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Development group seeking to create major retail area south of South Lawrence Trafficway
My credit card isn't the only thing warm on South Iowa Street these days. (Halloween candy on credit: That's a good financial strategy, isn't it?)
The commercial real estate market is heating up on Lawrence's major commercial corridor as well. The Menards project in the former Gaslight Mobile Home Village got the ball rolling, Dick's Sporting Goods going into the Sears building kept the momentum going, and now I've finally gotten some details about a potential project that could kick it into a whole new gear.
I have received confirmation that an out-of-state development group has put about 100 acres between the South Lawrence Trafficway and the Wakarusa River along U.S. Highway 59 under option. For those of you have been in town long enough, this is the same tract that developers proposed for a suburban mall — or the "cornfield mall," as it was dubbed — in the 1980s.
A suburban mall isn't planned this time, but a major area for big box stores is. Chris Challis, a manager with the development team, confirmed that Oklahoma-based Sooner Investment and a sister company have an option on the property, and are talking with big box retailers about locating to Lawrence.
"I think we're awful close to having the two anchors we need lined up," Challis said.
He didn't provide any hints at who those retailers are, but he said the group is focusing on attracting retailers that people are driving to Kansas City to shop.
The site, which is basically at the southeast corner of the SLT and U.S. Highway 59, could theoretically accommodate 500,000 square feet of retail. Challis, though, said a more likely scenario is about 300,000 to 350,000 square feet. That's still a big project. To put it in perspective, the Pine Ridge Plaza with Kohl's, World Market, TJ Maxx and several other retailers is about 240,000 square feet. In other words, this project would be one of the larger retail developments in Lawrence.
Challis, though, thinks there is enough interest in the retail world to make it work.
"Lawrence is an interesting community," Challis said. "It is on the smaller side, perhaps, for some retailers, but the demographics are good. There are a lot of national retailers who have Lawrence on their lists. We've had a lot of people who want to talk to us."
At some point, the talk is going to have to make its way to Lawrence City Hall. City commissioners certainly are aware this project is being shopped around, but it is a little early to say how commissioners are lining up on this one. Challis said he already has come to understand that there is "sensitivity" to Lawrence's retail market becoming overbuilt and new developments that could challenge downtown's role in the retail market. But he said he thinks a project could be well received if it focuses on attracting retailers that aren't already in the market and that Lawrence residents are leaving town to patronize.
It will be an interesting project to watch. It further complicates the city's effort to drive new retail growth to the Sixth and SLT area in northwest Lawrence, where the city is spending millions of dollars for a new sports complex.
But one thing that was communicated loudly during the Menards discussion was that retailers want to be part of the South Iowa Street corridor. Menards told commissioners they needed to be on South Iowa or they weren't coming to town. Evidently, commissioners didn't think that was a bluff because the approval process was pretty smooth.
If this project gets a couple of exciting names in the retail world, I'll be interested to see how city commissioners react. The key, though, will be getting a couple of retailers that will excite the public. I'll keep my ears open.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The pending completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway, of course, is one of the factors that is spurring development interest along South Iowa Street. On that front, we're still waiting for official word on when construction of the road will begin.
Originally, local officials were told work wouldn't begin until KDOT had one last public open house-style meeting to inform the public on various construction-related issues with the project. But a spokeswoman with KDOT told me recently that upon further review another public meeting won't be held. Instead, KDOT will develop brochures and a website that attempts to answer frequently asked questions about the project.
That means work could get started in early November. Originally, KDOT officials had been saying that work in the wetlands likely would be the first part of the project to get underway. That may still be the case, but I've been told by others involved with the project that there is a chance work on the wetland portion of the project may not begin until early next year. That's in large part because contractors want to make sure they have the necessary steel in hand to construct the myriad of bridges that will be part of the wetland portion of the road.
The federal permit that allows crews to work in the wetlands comes with a pretty strict time limit, I'm told. If crews begin dirt work on the project and then encounter a delay because steel isn't available, that could create some problems with the permit.
The KDOT spokeswoman said she expects the agency to provide more details this week about a work schedule for the project.