In recent weeks, we’ve written about how you might want to keep your eyes open for a future shake-up in the Lawrence Internet service provider market. City officials recently agreed to hire a consultant to study whether the city can use the miles of city-owned fiber optic cable to create more competition in the Internet service provider field in Lawrence.
If anything happens on that front, it will take awhile to develop. But maybe the first shake-up will come in Eudora and parts of rural Douglas County.
Salina-based Kansas Broadband Internet is making a new push to enter the Eudora market and the parts of rural Douglas County that are south and east of Lawrence.
The company provides wireless broadband service using the 1,000-foot tall tower that is kind of near Mt. Blue between Eudora and Lawrence. Or for those of you not up on your topographical points of interest, it is that big tall tower that is off in the distance behind the little ski lake that is adjacent to Kansas Highway 10. (Don’t tell me you don’t know where the ski lake is. I know you crane your neck all summer long to see the latest in swimsuit fashions, while geographical scholars like myself admire the beauty of Mt. Blue.)
Kansas Broadband has offered some service in the area for awhile, but in late 2012 it installed new equipment on the tower — which is one of the tallest in the county — to increase its service capabilities.
Dave Gleason, Kansas Broadband’s director of marketing and sales, told me recently that the company plans to offer service within a 12-mile radius of the tower. But there is one big exception to that rule: The company isn’t planning on offering the service in any parts of Lawrence.
“With our wireless service, it works better if we stay out of the larger towns,” Gleason said. “We don’t want our frequency getting interfered with.”
But Gleason said the company does plan on offering service to most of Eudora, and certainly to the rural households in the county that may not have good access to landline-based Internet systems.
Now on the technical part of this, I may not be the best person to relay the detail. (I keep telling myself that I’m going to really dig in and understand all these bits and bytes and other Internet terms as soon as I finish up my other technological project — mastering the recording process on my VHS.)
But I’ll give this a shot. Gleason said the slowest service the company offers is 1 megabit of service but it also offers service levels of 2 megabits and 3 megabits. He also said something about those speeds being for both uploading and downloading, and that the service had no data caps. (In case you are wondering, though, he was no help in how to set a delayed recording on a Zenith VHS player.)
Prices, he said, range from $39.99 per month to $69.99 per month.
Gleason didn’t rule out expanding to other parts of the county, although, he didn’t say anything that makes me believe the company is going to become a major player inside of Lawrence.
“We’re going to see how things go for a bit,” Gleason said. “We have done some research and it looks like this is the area that is in most need right now. But the thing about us is that we’re always growing.”
The company has been in business since 2009, and currently serves about 70 different communities in 30 Kansas counties, mainly from Salina eastward.
I think it will be interesting to watch whether other companies like this pop up in the area, and also just how aggressive community leaders become in promoting the idea that the area’s broadband infrastructure needs to go to another level. My impression is that there are some city commissioners who feel like broadband infrastructure is going to become a more critical part of economic development in the future.
But, I may be wrong. After all, I just got done watching 90 minutes of PBS’ "Knitting with Minnie Pearl." That’s definitely not what I thought I taped.
Downtown Lawrence sculpture exhibit to receive boost in city funding to celebrate 25th year; entries now being accepted
This year will mark 25 years of walking around a corner in downtown Lawrence and saying “What the . . .”
I’m talking about the 25th Annual Outdoor Downtown Sculpture Exhibition. (Although, it is downtown Lawrence, so I could be talking about any number of things.)
But pieces of sculpture have been creating conversations, smiles and sometimes head-scratching in downtown Lawrence for almost a quarter-century. (I had a love-hate relationship one year with a sculpture shaped like a giant sphere. It reminded me of a doughnut hole. I gained 15 pounds during that year’s show.)
The Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission put out its call for entries for the show this morning. And City Hall officials also confirmed that they are going to provide a bit more financial support for the show this year in honor of its 25th anniversary.
The city will provide an extra $5,000 in city funding to support the show, which will allow the honorarium paid to artists to increase from $750 to $1,200.
For the first time in perhaps ever, the show also will be limited to artists who have a local connection. Only artists that live within a 15 mile radius of Lawrence will be allowed to submit an entry for the show. In the past, the event has attracted artists from across the country.
“This year, the committee wanted to do something special by showcasing the talents of local artists,” said Diane Stoddard, an assistant city manager who serves as the staff liaison for the Arts Commission.
Porter Arneill, public art administrator for Kansas City, Mo., will serve as the juror of the show, and is expected to select eight pieces for display.
All work must be free-standing, of sound design and suitable for long-term outdoor public display without external support. The show will open on June 15 and run through April 2014.
Entries are being accepted now. Artists can find entry information on the city’s website. The deadline for entries is 4 p.m. on Feb. 22.
The city provides funding for the show with money from its Special Recreation Fund. The Special Recreation Fund receives its funding from a portion of the state taxes collected on liquor sales made in Lawrence bars and restaurants.
So, if you are worried about the extra $5,000, here’s a solution: Make sure one of the sculptures looks like a giant BBQ hot wing. Using my “summer of doughnut holes” as a guide, the show will pay for itself through extra beer sales.
Recreation center debate causes commissioner to question ‘relevance’ of Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods; other notes from last night’s Rock Chalk Park meeting
There will be all types of shots taken at the proposed Rock Chalk Park and the city’s $25 million recreation center. There will be bank shots, hook shots, 33-foot three-point shots, that come up three feet short, taken by my teammate who never passes the ball. You get the idea.
But at Tuesday night’s City Commission meeting, the project created one other type of shot: a shot over the bow.
City Commissioner Hugh Carter delivered one to the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods. The group had issued a formal statement criticizing how the city was moving forward with the project. Specifically, it called for the commission to hold a citywide election on the issue and questioned the proposed process that will allow the $25 million recreation center to be built using a bidding process that significantly deviates from the city’s open-bidding policy.
Carter on Tuesday said that he had read that statement and wished he could give it more weight. But he said he’s no longer convinced that LAN is representative of neighborhoods across the city.
“I’m concerned about the relevance of LAN at this point,” Carter said.
Carter pointed to the group’s letter that stated the association met and unanimously voted on the group’s position. But Carter questioned what that really meant. He said if LAN was representative of neighborhoods in the city, that would suggest that the majority of people in every neighborhood in the city were against this project. He called that idea “inconceivable.”
Of course, what I think the letter meant was that every voting member of LAN who was at the meeting voted in favor of the organization’s statement expressing concern about the project. The question is how many people actually were there to vote?
I asked that question shortly after the group came up with the statement, but I don’t have a real firm answer on it. About 20 people attended the LAN meeting, but not all of them are voting members. Generally, anybody can attend a LAN meeting, but you have to be appointed by your neighborhood association as a representative to LAN before you can vote. I don’t think LAN President Laura Routh was trying to hide the vote total when I asked her about it. I just think she didn’t have her meeting notes in front of her when I contacted her. She did say, though, that it was a well-attended meeting by LAN standards.
The idea that the organization has become more of an east Lawrence/central Lawrence dominated organization isn’t a new one. But it is not often that a city commissioner calls it out as publicly as Carter did on Tuesday.
“My feeling is that LAN is becoming more of a faction and more polarizing,” said Carter, who is leaving the commission in April when his term expires. He recently was named as the new vice president of external affairs for the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce.
It will be interesting to watch relations between LAN and City Hall in the next few months. I don’t know enough about LAN’s current membership to provide insight on its reach across the city. It has, at times, had a good reach into west Lawrence. It was pretty active in that area during the time the city was debating whether to build a new Walmart at Sixth and Wakarusa.
It wasn’t long ago that you normally could count on someone with fairly strong LAN ties being a significant candidate for a City Commission seat each election. But that trend has diminished some the last couple of elections.
Routh is a newly elected president for LAN, and that will be interesting to watch too. In the past she has frequently questioned the City Commission on several issues ranging from operations of the police department to transparency at City Hall.
Whether LAN becomes more or less of a player at City Hall remains to be seen. One thing that is certain is that my basketball buddy will be looking up what a “shot over the bow” is. If there is a shot to be taken — and missed — he certainly wants to know about it.
While we’re on the subject, here are a couple of other news items and notes from the Rock Chalk Park debate last night at City Hall:
• City commissioners agreed 5-0 that they aren’t planning on putting the idea of a $25 million recreation center project to a citywide vote. Commissioners conceded they have been questioned by residents about it, but they are sticking to the position they previously have expressed.
That position is that because the project isn’t raising any new taxes a vote isn’t necessary. The city held citywide elections related to sales tax increases for the T, for public infrastructure, and most recently for a property tax increase to expand the Lawrence Public Library.
But all of those projects involved tax increases. This project will be paid for through existing revenues from a sales tax approved by voters in 1994 for recreation and other projects. Some residents, however, have argued that given the city will be adding $25 million worth of debt to its books for this project, that a vote would be appropriate.
Commissioners on Tuesday indicated they were concerned about setting a precedent that every large project had to be subject to a citywide vote. Instead, they said they believed residents still supported the idea of electing commissioners to make those types of decisions.
City Commissioner Mike Amyx went along with the statement, but he said he would support putting the issue to a vote, if a significant number of residents presented a petition seeking a vote. Details on how many people would need to sign weren’t clear.
• City Manager David Corliss did alert commissioners that they likely will see a request in the coming weeks for industrial revenue bonds related to the Rock Chalk Park project and Thomas Fritzel’s entity, Bliss Sports, that will be building and financing the facilities for KU.
The idea of an IRB for the project has come up before but hasn’t got a lot of attention because the project was still working its way through other issues. Industrial revenue bonds have to be issued by the city, but the city is not financially obligated to pay those bonds in case of a default. Private companies often seek the bonds because they provide lower financing rates and some tax advantages. For example, construction materials are exempt from sales tax, if the project is being paid for with industrial revenue bonds.
• Ernie Shaw, the leader of the city’s parks and recreation department provided a new set of numbers to city commissioners last night to try to alleviate concerns that the proposed 181,000 square-foot, eight-gym recreation center would be too large.
He said new numbers for 2012 showed that the city had 123 youth basketball teams in parks and recreation programs, with about 1,200 kids participating. In total about 500 games were played, and the department tries to provide gym space for at least one hour of practice per week for each team. Currently, the city essentially owns three gyms where it can provide those practice sessions and relies heavily on use of school district gyms to accommodate both the teams.
The department also has about 155 adult basketball teams in its program and about 200 volleyball teams, Shaw said.
“I’ve been here 40 years now, and I can tell you that we continue to fill up our facilities,” Shaw said. “It is not a stretch to think that parks and recreation, that the community, needs a facility this size.”
There soon will be about 70 more ways for my wife to get an overtime parking ticket in downtown Lawrence, and a majority of downtown property owners seem happy about it.
In fact, a pretty big majority, it seems.
If you remember, city commissioners have been waiting for the results of a protest petition before deciding whether to add another level — or about 70 spaces — to the proposed parking garage that will be adjacent to the expanded Lawrence Public Library at Seventh and Vermont streets.
Downtown property owners were given a chance to kill the project via petition because downtown property owners will pay for about half of the approximately $840,000 addition through special assessments on their property tax bills.
Well, the results of the petition are in, and who said downtown can’t be united on an issue? Depending on how you slice it, the petition only drew signatures from 12 to 13 percent of the private property owners in the district. Owners of 23 of the 194 privately owned properties in the district signed the petition, which is about 11.9 percent. If you look at it from a square footage standpoint, the property owners who protested the additional expense control about 13.6 percent of the privately owned square footage in town — by lot size — according to calculations done by the city.
All this is to say that city commissioners probably will act next week to formally approve the extra level of parking for the garage project. Mayor Bob Schumm — who is a downtown property owner and who did not sign the petition — told me that is what he’ll ask his fellow commissioners to do.
“I think this is a real opportunity for us to accomplish more parking in downtown and for us to do so at a pretty good discount,” Schumm said.
The city contends the extra 70 spaces of parking will be cheaper to build now than at any point in the future because the work will be done as part of the library project, which already was designed to include 250 spaces in a new parking garage. The extra level will bring the garage’s total to about 320 spaces (my high school math teacher would be so proud of me right now). The project will produce quite a bit more parking in the area than exists today. The surface parking lot that will be replaced by the garage had about 125 spaces. So, that means there will be an extra . . . (never mind, the batteries in my calculator went dead.)
Schumm said he expected a protest petition on the parking project wouldn’t gather much support. The city has structured the project so that non-profit property owners — such as churches — don’t have to pay the special assessment. The city at large will pick up those costs. Property owners who provide off-street parking — even though the city’s code doesn’t require it in downtown — also will be given a credit for that portion of the property.
Property owners basically will pay about 30 cents per square foot on property they own — which is based on their lot size, not their building size. Property owners can pay the amount all at once, or have it spread out over 10 years worth of property tax bills with nominal interest.
For a petition to be successful, it likely was going to have to attract the support of several of the big time landlords in downtown. It attracted some but not all. Most notably neither Doug Compton nor the properties owned by the Fritzel family signed the petition. Properties owned by George and Judy Paley did sign the petition. Rand Allen, who owns a significant amount of property near the northeast corner of 11th and Massachusetts also signed, as did Rod Ernst, the hardware store owner who also owns several other buildings downtown. City Commissioner Mike Amyx — who owns a barbershop downtown — also signed the petition. He previously has voted against the parking garage expansion.
Work to prepare the parking lot for garage construction already has begun. City officials have said they hope to have at least part of the garage open by Memorial Day to accommodate the swimming season at the nearby Outdoor Aquatics Center.
Soon enough, you’ll start seeing big changes in downtown Lawrence. Construction work already is underway on a $19 million library expansion, work on a multistory hotel at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire should begin any day, and by summer work likely will be ongoing for a multistory apartment building at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire.
All that, though, may just be the beginning.
City commissioners have an innocuous looking item on their agenda tonight, but it may set the wheels in motion for a large amount of redevelopment in downtown in coming years.
On the city’s consent agenda is receipt of a report that outlines lots in downtown Lawrence that could be prime candidates for development. Among the pieces of property being highlighted are 11 of the city-owned surface parking lots in downtown.
The idea behind future redevelopment of the city-owned parking lots is simple: The city could enter into public-private partnerships where developers will build new retail or residential or office uses on the parking lots, but also would build public parking. The public parking might be in an above-ground garage, or more likely, in an underground parking garage. The city likely would insist on the new development providing at least as much, but probably more, parking than exists today.
The report on tonight’s agenda won’t finalize anything. It merely will get the ball rolling. If city commissioners approve their staff’s recommendation, the item will be referred to the city’s Historic Resources Commission and the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission for review. Ultimately, the city will need to make some type of statement that it supports more density — which in this case equals taller buildings — on New Hampshire and Vermont streets.
Given that in another year there likely will be at least four relatively new buildings that are five stories or taller on New Hampshire (Hobbs Taylor, the 901 Building, the hotel, and the apartment building at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire), the City Commission has already spoken on the issue.
But previously they’ve spoken in a piecemeal-fashion, one project at time. What seems to be coming down the pike is a broader plan that expresses support for the idea of more multistory building construction. This plan even will go so far as to highlight specific lots that may be appropriate for such development. The result likely would be that the multistory building trend would continue on New Hampshire Street and spread to Vermont Street.
You can click here to see the 39 parcels that city staff members have identified as having some potential for redevelopment. They’ve ranked the potential from low to high.
Most of the city parking lots, including the ones in the 1000, 900, 800 and 700 blocks of Vermont Street rank high. The same goes for city parking lots in the 800 and 700 blocks of New Hampshire Street. City parking lots even a little farther east get into the action. The city parking lot that has frontage on the 800 block of Rhode Island Street is listed as having high potential.
The report doesn’t list a lot of potential redevelopment on Massachusetts Street. Three properties are listed, the old Allen Press property at 1040 Massachusetts, the small Einstein Bros Bagel building that is next to a private parking lot at 1026 Massachusetts, and the vacant lot at 705 Massachusetts that is next to The Eldridge Hotel. We recently reported that a group associated with The Eldridge finalized a deal to purchase that property.
The report also lists a few other private properties as having high potential, including the private parking lots the Fritzel family has in the 600 block of Vermont Street near the Joseph A. Bank and Lawrence Chamber of Commerce building. The U.S. Post Office Building at 645 Vermont also is listed in the high category. All of the other buildings on the west side of the 600 block of Vermont Street, which include the Dempsey’s Burger building, Luminious Neon and the First State Bank & Trust building are listed as having medium potential.
It will be interesting to see how the Historic Resources Commission and neighborhoods near downtown treat the idea of a plan that could lead to large scale redevelopment of the area, and many more public-private partnerships in the future.
But as I said, don’t expect much to happen on this at tonight’s meeting. Tonight’s meeting largely is reserved for another type of public-private partnership: Land use hearings for the proposed Rock Chalk Park project in northwest Lawrence.
Another day, another Lawrence City Commission candidate.
I reported yesterday that I expect Dr. Terry Riordan to file for a seat on the commission, and I still think that will happen today.
But now I’ve also been told that a Lawrence attorney is set to throw his name into the mix as well.
Michael Rost — a Lawrence resident who works as an attorney for an insurance and financial services company in Topeka — told me he also plans to file the necessary paperwork today.
Rost, 27, said he’ll seek to bring a dose of conservatism to the City Commission when it comes to financial matters, especially incentives for projects. Rost said he followed the issue over whether the city should allow tax dollars to be used to help pay for parking and infrastructure at the recently approved multistory hotel project at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets.
“I will be very, very conservative about what I think the city should do with taxpayer money,” Rost said. “My perspective would be that you would have to have a very compelling project that benefits everyone in the city to give taxpayer money to help a project like that.
“On a project like the hotel, I would say that if it is a good project that makes sense and makes money, it should be able to stand on its own feet.”
Rost grew up in Wichita, but came to Lawrence in 2003 to do his undergraduate work at KU. He moved to Topeka to earn a law degree from Washburn, but soon moved back to Lawrence. He currently works as an attorney for IMA Financial in Topeka.
While at KU, Rost was part of the KU Track and Field team. Rost, though, said he doesn’t yet have a firm opinion on whether the city should be investing in a proposed Rock Chalk Park that would include the city building a new $25 million recreation center, and KU and Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel building a new track and field stadium and other amenities.
“I like the idea of synergy between the university and the city,” Rost said. “I like that aspect of it, but in terms of some of the specifics about how it would be built and leased, I don’t feel comfortable commenting on that.”
Likely the issue won’t be one City Commission candidates have to deal with. At its current pace, city commissioners are expected to take the key votes to commit the city to the project by mid-February. The new commission won’t take office until April.
In terms of other issues, Rost said he hopes to provide a voice to commuters in the community, and he will emphasize the importance of the commission protecting the livability of Lawrence.
“I think there are maybe some different ideas about the direction of Lawrence, its appeal and what type of community we want to be,” Rost said. “I have seen a lot about trying to make Lawrence some type of tourist destination or Legends West or something. That has struck me as not being in line with the things that I appreciate about the community.”
If Rost and Riordan both file today as expected, there will be four official candidates in the race. Rob Chestnut, a former Lawrence mayor and a chief financial officer for a Topeka publishing company, has filed the a paperwork. So too has Scott Criqui, a member of the city’s Human Relations Commission and an executive with a Lawrence-based home healthcare company.
Indications are that City Commissioner Mike Amyx will file for re-election to the commission. City Commissioner Hugh Carter, however, has chosen not to seek re-election, instead focusing on his new job with the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. City Commissioner Aron Cromwell has not announced his intentions, but there are indications he will not seek a second term.
Lawrence Chamber of Commerce takes official stance in favor of $25M recreation center, proposed Rock Chalk Park
It sure feels like the proposal to build a $25 million city recreation center as part of a public-private Rock Chalk Park in northwest Lawrence is entering a new phase.
Another large community group has taken a formal position on the project. This time, it is the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, and the city’s largest business organization is supportive of the project.
“The entire Lawrence community will benefit from this world-class facility,” Doug Gaumer, chair of the chamber's board of directors, said in a statement. “The Rock Chalk Park Sports Park project will help build our community’s infrastructure and enhance the amenities and quality of life that make Lawrence a desirable place to live and work.”
If you remember last week, the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods — the city’s largest neighborhood organization — issued an official position that it thought the city should hold a citywide election on the idea of whether the city should proceed with the $25 million regional recreation center portion of the project. It also expressed concerns that the recreation center project is proposed go through a bidding process that deviates from the city’s typical bidding policy.
The chamber in its statement on Monday said it does not see the need for a citywide election.
“We understand that no tax increase will be necessary for construction of this project and therefore no public vote on the issue is necessary,” Gaumer said in the statement. “We urge the city approve the necessary zoning and special use permit necessary to build Rock Chalk Sports Park, and provide a much-needed and long-overdue amenity for its citizens.”
City commissioners are scheduled to vote on the zoning and the special use permit for the project at their Tuesday evening meeting. Tuesday’s vote, however, doesn’t yet commit the city to build the $25 million recreation center portion of the project.
Commissioners won’t make any commitments to build the recreation center at the site until they have been presented with formal agreements between KU entities and a private company led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel, who are all part of the proposed partnership for the park.
The city is projecting those agreements will be completed by the commission’s Feb. 19 meeting.
Work on new West Lawrence Starbucks progressing; developers still looking for other tenants for the building
“Wwwwhen is that ddddrive-through Ssstarbbbucks going to open?”
That’s the type of jittery e-mails and comments I’ve been getting regarding a new drive-through Starbuck’s in West Lawrence.
It has been more than a year now since we first reported that a Starbucks was slated to be built on the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Champion Lane, yet there are still people having to go through the indignity of getting out of their vehicles to get their morning Starbucks fix.
If you have driven along West Sixth Street lately, you may have noticed a new building has been constructed along the stretch of road in front of Free State High School. That’s the Starbucks site.
I checked in with Lawrence attorney Bill Fleming, who represents the development group on the project, and he confirmed the company turned the space over to Starbucks in mid-December. Fleming, though, didn’t have any word on when Starbucks may be completed with their interior work, which would allow the store to open. In talking with other folks, however, 60 days sounds like a reasonable number, so I would keep an eye out for Starbucks to open in February.
One other thing about the project: Some folks have seen the building and are under the impression that Lawrence is getting some sort of super-sized Starbucks. (And trust me, Starbucks knows how to supersize. I once mistakenly ordered a Venti, and had to ask whether it came with swimming trunks.) But no, Starbucks will not occupy the entire building on Sixth Street.
Fleming said Starbucks will lease about 1,900 square feet of the building, which will leave about 3,000 square feet of space that could be taken by one larger tenant or two smaller ones.
“We think a sandwich shop or something like that would make sense, but we’re not in negotiations with anyone right now,” Fleming said.
The area, though, is gaining momentum. Work is well underway on the new building for Theatre Lawrence, which will be just a few steps from the Starbucks.
Yes, before you have a chance to ask, the Starbucks is in the special taxing district that helps pay for infrastructure in the Bauer Farms Development. Projects in the district charge an extra penny on every $1 in sales made in the district.
I’ll let you know if I hear a specific date for the Starbucks opening.
The clock is now really ticking on folks who are thinking about running for one of three seats up for election on the Lawrence City Commission.
The deadline for candidates to file is noon Jan. 22. For several weeks now I’ve been hearing a new name as a potential candidate for the race: Dr. Terry Riordan.
I haven’t yet talked to Riordan, but my understanding is he is likely to announce his candidacy on Tuesday.
Riordan would go into the race with many Lawrence folks knowing his name. Riordan has been a longtime pediatrician in the city. Riordan also has some City Hall experience. He was a member and chairman of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission in the mid-2000s.
Other folks may know Riordan and his wife, Elaine, as the owners of one of the more unique homes in the city. They own the large house in the 1600 block of Tennessee Street often referred to as the Maupintour Mansion or the Ludington-Thacher House, if you are the type to be more historically accurate.
If Riordan does file as expected, he’ll be the third candidate in the race. Former Lawrence Mayor Rob Chestnut has filed, and so has Scott Criqui, a member of the city’s Human Relations Commission.
All indications are that current City Commissioner Mike Amyx will file for re-election, but he hasn’t done so yet. Current City Commissioner Hugh Carter says he won’t seek re-election, instead focusing on his new job with the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. City Commissioner Aron Cromwell also is up for re-election. He hasn’t announced his plans, but there are indications he is leaning against seeking another term.
I think there is still an effort out there by some to recruit a female candidate to the race, but I haven’t heard of any takers yet. During the last election two years ago, no female candidates ran for a seat on the commission, and a woman hasn’t served on the commission since Sue Hack ended an eight-year stint on the commission in 2009.
If seven or more candidates file for the three seats on the commission — they are all at-large seats — there will be a primary election on Feb. 26 to narrow the field to six candidates. The general election will be on April 2.
How about a special Saturday edition of Town Talk.
The citizens group Cadre Lawrence hosted a public forum on the proposed recreation center and Rock Chalk Park project for northwest Lawrence Saturday morning.
Not a whole lot of new information came out of the forum. The panel was made up entirely of supporters of the project, so it wasn’t the type of event where there was much back and forth. Members of the audience also had to submit questions on note cards, so there weren’t many opportunities for the public to voice their opinions on the project.
But here’s a quick look at a few comments made by panel participants.
• Sean Lester, senior associate athletics director for KU, made one of the more definitive statements of the day. He said KU will not be allowing any concerts to be held in the proposed 10,000-seat track and field stadium. He said the risk to the world-class track and field surfaces would just be too great.
But other speakers made it clear that there could be other non-athletic events happening in the Rock Chalk Park. City Commissioner Mike Dever said the community shouldn’t be closing doors on future opportunities when it comes to non-athletic events at the facility.
The parking lot itself — it will have more than 1,400 paved spaces — is large enough to accommodate large events on its own. Think of some of the events that have closed downtown streets in the past. The idea of street dances with adult beverages have become popular in downtown in the last few years. Whether some of those events would migrate to the new location, I’m not sure.
Also not mentioned Saturday morning is just what the mover-and-shakers of this project have in mind with a future amphitheater and an indoor arena. Neither are included in phase one of the project, but there is space mapped out for each of those uses in future phases. Both of those uses seem to indicate that there has been some thought given to the area becoming a concert venue. The information submitted to the city shows a future arena would have “3,000 seats for sporting events and an additional 800 seats for concerts.”
The project leaders seem to be skittish about talking about non-athletic events at the site, I suppose because it could increase opposition from some neighbors. (Although neighbors are few at the moment.) My sense is, however, there would be plenty of people who would be excited about the area becoming a concert venue.
Lawrence is a music town, and an ability to hold larger-scale concerts would add to the economic development impact of the facility. Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe the community would revolt against such an idea.
• Lester also confirmed that KU eventually will look to sell naming rights for the park. “Who ever came up with the idea of Rock Chalk Park, that is great,” Lester said. “But we would love to put someone’s name in front of that.”
KU, however, won’t have any ability to sell naming rights for the city’s recreation center. City commissioners would control that process.
• Jana Dawson, a member of the city’s parks and recreation advisory board, said it would cost the city more money to build a recreation center on property the city already owns near Wakarusa and Overland Drive in northwest Lawrence.
That statement probably needs some qualifiers. If you were to build exactly the same size of facility, there are numbers that suggest that is accurate. (Although, it is unclear how fully the city has studied its options at that site.)
But it is worth remembering that in November 2011, city commissioners expressed support for an idea that would build a five gym recreation center with a wellness center, walking track and fitness area for $12 million in public money and about $3 million in private donations.
Since that time the project has grown in both size and cost. The current proposal has eight gyms, an indoor turf area, outdoor lighted tennis courts, a gymnastics area and other features. The cost is now $25 million, plus several million dollars in interest the city will pay on the 20-year bonds it will have to issue to fund the project.
What has remained the same is the city's plans to pay for it through proceeds from an existing sales tax. The money has become available because the city is retiring debt on several other projects, including the Eagle Bend Golf Course and the Lawrence-Douglas County Community Health building. (A previous version of this article also listed the Indoor Aquatics Center. That was a mistake. That debt already has been paid off.)
City Manager David Corliss said the need to have more than five gyms could be supported by national statistics. City officials frequently quote a national statistic that indicates a city of Lawrence’s size ought to have about 18 more gyms than it does.
Corliss also said there were questions about whether the smaller facility would provide much of an economic development benefit to the city in terms of attracting tournaments to town. It should be noted, though, that when the city was discussing the idea of a five gym facility, commissioners were enthusiastic about its ability to attract tournaments to the city. Plus, the nearby New Century Fieldhouse in Johnson County is an 88,000-square-foot facility with four gyms and an indoor soccer field. Officials there have had success in attracting tournaments to the facility. We’ve previously reported that when it opened in June 2011, the project — which renovated a warehouse — had a price tag of $8.2 million plus interest costs.
• City Commissioner Mike Dever clearly has become one of the more passionate supporters of the project. He made a closing statement where he tried to give assurances to the public that the city was poised to make a good investment with the project.
“I know the vision of this facility scares some people,” Dever said. “It is a large project. But I think the city is in as good a position as it can possibly be to take on this project.”
He said it is common to read national publicity about how Lawrence has as rich a basketball history as any community in the country. Yet, he said the city hasn’t done enough to capitalize on it.
“We’re told that the history of basketball is as robust here as it is anywhere, yet we don’t even have enough courts for our kids to play and practice on,” he said. “Our goal on this project has been to measure twice and cut once. We have measured and measured and measured.
“I can tell you that the sum of the parts of this project are more valuable than the individual pieces.”
The public will have a chance to weigh in on the project in a more traditional public hearing format at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, as commissioners consider zoning issues and a special use permit for the project.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One after another, speakers with fingertips that lighted up stepped to the lectern at Lawrence City Hall last night. It was like a herd of E.T.’s had come to watch the City Commission meeting.
I’ve seen odder things at City Hall, but, no, there wasn’t an extraterrestrial presence at Tuesday night’s commission meeting. These lighted fingers could only mean one thing: The contentious issue of lighted tennis courts in the Centennial neighborhood is back.
More than a dozen members of the Lawrence Tennis Association showed up at the meeting to lobby commissioners to reconsider the idea of placing lights at the Lawrence Tennis Center near Lawrence High School. (The fingertip lights are a device players use to play on unlit courts.)
And simply put, the game is back on. Commissioners agreed to put the lighting issue on a future City Commission agenda for discussion.
That’s despite the fact that it appeared for the last several months that the issue was done and decided. City commissioners have agreed to spend about $640,000 to build eight, lighted, outdoor tennis courts as part of the city’s recreation center at Rock Chalk Park.
The lights have been controversial because neighbors near the site — which is basically on the grounds of the former Centennial Elementary school at 2145 Louisiana Street — have objected to the amount of light the court lights would spill onto their properties.
But members of the Lawrence Tennis Association have been equally adamant that the city needs to follow through on a promise to light the courts. Renovations at nearby Lawrence High School caused the city to lose eight lighted tennis courts several years ago. The school rebuilt the courts in a new location, but when it came time to add the lights, neighbors voiced concerns and city officials backed off.
Some city officials thought they had solved the issue with the Rock Chalk Park project. On Tuesday, members of the tennis association said they were appreciative of the future courts at Rock Chalk Park, but said they still want lighted courts in the central part of town. Plus, they said a city of Lawrence’s size could support lighted courts both at Rock Chalk Park and the Lawrence Tennis Center. That argument upset at least one commissioner.
“When we started all of this, it always has been about the need for eight illuminated courts,” City Commissioner Bob Schumm said. “Now we have the conversation up to 16, and I’m not buying that.”
But the other four commissioners said they were fine with having a formal discussion about the idea at a future meeting. Two new members have joined the commission — Jeremy Farmer and Terry Riordan — since the commission last discussed the issue. Neither Farmer nor Riordan indicated a position on the idea Tuesday.
“But I had a meeting with the neighborhood group a few weeks ago, and it seems to be pretty adamantly opposed to this,” Farmer said. “I think the tennis court lights are the straw that is breaking the camel’s back, it seems.”
A date for the commission to discuss the issue hasn’t been set. When one is, I’ll pass it along. And when it does, forget “E.T. phone home.” It will be: Chad, phone home. It will be a late night.
Here’s a tip for you: Make sure your stock portfolio includes plenty of exposure to cheap snack food and elastic waist bands. I may be providing a serious boost to both products.
There are at least two efforts underway to bring a full-fledged convenience store — minus the gasoline — to downtown Lawrence.
The largest effort comes from Scott Zaremba, an owner of the Lawrence-based Zarco convenience store chain. As we reported last week, Zaremba and his partners are opening up a Sandbar Sub shop at 745 New Hampshire, the former spot of the Mirth Cafe.
But Zaremba has confirmed to me it will be much more than a sandwich shop. Zaremba plans to use the approximately 3,500 square foot space to create what he calls a “24-hour destination for downtown.” There will be restaurant food — the sub sandwiches and the Sandbar’s hot breakfast menu will lead the way — but there also will be all the items you would expect to find at a Zarco convenience store. That means fountain drinks, basic grocery items, bottles of Advil (not that you would ever need one of those at work), and . . . well, this is going to get really long if I list everything a convenience store sells.
It won’t be the full-fledged grocery store that many downtown leaders have been clamoring for, but it seems like it will be a significant step in that direction. Zaremba said he sees a need to provide convenience items to the growing number of people who are living downtown. Plus, he said he thinks the large number of office workers in downtown will appreciate the store too.
“Really, where can you go downtown and just get a fountain drink and get in and out without standing in a large food line?” Zaremba said.
Another feature not often found in downtown: The store will be open 24 hours a day. Zaremba said he hopes to have the business up and running before Aug. 10. That’s the date of the anniversary party for The Sandbar — the downtown tavern, not the sub shop. Longtime Sandbar leader Peach Madl is a partner in the Sandbar Sub Shop chain.
Last week we also reported that Peoples Bank was going to have a presence at the location. I haven’t yet had heard back from Peoples officials, but Zaremba confirmed the bank will have a quick service banking operation inside the Sandbar business, which Zaremba said he will brand as Sandbar World Headquarters.
But I mentioned there are two efforts underway to bring convenience items to downtown. The other one is smaller but already underway. Tobacco Bazaar has moved from its location at 19th and Massachusetts to 14 E. Eighth Street in downtown. In addition to selling all sorts of cigarette, tobacco and pipe items, the store also sells an assortment of convenience items. That includes candy, sodas and energy drinks, batteries, and — wait for it — beef jerky. To top it off, the business is setting up a chip section too.
Beef jerky and Doritos in one location, and just steps away from my office: Perhaps now you understand why I’m in the market for an elastic waistband.
In case you're trying to picture where 14 E. Eighth Street is in downtown, it's basically right around the corner from the old Mirth Cafe location. So, these two businesses will be neighbors. It will be interesting to watch how that plays out.
Tobacco Bazaar currently is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on most days, except it is open to 11 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
There is one question unanswered about the two businesses: Will either have slushies? My waistband was afraid to ask.