Speculation grows that Sam’s Club wants to locate in new shopping center south of SLT

I know we’re all busy wearing 1985 sports memorabilia, urging our mullets to return, and watching baseball on a 25-inch Zenith TV to recreate the environment of the last time the Kansas City Royals went to that big event that rhymes with Hurled Theories. (No true Royals fan should yet utter its real name for fear of a jinx.) But perhaps we all can take a brief break for a juicy piece of speculation: Sam’s Club is interested in building a store in Lawrence.

Talk of Sam’s Club — the wholesale shopping club run by Wal-Mart — certainly has been the quiet talk in certain real estate circles around town. I’ve been told that the development group that is proposing a major new retail area southeast of the Iowa Street and South Lawrence Trafficway interchange has told city officials that Sam’s Club has expressed a very serious interest in locating at the proposed shopping center.

Now, take that for whatever you think it is worth. The point man for the North Carolina-based development group hasn’t yet talked to me about Sam’s Club. But I’m confident information about Sam’s Club’s interest has been relayed to city officials. So, what’s next? I’m not sure, but there are several questions that arise:

• Would a Sam’s Club ease some City Hall opposition to the proposed retail area south of the trafficway? If you remember, the planning commission narrowly recommended denial of the proposed retail project, and city commissioners have not yet formally acted on the planning commission’s recommendation. That appears to be because there have not been three votes on the City Commission to approve the development. I’m not sure whether a Sam’s Club would change their thinking. Sam’s Club certainly would be a new retailer to Lawrence, and a new category of retailer as well. The city doesn’t have a wholesale club, and there are Lawrence residents who leave town to go shop at wholesale clubs. It also seems to be the type of retailer that would attract out-of town shoppers. No, folks from Topeka or Kansas City aren’t going to come to Lawrence to shop at Sam’s. But it seems to me that has never been the goal of this proposed shopping center. When it talks about drawing out-of-town shoppers, I think it means shoppers from smaller, secondary markets, not Topeka and Kansas City. If this development causes people in Ottawa to shop in Lawrence instead of Overland Park, then that’s a win for Lawrence.

• Can the development group deliver on bringing a Sam’s Club to the site? Sam’s Club obviously hasn’t signed any lease to come to the shopping center. The shopping center doesn’t exist, so neither do leases for it. But retailers have been known to put in writing their intentions to come to a site. I don’t know if Sam’s has done that yet. Have other retailers? Previously, the development group publicly announced that Academy Sports, Ulta Beauty, Old Navy, Designer Shoe Warehouse and Marshalls/Home Goods all had said they want to come to the shopping center. But I think city officials were leery of whether all those deals really would come to fruition. We’ll see if the development group has come up with a way to convince city officials that the interest is real.

• What about northwest Lawrence? If you remember, a good portion of the opposition from City Hall on this project has been based on concerns that this southern shopping center would make it difficult for an already-approved shopping district near Rock Chalk Park to develop. The area around Rock Chalk Park has been approved for several years, but hasn’t yet attracted retailers. City commissioners have indicated they wanted to give that project more time. Is Sam’s Club also interested in northwest Lawrence? The people I’ve talked to said they haven’t heard that Sam’s Club is interested in northwest Lawrence. Maybe Sam’s is interested, and that word just hasn’t begun to spread yet. I don’t know. What is clear is that several retailers have chosen South Iowa Street over the northwest area. Think Menards, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Petsmart, to name three. Thus far, retailers really have wanted to be close to the other retailers on South Iowa Street rather than doing the hard work to be a pioneer in a new northwest Lawrence shopping district. If Sam’s Club comes out and says it only is interested in the South Lawrence site, will that change the city’s thinking on waiting for the northwest to develop?

• What about politics? This south-of-the-trafficway development is heating up just weeks before the Nov. 4 sales tax election for the police headquarters issue. Those two issues certainly can be linked, if politicos want to link them. The city is betting heavily on increased sales tax revenues to pay for a future police headquarters facility. To fund the headquarters under the city’s current plan, it needs voters to not only approve the new 0.2 percent sales tax, but it also needs retail sales in the city to grow by about 2 percent a year for about the next decade. If the sales tax gets approved and the retail sales don’t grow by that amount, the most likely outcome is that commissioners will either have to cut the city’s budget elsewhere or increase property taxes to make up the difference. A 2 percent growth rate isn’t unreasonable, with or without the south-of-the-trafficway development. But the development group previously has produced estimates that show the development could provide a nice boost to to the city’s sales tax collections. These numbers come from the developer and need further vetting, but the group is estimating a $1.1 million increase in city sales tax collections in 2016-2017 and $2.1 million a year by 2020. Again, the numbers need more vetting, but if true, that development alone would pay for more than half of the police headquarters project. It will be interesting to see whether developers try to get a hearing on this project with the City Commission prior to the Nov. 4 elections. It will be interesting to see if the City Commission will allow it to be scheduled before the election.

There are more questions than answers right now, but the project basically has been in limbo since July. Based on the e-mails and questions I’m getting, the public is ready for some answers.