Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
Free State Festival seeking sizable increase in city funding to keep event alive in 2016; city set to approve host of street parties, rides, parades
You never know what type of lesson you will learn by attending a Lawrence City Commission meeting on a Tuesday evening. This Tuesday, the lesson may very well be this: Funk doesn’t grow on trees. It takes money to do the funk.
All this talk of funk has to do with the Free State Festival, the growing music, film and cultural event that was headlined by George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic this summer. Well, work is underway to plan the 2016 festival, and while George Clinton likely won’t be on the schedule, you can bet the event will be funky nonetheless. But organizers of the event are now saying Lawrence City Hall needs to significantly increase the funding it provides to the festival.
At its Tuesday evening meeting, the commission will be asked to approve $100,000 in funding for the festival, which is up from $60,000 this year and $20,000 in 2014. As I said, funk doesn’t grow on trees.
One other thing about funk: It keeps a tight calendar. The Lawrence Arts Center — the lead organizer for the festival — is drawing a hard line on the need for more city funding. Art Center CEO Susan Tate wrote in an Aug. 10 letter that she needs a decision by Sept. 15 — that’s tomorrow — on funding for the festival, or else the festival will be canceled in 2016. She wrote that if the funding issue is delayed past that date, it becomes too difficult to plan the festival.
It will be an interesting issue to watch. The festival is asking for $100,000 in transient guest tax funds. As part of its 2016 budget, the city has created a grant process for events to seek transient guest tax dollars. The entire grant program has a budget of $150,000, and it hasn’t yet begun to accept applications. I’m not sure whether it is being proposed that the $100,000 for the festival come out of the new grant fund or if the city would just find $100,000 in transient guest tax dollars elsewhere. I doubt the Arts Center cares how the city comes up with the money. But commissioners will need to figure out whether they are going to award money from the grant program before it has even begun, or whether they are going to exceed the 2016 budget by $100,000 before the new year has even begun.
Part of the reason the Arts Center is asking for more city money is because it doesn’t expect to receive as much grant money for the festival as it has in the past. The festival is budgeting for $50,000 in grants compared to the $75,000 in grant money the festival received in 2015 and 2014. But another reason the festival is seeking more city dollars is because it wants to have a larger budget. The 2016 festival is seeking a budget of about $400,000. The 2015 festival had expenses of about $335,000.
Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It soon will be fall in Lawrence, which means at some point in time we are all required to consume large amounts of food and beverages on a city street that has been closed down for a party. (When city engineers started talking about “road diets,” I thought that is what they meant. I flipped my lid when I thought people were going to start serving turkey brats.)
Well, city commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday are scheduled to approve a host of events that will take place on city streets. Here’s a quick look:
— Oct. 30 is the date for the KU Homecoming parade in downtown Lawrence. The parade is set for 6 p.m., but look for a party zone on the 100 block of Eighth Street. The city will allow the section of Eighth Street between Massachusetts and New Hampshire to be closed from 1:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. for the party zone and pep rally. (The party won’t be for the entire period. The time of the street closure also accounts for set-up and tear-down.) The city also is set to approve a permit for a beer garden as part of the event. That seems to be an important component of KU football these days.
— On Oct. 4 a portion of Massachusetts Street will be closed for the Lawrence Bicycle Club’s Octoginta ride. The section of Massachusetts Street from 11th to 13th streets will be closed from 6:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. to allow for bicycle staging. That is a Sunday morning, but city officials are promising access to all the churches in the area will be maintained.
— Just to prove that you don’t have to be downtown to throw a street party, city officials will close a portion of W. 29th Terrace on Oct. 2 for a fundraising event for the Lawrence Memorial Hospital Endowment Board. The LMH board is hosting its first Rock the Block - Kick Cancer Event. The section of West 29th Terrace that will be closed is from Iowa Street to Four Wheel Drive. That is the section of road that runs through the Lawrence Auto Plaza.
— On Nov. 1, Health Care Access is seeking permission to temporarily close various streets throughout Lawrence on Nov. 1 for the 2015 Kansas Half Marathon and 5K Run. The fundraiser for Health Care Access will begin and end at Watson Park near Sixth and Kentucky streets. The bulk of the event is expected to occur between 7 a.m. to 11 am.. That is a Sunday morning, so event organizers are being asked to contact area churches to ensure the race won’t impact access to church properties.
In addition to the necessary permits, organizers of the event also are asking the Lawrence police and fire departments to donate services for the event, such as traffic control and medical standby services. The fire department estimates its costs will be about $2,200, while police estimate their costs at $6,000.
— Last but not least, mark you calendar for Dec. 5, if you are a fan of horses and carriages traveling down Massachusetts Street. Organizers for the Lawrence Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade are seeking a permit for Dec. 5 to use Massachusetts Street from 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. to accommodate the horse-drawn Christmas parade.
Local aviation business to undertake large expansion; city to consider spending $215k in tax funds to support big sporting events
Vinland — that small southern Douglas County farming community that is home to the Vinland Fair, old timey tractor pulls and chicken noodle dinners that leave me wringing out my tie for days — is again proving it also is a growing high-tech hub.
Vinland-based McFarlane Aviation Products has filed plans with county officials to build a $1.2 million expansion of its facilities that design, manufacture and distribute specialty aircraft parts. The plans are the latest signs of growth for the longtime family-owned business. Back in 2011, we reported on the company’s last significant expansion. In 2011, we reported the company had 38 employees. Company owner Dave McFarlane told me the business now has 63 employees. McFarlane said the expansion will allow for additional employee growth in the coming years.
“We’re continuously adding a few people at a time,” McFarlane said. “That’s our plan — slow and steady growth.”
McFarlane estimated that the expansion would allow the company to grow to 90 employees over the next five to seven years, although history suggests the timeline could change. McFarlane said the company is growing rapidly enough that this expansion is happening about 1.5 years ahead of schedule.
McFarlane said the company’s business has remained steady, even as the aviation industry as a whole has suffered through some downturns. McFarlane said that is because the company focuses on making parts for existing aircraft. As times tighten, aircraft owners look to keep their existing aircraft operational rather than buying new aircraft. That means buying more parts.
“Our part of the market is saving people money by improving the replacement parts so they last longer,” McFarlane said. “We’re a much more stable market because customers have planes that they have to keep in the air, and we can help them do that.”
The company has about 3,000 different parts it sells, with most focusing on smaller general aviation and business class aircraft, although some of the parts are for larger jetliners, too.
The company has ended up being a nice boost to the county’s economic development efforts. McFarlane said about half the business is related to the manufacturing process, but he said the other half is related to distribution, administration and engineering. The company employs its own engineers to design products, and it also has several technical people to deal with issues such as FAA approvals and communication with the approximately 20 international distributors that the McFarlane has contracts with.
As for the proposed expansion, plans filed with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department call for a new 24,000 square-foot building at the business’ current location at 696 E. 700 Road. That will be the third building on the site for the company. McFarlane said the company will move a portion of its manufacturing lines to the new building and also will run its shipping operations out of the new facility.
The site plan filed with the county also shows the location for another 17,000 square-foot building to be constructed in the future. McFarlane said he expects the company’s next expansion will be needed in five to seven years.
The current project already has the necessary zoning approvals and is just awaiting some technical approvals related to the layout of the site. McFarlane said he hopes to break ground before winter and to be operating in the new facility before summer.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Move over basketball. Lawrence may become a track and field town, or at least spend some money in an effort to become one.
City commissioners on Tuesday will consider spending about $215,000 in transient guest tax money to either attract or support a trio of track and field events that are either considering coming to Lawrence or already have announced they will host an event in the community.
The biggest one is the 2017 USA Track and Field Junior Olympic Championship. As we’ve previously reported, the city would like to host that weeklong event at Rock Chalk Park, but the Junior Olympic folks haven’t yet selected a site for the competition.
City officials are now saying they want to apply for the event, but it will take some money to do so. The nonprofit Lawrence Sports Corp. is seeking $150,000 over three years to apply and support the event. But the group also is touting that the event could bring more than 40,000 athletes and families to the city over a multiday period. Recent host cities — Jacksonville, Houston and Greensboro — have reported estimated economic spending ranging from $14 million to $20 million. All three of those cities have significantly more hotel rooms to sell than Lawrence does, which is a big part of the economic equitation, but the event would no doubt create significant spending in Lawrence. For planning purposes, the city is estimating $11 million in direct spending would be created by the event.
Commissioners will have to decide whether they want to use transient guest tax money — which comes from a special sales tax charged on hotel rooms — to try to lure the event. The sports corporation is asking for $40,000 this year, which includes a $25,000 application fee that has to be paid to be considered as a host city. If the city were awarded the event, the sports corporation would seek $55,000 in transient guest tax money in 2016 and $55,000 in 2017 to help cover a portion of the $460,000 of expenses that are expected to be part of hosting the event.
The city also is being asked to partially fund two other events that already have announced they are coming to the area. As we previously reported, the NCAA Division I track and field Midwest regional is set for May 28-30 at Rock Chalk Park. Local organizers are requesting nearly $57,000 in transient guest tax money to help pay about a third of the expenses expected as part of that event. The city is expecting about 3,200 athletes, coaches and spectators will attend that multiday event. The city is planning for the event to create about $1 million in direct spending.
The other event is the NCAA Midwest cross country regionals on Nov. 13. The event will be at Rim Rock Farms, which is in Jefferson County just a few miles north of Lawrence. In case you haven’t noticed, Jefferson County doesn’t have much in the way of hotel rooms, so Lawrence will be the big beneficiary of that event. Organizers are asking for about $8,300 of transient guest tax money to help pay for roughly a third of the event’s budget.
Commissioners will discuss the requests at their 5:45 p.m. meeting on Tuesday. The city has used tax dollars before to support or lure events to town, but usually you don’t see such requests come in threes. It is likely though that such requests will become more frequent in the future. When the city decided to be a partner in constructing the Rock Chalk Park sports complex, it was envisioned that the facilities would be used to attract regional and national events. Local communities often have to bear some of the costs to host those events.
Warehouse project planned near Hallmark Cards plant; Eldridge expansion may land on city’s agenda again; city releases more info on candidates for vacant position
I know I’ve been on family vacations where a hotel next to a set of storage units and a warehouse would come in handy. (A forklift and a hernia belt to unload the trunk also would be nice.) Well, indeed there is a new self-storage and warehouse project slated for land next to a pair of hotels located near the Kansas Turnpike.
Plans have been filed at Lawrence City Hall to develop the vacant corner at McDonald Drive and Princeton Boulevard. In case you are having a hard time picturing the location, it is the lot in front of the relatively new Comfort Inn & Suites. It also is caddy-corner from the Holiday Inn.
A group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel has filed plans to construct three buildings that are labeled as climate-controlled storage spaces, and a fourth building that is labeled for use as general industrial, limited manufacturing and production uses.
If you are confused about why industrial uses are going in that area, remember that the lot also is adjacent to probably the largest industrial enterprise in Lawrence: the Hallmark Cards production plant. The site also is about 30 seconds away from the interchange for the Kansas Turnpike, so it is well-situated for a variety of industrial uses.
At the moment, though, it doesn’t appear that the project is being built to bring in any new companies to the area. Lawrence architect Paul Werner is designing the project. He briefly told me that the project is mainly to accommodate some businesses that are a part of Fritzel’s construction enterprises. Specifically, he said some of the space is planned to house a cabinet shop and a business called the Rock Shoppe. Both of those uses currently are located in downtown Lawrence, and both would benefit from being in a less congested area.
I think one, if not both, of those uses are located in the space that used to house Local Burger at 714 Vermont St. That is prime space that is right behind the Eldridge Hotel, which Fritzel also is an owner of. Werner didn’t provide me any information about that, but it will be interesting to watch whether this project clears the way for something more substantial to happen in the 700 block of Vermont Street. As we reported last week, construction on an expansion of the Eldridge is set to begin soon, so activity is heating up in the area.
As for the project at McDonald and Princeton, plans call for the biggest building on the site to be an approximately 17,000-square-foot warehouse. The plans also call for an approximately 14,000-square-foot climate-controlled storage building, an approximately 11,000-square-foot climate-controlled storage building, and a 3,100-square-foot climate controlled storage unit that will include a “work/live” unit. That suggests the project could have someone living on site to keep an eye on the property and the items being stored. I’m unclear on whether the storage business will be focused on folks like you and me who have old books, clothes, multi-tiered chocolate fountains and other such ordinary household items that need to be stored, or whether the project is focused more on serving the storage needs of other industrial businesses in the area. I’m thinking it may be the latter.
Regardless, the site already has the existing light industrial zoning needed to accommodate the project. It will be interesting to see how that area near the interchange develops in general. Lawrence in the past has struggled to meet the needs of industrial businesses that want to locate along Interstate 70, which is also the Kansas Turnpike. For years, the strategy was to try and develop the area near the Lecompton interchange just northwest of Lawrence as an area to attract distribution centers and other businesses that want to be near the interstate.
Thanks to some deal-making by Fritzel and the county, the community was able to accommodate Berry Plastics and its large new warehouse in the area near the interchange. But efforts to get other property zoned for industrial use near the Lecompton interchange have been met with lawsuits and concerns from neighbors. I’ve heard nothing that makes me think any effort to get more industrial property near that interchange will be successful in the near term.
Prior to the focus on the Lecompton interchange, the focus was on making the area near the East Lawrence interchange — which is actually in North Lawrence near the airport — an industrial area. But it is clear that will be very difficult politically, and could be difficult to feasibly build projects without creating storm water flooding problems for other properties in the area.
That leaves us with just one interchange left, and that is the one at McDonald Drive, next to the Hallmark Plant. There is not a lot of acreage left there to develop, but the vacant site across the street from Hallmark is about 50 acres, and it is zoned for industrial uses. It also is on the market. Hallmark owns the property but has decided it is no longer needed for any future expansions of its Lawrence plant.
For a long time it was kind of assumed the lot wasn’t all that feasible for building because of some topography concerns. But the city proved that wrong by saying it was its No. 1 site for a new police headquarters building. The city had a deal to purchase the site, but it fell through when voters rejected the bond issue for the police headquarters.
Now, the question is: Does the community really view that as a viable industrial site? It is zoned to allow a wide range of industrial uses, and it is very well situated for quick access to the interstate. Lawrence has its new VenturePark industrial park in eastern Lawrence along Kansas Highway 10. That gives the city something to show potential businesses, but those that want direct I-70 access may not put VenturePark on their list for consideration. I’m sure there would be concerns from some neighbors about industrial development on the property near McDonald Drive. But I also know there have been concerns from some community leaders about Lawrence not being able to take full advantage of its position along a major commercial corridor like I-70.
I bring it up not because I know of anything imminent for the McDonald Drive property, but it seems like an interesting and important discussion to have at some point.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As I mentioned, work to expand the Eldridge Hotel really is getting close to starting. My understanding is that city commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting may receive a plan related to traffic-control issues around the site to accommodate construction. What type of traffic or parking changes that may require, I don’t know yet, but we should find out soon.
I think there also is an issue related to industrial revenue bonds for that project. The bonds would allow the project to get an exemption from paying sales tax on construction materials for the project. The previous City Commission got the ball rolling on that IRB issue, but I don’t believe the commission ever finalized the issuance of the IRBs. According to a city memo, the current commissioners will be asked to finalize that process. I’m still double-checking what that means, but the memo says the commission will need to approve the first reading of the IRB ordinance.
That could be interesting to watch because this new group of commissioners has not been fond of those types of incentives. The previous commission passed a resolution of intent to issue the industrial revenue bonds. That resolution included language that the developer should not construe the resolution as a guarantee that bonds will be issued. But if this commission balks at following through on the IRBs, it will raise questions about whether developers were treated fairly. They were given an expectation by one city commission, planned a project around that expectation, and then had it changed by a new commission. On the other hand, some of the newly elected commissioners railed against incentives for the Eldridge project during the campaign. Like I said, it could be an interesting one to watch.
In case you have forgotten, the Eldridge expansion involves adding 54 guest rooms and additional restaurant and banquet space as part of multistory expansion on the vacant lot just south of the historic hotel. The previous commission approved a 85 percent property tax rebate through the Neighborhood Revitalization Act. As far as I know, that incentive already has been finalized and the current commission won’t have to act on that. But I’m double checking that. UPDATE: I heard back from interim City Manager Diane Stoddard. She confirmed that the NRA tax abatement has been finalized and doesn't require any more votes. She said the city staff also is still reviewing some issues related to the traffic control plan for the construction project. She said it now appears that the Eldridge items won't be on next week's agenda, but will be on later in the month.
• As we reported, the city on Wednesday released the names of the 14 people who have applied for the vacant seat on the City Commission. This morning, the city has posted their complete application packets — including the essays they were asked to write about various Lawrence issues — on the city’s website. We’ll have another article today further detailing who the applicants are, but if you just can’t wait, you can click here to see their application materials.
New game store opens in West Lawrence; date set for downtown’s annual Zombie Walk; city seeking input on next city manager
I don’t know what you think of when you hear the phrase “Rolling Gnome,” but I know I’m reminded of a long night with a Halloween bail bondsman. Perhaps in the future, though, you will think of a rollicking good time with a set of board games.
All this is to say there is a new game store in town by the name of Rolling Gnome Games. The store recently opened at 3727 W. Sixth St. in the building that houses Rueschoff security and several other businesses.
In today’s world, when you hear of a game store, you think of Xbox, Playstation or some app that unleashes the true power of your “smart” phone. (Nothing makes us smarter than learning the craft of mining in a fictional world.) But Rolling Gnome co-owner Maximillian Tompkins said his store isn’t focusing on those types of games. Instead, it specializes in the world of board games, card games and other such fun. He said the idea of board games is making a comeback.
“It is a great way to get people to start talking to each other,” Tompkins said. “It is a great way to socialize.”
The store sells strategy games, thematic games, party games, family games, role playing games, miniature games, card games and even something called Eurogames. (I’m not directly familiar with Eurogames, but I assume they involve constant arguing over the euro, and a player dressed as Angela Merkel who is required to constantly yell “Nein, Nein,” to the player who has the misfortune of playing the role of Greece.)
If you are not quite sure whether your toga fits anymore (I assume that’s what Greece wears), you can rent a game instead of buying it. Tompkins said the store has a program where you pay 10 percent of the retail price, and you can take the game home for 24 hours. If you decide to buy the game, the 10 percent is applied to the purchase price.
In addition to games, the store also sells several miniatures, Star Wars collectibles and other such items. The store also will host demo nights, and it has a special area where people can come and play games in-store.
The idea of a board game store actually has become a bit of a trend in the Lawrence retail market. If you remember, we reported back in June about about Topeka-based Boom Comics signing a deal to open a large comic book shop that also will be a major game store in the former Kief’s building on south Iowa Street.
Tompkins — who owns the store with his mother, Holly Tompkins — said he thinks Lawrence’s combined market of college students and families can support another store.
“I was working at a dead end job, and I really love board games,” Tompkins said. “There is not one in this area of town, and I felt like it was time.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• I know I’m busy making my Angela Merkel zombie costume. Hopefully, you are too. Lawrence’s Ninth Annual Zombie Walk is coming up. The date is set for Oct. 15 in downtown Lawrence. Like in years past, hundreds of people dressed in zombie costumes gather at South Park at sunset and then parade down the sidewalks of Massachusetts Street.
Mike Logan of The Granada is one of the major organizers of the event this year, and he is smart enough to know that you don’t do zombies in Lawrence without first going through City Hall. Commissioners at their meeting last night approved a permit that will allow The Granada to host a “zombie watch party” on a portion of the vacant Allen Press property in the 1000 block of Massachusetts Street. The watch party will include music, a beer garden, food vendors and other entertainment suited for all ages. The event also includes opportunities for people to make donations, and it looks like this year’s major beneficiary is the Lawrence Humane Society. (Expect a big crowd because the zombies are likely to read it as Human Society, which really gets them excited. Zombies are terrible readers.)
It looks like The Granada also is hosting a couple of other special events prior to the Oct. 15 zombie watch party. Commissioners also approved a permit for a free concert — also on the Allen Press lot — for Sept. 16. Logan told me this morning that party is to help celebrate The Granada's birthday. The concert is set to be One More Time: A Daft Punk Tribute. (Based on my failure to properly explain Eurogames, I don't think you want me trying to explain what that means.) Also approved was a permit for a free concert on the same lot, which is just south of The Granada, on Oct. 9. Concert details on that event is still being worked out. In addition to the concerts, both events will include beer gardens and food booths.
• Maybe creating a new department for Zombie Watch Party permits is your top priority for a new Lawrence city manager. Or, perhaps, it is something else. City officials are interested in knowing about it.
City officials have launched a new online survey seeking feedback on the most important “characteristics/attributes” of the next city manager. In case you have forgotten, the city is seeking a new city manager to replace David Corliss, who took a similar job in Colorado.
The online survey asks you a few demographic questions about your time in Lawrence and what you do in the city. But the meat of the survey involves choosing from a list of attributes the ones that you find most important in a city manager. People can choose up to seven. Here’s the list that you can choose from:
— Involvement/presence in the community
— Experience outside Lawrence
— Ties to Lawrence
— Strong leadership with expert voice
— Experience with economic development
— Experience managing people
— Experience with municipal finance and budgeting
— Experience with strategic and long-range planning
— Experience with social issues (e.g. mental health, homelessness, and affordable housing.)
— Experience with cultural competence and diversity
— Experience with managed growth in cities
— Experience with multi-modal transportation in cities
— Experience with collective bargaining
The city will tally the results of the survey, and present them to city commissioners in October. People can take the survey online through Oct. 2. Click here or go to lawrenceks.org/lawrence-listens to take the survey.
• A quick update on the search for someone to fill the vacant seat on the Lawrence City Commission. The deadline to apply for the appointment is 5 p.m. today at City Hall. Yesterday I reported that Charlie Bryan, a health planner for the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, was considering applying for the open seat. He got back in contact with me this morning. He said he did indeed give the idea a lot of thought, but has decided not to apply for the spot. That puts us back to four folks who have confirmed an interest in applying for the position: former City Commissioners Terry Riordan and David Schauner, former school board member Scott Morgan, and former city commission candidate David Crawford.
Questions of whether city and school district can work together on school inspections; three more names emerge for vacant seat on City Commission
It wasn’t a great Labor Day weekend for the Lawrence school district. On Sunday, J-W reporter Karen Dillon had an article about how a former supervisor at the New York Elementary School project quit after he became frustrated by many cut corners, including several that involved safely securing the construction site.
We’ll continue to follow this story, but as we do, I thought it would be good to throw in an additional piece of context. In a nutshell, it is this: The school district does have a reason to be mad at Lawrence City Hall about all of this.
It is still unclear why the school district allowed this project to move forward the way it did, but it is easy to see how the problem has its roots in a lack of cooperation between the city and the school district.
As we’ve previously reported, the school district’s construction projects aren’t being inspected by the city’s building inspections department. That’s because the school district balked at paying the estimated $285,000 in building permit fees that the city would charge for the approximately $92 million worth of school construction work happening across the city.
Previous City Manager David Corliss didn’t want to waive those fees, in part because it does cost the city real dollars to send inspectors to a job site. The building permit fees are the way the city pays those inspectors. The previous City Commission backed Corliss on the idea of not waiving the fees, but passed an ordinance that allowed the school district to hire its own inspectors, and thus be exempt from the city’s building permit fees. It is now becoming clear the school district’s idea of how to properly inspect a job is quite a bit different from how the city goes about inspecting a project.
But here’s the piece of context that perhaps some have forgotten: The city certainly does inspect projects without charging a building permit fee. It just chose not to extend that policy to the school district.
The example that sticks in my mind is Rock Chalk Park. Of the many incentives the city gave the sports complex, one of them was a rebate on the building permit fees for the track and field, soccer and softball facilities. According to information we gathered at that time, the city rebated about $65,000 worth of building permit fees to the Rock Chalk Park developers. The City Commission rebated the fees under the idea of an “economic development grant.” Certainly, the Rock Chalk Park project has the ability to be a positive driver for economic development in Lawrence. It would seem, however, that $92 million worth of school improvements could be an economic driver for the community as well. Think of how many people make their decision of where to live based off the quality of the public schools.
It is worth noting that none of the current commissioners voted for that Rock Chalk Park fee rebate. Only Mayor Mike Amyx was on the commission at the time, and he did not support the idea.
The Rock Chalk Park project, though, is not the only one to receive a break on building permit fees. The city historically has done building inspections for affordable housing projects, but has waived the building permit fees. In 2013 and 2014 the city waived a total of about $15,000 in building permit fees for such projects.
One other organization that routinely gets a break on building permit fees is Lawrence Memorial Hospital. The city inspects building projects at LMH, but the not-for-profit hospital doesn’t pay a building permit fee. Technically, the hospital is owned by the city, but it operates as an independent business. It doesn’t receive any Lawrence tax dollars to operate. The hospital is one of the more financially successful enterprises in Lawrence. I think most would agree that the school district is not.
The point of all this is to question whether the city needs to have further discussion about how it wants to handle projects in the future. What is done is done, but there is still quite a bit that is not yet done. For example, the school district is just now filing the necessary paperwork to begin construction on improvements at Pinckney Elementary School. Do the school district and the city think it is still a good idea that projects like that one and others don’t go through the city’s standard building inspections process? Is there a way that the two entities — which are funded primarily by the same set of taxpayers — could reach some sort of compromise on the building permit fees?
I don’t know. It will be an interesting issue to watch, and we’ll continue to report on it.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I don’t know if people should put a lock on their wallets quite yet, but it is beginning to feel a bit like election season. I’ve got two names for you of people who plan to file for the open seat on the Lawrence City Commission. Former City Commissioner David Schauner and former school board member Scott Morgan both have told me they plan to file for the seat, which is open after the sudden resignation of Jeremy Farmer following his financial problems at Just Food.
I’m hearing a few more names in the rumor mill, and we may hear some more today because the filing deadline is near: 5 p.m. Wednesday. As a reminder, this isn’t an election. It is an appointment process. The remaining four city commissioners will choose somebody by a simple vote to fill out Farmer’s term, which ends in January 2018.
Schauner and Morgan are in addition to former City Commissioner Terry Riordan, who told me last week he would file for the open spot.
Schauner served on the City Commission from 2003 to 2007. He won two elections — finishing third and receiving a two-year term each time. He then lost his bid for re-election in 2007. Schauner said he thinks his experience as a commissioner would be beneficial.
“I think my learning curve on how the process works is quite a bit less steep than it will be for people who haven’t served before,” Schauner said.
Schauner was elected during a time period when the big issue was whether a new Wal-Mart should be built near Sixth and Wakarusa. He was part of the group that was concerned the big-box retailer would cause harm to the surrounding neighborhood, and Schauner said taking a long-term view of issues continues to be important.
“My goal has always been to balance competing interests,” Schauner said. “I don’t think we should sacrifice long-term sustainability for short-term gain.”
Morgan served on the school board eight years — once from 1999 to 2003 and then from 2007 to 2011. Morgan said he thinks his time period on the school board gave him some skills that would be beneficial to the City Commission. He noted he was part of the process of hiring two superintendents during his time on the board. City commissioners currently are in the process of hiring a city manager.
“The hiring of the manager is probably the most important thing the City Commission will do,” Morgan said. “So many of the day-to-day decisions flow from who you hire as a manager.”
Morgan said his time period on the school board — which included the controversial discussions of consolidating some schools — taught him a lot about how to work in the public realm.
“I don’t feel like I’m in anybody’s particular camp,” Morgan said. “I know people in all the different camps. I’ve learned that you have to get along with a lot of different people in Lawrence if you want to accomplish anything.”
We’ll see who else may file before tomorrow’s deadline. I have heard a few other names, and have reached out to them for confirmation. So, at the moment, take these for whatever you think it is worth. I have heard David Crawford, who was a candidate during the last City Commission election, is contemplating applying. He’s an East Lawrence resident who got into city politics while trying to lure a grocery store to downtown Lawrence. UPDATE: I’ve just gotten confirmation that Crawford plans to file for the seat.
“I think I have some unfinished business from the last cycle,” Crawford said, referring to the most recent City Commission elections, where Crawford was eliminated in the primary. “The downtown grocery store project is not dead, and the issue of a food desert has not gone away either.”
I’ve also heard Charlie Bryan is considering applying. Bryan is a community health planner for the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department. Bryan has been fairly active in encouraging the city to undertake more projects related to pedestrians, bicyclists, and rethinking how large roads need to be to accommodate motorists.
I’ve also heard from a few other folks who have said they are not planning to apply. That includes former City Commissioner David Dunfield — who had helped on the recent campaign of Commissioner Leslie Soden. Stan Rasmussen, the fifth-place finisher in the most recent election, said he also would not apply. He said he thought the commission erred by creating the current selection process. He said the seat should have been given to Riordan, who was the fourth-place finisher in the election — or in other words, the person with the highest number of votes who did not win a seat.
“I think they are going to go out of their way to not select anyone from the general election,” Rasmussen said. “If they wanted to consider somebody from the general election, they could have just gone right to Dr. Riordan. They made a really conscious decision to not do that.”
I’ll let you know if I hear other names in advance of the 5 p.m. filing deadline tomorrow.
Update on future of former Ramada Inn site; gasoline prices ahead of holiday weekend, and why Lawrence envies Topeka
If you have booked your mother-in-law to stay in Lawrence’s Ramada Inn this Labor Day weekend, good for you. Bad for your mother-in-law. In case you haven’t noticed, the former Ramada Inn property at Sixth and Iowa streets is largely torn down.
I’ve been getting several questions about what the future holds for the large, well-situated property. As we reported in April, Lawrence-based Williams Management bought the run-down property from an East Coast bank. Adam Williams, leader of the local development group, said then that he would tear the building down and then look for redevelopment opportunities.
I talked with Williams again this week, and he said interest in the property has been strong, but he’s not yet able to announce a redevelopment plan. Williams said he’s been in discussions with other parties who are interested in redeveloping the site, and he believes something will be “coming down the line soon.”
“It is a very, very good bet that it won’t be a vacant lot for long,” Williams said.
In April, Williams told me the commercial zoning of the property makes it well suited for a variety of uses such as an office building, a retail development or even a gas station. Williams said he didn’t see redevelopment plans focusing on apartments. Williams this week said that’s still the case.
Williams said he’s still open to talking with other parties about potential developments for the property, but he thinks there will be plans filed for the site in about the next 60 days.
The site will be one to keep an eye on. It is unique to have nearly four acres of vacant, commercially zoned land at one of the busier intersections of the community.
“It is kind of a gateway to Lawrence in a lot of ways,” Williams said. “Coming off the turnpike, it is one of the first things you are going to come across.”
As for the status of the demolition at the site, Williams said there is one small wall that needs to come down on the property, but some utilities need to be moved before that work can be finished in the next few days.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe you are driving to see your mother-in-law this holiday weekend. If so, figure out how to drive through Topeka, and I’m not just recommending it so you can fill your nostrils with the beautiful smell of Kansas politics. Instead, fill your tank with cheap gas.
Gas in Topeka is selling for an average of $2.16 a gallon, according to the Daily Fuel Gauge Report by AAA. In Lawrence, the average price per gallon is about $2.45, according to the same report. I don’t know what happens in the approximately 30 miles between Lawrence and Topeka that causes gas to be so much cheaper in the Capital City. Despite popular belief, perhaps the Statehouse isn’t sitting on a pocket of hot air, but rather cheap oil. I don’t know. Or maybe Topeka isn’t run by the governor but rather is secretly controlled by oil tycoon Jed Clampett.
Again, I don’t know, but several readers have called to complain about the discrepancy in recent days. The fact that Topeka has cheaper gas than Lawrence isn’t anything new, but the discrepancy has grown a bit. Last year at this time, the average gasoline price was $3.37 a gallon in Lawrence, but $3.20 in Topeka — a difference of 17 cents or about 5 percent. Today, the difference in price is 32 cents or about 15 percent.
Such price differences frequently lead to accusations of collusion by gas station owners in Lawrence. I don’t know. I’ve never found any evidence of that, but then again, all my efforts to go undercover in the Lawrence convenience store industry have been thwarted when I become too distracted by the Slurpee machine.
I think a more interesting question to ask is whether there is something about Lawrence that causes us to pay a premium to live here? Local real estate prices for a long time have suggested there is something to this idea of a Lawrence premium. Home prices here are consistently higher than in several other communities, especially when you compare home prices to average incomes. That’s true even when you factor out low-wage earning students. Someday, I will postulate a theory about all of this, but at the moment, I have a Slurpee cup to refill.
Regardless, you may want to know more about gasoline prices in the state and region ahead of this traditionally busy travel weekend. Here’s a look from AAA:
— Statewide average: $2.34
— Lawrence: $2.45
— Kansas City, Kan.: $2.42
— Topeka: $2.16
— Wichita: $2.24
— Kansas City, Mo.: $2.15
— Denver: $2.70
— Oklahoma City: $2.25
— Omaha: $2.61
— National average: $2.42
New multimillion dollar medical building set for west Lawrence; future of Clinton Parkway interchange may spark a battle
I don’t know what you west Lawrence residents are doing, but the medical community sure thinks you need its help. The area around the west Lawrence intersection of Sixth and Folks Road is becoming quite the medical hub, and a new million dollar-plus project aims to add to it.
Plans have been filed at City Hall for a $2.5 million building that will be the new home for a pediatric dental practice, plus have space for two other medical offices. Growing Smiles Pediatric Dentistry will be the primary tenant for the new building, which will be constructed on a vacant lot just east of the Central Bank of the Midwest building that is on the northeast corner of Sixth and Folks Road.
Lawrence dentist Kelli Henderson operates Growing Smiles Dentistry and the practice is located in office space near Bob Billings and Wakarusa. Henderson’s husband, Jake Stoetzner, is leading the development of the new building. Stoetzner said the new location will about double the space Growing Smiles has for patients and staff.
“It will allow us more space and serve our patients better,” Stoetzner said. “It will allow for faster turnaround times so we can see more patients. We would like to add additional dentists down the road, but we would still be focused on pediatric dentistry.”
Growing Smiles will take about half of the approximately 14,000 square-foot building. The other half is designed to accommodate two more tenants. Stoetzner said deals have not been struck with any tenants yet, but he’s hoping the building will be able to attract other medical-oriented businesses.
If so, it would continue a bit of a trend for the intersection. As we’ve previously reported, Topeka Ear Nose and Throat has located in a new building at the southwest corner of the intersection, and plans have been filed for Xpress Wellness Urgent Care at the northwest corner of the intersection. The trend has been underway for a couple of years. Peterson Krische Van Horn Family Dentistry was one of the first to build at the intersection, with a nice medical building that is just to the north of the Growing Smiles site. (For some reason, anytime two dentists are located next to each other, I get a mental picture of dueling dentists with water picks in the parking lot. But I’m sure that doesn’t happen — in the light of day.)
Sigler Pharmacy also is located right near the intersection, and CVS is just a block away at Sixth and Wakarusa. If you want to expand the area just a bit, construction work is underway near Sixth and Kasold on another new urgent care facility. MedExpress is going in where Spangles previously was located. Wow, it is almost like the health care industry is a major driver of the U.S. economy.
Anyway, keep your eyes open for construction work on the Growing Smiles site. Stoetzner said he expects to start work in late October and have the building completed by next summer.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It may not be as fierce as a water pick battle, but I do expect some opposition to the idea of closing the Clinton Parkway interchange on the South Lawrence Trafficway.
As we reported earlier this week, KDOT officials briefed local leaders on the idea of permanently closing the Clinton Parkway interchange as part of a future project to make the western leg of the SLT four lanes. KDOT has to find funding to do the massive project, so a timeline isn’t known. But it is a good bet that it will happen. The state is spending nearly $200 million to build the eastern leg of the SLT as a four-lane. To not make the western leg of the SLT a four-lane would be like my wife buying a new purse without buying the shoes to match. Or me buying a new set of golf clubs without purchasing liability insurance. (I’m trying to be equal opportunity here, and I’m also trying to lay the groundwork for a new set of golf clubs.)
By the end of the year, KDOT hopes to have a concept plan approved for the four-lane project. One alternative keeps the Clinton Parkway interchange, but another one eliminates the interchange. Motorists who currently use the interchange would have to take a new access road that would be built along the west side of the SLT and would run from Clinton Parkway to Bob Billings. In case you have forgotten, a new SLT interchange is being constructed at Bob Billings and should be completed before the end of the year.
I’ve already started to hear from folks who don’t like the possibility of the Clinton Parkway interchange being eliminated. Greg DiVilbiss is a local developer, and his family owns five acres of commercially zoned property at Lake Pointe Drive and Clinton Parkway. The property is currently vacant, and Divilbiss said removing the nearby interchange would devastate the property’s value and potential for commercial development.
“We’re 1,000 percent against the idea,” DiVilbiss said.
KDOT has expressed interest in removing the interchange because it says traffic volumes at the interchange are relatively low and are predicted to be relatively light in the future. The interchange also is at the site of a large curve on the road, and engineers have noted that is not ideal for safety purposes.
But removing the interchange will have a big impact on people who have invested in the area. DiVilbiss noted that his family already has paid about $250,000 in special assessments on the property, and it did so with the the belief that the existing interchange was going to be there to serve the commercial property.
Although the property is vacant currently, he thinks there is good potential for commercial development in the future. He said one concept plan includes about a 15,000 square-foot neighborhood shopping center, a small hotel, and a nice restaurant with a rooftop deck that could provide views of nearby Clinton Lake.
“It could be one of the best views in the city,” DiVilbiss said.
There is a developing neighborhood in the area as well. Having easy access to the SLT —which will make commuting to KC or Topeka much easier — probably was a selling point to some homeowners in the area.
Some of those homes could be at risk of being relocated, as well. KDOT has said it wants to improve the geometrics of the SLT’s large curve in the area. That could involve moving the road closer to the homes. Here's a map that we ran from a previous article about possible KDOT options to change the curve to better accommodate a 70 mph speed limit.
But a bigger issue for the community in general may be what type of access we think Clinton Lake deserves. State officials note that people still will be able to access Clinton Lake via Clinton Parkway, just as they do today. But if you are coming in from outside the community, it is nice to access the lake via the trafficway. That could continue, but folks would have to travel to the Bob Billings interchange and then take a new access road. The distance is probably around 10 blocks, so I guess it is a matter of opinion how significant that is.
I do wonder, though, whether KDOT officials have had a conversation with their fellow state workers in the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism. The current leaders of that agency have had hopes of locating a significant resort in the Clinton Lake State Park. That idea has struggled to gain momentum in the hospitality industry. If the interchange for Clinton Lake disappears, I would think that would further cripple any momentum for the resort idea.
Clinton Lake is one of the most expensive infrastructure projects ever constructed in Douglas County. It seems the community never has figured out how much it really wants to capitalize off of the lake. The time to get it figured out probably is drawing near.
Keep your eyes open for a date for an open house in mid-to-late October where you'll be able to express opinions to KDOT leaders.
Another national chicken chain files plans for south Iowa Street; shopping center near 25th and Iowa to undergo major renovations
The next time I’m driving down south Iowa Street, I think there is a good chance that I’ll replace my seat cushion with a nest of straw and start sprouting feathers. Yes, that’s my way of telling you there is another chicken restaurant coming to south Iowa, and it is one that folks have been clamoring for.
Popeyes is listed as a tenant on a plan for a remodeled shopping center near 25th and Iowa streets. The site is the Tower Plaza shopping center just south of the Applebee's on Iowa Street. That shopping center includes First Watch, Papa Murphy’s and several other smaller businesses. The center previously included the Lawrence Workforce Center, but it recently moved to the new Peaslee Tech vocational education building near 31st and Haskell. That ended up being an important move for chicken lovers and drug stores that sell cholesterol medicine. Plans call for a portion of the shopping center that housed the workforce center to be demolished to make way for a standalone Popeyes building with a drive-thru. So, the restaurant will be right near the corner of 26th and Iowa streets.
The Kansas City firm R.H. Johnson Co. is redeveloping the center, but lead developer Eric Gonsher said it was too early to start talking about tenants for the site. But the plans filed with the city —if you have eaten your spinach and have the eyesight to read the fine print — show Popeyes in a tiny chart that lists tenants and required parking spaces. (If you ever want to win a chicken trivia contest, and I know you do, you should note that Popeyes is not named after the famous spinach-eating cartoon sailor. It is named after . . . Popeye Doyle from the movie "The French Connection," according to the restaurant’s website.)
If you are not familiar with the Popeyes restaurant chain, you apparently have already have had feathers grow over your eyelids and shield your view of the world. It is one of the larger chicken chains in the country, and it produces what it calls Louisiana-style chicken. I think that it means its breading has more Cajun spices than traditional chicken. The restaurant also has some southern seafood on its menu, including fried shrimp, po’boy sandwiches and Cajun fish. It also has all your traditional sides like cole slaw, mashed potatoes, biscuits, plus the Louisiana staple of red beans and rice.
Popeyes is just one change that is coming to the shopping center. The entire facade of the existing strip center retail building is set to change. The center was built in 1993.
“We’re just going to make it look new again,” Gonsher said.
The plans also show a new standalone restaurant building north of the Applebee's building. That would put it close to 25th and Iowa streets. Gonsher said it was too early to discuss tenant information about that building, but I’ve heard it is a national restaurant chain that has moved into the Kansas City area but hasn’t yet come to Lawrence. The plans submitted to City Hall don’t include a drive-thru, so it appears to be more of a sit-down restaurant. It is not a huge one, though. Plans show the restaurant at about 2,400 square feet, which is a little smaller than the Popeyes restaurant is slated to be. So, I’ll put on my Sherlock Holmes bib and do a little restaurant detective work this fall. (The man wore expensive clothes. Trust me, he had a bib.)
Gonsher confirmed what nearly everyone else in the commercial real estate market has been telling me: south Iowa Street is getting a lot of interest from companies looking to locate in Lawrence right now.
“It is clearly where all the nationals want to be,” Gonsher said. “It is a ton of traffic and great visibility. It is clearly the dominant retail corridor in the market, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
As for the chicken explosion on south Iowa Street, let me bring you up to speed. Buffalo Wild Wings already has opened near 27th and Iowa. Raising Cane’s, a chicken finger restaurant, is slated for a spot at 2435 Iowa St. in the location that used to house Emprise Bank in front of Bigg's BBQ.
Then there is Chick-fil-A. As we previously reported, that restaurant opened today at its 27th and Iowa location in front of Dick's Sporting Goods.. In case you are wondering, people indeed did camp out in the restaurant's parking lot to be among the first 100 people in line when the store opened this morning. The first 100 received a voucher for one free Chick-fil-A meal per week for a year.
New running shop to open downtown; signs that Eldridge expansion set to begin; restaurant work begins in former Round Corner drug space
There’s a new reason for the Lawrence running community to be excited, and it is not just because my family has banned me from ever leaving the house again in short shorts. A new business duo is opening a locally owned running supply store.
J. Jenkins and Grant Catloth are opening Ad Astra Running at 16 E. Eighth St. in downtown Lawrence. In case you can’t picture that location, it is in the spot where a store known as Cindy’s Simple Life previously was located. Or if that doesn’t help, it is right next door to the Sandbar Sub convenience store at Eighth and New Hampshire.
“We really want a store that is rooted in the community and is focused on the local running community,” Jenkins said. “We want to be a store that will support the running community and their events.”
Jenkins and Catloth both were longtime employees of the Garry Gribble’s running store on Massachusetts Street. When store founder and Kansas City area running guru Garry Gribble sold the company to a Denver-based firm late last year, the duo decided it was time to do something different.
Ad Astra was born. Ad Astra, of course, is Latin for “I’ll have another.” (My apologies, I’m told that is not the Latin meaning, and my activities at Free State Brewery have not been about learning Latin after all.) Ad Astra, in addition to being the name of a famous ale at Free State, means “to the stars,” and is part of the Kansas state motto of Ad astra per aspera, which translates either “to the stars through difficulty,” or “put it on my friend’s tab.”
Either way, the store’s mission won’t change. Jenkins said the shop wants to be a “one-stop shop” for runners in the area. That means the store will carry running shoes, apparel and accessories. It also wants to be a resource for running information. Even though the store hasn’t yet opened, the duo is hosting running events out of the location. A weekly running group called Mass Street Milers now meets at the store at 6 p.m. each Thursday night, and a women’s running group also is using the store location as its meeting place.
“We believe it is the relationship that we have forged with people over the last several years that will allow us to be successful,” Jenkins said.
Renovation work on the store is just now getting underway. Jenkins hopes to have the business open in about a month.
In other news and notes from around town:
• In recent days you perhaps have noticed a backhoe digging small holes in the vacant lot next to The Eldridge Hotel. That indeed is a sign that construction work is getting nearer for a major expansion of the historic hotel.
Lawrence architect Paul Werner told me that the backhoes were digging test holes to verify the footing depths of the surrounding buildings. Werner said that was a prelude to starting construction on a major expansion of the hotel. Werner, who is the architect for the project, didn’t provide a timeline for when construction would begin but said he hoped it would be underway shortly.
In case you have forgotten, the plans for the expansion include 54 new rooms for the hotel, expanded restaurant space, and about 5,000 square feet of additional meeting and banquet space.
• Lots of folks have been asking about remodeling activity that has finally started in the former Intorno building — or perhaps better known as the Round Corner Drug building — at Eighth and Massachusetts.
Well, indeed, a new restaurant is slated for the space. At the moment, details are limited, but it appears it is connected to the same group we reported was interested in the space last summer.
The landlord for the building has confirmed a group led by Zach Marten is working on the building for its new restaurant concept. The fellow I talked with didn’t have details on what that concept involved, but I’ve got a call into Marten.
Marten, as we’ve previously reported, is part of the group that runs Coal Vines, a pizza and wine bar that operates on the Plaza in Kansas City. Marten, though, also was part of the group that opened Westport Ale House in that Kansas City entertainment district. Whether the Lawrence restaurant follows one of those concepts, I’m not sure. But I’ll keep checking in on it and let you know when I hear more.
• In the category of things I’m keeping an eye on, I’m working to find out an opening date for Port Fonda, the upscale Latin American cuisine restaurant that will be on the ground floor of the new Marriott building at Ninth and New Hampshire streets. The landlord for the Marriott also is the landlord for the Round Corner building. He told me he didn’t know of an opening date for Port Fonda, but said it appears to be very close. I’ve got a call into the Port Fonda folks at their Kansas City restaurant.
SLT project would create major changes for west Lawrence traffic; city auditor urges more protection of certain City Hall files
I already have enough arguments with my GPS when I’m in west Lawrence. But if the Kansas Department of Transportation expands the western leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway to four lanes, I may have even more.
KDOT leaders will be in Lawrence on Tuesday to brief city officials on several alternatives they’re studying to expand the western portion of the SLT to four lanes. The project — if it ever receives funding — would involve several major changes that would take a bit of getting used to for motorists. Here are some examples:
— There is currently an interchange on the Kansas Turnpike that is commonly referred to as the Lecompton interchange. But under one plan being considered, there would be an entirely new interchange that would serve Lecompton. The proposal calls for a new interchange to be built about 2 miles west of the existing Lecompton interchange. The new interchange would allow you to access Lecompton Road — also known as County Route 1029 — the Farmer’s Turnpike — also known as County Route 438 — and the Kansas Turnpike — also known as Interstate 70. (There are more aliases in that area than at a prison yard barbecue.) But motorists would not be able to use the new interchange to access the South Lawrence Trafficway.
If you want to exit the Kansas Turnpike and directly access the SLT, you would need to do that at the existing interchange, which would need to quit being called the Lecompton interchange. That existing interchange would be rebuilt in a manner so motorists could no longer access Lecompton Road or the Farmer’s Turnpike.
If you are having a hard time following this, don’t feel bad. I’ve already thrown three GPS units against the wall just trying to figure out how to write it. But here’s one way to picture it: If you are coming from Lecompton and want to get on the SLT to go shopping in south Lawrence, your most direct route will involve getting on the Kansas Turnpike, driving two miles to the redesigned SLT interchange and paying your fare of a quarter or so. (I don’t have information on what the rate will be. I’m assuming it is in that range based on current fares.) Motorists who don’t want to pay the fare would have a couple of other options. They could stay on County Route 1029 until it intersects with U.S. Highway 40 west of Lawrence, and then take Highway 40 to the SLT. Or, they could take the Farmer's Turnpike until it intersects with Queens Road — also known as E 1000 Road — and use Queens to connect with Sixth Street and then take Sixth Street to the SLT.
— There is also an interchange on the current South Lawrence Trafficway known as the Clinton Parkway interchange. Under one scenario, it would be eliminated. That may cause you a bit of a problem — or at least a really big tow truck bill — if you try to tow your boat to nearby Clinton Lake via the SLT. Currently, the Clinton Parkway interchange serves as a gateway to Clinton Lake State Park.
KDOT engineers, however, are proposing a new access road be built from Clinton Parkway to the Bob Billings Parkway/SLT interchange that currently is under construction. Lake visitors then could exit off the SLT at Bob Billings Parkway and take the access road over to the Clinton Lake entrance. The new access road would be on the west side of the SLT. Motorists on Clinton Parkway also would continue to be able to get to the lake just as they do today.
• Getting to the city’s YSI sports complex near Wakarusa Drive and the SLT also would be different under the proposed plans. Engineers are hoping it will be significantly safer. Plans call for either an overpass or an underpass that would allow motorists on Wakarusa to access the ball fields without having to cross SLT traffic, which is required today.
Motorists who want to exit the SLT and go to the sports complex would do so at a new interchange proposed for a site about a mile east of the current at-grade intersection of Wakarusa and the SLT. A new frontage road would be built that would take motorists to the sports complex and to Wakarusa Drive.
• An existing at-grade intersection where Kasold Drive and the SLT intersect would be eliminated. Engineers say the at-grade crossing is a traffic hazard, and there are not enough motorists using the intersection to warrant building a full interchange.
KDOT officials will brief city and county commissioners on the proposed SLT options at a 4 p.m. study session on Tuesday at City Hall.
KDOT will continue to gather input from various stakeholders and then will announce its recommendations for the project in mid-to-late October.
When work may begin to convert the SLT into a four-lane road, however, is anybody’s guess. KDOT is spending money to create this concept study, but it would take tens of millions of dollars to actually build the project. That will involve winning funding from the Kansas Legislature in the future. No word on when that may happen, but KDOT officials have said they are confident traffic volumes on the western portion of the SLT will dictate four lanes of traffic.
Work is underway to complete the long-stalled eastern portion of the SLT. When it opens in 2016, it will be a four-lane road.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Getting lost in west Lawrence is one thing. (The worst that generally happens is I get the F150 stuck somewhere near the No. 7 green of Alvamar.) Losing your identity is another matter altogether.
A new report by City Auditor Michael Eglinski suggests Lawrence City Hall could be doing a bit more to prevent identity theft through the use of city files.
Eglinski, at Tuesday’s meeting, will present an audit to city commissioners recommending that the city adopt a formal policy for protecting personally identifiable information in city files. The city has lots of personal data in its file cabinets and computer servers. There’s all the standard information about city employees, but there are also files with lots of information about city utility customers, folks who file a police report, or people who have a case in Municipal Court.
Eglinski’s audit found Lawrence City Hall doesn’t have a formal plan for how to deal with an incident that involves the loss of personal data. Eglinski’s audit recommends the city begin working on such a plan, and begin directing the city’s Information Technology Department to “establish a framework for safeguarding personally identifiable information.” Part of that plan should include a strategy for how long the city should keep certain types of records before destroying them.
Eglinski’s report noted there are multiple instances where cities have had bad things happen to personal data in their files. A couple of examples: An employee of the Seattle Municipal Court stole numerous credit card numbers from people in the court’s computer system; Springfield, Mo., lost personal data on more than 2,000 people after a hacker broke into the city’s website.
Eglinski, though, did find that city employees generally understand the importance of protecting the personal data in the city’s files. In a written response to the audit, Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard said she sees the value in creating a more robust system to protect personal data. She said the city’s currently in the process of purchasing and insurance policy that will protect the city financially from a data breech. She said that insurance policy will allow the city to access some information technology security expertise. She said the city also in the process of developing a records retention plan.
Lawrence firm seeks to expand in East Hills; city set to appoint chair to lead commissioner vacancy board; fire sprinklers to be debated for animal facilities
There is a deal brewing for a new manufacturer to locate in the East Hills Business Park.
As we reported in June, Lawrence-based Prosoco has formed a new company that will make high-tech walls and panels for companies that want to build highly energy efficient homes and structures. As we noted in June, the new venture would need manufacturing and warehousing space, and now we know the company wants to locate it in Lawrence. Early indications are that the venture would produce about a half dozen new jobs in the near term and up to 15 in the midterm.
Leaders with Prosoco have signed a deal to purchase the Kinedyne building in the East Hills Business Park, but the group is asking for some help from local government to seal the deal. As we also reported in June, Kinedyne — the longtime manufacturer of cargo straps and such — is closing its Lawrence plant in East Hills, which has employed around 25 people recently.
The Kinedyne building is basically next door to the Prosoco building, so it makes good sense for Prosoco to base its new business out of the large facility. But Prosoco is seeking two pieces of help: It wants the county to give it a small lot of land that is in between the Prosoco and Kinedyne buildings, and it wants the city to waive about $45,000 in special assessments that are still attached to the property.
But Prosoco officials are pledging not to seek any tax abatements, tax increment financing, industrial revenue bonds or other such incentives from the city, according to a letter from Marilyn Bittenbender, a broker for the Lawrence office of Colliers International, which is representing Prosoco in the deal.
The lot in question has a fairly steep slope to it, and Bittenbender said she believes it will be a difficult lot to sell to a company interested in building a project on it. But the lot will aid the Prosoco deal because it can accommodate a driveway and loading dock infrastructure for the Kinedyne building.
As far as the special assessments go, those are to cover costs related to building the East Hills Business Park years ago. Those costs already have been paid, but removing the special assessments from the property means that tax payers will foot the final bill rather than being reimbursed by some company in the future.
This proposed deal will be a good test for the new commission. It is the first industrial park deal the group has been asked to decide. If commissioners balk at the incentive request for this deal, that’s a troubling sign for the VenturePark property next door. Companies that are interested in that new city-owned industrial park — it is where the Farmland fertilizer plant used to be — probably will ask for incentive packages similar or more generous than what this company is seeking.
The city already has invested more than $7 million of public money to build VenturePark. I know the previous City Commission did so with the understanding that it would take some additional incentives to lure companies to the park. This project — which is smaller than some of the ones officials are chasing for VenturePark — will be a good test to see if this new commission subscribes to that theory.
As for the project that is being proposed for the Kinedyne building, the company is called BuildSmart. As we previously reported, it plans to become the leader in building energy-efficient wall panels and other products that are designed to reduce energy costs in typical homes by 40 percent to 75 percent.
Prosoco, which makes a variety of chemical products for the masonry and construction industries, has partnered with Adam Cohen, who is one of the world’s leading architects in the Passive House movement. Cohen has developed a wall panel system that is built in sizes that don’t require the use of a crane on a job site. The panels also aren’t built with any nails or screws, which can decrease the energy efficiency of a home because air can leak in around the fasteners.
Cohen, though, was looking for a partner to manufacture the panels. Paul Grahovac, director of new business development for Prosoco, said Prosoco was looking for new opportunities like this one.
Grahovac told me this morning that details on how many people the new manufacturing facility would employ haven’t been finalized. But, he said one scenario starts with about six employees and grows to about 15 employees in the midterm. Grahovac also didn’t have wage estimates for the employees, who he said will be factory workers who will benefit from having a construction background or similar skill sets.
Grahovac said the company hopes to have necessary production equipment in the building by the end of the year, and manufacturing could begin before the second quarter of next year.
“The market is asking us to demonstrate that we can meet their needs for projects that they have coming up,” Grahovac said. “There’s good demand. We’re hustling to get this done.”
City commissioners will discuss waiving the special assessments at their Tuesday evening meeting. County commissioners then could consider donating the vacant lot shortly thereafter. We’ll see whether commissioners are ready to act on Tuesday or whether they seek more information on the jobs and wage totals and run a cost-benefit analysis, which has been a standard practice for more traditional tax abatement requests.
In other news and notes from around town:
• City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting also are set to appoint a longtime state government leader as the chair of the advisory group that will vet candidates for a vacant seat on the Lawrence City Commission.
Mayor Mike Amyx is recommending that Joe Harkins serve as the chair of the 12-member advisory committee. Harkins is a former commissioner on the Kansas Corporation Commission, a former director of the Kansas Water Office, a former secretary at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, a former director of Kansas University’s Public Management Center, and a former special assistant to former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
For what it is worth, Harkins is not what I would consider a frequent participant in City Hall issues, although he was a consistent critic of the process the previous City Commission followed on the Rock Chalk Park project.
As chair of the advisory committee, Harkins would run all meetings of the group. Its work is expected to start soon. The city is taking applications until 5 p.m. Sept. 9 for the seat that was left open by Jeremy Farmer’s resignation, following financial questions that emerged at his previous job.
• City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting also are set to discuss how much fire protection should be required for businesses that board animals. The discussion comes in the wake of fire that was deadly for many animals at Pet World earlier this year.
Fire department officials are recommending, among other items, the code require new animal housing facilities of 3,000 square feet or greater include an automatic fire sprinkler system. Existing animal housing facilities greater than 3,000 square feet wouldn’t have to comply with the fire sprinkler requirement, unless they undertook a significant renovation.
The Lawrence Humane Society has said it wants more stringent regulations. Leaders there are proposing that any newly constructed animal housing facility — regardless of size — be required to install automatic sprinklers.
Officials with Pet World want to go further. They are urging the city to adopt a code that would require all animal housing facilities to put in fire sprinklers immediately. In other words, existing facilities would have to figure out how to retrofit their buildings for sprinkler systems.
City Hall staff members are recommending that commissioners adopt the fire department’s recommendations to sprinkle only new buildings greater than 3,000 square feet. That recommendation comes after the city conducted a survey of business owners that have animal facilities, so think kennels, veterinarian offices, pet groomers and other such companies. That survey, which had 13 responses, showed there were some concerns about the cost of adding sprinkler systems to existing building.
Fire department officials said it was difficult to provide a good estimate on how much it would cost to retrofit a building because the process varies greatly depending on the type of the building. But fire department officials said a fire line installation into a building would cost a minimum of $6,000 and a required back flow preventer for such a line would cost anywhere from $2,600 to $14,000. Installing the actual sprinkler heads, piping and control systems inside the building would all cost additional dollars.
That wasn’t the most interesting finding of the survey, though. The city asked each participant how many animals are typically housed at the facility, and one respondent said “up to 10,000.” The survey results were anonymous, so I don’t know what facility that may be.
An indoor ant farm? My old college apartment where I left a batch of unwashed dishes? Or perhaps I'm unaware of a remake of the "Animal House" movie in town.
Seriously, I wonder what that facility would be. Regardless, city commissioners will discuss the fire code issue at their meeting at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
Home sales up; housing construction hits recent high; sales tax numbers strong but create some budget worries at City Hall
As a quick homework conversation with my seventh-grade son confirmed, junior high math has surpassed me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still do some calculations to determine the state of the Lawrence economy. So, here’s a look at the latest batch of numbers.
• The housing market in Lawrence remains strong. Homes sales through July are up 18 percent, according to a new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors. Lawrence home builders are even getting in on the good news. Sales of newly constructed homes are up 21 percent for the year. The newly constructed home market has been one that has been slow to bounce back in Lawrence.
The statistic that shows how hot the Lawrence market is right now has to do with the number of homes on the market. Real estate agents measure how many homes are on the market versus how quickly they are selling. A balanced market between buyers and sellers normally has about four to five months worth of homes on the market at any given time. Currently, there are 1.9 months worth of homes on the Lawrence market. It is a seller’s market right now. Negotiating for a house in Lawrence right now probably would remind me of my efforts to get a date for prom. You have to be prepared to sweeten the offer. (I had to promise we would super size the meal.)
Thus far for the year, the median number of days a home is sitting on the market before it sells is 24. That’s down from 34 at this point in 2014 and 42 in 2013. One other statistic of note: Real estate agents have sold $160 million worth of residential real estate in Lawrence thus far in 2015. That’s up from about $129 million during the same time period a year ago. That’s a nice boost for the Lawrence economy.
• The uptick in the home construction market is becoming very clear when you look at the city’s building permit totals. Through July, the city has issued 152 building permits for either single-family or duplex homes. That’s up from 60 such permits at this time last year. It also is well above the recent averages. From 2009 to 2014, the average number of permits at this time of year was 75. My seventh-grade son tells me 152 is more than double the average.
With projects both near campus and in downtown, the apartment construction market also has been strong. The city has issued permits for 431 new living units. Since 2009, the average for this time of year has been around 150 living units. So, there had better be a lot more people wanting to live in Lawrence.
The other big trend is in the building sector is that there have been a lot of big-dollar projects. The city has issued permits for $167 million worth of projects thus far. There have been four projects in 2015 that have checked in at more than $10 million each: the $45 million Here apartment/retail building near the KU campus; an $18 million apartment/office building at Ninth and New Hampshire; $13.3 million in work for the city’s new sewer plant south of the Wakarusa River; and $12 million for a new independent living unit at Pioneer Ridge in west Lawrence.
As we have reported before, we’re on pace to set a new building record in the city. Since 2009, the average amount of construction for this time of year has been $63.5 million. I would tell you how much more $167 million is than the average, but I’m afraid it would require my son to take off his shoes and, trust me, you don’t want a seventh-grade boy doing that.
• Lawrence’s retail sales numbers are a bit like a rib dinner: There’s plenty to like, but the barbecue sauce in your ear can cause a problem.
The sales tax report from the state shows that Lawrence’s sales tax collections are up about 5 percent thus far. That’s good, and actually is better than the showing of several other large retail centers in the state.
But the issue is City Hall budget makers are counting on sales tax collections to grow by 5 percent in 2015 to make the budget work as planned. The last few reports from the state have shown that sales tax collections are growing at a rate slower than what was happening in the beginning of the year. If that trend continues, it could put pressure on both the 2015 and 2016 budgets.
Bryan Kidney, the city’s finance director, told me that it now seems likely the city won’t hit its 5 percent growth estimate for 2015. He said it is still too early to predict how short the city may come up on that projection. It has the potential to cause city officials to reduce expenses in the general fund both for the 2015 and 2016 budgets. The reason it would affect both the 2015 and 2016 budgets is because the recently approved 2016 budget was built with an assumption that there would be a surplus of revenue in the sales tax fund at the end of 2015 that would carry into 2016. In order for the 2016 budget to work properly, the surplus needs to be there. So, that could result in some expenditure cuts in the last part of 2015.
Cuts could be necessary in 2016, if the sales tax growth doesn’t hit projections during that year. The city is banking on sales tax collections growing by at least 3 percent in 2015. We’ll see. That could be close.
So, there are some budgeting challenges, but from a big picture standpoint, recent sales tax numbers have been a strong sign for the Lawrence economy. At the moment, we're at 5 percent growth, and that is better than really any other major retail area in the state. How much that growth rate slows is the key question for budget-makers.
The state should be releasing new sales tax numbers very soon, and I’ll work to get those reported in a more timely manner. (We’ve had other things going on to report at City Hall this month.) But here’s a look how Lawrence’s sales tax collections are stacking up with other major communities.
— Johnson County: up 1.3 percent
— Kansas City: up 4.1 percent
— Lenexa: up 4.9 percent
— Manhattan: up 2.5 percent
— Overland Park: down 2.4 percent
— Salina: up 3.2 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 2.3 percent
— Topeka: up 0.8 percent
Stoddard won’t be candidate for Lawrence city manager post; Chick-fil-A sets date for South Iowa street opening
This news just in from Lawrence City Hall: Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard won’t be a candidate for the open city manager’s position in Lawrence. Stoddard sent out a message to employees updating them on several City Hall matters.
In that message she said “after significant reflection and discussions with my family, I have decided that the timing now isn’t right for me personally to apply for the position.”
Stoddard, though, said she does intend to remain as an assistant city manager upon the hiring of a new city manager.
“Once the new city manager is hired, I will return to my capacity of assistant city manager and will work to assist the new city manager in whatever way that I can to ensure a smooth and successful transition and continue all of the great public services and exciting projects currently underway in our community,” Stoddard wrote.
Stoddard, in the memo, briefed city employees on the process for filling the vacant seat left by former Commissioner Jeremy Farmer’s resignation, following financial irregularities at his previous employer. Stoddard did not go into any more detail about that situation, and the upheaval it has created at City Hall. She did not indicate that upheaval played a role in her decision. And to be fair, she had told me at the time of David Corliss’ resignation — he took a similar job in Colorado — that she wasn’t sure whether she would apply for the position. And that was before all of this upheaval created by Farmer’s resignation.
But there were certainly reasons to think Stoddard may apply. She is an experienced city executive, and she grew up in Lawrence. She’s gained a strong reputation for being able to help communities through complex economic development deals.
“This is an outstanding city, and an outstanding opportunity,” Stoddard said of the city manager’s position.
Stoddard’s decision certainly increases the likelihood that City Hall will have an unfamiliar face as its leader in the future. Stoddard is the most senior member of the city manager’s office. There certainly could be other candidates from Lawrence City Hall who will apply for the position, so I don’t want to discount their chances. There also are a number of people who previously have worked at Lawrence City Hall who have gone on to leadership positions in other cities. One of them may return.
The past two city managers in Lawrence were promoted from inside City Hall. When Buford Watson died while serving as city manager, Mike Wildgen — his assistant — was promoted to the top job. When Wildgen resigned after a long tenure, Corliss — one of Wildgen’s assistants — was promoted. So, it has been a while since a true outsider has taken the reins of City Hall’s top administrative post. The odds of that happening seem a bit greater now.
My doctor already has prescribed the handcuffs, the chains and the shock collar. I guess he thinks it really wouldn’t be a good idea for me to try to win a year’s worth of free Chick-fil-A as part of the fast food chain’s grand opening in Lawrence. But maybe the battery in your shock collar is running low. If so, I’ve got a date for Chick-fil-A’s Lawrence opening.
The company plans to open its store on South Iowa Street on Sept. 2, a spokeswoman for the restaurant’s PR company told me. Like it does in all of its markets, Chick-fil-A will host a giveaway where the first 100 people in line when the doors open at 6 a.m. on Sept. 2 will receive one Chick-fil-A meal per week for a year. My understanding is that in many markets, lines start to form about 24 hours in advance, and the parking lot of the restaurant looks a bit like a tailgate with tents, grills and chants of “wait ‘till basketball season.” (Maybe that last one is just a local tradition with tailgates.)
In case you have forgotten, the new Chick-fil-A is located in the parking lot of the shopping center that houses Dick's Sporting Goods at 27th and Iowa streets. If you have forgotten what Chick-fil-A is, ask the doctor to turn the collar down one notch. Regardless, the restaurant bills itself as the “home of the original chicken sandwich.” The menu includes several versions of a chicken sandwich, chicken strips, chicken wraps, chicken salads, and a host of side items and ice cream desserts.
The restaurant is part of a national chain, but the franchises are independently owned and operated. According to the company’s website, the Lawrence store is operated by Denise Martinek. According to a spokeswoman for the chain, the Lawrence store will employ about 80 people.
As part of its grand opening, the restaurant also will be hosting a book drive for the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, and a food drive for Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, according to the spokeswoman. I'm still waiting on a press release with additional information about those events.
In other news and notes from around town:
• South Iowa Street remains as hot as a well-used deep fryer. I believe there are a lot of companies giving the street a look for a potential location, and there are a lot of property owners along the corridor repositioning themselves.
One is the group that owns the property near 25th and Iowa streets. The shopping center that houses Office Depot, Tuesday Morning and that used to house Discovery Furniture has filed to rezone the property in a manner that will make it easier to attract big-box development at the site.
In addition, a related development group owns property across 25th Street: the shopping center that includes Paisano’s Ristorante and other smaller businesses. That shopping center also has applied for the same type of zoning designations.
Both parcels of property won a recommendation for approval from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission on Monday. Now, the rezoning requests will go to the City Commission for final approval in the next few weeks.
I’ve got calls into members of the development groups to find out what their latest thinking is on the properties. The rezoning request is to change the properties’ zoning from Neighborhood Commercial Center to Commercial Strip. Planning staff members in their analysis have noted that the proposed zoning category allows a wider range of uses that would be more consistent with what people would expect along South Iowa Street, which has grown into the city’s largest retail district.
Bottom line, the zoning should make it easier to redevelop both sites. Whether the property owners have plans to do a complete redevelopment, I do not know. As I’ve previously reported, there is speculation that Hobby Lobby has been looking for a new location that could accommodate a larger store. There are a multitude of other retailers we have mentioned that are looking at the property south of the SLT and Iowa Street interchange: Academy Sports, Old Navy, Designer Shoe Warehouse, to name a few. So, interest seems to be strong.
I think the area between 23rd and 25th streets on the west side of Iowa will be interesting to watch. That is a large area with a lot of traffic that goes by it every day. There is quite a bit of vacant space or underutilized space in the development. Some of the buildings are starting to show their age. It could be an area where significant retail redevelopment occurs.
Planners looking at trading some downtown parking spots for additional bicycle parking; Alvamar redevelopment recommended for approval by planning commissioners
Maybe it is time to start trading some car parking spots in downtown Lawrence for some bicycle parking spots. Maybe it is time for me to start wearing my cowboy hat and chaps when riding a bike to downtown. There is an idea floating around that could lead to both scenarios.
I’m talking about bike corrals. If you are not familiar with the concept, bike corrals basically are big bike racks that take over an on-street parking spot rather than being placed on a crowded sidewalk. (I’ve now discovered you don’t have to wear traditional corral apparel to use these. I’ve also discovered chafing.)
City planners are actively considering the idea of placing some bike corrals in downtown Lawrence. Yes, that would mean there would be fewer car parking spots in downtown.
“A lot of communities are finding that it is a good way to bring legitimacy to biking as a transportation mode,” said Jessica Mortinger, a transportation planner for the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department.
It also may be a good way to spur complaints from motorists, who during busy time periods complain about not having enough good parking options already.
But here is something to remember: You don’t have to have four wheels to complain about parking in downtown Lawrence. Mortinger said the idea for bike corrals came about after a business made a request for more bike parking. Bicyclists that come to downtown have expressed concerns about about finding safe, convenient parking spaces.
You may think it would be easy enough to just park your bike on the sidewalk. But Mortinger notes that is becoming more difficult for a variety of reasons. The new parking meter poles are big enough that a traditional U-lock for a bike won’t fit around them. Plus, there are concerns that bikes take up too much room on the sidewalks, especially when you factor in that sidewalk dining areas already are eating up a significant amount of space that once was reserved for pedestrians.
Mortinger also points out one other factor: the city law that prohibits people from riding their bikes on downtown sidewalks.
”They can’t ride their bikes on the sidewalks downtown, but that is where the parking is,” she notes.
It is not, however, that downtown doesn’t have any designated parking spaces for bicycles. There are traditional bicycle racks on the sidewalks near the midblock area of most Massachusetts Street blocks in downtown. There are also other bike racks scattered throughout downtown.
In total, there are 271 bicycle parking spaces in downtown, Mortinger said. There are 4,042 parking spots for cars in downtown. Mortinger notes that in most new developments in the city, one bicycle parking spot is required for every 10 traditional parking spots. If that standard were followed in downtown, there would be a little more than 400 bicycle parking spots in downtown. It is worth remembering, though, that downtown parking is a special breed in Lawrence. Unlike other developments around town, businesses aren’t required to provide their own parking. City-owned parking is instead the norm.
Whether there is enough parking — or it is in the right places — has long been a debate in downtown. It will be interesting to watch how the idea of taking some parking places for bike corrals will be received. Planners are still trying to figure out the right number and location, Mortinger said. She said one near the Lawrence Public Library makes a lot of sense because on many days the bike racks near the library are full.
She said planners are also looking for a location on Massachusetts Street and a couple in the 100 blocks of side streets just off of Massachusetts Street. Each corral can usually accommodate about 10 bikes, depending on the design. The city has not decided what type of design to use yet, but you can see several examples here. Planners have had some discussions with Downtown Lawrence Inc. How that group responds to the idea probably will go a long way in determining what type of political reception the idea gets at the Lawrence City Commission, which ultimately will be asked to approve a bike corral pilot project in the future.
“I think they like the idea of additional bicycle parking,” Mortinger said of her conversations with Downtown Lawrence Inc. leaders. “As always, though, there is a limited amount of space downtown and always concern about how we use it.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• The idea of more residential development around the Alvamar golf and country club got a positive response from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission on Monday evening.
The Planning Commission — on a 9-0 vote — recommended approval of a plan that would add about 300 additional apartments, condos and other multifamily units near the course. The idea of an expanded banquet facility with about two dozen overnight guest rooms also received a thumbs-up from the planning board. Now the plans — which have been proposed by a local group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel — will go to the City Commission for approval. A date hasn’t been set, but the earliest it would arrive at the commission is Sept. 8, a planning department official told me.
As we previously reported, the plans for the redevelopment shrank a bit in the last couple of months. At one point, there were plans for a large assisted living and independent living facility just south of where the clubhouse area sits today. That component was removed from the most recent plans.
The largest residential component in the new plans is to the north of the existing clubhouse area. The plans — which are being designed by local architect Paul Werner — call for up to 292 multidwelling living units, which would be in up to nine buildings. The buildings — ranging in size from two stories to four stories — would be along the existing section of Crossgate Drive north of the clubhouse area. The buildings likely would contain a mix of apartments and condos, Werner said. Some rearranging of golf holes will be required to accommodate the new development, but plans still call for Alvamar to maintain 36 holes of golf.
The latest plans still call for a new public street to be built south of Bob Billings Parkway and west of Crossgate Drive. The new street would become the new northern entrance for the country club, and also would serve the new multifamily development. I’m still a little unclear on when that street would be required to be built. I’m checking on that today and will update when I get more info.
The development also would include a 15,000 square-foot banquet facility that would be built near the current location of the public pro shop. The banquet facility would include 24 guest rooms that could be rented as part of wedding parties or by golfers.
How controversial killing of Cecil the lion may boost local start-up company; get ready to add Haskell Lane to your city map
A Douglas County startup company may receive a boost from, of all things, that infamous Zimbabwe hunting trip that killed Cecil the lion.
Don’t get me wrong: Dennis Steinman, founder of Lecompton-based Iron Mountain Products, isn’t advocating you go kill a beloved lion. But if you do, you should do it with the aid of his company’s high-tech Game Vector system.
That marketing strategy isn’t quite as catchy as “Don’t squeeze the Charmin,” but it might work.
How you feel about the death of Cecil probably depends on how you feel about hunting in general. But one thing hunters and non-hunters likely agree upon is that if an animal has been shot and wounded, it shouldn’t suffer for long.
That’s what Steinman’s product is all about for bow hunters. Steinman, who is a former executive in the printed circuit board industry, has developed a small transmitter that fits around the shaft of an arrow. Upon impact, the transmitter attaches to the hide of the animal. The transmitter sends out an RF signal that can be picked up by a proprietary, handheld receiver operated by the hunter. The transmitter and receiver have a range of about two miles.
All this is important to a hunter because when an animal has been shot by an arrow, it may still flee. Sometimes it flees so far it can be difficult for the hunter to find in a timely manner. Reportedly, Cecil the lion was tracked for 40 hours before he was found and put out of his misery.
“It is a terrible feeling when that happens,” Steinman said. “Bow hunters in general are pretty ethical, and to have something like that happen can be devastating.”
But if you think Steinman is planning on making his money by selling to folks who hunt lions with a bow and arrow, you perhaps have been spending too much time squeezing the Charmin. Selling to archers who hunt deer is the big market.
“We think there are about 5 million bow hunters in the U.S., so we think there is a lot of potential,” Steinman said. “We think there is a lot of potential around the world.”
The company’s Game Vector system, which includes the transmitter, the receiver and everything you need to mount and balance the device on the arrow, sells for a retail price of $265. Indeed, if the little Lecompton company could tap into just 10 percent of the U.S. market, that is more than $130 million in retail sales.
The company is currently selling the products, but not nearly that many. Game Vector has been on the market since late 2012, but it primarily has been sold online and through about 40 smaller retailers. The company is now at the point where it has worked out the details with its Nebraska-based manufacturing partner that it is ready to make a push to get into major retailers like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops.
“We’re making some real progress on that front,” Steinman said.
Steinman got the idea for the company after he agonized over a lost whitetail deer he shot with his bow and arrow. Steinman had about 30 years of experience in the electronics industry. He was the founder and president of Chanute-based PC Boards, which made circuit boards for Cessna and other clients. The company sold in 2007, and he moved to Douglas County about five years ago. He’s since developed a small team of engineers and financial professionals to build the company and the product to its current state.
“We feel like we have a good opportunity here,” Steinman said. “We’re the only ones that are really very active with a product like this. Others have tried it but haven’t been able to perfect it.”
Game Vector should be an interesting startup to keep an eye on. Douglas County is not really considered the hunting capital of Kansas, and Lecompton is not really considered the tech hub of Douglas County. But as Mr. Whipple can attest, stranger things have happened.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe I can attach one of those transmitters on the Ford Taurus at my house. If I did, it would show that someone in my household really likes the new 31st Street and the time it cuts off on trips to the South Iowa Street shopping district.
Surely you already know that 31st Street is fully opened, including a new section of 31st Street that runs between Haskell Avenue and O’Connell Road. If you are coming from the east, there is a brand new, easy way to get to Lawrence’s largest shopping district.
Among the changes that happened with that project is a portion of Haskell Avenue was rebuilt and relocated farther to the east. But that left a stretch of the old Haskell Avenue in place. It remained in place because there are several businesses including United Rentals and the fueling station run by Capital City Oil. The stretch of old Haskell that remains basically is from 29th Street to just south of the new 31st Street.
Well, I bring all this up because that stretch of street soon will have a new name: Haskell Lane. City commissioners will approve an ordinance naming the street Haskell Lane at their meeting on Tuesday. I bring it up so that you don’t get in an argument with the lady inside your GPS when she mentions Haskell Lane. (I hate those arguments. Her voice always remains so calm, even though I know she must be seething from my skilled oratorical volleys.)
Technically, there’s a small section of old 31st Street that remains in place. Commissioners are going to rename it 30th Terrace. But don’t argue with Mrs. GPS over that. The street currently has no businesses on it. If you are on that street, you really are lost.
More details emerge on application process to fill vacant City Commission seat; new plans filed for redevelopment around Alvamar golf courses
Your mother was right. You should have spent a little less time being a yahoo and little more time listening to your English teacher talk about the finer points of writing a good essay. Why? Because if you want to fill the vacant seat on the Lawrence City Commission, you’re going to be asked to write a 500-word essay on the most important issues facing the city.
Details are starting to emerge on how commissioners plan to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Commissioner Jeremy Farmer. Those details include a questionnaire, a planned public forum and several other items. Commissioners are set to approve the selection process at their Tuesday evening meeting. The process lays out a schedule that would culminate with a selection of a new commissioner on Oct. 6.
Here’s a look at key details, as currently proposed:
— Candidates would have until 5 p.m. on Sept. 9 to apply for the vacant seat. As part of the process, they would fill out an application form. It includes questions about the person’s education, work history, length of time in Lawrence, community involvement, a 500-word essay on “your approach to governing” and a 500-word essay on top issues facing the city. In addition, candidates will be required to complete a statement of substantial interests, which discloses any ownership interests the person has in businesses or other investments, positions of leadership with boards or other organizations, and details about other compensation they receive in addition to their primary salary.
— A 12-member advisory board will be appointed to review all applications and make a recommendation of six candidates to be considered by the City Commission. Members of the board haven’t been identified, but I expect they soon will be. Each of the remaining four commissioners will appoint three members. Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard told me this morning that her office currently is confirming that the recommended appointees are Lawrence residents and registered voters. Their names are expected to be released later today.
— The advisory board would hold a meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 17 to review all applicants and select 12 semifinalists. All meetings of the advisory board would abide by the Kansas Open Meetings Act and the Kansas Open Records Act, meaning all candidate applications will be a matter of public record.
— At a 6:30 p.m. meeting on Sept. 24, the advisory board will host a public forum and select six candidates to forward to the City Commission.
— The four remaining Lawrence city commissioners will hold a special meeting at 5:45 p.m. on Oct. 1 to interview applicants and discuss the candidate and vacancy.
— City commissioners by a simple majority vote will select a candidate to fill the vacancy at the Oct. 6 City Commission meeting. The new commissioner will be sworn into office at that time.
We have interesting times ahead of us. City officials apparently are expecting strong interest in the position, given that they plan to narrow the field down to 12 semifinalists. Such thinking may be warranted. The most recent City Commission elections that were concluded in April attracted a field of 14 candidates, which was the largest field in at least a decade. Most years, though, fewer than 12 people file for a seat on the commission. It will be interesting to see if the numbers increase now that candidates don’t have to go through the full election process and the fundraising that goes with it.
In case you have forgotten, click here to see a list of the candidates who filed for a seat in the April election. Perhaps some of those will file again. In case you have forgotten (your mother tells us that is a trend), former Commissioner Terry Riordan was the fourth-place finisher in the April elections. That means he was the person who received the most votes without winning a seat. He finished about 1,500 votes out of third place and about 130 votes ahead of fifth-place finisher Stan Rasmussen.
That distinction has led to some discussion around town about whether Riordan should be given the seat, as the person who was next in line in the election. I haven’t heard that type of discussion from commissioners, yet. Commissioner Leslie Soden already has said she doesn’t think the vacancy should be filled by someone who was on the previous commission. Voters had a chance to re-elect two of the three commissioners who had expiring terms, and they didn’t do so. Whether other commissioners feel the same way, I don’t know.
To be clear, I have not heard whether Riordan has any interest in the position either. There are too many possible candidates to check in with everyone. We’ll know soon enough who is interested. The release of names for the advisory board today also should be instructive. I expect it could include some former city commissioners and other community leaders. If their names are on the advisory board, that means they won’t be a candidate for the vacancy.
We’ll post the advisory board names when we get them.
UPDATE: The city has released the names of the 12 members who will serve on the advisory board. They are: Michelle Fales, Mark Preut, and Dustin Rimmey, appointed by Commissioner Matthew Herbert; Dennis Constance, Brenda Nunez, and Melinda Toumi, appointed by Commissioner Leslie Soden; State Rep. Boog Highberger, Njeri Shomari, and Shirley Martin-Smith, appointed by Commissioner Stuart Boley; and Tom Christie, Joe Harkins, and Joanne Hurst, appointed by Mayor Mike Amyx. Constance, Highberger and Martin-Smith are all former city commissioners.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Mark your calendars for Monday, if you are interested in future development at the Alvamar golf and country club in west Lawrence. Planning commissioners at their 6:30 p.m. meeting on Monday at City Hall are scheduled to discuss the latest redevelopment plans for the property.
We’ve previously reported on plans that have included large amounts of new apartments north of the clubhouse area and assisted living and independent living units south of the clubhouse area. Well, there has been a tweak to the proposal. The several hundred units of assisted and independent living south of the clubhouse area have been removed from the plans.
There had always been some uncertainty about whether that portion of the project would proceed, so the development group decided to remove it from the plans. If the idea re-emerges at a later date, it would be required to go through the full planning and approval process.
As you recall, a group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel has reached a deal to purchase the golf and country club, contingent on winning approval to add some additional residential units and amenities near the course.
Lawrence architect Paul Werner is designing the project. He told me he thinks the proposed improvements can do a lot to make Alvamar a more viable operation for the future.
“Everyone that speaks to us is really positive about the project,” Werner told me via email. “We know it will come with some hurdles in dealing with construction and construction traffic, but at the end, this can revitalize Alvamar. The people who live on the course and are members really get it.”
Among the big changes proposed for the area:
— up to 292 multidwelling living units on property that is north of the current clubhouse area. Plans could still change, but one proposal has called for nine multistory buildings, ranging in size from two stories to four stories, that would be along the existing section of Crossgate Drive north of the clubhouse area. The buildings likely would contain a mix of apartments and condominiums. Some rearranging of golf holes will be required to accommodate this portion of the development, but plans still call for Alvamar to maintain 36 holes of golf.
— The latest plans still call for a new public street to be built south of Bob Billings Parkway and west of Crossgate Drive. The new street would become the new northern entrance for the country club, and also would serve the new multifamily development. But Werner said there are questions about the timing of when that street would need to be built.
— A 15,000 square-foot banquet facility would be built near the current location of the public pro shop. The banquet facility would include 24 guest rooms that could be rented as part of wedding parties or by golfers. The Planning Department is now labeling this part of the development as a small hotel.
— The recently filed plans to mention the possibility of tearing down the existing clubhouse and banquet area at Alvamar in a future phase. Werner clarified that is a possibility “way down the road.” He said all other facilities would be built and in operation before that was considered. Plans also are unclear about what that portion of the property would be used for. It would be required to go through the full planning and approval process if a new use was proposed for that portion of the property.
— Plans call for two to three swimming pools, three cabanas, a nearly 12,000 square-foot fitness and wellness center, 1,200 square feet of space for the Kansas Golf Hall of Fame and other amenities.
Ultimately, city commissioners will have to get in on the approval process for any major changes at Alvamar. But first it is the Planning Commission. It will be an interesting project to watch. Alvamar has been an anchor for west Lawrence for a long time. With the downturn the golf industry has taken, I think there are genuine concerns about the long-term direction of the golf courses. The fate of this proposed multimillion dollar renovation will be an important one not just for golf fans, but really for the entire west Lawrence area.
City Hall prepares to debate proposed shopping center south of SLT and Iowa interchange; library wins national designation
There are a multitude of reasons why Lawrence City Hall may be interested in a few more coins. Sure, there are the obvious budgetary reasons. But these days just as important is that an extra quarter may come in handy for flipping to break 2-2 ties on a shorthanded City Commission. See Tuesday night. Regardless, city commissioners soon will have to decide whether a proposed shopping center south of the South Lawrence Trafficway is a good way for the community to get a few more coins.
As we previously have reported an out-of-state development group has filed plans to build a new shopping center at the southeast corner of the SLT and Iowa Street interchange. The project would have about 250,000 square feet of space for new retailers and restaurants. No official word on the proposed tenants, but previously the development group has said Academy Sports, Old Navy, Marshalls/Home Goods, Designer Shoe Warehouse and other smaller retailers want to come to the site.
The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will hear arguments for and against the project at its Monday evening meeting at City Hall. The big news on the project this week is that the city’s professional planning staff is recommending approval of the project. But that and a quarter will get you a tie-breaking device at City Hall and a really, really bad cup of coffee. Ultimately, city commissioners — whether it be four of them or five of them — will make the final decision on whether the project wins the necessary rezoning and planning approvals.
There are lots of issues with this one. So, let’s take a look:
• The latest documents at City Hall provide a better idea of the tenant mix that North Carolina-based Collet real estate hopes to bring to the center.
— Two stores in the sporting goods and hobby and books category totaling 117,000 square feet. Academy Sports would seem to be one of those.
— Five restaurants — three of the sit-down variety and two fast-food restaurants — totaling 30,500 square feet. Could this be the shopping center that finally lands the elusive Olive Garden or Red Lobster? Developers have not said, but certainly that rumor is out there.
— Two furniture and home furnishing stores totaling 28,000 square feet. It would seem Marshalls/Home Goods may be one of those retailers.
— Three clothing stores totaling 24,900 square feet. Old Navy seems to fit into that category, as does Designer Shoe Warehouse.
— Two food and beverage retailers totaling 22,300 square feet. This one will be an interesting category to keep an eye on. Organic grocers have been a hot addition to the Lawrence market, but the square footage seems small for another specialty grocery store, like a Whole Foods or one of its competitors.
— Two general merchandise stores totaling 17,500 square feet. At one point there had been at least some interest from Sam’s Club in the site. But at 17,500 square feet, that’s not enough space to even contain Sam’s wallet. We’re obviously talking about smaller general retailers at this point.
— Two office or medical-oriented businesses totaling 4,900 square feet.
— One health and personal care retailer totaling 1,900 square feet.
• The development group is highlighting that one of the stores is an existing Lawrence store that is looking to move to a new location. I don’t have any word on who that is. I can tell you there certainly has been speculation in the Lawrence retail community that Hobby Lobby is looking for a new home. I think the former Discovery Furniture location near 25th and Iowa Street, however, could be a possibility for Hobby Lobby too.
• The development group has prepared a study that estimates the project will generate an extra $1.2 million in sales tax collections for the city of Lawrence alone in 2019 when the development is fully built. This study will create debate in some circles. The study is commissioned by the developers, so that is one factor to consider. Plus, there will be an argument that some of the shopping that occurs at this center will be shopping that would have happened at other retailers in Lawrence, which means the sales tax dollars aren’t really new. There will be a counter argument, however, that the mix of retailers will slow the number of people who leave Lawrence to go shop in Kansas City and elsewhere. There also will be an argument that the center will attract some out-of-town shoppers. No, the center likely won’t cause people from K.C. or Topeka to flock to us. But it might cause shoppers from Ottawa to make the short drive into south Lawrence. What seems most certain is there will be an argument.
• The city staff has done its own study of how the project may impact the local retail market, in particular vacancy rates. The short analysis is that staff did not find anything in the study to cause them to recommend denial of the project. But really, the study shows how flawed the city’s system is at the moment. The foundation of the study is a citywide retail vacancy rate that was compiled in 2012. The study makes no attempt to determine what the actual vacancy rate is in the city today. To be clear, this isn’t the city staff’s fault. I’ve heard the staff tell previous commissions that they don’t having the staffing power to update the vacancy rate each year, but commissioners have never done anything to address the situation. That’s fine. There are competing priorities for limited resources at City Hall. But why require city staff to do the study at all for a project like this, if you are going to use data that changes frequently and is now three years out of date? Try picking stocks this way. Use one quarter’s worth of data from three years ago, and then make your decision based on that. I’ll come visit you in your green van down by the river and we can discuss how it worked out.
• The staff’s study, though does make an important observation about what to expect in the future. “If this project is approved, other approved, yet undeveloped commercial nodes may have to extend their development time frames in order to attract retail tenants, thus potentially underserving these areas of the community,” the report finds.
This is probably the key political point on this project: How much will it delay development in other parts of town? In particular, there is a concern about whether this development will slow development around Rock Chalk Park. There was a definite concern when this south Lawrence site was proposed for development last year. That proposal — which was significantly larger than this one — never won approval, in part, because city leaders were concerned they would be jeopardizing the more than $20 million investment they made in Rock Chalk Park. There appeared to be a lot of political pressure applied from supporters of Rock Chalk Park on city leaders to deny the south Iowa Street project.
It is an interesting and important question. It is reasonable to think that if this south Lawrence project is approved that it will make it more difficult for the already commercially zoned area around Rock Chalk Park to attract major retailers in the near term. But it also is a fair question to ask whether major retailers are going to be attracted to the Rock Chalk Park area without the south Lawrence project. The development has struggled to attract retailers. Thus far there are none out there, despite the area being zoned for commercial uses for years.
Plus, south Lawrence is not the only area Rock Chalk Park has to compete with. If retailers are interested in west Lawrence, there’s the possibility they may want to locate at the new interchange at Bob Billings Parkway and the SLT. Retailers like either being next to other retailers — which is why South Iowa is a hot commodity — or they like being next to lots of homes. There is some new home and apartment construction underway near Rock Chalk Park, but there are legitimate questions about whether the area north of Rock Chalk park will ever develop significantly with residential homes because the area is outside of the Lawrence school district. There are not those questions at Bob Billings and the SLT. I’ve heard several people say the area west of the SLT at Bob Billings is poised for significant residential growth.
I don’t have the answers to all those questions, but they are some of the bigger ones facing the Lawrence City Commission right now. And that’s saying something, because the group has a lot of questions on its plate.
Planning commissioners meet at 6:30 p.m. on Monday at City Hall.
Full Disclosure: A member of the Simons family, which owns the Journal-World and LJWorld.com, previously was part of a group that had an option to purchase the proposed development site. The member is no longer involved with the proposed development.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The new Lawrence Public Library building has won a major award. The publication Library Journal has named the building a Landmark Library as part of its 2015 contest. The library was one of 11 named to the list. The publication looked at 80 libraries that were completed between 2010 and 2014.
The magazine describes landmark libraries as those that “have reimagined services, space, collections, and programming in ways that engage communities and celebrate creativity.”
It looks like the September issue of Library Journal will include a complete profile of the Lawrence Public Library.
If you remember, voters approved an $18 million expansion and renovation of the library at Seventh and Vermont streets, and the new facility opened in July 2014.
Large new pool hall, bar to open near Ninth and Iowa; national jewelry store chain opening store in south Lawrence
There’s a new business opening in Lawrence where I can resume my imitations of Minnesota Fats, and no — put your bibs away — it is not a grand all-you-can eat buffet. Instead, it is a grand pool hall.
A pair of Lawrence businessmen are opening Empire Bar & Billiards near Ninth and Iowa streets. Chad Landis and his business partner, Cody Henry, have signed a lease for the space that previously was home to The Pool Room.
Landis and Henry were longtime managers at Lawrence’s other long-standing pool hall, Astros, which is near Sixth and Kasold.
“We will try to be a little bit more upscale than the previous room,” Landis said. “We’ll have lots of craft beers and high-end bourbons and whiskeys.”
Landis estimated the establishment will carry about 40 import and craft beers, plus a large selection of bourbons, ryes and whiskeys.
There also will be plenty of pool. Landis has been one of the chief organizers of pool leagues and tournaments in the city for years. He said Empire will feature 16 coin-operated tables that will play for 50 cents a game, and one nine-foot table that can be rented by the hour. Plans call for eight-ball and nine-ball leagues, and tournaments on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
“We want to walk that fine line between running a real pool hall and being a bar where anybody can come in and feel comfortable,” Landis said.
Landis and Henry have spent the last several weeks cleaning and renovating the former Pool Room space. The space is one of the larger bars in town at about 10,000 square feet. Landis said Empire currently is not using the large back room of the business, but may consider using it for banquet or event space. The business also isn’t yet using the kitchen that came with the space, although Landis said the business hopes to expand into the food business at some point.
Landis was a manager at Astros for about 15 years, and Henry worked at the pool hall for about seven years. Landis said he decided he wanted to have his own establishment, and the opportunity arose after The Pool Room went out of business after about 25 years in operation.
For those of you who don’t remember where The Pool Room was, it was right behind The Merc. (I once tried to do an imitation of Douglas County Slim by taking my Merc-bought organic carrots and kale and running a few racks of nine-ball at The Pool Room, but that didn’t go so well.) For those of you who like actual addresses, the business is at 925 Iowa St., Suite P.
Landis said the business hopes to have a soft opening today.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Whenever I try to imitate Minnesota Fats at a pool hall, one of two things usually happens: 1. I win some money, come home late, and then must go to a jewelry store and spend a good amount of money. 2. I lose some money, come home late and then must go to a jewelry store and spend a great amount of money.
Well, good news, there’s a new jewelry store opening on south Iowa Street. Signs are advertising that Kay Jewelers will open in the space previously occupied by RadioShack at 3221 Iowa St. That’s the strip center right in front of SuperTarget.
Kay currently doesn’t operate a store in Lawrence, but the national chain has us surrounded. The company has locations in the Legends, Oak Park Mall, The Plaza, Zona Rosa, Westridge Mall in Topeka and a couple other locations in the Kansas City metro area.
According to its web site, Kay Jewelers has about 900 stores across the country, and is part of the larger Signet Jewelers, which bills itself as the largest specialty retail jeweler in the world.
No word yet on when the store may open, but renovation work appears to be underway.
Signs point to Amyx as next mayor; questions about whether commissioners need city credit cards; neighbors expressing safety concern near New York Elementary
It sure looks like Mike Amyx is going to once again be Lawrence’s mayor. City commissioners at their meeting tonight are expected to choose a new mayor to replace Jeremy Farmer, who resigned his seat on the commission last week amid financial questions.
I’ve chatted with Commissioner and Acting Mayor Leslie Soden, and she has indicated that she’s open to the idea of Amyx serving as mayor during these unusual times.
“I’m very much interested in doing what is best for the city,” Soden said. “Experience, continuity, predictability is what is best for the city right now.”
There have been some questions about who the next mayor would be. Soden, who is vice mayor, has been serving as acting mayor since Farmer’s resignation. City tradition says the vice mayor is next in line to be mayor. But no one was anticipating that it would be this soon. Soden was expected to take over as mayor in April, when Farmer’s term was scheduled to end. The issue that has been raised is that Soden has been on the commission for only about five months.
Then there is Amyx. The longtime owner of a downtown barber shop has served as Lawrence’s mayor five times, dating back to 1985. His latest stint as mayor was from April 2014 to April 2015. At the moment, Amyx is the only member of the commission who has more than five months of experience as a city commissioner.
I’ve spoken with Amyx, and he said he’s willing to serve as mayor.
“If my colleagues ask me to serve, I would be very proud to serve,” Amyx said. “It is a position I have been very proud to serve in, and it is a job that I take as serious as anything I do.”
Make no mistake, though, Soden is still interested in serving as mayor. She was the top vote winner in the April elections, which traditionally has been an assurance that you’ll get a chance to serve a one-year term as mayor. Soden, however, would rather have that term begin in April 2016 as originally planned.
“In the future, I’m interested in serving as mayor, and April would be a good time to start,” Soden said. “I think it is important to allow the process to work. Part of the process is serving a year as vice mayor to become prepared to be mayor.”
So, I expect picking Amyx as mayor won’t be too difficult at tonight’s meeting, which begins at 5:45 p.m. at City Hall. I suspect commissioners will agree to make his term run into April 2016.
At some point, though, commissioners will have to decide whether to change the traditional term of the mayor. The traditional starting date for a new mayor has long been April because it matches up with the city’s election cycle. Every two years, there is a citywide election to elect three city commissioners. Those commissioners take office in April, and the commission selects a new mayor as part of the first meeting of the new commission.
But state legislators — who are apparently the experts in good government — decided it would be better to change the time frame for local elections, hopefully to boost voter turnout. So, in the future, new city commissioners will take office in January. That process will begin in January 2018.
It is reasonable to think that the City Commission may want to change the term of mayor so that the term begins as new commissioners join the commission. If so, that would mean somebody is going to get a shortened term as mayor. That somebody could be Commissioner Stuart Boley who was the second place finisher in the April elections. By tradition, he would be in line to serve as vice mayor next year and then serve as mayor from April 2017 to April 2018.
But right now April 2017 seems like a long time away. Commissioners have plenty to figure out in the here and now.
• It will be interesting to see how much discussion commissioners have about the idea of credit cards for city commissioners. Part of the fallout from Farmer’s resignation has been his use of a city-issued credit card. He placed some personal expenses on the city credit card because he said his personal cards had become compromised. The personal expenses were discovered by city staff members, and interim City Manager Diane Stoddard questioned Farmer about the expenses. Farmer ended up reimbursing the city for about $1,100 worth of personal expenses.
When I talked to Amyx, he said he wasn’t sure why city commissioners were recently issued city credit cards.
“At least for myself, there does not need to be a credit card issued in my name,” Amyx said. “I’ll be honest with you, that doesn’t need to happen for me.”
My understanding is the city in the past did not issue city credit cards to commissioners. Instead, there was a single city credit card that could be checked out to a commissioner to use in an emergency situation while traveling on city business. Before, I believe commissioners paid for expenses they incurred on city business, then sought reimbursement from City Hall.
Commissioners in April, though, were each given a city credit card with his or her name on it. Since this incident with Farmer, my understanding is that all the credit cards have been returned to City Hall. Stoddard has told me that Farmer was the only commissioner who had used a card since they had been issued in April. He also was the only commissioner who had done overnight travel for city business since April.
At the moment, I don’t think the credit card issue is one that is going to bloom into a controversy for city staff. What I’ve heard from commissioners thus far is that they have been pleased with how staff members handled the issue. They spotted questionable expenses on Farmer’s card, and Stoddard had the conviction to question him about it.
But the issue does seem like it may spark a review of what is included in the city of Lawrence’s travel policy. A look at some of Farmer’s expenses that weren’t personal in nature may raise some eyebrows. Farmer frequently used valet parking at Kansas City International Airport and at various hotels. There were times Farmer had a rental car but also had taxi expense on the same trip.
Based on the documents the city has released, it appears Farmer on at least two occasions took advantage of the fuel service program that rental car companies offered. You know the service: The rental car folks will fill the car up with gasoline so you don’t have to when you return. But that normally comes at a pretty good price. It appears the city paid $8.99 a gallon for gasoline as part of that service while Farmer was renting a car in San Antonio.
I don’t think using those types of services is particularly prohibited in the city’s travel policy — the policy says employees are “expected to use the most economical means available with reasonable consideration given to the time and distance involved.” Whether the policy needs to become more specific may get some consideration from commissioners.
“Most people would not spend that type of money on gasoline,” Amyx said. “Those are clearly things that are going to raise eyebrows, and probably should.”
But Amyx said he thinks the city’s staff has done a good job of handling the matter.
“I believe staff was right on top of this,” Amyx said. “I was made aware of the situation last week. They were doing what they needed to do to get the matter settled.”
• There is other city business to discuss, and commissioners will have a good, old-fashioned neighborhood concern to deal with at tonight’s meeting. I’m hearing from some residents near New York Elementary School that they plan to be at tonight’s meeting to express concern about the construction project the school district has underway at New York Elementary.
Area resident Eric Kirkendall tells me there are two concerns: 1. Neighbors don’t believe there has been adequate fencing placed around the construction site. 2. Neighbors don’t feel they had adequate notice about a portion of the district’s plans that calls for angled parking to be added along New Jersey Street near the school.
On the parking issue, Kirkendall — who lives near the new parking area — said he realizes it is probably too late to eliminate the parking from the plans. But he said neighbors are concerned the additional parking will create more traffic on New Jersey Street, and the nature of the parking could create some safety concerns with people backing out into traffic and such.
Neighbors want commissioners to consider making the 900 block of New Jersey Street one way, allowing only southbound traffic. Also the neighbors would like the city to add some traffic-calming devices — like speed bumps —additional landscaping along New Jersey Street and signs that designate the parking spaces for school parking only.
The construction fencing issue has an interesting twist. As we reported last week, an 8-year old was seriously injured after the child and a babysitter went onto the playground of the school, which is an active construction site. The child fell and suffered a traumatic head injury.
Kirkendall said city code requires construction fencing around the site. But here’s the twist: The school district projects are not being built under the city’s building code. Instead, the city and the school district agreed to exempt the school from city building code requirements. Instead, the district is meeting state building standards for codes. That saved the school district considerable money on building-permit fees. In an email about the matter, Scott McCullough, the city’s director of planning and development services, said issues related to the fencing were not in the city’s purview on this project.
“The city does not permit or inspect school building projects at this time,” McCullough wrote in an email that was forwarded to Kirkendall. “Any safety concerns related to the school district’s property should be directed to district officials.”
No word yet on whether the school district plans to put up additional fencing on the construction site. UPDATE: I've had a chance to check with neighbors at the site this morning, and there is additional fencing work underway at the site. UPDATE NO 2: Julie Boyle, communications director for Lawrence public schools, has told me that permanent fencing on the south side of the project site and temporary fencing on the north side of the project is scheduled to be completed by Wednesday.
The latest proposal for a multistory Vermont St. building and plans for luxury condos; NAACP urges minority representation in vacant city seat; Kasold lane-reduction discussion delayed
It wasn’t that long ago that luxury living in downtown Lawrence meant being lucky enough to get one of the patio seats at Free State Brewery, or maybe getting a Mass. Street parking meter with a good half hour still left on it. But now there are actual luxury living units in downtown, and a proposed multistory project on Vermont Street is looking to up the stakes.
We reported in late June that former City Commissioner Bob Schumm had filed plans for a new multistory building in the 800 block of Vermont street that would house a mix of retail, offices and condos. Well, he’s tweaked those plans, and one of the tweaks involves the addition of a new 2,500 square foot, penthouse-style condominium overlooking downtown.
“I’m not going to say it is a luxury condo, but it definitely is in the upscale range,” said Schumm, who has been a longtime downtown property owner.
Schumm added the large condo — at 2,500 square feet, larger than a typical ranch-style home in the city — after trying to address some design concerns that came up regarding his previous proposal. The project is proposed for the two vacant lots just south of the Lucy Hobbs Taylor building at 809 Vermont St. That historically significant building dates back to 1871, which means Schumm’s project must pass a historic design review.
Here’s a look at the new design, with the the previously proposed design following for comparison purposes.
“I think this design looks far superior,” Schumm said. “We tried to stair-step it back in front. I didn’t like the feeling of a big, blocky structure. We think it is less imposing and feels better.”
The stair-stepping of the building, though, meant the fifth floor became much smaller. So, Schumm decided instead of trying to put multiple small condos on the fifth floor, he would build one large one. Plans for the three-bedroom condo check in at 2.529 square feet, with access to a rooftop pool and three rooftop terraces.
The project, designed by Lawrence-based Hernly Associates, also will have 10 additional condos, ranging from an approximately 740 square-foot one-bedroom unit to an approximately 1,900 square-foot two bedroom condo. Other than the one fifth-floor unit, the other condos will be on floors three and four.
The second floor is planned to house a significant amount of office space. Plans show space for approximately 30 small offices that would share a lobby, a conference room and other amenities. Offices range from about 160 square feet to about 300 square feet. Schumm, who owns other office space in downtown, said he’s seeing strong demand for small office space as Lawrence’s startup business community gains momentum.
The ground floor is designed to accommodate up to three retail or office tenants. Schumm previously has said he’s in discussions with a bank — he hasn’t disclosed which one — to take one of the spots. Plans show the ground-floor spaces ranging in size from about 1,500 square feet to about 4,000 square feet.
The project also would include an underground parking garage that would accommodate 22 vehicles and would use a car elevator system rather than a traditional series of parking garage ramps.
The first step for the project is to win approval from the Historic Resources Commission. The project is scheduled for review at the 6:30 p.m. meeting on Thursday at City Hall. But it will be interesting to see if the project also ends up before the Lawrence City Commission seeking incentives. It has been tough for other projects to build an underground parking garage in downtown without seeking tax increment financing, industrial revenue bonds or other similar types of city incentives. Schumm hasn’t told me whether he plans to seek those types of incentives from City Hall.
If he does, it will be interesting to see how commissioners respond. Some on the commission have expressed concern about previous deals that have provided tax breaks for upscale apartment projects. But, there also has been a general theme at City Hall to create more living units in downtown, in hopes of making it a more vibrant 24/7 destination.
As for the idea of luxury living units in downtown, that trend also will be interesting to watch. Schumm’s project is a large one, but it is not the only one. The new Marriott hotel building at Ninth and New Hampshire streets includes two condo units on its top floor. Based on the real estate listings I’ve seen, there is an approximately 1,750 square-foot unit and a about a 1,300 square-foot unit. Of course, there’s also the Hobbs Taylor Loft building in the 700 block of New Hampshire Street that has several large, upscale condo units.
Here’s another look at another design rendering of the proposed Vermont Street project.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Here's a new twist to the issue of filling Jeremy Farmer's vacant seat on the Lawrence City Commission: The local chapter of the NAACP is urging the commission to use the appointment as a chance to put a minority on the board for the first time in a long time.
The NAACP has sent a letter to city commissioners urging them to use the upcoming appointment as a way to "change the face of Lawrence."
"Including the expertise and lived experiences of African Americans in the development of policies promotes a healthy city," board members write in a letter to city commissioners. "The commission cannot, indeed must not ignore the fact that while whites make up 78% of the Lawrence population, whites comprise 100% of the commission. At large voting does not contribute to a diverse commission — you can. Seize the opportunity."
(Actually, the numbers I see from the Census Bureau put Lawrence at about 82 percent white, while blacks and Asians make up about 5 percent each of the population. American Indians are about 3 percent.)
The lack of minorities on the City Commission has been an issue that has come up before. I've noted on several occasions that, for example, there has never been a black mayor in Lawrence's history. In the nearly 25 years I've covered the commission, there has never been a black city commissioner either. Rarely have minorities ever sought a seat on the commission.
City commissioners will discuss the appointment process at their regular weekly meeting at 5:45 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall.
• One item that won't get discussed at Tuesday's meeting is a plan to reduce the number of lanes on a portion of Kasold Drive. Commissioners originally had planned to discuss a plan to reduce from four lanes to two lanes the stretch of Kasold between Eighth Street and 14th Street. But when the City Commission appointment item was added to the agenda, commissioners decided to delay the Kasold Drive discussion. No word yet on when that issue may be back up for consideration. We'll keep you posted.