Discovery furniture to close Lawrence store and sell property to investment group; talk of south Iowa Street retail heats back up

Lawrence is losing in the furniture battle, and I’m not just talking about my effort to get a recliner with a built-in beer cooler, bun warmers and a secret Doritos compartment in my living room. No, the city’s largest furniture store has plans to close in early 2015.

The owners of Discovery Furniture have confirmed they’re closing their store at 2525 Iowa St. in January. Upon closing, they’ll open a mega furniture store in Olathe to complement the mega store they already operate in Topeka.

In case you haven’t caught on, mega is the trend in the furniture retail business, and Discovery’s store in the old Food-4-Less building on south Iowa Street just wasn’t mega enough.

“Our new location will be four or five times larger than what we have in Lawrence,” said Jeff Winter, an owner of the Discovery store.

The new store — called the Furniture Mall of Kansas, which is also the name of its store in Topeka — will be in the former Benchmark Home Furnishings building across the street from the Bass Pro Shop.

Discovery has operated its Lawrence store since 2010, and it was a big deal when it came to town. Lawrence’s furniture market began declining in the late 1990s, and then pretty much was decimated after Nebraska Furniture Mart opened its mega store near Kansas Speedway in Wyandotte County in 2003. There was much lamenting that lots of Lawrence dollars were heading over to do business with Warren Buffett and his crew. (Buffett’s company owns Nebraska Furniture Mart, which is how I scored a very brief interview with the most famed value investor of all time when he was on hand for a ribbon cutting . I, of course, asked him the only logical question of the day: Am I getting ripped off if I pay for the Scotchgard treatment on my sofa? I can’t quite recall, but I think he looked at the stain on my tie and advised it was a good value.)

Winter said it was a tough decision to leave Lawrence because the store was doing fine from a sales standpoint. But he said the company determined it made greater strategic sense to operate large locations in both Topeka and the Kansas City markets, with the hope that Lawrence shoppers will find it convenient to shop at one of those two locations.

Discovery has about 20 employees, and Winter said the company is offering incentives for those employees to make the move over to the new Olathe store.

If there is a positive in this news, it is that interest in the Discovery location at 25th and Iowa is high. In fact, a development group already has purchased the property from the Winter family. A group that includes Lawrence businesswoman Susan Hatfield finalized a deal in recent days to purchase the entire shopping center, which also includes the adjacent Office Depot and Tuesday Morning spaces. In addition to Hatfield, Christian Ablah, a noted commercial real estate broker who has been involved in bringing Dick’s Sporting Goods, Best Buy and Home Depot, to Lawrence also is part of the group.

Ablah told me the group doesn’t yet have a tenant for the approximately 45,000 square feet of space that Discovery occupied in the center. But Ablah said the development group was eager to purchase the property because south Iowa Street seems to be the destination of choice for many midsize to large national retailers. Ablah said the Discovery space could accommodate one large retailer or easily could be rearranged to accommodate three midsize retailers. He said the development group also is exploring whether it is feasible to build a separate building in a portion of the parking lot that could house a restaurant or smaller retailer. Both Office Depot and Tuesday Morning continue to have leases under the new ownership, he said.

“South Iowa is where a lot of tenants want to be right now,” Ablah said. “I love Lawrence, and I’m hearing there are a lot of retailers who want to locate in Lawrence right now.”

In other news and notes from around town:

• It is probably wise to keep an eye on another piece of property near 25th and Iowa streets as well. The shopping center that includes Kief’s Audio Video, Biggs BBQ and Sunflower Pawn is going through an ownership change. Longtime retailer John Kiefer is selling his interest in the property to Evan Holt, who is the son of Kiefer’s late partner in the development.

Holt told me he could have up to 13,000 square feet of space available in the center. That’s because Kief’s is expected to downsize or move out of the center entirely. As we previously reported, Kiefer has retired from the business, and his son is making some changes in focus at Kief’s. It likely will focus more on custom installations and other high-end jobs rather than traditional audio/video retailing, Kiefer told me.

Holt said he doesn’t have a tenant lined up for the space, but like Ablah, he said interest in the south Iowa corridor seems high. Holt’s property is adjacent to the shopping center that includes the now vacant space that housed Saints Pub. There’s also some other vacant space in that center. I hear rumblings from time to time about a major project that would involve large amounts of property between 23rd Street and 25th Street. That would be a major undertaking, and I haven’t seen anything solid on that at the moment. But with the amount of traffic at 23rd and Iowa and the growing interest in south Lawrence retail, it seems like an area that is probably drawing some behind-the-scenes interest from developers.

It will be interesting to see how all this interest in south Iowa Street shakes out, and in particular, what impact it has on the city’s desire to see retail development take hold around the Rock Chalk Park complex in northwest Lawrence. It also will be interesting to see if the group that wants to build a major retail center just south and east of the South Lawrence Trafficway and Iowa Street will come back with another plan for city commissioners to consider. I’m getting a lot of indications that the development group plans to at least broach the subject of a revised plan with key city officials. I’m hearing they have yet another significant retail tenant that has expressed a strong interest in the site. I hope to get some more information on that project and bring it to you in the coming days.

• Town Talk will be off on Monday and Tuesday. A certain baseball team — I refuse to mention its name out of fear that I will jinx it — very possibly could be playing in the playoffs on Tuesday. As a lifelong fan of this certain baseball team, I have come to believe that a playoff appearance is a lot like Halley’s Comet: If you miss it, you may be waiting a long time to see it again.