Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”

Popular Breakout KC business to locate in Lawrence; city commissioners face questions on Eldridge Hotel tax break

You are in a locked room. You must solve riddles, complete mind-bending tasks and battle the forces of evil to receive a four-digit code that allows you to unlock the door and get to freedom. Yes, it does sound like how I must pick up my dirty laundry and empty the trash before I’m allowed to go outside and play on a Saturday. But this is different. This is one of Kansas City’s hottest entertainment trends, and a local entrepreneur soon will be bringing the business to Lawrence.

There is a five-month old entertainment business in Kansas City called Breakout KC that is getting a lot of buzz. Groups of up to eight pay for a unique adventure. Group members are put into a themed room — everything from a eerie hotel room to a 1940s Harry Truman-era scene full of espionage. While in the room, group members have 60 minutes to complete a series of tasks, puzzles, quizzes and other high-pressure scenarios. If the tasks are completed correctly and in time, the players will discover a four-digit code that will unlock the door, and allow you to brag forever about your superior intelligence, daring and future career as James Bond. (I will start that career any day now, but there is a certain amount of martini training that must be done.)

“People describe it as a video game but in real life,” said Matt Baysinger, one of the owners of the business. “It is like they feel like they are in the 'Bourne Identity' or something like that.”

If you are a super-spy, you’ve already figured out that Breakout KC — which is in the River Market District of downtown — has a strong Lawrence connection. Baysinger is one of the owners of Lawrence-based Mass Street Soda. Baysinger tells me the company hopes to have a Breakout Lawrence business open by Thanksgiving.

Baysinger isn’t yet announcing a location for the business. He’s still working through some zoning code issues with the city of Lawrence, and he hopes to reveal the location through a big citywide scavenger hunt. Baysinger said the business is close to signing a deal for about a 2,000 square-foot facility.

Breakout KC opened in April but has gotten a lot of buzz in a short time. Pretty much all the media outlets in KC have featured the unique business, and it has been ranked a top entertainment destination in Kansas City by Yelp, Trip Advisor and other sites.

Baysinger said he and his business partners — fellow KU grads Lucas Thompson and Ryan Henrich — think the breakout concept will be a popular addition to Lawrence’s entertainment scene. The trio expects Breakout Lawrence to be a hit with college students who are looking for something new to do on the nighttime scene. But in Kansas City, the business also has been popular with families. Baysinger said he thinks more and more people are looking for entertainment options that allow them to participate rather than just watch.

“At the end of the day, it gives you a better story to tell,” Baysinger said. “We see families or groups come in, and when they are done, we’ll notice that they walk all the way to their cars, and they are so busy talking they don’t even look at their phones to see what call or text they missed over the last hour. It is real entertainment. It is not passive entertainment.”

Plans call for Breakout Lawrence to charge $28 per person for the one-hour adventure. Baysinger is promising a challenge. He said only about 30 percent of participants actually have successfully cracked the code at the Kansas City facility. The record for someone cracking the code is about 40 minutes.

Baysinger said he got the idea for the breakout concept after going to a similar business in Nashville about two years ago. The breakout businesses have been in the U.S. for about four years. The concept got started in East Asia about eight years ago. (I guess they are not counting my dirty laundry missions because I’ve been working to break out of that chore for more than a decade.)

“We think Lawrence is going to be a perfect place for it,” Baysinger said.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Some Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday will have some puzzle solving to do of their own on Tuesday.

As we previously reported, the commission has a decision to make on whether it wants to follow through on an incentive package for the Eldridge Hotel expansion. At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners are being asked to approve the ordinance that authorizes the issuance of $12.5 million in industrial revenue bonds for the the Eldridge project. The industrial revenue bonds will allow the project to receive an exemption from paying sales taxes on construction materials for the project. That’s estimated to produce about $460,000 in savings for the Lawrence-based development group that is undertaking the expansion.

Normally, such an ordinance is a mere formality at this point. That’s because the key vote is usually when the commission passes a “resolution of intent” to issue industrial revenue bonds. But the twist here is that it was the previous City Commission that issued the resolution of intent. This City Commission and that City Commission have some pretty dramatically different views on the use of tax incentives.

That’s where we get to the puzzle. Three of the four current city commissioners expressed concerns about tax incentives for hotel and apartment projects. Some even specifically criticized The Eldridge incentives during the campaign. But at the same time, no commissioner wants to be accused of being business-unfriendly. That charge certainly will be leveled if the commission decides to back away from this incentive at this point. Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard alluded to that in her memo to commissioners.

“Staff strongly recommends approval of this item,” Stoddard wrote. “Denial of this step would send a negative signal related to economic development projects as developers utilize the resolution of intent as a strong indication of support to proceed with the finalization of the required steps.”

The question here is whether commissioners would be unfair in backing away from the previous commission’s action. The question is not whether commissioners have the ability to back away from the action. The resolution of intent includes some pretty clear language that the IRB deal is not a done deal until the next commission approves it.

Under a section titled “No Reliance on Resolution,” the resolution reads: “This resolution only evidences the intent of the current governing body to issue the bonds for the project. The company should not construe the adoption of this resolution as a promise or guarantee that the ordinance for the bonds will be issued or that the project will be approved.”

Staff members are noting that most of the sales taxes that will be waived will be state sales taxes rather than local taxes. Of the approximately $460,000 in estimated waived taxes, about $110,000 would be city taxes and about $20,000 county taxes. The rest would be state taxes. It is dangerous, however — especially in a community where state funding is the lifeblood of the economy — to argue that eliminating state taxes doesn’t have an impact on local functions.

To be clear, the Eldridge project is going to receive a significant incentive regardless. The project already won approval from the previous commission for an 85 percent, 15-year tax rebate for the expansion project. That incentive already has been finalized.

To be fair, it was that property tax rebate that drew most of the criticism from candidates during the campaign. So, perhaps the commissioners don’t find the sales tax exemption incentive that troubling. If so, it will be interesting to watch how they handle a pending request.

A separate development group is seeking a sales tax exemption for its plans to expand the former Pachamamas building into a multistory apartment building in downtown. The incentive request has received a positive recommendation from the city’s key advisory board, but the request sits unprocessed by the City Commission currently.

Let the puzzle solving commence.

Reply 29 comments from David Holroyd Carol Bowen Scott  Morgan Bob Smith Richard Heckler Pauljones Amy Mason Nikki May Clara Westphal Chrissy Neibarger and 3 others

Texas Roadhouse files plans for Lawrence location; time for a hoedown fundraiser; downtown construction project to temporarily close about 40 parking spaces

It is time to let my Willie Nelson beard grow out, begin driving my dually pick-up truck on the shoulder of the road, and start bragging about how the Longhorn football team is going to win the next 10 national championships. (Always starting next year, of course.) That’s right, it is time to get our Texas on. After months of speculation, we now have confirmation that the restaurant chain Texas Roadhouse is coming to Lawrence.

We began reporting back in December that Texas Roadhouse was looking for a south Iowa Street location. Well, the company has now filed plans to occupy the space that formerly housed Saints Pub + Patio. That’s near the southwest corner of 23rd and Iowa streets. Yes, the busiest intersection in the home of the Jayhawks soon will be flying a Lone Star state flag.

There also will be line dancing going on, peanut shells thrown on the floor, and lots of free rolls. If you are not familiar with Texas Roadhouse, it is kind of a budget steakhouse chain. Among its signature offerings are free peanuts in the shell that you are encouraged to throw on the floor (warning: my wife may still yell at you,) all-you-can-eat dinner rolls, and the staff sporadically begins line dancing. (Originally, I thought that was an effort to get me to pack up my sleeping bag and quit ordering rolls, but I’m told that is just part of the routine.)

As for the food, the restaurant offers a variety of hand-cut steaks ranging from sirloins to rib eyes to T-bones at price points from about $10 to $25. Ribs also are a big part of the menu, as well as plenty of country sides such as potatoes almost anyway you like them, their version of a blooming onion, and hand-battered, deep-fried pickles.

In Kansas, the restaurant has locations in Olathe, Topeka, Manhattan and Wichita. The company has more than 400 restaurants across the country. Interestingly, the company didn’t get its start in Texas. It was founded in Indiana. But, I’m fairly confident, Lawrence is still going to adopt Texas ways. Many in the community already do their best to emulate Willie Nelson, although not necessarily by growing his beard.

No word yet on when the restaurant may open. Plans call for demolition of the building that housed Saints at 2329 Iowa St. The company plans to construct an approximately 7,200 square foot restaurant building as part of an approximately $900,000 project.

It will be interesting to see if this project spurs other redevelopment in that shopping center, which is at a very busy intersection but has struggled to maintain tenants in recent years.

Courtesy: City of Lawrence

Courtesy: City of Lawrence by Chad Lawhorn

In other news and notes from around town:

• Maybe Lawrence is going country. South Iowa Street certainly is going to look a bit more country. In addition to the Roadhouse project, I remind you that just down the street at 27th and Iowa, the Boot Barn will be going in next to Dick’s Sporting Goods. The renderings we have show the facade will look kind of like a barn.

Courtesy: City of Lawrence

Courtesy: City of Lawrence by Chad Lawhorn

So, you had better start preparing your country ways. I can give you diction lessons. (Lesson No. 1: Never use that phrase in a country bar.) Or, you could just plan to attend the United Way’s newest fundraiser.

The United Way has announced it is going to host a Chili Hoedown and Cornbread Competition on Oct. 3 at St. Margaret’s Church, 5700 W. Sixth Street. In addition to the chili and cornbread eating, there also will be square dancing, complete with professional square dance callers.

Folks interested in competing in the chili and cornbread competition can register for $20 by going to this website. Tickets for the event also can be bought at the website. Admission is $25 for adults, which includes chili, cornbread and beer. Youth admission is $10 for kids 13 and over. Children 12 and younger are admitted free.

• I’ve gotten word from the city about a downtown project that motorists will want to keep an eye on. As we’ve previously reported, The Eldridge Hotel has filed plans to build a major expansion in the vacant lot just south of the historic hotel.

Now, plans are starting to come into City Hall about how the project will impact parking and traffic flow in downtown. Mark Thiel, assistant public works director, said the current plans call for about a dozen parking spaces in front of The Eldridge and the vacant lot to be closed from October until about December 2016. The sidewalk in front of the area also would be closed. The parking spaces will be used to house a crane for the construction project. The positioning of the crane also will be mean that northbound traffic on Massachusetts Street won’t be able to turn west onto Seventh Street. So, prepare a different route to the post office.

The city-owned parking lot behind The Eldridge also will be closed until about December 2016. The parking lot, which has 27 spaces, will be used to house construction materials. There will be some changes in access to the alley, but Thiel said a plan is in place that will allow delivery trucks to still access the alley to serve businesses in the 700 block of Massachusetts.

City commissioners will get a chance to review the traffic control plans for the project. The plans likely will be presented to commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting.

“We feel comfortable with what is proposed,” Thiel said. “There may be some things we tweak to try to accommodate other businesses, but we think they have submitted a pretty good plan.”

Reply 19 comments from Tom Thomson Mike Wahweotten Jan Faimon David Holroyd Carol Bowen Richard Heckler Terry Sexton Rick Masters Floyd Craig Bill McGovern and 5 others

Proposal for downtown grocery store at former Borders site emerges again

The idea of a downtown grocery store at the former Borders bookstore location is back in play. A leader with Lawrence’s Checkers grocery store has told me he’s now focusing his efforts on the former Borders building rather than a more aggressive proposal to build at 11th and Massachusetts streets.

In case you have forgotten, the former Borders store is at the southeast corner of Seventh and New Hampshire streets — catty-corner from the Journal-World offices. (Yes, engineers already are working on reinforcing the floor joists beneath my office to accommodate all the new “office supplies” I can get from a grocery store next door.) As we’ve previously reported, the Borders building is owned by a group led by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor. Those are the two leaders who want to build at the 11th and Massachusetts site as well.

But a representative for Treanor and Compton told me they’re open to now looking at the Borders site for a grocery store. That’s a significant piece of news.

The former Borders building, located at Seventh and New Hampshire streets, in a file photo from 2012.

The former Borders building, located at Seventh and New Hampshire streets, in a file photo from 2012.

“We would like to help downtown, and we think a grocery store would be fabulous for downtown,” said Bill Fleming, an attorney for Compton and Fleming.

Fleming, though, said the group is still doing some due diligence on the concept. It has hired a consultant to conduct a feasibility study to determine whether enough demand exists to support a grocery store in the downtown. He expects to have results from that study in two or three weeks.

“Nothing is set in stone yet,” Fleming said.

But it now does appear that efforts to get a downtown grocery store are going to be focused on the Borders site rather than the 11th and Massachusetts site. J.R. Lewis, an owner of Checkers, said the 11th and Massachusetts site had some real appeal, but it just doesn’t appear to be workable for a grocery store.

“It didn’t seem to be what the community wanted, and it wasn’t feasible from a parking situation,” Lewis said. “The location was a good one, but you couldn’t make the site work for a grocery store.”

Fleming said Compton and Treanor are still very interested in developing a project at 11th and Mass. Previous plans had called for a grocery store to be the ground-floor tenant of a multistory building that also would house apartments, offices and a below-ground parking garage. Fleming said a similar project could move forward with a different type of tenant for the ground floor.

“We’re not giving up on 11th and Mass. at all,” Fleming said. “But it will work better if we have something other than a grocery store, especially for the parking requirements.”

Lewis has long been interested in the Borders site. The Checkers group unsuccessfully tried to purchase the property from its previous, out-of-state owners. There has been some question of whether a grocery can locate at the site. There is a land-use restriction filed against the property that prohibits a grocery store in the building. (At one point in time neighbors were concerned about such a high-traffic use.) But Lewis said the group is committed to working with adjacent property owners to get their permission to remove the restriction.

“I think everybody can come together on this project,” Lewis said.

The former Borders building is 20,000 square feet. Lewis said that is the right size for a new-style type of grocery store. Lewis, though, emphasized that although the store would be considerably smaller than the Checkers at 23rd and Louisiana, the downtown store would be a full-service grocery rather than some type of trendy specialty grocer.

“It would not be a gourmet boutique store,” Lewis said. “We would still have an emphasis on low-price, high-quality fresh produce, and the type of items you find at our store today.” (To be clear, the existing Checkers would remain open too.)

Lewis said the new store would be designed to serve the day-in-day-out needs of residents in and around the downtown area.

That will be an important point of a citizens group — the Downtown Grocery Committee — that has formed to advocate for a downtown grocery store. It will be interesting to watch the political process on this one. There are some members of the grocery committee that don’t have warm and fuzzy feelings for the Compton and Treanor group. But I think the committee recognizes they’re the best hope to secure a grocery store for downtown. The committee has sent a letter to city commissioners outlining goals for the project. The letter includes more than 30 bullet points and gets into details ranging from parking issues to the structure of a lease for the grocery store. The letter also talks about future public incentives for the project. The committee says it will support some incentives for a grocery store but not all.

“City incentives should be mostly, if not entirely, limited to one-time investments in public infrastructure and the maintenance thereof,” the committee writes. “Ongoing incentives, such as tax abatements, should be avoided.”

That statement is not real clear, given that the phrase “tax abatement” has become kind of fuzzy. What is more common are tax increment financing districts that provide tax rebates for multiple years to help pay for infrastructure, parking and other such issues. Some consider those a tax abatement, and others don’t.

It is very early in this project, so I didn’t even attempt to ascertain what the developers are thinking about incentives at the moment. But it will be an issue to watch. The bigger one, though, will be whether neighborhood and development interests can work together to get a business that it appears both sides really want.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Some of you have noticed that a portion of the Borders parking lot has been fenced off, and that has created questions about what’s going on. Fleming told me that a portion of the parking lot will be used to store construction materials for the multistory building project that is underway at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets. The Compton and Treanor group also is developing that apartment/office project. The lot also may be used to store construction material for the planned expansion of the former Pachamamas building just down the street. The Compton and Treanor group plans to add multiple stories to that building and house apartments on the upper floors and either a restaurant or retail on the ground floor.

Reply 38 comments from Richard Heckler Dorothyhoytreed Pauljones Tc2587 Black7maker Tadgh Carol Bowen Clara Westphal Chris Bohling David Holroyd and 7 others

Lawrence sales tax collections still up for 2015, but beginning to slump to close out the year

Lawrence sales tax collections are a bit like the Kansas City Royals these days: They’re still in good shape, but concern is starting to grow that I shouldn’t have ordered 150 pounds of bean dip for the World Series party. In other words, both are in a bit of a slump.

The latest report from the Kansas Department of Revenue shows that Lawrence’s sales tax collections for the year are still 4.2 percent above last year’s collections at this point in time. But the report shows that most of that growth came early in the year, and now sales tax collections are coming in slightly behind last year’s total. For the August reporting period, the city’s sales tax collections were down 1 percent.

A slight drop in sales tax revenue for a single month isn’t that concerning. But what is more noteworthy is that city officials are continuing to express some concern that the 2015 sales tax total may fall short of budget. The city staff had been projecting that sales tax revenues would grow by 5 percent over 2014 totals. Staff members are now not confident such growth will occur.

“Our 5 percent revised budget doesn’t appear as conservative as we once thought,” staff of the city’s finance department wrote in a memo to the city manager’s office. “Staff will continue to monitor sales and recommend adjustments to the budget if it appears projections through 2015 continue to drop below the the 5 percent revised budget amount for the year.”

As we previously have reported, the city may find itself making some spending adjustments in 2015, in part because it wants to enter 2016 with a certain amount of cash reserves. If sales tax grows less than expected in 2015, that means sales tax collection in 2016 will have to grow more than expected in order to meet their budgeted amount.

We’ll see how the rest of the year goes. This most recent report was for the August period, but because of a lag in the sales tax reporting process, the report reflects purchases that were made in the mid-May to mid-June time period. Lawrence traditionally sees a spike in sales tax collections when students and their families prepare to return back to school. When the state issues its next couple of reports, we’ll know how big of a bump the city got this year from back-to-school activity.

As for how Lawrence compares to other large retail communities, it is a bit of a mixed bag. The latest report shows that Lawrence is lagging while several other communities are picking up steam. Of the eight major retail markets we track, only Sedgwick County posted a decline of more than 1 percent (down 1.7 percent) for the August period. Johnson County, on the other hand, posted a 1.4 percent gain in August, and Topeka was up 0.5 percent. Manhattan was up 1.1 percent and Salina up 1.9 percent.

But when you look at the year-to-date numbers, Lawrence is still doing well, thanks in part to a very hot start at the beginning of the year. Here’s a look at how Lawrence’s year-to-date growth rate of 4.2 percent stacks up to several of the other large retail centers in the state:

— Johnson County: up 1.3 percent

— Kansas City: up 3.9 percent

— Lenexa: up 4.1 percent

— Manhattan: up 2.4 percent

— Overland Park: down 1.9 percent

— Salina: up 3 percent

— Sedgwick County: up 1.7 percent

— Topeka: up 0.8 percent

On that list, Lawrence is still having the best year of any of the other retail areas.

So, maybe the bean dip order will be all right after all. But I’ve become convinced that I definitely should not have practiced the championship celebration in the living room — at least not with Gatorade that didn’t match the carpet.

Reply 7 comments from Clara Westphal Carol Bowen Stevenking Brett McCabe Richard Heckler

Credit union files plans to build new location in west Lawrence; city asked to spend an extra $78K for river trail

New windows for the house, a new ceiling for the basement, a back-up generator for the chocolate fountain: That’s the type of fall home improvement list — I learned this weekend — I’m facing at my house. Clearly only one of the three is reasonable, but it got me asking a question I often ask on a Monday: Are any new financial institutions opening in town? Indeed, there is news on that front.

Plans have been filed at City Hall for a new credit union branch near Sixth and Wakarusa. Wichita-based Mid American Credit Union is seeking to build a 2,100 square-foot credit union building that will include two drive-thru lanes and a drive-thru ATM.

Mid American Credit Union isn’t exactly a new player in town, but it is one that many folks maybe aren’t aware of. As we reported in April 2014, Mid American Credit Union took over the operations of the longtime Lawrence-based Jayhawk Federal Credit Union, after it fell on some hard times.

The lone branch for Jayhawk Federal Credit Union long had been located next to the production plant of the Lawrence Paper Company at 2901 Lakeview Road. The credit union was formed to serve the workers of the paper company years ago.

But Mid America now plans to close that location once it wins approval to locate in the Bauer Farm area in west Lawrence. Jim Holt, president and CEO of the credit union, said the credit union felt like it was time to get its Lawrence branch located in a more traditional retail area rather than in an industrial park.

“The location we have is OK for the folks who work out there, but it is not a high-traffic location, and it is not terrifically convenient for anybody else,” Holt said.

The new location will open up some growth possibilities for the credit union, although Holt said the credit union will take a conservative approach in adding new members. Technically, any resident of Douglas County is eligible to become a member of the credit union. But Holt said the credit union will be more selective in whom it targets as new customers.

“We’ll reach out to some other groups, some other businesses that don’t have credit union, and see if their employees would like to have an association with a credit union,” Holt said. “We target employers. We don’t really come in and say we’re for everybody in the community.”

The credit union has been very successful in doing that in Wichita. It has been operating there since 1936, and it has served as the credit union for large companies such as Learjet, Pizza Hut, Coleman and others.

Holt said the credit union likely will begin reaching out to several businesses in the west Lawrence area to see if their employees want to take advantage of the credit union’s new location.

“We have noticed it is a growing commercial area of the community,” Holt said. “That’s one of the things we liked about the location.”

As for details about the project, the building is slated for the lot directly behind the CVS drug store at Sixth and Wakarusa. Holt hopes the credit union will start operating out of the new building in May or June.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Well, I know how this goes. You start a construction project, then realize your original plans need to change a bit. (I should have known the smoke from the backup generator would waft over to the TV area.) Lawrence’s Parks and Recreation Department finds itself in a similar situation.

The department at Tuesday evening’s City Commission meeting will request an additional $78,000 to complete a trail along the south bank of the Kansas River between Constant Park and Burcham Park.

Commissioners in March approved an approximately $108,000 bid to construct the nearly seven-tenths of a mile long trail. But the parks department is now asking for additional funding so the entire trail can be constructed out of concrete. The original plans called for about a third of the trail to be constructed with concrete and about two-thirds with asphalt millings.

But now parks and recreation leaders are rethinking the feasibility of asphalt millings along the Kansas River.

“With the high rain totals and occasional flooding that has occurred in Lawrence in 2015, this area of park along the river has been constantly wet,” department leaders wrote in a memo to city commissioners. “After observing this site for nearly a year, staff believes concrete provides a better long-range surfacing option for this park area.”

Concrete is more expensive than asphalt millings; thus the price increase. The city has received about a $50,000 grant from the Sunflower Foundation that is paying for a portion of the trail. The city is proposing to take the unexpected $78,000 expense from a sales tax reserve fund of the city’s.

When the project is completed, the entire trail will be 10 feet wide and concrete. It is a pretty interesting trail project to watch. It will create a bit of a river walk that would be pretty easy for downtown visitors to access, if they choose. Constant Park is basically just north of Sixth and Kentucky streets.

My understanding is construction work is underway. I’m not sure when the new trail is scheduled to open. Work in that area is obviously very weather dependent.

Reply 2 comments from Floyd Craig Brett McCabe Clara Westphal

Local employer seeking to add about 400 employees; longtime liquor store to close; update on Farmer fallout and City Hall

I’m getting word that one of Lawrence’s larger employers is seeking to add about 400 new employees in the next several weeks.

General Dynamics is looking to add about 400 employees to its call center operations in the East Hills Business Park, according to a source with good knowledge of General Dynamics’ operations. The company — which runs a customer service center that answers the telephones for several large government programs — wants to fill the positions within the next three weeks.

I’m told the jobs will pay about $12.95 an hour and will include benefits. About 230 of the positions will be part time, while the remainder will be full-time positions. I believe the majority of the positions are customer service representatives, but the company has other positions open as well. Its website shows analysts, software engineers, human resource positions and several others.

I’ve got a call into the folks at General Dynamics Information Technology division, but I haven’t heard back. The company is notoriously tight-lipped. (As tight-lipped as they are, you would think their company’s history is in making secret weapon systems for the military.) But 400 new positions, even if some are part time and likely seasonal, is a fairly big hire in Lawrence, so I wanted to pass it along.

For those of you still confused about General Dynamics’ presence in Lawrence, the company is the successor of Pearson Government Solutions, which was a long time call center in Lawrence. The company is a major employer in Lawrence. Until Hallmark’s recent realignment, which added jobs to its Lawrence production plant, General Dynamics was the largest private employer in the city. With these new jobs, it may be again.

I think the company’s employment totals have fluctuated quite a bit, but at one point it had about 1,500 employees at its East Hills Business Park facilities.

In other news and notes from around town:

• If your Friday evening routine involves stopping off at Jensen’s Liquor — the longtime store at 620 W. Ninth St. — you’ll soon need to find a new way to quench your thirst.

Jeff Jensen, owner of the store, has confirmed he’s shutting the business down after 24 years of operation. The reason? “Having three liquor stores within 200 yards of each other has a little bit to do with it,” Jensen said. “It is a pretty competitive scene.”

The liquor stores are right at the base of the Kansas University campus, but try as they might, keeping all three of those stores afloat is too big of a chore even for KU students.

“I have had my distributors tell me that they think it is the only place in Kansas that has three liquor stores in basically a single block,” Jensen said.

Jensen said the business model for a successful liquor store also has changed significantly. He said the idea of a small neighborhood liquor store is losing out to the idea of larger liquor stores that can stock the wide variety of craft beers, vodkas and other spirits.

“There has just been an explosion of products in the liquor industry,” Jensen said. “You have to have more offerings to be competitive. I have 10 beer doors (coolers), and that was plenty when I opened. One distributor told me a new store in Kansas City has 52, and they are not sure that will be enough.”

(Geez, and my wife is giving me a hard time about having a measly dozen coolers in the house?)

As for a timeline for closing, Jensen said he’ll likely shut down in the next two to three weeks.

Jensen leases the building, and said he hasn’t heard any news of another business that is coming in to take his place.

“I think it is probably safe to say it won’t be another liquor store,” he said.

• A quick update on a city issue from yesterday’s column. I opined about how the city may want to consider whether it needs to do any further reviews following the latest news about former Mayor Jeremy Farmer now that the Just Food board is pursuing criminal charges against Farmer related to his alleged financial misdeeds at the nonprofit food bank.

I had a chance to chat with interim City Manager Diane Stoddard, and she believes the city has a good understanding of any exposure the city may have had related to Farmer’s time on the commission.

As we’ve previously reported, the city already has conducted a review of Farmer’s use of a city credit card, and has requested and received about $1,100 in reimbursements for expenses that city staff deemed were not related to city business.

Stoddard told me that was the area where the city was most exposed to direct spending by Farmer. Other spending actions by Farmer were made as part of the standard City Commission process that requires three votes to move forward.

My impression, at this point, is the city doesn’t plan to conduct any further reviews related to Farmer and his tenure on the commission. Granted, it may be difficult for the city really to determine much at this point. And I do believe the city has much better financial controls than Just Food did. Abuse of power, though, goes beyond purely financial matters.

Reply 27 comments from Bill McGovern Bob Smith Will White Clara Westphal Dorothyhoytreed Thesychophant Lawrence Freeman Fred Whitehead Jr. Ken Easthouse Carol Bowen and 4 others

Fallout from Farmer allegations may create questions at City Hall; process to find City Commission replacement gets going tonight

It arrived with a thud, but it wasn’t exactly unexpected. I’m talking about the other shoe dropping on Jeremy Farmer and his troubled tenure at Just Food.

I think for weeks now it has been clear to many folks in Lawrence that there was more bad news to come from Just Food and what it would find about its former executive director. After several weeks of seeking more information and records from Just Food, the the Journal-World learned Wednesday that Just Food’s investigation alleges that Farmer overpaid himself by more than $52,000 over a two-year period, among other misdeeds.

Now, the question becomes whether there are more shoes to drop. An organization that surely has that question on its mind is Lawrence City Hall. Farmer, of course, was a city commissioner and, at the time of his resignation in August, was the city’s mayor.

I asked Mayor Mike Amyx on Wednesday whether he thought the new allegations against Farmer should cause the city to conduct its own inquiry to assure everyone that Farmer was not misusing his public office. Amyx told me it was an issue he wanted to discuss with City Hall staff, but that he would provide me an answer.

It will be an interesting decision. The city already has reviewed Farmer’s city expense account and credit card information. It requested and received about $1,100 in reimbursements from Farmer for expenses that staff deemed were not part of city business. But is there more to look at? Let me be clear: I’m confident the financial checks and balances that exist at Lawrence City Hall are much more significant than what existed at Just Food. But are the worries about Jeremy Farmer confined to just how he deals with other people’s money? Should the city look at the much broader issue of whether there was an abuse of power by Farmer?

I don’t have any particular instances to report, but I think it is fair to raise the question at this point. If allegations made by Just Food are proven to be true — and that still needs to happen — then it is clear that Lawrence’s one-time mayor and city commissioner was devious and unscrupulous. Unfortunately you don’t have to look very far — see the vote buying scheme in Junction City — to see the damage devious and unscrupulous elected officials can do.

That will create concerns for Lawrence residents, who already made it clear that they believed the previous City Commission had broken some issues of trust as it related to the no-bid work at Rock Chalk Park, and with other issues.

What can the city feasibly examine at this point, though? That may be a tough one. The city could review all of Farmer’s official emails on his city account. Unfortunately, I believe a lot of city business is conducted on the private email accounts of commissioners.

The city could look at the point where Just Food came before the City Commission for items. Those instances weren’t numerous, but there were some.

Was Farmer unduly involved in the recommendation of any contracts awarded by the city? I’m not saying that he was, but the city awards a lot of contracts not through a straight-bid process but rather through a request-for-proposals process that gives the city leeway in what firms it chooses.

Perhaps the most important thing the city could do is to make it clear that it wants to know about any concerns related to Farmer and how he used his power as a city commissioner. I think it is particularly important to send that message to city employees. The rank-and-file employees who do the day-in-day-out work of running the city see an awful lot. I do believe city leaders try to promote a culture where employees are expected to come forward anytime they see something that raises a red flag. But, let’s face it, it can be difficult to tell that type of news to your boss. City officials may want to consider creating a system that makes that easier in this case. And, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention this: If city employees don’t feel comfortable telling their bosses, they can sure tell me.

There are probably other things the city can do to ensure that it knows the truth about Farmer and his tenure on the commission. The good news is the city has its own performance auditor. Auditors across the country have had to conduct these types of reviews in the past, so Lawrence wouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel.

Perhaps city leaders will find that there is no reason to look further into Farmer and his time on the commission. But given that many of us have been burned by Farmer, it would be foolhardy to not have the conversation.

• A quick note to clear up a rumor. There certainly have been statements made on social media that the approximately $1,100 in checks that Farmer wrote to reimburse the city for his improper usage of city credit cards bounced. That’s not accurate.

I checked with interim City Manager Diane Stoddard about that topic in mid-August, shortly after Farmer resigned. She sent me an email on Aug. 18 confirming that the checks had cleared the bank and that the city had been reimbursed. Stoddard confirmed to me again today that the checks have cleared.

• The work to find a replacement for Farmer’s seat on the commission really gets rolling tonight. The advisory board that is helping the City Commission review the 14 applicants for the vacant position meets at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.

The city has released information about how that meeting will proceed. Basically, the 12-member committee will spend some time discussing any extra letters of reference that some candidates have submitted. Then, each committee member will be asked to disclose his or her top four to six applicants, then explain his or her rationale for the ratings.

Once that part of the process is done, the advisory board members will be asked to complete a written ballot where they will select up to 12 semi-finalists. That process means there could be fewer than 12 semi-finalists. City Attorney Toni Wheeler and Senior Assistant City Attorney Randy Larkin will tabulate the votes. State Rep. Boog Highberger, who also is a member of the advisory committee, will monitor the vote tabulation.

The semi-finalists then will be announced, and they will move on to a public forum that will be hosted by the advisory committee and the Voter Education Coalition on Sept. 24. At the conclusion of the Sept. 24 forum, the advisory committee will recommend six names for the City Commission to consider.

Ultimately, the successful candidate must win a majority vote from the City Commission. City commissioners will hold a special meeting on Oct. 1 to interview the finalists. Commissioners are scheduled to select a successor at their Oct. 6 meeting.

Reply 22 comments from Kendall Simmons Nksmith Chad Lawhorn Richard Heckler David Holroyd Dave Greenbaum Zach Davis Judy Roitman Larry Sturm Brett McCabe and 8 others

New Italian deli and market coming to west Lawrence; informal survey finds neighbors dislike proposed Kasold changes

For some of us, our experience with Italian food doesn’t go much beyond spaghetti, all-you-can-eat breadsticks and a carb-induced nap that usually ends with the waiter waking you up to tell you more breadsticks have arrived. But that’s not the only type of Italian food that is popular. Lawrence is going to get a taste of an Italian deli with the opening of a new west Lawrence business.

Work is underway to convert the Miller Mart gasoline station and convenience store into Miceli Market and Deli. Jess Maceli, who co-owns the business with his wife, Renee, said he hopes to have the renovations completed by mid-October. The business is at 3300 W. Sixth St., but you may know it best as the gas station with a small kitchen that has spawned a number of successful restaurants. Restaurants such as Biemer’s BBQ, Tortas Jalisco and The Basil Leaf Cafe all got their start there.

Maceli, though, is doing this venture a little differently. He’s not renting space in the Miller Mart, but rather he’s purchased the entire building and convenience store business. He’s going to maintain the fuel service and the convenience store aspects of the business, but he’s going to add Italian meats, cheeses and other specialty Italian food products to the business. He’s going to rename the entire business Miceli Market and Deli.

Maceli has wanted to own an Italian market ever since growing up in the southeast Kansas town of Frontenac, which has a strong Italian-American heritage. It also has longtime business Pallucca’s Meat & Deli, where Maceli spent a lot of time as a kid.

“We’ve been wanting to do something like this for 10 or 12 years,” Maceli said. “We want a location where you can get a good quality lunch meat and a good quality sandwich. We’re going to try to be more unique than what you can find elsewhere.”

As for the food the store will offer, Maceli said the store has a deal to become a retailer of Volpi brand Italian meats, which is a longtime St. Louis-based company that bills itself as America’s oldest manufacturer of hand-crafted Italian meat products. That means salami will be a big part of the store’s deli case, with multiple varieties featured. Also look for prosciutto, an Italian-style dry-cured ham; for capocollo, a salted cold cut that is often seasoned with wine, garlic, and a variety of herbs and spices that vary depending on the region it comes from; and mortadella, which is kind of an Italian version of bologna. (Italians everywhere are swerving their Ferraris and screaming that bologna is an American version of mortadella.) An Italian sausage also will be among the meat offerings, Maceli said.

Italian cheese also will be stocked in the deli cases, so I’m assuming that means everything from provolone to gorgonzola to parmigiano-reggiano. Both the meats and cheeses will be sold by the pound.

The deli also will offer made-to-order sandwiches and panini’s, plus Maceli said there will be some pasta specials on a regular basis. He said his family has a rigatoni and meatball recipe that will be a staple of the menu. Also look for pasta salads and garden salads available to take out. Eventually, he said some dessert offerings will be added to the deli case, including homemade cannoli.

The deli also may offer up some good tales from time to time, including why the “Miceli” in the business’ name is spelled differently from the “Maceli” in Jess’ name. Jess said that goes back to his grandfather being a bootlegger during Prohibition times, and let’s just say after dealing with certain authorities, Grandpa thought it would be best to change the spelling of the family’s name a bit. The different spelling also may help eliminate some confusion in the Lawrence market. Downtown Lawrence is home to the longtime catering company Maceli’s. The catering company and the deli, however, aren’t owned by the same people and aren’t connected.

During the renovation of the deli space, the gas station and convenience store remain open. Maceli is operating that side of the business as well, and said a lot of work has gone into cleaning the facility, repainting, remodeling the bathrooms and just generally giving the location a new look.

“When we are done, the left-hand side will be the convenience store, and the right-hand side will be the market and deli,” Maceli said.

In other news and notes from around town:

• You’ll have to figure out how an Italian deli will fit into your diet. Meanwhile, residents along Kasold Drive are trying to figure out how a “road diet” will fit into their daily routines. As we have reported many times, city engineers are recommending a “road diet” for the portion of Kasold Drive between Eighth and 14th streets, which means engineers are recommending the number of lanes be reduced from two in each direction to one lane in each direction, plus a center turn lane. The idea, in part, is that the narrower road will be more friendly for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The idea hasn’t been universally loved, though. Well, City Commissioner Matthew Herbert has decided to try to get a better idea of what residents near the section of street think of the idea of a lane reductions. Herbert said on his commissioner Facebook page that he and his family started walking in the neighborhood surrounding Kasold and conducted a brief survey with residents.

An aerial view shows Kasold Drive looking northwest as it elbows near the intersection Harvard Road.

An aerial view shows Kasold Drive looking northwest as it elbows near the intersection Harvard Road. by Nick Krug

As of Monday afternoon, Herbert said he had received 27 responses from residents who were against the lane-reduction proposal and only three who were in favor of it. Granted, I don’t think the survey is scientific, but it is a pretty straightforward exercise to check in with people who live near the road. I haven’t had a chance to talk with Herbert about his findings yet, but on his Facebook page he expressed surprise at how lopsided the results are.

“I figured the neighborhood was opposed,” Herbert wrote. “I suppose I just didn’t realize they were nearly unanimously opposed.”

Herbert also sought to assure residents that no decision has been made on whether the Kasold lane reductions should move forward.

“City engineers may have decided what they will present as our best option, but without commission approval, they cannot go forth,” Herbert wrote.

For what it is worth, it is unclear to me when the Kasold project will come back up for discussion. It was scheduled to be voted on just prior to Jeremy Farmer’s surprise resignation from the City Commission. The fallout from that resignation, though, caused the city to pull the item from consideration because there were more pressing items for the commission to talk about at that meeting. But the item hasn’t shown back up on an agenda since then. The item does show up on the list of “future agenda items” that the commission keeps. But the Kasold project doesn’t have a date assigned to it.

Reply 20 comments from Jeff Simons Carol Bowen Kendall Simmons John McQuitty Janis Pool Richard Heckler David Holroyd John Sickels Bill McGovern Chris Johnson and 5 others

Free State Festival seeking sizable increase in city funding to keep event alive in 2016; city set to approve host of street parties, rides, parades

You never know what type of lesson you will learn by attending a Lawrence City Commission meeting on a Tuesday evening. This Tuesday, the lesson may very well be this: Funk doesn’t grow on trees. It takes money to do the funk.

All this talk of funk has to do with the Free State Festival, the growing music, film and cultural event that was headlined by George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic this summer. Well, work is underway to plan the 2016 festival, and while George Clinton likely won’t be on the schedule, you can bet the event will be funky nonetheless. But organizers of the event are now saying Lawrence City Hall needs to significantly increase the funding it provides to the festival.

At its Tuesday evening meeting, the commission will be asked to approve $100,000 in funding for the festival, which is up from $60,000 this year and $20,000 in 2014. As I said, funk doesn’t grow on trees.

Legendary funk artist George Clinton raises up the crowd as he performs with P-Funk as part of the Free State Festival, Wednesday, June 24, 2015 outside the Lawrence Arts Center.

Legendary funk artist George Clinton raises up the crowd as he performs with P-Funk as part of the Free State Festival, Wednesday, June 24, 2015 outside the Lawrence Arts Center. by Nick Krug

One other thing about funk: It keeps a tight calendar. The Lawrence Arts Center — the lead organizer for the festival — is drawing a hard line on the need for more city funding. Art Center CEO Susan Tate wrote in an Aug. 10 letter that she needs a decision by Sept. 15 — that’s tomorrow — on funding for the festival, or else the festival will be canceled in 2016. She wrote that if the funding issue is delayed past that date, it becomes too difficult to plan the festival.

It will be an interesting issue to watch. The festival is asking for $100,000 in transient guest tax funds. As part of its 2016 budget, the city has created a grant process for events to seek transient guest tax dollars. The entire grant program has a budget of $150,000, and it hasn’t yet begun to accept applications. I’m not sure whether it is being proposed that the $100,000 for the festival come out of the new grant fund or if the city would just find $100,000 in transient guest tax dollars elsewhere. I doubt the Arts Center cares how the city comes up with the money. But commissioners will need to figure out whether they are going to award money from the grant program before it has even begun, or whether they are going to exceed the 2016 budget by $100,000 before the new year has even begun.

Part of the reason the Arts Center is asking for more city money is because it doesn’t expect to receive as much grant money for the festival as it has in the past. The festival is budgeting for $50,000 in grants compared to the $75,000 in grant money the festival received in 2015 and 2014. But another reason the festival is seeking more city dollars is because it wants to have a larger budget. The 2016 festival is seeking a budget of about $400,000. The 2015 festival had expenses of about $335,000.

Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall.

In other news and notes from around town:

• It soon will be fall in Lawrence, which means at some point in time we are all required to consume large amounts of food and beverages on a city street that has been closed down for a party. (When city engineers started talking about “road diets,” I thought that is what they meant. I flipped my lid when I thought people were going to start serving turkey brats.)

Well, city commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday are scheduled to approve a host of events that will take place on city streets. Here’s a quick look:

Spectators line the streets as the 2014 Kansas University Homecoming Parade marches north on Massachusetts Street, Friday, Sept. 26  2014 in downtown Lawrence.

Spectators line the streets as the 2014 Kansas University Homecoming Parade marches north on Massachusetts Street, Friday, Sept. 26 2014 in downtown Lawrence. by Nick Krug

— Oct. 30 is the date for the KU Homecoming parade in downtown Lawrence. The parade is set for 6 p.m., but look for a party zone on the 100 block of Eighth Street. The city will allow the section of Eighth Street between Massachusetts and New Hampshire to be closed from 1:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. for the party zone and pep rally. (The party won’t be for the entire period. The time of the street closure also accounts for set-up and tear-down.) The city also is set to approve a permit for a beer garden as part of the event. That seems to be an important component of KU football these days.

— On Oct. 4 a portion of Massachusetts Street will be closed for the Lawrence Bicycle Club’s Octoginta ride. The section of Massachusetts Street from 11th to 13th streets will be closed from 6:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. to allow for bicycle staging. That is a Sunday morning, but city officials are promising access to all the churches in the area will be maintained.

— Just to prove that you don’t have to be downtown to throw a street party, city officials will close a portion of W. 29th Terrace on Oct. 2 for a fundraising event for the Lawrence Memorial Hospital Endowment Board. The LMH board is hosting its first Rock the Block - Kick Cancer Event. The section of West 29th Terrace that will be closed is from Iowa Street to Four Wheel Drive. That is the section of road that runs through the Lawrence Auto Plaza.

Competitors in the Kansas half marathon turn the corner at 7th and Massachusetts Street, running past the historic Eldridge Hotel in November 2014.

Competitors in the Kansas half marathon turn the corner at 7th and Massachusetts Street, running past the historic Eldridge Hotel in November 2014. by John Young

— On Nov. 1, Health Care Access is seeking permission to temporarily close various streets throughout Lawrence on Nov. 1 for the 2015 Kansas Half Marathon and 5K Run. The fundraiser for Health Care Access will begin and end at Watson Park near Sixth and Kentucky streets. The bulk of the event is expected to occur between 7 a.m. to 11 am.. That is a Sunday morning, so event organizers are being asked to contact area churches to ensure the race won’t impact access to church properties.

Click here for a look at the map for the half-marathon course. Click here for a look at the map for the 5K course.

In addition to the necessary permits, organizers of the event also are asking the Lawrence police and fire departments to donate services for the event, such as traffic control and medical standby services. The fire department estimates its costs will be about $2,200, while police estimate their costs at $6,000.

Ladies with the Saralee Garren-Victorian Ladies Club, Oskaloosa, ride in the annual Lawrence Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade.

Ladies with the Saralee Garren-Victorian Ladies Club, Oskaloosa, ride in the annual Lawrence Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade.

— Last but not least, mark you calendar for Dec. 5, if you are a fan of horses and carriages traveling down Massachusetts Street. Organizers for the Lawrence Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade are seeking a permit for Dec. 5 to use Massachusetts Street from 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. to accommodate the horse-drawn Christmas parade.

Reply 7 comments from David Holroyd Rick Masters Matthew Herbert Gregdivilbiss Tsadler

Local aviation business to undertake large expansion; city to consider spending $215k in tax funds to support big sporting events

Vinland — that small southern Douglas County farming community that is home to the Vinland Fair, old timey tractor pulls and chicken noodle dinners that leave me wringing out my tie for days — is again proving it also is a growing high-tech hub.

Vinland-based McFarlane Aviation Products has filed plans with county officials to build a $1.2 million expansion of its facilities that design, manufacture and distribute specialty aircraft parts. The plans are the latest signs of growth for the longtime family-owned business. Back in 2011, we reported on the company’s last significant expansion. In 2011, we reported the company had 38 employees. Company owner Dave McFarlane told me the business now has 63 employees. McFarlane said the expansion will allow for additional employee growth in the coming years.

“We’re continuously adding a few people at a time,” McFarlane said. “That’s our plan — slow and steady growth.”

McFarlane estimated that the expansion would allow the company to grow to 90 employees over the next five to seven years, although history suggests the timeline could change. McFarlane said the company is growing rapidly enough that this expansion is happening about 1.5 years ahead of schedule.

McFarlane said the company’s business has remained steady, even as the aviation industry as a whole has suffered through some downturns. McFarlane said that is because the company focuses on making parts for existing aircraft. As times tighten, aircraft owners look to keep their existing aircraft operational rather than buying new aircraft. That means buying more parts.

“Our part of the market is saving people money by improving the replacement parts so they last longer,” McFarlane said. “We’re a much more stable market because customers have planes that they have to keep in the air, and we can help them do that.”

The company has about 3,000 different parts it sells, with most focusing on smaller general aviation and business class aircraft, although some of the parts are for larger jetliners, too.

The company has ended up being a nice boost to the county’s economic development efforts. McFarlane said about half the business is related to the manufacturing process, but he said the other half is related to distribution, administration and engineering. The company employs its own engineers to design products, and it also has several technical people to deal with issues such as FAA approvals and communication with the approximately 20 international distributors that the McFarlane has contracts with.

As for the proposed expansion, plans filed with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department call for a new 24,000 square-foot building at the business’ current location at 696 E. 700 Road. That will be the third building on the site for the company. McFarlane said the company will move a portion of its manufacturing lines to the new building and also will run its shipping operations out of the new facility.

The site plan filed with the county also shows the location for another 17,000 square-foot building to be constructed in the future. McFarlane said he expects the company’s next expansion will be needed in five to seven years.

The current project already has the necessary zoning approvals and is just awaiting some technical approvals related to the layout of the site. McFarlane said he hopes to break ground before winter and to be operating in the new facility before summer.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Move over basketball. Lawrence may become a track and field town, or at least spend some money in an effort to become one.

City commissioners on Tuesday will consider spending about $215,000 in transient guest tax money to either attract or support a trio of track and field events that are either considering coming to Lawrence or already have announced they will host an event in the community.

The biggest one is the 2017 USA Track and Field Junior Olympic Championship. As we’ve previously reported, the city would like to host that weeklong event at Rock Chalk Park, but the Junior Olympic folks haven’t yet selected a site for the competition.

City officials are now saying they want to apply for the event, but it will take some money to do so. The nonprofit Lawrence Sports Corp. is seeking $150,000 over three years to apply and support the event. But the group also is touting that the event could bring more than 40,000 athletes and families to the city over a multiday period. Recent host cities — Jacksonville, Houston and Greensboro — have reported estimated economic spending ranging from $14 million to $20 million. All three of those cities have significantly more hotel rooms to sell than Lawrence does, which is a big part of the economic equitation, but the event would no doubt create significant spending in Lawrence. For planning purposes, the city is estimating $11 million in direct spending would be created by the event.

Commissioners will have to decide whether they want to use transient guest tax money — which comes from a special sales tax charged on hotel rooms — to try to lure the event. The sports corporation is asking for $40,000 this year, which includes a $25,000 application fee that has to be paid to be considered as a host city. If the city were awarded the event, the sports corporation would seek $55,000 in transient guest tax money in 2016 and $55,000 in 2017 to help cover a portion of the $460,000 of expenses that are expected to be part of hosting the event.

The city also is being asked to partially fund two other events that already have announced they are coming to the area. As we previously reported, the NCAA Division I track and field Midwest regional is set for May 28-30 at Rock Chalk Park. Local organizers are requesting nearly $57,000 in transient guest tax money to help pay about a third of the expenses expected as part of that event. The city is expecting about 3,200 athletes, coaches and spectators will attend that multiday event. The city is planning for the event to create about $1 million in direct spending.

The other event is the NCAA Midwest cross country regionals on Nov. 13. The event will be at Rim Rock Farms, which is in Jefferson County just a few miles north of Lawrence. In case you haven’t noticed, Jefferson County doesn’t have much in the way of hotel rooms, so Lawrence will be the big beneficiary of that event. Organizers are asking for about $8,300 of transient guest tax money to help pay for roughly a third of the event’s budget.

Commissioners will discuss the requests at their 5:45 p.m. meeting on Tuesday. The city has used tax dollars before to support or lure events to town, but usually you don’t see such requests come in threes. It is likely though that such requests will become more frequent in the future. When the city decided to be a partner in constructing the Rock Chalk Park sports complex, it was envisioned that the facilities would be used to attract regional and national events. Local communities often have to bear some of the costs to host those events.

Reply 8 comments from Richard Heckler Tsadler Sue McDaniel Samantha Martin David Holroyd Tyler Palmer

Warehouse project planned near Hallmark Cards plant; Eldridge expansion may land on city’s agenda again; city releases more info on candidates for vacant position

I know I’ve been on family vacations where a hotel next to a set of storage units and a warehouse would come in handy. (A forklift and a hernia belt to unload the trunk also would be nice.) Well, indeed there is a new self-storage and warehouse project slated for land next to a pair of hotels located near the Kansas Turnpike.

Plans have been filed at Lawrence City Hall to develop the vacant corner at McDonald Drive and Princeton Boulevard. In case you are having a hard time picturing the location, it is the lot in front of the relatively new Comfort Inn & Suites. It also is caddy-corner from the Holiday Inn.

A group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel has filed plans to construct three buildings that are labeled as climate-controlled storage spaces, and a fourth building that is labeled for use as general industrial, limited manufacturing and production uses.

If you are confused about why industrial uses are going in that area, remember that the lot also is adjacent to probably the largest industrial enterprise in Lawrence: the Hallmark Cards production plant. The site also is about 30 seconds away from the interchange for the Kansas Turnpike, so it is well-situated for a variety of industrial uses.

At the moment, though, it doesn’t appear that the project is being built to bring in any new companies to the area. Lawrence architect Paul Werner is designing the project. He briefly told me that the project is mainly to accommodate some businesses that are a part of Fritzel’s construction enterprises. Specifically, he said some of the space is planned to house a cabinet shop and a business called the Rock Shoppe. Both of those uses currently are located in downtown Lawrence, and both would benefit from being in a less congested area.

I think one, if not both, of those uses are located in the space that used to house Local Burger at 714 Vermont St. That is prime space that is right behind the Eldridge Hotel, which Fritzel also is an owner of. Werner didn’t provide me any information about that, but it will be interesting to watch whether this project clears the way for something more substantial to happen in the 700 block of Vermont Street. As we reported last week, construction on an expansion of the Eldridge is set to begin soon, so activity is heating up in the area.

As for the project at McDonald and Princeton, plans call for the biggest building on the site to be an approximately 17,000-square-foot warehouse. The plans also call for an approximately 14,000-square-foot climate-controlled storage building, an approximately 11,000-square-foot climate-controlled storage building, and a 3,100-square-foot climate controlled storage unit that will include a “work/live” unit. That suggests the project could have someone living on site to keep an eye on the property and the items being stored. I’m unclear on whether the storage business will be focused on folks like you and me who have old books, clothes, multi-tiered chocolate fountains and other such ordinary household items that need to be stored, or whether the project is focused more on serving the storage needs of other industrial businesses in the area. I’m thinking it may be the latter.

Regardless, the site already has the existing light industrial zoning needed to accommodate the project. It will be interesting to see how that area near the interchange develops in general. Lawrence in the past has struggled to meet the needs of industrial businesses that want to locate along Interstate 70, which is also the Kansas Turnpike. For years, the strategy was to try and develop the area near the Lecompton interchange just northwest of Lawrence as an area to attract distribution centers and other businesses that want to be near the interstate.

Thanks to some deal-making by Fritzel and the county, the community was able to accommodate Berry Plastics and its large new warehouse in the area near the interchange. But efforts to get other property zoned for industrial use near the Lecompton interchange have been met with lawsuits and concerns from neighbors. I’ve heard nothing that makes me think any effort to get more industrial property near that interchange will be successful in the near term.

Prior to the focus on the Lecompton interchange, the focus was on making the area near the East Lawrence interchange — which is actually in North Lawrence near the airport — an industrial area. But it is clear that will be very difficult politically, and could be difficult to feasibly build projects without creating storm water flooding problems for other properties in the area.

That leaves us with just one interchange left, and that is the one at McDonald Drive, next to the Hallmark Plant. There is not a lot of acreage left there to develop, but the vacant site across the street from Hallmark is about 50 acres, and it is zoned for industrial uses. It also is on the market. Hallmark owns the property but has decided it is no longer needed for any future expansions of its Lawrence plant.

For a long time it was kind of assumed the lot wasn’t all that feasible for building because of some topography concerns. But the city proved that wrong by saying it was its No. 1 site for a new police headquarters building. The city had a deal to purchase the site, but it fell through when voters rejected the bond issue for the police headquarters.

Now, the question is: Does the community really view that as a viable industrial site? It is zoned to allow a wide range of industrial uses, and it is very well situated for quick access to the interstate. Lawrence has its new VenturePark industrial park in eastern Lawrence along Kansas Highway 10. That gives the city something to show potential businesses, but those that want direct I-70 access may not put VenturePark on their list for consideration. I’m sure there would be concerns from some neighbors about industrial development on the property near McDonald Drive. But I also know there have been concerns from some community leaders about Lawrence not being able to take full advantage of its position along a major commercial corridor like I-70.

I bring it up not because I know of anything imminent for the McDonald Drive property, but it seems like an interesting and important discussion to have at some point.

In other news and notes from around town:

• As I mentioned, work to expand the Eldridge Hotel really is getting close to starting. My understanding is that city commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting may receive a plan related to traffic-control issues around the site to accommodate construction. What type of traffic or parking changes that may require, I don’t know yet, but we should find out soon.

I think there also is an issue related to industrial revenue bonds for that project. The bonds would allow the project to get an exemption from paying sales tax on construction materials for the project. The previous City Commission got the ball rolling on that IRB issue, but I don’t believe the commission ever finalized the issuance of the IRBs. According to a city memo, the current commissioners will be asked to finalize that process. I’m still double-checking what that means, but the memo says the commission will need to approve the first reading of the IRB ordinance.

That could be interesting to watch because this new group of commissioners has not been fond of those types of incentives. The previous commission passed a resolution of intent to issue the industrial revenue bonds. That resolution included language that the developer should not construe the resolution as a guarantee that bonds will be issued. But if this commission balks at following through on the IRBs, it will raise questions about whether developers were treated fairly. They were given an expectation by one city commission, planned a project around that expectation, and then had it changed by a new commission. On the other hand, some of the newly elected commissioners railed against incentives for the Eldridge project during the campaign. Like I said, it could be an interesting one to watch.

In case you have forgotten, the Eldridge expansion involves adding 54 guest rooms and additional restaurant and banquet space as part of multistory expansion on the vacant lot just south of the historic hotel. The previous commission approved a 85 percent property tax rebate through the Neighborhood Revitalization Act. As far as I know, that incentive already has been finalized and the current commission won’t have to act on that. But I’m double checking that. UPDATE: I heard back from interim City Manager Diane Stoddard. She confirmed that the NRA tax abatement has been finalized and doesn't require any more votes. She said the city staff also is still reviewing some issues related to the traffic control plan for the construction project. She said it now appears that the Eldridge items won't be on next week's agenda, but will be on later in the month.

A rendering of a planned expansion of the Eldridge Hotel in the 700 block of Massachusetts.

A rendering of a planned expansion of the Eldridge Hotel in the 700 block of Massachusetts.

• As we reported, the city on Wednesday released the names of the 14 people who have applied for the vacant seat on the City Commission. This morning, the city has posted their complete application packets — including the essays they were asked to write about various Lawrence issues — on the city’s website. We’ll have another article today further detailing who the applicants are, but if you just can’t wait, you can click here to see their application materials.

Reply 2 comments from David Holroyd Martha Oldham

New game store opens in West Lawrence; date set for downtown’s annual Zombie Walk; city seeking input on next city manager

I don’t know what you think of when you hear the phrase “Rolling Gnome,” but I know I’m reminded of a long night with a Halloween bail bondsman. Perhaps in the future, though, you will think of a rollicking good time with a set of board games.

All this is to say there is a new game store in town by the name of Rolling Gnome Games. The store recently opened at 3727 W. Sixth St. in the building that houses Rueschoff security and several other businesses.

In today’s world, when you hear of a game store, you think of Xbox, Playstation or some app that unleashes the true power of your “smart” phone. (Nothing makes us smarter than learning the craft of mining in a fictional world.) But Rolling Gnome co-owner Maximillian Tompkins said his store isn’t focusing on those types of games. Instead, it specializes in the world of board games, card games and other such fun. He said the idea of board games is making a comeback.

“It is a great way to get people to start talking to each other,” Tompkins said. “It is a great way to socialize.”

The store sells strategy games, thematic games, party games, family games, role playing games, miniature games, card games and even something called Eurogames. (I’m not directly familiar with Eurogames, but I assume they involve constant arguing over the euro, and a player dressed as Angela Merkel who is required to constantly yell “Nein, Nein,” to the player who has the misfortune of playing the role of Greece.)

If you are not quite sure whether your toga fits anymore (I assume that’s what Greece wears), you can rent a game instead of buying it. Tompkins said the store has a program where you pay 10 percent of the retail price, and you can take the game home for 24 hours. If you decide to buy the game, the 10 percent is applied to the purchase price.

In addition to games, the store also sells several miniatures, Star Wars collectibles and other such items. The store also will host demo nights, and it has a special area where people can come and play games in-store.

The idea of a board game store actually has become a bit of a trend in the Lawrence retail market. If you remember, we reported back in June about about Topeka-based Boom Comics signing a deal to open a large comic book shop that also will be a major game store in the former Kief’s building on south Iowa Street.

Tompkins — who owns the store with his mother, Holly Tompkins — said he thinks Lawrence’s combined market of college students and families can support another store.

“I was working at a dead end job, and I really love board games,” Tompkins said. “There is not one in this area of town, and I felt like it was time.”

In other news and notes from around town:

• I know I’m busy making my Angela Merkel zombie costume. Hopefully, you are too. Lawrence’s Ninth Annual Zombie Walk is coming up. The date is set for Oct. 15 in downtown Lawrence. Like in years past, hundreds of people dressed in zombie costumes gather at South Park at sunset and then parade down the sidewalks of Massachusetts Street.

Mike Logan of The Granada is one of the major organizers of the event this year, and he is smart enough to know that you don’t do zombies in Lawrence without first going through City Hall. Commissioners at their meeting last night approved a permit that will allow The Granada to host a “zombie watch party” on a portion of the vacant Allen Press property in the 1000 block of Massachusetts Street. The watch party will include music, a beer garden, food vendors and other entertainment suited for all ages. The event also includes opportunities for people to make donations, and it looks like this year’s major beneficiary is the Lawrence Humane Society. (Expect a big crowd because the zombies are likely to read it as Human Society, which really gets them excited. Zombies are terrible readers.)

Maisy Mack, 4, Eudora, right, checks out a nearby zombie during the 8th annual Lawrence Zombie Walk Oct. 2, 2014.

Maisy Mack, 4, Eudora, right, checks out a nearby zombie during the 8th annual Lawrence Zombie Walk Oct. 2, 2014.

It looks like The Granada also is hosting a couple of other special events prior to the Oct. 15 zombie watch party. Commissioners also approved a permit for a free concert — also on the Allen Press lot — for Sept. 16. Logan told me this morning that party is to help celebrate The Granada's birthday. The concert is set to be One More Time: A Daft Punk Tribute. (Based on my failure to properly explain Eurogames, I don't think you want me trying to explain what that means.) Also approved was a permit for a free concert on the same lot, which is just south of The Granada, on Oct. 9. Concert details on that event is still being worked out. In addition to the concerts, both events will include beer gardens and food booths.

• Maybe creating a new department for Zombie Watch Party permits is your top priority for a new Lawrence city manager. Or, perhaps, it is something else. City officials are interested in knowing about it.

City officials have launched a new online survey seeking feedback on the most important “characteristics/attributes” of the next city manager. In case you have forgotten, the city is seeking a new city manager to replace David Corliss, who took a similar job in Colorado.

The online survey asks you a few demographic questions about your time in Lawrence and what you do in the city. But the meat of the survey involves choosing from a list of attributes the ones that you find most important in a city manager. People can choose up to seven. Here’s the list that you can choose from:

— approachability/accessibility

— Involvement/presence in the community

— Experience outside Lawrence

— Ties to Lawrence

— Strong leadership with expert voice

— Experience with economic development

— Experience managing people

— Experience with municipal finance and budgeting

— Experience with strategic and long-range planning

— Experience with social issues (e.g. mental health, homelessness, and affordable housing.)

— Experience with cultural competence and diversity

— Experience with managed growth in cities

— Experience with multi-modal transportation in cities

— Experience with collective bargaining

The city will tally the results of the survey, and present them to city commissioners in October. People can take the survey online through Oct. 2. Click here or go to lawrenceks.org/lawrence-listens to take the survey.

• A quick update on the search for someone to fill the vacant seat on the Lawrence City Commission. The deadline to apply for the appointment is 5 p.m. today at City Hall. Yesterday I reported that Charlie Bryan, a health planner for the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, was considering applying for the open seat. He got back in contact with me this morning. He said he did indeed give the idea a lot of thought, but has decided not to apply for the spot. That puts us back to four folks who have confirmed an interest in applying for the position: former City Commissioners Terry Riordan and David Schauner, former school board member Scott Morgan, and former city commission candidate David Crawford.

Reply 2 comments from Richard Andrade David Holroyd

Questions of whether city and school district can work together on school inspections; three more names emerge for vacant seat on City Commission

It wasn’t a great Labor Day weekend for the Lawrence school district. On Sunday, J-W reporter Karen Dillon had an article about how a former supervisor at the New York Elementary School project quit after he became frustrated by many cut corners, including several that involved safely securing the construction site.

We’ll continue to follow this story, but as we do, I thought it would be good to throw in an additional piece of context. In a nutshell, it is this: The school district does have a reason to be mad at Lawrence City Hall about all of this.

It is still unclear why the school district allowed this project to move forward the way it did, but it is easy to see how the problem has its roots in a lack of cooperation between the city and the school district.

As we’ve previously reported, the school district’s construction projects aren’t being inspected by the city’s building inspections department. That’s because the school district balked at paying the estimated $285,000 in building permit fees that the city would charge for the approximately $92 million worth of school construction work happening across the city.

An aerial view shows the construction site at New York Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015.

An aerial view shows the construction site at New York Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. by Nick Krug

Previous City Manager David Corliss didn’t want to waive those fees, in part because it does cost the city real dollars to send inspectors to a job site. The building permit fees are the way the city pays those inspectors. The previous City Commission backed Corliss on the idea of not waiving the fees, but passed an ordinance that allowed the school district to hire its own inspectors, and thus be exempt from the city’s building permit fees. It is now becoming clear the school district’s idea of how to properly inspect a job is quite a bit different from how the city goes about inspecting a project.

But here’s the piece of context that perhaps some have forgotten: The city certainly does inspect projects without charging a building permit fee. It just chose not to extend that policy to the school district.

The example that sticks in my mind is Rock Chalk Park. Of the many incentives the city gave the sports complex, one of them was a rebate on the building permit fees for the track and field, soccer and softball facilities. According to information we gathered at that time, the city rebated about $65,000 worth of building permit fees to the Rock Chalk Park developers. The City Commission rebated the fees under the idea of an “economic development grant.” Certainly, the Rock Chalk Park project has the ability to be a positive driver for economic development in Lawrence. It would seem, however, that $92 million worth of school improvements could be an economic driver for the community as well. Think of how many people make their decision of where to live based off the quality of the public schools.

City employees, Parks and Recreation advisory board members and guests get a tour of the 6,500-seat Kansas University track and field facility during a tour of Rock Chalk Park, Tuesday, June 10, 2014.

City employees, Parks and Recreation advisory board members and guests get a tour of the 6,500-seat Kansas University track and field facility during a tour of Rock Chalk Park, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. by Nick Krug

It is worth noting that none of the current commissioners voted for that Rock Chalk Park fee rebate. Only Mayor Mike Amyx was on the commission at the time, and he did not support the idea.

The Rock Chalk Park project, though, is not the only one to receive a break on building permit fees. The city historically has done building inspections for affordable housing projects, but has waived the building permit fees. In 2013 and 2014 the city waived a total of about $15,000 in building permit fees for such projects.

One other organization that routinely gets a break on building permit fees is Lawrence Memorial Hospital. The city inspects building projects at LMH, but the not-for-profit hospital doesn’t pay a building permit fee. Technically, the hospital is owned by the city, but it operates as an independent business. It doesn’t receive any Lawrence tax dollars to operate. The hospital is one of the more financially successful enterprises in Lawrence. I think most would agree that the school district is not.

The point of all this is to question whether the city needs to have further discussion about how it wants to handle projects in the future. What is done is done, but there is still quite a bit that is not yet done. For example, the school district is just now filing the necessary paperwork to begin construction on improvements at Pinckney Elementary School. Do the school district and the city think it is still a good idea that projects like that one and others don’t go through the city’s standard building inspections process? Is there a way that the two entities — which are funded primarily by the same set of taxpayers — could reach some sort of compromise on the building permit fees?

I don’t know. It will be an interesting issue to watch, and we’ll continue to report on it.

In other news and notes from around town:

• I don’t know if people should put a lock on their wallets quite yet, but it is beginning to feel a bit like election season. I’ve got two names for you of people who plan to file for the open seat on the Lawrence City Commission. Former City Commissioner David Schauner and former school board member Scott Morgan both have told me they plan to file for the seat, which is open after the sudden resignation of Jeremy Farmer following his financial problems at Just Food.

I’m hearing a few more names in the rumor mill, and we may hear some more today because the filing deadline is near: 5 p.m. Wednesday. As a reminder, this isn’t an election. It is an appointment process. The remaining four city commissioners will choose somebody by a simple vote to fill out Farmer’s term, which ends in January 2018.

Schauner and Morgan are in addition to former City Commissioner Terry Riordan, who told me last week he would file for the open spot.

Schauner served on the City Commission from 2003 to 2007. He won two elections — finishing third and receiving a two-year term each time. He then lost his bid for re-election in 2007. Schauner said he thinks his experience as a commissioner would be beneficial.

“I think my learning curve on how the process works is quite a bit less steep than it will be for people who haven’t served before,” Schauner said.

KNEA general counsel David Schauner speaks Monday during a news conference announcing the group plans to sue over House Bill 2506.

KNEA general counsel David Schauner speaks Monday during a news conference announcing the group plans to sue over House Bill 2506. by Scott Rothschild

Schauner was elected during a time period when the big issue was whether a new Wal-Mart should be built near Sixth and Wakarusa. He was part of the group that was concerned the big-box retailer would cause harm to the surrounding neighborhood, and Schauner said taking a long-term view of issues continues to be important.

“My goal has always been to balance competing interests,” Schauner said. “I don’t think we should sacrifice long-term sustainability for short-term gain.”

Morgan served on the school board eight years — once from 1999 to 2003 and then from 2007 to 2011. Morgan said he thinks his time period on the school board gave him some skills that would be beneficial to the City Commission. He noted he was part of the process of hiring two superintendents during his time on the board. City commissioners currently are in the process of hiring a city manager.

“The hiring of the manager is probably the most important thing the City Commission will do,” Morgan said. “So many of the day-to-day decisions flow from who you hire as a manager.”

Lawrence Republican Scott Morgan is challenging GOP incumbent Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Lawrence Republican Scott Morgan is challenging GOP incumbent Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Morgan said his time period on the school board — which included the controversial discussions of consolidating some schools — taught him a lot about how to work in the public realm.

“I don’t feel like I’m in anybody’s particular camp,” Morgan said. “I know people in all the different camps. I’ve learned that you have to get along with a lot of different people in Lawrence if you want to accomplish anything.”

We’ll see who else may file before tomorrow’s deadline. I have heard a few other names, and have reached out to them for confirmation. So, at the moment, take these for whatever you think it is worth. I have heard David Crawford, who was a candidate during the last City Commission election, is contemplating applying. He’s an East Lawrence resident who got into city politics while trying to lure a grocery store to downtown Lawrence. UPDATE: I’ve just gotten confirmation that Crawford plans to file for the seat.

“I think I have some unfinished business from the last cycle,” Crawford said, referring to the most recent City Commission elections, where Crawford was eliminated in the primary. “The downtown grocery store project is not dead, and the issue of a food desert has not gone away either.”

I’ve also heard Charlie Bryan is considering applying. Bryan is a community health planner for the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department. Bryan has been fairly active in encouraging the city to undertake more projects related to pedestrians, bicyclists, and rethinking how large roads need to be to accommodate motorists.

I’ve also heard from a few other folks who have said they are not planning to apply. That includes former City Commissioner David Dunfield — who had helped on the recent campaign of Commissioner Leslie Soden. Stan Rasmussen, the fifth-place finisher in the most recent election, said he also would not apply. He said he thought the commission erred by creating the current selection process. He said the seat should have been given to Riordan, who was the fourth-place finisher in the election — or in other words, the person with the highest number of votes who did not win a seat.

“I think they are going to go out of their way to not select anyone from the general election,” Rasmussen said. “If they wanted to consider somebody from the general election, they could have just gone right to Dr. Riordan. They made a really conscious decision to not do that.”

I’ll let you know if I hear other names in advance of the 5 p.m. filing deadline tomorrow.

Reply 4 comments from David Holroyd Patti Poe Melinda Henderson

Update on future of former Ramada Inn site; gasoline prices ahead of holiday weekend, and why Lawrence envies Topeka

If you have booked your mother-in-law to stay in Lawrence’s Ramada Inn this Labor Day weekend, good for you. Bad for your mother-in-law. In case you haven’t noticed, the former Ramada Inn property at Sixth and Iowa streets is largely torn down.

I’ve been getting several questions about what the future holds for the large, well-situated property. As we reported in April, Lawrence-based Williams Management bought the run-down property from an East Coast bank. Adam Williams, leader of the local development group, said then that he would tear the building down and then look for redevelopment opportunities.

Workers with King's Construction separate scraps of metal from brick and concrete during the demolition process of the former Ramada Inn building located at 2222 West 6th Street, on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. The property, which is owned by Lawrence-based Williams Management, is expected to be redeveloped.

Workers with King's Construction separate scraps of metal from brick and concrete during the demolition process of the former Ramada Inn building located at 2222 West 6th Street, on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. The property, which is owned by Lawrence-based Williams Management, is expected to be redeveloped. by Nick Krug

I talked with Williams again this week, and he said interest in the property has been strong, but he’s not yet able to announce a redevelopment plan. Williams said he’s been in discussions with other parties who are interested in redeveloping the site, and he believes something will be “coming down the line soon.”

“It is a very, very good bet that it won’t be a vacant lot for long,” Williams said.

In April, Williams told me the commercial zoning of the property makes it well suited for a variety of uses such as an office building, a retail development or even a gas station. Williams said he didn’t see redevelopment plans focusing on apartments. Williams this week said that’s still the case.

Williams said he’s still open to talking with other parties about potential developments for the property, but he thinks there will be plans filed for the site in about the next 60 days.

The site will be one to keep an eye on. It is unique to have nearly four acres of vacant, commercially zoned land at one of the busier intersections of the community.

“It is kind of a gateway to Lawrence in a lot of ways,” Williams said. “Coming off the turnpike, it is one of the first things you are going to come across.”

As for the status of the demolition at the site, Williams said there is one small wall that needs to come down on the property, but some utilities need to be moved before that work can be finished in the next few days.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Maybe you are driving to see your mother-in-law this holiday weekend. If so, figure out how to drive through Topeka, and I’m not just recommending it so you can fill your nostrils with the beautiful smell of Kansas politics. Instead, fill your tank with cheap gas.

Gas in Topeka is selling for an average of $2.16 a gallon, according to the Daily Fuel Gauge Report by AAA. In Lawrence, the average price per gallon is about $2.45, according to the same report. I don’t know what happens in the approximately 30 miles between Lawrence and Topeka that causes gas to be so much cheaper in the Capital City. Despite popular belief, perhaps the Statehouse isn’t sitting on a pocket of hot air, but rather cheap oil. I don’t know. Or maybe Topeka isn’t run by the governor but rather is secretly controlled by oil tycoon Jed Clampett.

Again, I don’t know, but several readers have called to complain about the discrepancy in recent days. The fact that Topeka has cheaper gas than Lawrence isn’t anything new, but the discrepancy has grown a bit. Last year at this time, the average gasoline price was $3.37 a gallon in Lawrence, but $3.20 in Topeka — a difference of 17 cents or about 5 percent. Today, the difference in price is 32 cents or about 15 percent.

Such price differences frequently lead to accusations of collusion by gas station owners in Lawrence. I don’t know. I’ve never found any evidence of that, but then again, all my efforts to go undercover in the Lawrence convenience store industry have been thwarted when I become too distracted by the Slurpee machine.

I think a more interesting question to ask is whether there is something about Lawrence that causes us to pay a premium to live here? Local real estate prices for a long time have suggested there is something to this idea of a Lawrence premium. Home prices here are consistently higher than in several other communities, especially when you compare home prices to average incomes. That’s true even when you factor out low-wage earning students. Someday, I will postulate a theory about all of this, but at the moment, I have a Slurpee cup to refill.

Regardless, you may want to know more about gasoline prices in the state and region ahead of this traditionally busy travel weekend. Here’s a look from AAA:

— Statewide average: $2.34

— Lawrence: $2.45

— Kansas City, Kan.: $2.42

— Topeka: $2.16

— Wichita: $2.24

— Kansas City, Mo.: $2.15

— Denver: $2.70

— Oklahoma City: $2.25

— Omaha: $2.61

— National average: $2.42

Reply 3 comments from Floyd Craig David Bishop Zach Davis Lawrence Freeman

New multimillion dollar medical building set for west Lawrence; future of Clinton Parkway interchange may spark a battle

I don’t know what you west Lawrence residents are doing, but the medical community sure thinks you need its help. The area around the west Lawrence intersection of Sixth and Folks Road is becoming quite the medical hub, and a new million dollar-plus project aims to add to it.

Plans have been filed at City Hall for a $2.5 million building that will be the new home for a pediatric dental practice, plus have space for two other medical offices. Growing Smiles Pediatric Dentistry will be the primary tenant for the new building, which will be constructed on a vacant lot just east of the Central Bank of the Midwest building that is on the northeast corner of Sixth and Folks Road.

Lawrence dentist Kelli Henderson operates Growing Smiles Dentistry and the practice is located in office space near Bob Billings and Wakarusa. Henderson’s husband, Jake Stoetzner, is leading the development of the new building. Stoetzner said the new location will about double the space Growing Smiles has for patients and staff.

“It will allow us more space and serve our patients better,” Stoetzner said. “It will allow for faster turnaround times so we can see more patients. We would like to add additional dentists down the road, but we would still be focused on pediatric dentistry.”

Growing Smiles will take about half of the approximately 14,000 square-foot building. The other half is designed to accommodate two more tenants. Stoetzner said deals have not been struck with any tenants yet, but he’s hoping the building will be able to attract other medical-oriented businesses.

If so, it would continue a bit of a trend for the intersection. As we’ve previously reported, Topeka Ear Nose and Throat has located in a new building at the southwest corner of the intersection, and plans have been filed for Xpress Wellness Urgent Care at the northwest corner of the intersection. The trend has been underway for a couple of years. Peterson Krische Van Horn Family Dentistry was one of the first to build at the intersection, with a nice medical building that is just to the north of the Growing Smiles site. (For some reason, anytime two dentists are located next to each other, I get a mental picture of dueling dentists with water picks in the parking lot. But I’m sure that doesn’t happen — in the light of day.)

Sigler Pharmacy also is located right near the intersection, and CVS is just a block away at Sixth and Wakarusa. If you want to expand the area just a bit, construction work is underway near Sixth and Kasold on another new urgent care facility. MedExpress is going in where Spangles previously was located. Wow, it is almost like the health care industry is a major driver of the U.S. economy.

Anyway, keep your eyes open for construction work on the Growing Smiles site. Stoetzner said he expects to start work in late October and have the building completed by next summer.

In other news and notes from around town:

• It may not be as fierce as a water pick battle, but I do expect some opposition to the idea of closing the Clinton Parkway interchange on the South Lawrence Trafficway.

As we reported earlier this week, KDOT officials briefed local leaders on the idea of permanently closing the Clinton Parkway interchange as part of a future project to make the western leg of the SLT four lanes. KDOT has to find funding to do the massive project, so a timeline isn’t known. But it is a good bet that it will happen. The state is spending nearly $200 million to build the eastern leg of the SLT as a four-lane. To not make the western leg of the SLT a four-lane would be like my wife buying a new purse without buying the shoes to match. Or me buying a new set of golf clubs without purchasing liability insurance. (I’m trying to be equal opportunity here, and I’m also trying to lay the groundwork for a new set of golf clubs.)

By the end of the year, KDOT hopes to have a concept plan approved for the four-lane project. One alternative keeps the Clinton Parkway interchange, but another one eliminates the interchange. Motorists who currently use the interchange would have to take a new access road that would be built along the west side of the SLT and would run from Clinton Parkway to Bob Billings. In case you have forgotten, a new SLT interchange is being constructed at Bob Billings and should be completed before the end of the year.

I’ve already started to hear from folks who don’t like the possibility of the Clinton Parkway interchange being eliminated. Greg DiVilbiss is a local developer, and his family owns five acres of commercially zoned property at Lake Pointe Drive and Clinton Parkway. The property is currently vacant, and Divilbiss said removing the nearby interchange would devastate the property’s value and potential for commercial development.

“We’re 1,000 percent against the idea,” DiVilbiss said.

KDOT has expressed interest in removing the interchange because it says traffic volumes at the interchange are relatively low and are predicted to be relatively light in the future. The interchange also is at the site of a large curve on the road, and engineers have noted that is not ideal for safety purposes.

But removing the interchange will have a big impact on people who have invested in the area. DiVilbiss noted that his family already has paid about $250,000 in special assessments on the property, and it did so with the the belief that the existing interchange was going to be there to serve the commercial property.

Although the property is vacant currently, he thinks there is good potential for commercial development in the future. He said one concept plan includes about a 15,000 square-foot neighborhood shopping center, a small hotel, and a nice restaurant with a rooftop deck that could provide views of nearby Clinton Lake.

“It could be one of the best views in the city,” DiVilbiss said.

There is a developing neighborhood in the area as well. Having easy access to the SLT —which will make commuting to KC or Topeka much easier — probably was a selling point to some homeowners in the area.

Some of those homes could be at risk of being relocated, as well. KDOT has said it wants to improve the geometrics of the SLT’s large curve in the area. That could involve moving the road closer to the homes. Here's a map that we ran from a previous article about possible KDOT options to change the curve to better accommodate a 70 mph speed limit.

But a bigger issue for the community in general may be what type of access we think Clinton Lake deserves. State officials note that people still will be able to access Clinton Lake via Clinton Parkway, just as they do today. But if you are coming in from outside the community, it is nice to access the lake via the trafficway. That could continue, but folks would have to travel to the Bob Billings interchange and then take a new access road. The distance is probably around 10 blocks, so I guess it is a matter of opinion how significant that is.

I do wonder, though, whether KDOT officials have had a conversation with their fellow state workers in the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism. The current leaders of that agency have had hopes of locating a significant resort in the Clinton Lake State Park. That idea has struggled to gain momentum in the hospitality industry. If the interchange for Clinton Lake disappears, I would think that would further cripple any momentum for the resort idea.

Clinton Lake is one of the most expensive infrastructure projects ever constructed in Douglas County. It seems the community never has figured out how much it really wants to capitalize off of the lake. The time to get it figured out probably is drawing near.

Keep your eyes open for a date for an open house in mid-to-late October where you'll be able to express opinions to KDOT leaders.

Reply 13 comments from Mikeg Stevenking Notwhatyouthink2 Gregdivilbiss Curtis Lange Chase Blackwood Mommatocharlie Dorothyhoytreed Laura Wilson Bruce Bertsch and 1 others

Another national chicken chain files plans for south Iowa Street; shopping center near 25th and Iowa to undergo major renovations

The next time I’m driving down south Iowa Street, I think there is a good chance that I’ll replace my seat cushion with a nest of straw and start sprouting feathers. Yes, that’s my way of telling you there is another chicken restaurant coming to south Iowa, and it is one that folks have been clamoring for.

Popeyes is listed as a tenant on a plan for a remodeled shopping center near 25th and Iowa streets. The site is the Tower Plaza shopping center just south of the Applebee's on Iowa Street. That shopping center includes First Watch, Papa Murphy’s and several other smaller businesses. The center previously included the Lawrence Workforce Center, but it recently moved to the new Peaslee Tech vocational education building near 31st and Haskell. That ended up being an important move for chicken lovers and drug stores that sell cholesterol medicine. Plans call for a portion of the shopping center that housed the workforce center to be demolished to make way for a standalone Popeyes building with a drive-thru. So, the restaurant will be right near the corner of 26th and Iowa streets.

The Kansas City firm R.H. Johnson Co. is redeveloping the center, but lead developer Eric Gonsher said it was too early to start talking about tenants for the site. But the plans filed with the city —if you have eaten your spinach and have the eyesight to read the fine print — show Popeyes in a tiny chart that lists tenants and required parking spaces. (If you ever want to win a chicken trivia contest, and I know you do, you should note that Popeyes is not named after the famous spinach-eating cartoon sailor. It is named after . . . Popeye Doyle from the movie "The French Connection," according to the restaurant’s website.)

If you are not familiar with the Popeyes restaurant chain, you apparently have already have had feathers grow over your eyelids and shield your view of the world. It is one of the larger chicken chains in the country, and it produces what it calls Louisiana-style chicken. I think that it means its breading has more Cajun spices than traditional chicken. The restaurant also has some southern seafood on its menu, including fried shrimp, po’boy sandwiches and Cajun fish. It also has all your traditional sides like cole slaw, mashed potatoes, biscuits, plus the Louisiana staple of red beans and rice.

Popeyes is just one change that is coming to the shopping center. The entire facade of the existing strip center retail building is set to change. The center was built in 1993.

“We’re just going to make it look new again,” Gonsher said.

The plans also show a new standalone restaurant building north of the Applebee's building. That would put it close to 25th and Iowa streets. Gonsher said it was too early to discuss tenant information about that building, but I’ve heard it is a national restaurant chain that has moved into the Kansas City area but hasn’t yet come to Lawrence. The plans submitted to City Hall don’t include a drive-thru, so it appears to be more of a sit-down restaurant. It is not a huge one, though. Plans show the restaurant at about 2,400 square feet, which is a little smaller than the Popeyes restaurant is slated to be. So, I’ll put on my Sherlock Holmes bib and do a little restaurant detective work this fall. (The man wore expensive clothes. Trust me, he had a bib.)

Gonsher confirmed what nearly everyone else in the commercial real estate market has been telling me: south Iowa Street is getting a lot of interest from companies looking to locate in Lawrence right now.

“It is clearly where all the nationals want to be,” Gonsher said. “It is a ton of traffic and great visibility. It is clearly the dominant retail corridor in the market, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

As for the chicken explosion on south Iowa Street, let me bring you up to speed. Buffalo Wild Wings already has opened near 27th and Iowa. Raising Cane’s, a chicken finger restaurant, is slated for a spot at 2435 Iowa St. in the location that used to house Emprise Bank in front of Bigg's BBQ.

Then there is Chick-fil-A. As we previously reported, that restaurant opened today at its 27th and Iowa location in front of Dick's Sporting Goods.. In case you are wondering, people indeed did camp out in the restaurant's parking lot to be among the first 100 people in line when the store opened this morning. The first 100 received a voucher for one free Chick-fil-A meal per week for a year.

People camping outside of the Lawrence Chick-fil-A at 27th and Iowa streets in advance of the store's opening. Courtesy: Chick-fil-A.

People camping outside of the Lawrence Chick-fil-A at 27th and Iowa streets in advance of the store's opening. Courtesy: Chick-fil-A. by Chad Lawhorn

Reply 8 comments from Rob Chestnut Don Brennaman Fred Whitehead Jr. Russell Fryberger Amy Mason Bill McGovern Lois Mead Areunorml

New running shop to open downtown; signs that Eldridge expansion set to begin; restaurant work begins in former Round Corner drug space

There’s a new reason for the Lawrence running community to be excited, and it is not just because my family has banned me from ever leaving the house again in short shorts. A new business duo is opening a locally owned running supply store.

J. Jenkins and Grant Catloth are opening Ad Astra Running at 16 E. Eighth St. in downtown Lawrence. In case you can’t picture that location, it is in the spot where a store known as Cindy’s Simple Life previously was located. Or if that doesn’t help, it is right next door to the Sandbar Sub convenience store at Eighth and New Hampshire.

“We really want a store that is rooted in the community and is focused on the local running community,” Jenkins said. “We want to be a store that will support the running community and their events.”

Jenkins and Catloth both were longtime employees of the Garry Gribble’s running store on Massachusetts Street. When store founder and Kansas City area running guru Garry Gribble sold the company to a Denver-based firm late last year, the duo decided it was time to do something different.

Ad Astra was born. Ad Astra, of course, is Latin for “I’ll have another.” (My apologies, I’m told that is not the Latin meaning, and my activities at Free State Brewery have not been about learning Latin after all.) Ad Astra, in addition to being the name of a famous ale at Free State, means “to the stars,” and is part of the Kansas state motto of Ad astra per aspera, which translates either “to the stars through difficulty,” or “put it on my friend’s tab.”

Either way, the store’s mission won’t change. Jenkins said the shop wants to be a “one-stop shop” for runners in the area. That means the store will carry running shoes, apparel and accessories. It also wants to be a resource for running information. Even though the store hasn’t yet opened, the duo is hosting running events out of the location. A weekly running group called Mass Street Milers now meets at the store at 6 p.m. each Thursday night, and a women’s running group also is using the store location as its meeting place.

“We believe it is the relationship that we have forged with people over the last several years that will allow us to be successful,” Jenkins said.

Renovation work on the store is just now getting underway. Jenkins hopes to have the business open in about a month.

None by Ad Astra Running

In other news and notes from around town:

• In recent days you perhaps have noticed a backhoe digging small holes in the vacant lot next to The Eldridge Hotel. That indeed is a sign that construction work is getting nearer for a major expansion of the historic hotel.

A backhoe digs small holes in the vacant lot between 715 Restaurant and The Eldridge Hotel, Monday, Aug. 24, 2015.

A backhoe digs small holes in the vacant lot between 715 Restaurant and The Eldridge Hotel, Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. by Nick Gerik

Lawrence architect Paul Werner told me that the backhoes were digging test holes to verify the footing depths of the surrounding buildings. Werner said that was a prelude to starting construction on a major expansion of the hotel. Werner, who is the architect for the project, didn’t provide a timeline for when construction would begin but said he hoped it would be underway shortly.

In case you have forgotten, the plans for the expansion include 54 new rooms for the hotel, expanded restaurant space, and about 5,000 square feet of additional meeting and banquet space.

A rendering of a planned expansion of the Eldridge Hotel in the 700 block of Massachusetts.

A rendering of a planned expansion of the Eldridge Hotel in the 700 block of Massachusetts.

• Lots of folks have been asking about remodeling activity that has finally started in the former Intorno building — or perhaps better known as the Round Corner Drug building — at Eighth and Massachusetts.

Well, indeed, a new restaurant is slated for the space. At the moment, details are limited, but it appears it is connected to the same group we reported was interested in the space last summer.

The landlord for the building has confirmed a group led by Zach Marten is working on the building for its new restaurant concept. The fellow I talked with didn’t have details on what that concept involved, but I’ve got a call into Marten.

Marten, as we’ve previously reported, is part of the group that runs Coal Vines, a pizza and wine bar that operates on the Plaza in Kansas City. Marten, though, also was part of the group that opened Westport Ale House in that Kansas City entertainment district. Whether the Lawrence restaurant follows one of those concepts, I’m not sure. But I’ll keep checking in on it and let you know when I hear more.

• In the category of things I’m keeping an eye on, I’m working to find out an opening date for Port Fonda, the upscale Latin American cuisine restaurant that will be on the ground floor of the new Marriott building at Ninth and New Hampshire streets. The landlord for the Marriott also is the landlord for the Round Corner building. He told me he didn’t know of an opening date for Port Fonda, but said it appears to be very close. I’ve got a call into the Port Fonda folks at their Kansas City restaurant.

Reply 3 comments from Ronnie Ching Nick Ray Dorothyhoytreed

SLT project would create major changes for west Lawrence traffic; city auditor urges more protection of certain City Hall files

I already have enough arguments with my GPS when I’m in west Lawrence. But if the Kansas Department of Transportation expands the western leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway to four lanes, I may have even more.

KDOT leaders will be in Lawrence on Tuesday to brief city officials on several alternatives they’re studying to expand the western portion of the SLT to four lanes. The project — if it ever receives funding — would involve several major changes that would take a bit of getting used to for motorists. Here are some examples:

— There is currently an interchange on the Kansas Turnpike that is commonly referred to as the Lecompton interchange. But under one plan being considered, there would be an entirely new interchange that would serve Lecompton. The proposal calls for a new interchange to be built about 2 miles west of the existing Lecompton interchange. The new interchange would allow you to access Lecompton Road — also known as County Route 1029 — the Farmer’s Turnpike — also known as County Route 438 — and the Kansas Turnpike — also known as Interstate 70. (There are more aliases in that area than at a prison yard barbecue.) But motorists would not be able to use the new interchange to access the South Lawrence Trafficway.

If you want to exit the Kansas Turnpike and directly access the SLT, you would need to do that at the existing interchange, which would need to quit being called the Lecompton interchange. That existing interchange would be rebuilt in a manner so motorists could no longer access Lecompton Road or the Farmer’s Turnpike.

If you are having a hard time following this, don’t feel bad. I’ve already thrown three GPS units against the wall just trying to figure out how to write it. But here’s one way to picture it: If you are coming from Lecompton and want to get on the SLT to go shopping in south Lawrence, your most direct route will involve getting on the Kansas Turnpike, driving two miles to the redesigned SLT interchange and paying your fare of a quarter or so. (I don’t have information on what the rate will be. I’m assuming it is in that range based on current fares.) Motorists who don’t want to pay the fare would have a couple of other options. They could stay on County Route 1029 until it intersects with U.S. Highway 40 west of Lawrence, and then take Highway 40 to the SLT. Or, they could take the Farmer's Turnpike until it intersects with Queens Road — also known as E 1000 Road — and use Queens to connect with Sixth Street and then take Sixth Street to the SLT.

— There is also an interchange on the current South Lawrence Trafficway known as the Clinton Parkway interchange. Under one scenario, it would be eliminated. That may cause you a bit of a problem — or at least a really big tow truck bill — if you try to tow your boat to nearby Clinton Lake via the SLT. Currently, the Clinton Parkway interchange serves as a gateway to Clinton Lake State Park.

KDOT engineers, however, are proposing a new access road be built from Clinton Parkway to the Bob Billings Parkway/SLT interchange that currently is under construction. Lake visitors then could exit off the SLT at Bob Billings Parkway and take the access road over to the Clinton Lake entrance. The new access road would be on the west side of the SLT. Motorists on Clinton Parkway also would continue to be able to get to the lake just as they do today.

Courtesy: KDOT

Courtesy: KDOT

• Getting to the city’s YSI sports complex near Wakarusa Drive and the SLT also would be different under the proposed plans. Engineers are hoping it will be significantly safer. Plans call for either an overpass or an underpass that would allow motorists on Wakarusa to access the ball fields without having to cross SLT traffic, which is required today.

Motorists who want to exit the SLT and go to the sports complex would do so at a new interchange proposed for a site about a mile east of the current at-grade intersection of Wakarusa and the SLT. A new frontage road would be built that would take motorists to the sports complex and to Wakarusa Drive.

Courtesy: KDOT

Courtesy: KDOT by Chad Lawhorn

• An existing at-grade intersection where Kasold Drive and the SLT intersect would be eliminated. Engineers say the at-grade crossing is a traffic hazard, and there are not enough motorists using the intersection to warrant building a full interchange.

KDOT officials will brief city and county commissioners on the proposed SLT options at a 4 p.m. study session on Tuesday at City Hall.

KDOT will continue to gather input from various stakeholders and then will announce its recommendations for the project in mid-to-late October.

When work may begin to convert the SLT into a four-lane road, however, is anybody’s guess. KDOT is spending money to create this concept study, but it would take tens of millions of dollars to actually build the project. That will involve winning funding from the Kansas Legislature in the future. No word on when that may happen, but KDOT officials have said they are confident traffic volumes on the western portion of the SLT will dictate four lanes of traffic.

Work is underway to complete the long-stalled eastern portion of the SLT. When it opens in 2016, it will be a four-lane road.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Getting lost in west Lawrence is one thing. (The worst that generally happens is I get the F150 stuck somewhere near the No. 7 green of Alvamar.) Losing your identity is another matter altogether.

A new report by City Auditor Michael Eglinski suggests Lawrence City Hall could be doing a bit more to prevent identity theft through the use of city files.

Eglinski, at Tuesday’s meeting, will present an audit to city commissioners recommending that the city adopt a formal policy for protecting personally identifiable information in city files. The city has lots of personal data in its file cabinets and computer servers. There’s all the standard information about city employees, but there are also files with lots of information about city utility customers, folks who file a police report, or people who have a case in Municipal Court.

Eglinski’s audit found Lawrence City Hall doesn’t have a formal plan for how to deal with an incident that involves the loss of personal data. Eglinski’s audit recommends the city begin working on such a plan, and begin directing the city’s Information Technology Department to “establish a framework for safeguarding personally identifiable information.” Part of that plan should include a strategy for how long the city should keep certain types of records before destroying them.

Eglinski’s report noted there are multiple instances where cities have had bad things happen to personal data in their files. A couple of examples: An employee of the Seattle Municipal Court stole numerous credit card numbers from people in the court’s computer system; Springfield, Mo., lost personal data on more than 2,000 people after a hacker broke into the city’s website.

Eglinski, though, did find that city employees generally understand the importance of protecting the personal data in the city’s files. In a written response to the audit, Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard said she sees the value in creating a more robust system to protect personal data. She said the city’s currently in the process of purchasing and insurance policy that will protect the city financially from a data breech. She said that insurance policy will allow the city to access some information technology security expertise. She said the city also in the process of developing a records retention plan.

Reply 5 comments from Chuck Ferguson Clara Westphal Charles L. Bloss, Jr. Richard Heckler Tadgh

Lawrence firm seeks to expand in East Hills; city set to appoint chair to lead commissioner vacancy board; fire sprinklers to be debated for animal facilities

There is a deal brewing for a new manufacturer to locate in the East Hills Business Park.

As we reported in June, Lawrence-based Prosoco has formed a new company that will make high-tech walls and panels for companies that want to build highly energy efficient homes and structures. As we noted in June, the new venture would need manufacturing and warehousing space, and now we know the company wants to locate it in Lawrence. Early indications are that the venture would produce about a half dozen new jobs in the near term and up to 15 in the midterm.

Leaders with Prosoco have signed a deal to purchase the Kinedyne building in the East Hills Business Park, but the group is asking for some help from local government to seal the deal. As we also reported in June, Kinedyne — the longtime manufacturer of cargo straps and such — is closing its Lawrence plant in East Hills, which has employed around 25 people recently.

The Kinedyne building is basically next door to the Prosoco building, so it makes good sense for Prosoco to base its new business out of the large facility. But Prosoco is seeking two pieces of help: It wants the county to give it a small lot of land that is in between the Prosoco and Kinedyne buildings, and it wants the city to waive about $45,000 in special assessments that are still attached to the property.

But Prosoco officials are pledging not to seek any tax abatements, tax increment financing, industrial revenue bonds or other such incentives from the city, according to a letter from Marilyn Bittenbender, a broker for the Lawrence office of Colliers International, which is representing Prosoco in the deal.

The lot in question has a fairly steep slope to it, and Bittenbender said she believes it will be a difficult lot to sell to a company interested in building a project on it. But the lot will aid the Prosoco deal because it can accommodate a driveway and loading dock infrastructure for the Kinedyne building.

As far as the special assessments go, those are to cover costs related to building the East Hills Business Park years ago. Those costs already have been paid, but removing the special assessments from the property means that tax payers will foot the final bill rather than being reimbursed by some company in the future.

This proposed deal will be a good test for the new commission. It is the first industrial park deal the group has been asked to decide. If commissioners balk at the incentive request for this deal, that’s a troubling sign for the VenturePark property next door. Companies that are interested in that new city-owned industrial park — it is where the Farmland fertilizer plant used to be — probably will ask for incentive packages similar or more generous than what this company is seeking.

The city already has invested more than $7 million of public money to build VenturePark. I know the previous City Commission did so with the understanding that it would take some additional incentives to lure companies to the park. This project — which is smaller than some of the ones officials are chasing for VenturePark — will be a good test to see if this new commission subscribes to that theory.

As for the project that is being proposed for the Kinedyne building, the company is called BuildSmart. As we previously reported, it plans to become the leader in building energy-efficient wall panels and other products that are designed to reduce energy costs in typical homes by 40 percent to 75 percent.

Prosoco, which makes a variety of chemical products for the masonry and construction industries, has partnered with Adam Cohen, who is one of the world’s leading architects in the Passive House movement. Cohen has developed a wall panel system that is built in sizes that don’t require the use of a crane on a job site. The panels also aren’t built with any nails or screws, which can decrease the energy efficiency of a home because air can leak in around the fasteners.

Cohen, though, was looking for a partner to manufacture the panels. Paul Grahovac, director of new business development for Prosoco, said Prosoco was looking for new opportunities like this one.

Grahovac told me this morning that details on how many people the new manufacturing facility would employ haven’t been finalized. But, he said one scenario starts with about six employees and grows to about 15 employees in the midterm. Grahovac also didn’t have wage estimates for the employees, who he said will be factory workers who will benefit from having a construction background or similar skill sets.

Grahovac said the company hopes to have necessary production equipment in the building by the end of the year, and manufacturing could begin before the second quarter of next year.

“The market is asking us to demonstrate that we can meet their needs for projects that they have coming up,” Grahovac said. “There’s good demand. We’re hustling to get this done.”

City commissioners will discuss waiving the special assessments at their Tuesday evening meeting. County commissioners then could consider donating the vacant lot shortly thereafter. We’ll see whether commissioners are ready to act on Tuesday or whether they seek more information on the jobs and wage totals and run a cost-benefit analysis, which has been a standard practice for more traditional tax abatement requests.

In other news and notes from around town:

• City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting also are set to appoint a longtime state government leader as the chair of the advisory group that will vet candidates for a vacant seat on the Lawrence City Commission.

Mayor Mike Amyx is recommending that Joe Harkins serve as the chair of the 12-member advisory committee. Harkins is a former commissioner on the Kansas Corporation Commission, a former director of the Kansas Water Office, a former secretary at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, a former director of Kansas University’s Public Management Center, and a former special assistant to former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

For what it is worth, Harkins is not what I would consider a frequent participant in City Hall issues, although he was a consistent critic of the process the previous City Commission followed on the Rock Chalk Park project.

As chair of the advisory committee, Harkins would run all meetings of the group. Its work is expected to start soon. The city is taking applications until 5 p.m. Sept. 9 for the seat that was left open by Jeremy Farmer’s resignation, following financial questions that emerged at his previous job.

• City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting also are set to discuss how much fire protection should be required for businesses that board animals. The discussion comes in the wake of fire that was deadly for many animals at Pet World earlier this year.

Fire department officials are recommending, among other items, the code require new animal housing facilities of 3,000 square feet or greater include an automatic fire sprinkler system. Existing animal housing facilities greater than 3,000 square feet wouldn’t have to comply with the fire sprinkler requirement, unless they undertook a significant renovation.

The Lawrence Humane Society has said it wants more stringent regulations. Leaders there are proposing that any newly constructed animal housing facility — regardless of size — be required to install automatic sprinklers.

Officials with Pet World want to go further. They are urging the city to adopt a code that would require all animal housing facilities to put in fire sprinklers immediately. In other words, existing facilities would have to figure out how to retrofit their buildings for sprinkler systems.

City Hall staff members are recommending that commissioners adopt the fire department’s recommendations to sprinkle only new buildings greater than 3,000 square feet. That recommendation comes after the city conducted a survey of business owners that have animal facilities, so think kennels, veterinarian offices, pet groomers and other such companies. That survey, which had 13 responses, showed there were some concerns about the cost of adding sprinkler systems to existing building.

Fire department officials said it was difficult to provide a good estimate on how much it would cost to retrofit a building because the process varies greatly depending on the type of the building. But fire department officials said a fire line installation into a building would cost a minimum of $6,000 and a required back flow preventer for such a line would cost anywhere from $2,600 to $14,000. Installing the actual sprinkler heads, piping and control systems inside the building would all cost additional dollars.

That wasn’t the most interesting finding of the survey, though. The city asked each participant how many animals are typically housed at the facility, and one respondent said “up to 10,000.” The survey results were anonymous, so I don’t know what facility that may be.

An indoor ant farm? My old college apartment where I left a batch of unwashed dishes? Or perhaps I'm unaware of a remake of the "Animal House" movie in town.

Seriously, I wonder what that facility would be. Regardless, city commissioners will discuss the fire code issue at their meeting at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.

Reply 1 comment from Kristine Matlock

Home sales up; housing construction hits recent high; sales tax numbers strong but create some budget worries at City Hall

As a quick homework conversation with my seventh-grade son confirmed, junior high math has surpassed me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still do some calculations to determine the state of the Lawrence economy. So, here’s a look at the latest batch of numbers.

The housing market in Lawrence remains strong. Homes sales through July are up 18 percent, according to a new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors. Lawrence home builders are even getting in on the good news. Sales of newly constructed homes are up 21 percent for the year. The newly constructed home market has been one that has been slow to bounce back in Lawrence.

The statistic that shows how hot the Lawrence market is right now has to do with the number of homes on the market. Real estate agents measure how many homes are on the market versus how quickly they are selling. A balanced market between buyers and sellers normally has about four to five months worth of homes on the market at any given time. Currently, there are 1.9 months worth of homes on the Lawrence market. It is a seller’s market right now. Negotiating for a house in Lawrence right now probably would remind me of my efforts to get a date for prom. You have to be prepared to sweeten the offer. (I had to promise we would super size the meal.)

Thus far for the year, the median number of days a home is sitting on the market before it sells is 24. That’s down from 34 at this point in 2014 and 42 in 2013. One other statistic of note: Real estate agents have sold $160 million worth of residential real estate in Lawrence thus far in 2015. That’s up from about $129 million during the same time period a year ago. That’s a nice boost for the Lawrence economy.

The uptick in the home construction market is becoming very clear when you look at the city’s building permit totals. Through July, the city has issued 152 building permits for either single-family or duplex homes. That’s up from 60 such permits at this time last year. It also is well above the recent averages. From 2009 to 2014, the average number of permits at this time of year was 75. My seventh-grade son tells me 152 is more than double the average.

With projects both near campus and in downtown, the apartment construction market also has been strong. The city has issued permits for 431 new living units. Since 2009, the average for this time of year has been around 150 living units. So, there had better be a lot more people wanting to live in Lawrence.

The other big trend is in the building sector is that there have been a lot of big-dollar projects. The city has issued permits for $167 million worth of projects thus far. There have been four projects in 2015 that have checked in at more than $10 million each: the $45 million Here apartment/retail building near the KU campus; an $18 million apartment/office building at Ninth and New Hampshire; $13.3 million in work for the city’s new sewer plant south of the Wakarusa River; and $12 million for a new independent living unit at Pioneer Ridge in west Lawrence.

As we have reported before, we’re on pace to set a new building record in the city. Since 2009, the average amount of construction for this time of year has been $63.5 million. I would tell you how much more $167 million is than the average, but I’m afraid it would require my son to take off his shoes and, trust me, you don’t want a seventh-grade boy doing that.

Lawrence’s retail sales numbers are a bit like a rib dinner: There’s plenty to like, but the barbecue sauce in your ear can cause a problem.

The sales tax report from the state shows that Lawrence’s sales tax collections are up about 5 percent thus far. That’s good, and actually is better than the showing of several other large retail centers in the state.

But the issue is City Hall budget makers are counting on sales tax collections to grow by 5 percent in 2015 to make the budget work as planned. The last few reports from the state have shown that sales tax collections are growing at a rate slower than what was happening in the beginning of the year. If that trend continues, it could put pressure on both the 2015 and 2016 budgets.

Bryan Kidney, the city’s finance director, told me that it now seems likely the city won’t hit its 5 percent growth estimate for 2015. He said it is still too early to predict how short the city may come up on that projection. It has the potential to cause city officials to reduce expenses in the general fund both for the 2015 and 2016 budgets. The reason it would affect both the 2015 and 2016 budgets is because the recently approved 2016 budget was built with an assumption that there would be a surplus of revenue in the sales tax fund at the end of 2015 that would carry into 2016. In order for the 2016 budget to work properly, the surplus needs to be there. So, that could result in some expenditure cuts in the last part of 2015.

Cuts could be necessary in 2016, if the sales tax growth doesn’t hit projections during that year. The city is banking on sales tax collections growing by at least 3 percent in 2015. We’ll see. That could be close.

So, there are some budgeting challenges, but from a big picture standpoint, recent sales tax numbers have been a strong sign for the Lawrence economy. At the moment, we're at 5 percent growth, and that is better than really any other major retail area in the state. How much that growth rate slows is the key question for budget-makers.

The state should be releasing new sales tax numbers very soon, and I’ll work to get those reported in a more timely manner. (We’ve had other things going on to report at City Hall this month.) But here’s a look how Lawrence’s sales tax collections are stacking up with other major communities.

— Johnson County: up 1.3 percent

— Kansas City: up 4.1 percent

— Lenexa: up 4.9 percent

— Manhattan: up 2.5 percent

— Overland Park: down 2.4 percent

— Salina: up 3.2 percent

— Sedgwick County: up 2.3 percent

— Topeka: up 0.8 percent

Reply 1 comment from Lawrence Freeman