Today will mark a changing of the guard in one of the major behind-the-scenes departments at Lawrence City Hall.
Friday is the last day of service for Frank Reeb, the city’s clerk and director of administrative services. As previously reported, Reeb, who has been with the city for about eight years, is leaving to become the director of human resources for the Kansas Athletic Department.
In a sign of the fiscal times at City Hall, City Manager David Corliss is not seeking to immediately fill the position. Instead, Jonathan Douglass, an assistant to the city manager, will serve as interim city clerk. Diane Stoddard, an assistant city manager, will oversee the human relations division. Cynthia Boecker, another assistant city manager, will oversee the risk management division.
Corliss said he’s not yet set a timeline to begin recruiting for a permanent replacement, but instead will monitor the city’s finances to determine when it would be appropriate to begin the process.
Reeb oversaw a variety of city functions. He was responsible for keeping City Commission meeting minutes, issuing various licenses and permits, conducting employee recruiting and employee policy matters, and managing the city’s health insurance program.
Hosting a keg party may soon become a much dicier proposition in Lawrence.
Lawrence city commissioners at their meeting tonight will consider beefing up a city ordinance that would allow local law enforcement to more easily charge hosts of keg parties with illegally serving underage drinkers.
Under current state law, to charge the host of a party with illegally serving a minor, local law enforcement must prove that the minor was an invited guest of the host. Proving that can be tricky.
A new ordinance, though, might help. City commissioners are being told they have the legal authority to create a local social hosting law that is tougher than the statewide law. Members of the city’s legal services staff have crafted an ordinance that would require the host to prove that any minor at the party was not an invited guest. In other words, the host would need to show some evidence that the minor was trespassing.
The ordinance also would require the host to take reasonable steps — such as checking a picture ID — if there’s a suspicion that a minor is trying to drink at a party.
The change in law has been lobbied for by the New Tradition Coalition, a local group that is working to reduce underage drinking in the community.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. at City Hall.
Fire eaters, street dances and open-air grills. It must be summer in downtown Lawrence.
Planning is well under way for at least a trio of events designed to bring people and their wallets to downtown Lawrence this summer. Here’s a look:
• Organizers of the Lawrence Busker Festival announced recently that they’ll be bringing the street performance festival back to downtown for a second year.
The event is set for Aug. 21 to Aug. 23, and organizer Richard Renner hopes to have more than 20 performers to entertain crowds throughout the downtown area.
Renner, the owner of a local vaudeville entertainment company, estimates that last year’s inaugural event drew 5,000 to 8,000 people downtown. He said several merchants reported increased sales of 10 to 30 percent, compared with the same weekend a year earlier.
“I think every e-mail or letter we received asked us to please do it again,” Renner said.
This year the event will add a children’s stage in front of the Lawrence Public Library, in addition to having performers up and down Massachusetts Street.
The event also is expected to attract Mama Lou, who bills herself as the “American Strong Woman,” ripping phone books in half and pounding nails into wood with her fists. Also on tap will be fire eaters, fire jugglers, sword swallowers, puppeteers, magicians and musicians, Renner said.
• Up for approval at Tuesday’s Lawrence City Commission meeting is a request to close a downtown street for a 20th anniversary party for the Sandbar.
The Sandbar, 17 E. Eighth St., wants to close Eighth Street from Massachusetts Street to New Hampshire Street from 5 p.m. Aug. 1 to 1 a.m. Aug. 2. The Saturday night event would feature a street dance, street vendors and outdoor drinking.
City staff members are recommending approval of the event. City commissioners will consider the issue at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday.
• An outdoor event at the Eldridge Hotel also will be up for consideration by the City Commission on Tuesday. The Eldridge is seeking a permit to have an outdoor band on July 3 from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. The event would be on the vacant lot immediately south of the hotel.
The concert, which also would feature outdoor food sales, would be a kickoff event for the Tour of Lawrence, a professional bicycle race that will be in Lawrence July 3-5. The Friday event would be going on at the same time as the street sprint portion of the race. The street sprint will take place on parts of Seventh Street near the Eldridge Hotel.
The Eldridge event is in addition to a host of downtown activities planned for July 4. Those include a food festival at 3 p.m. in Watson Park that will include offerings from 16 locally owned restaurants, and a fireworks show over the Kansas River that will begin about 9 p.m.
Several lingering issues will be back up for discussion at the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission this week. Here’s a look:
• Rural Lecompton resort: Plans by area developers to convert about 60 acres into a corporate retreat and conference center will be considered. The Planning Commission will consider a request to rezone 58.99 acres just northeast of the intersection of North 1800 Road and East 700 Road. The plan has been up for approval several times but has been deferred on multiple occasions because planning staff members have said it was inconsistent with the county’s comprehensive plan. A revision to the comprehensive plan is being prepared that would allow for a corporate retreat at the site.
The property is close enough to Lecompton that the Lecompton Planning Commission also has heard the issue. The Lecompton Planning Commission has recommended denial of the rezoning request because it is afraid the rezoning will open the area up to a wide range of uses in the future. The Lecompton Planning Commission said if conditions could be placed on the zoning to ensure that it couldn’t be used for nonretreat type uses, that it likely would be in favor of the project.
The development group has said the project would include a conference center, reception area, restaurant, bar, a swimming pool, commercial riding stable and hunting and shooting areas. Lodging would be provided in cabins clustered throughout the area.
Planning commissioners will discuss the request as part of their meeting at 6:30 p.m. tonight at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets. County commissioners ultimately will be responsible for approving the rezoning.
• Also tonight, planning commissioners will consider new regulations to protect environmentally sensitive lands in the county. The regulations generally require developments to go through a special site plan process if they have any floodways, floodplains, streams, or wetlands on their property. Developers also may have to go through a special permit process if there are more than 1,000 square feet of woodlands or 1,000 square feet of prairie remnants on the site. City commissioners previously had considered the regulations, but sent them back to the Planning Commission over concerns that the new regulations were not specific enough. City and county commissioners ultimately will have to approve the regulations before they become final.
• At their 6:30 p.m. meeting on Wednesday at City Hall, planning commissioners will consider an issue related to a proposed annexation of the former Farmland Industries site east of Lawrence.
The Planning Commission is being asked to find that the annexation of the 448 acres of property is compatible with the city and county’s long-range plans.
The Douglas County Commission on July 13 will consider adopting a resolution allowing the annexation to move forward. The City Commission is requesting the annexation because it wants to see the property redeveloped into a business park.
Outdoor movies are set to return to downtown Lawrence.
City commissioners at their meeting tonight are expected to give approval to the third annual Downtown Lawrence Film Festival.
Downtown Lawrence Inc. again plans to use a vacant lot at the southwest corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets to show classic films on the wall of the downtown parking garage.
This year, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn will take center stage.
Here’s a look at the proposed schedule: • June 11: Woman of the Year • June 25: Without Love • July 9: State of the Union • July 23: Adam’s Rib • Aug. 13: Pat & Mike • Aug. 27: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Each evening will begin with live music, free popcorn and prize drawings at 8 p.m. The movies will start at 9:15 p.m.
In other downtown news, if you’re looking for a slightly different type of outdoor activity this summer, The Sandbar may soon be able to accommodate.
The Sandbar, 17 E. Eighth St., is set to receive approval at tonight’s commission meeting for a new outdoor sidewalk drinking area.
The downtown bar is seeking to become the latest to take advantage of new city regulations that allow some downtown bars to create sidewalk seating areas to serve customers.
Previously, only restaurants were able to have sidewalk seating areas downtown. But bar owners convinced commissioners that the rules needed to be changed following the city’s implementation of a citywide smoking ban.
Commissioners agreed to allow bars to have sidewalk seating areas, if the business had no other feasible option for providing an outdoor seating area.
Linwood is not Hollywood, but the small Leavenworth County town of about 400 people is now home to a pair of international TV personalities.
The Historic Harris House — a 15-room, 1883 mansion west of Linwood — recently was purchased by the co-founders of GOD TV, an international Christian television network that is available across the U.S. on the DIRECTV satellite system.
Rory and Wendy Stephen — who in 1995 started the Christian television network in Britain — purchased the home and its 11 acres in mid-April, according to records at the Leavenworth County Register of Deeds office.
But don’t expect Linwood to become the new headquarters of GOD TV. Even though the historic house has previously been used to host conferences and special events, an executive for the network said there are no plans for the house to be used as part of GOD TV’s operations.
Instead, the couple — who are best known by their on-air names of Rory and Wendy Alec — purchased the home to serve as one of their private residences, said Jeffrey Levinson, an executive for the network’s U.S. operations.
“The attraction of this particular property to the Alecs is that it has stunning grounds and will make a wonderful family home,” Levinson said via e-mail.
The home is a showpiece in Linwood. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built by former U.S. Senator William A. Harris, who during the late 1800s was active in the area as a buyer of land for the Union Pacific Railroad.
“It just has beautiful architecture inside and out,” said Steven Hertzog, who along with his wife sold the home after moving their photography and marketing business to Lawrence.
Levinson said he wasn’t sure how often the couple — who according to their Web site, have two children — will be at the property.
GOD TV is based in Jerusalem, and has its U.S. offices in Washington, D.C., and Orlando, Fla. The network has international offices in South Africa, Kenya, India, China, and Israel, according to its Web site.
The couple started the network in 1995, after meeting in Britain. According to the Web site, Rory — who serves as CEO of the network — is a native of South Africa, while Wendy — the network's director of television — was born in England.
The duo regularly host several events on GOD TV, such as the Global Day of Prayer celebration later this month, and a program called Apocalypse & The End of Times.
After two days of budget hearings, it appears that the folks who protect and serve are pretty well protected in the city’s 2010 budget deliberations.
City commissioners were told that the 2010 budget includes expenses for new police officers, and none of the commissioners balked at the idea.
The city actually is looking for recruits to fill six new positions in the department currently. When those six positions are filled, the department will be up to 142 sworn officers, which is the level that Police Chief Ron Olin considers fully staffed.
That would be a significant achievement because Olin said over the last 20 years the department has only been at a fully staffed level for a handful of days.
The numbers also represent a turnaround. Not long ago, the police department was down 13 officer positions. But the previous city commission made it a priority to keep hiring police officers even during tight budget times.
“We have not put a hiring chill or freeze on the Police Department, and I think that has been appropriate,” City Manager David Corliss said.
The numbers could grow even more. This City Commission already has given the department approval to apply for federal stimulus money that would allow the department to hire four more police officers, in addition to the six that are already being sought.
The federal money would cover 100 percent of the salary and fringe benefit costs of the new officers for three years. But the grant also would obligate the city to maintain that level of police staffing for at least a year after the grant expires. The four new officers would add about $230,000 in expenses to the city’s budget.
Even with the potential of 10 new officers, Olin still believes the city may be about eight to 12 officers short of what national standards suggest for a city of Lawrence’s size. But Olin said he does believe citizens will notice improved service levels with the new officers.
He said the larger numbers should give police officers more time to interact with the public, rather than going from one 911 call to another.
“When you are going only from 911 call to 911 call, you don’t see the softer side of policing,” Olin said.
In response to a question by Commissioner Aron Cromwell, Olin also said he thought the public would notice a difference in downtown Lawrence.
“I think we saw a direct impact on people’s perception of safety in downtown with the absence of those 13 police officers for an extended period,” Olin said.
• Commissioners also were told that the police department likely won’t suffer major problems from the much reported shortage of ammunition.
As the national media has reported lately, the price of ammunition has increased significantly. But thus far in 2009, the Lawrence Police Department is on track to spend less in ammunition than it did in 2008.
No, the department hasn’t adopted a Barney Fife policy — carry only one bullet in your pocket. Instead, Olin said the department saw the shortage coming and took action.
“When the news media talks about people who have been stockpiling, that would be us,” Olin said.
We’ve all thought about how nice it would be to not get that water bill in the mail each month. Well, here’s a piece of news for you. City leaders would be happy to quit mailing it to you.
Instead, they want to e-mail it to you each month.
Yeah, I know, that’s not exactly what you had in mind. But the chances of the city deciding to stop charging you at all for your water, sewer and trash service are pretty remote.
But city commissioners on Wednesday said they may be willing to give you a bit of a break on your bill if you would agree to receive your bills via e-mail only. That, of course, could save the city a significant amount of money on mailing and postage costs each year.
Lawrence residents currently can sign up to receive their city utility bills via e-mail. But the city’s billing department reports that most people who are signing up for the service also want a bill mailed to them as well.
Commissioner Mike Dever, at a city budget study session, brought up the idea of creating an incentive program to get more people to sign up for e-mail only service.
“If we did it right, I think we might have 5,000 households in the city that would take advantage of a program like that,” Dever said. “I think it could save us some money.”
Mayor Rob Chestnut — who sees many bills in his job as a chief financial officer for a local company — said there are several companies that offer a $5 or $10 credit if you agree to receive 12 months of statements via e-mail only.
“Once you’ve gone through a year of it, I think most people would stick with the system,” Chestnut said. Commissioners directed staff members to look at how a program could be created, and what type of incentive would work for the city’s finances.
The city is projected to spend about $45,000 this year in printing of utility bills, and about $145,000 in postage for the bills. With an expected postage rate increase, the city expects to spend about $167,000 in postage for utility bills in 2010.
Now departing Gate 1 of the Lawrence Municipal Airport: Rick Bryant.
Bryant, who has been the chair of the city’s Aviation Advisory Board for the past 11 years, is resigning his position at tonight’s board meeting.
Bryant said the resignation is necessary because he’s taken a new job as a consultant with the Airport Development Group, a Denver-based firm that has done planning work for the Lawrence Municipal Airport for years. The new job likely would create some conflicts of interest in the future.
“It is kind of like leaving an old friend after 11 years. I still will be involved, but it will be as a consultant, and nobody listens to consultants,” Bryant said with a laugh.
Bryant will remain in Lawrence.
Board members at their meeting tonight will determine who will take over leadership of the board, which plays a pretty active role in planning and overseeing operations at the airport.
Bryant, city leaders said, played a particularly active role in spearheading projects ranging from runway improvements to building new hangar space at the airport.
“Rick was always available and always pushing for the airport to have the visibility that it deserves,” said Chuck Soules, who oversees airport operations as the city’s director of public works. “I don’t know that we’ll find someone to spend the amount of time that Rick spent with it, but the good thing is he’ll still be around.”
Bryant said he believes the airport — which will celebrate its 80th birthday at an event on May 16 — is on the edge of some major breakthroughs. The city currently is studying how to extend water and sewer service to the airport to accommodate interest from a Lawrence-based company that wants to build a facility to construct prototype aircraft at the airport.
“We foresee a big building boom out there,” Bryant said of potential for new development on the airport grounds.
Usage of the airport is also up. Bryant said approximately 50 people are on a waiting list for hangar space at the airport. Bryant said he’s hopeful that the city will be able to finance a hangar construction project at the airport once the economy improves.
The Lawrence City Commission tonight will consider a proposal to allow the homeless to establish camps in a city park.
The City Commission meeting starts at 6:35 p.m.
Check back after 6:30 to find out how the debate is proceeding.
6:30 p.m. Hi. This is Journal-World reporter Chad Lawhorn. I'll be providing you a live update of the debate surrounding a proposal to build a camp for the homeless either in Burcham Park or in an area in East Lawrence near the old Santa Fe Depot.
There are a couple of items on the agenda before the homeless campsite issue. Check back about 6:45 to see if the debate has begun.
6:45 We still have three items on the regular agenda to discuss before the homeless camping issue comes up. Check back about 7:15.
7:15 We're now just one item away. Commissioners perhaps will begin their discussion in about 5 minutes.
7:32: Commissioners have begun their discussion. Margene Swarts, the city's assistant director of development services, points commissioners to a staff memo and other documents that were included in the city commission's packet.
David Tucker, a homeless outreach specialist for Bert Nash, has proposed this plan. He tells the commission "we have a very real issue in Lawrence that is worsening by the day. Homelessness is on the rise and our shelters don't have enough space to put them. Every night people are turned away and struggle to find a legal place to sleep. I'm a firm believer that having a place to sleep at night can really turn a person's life around."
He goes on. "I do agree that this is not the ideal situation. But it is an idea. I have heard very few other ideas from people. Homelessness is an issue that is going to require compassion and a lot of patience."
Public comment begins. Brad Cook. He's a licensed social worker who is based at the Lawrence Community Shelter. Points to a USA Today article that shows this is a national issue. "This is about social justice."
Said the campsite would not be the best issue. It should only be a temporary issue. Would need wording to say it would end by a certain date. "It can't be a permanent solution." To those who say "you build it and they will come, I say they are already here. What are you going to do about it?" He urges other people to come up with other ideas that are better than the campsite proposal.
7:40 Matthew Faulk, another social worker who works with the homeless. He tells commissioners that the issue of poverty is a broad societal issue. "No one is there absolutely because of their own doing," Faulk said of people who are homeless. He said that the city's camping ordinance, which prohibits camping in many public places, is unfair to the poor. "Instead of a policy that tries to alleviate poverty, I think that is a policy that really punishes the poor." He continues. "No one has a fast, easy solution. This is one of the few solutions being proposed." He continues. "I agree that this is not a long term solution or an ideal solution. If you go on to Lawrence Journal-World and read any article about homelessness, and then read the reader blogs, there is a lot of hate speech there. There is a lot of that attitude in our society." He continues that Lawrence could put itself on the map by trying something really unique and ambitious to alleviate poverty. "I know that we all think Lawrence is very unique and special, and this is an opportunity to further that image." He continues "There are people going through hardships that we can't imagine. None of us really know what it is like to freeze to death."
7:46 Angela Jennings. Would like to come up with a proposal that is a little more respectable than people just "flopping out by the river" Said perhaps a recreational campground for the community would work. Campsite wouldn't just be for homeless people.
7:50 Michael Tanner. Tanner helped build the illegal campsite that was located near the Santa Fe Depot in East Lawrence. He said he does not think a campsite should be temporary. Points to Portland. He said he is building a structure right now. He said he is building a trailer that will have a tag from the state. Said he was working on it last night. He said a couple of police officers came to visit him. He said he was asked to leave the site, and eventually moved from the site, which he said was on Union Pacific railroad property. Moved the structure to the parking lot near the DMV office. He said he was under the impression that the parking lot was public property. Said when he returned to the lot, a crew was preparing to tow his trailer — which he bought for $650 — and his Chevy Suburban. Said that the trailer wasn't towed because he had chained a large log to the trailer. "You can't just cut my chain with bolt cutters. You need hydrolouic bolt cutters to cut my chain." He said the officer ultimately gave him 30 minutes to remove his property from the lot, or else he'll be arrested for criminal trespass. Also was told if he came back he would be arrested for criminal trespass.
Tanner continues. He thinks the police have treated him unfairly. He tells a story about getting a parking ticket on the top floor of the city parking garage. He had been living in his van in that park. "If we had this campsite it wouldn't even be happening to me," he said. "We really need this in this city."
At this point, Mayor Chestnut asks Tanner to focus his comments on the specific proposal. Said would need to follow up on his accusations against the police department, if Tanner chooses to pursue those allegations.
8:04 Tanner continues. He alleges that he is being harassed by the Lawrence Police Department. Chestnut has asked Tanner to focus on the campsite proposal. "You have issues you need to address, but this is not the forum for it," Chestnut said.
Tanner said he supports Tucker's proposal.
8:06 Ted Boyle, president of North Lawrence Improvement Association. He said his group has discussed the proposal and believes "it is a tremendous liability" to the city. Said the city does have to distinguish between two types of people -- people who are temporarily down on their luck because of the economy and the "professional transients" who have chosen to live outside. He said he believe the campsite will attract more of those. "The North Lawrence Improvement Association and the residents of North Lawrence believe this campsite proposal is a bad idea."
8:09 Young homeless woman, who I did not get the name of. She said she is interested in finding a safe place to sleep, not surrounded by men. She said there are times she can't get into the shelter. She said she would like an option .
8:10 Hilda Enoch, longtime advocate for homeless services. "You have been elected to find solutions that do not criminalize the most vulnerable among us." She continues. "They can't simply be harassed and punished for the condition they are in."
8:11 Steve Braswell, president of Pinckney Neighborhood Association. Said that Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods does not support camping in Lawrence city parks. "If we had prosperous people with their RVs and expensive bass boats, I don't think that would be an appropriate use for our parks either." Said the neighborhood association is in favor of enhancing the Lawrence Community Shelter. "I think what we should do is the appropriate thing. This would be like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. He continues "We have to get on board and figure out how to get the Community Shelter improved because this is not the right way to deal with this. I don't think there is going to be much community support for this." He continues. He said if he saw homeless people camping in the park "it would make me feel really sad that we can't do any better than this."
8:16 A Pinckney Neighborhood residents who I did not get the name of: She said she doesn't want the city to be judgemental of the homeless. Points out camping already is going on. Said some people don't stay in the shelters because they have a pet. Some have a drink and aren't allowed to go in some shelters.
8:18 Phil Collison, president of East Lawrence Neighborhood Association. Thinks it is a health and human safety issue. "We will watch any proposal very closely to make sure those safety issues are addressed."
8:20 Janette Parker. Urges Commission to treat homeless people as humans. Points to United Nations statements on the rights of people to camp.
8:23 Loring Henderson, executive director of the Lawrence Community Shelter. Said he supports the camp because he doesn't see another good option at the moment. "It is just based on practicality. There just isn't a place for people to go to sleep — and they have to sleep — when the shelter is full. I just think for the present time this a reasonable proposal for the situation we're in." He said that people are camping "up and down" the Kansas River today. He said this proposal would provide more order to what is going on today.
8:30 Commissioner Mike Dever said he is concerned about devoting resources to a temporary program. He wants to focus on finding a permanent home for the Lawrence Community Shelter. Also is not convinced that the homeless camp would be a good temporary solution. "I haven't seen real good outcomes in other cities," Dever said. "I see them shutting down more than I see them popping up. I feel like we would be taking a step backwards."
8:32: Commissioner Aron Cromwell. Says homelessness is "an enormous concern" He is concerned that limited resources would be directed toward a temporary solution. He said he feels an "enormous sense of urgency" to improve the shelter situation in Lawrence. He said he has lots of concerns about the costs of the program. "When we get into this, the costs will really grow and grow.'
8:34 Commissioner Lance Johnson. Echos many of the concerns already raised. Thanks Tucker for putting forward a plan. He does not think it would be a safe situation for people camping there.
8:38 Commissioner Mike Amyx. Wants to find a solution for permanent housing. But if we can't find that solution, we're going to have to consider proposal like the one brought forward tonight.
8:38 Mayor Chestnut. "There are times when there really are no good answers," he said. Agrees that he want to keep the efforts on finding solutions for the shelter. Also wants to focus on providing services to help people redirect their lives. He is concerned about redirecting efforts and losing momentum. He is concerned that having a site will cause the city's homeless numbers to grow. Concerned about other social service agencies, like Health Care Access, becoming overwhelmed. He said there will always continue to be people who don't want to go into case management, and thus there will still be unregulated camp sites in town. "I think the unintended consequences with this are pretty significant." He continues. "We have to continue the dialogue. We have to continue to seek solutions." He believe it will be a major focus this year.
8:42 Action of the commission is to receive the report. Chestnut said there is no consensus on the commission to direct staff to work on the camping proposal. No vote was taken. That ends the discussion.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.