Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
A look at how smart and how small Lawrence is; large apartment project near KU seeks change in parking standards
We are smart here in Lawrence. If you don’t believe us, we can show you any number of lists to prove it. And if that doesn’t do it, we can always retort with our unofficial motto: Just wait until basketball season. All this is to say, Lawrence has landed on another list of the most highly-educated cities in America.
Lawrence checks in at No. 4 on the list of “most educated cities” in America by the financial website SmartAsset.com. Not surprisingly, the list is dominated by college communities. The list uses recent Census Bureau data to determine the percentage of the population that has a high school degree, a bachelor’s degree or higher, and a graduate or professional degree. In Lawrence, 94.4 percent of the population has a high school degree or higher, 48 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher and 18.8 percent have a graduate or professional degree.
When you sum all that up, Lawrence is a Final Four community. Here’s the complete top 10:
Boulder, Colo. (Univ. of Colorado)
Corvallis, Oregon (Oregon State)
Ames, Iowa (Iowa State)
Columbia, Mo. (Univ. of Missouri)
Ithaca, N.Y. (Cornell)
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Univ. of Michigan)
Iowa City (Univ. of Iowa)
Fort Collins, Colo. (Colorado State)
Madison, Wis. (University of Wisconsin)
As you surely already know, it pays to be smart. (When the Kansas City Royals win the World Series, my bank account will show just how much it pays.) The more traditional thinking, though, is that smart cities are going to reap the economic rewards of a new economy that places an emphasis on information, research and other things that sometimes require pocket protectors.
So, being a journalist in such a smart city, I thought I would do a little more number crunching. As I reported yesterday, the federal government released new statistics showing the gross domestic product of every metro area in the country for 2013.
In case you missed it, the results were a mixed bag for Lawrence. Lawrence’s economy grew by 0.9 percent, but that was less than the national average of 1.7 percent. Lawrence’s economy fared better than the economies in Manhattan (negative 1.5 percent) Topeka (negative 1 percent), and Wichita (0.7 percent) but worse than Kansas City’s (1.4 percent).
GDP is a measurement of the value of all the goods and services produced in an economy. In my book, it is one of the more important statistics that leaders should watch because it shows the overall size of our economy and how much it is growing.
But I see you’re starting to play with the beads on your abacus, so let’s get back to the number crunching. I decided to take a look at the GDP of each of the top 10 most educated communities. One finding jumps out at you: Lawrence has the smallest economy of the bunch. In fact, Lawrence has one of the smaller economies of any metro area in the country. Our economy in 2013 generated $3.83 billion in goods and services. Out of the 381 metro areas, our economy ranked No. 346 in terms of size. (Just wait until basketball season.)
The number of people who live in a metro area, however, does play a role in the size of your economy. Lawrence is one of the smaller metro areas in terms of population too. (No. 332 in terms of population rank.) So, I decided to divide each community’s GDP by its population to come up with a per capita GDP number. Think of this numbers as the amount of goods and services every man, woman and child produces in a year. (My wife at this very moment is using her abacus to deduct from my individual score based on the number of times I have forgotten to take out the trash this year.)
Here’s the findings, and I warn you, they are not pretty for Lawrence:
Ann Arbor: $57,616
Iowa City: $53,111
Fort Collins: $41,805
Madison, Wis.: $68,358
Lawrence is last on that list, and by quite a bit. For some reason, Lawrence has not converted its status as a highly educated community into a highly productive economy. Now, this is the part where I get out the salt and begin rubbing it in the wound. According to the SmartAsset.com rankings, Madera, Calif. is the least educated metro area in the country. In that community, about 30 percent of the population doesn’t have a high school degree, only 12 percent have a college degree, and 2.6 percent have a graduate degree. Its per capita GDP was $33,860 in 2013, or about $300 higher than Lawrence’s.
Again, that’s just salt. I don’t know much about Madera, but I doubt we would really want to change places with that community. The more interesting comparison, to me, is Ames. The GDP in Ames in 2013 was $5.07 billion. Lawrence’s was $3.83 billion. The Ames metro has about 22,000 fewer people living in than Lawrence’s metro area, but its economy produced $1.24 billion more than Lawrence’s.
How did that happen? Really, how did that happen? There’s been talk about Lawrence leaders setting some goals or benchmarks to measure economic development in the community. It seems these GDP numbers should be part of that equation. And investigating how two cities seemingly should be similar have such different economies might be instructive.
Sometimes I hear that Lawrence’s economy is hindered by being so close to Kansas City. Companies and enterprises find it is just as easy to go to Kansas City as it is to locate here. But I would note that Ames, like Lawrence, is only about 30 miles outside a major metro area. In Ames’ case, it is Des Moines. Maybe there are differences between Iowa and Kansas. I didn’t look at every metro area in the country, but I did the calculations for a couple dozen, and the only community I found with a lower per capita GDP than Lawrence’s was Manhattan’s. It had a GDP of $30,789.
I’m not sure what it says that Kansas’ two largest university communities have GDP figures that greatly trail a lot of other university economies. Maybe it is just a difference in philosophy. Perhaps the decision has been made that some of the benefit from the universities should accrue to Kansas City. Both institutions have facilities in Kansas City, and the KC economy has fared fine in the GDP numbers. Kansas City now has the 29th largest economy in the country, while by population it is the 30th largest metro area in the country.
Bottom line, I don’t know why the economies of Lawrence and Ames are so different, or why these other highly educated cities are performing much differently than Lawrence’s. Whatever the reasons, it appears they are not waiting for basketball season.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There’s new information about a proposed $75 million apartment project near KU’s Memorial Stadium. The Chicago-based development group is asking the city to significantly reduce the amount of parking the project is required to build.
If you remember, city commissioners in July approved a 10-year, 85 percent tax rebate program for the apartment project, which is slated to have 237 upscale apartments and about 13,000 square feet of retail space in a multistory building across the street from Memorial Stadium. (1101 and 1115 Indiana St.)
But now the development group HERE, LLC is asking commissioners to make an exception to the city’s parking code, and allow the development to reduce the number of spaces in its parking garage by 100. That would be about a 15 percent reduction in parking, dropping the total parking spaces for the development to 584.
In a letter to the city, a HERE official said he’s making the request because the city’s parking standards seem to be quite a bit higher than what other communities require for multifamily development. Lawrence’s parking code requires one parking space per each bedroom of an apartment. HERE provided a list of 16 communities — most of them university communities — that have parking standards ranging from .16 parking spaces per bed to .63 parking spaces per bed.
HERE says that information it has received from KU indicates that the historic demand for parking from students living on campus is about 60 percent.
Commissioners, I believe, will hear the request at their Tuesday evening meeting. It should be interesting. Would the city only allow this reduced parking standard for development within walking distance of the university, or would they allow it for other apartment developments in the community. I’m sure there will be some landlords watching with interest.
Plus, there is a financial matter here. The city approved the 85 percent tax rebate based on a study that measured the projected economic impact of the project. It assumed a certain level of investment from the company. If the project’s parking garage is reduced by 100 space, I’m assuming the cost of the project will be reduced. Whether it is enough to change the economic analysis, I don’t know. But commissioners were divided on giving the tax incentives in the first place. They approved the tax rebate on a 3-2 vote.
Sushi restaurant going into former American Eagle space downtown; more details on fledgling opposition group for police headquarters
So, you’re not much of a dancer, I hear. Well, maybe a sushi roll will put an extra wiggle in your step. You soon may get a chance to find out because a new restaurant that combines sushi and nightlife is set to open in downtown Lawrence.
An establishment called Prime Blu by Wasabi has filed plans to open in the former American Eagle Outfitters site at 619 Massachusetts. David Kwon, the manager for the new restaurant, said the company operates three traditional sushi restaurants called Wasabi in Wichita. The group wants to open a location in Lawrence, but thinks it ought to have a slightly different feel.
“Our concept is not to have a complete club theme, but it will bring good sushi with a club vibe,” Kwon said.
That means the location will feature a large bar, and the owners are hoping to incorporate a dance floor into the plans as well. Remodeling work has begun at the site, and Kwon said he hopes the business will open between late November and early January.
Sushi rolls are expected to be the big menu item at the establishment. Kwon said the restaurant will feature more than 50 different sushi rolls, with a variety of fish, shrimp, lobster crab and other seafood available.
“There will be lots of choices,” Kwon said. “It is just a matter of whether you like the raw ingredients or the cooked.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• I told you I would try to find out more information about who is behind the group called Lawrencians Against the New Police Headquarters. Well, at the moment Conor Brown, a Lawrence resident who is a produce farmer who also works at the Lawrence Farmers' Market is the lead organizer of the group.
Brown got in touch with me after I mentioned in a Town Talk column last week that I had seen the group on Facebook, but wasn’t sure who its leader was. The group is holding its first organizational meeting at 7 p.m. today at the Lawrence Public Library. I think that meeting will determine what shape this group takes and how active it will be in the campaign for the November sales tax question for the approximately $28 million police headquarters facility.
Brown said he hasn’t filed any paperwork for the group to become a political action committee, which would allow it to raise money and do political advertising as part of the campaign. But he said if others want to take that step, he’s not opposed to it. Brown said he mainly decided to try to form a group after he saw a citizens group had formed to support the ballot measure. He said he’s concerned the issue may win public approval without much of a public debate.
“I think we have jumped headlong into it as a city and not looked at other options,” Brown said. “I think we’re relying too much on an architect’s recommendation.”
Brown said he thinks the public also ought to ask for some changes at the Lawrence Police Department before it approves a large expenditure for the department. In particular, he said the city needs some sort of citizens review board for the police department. The city has a Citizens’ Advisory Board for the police department, but its role largely is confined to reviewing information about racial profiling. Brown said other cities have a more robust review board that looks at all aspects of the police department.
Plus, Brown said he just doesn’t like the financial details of the proposed 0.2 percent sales tax that would raise about $24 million of the approximately $28 million needed for the project.
“It seems like a lot of money, and I’m really against the idea of a regressive tax,” Brown said.
I’ll be at a City Commission meeting tonight, but I’ll do my best to check in with the group as well to see what type of turnout it had, and what its plans are for moving forward.
• Some quick numbers for you. The Bureau of Economic Analysis released it gross domestic product numbers for all metro areas today. I think the numbers are interesting because they measure the total value of goods and services produced in a community. In other words, they’re a good measure of the size of your overall economy.
The good news for Lawrence is that its economy grew in 2013. Lawrence’s GDP of $3.83 billion grew 0.4 percent for the year. The bad news is that is less than the national average for metro areas. Nationally, metro areas grew by 1.7 percent in 2013. The 0.4 percent growth rate also was the slowest for Lawrence since 2010, when GDP actually shrunk by 2.1 percent.
Growth in northeast Kansas was a mixed bag in 2013. Kansas City’s GDP grew by 1.4 percent, but Topeka’s shrunk by 1 percent and Manhattan’s shrunk by 1.5 percent. The Manhattan GDP was among the poorest faring in the country. Wichita’s GDP grew by 0.7 percent.
There are a lot more numbers in the report, but I haven’t yet sorted through all of them. As I find some more interesting numbers, I’ll let you know.
New diner opens in East Lawrence; owner of 19th and Haskell shopping center weighing redevelopment options
Maybe some of you remember the days of Shorty’s Cafe in downtown Lawrence, and still have the cholesterol readings to prove it. Well, a new East Lawrence diner has a connection to that downtown restaurant that existed decades ago.
The Haskell Avenue Cafe opened earlier this month in the shopping center at 19th and Haskell. Area businessman Chad Wilson is the owner of the new establishment. But his mother, Lynda Wilson, is helping with the management and cooking at the restaurant. She is a veteran in the Lawrence food industry, having worked at a lot of down-home cooking restaurants such as Shorty’s, Village Inn, Country Kitchen and other locations around the area. (I’m only going off what several readers have told me about Shorty’s. It was already gone when I got here 23 years ago, which I believe has reduced my life insurance premium by a couple bucks a month.)
“That’s what this place is about — down-home cooking,” Lynda said. “We don’t do any cooking from a can, and our meat is never frozen. We buy our meat fresh and bread it here.”
Anytime you are talking about breading meat, that is a positive sign, and indeed chicken fried steak, fried chicken and several other such dishes are regular items on the menu. The restaurant also regularly serves hot roast beef and hot turkey plates. Meatloaf is a standard item on the menu, as well as hamburger steak, ham dinners and an assortment of sandwiches.
The restaurant is open from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m., so breakfast is a big part of the business. That menu has all the regulars, including biscuits and gravy, French toast, eggs any way and a host of breakfast meats. There’s even something called a hashbrown omelet, which is an omelet that uses hashbrowns instead of eggs. Sounds great. A side order of eggs would make it perfect.
The restaurant also bakes an assortment of cinnamon rolls, turnovers, muffins, pies and other pastries.
Lynda said the restaurant is opening at 5 a.m., in part, because the 19th and Haskell shopping center is a bus stop for the popular Johnson County transit route that runs between Lawrence and Johnson County Community College. Commuters start getting on the bus early, and she hopes they’ll stop by for a pastry and a cup of coffee. The restaurant also is trying to get the lunch crowd that is in a hurry by offering a daily special that can be served up hot and quick for people who have only a 30-minute lunch break.
The restaurant was in the spot that for a short time housed the Bum Steer BBQ restaurant. That establishment has closed, although I understand that Bum Steer is still in the catering business. For a short time — and I mean just a couple of weeks — another restaurant operator had opened up a diner in the spot called Genia Lyns Cafe. But I guess that wasn’t meant to be, and the Wilsons stepped in after that establishment quickly closed.
The 19th and Haskell site has had a lot of turnover through the years, but Lynda said she believe the diner concept eventually will take hold with the East Lawrence neighborhood.
“We know it will take a little bit for something like this to catch on,” Lynda said. “People get used to the fast food and the drive-thrus, but we think people still want food like this.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• The future of the shopping center at 19th and Haskell comes up from time to time as the property has gone quite awhile without a major renovation. The owner of the center wants folks to know that the topic is on his mind as well.
Ajay Suvarna leads the company that owns the center, and he told me he is now actively looking to redevelop the property.
“I want to downsize the amount of retail there and convert some of it into affordable housing,” said Suvarna. “I think that could be supported economically.”
The idea has come up before. Back in 2007, the city hired a team of planning consultants, called PlaceMakers, to come up with concepts for how the city could include more mixed-use developments. The consultants highlighted several sites ripe for redevelopment, and 19th and Haskell was one of them. The group created a concept that included 30 to 40 residential lots, a convenience store and about 20,000 square feet of retail that would be contained in a development that looked a lot like a downtown block.
Suvarna said that concept may be too dense in his opinion, but he likes the idea of trying to use the property to house more affordable housing units, since Haskell Avenue already is home to several Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority properties. On the retail side, he said there is a demand for some neighborhood services in East Lawrence. The 19th and Haskell center stays about 80 percent leased, he said, but thus far it hasn’t been successful enough to fund a major renovation of the space.
Suvarna said the redevelopment of the former Farmland Industries property into a new business park also will likely increase the viability of the 19th and Haskell Center. No plans have been filed yet, but Suvarna does have a name for the project: MIller’s Corner, a reference to the historic Robert H. Miller home just east of the commercial development.
Suvarna — an Overland Park resident who bought the property about 10 years ago as an investment — said he’s in the process of lining up partners for a potential redevelopment, or may place the property on the market to gauge whether there is an independent group that wants to take on the project. The plans could change if he finds a major tenant for the existing development. So, all in all, it looks like it is an intersection to keep an eye on.
The Merc plans major renovation at Ninth and Iowa; city wins grant for riverside trail; Color Run returning to downtown Lawrence
Fresh juice, fine coffee, surrounded by local produce: It sounds just like my daily breakfast because I’m almost certain mini-powdered doughnuts, Cap’n Crunch and Nutter Butters are all grown locally. Well, regardless, get ready for an upgrade in the world of coffee and juice establishments, as The Merc has plans for a new shop as part of a major renovation project.
The Merc is in the beginning stages of an approximately $500,000 renovation at its grocery at Ninth and Iowa streets. A new coffee and juice shop will be one of the more visible changes shoppers will notice. General Manager Rita York Hennecke says The Merc will be expanding the coffee and smoothie program and will be adding organic juices to the menu. Currently, the store’s espresso bar is kind of tucked away in a corner of the building. Hennecke said the location will change to a spot that is much more visible to shoppers.
“You won’t have to be in the know anymore to get your coffee,” she said.
Hennecke said the new coffee/juice bar also will have an expanded seating area, will offer an expanded line of baked goods from The Merc’s in-store bakery, and will put a greater emphasis on a quick-service menu.
“We want people to be able to stop by on their way to work and get a cup of coffee,” she said.
Other improvements in the renovation project include a new express check-out lane and a relocation and upgrade to the store’s customer service desk. The desk will be more visible and will be a great place to tout The Merc’s cooperative ownership structure, Hennecke said. The Merc has about 7,000 co-op members who are owners of the store, although you do not have to be an owner of the store to shop there.
Some renovations to the office area and receiving area also are on tap for phase I of the renovation. Work is expected to begin Sept. 29 and last through Nov. 11. The store will remain open throughout the renovation.
The store also is planning a phase II renovation that would begin one early 2015, pending approval of the co-op’s board of directors. That will include a new ceiling and new energy efficient lighting system for the grocery.
Hennecke said the renovations are a sign that The Merc recognizes it needs to continue investing in itself in order to thrive in what is becoming a much more competitive grocery market. Sprouts, a farmers' market-style grocer, is under construction near Wakarusa and Overland Drive in West Lawrence, and Natural Grocers on 23rd Street has come to the Lawrence market since The Merc’s last major renovation in 2007. Plus traditional grocery stores are expanding their health, organic and locally grown departments, which has long been the calling card of The Merc.
“We are preparing for increased competition,” Hennecke said. “We understand we have to step up our game in so many ways. We have started to do that with our pricing strategy, our sampling program, and now this renovation. We want to be strong. We don’t just want to survive competition.”
The timing of the renovation also is good in another way: The Merc is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, which is amazing. But not as amazing as the fact that apparently Nutter Butters aren’t grown anywhere. How can that be? They look like a giant peanut.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If you eat enough Nutter Butters and Cap’n Crunch, I’ve found that you may want to take a bit of a walk before your midmorning nap. Soon, Lawrence residents will have a new trail to walk on. City Hall has been notified it has received a grant to build a new riverside trail that will connect Constant Park near Sixth and Tennessee streets with Burcham Park near Second and Indiana streets.
The Sunflower Foundation has provided a $53,460 grant. The city will provide an equal amount in matching funds to build the trail that will be a little more than a half-mile long. Its path will be along the banks of the Kansas River, which means Lawrence kind of will have a river walk adjacent to downtown Lawrence. (If you see me in a flat-bottom boat with my guitar and my big sombrero, you’ll know I’m likely just trying to re-create the San Antonio river walk scene.) There is a makeshift trail through the area now, but this one will be an improved trail that also won’t face the risk of washing away as the river rises.
The new trail will tie into the Outside for a Better Inside Trail, which is a hike and bike trail that goes around the large pond that is behind the former VFW property. That property has been donated to the city by the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. The property is being converted into the city’s newest park, the Sandra J. Shaw Community Health Park. The Outside for a Better Inside Trail is complete. Once the riverside trail is complete, users basically will have a continuous path from about Lawrence Memorial Hospital to downtown.
• If your style of walking or running involves being sprayed with colored corn starch, you are in luck. The Color Run is making a return to downtown Lawrence. The event has filed for the necessary permits to run in the downtown area on Oct. 18. The Saturday race is expected to draw about 4,000 participants to downtown.
If you are not familiar with the event, which has been run in Lawrence since 2012, participants wear white clothing to start the race, then run through several color zones where people spray colored cornstarch on them.
The city is proposing that the event, since it is a for-profit operation, fully reimburse the city for any money it spends on staffing or cleaning up afterward. The city also is requiring the event to have volunteers available to direct traffic at each intersection affected by the race. That is designed to cut down on the number of police officers needed to staff the event.
As for the route, click here to see a map.
Group forming to oppose sales tax vote for police headquarters; Amtrak wins key grant funding for Southwest Chief route
It won’t quite be like taking a police ride-along in the Oread neighborhood on a Saturday night, but it appears the Nov. 4 election to build a nearly $28 million police headquarters building will get a little lively. A group is forming to run an opposition campaign against the sales tax proposal.
Last week a Facebook page for Lawencians Against The New Police Headquarters: Vote No November 4 was created. The page got some early activity and has more than 200 “likes” thus far. The group also is hosting an organizational meeting at 7 p.m on Sept. 16 at the Lawrence Public Library.
Thus far, I’m not sure who the driving force is behind the group. I’ve reached out to the group via Facebook, but haven’t yet heard back. I’ve also reached out to some people who appear to be active on the page to try to get a sense of who is organizing the effort.
The Facebook page, however, does spell out some of the reasons why the group is opposed to the project. Thus far, most of the opposition I have heard to the project relates to its price tag, its proposed location, and some people believe the city has spent too much on projects related tot he library and Rock Chalk Park to make the police facility feasible at this time. This group, however, looks like it is going to expand the debate to some new issues. The Facebook page states that Lawrence residents will “see the effects of increased police presence, including more jail cells (i.e. more imprisonment, longer detainment periods, more cost to taxpayers) and better police access to their armored vehicle and more space for future military acquisitions.”
The idea of the “militarization” of our police force seems to be a hot topic with the group already. The issue has been in the national news with the police response in Ferguson, Mo., being criticized by several groups. To be clear, the police department headquarters plan doesn’t include any money for new purchases of armored vehicles or other such tactical equipment or weapons. But as the group alludes to, the building would include storage space for such vehicles. The city already has an armored vehicle, a SWAT vehicle and other such equipment. The vehicles are stored at an off-site, unstaffed location that would delay their response times if needed for an emergency.
As for the talk of more jail cells and longer imprisonment, it is important to remember that the police headquarters project doesn’t include any improvements to the Douglas County Jail. The county is discussing such a project, but that is a separate project. But some of the people I have talked to in trying to determine who is leading this group, have said that all the issues are related.
Leslie Soden, who narrowly lost a bid for a City Commission seat in the last election and who is viewed as a likely candidate for the 2015 city elections, said she’s joined the group’s Facebook page and may become active in an opposition campaign. She said there are questions about whether the city should first invest more money in social service agencies that could prevent crime before it spends tens of millions on a headquarters building. Plus, she said she thinks people are concerned that a police headquarters project and a jail expansion may proceed on separate tracks.
“It is a tough issue because I do think police officers need to have good working conditions,” Soden said. “But the decision of the city and the county not to collaborate on these facilities, I find that incredibly frustrating.”
The group also talks about the proposed site, which is a 47-acre vacant parcel across from the Hallmark cards production plant near the West Lawrence interchange. But while most of the discussion I’ve heard has centered on the $2.25 million price for the property, this group brings up a new issue: The project is “proposing turning 50 acres of prime farmland in the bottoms into cement.”
As we previously have reported, a citizens group has formed to support the police headquarters project. That group, Friends of Lawrence Police, has formed as a political action committee, meaning it can raise money for campaign advertising and such, No word yet on whether this new group will also take that step. But already, it appears this new opposition group is taking some exception to the Friends of the Lawrence Police group. The Facebook page calls the Friends organization a group of “Lawrence elites.”
It is too early to say what type of chord this opposition group will strike in the community, but it does seem to be a safe bet that the campaign is going to be a bit more spirited.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I’ve had some questions from readers about the price tag of the proposed headquarters. You do see several numbers out there. The number I use in most articles is “nearly $28 million.” But you also see a lot of talk about a $25 million facility, and you’ll even see a $24 million number.
Here are some explanations on all of that. I use the nearly $28 million number because I believe that is the most accurate description of the project’s total cost. Some people have criticized me for using that number because you can find city documents that say the City Commission has agreed on a project budget of $25.7 million for the construction of a police facility. The key word there is construction. That $25.7 million doesn’t include the price of the land. The city has signed a letter of intent to purchase the Hallmark property for $2.25 million. You add those two together and you come up with $27.95 million, or nearly $28 million. The city hopes to sell its current police administration building in west Lawrence for $2 million or more once the police headquarters building is constructed. But that doesn’t change the fact the project is a nearly $28 million project as it stands today. It just speaks to how the city is planning to pay for the project.
Along those same lines, the $24 million dollar number may come up as people begin to analyze the sales tax question. When voters step into the polls on Nov. 4 and meticulously read every word of the ballot language, they will see that the general obligation bonds issued for the project shall not exceed $24.2 million. Again, that’s not an indication of the total cost of the project, though. The City Commission simply decided it would use some existing money in its budget to pay for a portion of the project, rather than paying for all of it with the new sales tax. The sales tax, in case you have forgotten, would be a 0.2 percent sales tax that would sunset in nine years, or perhaps earlier if the tax produces more revenue than projected.
• Fans of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief rail line are excited about another number these days: $12.5 million. I don’t have all the details yet, butmultiple media organizations in Colorado are reporting that Amtrak has received a $12.5 million federal grant to make improvements to the rail lines that Amtrak uses for the Southwest Chief.
The passenger train runs through Lawrence twice a day, and stops at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Depot in East Lawrence. Amtrak supporters have been worried that major route changes would occur to the Southwest Chief by 2016, if money wasn’t found to make some improvements to key sections of railroad tracks. The route changes likely would have eliminated service to Hutchinson, Garden City, Dodge City and multiple communities in Colorado and New Mexico.
The Colorado news organizations are reporting that the $12.5 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant, along with some matching funds, will make the necessary repairs in Kansas and Colorado.
I’ll let you know if I hear more details about the grant.
New study suggests Lawrence may be the capital of part-time employees; city issues $46 million in debt
Let us count what Lawrence legitimately may be able to claim it is the capital of:
— Crazed Basketball Fans Who Spend 30 Hours a Week on Face Painting and Basketball Recruiting Notebooks
— Football Fans Who Find It too Much Work to Watch Their Football Team
— People Who Honk for “Hemp” (Undoubtedly, it is the hemp they really are interested in.)
So, perhaps it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Lawrence might be able to lay claim to another title: Capital of the Part-Time Worker.
A new national study suggests part-time workers may be more prevalent in the Lawrence economy than in any other metro area in the country. The respected publication Governing has analyzed a set of federal statistics about the average number of hours private sector employees work in a week. It found in July that Lawrence employees worked just 25.6 hours per week, on average. The article found that was the lowest weekly average of any metro area in the country. It certainly is low. The national average was 34.5 hours per week. University communities often come in less than the national average because they have a large number of students who work part time, and those workers bring the overall average down. But a quick look at the numbers would suggest that there is down, and then you make your way through the empty kegs, the the lawn chairs, the copies of Leisurely Living magazine, the intricate origami projects, and then you find Lawrence. In other words, Lawrence was a lot lower than many university communities.
Here’s a look at some other university communities:
— Ames, Iowa: 36.1 hours
— Bloomington, Ind.: 32.5 hours
— Champaign-Urbana, Ill.: 32.5 hours
— College Station, Texas: 36 hours
— Columbia, Mo.: 35 hours
— Fort Collins, Colo.: 33.3 hours
— Iowa City, Iowa: 35.9 hours
— Lubbock, Texas: 35.6 hours
— Manhattan: 33 hours
— Morgantown, W.Va. 38.3 hours
There were three university communities I particularly wanted to check in on. If you remember, I reported on another study earlier this month that found Lawrence was one of the smartest metro areas in the country, measured by average degree level held by its residents. Only Provo, Utah, Ithaca, N.Y. and Boulder, Colo. were found to be smarter than us. But Provo works 34.1 hours, Ithaca, 35.1 hours and Boulder, 34.4 hours. Who is smarter now, brainiacs? We're making origami Yodas over here, while you're staring at some database or something.
I also wanted to check out how other communities around us fared. Here are those numbers:
— Kansas City: 34.8 hours
— Topeka: 32.7 hours
— Wichita: 36.6 hours
— Joplin, Mo.: 38.3 hours
— St. Joseph, Mo.: 33.2 hours
So, it doesn’t appear that our region is much different than the national scene, except for Lawrence. It is almost like people are driving to work and saying, “Hey, that’s hemp. Let’s skip work and honk for awhile.”
Obviously, I’m just having a little fun here. I don’t know exactly what these numbers mean. But as the article in Governing pointed out, the numbers are kind of important. Businesses often look at the average number of hours their employees are working when determining whether to add workforce. Generally, communities with high average work weeks are more likely to be adding jobs than those with low average work weeks.
But who knows if that is really true. I think the best we can do is ask the origami Yoda for his opinion.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I have some leftovers from last night’s City Commission meeting. The city did successfully issue a little more than $46 million in debt last night. The general obligation bonds are for projects that already have been approved and mainly already built. That includes the library, Rock Chalk Park recreation center, a host of street projects and others. The city sold about $26 million worth of bonds to Piper Jaffray with an interest rate of 2.758 percent, and about $19 million to Citibank with an interest rate of 2.786 percent. The city also issued about $13 million temporary notes (think of it like a one-year construction loan) to Citibank for a rate of 0.187 percent. Financial companies really like buying the city’s debt these days. Nine companies made bids on the bonds, which is a large number of bidders for a Lawrence bond sale.
The bond sale was noteworthy for another reason. It is the last one that Ed Mullins, the city’s finance director, will oversee. Mullins is retiring later this month after serving as the city’s chief financial officer for the last 23 years. Mullins has been a behind-the-scenes guy on essentially every major project the city has undertaken. He’s the guy that city staffers go to and ask: Can we afford this? Or maybe the conversation is more along the lines of “Figure out how we can afford this.” I don’t know on that, but I do know Mullins is the guy who is responsible for putting together all the financial numbers and projections for the millions of dollars of debt the city has on its books. That can get complicated in a hurry, but as the recent debt auction indicated, Lawrence fares very well in the interest rates it receives and the amount of confidence bond buyers have in Lawrence’s finances.
“He has shown great stewardship for this community,” City Manager David Corliss said of Mullins last night. City commissioners agreed and gave him an ovation upon the completion of last night's debt issuance.
If you’ve worked or dealt with Mullins over the years, you’re invited to a city-hosted retirement reception from 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 19 at City Hall.
Alvamar Golf & Country Club confirms it is in negotiations to sell to local group; City Hall to look at proposed development at Clinton Parkway and Wakarusa
It is time to keep your eyes open at Lawrence’s Alvamar Golf and Country Club. And I’m not just talking about when I have a club in my hand on the tee box . . . or in the rough, or in the sand, or waist deep in one of the ponds. Instead, keep an eye out for news that the club has sold to a new local ownership group.
Bob Johnson, chairman of the board of directors of Alvamar Inc., confirmed to me that the shareholders of Alvamar are in the advanced stages of negotiations to sell the two golf courses, clubhouse and other assets to a local group.
“I have my fingers crossed,” Johnson said. “It is far better than a 50-50 proposition at this point.”
Johnson said he is hopeful that an agreement will be finalized by the end of this month. Johnson declined to identify any members of the potential ownership group, but speculation in certain business circles has focused on a group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel. Fritzel is the developer whom the city and Kansas University have worked with on the Rock Chalk Park sports complex, and Fritzel also was part of the group that developed The Oread hotel, and has developed significant amounts of property in downtown Lawrence.
Again, Fritzel’s involvement in the project isn’t confirmed yet, so you’ll have to decide how much stock you want to put in that speculation at the moment. I’ve reached out to Fritzel, but haven’t heard back from him. But the KU Athletics department has turned to Fritzel to help it with its facility needs for track and field, soccer and softball, so it is reasonable to think that Fritzel may be part of a plan to shore up the future of KU’s golf facilities. The KU golf teams use Alvamar as their base of operations, and it is my understanding that KU has had a desire to create a more secure long-term future for those facilities. It has been no secret that Alvamar has been on the market for several years, and that has created questions about how KU’s program would fit into the plans of a new ownership group.
Johnson didn’t provide any details about what plans a new ownership group would have for the property, which is located in the heart of west Lawrence, just south and west of Bob Billings Parkway and Kasold Drive. But Johnson said he’s confident the future plans are for the property to operate as a golf and country club. The approximately 100 shareholders who own the course previously have stated they are only interested in selling the property to a group that is committed to the community and the university. Whenever a sale of Alvamar comes up, the potential for infill development always comes up. The facility has 36 holes of golf — both a public and a private course — and speculation always turns to whether a new ownership group would reduce the number of holes of golf and redevelop a portion of the property. I received no details on any such plans or thinking along those lines.
“Who can say what ultimately will happen, but there is no reason to believe that it will be anything but better,” Johnson said.
I’ll let you know when we hear of a finalized deal.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Another west Lawrence property to keep an eye on is at Clinton Parkway and Wakarusa Drive. The northeast corner of that intersection is an undeveloped piece of steeply sloping ground. But as we have reported over the years, there is interest in building a multi-use bank, retail and office building on the site. The project, though, has been slow to develop. The project has been in the planning stages since 2006, but tenants for the site haven’t yet materialized.
At tonight’s City Commission meeting, commissioners will be asked to keep the project alive. The city is being asked to pass an extension of the project’s approved development plan. Development plans generally expire after two-years of sitting inactive. The city has passed three extensions for the plan in the past. But this time some neighbors of the project are objecting.
The neighbors have expressed concern about drainage issues and the potential loss of some trees and vegetation that separate the neighborhood from the proposed commercial site. But as some commissioners have pointed out, the property has been zoned and planned for commercial development since 2007, and many of the neighbors have moved into their homes next to the site subsequent to that zoning. In other words, it has been forecasted that such a change could be coming.
Commissioners, though, have said they do want to look at the plans in more detail and see what assurances can be made to neighbors about the green belt that currently separates the two properties. Plus, it probably is worth remembering that the property may sit as it is for a considerable amount of time. The site is a challenging one to build on, and I haven’t yet heard of any plans to begin construction at the site in the foreseeable future.
A temporary tattoo sure would have been nice this weekend, so I apologize that I didn’t tell you earlier that a Lawrence store offering such services has moved to a new West Lawrence location. That’s right, Cosmos, the Indian cafe and grocery, has moved out of downtown and into space in the shopping center at 3115 W. Sixth St., next to Sonic.
Indeed Cosmos is a store that operates a small cafe full of Indian food and sells a variety of Indian groceries and products. But perhaps its most sought after product is henna, which is an herbal leaf that can be used to produce a unique ink for temporary tattoos. Cosmos runs what is called a henna boutique, where people can choose a design and have an artist apply the body art without making the long-term commitment required for a tattoo. The henna art disappears in about two weeks, I’m told.
“It just falls off the skin and is harmless,” said Amarucha Ravi, owner of Cosmos.
The store had been located at 734 Massachusetts St., but Ravi said the store decided to move after rent at the location became less feasible and it became more difficult to efficiently operate a cafe in the spot. The new location, in case you are still trying to picture it, is in the shopping center that includes Conroy’s Pub. (It is amazing how a bar reference straightens you people out.)
Ravi, though, said she is continuing to look for a small downtown location to have a henna boutique and perhaps a cafe. She said the henna art has really caught on with the young, single crowd, which means downtown is a desirable business location to catch that traffic.
As for why it would have been nice to know about temporary tattoos this weekend, I assumed you already figured that out. Surely many of you were in the same boat I was in after the first quarter of Kansas University’s football game. With a 24-0 lead, we were all head over heels about our new quarterback, Montell Cozart. Perhaps some of us had our tattoo artist start a piece with Montell Cozart’s name surrounded by a heart on a certain part of our bodies. But as the offense began to sputter, we started to have second thoughts by halftime, leaving just a heart with the name Montell. Now, to the outside world, a large portion of Lawrence seems to have some sort of odd affection for talk show host Montel Williams. (And a spelling problem because his name only has one ‘l’.) But, as you know, this is life as a Kansas University football fan. As for me, I’m going to remain an optimist and believe that KU football will soon improve.
If not, Montel Williams sure the heck better.
In other news and notes from around town:
• We’ve been telling you that Lawrence is working harder to become a capital for innovation-based businesses. Well, did I sure get a lesson in innovation this weekend. I went to the Kansas State Fair, where innovation is almost everywhere you turn. I saw a canoe made out of scraps from a wooden fence, I saw intricate figurines made out pistachio shells, and I saw a “one-man band” complete with cymbals on his head, a base drum on his back, bells on his shoes, and a harmonica hanging from his hat. I also saw an old man on an electric scooter nearly run over the one-man band. Fear not, I’m confident he would have kept playing, but he probably would have sounded a little flat. (If I had a cymbal on my head, this is the point I would provide a rim shot.)
Regardless, you don’t have to go to the state fair to see innovation on display. I can’t promise pistachio shells, but a unique innovation-based event is slated for the Lawrence Public Library later this month. A new Lawrence group will host the community’s first Startup Weekend on Sept. 26-28 at the library.
If you have ever watched the television program "Shark Tank," where entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a group of venture capitalists, this event will have a feel similar to that. The event is being hosted by a new group called Startup Lawrence, which was formed by some local entrepreneurs as a way to draw more attention to the value of startup companies to our economy.
Startup Weekends are events run by a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that hosts the events at locations around the globe. The idea is that budding entrepreneurs buy a $75 ticket to the multiday event. Your ticket price assures you an opportunity to pitch your business idea to everyone in attendance. That pitch session will happen on Friday evening. The crowd will hear the various 60-second presentations, and then vote on the handful of ideas that they think are the most promising. Those ideas then will become the ideas that the conference focuses on for the remainder of the weekend. Members of the audience are encouraged to team up with the entrepreneur of their choice.
For the rest of the weekend, the various teams will conduct the work necessary to test the ideas and prepare presentations to a group of business experts who will judge the ideas on Sunday. Joe Jarvis, an organizer of the event and a local attorney who specializes in small-business issues, said the groups may do some market research by interviewing downtown shoppers, or their work may involve prototype designs, marketing plans or other such tasks.
People who don’t want to attend the entire conference, but do want to see the 'Shark Tank'-style judging of the business ideas can buy a $10 ticket to view the judging, which begins at 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28, in the library’s auditorium.
The winner of the competition will win one year of rent-free office space at the Cider Gallery business center in East Lawrence, plus complimentary CPA and printing services.
“If they decide they want to take their idea beyond the weekend, we’re going to make sure they have some help to do so,” Jarvis said.
The Startup Weekend events have been successful in nearby cities such as Kansas City, Wichita and Topeka. Jarvis said his group hopes the event is successful enough to make it an annual affair.
“I think there has been kind of a spark or change in Lawrence over the last few years,” Jarvis said. “I think people are more interested in creating home-grown success stories. We don’t really know where the next Facebook or Instagram will come from. We just know they percolate out of creative places, and that is the type of community Lawrence can be.”
People interested in registering can go to lawrence.startupweekend.org.
City begins moving in at Rock Chalk Park; leaders vying to bring Junior Olympics to sports complex; Jayhawks and Free State beer best known Kansas brands
Stretch those hamstrings, wash the cutoff jean shorts, fill the oxygen bottles, and order the plaster of paris for the full-body casts. In other words, make all the standard arrangements to play some pick-up basketball. The day is soon coming when the city’s new recreation center at Rock Chalk Park will be ready to host you and your buddies.
City officials have confirmed that the move-in process has begun this week at the 181,000 square-foot, eight-gym facility that is just northeast of the Sixth Street and South Lawrence Trafficway interchange. But City Manager David Corliss told me the city hasn’t yet decided on a date that the center will open its doors to the public.
“We still believe we're going to be able to have classes there later in the month,” Corliss said.
Originally, the city had planned to have the center open this week, but as we reported a couple of weeks ago, those plans were pushed back by construction delays. Parks and Recreation director Ernie Shaw told me a few weeks ago there likely would be a soft opening in September and then a grand opening celebration sometime in early October. No dates have been set yet, but I’m guessing that is still the plan.
That will be a big celebration. I think the community is eager to get out and see the facility, which in addition to the eight gyms also has an indoor turf field, an indoor walking track, gymnastics, dance, fitness rooms, outdoor tennis courts and an extensive trail system. But perhaps one of the more important times for the Rock Chalk Park complex will come a couple of months later, in the dead of winter.
The city’s top recruiter of sporting events has confirmed to me that in December a delegation from the mega-youth sporting organization AAU will be in town to consider Lawrence as a site to host a future AAU Junior Olympic Games. Board members from AAU will be touring the Rock Chalk Park complex, with particular emphasis on the track and field facilities.
The tour is part of a process the city expects to go through to submit a formal bid to host a Junior Olympics. If the city could land the event, it would transform a lazy Lawrence summer into a major economic development boon. Bob Sanner, the sports marketing manager for the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the Olympics would be a six-day event that would bring 15,000 athletes and their parents and family to the city.
“It would be like Lawrence having multiple sell-out football games in a row,” Sanner said. “It would create that much revenue.”
The event recently took place in Des Moines, Iowa, and the 2015 Junior Olympics are set for July 29 through Aug. 8 in Hampton Roads, Va. I’m not sure that a site has been selected yet for 2016.
It is too early to say what Lawrence’s chances are of landing the big event. But the Rock Chalk Park track and field stadium was designed to be one of the top track and field stadiums in the country. And Lawrence definitely is on the radar screen of AAU leaders. The delegation will be touring the Rock Chalk Park facility in December because they’ll be in town for AAU’s National Cross Country Championships, which will be held at Rim Rock Farms north of Lawrence. That will be the largest AAU event the city has hosted since the mid-1980s, Sanner said.
The cross country national championships will be a nice piece of business for restaurants, hotels and others during what is traditionally a slow winter period. I don’t have estimates yet on how large the meet is expected to be in Lawrence, but the 2013 National Championships were held in Evans, Ga., and officials there estimated it would bring about 1,200 athletes, plus their families to the area. The folks in Evans, which is just outside of Augusta, Ga., were estimating an economic impact of about $350,000 for the community.
We’ll give you more details about what Lawrence has planned for the National Championship event as it gets closer.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There will be plenty of items to keep an eye on as the Rock Chalk Park recreation center opens. I’m sure the city will be in the running for multiple tournaments and events. But it also will be worth keeping an eye on our neighbors to the east. If you have followed the news in Kansas City, you know that quite a debate is going on right now about whether to convert Kemper Arena into a major youth sports complex. A private development group has proposed an approximately $20 million renovation of the facility. The group is proposing 12 basketball courts, the “area’s largest indoor running track,” and space for indoor soccer, lacrosse, rugby, volleyball, boxing, martial arts, rowing and bicycling clubs. The group is projecting the facility would attract 1,000 kids per night and would draw tournaments that would bring 500,000 visitors a year to the facility.
The proposal is competing with a plan from the American Royal, which wants to tear down Kemper and build an events center that would complement American Royal activities. I don’t understand Kansas City politics (I’m waiting for the ghost of Tom Pendergast to come and explain it to me), but media reports indicate the youth fieldhouse has some support among Kansas City council members and some investors in the area. The fieldhouse proposal is asking for less money than the American Royal, and some preservationists are concerned about tearing down Kemper Arena.
I don’t know how any of this will turn out, but it does seem clear that Lawrence has entered a competitive industry. Proposals to build youth sports complexes to try and attract youth sporting tournaments are popping up in multiple locations. A plan to build a large youth sports fieldhouse in Wichita won a major round of approval last month.
The Wichita Eagle reported that the Wichita City Council unanimously approved a development agreement for what is expected to be a $120 million sports-themed park at K-96 and Greenwich in Wichita. The anchor tenant for that development will be GoodSports Fieldhouse, a 65,000 square-foot building that will have 12 full-sized basketball courts and 24 volleyball courts. It intends to go after regional and national youth tournaments for basketball, volleyball, indoor soccer, wrestling and other sports. That, of course, is also what Lawrence officials plan to do with Rock Chalk Park. The Wichita center is projected to draw 300,000 visitors per year.
Lawrence is beating both of these projects to the punch. The Wichita fieldhouse likely won’t be open until early 2016. But the Wichita one will be interesting to watch. Reports indicate it already has a commitment for a 150-room hotel that will be adjacent to the fieldhouse. The Rock Chalk Park area is still struggling to attract the retail and hotel development that is hoped for in the area, although private developers recently have hired a new brokerage firm to better market the commercial area near Rock Chalk.
Apparently, though, Wichita has more pull at the Kansas Statehouse than Lawrence does. The area surrounding the Wichita fieldhouse has been designated as a STAR bond area by the state. That means the sales taxes collected by businesses in the district can be used directly to fund the development of entertainment and tourism areas in the district. STAR bonds are a powerful incentive. They played a major role in the development around the NASCAR track in Wyandotte County. Local officials did not pursue STAR bonds as part of the Rock Chalk Park project.
• Speaking of Wichita, a Wichita-based marketing firm has made an interesting finding: The two best-known brand names in Kansas are both based in Lawrence. They’re the Kansas Jayhawks and Free State Beer.
The Wichita-based firm RSA Marketing Services released the findings of its first Kansas Brand Power consumer survey. The firm asked more than 500 Kansans to name the brand they believe is most well known across the state. The Jayhawk brand took the top spot, and was the only university mascot to make the top 10. Perhaps surprising to some is that Free State beer took the No. 2 spot. The ranking highlights just how important The Free State Brewing Co. has become in Lawrence’s economy. I think some people still think of the company as just the iconic brewpub in downtown Lawrence. That is how it has built its name over the years, but since 2010 the company has been bottling its beer. It is now in every Kansas county that has a liquor store, and has started to sell in some adjacent states as well. The strength of its brand certainly gives the company some intriguing growth possibilities. And since the beer is actually brewed, bottled and produced all in Lawrence, that creates some exciting possibilities for Lawrence too.
As for the complete list of best-known Kansas brands, here you go:
Free State Beer
Coleman and Pizza Hut were founded in Kansas and used to have their headquarters here, but no longer do. Boulevard is based in Kansas City, Mo., but if you drink enough of Boulevard’s product, state lines get a little fuzzy.
This list isn’t highly scientific, but it is interesting. You can create your own. As for me, I think I’ll set out to have a classic Kansas weekend. I’ll watch the Jayhawks on Saturday night, consume some Free State Beer and Pizza Hut pizza. Then I’ll likely be asked to sleep in a Coleman tent in the backyard after a certain someone in my house has decided I’ve had too much Free State beer and Pizza Hut pizza.
Signs grow that Obamacare adding several hundred new jobs in Lawrence, job fairs today through Saturday; East Lawrence project wins national award
One of Lawrence’s larger economic development victories may be going on right underneath our noses at the moment. I’m guessing you have seen or heard the ads for new positions at the General Dynamics call center in the East Hills Business Park. Well, it is becoming clearer all the time that the company isn’t just trying to hire a few college students at the beginning of the school year. I’ve had some people tell me the company may be adding about 400 customer service jobs to its Lawrence operations.
The company has announced that it is hosting five job fairs between today and Saturday to help get the positions filled. A spokesman with a marketing company hired by General Dynamics said the company didn’t yet want to announce the number of new jobs it is adding in Lawrence, but he said it was significant.
“This is not 10 jobs we’re talking about,” said Brad Wills with Wills & Associates Public Relations. “It is a big hire.”
I’ve heard from one person familiar with the details of the project that about 400 jobs are expected to be added to the call center. I believe that number, however, is probably subject to change. But I’m comfortable saying we’re talking about a few hundred jobs being added to the center, which is at 3833 Greenway Drive in the facility formerly known as NCS Pearson and a whole bunch of other names. If the total approaches anywhere near 400 jobs, it would be one of the larger single job announcement hirings for a Lawrence employer in the last several years.
An announcement of 400 new jobs in Lawrence normally would be the type of thing that causes chamber of commerce types to put on their best suits, City Hall types to get out their best speech writing pens, and they all agree to meet at some event where some guy will come out of the woodwork with an enormous pair of scissors to cut a ribbon. That probably won’t happen in this case, and that’s a shame, and not just because our mayor happens to be a barber who could probably really handle a giant pair of scissors. It is a shame because Lawrence’s mood could benefit from having a large job announcement to celebrate.
But General Dynamics, in my experience, tends to be a very quiet company. It is almost like it comes from a culture of making secret weapon systems for the military. Oh, wait. That is kind of the business it is in.
But that’s not what it does at its Lawrence facility. The Lawrence operations are part of General Dynamics’ information technology business. The company does a lot of database and customer service work via telephone and computer for government agencies. The press release by the company says these new positions are related to “rapidly growing contact center operations for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.” At one point, I was told the jobs were related to the Affordable Care Act — aka Obamacare — but I haven’t been able to get any confirmation from the company on that.
If you remember, we last reported in November that the Lawrence General Dynamics center was likely one of the locations that was going to be a major beneficiary of Obamacare. General Dynamics in May 2013 was awarded a $530 million contract to provide customer support for the Affordable Care Act. There were indications at the time that Lawrence was one of 14 centers that was expected to house a share of the 7,000 to 9,000 jobs that were expected to be created as part of the contract. If those numbers are still accurate, it is easy to see how we could be talking about some big job numbers in Lawrence. In fact, at one point, I was hearing up to 900 new positions in Lawrence. I haven’t heard that number lately, but I’m unclear on how many jobs perhaps have already been added at the center since the contract was awarded in May. It is possible this latest hiring is in addition to a previous round of new jobs that already have been added.
Wills, the company spokesman, is working to get me a current estimate on the number of people who work at General Dynamics’ Lawrence center. The last estimate I had seen through city documents, put the workforce total at 1,500 employees, which would make it the city’s largest private employer.
What many of you probably want to know is how much these new jobs will pay. Well, if I knew that, I would have told you already. Wills is working to get me information about salary and wages, and more detailed job descriptions for the positions. But since the work is tied to a government contract, the wages may be better than what you would think for customer service positions. I’ll pass along what information I receive. The press release, however, does state that the company is looking to fill full-time positions. The release also says the positions come with “full benefits,” and it also states the positions will pay an extra 10 percent for people who are fluent in both English and Spanish.
As for the job fairs, here are the details on those:
— 9 a.m. to noon today at General Dynamics offices, 3833 Greenway Drive.
— 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. today at Haskell Indian Nations University’s Stidham Union, 155 Indian Ave.
— 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday at General Dynamics, 3833 Greenway Drive.
— 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday at the Johnson County Workforce Center, Overland Park.
— 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at General Dynamics, 2833 Greenway Drive.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It probably is not an excuse for us to get out a pair of enormous scissors, but perhaps we can find some other oversized piece of office equipment to celebrate news that an East Lawrence project has won a major award.
Lawrence developer Tony Krsnich has sent me word that the Cider Gallery at Eighth and Pennsylvania streets has been named a winner in one of the country’s more prestigious historic preservation award programs. The project, which includes an art gallery and low-cost office space in a former cider vinegar factory, has been named a winner in the “Best Commercial/Retail/Non-Residential Project” category in the 2014 J. Timothy Anderson Awards for Excellence in Historic Rehabilitation. The award program is run by the National Housing & Rehabilitation Association. In addition, the project is a finalist in four of the competition’s other major categories: Best Historic Mill or Factory Rehabilitation, Most Innovative Adaptive Reuse, Achievement in Sustainability, and Most Advanced Financial Structure.
The area around Eighth and Pennsylvania continues to be an area to keep an eye on. Krsnich’s group has begun construction on a multistory loft-style apartment project at Ninth and Delaware streets. But that project is expected to get one more round of discussion at City Hall because Krsnich has decided to apply for financial incentives. Krsnich is seeking a 15-year, 95 percent property tax rebate for the project under the Neighborhood Revitalization Act. That request is still in its early stages of consideration. It will have to go through the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee, and then back to the City Commission for final consideration. We’ll keep you updated as that moves along. It will restart the discussion about whether the city should provide financial incentives for new apartment construction. Unlike the large apartment project near KU’s Memorial Stadium that received an 85 percent tax rebate recently, Krsnich’s project will have a large low-income component to it. Krsnich’s project is expected to have 43 apartments, and 34 of them are planned to be rent-controlled and reserved for low-to-moderate income tenants under the auspices of a state housing program.
News of a big hole at city’s Eagle Bend Golf Course; Lawrence startup hopes to tackle video game violence, other phobias
Keep an eye out for me on the city’s Eagle Bend Golf Course. I’ll be the guy with a shovel in my bag. What’s that? You haven’t heard about the latest trend in golf? Well, it is bigger holes, and soon you may get to see it for yourself at Eagle Bend.
To get you up to speed, some golf industry leaders have determined that if golfers could play courses that had 15-inch cups as opposed to the traditional four and a quarter inch cups, the game would become easier. These leaders evidently took a a break from building rockets for NASA because clearly it would take a rocket scientist to figure that out. (Unless they want me to continue to sunbathe in the sand traps, they also may consider getting rid of those too.)
Ernie Shaw, the city’s director of parks and recreation, confirmed to me that Eagle Bend soon will start to experiment with the 15-inch cups, making it probably the first course in the region to do so. Shaw said the special cups recently have arrived at Eagle Bend, and one will be installed on the course’s practice putting green in the near future.
Shaw said the course also may host a special big cup tournament where all the greens are outfitted with the large cup for a day. Whether there will ever be a day where the course routinely has both the big cup and the standard cup on each green is tough to know currently, Shaw said.
“We’re not going to cut a big hole in every green in the beginning,” Shaw said. “But we’ll see where it goes.”
The CEO of the golf equipment firm TaylorMade is the guy behind the 15-inch cup idea. The company hosted a 15-inch cup tournament right after the Masters in April, and then started distributing the 15-inch cups to golf courses around the country. The last estimate I’ve seen is that about 100 courses currently have the oversized cup.
The idea behind the innovation is that it will cut down on the amount of time it takes to play a round of golf, and it also will reduce the frustration level of many golfers. There are estimates the cup cuts about an hour off the time of a round, and about 10 strokes off a player’s score. Time of play and frustration levels are two of the reasons golf industry leaders cite for a decline in the number of golfers. Shaw said he’s become a believer that golf needs to try new things in order to remain healthy.
“You need to let people have some success at it,” Shaw said. “It is such a hard game, you spend $40 on it, and at the end of a round you many times are beat up and wondering why you did this.”
Shaw equates the idea of a bigger cup to the idea of a shorter goal in basketball. Shorter goals are used all the time to introduce people to the game. As they progress, they can move up to the standard height. Shaw envisions the same thing with golf.
“We are a learning center out here,” Shaw said of Eagle Bend, which is the course just below the Clinton Lake dam. “That is part of our mission. If we don’t try some new things to get new golfers, then it is going to be a situation where courses are growing up in weeds because they can’t make it.”
Eagle Bend isn’t likely to grow up in weeds anytime soon. The course has big advantages over its competitors. As a city-owned facility, it doesn’t pay taxes and general tax dollars pay for the debt on the facility, which leaves the course just needing to break even from an operational standpoint. But Eagle Bend and every course in town may be facing a unique challenge. While the number of golf courses is contracting nearly everywhere else, it is poised to get larger in Lawrence. As we reported last month, the recently approved apartment development in northwest Lawrence called The Links has decided to include a nine-hole, par 3 golf course as part of its project. It will be open to the public and will compete with existing courses in town.
So it is easy to understand why area golf leaders are looking to try something different (don’t forget the idea of foot golf that has begun at the Orchards Golf Course.) But it is less clear whether traditional golfers will revolt over the idea of a 15-inch cup. I’ve already heard from some traditional golfers who think the idea is as lousy as knickers without a plaid pattern. Shaw said he expects some push-back from traditional golfers, especially if the course someday decides to place the big cups and the traditional cups on the same greens. That would create a situation where golfers may have to pick up and move their ball in order to avoid the big cup. (Moving your ball unnecessarily is a big no-no in golf, which is why it is always best to do so when your partner has his back turned to you.)
“We definitely don’t want our traditional golfers to go away,” Shaw said. “But our core group is getting older, and I just feel like we need to be willing to try some new things.”
I don’t know how it all will play out, but I can report one new piece of information. According to a golf course superintendent who tackles a bit like a linebacker, they don’t expect you to dig your own 15-inch holes. So, I guess I won’t carry the shovel after all. I’m assuming, though, I can still keep the chainsaw in my bag.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There’s a lot of talk about Lawrence becoming more of a destination for startup companies, so perhaps we should get used to more wacky stories about how a business gets started. For example: starting a business because your wife is afraid of video games that show spiders.
That’s the genesis story of one of Lawrence’s newer technology startups. Lawrence entrepreneur Andrew Rasmussen and his business partner Paul Mayfield recently launched the gaming website gamephobias.com. The website serves as a database that provides lots of details about what to expect with various online games. The video game industry already has a rating system that alerts users whether the game is best suited for mature audiences or teens, for example. But gamephobias.com goes several steps further.
The site provides information about specific types of content that may be problematic for certain users. For example, the site includes information about explosion scenes that may cause problems for veterans, alcohol scenes that may cause problems for alcoholics, and sexual assault scenes that may be disturbing for many. The site has a long list of items it “tags” for, including snakes, fire, electrocution, blood, mutilation, and even clown scenes.
But the idea that got the business started was spiders. Rasmussen’s wife had watched him play many online games, and she wanted to join in. But she is arachnophobic, and evidently lots of games have graphic depictions of spiders. (I once was afraid of ghosts, which led me to always play Pac Man blindfolded.) Rasmussen and Mayfield took the idea and created a website called doesthisgamehavespiders.com.
“Then we decided we probably could do a lot more than just spiders,” Rasmussen said.
The company has started to get some press in the gaming industry, and eventually the company hopes to reach out to the game manufacturers. At the moment, the company’s revenue stream is through online advertising on the site, and through Pay Pal donations.
• From a technology startup to a technology giant, there is news about AT&T’s Kansas operations. Lawrence resident Mike Scott has been named as the company’s president of Kansas operations. Scott has been with AT&T for 29 years, serving in positions of public relations, regulatory, and external affairs. He most recently was vice president of external and legislative affairs for AT&T Kansas.
Home sales show signs of rebound heading into fall season; federal report says Lawrence housing prices have almost bounced back from 5-year decline
With one week of the college football season in the books, perhaps you too are in the market for a new place to sleep after being warned repeatedly that the refrigerator would not make it down the basement stairs to the TV room. Well, it appears some already have beat us into the market. The latest numbers on Lawrence home sales show signs of an uptick heading into the fall season.
Home sales in Lawrence increased by 3 percent in July compared with the same period a year ago. According to numbers compiled by the Lawrence Board of Realtors, there were 145 home sales in July, up from 141 in July 2013.
Although 3 percent — or four extra home sales — isn’t anything to jump up and down about, the month represented a bit of a turnaround. Sales in June were down by about 6 percent, and sales in May were down by about 7.5 percent. So an increase in July was a welcome sight. (Still, I wouldn’t jump up and down, especially not with a football-shaped bowl of guacamole dip on a couch that hasn’t been Scotch-guarded. I definitely wouldn’t do that, again.)
For the year, though, home sales are still lagging last year’s pace. Lawrence home sales through July are down 4.6 percent compared with the same period a year ago. Home sales have totaled 667. Unless the fall season is quite a bit busier than it was a year ago, it looks like Lawrence’s streak of two straight years of increasing home sales will come to an end in 2014.
While July provided some good news for the overall housing market, it did not provide a boost for the home-building industry. Only eight newly constructed homes were sold in July, which is down from 11 in July 2013 and down from 10 in July 2012. The market for newly constructed homes has been soft all year in Lawrence. Through July, newly constructed home sales are down 38 percent compared with the same period a year ago. A total of 38 new homes have been sold, compared with 62 at this time last year.
Other numbers of note from the report:
— The median selling price of homes in the market is down 3.2 percent to $163,500. But median selling prices are tricky to interpret. That could mean a general downturn in housing prices, or it could just mean that the type and size of home selling in the market has changed a bit. More on home prices in a moment.
— The median number of days a home sits on the market has dropped significantly. The median now stands at 33 days, down from 42 at this point in 2013 and down from 60 days in 2012.
— The number of homes on the market continues to drop. In July, there were 417 active listings, down from 437 a year ago and down from 500 in July 2012.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While we’re on the topic of Lawrence real estate, perhaps you are wondering whether housing values in the city really are going up or down. (Personally, I’m spending more time wondering how to get this giant foam finger unwound from the ceiling fan.)
Well, a new report has come out that shows Lawrence housing prices are on the upswing in 2014, but haven’t quite yet recovered all their losses from the past five years. The Federal Housing Finance Agency recently released its report for the second quarter of 2014, and it found Lawrence housing prices have increased by about 2 percent during the last year. That 2 percent growth rate ranked Lawrence at No. 195 in terms of the 276 metro areas that are ranked by the federal agency. So, Lawrence’s housing rebound hasn’t been fast and furious, but that should be no surprise. Real estate officials here have long said that Lawrence’s market is characterized by an absence of big swings either up or down in terms of prices.
The report also notes that over the last five years, home prices in Lawrence are down 0.18 percent. Indeed, the value of homes in Lawrence did see a decline over the last five years, but the latest data show that Lawrence is on the cusp of erasing that deficit. If Lawrence stays on its current pace, it won’t take long to move into positive territory again. The study found that home prices increased by a healthy 1.27 percent during the second quarter of 2014. That was in line with the national average of 1.3 percent.
Here’s a look at how some other regional communities fared:
— Kansas City: 3.56 percent for 1 year; negative 3.24 percent for 5 years.
— Topeka: negative 0.18 percent for 1 year; negative 2.21 percent for 5 years.
— Wichita: 0.28 percent for 1 year; negative 2.26 percent for 5 years.
As you can see, Lawrence’s real estate market is bouncing back better than our neighbors’, although Kansas City is on a fairly hot pace right now. These numbers are welcome news to city and county officials. The county appraiser looks at similar types of data, which means that it is likely the property value on your tax bills once again will start to increase.
This federal report is considered a more reliable view of housing prices in a community than the local data released by the Lawrence Board of Realtors. That’s because the federal index doesn’t simply look at all the homes sold and create an average price. It has access to mortgage information and refinancing information through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Without getting too technical, it does a better job of comparing apples with apples than the local reports are able to do.
But still, the report is not perfect. For example, it likely hasn’t factored in the addition of a full-size fridge in the basement TV room. Oh yeah, it went down the stairs. Gravity took care of that.
Checkers owner confirms negotiations on downtown grocery; city set to approve ice rink; food truck debate delayed
Holy ground round, there’s potentially big news brewing on the downtown Lawrence grocery store front. A deal is not done, but the owner of the Lawrence-based Checkers grocery store has confirmed he’s in serious negotiations to open a grocery in the former Borders bookstore at Seventh and New Hampshire streets.
“We’re very interested in the location, but all I can tell you at this point is we’re in negotiations with the principals of the property,” said Jim Lewis, owner of the longtime Checker’s store at 23rd and Louisiana.
Lewis said he couldn’t comment on a potential timeline for a deal to be struck. My understanding, however, is that negotiations are well past the early stages. Discussions have been held with various city officials to discuss incentives that could be offered by the city to improve the feasibility of the project.
Michigan-based Agree, LP, which owned several Borders bookstore sites and other retail properties, owns the property. It has become available again now that the Lawrence Public Library has moved into its expanded space at Seventh and Vermont streets. The library had been using the former bookstore building as a temporary home while the library project was under construction. Before that, the building had sat vacant since early 2011 when the Borders chain went out of business.
At the time of the Borders closing, there certainly was discussion about how the building would make for a nice, urban-style grocery store. Several officials in commercial real estate circles attempted to land grocery tenants, but without luck. In the meantime, Dillons undertook a major renovation of its store just south of downtown at 19th and Massachusetts, leading some to questions whether a grocer was in the cards for downtown.
A citizens group, however, kept pushing the idea. Members of the Downtown Grocery Store Project gathered about 600 signatures on a petition urging city leaders to support a downtown grocery. They also wrote multiple letters to city commissioners, the owners of the Borders building and potential grocery store operators, including Lewis.
“We determined early on that if anything is going to make this happen, it will be the community,” said David Crawford, one of the organizers of the group, which also counts North Lawrence’s Ted Boyle and East Lawrence’s K.T. Walsh as prominent organizers.
Group members have been following the potential developments with Lewis closely, and they say they are more encouraged than they’ve ever been about the prospects for a deal.
“We’re at a tipping point, definitely,” Crawford said. “I think we’re just a phone call away.”
Again, no deal has been reached, so don’t count your Doritos before they’re in the bowl (they’re way better than eggs). The project likely will involve some necessary approvals from City Hall, but I wouldn’t anticipate City Hall being a roadblock. No one loses votes by supporting a downtown grocery store.
I believe a coalition of neighborhood associations also likely will be enthusiastic about the project. East Lawrence and North Lawrence both have been vocal about the hardships created by the lack of a grocery store in their neighborhoods. The store would be within walking distance for many East Lawrence residents, and would be the closest grocery store to North Lawrence. Other neighborhoods, such as Old West Lawrence and Pinckney, I believe, are also watching the issue closely.
Developers also have been touting the importance of a downtown grocery. They’ve said a grocery is one of the key businesses that could spur an even larger influx of apartment and condo development downtown. Getting more people living downtown has been a major goal of city commissioners because they believe that 24-hour presence of residents will make the district healthier in the long run.
And with this potential deal, we’re talking about a well-known Lawrence-based business that would be the operator of the store. Lewis is in his 50th year in the grocery business in Lawrence. He’s had Checkers at 23rd and Louisiana since 1987, but also was involved in the Rusty’s chain that had locations at Ninth and Iowa, Sixth and Kasold, and along North Second Street in North Lawrence. Those locations eventually closed as the grocery industry turned away from smaller stores, but Lewis said there has been a definite trend back toward smaller stores.
I suspect this deal will hinge on financial matters related to leases and such between Lewis and the building’s ownership group, but I guess what I’m saying is that it's a project that appears to have some momentum. Or perhaps another way to say it: I’ve got my Doritos bowl ready.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It sure looks like the ice skating rink we’ve been reporting on for months also is coming to downtown. City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting are set to accept a bid for artificial ice rink equipment that could be installed in the plaza area between the library and the new city parking garage on Vermont Street.
A low bid for the project has come in at $80,748. That would allow for a 60-foot-by-80-foot rink that could accommodate 100 to 125 skaters at a time, according to estimates from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. The city has money in a variety of reserve funds that could pay for the equipment. The department estimates that a $3-per-skater fee would cover operating expenses.
The system uses a synthetic ice made of a slick plastic-like material. The artificial ice rinks have been used by a variety of cities and venues. Parks and recreation leaders are proposing that the rink be in operation for about 8 weeks a year, generally from Thanksgiving to the second week of January. During other times of the year, that portion of the plaza would be returned to a grassy area that could be used for other events.
City commissioners have expressed an interest in the ice rink, in part because they think it will increase the number of visitors downtown during the important holiday shopping season.
• Put your tongs, forks and other such kitchen weaponry away for a moment. It looks like a debate about whether food truck regulations in Lawrence should be loosened won’t take place at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting after all. Earlier this week, city officials tentatively scheduled a hearing for Tuesday on new food truck regulations. But when the agenda for Tuesday’s City Commission meeting was released Thursday afternoon, the hearing had been delayed. It now is listed with a date of “to be determined.” At issue is whether to remove a restriction that limits food trucks to operating for no more than three hours at any one location. The new regulations would allow trucks on private property to operate an unlimited number of hours as long as they meet some basic site guidelines. Some commissioners, however, have expressed concern that the new regulations may create an unfair competitive environment toward traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants. We’ll let you know when the hearing is rescheduled.
K.C.-based Mexican restaurant coming to old Carlos O’Kelly’s spot; food truck battle may be brewing; study finds Lawrence not very average
In March, when I delivered the sad news of the closing of Carlos O’Kelly’s on 23rd Street, we left my lovely wife soaking in a vat of cheese sauce and repeatedly whispering “Vaya con Dios, Suiza con Pollo.” Well, I may soon be able to put the vat to other uses. No, Carlos O’Kelly’s isn’t coming back, but a Kansas City-based Mexican restaurant is moving in.
Permits have been filed at Lawrence City Hall for Mi Ranchito to take over the spot at 707 W. 23rd St. It also looks like remodeling work has begun at the site. I’ve got a call into the company’s corporate offices in Lenexa to get more information, but at the moment, I’ll just have to describe the restaurant based on my vast knowledge of the Spanish language. Obviously it will be a ranch-themed venture combining the influences of World Cup soccer star Mia Hamm and O.J. Simpson judge Lance Ito.
Actually, I’m told that is not correct and that we have changed decades. I’m sure many of you already have been to a Mi Ranchito. According to the company’s website, Mi Ranchito opened its first restaurant in 2004 in Olathe and has grown to six locations including in Lenexa, Overland Park and Gladstone. It looks like the Lawrence location will be its first outside the Kansas City metro.
According to its online menu, it looks like the restaurant will have a large offering of Mexican dishes — combination platters, fajitas, burritos, shrimp tacos, guacamole, and of course, salads served in the only respectable type of salad bowl, a crispy flour tortilla bowl.
When I hear back from the company, I’ll pass along more details about when the restaurants plans to open and other such details.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While were on the subject of restaurants, I’m hearing that some restaurant owners will find their way to Lawrence City Hall next week to debate the proposal related to loosening the regulations for food truck operations. As we previously reported, the city is considering removing the restriction that a food truck can operate for no more three hours at any one location. The new proposal would allow food trucks to operate an unlimited number of hours in properly zoned, private parking lots, as long as they meet some basic site guidelines. Commissioners earlier in the month delayed action on the new regulations, in part because Commissioner Bob Schumm said he thought traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant owners may have some concerns once they became more familiar with the proposal. Schumm told me he has indeed heard from several restaurant owners, so we’ll see what type of debate ensues. The food truck regulations are tentatively scheduled to be heard at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting.
• It would seem that Mexican restaurants and food truck battles would make us a typical All-American city, but a new study says that Lawrence isn’t all that typical when compared to other American metro areas.
The financial website WalletHub.com has put out a new study that tries to examine how each major metro area compares to the national average. In other words, the study looks at the national average of things such as age, race, income, and education, and then tries to determine which metro areas are most and least similar to the averages.
Lawrence lands on the list of cities that aren’t much like America as a whole. Lawrence was ranked No. 351 out of 366 metro areas. In other words, 350 other communities were closer to the “average American community” than we were.
But that may not be all that bad. One of the big reasons that Lawrence doesn’t stack up with an average community is because the education levels of Lawrence residents are much higher than the national average. Using Census data, the study found that the average educational attainment level of Lawrence residents was well above the national average. In fact, only three metro areas — Provo, Utah; Ithaca, N.Y.; and Boulder, Colo. — were found to have average education levels higher than Lawrence’s. That’s no surprise. Local leaders for more than a decade have been touting Lawrence as one of the more highly educated communities in the country. We have lots of people with advanced degrees and we call lots of them “professor.”
The more interesting finding to me is the data that shows just how young Lawrence’s population is. Obviously, college communities are going to be younger than the average American community, but Lawrence is really young even for a college town. Only Provo was younger than Lawrence. I had seen statistics that had suggested that before. (Hey, I’m a journalist in a very smart town, so I obviously spend all my free time looking at statistics.) I’m not sure what to make of that. I think we perhaps would like to not be ranked quite that young in the future. If our average age could rise a little bit, I think that would be an indication that we’re doing a better job of keeping graduates in our community rather than watching their considerable brain power leave directly upon graduation.
The study found Lawrence also has a really low housing tenure compared to the national average, which is just another way of saying people move a lot in Lawrence.
Interestingly, the study found that a very close cousin of ours appears to be Manhattan. Lawrence ranked No. 351 on the list and Manhattan ranked No. 350. Demographically, we’re pretty similar.
Kansas City is the nearby community that is most like the average. It's No. 23 on the list, and scores particularly high in having a racial make-up that is most like the American average. It is No. 4 in that category. Wichita also scores high on the list of being an average American place. (That makes sense. Every average community has the one of the world’s 10 wealthiest men.) Wichita ranked No. 36 on the list. Topeka ranked No. 113.
The community that is most unlike the average American city is McAllen, Texas. I don’t know anything about McAllen, but our good friend Boulder, Colo., was next in line for being most unlike an average American city.
As far as which city is most like the average American place, that would be . . . Nashville, Tenn. As a viewer of the popular primetime soap opera “Nashville,” I find that very reassuring. Surely this means you’ll soon all join me in my fashion choice of wearing cowboy boots everyday, and we all can meet at a cafe with our guitars, write four hit songs in an hour, and then go back to flying around the country on our private jets. Average is going to be great.
I think I’ve finally been to a speakeasy. I think. If you remember, we reported last month that paperwork had been filed for a new drinking establishment in the basement of 7 E. Seventh St. downtown, and we mentioned that the rumor was that the place was going to be a “speakeasy.”
It was just a rumor at that time because I checked and couldn’t find where the business filed an official speakeasy permit at City Hall (just an oversight, I’m sure), but now I can report that the speakeasy element is indeed true. I stumbled into the establishment recently. It is open. I think. As we previously reported, it is called John Brown Underground. I think. No, it's not the substance that I think was gin that is causing my confusion. It is the fact that the business has no signs, advertisements or anything else calling attention to its existence.
“It is not an exclusive club, but we’re definitely not advertising,” said Kate Brubacher, the bar’s manager. “We want it to be word of mouth. There is no sign out front and no plans for a sign out front.”
That makes sense. If there is one thing I’ve always said about John Brown, it is that he hated signs. No, that’s not it. A speakeasy, for those of you not familiar with the term, was a common phrase in the Prohibition era to describe an establishment that illegally sold alcohol, or whatever that substance was that was brewed in the bathtub. For those of you who sat in the back row in Kansas History class, let me clear up some confusion and say John Brown was not a Prohibition-era figure. He was a militant abolitionist, but the secretive theme does kind of apply to him. Smuggling slaves to freedom involved some hush-hush type of stuff. Plus, the bar is in a basement, so it kind of literally has an underground theme going. I could do further psychoanalysis on the name, but I think I’ll just let Brubacher try to explain the place.
“I think people are going to enjoy a completely different vibe than anywhere else in town,” Brubacher said. “It helps that we’re in a basement and we keep the lighting low. There will be lots of hospitality and no pretension. The idea is we wanted some place for the 30 and up crowd. Not a lot of screaming and pop music. We want to keep it kind of mellow.”
The establishment can seat 80, but there is twist to that as well. Forty of the seats are in a back room, whose entrance is cordoned off with a velvet rope. That room is available only by reservation or “invitation.”
In case you're still trying to picture where this establishment is, it's in the spot that formerly housed the Game Guy video game store. Because the location wasn’t already a bar, John Brown Underground has to meet the city regulation that at least 55 percent of its total sales come from food rather than alcohol. The city has that regulation to stop a proliferation of pure bar uses downtown.
At the moment, the business has a small menu including pretzels with mustard dipping sauce, a broccoli and cauliflower plate, a sack of nuts, a bratwurst meal and a burger meal. The establishment has a longer list of classic cocktails and some of them may require some explanation.
“We’re trying to get people reintroduced to some of those old-time drinks,” Brubacher said. “Maybe some of what their grandpa drank but they haven’t.”
The drink menu includes some easy ones to understand like a classic martini, a Rob Roy, and a Mint Julep. But there’s also something called a Pimm's Cup, which uses a British liquor similar to gin and is cucumber based. There’s also something called a Pisco Sour, a Sazerac, a French 75 and Prohibition Punch, which features gin and “barkeep secrets.” Perhaps you are in luck, though, and your grandpa drank Pabst Blue Ribbon, Hamm's or other such beer. Those and a few craft beers, plus some wine, also are stocked at the bar.
I’m not entirely sure of the ownership group of the new establishment. Lawrence developer Doug Compton owns the building and has been involved in the project. The city drinking establishment license lists Scott Elliott, a partner in The Summit health and fitness club at Ninth and New Hampshire streets, as an owner. (That might explain the broccoli and cauliflower plate.) But I haven’t been able to get in touch with him about the project.
UPDATE: I now have gotten in touch with Elliott, and he tells me he's opened the bar after having the idea for more than a year. He said he had seen some other speakeasy concepts open in other cities, and thinks patrons are searching for places that have a more mellow atmosphere and promote conversation and relaxation. Elliott said he and his staff will continue to make a few tweaks to the concept as they go. He said a small stage area will be used to host perhaps a jazz guitarist or horn player a few nights a week. He said the menu also will expand significantly in the coming days. But he doesn't plan on changing the strategy of making the place slightly difficult to find. "We had a couple of guys come in the other night who said they didn't really know where it was, but when they saw the front door, they figured they had to be in the right place," Elliott said. "That's what we want. We want people to experience that feeling of 'I've found it.'"
Brubacher said the business is open for lunch, has an afternoon happy hour and serves until 2 a.m. on many nights. But in traditional speakeasy fashion, the hours are subject to change.
In other news and notes from around town:
• An article I wrote a few days ago is still generating some conversation in Lawrence’s real estate community. It was about how as the city grows to the northwest, new development is exiting the Lawrence school district and entering the Perry-Lecompton school district. We’re talking in particular about the area near Rock Chalk Park, which is just north and east of the Sixth Street and South Lawrence Trafficway interchange.
Perhaps you haven’t been out there for awhile, but there is new home construction underway in that area. A housing development called the Oregon Trail development will have a mix of single-family and townhomes, with about 100 units overall. I’ve gotten calls from people who are worried those new homes aren’t in the Lawrence school district, despite what they may have been led to believe by real estate agents. Well, don’t worry. Those homes are in the Lawrence school district. As I pointed out in the original article, it is the area immediately east of Rock Chalk Park — which is where the new apartment complex approved by the city last night will be — and the area north of Rock Chalk Park that is in the Perry-Lecompton school district. The Oregon Trail development is south of Rock Chalk Park and the apartment complex. But the boundary lines in the area are jagged, so it will be important for homebuyers to do their research in the area.
It will be interesting to watch how much pressure Lawrence school district officials get to rethink their position on not allowing a large number of students from that area to transfer into the district. Superintendent Rick Doll has said if that area develops, homeowners should expect to send their kids to Perry-Lecompton schools. It has become clear to me that there are several real estate officials in town who are concerned that the area north of Rock Chalk Park will be hard to develop if homebuyers are told that their kids can’t go to the nearby Lawrence schools.
One scenario is that the area north of Rock Chalk Park just doesn’t develop. But that could be problematic at City Hall. The city is spending $22.5 million on infrastructure in the area. That’s a sign that it wants the area to develop. If the area doesn’t develop, it could be particularly problematic to the city’s desire to get significant amounts of retail development in the area. One of the reasons retailers have given for not wanting to locate in that area is because the number of homes near the intersection isn’t yet great. The area north of Rock Chalk could accommodate hundreds of homes, but only if you can sell them to people who want their kids to go to the Perry-Lecompton school district.
All this may end up being overblown. There may be a lot of people who will want to their kids to go to the Perry-Lecompton school district once they learn of the benefits of a smaller school and the door-to-door busing service the district will offer students. Either way, it seems like the area is ripe for an education campaign, a political campaign, or both.
New Zealand animal health firm chooses Lawrence for U.S. headquarters; tax seizure closes Mirth Cafe, but reopening planned; Creation Station shuts down
Lawrence was the belle of a Kansas City ball last night, thanks to an announcement from a New Zealand-based animal health sciences company. As we alerted you yesterday in Town Talk, we believed an animal health sciences company was about to announce Lawrence as its location for its new headquarters. Indeed, Simcro Ltd. announced at last night’s KC Animal Health Corridor Event that it has chosen Lawrence to house its North American headquarters.
The company announced it has reached a deal for a three-year lease in the Bioscience and Technology Business Center on Kansas University’s West Campus. In its announcement, the company said it “foresees a rapid expansion” in the Lawrence area, but did not provide any details about expected job totals. From people I’ve talked with, the company plans to start with a small executive staff of about three and expand from there.
The announcement is creating excitement in Lawrence economic development circles because it is further evidence that Lawrence can be a major player in the large animal health science corridor that has its center in Kansas City but stretches from Columbia, Mo. to Manhattan.
“The exciting thing about this is we’re starting to carve out our niche in the animal health corridor,” said Brady Pollington, vice president of economic development with the Lawrence chamber of commerce. “We’re finding that animal health companies are becoming more interested in being close to one of the top ranked pharmacy schools in the nation and the talent at KU. The companies are really getting into converting medicines that ere developed for human applications into animal health applications, and we’ll benefit from that.”
Simcro isn’t a name you may necessarily recognize, but it appears to have some momentum right now. The company already has developed products for some of the larger animal health companies in the world, including Novartis Animal Health, Pfizer Animal Health and Merial. In July, the company also announced the large private equity firm The Riverside Company bought a controlling interest in the company.
The company, which was founded in 1993, has spent the last six years growing its research and development capability four-fold, according to information provided by the company. The Lawrence announcement marks its first major facility in North America.
Andrew Shepherd, president of Simcro’s North American operations said in a release that the company believed it was important to get a North American facility to allow the company to be closer to current customers and new product development opportunities.
Pollington said local economic development leaders also will be watching for opportunities to help Simcro and other animal health companies establish manufacturing operations in Lawrence. He said Lawrence’s top drawing card currently is its research and development capabilities, but he said the animal health sciences industry is undergoing a trend that focuses on less outsourcing of its manufacturing work. He thinks Lawrence could benefit from that.
“Companies are looking to reshore, and they are looking to keep more of their manufacturing in house,” Pollington said. “With our central location and our talent in the community, there’s no reason we can’t be competitive in that arena.”
Kansas City leaders also were excited about the Simcro announcement. The company was highlighted to the crowd of nearly 900 people who attended last night’s KC Animal Health Corridor Homecoming Event.
With the announcement, the KC Animal Health Corridor is now home to the U.S. headquarters of firms that comprise 29 percent of the worldwide sales of animal health products and diagnostics, said Bob Marcusse, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council. In total, the corridor has more than 300 animal health companies, which Kansas City leaders say makes it the largest concentration of animal health companies in the world.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As you probably already know, all this talk of New Zealand companies and worldwide markets doesn’t faze me. I’m very international, and I have the crumbs from French toast and Belgian waffles to prove it.
Fans of such breakfast delights, however, currently have one less option in town. Mirth Cafe at 947 New Hampshire is currently closed, but there are plans to reopen later this month. It is a situation worth watching though. The restaurant was shut down last week by the Kansas Department of Revenue for unpaid taxes.
Jeannine Koranda, a spokeswoman with the Kansas Department of Revenue, said the company was about $120,500 behind on sales and withholding taxes. Koranda said after efforts to negotiate successful repayment plan were not fruitful, the department seized the company’s assets, including things such as stoves, kitchen equipment and other such items.
Ronald Zahorik, an owner of Mirth’s parent company, Zahorik and Son LLC, said the company indeed did have some tax problems, with about eight months of payments being missed. He said he was still hopeful of reaching a payment plan with the state when the seizure took place.
“I messed up on some taxes,” Zahorik said. “That is 100 percent my fault, and I take responsibility for that. But I thought I was working on it.”
Now, Zahorik said he has reached a deal to sell the Mirth name, recipes and other intellectual property related to the restaurant to an unnamed local buyer. He said plans call for the new ownership group to open the restaurant on Aug. 30.
He said the menu under the new ownership group is expected to be almost identical to what he was offering at Mirth. Zahorik said his wife will continue to work in a management role at the restaurant, but he was uncertain what capacity he may have at the new business.
When I talked with Koranda at the Department of Revenue, she said she was unaware of any plans for the restaurant to reopen. There are regulations in place that stop a business from simply reopening after it has had its assets seized as part of a state tax proceeding. But Zahorik said he was confident that there were no state regulations that would prevent Mirth from reopening under new ownership because the party responsible for the back taxes will have no involvement in the business.
“The new entity has purchased intellectual property, and the state can’t take that,” Zahorik said.
Zahorik, though, said he’ll continue to work on a payment plan with the state regarding the unpaid taxes.
• A longtime downtown business has closed its doors for good. MissFortune’s Creation Station at 726 Massachusetts St. shut down over the weekend. The business had been a part of downtown Lawrence’s funky vibe in one form or another since 1989. Jennifer Nash had owned the business since 2005. She said sales had slowed, which led to the decision to close The store sold all types of items ranging from clothing, jewelry, tapestries, sterling silver, incense and other items. Nash said she hasn’t heard of any other plans for the storefront, which she leased.
Wicked Broadband launches super-fast Internet portals ahead of city vote; AT&T brings security service to Lawrence
We are entering that time period where the entire U.S. economy becomes highly dependent on super-fast Internet service. Of course, I’m talking about the fantasy football season, and your ability to quickly drop Kansas City Chiefs players off your roster as they hurt themselves tying their shoelaces. Well, perhaps there are other reasons for gigabit broadband, and now Lawrence residents have a new place to try the super-fast service.
Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband on Sunday launched a new gigabit demonstration site at Z’s Devine Espresso at 23rd and Harper streets. If you are confused about what gigabit service is, it is the same type of super-fast Internet service that Google Fiber is installing in the Kansas City metro. (Now you, too, can download SUV reviews as fast as they do in Johnson County.) Wicked plans to have a second demo site operational — perhaps by the end of today — at the Good Eats restaurant, which you may remember as the former site of the Basil Leaf Cafe near Sixth and Fireside in West Lawrence. Wicked has offered gigabit service at several apartment complexes and other locations around town for some time now, but hasn't been able to widely deploy the service.
But that may change. Get ready to start hearing more about gigabit service in Lawrence. City commissioners are expected to have a vote soon on whether to provide a $1 million loan guarantee to Wicked Broadband to help the company install a pilot project that would bring the super-fast Internet to about 1,200 households primarily in downtown and East Lawrence.
If you remember, the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee back in May recommended the city provide the $1 million loan guarantee and waive several permit and development fees related to the project. But the recommendation from the committee came on a split 3-2 vote, and the issue never had made its way to the full City Commission. But Wicked Broadband co-owner Josh Montgomery said he’s now been told the City Commission plans to hear the issue at its Sept. 9 meeting. (City officials are telling me that date isn't yet set in stone.)
It is still unclear whether the plan has the necessary votes for approval from the commission. Two city commissioners are on the PIRC board, and they were split on the issue. Mayor Mike Amyx voted against the $1 million loan recommendation, while Commissioner Jeremy Farmer supported the plan.
The way the $1 million loan guarantee would work is that Wicked would secure private financing for the project, but if Wicked were to default on the loan, the city would guarantee payment to the bank. In such a scenario, the city would become the owner of the gigabit network installed by Wicked.
But it seems clear that there is also another financial issue for the city to consider. The $1 million project is just a pilot project. Getting gigabit service to 1,200 homes is not the ultimate goal. Montgomery said he believes the pilot project will be successful, and will allow his company to raise about $10 million in private funding for a phase II project that would add 10,000 more homes. Financing for a third phase to add the rest of the city would then follow. It seems that city officials will have to determine whether they believe a successful pilot project will indeed open up that type of private financing, or whether it is likely that any future phases will require public financing.
If the pilot project is approved, Montgomery said he expects construction work to begin in the spring. Current plans call for gigabit service to start at $99 per month. Montgomery also had previously announced that he planned to begin offering video television services through his network across town. He previously described it as 94-channel system that would include all the normal channels available on most cable systems. The service was supposed to be available in June, but Montgomery told me today that he has put that project on hold until he sees whether the city will support the pilot project.
As for the demonstration project at Z’s Divine Espresso, the gigabit service is part of the free hotspot at the coffee shop, so you don’t have to pay a fee to access the service. But you do need either a smartphone or a laptop that has the right equipment to take full advantage of the gigabit speed. In case you are scoring at home, I’m told that is a an 802.11ac enabled-device, which is common on many of the newer smartphones and laptops. But that is just what I’m told. I’m not up on all of this. Heck, I’m just now learning my plan to start Chief’s wide receiver Dwayne Bowe in Week 1 apparently has gone up in smoke.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Here’s another company to keep an eye on when it comes to plans for super-fast Internet service: AT&T. The telecommunications giant was one of four companies that responded in March to the city’s request for proposals on gigabit Internet service. Back then, AT&T said Lawrence was on the list of cities it was studying for gigabit service. Then, not much happened. But it is worth noting that AT&T earlier this month did sign an agreement with the city of Overland Park to begin providing gigabit service to that Johnson County community.
I talked with AT&T spokesman Chris Lester recently, and he said there is still no update on what AT&T may be thinking about Lawrence and the possibility of gigabit service.
AT&T is making news on another front in Lawrence, however. On Friday, AT&T launched Digital Life home security and automation service in Lawrence. The service is basically a home security system that can be upgraded to make your home more automated as well. What do I mean by that? No, I don’t think it has a function that will take out the trash for you, but it does have functions that allow you to close your garage door via your wireless phone or tablet. It also has functions that allow you to use your wireless devices to lock and unlock doors, detect water leaks, control your thermostat, and view security videos of your home.
“If you are a professional who travels a lot, we think it is a pretty interesting product to have,” Lester said. “Or, if you are parents with latch-key kids, it has some nice features. Whenever some one comes to your door, it will take a picture and send you a text with that picture.”
Unlike AT&T’s U-Verse service, which is available only in select areas of Lawrence, Lester said the Digital Life service will be available citywide. Lawrence is the 82nd city in the country that AT&T has launched the service. It looks like this is becoming quite the trend with telecommunications and broadband companies. I also got word that the cable company in Baldwin City — Mediacom Broadband — also launched a similar service there last week.
• UPDATE: At a Kansas City Area Development Council event this evening, the New Zealand-based animal health company Simcro announced it will locate its North American Headquarters in Lawrence. The firm will locate in the Bioscience and Technology Business Center on KU's West Campus. The release says the company will begin hiring new employees immediately, but doesn't provide any details on the number of new employees. Sources have told me job totals initially will be minimal, but will be high-paying positions. I'll try to get you more details on Tuesday.
I’m keeping my ears open for a possible announcement regarding a new animal health sciences company that may locate its headquarters in Lawrence. What I hear at the moment is the number of jobs initially may not be large, but area officials are excited about the company nonetheless because it helps with the community’s efforts to build up a base of animal health sciences companies. This entire area between Columbia, Mo., and Manhattan is being touted as the world’s leading corridor for animal health science companies, and Lawrence leaders are getting more interested all the time in being part of that movement. They are finding that there are a good number of companies that want to be next to Kansas University’s nationally-ranked pharmacy school because much of the research that the pharmacy school does on human health can also be transferred to the animal health field too. My understanding is this latest prospect is interested in locating in the expanded bioscience and technology incubator on KU’s West Campus, which is right across the street from the pharmacy school. Hopefully I’ll have more details for you soon.
Lawrence lands on list of quirkiest cities in America; developers to meet again on future of Turnhalle building; group forms to support police HQ issue
Well, put down your Honk for Hemp signs, park your Art Tougeau cars, and tell the zombies on Massachusetts Street to take a break from the brains. I have some disturbing news to report: The website of Travel+Leisure magazine has named Lawrence one of the quirkiest towns in America.
The magazine ranks Lawrence No.15 on its list. Like me, you may find some of their examples of our quirkiness interesting. The editors said we made the list by “embracing those who aren’t afraid to make public spectacles.” Case in point: The Busker Festival, which features a variety of street performers and begins tonight. Certainly the event is a load of fun, but quirky? The last I checked, a hula-hoop is an American icon, and fire has been around since the dawn of time. Why wouldn’t you combine the two? And that costume is just functional.
The editors really get under my skin with the next one, however: “Each year the fire department makes a show of rescuing Santa off the roof of Weaver’s department store.” Excuse me? That’s on Santa. We don’t tell him where to park his sleigh. Are we just supposed to leave him up there? Clearly, there is only one conclusion to draw from this: Travel+Leisure hates Christmas. (Maybe the Journal-World will make its own list of the biggest Christmas-hating magazines in America.)
The magazine also touts how Lawrence year-around supports the Museum of the Odd and its collection of nearly 600 sock monkeys. The museum is supposedly at 1012 New York Street, although in my 23 years of living here, I’ve never been to it. I suppose that makes me an oddity, which means I’ll never go now out of fear they’ll keep me.
The last one, though, perhaps disappoints me the most. The article notes that the community “ranked highly for its ice cream,” and then goes on to mention Sylas and Maddy’s Home Made Ice Cream in downtown. That is very disappointing. I was assured by the staff there that they would never disclose what I do with the cone.
Regardless, there it is. Lawrence is the 15th quirkiest town in America. I suppose they’re hoping we’ll make up some T-shirts about it, or spray paint our cars with a big No. 15. And we might, but I can assure you it won’t be because some fools at Travel+Leisure want us to.
If you’re curious about who else is quirky, the list includes a few fellow college towns: Bloomington, Ind., ranked No. 9, in part for its large number of Tibetan Buddhists; Charleston, Va., No. 8 for Edgar Allan Poe’s dorm room that is kept behind glass; and Boulder, Colo., for its annual Tube to Work Day. Taking the top spot, though, was Asheville, N.C., where you can sign up for a tour to forage in the woods for “fairy potatoes,” which apparently is some type of fungus that grows on trees and is promoted as the “Mushroom of Immortality.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• Well, won’t the editors of Travel+Leisure be embarrassed when they see the serious topics we’re moving on to now. Of course, I’m talking about the community discussion of how to save an East Lawrence building that was home to a social club that was built on the very ordinary principles of gymnastics, German food, beer, and sometimes bowling.
As we previously have reported, a group led by Lawrence developer Tony Krsnich has reached a preliminary deal to buy the old Turnhalle building at Ninth and Rhode Island streets. Now Krsnich and his team are trying to figure what uses they can put in the old building that once housed the German-American social club Turnverein.
The developers will hold their second community meeting to get feedback on possible uses for the building. The meeting is set for 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday at the Cider Gallery in the East Lawrence Warehouse Arts District near Eighth and Pennsylvania streets. (The Warehouse Arts District is another one of Krsnich’s developments.)
Tom Larkin, a member of the development group, said the idea of some sort of beer garden with some bowling lanes in the basement is still very much a live one. That was similar to how the Turnverein used the basement of the building. Larkin said several groups that do performances also have expressed an interest in the main floor, which includes a stage and a balcony. Larkin said the idea of a dinner theater also hasn’t been ruled out yet.
But there are going to be some significant challenges to overcome with the property. Parking will be a major issue. The property really doesn’t have much of it, so the city and the neighborhood may have to back away from their normal parking standards if they want to have a prominent use in the building.
Using the 1869 stone building for a private residence may be the easiest way to get around the parking problems, but the Lawrence Preservation Alliance — which saved the building from dilapidation — doesn’t want to see it used as a private residence. Larkin said his group also doesn’t think that would be the best use for the building.
After this Tuesday meeting, Krsnich’s group will have to start making some decisions about the future of the building. It was mid-July when he signed the deal to purchase the building. The deal gave his group 60 days to conduct due diligence and come up with a plan for the building. So, as it stands, he has less than a month to decide how or whether to move forward.
• Lawrence residents also will have a big decision to make in the next few months. As you know, voters will be going to the polls on Nov. 4 to decide whether to vote for 0.2 percent sales tax to fund construction of an approximately $28 million police headquarters.
As I told you earlier, a citizens group has formed to support the sales tax issue, and now we have a better picture of that group. The Friends of Lawrence Police, Inc. has launched its website — FriendsofLawrencePolice.com — and is actively campaigning for the issue.
My understanding is the group has registered as a Political Action Committee, which means it can raise money and do campaign advertising on the issue. In addition, group members will be co-hosting tours of the current police facilities, organizing town hall meetings on the issue, and generally talking the issue up around town. The group has an executive committee that includes a mix of business people and community leaders. That group includes: Don “Red Dog” Gardner, Aaron Clopton, Gary Rexroad, Michelle Derusseau, Kevin O’Malley, Harry Herrington, Allison Vance Moore, Daryl Bugner, Tom Dobski, Ted Boyle, and Brian Kingsley.
It will be an interesting election to watch. There certainly is a sizable group like these folks who support the police department and are discouraged about the working conditions present at the department. There also, I believe, is a significant group of residents unhappy with how the city has handled some previous large projects — namely Rock Chalk Park — and are hesitant to give this commission a positive vote on any new project. Like many elections, this one probably will be decided by how the folks in the middle swing.
On downtown Lawrence’s Massachusetts Street, a business named Mass Metal LLC could be almost anything. A sword shop. (Remember when we had one of those?) An aluminum recycling business specializing in beer cans that have rolled down Mount Oread. Or even a tribute store for Motley Crue, KISS, AC/DC and other heavy metal bands that fill my cassette case.
But before you get your Gene Simmons makeup kit out, take a look at the website of the respected business magazine Inc.com. You’ll find Mass Metal LLC is actually the 618th fastest growing private company in the country and the only Lawrence-based firm to land on the Inc. 5000 list.
The eight-person firm is based in second-floor office space at 706 Massachusetts St., and from that spot it has watched its revenue grow by a staggering 759 percent over the last three years, reaching $17.5 million in 2013. The metals that are fueling that growth are gold and silver.
A group led by Lawrence resident Jeremy Brakenhoff founded Mass Metal in 2008 with the idea that there should be an easier way for ordinary investors to purchase gold and silver. The result was the online site silversaver.com that allows investors to make gold and silver purchases online much like they would purchase a stock through an online brokerage house.
Perhaps you already thought purchasing gold or silver through a traditional online brokerage was easy. But in many cases, Brakenhoff said, those brokerage firms are selling shares in a gold or silver-based fund. Owning gold or silver in that fashion carries a different set of risks than actually owning gold or silver bullion. Through the silversaver.com site, the company allows you to purchase actual gold and silver and have it delivered to a location of your choice, or stored in a secure Delaware-based depository until you decide to take possession of it.
“People in the industry caught wind of what we were doing, it resonated with a lot of people, and it has been a really fun ride,” Brakenhoff said.
Now the company has clients in all 50 states, with some buying as little as $25 worth of gold or silver and others buying more than $25,000 a week of the precious metals.
The business certainly benefited from the financial downturn that hammered stocks. Many investors started turning to gold and silver to diversify their portfolios, and some turned to gold out of fear that the U.S. monetary system was going to collapse.
Brakenhoff said Mass Metal will help anyone buy gold or silver, but doesn’t try to use fear to convince people to get into the precious metals market. Instead, he touts the value of gold and silver being a part of a well-diversified portfolio.
“Selling fear doesn’t help anyone,” Brakenhoff said. “We want to empower people to be smart and to diversify.”
As for the company’s future in Lawrence, Brakenhoff said he was living in Lawrence at the time the company was founded, working as a traditional investment adviser. He’s not offering any predictions on how large the company may become in terms of employees, but he said additional sales and customer service positions are likely. Some of those positions likely will be in Lawrence while others may be in branch offices that would be established in the future. But Brakenhoff said the company likes the idea of keeping its headquarters in Lawrence.
“I love Lawrence,” Brakenhoff said. “There is a great group of people here. I don’t see any reasons why we would leave here.”
Mass Metal ended up being ranked the sixth fastest growing private company in the state of Kansas. The No. 1 ranked company? Lenexa-based Sainstore, a company that offers market research, Web development and e-commerce services. The firm has grown from 15 employees in 2010 to about 135 today. Its revenues have grown from about $135,000 in 2010 to $19.2 million in 2013. Sainstore ranked No. 12 on Inc.’s overall list of the fastest growing private companies in the country.
Other Kansas companies that you may recognize include: Overland Park-based Title Boxing Club at No. 202; Wichita-based Freddy’s Frozen Custard at No. 2,111; and the Manhattan-based online auction site Purple Wave at No. 3,803.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I believe in diversification too. That’s why when I order barbecue, I always get the sampler platter. If you remember a few weeks ago, I told you I had the chance to sample ribs, pork. chicken, brisket and other delights as a judge for the Fire in the Hole BBQ competition that benefits Toys for Tots and Lawrence Police Blue Santa Program. Well, organizers of the event recently told me they tallied the proceeds. The event raised $7,000 to be split between the two organizations. The groups will use the money to purchase gifts and food for families in need this holiday season.
Company hoping to make solar power more visible in downtown; a number on the Kansas economy that isn’t terrible
I’ve spent some time at the lake in recent days, and based on the number of people I saw who looked like lobsters that fell asleep under a 1970s tanning light, I’m guessing people are starting to figure out the power of the sun. Well, downtown Lawrence soon will get a new look at the power of solar as well.
The Lawrence-based firm of Cromwell Solar and Cromwell Environmental has moved its headquarters to a larger and more prominent location in downtown Lawrence. The company, led by former City Commissioner Aron Cromwell, has bought the former Luminous Neon/Art & Sign building at 615 Vermont St.
The company already has moved into the space, but it doesn’t yet have up all of its neat solar components that will end up serving as a bit of a downtown billboard for solar energy and all things green. Cromwell will put a large number of solar panels on the bright red roof of the building, but that’s just the beginning. The more interesting element to keep an eye out for is the solar awning. The building will be the first one in Lawrence to use a uniquely designed solar panel system that serves as an awning that overhangs a business’ windows and doors.
“We want to blaze the way for the first solar awning in Lawrence,” Cromwell said. “We hope it is something that catches on with other businesses. We think they are going to look incredibly cool.”
The awnings do produce solar power, but not a tremendous amount by themselves. Instead, Cromwell envisions them being used in conjunction with solar panels mounted on the roof of a building. Those can produce significant amounts of energy, but they aren’t always very visible to the public. And let’s face it, one of the things a company that invests in solar panels would like to receive is some public recognition for being a green company. A solar awning is one way to show it.
Cromwell went through the process to ensure the solar awnings were compatible with downtown Lawrence’s historic design guidelines. But now that such approval has been granted, it will be interesting to see if they start becoming more prominent downtown. Imagine Massachusetts Street lined with solar panels and a hydroelectric power plant at the north end of downtown. It might help Lawrence stand out as a possible destination for the growing number of alternative energy firms that are looking for a home.
Cromwell can attest that Lawrence is a good place to grow a green energy business. As you may have guessed, he didn’t buy a building simply to have a place to put up a solar awning. The company was quickly running out of space at its rented location in the 1000 block of New Hampshire Street.
“We’ve been doing an incredible amount of work,” Cromwell said.
The company has grown from about eight employees four years ago to about 25 employees currently. The new space more than doubles the amount of office space for the company, and also gives it a 4,000 square-foot warehouse for the installation side of its business.
For years, the company did the bulk of its work in Missouri, which had some attractive state tax credits for solar energy. But as those ended, Cromwell said Kansas has become the focal point for the business’ growth. A big part of that growth has been fueled by large increases in the number of residential solar panel installations. The company last year partnered with a Baldwin City-based bank to begin offering a solar panel leasing program that greatly cuts down on the amount of upfront costs needed to install solar panels.
“We’ve gone from a couple of residential installations per year to a couple of residential installations per week,” Cromwell said.
As for Luminous Neon, we reported in January that it had bought the former G-Force Gymnastics building at 801 E. 23rd St. with the intention of moving its business to the location. Indeed that has happened. The facade of the building has undergone a bright makeover, and perhaps my fellow 23rd Street motorists already have noticed that the company is doing its part to make sure we arrive at our destinations on time. It has installed a new time and temperature sign in front of its building. So, if you see the F150 kick into what I like to call “Dukes of Hazzard gear,” you will know that the sign has reminded me I’m running late for my tanning appointment.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While we’re mentioning business activity on Vermont Street, a historic building on Vermont has found a new tenant. A new hair salon called Bzar has opened in the space at 809 Vermont that for years housed Headmasters salon. Brad Hestand, a stylist in Lawrence since 1999, is the owner of Bzar, which is pronounced like bazaar. Or I suppose like bizarre. Hestand said the business offers a full array of hair services, but is not offering spa services at the site.
“We do all things hair, and we want to concentrate on what we know and do best,” he said.
The business fills space in one of downtown Lawrence’s more historic buildings. The building dates back to the 1870s, and was home to the dental practice of Lucy Hobbs Taylor, who was one of the first female dentists in the country and was the first woman to be awarded a doctor of dental surgery degree.
• For Gov. Brownback and his re-election campaign, news about the Kansas economy lately has been about as welcome as a root canal performed by a hair stylist. But there are new numbers out today that paint a little better picture of the Kansas economy.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis has released new numbers about the gross domestic product of each state. In particular, the BEA for the first time is able to show how the GDP of a state is growing on a quarterly basis.
The report found that Kansas GDP growth in the fourth quarter of 2013 — the most recent quarter from which data is available — grew at an annualized rate of 3.1 percent compared with third-quarter levels. That’s better than the national average of 2.8 percent, and it also was the second best growth rate of any of the seven states in the Plains region. North Dakota, which I’ve now determined is so rich that they’ll give you an oil well if you agree to live there and work at the local McDonald’s, led the Plains region and the entire country with an 8.4 percent growth rate.
But before the governor gets all giddy and starts offering free tanning sessions for all, it is worth remembering that Kansas’ GDP growth for all of 2013 was less than spectacular. Kansas for the entire year saw GDP growth of 1.9 percent compared with 2012 totals. That was the second lowest GDP growth rate of any of the states in the Plains region. Nothing in this new report changes that. In talking with an official at the BEA, these new quarterly numbers really are more of an indication which states have some momentum with their economies. The Plains region as a whole grew at an annualized rate of 1.9 percent in the fourth quarter, so Kansas’ 3.1 percent showing definitely puts it on the correct side of the ledger. But, also keep these numbers in perspective. It is just a one-quarter snapshot of the economy. If the report had come out in the third quarter, it would have shown Kansas really lagging the other states in the Plains region. During the third quarter, Kansas’ GDP grew at an annualized rate of 1.8 percent compared with 5.5 percent for the entire Plains region.
So, make of it what you will, but for those of us who follow economic statistics, it will be worth keeping an eye on whether the trend continues.