Questions emerge about how much Fritzel and his foundation will control operations of KU facilities at proposed Rock Chalk Park
It is becoming a bit clearer that Lawrence may be getting more than just a publicly owned sports complex with the proposed Rock Chalk Park.
Saying it is getting a bit clearer, however, is kind of like saying the Kansas River is clearer than a tar pit. But in recent days the public has started to hear rumblings that Thomas Fritzel’s Bliss Foundation is set to play a major role in the operation of the KU facilities at Rock Chalk Park.
Tuesday night, Mayor Bob Schumm confirmed to me that it is his “understanding” that the Bliss Foundation will have a master lease over all the KU facilities at the proposed Rock Chalk Park, which would be just north of the northeast intersection of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway.
Schumm said he hadn’t yet seen any documents related to Bliss Foundation’s operational role in the facility, but his understanding is that the Kansas University Endowment Association will own the land, but Fritzel’s foundation will be offered a land lease on the property. Kansas University Athletics then will have an agreement with the foundation spelling out KU Athletics’ use of the facilities, which will include a 10,000-seat track and field stadium, a soccer field, softball stadium and nearly 40,000 square feet of indoor training space and an indoor softball field.
It also will include acres and acres of ground. The first phase of the Rock Chalk Park is listed at 90 acres, although 20 of those acres are scheduled to be owned by the city and won’t be subject to any lease agreement with Fritzel’s foundation.
The whole situation has at least one neighbor to the property — landowner Jack Graham — questioning how the public should expect this sports complex to be used. Specifically, will the agreements between Fritzel’s foundation and KU give Fritzel the right to host multiple events that have nothing to do with KU athletics or even athletics in general?
As we reported Tuesday, city planning staff members are highlighting that the project’s special use permit will allow for non-athletic events to be held at the complex. The report indicates the city hasn’t yet seen specific plans for what that might entail. But the report lists some examples, including music concerts, festivals, BBQ cookoffs, car shows, and BMX or Motocross events. Or think about all those runs and street dances that currently happen downtown.
The staff report even mentioned tractor pulls, but that probably isn’t the most likely of happenings. Music concerts, however, may be a different deal. We noted with interest when plans showed a 4,000-seat amphitheater for the complex. The amphitheater is no longer shown in phase one of the development, but a site on the property is still set aside for an amphitheater.
When I asked Schumm Tuesday night whether he understand the role that the Bliss Foundation would have in operating the KU facilities and potentially booking them for events, Schumm said: “I’m not certain at this time that I do.”
But city commissioners went ahead and gave round one approval for the zoning of the property on Tuesday. The city, however, still must approve the zoning ordinance on second reading, and there was some talk about delaying that vote until a bit more information emerges.
I’ll attempt to get more information today from KU Endowment and from Fritzel.
But in the meantime, think about this: The Rock Chalk Park already is designed to be a basketball magnet, with the city’s mega recreation center scheduled to have eight full court gyms. If music concerts become part of the plan, watch out. It is difficult to think of two things that Lawrence loves more than basketball and music. (There are a couple of other things I can think of, but I’m not sure they’re legal.)
This complex has been sold so far with economic development in mind, and using this as a concert venue would boost that potential. But loud outdoor music concerts come with their own set of challenges.
It will be interesting to watch, but if basketball and music become the new strategy, I’ve already got the marketing tag line: Rock Chalk and Rock ’n’ Roll.
Well, just when you think you have put the Kansas University football season behind you, we drag it back up again. Last week, Mayor Bob Schumm was supposed to pay off on a bet he made with the mayor of Morgantown, West Virginia related to the KU-West Virginia football game.
As we reported last week, Schumm was supposed to wear some West Virginia Mountaineer gear to the meeting last Tuesday to hold up his end of the bet. But he forgot.
My understanding is that he’ll take care of that tonight. I think the original bet just called for him to wear a West Virginia Mountaineer sweat shirt. But since he forgot, it seems appropriate that he would be required to wear a ’coon skin mountain man cap for the entire meeting. I wouldn’t count on it. I don’t know why, but for some reason, a furball on a man’s head seems like an appropriate way to send off the KU football season.
We reported a few weeks ago that the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board had recommended that the unnamed park near the city fire training facility at 19th and Haskell be named Firefighters Remembrance Park, and that it have a plaque recognizing the late Jim McSwain, who served as Lawrence’s fire chief for 27 years.
Well, city commissioners took up the idea last week and tweaked the proposal. They approved a motion to name the park “Chief Jim McSwain Park.” The sign also will include a line that says “Dedicated to all Lawrence firefighters.”
Mayor Bob Schumm suggested the change, and Commissioner Mike Amyx immediately threw his support behind the idea. Both Schumm and Amyx served on the City Commission for many years while McSwain was chief.
I’m told there aren’t any immediate plans for major additions at the park, although city officials are considering the site as a possible location for a community garden.
We reported a few weeks ago that East Lawrence Neighborhood leader Leslie Soden was strongly considering a run for the Lawrence City Commission in the upcoming April election.
Well, Soden was, but she no longer is. Soden confirmed to me that she has decided against a run in 2013. Soden is probably best known in the community as being the former president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association who led the opposition to the proposed multi-story hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire streets.
Soden told me that she has decided to use the next couple of years to focus on her recent appointment to the Joint Economic Development Council.
But Soden said she is disappointed that, so far, no woman has stepped forward to run for the City Commission. There currently is not a female commissioner, and hasn’t been one since Sue Hack left the commission four years ago. In fact, no woman even ran for a seat during the election two years ago.
I know there are people out there trying to recruit a strong female candidate for the 2013 election. Multiple sources have told me that Jana Dawson, a Lawrence banker who has been a big proponent of the city’s proposed regional recreation center, has been approached. But Dawson told me just today that work commitments will not allow her to run in 2013. Sharon Spratt, the longtime CEO of Cottonwood Inc., also has been approached. But I’ve been told she also hasn’t made a commitment to run.
Planning commission recommends approval of permit for sports complex/rec center, which now contemplates hosting non-athletic events
They didn’t exactly break out in the Rock Chalk chant, but the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission on Monday night did recommend approval of a key special use permit for the proposed Rock Chalk Sports Park near the northeast corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway.
Planning commissioners voted 6-3 to recommend approval for the proposed sports complex, which would combine Kansas University facilities with a city-owned mega recreation center.
The special use permit spells out the general uses at the site, and they are much as we have reported them over the past several months: A 10,000-seat track and field stadium, a 2,500-seat soccer field, a 1,000-seat softball stadium and a 28,000-square-foot indoor training center plus a 14,000-square-foot area for an indoor softball field. All those facilities would be university-owned.
The city-owned facilities would include a 181,000-square-foot recreation center/youth field house and eight, outdoor lighted tennis courts.
The plan also shows a host of other future improvements that could be contemplated by the university at some point. They include: A 3,800-seat indoor arena that could accommodate sporting events and concerts; a 4,000-seat outdoor amphitheater; eight tennis courts and an indoor tennis facility; and a lacrosse field.
All the items are still subject to tweaking, but the general outline of the project is starting to become more solid. The SUP application does make one thing clear: Rock Chalk Park will need a major variance from the city’s parking standards.
According to the city staff report reviewing the project, the various uses of Rock Chalk Park would require 5,244 parking spaces under the city’s current code. The plan proposes to provide 1,454 paved parking spaces plus another 700 unpaved spaces for overflow parking.
The city’s planning director, though, said the project makes a good case for receiving an exemption from the code. It is unlikely uses will be occurring simultaneously at all facilities in the park. A parking study estimates that 520 spaces would be needed to handle a typical day at the recreation center plus accommodate a soccer match at the facility. About 1,000 spaces would be need to accommodate a large basketball or volleyball tournament plus either a softball or soccer event.
The city’s review of the project, however, acknowledges there likely will be some events that the proposed parking won’t be able to accommodate. The proposed parking is estimated to accommodate an event of about 6,400 people. The track and field stadium, however, is designed to seat 10,000 people.
The city’s planning staff is recommending the project be allowed to proceed with the proposed parking because the large events won’t be frequent, and a plan can be developed to provide shuttles to the event. The city mentioned deals might be reached to run shuttles from Free State High School or from the KU Park and Ride Lot.
Who knows whether the Kansas Relays or perhaps a Kansas high school state track meet will ever fill the stadium, but the special use permit also brings up the possibility of the site hosting non-athletic events. The city and KU haven’t laid out any specific plans for what type of non-athletic events they might be interested in, but the staff report provides a few examples: Music concerts; festivals; BBQ cook-offs; farmers markets; racing and vehicle exhibitions, including BMX and Motocross racing and truck and tractor pulls. The idea of non-sports related events seemed to be part of the reason why the SUP drew three negative votes on Monday. The city is proposing that any non-athletic event receive a special events permit from the city. Each such a permit would have to be approved by the City Commission. But some planners argued that there should be a more rigorous notification process to let neighbors of the sports complex know an event permit application has been filed.
Commissioners Deron Belt, Jon Josserand and Bryan Culver voted against the SUP on Monday.
The Planning Commission’s recommendation now goes to the Lawrence City Commission, which will consider giving final approval to the SUP. A date for that hearing hasn’t yet been set.
City commissioners, though, will be taking action tonight on the proposed zoning of the property. Commissioners are scheduled to approve rezoning for 90 acres from Agricultural to General Public and Institutional Uses. Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. today at City Hall.
It will be trains versus trolleys at Lawrence City Hall tonight. Well, sort of.
City commissioners at their meeting tonight are being asked to select three transportation projects to submit as grant applications for state funding.
Topping the list is a familiar project — renovation of the Santa Fe Depot in East Lawrence. City Hall staff members are proposing the city apply for a $1.5 million transportation enhancement grant to make necessary improvements to the station at Seventh and New Jersey streets.
But staff members also have brought up the idea of a different use for those funds — a brick street restoration in the 600 and 700 blocks of Indiana Street.
This project has a unique twist to it: Trolley tracks. In 1909 the Lawrence Light & Railway Company opened a new trolley route called Route 3, which also was dubbed “Indiana Run” because it went from Eighth and Massachusetts to Indiana Street to Fourth Street and then back.
Those trolley tracks still exist under the current asphalt pavement of the street, and they are starting to create some surface problems. The city is proposing to apply for a $660,000 transportation enhancement grant that would allow the street to be restored to its original brick street format, complete with stone curbs. And, at the moment, the city is proposing to put in new railroad ties and reinstall the original trolley rails down the middle of the street.
There’s no plan for a trolley service in the works, but the grant category is for transportation projects with a historic element. The trolley tracks fit the bill.
The state has limited funding for the grant program, and so city staff members are recommending the Santa Fe Depot project be submitted as the city’s No. 1 priority in the category. The city, however, has sought grants before to restore the 1950s-era depot, but been unsuccessful. That is in part because the city doesn’t yet own the building.
City commissioners have been reluctant to execute a low cost purchase of the station from Burlington Northern Santa Fe because it doesn’t want to be obligated to make the significant repairs needed. They rather would have a grant to help with that, but grant agencies have been reluctant to award money for a building the city does not yet own. So, we’ll likely go through the chicken-or-the-egg routine again tonight at City Hall. And we’ll discuss trains and trolleys.
Commissioners also are being asked to choose transportation projects for two other grant categories. Those choices are:
• $57,500 to restore the old stone monuments that mark the entry into the Breezedale neighborhood at 23rd and Massachusetts streets. The project is in the scenic and environmental category. It is the only project the city is recommending for that category.
• $170,000 to extend the concrete Burroughs Creek Rail Trail from East 23rd Street to East 29th Street. Currently there is an ag lime, gravel path that runs from 23rd Street to 29th Street. The proposal would replace that path with a 10-foot-wide concrete path, matching the new Burroughs Creek Trail, which starts at 23rd Street and runs north to 11th Street. City staff members are recommending this project be the city’s No. 1 priority in the bicycle and pedestrian category.
• $580,000 to build a new path from the proposed Rock Chalk Park north of Sixth and the South Lawrence Trafficway intersection to Queens Road. Eventually, the city would like to have a path that runs all the way from the Rock Chalk site to Kasold Drive. The project is in the pedestrian and bicycle category.
• $240,000 to add bike lanes to the portion of Bob Billings Parkway that runs between Wakarusa Drive and about 45 feet west of Foxfire Road. The existing median would be narrowed to make room for the bike lanes. City officials said now would be the time to add bike lanes to the road because the city plans to resurface the road in 2013. The project is in the pedestrian and bicycle category.
All of the projects would require the city to provide local funding equal to 20 percent of the project’s cost. So, for example, the city would need to come up with about $300,000 in local funding, if it were awarded the Santa Fe Depot grant.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. tonight at City Hall.
City receives four proposals for citywide, curbside recycling program; officials hope to keep monthly costs below $5
Lawrence city officials haven’t forgotten about the idea of a curbside recycling program. A state law still is in place that stops the city from starting a new program prior to June 2014, but city officials have been spending a lot of time on the idea recently.
Sources tell me that a committee of city officials and a couple of members of the city’s Solid Waste Task Force spent seven hours last week listening to proposals from four companies or entities wanting to be involved in a proposed curbside recycling program in Lawrence.
City Manager David Corliss told me he was “cautiously optimistic” the proposals would produce a workable program for the city.
Corliss didn’t get into details, but another source told me that — at first glance — it appears the companies are putting together proposals that would offer weekly curbside recycling services at or below the $5 per month price point that some city officials have indicated would be acceptable.
But the details on this one will be important. For example, I haven’t heard whether the proposals included fuel escalator clauses, which would allow the monthly price to vary, depending on the price of diesel fuel.
“We want to make sure we completely understand all of the proposals before we make any recommendations,” Corliss said. “Each proposal has some interesting aspects.”
According to my source, the four entities that have submitted proposals are: Deffenbaugh Industries out of Kansas City; Waste Management, which is a major player in the Topeka market; Hamm Companies, which is the city’s current landfill provider; and a proposal put together by Lawrence’s own sanitation division.
Deffenbaugh and Waste Management are prepared to both collect and process the recycled materials. Hamm has proposed that the city would collect materials, but Hamm would build a new processing facility to handle the Lawrence materials. The city proposal calls for city crews to collect the materials, which then would be processed at a privately owned facility. Corliss confirmed the city is not proposing to build its own processing facility, which easily can be a multimillion-dollar project.
Under all of the proposals, the city would be responsible for handling the billing for the new service. The monthly amount would be added onto trash bills of city residents and businesses. As it is currently structured, every household would be required to pay for the service, whether they want it or not. City officials previously have said that is the way to ensure the service is delivered in the most efficient manner, and it helps the city boost its recycling rate, which has been a goal of all this.
City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday will be taking a procedural step that keeps this process moving along. Commissioners are being asked to formally adopt a curbside recycling plan. But the plan is written in a pretty general way that doesn’t tie the city’s hands too much. Importantly, it also allows the city to back out of the idea, if it finds the project will cost too much.
Among details the plan does spell out are:
• Residents will be provided a special cart to set out recyclable materials. Residents won’t be required to do any sorting of materials. The plan doesn’t specify whether haulers have to accept glass. In the past, the city has said working glass into the program may be difficult.
• Where it is not feasible to provide a cart to a resident, such as people who live in apartment complexes, those residents will have access to “recycling stations,” which are cluster of recycling carts or Dumpsters.
• The city will consider plans that provide either weekly collection of recycling or every-other-week collection.
• A program should be designed with the goal of increasing the citywide recycling rate to 50 percent by 2020. The city has been changing how it figures its recycling rate, but previously the rate has been in the 30 percent range.
• A plan should be developed to minimize “displacement and economic impact to current recycling collectors.” There are about a half-dozen small, private companies that provide the service in Lawrence. The plan says the city will evaluate proposals, in part, on how well the city’s chosen provider works with those existing companies.
This is where the plan may get trickier than that pyramid of beer cans you have built in your garage waiting for the city to start a curbside program.
Jim Tuchscherer, owner of Home Recycling, said neither Deffenbaugh or Waste Management has contacted him about how his 13-year-old business might be incorporated into a citywide system.
The city of Lawrence has contacted Tuchscherer about its idea, but Tuchscherer hasn’t liked what he’s heard. Tuchscherer said the city is proposing that the recycling companies be allowed to keep their current customers but not be allowed to add new ones.
“I’ve told the city that I’m not opposed to increasing recycling, but I am opposed to the city voting to put me out of business,” Tuchscherer said.
Tuchscherer said he thinks the fair thing for the city to do would be to buy out his business and the other small recycling companies that operate in the city. I haven’t heard any serious talk of that happening, however, at City Hall.
Tuchscherer said he doesn't think the city will find a way to successfully incorporate the small companies into a citywide plan.
“I don’t think there is a workable option,” Tuchscherer said. “I’m sure Waste Management and Deffenbaugh have figured that out too.”
Assuming commissioners pass the plan at Tuesday’s meeting, the next big action step is expected in January, when commissioners will be presented summaries of the proposals presented by the four entities.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
I’m surfing my AOL account to try to figure out what has gotten Lawrence consumers so motivated these days. I figure it must be those new Discman portable CD players or maybe the Digimon craze.
What’s that, you say? We’re not in the 1990s anymore? My wife will tell you I have a wardrobe that says otherwise, but a new set of numbers makes it easy to get confused.
New retail sales numbers from Lawrence City Hall, show that sales tax numbers are growing at their fastest pace since 1998.
Through November, Lawrence consumers have tallied $1.25 billion worth of sales in 2012. That’s up from $1.17 billion compared to the same period a year ago. The 6.3 percent growth rate is the best since the carefree days of 1998, when we were preoccupied by a stain on a White House intern’s dress, and two home run sluggers who were proving how healthy eating and a few over-the-counter vitamin supplements could make you a new man. (That was the takeaway from the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa era, wasn’t it?)
If the growth rate holds up through the end of the year, it will mark the second straight year sales tax numbers have grown significantly. It also will help erase the memories of 2009 and 2010 when consumers ran scared and sales tax numbers posted actual declines for two years in a row. Lawrence City Hall is now on pace to collect $ 2 million more in sales tax revenues than it budgeted.
Here’s a look at how Lawrence’s sales taxes have grown or shrunk over the years:
2011: up 4.5 percent. 2010: down 1.68 percent. 2009: down 2.53 percent. 2008: up 3.57 percent. 2007: up 1.58 percent. 2006: up 3.54 percent. 2005: up 3.52 percent. 2004: up 4.81 percent. 2003: up 1.15 percent. 2002: up 0.46 percent. 2001: up 3.79 percent. 2000: up 1.71 percent. 1999: up 5.17 percent. 1998: up 8.58 percent. 1997: up 6.48 percent 1996: down 0.71 percent
While the growth rate is near an all-time high, folks shouldn’t misinterpret that to mean Lawrence really has gotten its mojo from the 1990s back. Here’s an interesting figure. In that record year of 1998, Lawrence consumers spent $967.4 million. If you adjust that number for inflation, it comes out to $1.37 billion in 2012 dollars. Lawrence this year is on pace to spend a little more than $1.26 billion for the year. Ah, the good old days when home equity still worked like an ATM.
But today’s numbers do show that Lawrence consumers almost have returned to their spending levels prior to the financial crash that happened in late 2008. Here’s a look at actual consumer spending figures for the past five years, with the number in parenthesis showing 2012 inflation-adjusted dollars.
2012 - $1.25 billion. 2011 - $1.17 billion ($1.20). 2010 - $1.12 billion ($1.19). 2009 - $1.14 billion ($1.23). 2008 - $1.17 billion ($1.26).
The November sales tax report also gives us our first glimpse at how holiday sales are shaping up. Due to a delay in reporting times, the November report doesn’t actually represent sales made in November. Instead, it shows sales from mid-September to mid-October, which is holiday shopping season for those organized people who make you want to throw up.
Sales in the November 2012 period were up 8.9 percent from the same period a year ago. If that trend continues, retailers will be happy, and those of us unwrapping holiday gifts may be happy too. Maybe I’ll finally get that Macarena mix tape. Oops, sorry, wrong year again.
Well, the tea leaves ended up being right on this one: As folks have speculated for more than a week, Genesis Health Club has taken over the operations of the Lawrence Athletic Club.
Employees of LAC, 3201 Mesa Way, were informed of the change earlier today. I haven’t yet heard back from a Genesis representative, but the phones out at LAC are now being answered as Genesis Health Club.
A worker at the front desk said a Genesis official would give me a call soon, and I will report back on what I find.
Until then, details are a little scarce on what, if any, changes are in store. Genesis already operates a health club at 2329 Iowa St. in south Lawrence.
I think lots of folks are assuming that Genesis will operate two locations in town but we’ll try to confirm that, as well as what happens to the memberships that LAC members have paid for.
No word yet on what longtime LAC owner Rick Sells' future may have in store. Based on old stories we’ve done on him, I think he has been in the athletic club business for about 30 years.
UPDATE: I've now gotten in touch with Rodney Steven II, owner of the Genesis chain of health clubs, and he confirmed that the change over did indeed occur at noon today.
Steven said part of the agreement was for Genesis to honor all existing LAC memberships. He's on site at the club today handing out new membership cards. Hours of the facility also won't change.
But what will change is that members should expect a major remodeling of the facility, which was bought — not leased — by Genesis. Steven said he hopes to start construction soon on a project that will change the exterior of the building and really be a complete remodel of the interior space. He said that will include new weight and cardio rooms and equipment, new locker rooms and new furnishings.
"We usually spend millions of dollars outfitting and remodeling a club," Steven said.
Steven said he hasn't been able to do that at the Genesis location at 2339 Iowa St. because he has been unsuccessful in purchasing the real estate of that location. Steven said the south Iowa Street location will remain open for the foreseeable future, and he said the company's long-term plan is to operate two locations in Lawrence. But Steven made it clear he likes owning rather than leasing, so he stopped short of saying whether the company will remain at the South Iowa location for the long-term.
Steven said he hopes to have the remodeling work at the former LAC spot completed by September or October. He said the club will remain open during construction, which will be done in phases to minimize disruptions to members.
There’s a trade in the works that sounds mighty familiar from my youth: Trading books for bats and balls.
I have received confirmation that University Book Shop, 1116 W. 23rd St., is on the way out, and Jock’s Nitch sporting goods is on the way in.
Scott Ozier, a store manager for Jock’s Nitch, told me the company will be vacating its space at 916 Massachusetts St. in order to offer a more full-line sporting goods store in the much larger space on 23rd Street.
“This will allow us to carry a lot more sporting goods,” said Ryan Boler, another manager at the company, which has eight stores in eastern and central Kansas and another five in Missouri and Oklahoma. “There is a need for it in Lawrence. There are not a lot of options in Lawrence right now, and we think the location on 23rd Street will make it easier for people to get to.”
The Jock’s Nitch store at 837 Massachusetts St. will remain open. That store serves as the company’s KU fan shop store, focusing on apparel and other team merchandise rather than sporting goods.
The new store on 23rd Street will be more than twice as large as the company’s store on Massachusetts Street.
Ozier said the new store can handle a larger line of products in all categories, but he said the soccer section is expected to expand significantly, and more football gear is expected during season as well. In addition, the company will start running a team center out of the store, selling custom apparel to youth and high school teams.
Ozier said he hopes the store can be open by April 1. The company’s store at 916 Massachusetts has been closed all week, but reopened today to begin a moving liquidation sale. The store is marking down items 25 percent to 75 percent in an effort to reduce the amount of merchandise that the company will have to move. Ozier said the store will be open through the holidays, but likely would close in early 2013, and then reopen a few months later on 23rd Street.
No word yet on when the last day for the University Book Shop will be. It does not come as a surprise that UBS is leaving the location. We reported earlier this year that the building was on the market. Plus, the owners of UBS also own Jayhawk Bookstore, which has a prime textbook selling location right on the edge of the KU campus.
• I know talk of a sporting goods store will cause people to wonder about whether one of the big box retailers, like a Dick’s Sporting Goods Store, is eyeing Lawrence.
That rumor certainly has been around for awhile, but so far it has remained just that — a rumor. The former Sears building at 27th and Iowa has been a rumor hub for such developments. Dick’s has been mentioned as a possible tenant for that location, but my understanding is that the long-term future of the Sears building is uncertain because Sears’ parent company and the Los Angeles real estate company that owns the building haven’t yet agreed how to dispose of the remaining time left on the building’s lease.
The latest rumor I’ve heard — and I haven’t yet confirmed it — is that a local car dealership plans to move into a portion of the building while it does major work on one of its dealership buildings. I’ll check on that and see if there is any truth there.
As for big box stores, though, I’m pretty certain Lawrence is getting some serious looks from a few. I don’t know all the names yet, but Menards sure seems to be mentioned a lot these days. We had reported there may be some interest in converting the former Gaslight Mobile Home Village into retail space, now that a deal for an apartment complex has fallen through at that location. But I’m pretty certain there are other locations Menards and other big box stores are looking at.
Certainly, there is the retail area the Schawda’s are trying to develop at Sixth and the South Lawrence Trafficway, which they hope will get a boost from the proposed KU/city sports park. But I’m going to be keeping a close eye on the South Iowa Street corridor. I think there is a lot of momentum building in the southern Lawrence area.
Do you think it is coincidence that it is building about the same time folks think the South Lawrence Trafficway will be completed?
I’ll let you know when I hear more solid details.
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.
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 area around the proposed Lawrence recreation center and Rock Chalk Park site continues to heat up.
Lawrence developer Tim Stultz has filed plans at City Hall for a 40-acre development of single-family homes and apartments south and east of the recreation center site.
The plan is seeking rezoning for the area at the northwest corner of Queens Road and Overland Drive. The request seeks to create 15.89 acres of RM-12 apartment zoning, 21.54 acres of traditional RS-7 single family zoning, and 3.34 acres of small-lot RS-5 single family zoning.
Based on the preliminary plans, it looks like there will be the potential for about 80 to 85 single-family homes in the area. The plans aren’t yet detailed enough to indicate how many apartments may be a part of the project. But the plans do indicate that the development really wants to integrate the single family homes with the apartment development. Specifically, the plans talk about how the apartment complex will have its own clubhouse and swimming pool, and how that facility will be available to the single-family residents on a membership basis.
That’s not an unheard-of concept, but it is a bit new for Lawrence. It will be interesting to see if that may be a model for creating a more harmonious relationship between apartments and single-family development.
What will be particularly interesting to watch, however, is how quickly the area around the recreation center and Rock Chalk Park begins to fill up with new homes and apartments.
Obviously, the recreation center has brought out a lot of emotions on both sides of the fence, but the area really does have some elements to be a dynamic residential neighborhood. Homes within this area will be within walking distance of indoor basketball courts, a fitness center, an indoor turf field, a walking/jogging track, outdoor tennis courts, and about five miles of walking trails through the Rock Chalk Park area. That’s in addition to the various stadiums at the Rock Chalk Park site, which probably won’t be open for use by the public but will attract multiple spectator events. And time will tell whether the Rock Chalk Park facilities become venues for non-KU events, such as barbecue festivals, community runs and other celebrations.
But that is just one element of the area. If you are willing to lace your walking shoes up a little tighter, you can walk to an indoor pool as well. The city’s Indoor Aquatic Center is down the hill near Wakarusa and Overland drives. (It is about a mile, so you’ll need to lace them up tight. And notice my great sales skills: I mention down the hill but don’t mention the uphill trip on the way back.)
But maybe the most unique aspect for the area will be golf. The Links development — about 630 apartments that will surround a nine-hole golf course — certainly is within walking distance. As we previously have reported, it basically will be just east of the recreation center and Rock Chalk Park site. The Arkansas-based developers say they are going to start the project this year, but they have had timetables in the past that haven’t come to fruition. So, we’ll see.
The Links' development group, though, is further along than they have been. Hugh Jarrett, a spokesman for the group, shared details with me about the company's golf plans for the community. He said the nine-hole course will be open for public play, both on a membership basis and on a daily greens fee type of basis. He didn’t release any details about how much it would cost to play a round there. People who rent apartments at the complex will be able to play unlimited golf at the course with no green fees.
Based on plans filed at City Hall, the course will be more than a standard par 3 executive course. It won’t be as expansive as the city’s Eagle Bend course, but depending on its pricing, it certainly could be a competitor.
Here’s what the plans show for the course’s layout: Hole No. 1, 333 yards; No. 2, 254 yards, plays partially over about a half-acre lake; No. 3, 100 yards; No. 4, 250 yards, plays over a portion of what looks to be an approximately 3-acre lake; No. 5, 487 yards, plays over a portion of the same lake; No. 6, 112 yards, plays through a narrow alley of trees; No. 7, 487 yards; No. 8, 123 yards; and No. 9, 333 yards.
I’m sure I’ll hit a few balls out there some day. Fair warning: If you happen to be walking to the Indoor Aquatic Center that day, you may want to wear a helmet.
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes you don’t understand why good things happen.
That’s the approach Lawrence city commissioners generally were taking the day after bids to build the city’s recreation center came in about $10 million below what city officials had estimated.
“My first thought was ‘this is awesome,’” City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer said of a low bid of $10.5 million by Lawrence-based Gene Fritzel Construction Co. “My second thought was ‘why did we miss it by so much?’”
City officials had received pre-bid estimates from two different architects — one for $18.4 million and another for $20.7 million. All nine bidders came in millions of dollars below those estimates.
Farmer said he asked some contractors who weren’t involved in the bid process why they thought the bids came in so much lower. Nobody had a definitive answer, but contractors said the construction market is very competitive right now because of a lack of jobs.
City Commissioner Terry Riordan thinks that had a lot to do with it.
“I think there were companies out there making a bid because they wanted to keep their crews together,” Riordan said.
I’ve talked to almost all of the commissioners now — I haven’t yet been able to catch up with Mayor Mike Dever — and happiness and relief are emotions in pretty high supply currently with the group. But several commissioners also acknowledge the process has created some questions. I suspect the issue of why the architectural estimates were off by so much will be asked quite a bit by commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting.
Other lingering questions include:
• Given this low bid, how confident should the city be in its $8.3 million estimate for the remaining infrastructure work at the site? As we’ve written many times, the infrastructure work isn’t going through a bid process. An entity led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel will do the infrastructure work through a no-bid arrangement. (Fritzel is an executive of Gene Fritzel Construction, the company founded by his father that was the winning bidder.)
Is it possible that the city’s estimate for the infrastructure — items like parking lots, roads, sewers, and other utilities — also is substantially off? It's tough to say.
“Well, you have to wonder,” Riordan said when asked the question. “It will be very interesting to see how that comes in.”
The city will review invoices from Fritzel’s subcontractor as work is completed, and the city says it will review the prices charged compared to the prices the city is seeing at other infrastructure projects around town. There are no indications that a majority of commissioners are interested in changing the deal and requiring bid work for the infrastructure. Some infrastructure work already has started at the site.
• How much will the recreation center end up costing the city? We don’t quite have that number yet, because we don’t yet know the infrastructure cost. But proponents of the rec center plan touted the notion that the city would be getting about $32 million worth of improvements — the recreation center and the infrastructure — for only $25 million in payments. The way the agreement is structured, however, the city will pay $25 million or the actual amount of the recreation center and the infrastructure, whichever is less. Based on the bid for the 180,000-square-foot rec center building and the projected infrastructure cost, the city may pay millions less than expected.
Right now the city’s costs are at about $12.2 million. That means the infrastructure cost would have to come in near $13 million for the total to reach $25 million.
“If those costs come in at $13 million, there won’t be anybody in the city that is O.K. with that,” Farmer said. If the infrastructure comes in at the city estimate of $8.3 million, the city’s total cost would be a little over $20 million. (The city still will have some cost for equipping the facility, but that always has been the case.) If somehow the infrastructure comes in at about half the cost estimate, the city would have the project for less than $17 million.
• Is the city paying too much of a share of the infrastructure costs for the Rock Chalk Park development? That’s obviously a matter of opinion, but there aren’t any indications that a majority of commissioners want to reopen that part of the agreement.
The $8.3 million infrastructure estimate isn’t just for facilities that will be on the city’s 26-acre recreation center site. It also covers parking and other infrastructure work on the adjacent Rock Chalk Park site, which will include stadiums for Kansas University's track and field, soccer and softball teams.
How you feel about the issue may go back to how you view the Rock Chalk Park project. Is it a KU project or a private development project? There is no question KU is going to be the major user of the Rock Chalk Park facilities. But it also is not accurate to say it is a KU project, at least not in the sense most people think of the phrase. The university won’t own any of the stadiums or facilities. An entity led by Fritzel will own the facilities and lease them back to KU. That lease gives Fritzel the ability to use the facilities for private events. How much he will choose to do that will become clearer in the future.
That makes it trickier to assess the fairness of the city's pricetag for the infrastructure. When the city signed the development agreement in March, officials thought the most likely scenario was that Lawrence would pay for around half the infrastructure costs for the two projects, with the Fritzel mainly picking up the tab for the rest. Now, because of the reduced cost of the rec center building, the city may wind up paying all of the infrastructure costs—although the amount would be about the same as previously expected, or maybe even less.
Riordan and Farmer weren’t on the commission when the city approved the agreement, but neither indicated any interest on Thursday in renegotiating the infrastructure part of the deal.
“If we can get these infrastructure costs to come in at $8.3 million or less, I think the talk of the town is going to be how much less this is costing us than what was expected,” Farmer said. “I don’t think there will be many people who care that we’re paying for a larger share.”
• The final question may be: What if? The city came pretty close to allowing the entire recreation center project to be built without going through any traditional bidding process.
It wasn’t until February that public opposition grew to the point that the city was able to negotiate a deal with Fritzel and officials with KU Endowment, which controls the land, to bid the recreation building. They weren’t able to negotiate a deal for the infrastructure to be bid, although City Manager David Corliss said that would have been his preference.
“We have been consistent in saying we preferred a bid process, but in partnerships with others, we don’t always get all that we want,” Corliss said.
Looking back on the situation, City Commissioner Bob Schumm — who was mayor during the negotiations — said he’s certainly pleased the city ultimately had a bid process for the recreation center. In round numbers, the city was prepared to pay about $20 million for the recreation center and another $5 million for infrastructure.
“I’m glad we bid it,” Schumm said. “I always wanted to bid it, and there was a time that it wasn’t going down that path until we pushed for it. That was for sure the right thing to do.”
It goes to show that an outcry from the public still has some impact. No matter how you calculate the savings, it seems safe to say the opposition to the project saved the city millions.
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.
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.