst, general manager of the hotel, now has confirmed as much.
“At this point, the owners of The Eldridge have made the decision not to proceed currently on the expansion project,” she told me via e-mail. “We look forward to investing in this project in the future.”
That means a vacant lot on Massachusetts Street will continue to exist for awhile. Plans called for the hotel to expand into a gravel lot just south of the hotel.
Longhurst didn’t provide any comments on why the ownership group — which is led by the Lawrence Fritzel family — decided to cancel the expansion plans. She also didn’t provide a timeline for when the group may once again consider an expansion project.
This is at least the second time that the hotel has scrapped expansion plans. In fact, it is proving to be easier to rebuild the hotel than to expand it. If you recall, many people consider The Eldridge to be the most historic hotel in Kansas because it — technically it was called the Free State Hotel at that time — was burned down by William Quantrill during the Civil War, but was rebuilt and became a bit of a symbol of Lawrence’s undying Free State spirit.
The ownership group in 2010 filed plans to build an expansion into the lot south of the hotel. But the ownership group ultimately decided not to proceed with that project.
It is a bit surprising, though, that this latest project is not moving forward. The project had won major city approvals, including a close vote of the City Commission to issue industrial revenue bonds, which would allow the project to receive about $400,000 in rebates on sales taxes paid on construction materials. During that IRB debate in October, the development group told the city it already had contracted for $3 million to $3.5 million worth of construction materials for the project. So, based on that statement, it seemed that the project was pretty well committed.
Certainly, though, the project may move forward at some point. Unlike in previous years, the hotel development group now owns the vacant lot south of the hotel. So, a project likely could be restarted fairly quickly. Previous plans approved by the city, however, do have an expiration date. So it would be likely that any new project would have to go through the entire city approval process again. I’ll have to do some more checking on what happens to the industrial revenue bond approval. Those bonds were only to be used as a method to get the sales tax rebate, so it would seem to be moot at this point. If I find out differently, I’ll let you know.
In other news and notes from around town:
Douglas County is once again a leader when it comes to population growth in Kansas.
The Census Bureau recently released its population estimates for 2015, and they show that during the prior 12-month period, Douglas County grew faster than the other urban counties in the state. All figures are from July 1, 2014 to July 1, 2015. Here’s a look:
— Douglas County: 118,053 up 1.3 percent
— Johnson County: 580,159 up 1.0 percent
— Riley County: 75,247 up 0.7 percent
— Shawnee County: 178,725 up 0.1 percent
— Sedgwick County: 511,574 up 0.4 percent
— Wyandotte County: 163,369 up 0.7 percent
The more interesting numbers, though, are the growth rates since the 2010 Census. Douglas County’s population growth struggled during the last decade. Those struggles continued in the early part of this decade. But the county’s population growth has picked up over the last couple of years, and now Douglas County is right there with Johnson County as the fastest growing urban county in the state. Here’s a look at the growth since the 2010 Census:
— Douglas County: up 7,227 people, up 6.5 percent
— Johnson County: up 35,980 people, up 6.6 percent
— Riley County: up 4,132 people, up 5.8 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 13,209 people, up 2.6 percent
— Shawnee County: up 791 people, up 0.4 percent
— Wyandotte County: up 5,864 people, up 3.7 percent
Looking ahead, Douglas County is on pace to add about 15,000 people during the decade, and to post a growth rate of 13 percent. If that pace holds true for the rest of the decade, it would be a nice bounce-back for the county. In the decade of the 2000s, Douglas County grew by just 10.9 percent. That was the slowest growth rate for the county since the 1930s.
Now, a growth rate of 13 percent would not be fantastic in historic terms. During the 1990s, the county grew by 22.2 percent and during the 1980s by 20.9 percent. But I think community leaders — especially those in real estate — would be pleased by any type of rebound. The fact that Douglas County is near the top of the list in terms of growth also is important. Kansas as a whole is not growing well. There is little that Douglas County by itself can do to reverse those statewide issues. But what growth does happen in Kansas, I think community leaders want to see a good portion of it happen here. These latest numbers indicate the county is faring well in that regard.
Smaller counties surrounding Douglas County are not doing as well. Here’s a look at growth rates over the last year:
— Franklin County: 25,609, down by less than 0.1 percent
— Jefferson County: 18,930, up 0.4 percent
— Leavenworth County: 79,315, up 0.6 percent
— Osage County: 15,847, down by 0.6 percent
If you are wondering how much Lawrence itself grew, or other cities, we’ll have to wait a bit longer to get that information. The Census Bureau will release population estimates for the cities this summer.
Speculation that national clothing retailer coming to south Iowa; update on Mexican chain on 23rd; Kansas gets small share of federal funding
I’m not sure what I should make of this, but every time my wife goes to Men’s Wearhouse, she inquires about the Johnny Depp department. I think she has her “wearhouse” and “warehouse” confused. If you too are confused about what Men’s Wearhouse offers, you may soon get a chance to check it out in Lawrence. Speculation is growing that the men’s clothing retailer will locate on south Iowa Street.
The national retailer hasn’t made any announcements or filed documents yet with City Hall, but there’s certainly a significant amount of talk in certain real estate and business circles that Men’s Wearhouse has decided to locate in Lawrence. The most likely landing spot seems to be near 31st and Iowa. I've heard the Pine Ridge Plaza mentioned, which is the shopping center that includes Kohl's, Bed Bath & Beyond, World Market and others. There's also quite a bit of commercial space on the north side of 31st Street near Best Buy, Home Depot and Menards.
Again, though, this is still in the speculation stage, but it is certainly worth keeping an eye on. It also will be interesting to watch one other men’s clothing retailer in town: Jos. A. Bank at Seventh and Vermont streets. Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank are now owned by the same company. Has the demand for men’s business wear increased so much in Lawrence that the parent company now sees a need to have a dual presence in town? I suppose that is possible, as soup season certainly has taken a toll on my ties. Or, I suppose another possibility is the company is repositioning itself in Lawrence. We’ll have to wait and see. I’ll let you know when I hear more.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Perhaps you have noticed that construction fencing has gone up around the defunct Kwik Shop location at 1714 W. 23rd St., which is just a bit west of 23rd and Ousdahl. If you remember, we reported in October that the location was set to become a Qdoba Mexican restaurant. The fencing seems like a strong sign that work is set to begin soon.
The plans filed with the city call for a significant renovation of the existing convenience store building. You can see the new facade below, and plans also call for the construction of an outdoor dining area and improvements to the parking lot.
If you are unfamiliar with Qdoba — the chain had a location in downtown Lawrence in the mid-to-late 2000s — it is similar to Chipotle, but with a slightly broader menu. In addition to wraps, it also has smothered burritos, tacos, nachos, quesadillas, taco salads, kid meals and even something called Mexican Gumbo, which has me studying up on how to say “pass the crawdad sauce” in Spanish.
No word yet on an opening date for the restaurant.
• Depending on your political philosophy, this next item may be good news or bad news. Kansas doesn’t get a lot of federal funding. In fact by one new measure, Kansas ranks last in the amount of federal money it receives.
The folks at the financial website Wallet Hub have put together a new report ranking the states most and least dependent on federal dollars. Overall, the website found Kansas was the fourth least dependent state in the country on federal funding. But in one subcategory Kansas was found to be getting the least amount of federal dollars of any state in the country.
Kansas receives the lowest amount of federal grants, when compared with the amount of federal taxes the state pays, of any state in the country. In other words, when you look at the amount of federal taxes Kansas residents and businesses pay and then compare that with the amount of federal grants Kansas receives, our ratio of grants to taxes was lower than everybody else’s. In case you are wondering, West Virginia had the highest ratio.
But that’s just one measure. WalletHub compiled data from the IRS, the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and another government data sources. It then provided an overall ranking based on how much federal spending occurs in a state — that’s everything from federal jobs to federal grants to federal entitlement programs. The website also looked at what percentage of a state’s budget is derived from federal funds.
In that overall ranking, Kansas was the fourth least dependent state on federal funding. Or said another way, it received the fourth lowest ranking in terms of federal dollars returned to the state. Here’s a look at the five states that received the lowest returns of federal dollars.
Here’s a look at the five states that received the highest returns of federal dollars or, said another way, were the most dependent on federal dollars.
Like I said, how you view this information probably depends on your philosophy. If you think the federal government is spending too much money or you think relying on federal funding is a risky proposition, then you probably think Kansas is in a pretty good position. If you think we are going to pay federal taxes regardless, so we might as well get as much federal funding as possible, then you probably think Kansas is in a bad spot.
Any time I go to an upscale golf course, I always check the clubhouse’s dining room before I begin. On average, I’ll play at least four shots from the dining room, and if I’m going to have to hit off Berber, I need to prepare for that. Well, golfers, if you haven’t been in the dining room of Lawrence Country Club for a while, get ready for quite a few changes.
As the country club competition heats up in Lawrence, the Lawrence Country Club has just completed a major renovation of its first floor.
“It is a complete facelift and modernization of our dining facilities,” said Rheanne Etken, general manager for the club.
Gone are most of the small rooms that divided up the dining and bar area. Now the area is much more of an an open expanse, with new furniture, flooring and a new style that features lots of natural stone accents.
The new design also highlights the dining room’s large windows, giving diners a better view of the golf course and the horizon of northern and west Lawrence.
“We feel like we have really opened it up to the most gorgeous views you will find in Lawrence,” Etken said. “That was one of our big goals.”
In addition, the renovations included a new bar area and a new bar menu that features dishes such as noodle bowls, a charcuterie plate from Lawrence’s Hank’s Charcuterie, potato dumplings, and a country club classic: shrimp cocktail.
Even if you are not a country club member, you may notice some of the changes. The country club is used frequently by the general public for a variety of club meetings and events. Those of you who have been to those meetings perhaps recall the cold cut, salad and soup bar that was a staple for lunches at LCC. (Hopefully I never ran you over with my wagon that I used to carry my plate back to the table.) Well, that food bar is gone and has been replaced with a made-to-order lunch menu. The dining makeover by executive chef Todd Schneekloth includes salads, soups and sandwiches that range from Philly cheesesteaks to salmon. The dinner menu includes a variety of steaks, pasta, fried chicken and one dish that Etken said will always be a mainstay on the LCC menu.
“You will never see liver and onions leave our menu,” Etken said.
The renovations come at a time when the competition between the city’s two country clubs is likely to heat up. As we’ve previously reported, Alvamar Golf & Country Club has been purchased by a local group led by businessman Thomas Fritzel. Alvamar’s private clubhouse is currently under renovation, and plans have been filed with City Hall to add more housing around the course.
Etken said industrywide country club business has begun to bounce back from a sharp downturn during the recession. At LCC, she said a new generation of residents are now starting country club memberships.
“Our average age of members is 50, but the average age of new members is 42,” she said. “In the industry we have a pretty young membership. As a result, we’re trying to do more family events at the club. We want the club to match our members’ lives.”
The club currently is in a period of community outreach. The club will have an open house from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on April 15 where the general public can tour the club and sample some of its appetizers and cocktails. On April 11, the club also is opening up its 18-hole golf course for play by the general public.
As for future plans, Etken said the club — which is owned by its members — is considering other renovations, with a plan to improve the outdoor deck space of the clubhouse high on the list of possible projects.
Parking proposal for $75 million apartment project produces lots of questions, high stakes for Oread neighborhood
“Mess” was the word of the day at last week’s Lawrence City Commission meeting. Commissioners were talking about the potential parking situation at the troubled HERE @ Kansas apartment/retail project that is under construction near Kansas University.
Well, trust me, my insurance agent and I understand messes when it comes to construction projects. (Actually, my insurance agent is becoming less understanding all the time.) I know that if you don’t get a mess cleaned up appropriately, there can be consequences, which for me often involve a hard couch in a cold basement. The potential consequences for the community from this multimillion dollar project could be even greater than that.
After all, the project has 624 bedrooms and 13,500 square feet of commercial space. The project’s automated parking garage provider filed for bankruptcy, and now developers are scrambling to provide parking. They’ve proposed a new valet system, plus they say they’re working on adding 100 more spaces somehow, but haven’t yet provided details.
So, with that said, here’s a look at several questions that seem to still be unanswered as commissioners again prepare to debate the HERE project at their Tuesday evening meeting.
— Shouldn’t the city and the public know what the plan is for the 100 other parking spaces before the city approves this rather odd valet system? Developers say no because they are willing to leave 13 apartment units unfilled, and all the commercial space unfilled, until the other 100 spaces are found. That seems like a risky proposition for the city. If the 100 other spaces aren’t found and the 13 apartment units continue to sit vacant, you can bet the development group will apply political pressure in the future to fill those apartments, with or without new parking. This City Commission may not cave to that pressure, but who knows what future commissions will do.
— What ever happened to the idea of using a different automated parking system? When we first reported the bankruptcy of HERE’s parking provider in October, a HERE official told me that he was already in discussions with other vendors. In other words, Boomerang Systems — the parking garage company that went bankrupt — isn’t the only company that makes automated parking garage systems. Why can’t HERE contract with another company? I suspect one problem is timing. These parking systems aren’t something you buy off the shelf. They have to be designed and custom built, is my understanding. That process won’t happen before August, which is when the company wants to open the project. But saying that an automated parking system can’t be delivered on time is different from saying an automated parking system can’t be delivered at all. It is worth remembering that one of the reasons the previous City Commission granted a controversial 85 percent, 10-year tax rebate for the HERE project was because of the high-tech parking garage system.
— Will this parking system create problems for the neighborhood? The development group previously has said it will structure its leases in a way that not every apartment resident will be required to have a parking spot in the garage. In other words, you can pay one lease rate and get an apartment with a parking spot, or you can pay a lesser lease rate and get an apartment without a parking spot. Presumably, only tenants without vehicles will be eligible to get a lease without a parking spot. But how will such a system work in reality? Is such an option only available to tenants without cars? Even so, it would seem that a student who wanted to save money could find a way around the system to get a lease without a parking space. The student then could simply hunt for a parking spot in the surrounding Oread neighborhood. That could be a dangerous precedent.
Furthermore, a cynical mind might believe there is an incentive for the apartment group to have fewer residents park in their garage. Remember, it will be a valet garage. The apartment group will have to pay valet attendants. It seems reasonable to think that the amount of money paid to valets will be less if there are fewer cars using the garage on a regular basis. That seems like a potentially dangerous formula for the neighborhood.
— What ever happened to the idea of building a parking garage next to the HERE project? If you recall, the development group in January had proposed to build a 96-space parking garage on property just south of the HERE building. But then in March it announced it was abandoning those plans. Could a new parking garage in Oread help solve this problem? Apparently there is a site available for one, and the City Commission already has set a precedent that tall buildings are OK in the Oread neighborhood. If you build a new parking garage tall enough, it certainly could accommodate a lot of vehicles. Perhaps that is where the city could compromise on this project. It could work to expedite approval of a new parking garage in the Oread neighborhood. The garage could be used by HERE while it works on a more elegant solution to add automated parking to its building. Then, the new offsite garage could be leased for any number of parking purposes in the crowded Oread neighborhood.
Granted, a new off-site parking garage may not solve the biggest problem seemingly facing the project: time. It seems that the current proposals put a heavy emphasis on getting the project open by August. It is understandable that developers want to meet that timeline. It also is fine to have sympathy for the developers. The developers didn’t want any of this to happen, and they are paying a price for it. But, it also is reasonable to expect that the project is going to be delayed. Its entire parking plan failed. That was a calamity, and often calamity produces delays.
That’s really what city commissioners have to decide in this project: Is a delay reasonable? There is a balancing act for commissioners. The city does need to consider at least one more question: What happens if this project fails? If the project fails and the building becomes empty or underutilized, it would be bad for the Oread neighborhood. But a rushed parking plan that isn’t fully thought out could create negative consequences for the neighborhood for years to come.
It indeed is a messy situation. Commissioners will seek to sort it out at their meeting at 5:45 p.m Tuesday at City Hall.
Home market tightens in Lawrence; prices may be set to rise; 96-year old Lawrence man gets front-page treatment in Tampa
Middling Jayhawk fans buy a new big screen TV to watch the Final Four. Full-fledged Jayhawk fans buy a bigger house to host the parties, or maybe one to replace the old house that hosted the parties, based off what I’ve seen. Whatever the case, home buyers of any type should be aware that the Lawrence real estate market is tightening.
The latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors shows home buying activity picked up slightly in February, but the number of homes on the Lawrence market continues to reach new lows.
Home sales increased by 13 percent in February compared with February 2015. But because February isn’t a big home sales month, we’re not talking about that large of an increase in actual home sales — real estate agents sold 51 homes versus 45 a year ago.
The more interesting statistic is the number of active listings on the Lawrence market. The Realtor board reports 255 active listings in Lawrence. That’s down from 325 in 2015 and 344 in 2014. The situation has caused Carl Cline, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors, to officially label the market as “tight.”
“Our local market is emulating what is happening nationally, with a shortage of supply causing upward pressure on pricing as buyers compete for homes,” Cline said in a release.
Home prices will be something to watch in the coming months. The data right now are a bit mixed. Thus far for 2016, the average selling price of an existing home is $169,536. That is up 4.4 percent from the same period a year ago. I normally pay more attention to the median price of homes because that discounts the impact of one or two really large home sales on the market. The median shows the price for existing homes actually has fallen by 2.9 percent to $143,200.
Since these numbers only represent two months of sales, I wouldn’t place too much reliance on them at this point. History would suggest if the number of homes on the market remain low and interest rates and the economy remain attractive, home prices will start to rise.
Whether it be tight inventory or a lack of demand, the Lawrence market has started off a bit sluggish in 2016. While February numbers were up, they weren’t up enough to compensate for a slow January. For the year to date, home sales are down 6.2 percent — 91 sales versus 97 a year ago. But January and February aren’t traditionally great indicators of the strength of the market. Real estate agents are in their busiest part of the season right now, the spring home buying season.
Cline said activity levels are strong, currently. The numbers from the latest report suggest activity also may be picking up. Real estate agents wrote 109 sales contracts in February. That’s up 28 percent from the same period a year ago, and is a sign that more sales will soon be closing.
Other numbers of interest from the report include:
— The number of newly constructed homes sold thus far in 2016 is seven, nearly unchanged from the six sold during the same period a year ago.
— The median number of days a home is staying on the market before it sells is 55, down from 64 in 2015 and 84 in 2014.
— Although the number of homes sold thus far in 2016 is down slightly, the total dollar volume of sales is up slightly, further evidence that prices may be rising. Real estate agents have sold $17.3 million worth of homes in the first two months of the year compared with $17.1 million during the same time period a year ago.
In other news and notes from around town.
• It is not just KU basketball players who are getting front-page headlines around the country these days. A 96-year-old Lawrence resident landed himself on the front page of the Tampa Tribune recently.
Tom Kugler was featured in an article about how he returned to MacDill Air Force Base in Florida as a guest of honor for the 75th Anniversary of the Air Force base.
“Oh God, I want to get out there,” Kugler is quoted by the Tribune as he walks through the Air Force base and toward his old stomping grounds.
Kugler, who is a retired principal and school administrator, was invited back to the base because he is one of the few remaining people who were at the base when it was dedicated on April 16, 1941. Looking back on the dedication ceremonies maybe is a bit more enjoyable than participating in them, Kugler told the Tribune.
“We all got tired standing in rank,” he said. “We stood out in sun in formation until the services were over . . .”
Kugler was a private at the time and part of the 29th Bomb Squadron. At the time of the dedication, the U.S. hadn’t yet entered World War II. A few months later, America was fully engaged in the war. Kugler left MacDill in February 1942 on B-24 Liberator heavy bomber, according to the Tribune. For a variety of reasons, he wasn’t sure he would ever see MacDill again. Until last weekend, he hadn’t ever returned to the base.
You can see the full story from the Tampa Tribune here.
New report shows Lawrence lost jobs in February; one out of every three jobs in city is now a government job
Apparently the state of Kansas doesn’t consider it a “job” to paint your face Crimson and Blue, write odes to Wayne Selden Jr., make an unfortunate decision about a “Dirty Dozen” tattoo, and all the other things that go along with celebrating a 12th straight Big 12 championship. If such activities were counted as a job, Lawrence undoubtedly would not have posted a job loss in the month of February.
State officials have released a report on job totals for Kansas metro areas, and Lawrence posted a 0.2 percent decline in jobs in February compared with February 2015 totals. To further prove my point, the metro area with the highest job growth for the month was Manhattan, where basketball and championships are more theoretical in nature.
Here’s a look at the job numbers for metro areas as compiled by the Kansas Department of Labor:
— Lawrence: down 0.2 percent or 100 jobs
— Manhattan: up 3.4 percent or 1,500 jobs
— Topeka: down 1 percent or 1,100 jobs
— Wichita: up 0.3 percent or 900 jobs
— Kansas City, Kan.: up 0.5 percent or 2,200 jobs
We’ll see what type of trend develops for Lawrence’s job market in 2016. Last year was a pretty good year for job growth, but that was preceded by a long period of stagnation or declines in the local job market.
In February, Lawrence would have seen even greater job losses, were it not for an influx of government jobs. The number of government employees in Lawrence grew by 800 people — or 4.7 percent — from February 2015 to February 2016. The number of private sector jobs during that time period dropped by 900 people, or 2.5 percent.
For what it is worth, job growth totals in the Manhattan metro — which includes not only Manhattan but also Junction City and Fort Riley — were greatly aided by government jobs. Government employment there grew by 11 percent, or 1,700 jobs.
Lawrence had two sectors that really were hit hard by job losses over the 12-month period. The goods producing sector — which includes manufacturing of all types — declined by 7.4 percent or 400 jobs. The category of professional and business services — which includes jobs such as business managers, researchers, and a variety of technical and scientific positions — dropped by 8.9 percent or 500 jobs. Lawrence had the largest percentage job losses of any metro area in the state in both the goods producing and professional and business services category.
Here’s a look at how other metro areas did in the goods producing sector:
— Lawrence: down 7.4 percent or 400 jobs
— Manhattan: down 5.8 percent or 300 jobs
— Topeka: no change
— Wichita: down 0.6 percent or 400 jobs
— Kansas City: down 0.4 percent or 200 jobs
Here’s a look at the professional and business services category.
— Lawrence: down 8.9 percent or 500 jobs
— Manhattan: information unavailable
— Topeka: down 3.1 percent or 400 jobs
— Wichita: up 2.8 percent or 900 jobs
— Kansas City: down 0.7 percent or 600 jobs
It has been awhile since I’ve written about job numbers in Lawrence, but I plan to do so more regularly in 2016. The topic of jobs is one that community leaders never seem to stop fretting over, but oftentimes the public doesn’t have a lot of information about how the job market is actually performing.
So, here are some numbers from the February report that show how different Lawrence’s job market is versus other Kansas metro areas. Plus, I just want to give all of you the chance to say at upcoming KU watch parties “I recently read some interesting numbers about Lawrence labor market composition.” If you say it near the bean dip, it is an excellent way to get the bean dip all to yourself.
One finding that shouldn’t be surprising is that government jobs — everything from KU employees to city of Lawrence workers — make up a large percentage of our workforce. In fact, in February, one out of every three employees in the Lawrence metro was a government employee. Here’s a look at the percentage of government employees in each metro area:
— Lawrence: 33 percent
— Manhattan: 37 percent
— Topeka: 24 percent
— Wichita: 14 percent
— Kansas City: 12 percent
One other category that I found interesting, though, was the leisure and hospitality sector. A big part of that sector is restaurant and bar employees. Here’s a look at how Lawrence stacks up:
— Lawrence: 12 percent
— Manhattan: Not available
— Topeka: 7 percent
— Wichita: 10 percent
— Kansas City: 8 percent
If you add the government sector and the leisure and hospitality industry together, those two comprise 45 percent of our entire workforce. Compare that to 20 percent in Kansas City. Retail jobs in Lawrence account for another 10 percent of the workforce, which was pretty consistent with the other metro areas. So, 55 percent of our workforce comes from government jobs, leisure and hospitality jobs and retail jobs. There are some important jobs in those categories, but they are not necessarily known to be the best paying jobs in an economy.
The other other category that I find interesting is the area of professional and business services category. This includes a lot of jobs that generally are well thought of in the community. Things like researchers and engineers and corporate headquarter positions. There is not much argument about bringing those types of jobs to town. With the research capabilities and brain power of KU, they also are the types of jobs Lawrence would seem to have some potential to attract. Thus far, Lawrence is a bit of a laggard in the category. Here’s a look at the percentage of jobs in the professional and business services category:
— Lawrence: 9 percent
— Manhattan: Not available
— Topeka: 11 percent
— Wichita: 11 percent
— Kansas City: 20 percent.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that Kansas City — led by Johnson County — generally has the highest incomes and also has the highest percentage of professional-level jobs.
It is important to be realistic here, though. Lawrence’s job market is always going to be significantly different from these other communities. KU’s presence, for example, will always makes us heavy on government jobs. Many of those jobs are good, too — as long as the Legislature keeps funding them. For years, Lawrence with its large number of government jobs has been more insulated from swings in the economy. It is no coincidence that Wichita is the most cyclical metro in the state and also has the largest percentage of workers in the goods-producing industry at 23 percent. (Lawrence was last in that category at 9.4 percent, in case you are wondering.)
It is tough to say what the right mix of jobs in Lawrence should be. I wonder, though, if there will be more conversation about that in coming months. I sense that Lawrence soon may enter a period where we do more strategic planning as a community. Certainly that has been something new City Manager Tom Markus has mentioned. It may be that figuring out what types of jobs we want to work hardest at attracting may be a topic worthy of discussion.
But, not until I finish this bean dip.
Medical supply company to move from south Iowa location, signs that Briggs Auto may expand; get ready for additional traffic signals
When it comes to cars, I’ve got a sixth sense about me. Like when that red light comes on about checking the brake system, I know just what to do: tighten my seat belt. Well, my automotive senses tell me to keep an eye on the family of Briggs dealerships on south Iowa Street.
As we reported in January, a company led by the owner of the Briggs Auto Group purchased the property at 2851 Iowa St. and 2101 W. 28th Terrace that houses Breathe Oxygen & Medical Supply.
Back in January I didn’t have much information, but I now have confirmation that Breathe is indeed planning to vacate the property and move to a new west Lawrence location. Cliff Davis, director for Breathe operations, told me the company has signed a deal to relocate to 650 Congressional Drive in the retail building that houses Papa Murphy’s Pizza and other businesses. It is across the street from the Sixth Street Wal-Mart, if you are having a hard time picturing the location.
If you are not familiar with Breathe, it purchased the business of Advanced Homecare last year. It sells oxygen tanks, wheelchairs, walkers and other home health care items. The Topeka-based company said it realized it didn’t need all of the space it purchased as part of its deal to buy Advanced Homecare. The company got two buildings in the deal and was using part of the site for a warehouse. But the company has opened a warehouse at Forbes Field in Topeka, negating the need for one in Lawrence.
“We realized the Lawrence property is prime real estate,” Davis said. “Having a warehouse on Iowa Street really didn’t make any sense. It made sense for a higher and better use to be there.”
What that use will be isn’t clear. Back in January, the Briggs folks told me they did expect to make an announcement about their future plans for the site at some point. I checked back in this week, but haven’t gotten an update. Davis said Briggs hasn’t shared any plans with him.
Briggs, though, operates a multitude of dealerships in the adjacent Lawrence Auto Plaza, including the dealerships for Chrysler, Nissan and Subaru. The property clearly would give Briggs room to expand or to add another dealership line to the Auto Plaza. A new dealership brand would be very significant to Lawrence’s retail scene. Nothing generates sales tax dollars like auto dealerships. I’ll let you know when I hear more.
As for Breathe, Davis said he’s excited about the move to west Lawrence. He said the new building will be better designed for retail sales.
“It is going to be some beautiful space,” Davis said.
He said the company also will have a full-time, registered respiratory therapist located at the facility. That means the business will be able to provide some respiratory care at the location.
Davis said he expects the move to take place in late May or early June.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I perhaps may need to do more work to fix that brake problem because Sixth Street soon will have another stop light. As we’ve reported, plans for the Bauer Farm development — that’s the one with Starbucks, Sprouts and other businesses — long have called for a traffic signal at Sixth and Champion Lane.
City commissioners now have approved the final piece of the puzzle to allow that work to begin. Commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting approved a bid for nearly $347,000 to install a traffic signal at Sixth and Champion Lane. The light, along with some adjacent sidewalk improvements, are set to begin construction in June, according to a city memo.
A benefit district made up of surrounding property owners is paying for $150,000 of the project. KDOT also is providing funding for the project, according to the memo.
• Motorists also should be on the lookout for a new traffic light along Kasold Drive. Commissioners on Tuesday also approved plans for a pedestrian hybrid beacon on Kasold Drive near Riverview Road.
A pedestrian hybrid beacon is one of those devices where pedestrians can push a button to activate a red light that will stop traffic and make it easier to cross. (Actually, healthy pedestrians usually remember red lights don’t stop traffic. Brakes do.)
City commissioners approved the new pedestrian beacon after receiving a positive recommendation from the city’s Traffic Safety Commission. The traffic commission found traffic on Kasold was consistently heavy enough during peak periods that pedestrians often did not have the recommended 24-second gap in traffic to safely cross the street.
Public Works Department officials said they have most of the materials already on hand to construct the beacon.
Plans filed for large industrial site, unique recycling center near east end of South Lawrence Trafficway
A plan has been filed to add nearly 80 acres of industrial property near the soon-to-be-completed eastern interchange of the South Lawrence Trafficway. But don’t look for a big manufacturing plant or distribution center at the prime spot.
Instead, look for a lot of broken concrete, used bricks, discarded asphalt and other signs that someone made the mistake of letting me operate a jackhammer. The owners of Kings Construction, a large excavating company in the Lawrence area, have filed plans to open a unique recycling center that will specialize in construction materials.
Kings is seeking to rezone 77.5 acres of property from agricultural zoning to the county’s I-3 industrial zoning district. The property is at the intersection of county roads North 1300 and East 1750, which also is known as Noria Road. If you are confused about the location, it is just south and a wee-bit west of where construction crews are tying in the South Lawrence Trafficway to Kansas Highway 10.
In case you have wondered where the massive amounts of dirt for the SLT project has come from, this site has been one of the prime providers. For the last two years, construction crews have been cutting off the top of the hill on the property, and also have been digging pits to obtain the tremendous amount of dirt needed to build the highway.
Kings Construction plans to continue taking soil from the site, said C.L. Maurer, an engineer with Lawrence’s Landplan Engineering who has filed the plans on behalf of Kings. But the property needs industrial zoning because it also wants to operate a unique recycling center at the site.
Maurer said Kings envisions running a business where construction companies throughout the area can bring concrete, brick, asphalt and other similar material that they tear out of construction projects. The new industrial site will stockpile the material, run it through a crusher and then resell the crushed material. Crushed concrete often is used as aggregate in a number of projects, and also can be used in the production of new cement. Ground asphalt also can be used in the production of new asphalt. Crushed brick sometimes is used as decorative rock.
“Right now they are often taking that type of material to a landfill,” Maurer said.
The site will operate a bit like a rock quarry, minus the dynamite blasting that comes with a quarry, Maurer said. He noted the property doesn’t have any homes around it, and is not envisioned to in the future. The property is just west of where county officials recently approved plans for a new soccer complex.
The project will create some truck traffic, though. I don’t have an estimate on that number, but Maurer said trucks primarily would access the property from East 1750/Noria Road. Once the SLT is completed, however, motorists won’t be able to access Noria Road directly from K-10. That means trucks likely will need to exit K-10 at the County Route 1057 interchange that is between Lawrence and Eudora. Trucks then can use old K-10 highway to access Noria Road.
The property is outside the Lawrence city limits, so ultimately it will be up to the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission and the County Commission to decide whether to rezone the property. It will be interesting to watch the outcome. You would figure that more requests will be coming in the future to develop near the long awaited trafficway. Although the plans call for a recycling center today, the industrial zoning would allow for a a variety of industrial uses in the future, if the recycling center were to no longer be in operation.
The property is near what will become a major entrance into the community. Maurer, though, said due to the way the property is sloped, much of the recycling center and its stockpiles of material likely won’t be visible from the trafficway.
Maybe south Lawrence ought to host a steeplechase through Wal-Mart. (I’ve seen the unofficial version when a shopping cart obstructs the dash to the deeply discounted holiday candy.) Or perhaps, Home Depot and Menards could host a hammer throw in the lot between their two stores. Why? I’m guessing most of you are aware that downtown hosts a unique shot put event in conjunction with next month’s Kansas Relays. Well, south Lawrence may be feeling left out because I now have word that west Lawrence plans to host a pole vault competition.
The folks with the Salty Iguana Mexican restaurant at Sixth and Wakarusa have filed plans with City Hall to host a pole vault competition in the restaurant’s parking lot. City commissioners are tentatively scheduled to approve the event at their March 29 meeting.
I’ve got a call into a manager at the Salty Iguana to get more details, but here’s what I have from the plans that have been filed with City Hall. The event is tentatively scheduled to run from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on April 21. Organizers plan to rope off about 95 parking spaces in the lot outside of the Salty Iguana restaurant. Plans call for a couple of sets of bleachers, a kids fun zone, and a few tents selling beer, food and other such items. Of course, there also will be a runway and a big matted landing zone for the pole vaulters.
In a letter to city officials, LeAnn Brock with Salty Iguana says the event is in “direct affiliation” with Kansas University. “Our goal is to offer a fun and unique experience to local and out of town residents involved with the Kansas Relays,” she wrote.
One piece of information I don’t have is what type of pole vaulters will be competing in the event. The shot put event has been a professional event that actually has attracted some of the best U.S and Canadian shot putters to downtown Lawrence. Whether this pole event will be an invitational event for some of the top pole vaulters, or rather will be for the many collegiate pole vaulters who will be at the relays, I’m unsure. I’m assuming it is not just for the general public, although — true story — I used to go to a cowboy bar in Williamsburg that had weekly bull riding competitions where anybody could sign up to ride a live bull. (I think I would rather take may chance pole vaulting, although I am concerned about how it mixes with Iguana Dip.)
For those of you wondering about the Kansas Relays, they are set for April 20-23 at Rock Chalk Park. The Relays have changed in the last couple of years. The event has shifted away from hosting professional track and field athletes, in addition to the collegiate and high school competitors. Back in 2014, we reported that KU Athletics had eliminated about $200,000 in funding that previously had been used to pay for travel expenses, appearance fees and other expenses related to bringing professional athletes to compete at the Relays.
I haven’t had a chance to chat with KU officials about the Relays this year, but based on their website for the event, it appears that professionals won’t be a part of it this time either. The Relays are scheduled to be a collegiate quadrangular, featuring KU, Nebraska, Colorado State and Rice. In addition, other individual collegiate competitors will be allowed to compete in the Relays, according to the website. The Relays also will have a high school division.
It will be interesting to watch the Relays evolve over the coming years. The Rock Chalk Park facility certainly gives the Relays a premier home that it was lacking at Memorial Stadium. The downtown shot put competition, which is kept alive largely by convention and visitors bureau planning and fundraising, has added more visibility and excitement to the Relays. A pole vault competition also could be great fun to watch.
This will be a big year for track and field at Rock Chalk Park. The facility will host the NCAA Division I West Regional Track and Field competition on May 26-28. That’s expected to be a big weekend for visitor spending in Lawrence, as college teams from across the region will be in Lawrence trying to earn a berth in the track and field national championships.
It also will serve as a good warm-up for the weeklong USA Track & Field Junior Olympics that is set to be at Rock Chalk Park from July 23 through July 30. That event is expected to bring about 9,500 athletes and 33,000 family members, coaches and spectators to Rock Chalk Park.
As for the pole vaulting competition next month, keep your eyes open for more details. As I’ve noted, the event hasn’t yet been approved, but all indications are that City Hall is set to give the event the OK. But details may change, so check back in before April 21.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Eastern Lawrence has some news of its own. A new office complex designed for small businesses has opened.
The Lawrence Business Center has opened at 1045 E. 23rd St., which is the multistory building that used to house the Miller Midyett Century 21 real estate offices. If you still don’t know where that is, it probably is because you have been distracted by tater tots and soft drinks the size of a jacuzzi. In other words, the building is just east of Sonic.
Lawrence real estate investors Joe and Deanna Whelan have purchased the building, and Larry Northrop of Lawrence’s Re/Max Excel real estate agency, is marketing the property.
Joe Whelan said both he and his wife worked in the corporate world for more than 35 years, and often saw how smaller businesses struggled with some of the logistics of getting an office up and running.
“We wanted to do something that could take over some of that administrative burden for them,” Whelan said.
The Lawrence Business Center isn’t billing itself as a true incubator site, but it is promoting the idea of shared services. For example, the building offers a full-time receptionist who can answer phones for all the businesses in the building. There’s also a high-tech conference room that can be shared by all the building’s tenants. Items such as cleaning service, security services and others also are taken care of by the building’s ownership group.
The building has space for 22 office tenants, with most spaces ranging from about 150 to 240 square feet. Rents range from about $1,000 to $1,200 per month.
“We think a big market for us will be people operating out of their homes, and they think they can grow their business by getting into a little more of a professional building setting,” said Northrop.
The things I’ll do for this job. Last night, I bought a six-pack of beer in the name of journalism.
Before the folks from accounting come and revoke my expense account, let me explain. The idea of reducing the sales tax charged on groceries has been brought up recently in the Kansas Legislature, but as has been the case every other time the idea has been raised, it has gone nowhere. Kansas has the second highest sales tax on groceries in the country, and that has created an interesting situation: Most Kansas consumers pay less tax for liquor than they do for groceries.
Here’s how that works: When you go to a liquor store in Kansas, you don’t pay a sales tax at all. You pay a special tax called a “liquor enforcement tax.” It is an 8 percent tax. Every liquor store in the state charges it, regardless of its location. No local sales taxes are added to the price of your liquor purchase in a liquor store. In the name of good journalism, I went to the liquor store at 23rd and Harper last night and bought a six-pack of Miller High Life. The purchase price before tax was $4.69 — and I’ll remind the accountants that wasn’t for swill but rather was for The Champagne of Beers. I paid 38 cents in tax. That’s 8 percent.
But if I were to go to a Lawrence grocery store and buy a loaf of bread, or a bag of chips or this foreign substance that my wife keeps talking about called lettuce, I would pay 9.05 percent in sales tax. As I have been known to say before, it pays to buy beer over bread.
This situation isn’t exactly new. The 8 percent liquor enforcement tax has been around for a long time. But it hasn’t been increased since 1983. That’s not the case with state and local sales taxes. In 1983 and for many years afterwards, the 8 percent liquor enforcement tax was consistently higher than the sales tax rate in pretty much every community in the state. But now there are more than 300 jurisdictions in Kansas that have sales tax rates greater than 8 percent. In more densely populated areas, it is by far the norm.
Kansas has 23 cities with a population of 20,000 or more. Of those, 21 cities have sales tax rates greater than 8 percent. Only Wichita and Derby fall at or below the 8 percent mark. The median in Kansas’ largest cities, in case you are wondering, is 9.1 percent.
What does all this mean? That is probably for you to decide. Some may see this as the state sending an odd values message by taxing something that is clearly a luxury — liquor — at a rate that is lower than something that is clearly a necessity, like food. Others may believe the problem isn’t with the liquor tax but rather believe the culprit is general sales taxes have increased too much over the years.
That’s not for me to say. But as the state searches its couch cushions for money, and as communities continue to deal with some issues related to liquor consumption, it seems like it is a conversation worth having.
If such a conversation were to happen — and let me be clear that I’ve seen no signs that it will — cities and counties probably would like to have the conversation broadened a bit. There’s also one other important difference between the liquor enforcement tax and normal sales taxes. The state keeps all the liquor enforcement tax. Cities get none of those tax collections. In Lawrence, this is big business. In fiscal year 2015, there was just less than $50 million in liquor sales in Douglas County, according to state reports. The state collected $3.99 million in liquor enforcement tax revenue. (If $50 million sounds like a lot, remember that bars also pay the tax. If a bar buys its liquor from a liquor store it pays the 8 percent tax or it also pays the tax if it buys it directly from a distributor. Also, don’t confuse this tax with the 10 percent drink tax when you order a cocktail at a bar. That’s a separate tax, so consumers do pay quite a few taxes when they are ordering liquor by the drink.)
If Lawrence and Douglas County were allowed to charge their local sales taxes on those liquor sales, that would result in nearly $1.3 million in additional sales tax revenue for the city and the county. I’ve covered City Hall long enough to know that the fact the city gets shut out of those tax revenues is irksome.
But even if the state doesn’t want to let cities and counties get in on the action, an increase in the liquor enforcement tax rate could produce significant revenue for state coffers. According to a state report for fiscal year 2015, there were $823.3 million in liquor sales subject to the liquor enforcement tax. If the state decided that it wanted to return to the philosophy of old — where the liquor tax was significantly higher than the general sales tax — it could increase the liquor enforcement tax to 12 percent. That increase would produce about $33 million in new dollars for the state, assuming liquor sales held steady.
It also would net state legislators a lot of political pain. The liquor lobby almost certainly would fight such a change. They would argue that liquor is already taxed at many different levels, and is more heavily taxed than most products, when you consider all the taxes paid from the beginning of production to the end cycle. I’m not here to debate that, and again, I’m not here to say what the right course is.
But I do think it is worth noting that at one point Kansans would go to a liquor store and pay quite a bit higher tax rate for their six-pack of beer than they would for their loaf of bread. For many Kansans, that is no longer the case.
Why is that?
Beats me, and the weekend is coming, so I’m not going to ponder it too long. I tell you one other thing I won’t ponder much this weekend: the debate between beer or bread.
An organic mattress? Maybe my wife will put it in a salad, and maybe it won’t taste any worse than some of the other unfamiliar ingredients she makes me try. Or maybe organic mattresses are the next thing to take off in Lawrence’s vibrant organic movement. A furniture store has moved into downtown with the idea of finding out.
As I told you earlier this month, I had heard that a furniture store was moving into the 800 block of Massachusetts Street. Well, indeed that turned out to be the case. Eagles’ Rest Natural Mattresses and Furniture has moved from its North Lawrence location to 815 Massachusetts, the former home of Mobilosity.
Eagles' Rest has been open for about a week in its new location, said Diane Gerke, owner of the establishment. Thus far, lots of folks are coming in to take a look at organic mattresses. Gerke said her previous location in North Lawrence — for the last six years she was in the little antique district near Seventh and Locust streets — had a steady but slow stream of customers. Since moving to Massachusetts Street, she said there are days the store averages 125 people or more.
“The difference of being on Mass Street is crazy,” Gerke said. “We think the store can very much be a destination thing.”
So, what is an organic mattress? Gerke and her store’s website explain that it is a mattress that uses materials such as organic cotton fiber, organic wool and, importantly, layers of natural latex foam. The mattresses also are made without petroleum products or other solvents common in traditional mattress brands.
Gerke said some of her customer base certainly are people who are looking for a green, earth-friendly mattress. But she said lots of her customers choose the mattress simply because of durability and comfort issues. Gerke said the organic style of making mattresses isn’t new, but rather is how mattresses were commonly made up until the 1970s or so.
She said the natural latex foam, while more expensive, lasts longer. She said some of her mattress brands have a 20-year warranty. Another unique aspect is that each mattress Eagles' Rest sells is custom made. Gerke said most mattresses have three layers of foam, and at least three choices of foam stiffness: soft, medium and firm. By mixing and matching the type of foams — two firms and one soft, for example — you can change the feel of the mattress. Since the mattress is being custom made, you can have one half of the mattress feel one way and the other half of the mattress feel the other. (Half and half? There are men out there who get more than one-eighth of the mattress? Why am I just now learning of this?)
The store also is in the furniture business. If you remember when Blue Heron used to be open in downtown Lawrence, you are likely to recognize some of the same styles at Eagles' Rest. The store carries some of the same brands and upholstery that the once popular Blue Heron stocked.
“We are very different than the big box stores,” Gerke said. “Most of our furniture is American-made. I can tell you who made it, where it came from, how it is made. We definitely are not into the idea of disposable furniture.”
Gerke said the Massachusetts Street location is slightly bigger than her previous North Lawrence location, and she said the store has plans to eventually use the basement space in the Mass Street location.
Allison Vance Moore and Kirsten Flory of Lawrence’s Colliers International office brokered the deal for the new space.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe the folks of Lecompton can pick up some work on the side as campaign consultants for certain GOP hopefuls. Thus far, a Lecompton campaign is going better than several of those.
As we reported last month, Lecompton is putting forward a big effort to be named the Best Small Town in the state by Kansas! Magazine. Well, Lecompton has been chosen as one of 15 finalists. That’s not bad, considering that every Kansas town with a population of fewer than 5,000 people was eligible.
Kansas! Magazine has started its last round of voting for the contests, which will be named in the winter 2016 edition of the magazine. Lecompton was one of two Douglas County communities eligible for the contest. Baldwin City is the other, but it did not make the finals.
If you are not familiar with Lecompton, it is in northwest Douglas County and has a population of a little more than 600. But it has a heap of Civil War history. It was the site of the Lecompton Constitution, which sought to admit Kansas as a slave state into the union. It garnered national debate at the time, and was one of the flash points leading up to the Civil War. Lecompton still has several buildings from that time period, including the former Lane Museum building that now serves as the Territorial Capital Museum. Here’s a look at the 14 other communities vying for the title of Best Small Town.
— Council Grove
— Little River
— Scott City
People can vote once per day through May 31. Youcan vote online at travelks.com/ks-mag/small-towns/
New Middle Eastern cafe set to open in Lawrence; a look at street parties and other events slated for downtown and surrounding area
I’ll admit names that involve geography sometimes get me confused. For instance, my trip to Austin, Texas, to steal the mascot of Austin Peay university has really left me scratching my head. (I won’t even attempt to explain the confusion the rest of their name caused.) But I’m not confused about this: The popular Middle Eastern restaurant Jerusalem Cafe is opening in downtown Lawrence.
Jerusalem Cafe is set to open at 1008 Massachusetts St., which is the spot that previously housed KC Smoke Burgers. Plans call for the restaurant to open early next week.
Jerusalem Cafe operates a popular restaurant in the Westport area of Kansas City, Mo. My understanding is the ownership group of the Lawrence restaurant won’t be entirely the same as the Kansas City restaurant, but the establishments will be affiliated. Stephanie Garman, a manager for the Lawrence restaurant, told me she did her training at the Kansas City Jerusalem Cafe. And she said the Lawrence restaurant will use the same menu, although the Lawrence menu won’t be quite as large.
“But we’re going to have all the favorites,” she said.
She said that means hummus and gyros will be big parts of the menu. I didn’t get into other details with her, but the Kansas City restaurant also features dishes such as kabobs, baba ghanouj, falafel, many combinations of olives and pita bread, and a dish I once fixed by accident: flaming cheese.
As for KC Smoke Burgers, that restaurant — which also was a spin-off of a Kansas City establishment — closed at the end of January. It was operating in a crowded market of fancy hamburger places that include Dempsey’s Burger Pub, The Burger Stand and BurgerFi.
As for Austin Peay State University — mascot the Governors — I now have figured out that KU’s first-round opponent is not located in Austin, nor Texas, but rather somewhere in Tennessee. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry wishes I would have figured it out a bit earlier, but it was an honest mistake and the trunk had lots of air holes.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Based on the number of people I’ve seen with Shamrock green Jayhawk tattoos creeping through downtown looking for a parking spot, I assume you already know massive events will be happening in downtown Lawrence on Thursday. First there is the 29th Annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade at 1 p.m. that runs along Massachusetts Street and into North Lawrence. Then at 3 p.m. there is an event that I believe will involve green beverages, yelling at referees, and perhaps even a basketball game.
So, Thursday could be considered the kickoff to event season in downtown Lawrence. Soon, we’ll be closing streets left and right to host some sort of party or festival. For those of you who like to keep up on such things, get out your calendar. Here’s a look at a few events that recently have been approved by City Hall.
— I’m not sure if there will be leprechauns at this one, but there will be lots of green at an upcoming Earth Day Parade. It is set for 11 a.m. on April 23 on Massachusetts Street. I think there also will be some celebrations and information fairs planned in Watson Park after the parade.
— One of downtown Lawrence’s more unique events is set for April 22. The Downtown Shot Put Event will return to the intersection of Eighth and New Hampshire streets. The event is held in conjunction with the Kansas Relays, but actually is organized by the folks at the Lawrence convention and visitors bureau. It usually attracts some of the top shot putters in the country. In addition to the shot put competition, there’s also a beer garden and other attractions. The event is scheduled to run from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.
– No promises that shot puts won’t be a part of this event. If you like the unusual, mark your calendars for May 27-29. Both the Art Tougeau Parade and the Busker Fest are set for downtown that weekend. The Art Tougeau Parade features a number of vehicles elaborately decorated and modified, while the Busker Fest is a celebration of street performers such as fire eaters, stilt walkers, sword swallowers and other such performers. The Art Tougeau event will close the 900 block of New Hampshire Street for parts of the weekend, and the Busker Fest will close the 100 block of East Eighth Street for portions of the weekend.
— The Kansas Food Truck Festival is set for May 7. It will close the 800 block of Pennsylvania Street, the 600 block of East Ninth Street and the 600 block of East Eighth Street in East Lawrence. Expect a multitude of food trucks, live music and other such attractions.
— The Lawrence Community Shelter and Family Promises’ Home Run 5K will take place May 30. Parts of Massachusetts Street will be temporarily closed while runners make their way through the area.
— If there is one thing I’ve said about crafters, it is that they are planners. (I think that is what I said.) Regardless, the date already has been set for the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Fall Arts and Crafts Festival. It will be Sept. 11. It is scheduled to close the portion of Massachusetts Street that runs through South Park.
Don’t worry, we are just getting started with the events. There will be a multitude of events that get City Hall approval in the coming weeks.
Questions and concerns about the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office withholding mugshot photos of crime suspects
The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes they’re worth a few questions too — especially when the photo is a mugshot from the Douglas County Jail.
Apologies to those of you who tuned into Town Talk for the latest information on business happenings, development talk, City Hall scuttlebutt and other such topics. I’ll get back to those soon enough. But as some of you may know, my other role here at the newspaper is as managing editor. So, today I want to use the column to answer a question I get from readers somewhat frequently: Why does the Journal-World sometimes run a mugshot with a crime story and other times not?
The answer is pretty simple: Many times the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office won’t provide us with a mugshot, more formally known by law enforcement as a booking photo. I had Conrad Swanson, the J-W’s crime and courts reporter, check his records to determine how often this happens. Since December, he has requested booking photos 30 times. We’ve been denied access 16 times.
That seems like a lot to me, especially given that in many counties the booking photos are simply placed on a county website for anyone to see. Some area newspapers, for example, run a regular online feature that basically publishes the booking photos of everyone who is detained at their area jails.
I don’t have any desire to do that in Lawrence. I don’t think it would be a good use of our time, and I don’t want to be accused of running booking photos simply to satisfy some morbid curiosities. But I do believe there are good reasons to run booking photos with significant crime stories, and I’m disappointed when we are unable to do so.
The biggest benefit of a booking photo is it helps readers to identify the accused. Our crime stories generally name people accused of a crime. For some readers, a name is all they need to know. But many times a reader may know a person by sight but not by name. That’s where a booking photo can be useful. You may read a story about a person accused of battery and not know the person by name. But then you see his photo, and you realize that he is the babysitter’s boyfriend. To me, that falls into the valuable category of news-you-can-use.
Other times, some of the accused have pretty common names. A booking photo helps readers understand that is not the John Smith they know. (Or perhaps it is.)
There are other reasons we think booking photos are valuable pieces of information that the public is entitled to have, but I’ll stop with those two because I suspect at this point you are wondering why the sheriff’s office doesn’t release all booking photos.
The first thing to know on that front is that the sheriff’s office does not believe it is required to give us the photos under the law. They point to an old attorney general’s opinion to back up that belief. Maybe a court someday will find otherwise, or maybe the Kansas Legislature will pass a law making it clear that the photos do have to be released. The Legislature actually has increased access to some parts of the legal system, most notably arrest affidavits.
What is clear is that the sheriff’s office is allowed to release the photos, if it so chooses. When we are given a reason for why a mugshot is not released, it most often is that the matter is still under investigation, and thus the release of the photo could compromise that investigation. I’ve had good conversations about what that means, most notably with Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson.
A spokeswoman with the sheriff’s office said most often it is the district attorney’s office that asks the sheriff’s office to not release a mugshot. Branson told me there is mainly just one reason his office makes that request: They’re afraid publishing the mugshot in the newspaper may lead to a false identification by a witness in a crime.
Despite what you see on television crime dramas, suspect lineups are pretty rare. More often, the first time a witness or victim is asked to identify the accused is in the courtroom. Branson said that if a mugshot is taken shortly after the crime has been committed, that can be problematic. Here’s an example: The person in the mugshot is wearing a blue KU shirt. The witness remembers that the person she saw was wearing a blue KU shirt, but may be less certain about the person’s facial features. The witness sees the mugshot in the paper, sees that it is the same shirt, and makes the identification based off the shirt instead of the actual person.
I agree that wouldn’t be good, although I note that the problem isn’t the publication of the mugshot but rather a witness failing to adhere to the fundamental rule that holds the entire justice system together: Tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But still, this is a correctable situation. Many jurisdictions require people who are having a mugshot taken to wear a smock over their clothing. If you have ever seen a Johnson County mugshot, you’ll notice the smock. I asked the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office whether creating such a practice would cause a problem for it. A spokeswoman said it would not. I plan to write a formal letter to the sheriff asking for that procedure to be put in place. I’ll keep you updated on how that goes.
I’ve already been told that such a practice likely won’t eliminate every instance of a mugshot being denied. Indeed, a quick review of the recent denials raises questions about whether there are other reasons they are not released. I’m hoping to understand those better in the future, and we’ll do a better job on our end documenting what we ask for and the reasons for denial.
Some of you may think this is a lot of effort for a relatively minor issue. I don’t view it that way, though. The Journal-World is in the information business, and having access to information is critical to our success. But even more importantly, we’re in the watchdog business. Because the stakes can be so high, it is imperative that we play a watchdog role in the judicial system. Community members deserve to know that punishments fit the crime, that the accused are being treated equitably, that victims are being treated fairly and that the system works for all. Understanding who has been accused of a crime is a fundamental piece of information.
I have a lot of respect for the men and women who work in the Douglas County justice system. They work hard, and we don’t want to make their jobs more difficult. But jurisdictions across the country have figured out how to routinely release mugshots without creating significant problems in administering justice.
I’m confident we can figure out how to do so in Douglas County too.
Price Chopper looking at bringing grocery store to Lawrence; potential issues facing a downtown grocery store
It has been clear for awhile now that a downtown grocery store at the former Borders site at Seventh and New Hampshire would be a big deal. After all, it would put a food bar that charges by the pound just feet away from my office. But now there are signs it could be an even bigger deal. It may bring a new grocery chain to town.
A member of the project’s development group has confirmed the large Kansas City-based chain of Price Chopper is interested in the downtown location. I’ve heard that for months now, but hadn’t gotten anyone to confirm it on the record. But Bill Fleming, an attorney with the development group that owns the former Borders site, has now confirmed that the group has been in discussions with Price Chopper.
We’ve also reported that the group has been in discussions with Lawrence-based Checkers to open a store on the site. There has been talk on the street that the development group — which is led by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor — has made a decision to go with Price Chopper over Checkers.
“That is not accurate,” Fleming said. He said Checkers is still being considered for the location as well.
Fleming said the Price Chopper chain did present a different type of project to the group than what was being contemplated by Checkers. The Price Chopper group has proposed basically doubling the footprint of the old Borders building to about 40,000 square feet.
“They are the ones that came up with that initial idea,” Fleming said. “That doesn’t mean we couldn’t pursue something similar with Checkers, though. We’re looking at whether we could expand that footprint. There are advantages and disadvantages with that.”
Activity on this idea of a downtown grocery store is certainly heating up, but it is worth remembering that it is far from a done deal. I know that earlier this month the development group told commissioners that it was confident it would have a grocery store at the site. But there are still some significant issues to be worked out. Here’s a look at some:
• Neighbor approval. Fleming told me that in order to expand the footprint, individual owners of the Hobbs Taylor Lofts condo development next door to the site will have to approve of the idea. Covenants, or some such device, have been placed on the Borders property that give the Hobbs Taylor owners a say in whether that building will be expanded.
“Individual owners have to agree to that,” Fleming said. “They may or may not. We haven’t started to talk with them yet, so I don’t want to get the cart ahead of the horse.”
If the project were to stay at 20,000 square feet, owners of Hobbs Taylor would not have to approve. We have reported that there are covenants on the property prohibiting a grocery store use on the site, which would have to be waived by the Hobbs Taylor owners. Fleming said there is some such language, but it does not prohibit a gourmet food store. Depending on how you define a gourmet food store, that could be pretty similar to a grocery store.
“I don’t think it is an issue of whether a grocery store can go there,” Fleming said. “I think it could be about what type of grocery goes there.”
Fleming said getting that issue cleared up is an important matter because the development group very much favors a full-line grocery store with prices that would be attractive to the entire area.
• Height issues. Fleming confirmed that the development group is considering a plan that would build a multistory building at the corner so that apartments, in addition to the grocery, could be accommodated on the site. I didn’t get into the details with Fleming on these issues, but I’m assuming a larger building probably would involve an underground parking garage too. The height issue will be one to keep an eye on. Some of Compton and Treanor’s multistory buildings have proceeded pretty smoothly through the City Hall approval process. Others have faced opposition from neighbors.
• Financial incentives. Fleming confirmed that a downtown grocery store project is likely going to ask for some sort of financial incentives from City Hall, although he didn’t provide any details. Fleming said the group is seeking a New Markets Tax Credit, which is a federal program that invests in distressed areas. City Hall assistance, though, still may be needed.
“We are going to have to figure out what help we need from the city,” Fleming said. “We’re going to have to ask for their help, I suspect.”
As for the Price Chopper component to all of this, I do have a few details. The Price Choppers in Kansas City are owned by multiple families. Fleming confirmed the group has been talking with the Queen’s Price Chopper chain. That chain is run by Barry Queen. My understanding is Barry Queen grew up in Lawrence. I’m still working to get in touch with Queen. According to websites and media reports, Queen’s Price Chopper has been in business since 1974 and owns five Price Choppers in the Kansas City area, including in Overland Park, Bonner Springs, Paola and Spring Hill.
I’ve also got a call in to folks at Checkers to find out if they have any updates on their thoughts on the project.
Fleming said he expects the development group will make a decision on which grocery company to work with in the next couple of months.
• One housekeeping note: Town Talk will be off tomorrow. I’m talking with my banker about what line of credit I can get for a food bar that charges by the pound. I’ll be back on Monday.
A multimillion dollar remodeling project that involves making space for more fresh-baked cookies: Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with tales from my kitchen remodeling project. But I do have news about the major renovation underway at the former Holiday Inn at 200 McDonald Drive.
The Holiday Inn — the largest hotel and convention site in Lawrence — is no longer a Holiday Inn. The Holiday Inn sign was removed a few days ago and replaced with a simple one that reads “Lawrence Hotel & Convention Center.” But don’t get too attached to that catchy name. Soon enough the property will become a DoubleTree by Hilton, which is the hotel chain that gives out freshly baked chocolate chip cookies to its guests.
We reported on the planned change to a DoubleTree back in May. Hotel officials told me this week the DoubleTree deal is still very much going to happen, but the name change can’t occur until all the construction work at the property is complete.
“The Hilton officials won’t bless it until we show them that we are at a Hilton quality, and we definitely will be,” said Stephen Horton, general manager of the hotel.
The hotel has pulled building permits for $1.45 million worth of renovations at the site thus far. Currently 128 rooms in the 192-room hotel are closed as part of the remodeling process. Hotel officials weren’t ready to say yet when the hotel will fully reopen.
Work is well underway on the project, though. Here are some details:
• The project when complete will continue to have 192 rooms. But 70 of the rooms will be made larger. Interior rooms on the second, third and fourth floors will be expanded by 70 square feet each, which will allow for couches and a greater living room area. The hotel also will expand its number of suites to four, up from one today.
• Perhaps you remember the old Holidome lobby, which featured lots of plants, an indoor pool and a miniature golf course. (With that combination, you would have thought the golf balls would have floated and swimmers would understand ‘fore,’ but neither was the case.) Well, the pool remains, but the plants and golf course are gone. The new lobby will sport a whole new design, featuring lots of natural stone and many seating areas to accommodate small meetings.
• A portion of the lobby space will be devoted to a Made Market, a DoubleTree concept that sells lots of ready-to-eat meals, convenience items and other such merchandise that travelers may need, said Heather Shull, director of sales for the Lawrence hotel.
• The remodel will include a new breakfast bar area for hotel guests, but the hotel’s existing Boulevard Grill will remain open.
Community leaders will be watching the DoubleTree project, in part, because the hotel plays a large role in attracting lucrative conventions and conferences to town. The renovations don’t include adding significant new convention space to the property, but will include updates to the existing space.
Shull said the hotel will continue to have a little more than 18,000 square feet of convention and meeting space. She said it is being updated with new carpeting, wall coverings, new ceilings, more modern lighting and other technology upgrades.
Shull said the renovation project is giving the hotel a big opportunity to win new convention business for the community.
“We are really reaching out to business that we had years ago,” Shull said of the associations and other such groups that host annual conferences across the state. “We’re telling them that what we’re creating here is much different than what they previously experienced with us. Lawrence is such a fun town that we ought to have a lot of convention business. We just have to get the associations to consider moving some of their events out of Topeka and Kansas City.”
Shull said the facilities can easily host meetings of more than 350 people, banquets of 650 or more, and theater-style events upwards of 1,000 people.
“It definitely will help our meeting and convention business,” Shull said of the renovation and DoubleTree Brand. “Actually, we think that business is going to skyrocket.”
New study says Lawrence below average in managing money, above average in mortgage debt; local home sales off to sluggish start
If I weren’t so busy gold-plating random items in my house, I would take offense at a finding of a new study: Lawrence residents are below-average at managing their money.
The financial website WalletHub ranks Lawrence 1,505th out of about 2,500 U.S. communities in its 2016 study titled Best and Worst Cities at Money Management. We’re ranked in the 41st percentile, meaning we’re about 10 percent below average when it comes to money management.
Honestly, I wouldn’t sweat the ranking much. As I’ve mentioned before, these rankings are very subjective, and this is one where Lawrence’s status as a college town probably works against us. We have a lot of young people living in Lawrence who previously thought money management simply involved telling Daddy that it looks like he’s lost some weight.
But I’m passing along the information because some of the data the WalletHub folks used is interesting. The financial website created a partnership with the financial services firm TransUnion to get a host of financial data that we normally don’t see. Some of that data serves as a good reminder of just how different we are from our neighbors. Here’s a look:
— More of our money goes to paying off credit card debt. On average, the ratio of credit credit card debt to income for Lawrence residents is about 29 percent. In the Johnson County communities of Olathe, Overland Park and Shawnee, it is 15 to 17 percent. In Topeka it is 20 percent. (A quick note about the ratios: The Lawrence ratio would suggest that a person who has $40,000 a year in income would have $11,000 in credit card debt. But don’t get too caught up in trying to do that type of math. What WalletHub did, according to a spokeswoman, is take the credit card debt data from TransUnion, break it down to a per capita basis, then compare that to the median earnings of individuals, as measured by the Census Bureau. What’s important is that they used the same methodology for each community, so it does give a good look at how the communities differ.)
— More of our money goes to paying off car loans. The amount of car loan debt to income is 81 percent in Lawrence. In the Johnson County communities, it is closer to 40 to 50 percent. In Topeka, it is 59 percent.
— A lot more of our money goes to paying off mortgages. On average the ratio of mortgage debt to income for Lawrence residents is 847 percent. That’s far higher than most Kansas communities included in the survey. Here’s a look at several:
— Hutchinson: 341 percent
— Topeka: 384 percent
— Salina: 386 percent
— Wichita: 407 percent
— Shawnee 416 percent
— Olathe: 446 percent
— Overland Park: 468 percent
— Emporia: 483 percent
But when you look at Lawrence compared with other college communities, we fare much better. Here are nine other college communities in the central part of the U.S. that I chose for comparison purposes:
— Waco, Texas: 520 percent
— Norman, Okla.: 599 percent
— Columbia, Mo.: 783 percent
— Lawrence: 847 percent
— Iowa City: 906 percent
— Manhattan: 983 percent
— Stillwater, Okla.: 1,100 percent
— Ames, Iowa: 1,276 percent
— Boulder, Colo.: 1,648 percent
In that list, Lawrence is pretty middle of the pack, but it is interesting to note how much higher all the college communities are than noncollege communities. There probably is some bias against college communities in the methodology of this particular study. But the numbers also may suggest there is something to the idea that college communities are inherently more expensive places to live. Certainly the strong rental market of a college community sucks up some housing supply that otherwise would be available for homeowners. Are there other factors too? Why does a place like Norman, for example, have housing that appears to be quite a bit more affordable than Lawrence? And conversely, does every home in Ames have a gold-plated commode? (If so, can I get the name of your guy? My guy doesn’t do commodes.)
Lawrence leaders are beginning to spend more time on the issue of affordable housing. A pilot project for a new affordable housing trust fund has been selected. That’s good. But as the community continues to address the issue, I wonder whether part of the process will be for community leaders to do a deeper dive of why Lawrence’s housing market functions the way it does, and conduct a broader examination of how some other college communities have dealt with this issue. I understand people get tired of paying consultants, but trying to change something as complex as a housing market is going to take some expertise.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The Lawrence real estate market will be trying to improve upon what was a pretty good year in 2015. It has not gotten off to a great start, but it is still early. Lawrence home sales for January fell by 23 percent from the same time period a year ago, according to the latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
Agents sold 40 homes during the month, down from 52 in January 2015. One bright spot in the report is that five newly constructed homes sold in the month. That’s a far better start than last January, when none sold. The new home market is one that still hasn’t gained as much traction as industry leaders would like in Lawrence.
One number that likely is still creating concern for real estate agents is the number of homes on the market. The number of active listings on the market in January was 260. That’s down from 286 in January 2015 and down from 320 in January 2014. Real estate agents have expressed concern that the declining inventory of homes will depress sales because, well, you can’t sell what you don’t have.
Another number that is worth watching is pending contract. The number of pending contracts in January was down about 9 percent compared to a year ago. That’s normally a sign of weaker sales numbers to come.
But keep in my mind that this is only one month, and January normally is not a make or break month for home sales in Lawrence.
Is Lawrence set to rethink the use of bike lanes on city streets; $50,000 feasibility study of bike sharing program planned
In case you haven’t noticed, biking in Lawrence is a big deal.
We have a bike repair station outside City Hall, we soon will have bike parking corrals on Massachusetts Street, and most public buildings have those fancy bike paddles in their lobby. (I think that is what they are called. Yellow. Electric. They go on your chest, and they almost always make me feel better after a bike ride.)
Increasingly, though, what we have are bike lanes. When it is time to rebuild Lawrence streets, many times they are rebuilt in a way to accommodate bike lanes. I’ve been pretty sure that if you were an engineer in Lawrence and proposed rebuilding a road without bike lanes, you would have your plastic pocket protector taken away.
But that’s what happened earlier this week. A road project — one that has been billed as a showcase for future road design, nonetheless — has been proposed to not have bike lanes. As we have reported, the architect for the East Ninth Street arts corridor project has preliminarily recommended a design that includes an 8-foot shared-use path, but no bike lanes.
The architect for the project told the citizen advisory group for the project that a shared-use path could accommodate bicyclists just fine, and by eliminating bike lanes there would be more green space and less concrete as part of the project. Thus far, the idea has been well received by the advisory group.
Makes sense. Also makes you wonder whether Lawrence planners will adopt that attitude on other projects.
Take a look at the proposed Kasold Drive project, for example. That project between Eighth and 14th streets in west Lawrence is proposed to have both bike lanes and a shared use path. The two bike lanes are proposed to each be 5 feet wide. Ten feet of bike lanes for six blocks long is not an insignificant amount of concrete. The amount of money it takes to pour that concrete is not insignificant. Since 2013, the city has spent $1.3 million building bike lanes, according to city figures. Since that same time the city also has spent about $1.7 million building shared-use paths. As the Kasold project demonstrates, sometimes the city proposes building both along the same stretch of street.
The city now is beginning to hear from its engineers how they’re struggling to keep up with street maintenance costs because of a slowdown in funding. (More on that another day.) It all seems to create the question of whether the city ought to tweak its philosophy on bike lanes? If the city decided to stop the practice of creating bike lanes and shared-use paths on the same project, it wouldn’t come without complaint.
Marilyn Hull, who is the chair of the city’s pedestrian-bicycle task force, told me there are bicyclists who feel that bike lanes on the street allow bicyclists to be more visible and thus safer.
“In a perfect world, there probably would be both,” Hull said of bike lanes and shared-use paths.
But Hull also noted that she is personally fine with the recommendation to remove the bike lanes from the East Ninth Street project in East Lawrence. She is a big fan of shared-use paths.
“Some of the biking improvements that have been done in the city previously have mainly benefited confident, adult bicyclists," Hull said. “That is fine, but what I’m interested in is getting more people of all types out on bikes.”
There are many bicyclists who just don’t feel that confident in a bike lane with only a white line separating them from vehicular traffic.
Sometimes, of course, a bike lane is the only real option for making a street bicycle-friendly. There is just not room for a shared-use path to run alongside the street. But there may be more options than you would think. Many times when a street is rebuilt in Lawrence, the sidewalks along the street also get rebuilt. Would the city be well-served in trying to figure out how to retrofit sidewalks into shared use paths rather than retrofitting streets with bike lanes? In other words, would it be better for the city to take a 6-foot sidewalk and make it 8 feet and call it a shared-use path rather than trying to add 10 feet of bike lanes to a street? (To be fair, it is not a one-to-one savings. Sometimes when the city adds a bike lane it doesn't actually increase the width of the street by the full 10 feet, for example. Sometimes it just reduces the width of the vehicular lanes.)
I don’t have a pocket protector, so I’m not very qualified to say what is the best path forward for the city. I’m sure there is a lot that would need to go into that analysis, but it seems like a conversation perhaps worth having. As I have said before, I’m not anti-bike lanes. But I do think Lawrence is in a transitional period right now when it comes to transportation planning. The future is cloudy about what role motorized vehicles will play in the future and how much pedestrian and bicycling activity really will increase. As Lawrence builds it roads today, it is making assumptions about how they will be used in the future. If the assumptions don’t end up being correct, they’ll be expensive to fix.
In other news and notes from around town:
• One more piece of bike news while we are on the topic: The city is set to conduct a $50,000 study to determine whether a bike-sharing program would be feasible in Lawrence.
At their Tuesday meeting, city commissioners will be asked to approve a $40,000 grant and $10,000 in local funding to pay for a study to determine whether a program that allows people to pick up bikes and use them when needed would be a valuable transportation service in Lawrence.
The goal of the program would be to increase access to bicycles for transportation, promote healthy living, increase bicycle visibility, reduce the community’s carbon footprint and improve access to public transit, according to a city memo.
Certainly there are several cities that have bike-share programs, although they are not abundant in the Midwest. Kansas City, Mo., though, has one. According to its website, it has 27 bikes that serve downtown, Westport, the Country Club Plaza, 18th and Vine and the Trolley Track Trail. Rates start at $3 per half-hour.
The last I knew, there were some private businesses in Lawrence that would rent bikes, especially a couple near the Kansas River levee trail in North Lawrence.