The Merc plans downtown KCK store, nears completion on Lawrence solar project

Renderings of a project that will add nearly 700 solar panels to The Merc location at Ninth and Iowa streets. Courtesy: The Merc Co-op

Downtown Kansas City, Kan., is on track to have a bit of a Lawrence feel to it. No, the honk for hemp guy isn’t changing residences. Instead, it is another green Lawrence institution: The Merc.

The cooperative grocer that is based at Ninth and Iowa streets has reached a tentative deal to build a new store in downtown Kansas City, Kan. at Fifth Street and Minnesota Avenue. It is a potentially big project for The Merc, but general manager Rita York Hennecke told me that the deal is being structured in such a way that the Lawrence operations would be largely protected if the Kansas City project has any unforeseen difficulties.

“We wouldn’t be in continued conversations with (Kansas City officials) if it in any way would risk what is going on in Lawrence,” York Hennecke said.

She said a key aspect of the deal is the incentives package being put together by the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City. Kan. Some Kansas City media outlets have reported that the grocery development is a $6 million project. York Hennecke told me that The Merc is not putting up any of that money. Rather, Kansas City, Kan., officials are, in a sign of how hungry they are for a downtown grocery store.

“It is really more than incentives they are offering us,” York Hennecke said. “They are paying for construction. They are paying for this to happen, and creating risk mitigation if the sales of the store aren’t what we expect them to be.”

The Merc largely will be responsible for paying to operate and stock the store, which isn’t an insignificant matter. That is, in part, why The Merc is still reviewing the deal. Right now The Merc’s board of directors has authorized the signing of a letter of intent. The actual deal itself still must be finalized and is still subject to approval of The Merc board. York Hennecke said that approval could be sought in mid-August.

She said store officials already are excited about the possibilities, but are also trying to ensure they’ve fully thought through the project.

“The Unified Government approached us over a year ago,” York Hennecke said. “They wanted to create more access to healthy food, and that is part of our mission. We have been in communication for quite some time. “We’ve been looking at the feasibility, and it wasn’t an easy decision.”

York Hennecke said the opening of the Kansas City store — no date has been set yet — likely won’t produce any noticeable impacts on the Lawrence store in the near term. However, York Hennecke said that, in the long term, Merc officials are hopeful that operating two stores will create some economies of scale that could produce savings for customers.

“We think more buying power is a possibility for us,” she said.

In other news and notes from around town:

• There is a project going on at The Merc that will be very visible to Lawrence residents. Within the next month, The Merc plans to finish a massive solar panel installation that ultimately will produce about 30 percent of the store’s electricity needs.

We reported on the project back in August 2017, and work to install solar panels on the roof of the store began some time ago. Those panels began operating at the end of March.

But the more visible set of panels is about to be installed. Work is beginning on installing a pair of carport-like devices in the store’s parking lot. The roofs of the carports will be covered by solar panels. When combined with the solar panels on the roof of the store, the project will include 688 solar panels. That will make it the largest solar project in Lawrence.

With thousands of vehicles entering and leaving the parking lot each week, it also will be one of the more visible solar projects in the region, which is one of the things that was hoped for. York Hennecke hopes to have the project complete by the end of August, if not sooner.

“That is exciting,” York Hennecke said. “It is great to see the response from the community. It is a very visible project, and we are happy to talk about it with people. We want to be that showcase for how it works.”

• On the subject of showcases, I should pass along that Lawrence was showcased in a way that probably doesn’t thrill some community leaders. On Monday, late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel made a series of jokes and shared video from a June 19 Lawrence City Commission meeting. A member of the audience at that meeting got up during a designated public comment period and made his case for why genital massage should be legal under the city’s regulations that govern massage businesses.

He used a few tawdry euphemisms and had a turn of phrase about “happy endings,” so with the internet being what it is, the video of the meeting speech went viral. It caught the attention of Kimmel, who showed some of the clips and did about two minutes worth of jokes on national TV about it.

Due to some of the language in it, I’m going to refrain from posting the video here, but it is not hard to find on Google. Just be careful of the search terms you use, or you may get more than you bargained for — which I think also describes the situation Lawrence city commissioners found themselves in on June 19.


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