New Internet provider seeking to come to Lawrence; residents want new requirements for Ninth Street arts corridor; urban farm battle brewing

For once, there is a promising Internet deal that doesn’t involve my credit card and Instead, there’s an Internet deal brewing at Lawrence City Hall that may pay immediate dividends for large Internet users in the city, and eventually may benefit regular Web surfers as well.

Lawrence City Hall officials are close to inking a deal with Wichita-based Kansas Fiber Network that will allow the company to lease unused portions of city-owned fiber optic cables. Those cables will be used to begin offering ultra high speed service to educational institutions, health care firms and other large users of broadband services.

Think of Kansas Fiber Network as kind of a wholesaler of Internet and broadband services. It wants to deal with large customers that are looking to buy business class Internet service. Think of universities, school districts, hospitals and businesses that push a lot of information through the Internet.

“We think there are probably 100 to 150 of those types of customers we hope to serve in Lawrence,” said Steven Dorf, president of Kansas Fiber Network.

But where it may get exciting for regular old Internet users who are simply trying to buy the weekend pallet of Hershey’s bars is that one of the types of customers Kansas Fiber Network sells to is Internet Service Providers. That means a new startup Internet service provider could buy wholesale from Kansas Fiber Network and then start selling to residential and small-business customers much easier than trying to build a network entirely on its own.

“We hope that is a likely scenario in Lawrence,” Dorf said. “In other markets we have served, that has been the case. We think we’ll be good for the residential customer because we ultimately enable competition.”

The idea of providing wholesale service is a bit similar to what leaders at Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband had proposed to City Hall, although Wicked also wanted to be in the retail business by selling to residential and small business customers too. A key difference here, though, is that Kansas Fiber Network is not asking for any city incentives. It is seeking to rent the unused fiber from the city at the standard rate the City Commission previously set as part of its new fiber use policy. As currently proposed, the company would pay the city just under $17,000 a year to lease 12 strands of unused fiber in the city’s fiber ring, which runs along most of the major arterial streets in Lawrence.

Dorf said service provided by Kansas Fiber Network will be capable of providing Internet upload and download speeds of 1 gigabit and more. He said the company’s network is actually designed for up to 100 gigabits, although he said there aren’t many business customers that need that type of speed today.

It will be interesting to see if new Internet service providers enter the Lawrence market as a result of this deal. The idea of startup ISPs certainly isn’t as novel as it used to be. As we’ve reported multiple times, Baldwin City-based RG Fiber has committed to providing gigabit service to both Baldwin City and Eudora. We recently reported that RG has begun burying fiber as part of that project, and Baker University is set to become a gigabit campus by the next school year. RG has said it wants to provide service to Lawrence, but the Baldwin City and Eudora projects are ahead of Lawrence, in part because the previous Lawrence City Commission struggled with creating policies for leasing its unused fiber.

As a result, Lawrence is behind the pace of several other communities. One that I recently learned of is a multimillion dollar project in Emporia. A group of local investors there has spent about $12 million bringing a high speed fiber network to the city, according to an article in the Emporia Gazette. According to the article there have been no incentives or tax breaks given to the company. And unlike what had been proposed in Lawrence, this isn’t a pilot project. According to the February article, enough fiber cable had been installed to reach 65 percent of all houses in Emporia. By the end of this year, the company expects to reach 85 percent of all homes.

It is odd to think how new the idea of gigabit Internet service was when Google Fiber announced in 2011 plans to make Kansas City its first market for the new service. Now, places like Baldwin City, Eudora and Emporia are going to have it on a wide scale before Lawrence does.

As for the Kansas Fiber Network project, commissioners are scheduled to approve the lease agreement at their meeting tonight. Dorf said he believes the company can start hooking up new businesses and wholesale accounts in about 90 days. The company already owns some private fiber in Lawrence and likely will be installing more as part of the project.

Kansas Fiber Network is owned by a consortium of 29 independent telephone companies that operate in Kansas. The group created Kansas Fiber Network about five years ago with the idea of providing needed fiber services to rural areas. It now has plans to expand into larger communities, Dorf said. He said Lawrence is part of a group of about 20 towns that it currently is eyeing for expansion.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Get ready for a new twist in the Ninth Street arts corridor project. City commissioners at their meeting tonight are set to receive an update on the planning for that project, which will run from about Massachusetts Street to the Warehouse Arts District in East Lawrence. Commissioners, though, will get more than an update. They’ll also get a letter with nearly 140 signatures asking the commission to do more to involve East Lawrence residents and local artists.

The letter has several specific requests. They include:

• The East Lawrence Neighborhood Association should be part of the formal review and approval process for any public art project planned for the corridor. The letter states this would be consistent with how other public art projects in the neighborhood have happened. It notes the Hobbs Park mural, the New York School mural and a few others.

• The letter writers are seeking a commitment that at least 50 percent of the public art projects planned for the corridor be led by Lawrence artists. In addition, the group wants one half of that one half to be led by artists who live in the East Lawrence district. Plus, the letter writers want a requirement that all of the art projects planned for the corridor include at least one paid assistant who is a Lawrence artist.

“This will be great experience and training for our local artists and will give lead artists who are not from Lawrence essential insights into the place they are working,” the letter reads.

• The group is wanting the city to create a zoning device called a “conservation overlay district” for the arts corridor. That basically means the city would create a specific zoning district for the corridor, and that district would have regulations tailored specifically for the corridor. The city has used the method in the past when it has felt an area is unique enough to require specific regulations rather than the general ones found in the city’s standard zoning code.

We’ll see how this all plays out. It is worth remembering that this isn’t entirely a City Hall project. The Lawrence Arts Center has secured a $500,000 grant that will be used to fund a lot of the art work for the corridor. But the city does hold about a $3 million hammer. To make the project successful, the street needs to be rebuilt, and that will occur with city tax dollars. The current estimate is about $3 million.

On its face, you would not think adding art to a neighborhood — especially one that loves art as much as East Lawrence — would be this hard. But there continues to be concern from various East Lawrence residents and others that the arts corridor is going to become more of a linear entertainment and commercial district that connects downtown and the East Lawrence Warehouse Arts District. City officials have worked to assure residents that what they really are trying to create is more of a linear park infused with art.

This project seems to be a prime example of how certain residents really have a distrust of City Hall. It has been a rough couple of years in the trust-building department for city government, and city commissioners have acknowledged that.

Art can be beautiful in many ways. If this project somehow can be maneuvered to rebuild trust, that would rank right up there on beautiful Lawrence sights.

• Just like art, the beauty of a yard is in the eye of the beholder. You know some of you see dandelions while others of us see beautiful yellow flowers. Some of you see a car on blocks, and others see a visit from our Missouri cousins. I have a feeling we’re going to spend some time talking about the eye of the beholder at tonight’s City Commission meeting.

Commissioners are receiving an update from staff about the property at 1145 Pennsylvania St. City code inspectors say they’re ready to take the property owners — Nick Brown and Shannon Gorres — to court to resolve issues involving storage of materials in the property’s yard and in the city rights-of-way.

You can see pictures taken by the city in December, here.

I’ve received an email that is going around town urging people to show up at tonight’s City Commission meeting to protest the city’s potential action against the property, which operates as the Cosmic Beauty School. Its website touts it as a venture that promotes urban agriculture, holistic lifestyles and sustainability.

Several folks appear to be upset that the city is not recognizing that this property is really an “urban farm” and the storage that is on the property is just normal in a farm setting. City inspectors, though, note that technically the property is zoned for residential uses. It has been operating under a grandfather clause for years because the property — which used to be the home of Freeman Used Furniture — has a history of commercial uses dating back to the early 1900s.

Planning officials have supported allowing the property to continue to operate under a grandfather clause, but I don’t believe city officials thought this newest business venture would include as much outdoor storage as exists today. The city has received a complaint from a neighbor.

City officials have noted that in a 2009 application to extend the grandfathered commercial use of the property, the project was described not as an urban farm but as a “Holistic Health Management Service.” The application included a statement from the owners that “noise or external visual disturbances should be minimal.”

• A quick bit of housekeeping: Town Talk will take a one day break tomorrow to give me time to unload the chocolate truck, or something like that.