Outgoing City Commissioner Boog Highberger has confirmed that he’ll officially seek the appointment to fill the seat on the Douglas County Commission that will become vacant when Charles Jones steps down.
We reported last week that Highberger, a six-year member of the City Commission who chose not to seek re-election, was considering seeking the seat.
Now, he says he’ll be in the race when Douglas County Democrats meet for a special convention at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.
Highberger said he’ll “make his case” to the 22 precinct committeemen and women from Jones’ district who will cast secret ballots to determine the appointment.
Highberger will have stiff competition. Mike Gaughan, a legislative assistant to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and a former director of the state’s Democratic Party, has been running an active campaign for the seat.
Presumably, Gaughan will have a head start in winning votes. Both Gaughan and his wife are precinct committee members who are eligible to vote in the election.
Speculation is that no other serious candidates will emerge for the seat.
Jones is stepping down to devote more time to his job at Kansas University.
Here’s a general rule when it comes to City Commission politics: When you start talking about specific cuts, you start running the risk of specific people not voting for you.
So when I asked City Commission candidates recently what they would cut to balance what is expected to be a tight 2010 city budget, I didn’t get a lot of specifics.
So, we decided we would ask you. Tell us your thoughts below.
Candidates, though, weren’t entirely mum on the subject. Here’s a few thoughts that they did offer.
• Tom Johnson and Lance Johnson both said 2010 might be the year that city employees have to forgo a wage increase.
“I’ve got friends who are losing their jobs,” Lance Johnson said. “I know there are people who are saying they would rather take a pay cut than see more job losses.”
• Tom Johnson, Dennis Constance and Gwen Klingenberg all have said they would closely examine funding that is given to the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce for economic development marketing. Tom Johnson said the review also should include funding for Downtown Lawrence Inc. and the Lawrence-Douglas County Bioscience Authority.
• Price Banks has said the key to controlling the city’s budget is to vow not to undertake any new large projects for the time-being. He said that includes starting construction on a new sewer plant, and he’s also raised questions about efforts to restore the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Depot in East Lawrence, and has called for scaled back plans for the former Carnegie Library building at Ninth and Vermont streets.
• Aron Cromwell and Banks both criticized the approach that the city manager’s office used to respond to potentially $1 million in state budget cuts. City Manager David Corliss’ office put together a list of cuts that included closing Prairie Park Nature Center, eliminating city funding for school crossing guards, and shortening the hours of parks and recreation centers.
Banks called the list of ideas a “coercive tactic.” Cromwell said the list of cuts was an example of political gamesmanship.
“It was a list of things that would make us all cry,” Cromwell said. “We were talking about basically one percent of our budget, and the city’s answer of how we could save that $1 million was purely political. We can easily cut a few percent out of our budget without cutting services, but we don’t have time to play these political games.”
For folks worried about a large cut in state funding to the city of Lawrence’s budget, it probably isn’t time to start breathing easy yet.
But the situation doesn’t look quite as dark as it did a month ago. If you remember, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ proposed budget called for the state to begin keeping liquor tax revenues that cities have traditionally received.
In the case of Lawrence, that amounts to about $1.7 million per year. A good chunk of that funding is used to fund outside agencies such as the Boys & Girls Club, DCCCA and Headquarters Counseling, along with several others.
The Kansas House and Senate Thursday night came to an agreement on the 2010 budget, and that agreement would allow Lawrence and other cities to keep the liquor tax funding.
But in talking with my colleague, veteran Statehouse reporter Scott Rothschild, it probably is too early for Lawrence City Hall leaders to feel secure about the future of the liquor tax funding.
That’s because there are still bills pending in the House Taxation Committee that would keep the liquor tax funding for the state. Those bills aren’t going anywhere yet, but they may spring to life again.
On April 17, the state will re-estimate its revenue forecast, and the general thinking in the Statehouse is that the numbers may not be good. A worsening budget picture could cause the liquor tax money to come into play.
So, the best advice may be to sit back and let this thing play out. If it is your style, you might even have a drink while you wait.
The one thing that is for sure, is that it will be taxed one way or another.
There are changes coming on the Lawrence economic development scene when it comes to tax abatements.
But no, the change is not that we all soon will agree on how to use the controversial economic development incentive.
City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday approved a new “overarching policy” on how to use tax abatements and other incentives.
Among the changes in the policy:
• Companies must now meet some minimum thresholds in terms of job creation and project size before they can be considered for a tax abatement. A company moving to the city must provide at least 30 new jobs (which would pay a living wage) and have a project that has a value of at least $7 million. Existing Lawrence companies that want to expand must invest at least $5 million and create 20 new employees (also paid a living wage) before they could be considered for a tax abatement.
• The new policy puts more specifics on when the size of an abatement can be increased. The policy says the “baseline” abatement would be 50 percent for 10 years. Companies can start adding on to that baseline if they meet several criteria. Those include: an additional 10 percent for being a local company; 5 percent for a project greater than $10 million; 5 percent to 10 percent if the project meets certain environmental design standards; 5 percent if the project is having to deal with unique site constraints, such as steep slopes; 5 percent if the project is designed to be a “catalyst for the community;” and 5 percent for locating in an existing business park or targeted area.
• A new cost-benefit model will be used to measure the desirability of offering a tax abatement to a company. The new model will be run by city staff. The old model was run by researchers at Kansas University. Interestingly, city commissioners approved the new model without reviewing any sample scenarios of how it would measure several different types of projects. Roger Zalneraitis, the city’s economic development coordinator/planner, said he’s working to develop such scenarios. Zalneraitis said his preliminary analysis of the new model is that it is slightly more restrictive, meaning it produces lower scores for companies seeking to win a tax abatement. But Zalneraitis said he thought the new model was still in the “same ballpark” as the previous model.
Many of the questions at Tuesday’s meeting, however, weren’t about the technical details of the new policy. Instead, they were more philosophical in nature.
Longtime tax abatement opponent Kirk McClure, a professor of urban planning at KU, told commissioners that the policy showed how the city was behind the times in economic development.
He said smart communities are recognizing that companies really don’t need tax abatements to be lured to a community. He said other factors in the business process play a much larger role in where a company locates.
“The assertion that they need the tax abatement to go forward is fabricated,” McClure said.
Two candidates for the City Commission — Dennis Constance and Gwen Klingenberg — made a point to stand up at the meeting and say they essentially agree with McClure on the issue of tax abatements.
Economic development leaders, though, do not. Beth Johnson, vice president of economic development for the chamber, said she wishes communities didn’t use tax abatements. She also said factors other than tax abatements play major roles in where a business will locate. But she said Lawrence often is competing against other area communities with similar attributes. If a neighboring community offers a tax abatement and Lawrence does not, it will give the other community a clear competitive advantage.
“To say we’re not going to offer tax abatements would put us at a great disadvantage,” Johnson said.
City commissioners ultimately approved the new policy, but it was clear disagreement still remains on the commission.
“I’m worn out by all this talk of not being judicious in the use of tax abatements,” said City Commissioner Sue Hack. “We haven’t had a tax abatement in two years. It is not like we’re handing them out at Ninth and Massachusetts Street.”
That comment drew a response from Commissioner Boog Highberger.
“I’m not sure the fact nobody has asked for a tax abatement in the last two years is evidence that we’ve been judicious,” Highberger said. “We just haven’t had the opportunity to be judicious or injudicious.”
A used car lot is packing up from its South Iowa Street location to move to a higher profile spot on West Sixth Street.
Academy Cars will move into the vacant Custom Highline space at 1527 W. Sixth St., which used to be the home of Quick’s Barbecue before it was converted into an upscale auto lot.
Lonnie Blackburn, an owner of Academy Cars, said his business will move from it smaller lot on Four Wheel Drive to the larger lot by April 1.
“It definitely will increase our visibility,” Blackburn said. “And really, it was time for us to expand about seven years ago.”
Blackburn said Academy will continue to both lease and sell cars out of the new location, but will begin operating a service department.
In other real estate news:
• A buyer has been found for the building that housed the longtime downtown business Arensberg’s Shoes. Jeff Arensberg, a member of the shoe-selling family and a Lawrence real estate agent, said a local investor has signed a contract to purchase the 20,000-square-foot building that stretches over two downtown lots at 825 and 827 Mass. St.
Arensberg said he could not reveal the identity of the buyer, other than to say the ownership of the building would remain in local hands. Arensberg said the buyer didn’t have a tenant for the building, but had received interest from both retailers and restaurants.
“The buyer of the building is looking to keep the use of the building so that it continues to enhance downtown,” Arensberg said.
Arensberg also said the building’s large enough — it has three stories, counting the finished basement — that it could house multiple uses.
• A wireless phone store will set up shop in the former Flowerama location at 1700 W. 23rd St. Lawrence-based Simply Wireless plans to open a store in the space, said real estate agent Doug Brown of McGrew Commercial.
Ridership numbers on the city’s public transit system are up for the first two months of 2009.
According to figures released Friday, average daily ridership on the city’s fixed-route T buses increased by 11 percent compared with January 2008 numbers. Average daily ridership increased by 12.3 percent in February.
In terms of real numbers, average daily ridership in January increased from 1,149 riders to 1,276. In February, daily ridership increased from 1,166 to 1,310.
Overall, the T has provided 64,617 rides in the two months, up from 59,026 during the same two months of 2007.
The increase comes as city commissioners have changed policies that now allow Kansas University students to ride the T for free, if they show their KU IDs.
The increase also comes on the heels of the first overall ridership decline in the T’s history. Despite increasing gasoline prices, T ridership in 2008 fell slightly — by less than one percent — compared with the 2007 totals.
The T system provided 387,938 one-way rides in 2008.
It’s still early in the game, but city leaders find themselves in a bit of a hole when it comes to sales tax collections in 2009.
The city has received both its January and February sales tax distributions from the state, and the total is down by 2.1 percent from the same period a year ago.
In January and February this year, the city collected $3.54 million in local sales tax. In 2008, the total was $3.62 million.
City Hall leaders, though, caution that one or two months worth of sales tax data does not make a trend. The monthly numbers can vary significantly because of errors in reporting, or if a major retailer was late in submitting its monthly totals to the state.
The budget-makers at City Hall are certainly hoping that something like that happened in February because those numbers were dismal.
The city’s February sales tax check was down 10 percent -- or nearly $186,000 -- from the same period a year ago. If that’s the new trend, commissioners certainly will have a hard time making this year’s budget work.
The January and February numbers basically show sales activity for the period from mid-December to mid-January because the sales tax reports come about 30 to 45 days after the actual sales are made.
As a reminder, the new sales taxes approved by voters in November will start being charged April 1. The new rate will increase from 7.3 percent to 7.85 percent.
Hank the Cowdog can now call Lawrence home.
Western International Inc. — a distributor for the popular children’s book — has moved its corporate offices and warehouse from Reno, Nev. to Lawrence.
The company this week is finishing its move into the former home of Kingston Printing at 2220 Delaware Street.
The company has two full-time employees and about five part-time employees who manage the approximately 15,000 book titles that the company ships out to retailers across the country.
“But we don’t sell a lot to Barnes & Noble or large stores like that,” said Erin Stauffer, who along with her husband Todd Stauffer recently purchased the business. “We mainly sell books to tack shops, feed stores, and other mom-and-pop kind of country places.”
The company largely focuses on books about horses, but also distributes books on Native Americans, American history, and several children’s books including the Hank series and the popular My Little Pony series.
Stauffer said she and her husband decided to relocate the business to Lawrence in order to be closer to family.
“Plus, being in the middle of the country should help us with shipping,” Stauffer said. “It might help us get into some other markets.”
In other business and development news:
• Manhattan-based GTM Sportswear has filed a site plan at City Hall to open a new retail store on 23rd Street. The company — which produces customized sports uniforms, warm-ups and other apparel — plans to open in what will be the former O’Reilly Auto Parts Store at 1008 W. 23rd Street. The store also plans to sell Kansas University merchandise, according to the site plan. No word yet on when the store may open. O’Reilly Auto Parts is in the process of moving to a new store near 23rd and Louisiana streets.
• New duplexes may be going up in the area near 19th and Learnard. Planners have received a request to rezone several pieces of property from single family to duplex zoning. The rezoning request involves the property at 423 and 533 E. 19th Street, 1926 Learnard and 1934-1940 Learnard. There currently are three duplex buildings that are non-conforming uses on the property today. The rezoning would allow for another two duplex building to be constructed, said Sandra Day, a planner with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department. The rezoning is expected to be heard by the Planning Commission in April. After that hearing, city commissioners will be asked to approve the rezonings.
• The Sandbar at 17 E. Eighth Street is seeking to add a new sidewalk seating area. Previously, only restaurants were allowed to install seating areas on the downtown sidewalks, but last year commissioners changed that ordinance. The new rules allow some existing bars to install sidewalk seating areas to accommodate customers who want to smoke and drink outside. Commissioners recently approved the first such area at the Eighth Street Taproom, which is next door to the Sandbar.
• Research and laboratory space may be added to the downtown area. The owners of the building at 647 Massachusetts Street are seeking a special use permit that would allow research and laboratory uses on the second floor of the building. The groundfloor space — which houses Starbucks, Cold Stone Creamery and other businesses — would continue to be used for retail. Mark Andersen - a Lawrence attorney representing the landlords- said a tenant hadn't yet been found for the space but that discussions were underway with one company. Andersen said the hope is that the building can play host to a company that is involved in research activities associated with Kansas University's efforts to receive National Cancer Center designation.
A few leftovers from Monday night’s City Commission candidate forum hosted by the North Lawrence Improvement Association:
• There was more talk about the need for Lawrence to focus its economic development efforts on helping small or start-up companies. Candidates Dennis Constance, Aron Cromwell and Gwen Klingenberg all have been regularly touting such a strategy. On Monday, candidate Lance Johnson questioned that some. He said he wanted to help small businesses too, but said he was concerned about pulling efforts away from trying to attract larger businesses.
“Are you telling me that if a company wants to bring us 200 jobs, we’re going to say no because they’re not a small business,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to be kidding me."
Johnson also said he was concerned that candidates haven’t defined what constitutes a small business.
None of the candidates, however, have said they want to stop all efforts to attract larger companies. Often times when candidates are talking about economic development efforts, they are talking about the efforts of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce to market the community to outside companies. As the campaign moves along, it will be interesting to see if candidates spell out whether they are proposing an increase or a decrease in the amount of funding that goes to the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce for its economic development marketing program.
• One candidate did tell the crowd that he has a healthy amount of skepticism about tax abatements. “I think we need to be very, very, very careful about tax abatements,” Dennis Constance said.
Constance said the city doesn’t have good standards for when to grant tax abatements.
Constance also told the crowd that he would not have voted for a special taxing district that was created to help developers with The Oread, a hotel project being built near Kansas University.
A member of the Oread Neighborhood asked each candidate to say whether they supported the project. All said they did, with the exception of Constance. Constance actually said he thought the project was a good one, so good, in fact, that developers would have moved ahead with the project even if the city didn’t create the special taxing district.
• Candidate Tom Johnson did not attend the forum on Monday. He e-mailed me this morning to say that the reason he did not attend was because he was never invited by the North Lawrence Improvement Association. Ted Boyle, president of the association, said he left a message on a phone that he believed was Johnson’s. Boyle noted that the Journal-World did publicize that the forum would be held. About 40 people attended.
Some of this and a little of that left over from Monday night’s City Commission candidate forum:• On the subject of cost cutting, everyone agreed that core services like police, fire, water and sanitation services would have to continue. All candidates said some cuts would need to be made to deal with a tight budget, but candidates Gwen Klingenberg and Dennis Constance both said they wanted city funding for key social service agencies to be viewed much like funding for the police, fire and other essential city services. “Social services should be included in some of those core services because many of these agencies are serving people who don’t have any other place to turn,” Constance said. Aron Cromwell said the city will have to look everywhere for possible cost savings, but he said he would use different terminology about what the city is preparing to do. “I really dislike that word 'cutting,'” Cromwell said. “To me it is more 'trimming.'” Both James Bush and Price Banks said they had philosophies that government needs to do what the public can’t individually do for itself, but Banks said he was particularly concerned about how much the city’s budget has grown over the past five years. • Constance threw out a big idea when asked about how city, county and school district officials could work better together. Constance said area leaders “maybe should explore” the prospect of a unified government, noting that it has worked in some other areas. Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County several years ago formed a unified government that put many city and county services under one government structure. Banks, who previously served as the director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department, said his experience in that job convinced him the city and county can run joint services. He said there may be other opportunities, especially in law enforcement, to consider ways to reduce duplication of services. But he stopped short of endorsing a fully unified city-county government. “I’m not sure politically we’re ready for a unified government,” Banks said. City Commissioner Mike Amyx noted that the city and county already work together on fire and medical service. He said he would like the city, county and school district to explore ways to cooperatively purchase goods and commodities. “There are certain things that all three taxing bodies need to purchase to operate,” Amyx said. • A full-blown discussion of the city’s living wage ordinance didn’t occur at Monday’s forum. But Bush said he does have concerns with some city policies related to economic development, although he didn’t get specific in the short amount of time candidates were given to answer questions. “We have policies in place that keep Lawrence off the list of many companies,” Bush said. “We need to level the playing field.” Bush said he’s been told that two or three of the top site selection companies in the country currently don’t consider Lawrence for new business locations. That comment brought the closest thing to an exchange between two candidates. Constance followed Bush and said that if some site selection companies weren’t considering Lawrence that was probably an indication that they didn’t share Lawrence’s values, and perhaps Lawrence shouldn’t worry about being left off their lists. “We need to focus on businesses that share the values we share,” said Constance, who has been a longtime supporter of the living wage ordinance. • Candidate Lance Johnson was the only candidate to offer a “five-point plan” on any subject. Johnson said he has a five-point plan to grow jobs. That plan includes making the tone at City Hall more welcoming to businesses, offering incentive to companies that are ready to grow, working better with Kansas University on job creation possibilities, better planning for infrastructure to accommodate growth, and embracing sustainable and green technology. Johnson later said in the forum that he’s open to new types of economic development incentives that go beyond traditional tax abatements. “We need incentives that mean something to the company we’re offering them to,” Johnson said. “Whether you like it or not, Lawrence is competing with other communities. Bottom line, if we want job growth, we have to recognize that.”
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.
All we need now is John McEnroe, or absent that, somebody in white 1980s-style tennis shorts with an excitable personality.
Yes, we’re talking about the looming tennis court debate that will be coming to Lawrence City Hall. As we reported last week, city commissioners have decided to reopen the issue of whether eight tennis courts near Lawrence High School should be lighted.
At the time, however, we didn’t have a date for when the commissioners were to have a public hearing on the issue. Well, the commission now has a tentative hearing date of June 4, at its 6:35 p.m. meeting at City Hall.
There’s been one other development in the matter: The city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board brought up the issue of lighted tennis courts for the site, and it is clear recreation officials aren’t on board with the idea, largely because of concerns about cost.
In case you have forgotten, members of the Lawrence Tennis Association believe lights should be added to the courts to make up for lighted courts that were lost when LHS renovated its campus. Neighbors in the area have opposed the lighting plan, expressing concern that it will be just one more example of LHS facilities creating a neighborhood conflict. They think the light will spill onto their properties.
City officials already have agreed to build eight outdoor lighted tennis courts as part of the city’s recreation center in northwest Lawrence. Several city officials thought that put an end to the issue, but members of the tennis association said they still see value in having lighted courts in the LHS area.
But at a recent meeting, the top officials at the city’s Parks and Recreation Department said they couldn’t support the idea of lighting the LHS courts and building the eight lighted courts at the recreation center. Cost was one reason they cited. They now estimate the cost of installing lights at the courts — which are on the property of the former Centennial Elementary school — at about $240,000, if done in a way to minimize light spillage. When the project was first proposed a couple of years ago, the department was planning on spending about $100,000 to light the courts.
Plus, the city would have to enter into a maintenance agreement with the school district to help make any future repairs on the courts. Parks and Recreation officials aren’t sure they want to do that, because two of the courts already are showing signs of needing significant repair. Currently, all maintenance is the responsibility of the school district. (In case you are wondering why it wouldn’t be the school district’s responsibility to add lights to courts it owns, the answer is because the district says it doesn’t really need the lights for its high school programs. The lights mainly would accommodate city residents that use the courts.)
Members of the tennis association are passionate about the issue and well-organized. They also note that the needs in the area are changing because KU will be losing most of its public courts on campus when the new School of Business building is constructed.
So, we’ll see how the debate goes. Let the volleying begin.
Wicked Broadband project seeks $500,000 city grant; downtown hotel project seeks adjustment to incentives package; historical society seeks $20k for new exhibit
Reading the agenda for Tuesday night’s Lawrence City Commission meeting is kind of like reading my household’s credit card bill: There are plenty of questions, and all the answers seem to have dollar signs.
There are three outside organizations requesting financial assistance from the city, with two of them each asking for a half-million dollars.
We’ll try to fill in more details later, but here’s a look at the basics of the requests:
• Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband announced last month that it will start a pilot project to bring super fast 1-Gigabit Internet service to a neighborhood later this year.
A kick-off event for the project spelled out a lot of details about how the company, which previously did business as Lawrence Freenet, could bring the same type of high-speed Internet service to Lawrence that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City. At that event, the idea of financial incentives from the city wasn’t envisioned. Well, it is now.
The company has filed an application for a $500,000 economic development grant from the city, plus is asking to receive up to a $20,000 a year rebate in franchise fees it pays to the city. It also wants to have the right to enter into $10 per year leases to use a portion of new fiber optic cables that the city plans to install throughout the community in future years.
Joshua Montgomery, co-owner of Wicked Broadband, said there are several factors that have caused him to rethink the need for city incentives for the project. But perhaps the largest is that he’s been contacted by several significant New York-based capital investment companies that are interested in investing in a locally owned, high-speed Internet service. Those investors have made it clear that the city of Lawrence needs to do something to show that it is committed to the idea of bringing a high-speed network to the city.
“If the city says that it is behind it 100 percent, that opens the door for the next $30 million in private funding that will be needed to spread this service to the rest of the community,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery said the $500,000, one-time grant would allow the service territory for the pilot project to grow to 1,000 households, up from 500. The neighborhood or neighborhoods haven’t been selected yet. Wicked is taking pre-registrations for the service on its website. The neighborhood with the highest percentage of residents pre-registered will serve as the pilot project. An announcement is expected June 15.
Montgomery said he and his business partner and wife, Lawrence school board member Kris Adair, are putting up $500,000 in private money for the pilot project.
City commissioners on Tuesday aren’t being asked to approve the request. Instead, Tuesday’s vote is just to direct city staff to begin analyzing it.
Wicked Broadband’s service will be a direct competitor to existing Internet providers, such as Knology and AT&T, which generally do not receive such city subsidies. So, it will be interesting to hear what those companies have to say as the process unfolds.
As for Montgomery, he said he’ll argue that the city won’t be making an investment in a private company as much as it will be making an investment in a new infrastructure system that will be critical to future commerce. “It is an economic enabler,” Montgomery said.
The second request comes from a group led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton, which is seeking to build a new hotel at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire.
It is a bit more complicated to understand, and I’ll try to get a better handle on the numbers before Tuesday’s meeting. But the request seeks to raise the amount of Tax Increment Finance dollars the hotel is eligible to receive to $4 million, up from $3.5 million.
Unlike the Wicked Broadband request, this doesn’t involve the city writing a $500,000 check to the development. Instead, a TIF allows the project to get a rebate on a certain percentage of the property taxes it pays. It is kind of like a tax abatement, except the money has to be used to pay for infrastructure type of expenses. In this case, that includes a private parking garage for the hotel.
What makes it a bit complicated is that the developers also have proposed a multistory apartment/office project for the northeast corner of the intersection. It also uses Tax Increment Financing. It looks like a likely option is to increase the amount of TIF money available for the southeast corner hotel project by reducing the amount of projected TIF revenues available to the northeast corner apartment project.
If that is ultimately what happens, then the overall amount of incentive basically would be a wash. We’ll have to see how those details work out.
The more interesting part is what developers have said about the hotel project. It has had its necessary building approvals for months, but hasn’t yet started construction. A letter to the city now makes it clear that there are financial questions the investors are trying to answer.
Bill Fleming, an attorney for the development group, told the city in a letter that “the hotel investors are keenly interested in the ‘cost per key,’ which is the average cost for each hotel room.”
If the additional $500,000 in TIF money is not available to the hotel project, then that will raise the average cost per room the investors must pay.
“The investors may conclude the project is not feasible at that cost per key, and the project in that case will not proceed,” Fleming wrote.
That would be a major turn of events for the project, which faced stiff opposition from the adjacent East Lawrence neighborhood, and had to fight hard to win city approval.
Maybe the folks at the Douglas County Historical Society are more than just masters of history. Perhaps they also are masters of timing. After those two big-ticket items, they are asking for a mere $20,000 in city funding. The money will be used to help fund a permanent exhibit on the second floor of the Watkins Museum commemorating the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence.
The new exhibit is set to open on Aug. 17, and will “explore Douglas County’s history, issues that shaped the development of the community, and events that made it a focus of national attention.”
Ultimately, the exhibit will be expanded to the third floor of the museum. The bulk of the nearly $257,000 in exhibit costs has come from private individuals, businesses and grants.
City staff members are recommending approval of the $20,000 in funding. The money would come from the city’s guest tax fund, which receives its revenue from the guest tax charged at hotel and motel rooms.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday.
The changes keep on coming in the Lawrence Internet market.
The largest Internet service provider in Lawrence has just announced that it is removing all of its usage caps from its Internet service packages, as the company changes its name from Knology to WOW! That means customers no longer will be charged for going over their usage limits, according to a press release by the company.
Englewood, Colo.-based WOW purchased Knology back in July, but it had not converted Knology over to the WOW brand until today. Signs for the company around town are being changed today, according to WOW.
But the changes related to Internet usage caps are likely to garner more attention from hard-core Internet users. The caps had generated concern among many users because customers’ standard monthly rates could rise depending on how much Internet usage they had in a particular month.
The change in the cap policy comes at a time when both private and public officials have been talking about shaking up the city’s Internet service provider market.
A city-hired consultant recently completed a report that found that current broadband offerings in Lawrence generally are “costlier, slower and more limited than in other comparable communities.” City officials had the report commissioned because they have been interested in possibly allowing private companies to have access to a growing ring of fiber optic cable owned by the city.
On the private front, Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband — formerly known as Lawrence Freenet — has made a proposal to the city to further tap into that ring of fiber. (Ring of Fiber: Johnny Cash used to sing that song in his old age.)
At their meeting tonight, city commissioners will receive a request from Wicked for low-cost fiber leases with the city, and a one-time $500,000 grant to help the company build new broadband infrastructure in the city. The request is part of a pilot project Wicked is launching to bring to one Lawrence neighborhood the same type of superfast Internet service that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City. If successful, Wicked Broadband wants to extend the high-speed broadband project to all of the city.
So, we’ll see what cards the folks at WOW start playing in what appears to be an increasingly competitive game in Lawrence. Consumers, I suspect, will be keeping an eye on whether the competition starts having an impact on rates.
City estimates it may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to keep concealed weapons out of city buildings
It appears the city soon will have to buy hundreds thousands of dollars worth of security measures. Either that, or the city will have to learn to live with a new state law that would allow concealed-carry permit holders to bring firearms into City Hall and other city buildings.
City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting will consider formally asking the Kansas Attorney General for an exemption from the new state law until Jan. 1, 2014. The state law — approved by the legislature and signed by the governor this session — essentially contains an automatic one-year exemption period for local governments. The city also may be able to get three additional one-year exemptions, although that is less certain.
The law no longer allows city or county buildings to be posted with the "no gun" signs that make it illegal for anyone, including concealed-carry permit holders, to bring a concealed weapon into the buildings. Under the new law, governments can only post those signs if the buildings have adequate security measures, such as metal detectors and security officers.
Lawrence city officials have begun calculating the cost to purchase and staff such metal detectors. A memo from City Attorney Toni Wheeler estimates it will cost about $5,000 for each metal detector, plus at least $42,000 a year for a single police officer to staff the metal detector—and the Lawrence Police Department, Wheeler wrote, believes two officers may be necessary for each detector. That would place the annual operating costs for the program at more than $84,000 for each building with a detector. And the cost may be even greater, because the personnel numbers represent starting salaries and don’t factor in benefit costs or other costs to equip a police officer.
Wheeler says at least three city buildings — City Hall, Lawrence Municipal Court and the public access area of the Police Department’s Investigations and Training Center — all warrant consideration for security systems. Beyond those three, city commissioners also would have to decide whether recreation centers and other city offices need the security measures.
New security costs for the city are expected to be addressed in the City Manager’s recommended 2014 budget, which is scheduled to be released in July. The costs could add up. If the city decided to include recreation centers in the program, there would be a total of nine buildings to equip and staff. At a minimum of $42,000 per building, that's almost $400,000 a year, plus the cost of the metal detectors. At $84,000 per building — which would be the case if two officers are required — it would be more than $750,000 a year.
But say you wanted to have security measures in place for every city-owned building that currently prohibits concealed firearms. The city currently has 47 buildings listed in its administrative policy, which means it would cost $3.9 million to provide a two-member security detail at every location. That, of course, is not going to happen. It probably would be a bit odd to have a metal detector at the city’s Landscape Shop or the Wastewater Treatment Plant, for example. Those places probably will become buildings where concealed-carry permit holders can have a weapon.
It will be interesting to see how city commissioners react to the new legislation. The previous City Commission sent a letter to the legislature objecting to the bill while it was under consideration. Whether the city’s objections rise to the level of spending more than a half-million dollars on security each year, I don’t know. The city already spends some money on security: a police officer attends each Lawrence City Commission meeting, and a bailiff is employed by the Lawrence Municipal Court.
If the city gets serious about installing metal detectors, there will be quite a few items to discuss. It probably would require the public entrances at City Hall to be changed significantly, since there are three ways for the public to enter City Hall. The city also could have a discussion about whether security officers — rather than fully sworn police officers — would be appropriate to staff the metal detectors. That may reduce the personnel cost for a security program.
And then there are city buildings such as the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence Arts Center that attract large crowds on a regular basis. How would they be secured and staffed?
Of course, the city always could have the discussion of whether any harm would come from allowing licensed individuals to carry a weapon in city buildings. According to the Kansas Attorney General’s office, it already is legal for concealed-carry permit holders to carry a weapon on various pieces of city property. Every city-owned park, for example, is a place where concealed-carry permit holders are entitled to have a weapon. “Parks, parking lots and other open public property" are no longer able to be restricted through signs, according to the Attorney General’s Web site. That didn’t always use to be the case, but the law was changed, I believe, during the 2010 legislative session.
City commissioners won’t be the only ones that get to have this fun. Douglas County also will have to go through the same exercise with its buildings, although it already has a metal detector for the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. Public schools won’t have to install metal detectors under the new law. School officials can continue to post the "no gun" signs on school buildings, which will make it illegal for concealed-carry permit holders to bring a weapon into the building.
Strap on your tool belt, it is time to talk again about Menards’ proposal to build a big box store just east of Home Depot near 31st and Iowa streets.
The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will debate the project again at its Monday evening meeting. The Planning Commission debated it last month and failed to reach consensus on whether the plan should be recommended for approval by the City Commission. I know that left some of you feeling like I feel after completing an electrical-oriented home improvement project — a bit dazed. (My wife promised me she had turned off the circuit breaker. She never said she wouldn’t turn it back on, though.)
If you remember, the Menards project hit a snag, even though there was no groundswell of opposition from neighbors in the area. Instead, it was the city’s planning staff that expressed concern about changing a portion of the city’s comprehensive plan, known as Horizon 2020, to accommodate the project.
There have been some new developments on that front. The city’s planning staff hasn’t officially changed its recommendation for denial, but it has created a new staff report that provides a clear set of reasons Planning Commissioners can use to approve the project, if they so choose.
That may prove to be important. For what it is worth, I felt like the Planning Commission last month was interested in recommending the project for approval, but was reluctant to do so because they hold the planning staff’s professional opinion in high regard.
The new memo from the planning staff, however, makes it clear that there is a reasonable argument to be made for why Horizon 2020 could be changed to accommodate the project. The main point of contention here is that Horizon 2020 calls for the proposed Menards site, the former Gaslight Mobile Home Village, to be used for apartment development in the future. A map in Horizon 2020 needs to be changed to show the property is slated for commercial development.
The memo lists the following reasons why a change could be prudent:
• It is now clear the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway will be completed, which will alleviate the need for traffic to travel through neighborhoods to reach the new commercial area.
• Public testimony from neighbors has indicated that there is a significant number of residents who may prefer retail development at the site rather than a large apartment complex.
• Even though the city has other retail zoned areas in the city, sites that can accommodate big-box development remain limited.
Planning staff members also are pointing out that it is unlikely that commercial development would extend all the way down the north side of 31st Street to Louisiana Street, if Menards is approved. Staff members confirmed the city is close to finalizing a deal to purchase the nearly six acres of property near the northwest corner of 31st and Louisiana streets. The city needs the property for a new utility pump station. City ownership means the corner wouldn’t ever develop as a retail site.
So we’ll see what planning commissioners do on Monday. That meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.
But remember, planning commissioners only recommend things. It will be up to the City Commission to make a final decision on the project. It still is too early to tell how city commissioners may vote on this project, but there are indications Menards has a fighting chance.
When I was speaking recently with City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer about economic matters, he brought up the need for the city to really update its comprehensive plan. He pointed to the Menards project as an example. Farmer said much of the underlying work to create the city’s comprehensive plan was done more than 20 years ago, and it probably is time to recognize that several factors in the city have changed since then.
“Menards is a great example of that,” Farmer says. “Our comprehensive plan says no, and the community seems to be saying it doesn’t want more housing there.
“I look at that and say ‘gosh, a Menards would be great in bringing some commercial taxes to a community that is going to have shrinking property tax revenues.'”
So, while Farmer stopped short of saying he would vote for the specific proposal Menards currently has brought forward, it sounds like he’ll have an open mind.
Privately, I have heard one other commissioners indicate he is going to give strong consideration to approving the project as well. It will be interesting to watch. Probably the biggest factor will be whether residents in the Indian Hills Neighborhood continue to either support the project or at least not vigorously oppose it. A large number of neighbors opposing the project could change things.
At the moment though, it is safe to assume the Menards project won’t be dead on arrival when it comes to the City Commission. Which, that reminds me: I still have to rewire the kitchen light. Oh, boy.
Call it a rankings rut, and this one is pretty deep for the city of Lawrence.
A new national study has ranked Lawrence as the second-worst-performing small metropolitan area in the nation, based on a variety of economic measures. The Milken Institute ranked Lawrence 178 out of 179 metro areas in its most recent Best Performing Cities index. A web site for The Atlantic this week had an article analyzing the results.
This latest report adds onto the negative news released earlier this month by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis about Lawrence’s gross domestic product. It ranked 339th out of 366 metro areas, and was shrinking.
The Milken report uses some of the same types of economic numbers to create its index. But it places a particular emphasis on an area in which Lawrence is supposed to be positioned to excel: high-tech, knowledge-based jobs.
Simply put, the report found we aren’t excelling in that area. In fact, Lawrence didn’t excel in any area.
Over the course of the past year, Lawrence’s ranking in the report fell 79 spots, from No. 99 in the 2011 report to No. 178 in the most recent index. Only three other cities — Ithaca, N.Y., Great Falls, Mont., and Hot Springs, Ark. — had sharper declines than Lawrence’s.
The report takes a look at nine different categories, and Lawrence didn’t crack the top 100 in any of them. Here’s a look:
• Five-year job growth: No. 107
• One-year job growth: No. 172
• Five-year wage growth: No. 101
• One-year wage growth: No. 158
• One-year job growth percentage: No. 156
• Five-year high-tech GDP growth: No. 170
• One-year high-tech GDP growth: No. 151
• High-tech GDP as part of overall GDP: No. 164
• Concentration of high-tech companies: No. 148
I know how you all like comparisons, so I have gathered the rankings for several regional communities. I would ask for a drumroll, but the drama already has been sucked from this. Since Lawrence is second to last — last place was Carson City, Nev. — I’m guessing you’ve already deduced that every city in the region ranked ahead of us.
On a positive note, Manhattan, which has been on a roll in these type of rankings, wasn’t included in this index, likely because its population wasn’t quite large enough to qualify. But fear not, here is something for you to gnash your teeth over: Columbia, Mo., ranked No. 10 on the small cities list. Here’s a look at others:
• Iowa City, Iowa: No. 16
• St. Joseph, Mo.: No. 29
• Waco, Texas: No. 31
• Joplin, Mo.: No. 44
• Ames, Iowa: No. 61
• Topeka: No. 144
Several of the cities Lawrence often compares itself to, or at least watches, were included in the list of 200 large cities. Here’s how some of those cities fared in the rankings:
• Fort Collins, Colo.: No. 12
• Boulder, Colo.: No. 15
• Lubbock, Texas: No. 20
• Oklahoma City: No. 32
• Madison, Wis.: No. 71
• Lincoln, Neb.: No. 81
• Kansas City: No. 104
• Tulsa, Okla.: No. 118
• Springfield, Mo.: No. 144
• Wichita: No. 146
Take these rankings for whatever you think they’re worth. These indexes all have their own biases about what they think are the most important economic indicators. This one seems to be heavily focused on wages and high-tech business indicators. For what it is worth, those are two areas I hear local leaders emphasize a lot as well.
Another factor to remember is that this index — like all of them — is based on data that sometimes has some age to it. Most of the job growth numbers date back to 2011, and some of the wage numbers date back to 2010. It was no secret that Lawrence struggled during those periods. It also is worth remembering that Lawrence basically has entirely revamped its economic development team since that point.
Plus, some recent indicators have been more positive. Retail sales tax collections in 2012 had their best growth since the mid-1990s, there’s been a significant decline in Massachusetts Street vacancies, Hallmark Cards is in the process of shifting about 200 workers to its Lawrence plant, and even home sales and building permits have showed signs of a rebound.
Yes, I’m trying to put a little cheer in your Kool-Aid. But only for a moment. I’ll leave you with a finding from the report that ought to leave Lawrence leaders scratching their heads. The authors of the report noted that there were two types of communities most likely to do well in this year’s index: communities benefiting from the country’s new natural gas and oil exploration; and communities with “high concentrations of public-sector employees, especially in prominent universities.”
That second one sure sounds like us. But maybe our definition of prominent is a bit different from others. The top ranked small city, for the second year in a row, was Logan, Utah, home to Utah State University. Prominent? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure our basketball team can beat theirs.
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.
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.
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.