Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
Sometimes you win in the court of law, but lose in the court of public opinion. Other times it is vice-versa. I can't help but think that thought is going through the minds of some City Hall leaders these days.
This $500,000 tax dispute between the city of Lawrence and the developers of The Oread hotel project seems likely to create some interesting legal wrangling. New documents released by the developer certainly have made that clearer. But if it turns into a lawsuit, it sure appears City Hall leaders have an interesting calculus to consider: It is important for the city to win the judgment of the court, but it is critical that it win the judgment of the public.
In other words, the city probably has more at risk in the court of public opinion than it does in the court of law.
As it stands now, the city’s biggest risk in the court of law is about $500,000. That’s approximately the amount of the tax dispute. But that amount creates no real risk to the city’s finances. The $500,000 in disputed taxes have never been budgeted. It is not like the city will have to cut funding for something if it doesn’t receive it. (To be clear, not all the money would go to the city. Some would go to the county, and a special 1 percent sales tax that is charged in the district would theoretically be rebated back to the consumers who paid it.)
But I think the stakes are much higher in the court of public opinion. As we reported, The Oread development team released a large number of documents recently describing its position in the dispute. It is easy to see in those documents some potentially successful legal arguments. It is more difficult to see anything that is going to change the public’s opinion that the developers are misusing a city incentive program.
If the city doesn’t do everything it can to impose some type of penalty on the development team, I think the City Commission risks losing large amounts of trust with the public. At least that’s what I hear from people who stop me on the street to talk about it. To make matters worse, trust levels aren’t that great currently, following the Rock Chalk Park controversy that the city had with Thomas Fritzel — the same Lawrence businessman at the center of The Oread development. There are other Fritzel/City Hall controversies that continue to weigh on the mind of residents. If the camel’s back hasn’t already broken, it seems like this will do it.
So, let’s take a closer look at the new set of documents released by the development group to see where future battles may be waged in this dispute:
• One of the documents produced by the development group is called “Setting the Record Straight: The Facts of Oread Redevelopment District.” Expect exception to be taken to some of these facts. There is at least one statement in that document that isn’t a fact. Statement No. 2 reads: "Oread Inn is owed approximately $11 million plus interest for improvements that, absent the Redevelopment Agreement, would have been paid and financed by the City. There is no dispute of this fact.” It certainly is not a fact that the city would have paid and financed all of these improvements if this deal hadn’t been reached. Indeed, the $11 million in improvements do include numerous pieces of public infrastructure — items such as streets, sidewalks and other such projects — that likely needed city attention whether The Oread project proceeded or not. But it is important to remember that the majority of the $11 million in improvements is for a privately owned parking garage that is beneath The Oread hotel. There was never a scenario where the city was going to pay for or finance that approximately $6 million private parking garage.
• $4.5 million may be an important number in all of this. That is approximately the amount of sales the development group once said were made inside The Oread’s special taxing district but is now saying were made outside the district. The development group made the change by amending the tax returns for Oread Wholesale. What did those sales involve? I’ve asked an attorney for the development group for more information about those sales, but did not receive any more details. What those sales involved go to the heart of the matter. City officials believe the development group was willfully inflating the sales of the special taxing district in order to get a larger sales tax rebate from the city. The fact that the development group has removed $4.5 million in sales from the district says that sales were improperly allocated to the district. The development group will strenuously argue otherwise. Attorneys with the group sent me a message stating the amended returns shouldn’t be read as a “determination” that sales were improperly made to the district. Instead, the amended returns were a voluntary effort to “compromise and cooperate with the city.” But if that line of logic stands, it raises other questions. Are sales tax returns meant to be an accurate depiction of sales activity, or does the state allow them to be changed to facilitate deals?
• There may be an argument brewing over what constitutes a warehouse. The terms of the special taxing district are pretty clear that one of the prohibited uses in the district is a warehouse. The city is contending that Oread Wholesale was operating a warehouse in the district, and thus the city has the legal authority to now void the special taxing district deal. Indeed, documents released by the development group confirm that Oread Wholesale has space within the hotel building where it stores and displays materials that it later sells. The attorneys have confirmed the location has handled sales of construction materials for projects throughout the Lawrence area and beyond. But the developers argue that is not a warehouse. The attorneys told me it is not a warehouse because “Oread Wholesale does not store property owned by third parties for a fee.” Instead, Oread Wholesale “stores its own inventory, pending the retail sale of such inventory.” Now, the bar exams I’ve passed are different than the ones attorneys are required to pass, so I’m no expert on the legal ins-and-outs of the definition of a warehouse. My qualifications mainly end at typing in the URL dictionary.com with a minimum of typos. Among the definitions of a warehouse on that site: “A building, or a part of one, in which wholesalers keep large stocks of merchandise, which they display and sell to retailers.”
• And finally, what would a dispute be without an alley. The alley behind The Varsity House, an apartment complex developed by a group led by Thomas Fritzel, will be debated. A good amount of the disputed sales taxes come from sales tax charged on construction materials for The Varsity House. The developers are contending those sales took place inside the special taxing district, even though there is agreement that The Varsity House project is not inside the special taxing district. Whether the sales are in or out adds up to a significant amount of money for the development group. If the sales are determined to be made outside the district, The Varsity House developers — which includes some of the key Oread developers — must pay the full amount of sales tax on construction materials, and they get none of it rebated back to them. But if the sales are made in the district, The Oread development group gets a rebate on the majority of the local sales taxes paid for the construction materials.
The argument that the development group is making is that most of the construction material sales for The Varsity House were delivered to the public alley that is behind The Varsity House, which is just down the block from The Oread hotel. That public alley is part of the special taxing district. Under state law, since the delivery was made there, that is where the sales tax must be charged, the development group argues. Thus, under the terms of the special taxing district, The Oread developers get a sales tax rebate.
But here is where it gets a little tricky to follow. When the construction materials arrived at the alley, they weren’t owned by Oread Wholesale. They were owned by whatever company Oread Wholesale ordered them from. Oread Wholesale would purchase the materials in the alley, and then store the materials in the alley before it sold them to the contractor for The Varsity House. “For deliveries to the alleyway, Oread Wholesale would retain ownership and possession of the construction materials when delivered,” a developer-commissioned report by the accounting firm BKD reads. The report goes on to say the products were later sold to DFC, the contractor building The Oread.
That raises a question: Does a wholesale company have to get any permission from the city to use a public alley as a storage facility for its business? I have little doubt that DFC had city permission to store construction materials in the alley, but whether Oread Wholesale had such permission may be a different matter. I asked the attorneys for The Oread group for any documents showing such permission had been granted, but I didn’t receive any.
The larger question, though, is one about intent. I covered the City Hall approval process for The Varsity House. Never did the developer mention that the project would be adding sales to the special taxing district. Why not? You could argue that would be a selling point for the project. The more sales that occur in the district, the quicker the $11 million cap is reached, and the quicker the city and county begin receiving the full amount of sales taxes from The Oread. One reason it was perhaps never mentioned is because it could be seen as a tax break for some members of The Varsity House development. (Remember, The Varsity House paid the full amount of sales tax due, but a good portion of it got rebated back to The Oread group, which also includes members of the The Varsity House group.) As someone covering the issue, I can tell you that it wasn’t likely that the City Commission was going to be in favor of giving The Varsity House project any such tax break.
The issue of whether the special taxing district is being used in the manner that was described when it was approved by the city is really at the heart of the matter for the public, I believe. Did the city approve one thing but actually get something else?
So, there are lots of issues to resolve, and I don’t have a good sense of how they will be resolved. It will be interesting to watch how long it takes to resolve them. One fact that gets overlooked is that the city has stopped making tax rebate payments to The Oread group. The Oread group has been counting on those tax rebates to pay for the $11 million worth of work that it financed at the project. Presumably, the development group is still obligated to make those debt payments even though the tax rebates aren’t currently being received. It would seem that a lawsuit with this many things to argue could be pretty lengthy, which could mean the tax rebates may be halted for quite some time. The city may be on the correct side of the leverage equation here.
I suspect that is just one of many calculations to come in this case.
Poor Boy Burrito hopes to wrap up mobile breakfast burrito market; Zaxby’s chicken chain confirms it is coming to Lawrence
Correction: Nate Keller now tells me that his business actually is not yet operating out of the Douglas County Fairgrounds, but rather out of a rental kitchen. It has started the process to operate out of the fairgrounds, he says. That is not how I understood what he told me during our previous interview. My apologies for the confusion.
Up until this point, a mobile breakfast burrito has meant a burrito in one hand, the steering wheel of the F150 in the other and a traffic ticket that usually comes shortly after the hot egg and cheese falls in my lap. But a Lawrence entrepreneur is giving the idea a new twist, and is using Douglas County government of all places to get it off the ground.
Nate Keller has started a new firm called Poor Boy Burrito Company, and it operates off of a basic premise: People’s days would start better with a breakfast burrito, but most folks don’t have the time to make one or even wait in line to buy one. So, Keller’s firm will deliver one to your office. People email, text or call in an order for a burrito.
“There are a lot of office workers who don’t have time to eat breakfast,” Keller said. “There are guys who are up early and are running out of the house, and by 8:30 or 9, they are hungry and we just deliver it to their desk.”
The business has been open about a month. Business has been strong, and Keller said he is close to launching a website that will allow people to order online.
“We think it basically will be taking the popularity of a food truck business to the online world,” Keller said.
A breakfast burrito is very food truck-like fare, but Poor Boy Burrito Company isn’t operating out of a truck. Rather, its home base is even more unique than that. The company operates out of a public kitchen in the Douglas County Fairgrounds. There is a commercial kitchen in Building 21 of the fairgrounds, and Keller said he pays rent to the county to use the space.
I don’t have all the details on that arrangement, but look for more in the future. I’ve heard bits and pieces about how the county has had an interest in using the commercial kitchen as a way to help local food-related businesses get off the ground. County reporter Elvyn Jones or I will get more info on that potential program, and report back.
As for the burritos, there are five kinds: Beef, pork, chicken, sausage or vegetarian. All the burritos also have an unexpected ingredient: Mashed potatoes.
“The mashed potatoes are a little bit of the secret,” Keller said.
The burritos sell for $4 each, and delivery time is usually about 15 to 20 minutes.
Keller said business is going so well that he expects he’ll soon need to find space outside the fairgrounds. He said the company, which includes one other employee, is planning to start a late-night service that will run from midnight to 3 a.m. You can get more information about the company or order by emailing email@example.com or calling 785-925-1935.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As we reported last week, sources told us a Zaxby’s chicken restaurant was slated for the Bauer Farm development near Sixth and Wakarusa. Well, our sources were correct. Zaxby’s has now confirmed it is opening a multitude of restaurants in the Kansas City area.
The area franchisee, Royal Chicken Holdings LLC, told The Kansas City Star that it plans a dozen Johnson County restaurants. It also confirmed it will open one at 4661 Bauer Farm drive in Lawrence, probably in November or December. The franchisee told The Star that he may open a couple more in Lawrence in the future.
As we told you last week, the restaurant chain is based in Athens, Ga., and has about 700 restaurants primarily in the southeast region of the U.S. As for the food, it looks like there is a strong emphasis on chicken fingers and chicken wings, with multiple dipping sauces.
Downtown restaurant to open new location in west Lawrence; signs of another retail expansion on south Iowa
Wet wipes in west Lawrence: stock up while you can. I’ve gotten word that Jefferson’s, a downtown restaurant that specializes in hot wings and other such delicacies that sometimes cause a fellow to need wet wipes, a dry cleaner and a power washer, is opening a west Lawrence location.
Brandon Graham, an owner of the Lawrence Jefferson’s at 743 Massachusetts has confirmed to me that the restaurant has signed a deal to add a new location near Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive. The restaurant is going into space that has seen a string of restaurants, most recently Legends sports bar and grill, and previously places such as Tanner’s, Bambinos and others.
“We love the demographics out there,” Graham said. “Myself and my business partner both have young families, and know lots and lots of people with young families who live out there. We’re really interested in serving them.”
Graham said he thinks having an established brand go into the space will help as well. Graham stressed that Jefferson’s would continue to operate its restaurant in downtown. The west Lawrence space will be designed to serve folks who don’t often make it to that location. The west Lawrence location will have several of the same features as the downtown location, including the tradition of decorated one dollar bills that customers hang on the walls and such, Graham said.
The biggest thing that will be the same is the menu. Graham said the west Lawrence location will have the same offerings as the downtown location. That means a heavy emphasis on chicken wings, with about a dozen different sauce combinations.
“Wings definitely are our calling card,” Graham said.
Other major menu items include lots of hamburgers, oysters on the half-shell, and when I’m feeling my body tell me it needs some veggies, I'll be able to turn to options such as breaded corn nuggets or a delicacy known as fried pickles. As I remind the doctor doing the cardiogram, they are vegetables. The restaurant also has about a half-dozen salads as well, which I think is an acquired taste. (When I make mine at home, they always come out of the fryer kind of wilted.)
Graham is hoping for a quick opening at the west Lawrence location. The lease was signed on the property earlier this week, construction work already has begun, and Graham hopes to be open within 60 days.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Those of you who keep a close eye on all things chicken wings perhaps have noticed a sign that concerns you. There is a "for lease" sign in front of the Buffalo Wild Wings at 27th and Iowa street. No, Buffalo Wild Wings isn’t going anywhere. Instead, the small shopping center building that houses the restaurant and an adjacent tanning salon is expanding.
Allison Vance Moore with the Lawrence Colliers International office has the listing on the location, and she tells me that plans are to add 3,000 square feet of space on the north end of the building. She said the development group is seeking something other than a restaurant to go in the space. No word yet on possible tenants, but she said interest in the intersection is strong, as Buffalo Wild Wings, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Ulta Beauty, the Boot Barn and other new retailers have made the intersection more of a destination shopping spot.
My understanding is the 3,000 square foot expansion has all the City Hall approvals it needs. My recollection is it was included in the original plans, but was never built. I’ll keep you updated as I hear a tenant for the location.
New Lawrence media company plans to launch global business magazine; Lecompton lobbying to be named best small town in Kansas
What Rolling Stone magazine did for music, a new Lawrence-based magazine plans to do for the world of business. I’m still unclear on whether that means Donald Trump soon will show up on a cover smashing a guitar, but regardless the new venture already is paying dividends for Lawrence.
B the Change Media has opened a Massachusetts Street office, hired seven staff members and plans to launch a magazine, website and other media products with plans for a global audience in June.
“We look at business through a different lens,” said Bryan Welch, chief executive officer of the new company. “Our interest is in covering businesses that are doing good in the world.”
B the Change Media’s promotional materials describe the concept this way: Rolling Stone captured the moment when music became an emblem of identity and an instrument for social change. B the Change Media will do much the same for business.
“I believe consumers will move their dollars to companies that they believe are doing good, as soon as they can trust them,” said Welch. “They want to spend their dollars with companies that share their values.”
Welch has had success in the magazine world before. For 19 years he served as the CEO of Topeka-based Ogden Publications, which publishes large magazines such as Mother Earth News, Grit, Farm Collector and others. Perhaps articles about spring tooth harrows and manure spreaders aren’t your thing, but Ogden has grown into a major employer in Topeka. Welch said the company had about 150 employees when he left last year.
“I wouldn’t be surprised that we become as big as Ogden or bigger,” Welch said. “I don’t think that is out of reach, but we’ll find out. It is hard say, though, because there has never been a media company focused on what we’re focused on.”
As I mentioned earlier, the company has seven employees currently, but is working to fill five more positions. Jobs are in the company’s editorial, advertising and event divisions, Welch said. The company has office space at 916 1/2 Massachusetts St., which is the space above Earthbound Trading Company.
B the Change Media, which is a for-profit venture, has teamed up with B Lab, which is a nonprofit venture that certifies companies “who meet the highest standards of verified, overall social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.”
Almost 1,600 companies have been certified by B Lab, and those companies have more than 40 million followers. Welch said that gives B the Change Media a good base of potential readers and advertisers.
The name of the magazine, Welch said, will be B. In addition to the print publication, there also will be a robust web presence, and the company plans to be in the event business too.
Welch said the decision to locate the headquarters for the new media company in Lawrence was easy. He’s lived on a farm just outside of Lawrence for years.
“This is my home, and that is why I put it here,” he said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I’m sure you are all getting ready to caucus. Soon we’ll see those “Caucus Today” signs in yards everywhere, or those lapel stickers that say “I Caucused.” I don’t need to tell you that both the Democratic and Republican caucuses in Kansas are on March 5.
But you don’t have to wait until then to cast a vote on an issue. Folks in the Douglas County community of Lecompton are urging you to nominate Lecompton as the Best Small Town in Kansas.
The contest is being run by Kansas! Magazine, the publication that is published quarterly by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. (Full disclosure: Sunflower Publishing, a division of LJWorld’s parent company, designs and edits the magazine.) The magazine is seeking nominations for any Kansas town that has a population of fewer than 5,000 people.
The deadline to nominate a community is March 14. People can do so by mailing a nomination to the publication at 1020 S. Kansas Ave. St. 200, Topeka KS 66612. I suppose you also could hire a Pony Express driver to take one directly to the office too. For those of you living in a different century, however, you can also just send it via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out a submission form at travelks.com. My kids are now making fun of me for implying that email and websites are cutting-edge technology. Fear not, you can also submit via Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #BestSmallTownKS.
Lecompton is not the only Douglas County community eligible for the award. Baldwin City, at about 4,500 people, meets the 5,000 and under population cut off. Eudora, at about 6,300, does not. (As anyone who has spent time in both Eudora and Baldwin City can attest, the difference in the big city hustle and bustle between the two towns is stark.)
I call attention to Lecompton, however, because that community seems to be going all out to win the contest. Community members have printed up color brochures that they are handing out to people urging them to nominate Lecompton, and they even have created a website to promote the effort. Among the tag lines on that website: “Two museums, two eateries, zero stoplights.”
After the nomination period ends on March 14, a group of finalists will be selected, readers will vote through May 31, and winners will be named in the winter 2016 edition of the magazine.
An update on Spin Pizza and other development near Sixth Street Wal-Mart; answers about that big pile of dirt near 31st and Louisiana
I have news about big piles of dirt around town. (Dig safe. Call 811 before you dig. A big pile of dirt in my backyard, and a court settlement, dictate that I say that.) But I’m not talking about that. Instead, I have updates on some construction projects that are in the big pile of dirt stage, including a new restaurant development in northwest Lawrence.
Construction work has begun on a new restaurant and retail building near the Wal-Mart at Sixth and Wakarusa. We reported all the way back in February 2015 that Kansas City’s Spin Neapolitan Pizza had signed a deal to locate on a lot just east of the Wal-Mart. Many of you were getting nervous that Spin Neapolitan wasn’t going to come to town and had been conducting your own experiments with pepperoni and tri-colored ice cream. (It is not that type of Neapolitan, by the way.)
But dirt work began on the site in the last couple of days, and folks with knowledge of the project tell me that Spin is still very much part of the project. I’ve got a call in to a representative to find out more about when the popular KC pizzeria hopes to open in Lawrence.
For those of you not familiar with the restaurant, it touts itself as an artisan-style pizzeria, with Neapolitan crusts. That means hand-spun, thin crusts that are cooked in a stone oven. The artisan part also means a variety of toppings. Cheeses range from the traditional mozzarella to Asiago, feta and something called taleggio. Meats include staples like Italian sausage and pepperoni but also Italian bacon, Scimeca’s meatballs, and salami. In addition there are things like arugula, pine nuts, crushed glazed pecans, fig onion marmalade and sun-dried tomato relish that you can put on your pizza and whatever tie you happen to be wearing that day.
The restaurant has been popular in Kansas City since it opened its first restaurant in 2005. We’ll see if the development spurs more activity around the northwest Wal-Mart. The outparcels surrounding the Wal-Mart have been very slow to develop. Plans filed with the city show that there are five more lots that could be developed with restaurant or retail uses surrounding the Wal-Mart. Years ago, most folks would not have bet that those lots would still be vacant today, but for whatever reason, development around the Wal-Mart has not taken off.
The Spin pizza development is likely to bring at least a couple more businesses to the site. As we previously have reported, the building that will house Spin actually will be a 12,000-square-foot building that will house two restaurants and a boutique retail type of tenant. There have been no announcements on the other restaurant or the retail tenants.
As we’ve previously mentioned, there’s certainly been speculation that the large Kansas City-based restaurant company KC Hopps has chosen the site for one of its restaurants. I’ve got a call in to KC Hopps officials but haven’t had luck in getting information from them in the past. The restaurant operates several restaurants in KC, including Barley’s Brewhaus, 75th Street Brewery, Stroud’s and 810 Zone. But the restaurant that sources have told me is most likely for the spot is the company’s Blue Moose Bar & Grill. But take that for whatever you think it is worth because it is unconfirmed at this point.
• Pile of dirt No. 2 is at the northwest corner of 31st and Louisiana streets, and it has gotten several of you excited about what is going in there. Well, it is a sewage pump station. (It is OK with me if it still excites you, but I can tell you it is the sort of thing that will cause you to be lonely at cocktail parties.)
The project is moving a lot of dirt, but it won’t be mammoth when it is completed. The pipes under the ground will be very large, and that is what you are seeing a lot of right now. The pump station will be a key piece of infrastructure because it will pump sewage across the Wakarusa River to the $50 million-plus sewage treatment plant that is under construction just south of where O’Connell Road dead-ends at the Wakarusa River.
Here’s a look at what the pump station will look like when completed.
Janitors, bus drivers and a potentially expensive wage discussion that is brewing at Lawrence City Hall
Brooms and buses soon may get really interesting at Lawrence City Hall. We’ve already told you about a $450,000 idea to create a new city staff of janitors. If you think City Hall janitors are expensive, though, just wait until we get around to the discussion about bus drivers.
As some cities across the country start implementing communitywide local minimum wages that far exceed the federal minimum wage, Lawrence City Hall is taking a slightly different tack. Instead of talking about a citywide minimum wage law, commissioners are having a discussion about whether city employees — or employees that the city contracts with — should be required to make a “living wage.”
Right now, the discussion is centered on the folks who do janitorial work for city buildings. Those janitors are employed by a private Topeka-based company that has a contract with City Hall. The janitors don’t make a living wage, at least not one that meets the city’s criteria. The city has determined that a “living wage” is $12.60, which is equal to 130 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three in Douglas County.
There is an ordinance on the city’s books that basically says companies that receive tax abatements are required to pay all their employees a living wage plus benefits. This Topeka custodial company doesn’t receive a tax break, so the living wage requirement isn’t applicable. But the current City Commission has picked up on a question that surfaced a few times over the years: Isn’t it hypocritical for the city to require some private companies to pay a living wage while the city itself doesn’t pay some of its people a living wage?
So, it is now a real possibility that a handful of janitors in Lawrence may get a good raise and become city employees, which comes with a lot better benefits.
If that comes to be, there will be a new question for the City Commission: Where does it want to draw the line on being hypocritical?
A handful of janitors is just the tip of the iceberg on this issue. As I mentioned at the beginning of this column, take a look at bus drivers. The city has a contract with a private company to provide bus drivers for the city’s transit system. There are bus drivers who don’t make $12.60 an hour.
I checked in with Justin Priest, a former City Commission candidate who also is the head of the local transit union. He told me the starting wage for a bus driver in training is $9.50 an hour. After the training period is completed, the wage goes to $11.50 an hour. There are more than 100 bus drivers. (There are 136 employees as part of the contract, Priest said, but some of them are mechanics and other positions that get paid at different rates.)
If it costs $450,000 to add five janitors to the city’s staff — some commissioners question staff’s estimate on that — how much do you suppose it would cost to add 100-plus transit workers?
If commissioners add the janitors, we’ll find out. Priest said his union will begin pushing hard to make transit workers full-fledged city employees rather than contract employees.
“Ultimately, what everybody wants here is to be a city employee,” Priest said. “I guarantee you that if they end up doing that with custodians, we’ll push more and more to become city employees. We’ll push to do away with the privatization of the transit system.”
How will the city say yes to custodians and no to bus drivers? One of the rallying cries on the custodial issue is that some of the custodians have been receiving assistance from the local food bank Just Food. I’m guessing some bus drivers do too, and if that is the litmus test for becoming a city employee, I’m certain there soon will be lots receiving assistance from the food bank.
There are lots of other workers employed by the city who don’t make the $12.60 an hour. Many are seasonal employees in parks and recreation. What criteria will the City Commission use to determine who among their staff is entitled to a “living wage” and who is not?
The questions can go even deeper, though. As I mentioned, companies that receive a tax abatement are required to pay the living wage. Companies that receive other types of public incentives, however, are not required to pay a living wage. That means all the hotel developments that have received tax increment financing money aren’t required to pay their cleaning crews a living wage. Same goes for apartment projects that are scheduled to receive millions in taxpayer incentives. Those projects received “tax rebates,” not tax abatements, so the living wage requirement doesn’t apply.
None of these issues are new. I wrote about the transit issue in 2008, but the idea of a living wage for bus drivers never gained any political traction. I then wrote in 2009 about how the city’s living wage ordinance doesn’t apply to many of the publicly subsidized projects being approved by City Hall. But again, the issue never got political traction.
But the political environment changed significantly during the last City Commission election. It is not hard to envision that this group may stick with this issue longer than past commissions did. It is also not hard to envision the debate becoming much bigger than a handful of janitors.
• Here is one twist to keep in mind as it relates to the city’s transit system. As we previously have reported, the city needs to get a funding plan figured out for the transit system by 2018. A 10-year sales tax that currently funds the system is set to expire.
I’ve previously written how I believe the transit system may be entering a danger zone. They city is behind schedule on finding a transit hub and doing the difficult work of redesigning the transit system to make it more efficient. If the system doesn’t become more efficient, it may make it more difficult to win voter support for a renewal of the sales tax.
A renewal of the sales tax also may become more difficult if Douglas County officials add to the local tax burden with a $30 million-plus jail expansion and crisis intervention center project. There’s only so many taxes voters will approve.
If city commissioners decide to increase what they pay transit employees, that also may have an impact. Boosting the wages would seem to increase the operating costs of the transit system. Would the city also need to increase the size of the sales tax in order to pay for those increased operating costs?
Tough to know. The easy thing to understand is that 2018 will be here before we know it.
Signs point to new southern chicken chain coming to northwest Lawrence; update on multiple restaurant, retail projects on south Iowa
I’m always curious how the outside world views Lawrence. At the moment, I’m pretty confident that a PR firm led by bovines is sending out signals that Lawrence’s top need is more chicken. Yes, I have news of another chicken restaurant coming to the city.
We’ve reported for a few months now that a new chicken restaurant is slated for the Bauer Farm development near Sixth and Wakarusa. That’s on top of the slate of chicken restaurants that are coming to south Iowa Street. Well, I still don’t have official confirmation on the identity of the new Bauer Farm restaurant, but a source with good knowledge of the situation has told me to keep an eye on a chain called Zaxby’s.
Yes, the bovines are getting mighty creative because I’ve never heard of Zaxby’s. My friend Mr. Google tells me it is a chain of about 700 restaurants operating primarily in the southeastern U.S. But the chain has been moving northward, and it likes college towns. It opened its first store in Missouri in 2014, and it chose Columbia as its test market for the state. The company also is around college towns every day. It is based in Athens, Ga., which is home to the University of Georgia.
As for the food, it looks like there is a strong emphasis on chicken fingers and chicken wings, with multiple dipping sauces, according to the company’s website. The menu lists nine flavors for wings and fingers, ranging from a fairly standard Buffalo-style sauce to the restaurant's signature hot sauce called Tongue Torch. In addition, the restaurant has five dipping sauces, including something called a Zax Sauce, which is described as both tangy and zesty, and a horseradish-based sauce called Zestable Dip.
In addition to wings and fingers, the menu also includes a variety of chicken salads, including Cobb, blue cheese and Caesar varieties. (They call all their salads Zalads because the restaurant got a good deal on Zs at the alphabet store.) The restaurant’s sides, though, are what’s causing me to make sure my cholesterol medicine closet has room for an extra shipment. In addition to the traditional fries and such, other sides — called Zappetizers, of course — include breaded and fried white cheddar bites with a marinara dipping sauce, fried spicy mushrooms and homemade tater chips.
Like I said, I don’t know much about the Zaxby’s chain, but when the restaurant came to Columbia, the Columbia Daily Tribune described it as being “to chicken what Chipotle is to Mexican, Five Guys is to burgers and Panera is to delis.” They described it as being a little pricier than traditional fast food but having a little better quality. The restaurant does tout that it makes each order at the time of purchase, rather than making it ahead of time and storing under heat lamps.
Of course, take all of this for what you think it is worth. I remind you I don’t have official confirmation yet from Zaxby’s about its Lawrence plans. But it does look like one to keep your zeyes on. (Sorry. I thought I’d better use a Z before they get all used up.)
In other news and notes from around town:
• Since I mentioned south Iowa Street earlier, this seems like as good a time as any to provide an update on new business construction along the corridor. We’ve reported on all this before, but I’ve gotten several questions recently about what is under construction where. So, here’s a brief roundup:
— The building that is taking shape in front of Bigg's BBQ and other establishments near 25th and Iowa streets is a Raising Cane’s restaurant. It is a chain restaurant that focuses on chicken fingers with a zesty sauce. Based on the progress being made on that building, I would think we’ll have that sauce coursing through our arteries by this summer.
— Just down the street at 26th and Iowa, construction work is underway on a Popeyes chicken restaurant, which will include a drive-thru. The restaurant is being built on the southern end of the shopping center that includes First Watch and other establishments. That entire shopping center, called Tower Plaza, is undergoing a redesign. Crews currently are putting a new facade on the shopping center, but businesses in the center remain open during construction.
— On the north end of that shopping center — closer to 25th and Iowa street — some preliminary work has begun on converting a former insurance office and barber shop building into a Pie Five restaurant, a chain that makes handmade pizzas in five minutes. The insurance office — Gary Petersen’s Shelter Insurance agency — has moved into space inside the Tower Plaza shopping center. The barber shop has closed, I believe.
— Inside the Tower Plaza shopping center, I believe remodeling work already has begun or soon will for the sandwich chain Which Wich. The chain features a variety of hot sub sandwiches. A sign is up at the site advertising that the restaurant is coming soon.
— Closer to 23rd and Iowa Street, look for work on a new Texas Roadhouse. As we previously have reported, the steakhouse chain Texas Roadhouse has filed plans to go into the space previously occupied by Saints Pub + Patio. Or, for those of you with longer memories, it is the spot where Old Chicago Pizza used to be. We reported on Texas Roadhouse all the way back in September, and work has not really begun, as near as I can tell. The plans call for a significant amount of construction there, so I will check in to see if all is still on track.
— Look for a new Planet Fitness to go into a portion of the space previously occupied by Discovery furniture near 25th and Iowa streets. As we reported in December, the fitness chain signed a deal to take about 22,000 square feet of space in the large retail building. That will occupy about half of the vacant space in the building. The development group, I hear, is getting strong interest from other users for the remaining space.
In wake of former mayor, city considering new expense policy for employees; Mass. Street retailer closes shop
Per diem, I believe, is Latin for: “Money in my pocket.” If you are not familiar with how a per diem expense account works, you receive a set amount of money each day — usually for food and other incidentals — whether you incur those expenses or not. It looks like city of Lawrence employees may soon get to experience the ins and outs of a per diem expense account.
I know how such an account works in my world. I pack a suitcase full of Ramen noodles because I like cash better than I like hotel food. (Although, the questions from the airport security folks can get a little odd.)
City commissioners at their meeting tonight were set to discuss a new policy on city travel and expenses, including the use of per diem expense accounts. City Hall this morning, however, announced the item has been removed from tonight’s agenda. No word yet on when it may be put on a future agenda.
Although staff doesn’t make any mention of it in its memo, it probably is not a coincidence that the policy discussion is coming in the wake of former Mayor Jeremy Farmer being required to reimburse the city for some improper travel expenses prior to his resignation from the commission.
The major change is that city employees no longer will be required to keep their receipts for food and meal expenses while traveling on city business. Instead of being reimbursed based on receipts, city employees who are traveling simply will be given a per day allowance for meals.
The allowance will vary depending on what city they are traveling to. The federal government’s Government Services Administration sets recommended per diem amounts for various cities across the country. The city plans to use those amounts.
Doing a quick search on the GSA website, it appears a lot of cities in this region are about $64 a day, or at least that was the case for Kansas City, Omaha and Dallas, for example. In some other cities the amount increases. For example, it is $74 a day in New York, $74 a day in San Francisco and $69 a day in Washington, D.C.
What do you think? Could you figure out how to subsist on $64 a day in a place like K.C., Omaha or Dallas? Remember, it needs to cover your taxes and tips too. The per diem is designed to cover three meals per day. The per diem, however, is only for food. You don’t have to pay tolls, or parking or other such expenses out of the per diem. Given that, if you split your per diem equally per meal, you would need to spend about $21 per meal or less to stay within your allowance. I don’t know about you, but I don’t normally spend $21 on breakfast, unless it is one of those breakfast bars where they charge you by the pound. Figure at even hotel prices, $12 for breakfast, $15 for lunch, and that leaves you with $37 to buy a single meal for dinner. (The closest I’ve ever felt like a Rockefeller is going to a McDonald's with $37 in my pocket and asking if they’ve got something bigger than a super size.)
The city policy says the city won’t pay for alcohol as a city expense, but the per diem complicates that a little bit.
Bryan Kidney, the city’s finance director, told me employees would be able to purchase alcohol with their dinner, for example, and use the per diem money to pay for it. There are still policies in place that city employees are expected to not consume alcohol while conducting city business, but during those off hours of a convention, there’s no restriction in place on the per diem being used for a glass of wine or such.
“We’re not asking for receipts so what they spend that per diem on is kind of up to them,” Kidney said.
Kidney said he’s recommending the per diem policy, in part, because his staff spends quite a bit of time tracking down receipts and reviewing them. He said he hasn’t done a detailed analysis of whether the policy would save or cost the city money, but he also noted that there is not a large amount of overnight travel that the city does in a year. (The per diem would only be for overnight trips.) The city last year had 85 overnight travels, Kidney said.
Kidney said it appears most of the other large cities in Kansas already have gone to a per diem system, primarily because of the efficiencies it creates for the accounting staffs, plus it also creates more predictable expense for the city to budget for.
As for other details in the proposed policy, they include:
— The policy will apply to all city employees, city commissioners, and board members serving on city boards.
— The city plans to produce a public report detailing the amount of overnight travel that occurs by city employees each month. The report will be published on the Finance Department’s website each month and will include the name, the department, the destination, purpose of the travel and the cost per category of each city-paid trip.
“One of the things I was asked to do when I came on board here was to increase the transparency of some of our financial reporting, and this is an effort to do that,” Kidney said.
— The new policy would allow greater flexibility in lodging choices. It will allow employees to more routinely stay in a hotel other than the host hotel of a convention, and also would allow for the use of a short term rental, if that is more advantageous.
— The new policy makes it clear that the use of ride-sharing services, such as Uber, are an acceptable expense.
— The city would only pay for airline fees for coach travel and will pay an airline charge for only one bag. Additional charges for extra baggage, seat upgrades, priority seating and other such charges won’t be allowed, unless there is a legitimate business purpose for the expense.
— On lodging, the policy allows a companion to share a room with a city employee, but the companion will be required to pay the difference between a single rate and the double/family rate of the hotel.
— Prohibited expenses include: fees for attendance at political rallies; nonemployee travel expenses; entertainment costs; expenses for nonpublic purposes such as clothing, sporting events, laundry services and travel outside of meeting dates; and alcoholic beverages.
You may remember that some of those prohibited expenses became an issue with former mayor Farmer, who ended up reimbursing the city for $1,100 worth of personal expenses that were put on a city credit card. The use of the per diem system also is expected to reduce the use of city credit cards because city credit cards will be specifically prohibited from meal uses, according to the proposed policy.
In other news and notes:
• Since we brought his name up, I can tell you we are still keeping an eye out for any charges related to Jeremy Farmer and his alleged mismanagement at the Lawrence food bank Just Food. No charges have been filed yet. What to make of that is a little bit harder to determine.
I’ve certainly heard that the investigation into the matter would be handled by federal officials, since the allegations involve payroll taxes and other tax matters. At this point, I don’t think the absence of charges means much, other than the federal government doesn’t operate at lightning pace. I think it also is possible that federal officials may be waiting to see how Farmer files his 2015 tax returns. Depending on what income is claimed or not claimed on those returns could have implications on any future actions taken by investigators.
We’re also keeping our eyes open for any signs of a civil lawsuit filed against Farmer. Leaders with Just Food have acknowledged that could be a possibility. My understanding is the filing of a civil suit against Farmer could make Just Food eligible to get a rebate on penalties, fines and other such fees they may have had to pay to the IRS. At the moment, I don’t have word on whether such a suit is forthcoming.
• A quick update on a change along Massachusetts Street. Mobilosity, the wireless phone repair and accessory store at 815 Massachusetts St., has closed, according to a sign in the window. Based on the sign, it looks like the store is not relocating but rather is going out of business. The sign, however, indicated it was still honoring warranty claims on its work. People with warranty issues were directed to send an email to email@example.com. No word yet on whether a new tenant has been found for the prime Mass. Street spot.
The Kasold Curve — that stretch of road in southern Lawrence where Kasold turns into 31st Street — has produced plenty of arguments inside my Ford Taurus. They mainly have been related to how many g-forces my body can withstand as a passenger in the car. But get ready for a different type of argument. A debate is brewing about whether a portion of the Kasold Curve should be closed.
For those of you not familiar with the Kasold Curve, there is a small county road just to the south of the curve that connects with the busy South Lawrence Trafficway. As we’ve previously reported, the Kansas Department of Transportation is in the early stages of creating a design that would expand that portion of the trafficway from two lanes to four. KDOT has long said it would want to close that at-grade intersection at the Kasold Curve at that point. But for most motorists, that possibility was some far off event. The earliest that four-lane project could happen would be 2020.
But now, KDOT officials are proposing to close the intersection this year. Some residents and at least one business are gearing up to oppose the move. A new website called savethekasoldcurve.com has been created, and a petition that aims to persuade KDOT officials to change their minds is circulating.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the current intersection is dangerous,” said Rodger Henry, who lives south of Lawrence and is an organizer of the petition. “But they need to spend the money to fix the Kasold Curve intersection, not close it.”
Henry said closing the intersection will eliminate a key access point for hundreds of residents southwest of Lawrence. He said the Kasold intersection is a convenient way to get access to west Lawrence. Henry has been joined by Lawrence Landscape in creating the petition. Lawrence Landscape operates a tree farm just south of the Kasold and SLT intersection.
Henry said he thinks the closing of the Kasold intersection will cause some residents who live southwest of the city to begin taking the road that goes across the Clinton Lake Dam to access west Lawrence. He said the dam road isn’t built to handle that type of traffic.
In addition to the petition drive, the group is urging people to attend a meeting later this week. The city-county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Board is meeting at 3 p.m. Thursday at Lawrence City Hall to offer a recommendation on whether the Kasold/SLT intersection should be closed.
Officials from KDOT will be at the meeting to make the case. They are recommending that access to Kasold be closed later this year when the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway is open to traffic.
KDOT officials are predicting a large increase in traffic on the western leg of the SLT once the portion of the trafficway east of Iowa Street opens. Current projections are traffic at the Kasold intersection will increase to about 18,000 vehicles per day, up from about 11,000 vehicles currently. KDOT engineers are forecasting the number of accidents at the intersection will grow to about three crashes per year, up from a little more than one crash per year currently. They note that because of the high speeds on the trafficway, crashes at the intersection can be very serious.
KDOT engineers also are estimating it would cost about $1.6 million to improve the intersection with some acceleration and deceleration lanes, and other features. Those improvements would have to be removed when the SLT is expanded to four lanes.
KDOT officials also are reminding leaders that if the western leg of the SLT ultimately is expanded to four lanes, plans call for a new interchange a couple miles to the west of the current Kasold interchange. It would be in between the existing Kasold intersection and the existing at-grade Wakarusa Drive/YSI Sports complex intersection.
But as Henry notes, that interchange is years in the making, if it ever develops.
“You know it is going to be at least 10 years before any of that every comes to fruition,” Henry predicted.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I got word this morning that Biggs BBQ on Mass. is set to reopen later this week. Owner Doug Holiday told me he expects to open either Thursday or Friday of this week. The restaurant has been closed since March 3, when it and the adjacent Ladybird Diner were damaged by fire.
Holiday said the process to refurbish the restaurant has taken longer than he expected, and has been trying.
“It has been difficult trying to keep everything together,” Holiday said. “But the nice thing about it is we have a great new smoker. It will be a lot better environment for us to smoke in.”
The new smoker has meant a few tweaks to menus and cooking processes, and Holiday said he thinks patrons will notice the difference in a positive way. He said the restaurant has fine-tuned its processes for baby back ribs, brisket and burnt ends, and “we’ve create a few new recipes and jazzed up some to others.” Among the new ones Holiday said the restaurant is adding a vegetarian smoked portobello mushroom sandwich.
As for the interior of the restaurant, Holiday said he’s stuck with much of the same theme that existed before the fire. Holiday said the restaurant repairs were completed earlier, but he wanted to wait until students returned before he started hiring staff and preparing for the opening.
“We’re excited to reopen,” Holiday said. “There is a lot of relief to get the monkey off my back.”
Look for new homebuilding to begin near 23rd and O’Connell in eastern Lawrence; update on longtime W. Sixth St. retailer
Keep an eye on the intersection of 23rd and O’Connell in eastern Lawrence. There are signs that a new neighborhood may sprout in the area, which will create renewed hope that a grocery store or other retail development may come to the intersection, too.
There has been a flurry of real estate activity near the intersection ever since the city announced Menard Inc. has plans to build a production and distribution center in Lawrence VenturePark, which is right across the highway from the 23rd and O’Connell intersection.
A group led by Roger Johnson, who owns Lawrence-based R.D. Johnson Excavating, has bought 43 single family home lots just a bit south of the intersection. Johnson said he’s currently in discussions with local homebuilders to begin construction on a new affordable housing community.
“Honestly, I feel like it is our last place to build affordable homes in Lawrence right now,” Johnson said. “With Menards going, maybe we can build some homes where people can work there and afford to live in Lawrence. We would like to provide options for people to live in the community (where) they work.”
The property is generally south and east of the intersection of East 25th Terrace and O’Connell Road. It is a bit east of the actual intersection. The corner lot property is owned by Cornerstone Southern Baptist Church.
Johnson said he hasn’t yet finalized deals with builders for the project, but he hopes to have construction underway in the summer. He said the project would feature traditional single family homes — not duplexes — and they likely would have price points around $200,000.
We’ve had articles before about how the area is primed for development, and then it just hasn’t seemed to come. It does look like this housing project is a likelihood. Johnson’s excavating crews recently have completed building a street network for the homes.
New activity at nearby VenturePark also is likely creating some momentum in the area. In case you have forgotten, VenturePark is the approximately 220-acre site where Farmland Industries had its fertilizer plant, just north and east of 23rd and O’Connell. Menards, the home improvement retailer, received approval in January to build a production plant and distribution center that will employ about 150 people once it is operational.
Land transfers show a Johnson County developer that has built several affordable housing projects in Gardner and elsewhere also has bought significant amounts of property near the intersection. A company controlled by David and Suzanne Rhodes recently bought two large lots that could accommodate multifamily development near the northwest corner of East 25th Terrace and O’Connell Road. The group also bought a smaller lot that could accommodate several homes at the southwest corner of East 25th and O’Connell.
Those recent acquisitions are in addition to property the Rhodes group owns just northeast of the 27th and O’Connell intersection. As we previously have reported, Rhodes is trying to put together a deal to build 32 units of rent-controlled housing on that property.
I’m not sure what Rhodes has planned for the properties closer to 23rd and O’Connell, but I’ve got a call into him. Previously, there had been talk of building affordable apartments for seniors near that area. No word whether that is still a possibility.
Housing development in the area will be interesting to watch, but the question I get asked most often about that area is: When will a grocery store locate at the intersection? What I always hear from people in that business is that grocery store developers like to stand on a site, look around and see lots of rooftops. At the moment, you can see from that intersection lots of rooftops to the west, but it is still mainly green fields in all other directions. New housing development could help create momentum for new retail at the intersection, but is hard to predict what will be the tipping point for retailers to come to the area.
The intersection, though, is zoned and waiting. Tractor Supply located there several years ago, but no other retailers have followed. According the documents on file with the county, the southeast corner of 23rd and O’Connell has at least seven lots that are zoned and ready to accommodate commercial development.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Sometimes I have a hook. Sometimes I have a slice. The most consistent part of my golf game is I almost have a window repair bill waiting for me when I’m done. So, I keep an eye on window stores, and if you do too, you perhaps have noticed a longtime Lawrence one is going through some changes.
There is a "for sale" sign in front of the Pella window store along West Sixth Street. But, I checked in with store officials, and there’s no need to worry that the business is going out of business.
The store, which has been in Lawrence since 1987, recently has been bought by another Pella dealer — Pella Products of Kansas. The building, which is near Sixth and Fireside, is owned by the previous owner of the Pella store. He’s looking to sell the building. Steve Devore, an employee at the store, said the new Pella owner is exploring options for purchasing the building but also is looking at other locations in town.
“We’re going to stay in Lawrence either way, though,” Devore said.
If the store decides to move, look for some type of news on a new location in the next few weeks, Devore said.
Holiday shopping numbers show Lawrence did better than most but still lagging expectations; heading off an American Eagle Outfitters rumor
This is the time of year where you are thinking about Valentine’s Day shopping. (Don’t mind that sudden noise. It is just the sound of 20,000 male cellphones trying to call a flower shop all at once.) But at Lawrence City Hall, they’re still thinking about the Christmas shopping season. New sales tax numbers are in that show Lawrence shoppers were merrier than most but still may not have been merry enough.
State revenue officials have sent January sales tax checks to cities across the state. Those checks are for sales taxes that actually were collected mostly in November — or in other words, the start of the holiday shopping season. (And yes, it was allowable to start early for Valentine’s Day too, although it will be great fun perusing the candy aisle of your favorite convenience store on Sunday.)
The sales tax numbers from the state show that sales tax collections were up 0.8 percent in Lawrence during that early holiday shopping season. The good news is that those numbers are better than those posted by many of the state’s other retail centers. The concerning news, though, is the city is betting on sales tax growth far greater than 0.8 percent for 2016. To meet its budget, the city needs to see sales tax growth closer to 5 percent.
Here’s a look at some of the numbers and how Lawrence stacks up to other area communities:
— Lawrence: up 0.8 percent
— Kansas City: down 1 percent
— Sedgwick County: down 0.8 percent
— Johnson County: up 0.9 percent
— Salina: down 4.8 percent
— Manhattan: down 3.8 percent
— Lenexa: down 4.3 percent
— Topeka: down 0.7 percent
— Overland Park: up 1.3 percent
— Olathe: up 0.2 percent
— City of Shawnee: up 23.5 percent
With the exception of Shawnee — where consumers there must shop ahead for both Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day — Lawrence’s numbers stack up well.(UPDATE: I've figured out the Shawnee numbers. The state's report was incorrect in one regard. It did not note that Shawnee's sales tax rate increased as part of street improvement program. So, sales taxes collections have increased, but that's primarily because the rate has increased. The Journal-World's sister publication, The Shawnee Dispatch, had an article on that recently.)
But as I noted earlier, Lawrence will need to see better months than this one, if it hopes to meet its aggressive sales tax projections for 2016. City officials are projecting a 5 percent sales tax growth. The city finished 2015 with a 4.7 percent sales tax growth. The city more typically has counted on 3 percent sales tax growth to make its budgets.
But as city officials have previously noted, 2016 will be the first full year of sales tax collections with both Dick’s Sporting Goods and Menards in town. There is a hope that the addition of those two big box retailers will keep some retail dollars in town that otherwise have been leaving the community. That seems to be a good bet, but what is less certain is whether the overall economy will hold up and put shoppers in a spending mood.
Traditionally, a drop in gasoline prices has been a good thing for Lawrence retailers. It is tough to say whether that will be the case this year.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Part of my exciting lifestyle involves watching the Douglas County land transfers that show which pieces of property have recently changed hands. I know some of you also watch those because we’ve found ourselves in the same lonely corner at cocktail parties. The most recent listing from the county courthouse may have an entry that catches your eye: A group called American Eagle Properties Inc. has bought land in the Bauer Farm shopping center development near Sixth and Wakarusa.
There’s of course a national retail chain called American Eagle Outfitters, but as I told my wife when she was warming up the forklift to make more room in the closet, I don’t think this deal is a sign that American Eagle Outfitters is coming to town.
Instead, I did a little bit of searching, and found that American Eagle Properties appears to be more of a run-of-the-mill land holding company owned by a Colorado investor. According to media reports, it looks like the operator of American Eagle Properties used to own a Colorado-based beer distributorship that had American Eagle in its name.
As for what may go on the vacant property, I haven’t heard of any plans yet. It may be that the property just changed hands for investment purposes, but I’ll keep my eyes open for signs of any new projects.
If you have driven by the Bauer Farm property lately, you probably noticed there is a large amount of dirt work underway near the corner of Sixth and Folks Road. As we’ve previously reported, an apartment complex is going in near that location. I also have word that a credit union is building near the corner as well. I’m still gathering some information about that project, and I also hope to soon have a rendering to share of what the new apartment complex will look like.
Newest plans filed for Alvamar redevelopment seek zoning for office uses, add underground parking; look at latest renderings for clubhouse, apartments, cabanas at Alvamar
There’s a reason I write my golf score in pencil, and apparently it also is a good idea to have some flexibility when redesigning west Lawrence’s Alvamar Golf & Country Club. A local development group has filed plans tweaking its previous redevelopment proposal for the club.
The major item in the new plans filed with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department is a rezoning request that would allow for more office development near the golf course. The club’s new owner — a group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel — has filed to change the zoning of about 14 acres of property near Alvamar’s clubhouse area. The new rezoning would be an RMO district,which would allow for a mix of multifamily residential and office development.
Paul Werner, the Lawrence-based architect for the project, told me the rezoning request comes about because the development group has been fielding interest from potential office users.
“Over the last several months, we have heard from several interested parties who would be excited about locating their business office adjacent to all of the proposed facilities,” Werner told me via email. “It would seem to make great sense that a chiropractor, private wellness facility, wellness trainers, etc., would create a synergy with the other facilities and the golf course.”
It appears medical offices are certainly a prime target for the office development, although the zoning would allow for other types of offices too. Details about where the offices may be located on the property are a bit unclear at the moment, but they generally would be near the clubhouse area of the golf course, which is at 1809 Crossgate Drive.
But residents should not worry that the office development will take the place of the longtime private clubhouse. In previous plans filed for the development, there had been mention that the long range plan was for the clubhouse facility to be demolished. But Werner told me the ownership group has now decided against that. As we previously reported, renovation work is underway at the clubhouse. Werner said the current plan is for the clubhouse to reopen in the fall.
“The reality is, the structure is in good condition, but has been cobbled up over the years,” Werner said.
I’m working to get a few more details about new amenities or features that may be included in the clubhouse renovation.
The other significant changes to the project come on the residential side. The plans are now showing that one of the residential buildings planned for the project will be for an “independent living” facility. The plans show that building would be four stories tall and would have 96 living units, although planning department officials caution me that the plans are still fluid and that the developer has indicated the living unit total could decrease some. The building would be a bit north and west of the existing private clubhouse and would overlook the new pool and cabana area planned for the club. See below for a look at the entire site layout.
As you can see, there are several more residential buildings planned for the development. The plans still call for about 380 living units to be built around the course, with most of them planned for an area north of the existing private clubhouse. In addition to the independent living facility, the plans are listing four four-story residential buildings, a two-story building and what appears to be four smaller one-story buildings.
The total amount of living units planned for the development is consistent with what has been previously proposed, but a new twist is that the development group is now proposing underground parking garages for most of the residential buildings.
“Not only does it keep the impervious surface down, it also saves some space,” Werner said. “It is certainly better for the tenants, and visually more appealing than surface parking.”
One other item worth noting on the newly filed plans is they do not show the location for a proposed banquet facility and small hotel. Previous plans showed the facility along the eastern edge of the club complex. But the building is no longer showing up in the drawings, although there’s indications it is still planned. The notes on the development plan still talk about a banquet facility with a hotel that would have no more than 24 guest rooms. The notes also talk about how the banquet facility would be allowed to include a “nightclub” use, but it would be operated only in conjunction with the banquet/reception facility.
So, more details are to come on this project, which likely will be one of the larger ones in the city in the coming year. The specific designs will need to win approval from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission. A date hasn’t yet been set, but the Planning Commission could hear those as early as next month.
• The latest plans also give a bit of a look at the architectural style that is envisioned for the new buildings around the course. I don’t have detailed color renderings yet, but here’s a look at some basic elevations that have been submitted to the planning department for review.
After the unfortunate incident involving the seven-layer bean dip at last night’s Super Bowl party, some of us may find ourselves at least temporarily single. The good news is my attorney says bean dip kills all traces of DNA, and a new study says Lawrence is one of the best cities in America to be single.
The financial website SmartAsset has ranked Lawrence as the eighth best city in America for being single. The website looked at a variety of Census numbers to come to its conclusion. Specifically, Lawrence scored well in the areas of:
— Low unemployment at 2.9 percent.
— Low median monthly rent at $685. The study noted reasonable rent rates are important since single people often don’t have anyone to split their housing costs with.
— Number of bars per 100,000 people at 32.8.
— Number of entertainment establishments — which includes bars but also things like movie theaters and bowling alleys — per 100,000 people at 40.2.
— Low marriage rate of 35 percent. For the purposes of this study, a lower marriage rate is better than a higher one because as the study’s author’s noted, “most single people agree with this: married people can be pretty boring.”
Make what you will of the ranking. Those are subjective things, and being the eighth best community for singles probably won’t make us a boom town, but also probably won’t hurt either. What I generally find more interesting about these rankings is that they provide us a chance to look at some data and see how we compare with other communities.
In the case of this study, SmartAsset looked at 582 cities from across the country, but the report shared the data only for the top 25 ranked communities. Here’s a look at some things I’ve culled from it:
— All the cities had low unemployment rates, but Lawrence’s was particularly low. At 2.9 percent, Lawrence had the fourth lowest unemployment rate among the top 25. Only Fargo, N.D., Sioux Falls, S.D. and Iowa City had lower unemployment rates.
— Rent prices vary a lot from community to community, but Lawrence’s are a bit on the high side. Of the top 25 communities, the median rent price was $621 per month. In Lawrence, it was $685. Some average rents topped $900 per month. The one community that stood out to me was Iowa City, which is where Lawrence’s new city manager comes from. (If you didn’t read J-W reporter Nikki Wentling’s excellent piece on Iowa City and our incoming manager, you should do so here.) Iowa City’s median monthly rent is $819, according to the study. That is a big number, but sometimes rents are high in places where incomes are high. But that doesn’t appear to be the case in Iowa City. The median income in Iowa City is actually less than Lawrence’s — $46,929 for Lawrence compared to $42,119. It does look like housing affordability is an issue that incoming City Manager Tom Markus deals with in Iowa City. According to the Census Bureau, about 57 percent of all renters in Iowa City pay more than 35 percent of their income for housing costs. That compares to 47 percent who find themselves in that situation in Lawrence.
— As a college community, we think we have a lot of bars, but we’re really not that much out of the ordinary. Out of the top 25 communities, we ranked No. 12 in terms of the number of bars per capita. We have 32.8 bars per 100,000 people. The top community in that category was Oshkosh, Wisc., at 58.8 per 100,000. The lowest was Kalamazoo, Mich., at 12.5.
But enough with all these numbers. I’m sure all you single folks are waiting to find out where you need to pack your bags for. The best city for single people, according to SmartAsset, is Missoula, Mont., which makes sense. Once you fill up your apartment with all the necessary moose decor, there isn’t much room for another occupant. You can see the full list of the top 25 below.
The folks that have brought you the popular downtown business The Bourgeois Pig have a new venture, but, no, it doesn’t involve another coffee shop, or a Marxist farm animal. The husband and wife duo, though, have started a new coffee roasting business in East Lawrence.
Although some of you may have been hoping for a sister coffee shop for The Bourgeois Pig — perhaps The Proletariat Porcupine — owners Ryan and Amy Pope have gone in a different direction for their new venture. The company has rented production space at 900 New Jersey St. — the former Kansas Key Press building —and recently opened Repetition Coffee.
Repetition roasts about 15 varieties of coffee and currently sells the coffee at The Pig, which the couple continues to own, at The Merc, at Lawrence’s Alchemy Coffee, and a few other locations around Lawrence. But Ryan Pope said Repetition is planning to soon expand into the Kansas City market.
“We’re not sure how large the business will become,” Ryan said. “We want to make sure it doesn’t become so big that we can’t control it.”
But Ryan said the Kansas City market is a lucrative one, and he’s finalizing deals with several well-known coffee sellers in the metro.
The idea for Repetition came after Ryan and Amy moved to Paris in 2011. While Amy attended grad school, Ryan began working in the specialty coffee scene in Paris, including at the trendsetting La Cafeotheque, which I think is French for “Honey, I spent the rent money on coffee.” (My French may be rusty.)
“We really got into coffee while we were there because we really worked with some pros,” Ryan said.
Repetition has coffee varieties from Burundi, Mexico, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Guatemala, and elsewhere. Currently, the business is doing a lot of work with Brazilian coffee beans after Ryan and Amy took a recent trip to Brazil and made connections with a fine-coffee growing family. Ryan said working closely with farms is a big part of the company’s strategy.
“We really like to focus on micro lots, which is like the top coffee from farms around the world,” Ryan said. “We’re roasting and selling specialty coffee. We’re more on the higher end of things.”
Although the pair doesn’t have any plans to use its new space at 900 New Jersey for a coffee shop, it is hosting an event for the public to come see the operations and to shop. From 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Feb. 11, the company will host an event it calls Treat. It will be a pre-Valentine’s Day “sip and shop” event where folks can sample coffee and buy items from about a dozen food, drink and art vendors that will be on site.
As for The Bourgeois Pig, 6 E. Ninth St., Ryan said the new venture isn’t resulting in changes to that popular downtown destination.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Keep your eyes open for possible changes at Hancock Fabrics at 27th and Iowa streets. The national fabric and craft retailer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this week and has plans to close at least 70 stores.
But thus far, the Lawrence store is not on the list of those to be closed, according to an employee at the local store, which was open this morning. Media reports, however, suggest the entire company is at risk. The Mississippi-based retailer has about 250 stores, and its bankruptcy filing company officials said they were open to selling the entire chain of stores.
According to this Bloomberg article, the company is taking bids for its stores through early March. The article also notes that a liquidation company is serving as a backup bidder, which suggests the company may close stores and sell their inventory if a buyer for the chain doesn’t emerge.
Hancock filed for bankruptcy protection in 2007, but emerged a year later, according to the Bloomberg article. The company, though, has faced increased competition from larger chains such as Wal-Mart and Michaels, and also has struggled as the demand for fabric and sewing supplies have decreased.
When you cover city government for more than 20 years, you pick up some odd pet peeves along the way. One of mine is when people start talking about how the city’s downtown parking system doesn’t generate enough revenue to even pay for the cost of enforcing the parking system. Not true, but the thought comes up every so often, and it did again at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting.
More importantly, the idea that the city is operating a losing proposition when it comes to downtown parking came up as part of a discussion about whether the city ought to raise parking fines in downtown. I don’t have any opinion on whether the city should raise parking fines in downtown Lawrence. You can certainly make the argument the fines are low compared with some other communities. You can also argue that shoppers find the idea of paying for parking annoying.
But if commissioners raise the parking fine — current talk would raise the overtime parking fine by $1 to $2, resulting in fees of $4 to $5 — it shouldn’t be because people think the parking system doesn’t pay for itself. Some folks who watched Tuesday’s City Commission may have been left with that impression. (They also may be left wondering why they can’t find other things to do on a Tuesday night.) Commissioner Matthew Herbert has raised the idea of increasing parking fines in downtown, in part, to help pay for his idea of allowing people to pay their fines in canned food instead of money, if they so choose. The food would go to the food bank Just Food.
As he was making his case for the program, he said that the city’s fine system doesn’t even cover the cost of enforcing the program. I chatted with Herbert recently, and he acknowledged he needed to word that statement a little more carefully. Rest assured, the city is not paying parking meter attendants more in wages than they collect in fines or meter revenue. In fact, it is not even close. Here’s a look at some of the numbers from 2014:
— The city collected $1.28 million in fines and fees from the city’s downtown parking system.
— The city paid the parking meter attendants — the folks who write the tickets — $317,525 in wages and benefits. They also paid municipal court clerks — the folks who process the tickets — $167,217. The city also paid a public works employee — a person who does maintenance on the garages, meters and such — $67,689 in wages and benefits. The city also spent about another $293,000 on supplies, fuel, vehicle costs and other such operational expenses. Even though it is awful cold to take off my boots, I added all those numbers up anyway. Total expenses were a little more than $845,000. Or, in other words, the city had about $435,000 more in revenue than it had in expenses related to operating the parking system.
But Herbert did have a point when he made his statement about expenses and revenues being out of line. The city’s Public Parking System Fund did operate at a deficit in 2014. Expenses exceeded revenues by about $56,000. Don’t worry, though. The fund had about a $275,000 saving account that it had built up over the years that was used to cover the shortfall.
At this point, you may be confused how the fund could be operating at a deficit when I just told you the city essentially made a $435,000 profit on its parking operations. The answer is because the city uses the parking fund to pay for things that aren’t related to parking. In 2014, the biggest nonparking expenditures were:
— $316,982 to fund three police officer positions. To be clear, they aren’t part of any Special Parking Unit. (Although SPU Lawrence now will become a new addition to the NBC television lineup.)
— $181,796 to fund parks and recreation employees who do planting and other landscape work in the downtown area.
The fact that the parking fund has sometimes operated at a deficit is what creates the confusion that the parking system somehow doesn’t pay for itself. That has never been the case. Sometimes the parking system doesn’t make enough money to pay for everything else the city wants to fund.
Regardless, Herbert is proposing a fine increase to help cover that deficit and to help cover an expected loss in revenue, if the city starts accepting canned food in lieu of cash payments of fines. It is a little hard to predict how many people will choose to pay their fines in canned food, but Herbert said the city should probably budget for a loss of $50,000 in fine revenue. Add that $50,000 to the $56,000 deficit that existed in 2014, and you have about a $100,000 hole that needs to be filled.
One point worth noting here is that the city’s parking fund ran a deficit in 2014, but it is budgeted to run a surplus of about $15,000 to $40,000 in 2016. That’s because the City Commission as part of the 2016 budget process removed the parks and recreation landscaping positions from the fund. They were moved to a different part of the city budget.
One other point that I should mention is there is a caveat to all these numbers from the city. None of the numbers in the city’s parking fund account for the debt payments that have to be made on the city-owned parking garages that have been built downtown. The city could use parking fines and fees to pay at least some of the debt payments — remember, there is about $400,000 left over after you pay the basic operating expenses of the parking system — but the city chooses to make the debt payments with general tax dollars.
Whether these numbers mean the city should or should not raise its parking fines, I don’t know. But city officials should be clear about why they are raising the fine, and it is not because the system operates at a loss. I also don’t know whether the city should start accepting can goods in lieu of parking fines. It certainly could increase the amount of food that gets to the needy, although it likely will create questions about why the city is choosing that cause over another. Some folks would like to use parking fines to fund affordable housing, for example.
On the issue of paying parking fines with canned food, I mainly just have one question, and it is more of a personal one: What happens when my wife gets a triple coupon on Always Save green beans? I can tell you what will happen: Stay off the sidewalks, because she is going to park anywhere she pleases.
Signs that Wal-Mart may get into the gas station, convenience store business in Lawrence; the great beer discrepancy at City Hall
I could say that the price of gasoline in Lawrence sparks a little bit of discussion, but that would be like me saying someone in my household likes butter. (We bring our own to communion.) No, gasoline prices in Lawrence get a lot of discussion, and mainly about how they are several cents higher than in nearby Topeka. With that in mind, I’ll be interested to watch whether Lawrence gets a major new player in the gasoline/convenience store business: Wal-Mart.
An official for Wal-Mart has filed paperwork at City Hall inquiring whether Lawrence’s two Wal-Mart stores are appropriately zoned for a gasoline station and convenience store to be built in the parking lots of the stores. Now, don’t take any of this to the bank quite yet. Wal-Mart hasn’t filed a plan to build any convenience stores in Lawrence. Rather, the company has filed for a zoning certification, which is a document where the city’s planning department tells a property owner what the current zoning of a site would allow. Many times, a zoning certification is a good sign that a company is at least considering a project for the property. Whether that consideration will turn into a project, I don’t know.
Wal-Mart does have a pretty easy path to build a convenience store at one of their two stores in town. City officials confirmed to Wal-Mart that the store on south Iowa Street has the appropriate zoning in place for a convenience store. All Wal-Mart would need to do is file a site plan for the store, which wouldn’t even require a City Commission vote. Since that store’s parking lot is approximately the size of Rhode Island, the company probably wouldn’t have any problems fitting a store onto the property.
Building a gas station/convenience store at the Wal-Mart in northwest Lawrence would be more complicated. City officials have notified Wal-Mart that the store near Sixth and Wakarusa is not zoned to allow for a gas station or convenience store. If Wal-Mart wanted to proceed with such a project, the entire site would need to be rezoned.
A rezoning likely wouldn’t be difficult because that corner has never created any disagreements in the community before. Oh, wait, there was that time in the early 2000s when attorneys made enough money to buy a small island country by litigating whether Wal-Mart should be allowed to build on the site. In case you have forgotten, the City Commission at the time opposed the construction of the store, but then settled a lawsuit out of court after Wal-Mart agreed to build a smaller store than originally planned.
Part of that settlement included a restriction of some uses at the property. A convenience store and gas station is one use that was restricted. Another use is that the property can’t be used to sell take-out beer.
And that brings me to the second part of this column ... the great beer discrepancy at City Hall.
I was reminded Friday night that the west Lawrence Wal-Mart does not sell beer. When my wife and I are looking to do something exotic on a Friday night, we get crazy and decide to shop at the west Wal-Mart instead of our more normal trip to the south Wal-Mart.
As I remember the discussion back in the 2000s, there was concern that the property was so close to Free State high school that beer sales would be a bad idea. But since that time, a Sprouts grocery store has been built even closer to Free State high school. I checked recently, and indeed, Sprouts sells beer. (Some of it wasn’t even organic.)
How does that work? One grocery store gets to sell beer, while the other one doesn’t. I don’t think Wal-Mart has officially asked to have the no-beer restriction removed, but it would be interesting to see how the city responded if it did. It was a previous City Commission that allowed Sprouts to sell beer there. It is hard to tell whether this City Commission would have taken the same action.
If Wal-Mart is serious about building a convenience store there, we likely will find out. A convenience store without beer would be like a Sunday without butter.
• A quick housekeeping note: Town Talk will be off for the next couple of days. I plan to return later this week.
Center for startup companies, artists undergoing expansion; Johnson County group seeks to build rent-controlled housing project in eastern Lawrence
A lawn mower, boxes of old records and spare parts for a chocolate fountain are stopping me from becoming a tech mogul. You understand that all the great tech companies were started in a garage somewhere, and I just don’t have the room to do it. Well, I may have to scratch that excuse off the list because a Lawrence organization that provides space to startup companies is expanding.
Officials at the nonprofit Lawrence Creates Makerspace are expanding the organization’s East Lawrence facility at 512 E. Ninth St. Plans call for adding 13 new office/studio spaces that entrepreneurs or artists can rent by the month. The nonprofit plans to spend more than $40,000 to add about 2,000 square feet of loft space to the building, plus to renovate another 1,000 square feet of space that isn’t being heavily used.
If you aren’t familiar with the idea of a makerspace, it is a facility that houses specialized equipment often used by inventors and other creative types. The Lawrence space has everything from a well-stocked woodworking shop to a 3-D printer to a new laser cutter that is being installed this March.
But the current configuration of the makerspace is largely open and shared space. Sarah Wallace, chair of the organization’s board, said the group has received a lot of requests for office space that is private and could be locked up at the end of the workday.
“The way we work now is that everybody is kind of on top of everybody else,” said Wallace, who uses the makerspace to run her herbal personal care products business Front Porch Culture. “That arrangement is great for some people, but it can be frustrating if you have a lot of equipment to disassemble.”
Wallace said the expansion also was needed to give Lawrence Creates a financial boost. The organization only charges $20 a month for people to have access to the makerspace, which is open 24 hours a day. That system has made it tough for the group to meet its monthly overhead costs. The new office space will be rented at a higher rate — likely between $150 to $300 a month, depending on the size of the space — which will put the organization on more solid footing.
“We’re going to keep the basic membership low, though, because it is important for this to be accessible for everyone,” Wallace said.
Lawrence Creates needs to raise about $42,000 to pay for the project, but work will begin soon because the group already has arranged for financing. The building’s owners, a group led by members of the longtime Lawrence Hill family, has agreed to finance the improvements. Lawrence Creates, though, will be doing several fundraising events in the coming months to pay off the debt. The first one is at 5:30 tonight at the makerspace facility at 512 E. Ninth. There will be music, catered food and a variety of merchandise for sale.
The expansion of Lawrence Creates Makerspace is just the latest sign of trend underway toward providing more resources to startup businesses in Lawrence. There are several other facilities in town that are catering to the startup crowd.
As we’ve previously reported, the folks who own Wicked Broadband operate the Lawrence Center for Entrepreneurship near Ninth and Iowa, East Lawrence’s Warehouse Arts District has startup office space on the upper floor of The Cider Gallery, and the Lawrence chamber of commerce is leading a partnership called Biz Fuel that provides workshops and other training to startups. All that is in addition to the longtime efforts of the KU Small Business Development Center that is co-located with the chamber.
Lawrence has long talked about becoming a magnet for startup companies, but the last few years have seen the talk turn into several new initiatives.
In other news and notes from around town:
• New efforts are underway to create an affordable housing project along O’Connell Road in eastern Lawrence.
A Johnson County development group plans to file for low-income housing tax credits from the state to build 32 units of rent-controlled housing on vacant property just west of O’Connell Road. The group, Wheatland Investments, is asking Lawrence city commissioners to approve a resolution of support at their Tuesday evening meeting.
The project is proposed for 1356 East 1600 Road, which is right near the intersection of East 26th Street Terrace and O’Connell Road. Plans call for 12 two-bedroom homes, 20 three-bedroom homes, an outdoor playground and other such amenities. Residents would need to make no more than 50 to 60 percent of the median income of Douglas County households in order to qualify to live in the development.
Tuesday’s action would be the first of several needed at City Hall before the project could move forward. The resolution of support that is being sought from the City Commission simply says that the commission doesn’t object to the development group seeking tax credits for the project. But the project still would have to win all the standard development approvals from the Planning Commission and the City Commission.
But first, the project needs to win tax credits from the state. Those tax credits are expected to be a key part of the financing of the new project.
If this project sounds somewhat familiar, you may be thinking of a previous proposal by Wheatland Investments. Back in 2014 we reported that Wheatland was working on a plan to build 90 units of senior, rent-controlled housing on the northwest corner of 25th Terrace and O’Connell Road. That project also applied for state housing credits. The development, though, never got off the ground.
This latest project would be farther to the south on O’Connell Road, and wouldn’t be focused on retirees. Instead, it would have more of a focus on working families, it seems.
The development group has a concept plan for the project that shows the 32 apartments would be housed in eight buildings that would each house four living units that would be spread out over two floors. The group also has draft elevations of what the homes would look like.
Commissioners will meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall to discuss the request.
Lawrence home sales have bounce-back year in 2015; local job growth highest of any metro in Kansas; unemployment ends year at 3 percent
We’re still in that beginning-of-a-new-year period, which means there are certain things that have to be done: Break a resolution, break a treadmill, break an elastic waistband. And if you are a reporter, add one more to the list: Report on recently released year-end numbers. I have two quick ones to share with you today: 2015 numbers for home sales and jobs in Lawrence.
First, the real estate market . . . It was a bounce-back year for home sales in Lawrence. Home sales increased by 11.5 percent in 2015, according to a new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors. It was uncertain how the market would perform in 2015 because in 2014 home sales had become stagnant. Lawrence posted only a 0.1 percent gain in 2014.
Worth noting is that Lawrence’s real estate market outperformed the national real estate market, which saw sales of homes grow by 7 percent, according to the National Association of Realtors. Lawrence also slightly outperformed the Kansas City real estate market. The KC metro area saw home sales increase by 10.7 percent, according to the Kansas City Regional Association of Realtors.
But there are questions about whether the market will continue along at this pace in 2016. Local real estate agents are expressing concern about the diminishing number of homes that are on the market. In December, the number of homes on the market fell to 240. That’s down from 281 at the same time period in 2014 and from 303 in December 2013. Real estate agents have expressed concern that reduced inventories will ultimately reduce sales. Sales in December did fall a modest 2.6 percent compared with December 2014.
Here’s a look at some other numbers from the new report:
— The median selling price of Lawrence homes in 2015 was $169,000, up 1.2 percent from 2014, but down from $170,000 in 2013. Home prices in Lawrence are acting much differently from what has happened in the Kansas City market. The median selling price in the metro increased by 6.7 percent, to $169,900, according to numbers released by the KC Board of Realtors.
— The number of newly constructed homes that sold in 2015 was 81. That was an increase of 6.6 percent from 2014 numbers, but there are signs that market still hasn’t really hit its stride. The 81 homes sales still represented a decline from 2013 numbers when 94 new homes were sold. The new construction market in Lawrence is much different from what builders are seeing in the Kansas City area. In the metro, sales of newly constructed homes grew by 15.2 percent.
— In case you are wondering, the median selling price for a newly constructed home in Lawrence is $306,500. In the Kansas City metro area, it is $331,470.
— The median number of days a home sits on the market before it sells was 25 in 2015. That’s down from 34 in 2014 and 42 in 2013. That’s also an area where Lawrence’s home market is different from Kansas City’s. In the metro, the average number of days on market is 74. The low number of days on market might be another sign of Lawrence’s declining housing inventory. Buyers can’t afford to wait long if they want to close the deal.
• On the jobs front . . . Lawrence finished 2015 on a high note. According to new numbers from the state, Lawrence had the highest job growth rate of any metro area in Kansas in December.
Lawrence had 800 more jobs at the end of December 2015 than it did at the end of December 2014, according to the Kansas Department of Labor. That was good for a 1.5 percent growth rate. Wichita posted a 1.1 percent growth rate during the same time period, while Topeka was a 0.4 percent and Kansas City basically was unchanged. The state report doesn’t break out the numbers for Manhattan. A federal report due out later this month, however, does. For much of the year, Manhattan has been leading the state in job growth, but Lawrence has been closely behind.
Job numbers are tricky to report because they are fluid. The job picture in Lawrence in July looks quite a bit different from the job picture in November. But Lawrence generally has been posting positive monthly numbers in 2015, which had not been the case a couple of years ago.
The state numbers don’t provide specifics on what type of jobs are being added in Lawrence, but they do provide that data for the state as a whole. Here’s a look:
— Mining and logging: down 1,000 jobs
— Construction: up 4,500 jobs
— Manufacturing: up 400 jobs
— Trade, transportation and utilities: up 1,500 jobs
— Information: up 300 jobs
— Financial activities: up 150 jobs
— Professional and business services: down 1,600 jobs
— Education and health services: up 3,300 jobs
— Leisure and hospitality: up 1,000 jobs
— Government: down 2,500 jobs
Douglas County finished the year with an unemployment rate of 3 percent compared with 2.9 percent in Johnson County and 3.6 percent in Shawnee County. Here’s a look at unemployment rates for the entire state:
Keeping fraternity secrets can be quite a burden, I’m told. I wonder if Kansas University leaders are feeling that burden these days, because KU currently is in the fraternity secret business.
As we’ve previously reported, two KU fraternities — Delta Tau Delta and Phi Beta Sigma — have been placed on probation for violation of the university’s hazing policy. When a reporter learns of something like that, there’s a pretty logical next question to ask: What did they do? So, we asked it, and then KU officials responded by providing us documents that were most useful in illustrating the power of a black marker.
The documents were heavily redacted. They provided no meaningful information about what conduct was deemed to be in violation of the university’s student code. We have no idea whether the hazing activity involved required new members to do extra cleaning duties or whether they were of a more serious nature such as “paddle swats,” events involving “total or partial nudity,” or “required acts that may be considered sexual in nature.” All those are listed as possible hazing offenses. KU asked about each one, but shared none of the answers.
KU officials have refused to release the information because they contend it would violate the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, as well as the Kansas Open Records Act. One point to be clear about here is that the Journal-World has never asked for documents revealing the names or identity of individual fraternity members who participated or were victims of hazing. We’ve acknowledged all along that the release of that information is unnecessary. That’s why I found it particularly odd when one of the university’s reasons for denying our request for information was because it would constitute “a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy.” KU is concerned about protecting the privacy of an anonymous person? Where does that line of logic end?
But, I’m no lawyer. The closest I come is I occasionally impersonate Matlock, but that primarily is a coincidence in wardrobe. So, I won’t spend a lot of time debating the law or even criticizing KU. I’m more interested in criticizing the outcome because it is troubling on a number of fronts. Let’s look:
• Crime and punishment: We did not seek this information because we’re curious. We sought information about these hazing incidents because the job that readers pay us to do is to be a watchdog. Every organization — whether it be a court of law or an agency of university governance — benefits from having an outside set of eyes that holds it accountable. In America, it is important that the public has confidence that the punishment fits the crime. If the public receives no details about the crime, it is impossible to know whether the punishment fits. Granted, this isn’t a court of law and hazing isn’t necessarily a crime — although some of the actions KU asked about conceivably could be. But KU is a public institution, which means it is the public’s responsibility to hold it accountable. If the public doesn’t, no one will. In this case, the issue goes beyond whether individuals were treated fairly. One of the fraternities, Phi Beta Sigma, is a small African-American fraternity. The other fraternity, Delta Tau Delta, is not. Did KU hold the African-American fraternity to the same standards as it did the other fraternity? I have no information that it didn’t, but of course, I don’t have very much information. I could just trust KU treated both groups fairly. I also could just trust all government entities, throw away my pencil and notepad and call it a career.
• Fairness to fraternity members: You can argue that KU is doing no favors to the members of these fraternities. Remember, the issue has never been about releasing the names of these members to the public. But certainly there are people on campus who know the identity of some of these members. There are times these members self-identify themselves. KU has now publicly announced that these two fraternities conducted hazing. That means some members did things they shouldn’t have, and some members or pledges had things done to them that shouldn’t have been done. KU has now provided a list of the range of activities that may have happened. Some of them are potentially very harmful: paddling, forced nudity, sexual acts. By not providing any information about what actually occurred — again, with no names attached — KU has left it open to the imagination. I tell sources frequently that if they choose to create a vacuum of information, it will be filled by the public. I’m not saying that is fair, but it is human nature.
• Fairness to students and parents: Imagine if you are a student who is contemplating joining one of these fraternities. Would you like to know what hazing activity took place? Imagine you are a parent of a student who is contemplating joining one of these fraternities. Would you like to know the hazing activities that took place? There’s also the issue of information that parents of current members are entitled to know. KU has told us that parents of current members have no more access to KU’s findings than the general public does. Sure, parents could ask their sons what happened. It should be noted, however, that the parenting strategy of “ask and you shall receive” has been shown to have inconsistent results.
I wonder whether KU leaders think this outcome is right. Does the university believe that the public, future students, parents of future students should have access to this information? It seems that KU’s answer to that question would say a lot about how the university views its partnership with those key groups.
I’ve chatted with some university officials involved in this matter, and I don’t have a clear sense of where they stand on this. I think they do feel hamstrung by the law, and I can understand how organizations like KU use an abundance of caution when complying with the law.
But that shouldn’t ever stop the university from speaking out when it thinks a law does not serve the university or its constituents well. Here’s hoping the university directs its lobbying team to seek changes to the law to make it clear that a public university has the right to release information about why it sanctions student organizations.
It is information the public deserves to know.
— Chad Lawhorn is the managing editor of the Journal-World. You can read his Town Talk columns each weekday at LJWorld.com
City sets record with $227 million of construction in 2015; apartment construction continues to lead the way in city growth
The new number to shoot for in the Lawrence construction industry is $227 million. No, contractors, the Lawhorn household has not decided to start construction on the much-discussed third wing of the shoe closet. Instead, $227 million is the record-breaking amount of new construction that took place in Lawrence in 2015.
We already had reported that Lawrence had set a new record for building activity in 2015, but we didn’t know the final number until the city closed the books on the year. Well, that’s now been done, and the latest report from City Hall shows the city issued building permits for $227.89 million worth of construction.
That’s more than double the $99.7 million worth of projects that were started in 2014. The 2015 totals broke the previous building permit record that was set in 2013 when permits for $171.9 million worth of construction were issued. Here’s a look at building totals since the 2008-2009 recession:
— 2015: $227.8 million
— 2014: $99.7 million
— 2013: $171.9 million
— 2012: $100.6 million
— 2011: $115.7 million
— 2010: $101.8 million
— 2009: $75.3 million
The actual amount of construction occurring in the city in 2015 was quite a bit higher than what was recorded by the city. The bulk of the public school construction projects were exempted from the city’s building permit process, so they don’t show up in these totals. As has long been the case, construction projects on the KU campus also don’t show up in the totals.
The city had a mix of projects that led to the record total. In all, there were 19 projects valued at $1 million or more. Here’s a look:
— $45 million: Here @ Kansas apartment and retail building near KU’s campus
— $18.75 million: Apartment/office building at Ninth and New Hampshire
— $13.3 million: Wakarusa River sewage treatment plant
— $12.5 million: Americare assisted living complex at Peterson and Monterey Way
— $12 million: Pioneer Ridge independent living near Wakarusa and Harvard
— $7.5 million: Pump station near 31st and Louisiana for Wakarusa sewage treatment plant
— $6.2 million: Hutton Farms West residential development near Kasold and Peterson
— $3.8 million: Fourth-floor renovation of Lawrence Memorial Hospital
— $3.5 million: Deerfield Elementary School renovation and addition
— $2.7 million: single-family home at 116 N. Wilderness Way
— $2.6 million: Phi Delta Theta renovation
— $2.3 million: Schwegler Elementary School renovation and addition
— $2 million: Phi Gamma Delta addition
— $1.9 million: Kansas River sewage treatment plant addition
— $1.5 million: renovation work for Iowa EPS Foam industrial building near 31st and Haskell
— $1.5 million: Raising Cane’s restaurant near 25th and Iowa streets
— $1.4 million: renovation of the former Holiday Inn, which is becoming a Double Tree hotel.
— $1 million: Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training center renovation near 31st and Haskell
— $1 million: single-family home at 3642 Brush Court
The list is kind of interesting in that it provides a snapshot of what is driving the construction industry. It shows that Lawrence, at the moment, is heavy on residential projects and light on industrial, retail or office projects. A quick total of those 19 big-dollar projects shows about $103 million were projects related to residential projects — everything from fraternity houses to retirement communities.
The numbers also show that a dramatic change in how Lawrence lives continues unabated. Once again, Lawrence builders constructed more apartments than than they did single-family homes or duplexes. In 2015, it wasn’t even a close contest. The city issued permits for 467 new apartment units, while issuing permits for 239 single-family or duplex homes.
The last time the city built more single-family/duplexes than it did apartments was in 2006. Since that year, the city has seen apartment construction outpace single-family home construction by nearly a 2 to 1 pace. Since 2006, the city has added 2,703 apartment units and 1,377 single-family/duplex units.
Lawrence is not alone in experiencing this trend. A move toward apartment living is being seen in many communities. It is not clear when the trend may reverse. For what it is worth, 2015 was the best year for single-family home construction in a number of years in Lawrence. The 239 single-family and duplex permits were the most issued by the city since 2006.
As I’ve noted before, the apartment boom that is occurring today likely will have long-lasting implications for the community. Most prominently, what is going to happen to all the old apartment complexes that clearly are losing tenants to the new apartment complexes? How will those old apartment complexes redevelop?
I ask that question because population numbers raise questions about whether Lawrence is building apartments and single-family homes at a rate faster than the city’s population is growing. From 2006 to 2014, Lawrence’s population increased by only about 0.5 percent per year. According to the Census Bureau’s annual estimates, Lawrence added a total of 4,158 people from 2006 to 2014.
During that same time period, the city added 4,080 new single-family, duplex and multifamily living units. The city added almost one unit for every new man, woman and child who moved to the city. (Yes, some living units got demolished in that time period, but I’m not sure the number is enough to be very significant to the totals. It also is worth noting that the Census and the city sometimes disagree on how many people live here.) The average household size in Lawrence, according to Census data, is 2.28 people per household. Those numbers would suggest that Lawrence needed to add fewer than 1,900 housing units since 2006 to keep up with population demand, rather than the approximately 4,000 living units that were built.
You might be asking yourself why apartment builders would construct new units at a rate higher than population growth. The simple answer is that new apartment complexes don’t need new population growth to be successful. They just need residents who are willing to move from an old apartment unit into a new one.
Whether the city is building the “right amount” of apartment units is beyond me. What I find interesting about it, though, is how differently City Hall treats apartment construction than it does retail construction.
Market forces are in play in both instances. As we recently saw with the denial of a proposed shopping center at the SLT and Iowa Street interchange, the city spends much time worrying about whether the Lawrence market can absorb new retail space. Has the city spent much time worrying about whether the Lawrence market can absorb new apartments?
One of the primary reasons government cares about not allowing a market to become overbuilt is because it can create blight in existing areas of town: A new shopping center takes business away from an existing shopping center, and the existing shopping center becomes rundown. Is that an issue the city should be worried about with new versus old apartment complexes? Drive around town and note what you see more of: blighted shopping centers or blighted apartments.
It appears the city is allowing the market to have a much greater say in apartment development in Lawrence than it is allowing the market to have in retail development. I really don’t know what the right approach is for either retail or apartment development. But it is interesting how the two are treated differently.
It creates a couple of questions: What will happen to all these old apartment complexes in Lawrence? And, will this new City Commission start clamping down on new apartment construction?