Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
Expect to see a few hundred enthusiasts of both Elvis and running in downtown Lawrence on June 22. A group of area Rotary Clubs will host a unique event: Elvis Visit to End Polio Now.
The event is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. at Watson Park with a 5K walk and run that will travel around the park and through the Old West Lawrence neighborhood. (Just to be clear, you don’t have to wear an Elvis costume to run, but all the cool kids will be.) The Rotary Clubs that evening will host a concert by noted Elvis tribute artist Joseph Hall at 7:30 p.m. at the Lied Center. Unless you are like me, the 5K run and walk shouldn’t take you until 7:30. (In my defense, blue suede shoes, a guitar, and 15 pounds of hair oil will slow a guy down.) Organizers will provide lunch to the runners, host several Elvis-themed contests, and also have some tours of Lawrence set up for out-of-town visitors to enjoy before the concert.
The event is part of Rotary’s effort to eradicate polio, which is known to still exist in three countries: Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan. Rotary has made eradicating polio by 2018 a major international mission for years, but this is the first time they have enlisted the help of the King. The idea of combining the worldwide brand of Elvis with the worldwide effort to end polio was the brainchild of Lawrence Rotarian Bob Swan.
“I just felt like we needed a new tool to fight polio,” said Swan, a member of Lawrence’s Central Rotary Club. “We need to do something to get the support of nonRotarians.”
Swan had seen Hall — who was a finalist on the television program America’s Got Talent — perform several time at Branson, Mo. Swan figured nothing packs in a crowd like Elvis, so he began planting the seed of an Elvis-themed fundraising event.
Members of about a dozen area Rotary Clubs have helped organize the event. Proceeds from both the concert and the run will go to Rotary’s worldwide fund to fight polio. Swan said he hopes the event will raise several thousand dollars, and will become a model for area Rotary clubs across the country to use in fundraising.
But if Elvis isn’t your thing, there will be another celebrity of a sorts on hand. Mary Jean Eisenhower, a granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is lending her support to the event. Eisenhower — who is a Kansas City area resident and has been a leader of the People to People International organization founded by her grandfather — is a polio survivor, and plans to be on hand for both the race and the concert event.
People interested in more information on either the race or the concert, can find additional details at elvisendspolio.org.
Lawrence city commissioners at their meeting tonight are being asked to give final approval for the group’s use of Watson Park for the race and associated events. The item is on the city’s consent agenda, so approval is not expected to be a problem.
UPDATE: Since we're talking about Elvis, I also put a call into Downtown Lawrence Inc. to see if it was again planning to host its Elvis Spectacular, an event where numerous Elvis personalities come to downtown. Well, you are in luck King fans. The second annual event is set for Sept. 28. It will be held in conjunction with the Rev It Up car show that is held in and along South Park. Look for more details as the event gets closer. But DLI director tells me the event will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of "Viva Las Vegas."
The national attention on the Oklahoma City tornadoes has begun to fade a bit, but the tragedies still are very much are on the mind of one Lawrence city commissioner.
Commissioner Jeremy Farmer vowed shortly after the storms to make improving storm shelter availability in Lawrence a major issue during his four-year term. He plans to get started on the subject by convening his own task force on the topic on Thursday.
Farmer will host a meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at Lawrence High School for anyone interested in serving on a task force that will examine ways the city could better ensure that residents have a safe place to take shelter from a storm.
Currently, there are no public tornado shelters available in Lawrence, none of the Lawrence Public Schools have FEMA-approved safe rooms and Farmer believes many businesses don’t have adequate shelter areas for employees and customers.
“I really want to focus on what we can do to make the community safer and what we can do to make our schools safer too,” said Farmer, who was elected to the commission in April.
He said two school board members tentatively have agreed to come to Thursday’s meeting. As we've previously reported, other school districts in the area — most notably Baldwin City, Eudora and the private Bishop Seabury Academy — have won grants to build significant FEMA-approved concrete-encased safe rooms at several of their facilities.
Farmer said he is still uncertain about an idea requiring all new homes to be built with storm shelters, although he said he wants to hear what task force members think.
“My inclination is that it is really hard to legislate a change in the development code that all houses built from this point forward have a place to go,” Farmer said. “I think it would be good to make it a strong suggestion, but to make it a requirement that could stop people from building a new home, I’m not sure of that.”
That will be an issue the local building community will want to watch, and it may be a bit ticklish. No one wants to come out against people having a place to take shelter in a storm, but adding safe rooms for new construction could add several thousand dollars to the price of a new home.
The idea of creating a network of publicly accessible storm shelters throughout the community could be an interesting one, too. The number of public shelters needed to adequately cover the entire community would be very large. An emergency management official has told me that FEMA recommends that effective public shelters need to be within five minutes of a person’s home.
If local officials find that standard unworkable, they could choose to build shelters in the most vulnerable areas of town — but how they determine those areas could be tricky. Previously there have been suggestions that mobile home parks be required to have a storm shelter for residents.
Even if city officials do settle on some shelter locations, there still will be the issue of who is responsible for running the shelters. That’s no small task. Essentially, someone always will have to be ready to unlock the doors during the event of a storm. Plus, in a previous interview, Jillian Rodrigue, assistant director of Douglas County Emergency Management, brought up a point I hadn’t thought of: Somebody also has to be responsible for locking the door when a storm is bearing down upon a shelter. Think about that for a second: People are still pulling into the parking lot but the storm is nearing. Someone with some training will have to make the call of when the door must be locked to preserve the safety of those inside.
But other communities figure out how to deal with these type of issues, and I suspect the task force will spend some time researching what other communities do. Farmer said he envisions the task force could have 25 to 30 people on it. He said he will start recruiting members — depending on who shows up to Thursday’s meeting — to ensure that it has a good mix of interested citizens and professionals. He will be looking for architects, construction engineers and others with technical expertise. Farmer hopes to have a set of recommendations to deliver to the other city commissioners by the end of the year.
“We’ll have to go into this understanding that everything will cost money that we don’t have,” Farmer said. “Is this something that people in our community will support? I think they will. We just have to package it in the right way.”
Despite an earlier exit by the Jayhawks in the NCAA basketball tournament this year, Lawrence residents still did a pretty decent job of buying veggie trays, guacamole dip, crimson and blue face paint, beer koozies, extra televisions for the bathrooms, 50-foot Jayhawk yard inflatables and all the other standard March Madness purchases. (My list probably misses a couple of items for your typical basketball party, but I didn’t want to be accused of going overboard.)
City officials have received their latest sales tax report, which covers mid-March through mid-April. Even though the Jayhawks’ run in the tournament ended a few games earlier than the 2012 trip to the championship game, sales totals for the period were off by only 0.1 percent.
The report found that retailers did about $111.9 million in sales for the period, down from about $112.1 million during the same period a year ago.
As usual, it is never wise to put too much stock in one month’s worth of sales tax data, so let’s take a look at the broader picture. The most recent report represented the fifth of 12 sales tax reports for the year, and, thus far, sales in the city are up about 2.4 percent compared to the same period a year ago.
Taxable sales in the city check in at about $568 million through the May reporting period, up from about $554 million a year ago. The totals represent a slowdown in the growth rate from a year ago, when retail sales grew by a little more than 5 percent, and from the 2011 growth rate of 4.5 percent. Lawrence’s growth rate of 2.4 percent is just a bit behind the statewide average of 2.7 percent. As for how Lawrence stacks up to some of the larger retail centers in the state, here’s a look:
• Emporia: up 2.2 percent
• Hays: up 2.3 percent
• Kansas City: up 4.3 percent
• Manhattan: down 3.4 percent
• Olathe: up 2.9 percent
• Ottawa: up 4.2 percent
• Overland Park: up 2.9 percent
• Salina: up 1.0 percent
• Shawnee: up 4.5 percent
• Topeka: down 0.2 percent
The latest numbers also show that the Douglas County communities of Baldwin City and Eudora also are having nice years thus far on the retail front. Sales tax collections in Baldwin City are up 6.8 percent, and in Eudora collections are up about 15 percent.
Forget about the city waiting for its ship to come in. Its train finally has arrived.
Lawrence officials have been awarded a federal transportation grant that will pay for 80 percent of the approximate $1.5 million cost to renovate the Santa Fe depot in East Lawrence.
The 1950s-era depot at Seventh and New Jersey streets would receive a major makeover with that level of funding. The building, currently owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, long has needed a new roof, new heating and cooling systems and other mechanical repairs. But with the grant money, improvements to parking and other improvements also are likely. The station already has received $1.5 million in upgrades to its boarding platform from Amtrak to help make the station ADA compliant.
Now city officials will need to restart discussions with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway about purchasing the depot. The railroad previously has expressed interest in selling the station to the city for a nominal amount. There have been conditions — such as the railway not wanting to sell the ground the station is on, and the need for the city to accept any environmental liability that exists on the property — that are likely to require more discussion. But city staff members have said indicated railway officials are still open to negotiation on the purchase terms.
The city also will have to come up with a little more than $300,000 in local money to meet the 20 percent matching requirement of the grant. That probably will be an unexpected expense in the 2014 budget, but it is a one-time expense, and the city previously has made it a priority to find money to take advantage of federal grants. What won’t be a one-time expense will be the city’s costs to maintain, heat and cool the building. Those expenses will have to be built into future budgets.
It also will be interesting to see if the city starts looking for additional uses for the building. Its main use will continue to be as a train depot, particularly for the Southwest Chief Amtrak train that comes through the city twice daily. The city, however, had been seeking other uses for the building, in part to improve the building’s chances of receiving grants. A plan to make the depot the central station for the city’s bus system was considered but ultimately rejected because of space concerns and objections from several neighbors.
Now that the building seems to have a much brighter future, I wouldn't be surprised if other groups start getting more serious about ways that they can use the building during the day. The Amtrak stops are late at night and early in the morning, leaving the station largely unused during normal business hours.
Based on the terms of the grant, the city needs to have a renovation project underway by September 2014. The grant the city received was a Transportation Enhancement grant, which is funded with federal dollars but is awarded by the Kansas Department of Transportation. I’m a bit surprised the TE grant program didn’t become wrapped up in the federal sequestration, but it appears it hasn’t.
The depot project was the largest TE grant project the city applied for in this funding cycle. But there were others, and there is good news on those fronts, as well. City officials have received word they’ve received Transportation Enhancement funding for two other projects:
• A grant of $218,838 to extend the paved Burroughs Creek Rail Trail from 23rd Street to 29th Street. The trail — which runs along the eastern edge of Haskell Indian Nations University — currently exists as a paved gravel path. The funding will allow the route to be paved, similar to the Burroughs Creek Rail Trail that is just north of 23rd Street. In case you are having a hard time picturing the area, it is just below the recently-replaced 23rd Street bridge. That project included a new parking area for people to access the trails. Like the depot grant, the city will need to come up with a 20 percent match in local funds — about $43,000 for this project.
• A grant of $55,000 to restore some old stone monuments at the entrance of the historic Breezedale neighborhood just south of 23rd and Massachusetts streets. The city will need to provide a 20 percent match, or about $11,000.
City commissioners will be asked to formally accept the grants at a future City Commission meeting.
West Lawrence spa to open with new concept that combines hair and beauty, chiropractic and meal programs
My wife tells me I don’t know anything about spas. Once again this summer, our two kids are raising pigs for the Douglas County Fair, and I tell my wife all the time to come out to the pen with us. It is a great way to get a mud bath.
Somehow, I think she is going to be more interested in a new business venture in West Lawrence. A pair of sisters is teaming up to open a new spa that combines everything from chiropractic care to hair and beauty treatments to a nutritious meals program.
la Bella Vita Studios and Rodrock Chiropractic are set to open early next month in a 4,000-square-foot space at 1440 Wakarusa Drive. In case you are having a hard time picturing that, it is the building just north of the Social Security Administration office at Bob Billings and Wakarusa. The space previously was occupied by a women’s health care group.
“We’re trying to create a concept that is about total body wellness,” said Kristie Denham, owner of the la Bella Vita side of the business. “My sister is working on the inside, and I’m working on the external beauties.”
On the la Bella Vita side of the business, Denham will have six studios that she will rent out to independent beauticians who will run their own small businesses out of the space. Those are expected to include hair, nail, skin care, waxing and facial services. Denham is a longtime hair stylist who will be moving her hair studio, currently located in the 700 block of Massachusetts Street, to the new location.
Denham’s sister, Amelia Rodrock, will run the Rodrock Chiropractic side of the business and also will offer a food program called Optimal Living. The food program delivers a week’s worth of meals to people’s homes. The meals are made from locally sourced meat and produce and are prepared by the chef at Antonucci’s Italian restaurant in Baldwin City. As for the chiropractic side of the business, it takes all types of clients but specializes in care for women and children, Denham said. Rodrock’s husband, Jeremy Rodrock, operates Rodrock Chiropractic in Baldwin City. That business will remain open.
Denham said she thinks the new spa model will create excitement both among clients who are looking for one-stop-shop service and among beauty professionals who are looking for a chance to rent their own studio space. “We’re seeing success of similar models in Kansas City and Overland Park,” Denham said.
Remodeling work is already under way at the location, and the businesses hope to be open by July 1. In the meantime, I’ll keep mentioning the pig pen to my wife. You should see how I exfoliate out there.
Excuse me while I put away my cot here at Lawrence City Hall. City commissioners met from about 3:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday. And with several big topics — the recreation center and the budget — there were a few items of note that my deadline didn’t give me time to write about. So, let’s fix that:
• The Lawrence Community Shelter will get more bus passes to provide to residents of the shelter. There was much discussion at Tuesday’s meeting about simply making the bus stop at the homeless shelter a free stop, meaning people entering the bus at that location wouldn’t have to pay the $1 fare.
Transit staff members recommended against that option. They were concerned about the precedent it might set. Commissioners instead decided to give the shelter 50 bus passes a day. At $1 per pass, the passes have a market value of a little more than $15,000 for a year. Currently, the shelter receives about seven passes per day from the city, although the shelter uses private money to buy additional passes.
Shelter director Loring Henderson said the demand for bus passes from residents is far outstripping the supply. As you probably remember, late last year the shelter moved from downtown to the far eastern edge of the city, next to the Douglas County Jail.
Both city and shelter leaders knew transportation would be an issue, but it has been a bigger problem than expected, Henderson said. The shelter gives passes to residents for purposes such as job interviews, doctor’s appointments and other appointments related to their efforts to find work and housing. The shelter operates its own van service as well, but has found that fuel prices alone will total about $15,000 a year.
“I want people to understand we’re not unhappy with the facility or its location at all,” Henderson said. “If we were in the middle of downtown, there would be other issues we are dealing with. There are always issues to deal with. This is the issue we’re dealing with at this location.”
• The more interesting information about the shelter is that the facility already is running at near capacity, Henderson told commissioners.
The shelter has been at or near its 125-person capacity on most nights, even as the weather has turned warmer. “The 125 number is one that we thought we may reach on freezing nights, but it really has become an almost every-night number,” Henderson said.
Henderson said he thought the increase largely could be attributed to the rise in the number of homeless families that now feel comfortable using the new shelter.
• Shelter officials also are asking for a unique piece of financial assistance from the city. Shelter leaders want the city to provide financing for about $500,000 in construction costs that were related to the new facility.
The shelter currently is repaying a $500,000 construction loan to a local bank, but that loan has a 5 percent interest rate. If the city shifted the loan over to the city’s books, the interest rate would be significantly lower. Shelter officials believe the interest rate could drop to about 2 percent, although that is dependent on the bond market. Henderson estimates the new financing could save the shelter about $15,000 a year in interest costs.
The shelter is proposing to repay the city the $500,000 in principal and interest over a 30-year period. City commissioners took no action on the request. Instead, city staff members are researching the feasibility of the proposal.
• Tennis courts also were discussed at Tuesday’s meeting. The Lawrence Tennis Association has been lobbying for the city to install lights at the eight tennis courts near Lawrence High. Nearby residents have staunchly opposed the idea because they fear the lights would shine into their homes.
Commissioners thought they had settled the issue earlier by agreeing to build eight lighted tennis courts at the Rock Chalk Park property in northwest Lawrence. Tennis association members said they’re excited about the prospect of those courts, but they still feel that lighting the existing courts makes sense and would complete a promise made by the city.
So commissioners agree to re-open the issue. But the effort to add lights was about as successful as my backhand volley. (If I played on the courts, neighbors would need to worry about tennis balls entering their homes, not light.)
Residents around the court nearly filled the City Commission room to express opposition to the lighting plan. Commissioners had heard enough, and voted 5-0 to deny the lighting. Commissioners also directed staff members to look at the special-use permit for the tennis courts and determine whether language could be added to the permit to make it clear there won’t be lights at the facility in the future.
The tennis issue has been a lengthy one. The issue has been brewing since 2008, when the school district approved plans to remove the previous courts to make way for renovations at Lawrence High.
The issue also has been a costly one. Originally, the city was planning on spending $100,000 to add lights at the new facility. But when neighborhood opposition emerged, the city eventually shifted gears to the new tennis facility at Rock Chalk Park.
The city had estimated it would cost about $640,000 to build those courts, but it appears that estimate was low. Although it didn’t receive much discussion last night, commissioners did learn that the cost for the tennis facility has increased.
As part of the new estimates for Rock Chalk Park infrastructure, it was learned a $170,000 retaining wall will need to be built as part of the tennis court project. In case you add like I volley, that brings the tennis court portion of the project to $810,000.
City to consider covering domestic partners as part of city’s health insurance plan; commissioners now qualify for city coverage, thanks to Obamacare
Lawrence city commissioners soon will get to weigh in on the issue of domestic partnerships versus traditional marriages.
After digging through a few more documents related to the city’s proposed budget, I found a memo detailing changes to the city’s health insurance plan. One recently implemented change and one proposed change caught my eye. The recently implemented change: City commissioners are now eligible to be on the city’s health insurance plan. (More on that in a moment.) The proposed change: Staff members are recommending that domestic partners of city employees be eligible to join the city’s health insurance plan, just as spouses of city employees are eligible.
Lori Carnahan, human resources manager for the city, said several city employees have been asking about the availability of a domestic partner benefit. The city recently conducted a survey of its employees, and of the 146 respondents, 30 percent said they would use the domestic partner benefit.
“It is an issue that my colleagues in the human resources industry have discussed the concept of for probably six to eight years,” Carnahan said. “But the discussion really has been increasing over time.”
Obviously there are several large, international private companies that offer domestic partnership benefits. But I’m not sure how many area governments have adopted the practice. Douglas County approved a similar health plan benefit for domestic partners in 2011.
As far as the logistics of this go, the city is well-positioned to deal with it. In May 2007, Lawrence became the first city in the state to create a domestic partnership registry. The registry allows domestic partners — both gay and heterosexual couples — to file paperwork with the city clerk’s office that provides evidence they are living in a true domestic partnership. The registry then can be used by insurance companies to verify that a domestic partnership exists.
The city will use that registry to verify domestic partnerships involving city employees. The registry requires that partners share a common permanent residence, have agreed to be in a “relationship of mutual interdependence,” both “contribute to the maintenance and support of the household,” are not married to a third individual or are a member of a domestic partnership with a third individual, are 18 years or older, have the mental capacity to enter into a contract and are not related by blood in any way that would prevent a marriage in the state.
Carnahan said the city’s insurance plan manager — the city is technically self-insured but hires a professional company to help manage the operation — has said the change is not expected to create any increased underwriting costs. The city will have to comply with a federal law that does not allow insurance premiums of domestic partners to be paid for with pre-tax dollars — married couples can have their premiums deducted from their paychecks before taxes. But Carnahan said the city has the necessary software to accomplish the task.
Now all that is left is to determine whether city commissioners have an interest in creating the new policy. Commissioners will get briefed on insurance issues at today’s budget study session, which begins at 3:30 p.m. But commissioners don’t take formal actions at study sessions, so I would expect the issue to come up at a future City Commission meeting.
Beginning June 1, city commissioners became eligible to enroll in the city’s health insurance program. They have the Affordable Care Act — or Obamacare — partially to thank for that.
City commissioners previously had not been eligible for the health care benefit because they are not considered full-time city employees. But the Affordable Care Act mandates that large employers generally offer health insurance to employees who average 30 hours per week for a year.
Do city commissioners work 30 hours per week? Well, that’s tough to say because city commissioners don’t punch a time clock.
Carnahan said her staff decided that making city commissioners eligible for the health care benefit would be the safest way to ensure the city was in compliance with the new federal law.
It is unclear how many commissioners may take advantage of the new benefit, but it is a significant benefit.
If a city commissioner wanted to insure just himself, it would cost only $5 per pay period — or $130 per year — to be covered under the city’s plan, which is considered to be a good one. That’s the same rate all city employees pay for single coverage.
Commissioners also can choose to have their families and spouses covered under the plan. Those rates — which are the same for all city employees — range from $69 a pay period to $118 per pay period, depending on the type of coverage.
City commissioners currently receive a $9,000 per year salary, while the mayor receives a $10,000 per year salary. However, commissioners in April said they wanted to have a discussion about possibly raising those salary levels.
I know there have been lots of folks in Lawrence doing various projects or fundraisers to help the victims of the tornadoes in the Oklahoma City area. Well, here’s another one and this one involves an opportunity to stuff your gut full of pizza and to break out your best New York accent.
Morningstar’s New York Pizza, 4931 W. Sixth St., will donate the proceeds from all of its Tuesday sales to The Salvation Army in Oklahoma City. In addition, staff members at the restaurant have agreed to donate all their tips for the day to the effort.
Roger Morningstar, the former KU basketball player who opened the store at Sixth and Wakarusa, said he wanted to make sure people understood this wasn’t an “after expenses” type of donation. He said, for example, if a person orders $50 worth of pizza and tips the server $10, all $60 will be shipped to The Salvation Army in OKC.
All that is left for me to do now is practice my New York accent. I think when my wife asks me to take out the trash tonight, I’ll say : “Fuhgeddaboudit.”
Look for me at Tuesday’s fundraiser. I’ll be the guy gumming my pizza.
If there is one thing I know about gardening, it is that change is inevitable. For instance, I’ve observed that plants in my yard are green for about a week and then brown for much longer.
Well, change is in store for Sunrise Garden Center, the popular nursery and landscaping center at 15th and New York streets. But we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see exactly what the changes mean.
Longtime Sunrise owner Greg McDonald confirmed that he is retiring from the business and has placed the nearly three-acre property up for sale.
McDonald plans to keep the business open until he finds a buyer for the property and he hopes that the eventual buyer will want to keep the garden and nursery business open. But there are no guarantees on that.
“I think it can be very successful doing what it does today, but I think there are a lot of possibilities for people who have new ideas,” said McDonald.
The centerpiece of the property is a large greenhouse that McDonald said is about the size of a football field under glass. That’s enough space that if someone wanted to do some truck farming or shift the business over to more a specialty wholesale operation, it could do so, McDonald said.
Veteran commercial real estate broker Doug Brown of Lawrence’s McGrew Commercial is listing the property, and plans to market it to both retail and wholesale interests. But Brown said he plans to focus on marketing the property to people who want to use the greenhouse as a greenhouse in some way, shape or form. In other words, the plan isn’t to completely redevelop the site.
“We think that is the way to go with the success the business has had over the years,” Brown said. “It would be an attractive business for somebody to get into. It is a good business for Lawrence because it certainly has the green factor.”
As for McDonald, he has owned the business for the last 14 years, and he is ready to have more time to spend on other pursuits. But he said business at the garden center remains strong and that gardening remains very popular in the Lawrence area.
“This Mother’s Day was probably one of the best weekends we have ever had, and I know Memorial Day was the best Memorial Day weekend we’ve ever had,” McDonald said. “There are just so many people who enjoy doing things with the products that we sell.”
My neighbor tells me that some people even enjoy watering their plant products after they buy them. She reminds me of that frequently, for some reason.
It is not only the season for George Brett tattoos and Royal-blue face paint. (I assume we’re all doing that to celebrate Brett’s recent return the Royals’ bench. Aren’t we???)
Oh well, it is also budget season at Lawrence City Hall. And that means city commissioners have a long list of monetary requests from city departments and outside agencies to consider. That process gets started in earnest at a 3:30 p.m. study session Tuesday at City Hall.
Here’s a look at some of the requests:
• The Lawrence Public Library is requesting an extra $173,000 in its budget — about a 5 percent increase — to fund operations at the new and expanded library facility. But the extra money won’t be going to buy more books or other items to fill the shelves. The biggest factors in the request are a 12 percent increase in health insurance premiums and a state-mandated increase in contributions to the KPERS pension program for employees. The library’s $3.4 million budget also doesn’t include many new employees to run the library, which will about double in size. The library is creating two new positions — a book stack manager and a technology position — but those positions will be added through a staff reorganization rather than a staff expansion. As for books and other reading materials, the library’s budget holds those expenses steady at $540,000. It is worth noting, however, that the library isn’t expected to move into its new facility until the spring or summer of 2014, so its 2015 budget may be a better indicator of how much it will cost to run the larger library.
• The Lawrence Community Shelter also is learning how to operate in a larger facility. The homeless shelter is seeking $100,000 in general tax funds to operate the shelter. That’s an increase of $8,000 over 2013 totals. The shelter also is set to receive $44,000 in liquor tax funds from the city. That’s the same amount it received in 2014.
• Douglas County officials are asking the city to provide about $135,000 to add four dispatchers to the jointly operated Emergency Communications Center, which handles all 911 calls in the county. It will be interesting to watch this one. The city and county have clashed in past years on some of these jointly funded ventures. Past administrations have negotiated the cost-sharing agreements, and city officials recently have expressed dissatisfaction with some of them. In this case, the city pays 66 percent of the operating costs of the center, while the county pays 34 percent. Other cities in the county, such as a Baldwin and Eudora, don’t directly pay for any of the costs, although their police departments also use the dispatching service. The bigger issue, though, is that city officials feel like city residents are getting taxed twice for the service because Lawrence residents also pay county taxes. County officials have indicated the arrangement is fair because a large majority of calls come from Lawrence residents.
• The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department — another jointly funded agency — is seeking about a $13,000 increase in city funding, about a 2 percent increase. The city pays for about 20 percent of the department’s operating budget, while the county, grants and user fees pay for the rest of the approximately $3.3 million budget. The city, however, may be on the hook for significant costs related to the Community Health Building, which houses the Health Department, Bert Nash and the Visiting Nurses Association. The city and county currently are gathering estimates to increase security at the building. The city would be obligated to pay half of those costs, which haven’t yet been determined.
• On the law enforcement front, a major increase in funding may depend on a grant application. City commissioners are being asked to apply for an $875,000 federal grant that would provide funding for seven school resource officers for the next three years. The city would have to provide about $460,000 in matching funds for the grant. The new school resource officers, which would be in addition to the four school resource officers the city already has in place, would allow each high school and all the middle schools to have a dedicated officer. Currently, high schools and middle schools often share officers. The city would find out whether it has won the competitive grant funding by the beginning of 2014. As we have previously reported, the police department also has several other facility and equipment needs, but those probably merit a separate discussion since they could total $20 million or more. Whether city commissioners have any interest in having that discussion during this budget round will be one of the key things to watch during Tuesday’s study session.
• City Manager David Corliss is recommending the city budget $120,000 to help Johnson County pay for the K-10 Connector transit service that runs between Lawrence and portions of Johnson County. That amount is proposed to grow to $275,000 by 2016. Johnson County officials have said the popular commuter service is at risk of being closed down if Lawrence officials don’t assist in funding the program.
• The city attorney’s office is estimating it will need about $138,000 more to cover the costs of housing prisoners in the Douglas County Jail and also for providing defense services to indigent clients who come through Lawrence Municipal Court.
• Public Works would like to add an additional maintenance worker — at a cost of about $45,000 — to help care for the new parking garage that is being built next to the expanded library.
• The Lawrence Humane Society is seeking a nearly 35 percent increase in city funding for 2014. It is seeking $377,000 in funding to care for the stray animals that the city’s animal control officers bring to the facility.
• The Lawrence Arts Center is asking for more money on multiple fronts. The center, which is housed in a city-owned building, is seeking $51,000 in general city funding to pay for a new custodial position, increase technical staff and increased maintenance. The center also is seeking an additional $25,000 from the city’s liquor tax revenues to provide scholarships to children who can’t afford to pay for classes and programs. The city currently provides $25,000 for scholarships, but center leaders say demand is high. The center provided $100,000 worth of scholarships in the last year. The Arts Center also is seeking about $15,000 for a new phone system, and about $20,000 to upgrade the building’s kitchen, which serves a variety of events.
• Finally, there are a host of social service agencies and other not-for-profits that request funding from the city each year. A city advisory board is recommending that most of the funding amounts to those organizations hold steady for 2014. But that’s not the case in every instance. You can look at the entire list here.
If you're like me, you’ve been known to have a bad taste in your mouth after a few golf outings. (Not to mention wet socks from playing through he pond, and bunker sand in your shorts from . . . well, let’s move on.)
An area golf club is trying a new concept that might be able to do something about the bad taste in your mouth. The par 3 golf course Twin Oaks Golf on Kansas Highway 10 just east of Lawrence has teamed up with rural Eudora winery BlueJacket Crossing to offer wine tastings at the golf course’s clubhouse.
We reported over a year ago that a deal was in the works between the two businesses, but the new venture just started a couple of weeks ago.
BlueJacket is hosting tastings at the course — which is located at the intersection of K-10 and County Route 1057 — from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Friday evenings and from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. But a big part of the concept is groups making special appointments to hold golf and wine combination events.
Golf course owner Jeff Burey calls the concept Nine and Wine. The Twin Oaks course is a pitch and putt style of course that takes far less time to play than a traditional course. So groups could do a golf outing followed by a wine tasting and still have an event that lasts a only couple of hours.
“We’re finding people have an interest in those type of outings,” said Pep Selvan, owner of the winery. “It is working out nicely. We want it to become a little bit of a recreation destination.”
The winery produces nearly 20 different wines that it offers for sampling as part of a tasting. After sampling the wines, patrons, of course, can buy a bottle to take home. County regulations, however, don’t allow for people to buy the wine and consume it on site, such as on the patio of the clubhouse. Such on-site consumption is allowed at BlueJacket’s actual winery (more on that in a moment.)
But before we leave the golf topic, I have one last idea. They call it Nine and Wine, but I wonder if it could be Wine and Nine. Maybe a bit of wine before the golf would make the sand less uncomfortable.
Selvan has plans for BlueJacket’s winery and vineyard facility at 1969 N. 1250 Road, which is about a mile south of the golf course.
Work is expected to begin this summer on a new 2,000-square-foot tasting room at the vineyard. The facility currently has a small tasting room that can accommodate about 25 people. The new room will be able to accommodate about 75 people, and will be an all-season facility with air-conditioning, a patio and a fireplace. Unlike at the golf course, patrons will be able to linger and enjoy a bottle of wine they buy on site.
Selvan said wine tastings are becoming a popular outing for events such as bridal showers, birthday parties or corporate retreats.
While work will begin this summer on the project, the room is not expected to be completed until the spring of 2014. That’s because the winery will have to take a break from construction in the fall to concentrate on the grape harvest.
The nearly five-year-old winery tends about 4,000 vines, although that number was reduced by about 1,000 due to the recent drought. Selvan is in the process of re-establishing those vines, which can take anywhere from two to four years.
The good news, however, is that Selvan is pleased with how the weather is shaping up this year. Even with snow in May, the vines were able to avoid untimely frosts.
“The key thing with the vines is that we don’t have an early blast of heat and then come back with a cold spell,” Selvan said. “We’re off to a heck of a start right now. But it will still be interesting. It is farming, after all.”
And that’s one thing that can get you dirtier than even a round of golf.
Perhaps you are like me and are still feeling a few aftereffects of consuming approximately 17 packages of hot dogs and a case of baked beans this Memorial Day weekend.
Well, there’s new a report out of City Hall, and although I’m not sure reading it will cure us, it won’t produce as much heartburn as our weekend did. The city has compiled its annual report on tax abatements and other economic development incentives, and the numbers generally are positive.
The city found all three companies that currently receive tax abatements from the city are meeting their targets when it comes to jobs, investments and wages paid.
In total, the three companies have made $7.3 million in real estate investments, up from $7.1 million projected; $10.3 million in equipment investments, up from $9.6 million projected; have used the abatements to hire 152 full-time employees, up from 141 projected; and paid an average wage of $36,226, up from $29,772 projected.
Here’s a look at each of the three companies:
• Amarr Garage Doors, a manufacturer in the East Hills Business Park, had 477 full-time employees in 2012, up from 340 prior to its tax abatement. As part of the abatement process, the company had committed to add at least 40 jobs. Average wages for full-time employees were $16.64 per hour, and 99 percent of positions had a wage that met or exceeded the community average wage for that type of position.
• Prosoco, an East Hills company that produces masonry cleaning and restoration products, had 67 full-time employees in 2012. Prior to the tax abatement, Prosoco had no Lawrence employees because it was based in Kansas City. As part of the abatement process, the company committed to bring at least 50 jobs to the city. Full-time employees had an average wage of $22.11 per hour, and 78 percent of positions had a wage equal to or above the community average for similar positions.
• Grandstand Sportswear & Glassware, an East Hills company that provides glassware and promotional products for the craft brewing industry, had 45 employees at the beginning of 2012. That was six fewer than the company had committed to as part of the abatement process. But the report notes the shortfall mainly is a result of timing. The company did not move into its new East Hills facility until December 2011. Once the company began operations in earnest at the new facility, employee totals grew to 71, which is 20 above its projection. The average full-time wage was $16.79 per hour, and 70 percent of positions had wages equal to or above the community’s average wage for similar positions.
In total, the three companies had $183,296 in property taxes abated in 2012. But since none of the companies are receiving 100 percent property tax abatements, they paid a total of $754,402 in property taxes for the year.
The report also provides details about other incentives besides tax abatements. One incentive that always gets questioned is the creation of special taxing districts. The city currently has two, with a third on the way. The Oread Transportation Development District, which covers The Oread hotel, has generated $321,000 in taxes from the special 1 percent sales tax since its inception in 2009. The Free State/Bauer Farm Transportation Development District, which includes the businesses on the northeast corner of Sixth and Wakarusa, has generated $141,000 since 2009 from its special tax. The third district will be for the new downtown hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire, which is expected to begin construction soon.
You can read the entire economic development report here. It is a good read for those with an interest in the world of incentives. Speaking of which, I could use an incentive to get through this day: A roll of antacids, perhaps.
Kansas Supreme Court hands neighbors victory in legal dispute over industrial land near Lecompton interchange
Well, it is not exactly a Perry Mason moment, but a piece of legal drama surrounding one of the more promising pieces of industrial land in the Lawrence area has ended after nearly five years.
The Kansas Supreme Court recently has said it has no interest in hearing a case that questions whether the area around the Lecompton interchange on the Kansas Turnpike was properly annexed into the city of Lawrence for industrial use. That means an October 2011 ruling by the Kansas Court of Appeals that found the Douglas County Commission improperly allowed the annexation now stands.
That essentially sends Lawrence’s efforts to create a new industrial area near the Lecompton interchange back to square one.
The case involves a 155-acre tract immediately north of the Lecompton interchange. Economic development leaders have said the area has great potential to attract distribution centers and other industrial users that have a need to be just seconds away from Interstate 70, AKA the Kansas Turnpike.
At the time, in 2008, the property was owned by a group led by Lawrence developers Duane and Steve Schwada. The group went through the process to have the property annexed into the city and zoned for the city’s broadest industrial category.
But neighbors in the area expressed significant concern over the annexation and especially the rezoning. The industrial zoning would have allowed for some of the heavier types of industrial uses permitted in the county to develop at the site, and neighbors found that potentially worrisome.
Lawsuits were filed alleging that Douglas County commissioners did not go through the proper process in permitting Lawrence officials to annex the property. The neighbors lost that argument in Douglas County District Court, but in October 2011 the Kansas Court of Appeals sided with the neighbors. It reversed the district court decision and said the county commissioners had not adequately considered whether the city’s annexation of the property would “hinder or prevent the proper growth and development of the area.”
The county appealed the ruling to the Kansas Supreme Court, but it recently issued a notice saying it would not review the case. And with that simple statement, neighbors had won an important legal victory.
Now the issue turns to what will happen to the area in the future. Industrial development is still a possibility. The ruling from the appeals court does not prohibit industrial development in the area. It just says Douglas County commissioners must go through a more thorough process in reviewing any annexation requests for the area. Another possibility is that the county could allow industrial development without the property being annexed. The large Berry Plastics warehouse and distribution center was built just to the west of the interchange using county zoning rather than city of Lawrence zoning.
Ron Schneider, the Lawrence attorney who represents the neighbors, said his clients long have been open to discussing a deal that would allow some light industrial uses at the site, but that would prohibit many heavy industrial uses that neighbors would find objectionable.
“My clients just want a reasonable resolution,” Schneider said. “But their frustration levels are high because this has cost them a lot of time and money.”
I would guess frustration levels are high in a lot of camps regarding this issue. The lawsuit not only delayed any potential development on the 155-acre site, but it also has impacted rezoning requests for two other pieces of nearby property that were annexed into the city for potential industrial use. In talking with other attorneys, it now appears likely those two pieces of property — one owned by a Schwada group and the other owned by a group led by the Rothwell family — will also be sent back to square one.
What’s done is done, but it will be interesting to see whether city, county and economic development leaders have any regret about how this matter was handled. Perhaps it is a moot issue because many of the players involved in this decision are no longer in power. The Chamber of Commerce’s economic development team has changed, all three county commissioners have changed, and several of the faces at City Hall have changed. Even the ownership of the 155 acres has changed. Area residents Russell and Penny Tuckel bought the property at an odd sheriff's auction in 2010.
But what remains true is that Lawrence only has three interchanges on the important I-70 corridor. The West Lawrence interchange is largely fully developed with major job centers such as the KMart distribution center, the Del Monte pet food plant and Hallmark Cards. (It's worth watching some of the vacant ground around Hallmark, however. There is talk in some circles that some of the excess property near the plant may become available now that Hallmark has reorganized its production plants and has a better idea of its future plans.)
The East Lawrence interchange has vacant land, especially around the airport, but neighbors there are highly organized to fight industrial development that they believe would increase flooding problems in the area.
That leaves the Lecompton interchange. Think about what has happened here: This lawsuit essentially has delayed any marketing of the property to potential job creators for about five years. The rezoning and annexation of the property occurred in 2008, and the lawsuits were filed soon after. Different people will have different opinions on who is to blame for that, but what’s no longer in dispute is that the neighbors held the stronger cards in this hand.
We’ll see if that sparks a compromise.
City to flip the switch Wednesday on new traffic signal at 23rd and O’Connell; Sixth and Iowa intersection improvements delayed
Some of you break my heart. I had a reader ask me recently: “What are they doing out at the old Farmland property?”
We’ve only been reporting for the last half-decade or so that the city is working to convert the former 400-plus acre fertilizer plant into a new business and industrial park.
Well, beginning tomorrow, you’ll get a little extra chance to see the process up close. As part of the construction project, the city has installed a new traffic signal at 23rd and O’Connell, and it will begin functioning on Wednesday morning.
The good news is if you like piles of dirt and the machines that make them, there’s plenty to look at. Two different construction companies are on site building both the street system and the water and sewer lines for the property. If you haven’t driven by recently, the property has had many of its trees removed and looks much like my lawn in July — massive stretches of bare dirt. You can begin to see the outlines of a new road that will stretch from the 23rd and O’Connell intersection to the East Hills Business Park, which is just east of the Farmland property.
That new road is the reason for the new $600,000 traffic signal and turn lane. Once the new road is completed later this year, the 23rd and O’Connell intersection is expected to become the main entrance for the East Hills Business Park. If you listen closely, you should hear the cheers from employees of the business park who no longer will have to cross K-10 at a dangerous, unsignalized hill to get to and from work each day.
The 23rd and O’Connell intersection also will be the main entrance to the Farmland property. There is no word yet on when we may see the first tenant for that property, but I think the project is drawing strong interest from companies. In fact, I think it is a good bet that 2013 is going to be a more exciting year on the economic development front than 2012 was.
While we’re on the subject of intersections and road projects, there is one area that may have you confused. (Actually, I’ve seen some of you drive. There are plenty of intersections that confuse you.)
But I’m talking specifically about Sixth and Iowa streets. We’ve been reporting that motorists should brace themselves for a major road project that involves building additional turn lanes at the odd-shaped T-intersection.
Well, brace yourself for a little longer. The city engineer has confirmed to me that the Sixth and Iowa project won’t start on time.
City Engineer David Cronin told me that more engineering work has to be done to convince state officials that the large concrete-box bridges underneath the intersection — McDonald Drive runs underneath the intersection — can support the additional pavement planned for Sixth and Iowa.
But Cronin said he is still confident that the project is going to be deemed feasible. In fact, he is projecting that construction work can begin in late summer and be completed by the end of the year. Originally, the city had hoped to begin the intersection work during the early summer season so that most of the work would be completed while the bulk of KU students were away.
The project will involve several aspects, but the main improvement is a left-turn lane on Sixth Street for westbound motorists. Cronin said state officials asked for additional geo-technical work to assess the capabilities of the box bridges, which were built in the 1950s. Cronin said the bridges are the responsibility of the state, but his analysis shows the bridges still have about another 20 years of life left in them.
“I’m still confident the project is going to proceed this year,” Cronin said. “We just want to double check everything.”
There are more signs that Lawrence is growing older.
There are at least two new projects in the senior housing industry in Lawrence. City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting are set to finalize a sales tax exemption request for a $2.1 million construction project for Neuvant House in west Lawrence.
As we reported back in July, plans have been filed by Neuvant House to significantly expand its building at 1216 Biltmore Dr. Well, those plans are now moving forward.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Neuvant House is expected to receive industrial revenue bonds, which will allow the project to buy its construction materials without paying sales tax.
The project essentially will double the amount of space Neuvant House has to care for people with dementia and other ailments. The new building — which will be located adjacent to the company’s existing facility — will have 14 private rooms, some of which will be able to accommodate not only the patient but also a spouse.
The facility also will have several common areas, including a living room, an exercise room, a whirlpool room, a beauty shop and other amenities.
Neuvant House’s current facility specializes in treating people with dementia. The new facility will have a broader focus, according to Matthew Stephens, administrator for the Lawrence location. The company has had a waiting list at its current facility since about December 2011.
Construction is expected to begin soon, and probably will take about nine months to complete.
As for the industrial revenue bonds for the project, the state previously had a program that allowed projects like this one to apply for a special sales tax exemption on construction materials. But that program recently was discontinued, and such projects have been instructed to apply for industrial revenue bond financing instead. The city has no obligation to pay the IRBs if there is a default. And with these industrial revenue bonds, the project does not receive a property tax abatement.
The new addition is expected to pay more than $20,000 a year in property taxes, and create 10 new jobs with an average salary of about $30,000 per year. The company will save anywhere from about $55,000 to $90,000 in sales taxes with the exemption, depending on the final cost of construction.
The second project is at the longtime Lawrence retirement community Presbyterian Manor.
The entire Presbyterian Manor group recently refinanced much of its debt, and that freed up $600,000 in funds for the Lawrence facility to renovate its apartments.
The facility at 1429 Kasold Dr. has 73 independent-living townhomes and apartments. The new project is part of a multiyear funding plan to renovate the units. Rhonda Parks, executive director of the facility, said plans call for new kitchens, bathrooms, carpets, tile and other improvements. The work will be done as apartments and townhomes become vacant.
“The market has been good, and we’re very appreciative of that,” Parks said of the demand for senior housing in the community.
The new projects come at a time when the city and county are making a push to boost Lawrence’s appeal as a retirement community. Those efforts include talk of a major “intergenerational neighborhood” that would be built somewhere in the city and would include independent living and retirement home services.
Tuesday night’s Lawrence City Commission meeting ended up being like a baked bean dish at this weekend’s Memorial Day barbecue: It was too much for one sitting. So, here are a couple of leftovers from the meeting.
I have had some people ask me whether Tuesday’s meeting ever produced an explanation about why the city’s cost estimates for the recreation center were so much higher than the actual bids the city received from nine contractors.
After all, the $10.5 million low bid received by the city was significantly less than the $18.4 million and $20.7 million estimates produced by two architects hired by the city.
City commissioners did receive a bit of an explanation. There were several aspects mentioned, but the biggest factor was that architects didn’t account for how much some key commodity prices have fallen, and how competitive the regional construction market has become for large construction projects.
The two architects — the team of CP Sports and KBS Constructors Inc., and Lawrence-based Gould Evans — both noted that several large commodity-oriented bids came in significantly lower than expected. For instance, CP Sports said the bids for steel, HVAC/plumbing and the electrical estimates came in $6 million below its estimates. And Gould Evans said the bids for steel, HVAC and wood flooring came in $4 million below its estimates.
Several of those commodities had been in high demand because of building booms in China and the Middle East, Craig Penzler, an architect with CP Sports, wrote in a memo to city officials. But “with international booms slowing, the large commodity materials are more readily available,” Penzler wrote. “We believe we are seeing an impact upon the pricing for larger projects.”
One of the more interesting outcomes of the bidding process was the bid the city received from Crossland Construction. Gould Evans hired Crossland to produce a mock bid for the project a few months ago. It provided an estimate of $16.8 million. When Crossland bid the project for real, its price was $10.7 million. Granted, the building’s design at the time Crossland provided the mock bid wasn’t exactly the same as it was at the time of the real bid, but it was pretty close. The two bids were not.
The explanation seems to be that conditions have changed rapidly in the past month or two. Or, in some cases, even in just a few hours. In his memo to city officials, Penzler said he had a conversation with one Topeka bidder who said subcontractors on the project aggressively started cutting their prices in an effort to win the job. According to Penzler, two hours before the bid was due to the city, the Topeka contractor believed his total bid for the recreation center was going to be about $16 million. Over the next hour, the bid had dropped to $14 million. And then just before the 2 p.m. bid deadline, it had dropped to just under $13 million.
Clearly, there is a lesson to be learned here: If the city had set the bid date a few hours later, contractors would have been paying the city to build the project.
Well, maybe that’s not quite the takeaway here. But it does show the power of bidding. As has already been reported, the city isn’t going through a competitive bid process on the infrastructure portion of this project. At Tuesday’s meeting, Public Works Director Chuck Soules said he is looking over the previous $8.3 million estimate for infrastructure. (It really is closer to a $9.3 million estimate when you include some site work and other items that aren’t technically called infrastructure but are part of the no-bid package.) Soules is comparing the cost estimate with bid prices the city has seen for similar work, such as the bids received for the Farmland business park project and the Iowa Street reconstruction project.
Soules said his preliminary analysis shows that it is unlikely that the infrastructure work should come in any higher than the $8.3 million estimate. But, as we reported, the city now wants to hear what developer Thomas Fritzel, who is building the infrastructure, says. They’ve asked Fritzel to provide a firm quote on the infrastructure costs within the next two weeks.
One last leftover from Tuesday’s City Commission meeting. And this one really is just a crumb. But it appears that next week’s City Commission meeting may produce a conversation about the use of drones in Lawrence airspace.
City Commissioner Terry Riordan said he had been approached by some citizens who want to discuss a city drone policy. Of course, the city doesn’t have drones. But apparently there are some people in the city who are concerned about future use of drones in Lawrence airspace, I presume by the federal government.
Commissioners indicated they weren’t going to put the topic on their regular agenda. It would seem unlikely that the city would have any influence over the federal government on the topic. But anybody is free to come and speak during the commission’s open public comment period at the end of each meeting. It sounded like some representatives of the group may do that at next week’s meeting.
You can bet I’ll keep an ear open for that.
UPDATE: I've talked this afternoon with Ben Jones, a Lawrence resident who is part of a group of about dozen or more people who have started meeting about the drone issue. He said the group will ask the city to consider an ordinance that would limit the city's use of drones — such as for police department surveillance and other such activities — until standards can be developed. He said the ordinance would be modeled after one passed in Charlottesville, Va..
The group does plan to speak at Tuesday night's City Commission meeting. Jones said the group, which crosses political lines, isn't expecting Lawrence to get into the drone business any time soon, but it thinks a resolution would be a good opportunity for the city "to get ahead of the curve."
I don’t think that's the smell of Olive Garden’s all-you-can-eat breadsticks in the air, but I can’t be certain. My wife is taking no chances: She’s digging out her massive breadstick-toting purse, and she is ordering me to dust off my dinner jacket with the really big pockets.
All of this is to say there is activity at the 27th and Iowa site that once was proposed to house the city’s first Olive Garden restaurant, until that deal fell apart when city commissioners balked at providing incentives for the restaurant chain.
A new development plan for the northeast corner of the intersection has been filed at City Hall. The plans call for a 12,700 square foot building to be constructed on the largely vacant site. Half the building would be devoted to a “high turnover sit down restaurant,” while the other half would be used for “general retail shops.” The plans don’t provide any specifics on the restaurant or the retailers that may be going into the location. In case you are having a hard time picturing the site, it is where the old Plum Tree Chinese restaurant used to be, and also the adjacent site where Mazzio’s Pizza used to operate years ago.
The developer — Mission-based MD Management — is the one who proposed the Olive Garden for the site in 2011. But these plans are different than the ones filed when Olive Garden was the proposed tenant for the site. The traffic study also notes the development will produce about 60 percent fewer motorist trips on any given day than the previous proposal. Those all may be signs that we’re talking about a different restaurant, but I don’t really know. Some folks who have insight into these sort of things seem to think that too. I’m doing some asking around, and I also have a call into MD Management.
At the moment, I haven’t seen anything that indicates the development company is seeking any sort of financial incentives, such as special taxing districts or property tax rebates, to develop the site. But I’ll keep my eyes open for that as well.
The property already has the proper zoning for restaurant and retail development, so most of the approvals needed from City Hall are relatively technical ones. Perhaps the answers will reveal themselves in fairly short order.
In the meantime, I have a feeling that since our breadstick garb has been unearthed, my wife and I will be making a trip to an Olive Garden. I just hope its never-ending pasta bowl promotion isn’t going on. You don’t want to know how she makes me smuggle out pasta and marinara sauce.
It didn’t take long for the tales of tragedy in Moore, Okla., to cause at least one city leader to begin asking questions of whether Lawrence is adequately prepared for a similar natural disaster.
City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer raised questions at last night’s City Commission meeting about whether Lawrence’s building codes for public buildings, like schools, are adequate when it comes to providing shelter from tornadoes.
“I think it would behoove us to look at ways to make our school buildings safer,” Farmer said. “If we don’t, shame on us.”
Farmer's comments Tuesday night came after he first broached the subject on his Facebook page earlier in the day. From his page: “I understand that natural disasters happen. I understand that we have better things in place to enhance warnings. But if we parade children into a hallway and tell them to cover their necks with their hands, and an EF-5 comes rolling through town, it won't matter. It’s time we stop making excuses for lives being taken because we were too irresponsible to think outside of a box, or too cheap to make sure this NEVER happens again.
“Reinforced tunnels, underground schools. Something. Smarter people than me are thinking about this. We have to figure something out. Innocent lives being taken because we didn't act when we possessed the innovation to stop it is unacceptable to me.”
Commissioners asked Planning Director Scott McCullough to produce a report summarizing what Lawrence’s building codes require in the way of storm shelters in public buildings and whether there are feasible additions that could be made to the code.
I would look for that report in the next few weeks.
As for what is really possible, I don’t know. Lawrence Public Schools spokeswoman Julie Boyle told me Lawrence public schools don’t have FEMA designated safe rooms, but obviously they do have plans to locate students and staff to interior portions of the buildings, which are better designed to withstand severe weather.
We’ll see how much, if any, serious discussion the idea of stricter building standards gets at City Hall.
Tuesday’s discussion arose after Mayor Mike Dever asked whether the city was planning to send any personnel to the Oklahoma City area to assist with the devastation following this week’s tornado.
City Manager David Corliss said the city hadn’t yet been asked for any assistance, but he plans to spread an offer of assistance to public administration officials he knows in the Oklahoma City area.
“I certainly will make it clear that we are available to do that,” Corliss said.
There was a bit of pomp and circumstance in the air at City Hall on Tuesday. An official delegation from Lawrence’s sister city of Iniades, Greece, was on hand.
Well, sort of. The delegation actually consisted of the mayor of Messolonghi, Greece. But here’s a good opportunity to learn a little something about our newest sister city. Iniades — it also can be spelled Oiniades — isn’t a city in and of itself like Lawrence. It used to be, but at some point in the not-too-distant past it was merged with two other municipalities to create what is officially known as the Sacred City of Messolonghi. (Lawrence residents, start thinking of how we can expand our name to something neat like that. Perhaps the Basketball Kingdom of Lawrence.)
The whole city covers an area of about 674 square kilometers, according to a brochure that Mayor Panagiotis A. Katsoulis graciously gave me. (That’s approximately the size of Texas, or perhaps it is about 420 square miles. I’m American. I’m not good with kilometers.) Either way, for comparison’s sake, Douglas County is about 470 square miles.
The Messolonghi area — which is about a four-hour bus trip from Athens — has about 35,000 people, and has an economy that is still largely based on agriculture.
“They grow a cornucopia of agricultural products there,” said Jon Josserand, a member of Lawrence’s Sister Cities Advisory Board. “Wheat, beef, grapes, olives, vegetables, citrus.”
The potential agricultural connection is one area the sister cities program may expand upon. Mayor Katsoulis made a point during his remarks to city commissioners that he would like to establish more exchange programs with Lawrence.
The idea of Greek agricultural leaders coming to Kansas to learn more about agricultural techniques is one that is likely to be explored in the future, Josserand said. Lawrence also is interested in creating a student exchange program, much like Lawrence has with its other sister cities of Eutin, Germany, and Hiratsuka, Japan.
It will be interesting to see if this sister cities relationship takes on more of a business-oriented slant. The economy of Greece is certainly looking for help where it can find it, and who knows what potential opportunities there may be for a Lawrence firm to benefit from a relationship with a Greek community.
Creating relationships is what the sister cities program is all about. The city formalized its first sister city relationship with Eutin, Germany, in 1989, then Hiratsuka, Japan, in 1990. Iniades was added in 2009, in large part because of the decades-long relationship KU’s theater department has had with the community. Since about 1990, KU has operated a summer study abroad program that uses Iniades’ outdoor theater, which dates back to 4 B.C.
This week’s trip was the first for Mayor Katsoulis to Lawrence. Through his interpreter, Katsoulis said he was impressed with the community and its people.
“It is a very different society than ours with a different lifestyle and organization,” Katsoulis said. “It is very quiet and in harmony with nature, and filled with people who respect the laws in everyday life.”
Katsoulis arrived in Lawrence on Friday, and will be in the city for about a week.
Maybe 13 is a lucky number in this case. Lawrence home sales for the 13th month in a row have posted year-over-year gains, but the more striking fact is the improvement in almost every category real estate observers care about.
According to the new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors, agents sold 102 Lawrence homes in April, a 45 percent increase over April 2012.
In a departure from past months, even newly constructed homes sold well. Builders sold 13 new homes, compared to just four in April 2012. To put the number in perspective, Lawrence builders had sold only 13 homes in the previous three months of 2013 combined.
The April numbers continue what has been a good start to 2013. For the year, 261 homes have been sold in Lawrence, up about 32 percent from 2012 totals and up 45 percent from same period in 2011. The number of newly built homes sold checks in at 26, up from 17 at this time in 2012 and 18 in 2011.
Sales of newly built homes will be a number to really keep an eye on. New home construction has more potential to boost the Lawrence economy than people simply buying and selling existing homes. That’s obviously because new construction involves employing people to build and houses and develop neighborhoods.
A couple of numbers that builders will keep an eye on are the number of days a house stays on the market before it sells, and the number of homes actively listed. Both numbers showed some bullish signs in the last month.
The median days on market for a home is now at 66, down from 88 in April 2012. The number of homes on the market also has fallen to 419, down nearly 32 percent from the 613 listed in April 2012. The number of newly built homes on the market is at 29, down from 56 in April 2012 and from 63 in April 2011.
As the market has picked up, there are signs that prices have too. The median selling price on homes in 2013 stands at $167,000, up 7.8 percent from the same period in 2012. It is always tough to gauge pricing trends just from this report, but at this time last year, the Lawrence real estate market was showing signs of a real price correction. Last year, at the end of April, the median home price was down about 10.2 percent.
The new numbers certainly have put new bounce in the step of local real estate agents.
“These recent statistics reflect a dramatic shift in our local market,” said John Esau, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
Esau, in fact, went so far as to say he believe the market now has shifted from a buyer’s market to a seller’s market.
We’ll see what May brings: Perhaps lucky 14.
••• There’s another report out that shows Lawrence home builders are slowly starting to ramp up their production. According to a new report from the city, 17 building permits were issued in April for single-family and duplex homes.
That’s the highest April number in at least five years. For all of 2013, the city has issued 59 single-family and duplex permits, which is 20 more than it issued during the same time period in 2012.
Other items from the April report include:
• For the year, the city has issued permits for $54.8 million worth of projects, up 63 percent from the same period a year ago. The $54.8 million is by far the best showing of the last five years. The average since 2009 has been about $27.5 million worth of projects.
• Apartment construction continues to be strong in Lawrence. The city has issued permits for 374 apartment units thus far in 2013. That’s the highest total of the last five years. Since 2009, the average has been about 105 units.
• Apartment construction was a big part of the $19.8 million worth of permits issued in April. Camson South — one of two apartment projects just west of Wal-Mart on Sixth Street — pulled permits for a $5.5 million project that includes 88 apartments and a clubhouse. Other large projects include phase I of the Rock Chalk Park project, including construction of the track and field stadium. Lawrence-based DFC Company pulled $6 million in permits for that project. Discount Tire also pulled a $1 million permit for work on its new store at 4741 Bauer Farm Drive, just west of the new Starbucks in that area. Several of you have asked about the timeline for the new Discount Tire location, and I do have a call into the company. I’ll let you know when I hear more.