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The Lawrence argument that won't end: To build more retail or to not build more retail; commissioners prepare to hear SLT shopping center proposal on Tuesday
Get your pointing finger limber, and your vocal chords warm. We’re set to engage in a great Lawrence tradition this week: arguing over whether Lawrence should build a shopping center.
City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting are scheduled to vote on some rezoning and planning issues for the KTen Crossing shopping center project, which would add about 250,000 square feet of new retail and commercial space at the southeast corner of the SLT and Iowa Street interchange.
The development group has said it has Academy Sports, Old Navy, HomeGoods, Fresh Market and either Designer Shoe Warehouse or Off Broadway Shoes ready to become anchor tenants for the project.
The line already has been drawn, and various groups firmly have planted themselves for or against the project. That is what we tend to do in Lawrence. Every few years Lawrence has battles about whether to build a new retail project. The Super Target center, the now defunct Borders bookstore downtown, the Home Depot project at 31st and Iowa, a proposed Lowe’s near Sixth Street and Follks Road and the Wal-Mart near Sixth and Wakarusa are a few that easily come to mind.
On the side pushing for approval of this project are, of course, the developers, a group based out of North Carolina that builds shopping centers in a host of communities across the country. The city also has received a number of letters from residents supporting the project, including several from people who are associated with the pro-business group called Cadre Lawrence.
On the side pushing to deny the project there are several groups including the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods, and KU urban planning professor Kirk McClure, who has become the thought-leader for the Association of Neighborhoods on many issues related to economic growth in Lawrence.
Also worth noting is that both the city’s professional planning staff and the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission are recommending approval of the project. That is different from in 2014 when the project was proposed to be about 500,000 square feet. At that size, the project didn’t win a positive recommendation, but the Planning Commission rethought the proposal when the development group decided to cut the size of the project in half.
City commissioners have held their cards close to their vest. Commissioner Matthew Herbert during the campaign made statements indicating he would support the project, especially since it has not asked for any tax breaks or other public incentives. Commissioner Leslie Soden made statements during the campaign indicating she had concerns with the proposal. The other three commissioners have been tough to read, but I’ve seen signs they are each open to the idea of approving the project. Whichever side can get two of the three to come to their side of the line will win the day.
The arguments in this matter basically will be twofold. Supporters will argue the community has too many Lawrence residents leaving town to shop due to a lack of retailers. They’ll also argue that we could get a few out-of-town shoppers — think Baldwin City, Eudora, rural Douglas County and Franklin County — if we offered some big box retailers that were more convenient than what is offered in Johnson County.
Opponents will argue that Lawrence already has too many retailers, that our incomes aren’t high enough to support more retail spending, that additional retail development will hurt downtown and other existing retailers, and that Lawrence can’t really compete with the retail offerings of Johnson County and Topeka.
Here’s my prediction: We’ll still be arguing about all those issues well after Tuesday night’s meeting is complete. I’ve covered the city’s business scene since 1992, and this basic argument has never gone away. And, when you think about it, why should it? What has the city ever done to try to end the argument? For the most part, the same groups of people come to a city commission lectern every few years and talk about how the other side is wrong and how they are right.
Nothing I’m about to write should be construed as arguing for a delay on this project — the KTen Crossing proposal already has dragged on for a long time — but, could the community benefit from an objective third party that could provide some guidance on retail issues?
Here’s a look at just two points that could perhaps benefit from a trusted third-party:
• McClure, as he often does, has written a letter to city commissioners detailing why the project ought to be rejected. Let me say this up front: I respect McClure. Unlike some people who step to the lectern of a public meeting, he does spend a lot of time researching and thinking about the issues. But his findings often are not universally accepted. There is one statement in his recent letter that I suspect will be a lighting rod for debate: “More stores do not create more spending. Rather, only more income in the community can drive growth in the economy. As a result, more stores do not create more spending, more sales taxes, more retail jobs or more value of retails buildings.” That’s written as a fact, but is it?
What if everybody’s income stays the same, but a new store opens in town that causes people to buy their goods in Lawrence rather than drive somewhere else to buy them? Wouldn’t that cause the amount of sales taxes collected in Lawrence to increase, even though incomes haven’t? I think some folks will argue that is what has happened recently with the opening of Dick’s Sporting Goods in Lawrence. Ask parents with school-age children whether they have bought any items at the Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Lawrence that they normally would have traveled out of town to purchase.
I called McClure to talk with him about the letter and that statement. He acknowledged that it is possible for a community’s sales tax collections to grow by reducing the number of shoppers who leave town. But he just doesn’t think that happens very often.
“It can happen, but the odds are pretty slim,” he said, adding that it usually take a super magnet store, like a Costco, to really move the needle.
McClure thinks proponents of new shopping centers overestimate the number of residents who are leaving Lawrence to shop and the number of residents who can be persuaded to keep their dollars at home.
“A very few shoppers from Lawrence will drive to KTen Crossing rather than Johnson County or Topeka,” McClure writes. “This will probably be a number too small to measure.”
Is that what an unbiased expert in the retail field believes? I don’t know. I don’t think the city does either.
• As developers often do, they commissioned a study from an expert they have hired. The retail market report by the developer’s expert talks about how the additional retail space will be well received in the community. The developers have used the findings of that study to make a specific statement: 40 percent of all Lawrence retail dollars spent on apparel are being spent outside of Lawrence.
That number is either accurate or inaccurate. I have no idea which. It would be nice to simply assume that it is true since it came from a professional in the field, but experts hired by developers are going to do nothing to ease the minds of skeptics. But could the city at some point hire an unbiased party to look at that number and others? Hire somebody to paint a picture of Lawrence’s retail scene, and more importantly help us understand what is reasonable? If Lawrence is losing 40 percent of its apparel dollars, how much do other communities lose? What is reasonable for Lawrence to expect, given that it is so close to Topeka and Kansas City?
There are people out there who could provide reasonable answers to those questions and others. Somebody, for example, needs to figure out what is a reasonable expectation for downtown Lawrence’s retail future. Recently, the number of retail outlets in downtown has fallen. Should that be alarming, or will the amount of new residential construction underway in downtown change that trend?
And what about the area near Rock Chalk Park? It is zoned for more than 400,000 square feet of commercial space, but none has been built yet despite it being on the market for years. Why not? There may well be a sentiment on the City Commission to deny the KTen Crossing because it will further delay the development of the Rock Chalk Park area. City commissioners are right to consider ways to create retail districts throughout the community, but if the city denies KTen Crossing in order to spur development at Rock Chalk Park, are they doing anything more than keeping their fingers crossed?
There won’t be any unbiased third party that comes to the rescue prior to Tuesday’s meeting. Commissioners will have to decide this issue the old-fashioned way: wade through argument after argument.
I’m not sure there ever will be a third party that can help us out with our retail argument. McClure and I agreed on a key point when we chatted recently: Any attempt to hire a third-party consultant to help City Hall understand the retail market would spark a massive argument. One side would argue Consulting Firm A is a shill for the development industry. The other side would argue Consulting Firm B is a pawn of the no-growth crowd.
Meanwhile, one point that isn’t argued: The city budget relies a lot on sales tax dollars. At least this argument isn’t a petty one.