Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
The number of the day is $125 million. No, it only seems like the price of a dozen roses for those of us just now remembering that today is Valentine's Day.
Instead, a new state report indicates $125 million is the amount of taxable sales that occurred in Lawrence during the heart of the Christmas shopping season. That means Lawrence retailers had a pretty fair Christmas season
The latest sales tax report measures sales for the period of mid-November to mid-December. The $125 million in sales is up about 5 percent from the same period a year ago.
The $125 million does capture some spending that is not what you would call traditional holiday retail spending. For instance it includes the sales tax you pay on your utility bills. (Although, that's kind of holiday related. Christmas is the one day of the year my wife lets the kids and me turn the thermostat up to 65 degrees.) But the majority of the $125 million are retail sales — everything from purchases at the grocery store to the jewelry store.
While a 5 percent increase for the season is solid, it is not spectacular. Over the previous three holiday seasons, the average increase has been 6.4 percent. If retailers feel like this year didn't quite have the same zing as past seasons, that may be what they're feeling. In fact, over the last six seasons, sales during the holiday period have grown by more than 6 percent every year but one. That one year, however, was a doozy. At the end of 2009, holiday shoppers clamped onto their wallets like my kids clamp onto their Valentine's Day candy stashes. Taxable sales for the season fell 13.2 percent. So, that makes 5 percent look a little better.
Here's a look at how Lawrence's totals stacked up with some other large retail markets across the state:
• Dodge City: down 8.5 percent
• Emporia: up 4.8 percent
• Garden City: down 5.5 percent
• Hays: down 27.7 percent
• Hutchinson: down 4.6 percent
• Junction City: down 0.4 percent
• Kansas City: up 2 percent
• Leawood: up 5.2 percent
• Lenexa: up 4.4 percent
• Manhattan: up 0.9 percent
• Olathe: up 0.1 percent
• Ottawa: up 1.3 percent
• Overland Park: up 1.3 percent
• City of Shawnee: up 4 percent
• Topeka: down 0.6 percent
• Sedgwick County: up 1.5 percent
These numbers are just for a one-month period, so you should use caution in interpreting them. But it appears shoppers in many locations slowed down this holiday season. Lawrence retailers may have reason to feel lucky as 2014 gets underway.
Which is more than I can say about myself, if my banker doesn't lend me money for some roses by the end of the day.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Look for March to be a key month to determine the fate of the city's proposed rental licensing and inspection program. The program, which would expand the city's limited inspection program to all rental units in the city, has been on hold since Commissioner Jeremy Farmer in late January said he wasn't ready to vote on the program.
Farmer said he wanted more data about how the city's current rental inspection program, which covers only rental units in single-family neighborhoods, has performed. The data from the city should be available soon, and Farmer said he then anticipates hosting a public forum to discuss the program in early March.
At that forum, Farmer hopes to have a compromise plan to talk about. He confirmed this week that he's been talking with both supporters and opponents of a rental licensing and inspection program. Details of a possible compromise are a bit sparse at the moment, but Farmer previously has said he had some interest in removing some violations that aren't related to life and safety from the inspection list. For example, rotting siding or an overgrown yard may not produce a violation that would prohibit a landlord from getting a rental license for a property. But inspectors would still note those violations of the city's code and could take appropriate enforcement action. The main difference is that the city couldn't deny a landlord a license over such violations. That's important because in the future landlords will have to have a license for every unit they intend to rent.
Again, Farmer hasn't released the details of the compromise yet, so we'll see if that is the path it is still on. Farmer, though, did make it clear that he is intent on passing a licensing and inspection program.
"This public meeting that we'll have will not be to talk about whether rental registration is a good idea or not," Farmer said. "We're way past that point."
"I don't think we are too far away from a really, really good compromise, though," Farmer said.
Farmer said he hopes to be ready to vote on the issue "in the next month."
More LJWorld City Coverage
Maybe by the next Winter Olympics I won't have to convert my kitchen floor into an ice rink to participate in the beautiful sport of figure skating.
As we reported in December, leaders with Lawrence Parks and Recreation had some interest in a downtown, outdoor ice skating rink. Well, the idea has gained momentum.
The department is spending about $1,200 to have the architects of the Lawrence Public Library expansion determine how the plaza area between the library and the new parking garage could be modified to accommodate a rink.
Jimmy Gibbs, one of the department's division managers, said it appears the plaza could accommodate a 60-by-80-foot rink if one of the three planned terraces is removed.
The rink, which could hold about 125 skaters at a time, would be designed to be disassembled when not in use so the plaza could be used for summer concerts and other such events.
But parks and recreation leaders also are considering artificial ice. The parks and recreation department in Grandview, Mo., operates a rink with artificial ice and the reviews apparently have been good. The product is a slick, smooth plastic like material that allows skaters to use regular ice skates.
"We could have a Christmas in July event in downtown if we wanted to," Gibbs said.
Bringing more people to downtown Lawrence, especially during the winter, is a big reason behind the ice rink idea, which has received preliminary support from City Manager David Corliss.
The idea of artificial ice may make the project more financially feasible. It is estimated that electricity for a real ice rink could cost about $5,000 a week, especially during a mild winter when temperatures are frequently above freezing.
City officials are researching the cost of an artificial rink, but they think there would be around $100,000 in upfront costs. The city would try to recoup those costs through skate rentals and by finding an area company to sponsor the rink, Gibbs said.
Parks and recreation leaders should know more in the next few weeks about the feasibility of the plan. Ultimately, city commissioners will be asked to weigh in.
In the meantime, I'm going to keep practicing. The Olympics have so inspired me, I think I'll try one of these triple sow-cow jumps I've been hearing about. What's that? It's spelled Salchow. Oh.
Boys, load those pigs back up.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Let's stay in the world of recreation and provide an update on the 181,000-square-foot recreation center at Rock Chalk Park. City officials are trying to figure out what to name that center, and it appears they are at least open to the idea of allowing a corporate sponsorship type of name for the facility.
Ernie Shaw, leader of the parks and recreation department, told me that a consulting firm has told the city that it may be able to garner $75,000 to $125,000 a year for the naming rights at the center. City commissioners haven't made a decision that they want to go in that direction — in fact, the commission hasn't publicly discussed it — but I'm told that city officials at least want to explore the idea.
Shaw said his department will recommend that the center have a sort of secondary name as well, so that if a sponsor drops out in future years that the city doesn't have to start over from a marketing and branding standpoint.
The consulting firm estimates that the city could generate another $75,000 to $125,000 a year in naming rights for certain indoor areas of the center, such as the gymnastics area, indoor track and other such areas.
It will be interesting to see if the Lawrence has the corporate base to support such sponsorships, and even more interesting to see which corporations or other organizations may want to have their name on the facility.
• Gov. Sam Brownback should expect to hear from the Lawrence City Commission soon. At the suggestion of City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, the commission will send a letter to Brownback urging him to expand the state's Medicaid program under the provisions of Obamacare.
Farmer, who works with a host of low-income families as the director of Just Food, said he's frustrated the state isn't accepting the federal government's offer to pay for the vast majority of an expansion of the state's Medicaid program. Farmer said he's generally not supportive of the City Commission telling the state how to spend its money — the city does not like it when the state does that to them — but Farmer said this is different because the state is rejecting federal funding for the program.
Some state officials have expressed concern that the federal funding for the program may not always be in place, which then would leave the state with a difficult funding decision to make.
Commissioner Terry Riordan, a Lawrence physician, strongly supported Farmer's suggestion for a letter. Other commissioners also said they were fine with it. None of the commissioners, however, were real optimistic that a letter from the city of Lawrence was going to do much to change the governor's thinking.
Farmer said he thought the city should be on record as supportive of the idea nonetheless. The idea of writing a letter to the state wasn't part of last Tuesday's city commission agenda, but Farmer suggested the idea near the end of the meeting. I'll let you know if I see a copy of the letter.
Fitness center near Ninth and Iowa undertaking major expansion; group working to create a local currency
I've been trying to tell you this: I'm a trendsetter. I'm ahead of the times. For decades, I've been spinning my wheels and getting nowhere. Now, it is the hot new thing in the world of exercise.
If you don't believe me, check out the work that is underway at Lawrence's Body Boutique. The women-only gym near Ninth and Iowa streets is undergoing a $700,000 renovation, and a big part of it is to add a new indoor cycling studio.
Lorinda Hartzler, the gym's owner, told me Body Boutique is expanding into 8,000 square feet of vacant space in the Hillcrest Shopping Center that is between the gym's existing location and Crimson & Brews, a local tavern where I have perhaps spun my wheels once or twice.
The expansion will have several elements, but a big part of it will be a new 30-station indoor cycling studio that will feature the brand-name Spinner bikes. The studio also will feature a large video screen that will give riders the sense they are traveling through scenic areas, such as a trail up Mount Everest or along the path of the Iditarod dog sled race. (A word of caution on that one: I've found that my polar bear-lined biking shorts often cause chafing.)
The expansion project also will include:
— A tripling of the gym's weight room and fitness floor space;
— An expanded child care area;
— Additional room for barre training. (It is different than the type of bar training at Crimson & Brews.)
— Space for a nutrition club called Total Body Nutrition;
— An area for a new youth fitness program that will provide training for both girls and boys ranging from toddlers to teenagers.
"We have a program now that is more of an active play program, but we really want to have a program for children who feel like they are not athletic," said Hartlzer, who has owned the gym for the last 20 years. "They may never be on a soccer team or a swim team or a wrestling league, but we want them to understand they can still be healthy and fit and strong, even if they don't feel athletic."
Work has just started on the expansion project, and Hartzler hopes the new space will be ready to open in June. Hartzler said without the expansion the club was going to have to start capping its membership. She said the fitness movement in Lawrence remains strong, and said it has grown to be about more than just a physical workout.
"When I built this existing space 10 years ago, people just wanted to get in and get out," Hartzler said. "But our members are becoming more social than they've ever been. We're designing a lot of space just for people to socialize."
In other news and notes from around town:
• Perhaps I've been a trendsetter in another way too: I've long tried to pay for things with something other than dollars. My success rate has been a bit limited, but perhaps I just haven't figured out the right system. There is a group of Lawrence residents who are trying to figure out how to create a Lawrence currency.
The Lawrence Community Currency Initiative is meeting at 6:30 p.m. today at the Delaware Street Commons common house, 816 E. 13th St. The meeting will feature a presentation by Ali Rosenblatt, who has helped launch a local currency program in Los Angeles.
The idea behind local currencies is that businesses and individuals agree to accept something other than U.S. dollars for goods and services and wages and such. There are communities that have them, and, of course, bitcoin is an example of alternative currency that has been getting a lot of media attention.
If you have been in Lawrence long enough, you may remember that Lawrence had a local currency for a time in the 1990s. It was called Lawrence's REAL Dollar. There were some businesses that accepted it, but it eventually faded away as the places where you could spend the REAL dollar were a bit limited.
Lawrence resident Michael Almon was around for the REAL dollar effort, and he is part of the current initiative. Almon said the options for creating a local currency are far greater today than they were in the 1990s. The idea of having an electronic-based currency, for example, is much more feasible.
Who knows whether this idea will get off the ground in Lawrence, but if it is going to get off the ground anywhere in Kansas, we're probably the place. Almon said about 10 to 20 people have been attending meetings of the group.
"The idea isn't to replace the dollar," Almon said. "It would be complementary. We think it would tend to support more local businesses and might help businesses who are dealing with local suppliers."
• Speaking of trends, perhaps one trend will be upscale pizza in downtown Lawrence. We reported recently on plans for a local group to open Limestone Pizza Kitchen & Bar. Well, now I'm hearing in certain downtown circles that another pizza and wine bar restaurant is seriously considering downtown Lawrence. This is still unconfirmed, so take this for whatever you think it is worth, but I hear that Coal Vines, a pizza and wine bar that has a location on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo., among other locations, is strongly considering opening a spot in downtown Lawrence. In fact, I hear they've settled on a location, but I want to get more on that before I pass it along. I'll let you know when I hear more.
Duplex and apartment development moving forward at the Kasold Curve; speculation about Google and Lawrence
For years, the Kasold Curve — that area where 31st Street turns into Kasold Drive — has just been an area where I close my eyes and hang on extra tight when I'm a passenger in my wife's car. Now, it may be an area that's showing Lawrence's renewed appetite for residential construction.
It looks like a deal has actually materialized to develop about 19 acres of the vacant ground at the curve into a mix of apartments and duplexes. All the way back in 2009 we reported that the Lawrence Wesleyan Church purchased 33 acres of property along the southeast edge of the curve. Plans called for the church to use part of the property to build a new church building and to sell the rest of the property to a private development group.
But, if you recall, the residential real estate market in 2009 was a bit like a K-State Wildcat at a Final Four party: lost and depressed. (Hey, it is gameday, after all.)
Church officials, however, now have told city leaders that they have a deal with a group of Lawrence investors — including real executives John McGrew and Mike McGrew — to purchase about 19 acres to develop about 55 duplexes (or about 110 living units,) plus a small apartment complex. The church will keep about 14 acres to use as part of its development of a new church building to replace its current building at 3705 Clinton Parkway.
The project is looking for a little bit of help from the city. Developers on Tuesday will ask the City Commission to approve a benefit district to finance about $690,000 worth of public streets and water mains for the project. Benefit district financing is common. The city provides financing for public infrastructure, such as a streets and utilities, and the property owners pay the city back through special assessments on their property tax bills. But the city's policy caps the amount to be financed at 75 percent of the expected infrastructure total. In other words, the developers are supposed to pay for 25 percent upfront.
But church officials are asking commissioners to wave that 25 percent down payment in this case. The developers aren't asking the city to pay for any of the infrastructure, but rather just want the city to finance about 90 percent of the costs instead of the normal 75 percent. Developers have said the extra up-front costs make the project infeasible. Commissioners will consider the request at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday.
As for the development itself, look for it to change the traffic flow at the curve a bit. The plans approved by the city call for a new 50-foot long left-turn lane to be installed at the curve. The lane will accommodate traffic looking to turn into the new development. I haven't yet seen details on the apartment portion of the project. But it doesn't appear to be a large new apartment complex of several hundred units. The amount of ground set aside for apartment development is less than 2 acres. The bulk of the property is set aside for duplex development.
In other news and notes around town:
• As we have reported, the City Commission on Tuesday also will consider issuing a request for proposals from companies that are interested in improving the community's broadband service. This comes at the same time the city is trying to figure out whether to give a $500,000 grant and other incentives to Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband to do a pilot project to bring super-fast Internet service to downtown and East Lawrence. The super-fast speed would be the same 1 gigabit service that Google Fiber is providing in the Kansas City metro area.
During this whole discussion, I've certainly heard several people say they just wish the city would make more of an effort to convince Google Fiber to add Lawrence to its Kansas City project. And come to think of it, there probably is a legitimate question out there: Has the city of Lawrence ever formally sent a letter to Google Fiber asking them to consider Lawrence as part of the project? I know there was talk of it, but I don't remember if a formal request ever came about. I'll check on it and provide an update.
But Joshua Montgomery, one of the owners and operators of Wicked Broadband, is now touting that his company's pilot project may be the community's best chance to get Google Fiber to come to Lawrence. You can read his whole thinking here, in an op-ed that ran on the technology website arsTechnica. But in short, he's touting that the pilot project he hopes to build will feature what is called a common carriage network. What that means in this case is that the fiber optic cables in the ground would be large enough to allow up to four Internet service providers to operate on the network. The way it would work is that Wicked would occupy one of the four spaces, but if any other company wanted to use the network, it could lease space on the network to do so. That includes Google. That's not how Google is operating in Kansas City. It is building its own network there, but Montgomery is opining that Google's strategy may be flawed because it will take Google far too long to build networks in as many places as it would like to serve. He thinks Google may be open to another approach.
"Google needs to franchise its technology and marketing to municipalities," Montgomery wrote. "By franchising its operation to municipalities, Google can use its three most important assets to grow its network: branding, engineering and marketing. Municipalities can use their strongest abilities — managing infrastructure construction and providing long-term finance — to make the projects successful."
It is a new wrinkle in this discussion, so I wanted to pass it along. Whether Google has any interest in providing high-speed service in Lawrence is a bit of an unknown currently. Google has signed deals as far west as Olathe, but its plans in Kansas City have been a bit spotty, as this article notes.
But this whole broadband subject has been an interesting subject to watch. There are people who say that having high-speed broadband service in a community will be as important as it was to have a railroad or an interstate come through your town decades ago. But, of course, we're talking about the future, so it is difficult to prove or disprove that assertion here in the present. I have no answers, but I'm betting that it will continue to be interesting to watch.
I have my best Nostradamus outfit on, and I declare that this will be the Decade of East Lawrence. No, my powers to divine the future haven't suddenly improved. I just know that there is a new coffee shop opening in East Lawrence, and its name will be Decade. (As for the Nostradamus outfit, it is the only thing that wasn't in the laundry.)
As we've been reporting for months, the folks at the Lawrence construction firm Struct/Restruct want to convert their shop space at 920 Delaware St. into a coffee shop. Well, now they have found the tenant to do that. Louis Wigen-Toccalino has signed a lease to convert the approximately 900-square-foot industrial building into a coffee shop.
I'm not sure which decade it will most resemble, but Wigen-Toccalino does want to promote one element that was more common in years past: Face-to-face conversation.
"We are going to do things a little differently," said Wigen-Toccalino. "We're not going to offer WiFi, for example. I want it to be a social space where people can come and hang out in groups instead of it being like a study hall environment."
Of course, he also wants it to be about good coffee. Wigen-Toccalino will bring in artisan coffee beans from Fourbarrell, a speciality coffee roaster in San Francisco. The company touts itself as using an old German coffee roaster that shuns modern roasting technology for a more craftsman approach. The company also has a big social justice movement where it deals directly with coffee growers in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Columbia, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Wigen-Toccalino said the shop will feature a variety of espresso, French press, and pour-over brews on its menu. He's also finalizing an agreement with a local bakery that will provide a variety of daily pastries and breads. Eventually, he hopes to add soups, salads and sandwiches to the menu as well. The shop, which will include a large outdoor deck, is expected to open this spring, perhaps as early as March.
Wigen-Toccalino has a long history in the food business, and some of you local coffee fans may recognize his face. About 10 years ago, he served as a barista at Henry's, the downtown Lawrence coffee shop. Since then, he's spent time in San Francisco and Salt Lake City, working as a cook and a server, with the idea of saving enough money to come back to Lawrence to open his own establishment.
Setting up shop in East Lawrence, he said, seems like a good move. For those of you trying to picture the location, the building is just north of Hobbs Park on Delaware Street, and near the edge of the headquarters for Allen Press. Importantly, it is just a block away from the Poehler Lofts building and the Warehouse Arts District that has grown up around that multistory, historic apartment building.
"I'm really excited about what they are doing with the warehouse arts district," Wigen-Toccalino said. "I think it is an up and coming neighborhood with a lot of potential in the near term. I'm really excited to be a part of that."
Plus, Wigen-Toccalino is keeping an eye on City Hall plans to build a new hike-and-bike trail through the area. As we've previously reported, commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday evening will apply for a state grant that would build a new trail from Hobbs Park, through East Lawrence, into downtown and ending near the Kansas River. That trail would go right by the new coffee shop.
And while I don't have anything confirmed yet, I've been told that the guys at Struct/Restruct are working on bringing a bicycle shop into the neighborhood, in the building directly south of the 920 Delaware building.
But that's not all that is going on in the neighborhood. If you remember, the group that developed the Poehler building also has plans to build another approximately 40-unit, loft-style apartment building near the site of the Poehler building. The development group also announced plans to try to bring a bistro and drinking establishment into a small building next to the Poehler Lofts. I haven't heard an update on that in awhile, but I'll check in and report back to you.
So, who knows, maybe this will be the Decade of East Lawrence.
What I do know is why Nostradamus made so many brash predictions: This outfit is itchy in all the wrong places.
In other news and notes from around town:
• At least, I hope it is the outfit causing this itching, and not bedbugs. If you recall, city commissioners last year had a discussion about the increasing problem of bed bugs in the city. Back in June, commissioners directed staff to create a new policy on how landlords and hotel/motel operators must deal with bedbug infestations. Commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday will consider approving the policy. Here's a look at some of the key provisions.
— Hotel and motels operators who receive a bedbug complaint must respond to the complaint immediately by relocating the guests. Landlords have 48 hours to respond to a complaint from a tenant.
— Both landlords and hotel/motel operators must have a licensed exterminator on the property within 72 hours of receiving a bedbug complaint.
— In addition to the living unit where the bedbug complaint occurred, any unit that shares a wall with that living unit must also be inspected for bedbugs. In other words, if one apartment is found to have bedbugs, the next-door apartments also must be inspected for bedbugs.
— Generally, tenants and property managers won't be allowed to remove items from a room suspected of having bedbugs until after the room has been treated. Clothes removed from the unit will be required to be immediately washed and dried with high heat.
— Property owners or property managers will be required to keep a written record of all bedbug complaints, and documentation of treatments from licensed exterminators. Under the proposed policy, property owners will have to turn those records over to the city when requested to do so.
— Property owners and managers will be encouraged to develop a training program for their employees on how to spot signs of bedbugs and how to prevent infestations.
The bedbug policy will be part of the city's property maintenance code, which means if landlords and hotel/motel operators don't follow through on the treatments and other requirements, they can be fined for violating the city's code. Fines for violating the property maintenance code are rare, but they can be as high as $500 per day.
• Also on the City Commission's agenda is approval of a site plan for a new workshop for Struct/Restruct. As we mentioned above, the company's workshop on Delaware street is being converted into a coffee shop. As previously reported, Struct/Restruct is planning to convert the building that formerly housed the 12th and Haskell Recycling Center into a workshop. (The recycling center moved to a spot near 11th and Haskell.) Struct/Restruct also has plans to redevelop the eastern part of that former salvage yard site into a unique single-family housing development. But Tuesday's action by city commissioners deals only with the workshop portion of the project. City staff members are recommending approval of the workshop site plan.
More LJWorld City Coverage
Downtown Lawrence really is an eclectic place. There are a whole bunch of us that go downtown to tie one on. But there's also a lot of people who go downtown to sew one on. And that second group, it appears, is poised to grow.
Work is underway at Sarah's Fabrics, 925 Massachusetts St., to convert the second story of the old building into a sewing center and meeting space.
"This has been a decades old thing that I've wanted to do, and I'm finally going to finish it," Sarah Fayman, the owner of the business and the building, told me recently.
Fayman said the second-story space will have room for about 30 people sewing. Sarah's Fabrics regularly will host a variety of classes in the space. Plus, Fayman said she plans to rent the space to businesses or people looking for a quality location for meetings or gatherings.
"It is a beautiful building," Fayman said. "We're going to highlight the clerestory windows that are original to the building. There will be a lot of wonderful natural light, and a huge hallway that will be great for gallery space."
Sarah's Fabrics, as those of you who go downtown to sew one on already know, is a downtown institution. It's celebrating its 40th year, Fayman told me. During that time, Fayman has done her share of building renovation. It has been a little more than 10 years since Fayman completely remodeled the ground floor, including returning the facade of the building to a more historically accurate look.
This remodeling project is one of the larger ones underway downtown. The city has issued a permit for $512,000 worth of construction at the site. One reason for the cost is that Fayman is installing an elevator.
"It wasn't going to be very convenient for seamstresses to carry boxes and boxes of fabric up the stairs," Fayman said.
The classroom space won't take up the entire second floor of the building. Fayman said a little less than half the space will serve as the new offices for the Clark/Huesemann architecture firm. If you are not familiar with that company, it is led by Lawrence architects Steve Clark and Jane Huesemann. They previously were longtime architects with Lawrence-based Gould Evans, and they are perhaps best known for a lot of the design work they did with Gould Evans on the Lawrence Public Library expansion before leaving to start their own firm.
Fayman hopes to have the second-floor renovation completed by early spring. Stay tuned for more information about specific classes the store will be offering.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While we're on the subject of renovations, the empty space next to Starbucks on West Sixth Street now has a tenant. The national barbershop chain Sport Clips has pulled a building permit to do about $70,000 worth of work at 4701 Bauer Farm Drive. Lawrence has a Sport Clips at 3140 Iowa St., next to Jason's Deli.
As schools, businesses and governments announce all types of changes to their hours as a result of this snowstorm, I'm voting for this idea: Let's all sit around and eat salsa and go back to work once the snow has melted.
I believe I know one new Lawrence company that would be on board with it. Lawrence is now home to a new salsa company. Dave & Dexter's Salsa began selling its salsa varieties at The Merc this fall and recently has expanded its reach into the two Hy-Vee stores in the city. Plus, the company has pending deals to start showing up on the shelves of major grocery chains in the Kansas City metro area.
Lawrence physician David Lawhorn — who is married to noted cardiologist Dr. Stephanie Lawhorn — is the brains behind the new company. When he was looking for his next career move in the medical industry, his wife instead encouraged him to think about doing what he had been talking about for years: marketing the homemade salsa that he had been giving away to friends and family for decades.
"I wasn't sure because there are so many out there," Lawhorn said. "But this one does taste different. It tastes fresh right out of the jar, and we really do use fresh ingredients."
I suppose at this point we should address the elephant in the room here. You may have noticed that Lawhorn and I have the same last name, and you may be wondering if we're related. Well, if you ever meet a Lawhorn and ask him if he's related to yours truly, the most likely answer you'll get is "It depends." But David Lawhorn is one of the few who can honestly say he's not related to me. (I have, though, received phone calls for his cardiologist wife. One was an elderly woman who wanted to talk to Dr. Lawhorn because her husband was having chest pains. Fortunately, I had just read a book on how the heart works, so I was able to talk her through it. No, I told her to call 911. Or 411. I don't remember.)
Lawhorn said sales of the salsa — which is produced by a commercial kitchen in Kansas City — have gone well. Lawhorn said he even recently was approached by a representative from Whole Foods about stocking the salsa, which is preservative free, in some of its stores. The company produces four varieties of salsa, each with different degrees of heat, although all also have a hint of sweetness to them.
"True Mexican salsa shouldn't tinge your mouth or lips," Lawhorn said. "You should taste a little bit of heat at the beginning and then it should build at the end."
Conversations with Dean & DeLuca also have begun, Lawhorn said. So, it will be interesting to watch how far this local company expands.
In case you are wondering, the Dexter in the equation of Dave & Dexter's is Lawhorn's beloved golden retriever. As far as I know, Dexter isn't related to me either. He probably wouldn't admit to it anyway.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Motorists should expect traffic flow to start changing at the Sixth Street and South Lawrence Trafficway interchange in northwest Lawrence. Plans originally called for new traffic signals to be hung and activated at the intersection on Thursday. I wouldn't be surprised if weather issues delay that project, but city engineers tell me it won't be long before the signals are working.
The project actually is being done by the state as part of an effort to reduce the long line of cars that stack up on the entrance and exit ramps to the trafficway. But as you'll likely notice, the traffic signals will look kind of temporary in nature. There is a reason for that. Chuck Soules, the city's director of public works, has told me that the state would like to build a new "diverging diamond interchange" at the intersection in coming years.
I know. The phrase "diverging diamond interchange" creates questions. My wife's question: When am I going to buy her one?I told her I think we're talking about a different type of diamond. But I'm not sure. I checked out this website devoted to diverging diamond intersections, and I'm still not sure how they work. But the key concept seems to be that the two lanes of traffic cross each other, eliminating the need for left turns.
If you have been through the new interchange at I-35 and Homestead Lane near the Burlington Northern Santa Fe intermodal facility in Edgerton, you've been through a diverging diamond interchange. There also are several in Springfield, Mo., and in the Branson, Mo., area. Here's a video of one in Springfield.
When Lawrence may get its first diverging diamond interchange is a bit uncertain. City engineers have told me the state hasn't yet identified a funding source for the project. But my understanding is that the interchange is being designed, which is a sign that the state is strongly interested in the project. Part of the project also will be dependent on traffic flows. Traffic numbers are expected to increase once the nearby Rock Chalk Park sports complex is fully opened.
I'll let you know if I hear more. In the meantime, I think my wife is driving me to the jewelry store.
Buffalo Wild Wings files plans for new restaurant on South Iowa Street; update on city broadband plans
A nice, spicy chicken wing does sound good today. Heck, on this cold and snowy day, wing sauce in my boots sounds good too. I can't confirm that Buffalo Wild Wings will do that for you, but I can confirm that the restaurant chain has filed plans to build a new restaurant on south Iowa Street.
The restaurant is the lead tenant for a new retail development slated for the northeast corner of 27th and Iowa streets. That's the location of a Chinese restaurant building that has been vacant since 2008, and an empty lot that years ago housed Mazzio's pizza. (Warm breadsticks from Mazzio's — which, at times, mysteriously looked like hot dog buns with melted cheese — sound good too today.)
The plans filed at City Hall show that Buffalo Wild Wings will take about 6,000 square feet in the new building, and that the growing tanning salon chain of Sun Tan City will occupy about 1,900 square feet. The plans also call for a 5,000 square-foot retail space that doesn't yet have a retail tenant identified. But I bet you it will get one. If you have forgotten, the site is caddy-corner from one of the more active retail corners in the city right now — the old Sears building that will house Dick's Sporting Goods and at least two other major tenants.
There hasn't been any definitive word on what this means for the Buffalo Wild Wings location in downtown Lawrence, but there is speculation that the downtown location will close and be replaced by this one. I've reached out to officials with Buffalo Wild Wings for several weeks now, including yesterday, and haven't been able to get any response.
But if you remember, we reported on speculation all the way back in July that Buffalo Wild Wings would be moving from downtown to this very spot at 27th and Iowa streets. Adding to the speculation that the restaurant will move out of downtown is that its current building at 1012 Massachusetts St. has been on the market. Buffalo Wild Wings is just a renter at the building, but potential buyers of the building have told me that the building doesn't come with a long-term lease for Buffalo Wild Wings. But, until we hear official word from the restaurant chain, it is too early to know for sure what the future holds for the downtown spot.
It is worth noting, though, that the Buffalo Wild Wings building has changed ownership in recent weeks. It is now owned by Christie Brothers LLC, which appears to be led by Michael Christie, who was also part of the previous ownership group of the building, Jayhawk Equities. So, it will be interesting to watch what happens at that location because it is a fairly large downtown space. I'll try to reach out to the new owners and report back.
It also will be interesting to watch for more changes along South Iowa Street as Dick's Sporting Goods gets closer to opening this summer. We've previously reported that two shopping centers near the area have changed hands: the Holiday Plaza Shopping Center at 25th and Iowa and the Tower Plaza Shopping Center at 2540 Iowa St. Well, there is one other smaller sale in the area to note. The property at 2500 Iowa St. also has sold in recent weeks. Longtime insurance agent Gary Petersen sold the building to Iowa 2500 LLC, which includes executives with the commercial real estate firm R.H. Johnson Co. Those are the same executives that also are part of the new ownership group of the Tower Plaza Shopping Center, which is adjacent to 2500 Iowa. In other words, leaders with R.H. Johnson Co. — which have attracted a lot of national retailers to Lawrence — now own pretty much the whole block.
Petersen, though, said there aren't any plans for his Shelter Insurance agency to move from the building. The building also houses a ProCuts hair salon.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Perhaps City Hall officials have discovered what I'm quickly discovering: A snow day isn't as much fun as it used to be. My fifth-grade son was up at 6 a.m. to begin practicing for an extravaganza of Olympic events he plans to host today, and, alarmingly, my second-grade daughter somehow has got her hands on a lit Olympic torch.
Anyway, all this is to say that as of about 9:30 this morning, city officials haven't yet canceled tonight's City Commission meeting. Stay tuned, though; that may change. Regardless, I'll give you an update on one item that may or may not get heard tonight.
City commissioners will consider officially issuing a "request for information" from companies interested in partnering with the city on improving broadband service in the community. The RFI comes as city officials are processing a request from Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband that asks the city for a $500,000 grant and several other incentives to conduct a pilot project that would bring super-fast Internet service to downtown and East Lawrence.
Wicked's proposal is to bring the same level of broadband speed to Lawrence as Google Fiber is installing in the Kansas City metro area. City officials, though, aren't necessarily asking for companies to come up with a plan to replicate the Google Fiber project. Instead, the RFI asks companies to "enhance the availability of high speed internet services for residents and businesses and to increase the competition amongst providers for these services in Lawrence."
The city is encouraging anyone and everyone who has some expertise in the area to respond to the RFI. That means both WOW and AT&T are being asked to provide a plan on how they can boost service in the community.
The RFI doesn't mention any financial incentives the city may be willing to offer. In other words, it doesn't say the city has $500,000 it is ready provide as grant money. But it does ask companies to describe what financial incentives it would seek from the city.
The bigger carrot the city is dangling is access to a significant amount of fiber optic cables the city owns throughout the community. Plus, the city controls all the rights-of-ways, traffic signals and several other facilities that broadband equipment could be mounted to.
Firms have an entire month to come up with their proposals. The deadline for responses, as it is currently proposed, is March 5. No word on how long it may take the city to evaluate the responses. Wicked's request for incentives is scheduled to go before the city's Public Incentive Review Committee on March 4. We'll see if that date changes.
There's a $200,000 project underway to install solar panels in Lawrence, and you might be surprised who is behind it — the operator of the large coal-fired power plant just outside of town.
Topeka-based Westar Energy is installing 160 solar panels on its maintenance facility and service center at 746 E. 27th St. in southeast Lawrence.
"We hope to learn a little bit more about solar," said Don Ford, director of renewable business solutions for Westar. "Some of the information that is out there is from other locations, and we think it would be good for our customers to see what they will get in Kansas."
Westar, the state's largest electric utility, is installing the solar panels in a variety of locations and at a variety of angles to test their efficiency. The entire project will be hooked up to a website that will allow the public to log in and see how the solar panels are performing at any given time. Ford said that will provide valuable data on how solar panels perform on cloudy days and other such issues.
At their peak capacity, the solar panels Westar is installing would produce enough electricity to power about two homes. But, of course, solar panels don't always produce at their peak capacity, such as at night and during times when the sun is behind the clouds. How much electricity the panels will produce on a consistent basis is among the information Westar hopes to gather.
"We have customers who are starting to install solar panels, and we are getting more questions about solar panels," said Gina Penzig, a Westar spokeswoman. "We thought it was time for us to get some firsthand experience with solar panels."
Ford said he doesn't yet think the economics of solar panels make it likely that a lot of them will be installed in the state in the near term. But he said that make change.
"But if you would have asked me several years ago, I would have told you that we would have a lot less wind generation than we do now," Ford said. "The economics have changed a lot with wind, and it probably will with solar as well."
Westar now has five wind-generating plants to go along with its eight natural gas-fed power plants and its four coal-fired power plants, which includes the Lawrence Energy Center northwest of the city.
Lawrence is one of three cities Westar is using to test solar power. The utility also is installing panels on buildings they own in Manhattan and Shawnee, Ford said.
The company announced earlier this month that it would help fund the purchase and installation of solar panels at schools, nonprofit agencies and government buildings. Westar said it plans to provide funding for about 15 to 20 installations. The projects will be selected based, in part, on their ability to educate the public about solar energy.
The deadline for organizations or governments to apply is March 1. Westar is partnering with the EPA and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Application information can be found here.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I don't know if they actually broke into the Rock Chalk chant, but a pair of Lawrence city commissioners recently won a statewide award for their support of the city's new recreation center at the Rock Chalk Park sports complex. Mayor Mike Dever and City Commissioner Bob Schumm were awarded the Distinguished Elected Official Award from the Kansas Recreation and Park Association. They served as the lead commissioners on the project, which will involve the city spending $22.5 million to build a 181,000-square-foot recreation center and related infrastructure for the adjacent privately owned sports park that will be leased to Kansas University.
• If you haven't driven by the construction site of the Lawrence Public Library expansion at Seventh and Vermont streets, you ought to. It is becoming easier to see what the new exterior will look like. The project is scheduled to be completed this summer, and that means it is time to start picking out the furnishings. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday will approve the first of several furniture contracts. In case you are wondering, it looks like it will cost about $570,000 for furniture. The amount was included as part of the library's $18 million budget.
The only question now is whether I become the next Picasso or the next Van Gogh. (My wife says I already remind her of Van Gogh. I only hear about half of what she says.) But surely my art skills are destined to soar because Lawrence soon will have a new business that combines making art and drinking liquor.
Painted Kanvas, a new paint party studio and bar, is set to open this spring in the shopping center at Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive. But perhaps you are like me and think that when you combine paint and liquor, it usually either leads to a free mug shot courtesy of Douglas County or an awkward conversation about how a self-portrait of your derriere ended up on the living room wall.
But Painted Kanvas co-owner Chelsea Rose told me this concept is different. Area artists will lead patrons of the establishment in creating a painting over the course of about two to three hours. Patrons will be able to purchase fine Kansas wines and beers and other beverages while they create their own personal masterpiece.
"They don't have to have ever picked up a paint brush or a drawing pencil," said Rose, who co-owns the business with Dan Rose. "The artist will go stroke by stroke, and there will be plenty of time for the artist to assist people individually."
Plans call for all the artists to be local, and Rose already has begun to select some of the artwork that will be created. The business has a website where its patrons can see what painting is scheduled to be taught on any particular night.
Rose said current plans call for patrons to pay a $35 to $40 instruction fee, depending on the painting, plus whatever drinks people choose to purchase. Patrons get to keep the artwork they create.
The concept of guided art parties has begun to take off in many cities, including Kansas City and even Topeka. But Rose said Painted Kanvas — the 'K' is to emphasize the Kansas theme of the business — will be unique because it has a liquor license. Many other art party establishments don't serve liquor but instead allow you to bring your own bottle of wine, for instance.
"I went to one of the places in Kansas City, and I just thought Lawrence would eat this up," Rose said.
The business plans to be open Tuesday through Saturday for events open to the public, but Rose said she also wants to host a variety of themed events and private parties. She said she will work to attract corporate outings, and also can arrange for a kid-friendly painting for a birthday party, for example. Catering services also can be arranged, she said.
An opening date hasn't been set, but construction is underway. Rose said she hopes to have the business open sometime in March.
That's fine. That will give me time to practice — and also to scrub on this living room wall.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Even when there is not painting involved, Lawrence loves a good gathering built around beer. As I reported earlier this week, tickets for the third annual Kansas Craft Brewers Exposition in downtown Lawrence went on sale Wednesday evening. Last year, tickets for the event sold out in about 45 minutes. But organizers made some changes to the event for this year, including adding a second session, which essentially doubled the number of tickets available. Event organizers recently provided me an update on ticket sales: This year they sold out in 40 minutes. (To clarify, that's how long it took to sell out online, where the majority of the tickets were available. There may be a ticket or two left at one of the several breweries in the area selling tickets. No guarantees on that, but the worst that happens is you end up at a brewery.)
There are worse problems to have than your event selling out within a matter of minutes, but expo organizer Chuck Magerl of Free State Brewery said organizers are looking for ways to make it easier to buy tickets in the future.
• UPDATE: Make what you will of this, but a WOW spokeswoman got back in touch with me this afternoon and said the paid legal notice that ran in yesterday's paper was premature on WOW's part. "WOW is negotiating retransmission renewal with KSNT's owner," spokeswoman Erica Stull told me in an e-mail. Negotiations are ongoing." So, it sounds like an issue to keep an eye on, but not one that has been settled.
It looks like Lawrence residents soon will have one less opportunity to keep up on our friends in Topeka. A small notice appeared in the classified section of the Journal-World yesterday announcing that in March WOW will stop carrying the Topeka NBC affiliate KSNT on the cable system. (To be clear, the notice doesn't say who is announcing this — WOW, KSNT or some other party — but I'm reaching out to the officials at WOW.) KSNT is channel 8 and channel 208 on the cable dial. That will leave Kansas City's KSHB — channel 14 and 214 on the cable dial — as the only NBC affiliate on WOW's system. It also means that of the three big network affiliates in Topeka, only the CBS affiliate of WIBW remains on the Lawrence cable system.(Topeka's PBS station is also on the system.) I haven't yet received word from WOW on the reasons behind the pending change, but nationally cable operators and local television stations have sparred frequently over the fees cable operators pay the stations for the right to carry the stations on their systems. According to the notice, March 4 is set to be the last day for KSNT on the WOW system. It is worth noting, though, that it has been announced before that KSNT was going to be dropped from the system, and then negotiations led to it staying on the system. So, we'll see what happens. I'll let you know when I hear more.
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I have just come to expect that it will happen on every home improvement project: last-minute changes dictated by a higher power. You know, a potpourri station here, a chocolate fountain there, a 30-by-40 walk-in shoe vault around the corner. Those sorts of things. But I didn't know that the people who build home improvement stores have to deal with such last-minute tweaks as well.
But that's what is going on currently with plans for a Menards home improvement store near 31st and Iowa streets. (Put your marshmallows away. I didn't mean Menards is adding a chocolate fountain.) But designers are still making some changes to the project, which is one of the reasons construction hasn't yet started on the site that is just east of Home Depot.
Bottomline: There's still not a firm date for when the project will start construction.
At the moment, it appears most of the major changes are coming from Menards officials, not from city planners who are reviewing the site plan for the store. The biggest change is the store's outdoor storage yard is being reduced by more than half. That seems significant because, unlike Home Depot, Menards uses a covered, outdoor storage area to house most of its lumber and other building materials. Menards is proposing to reduce the size of the storage yard to 40,000 square feet, down from the original plan of 90,000 square feet.
I know that is going to create worry among some that Lawrence is going to get a smaller-than-average Menards store. There are people who feel like the Home Depot store is undersized compared with what's available in Topeka and Kansas City, and they don't want that to happen with Menards. It is worth noting that the size of the actual building hasn't changed, only the size of the storage yard.
I'm hoping to get someone from Menards to talk to me about what the change in size means for the store's future offerings. It is possible, though, that it may not be that big of a deal. Menards is moving its outdoor storage yard from the east side of its building to the west side of the building. That changes the traffic flow significantly and the amount of pavement needed to accommodate the traffic. People who have looked at the plans more closely than I have said it appears that the actual amount of area to store goods is about the same as originally proposed, but the amount of pavement to accommodate vehicles has shrunk considerably.
What's more interesting is what Menards is proposing to do with that saved space. As we hinted in November, Menards is trying to increase the size of one of its six outlying retail lots that will surround the home improvement center. The latest plans call for the retail lot immediately east of the Menards store to grow to 5 acres, up from about 1 acre. Obviously, that would allow for a significantly larger retailer to locate on the site.
What would be interesting to know is if Menards has somebody on the hook for the site, or if it is just speculating that this will make it more attractive to users in the future. Under the new configuration, two of the six proposed lots are pretty decent size. In addition to the one just east of the Menards store, there is an 8-acre lot right along 31st Street. It is commonly known as the Snodgrass tract, which was the single-family home that was just east of the Gaslight Mobile Home Village. It appears it can accommodate a decent size store. It has been a little tough to determine how big of a retailer could locate on either lot because there are some floodplain areas that make portions of the property tough to build on. But I've had some people in the business tell me that a 20,000 to 30,000 square-foot building may be possible on the site.
There are a host of major national retailers that occupy 20,000 to 30,000 square-foot buildings. But I haven't heard much talk of who may be interested in locating at the Menards project. As far as major retail speculation goes, the most recent retail rumbling I've heard is that PetSmart may have an interest in a Lawrence location. I certainly don't have anything confirmed on that, but it is worth noting that PetSmart and Dick's Sporting Goods have located next to each other in quite a few developments around the country. Dick's, of course, is under construction in the former Sears building at 27th and Iowa. The building has space for two more retail tenants, plus an outlying restaurant lot. As we reported in December, Chick-fil-A has made some inquiries about that site, but no deal has been struck yet.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If you have taken on the awesome task of keeping up with the city's Mexican food restaurant scene, get out your scorecards. There are changes on two fronts. The El Mezcal at 804 Iowa St. is gone, and a Mexican restaurant called Pueblo has replaced it. Pueblo is owned by a longtime employee of El Mezcal, which has operated Mexican restaurants throughout the area. Felipe Avila had worked in various jobs for El Mezcal for about 15 years, and jumped at the chance to buy the 804 location when El Mezcal decided to sell recently. The menu at the location is very similar to what El Mezcal offered, but Avila said he plans to put his own touches on the business as well.
"Lawrence does love Mexican food," Avila told me. "There are probably too many places in town, but I really like this location, and we will offer good food and good service."
West Lawrence also is getting in on the act of new Mexican restaurants. A sign is up for El Sol in the shopping center at Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive. If you remember, an El Mezcal used to operate in that shopping center, but it closed several months ago. I've reached out to the folks at El Sol and will report back when I hear more. There is an El Sol Mexican restaurant in Ottawa, although I'm not certain the two are connected.
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Tickets for popular downtown Lawrence beer expo to go on sale today; city to delay vote on rental licensing program
Topeka may be the capital of the state, but it is becoming clearer each year that Lawrence is the Kansas capital of beer.
Sorry Topeka. We're not trading.
If you don't believe me, just watch what happens in the next few hours. Today is the day that craft beer lovers from around the region have circled, and it is not just because it is Kansas Day. No, today — at 6 p.m. — is when tickets go on sale for the third annual Kansas Craft Brewers Exposition. (But happy Kansas Day, by the way.)
The expo is set for March 8 at Abe & Jake's Landing at Sixth and New Hampshire streets. Last year it was estimated that tickets for the event sold out in about 45 minutes. But organizers have made a change this year that they hope will make it easier for more people to attend. The expo will hold two sessions on Saturday. Session No. 1 will last from noon to 3 p.m. Session No. 2 will last from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
But you probably still shouldn't dally in getting your tickets, which are $30 per person. They will be available online at ksbrewfest.com or at a few locations. In Lawrence, the only locations are at Free State Brewery and at 23rd Street Brewery. If you are in Topeka, they are available at the Blind Tiger Brewery. If you are in the Kansas City area, they are available at 75th Street Brewery and Bacchus & Barleycorn. If you are in Manhattan, well, you probably will need a lot more beer than we can legally offer you to make that experience bearable. (Tickets are available at the Little Apple Brewery, however.)
A portion of ticket sales again will be donated to the nonprofit Downtown Lawrence Inc.
As for the beer, Abe & Jake's again will be packed with brewers. The current list of brewers attending stands at 35. It, of course, includes Free State and 23rd Street here in Lawrence. It also includes heavyweights such as Boulevard, Odell, New Belgium and Sierra Nevada. And it includes a whole bunch of ones that just sound like fun: Left Hand Brewing, Crazy Eye Brewing, Peace Tree Brewing and Cinder Block Brewery. See the full list here.
If you are not familiar with how the expo works, your ticket gets you access to sample brews from all the different vendors, and it also is your chance to talk with the brewers about their craft.
Craft beer expos have become a big deal in the world of event-based tourism, and it will be interesting to watch how this one grows. Lawrence is well-positioned, it seems, to have one of the more successful beer expos in the country. Free State Brewery founder Chuck Magerl is extremely well-respected nationwide in the craft beer industry and has developed a ton of contacts in that world. Magerl is one of the organizers of the expo and has thrown his full support behind it. Lawrence-based Grandstand Sportswear and Glassware is the major supplier of glass growlers for the craft brewing industry worldwide. And in Kansas City, Boulevard Brewery is certainly now well-funded after it was purchased by Belgian brewer Duvel Moortgat. It is well-known the Belgians have beer money coming out of their lederhosen. (I know lederhosen is German, but when you have as much money as the Belgians, you can afford to buy imported breeches.)
Lawrence's downtown and the unique venue of Abe & Jake's along the Kansas River also could help set the expo apart from others in the region. The fact that the event has expanded to two sessions this year is significant. It will be fun to watch what expansions may take place in the future.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe we should make some type of artwork to express our love of beer in Lawrence. I know what we could use for material: beer bottles. A new report from City Hall indicates we have plenty of them. For 2013, area residents recycled 1,197 tons of glass through the Ripple Glass recycling bins that are located across the city. That, according to city calculations, is the equivalent of 4.7 million bottles. Now, I'm not saying all of them are beer bottles, but if you have ever stuck your head in one of those recycling bins (don't leave it in there very long, by the way), you'll have to admit a lot of them are beer bottles.
So, as I tell my accountant this time of year, let's have some fun with math. The latest Census estimate has Lawrence's population at 89,512, and, yes, that includes students. So 4.7 million bottles would equal 52.5 bottles per year for every man, woman and child in the city. The Census estimates that the population above 18 years old in Lawrence is 73,847. (I know the drinking age is still 21, but somehow I think we'll still be scientifically valid by using over 18 years of age.) That equates to 63 bottles of beer per year for every person over 18 years old. In other words, about one and a quarter beers per week.
That sounds about right — if I am an extremely naive parent who wants to believe their university students spend about 98 percent of all their time at the library.
No, what this little math exercise has proved to me is that there is still a lot of beer bottles that get thrown in the trash. As a reminder, the city's curbside recycling program — which will begin in October — will accept glass. It will be interesting to see what those numbers are, because as I think I have mentioned, Lawrence really likes beer.
• It is less clear whether Lawrence likes the idea of a new rental licensing and inspection program. As we have been reporting for months, the city is seriously considering an inspection program that would cover the entire city, instead of just the single family rental units that get periodic inspections.
Well, there is news on that front. A key vote on the program was scheduled for next week's City Commission meeting, but that has now been postponed. City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer says he wants more data about the city's current rental inspection program before he's ready to cast a vote. A new date for the vote hasn't yet been set, but I know some commissioners will push for it to be within a month.
Farmer has said people shouldn't take his request for a delay as a sign that he is withdrawing his support for the program. But it is worth noting that the program doesn't appear to have an abundance of votes on the City Commission. Mayor Mike Dever and Commissioner Mike Amyx both have expressed various concerns over how the program would be structured. I hope to bring you more on this new development later today.
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Lawrence home sales end 2013 up 17 percent from a year ago; county appraiser provides update on property values
What a difference two years make. Back in 2011 we all were all locked up in our safe rooms, blowing through our emergency batch of chocolate candies and nervously muttering something about the Great Recession and Ben Bernanke. (We weren't entirely sure of Ben Bernanke's role in all this, but his name just mutters so well.)
Now, it appears many of us are locked away in a nice new home. For the second straight year, home sales in Lawrence took a big jump, according to the year-end report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
For 2013, home sales totaled 1,061 in Lawrence, up 17 percent from 2012. But what's really remarkable is how much the industry has bounced back from its lows of 2011. Home sales in the city are up a full 50 percent from the days when my wife and I briefly considered switching from Ghirardelli chocolates to Cadbury. (Yikes.)
Another way to look at the sales totals is that $217.6 million worth of homes were sold in Lawrence in 2013. That's up from $172.2 million in 2012 and $140.2 million in 2011. That's $77 million more in real estate sales than occurred in 2011. A 6 percent real estate commission on that will buy a fellow a few months of chocolate.
The question now is whether the industry is primed for a third straight year of sales growth. Susan Bonham, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors, said the current data suggests "steady growth" for 2014. We'll see how it plays out. But the only slightly negative trend in the 2013 numbers is that sales growth did slow down considerably in the second half of the year.
In the first half of 2013, sales were up 29 percent compared with the same period in 2012. In the second half of 2013, sales growth slowed to 6 percent, compared with the same period a year earlier. An interesting trend, but to complain about it would be like me complaining that my wife left me only one peanut cluster instead of two. In other words, it is still a lot better than it has been.
But it will be important to keep an eye on how the market gets out of the gates in 2014. It is worth noting that the home sale numbers for Lawrence in December were disappointing. They dropped by nearly 20 percent compared with December 2012.
Here's a look at other numbers from the year-end report:
— Sales of newly constructed homes experienced their second straight year of growth as well. But the growth rate slowed down significantly in 2013. There were 94 sales of newly constructed homes in 2013, up 5.6 percent from 2012. In 2012, sales of newly constructed homes grew by 41 percent.
— Unlike in 2012, home prices were on the rise in 2013. The median selling price in Lawrence was $170,000, up 6.6 percent from 2012. That's good news for people who were worried that Lawrence's real estate market was poised for a major price correction. In 2012, the median selling price dropped by 5 percent. If home prices would have dropped a second straight year, that would have set off alarm bells with some.
— The number of homes on the market continues to shrink, which normally puts upward pressure on prices. December ended with 303 homes on the market, down from 369 at the end of December 2012.
— The median number of days a home sits on the market unsold also is down slightly. The average now stands at 47, down from 53. It is down from 63 in 2011.
In other news and notes from around town:
• We'll keep the real estate theme going with some news from the Douglas County Appraiser's office. News of selling prices rising may cause some homeowners to wonder whether the county appraiser will significantly increase the taxable value of their homes.
Well, there are some indications that may not be likely. The Douglas County Appraiser's Office currently is doing its work to set the value of every piece of property in the county. The office is a little more than halfway done with the task. According to a new report, most values are going to stay steady or decline slightly.
The numbers are still subject to change between now and March when they are sent out to homeowners, but here's a look at the breakdown thus far:
— 44 percent of residential properties are projected to have values that are basically unchanged from a year ago;
— 11 percent are projected to have decrease of 1 percent to 3 percent in value from a year ago;
— 30 percent are projected to have an increase of up to 3 percent in value;
— 15 percent are projected to have an increase of more than 3 percent in value.
There is New York-style pizza. There is Chicago-style pizza. Even St. Louis claims to have its own style of pizza. (Missouri and style? Do they only serve the pizza in front yards and on cinder blocks, just like how they park their cars? Sorry, I keep forgetting that we like each other now that we don't play each other.)
Regardless, get ready for Kansas-style pizza, and look for it this spring in downtown Lawrence. After months of telling you that a new restaurant indeed will open in the former La Parrilla spot at 814 Massachusetts Street (La Parrilla moved into the 700 block, if you remember), I now can report that it will be a pizza place.
Work is underway to convert the space into Limestone Pizza Kitchen and Bar. But before you groan about another pizza place in Lawrence, the leaders of Limestone are promising this one will be different. And indeed, the ownership group has a track record for creating innovative food. Rick Martin, who served for 15 years as the executive chef at Free State Brewery, is teaming up with a pair of other Lawrence foodies. Mikey Humphrey, who has served as the head baker at Wheatfields, will be part of the ownership group. So too will Charles Rascoll, who is one of the founders of Wheatfields and also has served as a longtime instructor at the famed Culinary Institute of America. Debbie Rascoll, Charles' wife, also will be a partner in the business.
But just what the heck is Kansas-style pizza? Well, first, it is wood-fired, and not just with any wood. The group plans to use Kansas hedge to fire the specially built oven that will reach temperatures of 900 degrees and cook a pizza in 90 seconds.
The crust will be thin, in the style of the original Neapolitan-style pizza of Italy. And to be fair, Neapolitan-style pizza is really what Limestone will be striving to create. But the group wants to do so with a strong Kansas influence. That means all the crust will be made from Kansas wheat, the mozzarella will be made in house at the restaurant, and Martin said the group hopes to find enough local tomato growers to make the sauce an all Kansas affair as well.
As for the end product, Martin said it will be different from what is served in other local pizzerias.
"It is hard to even call it a thin crust pizza because then people will start to think of it like an American thin crust," Martin said.
Instead, Martin said Limestone's pizzas will be very much like a pizza from Naples, Italy, in that it will be very crispy on the bottom but moist — or some would even say wet — on the top.
Construction work is well underway on the site. The wood fired oven will be prominently displayed in the dining area of the restaurant, Martin said. The group plans to open in the spring, perhaps as early as March.
In addition to the pizza, Martin said the menu will include several other appetizers, sandwiches and salads that are made with local ingredients.
The group also is hoping that the restaurant gains another reputation. Both Martin and Rascoll have backgrounds as food educators, and the group wants to work that into the restaurant's mission as well.
"We hope this will become the place where young people can come to work and really learn the culinary skills," Martin said.
Lawrence firm has connection to company on ABC’s “Shark Tank” tonight; a guide to Haskell Avenue’s pending closure
My wife used to really encourage me to try out for the ABC television program "Shark Tank" — until she realized there aren't any actual sharks. Regardless, a Lawrence company is going to be watching the program with great interest tonight.
Lawrence-based Western International has partnered with a Prairie Village-based company that will be featured on the program at 8 p.m. on ABC. For those of you unfamiliar with the program, it's a contest-based show where young companies make presentations in front of venture capitalists, a.k.a. the sharks.
The folks over at Western International, based in East Lawrence, won't be in the tank tonight, but they'll be rooting hard for the Johnson County company SwimZip. Officials from SwimZip will be on the program trying to gain funding to expand the reach of its line of specialty swimwear. The Lawrence connection is that SwimZip's warehouse and shipping facility recently moved to Lawrence. Western International late last year signed a deal to operate the facility for SwimZip out of its building near 19th and Delaware streets.
"It is going to be fun to see what it does for sales," Todd Stauffer, vice president of Western International, told me.
We'll have to wait until tonight to find out whether the company was successful in gaining funding, but Betsy Johnson, one of the founders and owners of SwimZip, told me she's confident the company is going to benefit either way.
"It is going to be awesome," Johnson said. "It is the type of exposure you can't buy."
The company has been in business for a little more than three years. Johnson founded it with her brother, Berry Wanless, after Johnson was diagnosed with skin cancer at 26. After researching skin cancer, she realized it probably was her time out in the sun as a child that put her most at risk.
So she and her brother designed a line of swimwear that blocks 98 percent of the UVA and cancer causing rays. A big part of the system is a special swim shirt that provides protection for the shoulders and back. That's also where the "zip" part of the company comes from. The shirts use a special no-pinch zipper that makes them easier to put on and take off than traditional swim shirts.
As for Western International, SwimZip is just the beginning of what it hopes will be a significant expansion. Western International's main line of business has been as a wholesaler of farm and ranch books. It stores about 8,000 titles at its warehouse and ships them to farm and ranch stores around the world.
But Stauffer said one of the company's areas of expertise is in shipping and warehousing, which got company officials thinking of how they might be able to help other firms.
"There are a lot of small start-ups out there that get started in their garages, and then realize they've grown to the point that they are too big for the garage or the basement," Stauffer said. "We see a niche out there to help smaller companies that are growing and need a mid-size warehouse, but don't want to operate it themselves."
The company employs six people and has room to house the shipping operations of additional companies. Stauffer said the company is in discussions with a Canadian company that wants a U.S.-based location.
"Being in this part of the country is a plus for us," Stauffer said. "We basically have equal shipping times to both coasts."
UPDATE AND SPOILER ALERT: SwimZip on Friday was offered and accepted a $60,000 investment from one of the "sharks" on the program. The company's new partner, "QVC Queen" Lori Greiner, mentioned on the show that she thought SwimZip had potential to get into stores such as Target and other major retailers. So, as they say, stay tuned.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As we've previously reported, there is going to be a hassle on Haskell on Monday. And you had better get used to it because it's going to be around for a long time. Construction work on the South Lawrence Trafficway will close Haskell Avenue between 27th and 29th streets through Spring of 2015.
There are several businesses along that stretch, and it hasn't been real clear how people will get to them. Well, let's clarify: Motorists still will be able to access both 27th Street and 29th Street off of Haskell Avenue. In other words, the closure begins just beyond those intersections.
But here's the trick: You are going to have to plan ahead. If you are trying to access a business at or south of 29th Street, you are going to have to come at it from the south. If you are trying to access a business at or north of 28th Street, you are going to have to come at it from the north. And you also are going to have to turn on 27th Street and wind your way through an industrial park to get to 28th Street.
Here's the thing to remember: There's no side street west of Haskell that runs all the way through from 27th Street to 29th Street. Oregon Street runs from 27th Street to 28th Street, but it dead ends there. So, if you are hoping to take just a little one-block detour to skirt around the construction zone, that is not going to work too well. Louisiana Street to the west is going to get busier during this time period because it is the first major road west of the construction zone that connects 23rd Street to 31st Street. Truck traffic, however, is not supposed to be on Louisiana Street. Technically, a truck coming from the east and needing to deliver to an industrial business near 31st and Haskell, would need to go all the way to Iowa Street, then connect with 31st Street and head back east until it reaches Haskell.
It will be interesting to watch what unofficial shortcuts get developed over the next 18 months or so. Previously, the city's public works director told me that a temporary road will be built west of Haskell Avenue. It basically will use a portion of the Haskell Rail Trail that runs behind the old E&E Display building that is between 28th and 29th Streets. That would create a through route for trucks and other delivery vehicles needing to access businesses in that area. But the road definitely won't be designed to serve as a detour for all the traffic trying to go down Haskell Avenue.
I'm sure there will be some complaints early on, and then people will get used to it. I actually was one of the few people looking forward to it, because I thought it would slow my wife's regular path to the stores on South Iowa Street. I thought I would save some money. Then she went and bought an expensive hovercraft on eBay. I can't win.
• Soon, I'll also be losing another free place to park in downtown Lawrence. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday will consider setting the rates for the new Vermont Street parking garage. The garage has been open for a couple of months, but parking has been free while the city determines rates.
City Manager David Corliss is recommending that the rates be basically the same as those in the New Hampshire Street garage. That means the lower level will be two-hour free parking, while the upper levels will charge $1 to park for up to 10 hours. Motorists will pay at self-serve pay stations. Despite previous discussions, there won't be a gate system on the garage.
Corliss also is recommending that the roof level of the garage be used for free 10-hour parking. That's similar to what has been done at the New Hampshire Street garage. But Corliss now is recommending that the free designation on the roof level of the New Hampshire Street garage be discontinued. It would start charging a $1 fee for 10 hours of parking. Corliss said demand for the New Hampshire Street garage has increased significantly and people no longer need an incentive to use it.
Commissioners will discuss the proposed parking rates at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday.
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Plans filed to open rural business that teaches green living classes; Highberger confirms plans to run for statehouse
It is a little hard to think about being green on a day like today. Walk outside, and you are more likely to turn blue. But plans are in the works for a new rural Lawrence business that will teach people to be green all year.
Local herb expert Tamara Fairbanks-Ishmael has filed plans with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department to open Good Earth Gatherings at her home at 858 E. 1500 Road.
Fairbanks-Ishmael plans to convert a barn on the property into a classroom where she'll have instructors who will teach classes on topics such as art journaling, creating miniature gardens, dying fabrics, working with wool, and making your own lotions. (Ohhh, lotion to rub on the iceberg formerly known as my nose would feel good right about now.) Other topics will include food preservation, arts and crafts, home decorating and other similar classes.
Plus, there will be many classes on herbs and herb gardening. Fairbanks-Ishmael runs the Kaw Valley Herbs Study Group, which attracts a monthly gathering of about 50 people. She said the success of that group was one of the reasons she decided to pursue the idea of Good Earth Gatherings.
"I have seen people throughout the area have a real quest for knowledge on things that are self-empowering," Fairbanks-Ishmael said. "Herbs are very self-empowering. They are medicine you can grow in your backyard."
(I hope that is true because I currently have my hand emerged in oregano in hopes that it will help me reattach my frostbitten left thumb.)
If this business sounds familiar to you, perhaps you remember that in late 2011 Fairbanks-Ishmael filed similar plans and ultimately got them approved by the Douglas County Commission. But she said family demands stopped her from opening the business. Her permit expired, so she has filed the paperwork again.
This time she said she's on a clear track to open the business. She hopes to begin offering classes in either the late spring or early summer. Or in other words, about the time I regain feeling in my frozen right foot. (Unless, of course, this basil in my sock starts to kick in.)
In other news and notes around town:
• I have a quick bit of political news to pass along. Back in November, I told you it looked like there was a good chance that former Lawrence Mayor Boog Highberger was going to run for the seat in the state legislature being vacated by Rep. Paul Davis, who of course is running for governor. Well, Highberger has confirmed to me that he has made the decision to run. He has recently sent off the paperwork to the Kansas Secretary of State's office. Look for a more formal announcement in the future.
Highberger will run as a Democrat, and that means there will be a primary election for Davis' seat in August. Abbie Hodgson, a former staff member with Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson, filed for the seat months ago.
Highberger served six years on the Lawrence City Commission in the 2000s, including a stint as mayor. Highberger is an attorney by trade. He previously was a staff attorney for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and now is a partner in a private practice in downtown Lawrence.
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It appears everybody this year did their pre-Christmas calisthenics. Jumping jacks? No. Jumping the line at the checkout counter? Yes. Push-ups? Forget about it. Pushing your way to the discounted Halloween candy corn? Absolutely.
What? How can you not know what I'm talking about? A certain someone in my household told me this was critical. You must stretch your shopping muscles before the holiday season begins.
Regardless, lots of Lawrence shoppers apparently did just that. According to a new report from City Hall, retail sales from mid-October to mid-November were up by a solid 8.4 percent, compared with the same period a year ago. We'll have to wait another week or two for the next sales tax report to see whether that momentum carried into the true holiday shopping season.
But the report does give us a look at how retail spending shaped up in 2013. The report is based off the December sales tax payment the city received from the state, which means we now have 12 months of sales tax data.
The result? A fair to middling year for retail sales in Lawrence. Consumers in Lawrence racked up $1.38 billion in taxable sales in 2013. (The majority of it is retail sales, but it also includes the sales tax you pay on your utility bills, for example.) That's up 2.1 percent from 2012 totals.
A 2 percent growth rate is nothing to sneer at. Remember, back in 2009 and 2010, the city saw retail sales actually decline. And over the last 10 years, the city's retail sales have grown on average by about 2.3 percent per year. So, in that regard, 2013 was just a tick below average. But the 2.1 percent rate was the slowest since the economy started to recover after the recession. In 2011, sales grew by 4.5 percent and in 2012 they grew by 5.2 percent. Clearly, the recovery lost some steam in 2013.
And you perhaps could argue that it lost a little more steam in Lawrence than it did elsewhere in the state. Statewide, sales tax collections grew by 3.5 percent, according to figures from the Kansas Department of Revenue. But the growth was really hit or miss. Several of the state's larger retail areas didn't see that much growth. Here's a look at how several area communities and some of the larger retail markets in the state fared.
— Baldwin City: up 2 percent
— Emporia: up 3 percent
— Eudora: up 10.5 percent
— Garden City: up 6.2 percent
— Hays: down 12.7 percent
— Hutchinson: up 4.4 percent
— Junction City: up 0.2 percent
— Kansas City: up 5.8 percent
— Leavenworth: up 4.7 percent
— Lecompton: up 7.8 percent
— Manhattan: down 0.3 percent
— Olathe: up 4 percent
— Ottawa: up 4.7 percent
— Overland Park: up 2.9 percent
— Shawnee: up 3.9 percent
— Tonganoxie: up 8.9 percent
— Topeka: up 1.4 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 3.3 percent
One other thing I like to do is see how much Lawrence retail sales have grown after being adjusted for inflation. That exercise shows something important has happened. On an inflation-adjusted basis, Lawrence sales have again reached the level they were at prior to the recession. In other words, we finally have gained back our losses. Here's a look at the actual sales totals, with the number in parenthesis adjusted to 2013 dollars, based on the consumer price index.
2013: $1.38 billion
2012: $1.35 billion ($1.37 billion)
2011: $1.29 billion ($1.34 billion)
2010: $1.23 billion ($1.31 billion)
2009: $1.25 billion ($1.36 billion)
2008: $1.28 billion ($1.38 billion)
We'll have an even clearer picture of 2013 in the next few weeks when the report showing sales activity for late November and December is released. We'll have to wait and see what that shows about the true holiday shopping season. In the meantime, I have a lot of old candy corn left to eat.
$500k grant to Wicked Broadband up for debate at City Hall; tax abatements and Santa Fe Depot project also on tap for discussion
Get out your favorite pie chart (yum, pie) and your best laser pointer because it is going to be a day of numbers and economic development discussions at Lawrence City Hall.
I've doubled-checked and there won't be any actual pie, but here is a look at what's on tap (yum, on tap) today for a couple of City Hall meetings.
• After months of process, the city's Public Incentives Review Committee at 4 p.m. today will consider a request from Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband to receive a $500,000 grant to help the company create a super-fast Internet project that is similar to what Google is doing in Kansas City. As we reported in November, Wicked, formerly known as Lawrence Freenet, has chosen the downtown and East Lawrence neighborhoods as the site for a pilot project to bring super-fast 1 gigabit service to about 1,100 homes in the area.
But Wicked leaders say for the project to move forward they need a $500,000 grant from the city, along with several other incentives that include long-term, low-cost lease agreements that would allow the company to use a portion of city-owned fiber.
The city's public incentives committee, which normally looks at requests like tax abatements, is being asked to weigh in on the request. City staff members already have evaluated the request and are recommending against it. They note the unusual nature of providing a direct payment of $500,000 to a company, and they recommend that if the city wants to spend that type of money to advance fiber technology in the city, it ought to send out a request for proposals to hear what other companies may be able to provide.
This one may get very interesting, though, because Wicked leaders are using the request to highlight how little success the community has had in creating new jobs over the last decade. As we have documented several times over the past few years, it has been a bad decade for job growth in Douglas County, even though communities like Manhattan and Columbia, Mo., have seen some significant job gains.
"Clearly, our economic development policies are not working here," said Kris Adair, an owner/operator of Wicked Broadband and a Lawrence school board member. "I'm not going to say there is one person to blame, but I feel like the city may not be looking at things in an innovative, 21st century way. Other economies our size have been growing during this time period."
Adair said she is confident that if Lawrence had better access to high-speed Internet, it would get more consideration from companies looking to move to the community and also would foster more expansion and business startups. Wicked is projecting that once the pilot project is successful, it would seek up to $30 million in capital from private investors and the debt markets to undertake a project that would bring high-speed Internet service to a wide swath of the city.
Adair said Wicked in 2012 offered to donate all of Wicked's assets — a few strands of fiber and a significant amount of wireless Internet equipment totaling about $2.5 million — to the city. The city, however, would have been responsible for taking over Wicked's debt on the equipment, which was about $1.2 million at the end of 2012. Adair said she was disappointed that Wicked's offer never received public consideration from the commission, because she believes it could have helped the city create an innovative broadband network.
City officials, though, also have been miffed, it seems, at certain dealings with Wicked. The staff memo notes that Wicked's parent company, Community Wireless Communications, had signed a contract with the city committing to pay 5 percent of its gross receipts to the city as part of a license agreement for use on certain city structures and rights-of-way. The city notes it has not received a payment since the second quarter of 2012. Adair confirmed Wicked has not made the payments. She said that was partly because the company has incurred some out-of-pocket expenses as part of its efforts to get this pilot project off the ground. She said this latest proposal attempts to address those payment issues. The proposal would provide Wicked a $20,000 per year exemption from franchise fees for each of the next five years. If the proposal isn't approved, company leaders said today, they will pay the balance due to the city within 90 days.
Like I said, all of this may get interesting. But today, it is just getting started. The Public Incentives Review Committee is only an advisory board. It will make a recommendation on the $500,000 grant request and the other incentives. But ultimately, the issue will be brought to the City Commission for a final vote in the coming weeks.
• On to Issue No. 2. (Still no sign of pie.) This one has to do with traditional tax abatements. At their 6:35 p.m. meeting today, city commissioners will consider changing their tax-abatement policy so that projects of smaller dollar amounts can apply for tax abatements.
Currently, the policy states that a project needs to include at least $5 million in new, local investment before it can apply for a city tax abatement. The city late last year, though, deviated from that policy by approving a tax abatement request for a $2.3 million project by Sunlite Science & Technologies, a local manufacturer of LED lighting. Commissioners approved the request, in part, because the company had been housed in the Bioscience and Technology Business Center, which has a goal of being an incubator for startup companies. Commissioners reasoned that it is likely that those startup companies may need tax abatements and other incentives as they move out of the incubator. At tonight's meeting, commissioners will consider whether they want to formally change their tax-abatement policy to allow for the smaller projects.
• Finally, Issue No. 3. Commissioners will need to decide how much money they want to spend on rehabilitating the old Santa Fe Depot in East Lawrence. As we previously reported, the city has been awarded a $1.2 million state/federal grant to rehabilitate the depot at Seventh and New Jersey streets. The grant came with a $350,000 matching requirement from the city.
But upon further review, it has been determined by state transportation officials that some of the city's plans for the depot project aren't grant eligible. That means that if the city wants to complete the project as envisioned, it will need to come up with about $650,000 in local matching money instead of the $350,000 that was originally projected.
Items that have been ruled ineligible for grant funding include work on the eastside parking lot of the building and a host of interior improvements that would be in a space that would still be occupied by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. City staff members are recommending that the city eliminate those elements from the project, in order to keep local costs in line with the original estimates. Commissioners will be asked to concur at tonight's meeting, which begins at 6:35 p.m. at City Hall.
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The idea of condo living in West Lawrence already has made a good comeback, and now developers are poised to test whether it can make an even bigger one.
Plans have been filed at Lawrence City Hall for a new 22-unit, upscale condo development to be built on the vacant lot east of the Bella Serra condos near Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive.
Jason Todd, of Hedges Realty Executives and a spokesman for the development group, said the new project would be called Bella Mattina and may share some amenities with the adjacent Bella Sera. (In case you fell asleep in Italian class dreaming of linguini, Lamborghinis, and Sophia Loren, Bella Sera is Italian for "beautiful day," and Bella Mattina is Italian for "beautiful morning." According to my Italian teacher, Mr. Googleguini, that is.)
At this point, perhaps you are thinking you don't understand Italian. You thought Bella Sera was largely empty. Well, that was under old management. As we've previously reported, and as the weekly land transfers regularly show, buying activity has been strong at the condo development since new ownership took over in the spring of 2012. At that time, 24 of the 37 condo units in the building were vacant. Now, all 37 have been sold, Todd said.
"If we would have had 10 or 12 more units this summer, we could have sold them," Todd said.
But Todd said the development group will be careful not to oversaturate the market. That means the group won't build one large building, but rather will build four smaller buildings that will allow the development to be constructed in phases. The initial construction, however, could begin later this year, if the project wins the necessary approvals.
Todd said prices for the new units likely will range from about $225,000 to $500,000. Sizes will range from about 1,000 square feet to about 3,200 square feet. The project will feature some innovative design as well. Todd said a handful of the condos will be three-story units, with a garage on the ground floor and living and bedroom space on the second and third floors. Those units will have private elevators. He said it's a design that has started to take hold in several urban areas and is being used on this project to help increase the number of condo units with premium views.
The project isn't a done deal. Todd said he's continuing to work with existing condo owners at Bella Sera to ensure the new development fits in well, and the project must win approval from both the Planning Commission and City Commission before it can move ahead.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As we reported earlier this month, a 90-unit senior rental community near 23rd Street and O'Connell Road also is on the drawing board. But this project comes with a twist. The Olathe development group proposing it wants a 100 percent property tax abatement. Technically the project could qualify for one under state law because the project is proposed as an affordable housing project subject to rent levels set by the state. But city staff members aren't so sure they want to open the door to offering tax abatement to housing projects. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday evening will be asked to give some guidance.
In a new memo, staff members suggest that providing Industrial Revenue Bonds for the project may be appropriate, which would allow the project to be exempt from paying sales tax on building materials. But the memo expresses concern about granting a property tax abatement because that may give the development an unfair advantage over other complexes.
On Tuesday, commissioners will be asked whether they want to begin formally processing and reviewing the property tax abatement request or nix that idea now.
As part of the request, the development group, Olathe-based Bethel Estates, has estimated rents will range from about $460 a month to $575 a month for one-bedroom apartments and about $700 a month for two-bedroom units.
• This news item about wind farms caught my eye because the idea of wind energy is one Douglas County may need to start thinking more about. As we previously have reported, a wind farm developer has some preliminary interest in property in southwest Douglas County. I think some people have kind of scoffed at the idea of a wind farm in Douglas County. For years we've been told this part of the state does really have much wind energy potential.
But technology is an interesting thing. We're drilling for oil and natural gas in places we wouldn't have thought of 10 years ago, thanks to technological advances. Perhaps the same will happen with wind energy. Or perhaps it already has. The article that caught my eye in The St. Joseph News-Press reports on how a 200 megawatt wind farm development outside of St. Joseph, Mo., near Oregon, Mo., is expected to begin construction this year. The project has about 25,000 acres under lease, and is providing payments to about 100 landowners. The project is expected to be about a $400 million project, according to the report in the News-Press. Maybe the wind is completely different in northwest Missouri, but in the grand scheme of things, Douglas County is in the same region.
Douglas County planners are coming up with regulations that would apply to wind farm development in Douglas County. I think it will be an interesting project — and an interesting set of reactions — to watch.
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City may leave downtown Christmas lights up until Valentine’s Day; update on Rock Chalk Park construction
Next year, I'm going to have the folks at the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department write a note for me. I need something to convince my wife that my reluctance to put away the Christmas lights isn't laziness. Well, now the parks and recreation department is proving that I simply was trying to give the public what it wanted.
A good portion of the Christmas lights strung in downtown Lawrence will remain up for at least a few more weeks, parks and recreation leaders have decided. Mark Hecker, assistant director of parks and recreation, said the lights would remain up through at least the end of January and perhaps through Valentine's Day.
"I think people may start getting tired of them in a week or so, but right now people really like them and want us to keep them up," Hecker said.
Several downtown merchants have expressed an interest in the lights remaining on, and visitors seem to like the idea too.
"I think it is a great idea because it is just so dark out right now," said Kevin Loos, chair of the city's parks and recreation advisory board, which was recently briefed on the decision. "I was downtown recently and came out of a restaurant, and it was great to have some light."
As we previously reportedd, the city has a real interest in trying to get more people into the downtown area during the winter season. City officials even are considering the idea of a temporary ice rink in future years. Perhaps the lights will become part of a "Winter Wonderland" theme that city officials are trying to create.
Once again, I think I may be a step ahead of the city on that one. I use the Winter Wonderland moniker frequently. I tell my wife that's what I'm trying to create by not shoveling the snow out of the driveway.
I may need a note for that one too.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The next time you are out by Sixth Street and George Williams Way, take a look to the north. Work on the city's 181,000-square-foot recreation center at Rock Chalk Park is progressing to the point that you can get a sense of how large the facility is going to be.
Parks and Recreation officials recently were updated on the construction project, which has reached the point where cranes are lifting the pre-poured concrete walls. Already, about 60 of the walls have been stood up and put in place. By next week, steel girders will start being placed atop the building to support the roof.
Plans still call for the facility, which will have eight full-court gyms, an indoor turf field, a gymnastics room, a walking track, cardio and weight room and several other features, to be open by late summer.
Members of the city's Parks and Recreation Advisory Board did ask parks and recreation leaders about the recent news regarding concerns with the concrete work on a portion of the project. Engineers raised concerns about one concrete pour on a small portion of a key entrance road to the complex.
But board members were told that overall city officials are very pleased with the work the contractors are doing at the site.
"I have been involved with a lot of construction projects, and there is nothing that is ever perfect," said Ernie Shaw, the city's acting director of parks and recreation. "But from our standpoint, this project has been as good or better than any I have been involved in."
• While we are on the subject, there has been talk going around in some construction circles in the city that a stop-work order has been issued for a major portion of what is commonly referred to as the KU side of the Rock Chalk Park complex. Upon hearing that rumor, I checked in with the city's inspection department, and it is partly accurate and partly not.
Scott McCullough, the city director of planning and development services, confirmed that construction crews have been instructed not to proceed on a small portion of the locker room/clubhouse building that is between the track and field and soccer facilities. But McCullough said the city has not issued a stop work order that shuts down all construction on the project.
Instead, he said the issue involves the type of building material being used to construct a few walls inside the facility. During their routine checks, inspectors on site determined that the stud material for a handful of walls did not meet fire code. McCullough, though, said the problem wasn't found on all the walls in the building. Instead, it just showed up in some minor structures such half walls built around locker room hot tubs, built-in benches and other such areas.
McCullough said the contractor a plan is developing a plan to replace that stud material with material that meets the fire standards. (I'm not sure of all the details on this case, but one example of such an issue is replacing wooden studs with metal studs.)
In talking with McCullough, I really don't think this is a major issue and shouldn't produce any significant delay on the project. But the project is the subject of quite a bit of public interest, and I heard the talk, so I wanted to clear it up.
• Construction work hasn't yet begun on the system of walking and running trails to be built on the Rock Chalk Park property, but architects have started getting more serious about designing potential paths for the trails. A preliminary set of plans has been drawn up that allows for a certified 5K running course on the property. It is also believed that the property can also host a 10K course. Designers have said the walking/running trails will be a nice feature for parents who have some time to kill between the games of youth tournaments at the site.
But with a certified 5K course, I also would expect that the city will try to convince many of the 5K runs that are held downtown to consider using the Rock Chalk Park property. That would alleviate the need for the city to provide police officers to control traffic downtown during the races.
It will be interesting, though, to see if race organizers want to leave the downtown area and all the shops and entertainment that comes with the district.
"This site will have a lot of potential to host events, but a lot of events want to run downtown," Hecker said. "That is a big draw for a lot of the events."