Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
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.
Brunch is no longer just for those people who sleep through breakfast. Several downtown restaurants are offering the option on weekends, and now a downtown bar is getting in on the act too.
As I briefly mentioned yesterday, I heard that the speakeasy bar John Brown Underground was planning to start brunch service, and that almost is correct. John Brown actually is planning to expand its brunch service. Some brunch offerings have been available at its bar for awhile now, but beginning on Friday the business is expanding its menu and also will begin serving in a grand room above the bar.
As we reported yesterday, the breakfast spot The Waffle Iron has lost its lease at 7 E. Seventh St., and John Brown Underground will be moving its brunch service into that spot.
“I think brunch is definitely catching on in downtown,” said Aly Bush, event manager at John Brown. “There is a wait at so many of the traditional breakfast places in downtown, and everybody wants to eat in a beautiful place for breakfast.”
John Brown is betting that its old building will fit that bill. The large space features floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook Seventh Street, a copper tile ceiling and an ornate chandelier. The menu, though, is expected to be the main draw. Chef Sarah Hess has added several new offerings to go with the breakfast burritos that had previously been a featured brunch offering. New offerings include something called a Mac Stack, which is a mac and cheese egg sandwich with a choice of meat ranging from bacon to chorizo to fried chicken. Also on the menu is a Cuban sandwich with an egg; a bourbon, bacon, waffle chicken sandwich; biscuits and gravy; sweet onion grits; and a variety of dishes with brie smoked Gouda and manchego cheeses. Lawrence-based Queen of Tarts bakery also will be offering baked goods. Plus, there always has been a debate over whether you eat brunch or you drink it. It should come as no surprise that the speakeasy will feature cocktails on its brunch menu. Bush said there will be a full bloody mary and mimosa bar, with plans to expand the brunch cocktail menu in the near future.
John Brown plans to serve brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Hopefully I still have some salsa on my tie because that is the only way I’ll ever get any again from Lawrence’s El Mezcal Mexican restaurant. The longtime Mexican restaurant near 23rd and Iowa streets is definitely closed.
I stuck my head in the restaurant this morning, and workers are doing nearly as much damage as I would do to an enchilada platter with a chaser of sopapillas. Construction crews had torn up large parts of the concrete floor, and were chipping away at much of the Mexican tile that adorned the building.
A sign on the door said El Mezcal had closed after 19 years in business. “Everyone at El Mezcal will greatly miss your smiling faces and loyal service and wishes the best for you,” the sign read. “Thank you once again, and we appreciate everything over the years.”
The sign also read that the building was under new ownership, would be remodeled and would reopen as a new restaurant in the “near future.” I asked one of the workers whether the restaurant would reopen as a Mexican restaurant. (That has been known to happen in Lawrence, where there is no shortage of entrepreneurs who believe when their ship comes in it almost certainly will be hauling cans of refried beans and $3.50 tacos.) He said, however, that wasn’t his understanding. Maybe Italian, maybe something else, but it sounded like it was not going to be El Mezcal under a different name.
The shutdown closes the book on El Mezcal in Lawrence. I remember writing an article about the family-owned business when it first opened nearly 20 years ago. From that point, it took off. At one time, the restaurant had at least three restaurants open in Lawrence. But the 23rd Street location, which was the original location, was the last one to remain open.
The El Mezcal brand also spread to other area towns, although I was never certain whether the ownership groups were the same. The El Mezcal in Ottawa has been in the news over the last couple of years. Last month we reported that a manager of El Mezcal Mexican Restaurant in Ottawa was sentenced to six months in prison and six months of home confinement after pleading guilty to a federal charge of harboring undocumented workers for commercial advantage.
I remember when the biggest waffle problem in my life was when my kids and I would wake up my wife with our breakfast arguments that always devolved to shouting matches of “Leggo my Eggo!” Now, there’s this: The downtown breakfast shop The Waffle Iron has unexpectedly closed.
The restaurant at 7 E. Seventh St. closed on Sunday, owner Sam Donnell told me. The restaurant lost its lease on the spot. Donnell said his understanding is that the speakeasy bar John Brown Underground — which is directly below the space — plans to start using the area for weekend brunch service. I’ve got a call into John Brown Underground to find out if that is accurate. If I get more details about what it has planned, I’ll pass them along. (UPDATE: John Brown Underground will be expanding into the space for brunch service, a manager with the business told me. I'll bring you details in a future Town Talk.)
Donnell hopes this isn’t the end for The Waffle Iron, though. He said he’s in discussions with the owners of The Basil Leaf Cafe to use that restaurant’s space on Sundays to serve waffles. The Basil Leaf is closed on Sundays. Donnell said he hopes to begin serving out of The Basil Leaf sometime in March, but I would keep an eye on that because the deal doesn’t sound done yet to me.
The Waffle Iron began a little more than a year ago when it started operating out of the East Lawrence coffee shop Decade. The restaurant in May moved to the downtown location to expand its space, although not necessarily its menu. The restaurant really does focus on waffle dishes, but the waffle dishes include some interesting twists.
For example, during its final weekend, the restaurant featured pork butt chile verde, poblano and anaheim peppers, cilantro, onions, and hot sauce all served on a waffle. For folks who use sugar instead of hot sauce to wake up of a morning, the restaurant also featured a buttermilk waffle topped with brown butter cream, cookie butter and banana brûlée.
Donnell said business at the restaurant was good and growing. He said last weekend was the best weekend yet for the business, which encouraged him. He said in addition to working on a deal with Basil Leaf, he said he’s also looking for more permanent space to operate the restaurant on a more full-time basis.
“We did 175 covers in four hours on Sunday,” Donnell said of the number of meals served. “I think there is a business there, so I don’t want to hang up the towel just yet."
In other news and notes from around town:
• I know a thing or two about dieting. Like, when you are trying to lose some weight, start eating skinny french fries. It is just common sense, but in Lawrence it is now a bit more difficult. Steak ’n Shake — a fast food chain that has a calling card of “thin and crispy” French fries — has closed its Lawrence location.
The restaurant at 3111 Nieder Road — just west of 31st and Iowa — is definitely closed. Workers were at the site on Tuesday removing the awnings and other signs from the building. I asked workers there whether there was anything else slated to move into the spot, and they said they were unaware of any pending tenant.
It will be interesting to see if another restaurant takes to the spot. My understanding is the location has been on the market for a while.
I’ve already had people ask me where they can go to redeem Steak ’n Shake gift cards and such. I don’t have any official information from the chain, but there are a few Steak ’n Shake restaurants left in the area. According to its website, there are locations in Topeka, Bonner Springs, Olathe and Overland Park, among others.
If defensive linemen could be found in boutiques, the Bowen household would be even more excited about the pending opening of an upscale boutique business in downtown Lawrence. Still, the Bowen household is pretty excited about the planned opening of KB & Co. The new business will be owned by Kristie Bowen, whose husband is KU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen.
Kristie said KB & Co. will be a “cooperative boutique,” which has a different meaning than I thought. (I thought that meant it helped my wife and I load the U-Haul truck.) Instead, a cooperative boutique is one where multiple boutique business owners come together to locate in a single building.
The store will be in the former M Street Interiors space at 825 Massachusetts St. Bowen hopes to have the business open by April 1, she said. Allison Vance Moore of Lawrence's Colliers International brokered the deal for the space.
Bowen said KB will have at least 10 boutique owners selling merchandise that includes clothing, shoes, handbags, KU gear, home decor and even some high school spirit wear. She said all the items will be new merchandise and often will feature upper-end brand names.
“I think it is going to be an amazing opportunity to bring some of these outside boutiques, sometimes bigger city boutiques to our downtown,” Bowen said.
Boutique owners evidently are taken with the idea too. Bowen said she has filled all the vacant boutique space she has to offer. She said boutiques from Kansas City, Topeka, Lee’s Summit, Great Bend and several other locations have agreed to be part of the project.
Bowen previously was part of a boutique cooperative called Trendz in the Kansas City metro. She said the cooperative concept is beneficial to boutique owners because it allows them to have a presence in a market without having all the overhead costs of a full store. She said shoppers like the cooperative aspect because they can see a variety of styles and product types at a single location.
If this cooperative idea sounds a bit familiar, we did recently report on Vintage Chic’s plans to move into space at 823 Massachusetts St., the former home of Foxtrot shoes. Vintage Chic primarily will sell furniture and other home decor from its own stock, but it also plans to lease booth space to other home decor retailers. Vintage Chic will be right next door to KB & Co., so the 800 block of Massachusetts Street may soon turn into a unique shopping area. I’ve also got word that another local furniture store is moving into a storefront in the 800 block. I’m still gathering a few more details about that, but will report back soon.
City to study idea of eliminating fares from city’s public transit system; west Lawrence restaurant set to close
The city’s public transit system is a lot like my idea to sell commemorative egg cartons (the dozen variety) to celebrate the Jayhawks’ dozen league championships: They’re both great ideas, but apparently they are never going to break even.
The transit system should be no surprise. Transit systems all over the country routinely spend more than they bring in through ridership fares — usually a lot more. That certainly has been the case in Lawrence, which has caused a question to linger: Why not make the T free to ride and try to get as many people using the bus system as possible?
Well, it looks like the city is going to spend some time studying that idea. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday are being asked to spend $200,000 for a new transit study that will examine several issues, including the idea of a fare-free system.
If for some reason you don’t study the city’s transit budget, here are the basic numbers: The city expects to collect about $400,000 in fares in 2016. It expects to spend about $3 million to $4 million in operating expenses and quite a bit more in capital expenses.
So, the argument from proponents of a fare free system is that $400,000 is not doing much to offset the expenses of the transit system, but the fares — they are $1 for a standard one-way trip — may be serving as a deterrent for some people to ride the system. Plus, some people likely think it is an equity issue. The city doesn’t charge user fees for lots of services its provides, so why do so for something like public transit? There is not a single toll road that the city operates, some would point out.
The argument from people who support charging a fare is that $400,000 is still a substantial amount of money, and the city does charge user fees for some services. People who want to get a building permit, for example, pay a fee to have their projects inspected, even though the entire public benefits from having structures that aren’t built to unsafe standards.
It will be interesting to watch whether this issue gets much traction at City Hall. The most recent information I found is that there are only about 40 U.S. cities that have entire fare-free transit systems, although others make certain parts of their system free. This article last year in The Atlantic was negative on the idea of fare-free transit systems, although it primarily was looking at it from the standpoint of a big-city metro transit system.
The article does note a 2012 federal report that found university communities were one of the community types that has had some success implementing fare-free systems. In fact, Chapel Hill, N.C. — home to the University of North Carolina — is generally considered to be the largest fare-free transit system in the country, according to the federal report.
Whether it makes financial sense for a community to eliminate its fares isn’t clear from the report’s findings. But one issue that seems clear cut is that ridership will increase significantly if you eliminate a bus fare. “Providing fare-free public transit service is virtually certain to result in significant ridership increases no matter where it is implemented,” the report reads. It found that ridership usually increased 20 percent to 60 percent in a matter of just a few months.
The report, though, also notes that the increased ridership doesn’t often result in fewer vehicles being on the streets, which is the aim of some supporters of fare-free transit service. The report estimated that many times the increased ridership was coming from bicyclists or pedestrians or from people who already ride the bus but now are doing so more frequently. A big question is whether eliminating a relatively modest fare is enough of an incentive for people to give up the convenience of their car?
This $200,000 upcoming city study will look at that issue. But fear not, the city will get more than that for its $200,000. The study also will “include extensive data collection and analysis that will paint a picture of commuting patterns, latent demand, financial planning needs, operational deficiencies, how best to close those deficiencies given existing resources” and other issues, according to a city memo on the pending report.
The city has received a $150,000 grant to cover a portion of the report’s costs. General city tax dollars will fund the remaining costs.
City commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall. The issue to move forward with the report is on the commission’s consent agenda, which means it is scheduled to be routinely approved without comment, unless a member of the public asks for it to be moved to the regular agenda.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I’ve been writing for awhile now about how Lawrence has become a magnet for new chicken places. It was easy to see that this pending chicken battle was going to get messy, and I mean beyond the crispy breading in my whiskers.
Well, it looks like the first bit of pain will be for west Lawrence fans of Kentucky Fried Chicken. There is a sign on the KFC restaurant at 701 Wakarusa Drive stating that Feb. 29 will be the last day that the restaurant is open. The sign states the company’s other restaurant at 658 W. 23rd St. will remain open.
In case you have forgotten, we recently reported that Zaxby’s chicken restaurant — a chain that focus on chicken wings and fingers — is slated to open in the Bauer Farm development near Sixth and Wakarusa. We’ve also reported on the Popeye’s that is under construction along south Iowa Street and several other chicken happenings crowding the poultry market in Lawrence.
No word yet on what may take the place of the KFC. Its building is part of the shopping center that includes Johnny’s West, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit and several other establishments at the southwest corner of Sixth and Wakarusa. I’ll let you know if I hear of anything.
Sometimes you win in the court of law, but lose in the court of public opinion. Other times it is vice-versa. I can't help but think that thought is going through the minds of some City Hall leaders these days.
This $500,000 tax dispute between the city of Lawrence and the developers of The Oread hotel project seems likely to create some interesting legal wrangling. New documents released by the developer certainly have made that clearer. But if it turns into a lawsuit, it sure appears City Hall leaders have an interesting calculus to consider: It is important for the city to win the judgment of the court, but it is critical that it win the judgment of the public.
In other words, the city probably has more at risk in the court of public opinion than it does in the court of law.
As it stands now, the city’s biggest risk in the court of law is about $500,000. That’s approximately the amount of the tax dispute. But that amount creates no real risk to the city’s finances. The $500,000 in disputed taxes have never been budgeted. It is not like the city will have to cut funding for something if it doesn’t receive it. (To be clear, not all the money would go to the city. Some would go to the county, and a special 1 percent sales tax that is charged in the district would theoretically be rebated back to the consumers who paid it.)
But I think the stakes are much higher in the court of public opinion. As we reported, The Oread development team released a large number of documents recently describing its position in the dispute. It is easy to see in those documents some potentially successful legal arguments. It is more difficult to see anything that is going to change the public’s opinion that the developers are misusing a city incentive program.
If the city doesn’t do everything it can to impose some type of penalty on the development team, I think the City Commission risks losing large amounts of trust with the public. At least that’s what I hear from people who stop me on the street to talk about it. To make matters worse, trust levels aren’t that great currently, following the Rock Chalk Park controversy that the city had with Thomas Fritzel — the same Lawrence businessman at the center of The Oread development. There are other Fritzel/City Hall controversies that continue to weigh on the mind of residents. If the camel’s back hasn’t already broken, it seems like this will do it.
So, let’s take a closer look at the new set of documents released by the development group to see where future battles may be waged in this dispute:
• One of the documents produced by the development group is called “Setting the Record Straight: The Facts of Oread Redevelopment District.” Expect exception to be taken to some of these facts. There is at least one statement in that document that isn’t a fact. Statement No. 2 reads: "Oread Inn is owed approximately $11 million plus interest for improvements that, absent the Redevelopment Agreement, would have been paid and financed by the City. There is no dispute of this fact.” It certainly is not a fact that the city would have paid and financed all of these improvements if this deal hadn’t been reached. Indeed, the $11 million in improvements do include numerous pieces of public infrastructure — items such as streets, sidewalks and other such projects — that likely needed city attention whether The Oread project proceeded or not. But it is important to remember that the majority of the $11 million in improvements is for a privately owned parking garage that is beneath The Oread hotel. There was never a scenario where the city was going to pay for or finance that approximately $6 million private parking garage.
• $4.5 million may be an important number in all of this. That is approximately the amount of sales the development group once said were made inside The Oread’s special taxing district but is now saying were made outside the district. The development group made the change by amending the tax returns for Oread Wholesale. What did those sales involve? I’ve asked an attorney for the development group for more information about those sales, but did not receive any more details. What those sales involved go to the heart of the matter. City officials believe the development group was willfully inflating the sales of the special taxing district in order to get a larger sales tax rebate from the city. The fact that the development group has removed $4.5 million in sales from the district says that sales were improperly allocated to the district. The development group will strenuously argue otherwise. Attorneys with the group sent me a message stating the amended returns shouldn’t be read as a “determination” that sales were improperly made to the district. Instead, the amended returns were a voluntary effort to “compromise and cooperate with the city.” But if that line of logic stands, it raises other questions. Are sales tax returns meant to be an accurate depiction of sales activity, or does the state allow them to be changed to facilitate deals?
• There may be an argument brewing over what constitutes a warehouse. The terms of the special taxing district are pretty clear that one of the prohibited uses in the district is a warehouse. The city is contending that Oread Wholesale was operating a warehouse in the district, and thus the city has the legal authority to now void the special taxing district deal. Indeed, documents released by the development group confirm that Oread Wholesale has space within the hotel building where it stores and displays materials that it later sells. The attorneys have confirmed the location has handled sales of construction materials for projects throughout the Lawrence area and beyond. But the developers argue that is not a warehouse. The attorneys told me it is not a warehouse because “Oread Wholesale does not store property owned by third parties for a fee.” Instead, Oread Wholesale “stores its own inventory, pending the retail sale of such inventory.” Now, the bar exams I’ve passed are different than the ones attorneys are required to pass, so I’m no expert on the legal ins-and-outs of the definition of a warehouse. My qualifications mainly end at typing in the URL dictionary.com with a minimum of typos. Among the definitions of a warehouse on that site: “A building, or a part of one, in which wholesalers keep large stocks of merchandise, which they display and sell to retailers.”
• And finally, what would a dispute be without an alley. The alley behind The Varsity House, an apartment complex developed by a group led by Thomas Fritzel, will be debated. A good amount of the disputed sales taxes come from sales tax charged on construction materials for The Varsity House. The developers are contending those sales took place inside the special taxing district, even though there is agreement that The Varsity House project is not inside the special taxing district. Whether the sales are in or out adds up to a significant amount of money for the development group. If the sales are determined to be made outside the district, The Varsity House developers — which includes some of the key Oread developers — must pay the full amount of sales tax on construction materials, and they get none of it rebated back to them. But if the sales are made in the district, The Oread development group gets a rebate on the majority of the local sales taxes paid for the construction materials.
The argument that the development group is making is that most of the construction material sales for The Varsity House were delivered to the public alley that is behind The Varsity House, which is just down the block from The Oread hotel. That public alley is part of the special taxing district. Under state law, since the delivery was made there, that is where the sales tax must be charged, the development group argues. Thus, under the terms of the special taxing district, The Oread developers get a sales tax rebate.
But here is where it gets a little tricky to follow. When the construction materials arrived at the alley, they weren’t owned by Oread Wholesale. They were owned by whatever company Oread Wholesale ordered them from. Oread Wholesale would purchase the materials in the alley, and then store the materials in the alley before it sold them to the contractor for The Varsity House. “For deliveries to the alleyway, Oread Wholesale would retain ownership and possession of the construction materials when delivered,” a developer-commissioned report by the accounting firm BKD reads. The report goes on to say the products were later sold to DFC, the contractor building The Oread.
That raises a question: Does a wholesale company have to get any permission from the city to use a public alley as a storage facility for its business? I have little doubt that DFC had city permission to store construction materials in the alley, but whether Oread Wholesale had such permission may be a different matter. I asked the attorneys for The Oread group for any documents showing such permission had been granted, but I didn’t receive any.
The larger question, though, is one about intent. I covered the City Hall approval process for The Varsity House. Never did the developer mention that the project would be adding sales to the special taxing district. Why not? You could argue that would be a selling point for the project. The more sales that occur in the district, the quicker the $11 million cap is reached, and the quicker the city and county begin receiving the full amount of sales taxes from The Oread. One reason it was perhaps never mentioned is because it could be seen as a tax break for some members of The Varsity House development. (Remember, The Varsity House paid the full amount of sales tax due, but a good portion of it got rebated back to The Oread group, which also includes members of the The Varsity House group.) As someone covering the issue, I can tell you that it wasn’t likely that the City Commission was going to be in favor of giving The Varsity House project any such tax break.
The issue of whether the special taxing district is being used in the manner that was described when it was approved by the city is really at the heart of the matter for the public, I believe. Did the city approve one thing but actually get something else?
So, there are lots of issues to resolve, and I don’t have a good sense of how they will be resolved. It will be interesting to watch how long it takes to resolve them. One fact that gets overlooked is that the city has stopped making tax rebate payments to The Oread group. The Oread group has been counting on those tax rebates to pay for the $11 million worth of work that it financed at the project. Presumably, the development group is still obligated to make those debt payments even though the tax rebates aren’t currently being received. It would seem that a lawsuit with this many things to argue could be pretty lengthy, which could mean the tax rebates may be halted for quite some time. The city may be on the correct side of the leverage equation here.
I suspect that is just one of many calculations to come in this case.
Poor Boy Burrito hopes to wrap up mobile breakfast burrito market; Zaxby’s chicken chain confirms it is coming to Lawrence
Correction: Nate Keller now tells me that his business actually is not yet operating out of the Douglas County Fairgrounds, but rather out of a rental kitchen. It has started the process to operate out of the fairgrounds, he says. That is not how I understood what he told me during our previous interview. My apologies for the confusion.
Up until this point, a mobile breakfast burrito has meant a burrito in one hand, the steering wheel of the F150 in the other and a traffic ticket that usually comes shortly after the hot egg and cheese falls in my lap. But a Lawrence entrepreneur is giving the idea a new twist, and is using Douglas County government of all places to get it off the ground.
Nate Keller has started a new firm called Poor Boy Burrito Company, and it operates off of a basic premise: People’s days would start better with a breakfast burrito, but most folks don’t have the time to make one or even wait in line to buy one. So, Keller’s firm will deliver one to your office. People email, text or call in an order for a burrito.
“There are a lot of office workers who don’t have time to eat breakfast,” Keller said. “There are guys who are up early and are running out of the house, and by 8:30 or 9, they are hungry and we just deliver it to their desk.”
The business has been open about a month. Business has been strong, and Keller said he is close to launching a website that will allow people to order online.
“We think it basically will be taking the popularity of a food truck business to the online world,” Keller said.
A breakfast burrito is very food truck-like fare, but Poor Boy Burrito Company isn’t operating out of a truck. Rather, its home base is even more unique than that. The company operates out of a public kitchen in the Douglas County Fairgrounds. There is a commercial kitchen in Building 21 of the fairgrounds, and Keller said he pays rent to the county to use the space.
I don’t have all the details on that arrangement, but look for more in the future. I’ve heard bits and pieces about how the county has had an interest in using the commercial kitchen as a way to help local food-related businesses get off the ground. County reporter Elvyn Jones or I will get more info on that potential program, and report back.
As for the burritos, there are five kinds: Beef, pork, chicken, sausage or vegetarian. All the burritos also have an unexpected ingredient: Mashed potatoes.
“The mashed potatoes are a little bit of the secret,” Keller said.
The burritos sell for $4 each, and delivery time is usually about 15 to 20 minutes.
Keller said business is going so well that he expects he’ll soon need to find space outside the fairgrounds. He said the company, which includes one other employee, is planning to start a late-night service that will run from midnight to 3 a.m. You can get more information about the company or order by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 785-925-1935.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As we reported last week, sources told us a Zaxby’s chicken restaurant was slated for the Bauer Farm development near Sixth and Wakarusa. Well, our sources were correct. Zaxby’s has now confirmed it is opening a multitude of restaurants in the Kansas City area.
The area franchisee, Royal Chicken Holdings LLC, told The Kansas City Star that it plans a dozen Johnson County restaurants. It also confirmed it will open one at 4661 Bauer Farm drive in Lawrence, probably in November or December. The franchisee told The Star that he may open a couple more in Lawrence in the future.
As we told you last week, the restaurant chain is based in Athens, Ga., and has about 700 restaurants primarily in the southeast region of the U.S. As for the food, it looks like there is a strong emphasis on chicken fingers and chicken wings, with multiple dipping sauces.
Downtown restaurant to open new location in west Lawrence; signs of another retail expansion on south Iowa
Wet wipes in west Lawrence: stock up while you can. I’ve gotten word that Jefferson’s, a downtown restaurant that specializes in hot wings and other such delicacies that sometimes cause a fellow to need wet wipes, a dry cleaner and a power washer, is opening a west Lawrence location.
Brandon Graham, an owner of the Lawrence Jefferson’s at 743 Massachusetts has confirmed to me that the restaurant has signed a deal to add a new location near Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive. The restaurant is going into space that has seen a string of restaurants, most recently Legends sports bar and grill, and previously places such as Tanner’s, Bambinos and others.
“We love the demographics out there,” Graham said. “Myself and my business partner both have young families, and know lots and lots of people with young families who live out there. We’re really interested in serving them.”
Graham said he thinks having an established brand go into the space will help as well. Graham stressed that Jefferson’s would continue to operate its restaurant in downtown. The west Lawrence space will be designed to serve folks who don’t often make it to that location. The west Lawrence location will have several of the same features as the downtown location, including the tradition of decorated one dollar bills that customers hang on the walls and such, Graham said.
The biggest thing that will be the same is the menu. Graham said the west Lawrence location will have the same offerings as the downtown location. That means a heavy emphasis on chicken wings, with about a dozen different sauce combinations.
“Wings definitely are our calling card,” Graham said.
Other major menu items include lots of hamburgers, oysters on the half-shell, and when I’m feeling my body tell me it needs some veggies, I'll be able to turn to options such as breaded corn nuggets or a delicacy known as fried pickles. As I remind the doctor doing the cardiogram, they are vegetables. The restaurant also has about a half-dozen salads as well, which I think is an acquired taste. (When I make mine at home, they always come out of the fryer kind of wilted.)
Graham is hoping for a quick opening at the west Lawrence location. The lease was signed on the property earlier this week, construction work already has begun, and Graham hopes to be open within 60 days.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Those of you who keep a close eye on all things chicken wings perhaps have noticed a sign that concerns you. There is a "for lease" sign in front of the Buffalo Wild Wings at 27th and Iowa street. No, Buffalo Wild Wings isn’t going anywhere. Instead, the small shopping center building that houses the restaurant and an adjacent tanning salon is expanding.
Allison Vance Moore with the Lawrence Colliers International office has the listing on the location, and she tells me that plans are to add 3,000 square feet of space on the north end of the building. She said the development group is seeking something other than a restaurant to go in the space. No word yet on possible tenants, but she said interest in the intersection is strong, as Buffalo Wild Wings, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Ulta Beauty, the Boot Barn and other new retailers have made the intersection more of a destination shopping spot.
My understanding is the 3,000 square foot expansion has all the City Hall approvals it needs. My recollection is it was included in the original plans, but was never built. I’ll keep you updated as I hear a tenant for the location.
New Lawrence media company plans to launch global business magazine; Lecompton lobbying to be named best small town in Kansas
What Rolling Stone magazine did for music, a new Lawrence-based magazine plans to do for the world of business. I’m still unclear on whether that means Donald Trump soon will show up on a cover smashing a guitar, but regardless the new venture already is paying dividends for Lawrence.
B the Change Media has opened a Massachusetts Street office, hired seven staff members and plans to launch a magazine, website and other media products with plans for a global audience in June.
“We look at business through a different lens,” said Bryan Welch, chief executive officer of the new company. “Our interest is in covering businesses that are doing good in the world.”
B the Change Media’s promotional materials describe the concept this way: Rolling Stone captured the moment when music became an emblem of identity and an instrument for social change. B the Change Media will do much the same for business.
“I believe consumers will move their dollars to companies that they believe are doing good, as soon as they can trust them,” said Welch. “They want to spend their dollars with companies that share their values.”
Welch has had success in the magazine world before. For 19 years he served as the CEO of Topeka-based Ogden Publications, which publishes large magazines such as Mother Earth News, Grit, Farm Collector and others. Perhaps articles about spring tooth harrows and manure spreaders aren’t your thing, but Ogden has grown into a major employer in Topeka. Welch said the company had about 150 employees when he left last year.
“I wouldn’t be surprised that we become as big as Ogden or bigger,” Welch said. “I don’t think that is out of reach, but we’ll find out. It is hard say, though, because there has never been a media company focused on what we’re focused on.”
As I mentioned earlier, the company has seven employees currently, but is working to fill five more positions. Jobs are in the company’s editorial, advertising and event divisions, Welch said. The company has office space at 916 1/2 Massachusetts St., which is the space above Earthbound Trading Company.
B the Change Media, which is a for-profit venture, has teamed up with B Lab, which is a nonprofit venture that certifies companies “who meet the highest standards of verified, overall social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.”
Almost 1,600 companies have been certified by B Lab, and those companies have more than 40 million followers. Welch said that gives B the Change Media a good base of potential readers and advertisers.
The name of the magazine, Welch said, will be B. In addition to the print publication, there also will be a robust web presence, and the company plans to be in the event business too.
Welch said the decision to locate the headquarters for the new media company in Lawrence was easy. He’s lived on a farm just outside of Lawrence for years.
“This is my home, and that is why I put it here,” he said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I’m sure you are all getting ready to caucus. Soon we’ll see those “Caucus Today” signs in yards everywhere, or those lapel stickers that say “I Caucused.” I don’t need to tell you that both the Democratic and Republican caucuses in Kansas are on March 5.
But you don’t have to wait until then to cast a vote on an issue. Folks in the Douglas County community of Lecompton are urging you to nominate Lecompton as the Best Small Town in Kansas.
The contest is being run by Kansas! Magazine, the publication that is published quarterly by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. (Full disclosure: Sunflower Publishing, a division of LJWorld’s parent company, designs and edits the magazine.) The magazine is seeking nominations for any Kansas town that has a population of fewer than 5,000 people.
The deadline to nominate a community is March 14. People can do so by mailing a nomination to the publication at 1020 S. Kansas Ave. St. 200, Topeka KS 66612. I suppose you also could hire a Pony Express driver to take one directly to the office too. For those of you living in a different century, however, you can also just send it via email at email@example.com or fill out a submission form at travelks.com. My kids are now making fun of me for implying that email and websites are cutting-edge technology. Fear not, you can also submit via Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #BestSmallTownKS.
Lecompton is not the only Douglas County community eligible for the award. Baldwin City, at about 4,500 people, meets the 5,000 and under population cut off. Eudora, at about 6,300, does not. (As anyone who has spent time in both Eudora and Baldwin City can attest, the difference in the big city hustle and bustle between the two towns is stark.)
I call attention to Lecompton, however, because that community seems to be going all out to win the contest. Community members have printed up color brochures that they are handing out to people urging them to nominate Lecompton, and they even have created a website to promote the effort. Among the tag lines on that website: “Two museums, two eateries, zero stoplights.”
After the nomination period ends on March 14, a group of finalists will be selected, readers will vote through May 31, and winners will be named in the winter 2016 edition of the magazine.
An update on Spin Pizza and other development near Sixth Street Wal-Mart; answers about that big pile of dirt near 31st and Louisiana
I have news about big piles of dirt around town. (Dig safe. Call 811 before you dig. A big pile of dirt in my backyard, and a court settlement, dictate that I say that.) But I’m not talking about that. Instead, I have updates on some construction projects that are in the big pile of dirt stage, including a new restaurant development in northwest Lawrence.
Construction work has begun on a new restaurant and retail building near the Wal-Mart at Sixth and Wakarusa. We reported all the way back in February 2015 that Kansas City’s Spin Neapolitan Pizza had signed a deal to locate on a lot just east of the Wal-Mart. Many of you were getting nervous that Spin Neapolitan wasn’t going to come to town and had been conducting your own experiments with pepperoni and tri-colored ice cream. (It is not that type of Neapolitan, by the way.)
But dirt work began on the site in the last couple of days, and folks with knowledge of the project tell me that Spin is still very much part of the project. I’ve got a call in to a representative to find out more about when the popular KC pizzeria hopes to open in Lawrence.
For those of you not familiar with the restaurant, it touts itself as an artisan-style pizzeria, with Neapolitan crusts. That means hand-spun, thin crusts that are cooked in a stone oven. The artisan part also means a variety of toppings. Cheeses range from the traditional mozzarella to Asiago, feta and something called taleggio. Meats include staples like Italian sausage and pepperoni but also Italian bacon, Scimeca’s meatballs, and salami. In addition there are things like arugula, pine nuts, crushed glazed pecans, fig onion marmalade and sun-dried tomato relish that you can put on your pizza and whatever tie you happen to be wearing that day.
The restaurant has been popular in Kansas City since it opened its first restaurant in 2005. We’ll see if the development spurs more activity around the northwest Wal-Mart. The outparcels surrounding the Wal-Mart have been very slow to develop. Plans filed with the city show that there are five more lots that could be developed with restaurant or retail uses surrounding the Wal-Mart. Years ago, most folks would not have bet that those lots would still be vacant today, but for whatever reason, development around the Wal-Mart has not taken off.
The Spin pizza development is likely to bring at least a couple more businesses to the site. As we previously have reported, the building that will house Spin actually will be a 12,000-square-foot building that will house two restaurants and a boutique retail type of tenant. There have been no announcements on the other restaurant or the retail tenants.
As we’ve previously mentioned, there’s certainly been speculation that the large Kansas City-based restaurant company KC Hopps has chosen the site for one of its restaurants. I’ve got a call in to KC Hopps officials but haven’t had luck in getting information from them in the past. The restaurant operates several restaurants in KC, including Barley’s Brewhaus, 75th Street Brewery, Stroud’s and 810 Zone. But the restaurant that sources have told me is most likely for the spot is the company’s Blue Moose Bar & Grill. But take that for whatever you think it is worth because it is unconfirmed at this point.
• Pile of dirt No. 2 is at the northwest corner of 31st and Louisiana streets, and it has gotten several of you excited about what is going in there. Well, it is a sewage pump station. (It is OK with me if it still excites you, but I can tell you it is the sort of thing that will cause you to be lonely at cocktail parties.)
The project is moving a lot of dirt, but it won’t be mammoth when it is completed. The pipes under the ground will be very large, and that is what you are seeing a lot of right now. The pump station will be a key piece of infrastructure because it will pump sewage across the Wakarusa River to the $50 million-plus sewage treatment plant that is under construction just south of where O’Connell Road dead-ends at the Wakarusa River.
Here’s a look at what the pump station will look like when completed.
Janitors, bus drivers and a potentially expensive wage discussion that is brewing at Lawrence City Hall
Brooms and buses soon may get really interesting at Lawrence City Hall. We’ve already told you about a $450,000 idea to create a new city staff of janitors. If you think City Hall janitors are expensive, though, just wait until we get around to the discussion about bus drivers.
As some cities across the country start implementing communitywide local minimum wages that far exceed the federal minimum wage, Lawrence City Hall is taking a slightly different tack. Instead of talking about a citywide minimum wage law, commissioners are having a discussion about whether city employees — or employees that the city contracts with — should be required to make a “living wage.”
Right now, the discussion is centered on the folks who do janitorial work for city buildings. Those janitors are employed by a private Topeka-based company that has a contract with City Hall. The janitors don’t make a living wage, at least not one that meets the city’s criteria. The city has determined that a “living wage” is $12.60, which is equal to 130 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three in Douglas County.
There is an ordinance on the city’s books that basically says companies that receive tax abatements are required to pay all their employees a living wage plus benefits. This Topeka custodial company doesn’t receive a tax break, so the living wage requirement isn’t applicable. But the current City Commission has picked up on a question that surfaced a few times over the years: Isn’t it hypocritical for the city to require some private companies to pay a living wage while the city itself doesn’t pay some of its people a living wage?
So, it is now a real possibility that a handful of janitors in Lawrence may get a good raise and become city employees, which comes with a lot better benefits.
If that comes to be, there will be a new question for the City Commission: Where does it want to draw the line on being hypocritical?
A handful of janitors is just the tip of the iceberg on this issue. As I mentioned at the beginning of this column, take a look at bus drivers. The city has a contract with a private company to provide bus drivers for the city’s transit system. There are bus drivers who don’t make $12.60 an hour.
I checked in with Justin Priest, a former City Commission candidate who also is the head of the local transit union. He told me the starting wage for a bus driver in training is $9.50 an hour. After the training period is completed, the wage goes to $11.50 an hour. There are more than 100 bus drivers. (There are 136 employees as part of the contract, Priest said, but some of them are mechanics and other positions that get paid at different rates.)
If it costs $450,000 to add five janitors to the city’s staff — some commissioners question staff’s estimate on that — how much do you suppose it would cost to add 100-plus transit workers?
If commissioners add the janitors, we’ll find out. Priest said his union will begin pushing hard to make transit workers full-fledged city employees rather than contract employees.
“Ultimately, what everybody wants here is to be a city employee,” Priest said. “I guarantee you that if they end up doing that with custodians, we’ll push more and more to become city employees. We’ll push to do away with the privatization of the transit system.”
How will the city say yes to custodians and no to bus drivers? One of the rallying cries on the custodial issue is that some of the custodians have been receiving assistance from the local food bank Just Food. I’m guessing some bus drivers do too, and if that is the litmus test for becoming a city employee, I’m certain there soon will be lots receiving assistance from the food bank.
There are lots of other workers employed by the city who don’t make the $12.60 an hour. Many are seasonal employees in parks and recreation. What criteria will the City Commission use to determine who among their staff is entitled to a “living wage” and who is not?
The questions can go even deeper, though. As I mentioned, companies that receive a tax abatement are required to pay the living wage. Companies that receive other types of public incentives, however, are not required to pay a living wage. That means all the hotel developments that have received tax increment financing money aren’t required to pay their cleaning crews a living wage. Same goes for apartment projects that are scheduled to receive millions in taxpayer incentives. Those projects received “tax rebates,” not tax abatements, so the living wage requirement doesn’t apply.
None of these issues are new. I wrote about the transit issue in 2008, but the idea of a living wage for bus drivers never gained any political traction. I then wrote in 2009 about how the city’s living wage ordinance doesn’t apply to many of the publicly subsidized projects being approved by City Hall. But again, the issue never got political traction.
But the political environment changed significantly during the last City Commission election. It is not hard to envision that this group may stick with this issue longer than past commissions did. It is also not hard to envision the debate becoming much bigger than a handful of janitors.
• Here is one twist to keep in mind as it relates to the city’s transit system. As we previously have reported, the city needs to get a funding plan figured out for the transit system by 2018. A 10-year sales tax that currently funds the system is set to expire.
I’ve previously written how I believe the transit system may be entering a danger zone. They city is behind schedule on finding a transit hub and doing the difficult work of redesigning the transit system to make it more efficient. If the system doesn’t become more efficient, it may make it more difficult to win voter support for a renewal of the sales tax.
A renewal of the sales tax also may become more difficult if Douglas County officials add to the local tax burden with a $30 million-plus jail expansion and crisis intervention center project. There’s only so many taxes voters will approve.
If city commissioners decide to increase what they pay transit employees, that also may have an impact. Boosting the wages would seem to increase the operating costs of the transit system. Would the city also need to increase the size of the sales tax in order to pay for those increased operating costs?
Tough to know. The easy thing to understand is that 2018 will be here before we know it.