It is fair to say that there already has been quite a bit of pot-stirring lately when it comes to providers of high-speed Internet service in Lawrence.
First, The World Company (the parent company of this Web site) sells Sunflower Broadband — the longtime, locally owned dominant provider of Internet service in the city — to Knology. Then, Knology sells itself to Colorado-based Wide Open West, which apparently has marketing people who drink a lot of caffeine because it officially goes by the name WOW!. Just to keep you on your toes, though, Knology hasn’t yet changed its name to WOW! here in Lawrence.
Meanwhile, the Internet provider Lawrence Freenet changed its name to Wicked Broadband and has begun expanding its service. (Its marketing people must drink whatever you drink while watching a marathon of the Wizard of Oz, because its tagline is “faster than a flock of flying monkeys.”)
And speaking of flying monkeys, there is Google. (That’s how they get all those search engine results, you know.) The world’s new corporate giant picked Kansas City, Kan., and then Kansas City, Mo., to launch its Google Fiber project, which promises to bring Internet service that is so fast that my wife would be able to deplete the entire inventories of online shopping sites with the single push of a button. The proximity of that project generated chatter in Lawrence about what it needs to do to keep up with the Jones of the broadband world.
Well, it is still a bit early to say that the pot is about to be stirred again — but there is an entity out there that is fiddling with the spoon. You may be surprised who it is: the city of Lawrence.
When it comes to valuable infrastructure, the city these days owns far more than roads, waterlines, parks and such. It also has large amounts of fiber optic cable or underground conduits to accept fiber optic cable.
At their Tuesday evening meeting, city commissioners will be asked to begin advertising for a consultant that can help the city determine how to best leverage its valuable fiber optic holdings.
What that will lead to is still uncertain. But a city staff memo points to a recent initiative in Seattle as an example of what other cities are trying to do with their fiber optic networks. One of the goals in Seattle is to increase competition among service providers.
It will be interesting to see if the city uses its fiber optic network in a way designed to lower the price of broadband services in the city. I don’t even know how the price of broadband services in Lawrence stack up to those in other communities. But I bet you tech companies thinking about moving to this area do.
The city already has been playing that game a bit. The folks at Wicked Broadband — mostly when it was Lawrence Freenet — have used city infrastructure to expand their service in town. The city and Wicked have an agreement that says Wicked will make efforts to provide low-cost Internet service to people who can’t afford it. According to the company’s Web site, 10 percent of a customer’s monthly service fee “helps bring Internet access to low-income households.”
The city has a fiber optic network or conduit that stretches all the way to Tee Pee Junction in North Lawrence to 23rd and Iowa in south Lawrence to the East Hills Business Park in eastern Lawrence and to west of the Sixth Street and South Lawrence Trafficway in west Lawrence.
But the city also wants a consultant to look at all the traffic signals, light poles, water towers and other city-owned structures that could accommodate equipment for wireless Internet service. Does the city have the infrastructure in place to create a wireless Internet cloud over the city? Given that until recently I kept going to The Raven to try to buy this Facebook everybody was talking about, I’m not the guy to ask. But a city-hired consultant is. We’ll get a read on Tuesday about how serious city commissioners are about being tech players in the community.
Well, Mike Elwell wasn’t bluffing when he said he had somebody besides the city of Lawrence interested in the unique Abe & Jake’s Landing building along the Kansas River.
It looks like one of downtown’s more prominent land owners and a downtown nightclub operator soon will have control of the Abe & Jake’s building.
Lawrence city commissioners are being asked to transfer a long-term lease for the building from Elwell to an entity led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton and Mike Logan, who is the operator of The Granada in downtown Lawrence.
In case you have forgotten, the city of Lawrence actually owns the late-19th-century industrial building, which is sometimes called the Barbed Wire Building because it once housed a barbed wire manufacturing company. But Elwell essentially controls the building because he was granted a long-term, low-cost lease by the city in 1999 to use the building in exchange for him investing about $2 million to refurbish what had become an eyesore.
Elwell has made no secret that he has been looking to get out of the building, which is just east of Lawrence City Hall. As we previously reported, the city was in discussions to take over the building and use it for office space for the city’s Planning and Development Services Department. Those talks fell through, and Elwell told me at the time he had someone else very interested in the building.
Now we’ll see what Compton and Logan plan to do with the building. In a letter to City Hall, the duo indicated that the building would be a complement to the Marriott Extended Stay Hotel, which is a Compton-led project being constructed at Ninth and New Hampshire streets.
“One of our goals is to work together and allow Abe & Jake’s to operate as a venue for weddings, banquets, etc.,” the two wrote in the letter.
That’s essentially how the building is being used now. Elwell previously operated a full-fledged nightclub in the building, but he has since pulled back from that business plan. I chatted this morning with Compton, and he said there are no plans to use the facility as a traditional nightclub. He said under Elwell the building already was being rented out for private functions nearly 50 times a year, and he thinks that number will increase when the marketing forces of the Marriott hotel are added to the mix.
“We feel like it will give us banquet facility space we would not have in the hotel,” Compton said. “It is a beautiful building and has a beautiful setting. It really just continues our interest and commitment in downtown.”
Compton, who owns a multitude of properties downtown, is in the midst of a large building effort. He recently completed the 901 Building, a multi-story apartment and office building at the southwest corner of Ninth and New Hampshire. He told me this morning he hopes construction work will begin in January on the Marriott project on the southeast corner of that intersection. Work is scheduled to begin in May on another multi-story apartment and office building on the northeast corner.
Logan will be the manager of the new Abe & Jake’s operation. Compton and Logan already work together. Compton is the landlord for Logan’s business at The Granada. Logan is one of the more successful concert promoters in downtown Lawrence, so it will be interesting to see if he has plans to use the building — which has extensive views of the Kansas River and tall 50 foot ceilings — as a music venue. I’ve got a call into him and will report back.
As for terms of the deal between Compton’s group and Elwell, they haven’t been released. The terms of the lease with the city, however, are expected to stay the same. Essentially, the lease calls for the tenant of the building to pay $4,800 per year related to use of the city-owned parking garage that is adjacent to the building. The tenant also is responsible for all property taxes, insurance and utilities.
The lease has a series of automatic renewals that could allow Compton and Logan to control the property into 2087, according to the lease. The terms of the city's lease with Elwell essentially gave Elwell the right to sell his interests in the lease to another party.
City commissioners will discuss the proposed transfer at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday night at City Hall.
I bet you this has something to do with Duchess Kate’s morning sickness.
Fans of British cuisine will be sad to hear that Queen Lizzy’s Fish & Chips, 125 E. 10th Street, is closing its doors on Dec. 21.
Here’s my theory: Duchess Kate was secretly a regular customer of Lawrence’s only British-themed restaurant.
But now with this pregnancy, she’s having a hard time keeping the bangers and mash down. And thus we can all blame Prince William for Lawrence losing one of its more unique restaurants.
Well, it's a theory anyway, but Queen Lizzy’s owner Matt Poulton told me the restaurant’s location was at the heart of the matter. Simply put, the size, and off-Mass. Street location combined with the rent just wasn’t working.
“This unit is on two levels and it only can fit 31 people comfortably,” Poulton said. “We need to find the right size. We need to find something bigger.”
Indeed, Poulton has not given up on the idea of British cuisine in Lawrence.
“There is definitely a demand for it,” Poulton said. “That’s why we’ll be back.”
Queen Lizzy's won the Best New Restaurant category in Lawrence.com's 2010 Best of Lawrence contest, and it also won in the best Fish ‘n Chips category in Pitch Weekly’s restaurant contest.
So, the restaurant has a following. Poulton, however, said he doesn’t want to make any false promises about when he’ll be able to reopen in another location.
In the meantime, the company will sell a few of its food products at Brits, 929 Massachusetts Street. Those products will include traditional British sausages wrapped in puff pastries, a variety of meat pies and such, and something called Scotch eggs, which is a hard boiled egg wrapped in ground pork and breadcrumbs and then baked.
The company also will continue to serve food at some British festivals around the region and will offer private catering. (Take a look at their menu and tell me you can’t have a wild party with items such as Bacon Butty and Mushy Peas.)
I’ll keep an ear out for any news of a new location for Queen Lizzy’s, and pass it along as soon as I hear. But right now, I need to excuse myself. I’ve been having a bit of morning sickness myself. I was confused last night about what Scotch eggs were.
Work at former Kaw Motors site is for Advantage Metals, but city halts construction until permit issue is resolved
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me in the last week or so what is going on at the former Kaw Valley Motors site in North Lawrence, I would have eight or nine dollars. (And for a man who has a wife that has put JEWELRY in capital letters on her Christmas list, those dollars would be helpful. I figure it would get me about halfway there.)
If you haven’t driven by the Tee Pee Junction lately in North Lawrence, most of the old buildings that were part of the defunct Kaw Valley salvage yard have been removed, and major dirt work has begun on the site.
The project is the same one we reported on in March: Kansas City-based Advantage Metals is working to build a state-of-the-art metal salvage yard at the site.
But right now, the best way to describe the project is halted. The city of Lawrence issued a stop-work order for the project late last week.
Planning Director Scott McCullough told me the issue involves the project not having the necessary state floodplain development permit.
The city issued a floodplain development permit — the site is right next to the Kansas River but is protected by a levee — on the belief that the project didn’t need a state permit. But upon further review, McCullough said the project does need a state floodplain development permit from the Division of Water Resources. McCullough said the decision was made to issue a stop work order on the excavation that was occurring on the site until that permit is obtained.
“I don’t see any of this as a prohibition on what they want to do at the site,” McCullough said. “They just have to go through this process.”
The permit could be issued in early 2013. The state currently is processing the permit application, and a public comment period on the application runs through the end of this month, McCullough said.
But it appears likely that the site ultimately will be a salvage yard again. The approved plans for the project, however, ensure the area will look quite a bit different than the old Kaw Valley Motors site.
Plans call for a new 14,000 square foot building to be constructed along North Third Street. I believe it is fair to say that Advantage Metals will have more indoor storage of materials than Kaw Valley did. Outdoor storage areas will be fenced and screened.
Based on the company’s Web site, it appears the business will accept about any type of metal — including cars, appliances, lead acid batteries, electric motors and such.
Several folks in the area may already be familiar with Advantage’s operations. The company is based in Kansas City, but also has locations in Topeka, Fort Scott, Columbus, Emporia, and several cities in Missouri. (I hear Mizzou officials several times this season tried to trade in their football team at the locations. Yes, it is tough to make living off of Mizzou jokes when the ‘Hawks are 1-11. But, hey, I’ve got jewelry to pay for.)
With this latest delay, I don’t have word on when Advantage may open. Obviously, the project is setting up a battle between Advantage and North Lawrence-based Lonnie’s Recycling, which has been a fixture across the river for years. In addition, the 12th and Haskell Recycling Center also has plans on the book for a new location in East Lawrence, just northeast of 11th and Haskell. I need to get an update on the latest with that project.
In the meantime, it is off to jewelry shopping. Hey wait a minute. Advantage Metals. Metals. I wonder if they have a deal on jewelry.
Here may be another example of how Lawrence once again breaks from the herd. Right here in the middle of Beef Country, Lawrence may become known as the Capital of Veggie Burgers.
It is still a little early to bestow that title, but one of Lawrence’s emerging, potentially nationwide success stories is a veggie burger company.
As we previously have reported, Hilary Brown, the owner of Lawrence’s former Local Burger restaurant, has started a veggie burger production company that sells products under the brand name Hilary’s Eat Well.
Now, the company is undergoing its largest expansion yet. Brown confirmed to me that her company has signed a deal with an investor to occupy an 8,000-square-foot, vacant industrial building near 23rd and Haskell.
The building at 2205 Haskell Ave. used to house a machine shop, but has been vacant for a few years. The purchase will allow Brown to move out of rented production space at 19th and Haskell, and significantly expand production of the company’s products. It also will allow the company to move its administrative offices out of the upstairs space that was above the former Local Burger restaurant near Seventh and Vermont streets.
Brown started making a few veggie burgers out of her Local Burger restaurant in spring 2010, and demand was so strong that she had moved into production space at 19th and Haskell by February 2011. By summer 2012, the company struck a deal to have its veggie burger products sold in Whole Foods stores across the country.
Brown said the company is in discussions with other national retailers and food service companies to carry the products. The company expects its production capacity to increase “by a lot,” and the company has ordered new equipment for the location.
“I think I just wrote the largest check of my life,” Brown said of the recent equipment order. “But we think it will pay for itself very quickly.”
The company plans to launch three new products in 2013, including something called a Hemp and Greens Burger, Veggie Bites and a special remoulade sauce that was popular at Local Burger.
Currently, Hilary’s Eat Well has about 20 employees, but Brown said the company likely will add four more as part of the expansion.
She hopes to be in the building by March or April. Kelvin Heck of Lawrence’s Colliers International brokered the deal for the seller, while Lawrence resident Steve Ruttinger of Spectrum Real Estate Services represented the buyer.
Rumblings of Menards coming to Lawrence may be impacted by retailer’s decision to pull back on Kansas City area expansion, which it blames on Obama
There have been rumblings for awhile that Menards — the home improvement chain — may be giving Lawrence a serious look. Well, here’s a new rumbling that may displease Lawrence folks on a couple of levels.
The Independence, Mo., Examiner is reporting that Menards has put its plans to build a new store in Independence on hold. Furthermore, it said its reason for delaying a store for reasons related to President Obama.
“I’m very sorry, but we are a family-owned business and with the Obama administration scaring the dickens out of all small businesses in the USA at present, we have decided not to risk expansion until things are more settled,” Menards spokesman Jeff Abott told the newspaper in an e-mail on Friday.
Yeah, you heard that right. A spokesman used the word “dickens.” (I wonder if Menards sells dickens, and if they are cheaper there than at Home Depot.)
Regardless, the bigger news is that if Menards is delaying projects they already have announced, then the chances of an announcement happening in Lawrence in the near future seem less likely. Menards has offered no timetable to restart the project.
As a side note, the company’s politicizing of the issue probably won’t go over well with a majority of their potential Lawrence customers, since the city is one of the few in Kansas to come out big to support the president’s re-election.
On Tuesday, Kansas City television station KCTV 5 contacted the Wisconsin-based retailer for more comment, and the spokesman declined to repeat his assertion that the Obama administration played into the decision.
Anyway, I’ll leave those politics to you. I’m busy enough trying to figure out where all these scared dickens have gone.
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.
I don’t think that's the smell of Olive Garden’s all-you-can-eat breadsticks in the air, but I can’t be certain. My wife is taking no chances: She’s digging out her massive breadstick-toting purse, and she is ordering me to dust off my dinner jacket with the really big pockets.
All of this is to say there is activity at the 27th and Iowa site that once was proposed to house the city’s first Olive Garden restaurant, until that deal fell apart when city commissioners balked at providing incentives for the restaurant chain.
A new development plan for the northeast corner of the intersection has been filed at City Hall. The plans call for a 12,700 square foot building to be constructed on the largely vacant site. Half the building would be devoted to a “high turnover sit down restaurant,” while the other half would be used for “general retail shops.” The plans don’t provide any specifics on the restaurant or the retailers that may be going into the location. In case you are having a hard time picturing the site, it is where the old Plum Tree Chinese restaurant used to be, and also the adjacent site where Mazzio’s Pizza used to operate years ago.
The developer — Mission-based MD Management — is the one who proposed the Olive Garden for the site in 2011. But these plans are different than the ones filed when Olive Garden was the proposed tenant for the site. The traffic study also notes the development will produce about 60 percent fewer motorist trips on any given day than the previous proposal. Those all may be signs that we’re talking about a different restaurant, but I don’t really know. Some folks who have insight into these sort of things seem to think that too. I’m doing some asking around, and I also have a call into MD Management.
At the moment, I haven’t seen anything that indicates the development company is seeking any sort of financial incentives, such as special taxing districts or property tax rebates, to develop the site. But I’ll keep my eyes open for that as well.
The property already has the proper zoning for restaurant and retail development, so most of the approvals needed from City Hall are relatively technical ones. Perhaps the answers will reveal themselves in fairly short order.
In the meantime, I have a feeling that since our breadstick garb has been unearthed, my wife and I will be making a trip to an Olive Garden. I just hope its never-ending pasta bowl promotion isn’t going on. You don’t want to know how she makes me smuggle out pasta and marinara sauce.
Tuesday night’s Lawrence City Commission meeting ended up being like a baked bean dish at this weekend’s Memorial Day barbecue: It was too much for one sitting. So, here are a couple of leftovers from the meeting.
I have had some people ask me whether Tuesday’s meeting ever produced an explanation about why the city’s cost estimates for the recreation center were so much higher than the actual bids the city received from nine contractors.
After all, the $10.5 million low bid received by the city was significantly less than the $18.4 million and $20.7 million estimates produced by two architects hired by the city.
City commissioners did receive a bit of an explanation. There were several aspects mentioned, but the biggest factor was that architects didn’t account for how much some key commodity prices have fallen, and how competitive the regional construction market has become for large construction projects.
The two architects — the team of CP Sports and KBS Constructors Inc., and Lawrence-based Gould Evans — both noted that several large commodity-oriented bids came in significantly lower than expected. For instance, CP Sports said the bids for steel, HVAC/plumbing and the electrical estimates came in $6 million below its estimates. And Gould Evans said the bids for steel, HVAC and wood flooring came in $4 million below its estimates.
Several of those commodities had been in high demand because of building booms in China and the Middle East, Craig Penzler, an architect with CP Sports, wrote in a memo to city officials. But “with international booms slowing, the large commodity materials are more readily available,” Penzler wrote. “We believe we are seeing an impact upon the pricing for larger projects.”
One of the more interesting outcomes of the bidding process was the bid the city received from Crossland Construction. Gould Evans hired Crossland to produce a mock bid for the project a few months ago. It provided an estimate of $16.8 million. When Crossland bid the project for real, its price was $10.7 million. Granted, the building’s design at the time Crossland provided the mock bid wasn’t exactly the same as it was at the time of the real bid, but it was pretty close. The two bids were not.
The explanation seems to be that conditions have changed rapidly in the past month or two. Or, in some cases, even in just a few hours. In his memo to city officials, Penzler said he had a conversation with one Topeka bidder who said subcontractors on the project aggressively started cutting their prices in an effort to win the job. According to Penzler, two hours before the bid was due to the city, the Topeka contractor believed his total bid for the recreation center was going to be about $16 million. Over the next hour, the bid had dropped to $14 million. And then just before the 2 p.m. bid deadline, it had dropped to just under $13 million.
Clearly, there is a lesson to be learned here: If the city had set the bid date a few hours later, contractors would have been paying the city to build the project.
Well, maybe that’s not quite the takeaway here. But it does show the power of bidding. As has already been reported, the city isn’t going through a competitive bid process on the infrastructure portion of this project. At Tuesday’s meeting, Public Works Director Chuck Soules said he is looking over the previous $8.3 million estimate for infrastructure. (It really is closer to a $9.3 million estimate when you include some site work and other items that aren’t technically called infrastructure but are part of the no-bid package.) Soules is comparing the cost estimate with bid prices the city has seen for similar work, such as the bids received for the Farmland business park project and the Iowa Street reconstruction project.
Soules said his preliminary analysis shows that it is unlikely that the infrastructure work should come in any higher than the $8.3 million estimate. But, as we reported, the city now wants to hear what developer Thomas Fritzel, who is building the infrastructure, says. They’ve asked Fritzel to provide a firm quote on the infrastructure costs within the next two weeks.
One last leftover from Tuesday’s City Commission meeting. And this one really is just a crumb. But it appears that next week’s City Commission meeting may produce a conversation about the use of drones in Lawrence airspace.
City Commissioner Terry Riordan said he had been approached by some citizens who want to discuss a city drone policy. Of course, the city doesn’t have drones. But apparently there are some people in the city who are concerned about future use of drones in Lawrence airspace, I presume by the federal government.
Commissioners indicated they weren’t going to put the topic on their regular agenda. It would seem unlikely that the city would have any influence over the federal government on the topic. But anybody is free to come and speak during the commission’s open public comment period at the end of each meeting. It sounded like some representatives of the group may do that at next week’s meeting.
You can bet I’ll keep an ear open for that.
UPDATE: I've talked this afternoon with Ben Jones, a Lawrence resident who is part of a group of about dozen or more people who have started meeting about the drone issue. He said the group will ask the city to consider an ordinance that would limit the city's use of drones — such as for police department surveillance and other such activities — until standards can be developed. He said the ordinance would be modeled after one passed in Charlottesville, Va..
The group does plan to speak at Tuesday night's City Commission meeting. Jones said the group, which crosses political lines, isn't expecting Lawrence to get into the drone business any time soon, but it thinks a resolution would be a good opportunity for the city "to get ahead of the curve."
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.
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.
City estimates it may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to keep concealed weapons out of city buildings
It appears the city soon will have to buy hundreds thousands of dollars worth of security measures. Either that, or the city will have to learn to live with a new state law that would allow concealed-carry permit holders to bring firearms into City Hall and other city buildings.
City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting will consider formally asking the Kansas Attorney General for an exemption from the new state law until Jan. 1, 2014. The state law — approved by the legislature and signed by the governor this session — essentially contains an automatic one-year exemption period for local governments. The city also may be able to get three additional one-year exemptions, although that is less certain.
The law no longer allows city or county buildings to be posted with the "no gun" signs that make it illegal for anyone, including concealed-carry permit holders, to bring a concealed weapon into the buildings. Under the new law, governments can only post those signs if the buildings have adequate security measures, such as metal detectors and security officers.
Lawrence city officials have begun calculating the cost to purchase and staff such metal detectors. A memo from City Attorney Toni Wheeler estimates it will cost about $5,000 for each metal detector, plus at least $42,000 a year for a single police officer to staff the metal detector—and the Lawrence Police Department, Wheeler wrote, believes two officers may be necessary for each detector. That would place the annual operating costs for the program at more than $84,000 for each building with a detector. And the cost may be even greater, because the personnel numbers represent starting salaries and don’t factor in benefit costs or other costs to equip a police officer.
Wheeler says at least three city buildings — City Hall, Lawrence Municipal Court and the public access area of the Police Department’s Investigations and Training Center — all warrant consideration for security systems. Beyond those three, city commissioners also would have to decide whether recreation centers and other city offices need the security measures.
New security costs for the city are expected to be addressed in the City Manager’s recommended 2014 budget, which is scheduled to be released in July. The costs could add up. If the city decided to include recreation centers in the program, there would be a total of nine buildings to equip and staff. At a minimum of $42,000 per building, that's almost $400,000 a year, plus the cost of the metal detectors. At $84,000 per building — which would be the case if two officers are required — it would be more than $750,000 a year.
But say you wanted to have security measures in place for every city-owned building that currently prohibits concealed firearms. The city currently has 47 buildings listed in its administrative policy, which means it would cost $3.9 million to provide a two-member security detail at every location. That, of course, is not going to happen. It probably would be a bit odd to have a metal detector at the city’s Landscape Shop or the Wastewater Treatment Plant, for example. Those places probably will become buildings where concealed-carry permit holders can have a weapon.
It will be interesting to see how city commissioners react to the new legislation. The previous City Commission sent a letter to the legislature objecting to the bill while it was under consideration. Whether the city’s objections rise to the level of spending more than a half-million dollars on security each year, I don’t know. The city already spends some money on security: a police officer attends each Lawrence City Commission meeting, and a bailiff is employed by the Lawrence Municipal Court.
If the city gets serious about installing metal detectors, there will be quite a few items to discuss. It probably would require the public entrances at City Hall to be changed significantly, since there are three ways for the public to enter City Hall. The city also could have a discussion about whether security officers — rather than fully sworn police officers — would be appropriate to staff the metal detectors. That may reduce the personnel cost for a security program.
And then there are city buildings such as the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence Arts Center that attract large crowds on a regular basis. How would they be secured and staffed?
Of course, the city always could have the discussion of whether any harm would come from allowing licensed individuals to carry a weapon in city buildings. According to the Kansas Attorney General’s office, it already is legal for concealed-carry permit holders to carry a weapon on various pieces of city property. Every city-owned park, for example, is a place where concealed-carry permit holders are entitled to have a weapon. “Parks, parking lots and other open public property" are no longer able to be restricted through signs, according to the Attorney General’s Web site. That didn’t always use to be the case, but the law was changed, I believe, during the 2010 legislative session.
City commissioners won’t be the only ones that get to have this fun. Douglas County also will have to go through the same exercise with its buildings, although it already has a metal detector for the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. Public schools won’t have to install metal detectors under the new law. School officials can continue to post the "no gun" signs on school buildings, which will make it illegal for concealed-carry permit holders to bring a weapon into the building.
The changes keep on coming in the Lawrence Internet market.
The largest Internet service provider in Lawrence has just announced that it is removing all of its usage caps from its Internet service packages, as the company changes its name from Knology to WOW! That means customers no longer will be charged for going over their usage limits, according to a press release by the company.
Englewood, Colo.-based WOW purchased Knology back in July, but it had not converted Knology over to the WOW brand until today. Signs for the company around town are being changed today, according to WOW.
But the changes related to Internet usage caps are likely to garner more attention from hard-core Internet users. The caps had generated concern among many users because customers’ standard monthly rates could rise depending on how much Internet usage they had in a particular month.
The change in the cap policy comes at a time when both private and public officials have been talking about shaking up the city’s Internet service provider market.
A city-hired consultant recently completed a report that found that current broadband offerings in Lawrence generally are “costlier, slower and more limited than in other comparable communities.” City officials had the report commissioned because they have been interested in possibly allowing private companies to have access to a growing ring of fiber optic cable owned by the city.
On the private front, Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband — formerly known as Lawrence Freenet — has made a proposal to the city to further tap into that ring of fiber. (Ring of Fiber: Johnny Cash used to sing that song in his old age.)
At their meeting tonight, city commissioners will receive a request from Wicked for low-cost fiber leases with the city, and a one-time $500,000 grant to help the company build new broadband infrastructure in the city. The request is part of a pilot project Wicked is launching to bring to one Lawrence neighborhood the same type of superfast Internet service that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City. If successful, Wicked Broadband wants to extend the high-speed broadband project to all of the city.
So, we’ll see what cards the folks at WOW start playing in what appears to be an increasingly competitive game in Lawrence. Consumers, I suspect, will be keeping an eye on whether the competition starts having an impact on rates.
It didn’t take long for the tales of tragedy in Moore, Okla., to cause at least one city leader to begin asking questions of whether Lawrence is adequately prepared for a similar natural disaster.
City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer raised questions at last night’s City Commission meeting about whether Lawrence’s building codes for public buildings, like schools, are adequate when it comes to providing shelter from tornadoes.
“I think it would behoove us to look at ways to make our school buildings safer,” Farmer said. “If we don’t, shame on us.”
Farmer's comments Tuesday night came after he first broached the subject on his Facebook page earlier in the day. From his page: “I understand that natural disasters happen. I understand that we have better things in place to enhance warnings. But if we parade children into a hallway and tell them to cover their necks with their hands, and an EF-5 comes rolling through town, it won't matter. It’s time we stop making excuses for lives being taken because we were too irresponsible to think outside of a box, or too cheap to make sure this NEVER happens again.
“Reinforced tunnels, underground schools. Something. Smarter people than me are thinking about this. We have to figure something out. Innocent lives being taken because we didn't act when we possessed the innovation to stop it is unacceptable to me.”
Commissioners asked Planning Director Scott McCullough to produce a report summarizing what Lawrence’s building codes require in the way of storm shelters in public buildings and whether there are feasible additions that could be made to the code.
I would look for that report in the next few weeks.
As for what is really possible, I don’t know. Lawrence Public Schools spokeswoman Julie Boyle told me Lawrence public schools don’t have FEMA designated safe rooms, but obviously they do have plans to locate students and staff to interior portions of the buildings, which are better designed to withstand severe weather.
We’ll see how much, if any, serious discussion the idea of stricter building standards gets at City Hall.
Tuesday’s discussion arose after Mayor Mike Dever asked whether the city was planning to send any personnel to the Oklahoma City area to assist with the devastation following this week’s tornado.
City Manager David Corliss said the city hadn’t yet been asked for any assistance, but he plans to spread an offer of assistance to public administration officials he knows in the Oklahoma City area.
“I certainly will make it clear that we are available to do that,” Corliss said.
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.
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.
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.