Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
Price Chopper looking at bringing grocery store to Lawrence; potential issues facing a downtown grocery store
It has been clear for awhile now that a downtown grocery store at the former Borders site at Seventh and New Hampshire would be a big deal. After all, it would put a food bar that charges by the pound just feet away from my office. But now there are signs it could be an even bigger deal. It may bring a new grocery chain to town.
A member of the project’s development group has confirmed the large Kansas City-based chain of Price Chopper is interested in the downtown location. I’ve heard that for months now, but hadn’t gotten anyone to confirm it on the record. But Bill Fleming, an attorney with the development group that owns the former Borders site, has now confirmed that the group has been in discussions with Price Chopper.
We’ve also reported that the group has been in discussions with Lawrence-based Checkers to open a store on the site. There has been talk on the street that the development group — which is led by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor — has made a decision to go with Price Chopper over Checkers.
“That is not accurate,” Fleming said. He said Checkers is still being considered for the location as well.
Fleming said the Price Chopper chain did present a different type of project to the group than what was being contemplated by Checkers. The Price Chopper group has proposed basically doubling the footprint of the old Borders building to about 40,000 square feet.
“They are the ones that came up with that initial idea,” Fleming said. “That doesn’t mean we couldn’t pursue something similar with Checkers, though. We’re looking at whether we could expand that footprint. There are advantages and disadvantages with that.”
Activity on this idea of a downtown grocery store is certainly heating up, but it is worth remembering that it is far from a done deal. I know that earlier this month the development group told commissioners that it was confident it would have a grocery store at the site. But there are still some significant issues to be worked out. Here’s a look at some:
• Neighbor approval. Fleming told me that in order to expand the footprint, individual owners of the Hobbs Taylor Lofts condo development next door to the site will have to approve of the idea. Covenants, or some such device, have been placed on the Borders property that give the Hobbs Taylor owners a say in whether that building will be expanded.
“Individual owners have to agree to that,” Fleming said. “They may or may not. We haven’t started to talk with them yet, so I don’t want to get the cart ahead of the horse.”
If the project were to stay at 20,000 square feet, owners of Hobbs Taylor would not have to approve. We have reported that there are covenants on the property prohibiting a grocery store use on the site, which would have to be waived by the Hobbs Taylor owners. Fleming said there is some such language, but it does not prohibit a gourmet food store. Depending on how you define a gourmet food store, that could be pretty similar to a grocery store.
“I don’t think it is an issue of whether a grocery store can go there,” Fleming said. “I think it could be about what type of grocery goes there.”
Fleming said getting that issue cleared up is an important matter because the development group very much favors a full-line grocery store with prices that would be attractive to the entire area.
• Height issues. Fleming confirmed that the development group is considering a plan that would build a multistory building at the corner so that apartments, in addition to the grocery, could be accommodated on the site. I didn’t get into the details with Fleming on these issues, but I’m assuming a larger building probably would involve an underground parking garage too. The height issue will be one to keep an eye on. Some of Compton and Treanor’s multistory buildings have proceeded pretty smoothly through the City Hall approval process. Others have faced opposition from neighbors.
• Financial incentives. Fleming confirmed that a downtown grocery store project is likely going to ask for some sort of financial incentives from City Hall, although he didn’t provide any details. Fleming said the group is seeking a New Markets Tax Credit, which is a federal program that invests in distressed areas. City Hall assistance, though, still may be needed.
“We are going to have to figure out what help we need from the city,” Fleming said. “We’re going to have to ask for their help, I suspect.”
As for the Price Chopper component to all of this, I do have a few details. The Price Choppers in Kansas City are owned by multiple families. Fleming confirmed the group has been talking with the Queen’s Price Chopper chain. That chain is run by Barry Queen. My understanding is Barry Queen grew up in Lawrence. I’m still working to get in touch with Queen. According to websites and media reports, Queen’s Price Chopper has been in business since 1974 and owns five Price Choppers in the Kansas City area, including in Overland Park, Bonner Springs, Paola and Spring Hill.
I’ve also got a call in to folks at Checkers to find out if they have any updates on their thoughts on the project.
Fleming said he expects the development group will make a decision on which grocery company to work with in the next couple of months.
• One housekeeping note: Town Talk will be off tomorrow. I’m talking with my banker about what line of credit I can get for a food bar that charges by the pound. I’ll be back on Monday.
A multimillion dollar remodeling project that involves making space for more fresh-baked cookies: Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with tales from my kitchen remodeling project. But I do have news about the major renovation underway at the former Holiday Inn at 200 McDonald Drive.
The Holiday Inn — the largest hotel and convention site in Lawrence — is no longer a Holiday Inn. The Holiday Inn sign was removed a few days ago and replaced with a simple one that reads “Lawrence Hotel & Convention Center.” But don’t get too attached to that catchy name. Soon enough the property will become a DoubleTree by Hilton, which is the hotel chain that gives out freshly baked chocolate chip cookies to its guests.
We reported on the planned change to a DoubleTree back in May. Hotel officials told me this week the DoubleTree deal is still very much going to happen, but the name change can’t occur until all the construction work at the property is complete.
“The Hilton officials won’t bless it until we show them that we are at a Hilton quality, and we definitely will be,” said Stephen Horton, general manager of the hotel.
The hotel has pulled building permits for $1.45 million worth of renovations at the site thus far. Currently 128 rooms in the 192-room hotel are closed as part of the remodeling process. Hotel officials weren’t ready to say yet when the hotel will fully reopen.
Work is well underway on the project, though. Here are some details:
• The project when complete will continue to have 192 rooms. But 70 of the rooms will be made larger. Interior rooms on the second, third and fourth floors will be expanded by 70 square feet each, which will allow for couches and a greater living room area. The hotel also will expand its number of suites to four, up from one today.
• Perhaps you remember the old Holidome lobby, which featured lots of plants, an indoor pool and a miniature golf course. (With that combination, you would have thought the golf balls would have floated and swimmers would understand ‘fore,’ but neither was the case.) Well, the pool remains, but the plants and golf course are gone. The new lobby will sport a whole new design, featuring lots of natural stone and many seating areas to accommodate small meetings.
• A portion of the lobby space will be devoted to a Made Market, a DoubleTree concept that sells lots of ready-to-eat meals, convenience items and other such merchandise that travelers may need, said Heather Shull, director of sales for the Lawrence hotel.
• The remodel will include a new breakfast bar area for hotel guests, but the hotel’s existing Boulevard Grill will remain open.
Community leaders will be watching the DoubleTree project, in part, because the hotel plays a large role in attracting lucrative conventions and conferences to town. The renovations don’t include adding significant new convention space to the property, but will include updates to the existing space.
Shull said the hotel will continue to have a little more than 18,000 square feet of convention and meeting space. She said it is being updated with new carpeting, wall coverings, new ceilings, more modern lighting and other technology upgrades.
Shull said the renovation project is giving the hotel a big opportunity to win new convention business for the community.
“We are really reaching out to business that we had years ago,” Shull said of the associations and other such groups that host annual conferences across the state. “We’re telling them that what we’re creating here is much different than what they previously experienced with us. Lawrence is such a fun town that we ought to have a lot of convention business. We just have to get the associations to consider moving some of their events out of Topeka and Kansas City.”
Shull said the facilities can easily host meetings of more than 350 people, banquets of 650 or more, and theater-style events upwards of 1,000 people.
“It definitely will help our meeting and convention business,” Shull said of the renovation and DoubleTree Brand. “Actually, we think that business is going to skyrocket.”
New study says Lawrence below average in managing money, above average in mortgage debt; local home sales off to sluggish start
If I weren’t so busy gold-plating random items in my house, I would take offense at a finding of a new study: Lawrence residents are below-average at managing their money.
The financial website WalletHub ranks Lawrence 1,505th out of about 2,500 U.S. communities in its 2016 study titled Best and Worst Cities at Money Management. We’re ranked in the 41st percentile, meaning we’re about 10 percent below average when it comes to money management.
Honestly, I wouldn’t sweat the ranking much. As I’ve mentioned before, these rankings are very subjective, and this is one where Lawrence’s status as a college town probably works against us. We have a lot of young people living in Lawrence who previously thought money management simply involved telling Daddy that it looks like he’s lost some weight.
But I’m passing along the information because some of the data the WalletHub folks used is interesting. The financial website created a partnership with the financial services firm TransUnion to get a host of financial data that we normally don’t see. Some of that data serves as a good reminder of just how different we are from our neighbors. Here’s a look:
— More of our money goes to paying off credit card debt. On average, the ratio of credit credit card debt to income for Lawrence residents is about 29 percent. In the Johnson County communities of Olathe, Overland Park and Shawnee, it is 15 to 17 percent. In Topeka it is 20 percent. (A quick note about the ratios: The Lawrence ratio would suggest that a person who has $40,000 a year in income would have $11,000 in credit card debt. But don’t get too caught up in trying to do that type of math. What WalletHub did, according to a spokeswoman, is take the credit card debt data from TransUnion, break it down to a per capita basis, then compare that to the median earnings of individuals, as measured by the Census Bureau. What’s important is that they used the same methodology for each community, so it does give a good look at how the communities differ.)
— More of our money goes to paying off car loans. The amount of car loan debt to income is 81 percent in Lawrence. In the Johnson County communities, it is closer to 40 to 50 percent. In Topeka, it is 59 percent.
— A lot more of our money goes to paying off mortgages. On average the ratio of mortgage debt to income for Lawrence residents is 847 percent. That’s far higher than most Kansas communities included in the survey. Here’s a look at several:
— Hutchinson: 341 percent
— Topeka: 384 percent
— Salina: 386 percent
— Wichita: 407 percent
— Shawnee 416 percent
— Olathe: 446 percent
— Overland Park: 468 percent
— Emporia: 483 percent
But when you look at Lawrence compared with other college communities, we fare much better. Here are nine other college communities in the central part of the U.S. that I chose for comparison purposes:
— Waco, Texas: 520 percent
— Norman, Okla.: 599 percent
— Columbia, Mo.: 783 percent
— Lawrence: 847 percent
— Iowa City: 906 percent
— Manhattan: 983 percent
— Stillwater, Okla.: 1,100 percent
— Ames, Iowa: 1,276 percent
— Boulder, Colo.: 1,648 percent
In that list, Lawrence is pretty middle of the pack, but it is interesting to note how much higher all the college communities are than noncollege communities. There probably is some bias against college communities in the methodology of this particular study. But the numbers also may suggest there is something to the idea that college communities are inherently more expensive places to live. Certainly the strong rental market of a college community sucks up some housing supply that otherwise would be available for homeowners. Are there other factors too? Why does a place like Norman, for example, have housing that appears to be quite a bit more affordable than Lawrence? And conversely, does every home in Ames have a gold-plated commode? (If so, can I get the name of your guy? My guy doesn’t do commodes.)
Lawrence leaders are beginning to spend more time on the issue of affordable housing. A pilot project for a new affordable housing trust fund has been selected. That’s good. But as the community continues to address the issue, I wonder whether part of the process will be for community leaders to do a deeper dive of why Lawrence’s housing market functions the way it does, and conduct a broader examination of how some other college communities have dealt with this issue. I understand people get tired of paying consultants, but trying to change something as complex as a housing market is going to take some expertise.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The Lawrence real estate market will be trying to improve upon what was a pretty good year in 2015. It has not gotten off to a great start, but it is still early. Lawrence home sales for January fell by 23 percent from the same time period a year ago, according to the latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
Agents sold 40 homes during the month, down from 52 in January 2015. One bright spot in the report is that five newly constructed homes sold in the month. That’s a far better start than last January, when none sold. The new home market is one that still hasn’t gained as much traction as industry leaders would like in Lawrence.
One number that likely is still creating concern for real estate agents is the number of homes on the market. The number of active listings on the market in January was 260. That’s down from 286 in January 2015 and down from 320 in January 2014. Real estate agents have expressed concern that the declining inventory of homes will depress sales because, well, you can’t sell what you don’t have.
Another number that is worth watching is pending contract. The number of pending contracts in January was down about 9 percent compared to a year ago. That’s normally a sign of weaker sales numbers to come.
But keep in my mind that this is only one month, and January normally is not a make or break month for home sales in Lawrence.
Is Lawrence set to rethink the use of bike lanes on city streets; $50,000 feasibility study of bike sharing program planned
In case you haven’t noticed, biking in Lawrence is a big deal.
We have a bike repair station outside City Hall, we soon will have bike parking corrals on Massachusetts Street, and most public buildings have those fancy bike paddles in their lobby. (I think that is what they are called. Yellow. Electric. They go on your chest, and they almost always make me feel better after a bike ride.)
Increasingly, though, what we have are bike lanes. When it is time to rebuild Lawrence streets, many times they are rebuilt in a way to accommodate bike lanes. I’ve been pretty sure that if you were an engineer in Lawrence and proposed rebuilding a road without bike lanes, you would have your plastic pocket protector taken away.
But that’s what happened earlier this week. A road project — one that has been billed as a showcase for future road design, nonetheless — has been proposed to not have bike lanes. As we have reported, the architect for the East Ninth Street arts corridor project has preliminarily recommended a design that includes an 8-foot shared-use path, but no bike lanes.
The architect for the project told the citizen advisory group for the project that a shared-use path could accommodate bicyclists just fine, and by eliminating bike lanes there would be more green space and less concrete as part of the project. Thus far, the idea has been well received by the advisory group.
Makes sense. Also makes you wonder whether Lawrence planners will adopt that attitude on other projects.
Take a look at the proposed Kasold Drive project, for example. That project between Eighth and 14th streets in west Lawrence is proposed to have both bike lanes and a shared use path. The two bike lanes are proposed to each be 5 feet wide. Ten feet of bike lanes for six blocks long is not an insignificant amount of concrete. The amount of money it takes to pour that concrete is not insignificant. Since 2013, the city has spent $1.3 million building bike lanes, according to city figures. Since that same time the city also has spent about $1.7 million building shared-use paths. As the Kasold project demonstrates, sometimes the city proposes building both along the same stretch of street.
The city now is beginning to hear from its engineers how they’re struggling to keep up with street maintenance costs because of a slowdown in funding. (More on that another day.) It all seems to create the question of whether the city ought to tweak its philosophy on bike lanes? If the city decided to stop the practice of creating bike lanes and shared-use paths on the same project, it wouldn’t come without complaint.
Marilyn Hull, who is the chair of the city’s pedestrian-bicycle task force, told me there are bicyclists who feel that bike lanes on the street allow bicyclists to be more visible and thus safer.
“In a perfect world, there probably would be both,” Hull said of bike lanes and shared-use paths.
But Hull also noted that she is personally fine with the recommendation to remove the bike lanes from the East Ninth Street project in East Lawrence. She is a big fan of shared-use paths.
“Some of the biking improvements that have been done in the city previously have mainly benefited confident, adult bicyclists," Hull said. “That is fine, but what I’m interested in is getting more people of all types out on bikes.”
There are many bicyclists who just don’t feel that confident in a bike lane with only a white line separating them from vehicular traffic.
Sometimes, of course, a bike lane is the only real option for making a street bicycle-friendly. There is just not room for a shared-use path to run alongside the street. But there may be more options than you would think. Many times when a street is rebuilt in Lawrence, the sidewalks along the street also get rebuilt. Would the city be well-served in trying to figure out how to retrofit sidewalks into shared use paths rather than retrofitting streets with bike lanes? In other words, would it be better for the city to take a 6-foot sidewalk and make it 8 feet and call it a shared-use path rather than trying to add 10 feet of bike lanes to a street? (To be fair, it is not a one-to-one savings. Sometimes when the city adds a bike lane it doesn't actually increase the width of the street by the full 10 feet, for example. Sometimes it just reduces the width of the vehicular lanes.)
I don’t have a pocket protector, so I’m not very qualified to say what is the best path forward for the city. I’m sure there is a lot that would need to go into that analysis, but it seems like a conversation perhaps worth having. As I have said before, I’m not anti-bike lanes. But I do think Lawrence is in a transitional period right now when it comes to transportation planning. The future is cloudy about what role motorized vehicles will play in the future and how much pedestrian and bicycling activity really will increase. As Lawrence builds it roads today, it is making assumptions about how they will be used in the future. If the assumptions don’t end up being correct, they’ll be expensive to fix.
In other news and notes from around town:
• One more piece of bike news while we are on the topic: The city is set to conduct a $50,000 study to determine whether a bike-sharing program would be feasible in Lawrence.
At their Tuesday meeting, city commissioners will be asked to approve a $40,000 grant and $10,000 in local funding to pay for a study to determine whether a program that allows people to pick up bikes and use them when needed would be a valuable transportation service in Lawrence.
The goal of the program would be to increase access to bicycles for transportation, promote healthy living, increase bicycle visibility, reduce the community’s carbon footprint and improve access to public transit, according to a city memo.
Certainly there are several cities that have bike-share programs, although they are not abundant in the Midwest. Kansas City, Mo., though, has one. According to its website, it has 27 bikes that serve downtown, Westport, the Country Club Plaza, 18th and Vine and the Trolley Track Trail. Rates start at $3 per half-hour.
The last I knew, there were some private businesses in Lawrence that would rent bikes, especially a couple near the Kansas River levee trail in North Lawrence.
Brunch is no longer just for those people who sleep through breakfast. Several downtown restaurants are offering the option on weekends, and now a downtown bar is getting in on the act too.
As I briefly mentioned yesterday, I heard that the speakeasy bar John Brown Underground was planning to start brunch service, and that almost is correct. John Brown actually is planning to expand its brunch service. Some brunch offerings have been available at its bar for awhile now, but beginning on Friday the business is expanding its menu and also will begin serving in a grand room above the bar.
As we reported yesterday, the breakfast spot The Waffle Iron has lost its lease at 7 E. Seventh St., and John Brown Underground will be moving its brunch service into that spot.
“I think brunch is definitely catching on in downtown,” said Aly Bush, event manager at John Brown. “There is a wait at so many of the traditional breakfast places in downtown, and everybody wants to eat in a beautiful place for breakfast.”
John Brown is betting that its old building will fit that bill. The large space features floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook Seventh Street, a copper tile ceiling and an ornate chandelier. The menu, though, is expected to be the main draw. Chef Sarah Hess has added several new offerings to go with the breakfast burritos that had previously been a featured brunch offering. New offerings include something called a Mac Stack, which is a mac and cheese egg sandwich with a choice of meat ranging from bacon to chorizo to fried chicken. Also on the menu is a Cuban sandwich with an egg; a bourbon, bacon, waffle chicken sandwich; biscuits and gravy; sweet onion grits; and a variety of dishes with brie smoked Gouda and manchego cheeses. Lawrence-based Queen of Tarts bakery also will be offering baked goods. Plus, there always has been a debate over whether you eat brunch or you drink it. It should come as no surprise that the speakeasy will feature cocktails on its brunch menu. Bush said there will be a full bloody mary and mimosa bar, with plans to expand the brunch cocktail menu in the near future.
John Brown plans to serve brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Hopefully I still have some salsa on my tie because that is the only way I’ll ever get any again from Lawrence’s El Mezcal Mexican restaurant. The longtime Mexican restaurant near 23rd and Iowa streets is definitely closed.
I stuck my head in the restaurant this morning, and workers are doing nearly as much damage as I would do to an enchilada platter with a chaser of sopapillas. Construction crews had torn up large parts of the concrete floor, and were chipping away at much of the Mexican tile that adorned the building.
A sign on the door said El Mezcal had closed after 19 years in business. “Everyone at El Mezcal will greatly miss your smiling faces and loyal service and wishes the best for you,” the sign read. “Thank you once again, and we appreciate everything over the years.”
The sign also read that the building was under new ownership, would be remodeled and would reopen as a new restaurant in the “near future.” I asked one of the workers whether the restaurant would reopen as a Mexican restaurant. (That has been known to happen in Lawrence, where there is no shortage of entrepreneurs who believe when their ship comes in it almost certainly will be hauling cans of refried beans and $3.50 tacos.) He said, however, that wasn’t his understanding. Maybe Italian, maybe something else, but it sounded like it was not going to be El Mezcal under a different name.
The shutdown closes the book on El Mezcal in Lawrence. I remember writing an article about the family-owned business when it first opened nearly 20 years ago. From that point, it took off. At one time, the restaurant had at least three restaurants open in Lawrence. But the 23rd Street location, which was the original location, was the last one to remain open.
The El Mezcal brand also spread to other area towns, although I was never certain whether the ownership groups were the same. The El Mezcal in Ottawa has been in the news over the last couple of years. Last month we reported that a manager of El Mezcal Mexican Restaurant in Ottawa was sentenced to six months in prison and six months of home confinement after pleading guilty to a federal charge of harboring undocumented workers for commercial advantage.
I remember when the biggest waffle problem in my life was when my kids and I would wake up my wife with our breakfast arguments that always devolved to shouting matches of “Leggo my Eggo!” Now, there’s this: The downtown breakfast shop The Waffle Iron has unexpectedly closed.
The restaurant at 7 E. Seventh St. closed on Sunday, owner Sam Donnell told me. The restaurant lost its lease on the spot. Donnell said his understanding is that the speakeasy bar John Brown Underground — which is directly below the space — plans to start using the area for weekend brunch service. I’ve got a call into John Brown Underground to find out if that is accurate. If I get more details about what it has planned, I’ll pass them along. (UPDATE: John Brown Underground will be expanding into the space for brunch service, a manager with the business told me. I'll bring you details in a future Town Talk.)
Donnell hopes this isn’t the end for The Waffle Iron, though. He said he’s in discussions with the owners of The Basil Leaf Cafe to use that restaurant’s space on Sundays to serve waffles. The Basil Leaf is closed on Sundays. Donnell said he hopes to begin serving out of The Basil Leaf sometime in March, but I would keep an eye on that because the deal doesn’t sound done yet to me.
The Waffle Iron began a little more than a year ago when it started operating out of the East Lawrence coffee shop Decade. The restaurant in May moved to the downtown location to expand its space, although not necessarily its menu. The restaurant really does focus on waffle dishes, but the waffle dishes include some interesting twists.
For example, during its final weekend, the restaurant featured pork butt chile verde, poblano and anaheim peppers, cilantro, onions, and hot sauce all served on a waffle. For folks who use sugar instead of hot sauce to wake up of a morning, the restaurant also featured a buttermilk waffle topped with brown butter cream, cookie butter and banana brûlée.
Donnell said business at the restaurant was good and growing. He said last weekend was the best weekend yet for the business, which encouraged him. He said in addition to working on a deal with Basil Leaf, he said he’s also looking for more permanent space to operate the restaurant on a more full-time basis.
“We did 175 covers in four hours on Sunday,” Donnell said of the number of meals served. “I think there is a business there, so I don’t want to hang up the towel just yet."
In other news and notes from around town:
• I know a thing or two about dieting. Like, when you are trying to lose some weight, start eating skinny french fries. It is just common sense, but in Lawrence it is now a bit more difficult. Steak ’n Shake — a fast food chain that has a calling card of “thin and crispy” French fries — has closed its Lawrence location.
The restaurant at 3111 Nieder Road — just west of 31st and Iowa — is definitely closed. Workers were at the site on Tuesday removing the awnings and other signs from the building. I asked workers there whether there was anything else slated to move into the spot, and they said they were unaware of any pending tenant.
It will be interesting to see if another restaurant takes to the spot. My understanding is the location has been on the market for a while.
I’ve already had people ask me where they can go to redeem Steak ’n Shake gift cards and such. I don’t have any official information from the chain, but there are a few Steak ’n Shake restaurants left in the area. According to its website, there are locations in Topeka, Bonner Springs, Olathe and Overland Park, among others.
If defensive linemen could be found in boutiques, the Bowen household would be even more excited about the pending opening of an upscale boutique business in downtown Lawrence. Still, the Bowen household is pretty excited about the planned opening of KB & Co. The new business will be owned by Kristie Bowen, whose husband is KU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen.
Kristie said KB & Co. will be a “cooperative boutique,” which has a different meaning than I thought. (I thought that meant it helped my wife and I load the U-Haul truck.) Instead, a cooperative boutique is one where multiple boutique business owners come together to locate in a single building.
The store will be in the former M Street Interiors space at 825 Massachusetts St. Bowen hopes to have the business open by April 1, she said. Allison Vance Moore of Lawrence's Colliers International brokered the deal for the space.
Bowen said KB will have at least 10 boutique owners selling merchandise that includes clothing, shoes, handbags, KU gear, home decor and even some high school spirit wear. She said all the items will be new merchandise and often will feature upper-end brand names.
“I think it is going to be an amazing opportunity to bring some of these outside boutiques, sometimes bigger city boutiques to our downtown,” Bowen said.
Boutique owners evidently are taken with the idea too. Bowen said she has filled all the vacant boutique space she has to offer. She said boutiques from Kansas City, Topeka, Lee’s Summit, Great Bend and several other locations have agreed to be part of the project.
Bowen previously was part of a boutique cooperative called Trendz in the Kansas City metro. She said the cooperative concept is beneficial to boutique owners because it allows them to have a presence in a market without having all the overhead costs of a full store. She said shoppers like the cooperative aspect because they can see a variety of styles and product types at a single location.
If this cooperative idea sounds a bit familiar, we did recently report on Vintage Chic’s plans to move into space at 823 Massachusetts St., the former home of Foxtrot shoes. Vintage Chic primarily will sell furniture and other home decor from its own stock, but it also plans to lease booth space to other home decor retailers. Vintage Chic will be right next door to KB & Co., so the 800 block of Massachusetts Street may soon turn into a unique shopping area. I’ve also got word that another local furniture store is moving into a storefront in the 800 block. I’m still gathering a few more details about that, but will report back soon.
City to study idea of eliminating fares from city’s public transit system; west Lawrence restaurant set to close
The city’s public transit system is a lot like my idea to sell commemorative egg cartons (the dozen variety) to celebrate the Jayhawks’ dozen league championships: They’re both great ideas, but apparently they are never going to break even.
The transit system should be no surprise. Transit systems all over the country routinely spend more than they bring in through ridership fares — usually a lot more. That certainly has been the case in Lawrence, which has caused a question to linger: Why not make the T free to ride and try to get as many people using the bus system as possible?
Well, it looks like the city is going to spend some time studying that idea. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday are being asked to spend $200,000 for a new transit study that will examine several issues, including the idea of a fare-free system.
If for some reason you don’t study the city’s transit budget, here are the basic numbers: The city expects to collect about $400,000 in fares in 2016. It expects to spend about $3 million to $4 million in operating expenses and quite a bit more in capital expenses.
So, the argument from proponents of a fare free system is that $400,000 is not doing much to offset the expenses of the transit system, but the fares — they are $1 for a standard one-way trip — may be serving as a deterrent for some people to ride the system. Plus, some people likely think it is an equity issue. The city doesn’t charge user fees for lots of services its provides, so why do so for something like public transit? There is not a single toll road that the city operates, some would point out.
The argument from people who support charging a fare is that $400,000 is still a substantial amount of money, and the city does charge user fees for some services. People who want to get a building permit, for example, pay a fee to have their projects inspected, even though the entire public benefits from having structures that aren’t built to unsafe standards.
It will be interesting to watch whether this issue gets much traction at City Hall. The most recent information I found is that there are only about 40 U.S. cities that have entire fare-free transit systems, although others make certain parts of their system free. This article last year in The Atlantic was negative on the idea of fare-free transit systems, although it primarily was looking at it from the standpoint of a big-city metro transit system.
The article does note a 2012 federal report that found university communities were one of the community types that has had some success implementing fare-free systems. In fact, Chapel Hill, N.C. — home to the University of North Carolina — is generally considered to be the largest fare-free transit system in the country, according to the federal report.
Whether it makes financial sense for a community to eliminate its fares isn’t clear from the report’s findings. But one issue that seems clear cut is that ridership will increase significantly if you eliminate a bus fare. “Providing fare-free public transit service is virtually certain to result in significant ridership increases no matter where it is implemented,” the report reads. It found that ridership usually increased 20 percent to 60 percent in a matter of just a few months.
The report, though, also notes that the increased ridership doesn’t often result in fewer vehicles being on the streets, which is the aim of some supporters of fare-free transit service. The report estimated that many times the increased ridership was coming from bicyclists or pedestrians or from people who already ride the bus but now are doing so more frequently. A big question is whether eliminating a relatively modest fare is enough of an incentive for people to give up the convenience of their car?
This $200,000 upcoming city study will look at that issue. But fear not, the city will get more than that for its $200,000. The study also will “include extensive data collection and analysis that will paint a picture of commuting patterns, latent demand, financial planning needs, operational deficiencies, how best to close those deficiencies given existing resources” and other issues, according to a city memo on the pending report.
The city has received a $150,000 grant to cover a portion of the report’s costs. General city tax dollars will fund the remaining costs.
City commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall. The issue to move forward with the report is on the commission’s consent agenda, which means it is scheduled to be routinely approved without comment, unless a member of the public asks for it to be moved to the regular agenda.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I’ve been writing for awhile now about how Lawrence has become a magnet for new chicken places. It was easy to see that this pending chicken battle was going to get messy, and I mean beyond the crispy breading in my whiskers.
Well, it looks like the first bit of pain will be for west Lawrence fans of Kentucky Fried Chicken. There is a sign on the KFC restaurant at 701 Wakarusa Drive stating that Feb. 29 will be the last day that the restaurant is open. The sign states the company’s other restaurant at 658 W. 23rd St. will remain open.
In case you have forgotten, we recently reported that Zaxby’s chicken restaurant — a chain that focus on chicken wings and fingers — is slated to open in the Bauer Farm development near Sixth and Wakarusa. We’ve also reported on the Popeye’s that is under construction along south Iowa Street and several other chicken happenings crowding the poultry market in Lawrence.
No word yet on what may take the place of the KFC. Its building is part of the shopping center that includes Johnny’s West, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit and several other establishments at the southwest corner of Sixth and Wakarusa. I’ll let you know if I hear of anything.
Sometimes you win in the court of law, but lose in the court of public opinion. Other times it is vice-versa. I can't help but think that thought is going through the minds of some City Hall leaders these days.
This $500,000 tax dispute between the city of Lawrence and the developers of The Oread hotel project seems likely to create some interesting legal wrangling. New documents released by the developer certainly have made that clearer. But if it turns into a lawsuit, it sure appears City Hall leaders have an interesting calculus to consider: It is important for the city to win the judgment of the court, but it is critical that it win the judgment of the public.
In other words, the city probably has more at risk in the court of public opinion than it does in the court of law.
As it stands now, the city’s biggest risk in the court of law is about $500,000. That’s approximately the amount of the tax dispute. But that amount creates no real risk to the city’s finances. The $500,000 in disputed taxes have never been budgeted. It is not like the city will have to cut funding for something if it doesn’t receive it. (To be clear, not all the money would go to the city. Some would go to the county, and a special 1 percent sales tax that is charged in the district would theoretically be rebated back to the consumers who paid it.)
But I think the stakes are much higher in the court of public opinion. As we reported, The Oread development team released a large number of documents recently describing its position in the dispute. It is easy to see in those documents some potentially successful legal arguments. It is more difficult to see anything that is going to change the public’s opinion that the developers are misusing a city incentive program.
If the city doesn’t do everything it can to impose some type of penalty on the development team, I think the City Commission risks losing large amounts of trust with the public. At least that’s what I hear from people who stop me on the street to talk about it. To make matters worse, trust levels aren’t that great currently, following the Rock Chalk Park controversy that the city had with Thomas Fritzel — the same Lawrence businessman at the center of The Oread development. There are other Fritzel/City Hall controversies that continue to weigh on the mind of residents. If the camel’s back hasn’t already broken, it seems like this will do it.
So, let’s take a closer look at the new set of documents released by the development group to see where future battles may be waged in this dispute:
• One of the documents produced by the development group is called “Setting the Record Straight: The Facts of Oread Redevelopment District.” Expect exception to be taken to some of these facts. There is at least one statement in that document that isn’t a fact. Statement No. 2 reads: "Oread Inn is owed approximately $11 million plus interest for improvements that, absent the Redevelopment Agreement, would have been paid and financed by the City. There is no dispute of this fact.” It certainly is not a fact that the city would have paid and financed all of these improvements if this deal hadn’t been reached. Indeed, the $11 million in improvements do include numerous pieces of public infrastructure — items such as streets, sidewalks and other such projects — that likely needed city attention whether The Oread project proceeded or not. But it is important to remember that the majority of the $11 million in improvements is for a privately owned parking garage that is beneath The Oread hotel. There was never a scenario where the city was going to pay for or finance that approximately $6 million private parking garage.
• $4.5 million may be an important number in all of this. That is approximately the amount of sales the development group once said were made inside The Oread’s special taxing district but is now saying were made outside the district. The development group made the change by amending the tax returns for Oread Wholesale. What did those sales involve? I’ve asked an attorney for the development group for more information about those sales, but did not receive any more details. What those sales involved go to the heart of the matter. City officials believe the development group was willfully inflating the sales of the special taxing district in order to get a larger sales tax rebate from the city. The fact that the development group has removed $4.5 million in sales from the district says that sales were improperly allocated to the district. The development group will strenuously argue otherwise. Attorneys with the group sent me a message stating the amended returns shouldn’t be read as a “determination” that sales were improperly made to the district. Instead, the amended returns were a voluntary effort to “compromise and cooperate with the city.” But if that line of logic stands, it raises other questions. Are sales tax returns meant to be an accurate depiction of sales activity, or does the state allow them to be changed to facilitate deals?
• There may be an argument brewing over what constitutes a warehouse. The terms of the special taxing district are pretty clear that one of the prohibited uses in the district is a warehouse. The city is contending that Oread Wholesale was operating a warehouse in the district, and thus the city has the legal authority to now void the special taxing district deal. Indeed, documents released by the development group confirm that Oread Wholesale has space within the hotel building where it stores and displays materials that it later sells. The attorneys have confirmed the location has handled sales of construction materials for projects throughout the Lawrence area and beyond. But the developers argue that is not a warehouse. The attorneys told me it is not a warehouse because “Oread Wholesale does not store property owned by third parties for a fee.” Instead, Oread Wholesale “stores its own inventory, pending the retail sale of such inventory.” Now, the bar exams I’ve passed are different than the ones attorneys are required to pass, so I’m no expert on the legal ins-and-outs of the definition of a warehouse. My qualifications mainly end at typing in the URL dictionary.com with a minimum of typos. Among the definitions of a warehouse on that site: “A building, or a part of one, in which wholesalers keep large stocks of merchandise, which they display and sell to retailers.”
• And finally, what would a dispute be without an alley. The alley behind The Varsity House, an apartment complex developed by a group led by Thomas Fritzel, will be debated. A good amount of the disputed sales taxes come from sales tax charged on construction materials for The Varsity House. The developers are contending those sales took place inside the special taxing district, even though there is agreement that The Varsity House project is not inside the special taxing district. Whether the sales are in or out adds up to a significant amount of money for the development group. If the sales are determined to be made outside the district, The Varsity House developers — which includes some of the key Oread developers — must pay the full amount of sales tax on construction materials, and they get none of it rebated back to them. But if the sales are made in the district, The Oread development group gets a rebate on the majority of the local sales taxes paid for the construction materials.
The argument that the development group is making is that most of the construction material sales for The Varsity House were delivered to the public alley that is behind The Varsity House, which is just down the block from The Oread hotel. That public alley is part of the special taxing district. Under state law, since the delivery was made there, that is where the sales tax must be charged, the development group argues. Thus, under the terms of the special taxing district, The Oread developers get a sales tax rebate.
But here is where it gets a little tricky to follow. When the construction materials arrived at the alley, they weren’t owned by Oread Wholesale. They were owned by whatever company Oread Wholesale ordered them from. Oread Wholesale would purchase the materials in the alley, and then store the materials in the alley before it sold them to the contractor for The Varsity House. “For deliveries to the alleyway, Oread Wholesale would retain ownership and possession of the construction materials when delivered,” a developer-commissioned report by the accounting firm BKD reads. The report goes on to say the products were later sold to DFC, the contractor building The Oread.
That raises a question: Does a wholesale company have to get any permission from the city to use a public alley as a storage facility for its business? I have little doubt that DFC had city permission to store construction materials in the alley, but whether Oread Wholesale had such permission may be a different matter. I asked the attorneys for The Oread group for any documents showing such permission had been granted, but I didn’t receive any.
The larger question, though, is one about intent. I covered the City Hall approval process for The Varsity House. Never did the developer mention that the project would be adding sales to the special taxing district. Why not? You could argue that would be a selling point for the project. The more sales that occur in the district, the quicker the $11 million cap is reached, and the quicker the city and county begin receiving the full amount of sales taxes from The Oread. One reason it was perhaps never mentioned is because it could be seen as a tax break for some members of The Varsity House development. (Remember, The Varsity House paid the full amount of sales tax due, but a good portion of it got rebated back to The Oread group, which also includes members of the The Varsity House group.) As someone covering the issue, I can tell you that it wasn’t likely that the City Commission was going to be in favor of giving The Varsity House project any such tax break.
The issue of whether the special taxing district is being used in the manner that was described when it was approved by the city is really at the heart of the matter for the public, I believe. Did the city approve one thing but actually get something else?
So, there are lots of issues to resolve, and I don’t have a good sense of how they will be resolved. It will be interesting to watch how long it takes to resolve them. One fact that gets overlooked is that the city has stopped making tax rebate payments to The Oread group. The Oread group has been counting on those tax rebates to pay for the $11 million worth of work that it financed at the project. Presumably, the development group is still obligated to make those debt payments even though the tax rebates aren’t currently being received. It would seem that a lawsuit with this many things to argue could be pretty lengthy, which could mean the tax rebates may be halted for quite some time. The city may be on the correct side of the leverage equation here.
I suspect that is just one of many calculations to come in this case.
Poor Boy Burrito hopes to wrap up mobile breakfast burrito market; Zaxby’s chicken chain confirms it is coming to Lawrence
Correction: Nate Keller now tells me that his business actually is not yet operating out of the Douglas County Fairgrounds, but rather out of a rental kitchen. It has started the process to operate out of the fairgrounds, he says. That is not how I understood what he told me during our previous interview. My apologies for the confusion.
Up until this point, a mobile breakfast burrito has meant a burrito in one hand, the steering wheel of the F150 in the other and a traffic ticket that usually comes shortly after the hot egg and cheese falls in my lap. But a Lawrence entrepreneur is giving the idea a new twist, and is using Douglas County government of all places to get it off the ground.
Nate Keller has started a new firm called Poor Boy Burrito Company, and it operates off of a basic premise: People’s days would start better with a breakfast burrito, but most folks don’t have the time to make one or even wait in line to buy one. So, Keller’s firm will deliver one to your office. People email, text or call in an order for a burrito.
“There are a lot of office workers who don’t have time to eat breakfast,” Keller said. “There are guys who are up early and are running out of the house, and by 8:30 or 9, they are hungry and we just deliver it to their desk.”
The business has been open about a month. Business has been strong, and Keller said he is close to launching a website that will allow people to order online.
“We think it basically will be taking the popularity of a food truck business to the online world,” Keller said.
A breakfast burrito is very food truck-like fare, but Poor Boy Burrito Company isn’t operating out of a truck. Rather, its home base is even more unique than that. The company operates out of a public kitchen in the Douglas County Fairgrounds. There is a commercial kitchen in Building 21 of the fairgrounds, and Keller said he pays rent to the county to use the space.
I don’t have all the details on that arrangement, but look for more in the future. I’ve heard bits and pieces about how the county has had an interest in using the commercial kitchen as a way to help local food-related businesses get off the ground. County reporter Elvyn Jones or I will get more info on that potential program, and report back.
As for the burritos, there are five kinds: Beef, pork, chicken, sausage or vegetarian. All the burritos also have an unexpected ingredient: Mashed potatoes.
“The mashed potatoes are a little bit of the secret,” Keller said.
The burritos sell for $4 each, and delivery time is usually about 15 to 20 minutes.
Keller said business is going so well that he expects he’ll soon need to find space outside the fairgrounds. He said the company, which includes one other employee, is planning to start a late-night service that will run from midnight to 3 a.m. You can get more information about the company or order by emailing email@example.com or calling 785-925-1935.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As we reported last week, sources told us a Zaxby’s chicken restaurant was slated for the Bauer Farm development near Sixth and Wakarusa. Well, our sources were correct. Zaxby’s has now confirmed it is opening a multitude of restaurants in the Kansas City area.
The area franchisee, Royal Chicken Holdings LLC, told The Kansas City Star that it plans a dozen Johnson County restaurants. It also confirmed it will open one at 4661 Bauer Farm drive in Lawrence, probably in November or December. The franchisee told The Star that he may open a couple more in Lawrence in the future.
As we told you last week, the restaurant chain is based in Athens, Ga., and has about 700 restaurants primarily in the southeast region of the U.S. As for the food, it looks like there is a strong emphasis on chicken fingers and chicken wings, with multiple dipping sauces.
Downtown restaurant to open new location in west Lawrence; signs of another retail expansion on south Iowa
Wet wipes in west Lawrence: stock up while you can. I’ve gotten word that Jefferson’s, a downtown restaurant that specializes in hot wings and other such delicacies that sometimes cause a fellow to need wet wipes, a dry cleaner and a power washer, is opening a west Lawrence location.
Brandon Graham, an owner of the Lawrence Jefferson’s at 743 Massachusetts has confirmed to me that the restaurant has signed a deal to add a new location near Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive. The restaurant is going into space that has seen a string of restaurants, most recently Legends sports bar and grill, and previously places such as Tanner’s, Bambinos and others.
“We love the demographics out there,” Graham said. “Myself and my business partner both have young families, and know lots and lots of people with young families who live out there. We’re really interested in serving them.”
Graham said he thinks having an established brand go into the space will help as well. Graham stressed that Jefferson’s would continue to operate its restaurant in downtown. The west Lawrence space will be designed to serve folks who don’t often make it to that location. The west Lawrence location will have several of the same features as the downtown location, including the tradition of decorated one dollar bills that customers hang on the walls and such, Graham said.
The biggest thing that will be the same is the menu. Graham said the west Lawrence location will have the same offerings as the downtown location. That means a heavy emphasis on chicken wings, with about a dozen different sauce combinations.
“Wings definitely are our calling card,” Graham said.
Other major menu items include lots of hamburgers, oysters on the half-shell, and when I’m feeling my body tell me it needs some veggies, I'll be able to turn to options such as breaded corn nuggets or a delicacy known as fried pickles. As I remind the doctor doing the cardiogram, they are vegetables. The restaurant also has about a half-dozen salads as well, which I think is an acquired taste. (When I make mine at home, they always come out of the fryer kind of wilted.)
Graham is hoping for a quick opening at the west Lawrence location. The lease was signed on the property earlier this week, construction work already has begun, and Graham hopes to be open within 60 days.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Those of you who keep a close eye on all things chicken wings perhaps have noticed a sign that concerns you. There is a "for lease" sign in front of the Buffalo Wild Wings at 27th and Iowa street. No, Buffalo Wild Wings isn’t going anywhere. Instead, the small shopping center building that houses the restaurant and an adjacent tanning salon is expanding.
Allison Vance Moore with the Lawrence Colliers International office has the listing on the location, and she tells me that plans are to add 3,000 square feet of space on the north end of the building. She said the development group is seeking something other than a restaurant to go in the space. No word yet on possible tenants, but she said interest in the intersection is strong, as Buffalo Wild Wings, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Ulta Beauty, the Boot Barn and other new retailers have made the intersection more of a destination shopping spot.
My understanding is the 3,000 square foot expansion has all the City Hall approvals it needs. My recollection is it was included in the original plans, but was never built. I’ll keep you updated as I hear a tenant for the location.
New Lawrence media company plans to launch global business magazine; Lecompton lobbying to be named best small town in Kansas
What Rolling Stone magazine did for music, a new Lawrence-based magazine plans to do for the world of business. I’m still unclear on whether that means Donald Trump soon will show up on a cover smashing a guitar, but regardless the new venture already is paying dividends for Lawrence.
B the Change Media has opened a Massachusetts Street office, hired seven staff members and plans to launch a magazine, website and other media products with plans for a global audience in June.
“We look at business through a different lens,” said Bryan Welch, chief executive officer of the new company. “Our interest is in covering businesses that are doing good in the world.”
B the Change Media’s promotional materials describe the concept this way: Rolling Stone captured the moment when music became an emblem of identity and an instrument for social change. B the Change Media will do much the same for business.
“I believe consumers will move their dollars to companies that they believe are doing good, as soon as they can trust them,” said Welch. “They want to spend their dollars with companies that share their values.”
Welch has had success in the magazine world before. For 19 years he served as the CEO of Topeka-based Ogden Publications, which publishes large magazines such as Mother Earth News, Grit, Farm Collector and others. Perhaps articles about spring tooth harrows and manure spreaders aren’t your thing, but Ogden has grown into a major employer in Topeka. Welch said the company had about 150 employees when he left last year.
“I wouldn’t be surprised that we become as big as Ogden or bigger,” Welch said. “I don’t think that is out of reach, but we’ll find out. It is hard say, though, because there has never been a media company focused on what we’re focused on.”
As I mentioned earlier, the company has seven employees currently, but is working to fill five more positions. Jobs are in the company’s editorial, advertising and event divisions, Welch said. The company has office space at 916 1/2 Massachusetts St., which is the space above Earthbound Trading Company.
B the Change Media, which is a for-profit venture, has teamed up with B Lab, which is a nonprofit venture that certifies companies “who meet the highest standards of verified, overall social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.”
Almost 1,600 companies have been certified by B Lab, and those companies have more than 40 million followers. Welch said that gives B the Change Media a good base of potential readers and advertisers.
The name of the magazine, Welch said, will be B. In addition to the print publication, there also will be a robust web presence, and the company plans to be in the event business too.
Welch said the decision to locate the headquarters for the new media company in Lawrence was easy. He’s lived on a farm just outside of Lawrence for years.
“This is my home, and that is why I put it here,” he said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I’m sure you are all getting ready to caucus. Soon we’ll see those “Caucus Today” signs in yards everywhere, or those lapel stickers that say “I Caucused.” I don’t need to tell you that both the Democratic and Republican caucuses in Kansas are on March 5.
But you don’t have to wait until then to cast a vote on an issue. Folks in the Douglas County community of Lecompton are urging you to nominate Lecompton as the Best Small Town in Kansas.
The contest is being run by Kansas! Magazine, the publication that is published quarterly by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. (Full disclosure: Sunflower Publishing, a division of LJWorld’s parent company, designs and edits the magazine.) The magazine is seeking nominations for any Kansas town that has a population of fewer than 5,000 people.
The deadline to nominate a community is March 14. People can do so by mailing a nomination to the publication at 1020 S. Kansas Ave. St. 200, Topeka KS 66612. I suppose you also could hire a Pony Express driver to take one directly to the office too. For those of you living in a different century, however, you can also just send it via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out a submission form at travelks.com. My kids are now making fun of me for implying that email and websites are cutting-edge technology. Fear not, you can also submit via Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #BestSmallTownKS.
Lecompton is not the only Douglas County community eligible for the award. Baldwin City, at about 4,500 people, meets the 5,000 and under population cut off. Eudora, at about 6,300, does not. (As anyone who has spent time in both Eudora and Baldwin City can attest, the difference in the big city hustle and bustle between the two towns is stark.)
I call attention to Lecompton, however, because that community seems to be going all out to win the contest. Community members have printed up color brochures that they are handing out to people urging them to nominate Lecompton, and they even have created a website to promote the effort. Among the tag lines on that website: “Two museums, two eateries, zero stoplights.”
After the nomination period ends on March 14, a group of finalists will be selected, readers will vote through May 31, and winners will be named in the winter 2016 edition of the magazine.
An update on Spin Pizza and other development near Sixth Street Wal-Mart; answers about that big pile of dirt near 31st and Louisiana
I have news about big piles of dirt around town. (Dig safe. Call 811 before you dig. A big pile of dirt in my backyard, and a court settlement, dictate that I say that.) But I’m not talking about that. Instead, I have updates on some construction projects that are in the big pile of dirt stage, including a new restaurant development in northwest Lawrence.
Construction work has begun on a new restaurant and retail building near the Wal-Mart at Sixth and Wakarusa. We reported all the way back in February 2015 that Kansas City’s Spin Neapolitan Pizza had signed a deal to locate on a lot just east of the Wal-Mart. Many of you were getting nervous that Spin Neapolitan wasn’t going to come to town and had been conducting your own experiments with pepperoni and tri-colored ice cream. (It is not that type of Neapolitan, by the way.)
But dirt work began on the site in the last couple of days, and folks with knowledge of the project tell me that Spin is still very much part of the project. I’ve got a call in to a representative to find out more about when the popular KC pizzeria hopes to open in Lawrence.
For those of you not familiar with the restaurant, it touts itself as an artisan-style pizzeria, with Neapolitan crusts. That means hand-spun, thin crusts that are cooked in a stone oven. The artisan part also means a variety of toppings. Cheeses range from the traditional mozzarella to Asiago, feta and something called taleggio. Meats include staples like Italian sausage and pepperoni but also Italian bacon, Scimeca’s meatballs, and salami. In addition there are things like arugula, pine nuts, crushed glazed pecans, fig onion marmalade and sun-dried tomato relish that you can put on your pizza and whatever tie you happen to be wearing that day.
The restaurant has been popular in Kansas City since it opened its first restaurant in 2005. We’ll see if the development spurs more activity around the northwest Wal-Mart. The outparcels surrounding the Wal-Mart have been very slow to develop. Plans filed with the city show that there are five more lots that could be developed with restaurant or retail uses surrounding the Wal-Mart. Years ago, most folks would not have bet that those lots would still be vacant today, but for whatever reason, development around the Wal-Mart has not taken off.
The Spin pizza development is likely to bring at least a couple more businesses to the site. As we previously have reported, the building that will house Spin actually will be a 12,000-square-foot building that will house two restaurants and a boutique retail type of tenant. There have been no announcements on the other restaurant or the retail tenants.
As we’ve previously mentioned, there’s certainly been speculation that the large Kansas City-based restaurant company KC Hopps has chosen the site for one of its restaurants. I’ve got a call in to KC Hopps officials but haven’t had luck in getting information from them in the past. The restaurant operates several restaurants in KC, including Barley’s Brewhaus, 75th Street Brewery, Stroud’s and 810 Zone. But the restaurant that sources have told me is most likely for the spot is the company’s Blue Moose Bar & Grill. But take that for whatever you think it is worth because it is unconfirmed at this point.
• Pile of dirt No. 2 is at the northwest corner of 31st and Louisiana streets, and it has gotten several of you excited about what is going in there. Well, it is a sewage pump station. (It is OK with me if it still excites you, but I can tell you it is the sort of thing that will cause you to be lonely at cocktail parties.)
The project is moving a lot of dirt, but it won’t be mammoth when it is completed. The pipes under the ground will be very large, and that is what you are seeing a lot of right now. The pump station will be a key piece of infrastructure because it will pump sewage across the Wakarusa River to the $50 million-plus sewage treatment plant that is under construction just south of where O’Connell Road dead-ends at the Wakarusa River.
Here’s a look at what the pump station will look like when completed.
Janitors, bus drivers and a potentially expensive wage discussion that is brewing at Lawrence City Hall
Brooms and buses soon may get really interesting at Lawrence City Hall. We’ve already told you about a $450,000 idea to create a new city staff of janitors. If you think City Hall janitors are expensive, though, just wait until we get around to the discussion about bus drivers.
As some cities across the country start implementing communitywide local minimum wages that far exceed the federal minimum wage, Lawrence City Hall is taking a slightly different tack. Instead of talking about a citywide minimum wage law, commissioners are having a discussion about whether city employees — or employees that the city contracts with — should be required to make a “living wage.”
Right now, the discussion is centered on the folks who do janitorial work for city buildings. Those janitors are employed by a private Topeka-based company that has a contract with City Hall. The janitors don’t make a living wage, at least not one that meets the city’s criteria. The city has determined that a “living wage” is $12.60, which is equal to 130 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three in Douglas County.
There is an ordinance on the city’s books that basically says companies that receive tax abatements are required to pay all their employees a living wage plus benefits. This Topeka custodial company doesn’t receive a tax break, so the living wage requirement isn’t applicable. But the current City Commission has picked up on a question that surfaced a few times over the years: Isn’t it hypocritical for the city to require some private companies to pay a living wage while the city itself doesn’t pay some of its people a living wage?
So, it is now a real possibility that a handful of janitors in Lawrence may get a good raise and become city employees, which comes with a lot better benefits.
If that comes to be, there will be a new question for the City Commission: Where does it want to draw the line on being hypocritical?
A handful of janitors is just the tip of the iceberg on this issue. As I mentioned at the beginning of this column, take a look at bus drivers. The city has a contract with a private company to provide bus drivers for the city’s transit system. There are bus drivers who don’t make $12.60 an hour.
I checked in with Justin Priest, a former City Commission candidate who also is the head of the local transit union. He told me the starting wage for a bus driver in training is $9.50 an hour. After the training period is completed, the wage goes to $11.50 an hour. There are more than 100 bus drivers. (There are 136 employees as part of the contract, Priest said, but some of them are mechanics and other positions that get paid at different rates.)
If it costs $450,000 to add five janitors to the city’s staff — some commissioners question staff’s estimate on that — how much do you suppose it would cost to add 100-plus transit workers?
If commissioners add the janitors, we’ll find out. Priest said his union will begin pushing hard to make transit workers full-fledged city employees rather than contract employees.
“Ultimately, what everybody wants here is to be a city employee,” Priest said. “I guarantee you that if they end up doing that with custodians, we’ll push more and more to become city employees. We’ll push to do away with the privatization of the transit system.”
How will the city say yes to custodians and no to bus drivers? One of the rallying cries on the custodial issue is that some of the custodians have been receiving assistance from the local food bank Just Food. I’m guessing some bus drivers do too, and if that is the litmus test for becoming a city employee, I’m certain there soon will be lots receiving assistance from the food bank.
There are lots of other workers employed by the city who don’t make the $12.60 an hour. Many are seasonal employees in parks and recreation. What criteria will the City Commission use to determine who among their staff is entitled to a “living wage” and who is not?
The questions can go even deeper, though. As I mentioned, companies that receive a tax abatement are required to pay the living wage. Companies that receive other types of public incentives, however, are not required to pay a living wage. That means all the hotel developments that have received tax increment financing money aren’t required to pay their cleaning crews a living wage. Same goes for apartment projects that are scheduled to receive millions in taxpayer incentives. Those projects received “tax rebates,” not tax abatements, so the living wage requirement doesn’t apply.
None of these issues are new. I wrote about the transit issue in 2008, but the idea of a living wage for bus drivers never gained any political traction. I then wrote in 2009 about how the city’s living wage ordinance doesn’t apply to many of the publicly subsidized projects being approved by City Hall. But again, the issue never got political traction.
But the political environment changed significantly during the last City Commission election. It is not hard to envision that this group may stick with this issue longer than past commissions did. It is also not hard to envision the debate becoming much bigger than a handful of janitors.
• Here is one twist to keep in mind as it relates to the city’s transit system. As we previously have reported, the city needs to get a funding plan figured out for the transit system by 2018. A 10-year sales tax that currently funds the system is set to expire.
I’ve previously written how I believe the transit system may be entering a danger zone. They city is behind schedule on finding a transit hub and doing the difficult work of redesigning the transit system to make it more efficient. If the system doesn’t become more efficient, it may make it more difficult to win voter support for a renewal of the sales tax.
A renewal of the sales tax also may become more difficult if Douglas County officials add to the local tax burden with a $30 million-plus jail expansion and crisis intervention center project. There’s only so many taxes voters will approve.
If city commissioners decide to increase what they pay transit employees, that also may have an impact. Boosting the wages would seem to increase the operating costs of the transit system. Would the city also need to increase the size of the sales tax in order to pay for those increased operating costs?
Tough to know. The easy thing to understand is that 2018 will be here before we know it.
Signs point to new southern chicken chain coming to northwest Lawrence; update on multiple restaurant, retail projects on south Iowa
I’m always curious how the outside world views Lawrence. At the moment, I’m pretty confident that a PR firm led by bovines is sending out signals that Lawrence’s top need is more chicken. Yes, I have news of another chicken restaurant coming to the city.
We’ve reported for a few months now that a new chicken restaurant is slated for the Bauer Farm development near Sixth and Wakarusa. That’s on top of the slate of chicken restaurants that are coming to south Iowa Street. Well, I still don’t have official confirmation on the identity of the new Bauer Farm restaurant, but a source with good knowledge of the situation has told me to keep an eye on a chain called Zaxby’s.
Yes, the bovines are getting mighty creative because I’ve never heard of Zaxby’s. My friend Mr. Google tells me it is a chain of about 700 restaurants operating primarily in the southeastern U.S. But the chain has been moving northward, and it likes college towns. It opened its first store in Missouri in 2014, and it chose Columbia as its test market for the state. The company also is around college towns every day. It is based in Athens, Ga., which is home to the University of Georgia.
As for the food, it looks like there is a strong emphasis on chicken fingers and chicken wings, with multiple dipping sauces, according to the company’s website. The menu lists nine flavors for wings and fingers, ranging from a fairly standard Buffalo-style sauce to the restaurant's signature hot sauce called Tongue Torch. In addition, the restaurant has five dipping sauces, including something called a Zax Sauce, which is described as both tangy and zesty, and a horseradish-based sauce called Zestable Dip.
In addition to wings and fingers, the menu also includes a variety of chicken salads, including Cobb, blue cheese and Caesar varieties. (They call all their salads Zalads because the restaurant got a good deal on Zs at the alphabet store.) The restaurant’s sides, though, are what’s causing me to make sure my cholesterol medicine closet has room for an extra shipment. In addition to the traditional fries and such, other sides — called Zappetizers, of course — include breaded and fried white cheddar bites with a marinara dipping sauce, fried spicy mushrooms and homemade tater chips.
Like I said, I don’t know much about the Zaxby’s chain, but when the restaurant came to Columbia, the Columbia Daily Tribune described it as being “to chicken what Chipotle is to Mexican, Five Guys is to burgers and Panera is to delis.” They described it as being a little pricier than traditional fast food but having a little better quality. The restaurant does tout that it makes each order at the time of purchase, rather than making it ahead of time and storing under heat lamps.
Of course, take all of this for what you think it is worth. I remind you I don’t have official confirmation yet from Zaxby’s about its Lawrence plans. But it does look like one to keep your zeyes on. (Sorry. I thought I’d better use a Z before they get all used up.)
In other news and notes from around town:
• Since I mentioned south Iowa Street earlier, this seems like as good a time as any to provide an update on new business construction along the corridor. We’ve reported on all this before, but I’ve gotten several questions recently about what is under construction where. So, here’s a brief roundup:
— The building that is taking shape in front of Bigg's BBQ and other establishments near 25th and Iowa streets is a Raising Cane’s restaurant. It is a chain restaurant that focuses on chicken fingers with a zesty sauce. Based on the progress being made on that building, I would think we’ll have that sauce coursing through our arteries by this summer.
— Just down the street at 26th and Iowa, construction work is underway on a Popeyes chicken restaurant, which will include a drive-thru. The restaurant is being built on the southern end of the shopping center that includes First Watch and other establishments. That entire shopping center, called Tower Plaza, is undergoing a redesign. Crews currently are putting a new facade on the shopping center, but businesses in the center remain open during construction.
— On the north end of that shopping center — closer to 25th and Iowa street — some preliminary work has begun on converting a former insurance office and barber shop building into a Pie Five restaurant, a chain that makes handmade pizzas in five minutes. The insurance office — Gary Petersen’s Shelter Insurance agency — has moved into space inside the Tower Plaza shopping center. The barber shop has closed, I believe.
— Inside the Tower Plaza shopping center, I believe remodeling work already has begun or soon will for the sandwich chain Which Wich. The chain features a variety of hot sub sandwiches. A sign is up at the site advertising that the restaurant is coming soon.
— Closer to 23rd and Iowa Street, look for work on a new Texas Roadhouse. As we previously have reported, the steakhouse chain Texas Roadhouse has filed plans to go into the space previously occupied by Saints Pub + Patio. Or, for those of you with longer memories, it is the spot where Old Chicago Pizza used to be. We reported on Texas Roadhouse all the way back in September, and work has not really begun, as near as I can tell. The plans call for a significant amount of construction there, so I will check in to see if all is still on track.
— Look for a new Planet Fitness to go into a portion of the space previously occupied by Discovery furniture near 25th and Iowa streets. As we reported in December, the fitness chain signed a deal to take about 22,000 square feet of space in the large retail building. That will occupy about half of the vacant space in the building. The development group, I hear, is getting strong interest from other users for the remaining space.
In wake of former mayor, city considering new expense policy for employees; Mass. Street retailer closes shop
Per diem, I believe, is Latin for: “Money in my pocket.” If you are not familiar with how a per diem expense account works, you receive a set amount of money each day — usually for food and other incidentals — whether you incur those expenses or not. It looks like city of Lawrence employees may soon get to experience the ins and outs of a per diem expense account.
I know how such an account works in my world. I pack a suitcase full of Ramen noodles because I like cash better than I like hotel food. (Although, the questions from the airport security folks can get a little odd.)
City commissioners at their meeting tonight were set to discuss a new policy on city travel and expenses, including the use of per diem expense accounts. City Hall this morning, however, announced the item has been removed from tonight’s agenda. No word yet on when it may be put on a future agenda.
Although staff doesn’t make any mention of it in its memo, it probably is not a coincidence that the policy discussion is coming in the wake of former Mayor Jeremy Farmer being required to reimburse the city for some improper travel expenses prior to his resignation from the commission.
The major change is that city employees no longer will be required to keep their receipts for food and meal expenses while traveling on city business. Instead of being reimbursed based on receipts, city employees who are traveling simply will be given a per day allowance for meals.
The allowance will vary depending on what city they are traveling to. The federal government’s Government Services Administration sets recommended per diem amounts for various cities across the country. The city plans to use those amounts.
Doing a quick search on the GSA website, it appears a lot of cities in this region are about $64 a day, or at least that was the case for Kansas City, Omaha and Dallas, for example. In some other cities the amount increases. For example, it is $74 a day in New York, $74 a day in San Francisco and $69 a day in Washington, D.C.
What do you think? Could you figure out how to subsist on $64 a day in a place like K.C., Omaha or Dallas? Remember, it needs to cover your taxes and tips too. The per diem is designed to cover three meals per day. The per diem, however, is only for food. You don’t have to pay tolls, or parking or other such expenses out of the per diem. Given that, if you split your per diem equally per meal, you would need to spend about $21 per meal or less to stay within your allowance. I don’t know about you, but I don’t normally spend $21 on breakfast, unless it is one of those breakfast bars where they charge you by the pound. Figure at even hotel prices, $12 for breakfast, $15 for lunch, and that leaves you with $37 to buy a single meal for dinner. (The closest I’ve ever felt like a Rockefeller is going to a McDonald's with $37 in my pocket and asking if they’ve got something bigger than a super size.)
The city policy says the city won’t pay for alcohol as a city expense, but the per diem complicates that a little bit.
Bryan Kidney, the city’s finance director, told me employees would be able to purchase alcohol with their dinner, for example, and use the per diem money to pay for it. There are still policies in place that city employees are expected to not consume alcohol while conducting city business, but during those off hours of a convention, there’s no restriction in place on the per diem being used for a glass of wine or such.
“We’re not asking for receipts so what they spend that per diem on is kind of up to them,” Kidney said.
Kidney said he’s recommending the per diem policy, in part, because his staff spends quite a bit of time tracking down receipts and reviewing them. He said he hasn’t done a detailed analysis of whether the policy would save or cost the city money, but he also noted that there is not a large amount of overnight travel that the city does in a year. (The per diem would only be for overnight trips.) The city last year had 85 overnight travels, Kidney said.
Kidney said it appears most of the other large cities in Kansas already have gone to a per diem system, primarily because of the efficiencies it creates for the accounting staffs, plus it also creates more predictable expense for the city to budget for.
As for other details in the proposed policy, they include:
— The policy will apply to all city employees, city commissioners, and board members serving on city boards.
— The city plans to produce a public report detailing the amount of overnight travel that occurs by city employees each month. The report will be published on the Finance Department’s website each month and will include the name, the department, the destination, purpose of the travel and the cost per category of each city-paid trip.
“One of the things I was asked to do when I came on board here was to increase the transparency of some of our financial reporting, and this is an effort to do that,” Kidney said.
— The new policy would allow greater flexibility in lodging choices. It will allow employees to more routinely stay in a hotel other than the host hotel of a convention, and also would allow for the use of a short term rental, if that is more advantageous.
— The new policy makes it clear that the use of ride-sharing services, such as Uber, are an acceptable expense.
— The city would only pay for airline fees for coach travel and will pay an airline charge for only one bag. Additional charges for extra baggage, seat upgrades, priority seating and other such charges won’t be allowed, unless there is a legitimate business purpose for the expense.
— On lodging, the policy allows a companion to share a room with a city employee, but the companion will be required to pay the difference between a single rate and the double/family rate of the hotel.
— Prohibited expenses include: fees for attendance at political rallies; nonemployee travel expenses; entertainment costs; expenses for nonpublic purposes such as clothing, sporting events, laundry services and travel outside of meeting dates; and alcoholic beverages.
You may remember that some of those prohibited expenses became an issue with former mayor Farmer, who ended up reimbursing the city for $1,100 worth of personal expenses that were put on a city credit card. The use of the per diem system also is expected to reduce the use of city credit cards because city credit cards will be specifically prohibited from meal uses, according to the proposed policy.
In other news and notes:
• Since we brought his name up, I can tell you we are still keeping an eye out for any charges related to Jeremy Farmer and his alleged mismanagement at the Lawrence food bank Just Food. No charges have been filed yet. What to make of that is a little bit harder to determine.
I’ve certainly heard that the investigation into the matter would be handled by federal officials, since the allegations involve payroll taxes and other tax matters. At this point, I don’t think the absence of charges means much, other than the federal government doesn’t operate at lightning pace. I think it also is possible that federal officials may be waiting to see how Farmer files his 2015 tax returns. Depending on what income is claimed or not claimed on those returns could have implications on any future actions taken by investigators.
We’re also keeping our eyes open for any signs of a civil lawsuit filed against Farmer. Leaders with Just Food have acknowledged that could be a possibility. My understanding is the filing of a civil suit against Farmer could make Just Food eligible to get a rebate on penalties, fines and other such fees they may have had to pay to the IRS. At the moment, I don’t have word on whether such a suit is forthcoming.
• A quick update on a change along Massachusetts Street. Mobilosity, the wireless phone repair and accessory store at 815 Massachusetts St., has closed, according to a sign in the window. Based on the sign, it looks like the store is not relocating but rather is going out of business. The sign, however, indicated it was still honoring warranty claims on its work. People with warranty issues were directed to send an email to email@example.com. No word yet on whether a new tenant has been found for the prime Mass. Street spot.
The Kasold Curve — that stretch of road in southern Lawrence where Kasold turns into 31st Street — has produced plenty of arguments inside my Ford Taurus. They mainly have been related to how many g-forces my body can withstand as a passenger in the car. But get ready for a different type of argument. A debate is brewing about whether a portion of the Kasold Curve should be closed.
For those of you not familiar with the Kasold Curve, there is a small county road just to the south of the curve that connects with the busy South Lawrence Trafficway. As we’ve previously reported, the Kansas Department of Transportation is in the early stages of creating a design that would expand that portion of the trafficway from two lanes to four. KDOT has long said it would want to close that at-grade intersection at the Kasold Curve at that point. But for most motorists, that possibility was some far off event. The earliest that four-lane project could happen would be 2020.
But now, KDOT officials are proposing to close the intersection this year. Some residents and at least one business are gearing up to oppose the move. A new website called savethekasoldcurve.com has been created, and a petition that aims to persuade KDOT officials to change their minds is circulating.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the current intersection is dangerous,” said Rodger Henry, who lives south of Lawrence and is an organizer of the petition. “But they need to spend the money to fix the Kasold Curve intersection, not close it.”
Henry said closing the intersection will eliminate a key access point for hundreds of residents southwest of Lawrence. He said the Kasold intersection is a convenient way to get access to west Lawrence. Henry has been joined by Lawrence Landscape in creating the petition. Lawrence Landscape operates a tree farm just south of the Kasold and SLT intersection.
Henry said he thinks the closing of the Kasold intersection will cause some residents who live southwest of the city to begin taking the road that goes across the Clinton Lake Dam to access west Lawrence. He said the dam road isn’t built to handle that type of traffic.
In addition to the petition drive, the group is urging people to attend a meeting later this week. The city-county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Board is meeting at 3 p.m. Thursday at Lawrence City Hall to offer a recommendation on whether the Kasold/SLT intersection should be closed.
Officials from KDOT will be at the meeting to make the case. They are recommending that access to Kasold be closed later this year when the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway is open to traffic.
KDOT officials are predicting a large increase in traffic on the western leg of the SLT once the portion of the trafficway east of Iowa Street opens. Current projections are traffic at the Kasold intersection will increase to about 18,000 vehicles per day, up from about 11,000 vehicles currently. KDOT engineers are forecasting the number of accidents at the intersection will grow to about three crashes per year, up from a little more than one crash per year currently. They note that because of the high speeds on the trafficway, crashes at the intersection can be very serious.
KDOT engineers also are estimating it would cost about $1.6 million to improve the intersection with some acceleration and deceleration lanes, and other features. Those improvements would have to be removed when the SLT is expanded to four lanes.
KDOT officials also are reminding leaders that if the western leg of the SLT ultimately is expanded to four lanes, plans call for a new interchange a couple miles to the west of the current Kasold interchange. It would be in between the existing Kasold intersection and the existing at-grade Wakarusa Drive/YSI Sports complex intersection.
But as Henry notes, that interchange is years in the making, if it ever develops.
“You know it is going to be at least 10 years before any of that every comes to fruition,” Henry predicted.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I got word this morning that Biggs BBQ on Mass. is set to reopen later this week. Owner Doug Holiday told me he expects to open either Thursday or Friday of this week. The restaurant has been closed since March 3, when it and the adjacent Ladybird Diner were damaged by fire.
Holiday said the process to refurbish the restaurant has taken longer than he expected, and has been trying.
“It has been difficult trying to keep everything together,” Holiday said. “But the nice thing about it is we have a great new smoker. It will be a lot better environment for us to smoke in.”
The new smoker has meant a few tweaks to menus and cooking processes, and Holiday said he thinks patrons will notice the difference in a positive way. He said the restaurant has fine-tuned its processes for baby back ribs, brisket and burnt ends, and “we’ve create a few new recipes and jazzed up some to others.” Among the new ones Holiday said the restaurant is adding a vegetarian smoked portobello mushroom sandwich.
As for the interior of the restaurant, Holiday said he’s stuck with much of the same theme that existed before the fire. Holiday said the restaurant repairs were completed earlier, but he wanted to wait until students returned before he started hiring staff and preparing for the opening.
“We’re excited to reopen,” Holiday said. “There is a lot of relief to get the monkey off my back.”
Look for new homebuilding to begin near 23rd and O’Connell in eastern Lawrence; update on longtime W. Sixth St. retailer
Keep an eye on the intersection of 23rd and O’Connell in eastern Lawrence. There are signs that a new neighborhood may sprout in the area, which will create renewed hope that a grocery store or other retail development may come to the intersection, too.
There has been a flurry of real estate activity near the intersection ever since the city announced Menard Inc. has plans to build a production and distribution center in Lawrence VenturePark, which is right across the highway from the 23rd and O’Connell intersection.
A group led by Roger Johnson, who owns Lawrence-based R.D. Johnson Excavating, has bought 43 single family home lots just a bit south of the intersection. Johnson said he’s currently in discussions with local homebuilders to begin construction on a new affordable housing community.
“Honestly, I feel like it is our last place to build affordable homes in Lawrence right now,” Johnson said. “With Menards going, maybe we can build some homes where people can work there and afford to live in Lawrence. We would like to provide options for people to live in the community (where) they work.”
The property is generally south and east of the intersection of East 25th Terrace and O’Connell Road. It is a bit east of the actual intersection. The corner lot property is owned by Cornerstone Southern Baptist Church.
Johnson said he hasn’t yet finalized deals with builders for the project, but he hopes to have construction underway in the summer. He said the project would feature traditional single family homes — not duplexes — and they likely would have price points around $200,000.
We’ve had articles before about how the area is primed for development, and then it just hasn’t seemed to come. It does look like this housing project is a likelihood. Johnson’s excavating crews recently have completed building a street network for the homes.
New activity at nearby VenturePark also is likely creating some momentum in the area. In case you have forgotten, VenturePark is the approximately 220-acre site where Farmland Industries had its fertilizer plant, just north and east of 23rd and O’Connell. Menards, the home improvement retailer, received approval in January to build a production plant and distribution center that will employ about 150 people once it is operational.
Land transfers show a Johnson County developer that has built several affordable housing projects in Gardner and elsewhere also has bought significant amounts of property near the intersection. A company controlled by David and Suzanne Rhodes recently bought two large lots that could accommodate multifamily development near the northwest corner of East 25th Terrace and O’Connell Road. The group also bought a smaller lot that could accommodate several homes at the southwest corner of East 25th and O’Connell.
Those recent acquisitions are in addition to property the Rhodes group owns just northeast of the 27th and O’Connell intersection. As we previously have reported, Rhodes is trying to put together a deal to build 32 units of rent-controlled housing on that property.
I’m not sure what Rhodes has planned for the properties closer to 23rd and O’Connell, but I’ve got a call into him. Previously, there had been talk of building affordable apartments for seniors near that area. No word whether that is still a possibility.
Housing development in the area will be interesting to watch, but the question I get asked most often about that area is: When will a grocery store locate at the intersection? What I always hear from people in that business is that grocery store developers like to stand on a site, look around and see lots of rooftops. At the moment, you can see from that intersection lots of rooftops to the west, but it is still mainly green fields in all other directions. New housing development could help create momentum for new retail at the intersection, but is hard to predict what will be the tipping point for retailers to come to the area.
The intersection, though, is zoned and waiting. Tractor Supply located there several years ago, but no other retailers have followed. According the documents on file with the county, the southeast corner of 23rd and O’Connell has at least seven lots that are zoned and ready to accommodate commercial development.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Sometimes I have a hook. Sometimes I have a slice. The most consistent part of my golf game is I almost have a window repair bill waiting for me when I’m done. So, I keep an eye on window stores, and if you do too, you perhaps have noticed a longtime Lawrence one is going through some changes.
There is a "for sale" sign in front of the Pella window store along West Sixth Street. But, I checked in with store officials, and there’s no need to worry that the business is going out of business.
The store, which has been in Lawrence since 1987, recently has been bought by another Pella dealer — Pella Products of Kansas. The building, which is near Sixth and Fireside, is owned by the previous owner of the Pella store. He’s looking to sell the building. Steve Devore, an employee at the store, said the new Pella owner is exploring options for purchasing the building but also is looking at other locations in town.
“We’re going to stay in Lawrence either way, though,” Devore said.
If the store decides to move, look for some type of news on a new location in the next few weeks, Devore said.
Holiday shopping numbers show Lawrence did better than most but still lagging expectations; heading off an American Eagle Outfitters rumor
This is the time of year where you are thinking about Valentine’s Day shopping. (Don’t mind that sudden noise. It is just the sound of 20,000 male cellphones trying to call a flower shop all at once.) But at Lawrence City Hall, they’re still thinking about the Christmas shopping season. New sales tax numbers are in that show Lawrence shoppers were merrier than most but still may not have been merry enough.
State revenue officials have sent January sales tax checks to cities across the state. Those checks are for sales taxes that actually were collected mostly in November — or in other words, the start of the holiday shopping season. (And yes, it was allowable to start early for Valentine’s Day too, although it will be great fun perusing the candy aisle of your favorite convenience store on Sunday.)
The sales tax numbers from the state show that sales tax collections were up 0.8 percent in Lawrence during that early holiday shopping season. The good news is that those numbers are better than those posted by many of the state’s other retail centers. The concerning news, though, is the city is betting on sales tax growth far greater than 0.8 percent for 2016. To meet its budget, the city needs to see sales tax growth closer to 5 percent.
Here’s a look at some of the numbers and how Lawrence stacks up to other area communities:
— Lawrence: up 0.8 percent
— Kansas City: down 1 percent
— Sedgwick County: down 0.8 percent
— Johnson County: up 0.9 percent
— Salina: down 4.8 percent
— Manhattan: down 3.8 percent
— Lenexa: down 4.3 percent
— Topeka: down 0.7 percent
— Overland Park: up 1.3 percent
— Olathe: up 0.2 percent
— City of Shawnee: up 23.5 percent
With the exception of Shawnee — where consumers there must shop ahead for both Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day — Lawrence’s numbers stack up well.(UPDATE: I've figured out the Shawnee numbers. The state's report was incorrect in one regard. It did not note that Shawnee's sales tax rate increased as part of street improvement program. So, sales taxes collections have increased, but that's primarily because the rate has increased. The Journal-World's sister publication, The Shawnee Dispatch, had an article on that recently.)
But as I noted earlier, Lawrence will need to see better months than this one, if it hopes to meet its aggressive sales tax projections for 2016. City officials are projecting a 5 percent sales tax growth. The city finished 2015 with a 4.7 percent sales tax growth. The city more typically has counted on 3 percent sales tax growth to make its budgets.
But as city officials have previously noted, 2016 will be the first full year of sales tax collections with both Dick’s Sporting Goods and Menards in town. There is a hope that the addition of those two big box retailers will keep some retail dollars in town that otherwise have been leaving the community. That seems to be a good bet, but what is less certain is whether the overall economy will hold up and put shoppers in a spending mood.
Traditionally, a drop in gasoline prices has been a good thing for Lawrence retailers. It is tough to say whether that will be the case this year.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Part of my exciting lifestyle involves watching the Douglas County land transfers that show which pieces of property have recently changed hands. I know some of you also watch those because we’ve found ourselves in the same lonely corner at cocktail parties. The most recent listing from the county courthouse may have an entry that catches your eye: A group called American Eagle Properties Inc. has bought land in the Bauer Farm shopping center development near Sixth and Wakarusa.
There’s of course a national retail chain called American Eagle Outfitters, but as I told my wife when she was warming up the forklift to make more room in the closet, I don’t think this deal is a sign that American Eagle Outfitters is coming to town.
Instead, I did a little bit of searching, and found that American Eagle Properties appears to be more of a run-of-the-mill land holding company owned by a Colorado investor. According to media reports, it looks like the operator of American Eagle Properties used to own a Colorado-based beer distributorship that had American Eagle in its name.
As for what may go on the vacant property, I haven’t heard of any plans yet. It may be that the property just changed hands for investment purposes, but I’ll keep my eyes open for signs of any new projects.
If you have driven by the Bauer Farm property lately, you probably noticed there is a large amount of dirt work underway near the corner of Sixth and Folks Road. As we’ve previously reported, an apartment complex is going in near that location. I also have word that a credit union is building near the corner as well. I’m still gathering some information about that project, and I also hope to soon have a rendering to share of what the new apartment complex will look like.
Newest plans filed for Alvamar redevelopment seek zoning for office uses, add underground parking; look at latest renderings for clubhouse, apartments, cabanas at Alvamar
There’s a reason I write my golf score in pencil, and apparently it also is a good idea to have some flexibility when redesigning west Lawrence’s Alvamar Golf & Country Club. A local development group has filed plans tweaking its previous redevelopment proposal for the club.
The major item in the new plans filed with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department is a rezoning request that would allow for more office development near the golf course. The club’s new owner — a group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel — has filed to change the zoning of about 14 acres of property near Alvamar’s clubhouse area. The new rezoning would be an RMO district,which would allow for a mix of multifamily residential and office development.
Paul Werner, the Lawrence-based architect for the project, told me the rezoning request comes about because the development group has been fielding interest from potential office users.
“Over the last several months, we have heard from several interested parties who would be excited about locating their business office adjacent to all of the proposed facilities,” Werner told me via email. “It would seem to make great sense that a chiropractor, private wellness facility, wellness trainers, etc., would create a synergy with the other facilities and the golf course.”
It appears medical offices are certainly a prime target for the office development, although the zoning would allow for other types of offices too. Details about where the offices may be located on the property are a bit unclear at the moment, but they generally would be near the clubhouse area of the golf course, which is at 1809 Crossgate Drive.
But residents should not worry that the office development will take the place of the longtime private clubhouse. In previous plans filed for the development, there had been mention that the long range plan was for the clubhouse facility to be demolished. But Werner told me the ownership group has now decided against that. As we previously reported, renovation work is underway at the clubhouse. Werner said the current plan is for the clubhouse to reopen in the fall.
“The reality is, the structure is in good condition, but has been cobbled up over the years,” Werner said.
I’m working to get a few more details about new amenities or features that may be included in the clubhouse renovation.
The other significant changes to the project come on the residential side. The plans are now showing that one of the residential buildings planned for the project will be for an “independent living” facility. The plans show that building would be four stories tall and would have 96 living units, although planning department officials caution me that the plans are still fluid and that the developer has indicated the living unit total could decrease some. The building would be a bit north and west of the existing private clubhouse and would overlook the new pool and cabana area planned for the club. See below for a look at the entire site layout.
As you can see, there are several more residential buildings planned for the development. The plans still call for about 380 living units to be built around the course, with most of them planned for an area north of the existing private clubhouse. In addition to the independent living facility, the plans are listing four four-story residential buildings, a two-story building and what appears to be four smaller one-story buildings.
The total amount of living units planned for the development is consistent with what has been previously proposed, but a new twist is that the development group is now proposing underground parking garages for most of the residential buildings.
“Not only does it keep the impervious surface down, it also saves some space,” Werner said. “It is certainly better for the tenants, and visually more appealing than surface parking.”
One other item worth noting on the newly filed plans is they do not show the location for a proposed banquet facility and small hotel. Previous plans showed the facility along the eastern edge of the club complex. But the building is no longer showing up in the drawings, although there’s indications it is still planned. The notes on the development plan still talk about a banquet facility with a hotel that would have no more than 24 guest rooms. The notes also talk about how the banquet facility would be allowed to include a “nightclub” use, but it would be operated only in conjunction with the banquet/reception facility.
So, more details are to come on this project, which likely will be one of the larger ones in the city in the coming year. The specific designs will need to win approval from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission. A date hasn’t yet been set, but the Planning Commission could hear those as early as next month.
• The latest plans also give a bit of a look at the architectural style that is envisioned for the new buildings around the course. I don’t have detailed color renderings yet, but here’s a look at some basic elevations that have been submitted to the planning department for review.