Ever since back in July when we reported a new ethnic restaurant that billed itself as the Indian version of a Chipotle was going to open in downtown, I’ve been getting questions about what the heck that means.
Well, soon you’ll be able to find out. Chutney’s at 918 Massachusetts St. is set to open on Monday.
Owner Rasesh Patel said the Chipotle description is still a good one, but that doesn’t mean the restaurant’s menu is going to be full of wraps. Instead, it is just his way of saying that it will be a casual-style, quick-service type of restaurant.
“It is going to be completely different than the typical Indian restaurant you are used to seeing,” Patel said. “It is Indian food, but we are trying to make it a little faster so that it can be food on the go too.”
Patel has been working with a chef out of Chicago who has patented a process for efficiently preparing a variety of Indian dishes.
Now, I don’t know enough about Indian food to even make a good joke here. (I know, you’re asking yourself when the Town Talk standard became that the jokes had to be good.) But in terms of menu items, Patel shared a few details with me. He said the restaurant regularly will offer chicken, beef, lamb and pork dishes, plus bean, rice and other dishes that will qualify as vegetarian, or in some cases, vegan.
Expect to see classic Indian dishes (or so I’m told) such as: Chicken Tikka Masala; Pork Vindaloo (I don’t know how it tastes, but it is fun to say); something called Spinach Paneer, which I believe is a spinach and cottage cheese-like dish; along with some fried-rice based dishes, various types of Indian tea, mango juice and a couple of Indian desserts.
The restaurant also will have a small bar area, but Patel said Kansas liquor laws have made it difficult for him to get the large assortment of Indian beers that he originally planned to stock.
• While we’re updating restaurant news, there was quite a scene last night at a local restaurant that surely says something about Lawrence. It either says we really like the idea of a new restaurant or we’re really cheap, or perhaps both.
Freebirds World Burrito was holding a special preview party at its new restaurant at 739 Massachusetts St. The event featured a free entrée and a drink. When I drove by at 6 p.m., there was a line out the door that stretched the width of two or three downtown stores. And this was in the rain. About an hour later, the line was even longer.
It will be interesting to see what burrito madness takes place today. The restaurant is officially opening tomorrow, and it is offering a promotion that the first 25 people in line will receive free burritos for a year. So, with a forecast of 18 degrees tonight, we’ll soon see just how cheap Lawrence is.
Last night’s event, however, did have a charitable cause connected to it. The Freebirds folks were suggesting a $5 donation to their nonprofit partners in the event, The Lawrence Humane Society and the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence. So, I’m sure Lawrence last night was lining up in the rain to be charitable, not cheap.
Pets, phones and less dresses, I guess: That’s what a little bit of sign watching on South Iowa Street has produced today.
• First, pets. All you pet lovers can quit worrying about the future of Lawrence’s Petco store near 31st and Iowa. I had several readers ask if the store was on the way out because it recently had removed the signs from its building at 3115 Iowa St.
A store employee there told me this morning that wasn’t the case. Petco has a new logo and sign strategy, and the Lawrence store is set to get new signs in another week or so.
“We’re not going anywhere,” the employee said, who noted the store underwent a fairly significant interior remodeling in June.
But she said she had fielded several calls in the last few days about what was happening at the store.
“People come in and ask what happened to the sign, and I tell them someone came in and stole it overnight,” she said.
• Beautiful orange awnings are now a part of the South Iowa Street corridor. It looks like crews are getting close to completing the new retail building that is in the northwest corner of the Walmart parking lot at 33rd and Iowa streets.
We previously had reported that the speculation was an AT&T Wireless phone store and a Chipotle restaurant were going to move into the space. Well, the orange awnings probably are all the confirmation you need that an AT&T store is set to move into the space, but we now have official word as well. City officials confirmed that AT&T has filed for a sign permit at the location. Chipotle, however, hasn’t yet filed for a sign permit, so we’ll keep an eye open for that.
My understanding is the new AT&T store will replace the company’s store on 23rd Street. An employee at the 23rd Street store told me a move is scheduled to happen sometime in March.
• Now, about this idea of less dresses. Wait a second, that’s a misread on my part. It actually is dress for less. We’re talking about the Ross discount clothing store that is slated to go into the former Old Navy location near 33rd and Iowa streets.
For several months now, there has been a lot more of the “less” than there has been of the “dress” in the Ross project. We’ve been reporting since January that there was speculation a Ross store was set to swoop in and take the spot left vacant by Old Navy’s closing in early 2012.
This summer, the company pulled a building permit to do about $800,000 worth of work at the store.
By the time the holiday shopping season arrived, Ross had a sign up, but it never did open. I did a little window peeking today, and the main part of the store is completely empty except for a single folding table. For $800,000, I had expected to see gold-ensconced clothing racks, or at least a multistory, dressed-for-less mannequin named Ross. (In seriousness, I heard a lot of the construction was related to the store’s rear loading dock, for whatever reason.) I’ve tried to get in touch with Ross officials at their California headquarters at various times over the past few months, but with no luck. But I’ll try again and see if I can get an opening date for the store. There are still ads online for part-time sales associates, and the sign still says “coming soon.”
Online petition drive asks city commissioners to put $25M recreation center project up for citywide vote
There was a fairly interesting development this weekend related to the city’s proposed regional recreation center.
It started with an article in the Journal-World on Sunday about the various positions each City Commission candidate has taken on the proposed $25 million regional recreation center.
Candidate Scott Criqui said, among other things, that he would support the commission calling for a citywide election on the recreation center vote, if residents showed they really wanted a vote — like through a petition drive.
“If a group gathered 3,000 signatures or something like that, it would tell me that there is some concern out there,” Criqui said in the article. “But I haven’t heard of anyone who has done that yet.”
Well, Criqui might as well have said the word “abracadabra,” because by Sunday morning an online petition had begun.
The petition is active at the online site Change.org. The petition was started by some fellow named Nick Danger. I didn’t find a listing for him in the local phone directories, but I’m working under the assumption that Nick Danger might be an assumed name.
As of Monday morning, the petition had 69 signatures. I’m not overly familiar with Change.org, so I haven’t figured out yet how to see the full list of signatures. But the Web site shows several of the people who have signed, and it appears to be full of real-life people with real-life names.
It will be interesting to see what the number gets to by the time city commissioners are scheduled to perhaps take formal action on the recreation center project at their Feb 19 meeting.
The petition, of course, has no binding impact on the Lawrence City Commission. Its only impact will be whether a lot of signatures causes commissioners to reassess their thoughts on the need for an election.
Commissioners already have voted 5-0 to not put the issue on the ballot. Most of the commissioners have said that a 1994 sales tax vote for recreation projects and other needs made it clear that residents were in favor of such a project. Commissioner Mike Amyx, though, made his vote with the caveat that if residents presented a significant petition asking for a citywide vote, he would support putting the issue on the ballot.
I’m not sure what number, if any number, of signatures would cause a majority of commissioners to reconsider the idea of a citywide vote. As far as a legal petition that would force the city to place the issue on a ballot, I think that is a pretty tall order in Kansas.
But there is a state-prescribed referendum process for cities, and I believe in Lawrence it requires valid signatures totaling 25 percent or more of the number of voters in the last city election. (I’m basing this off what [I read online].) But if my interpretation is correct that the signatures only have to total 25 percent of the number of voters in the last election, then a successful petition would need somewhere between 1,700 to 2,700 signatures of registered voters. (I don’t have the exact number of voters in the 2011 election in Lawrence. There were 10,839 voters throughout the county in 2011, and I’m estimating about 7,000 of them were in Lawrence.)
If by chance I’m wrong, and you have to get 25 percent of the total number of people registered to vote, the number of signatures would grow to about 20,000. (I’ve got a call into the county clerk’s office to get a better education on this, and will update this post with what I learn.)
The referendum law also requires that the question on the ballot be a specific ordinance that would be adopted into law. So, asking a simple question of whether we should build a $25 million recreation center wouldn’t pass muster. It would have to be something like, an ordinance requiring public recreation projects totaling $25 million or more to be voted on by the voters of the city of Lawrence before construction can commence. (Again, I’m on a bit of shaky ground here in my understanding of the law.)
What is clear, is that an online petition is a heck of a lot easier. We’ll see where it goes.
UPDATE: I chatted briefly today with Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew, and he confirmed that there is a process for putting issues on the ballot. Shew, though, said it is most likely to be used to call for a vote on an item that already has been approved by the City Commission, rather than proposing a new ordinance that the City Commission adopt.
How that would apply, if at all, to the recreation center issue, is a little tough to figure. But Shew said most of the Kansas laws regarding using a petition to put an issue on the ballot call for signatures equaling 25 percent or more of the voter total from the last city election. In Lawrence's case, that would be around 2,000 signatures.
So bottomline, if folks really want to try to create some sort of binding petition-drive, they'll need to do a bit more research with Shew, the city attorney or both.
Work to begin soon on 23rd and O’Connell traffic signal; developers and housing authority still working on plans for rent-controlled apartment complex for area
All you growth hawks who have had your eyes trained for so long on northwest Lawrence may want to look briefly to the east for a bit.
One of the more visible signs that growth is expected to come to an area soon will pop up at the intersection of 23rd and O’Connell: a traffic signal.
City officials have awarded a nearly $572,000 bid to King’s Construction Co. to begin work on improving the intersection, including adding a traffic signal. In addition to the signal, the work also will include concrete medians on 23rd Street and a left-turn lane for eastbound traffic on 23rd Street.
Work is expected to begin on Wednesday. Traffic on 23rd Street will be reduced to one lane in each direction periodically. The bulk of the work is expected to be completed by the end of March. But the traffic signal won’t be installed until June because there apparently is quite a backlog of traffic signal orders nationally. (I had heard somewhere that repairs related to Hurricane Sandy had caused a spike in traffic signal demand.)
Some of you may be confused about a left-turn lane for eastbound motorists on 23rd Street. Currently, if eastbound motorists turn left off of 23rd Street, you don’t get to much. That’s where the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant is located. But that 400-plus acre piece of property has big plans for the future. The city is working to convert it into a new business and industrial park. A new lighted intersection will be needed to get traffic in and out of the business park, and that intersection will be 23rd and O’Connell.
But make no mistake, the property on the south side of 23rd Street will benefit from the improved intersection as well. Eventually, that area may become the city’s next commercial area. The southeast corner of the intersection is zoned for significant retail development. Tractor Supply Co. opened a store out there, but the retail growth to follow has been a bit like a parade of tractors — kind of slow to develop.
Instead, expect to see some more housing in the area, which probably will lead to more commercial development. On Monday, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will hear a request to rezone 10.5 acres on the south side of the intersection for residential development. (It already is zoned for single-family residential but it is being rezoned to another type of single family residential. From the RS-7 zoning category to the RS-5, if you are scoring at home.)
There’s also some replatting going on in the area. I could go all technical on you here and drop some cool planning terms on your head (all planning terms are cool, right) but what it comes down to is the development group that owns the land is fine tuning some plans to actually get ready to build some houses out there.
“We’re mostly excited about the city’s new investment out there,” Bill Newsome, who heads the Fairfield Farms development group, told me recently.
He said plans call for 38 new entry-level homes to be built at the property, basically on the portion of ground that is south of 25th Terrace and just a bit east of O’Connell. If you remember, Lawrence’s Cornerstone Southern Baptist Church bought the eight acres of ground right along O’Connell.
Newsome said his group has begun talking to builders, and there is optimism about starting a new housing development in the area because there’s hope the Farmland redevelopment will create new jobs nearby. In other words, maybe some folks want to live close to where they work.
“There is a lot of synergy coming together with the new business park,” Newsome said.
Even if the new jobs don’t materialize right away, the area could be ripe for new housing development because of the pending completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway. The eastern interchange of the SLT will be just down K-10. Suddenly, the entire Prairie Park neighborhood not only has good access to the Kansas City metro area, but it also will have a pretty easy drive into the Topeka area as well. Plus, don't forget about the metropolis of Ottawa to the south. The trafficway will make it pretty easy for neighborhood residents to connect to U.S. Highway 59 as well.
There is one more project to keep your eyes on at the intersection. As we reported in October, the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority is considering teaming up with Newsome’s group to build more than 100 rent-controlled apartments near the intersection.
I checked in with Shannon Oury, director of the Housing Authority, in the last couple of days and she told me her board is still giving serious consideration to the idea of a 128-unit apartment complex.
No final decision has been made yet. Oury said her board and staff are still trying to figure out some of financing and taxing issues that would be part of the public-private partnership.
The project, somewhat like the Poehler project in East Lawrence, would use federal tax credits to help build the complex. The use of those tax credits and the involvement of the Housing Authority would ensure that the apartment units remain rent-controlled for the long term. A study commissioned by the Housing Authority estimated a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment would rent for $560 a month; a two-bedroom, two-bath for $715 a month; and a three-bedroom, two-bath unit for $835 a month.
Oury said the project would be targeted to working families that have incomes that would qualify for the rent-controlled program. The study indicated those incomes ranges would fall between about $33,000 and $50,000, depending on the size of the family.
Oury said even with the new rent-controlled development in East Lawrence, there is still a need for more of the projects. She noted that Westgate Apartments, 4641 W. Sixth St., recently left the rent-controlled housing program. Its requirements under the tax credit it used to be constructed recently ended, which meant its 72 units left the affordable housing program, Oury said.
Oury said she expects her board to make some decisions on whether to move forward with the project this spring. But thus far, there is optimism about its prospects.
“I would say we feel very positive about it,” Oury said. “So far, we have not seen anything that makes us feel skeptical.”
City clears the way for traffic-calming devices to be installed on 27th Street between Iowa and Louisiana
Here’s a free tip for all those people looking for a new business venture in the future: An auto alignment shop — or maybe a muffler repair business — near the corner of 27th and Iowa streets.
It is beginning to look more likely that the busy stretch of 27th Street between Iowa and Louisiana streets may get a series of speed humps or other traffic-calming devices.
The city has agreed to add 27th Street to the list of areas in the city that are in need of traffic calming. Getting added to that list, however, doesn’t mean traffic-calming devices are going to be built on the street in the near future.
The city currently has 17 such areas on the list, and some have been on the list for years. The city basically says it will start building the projects as funding becomes available, and funding for traffic-calming projects has been a bit hit or miss in previous city budgets.
But David Woosley, the city’s traffic engineer, told city commissioners recently that the combination of traffic speed, volume and the number of pedestrians along 27th Street causes the stretch of road to rise to No. 1 on the city’s list of traffic-calming priorities.
So, it will be worth watching if funding develops. I would guess that the next time 27th Street gets repaved that the city strongly will consider adding speed humps as part of the repaving project. The city has found the traffic-calming work becomes cheaper if it can be incorporated with another project.
Traffic calming on 27th Street will be significant. The city is estimating that the one mile stretch of street will need about six traffic-calming devices in order to be effective. The city is estimating the cost of the project to be about $90,000.
City commissioners briefly discussed the traffic-calming request — which came from a leader of the Indian Hills Neighborhood Association — and approved the idea on a 5-0 vote.
I have a particular member of my household who uses that stretch of road to get to the shops on South Iowa Street from time to time to time to time. (You get the idea.) I’m sure speed humps would create some noise in my house. Perhaps not slower speeds, but noise — like the kind you hear when your muffler has been knocked off by a speed hump.
New $16M water plant project buying more land; signs of change at Naismith Hall student dorms; and other property sales for the week
Another week and another set of property sales and land transfers to review.
This week, water and student housing (I don’t recall that being the most popular beverage in student housing, by the way) are subjects that stand out from the list of recent sales.
Before we get to that, though, my standard disclaimer: Unless otherwise noted, most of this information is just me relaying information from various public documents from the Douglas County Courthouse and the Kansas Secretary of State’s office. In an effort to be timely, it is not always possible to contact everyone involved. It is not always easy to ascertain what is going on with a property just by looking at the documents, so I would read these listings as a first draft of activity in the local real estate market.
• First, the water: Public Wholesale Water Supply District No. 25 has signed another deal to purchase property for a new water treatment plant between Lawrence and Eudora.
The most recent deal — the largest yet for the district — is for about 25 acres of land near the Kansas River just north of the intersection of North 1500 and East 1750 roads. North 1500 Road is what East 15th Street turns into in the county, and East 1750 Road also is Noria Road.
If you remember, Public Wholesale Water Supply District No. 25 is a fairly new entity that has been formed to provided treated water to other rural water districts, and perhaps entities such as cities, in the future.
Currently, the city of Lawrence is the largest provider of treated water for water districts in the area. The idea for the wholesale district has evolved over the years, in part, because there has been some uneasiness about the terms the city has dictated for its water treatment services.
There’s always been some question, though, whether this new wholesale water district really could get off the ground. But as we reported in May, the project received its financing from the USDA, and the district made its first small land purchase this summer.
This most recent purchase is more substantial. Larry Wray, the leader for the wholesale water district, told me the 25 acres is where the actual treatment plant and well field will be. The district will take its water from wells that are recharged by the nearby Kansas River.
The land purchase is the most visible sign yet that the district is moving full steam ahead with the project. “We’re pretty much at the point where we are saying we are going to build this,” Wray said. “I’m not saying something silly can’t happen to derail it, but we wouldn’t have bought the land if we weren’t going to do this.”
A water plant won’t pop up over night at the site. Wray said there is at least another year’s worth of design. He believes it will be three to four years before a water plant is operational.
That’s in part because construction will be substantial. The two water districts that have signed up for the wholesale district so far are Douglas County Rural Water District No. 5, which serves parts of southern and western Douglas County, and Osage County Rural Water District No. 5. I’ve previously reported the project will involve laying about 30 miles of pipe across the countryside The district will start acquiring easements for that pipeline this year, Wray said.
Wray is estimating the project will have about a $16 million price tag.
What remains to be seen is how substantial the project will be in terms of impacting the city of Lawrence’s business as a wholesale water supplier. The city sells lots of water to rural water districts, and theoretically those sales help hold down the costs the city has to charge to Lawrence water customers.
A few months ago, the city was at risk of losing its largest wholesale water customer, the city of Baldwin City. But a new contract has solidified that relationship. The agreement now limits how much Lawrence can increase the price it charges to Baldwin City.
• Now, student housing: It appears that Naismith Hall, the private student-housing complex at 19th Street and Naismith Drive has sold.
The property transfers show New York-based Bromley Naismith LLC has purchased the property from Miami Beach-based LBUBS 2003-C5 Naismith Drive LLC. (Try saying that when you answer the office phone everyday.)
Bromley Naismith appears to be an entity of Bromley Companies, a large real estate and development company headquartered on Fifth Avenue in New York, according to its Web site. The company for the last 40 years has been involved in private student housing complexes, and touts itself as having the second largest portfolio of “privately held residence halls” in the U.S.
I put a call into Naismith Hall, but a manager wasn’t available to talk. So, I don’t know what, if any, changes may be on the horizon for the property. It looks like the company runs its own food services company to provide dining hall service to all its dormitory properties. According to the company’s Web site, it has about 3,500 residence hall beds at public universities including the University of Illinois, Texas Tech, Ohio University and Northern Illinois.
As for other Lawrence and Douglas County property sales for the week, click here to see the complete list for the week ending Jan. 14.
Lawrence-based software development firm seeking incentives to create new jobs; also has expressed interest in possible site at former Farmland Industries location
There are signs that city of Lawrence officials are circling in on what could be the first tenant in a project to convert the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant into a business park.
There also are signs that the public may get its first taste of what type of incentives it will take to lure new businesses to the site.
The Lawrence-based software development firm AllofE Solutions has filed paperwork with the city seeking an unspecified job creation incentive and a possible relocation grant to assist with an expansion of the company. In a letter to city officials, it acknowledges that the Farmland property is one of the sites it is considering for a new building.
AllofE currently is located at 2510 W. Sixth Street, which is office space right across the street from the Cadillac Ranch nightclub. (That’s eerie because during an earlier period in my life, I would have sworn that the Cadillac Ranch actually was named AllofmyPaycheck because that is what it usually ended up with most weeks.)
AllofE touts itself as a software development firm that has created products for several industries, but currently it is heavy into the education market. Based on its Web site, it looks like the company has software systems to help school districts manage data related to various assessment scores, programs to help universities and school districts manage social media connections with the public, and a program that helps educators manage curriculum and other issues in the growing field of health sciences.
The company has been in business for about 10 years, and was founded and is still led by former KU professor Amit Guha.
Currently the company has about 10 full-time employees in software development marketing, administration and such. The company has submitted estimates to the city that the company plans to add about four new employees to the company each year for the next 10 years. (Technically, it is 35 full-time employees over 10 years.) The company estimates average salaries for the new positions will be about $45,000 in the beginning years and about $55,000 in the out years.
Details are still emerging on the specifics of the incentives the AllofE is seeking. Britt Crum-Cano, the city’s economic development coordinator, told me the request falls into two categories. One is a job creation grant. In other words, the company would be provided a certain amount of money for each new job created in Lawrence. My understanding is the specific dollar figure is still in development at City Hall, but I’m working on getting it.
The second type of incentive could involve either a free building site — or a greatly reduced price on a site — for a new office for the company. That site would be at the city’s developing business park at the former Farmland Industries property. Crum-Cano said the company is looking at about a 1.3 acre site for its facility.
Providing free land to a company hasn’t been the sort of thing the city has done in the past, but that’s in large part because the city hasn’t had land to give. With the city being the owner of the Farmland property, that creates some options in terms of incentives that weren’t on the table before. So, we’ll get to see what everybody’s comfort level is with that.
There could be some costs involved with that type of incentive for the city. The big cost at the Farmland site is providing infrastructure — roads, stop lights, improved water service and such — to the property. The city’s plan to pay for that infrastructure is to place special assessments on the various lots at Farmland. As the lots sell, the new businesses would start paying the special assessments to reimburse the city for the infrastructure costs. So, we’ll have to see how any deal is structured as it relates to who would pay those special assessments in the future.
Of course, there are still several steps left before any deal is reached. Crum-Cano said it is possible the company may choose to apply for the job creation grant, but not pursue the idea of a new office at this time.
Any set of incentives will have to first get a recommendation from the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee, and then will have to be voted on by the City Commission. Crum-Cano said she anticipates the incentive requests will be heard by PIRC sometime in February.
As I get more details on the project, I’ll pass them along.
Four more candidates file for Lawrence City Commission seats ahead of today’s deadline; field set at 11 candidates
Voters, get your memory caps out. Lawrence residents will have 11 different candidates to choose from during the upcoming City Commission elections.
The filing deadline was at noon today, and four more candidates threw their names into the ring.
Two of the candidates — Judy Bellome, the retired CEO of Lawrence’s Visiting Nurses Association, and Leslie Soden, a former president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association and owner of a pet care business — are candidates we told you to expect in yesterday’s edition of Town Talk.
But two more candidates came in just under the deadline.
William R. Olson and Nicholas E. Marlo both filed the necessary paperwork late this morning. I haven’t yet talked to either of them, but their filings give some information about both. The form asks for any place of employment during the last year, and Olson lists a management position with the R Bar & Patio in Lawrence. Marlo lists a position with Boston Financial Data Services, which folks in town may previously have known as DST Systems, the financial services company in the former Sallie Mae building near Sixth and Iowa.
I’m working to get in touch with both of the new candidates, and will add an update here when I do.
As for the rest of the field, here are the seven candidates who filed prior to today:
• City Commissioner Mike Amyx, a downtown barber shop owner;
• Rob Chestnut, a former Lawrence city commissioner and a CFO for a Topeka-based publishing company;
• Scott Criqui, a Lawrence human relations commissioner and an executive with a Lawrence-based home health care company;
• Jeremy Farmer, executive director of the Lawrence-based food bank Just Food;
• Reese Hays, chief litigation counsel for the Kansas Board of Healing Arts in Topeka;
• Terry Riordan, a Lawrence physician and former Lawrence-Douglas County planning commissioner;
• Michael Rost, an attorney for a Topeka insurance company.
As expected, City Commissioners Aron Cromwell and Hugh Carter did not seek re-election.
With 11 candidates, this will be one of the larger fields in recent memory. It is far different from two years ago when only five candidates ran for three seats. It will be interesting to see if the larger field means candidates have some burning issues they want to talk about. The election two years ago didn’t have many hot-button issues.
Voters will narrow the field down to six candidates in a Feb. 26 primary. Voters then will elect three commissioners during the April 2 general election.
UPDATE: I’ve gotten in touch with Nicholas Marlo this afternoon. Marlo is a 23-year old recent graduate of Kansas University, and he said he’ll try to bring up issues important to younger voters.
“It seemed like it would be a fun thing to do,” Marlo said of his decision to enter the race. “I felt like maybe it would be good to have a larger youth voice.”
Marlo said one issue he wants to explore is having more late-night public transportation available in the city. He said late-night public transportation service might improve safety in the community by cutting down on the number of people who are driving after going to a bar.
Marlo works for Boston Financial Data Services in Lawrence, where he is a mutual fund representative in the company.
I’m still looking to get in touch with Olson.
A fellow can see lots of unusual things in downtown Lawrence: A honk for hemp guy; a gauntlet of street musicians of varying skill levels; and occasionally — thankfully — a man who walks around in nothing but a full-body suit of Spandex. (Please tell me I’m not the only person who has seen that.)
But have you seen the new downtown machine that can light up 400, incandescent 100-watt light bulbs all at once? Chances are you haven’t, unless for some reason you spend time on the roofs of downtown businesses. As we previously reported, downtown landlords David and Susan Millstein had a plan to put solar panels on their Liberty Hall and Sunflower Outdoor buildings in downtown.
Well, that plan has materialized. There are now about 200 solar panels on the roof of Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St., and about 65 on the roof of Sunflower, 804 Massachusetts St. Look if you want, but the panels aren’t visible from the street. If all goes well, the solar panels are scheduled to start producing electricity today.
The folks at Lawrence-based Cromwell Environmental helped with the installation. Chris Rogge, director of solar design for Cromwell, said one way to look at the installation is that the system will generate enough power to light about 400, 100-watt incandescent light bulbs. (But, of course, you would have to be some sort of environmental heretic if you are still using incandescent light bulbs, right?)
Another way to look at it, though, is that the system will produce about $5,000 worth of electricity per year, Rogge said. And that’s based on the price of electricity today. Each year, the value of that electricity is going to increase. (Unless you think the power companies are suddenly going to lower their rates, in which case, you’ve perhaps stuck your finger in the light socket one too many times.)
Kansas now has a law stating that businesses or residents can install solar panel systems, and the electric provider in the region must buy back the electricity it produces. In other words, your monthly utility bill is offset by the amount of electricity the solar panel system produces.
Lawrence has become a bit of a hotspot for solar projects. The Poehler Lofts building near Eighth and Pennsylvania streets has an entire roof full of the panels, and the new Hy-Vee convenience store along Clinton Parkway also has solar panels on its roof.
But this project is a first for downtown Lawrence. I haven’t yet talked to the Millsteins to find out whether their experience with it leads them to believe that other landlords may follow their lead.
I know the Bowersock hydroelectric power plant expansion on the northern edge of downtown has caused some people to think about how Lawrence can better promote itself as a standout in the green energy field. Having Massachusetts Street lined with solar panels may be part of a strategy.
Or we could all just start wearing green, full-body Spandex suits.
UPDATE: I chatted today with David Millstein about the installation of the solar panels. He's estimating that the system will break even in about seven years. He's hoping that the system will reduce his energy bills by 20 percent to 30 percent.
He also hopes that in a few years he'll be able to report some success back to other downtown landlords who then will give the solar systems a try. Millstein said he's been looking at the idea of solar energy since at least the mid-1990s.
"Back then the price was so prohibitive," Millstein said. "It was like a 29-year payback, and the panel only lasted like 20 years."
But as technology has improved and prices have dropped, Millstein said he started looking at the project again because the environmental appeal of solar power has always stuck with him.
"Essentially, if you scratch an old hippie, there is a solar panel under there somewhere," he said.
I wonder if Lawrence businessman Doug Compton is becoming the E.F. Hutton of downtown Lawrence.
Oh, what’s that? You don’t remember popular television commercials from the 1970s? (My understanding is that there are large swaths of Lawrence’s population who lived through the 1970s but for some reason don’t remember them.)
Anyway, E.F. Hutton was a prominent investment firm that ran television commercials with the tag line: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”
Given that Compton, and groups that he leads, are spending tens of millions of dollars to remake the intersection of Ninth and New Hampshire with multi-story buildings, it is feasible to think that when Doug Compton talks about downtown, people are listening.
If so, here’s a statement you may want to take notice of: “It would be great to have a convention center in downtown Lawrence,” Compton said. “I would love to see that.”
Compton last week was answering a question as part of a panel hosted by the Lawrence commercial real estate office of Colliers International. Compton was answering a question about what he would like to see in downtown Lawrence in the future.
He didn’t go into any detail about a downtown convention center, such as how large it should be or where it should be located. There are no Lawrence convention center plans on the front burner at Lawrence City Hall that I’m aware of, but it is easy to see how the idea could get some discussion in the foreseeable future. When Compton’s group completes his Marriott hotel project at Ninth and New Hampshire streets, there will be three, full-service, upscale hotels in downtown: The Eldridge; SpringHill Suites by Marriott; and the new extended stay Marriott that Compton’s project will build. Plus, The Eldridge also operates an extended stay hotel project at Eighth and Vermont streets, and has a vacant lot next to The Eldridge that it has talked about expanding into. All of those projects would be within walking distance of a downtown convention center.
It also is worth noting that Compton is a part of the group that recently took over the long-term lease for the city-owned Abe & Jake’s building. Downtown nightclub owner Mike Logan will run the day-to-operations of that facility, and he has told me that one of the goals is to get more weekday, daytime meeting business into the unique building along the Kansas River. It might be a bit of a stretch to call the building — which can accommodate around 700 people — a convention center, but it certainly will give the group a taste of what it takes to attract large meetings, trade shows and such to the city.
Lawrence architect Mike Treanor — who has been a partner with Compton on several projects — echoed Compton’s sentiments about a convention center.
“A convention center is a terrific idea,” Treanor said.
But he also reminded the crowd that convention centers are they type of project that require some public investment. The city recently has shown willingness to invest in downtown through use of tax increment financing and a special transportation development district that will allow future tax dollars to help pay for infrastructure related to the Ninth and New Hampshire projects.
“To do infrastructure in downtown is so much more expensive than to do it on a greenfield site on the edge of town,” Treanor said. “But Lawrence has a good attitude right now about those type of tools.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Compton and Treanor were really trying to lay the groundwork for some sort of convention center proposal in the near future. I think they were just asked a question and answered it, and maybe there was a little bit of seed planing going on as well. Regardless, it is interesting to think about.
The question of downtown’s future needs also drew an interesting response from Downtown Lawrence Inc. director Cathy Hamilton. She told the crowd that Downtown Lawrence Inc. would love to see a dedicated downtown Lawrence visitors center.
The association currently has a second-story office in downtown, but Hamilton believes a full-fledged visitors center with maps, brochures and friendly people to help point visitors in the right direction could be a real asset to downtown tourism.
“Something on the ground level where people can find a human point of contact,” Hamilton said. “It is our dream at this point, but it is something we’re working on.”
For what it is worth, Compton also used the forum to chime in on the proposed recreation center and sports park near the northeast corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway. He made it clear that he didn’t think the sports park and the associated development that may occur around it would hurt downtown Lawrence. In fact, he thinks the edge-of-town development ultimately will help downtown.
“I think it will be a big asset to downtown,” Compton said. “It will bring more people to town who wouldn’t be here otherwise.
“Obviously, we’re getting ready to invest $17 million or $18 million in a Marriott, so we are excited about having more people come and stay in hotel rooms. Whenever people come to Lawrence, they always end up in downtown. I don’t think that is going to change.”
Compton — who also runs Lawrence’s First Management Construction Co. — didn’t get into any other details of the project, including what he thinks of a proposal that would allow Lawrence businessman and fellow construction executive Thomas Fritzel to match any construction bids received for the proposed recreation center.
It would be interesting to hear thoughts on that subject, but so far no area construction company has publicly chimed in on the topic.
Just as well, I’ve been busy recently sending off my investment checks to E.F. Hutton. What’s that? Son of . . . No, I hadn’t heard that E.F. Hutton is dead.
There was a bit of pomp and circumstance in the air at City Hall on Tuesday. An official delegation from Lawrence’s sister city of Iniades, Greece, was on hand.
Well, sort of. The delegation actually consisted of the mayor of Messolonghi, Greece. But here’s a good opportunity to learn a little something about our newest sister city. Iniades — it also can be spelled Oiniades — isn’t a city in and of itself like Lawrence. It used to be, but at some point in the not-too-distant past it was merged with two other municipalities to create what is officially known as the Sacred City of Messolonghi. (Lawrence residents, start thinking of how we can expand our name to something neat like that. Perhaps the Basketball Kingdom of Lawrence.)
The whole city covers an area of about 674 square kilometers, according to a brochure that Mayor Panagiotis A. Katsoulis graciously gave me. (That’s approximately the size of Texas, or perhaps it is about 420 square miles. I’m American. I’m not good with kilometers.) Either way, for comparison’s sake, Douglas County is about 470 square miles.
The Messolonghi area — which is about a four-hour bus trip from Athens — has about 35,000 people, and has an economy that is still largely based on agriculture.
“They grow a cornucopia of agricultural products there,” said Jon Josserand, a member of Lawrence’s Sister Cities Advisory Board. “Wheat, beef, grapes, olives, vegetables, citrus.”
The potential agricultural connection is one area the sister cities program may expand upon. Mayor Katsoulis made a point during his remarks to city commissioners that he would like to establish more exchange programs with Lawrence.
The idea of Greek agricultural leaders coming to Kansas to learn more about agricultural techniques is one that is likely to be explored in the future, Josserand said. Lawrence also is interested in creating a student exchange program, much like Lawrence has with its other sister cities of Eutin, Germany, and Hiratsuka, Japan.
It will be interesting to see if this sister cities relationship takes on more of a business-oriented slant. The economy of Greece is certainly looking for help where it can find it, and who knows what potential opportunities there may be for a Lawrence firm to benefit from a relationship with a Greek community.
Creating relationships is what the sister cities program is all about. The city formalized its first sister city relationship with Eutin, Germany, in 1989, then Hiratsuka, Japan, in 1990. Iniades was added in 2009, in large part because of the decades-long relationship KU’s theater department has had with the community. Since about 1990, KU has operated a summer study abroad program that uses Iniades’ outdoor theater, which dates back to 4 B.C.
This week’s trip was the first for Mayor Katsoulis to Lawrence. Through his interpreter, Katsoulis said he was impressed with the community and its people.
“It is a very different society than ours with a different lifestyle and organization,” Katsoulis said. “It is very quiet and in harmony with nature, and filled with people who respect the laws in everyday life.”
Katsoulis arrived in Lawrence on Friday, and will be in the city for about a week.
Wicked Broadband project seeks $500,000 city grant; downtown hotel project seeks adjustment to incentives package; historical society seeks $20k for new exhibit
Reading the agenda for Tuesday night’s Lawrence City Commission meeting is kind of like reading my household’s credit card bill: There are plenty of questions, and all the answers seem to have dollar signs.
There are three outside organizations requesting financial assistance from the city, with two of them each asking for a half-million dollars.
We’ll try to fill in more details later, but here’s a look at the basics of the requests:
• Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband announced last month that it will start a pilot project to bring super fast 1-Gigabit Internet service to a neighborhood later this year.
A kick-off event for the project spelled out a lot of details about how the company, which previously did business as Lawrence Freenet, could bring the same type of high-speed Internet service to Lawrence that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City. At that event, the idea of financial incentives from the city wasn’t envisioned. Well, it is now.
The company has filed an application for a $500,000 economic development grant from the city, plus is asking to receive up to a $20,000 a year rebate in franchise fees it pays to the city. It also wants to have the right to enter into $10 per year leases to use a portion of new fiber optic cables that the city plans to install throughout the community in future years.
Joshua Montgomery, co-owner of Wicked Broadband, said there are several factors that have caused him to rethink the need for city incentives for the project. But perhaps the largest is that he’s been contacted by several significant New York-based capital investment companies that are interested in investing in a locally owned, high-speed Internet service. Those investors have made it clear that the city of Lawrence needs to do something to show that it is committed to the idea of bringing a high-speed network to the city.
“If the city says that it is behind it 100 percent, that opens the door for the next $30 million in private funding that will be needed to spread this service to the rest of the community,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery said the $500,000, one-time grant would allow the service territory for the pilot project to grow to 1,000 households, up from 500. The neighborhood or neighborhoods haven’t been selected yet. Wicked is taking pre-registrations for the service on its website. The neighborhood with the highest percentage of residents pre-registered will serve as the pilot project. An announcement is expected June 15.
Montgomery said he and his business partner and wife, Lawrence school board member Kris Adair, are putting up $500,000 in private money for the pilot project.
City commissioners on Tuesday aren’t being asked to approve the request. Instead, Tuesday’s vote is just to direct city staff to begin analyzing it.
Wicked Broadband’s service will be a direct competitor to existing Internet providers, such as Knology and AT&T, which generally do not receive such city subsidies. So, it will be interesting to hear what those companies have to say as the process unfolds.
As for Montgomery, he said he’ll argue that the city won’t be making an investment in a private company as much as it will be making an investment in a new infrastructure system that will be critical to future commerce. “It is an economic enabler,” Montgomery said.
The second request comes from a group led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton, which is seeking to build a new hotel at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire.
It is a bit more complicated to understand, and I’ll try to get a better handle on the numbers before Tuesday’s meeting. But the request seeks to raise the amount of Tax Increment Finance dollars the hotel is eligible to receive to $4 million, up from $3.5 million.
Unlike the Wicked Broadband request, this doesn’t involve the city writing a $500,000 check to the development. Instead, a TIF allows the project to get a rebate on a certain percentage of the property taxes it pays. It is kind of like a tax abatement, except the money has to be used to pay for infrastructure type of expenses. In this case, that includes a private parking garage for the hotel.
What makes it a bit complicated is that the developers also have proposed a multistory apartment/office project for the northeast corner of the intersection. It also uses Tax Increment Financing. It looks like a likely option is to increase the amount of TIF money available for the southeast corner hotel project by reducing the amount of projected TIF revenues available to the northeast corner apartment project.
If that is ultimately what happens, then the overall amount of incentive basically would be a wash. We’ll have to see how those details work out.
The more interesting part is what developers have said about the hotel project. It has had its necessary building approvals for months, but hasn’t yet started construction. A letter to the city now makes it clear that there are financial questions the investors are trying to answer.
Bill Fleming, an attorney for the development group, told the city in a letter that “the hotel investors are keenly interested in the ‘cost per key,’ which is the average cost for each hotel room.”
If the additional $500,000 in TIF money is not available to the hotel project, then that will raise the average cost per room the investors must pay.
“The investors may conclude the project is not feasible at that cost per key, and the project in that case will not proceed,” Fleming wrote.
That would be a major turn of events for the project, which faced stiff opposition from the adjacent East Lawrence neighborhood, and had to fight hard to win city approval.
Maybe the folks at the Douglas County Historical Society are more than just masters of history. Perhaps they also are masters of timing. After those two big-ticket items, they are asking for a mere $20,000 in city funding. The money will be used to help fund a permanent exhibit on the second floor of the Watkins Museum commemorating the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence.
The new exhibit is set to open on Aug. 17, and will “explore Douglas County’s history, issues that shaped the development of the community, and events that made it a focus of national attention.”
Ultimately, the exhibit will be expanded to the third floor of the museum. The bulk of the nearly $257,000 in exhibit costs has come from private individuals, businesses and grants.
City staff members are recommending approval of the $20,000 in funding. The money would come from the city’s guest tax fund, which receives its revenue from the guest tax charged at hotel and motel rooms.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday.
It didn’t take long for the tales of tragedy in Moore, Okla., to cause at least one city leader to begin asking questions of whether Lawrence is adequately prepared for a similar natural disaster.
City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer raised questions at last night’s City Commission meeting about whether Lawrence’s building codes for public buildings, like schools, are adequate when it comes to providing shelter from tornadoes.
“I think it would behoove us to look at ways to make our school buildings safer,” Farmer said. “If we don’t, shame on us.”
Farmer's comments Tuesday night came after he first broached the subject on his Facebook page earlier in the day. From his page: “I understand that natural disasters happen. I understand that we have better things in place to enhance warnings. But if we parade children into a hallway and tell them to cover their necks with their hands, and an EF-5 comes rolling through town, it won't matter. It’s time we stop making excuses for lives being taken because we were too irresponsible to think outside of a box, or too cheap to make sure this NEVER happens again.
“Reinforced tunnels, underground schools. Something. Smarter people than me are thinking about this. We have to figure something out. Innocent lives being taken because we didn't act when we possessed the innovation to stop it is unacceptable to me.”
Commissioners asked Planning Director Scott McCullough to produce a report summarizing what Lawrence’s building codes require in the way of storm shelters in public buildings and whether there are feasible additions that could be made to the code.
I would look for that report in the next few weeks.
As for what is really possible, I don’t know. Lawrence Public Schools spokeswoman Julie Boyle told me Lawrence public schools don’t have FEMA designated safe rooms, but obviously they do have plans to locate students and staff to interior portions of the buildings, which are better designed to withstand severe weather.
We’ll see how much, if any, serious discussion the idea of stricter building standards gets at City Hall.
Tuesday’s discussion arose after Mayor Mike Dever asked whether the city was planning to send any personnel to the Oklahoma City area to assist with the devastation following this week’s tornado.
City Manager David Corliss said the city hadn’t yet been asked for any assistance, but he plans to spread an offer of assistance to public administration officials he knows in the Oklahoma City area.
“I certainly will make it clear that we are available to do that,” Corliss said.
Let the number games begin. As we’ve previously reported, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission is set to debate a proposal by Menards to locate a new store adjacent to Home Depot near 31st and Iowa streets.
As we’ve also reported, one of the factors that planners are supposed to take into consideration when considering such large retail projects is the city’s retail vacancy rate.
But at the time Menards filed its plans with City Hall, the last time the city had conducted a retail vacancy rate study was in 2010.
Well, there are now new numbers. The city recently has completed its most recent Retail Market Report, which looks at vacancy rates as they were in December 2012. Here’s a look at some of the findings:
• Citywide, the retail vacancy rate was 7.2 percent, down from the 7.3 percent found in the city’s 2010 report and up from the 6.9 percent found in the 2006 report. In other words, there hasn’t been much change in the overall number.
• Downtown had a vacancy rate of 9.4 percent, up from 9.1 percent in 2010; South Iowa had a vacancy rate of 7.8 percent, up from 2.7 percent; East 23rd had a vacancy rate of 10.4 percent, down from 13.6 percent; West 23rd Street had a vacancy rate of 6.1 percent, down from 6.7 percent.
• The 19th and Haskell area had the highest vacancy rate in the city at 30.2 percent. North Lawrence was second at 16.4 percent, although the numbers indicate a turnaround is happening in the area. In 2010, it had a vacancy rate of 27.5 percent.
• Turnarounds happened in a couple of other areas too. The Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa area has a vacancy rate of 7.8 percent, down from 26.4 percent in 2010.
• The report also provides information about the type of retail uses in downtown. The report found 116 merchant-based retail businesses in downtown, which is down from 126 in 2006. Restaurant and beverage oriented uses grew to 83, up from 68 establishments, during the same time period.
The report is an interesting one for people who watch Lawrence’s commercial real estate market. Perhaps the most interesting part about it, though, is how different it is from a private report that was put together during roughly the same time period.
The Lawrence office of Colliers International released a report in January that measured vacancy rates for late 2012. It found an overall retail vacancy rate of 5.4 percent, compared to 7.2 percent in the city’s report.
In downtown, Colliers found a vacancy rate of 4.4 percent compared to 9.4 percent in the city report.
The differences, I believe, come down to the methodology of the two reports. I don’t know all the differences but I think a lot of it comes from how the two studies define retail space. For example, the city study counts some industrially zoned space as potential retail space because the city’s development code would allow for retail to be located in the space. Also, there are places like the former Riverfront Mall building. Whether that space is counted as retail space, which is what it was built for, or office space, which is how it is pretty much being marketed now, makes a difference in the vacancy rate calculations.
Vacancy rates: They’re like my kids saying they’ve “cleaned” their rooms. It is a subject where interpretations and definitions matter.
As far as the Menards project goes, we’ll see how much weight planners, and ultimately city commissioners, give to the vacancy rate subject.
The city’s comprehensive plan, Horizon 2020, says large retail projects shouldn’t be approved, if there is evidence the project will push the city’s overall retail vacancy rate above 8 percent.
If the 190,000 square foot Menards store and the 65,000 square feet of outlying parcels — restaurants and other smaller retailers surrounding the store — were built and then were entirely vacant, the city’s vacancy rate would rise to 9.7 percent. It would be odd, however, for Menards to build a store and then not occupy it, but technically that is the assumption city planners are supposed to make under the rules of Horizon 2020.
Several planning commissioners the last time they considered this issue, however, indicated concern with making that type of assumption. The city also is in the process of rewriting that portion of Horizon 2020, but those changes haven’t yet been made. So, it is possible that planners may discard the idea that they should assume the new Menards building will be vacant after it is built.
Staff members put together another calculation that shows what would happen if the Menards building is occupied but all of the 65,000 square feet of surrounding retail is vacant. The result would be the citywide vacancy rate would rise to 7.7 percent, which is still below the 8 percent threshold that Horizon 2020 says is critical.
So, we’ll see what comes of all this. I’m not sure how much this retail market study is going to play into the Menards decision, but this report likely will play into future debates about whether Lawrence has too much or too little retail space for a community its size.
The Menards discussion will take place at 6:30 tonight at City Hall.
City estimates it may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to keep concealed weapons out of city buildings
It appears the city soon will have to buy hundreds thousands of dollars worth of security measures. Either that, or the city will have to learn to live with a new state law that would allow concealed-carry permit holders to bring firearms into City Hall and other city buildings.
City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting will consider formally asking the Kansas Attorney General for an exemption from the new state law until Jan. 1, 2014. The state law — approved by the legislature and signed by the governor this session — essentially contains an automatic one-year exemption period for local governments. The city also may be able to get three additional one-year exemptions, although that is less certain.
The law no longer allows city or county buildings to be posted with the "no gun" signs that make it illegal for anyone, including concealed-carry permit holders, to bring a concealed weapon into the buildings. Under the new law, governments can only post those signs if the buildings have adequate security measures, such as metal detectors and security officers.
Lawrence city officials have begun calculating the cost to purchase and staff such metal detectors. A memo from City Attorney Toni Wheeler estimates it will cost about $5,000 for each metal detector, plus at least $42,000 a year for a single police officer to staff the metal detector—and the Lawrence Police Department, Wheeler wrote, believes two officers may be necessary for each detector. That would place the annual operating costs for the program at more than $84,000 for each building with a detector. And the cost may be even greater, because the personnel numbers represent starting salaries and don’t factor in benefit costs or other costs to equip a police officer.
Wheeler says at least three city buildings — City Hall, Lawrence Municipal Court and the public access area of the Police Department’s Investigations and Training Center — all warrant consideration for security systems. Beyond those three, city commissioners also would have to decide whether recreation centers and other city offices need the security measures.
New security costs for the city are expected to be addressed in the City Manager’s recommended 2014 budget, which is scheduled to be released in July. The costs could add up. If the city decided to include recreation centers in the program, there would be a total of nine buildings to equip and staff. At a minimum of $42,000 per building, that's almost $400,000 a year, plus the cost of the metal detectors. At $84,000 per building — which would be the case if two officers are required — it would be more than $750,000 a year.
But say you wanted to have security measures in place for every city-owned building that currently prohibits concealed firearms. The city currently has 47 buildings listed in its administrative policy, which means it would cost $3.9 million to provide a two-member security detail at every location. That, of course, is not going to happen. It probably would be a bit odd to have a metal detector at the city’s Landscape Shop or the Wastewater Treatment Plant, for example. Those places probably will become buildings where concealed-carry permit holders can have a weapon.
It will be interesting to see how city commissioners react to the new legislation. The previous City Commission sent a letter to the legislature objecting to the bill while it was under consideration. Whether the city’s objections rise to the level of spending more than a half-million dollars on security each year, I don’t know. The city already spends some money on security: a police officer attends each Lawrence City Commission meeting, and a bailiff is employed by the Lawrence Municipal Court.
If the city gets serious about installing metal detectors, there will be quite a few items to discuss. It probably would require the public entrances at City Hall to be changed significantly, since there are three ways for the public to enter City Hall. The city also could have a discussion about whether security officers — rather than fully sworn police officers — would be appropriate to staff the metal detectors. That may reduce the personnel cost for a security program.
And then there are city buildings such as the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence Arts Center that attract large crowds on a regular basis. How would they be secured and staffed?
Of course, the city always could have the discussion of whether any harm would come from allowing licensed individuals to carry a weapon in city buildings. According to the Kansas Attorney General’s office, it already is legal for concealed-carry permit holders to carry a weapon on various pieces of city property. Every city-owned park, for example, is a place where concealed-carry permit holders are entitled to have a weapon. “Parks, parking lots and other open public property" are no longer able to be restricted through signs, according to the Attorney General’s Web site. That didn’t always use to be the case, but the law was changed, I believe, during the 2010 legislative session.
City commissioners won’t be the only ones that get to have this fun. Douglas County also will have to go through the same exercise with its buildings, although it already has a metal detector for the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. Public schools won’t have to install metal detectors under the new law. School officials can continue to post the "no gun" signs on school buildings, which will make it illegal for concealed-carry permit holders to bring a weapon into the building.
The changes keep on coming in the Lawrence Internet market.
The largest Internet service provider in Lawrence has just announced that it is removing all of its usage caps from its Internet service packages, as the company changes its name from Knology to WOW! That means customers no longer will be charged for going over their usage limits, according to a press release by the company.
Englewood, Colo.-based WOW purchased Knology back in July, but it had not converted Knology over to the WOW brand until today. Signs for the company around town are being changed today, according to WOW.
But the changes related to Internet usage caps are likely to garner more attention from hard-core Internet users. The caps had generated concern among many users because customers’ standard monthly rates could rise depending on how much Internet usage they had in a particular month.
The change in the cap policy comes at a time when both private and public officials have been talking about shaking up the city’s Internet service provider market.
A city-hired consultant recently completed a report that found that current broadband offerings in Lawrence generally are “costlier, slower and more limited than in other comparable communities.” City officials had the report commissioned because they have been interested in possibly allowing private companies to have access to a growing ring of fiber optic cable owned by the city.
On the private front, Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband — formerly known as Lawrence Freenet — has made a proposal to the city to further tap into that ring of fiber. (Ring of Fiber: Johnny Cash used to sing that song in his old age.)
At their meeting tonight, city commissioners will receive a request from Wicked for low-cost fiber leases with the city, and a one-time $500,000 grant to help the company build new broadband infrastructure in the city. The request is part of a pilot project Wicked is launching to bring to one Lawrence neighborhood the same type of superfast Internet service that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City. If successful, Wicked Broadband wants to extend the high-speed broadband project to all of the city.
So, we’ll see what cards the folks at WOW start playing in what appears to be an increasingly competitive game in Lawrence. Consumers, I suspect, will be keeping an eye on whether the competition starts having an impact on rates.
Call it a rankings rut, and this one is pretty deep for the city of Lawrence.
A new national study has ranked Lawrence as the second-worst-performing small metropolitan area in the nation, based on a variety of economic measures. The Milken Institute ranked Lawrence 178 out of 179 metro areas in its most recent Best Performing Cities index. A web site for The Atlantic this week had an article analyzing the results.
This latest report adds onto the negative news released earlier this month by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis about Lawrence’s gross domestic product. It ranked 339th out of 366 metro areas, and was shrinking.
The Milken report uses some of the same types of economic numbers to create its index. But it places a particular emphasis on an area in which Lawrence is supposed to be positioned to excel: high-tech, knowledge-based jobs.
Simply put, the report found we aren’t excelling in that area. In fact, Lawrence didn’t excel in any area.
Over the course of the past year, Lawrence’s ranking in the report fell 79 spots, from No. 99 in the 2011 report to No. 178 in the most recent index. Only three other cities — Ithaca, N.Y., Great Falls, Mont., and Hot Springs, Ark. — had sharper declines than Lawrence’s.
The report takes a look at nine different categories, and Lawrence didn’t crack the top 100 in any of them. Here’s a look:
• Five-year job growth: No. 107
• One-year job growth: No. 172
• Five-year wage growth: No. 101
• One-year wage growth: No. 158
• One-year job growth percentage: No. 156
• Five-year high-tech GDP growth: No. 170
• One-year high-tech GDP growth: No. 151
• High-tech GDP as part of overall GDP: No. 164
• Concentration of high-tech companies: No. 148
I know how you all like comparisons, so I have gathered the rankings for several regional communities. I would ask for a drumroll, but the drama already has been sucked from this. Since Lawrence is second to last — last place was Carson City, Nev. — I’m guessing you’ve already deduced that every city in the region ranked ahead of us.
On a positive note, Manhattan, which has been on a roll in these type of rankings, wasn’t included in this index, likely because its population wasn’t quite large enough to qualify. But fear not, here is something for you to gnash your teeth over: Columbia, Mo., ranked No. 10 on the small cities list. Here’s a look at others:
• Iowa City, Iowa: No. 16
• St. Joseph, Mo.: No. 29
• Waco, Texas: No. 31
• Joplin, Mo.: No. 44
• Ames, Iowa: No. 61
• Topeka: No. 144
Several of the cities Lawrence often compares itself to, or at least watches, were included in the list of 200 large cities. Here’s how some of those cities fared in the rankings:
• Fort Collins, Colo.: No. 12
• Boulder, Colo.: No. 15
• Lubbock, Texas: No. 20
• Oklahoma City: No. 32
• Madison, Wis.: No. 71
• Lincoln, Neb.: No. 81
• Kansas City: No. 104
• Tulsa, Okla.: No. 118
• Springfield, Mo.: No. 144
• Wichita: No. 146
Take these rankings for whatever you think they’re worth. These indexes all have their own biases about what they think are the most important economic indicators. This one seems to be heavily focused on wages and high-tech business indicators. For what it is worth, those are two areas I hear local leaders emphasize a lot as well.
Another factor to remember is that this index — like all of them — is based on data that sometimes has some age to it. Most of the job growth numbers date back to 2011, and some of the wage numbers date back to 2010. It was no secret that Lawrence struggled during those periods. It also is worth remembering that Lawrence basically has entirely revamped its economic development team since that point.
Plus, some recent indicators have been more positive. Retail sales tax collections in 2012 had their best growth since the mid-1990s, there’s been a significant decline in Massachusetts Street vacancies, Hallmark Cards is in the process of shifting about 200 workers to its Lawrence plant, and even home sales and building permits have showed signs of a rebound.
Yes, I’m trying to put a little cheer in your Kool-Aid. But only for a moment. I’ll leave you with a finding from the report that ought to leave Lawrence leaders scratching their heads. The authors of the report noted that there were two types of communities most likely to do well in this year’s index: communities benefiting from the country’s new natural gas and oil exploration; and communities with “high concentrations of public-sector employees, especially in prominent universities.”
That second one sure sounds like us. But maybe our definition of prominent is a bit different from others. The top ranked small city, for the second year in a row, was Logan, Utah, home to Utah State University. Prominent? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure our basketball team can beat theirs.
All we need now is John McEnroe, or absent that, somebody in white 1980s-style tennis shorts with an excitable personality.
Yes, we’re talking about the looming tennis court debate that will be coming to Lawrence City Hall. As we reported last week, city commissioners have decided to reopen the issue of whether eight tennis courts near Lawrence High School should be lighted.
At the time, however, we didn’t have a date for when the commissioners were to have a public hearing on the issue. Well, the commission now has a tentative hearing date of June 4, at its 6:35 p.m. meeting at City Hall.
There’s been one other development in the matter: The city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board brought up the issue of lighted tennis courts for the site, and it is clear recreation officials aren’t on board with the idea, largely because of concerns about cost.
In case you have forgotten, members of the Lawrence Tennis Association believe lights should be added to the courts to make up for lighted courts that were lost when LHS renovated its campus. Neighbors in the area have opposed the lighting plan, expressing concern that it will be just one more example of LHS facilities creating a neighborhood conflict. They think the light will spill onto their properties.
City officials already have agreed to build eight outdoor lighted tennis courts as part of the city’s recreation center in northwest Lawrence. Several city officials thought that put an end to the issue, but members of the tennis association said they still see value in having lighted courts in the LHS area.
But at a recent meeting, the top officials at the city’s Parks and Recreation Department said they couldn’t support the idea of lighting the LHS courts and building the eight lighted courts at the recreation center. Cost was one reason they cited. They now estimate the cost of installing lights at the courts — which are on the property of the former Centennial Elementary school — at about $240,000, if done in a way to minimize light spillage. When the project was first proposed a couple of years ago, the department was planning on spending about $100,000 to light the courts.
Plus, the city would have to enter into a maintenance agreement with the school district to help make any future repairs on the courts. Parks and Recreation officials aren’t sure they want to do that, because two of the courts already are showing signs of needing significant repair. Currently, all maintenance is the responsibility of the school district. (In case you are wondering why it wouldn’t be the school district’s responsibility to add lights to courts it owns, the answer is because the district says it doesn’t really need the lights for its high school programs. The lights mainly would accommodate city residents that use the courts.)
Members of the tennis association are passionate about the issue and well-organized. They also note that the needs in the area are changing because KU will be losing most of its public courts on campus when the new School of Business building is constructed.
So, we’ll see how the debate goes. Let the volleying begin.
Strap on your tool belt, it is time to talk again about Menards’ proposal to build a big box store just east of Home Depot near 31st and Iowa streets.
The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will debate the project again at its Monday evening meeting. The Planning Commission debated it last month and failed to reach consensus on whether the plan should be recommended for approval by the City Commission. I know that left some of you feeling like I feel after completing an electrical-oriented home improvement project — a bit dazed. (My wife promised me she had turned off the circuit breaker. She never said she wouldn’t turn it back on, though.)
If you remember, the Menards project hit a snag, even though there was no groundswell of opposition from neighbors in the area. Instead, it was the city’s planning staff that expressed concern about changing a portion of the city’s comprehensive plan, known as Horizon 2020, to accommodate the project.
There have been some new developments on that front. The city’s planning staff hasn’t officially changed its recommendation for denial, but it has created a new staff report that provides a clear set of reasons Planning Commissioners can use to approve the project, if they so choose.
That may prove to be important. For what it is worth, I felt like the Planning Commission last month was interested in recommending the project for approval, but was reluctant to do so because they hold the planning staff’s professional opinion in high regard.
The new memo from the planning staff, however, makes it clear that there is a reasonable argument to be made for why Horizon 2020 could be changed to accommodate the project. The main point of contention here is that Horizon 2020 calls for the proposed Menards site, the former Gaslight Mobile Home Village, to be used for apartment development in the future. A map in Horizon 2020 needs to be changed to show the property is slated for commercial development.
The memo lists the following reasons why a change could be prudent:
• It is now clear the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway will be completed, which will alleviate the need for traffic to travel through neighborhoods to reach the new commercial area.
• Public testimony from neighbors has indicated that there is a significant number of residents who may prefer retail development at the site rather than a large apartment complex.
• Even though the city has other retail zoned areas in the city, sites that can accommodate big-box development remain limited.
Planning staff members also are pointing out that it is unlikely that commercial development would extend all the way down the north side of 31st Street to Louisiana Street, if Menards is approved. Staff members confirmed the city is close to finalizing a deal to purchase the nearly six acres of property near the northwest corner of 31st and Louisiana streets. The city needs the property for a new utility pump station. City ownership means the corner wouldn’t ever develop as a retail site.
So we’ll see what planning commissioners do on Monday. That meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.
But remember, planning commissioners only recommend things. It will be up to the City Commission to make a final decision on the project. It still is too early to tell how city commissioners may vote on this project, but there are indications Menards has a fighting chance.
When I was speaking recently with City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer about economic matters, he brought up the need for the city to really update its comprehensive plan. He pointed to the Menards project as an example. Farmer said much of the underlying work to create the city’s comprehensive plan was done more than 20 years ago, and it probably is time to recognize that several factors in the city have changed since then.
“Menards is a great example of that,” Farmer says. “Our comprehensive plan says no, and the community seems to be saying it doesn’t want more housing there.
“I look at that and say ‘gosh, a Menards would be great in bringing some commercial taxes to a community that is going to have shrinking property tax revenues.'”
So, while Farmer stopped short of saying he would vote for the specific proposal Menards currently has brought forward, it sounds like he’ll have an open mind.
Privately, I have heard one other commissioners indicate he is going to give strong consideration to approving the project as well. It will be interesting to watch. Probably the biggest factor will be whether residents in the Indian Hills Neighborhood continue to either support the project or at least not vigorously oppose it. A large number of neighbors opposing the project could change things.
At the moment though, it is safe to assume the Menards project won’t be dead on arrival when it comes to the City Commission. Which, that reminds me: I still have to rewire the kitchen light. Oh, boy.
Maybe 13 is a lucky number in this case. Lawrence home sales for the 13th month in a row have posted year-over-year gains, but the more striking fact is the improvement in almost every category real estate observers care about.
According to the new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors, agents sold 102 Lawrence homes in April, a 45 percent increase over April 2012.
In a departure from past months, even newly constructed homes sold well. Builders sold 13 new homes, compared to just four in April 2012. To put the number in perspective, Lawrence builders had sold only 13 homes in the previous three months of 2013 combined.
The April numbers continue what has been a good start to 2013. For the year, 261 homes have been sold in Lawrence, up about 32 percent from 2012 totals and up 45 percent from same period in 2011. The number of newly built homes sold checks in at 26, up from 17 at this time in 2012 and 18 in 2011.
Sales of newly built homes will be a number to really keep an eye on. New home construction has more potential to boost the Lawrence economy than people simply buying and selling existing homes. That’s obviously because new construction involves employing people to build and houses and develop neighborhoods.
A couple of numbers that builders will keep an eye on are the number of days a house stays on the market before it sells, and the number of homes actively listed. Both numbers showed some bullish signs in the last month.
The median days on market for a home is now at 66, down from 88 in April 2012. The number of homes on the market also has fallen to 419, down nearly 32 percent from the 613 listed in April 2012. The number of newly built homes on the market is at 29, down from 56 in April 2012 and from 63 in April 2011.
As the market has picked up, there are signs that prices have too. The median selling price on homes in 2013 stands at $167,000, up 7.8 percent from the same period in 2012. It is always tough to gauge pricing trends just from this report, but at this time last year, the Lawrence real estate market was showing signs of a real price correction. Last year, at the end of April, the median home price was down about 10.2 percent.
The new numbers certainly have put new bounce in the step of local real estate agents.
“These recent statistics reflect a dramatic shift in our local market,” said John Esau, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
Esau, in fact, went so far as to say he believe the market now has shifted from a buyer’s market to a seller’s market.
We’ll see what May brings: Perhaps lucky 14.
••• There’s another report out that shows Lawrence home builders are slowly starting to ramp up their production. According to a new report from the city, 17 building permits were issued in April for single-family and duplex homes.
That’s the highest April number in at least five years. For all of 2013, the city has issued 59 single-family and duplex permits, which is 20 more than it issued during the same time period in 2012.
Other items from the April report include:
• For the year, the city has issued permits for $54.8 million worth of projects, up 63 percent from the same period a year ago. The $54.8 million is by far the best showing of the last five years. The average since 2009 has been about $27.5 million worth of projects.
• Apartment construction continues to be strong in Lawrence. The city has issued permits for 374 apartment units thus far in 2013. That’s the highest total of the last five years. Since 2009, the average has been about 105 units.
• Apartment construction was a big part of the $19.8 million worth of permits issued in April. Camson South — one of two apartment projects just west of Wal-Mart on Sixth Street — pulled permits for a $5.5 million project that includes 88 apartments and a clubhouse. Other large projects include phase I of the Rock Chalk Park project, including construction of the track and field stadium. Lawrence-based DFC Company pulled $6 million in permits for that project. Discount Tire also pulled a $1 million permit for work on its new store at 4741 Bauer Farm Drive, just west of the new Starbucks in that area. Several of you have asked about the timeline for the new Discount Tire location, and I do have a call into the company. I’ll let you know when I hear more.