Lawrence home builders have best first quarter since 2010, according to new report; Hallmark undertakes another $3.3 million in construction
Shine that hammer and sharpen that saw. There are signs that the Lawrence homebuilding industry is getting busier.
According to a new report released by City Hall, builders started 23 new single-family or duplex homes in Lawrence during March. That brings the total number of single-family and duplex permits to 42, which is the highest first-quarter total since 2010.
For decades, single-family home construction has been the bread and butter of the Lawrence construction industry, and a major driver in the overall Lawrence economy. But the industry has hit hard times. In 2011, only 95 single family building permits were issued for the entire year, snapping a 55-year streak of the city issuing at least 100 new single-family building permits annually.
Since then, the industry has been creeping back. But this latest report is the best sign yet that the industry is getting a new footing. The first-quarter single-family and duplex numbers are 40 percent higher than the 2012 first-quarter numbers and are double the 2011 first-quarter totals.
The latest report also had strong numbers for several other parts of the local construction industry. Here’s a look at other figures from the March report:
• The city issued permits for $12.1 million worth of projects in March, the highest March total since 2009.
• For the year, the city has issued permits for $34.9 million worth of projects, the highest first-quarter total in the past five years.
• As we’ve previously reported, Hallmark Cards is moving all of its U.S. greeting card production to its Lawrence plant as part of a reorganization. That project is continuing to pay dividends for the local construction industry. Hallmark took out a $3.3 million building permit to make interior renovations to the plant. That’s in addition to $1.2 million worth of permits Hallmark already had received for the project earlier this year. If your abacus is a bit rusty, that means Hallmark now has undertaken $4.5 million worth of work at the plant during the first three months of the year.
• The city didn’t issue any permits for new apartment construction in March, but for the first quarter, that sector has been busy. Through the first three months of the year, the city has issued permits for 286 apartment units, the highest first-quarter total of the past five years.
There are a few survival tips I’ve learned in nature: Never stare a feral hog in the eye; don’t get between a bear and her cub; and don’t block a Lawrence resident from his French toast.
That last one is courtesy of David Lewis, the former owner of the one-time downtown breakfast institution Milton’s. (I won’t tell you where the first one came from.)
Lewis confirmed to me that he’s bringing back Milton’s and all its old menu favorites, but it will be in Lewis’s new restaurant location in the ground floor of the 901 Building at Ninth and New Hampshire streets. That restaurant currently is called Loopy’s, but not for long. Lewis said he will rebrand the restaurant to Milton’s, as soon as he can get the details on signs and such worked out.
In November, Lewis closed Milton’s — which had operated for 15 years at 920 Massachusetts Street — and began focusing on the new Loopy’s concept.
Unlike Milton’s, Loopy's was a breakfast, lunch and dinner place that stayed open until 11 p.m. But there was a problem: Breakfast wasn’t what it used to be. It was frittatas, quiches and other similar dishes rather than hashbrowns, over-easy eggs and French toast.
“Our plan is to build on our old menu and really go with the things that have worked for us in the past,” Lewis said. “A lot of customers really missed it. We heard about it everyday since we opened.”
The new menu — which is basically the old menu — is already back in place. Lewis said the new Milton’s is serving breakfast seven days a week, and until 2 p.m. each day.
Unlike the past Milton’s, this location will stay open until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, and Lewis said the restaurant is keeping the liquor license it received to operate Loopy’s.
One of the bigger differences with the new Milton’s will be its size. The 901 location has just 28 seats inside, but it has a large patio area than can seat another 32.
“I love the space that we have with the windows and the light,” Lewis said. “We would like to get some nice weather, though, to take advantage of the outdoor seating. I think folks are really going to like that.”
Other changes include removing the pizza oven from the restaurant in order to accommodate the kitchen equipment to cook a full breakfast. The ownership of the operation also has changed. Lawrence chef Sula Teller and her husband, Lawrence marketing executive Billy Pilgrim, are no longer involved with the restaurant.
What hasn’t changed though, is all the old Milton’s recipes. Lewis said 20 of the 22 employees at the restaurant were former Milton’s employees, so the transition to the old dishes has not been difficult.
He said crowds have picked up at the location since the menu was implemented about a week ago.
“The Loopy’s concept just didn’t seem to resonate with a lot of people,” Lewis said. “When we were closing Milton’s, I started to see the sentiment and feelings people had for it. It was really pretty emotional.”
And many people would tell you pretty addictive too. Since its closing, we've heard from many people who seem to be having breakfast food withdrawals. Lewis said that might have something to do with the little bit of brandy that is a key ingredient in the French toast.
Yes, the return of Milton’s may mean downtown Lawrence becomes even more competitive on the breakfast scene. As we previously reported, a former manager of Milton’s is set to open up a breakfast restaurant called The Roost in the former Milton’s location on Massachusetts Street. I haven’t received an update on those efforts in awhile, so I’ll check in and report back.
In the meantime, I need to get my dose of breakfast brandy. Sure, I probably could go for some French toast too.
City seeking grant money to improve 23rd and Haskell intersection in preparation for increased traffic from SLT
If there is a special set of scissors out there that have been put aside to cut the ribbon on the completed South Lawrence Trafficway, it may be time to get them out and limber them up. You’ll probably have to knock the rust off of them too. After all, they’ve been sitting unused for more than 20 years.
Obviously, a ribbon cutting for the final leg of the SLT isn’t imminent, but there are more and more signs all the time that people now understand the day is coming. Construction is set to begin this fall, and the road could be open by the Fall of 2016.
The latest signs of preparations for the project are coming out of Lawrence City Hall. Commissioners at their meeting tonight will have three items on their agenda related to the SLT.
The largest is an item to begin the planning of significant upgrades to the 23rd Street and Haskell Avenue intersection.
Commissioners are being asked to submit a grant application to the Kansas Department of Transportation for $1.2 million worth of improvements to the intersection.
The project would include rebuilding the entire intersection with concrete and adding right-turn lanes on 23rd street to accommodate traffic turning both north and south onto Haskell. New traffic signals, storm sewer improvements and sidewalk ramps also would be installed.
The project also would include a widening of Haskell Avenue for the first several feet south of 23rd Street. That widening would make it easier for all of Haskell Avenue to be widened in the future, if traffic demand calls for it. Haskell likely will become a busier road once the trafficway is completed. The SLT plans call for an interchange to be built where Haskell and the SLT intersect. It will be one of the few places for motorists in eastern Lawrence to get onto the trafficway. The only other two interchanges for the SLT will be at Iowa Street and at the ending point for the SLT, which will be near Noria Road on the far eastern edge of the city.
The city is seeking $900,000 in state grant funding for the project. The city at-large would pay the other $300,000 for the improvements. The city should find out this summer whether it has been awarded the grant. Construction likely would occur in the summer or fall of 2015.
The second project is just a simple repaving of 23rd Street from Iowa to Ousdahl. At first glance, that may not seem to have much to do with the South Lawrence Trafficway, but it does. City officials are trying to get as much work done on 23rd Street as possible because currently 23rd Street also is designated as Kansas Highway 10. That designation means it is eligible for state funding for repaving or other similar work.
But once the South Lawrence Trafficway is completed in 2016, 23rd Street no longer will be designated as Kansas Highway 10, and the full cost of maintaining 23rd Street will fall on the city. At their meeting tonight, commissioners will apply for $200,000 in state funds to help repave the section of 23rd Street. If approved, construction work would take place in the summer of 2014.
That would tie in well with a larger project that already has been approved. A major rebuilding of the 23rd and Iowa street intersection is scheduled for 2014.
The third SLT project on tonight’s agenda is a wetland project. That perked up some ears in this town. One part of the SLT project that some people may have forgotten about is that a whole new east-west city street will be constructed at the same time the SLT is being built.
As most people know, 31st Street will move to the south a bit and become a new four-lane city street. But it no longer will stop at Haskell Avenue. Local officials will build the new 31st Street (it actually may be called 32nd Street) eastward all the way to O’Connell Road.
As part of that project, it is estimated about 4 acres of wetlands on the east side of Haskell Avenue will be disturbed by the construction. If you have followed the history of the SLT, perhaps you have heard that if you disturb wetlands you have to create new wetlands to mitigate the effects.
At tonight’s meeting, city commissioners are set to approve an approximately $25,000 contract with Wilson & Co. to begin creating the plan to mitigate the wetland damage. The working plan is that the city will buy 4 acres of excess property in the area from KDOT and turn the land over to Baker University to create new wetlands. But Wilson & Co. will hold a series of public meetings to get feedback on the issue.
Tonight’s City Commission meeting is set for 6:35 p.m. at City Hall.
Menard’s project highlights city rule on vacant space; a look at how Lawrence ranks in state retail report
Build it, and it will be empty. That's the motto of Lawrence, at least in one way.
City planners will be reminded of that tonight. The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will consider a proposal by Menard's, the large home improvement chain, to build a 190,000-square-foot store just east of 31st and Iowa streets. As we previously reported, the city's planning staff is recommending denial of the proposal.
But you may not be aware of one of the reasons the project has received a negative recommendation: When large retail projects are proposed in the city, planners are required to look at a retail market analysis to determine what the city's retail vacancy rate will be after the project is built. The way the rules are written, the vacancy rate is to be calculated by assuming the new project will be 100 percent vacant.
So when city officials do the calculations for this project, they put aside the fact that Menard's has no plans to build a 190,000-square-foot building and then leave it empty. Instead, the city adds the 190,000 square feet of the new store onto the city's estimated amount of vacant square footage, which stood at 643,000 square feet the last time it was calculated, in 2010.
When the city planners add on the 190,000 square feet, that pushes the city's supposed vacancy rate to 8.4 percent from 7 percent — which is just above the 8 percent total that is supposed to be a red flag when it comes to vacancy rates. According to a planning staff report, if you add in the approximately 65,000 square feet of smaller retail space proposed to be built along the outer edges of the Menard's project, the vacancy rate would jump to 9.6 percent.
But the city's planning rules also suggest planners go a step further. The city staff looked at all the retail zoning that currently is in place in the city, but doesn't yet have any buildings on it. That totals about 932,000 additional square feet. The city then makes the assumption that all of that will be built, and then be completely empty. That produces a frightening vacancy rate of 17.8 percent.
Planners, of course, don't think people are going to build large retail buildings without first having a tenant to occupy them. The city's planners understand the city's building market better than most because they are on the front lines of development proposals. But already I have heard people complaining about the city's Planning Department and why it would make this type of assumption. Well, city planners get the thankless job of being a referee in the city's politically charged development arena.
In other words, the job of a planner is to apply the rules to the project — not to rewrite the rules. Rewriting the rules is the job of city commissioners, and the rule that requires the city to assume large new retail buildings are going to be vacant has been on the city's books for at least the past decade.
Its days may be numbered, though. Scott McCullough, the city's planning director, told me the process has begun to change the rule. But it won't reach the City Commission in time to be considered for the Menard's proposal.
The rule change probably will get some opposition as well. There is certainly a group of local citizens that is very convinced the city's retail scene is overbuilt. They argue that even though a new Menard's building won't be empty, the addition of that much retail space in the city will cause an approximate amount of retail square footage elsewhere in the community to go vacant. That theory is how the rule got put in place to begin with.
In other words, the way the city's rules are written right now, retail is assumed to be a zero-sum game. For every one square foot of new retail space that comes into town, you must assume one square foot elsewhere will become vacant. Maybe that is the case in some economic climates. But maybe it isn't the case in other economic conditions.
What's certain is that retail zoning requests are a judgment call. The first round of judging will begin tonight at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall, when the Planning Commission meets. Ultimately, city commissioners will make the final decision on the Menard's request.
• One other piece of information that was included in the city staff's report was a mention of a state report that ranks how Lawrence's retail scene is doing compared to other Kansas cities. It is called a “pull factor” report, and it is basically a look at how Lawrence's per capita sales tax collections compared to the statewide average. It is called a pull factor because it is assumed that cities with averages much higher than the state are “pulling” customers from other communities to shop.
It is a perfect statistic for retail developers because it can be manipulated to fit the situation. When the pull factor is low, it can be argued that more retail development is needed in order to stop the amount of Lawrence residents who go outside of the city to shop. When the number is high, it can be presented as evidence that retail demand is high and the market can support additional retail development.
But the numbers are interesting because they do a good job of showing how Lawrence's per capita spending stacks up against other cities. The most recent report, which is for the state's 2012 fiscal year, shows Lawrence's numbers have rebounded. The city's pull factor was 1.07, which means it is 7 percent higher than the statewide average. As recently as 2000, the city's pull factor was .99. Going back farther, the city hit a high-water mark of 1.13 in 2000. So, we're somewhere in the middle of the range but trending upward.
Here's a look at how other large towns in the state fared. I'll leave the analysis up to you: Lenexa: 1.52 Overland Park: 1.51 Salina: 1.47 Garden City: 1.47 Manhattan: 1.40 Leawood: 1.40 Topeka: 1.37 Hutchinson: 1.27 Liberal: 1.23 Dodge City: 1.22 Olathe: 1.18 Pittsburg: 1.13 Junction City: 1.12 Wichita: 1.11 Fort Scott: 1.09 Coffeyville: 1.08 Emporia: 1.08 Lawrence: 1.07 Parsons: 1.05 Shawnee: .93 Atchison: .89 Kansas City: .86 Newton: .87 Leavenworth; .73 Prairie Village: .64
Finally, a gym where they won’t look at me funny when I wear my biker shorts with my tool belt.
No, it won’t have treadmills and weight benches. It will have something even better: tools and workbenches.
Eric Kirkendall, a local advocate for artists and inventors, has confirmed to me that a group he leads is finalizing a deal to lease an industrial building along East Ninth Street to house a new concept that tentatively is being called the Lawrence Community Workshop.
The concept, Kirkendall said, will be structured a lot like a workout gym. You’ll pay a monthly fee to access the shop’s equipment and training sessions.
The end result, Kirkendall hopes, is a place where artists, inventors, craftsmen and other creative types can strengthen their career potential.
“To me, this is really an economic development project,” Kirkendall said. “There is an incubator in town for biotech firms, but if you are a bright, creative, young person who wants to build something and make something, there is really no place for you to go.”
The Community Workshop group expects to finalize a lease by the end of the month for the vacant building at 512 E. Ninth Street. The approximately 4,000-square-foot building formerly was the workshop for noted artist Stan Herd, who recently moved his space down the street to East Lawrence’s Warehouse Arts District near the Poehler Lofts building.
The workshop will have all the basic woodworking and metal shop tools, but it also will have some advanced pieces of equipment that get expensive for start-up businesses to purchase. The space is expected to have a 3D printer and scanner, which is a high-tech piece of equipment that spits out (sorry to get so technical) three-dimensional objects based on a digital design you input into the machine. There is much talk about how the devices are going to revolutionize small-scale manufacturing.
The shop also is expected to have a couple of CNC machine tools. Those are devices such as high-tech lathes and routers that automatically cut out shapes and designs based on a pattern that is entered into a computer.
The workshop also is slated to have some more traditional computer capabilities — such as computers with Photoshop and other programs — for artists and designers.
The building will have one other additional component: an art gallery. The building will have space for about 400 linear feet of art gallery space that he believes can accommodate up to 100 artists. The gallery will be designed in a way that it can also function as meeting room and classroom space.
“Training sessions are expected to be a big part of what we do,” Kirkendall said. “We hope to train 1,000 people a year out of there.”
As for the financial aspects of this deal, Kirkendall said the group currently is contemplating a fee of $29 per month for people who want to have access to the workshop, and $20 per month for artists who want to have space in the gallery.
The workshop will function as a non-profit venture. The idea grew out of a previous idea for an arts, science and creative incubator that the group Lawrence Creates had about two years ago. Since then, Lawrence Creates has partnered with the well-established Lawrence Art Guild. The 51-year old non-profit has taken over the effort to find grant funding for the workshop idea. The group’s non-profit status also means people can make tax-deductible donations, including tools, to the project.
But Kirkendall said that an attractive lease rate on the building will make it possible for the workshop project to proceed even before grants are found. He hopes to have activity in the space by mid- to late summer.
The idea of a community workshop is a new concept to Lawrence, and it should be an interesting one to watch. The workshop is locating in an area of town with some momentum. Just down the street is the previously mentioned Warehouse Arts District, which includes some low-cost, small-scale office space for start-ups.
I was just telling someone the other day that the days ahead should be interesting for both Lawrence’s large-scale — think Farmland Industries business park and completion of the SLT — and small-scale business scenes.
But I don’t think he heard me. He was busy staring at my tool belt.
Back in the day, when the little space in the Orchards Corner Shopping Center at Bob Billings and Kasold housed the Brass Apple restaurant, there was a lot of stretching going on in the space. Mainly, stretching of my elastic waistband.
Well, now there is stretching of a different type. The Lawrence dance academy Point B Dance has moved into the long vacant space at 3300 Bob Billings Parkway.
The new space represents an expansion for the dance studio that started out about five years ago, and most recently was located in the Sunset West shopping area along Sixth Street. The new location about doubles the amount of space for the business.
The dance studio is unique in town because it focuses on teaching dance to adults 16 years and older. Lots of studios in town are in the children’s dance market, but studio owner Cathy Patterson said the adult market is a growing one.
“There are more and more people interested in the art of dance,” said Patterson, a former professional dancer in California who was trained at KU’s dance department. “People danced when they were young, and now they are coming back to it.”
The studio offers recreational classes and also operates an approximately 25-member dance company that is geared toward performance-oriented dance. The business offers multi-week sessions, but also has several classes where people can just pay by the day.
The new space is allowing the business to expand into the market of providing fitness-oriented dance classes. But the studio’s main emphasis continues to be on contemporary dance — a mixture of modern and ballet dances — jazz dance, turning and leaping classes, and a host of hip hop dance classes.
Now, I may have done some hip hop in that space too. But that was after it changed from the Brass Apple to a short-lived Cajun restaurant that was spelled something like Loo-zee-ana’s. Those Cajuns may have been questionable on their spelling, but they sure had a hot sauce that could make you move in some funny ways.
If you are like me and you need a burrito break every once in a while as you navigate the traffic on 23rd Street, you’ll soon have a new option.
The folks from Chipotle Mexican Grill have filed plans to tear down an existing retail building on 23rd Street and build a new restaurant.
The company has filed a site plan to redevelop the old multi-tenant retail building at 1420 W 23rd Street. In case you can’t picture that building (you might have salsa on your glasses; it happens to me a lot while driving on 23rd Street), the building is an older wooden structure that sits back off the street a bit, and has housed an insurance agency, tobacco store, wireless phone company and other various tenants recently. It is right next door to . . . wait, wait . . . Taco Bell.
Can you say, “Let’s get ready to rumble!.” (But can you say it really cool like that one guy? And if so, are people in your office looking oddly at you right now?)
According to the site plan on file at City Hall, the development will replace the approximately 6,000-square-foot, multi-tenant building with a 2,200-square-foot, standalone Chipotle restaurant. The restaurant, it appears, also will have a sizable outdoor seating area.
No word yet on a timeline for the project, or any plans for existing tenants in the building. But I’ve got a message into a representative with the development and will let you know if I hear anything interesting.
City lays off one employee in Planning Department; creates new position of Small Business Facilitator
The folks who oversee the planning of the city’s growth and development are drawing up a new plan about how to run their department.
Scott McCullough, director of the city’s Planning and Development Services Department, has confirmed his office recently laid off one employee as part of a reorganization plan.
The city eliminated the department’s GIS Analyst position — held by Renee Yocum — as part of a reorganization that has created a new position to help small businesses navigate their way through the city’s planning and development process.
The new position, which has been given the title of Small Business Facilitator, hasn’t yet been filled. McCullough said the position won’t be an actual planner who does reviews of proposed development projects, but rather a person who can be brought into the process at any time to provide extra assistance to small businesses that are trying to get a necessary permit or approval from City Hall.
“The idea is that we’ll have a concentrated focus in the small business arena so we can provide those applicants enhanced customer service,” McCullough said.
The reorganization also has resulted in a decision to move the department’s assistant director — longtime planner Sheila Stogsdill — into a new position called a Planning Administrator.
The Planning Administrator position will be responsible for overseeing all planning applications made to the office and ensuring they are processed in a timely manner. The position will oversee applications made to the Planning Commission, the Historic Resources Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals, McCullough said.
He said the city will start advertising to fill Stogsdill’s current position of assistant planning director within the next few days. McCullough said the assistant director position will become more responsible for reviewing the policies and customer service functions of the department.
The city actually has two assistant director positions to fill in the department, with the other being the assistant director for the development services division. Longtime city employee Margene Swarts — who recently retired — occupied that position, which oversees building inspections, code enforcement and other related matters.
McCullough said he hopes to have all the positions filled by mid-summer.
The moves come shortly after city commissioners asked City Manager David Corliss — as part of his annual review — to look for ways to strengthen and streamline the city’s planning and development services process.
It will be worth watching to see whether other initiatives occur in the department this year. City officials for the better part of a decade have been talking about the need to create a “one-stop shop” for people looking to do development projects. Currently, the city’s planning department and building inspections department are in two different offices. The city for several years has been looking for space and funding to consolidate the two functions.
In case you had forgotten, today — April 15 — is tax day. But I hear that a high-ranking federal official will be in town on Friday, so perhaps you could save yourself some postage and just ask him to take it back to D.C. with him.
Let me know how that goes.
In the meantime, let’s talk taxes of a different type. The city of Lawrence now has received sales tax revenue through the first quarter of 2013, and the city’s retail sales totals are showing growth over and above what was a robust 2012.
Through the March report, the city has tallied $354.1 million in retail sales, up 2.1 percent from the same period a year ago. In case you are scoring along at home, these totals don’t represent sales actually made from January through March. The state’s reporting system has a lag, so these totals represent sales made in late 2012 up to about mid-February.
If you are looking for a reason to be negative ( and why wouldn’t you, it is tax day), the city’s March numbers are down about 1.2 percent from March 2012 numbers. But worrying about one month’s worth of sales tax numbers would be like me worrying about my wife buying $150 worth of leftover Easter candy. It's just something that happens in life.
If you are really looking for a reason to be negative (geez, how much do you owe the federal government?), you also could point to the fact that the city’s sales tax collections are growing more slowly than they did a year ago. But that may just be you being a grump because the city posted a blistering growth rate of 5.24 percent in 2012, which was the city’s best retail growth since 1998. Over the past five years, the average growth rate of retail sales in Lawrence has checked in at 1.8 percent. So, the first quarter was about average.
Compared to other places in the state, Lawrence’s performance in the first quarter was mixed. Statewide, retail sales grew by 3.7 percent. Here’s a look at some of the larger retail markets in the state:
• Overland Park: up 1.2 percent
• Olathe: up 4.9 percent
• Kansas City: up. 6.3 percent
• Topeka: up 1.3 percent
• Emporia: up 3.5 percent
• Salina: up 1.7 percent
• Hays: up 5.0 percent
• Manhattan: down 4.0 percent
(Look what happens when your football team goes to a bowl game. Everybody leaves town and spends their money somewhere else. I knew KU football knew what it was doing all along.)
A little closer to home, here’s a look at totals for some smaller communities around Lawrence. But take these figures with a grain of salt. The totals are often so small that it takes only a few dollars to produce a sizable change.
• Baldwin City: up 5.5 percent
• De Soto: down 5.9 percent
• Ottawa: up 7.7 percent
• Tonganoxie: up 8.1 percent
• Eudora: up 16 percent. I actually did the math on that one, and the increase represented an extra $1 million in retail spending during the first quarter. Eudora has been running an aggressive “buy local” campaign, with signs everywhere in town. So maybe that it is it, or perhaps my wife simply found a leftover Easter egg candy outlet in Eudora.
And finally, it wouldn’t be a sales tax article unless I got out my inflation calculator. (You should see the size of that thing.) Here’s a look at Lawrence’s retail sales totals since 2008 — just prior to the financial crisis. The numbers in parentheses are the total adjusted for inflation, in order to give you an idea of how much retail sales have grown above and beyond inflation.
• 2013: $354.1 million
• 2012: $346.6 million ($350.4 million)
• 2011: $333.2 million ($343.9 million)
• 2010: $309.1 million ($329.1 million)
• 2009: $327.9 million ($354.8 million)
• 2008: $334.7 million ($360.9 million)
So, we haven’t quite rebounded back to the levels seen prior to the financial crisis, but we’re very close. And we clearly have bounced backed from the lows of 2010.
If you want more analysis than that, you are going to have to do it on your own. I’ve got breakfast to eat — Cadbury eggs and chocolate bunnies, of course.
I-70 Business Center has new owners; VFW purchases south Massachusetts Street properties; Habitat for Humanity completes land deal
Spring has brought some new activity to the commercial real estate market, according to the lastest report of land transfers from the Douglas County Courthouse. So, let’s get right into some of the more notable deals.
• The I-70 Business Center in North Lawrence — formerly known as the Tanger Outlet Mall — has new ownership. Lawrence Gateway Investors LLC has purchased the property from I-70 Business Center LLC. I-70 Business Center LLC was a group led by several local businessmen, including contractor Bo Harris, retired insurance executive Bob Johnson and North Lawrence commercial property owner Samih Staitieh.
Lawrence Gateway Investors — the new ownership group — is a recently formed company, so documents aren’t yet on file with the state showing the members of that company. But the resident agent for the company is Thomas Boyd, who is a noted real estate agent and developer with the Wichita-based Walter Morris Companies.
The former mall property — which is at the North Lawrence interchange on the Kansas Turnpike — long ago was converted from a retail center to a business center.
The I-70 Business Center group has had good success in finding tenants for the property. For many years the property was largely vacant, but that is no longer the case. The center has three anchor tenants: the corporate headquarters of Protection One security; a call center operated by Home Oxygen 2-U; and the Rezolve Group, a company that provides services for the student loan industry.
“It has been a good property to own,” Johnson told me. “I think it is a better property now than it has ever been. I think the new group bought it because they can see the future in it.”
Johnson confirmed to me that none of the members of the I-70 Business Center LLC was part of the new ownership group, but he said he wasn’t familiar with the principals in the new group. I’ve reached out to Boyd, the Wichita real estate agent, and will report back if I hear anything interesting.
• It looks like the Lawrence VFW Post has shifted gears on its plans for a new facility. The Alford-Clarke Post #852 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars has purchased 1741 and 1801 Massachusetts St. from Bruce Banning. That’s the former location for Bambinos Italian Restaurant and the current location for Beat the Bookstore.
The purchase comes after the VFW had filed plans with City Hall to build a new club near 27th and Haskell in eastern Lawrence. But as we reported a couple of months ago, VFW leaders said they also were looking at other locations. Now we know what other location they were looking at.
The group has filed a site plan to use the former Bambinos building for its clubhouse. It hasn’t filed any plans for the Beat the Bookstore building. I’ve got a call in the VFW post, but haven’t yet heard back. A member of the VFW told me the plan that has been described to members involves using the former Bambinos property as the bar and club for the facility, and the Beat the Bookstore property would continue to be leased to the bookstore or other businesses in the future to generate revenue for the VFW. I’ll let you know if a VFW provides me new information.
• Lawrence’s Habitat for Humanity has made a purchase that gives the nonprofit a multi-year supply of housing lots in eastern Lawrence. Habitat for Humanity purchased nine vacant lots from Steven George near 17th and Lindenwood. Lawrence’s Habitat for Humanity has been building about three to four homes per year, said Lindsey Slater, community outreach coordinator for the organization. Habitat was looking for more property, in part, because it has only two available lots left in the Comfort Neighborhood in North Lawrence.
Slater said George donated a portion of each lot to Habitat in order to help make the purchase financially feasible for the organization. Habitat builds affordable housing for families that meet certain income guidelines and who are willing to invest “sweat equity” by helping build the home and others for Habitat.
“We’re really targeting hardworking families that wouldn’t be able to qualify for a traditional home loan otherwise,” Slater said.
• To see a complete list of the land transfers for the week ending April 8, click here.
Maybe 13 is a lucky number in this case. Lawrence home sales for the 13th month in a row have posted year-over-year gains, but the more striking fact is the improvement in almost every category real estate observers care about.
According to the new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors, agents sold 102 Lawrence homes in April, a 45 percent increase over April 2012.
In a departure from past months, even newly constructed homes sold well. Builders sold 13 new homes, compared to just four in April 2012. To put the number in perspective, Lawrence builders had sold only 13 homes in the previous three months of 2013 combined.
The April numbers continue what has been a good start to 2013. For the year, 261 homes have been sold in Lawrence, up about 32 percent from 2012 totals and up 45 percent from same period in 2011. The number of newly built homes sold checks in at 26, up from 17 at this time in 2012 and 18 in 2011.
Sales of newly built homes will be a number to really keep an eye on. New home construction has more potential to boost the Lawrence economy than people simply buying and selling existing homes. That’s obviously because new construction involves employing people to build and houses and develop neighborhoods.
A couple of numbers that builders will keep an eye on are the number of days a house stays on the market before it sells, and the number of homes actively listed. Both numbers showed some bullish signs in the last month.
The median days on market for a home is now at 66, down from 88 in April 2012. The number of homes on the market also has fallen to 419, down nearly 32 percent from the 613 listed in April 2012. The number of newly built homes on the market is at 29, down from 56 in April 2012 and from 63 in April 2011.
As the market has picked up, there are signs that prices have too. The median selling price on homes in 2013 stands at $167,000, up 7.8 percent from the same period in 2012. It is always tough to gauge pricing trends just from this report, but at this time last year, the Lawrence real estate market was showing signs of a real price correction. Last year, at the end of April, the median home price was down about 10.2 percent.
The new numbers certainly have put new bounce in the step of local real estate agents.
“These recent statistics reflect a dramatic shift in our local market,” said John Esau, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
Esau, in fact, went so far as to say he believe the market now has shifted from a buyer’s market to a seller’s market.
We’ll see what May brings: Perhaps lucky 14.
••• There’s another report out that shows Lawrence home builders are slowly starting to ramp up their production. According to a new report from the city, 17 building permits were issued in April for single-family and duplex homes.
That’s the highest April number in at least five years. For all of 2013, the city has issued 59 single-family and duplex permits, which is 20 more than it issued during the same time period in 2012.
Other items from the April report include:
• For the year, the city has issued permits for $54.8 million worth of projects, up 63 percent from the same period a year ago. The $54.8 million is by far the best showing of the last five years. The average since 2009 has been about $27.5 million worth of projects.
• Apartment construction continues to be strong in Lawrence. The city has issued permits for 374 apartment units thus far in 2013. That’s the highest total of the last five years. Since 2009, the average has been about 105 units.
• Apartment construction was a big part of the $19.8 million worth of permits issued in April. Camson South — one of two apartment projects just west of Wal-Mart on Sixth Street — pulled permits for a $5.5 million project that includes 88 apartments and a clubhouse. Other large projects include phase I of the Rock Chalk Park project, including construction of the track and field stadium. Lawrence-based DFC Company pulled $6 million in permits for that project. Discount Tire also pulled a $1 million permit for work on its new store at 4741 Bauer Farm Drive, just west of the new Starbucks in that area. Several of you have asked about the timeline for the new Discount Tire location, and I do have a call into the company. I’ll let you know when I hear more.
Let the number games begin. As we’ve previously reported, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission is set to debate a proposal by Menards to locate a new store adjacent to Home Depot near 31st and Iowa streets.
As we’ve also reported, one of the factors that planners are supposed to take into consideration when considering such large retail projects is the city’s retail vacancy rate.
But at the time Menards filed its plans with City Hall, the last time the city had conducted a retail vacancy rate study was in 2010.
Well, there are now new numbers. The city recently has completed its most recent Retail Market Report, which looks at vacancy rates as they were in December 2012. Here’s a look at some of the findings:
• Citywide, the retail vacancy rate was 7.2 percent, down from the 7.3 percent found in the city’s 2010 report and up from the 6.9 percent found in the 2006 report. In other words, there hasn’t been much change in the overall number.
• Downtown had a vacancy rate of 9.4 percent, up from 9.1 percent in 2010; South Iowa had a vacancy rate of 7.8 percent, up from 2.7 percent; East 23rd had a vacancy rate of 10.4 percent, down from 13.6 percent; West 23rd Street had a vacancy rate of 6.1 percent, down from 6.7 percent.
• The 19th and Haskell area had the highest vacancy rate in the city at 30.2 percent. North Lawrence was second at 16.4 percent, although the numbers indicate a turnaround is happening in the area. In 2010, it had a vacancy rate of 27.5 percent.
• Turnarounds happened in a couple of other areas too. The Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa area has a vacancy rate of 7.8 percent, down from 26.4 percent in 2010.
• The report also provides information about the type of retail uses in downtown. The report found 116 merchant-based retail businesses in downtown, which is down from 126 in 2006. Restaurant and beverage oriented uses grew to 83, up from 68 establishments, during the same time period.
The report is an interesting one for people who watch Lawrence’s commercial real estate market. Perhaps the most interesting part about it, though, is how different it is from a private report that was put together during roughly the same time period.
The Lawrence office of Colliers International released a report in January that measured vacancy rates for late 2012. It found an overall retail vacancy rate of 5.4 percent, compared to 7.2 percent in the city’s report.
In downtown, Colliers found a vacancy rate of 4.4 percent compared to 9.4 percent in the city report.
The differences, I believe, come down to the methodology of the two reports. I don’t know all the differences but I think a lot of it comes from how the two studies define retail space. For example, the city study counts some industrially zoned space as potential retail space because the city’s development code would allow for retail to be located in the space. Also, there are places like the former Riverfront Mall building. Whether that space is counted as retail space, which is what it was built for, or office space, which is how it is pretty much being marketed now, makes a difference in the vacancy rate calculations.
Vacancy rates: They’re like my kids saying they’ve “cleaned” their rooms. It is a subject where interpretations and definitions matter.
As far as the Menards project goes, we’ll see how much weight planners, and ultimately city commissioners, give to the vacancy rate subject.
The city’s comprehensive plan, Horizon 2020, says large retail projects shouldn’t be approved, if there is evidence the project will push the city’s overall retail vacancy rate above 8 percent.
If the 190,000 square foot Menards store and the 65,000 square feet of outlying parcels — restaurants and other smaller retailers surrounding the store — were built and then were entirely vacant, the city’s vacancy rate would rise to 9.7 percent. It would be odd, however, for Menards to build a store and then not occupy it, but technically that is the assumption city planners are supposed to make under the rules of Horizon 2020.
Several planning commissioners the last time they considered this issue, however, indicated concern with making that type of assumption. The city also is in the process of rewriting that portion of Horizon 2020, but those changes haven’t yet been made. So, it is possible that planners may discard the idea that they should assume the new Menards building will be vacant after it is built.
Staff members put together another calculation that shows what would happen if the Menards building is occupied but all of the 65,000 square feet of surrounding retail is vacant. The result would be the citywide vacancy rate would rise to 7.7 percent, which is still below the 8 percent threshold that Horizon 2020 says is critical.
So, we’ll see what comes of all this. I’m not sure how much this retail market study is going to play into the Menards decision, but this report likely will play into future debates about whether Lawrence has too much or too little retail space for a community its size.
The Menards discussion will take place at 6:30 tonight at City Hall.
Wicked Broadband project seeks $500,000 city grant; downtown hotel project seeks adjustment to incentives package; historical society seeks $20k for new exhibit
Reading the agenda for Tuesday night’s Lawrence City Commission meeting is kind of like reading my household’s credit card bill: There are plenty of questions, and all the answers seem to have dollar signs.
There are three outside organizations requesting financial assistance from the city, with two of them each asking for a half-million dollars.
We’ll try to fill in more details later, but here’s a look at the basics of the requests:
• Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband announced last month that it will start a pilot project to bring super fast 1-Gigabit Internet service to a neighborhood later this year.
A kick-off event for the project spelled out a lot of details about how the company, which previously did business as Lawrence Freenet, could bring the same type of high-speed Internet service to Lawrence that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City. At that event, the idea of financial incentives from the city wasn’t envisioned. Well, it is now.
The company has filed an application for a $500,000 economic development grant from the city, plus is asking to receive up to a $20,000 a year rebate in franchise fees it pays to the city. It also wants to have the right to enter into $10 per year leases to use a portion of new fiber optic cables that the city plans to install throughout the community in future years.
Joshua Montgomery, co-owner of Wicked Broadband, said there are several factors that have caused him to rethink the need for city incentives for the project. But perhaps the largest is that he’s been contacted by several significant New York-based capital investment companies that are interested in investing in a locally owned, high-speed Internet service. Those investors have made it clear that the city of Lawrence needs to do something to show that it is committed to the idea of bringing a high-speed network to the city.
“If the city says that it is behind it 100 percent, that opens the door for the next $30 million in private funding that will be needed to spread this service to the rest of the community,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery said the $500,000, one-time grant would allow the service territory for the pilot project to grow to 1,000 households, up from 500. The neighborhood or neighborhoods haven’t been selected yet. Wicked is taking pre-registrations for the service on its website. The neighborhood with the highest percentage of residents pre-registered will serve as the pilot project. An announcement is expected June 15.
Montgomery said he and his business partner and wife, Lawrence school board member Kris Adair, are putting up $500,000 in private money for the pilot project.
City commissioners on Tuesday aren’t being asked to approve the request. Instead, Tuesday’s vote is just to direct city staff to begin analyzing it.
Wicked Broadband’s service will be a direct competitor to existing Internet providers, such as Knology and AT&T, which generally do not receive such city subsidies. So, it will be interesting to hear what those companies have to say as the process unfolds.
As for Montgomery, he said he’ll argue that the city won’t be making an investment in a private company as much as it will be making an investment in a new infrastructure system that will be critical to future commerce. “It is an economic enabler,” Montgomery said.
The second request comes from a group led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton, which is seeking to build a new hotel at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire.
It is a bit more complicated to understand, and I’ll try to get a better handle on the numbers before Tuesday’s meeting. But the request seeks to raise the amount of Tax Increment Finance dollars the hotel is eligible to receive to $4 million, up from $3.5 million.
Unlike the Wicked Broadband request, this doesn’t involve the city writing a $500,000 check to the development. Instead, a TIF allows the project to get a rebate on a certain percentage of the property taxes it pays. It is kind of like a tax abatement, except the money has to be used to pay for infrastructure type of expenses. In this case, that includes a private parking garage for the hotel.
What makes it a bit complicated is that the developers also have proposed a multistory apartment/office project for the northeast corner of the intersection. It also uses Tax Increment Financing. It looks like a likely option is to increase the amount of TIF money available for the southeast corner hotel project by reducing the amount of projected TIF revenues available to the northeast corner apartment project.
If that is ultimately what happens, then the overall amount of incentive basically would be a wash. We’ll have to see how those details work out.
The more interesting part is what developers have said about the hotel project. It has had its necessary building approvals for months, but hasn’t yet started construction. A letter to the city now makes it clear that there are financial questions the investors are trying to answer.
Bill Fleming, an attorney for the development group, told the city in a letter that “the hotel investors are keenly interested in the ‘cost per key,’ which is the average cost for each hotel room.”
If the additional $500,000 in TIF money is not available to the hotel project, then that will raise the average cost per room the investors must pay.
“The investors may conclude the project is not feasible at that cost per key, and the project in that case will not proceed,” Fleming wrote.
That would be a major turn of events for the project, which faced stiff opposition from the adjacent East Lawrence neighborhood, and had to fight hard to win city approval.
Maybe the folks at the Douglas County Historical Society are more than just masters of history. Perhaps they also are masters of timing. After those two big-ticket items, they are asking for a mere $20,000 in city funding. The money will be used to help fund a permanent exhibit on the second floor of the Watkins Museum commemorating the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence.
The new exhibit is set to open on Aug. 17, and will “explore Douglas County’s history, issues that shaped the development of the community, and events that made it a focus of national attention.”
Ultimately, the exhibit will be expanded to the third floor of the museum. The bulk of the nearly $257,000 in exhibit costs has come from private individuals, businesses and grants.
City staff members are recommending approval of the $20,000 in funding. The money would come from the city’s guest tax fund, which receives its revenue from the guest tax charged at hotel and motel rooms.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday.
The changes keep on coming in the Lawrence Internet market.
The largest Internet service provider in Lawrence has just announced that it is removing all of its usage caps from its Internet service packages, as the company changes its name from Knology to WOW! That means customers no longer will be charged for going over their usage limits, according to a press release by the company.
Englewood, Colo.-based WOW purchased Knology back in July, but it had not converted Knology over to the WOW brand until today. Signs for the company around town are being changed today, according to WOW.
But the changes related to Internet usage caps are likely to garner more attention from hard-core Internet users. The caps had generated concern among many users because customers’ standard monthly rates could rise depending on how much Internet usage they had in a particular month.
The change in the cap policy comes at a time when both private and public officials have been talking about shaking up the city’s Internet service provider market.
A city-hired consultant recently completed a report that found that current broadband offerings in Lawrence generally are “costlier, slower and more limited than in other comparable communities.” City officials had the report commissioned because they have been interested in possibly allowing private companies to have access to a growing ring of fiber optic cable owned by the city.
On the private front, Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband — formerly known as Lawrence Freenet — has made a proposal to the city to further tap into that ring of fiber. (Ring of Fiber: Johnny Cash used to sing that song in his old age.)
At their meeting tonight, city commissioners will receive a request from Wicked for low-cost fiber leases with the city, and a one-time $500,000 grant to help the company build new broadband infrastructure in the city. The request is part of a pilot project Wicked is launching to bring to one Lawrence neighborhood the same type of superfast Internet service that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City. If successful, Wicked Broadband wants to extend the high-speed broadband project to all of the city.
So, we’ll see what cards the folks at WOW start playing in what appears to be an increasingly competitive game in Lawrence. Consumers, I suspect, will be keeping an eye on whether the competition starts having an impact on rates.
City estimates it may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to keep concealed weapons out of city buildings
It appears the city soon will have to buy hundreds thousands of dollars worth of security measures. Either that, or the city will have to learn to live with a new state law that would allow concealed-carry permit holders to bring firearms into City Hall and other city buildings.
City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting will consider formally asking the Kansas Attorney General for an exemption from the new state law until Jan. 1, 2014. The state law — approved by the legislature and signed by the governor this session — essentially contains an automatic one-year exemption period for local governments. The city also may be able to get three additional one-year exemptions, although that is less certain.
The law no longer allows city or county buildings to be posted with the "no gun" signs that make it illegal for anyone, including concealed-carry permit holders, to bring a concealed weapon into the buildings. Under the new law, governments can only post those signs if the buildings have adequate security measures, such as metal detectors and security officers.
Lawrence city officials have begun calculating the cost to purchase and staff such metal detectors. A memo from City Attorney Toni Wheeler estimates it will cost about $5,000 for each metal detector, plus at least $42,000 a year for a single police officer to staff the metal detector—and the Lawrence Police Department, Wheeler wrote, believes two officers may be necessary for each detector. That would place the annual operating costs for the program at more than $84,000 for each building with a detector. And the cost may be even greater, because the personnel numbers represent starting salaries and don’t factor in benefit costs or other costs to equip a police officer.
Wheeler says at least three city buildings — City Hall, Lawrence Municipal Court and the public access area of the Police Department’s Investigations and Training Center — all warrant consideration for security systems. Beyond those three, city commissioners also would have to decide whether recreation centers and other city offices need the security measures.
New security costs for the city are expected to be addressed in the City Manager’s recommended 2014 budget, which is scheduled to be released in July. The costs could add up. If the city decided to include recreation centers in the program, there would be a total of nine buildings to equip and staff. At a minimum of $42,000 per building, that's almost $400,000 a year, plus the cost of the metal detectors. At $84,000 per building — which would be the case if two officers are required — it would be more than $750,000 a year.
But say you wanted to have security measures in place for every city-owned building that currently prohibits concealed firearms. The city currently has 47 buildings listed in its administrative policy, which means it would cost $3.9 million to provide a two-member security detail at every location. That, of course, is not going to happen. It probably would be a bit odd to have a metal detector at the city’s Landscape Shop or the Wastewater Treatment Plant, for example. Those places probably will become buildings where concealed-carry permit holders can have a weapon.
It will be interesting to see how city commissioners react to the new legislation. The previous City Commission sent a letter to the legislature objecting to the bill while it was under consideration. Whether the city’s objections rise to the level of spending more than a half-million dollars on security each year, I don’t know. The city already spends some money on security: a police officer attends each Lawrence City Commission meeting, and a bailiff is employed by the Lawrence Municipal Court.
If the city gets serious about installing metal detectors, there will be quite a few items to discuss. It probably would require the public entrances at City Hall to be changed significantly, since there are three ways for the public to enter City Hall. The city also could have a discussion about whether security officers — rather than fully sworn police officers — would be appropriate to staff the metal detectors. That may reduce the personnel cost for a security program.
And then there are city buildings such as the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence Arts Center that attract large crowds on a regular basis. How would they be secured and staffed?
Of course, the city always could have the discussion of whether any harm would come from allowing licensed individuals to carry a weapon in city buildings. According to the Kansas Attorney General’s office, it already is legal for concealed-carry permit holders to carry a weapon on various pieces of city property. Every city-owned park, for example, is a place where concealed-carry permit holders are entitled to have a weapon. “Parks, parking lots and other open public property" are no longer able to be restricted through signs, according to the Attorney General’s Web site. That didn’t always use to be the case, but the law was changed, I believe, during the 2010 legislative session.
City commissioners won’t be the only ones that get to have this fun. Douglas County also will have to go through the same exercise with its buildings, although it already has a metal detector for the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. Public schools won’t have to install metal detectors under the new law. School officials can continue to post the "no gun" signs on school buildings, which will make it illegal for concealed-carry permit holders to bring a weapon into the building.
All we need now is John McEnroe, or absent that, somebody in white 1980s-style tennis shorts with an excitable personality.
Yes, we’re talking about the looming tennis court debate that will be coming to Lawrence City Hall. As we reported last week, city commissioners have decided to reopen the issue of whether eight tennis courts near Lawrence High School should be lighted.
At the time, however, we didn’t have a date for when the commissioners were to have a public hearing on the issue. Well, the commission now has a tentative hearing date of June 4, at its 6:35 p.m. meeting at City Hall.
There’s been one other development in the matter: The city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board brought up the issue of lighted tennis courts for the site, and it is clear recreation officials aren’t on board with the idea, largely because of concerns about cost.
In case you have forgotten, members of the Lawrence Tennis Association believe lights should be added to the courts to make up for lighted courts that were lost when LHS renovated its campus. Neighbors in the area have opposed the lighting plan, expressing concern that it will be just one more example of LHS facilities creating a neighborhood conflict. They think the light will spill onto their properties.
City officials already have agreed to build eight outdoor lighted tennis courts as part of the city’s recreation center in northwest Lawrence. Several city officials thought that put an end to the issue, but members of the tennis association said they still see value in having lighted courts in the LHS area.
But at a recent meeting, the top officials at the city’s Parks and Recreation Department said they couldn’t support the idea of lighting the LHS courts and building the eight lighted courts at the recreation center. Cost was one reason they cited. They now estimate the cost of installing lights at the courts — which are on the property of the former Centennial Elementary school — at about $240,000, if done in a way to minimize light spillage. When the project was first proposed a couple of years ago, the department was planning on spending about $100,000 to light the courts.
Plus, the city would have to enter into a maintenance agreement with the school district to help make any future repairs on the courts. Parks and Recreation officials aren’t sure they want to do that, because two of the courts already are showing signs of needing significant repair. Currently, all maintenance is the responsibility of the school district. (In case you are wondering why it wouldn’t be the school district’s responsibility to add lights to courts it owns, the answer is because the district says it doesn’t really need the lights for its high school programs. The lights mainly would accommodate city residents that use the courts.)
Members of the tennis association are passionate about the issue and well-organized. They also note that the needs in the area are changing because KU will be losing most of its public courts on campus when the new School of Business building is constructed.
So, we’ll see how the debate goes. Let the volleying begin.
Call it a rankings rut, and this one is pretty deep for the city of Lawrence.
A new national study has ranked Lawrence as the second-worst-performing small metropolitan area in the nation, based on a variety of economic measures. The Milken Institute ranked Lawrence 178 out of 179 metro areas in its most recent Best Performing Cities index. A web site for The Atlantic this week had an article analyzing the results.
This latest report adds onto the negative news released earlier this month by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis about Lawrence’s gross domestic product. It ranked 339th out of 366 metro areas, and was shrinking.
The Milken report uses some of the same types of economic numbers to create its index. But it places a particular emphasis on an area in which Lawrence is supposed to be positioned to excel: high-tech, knowledge-based jobs.
Simply put, the report found we aren’t excelling in that area. In fact, Lawrence didn’t excel in any area.
Over the course of the past year, Lawrence’s ranking in the report fell 79 spots, from No. 99 in the 2011 report to No. 178 in the most recent index. Only three other cities — Ithaca, N.Y., Great Falls, Mont., and Hot Springs, Ark. — had sharper declines than Lawrence’s.
The report takes a look at nine different categories, and Lawrence didn’t crack the top 100 in any of them. Here’s a look:
• Five-year job growth: No. 107
• One-year job growth: No. 172
• Five-year wage growth: No. 101
• One-year wage growth: No. 158
• One-year job growth percentage: No. 156
• Five-year high-tech GDP growth: No. 170
• One-year high-tech GDP growth: No. 151
• High-tech GDP as part of overall GDP: No. 164
• Concentration of high-tech companies: No. 148
I know how you all like comparisons, so I have gathered the rankings for several regional communities. I would ask for a drumroll, but the drama already has been sucked from this. Since Lawrence is second to last — last place was Carson City, Nev. — I’m guessing you’ve already deduced that every city in the region ranked ahead of us.
On a positive note, Manhattan, which has been on a roll in these type of rankings, wasn’t included in this index, likely because its population wasn’t quite large enough to qualify. But fear not, here is something for you to gnash your teeth over: Columbia, Mo., ranked No. 10 on the small cities list. Here’s a look at others:
• Iowa City, Iowa: No. 16
• St. Joseph, Mo.: No. 29
• Waco, Texas: No. 31
• Joplin, Mo.: No. 44
• Ames, Iowa: No. 61
• Topeka: No. 144
Several of the cities Lawrence often compares itself to, or at least watches, were included in the list of 200 large cities. Here’s how some of those cities fared in the rankings:
• Fort Collins, Colo.: No. 12
• Boulder, Colo.: No. 15
• Lubbock, Texas: No. 20
• Oklahoma City: No. 32
• Madison, Wis.: No. 71
• Lincoln, Neb.: No. 81
• Kansas City: No. 104
• Tulsa, Okla.: No. 118
• Springfield, Mo.: No. 144
• Wichita: No. 146
Take these rankings for whatever you think they’re worth. These indexes all have their own biases about what they think are the most important economic indicators. This one seems to be heavily focused on wages and high-tech business indicators. For what it is worth, those are two areas I hear local leaders emphasize a lot as well.
Another factor to remember is that this index — like all of them — is based on data that sometimes has some age to it. Most of the job growth numbers date back to 2011, and some of the wage numbers date back to 2010. It was no secret that Lawrence struggled during those periods. It also is worth remembering that Lawrence basically has entirely revamped its economic development team since that point.
Plus, some recent indicators have been more positive. Retail sales tax collections in 2012 had their best growth since the mid-1990s, there’s been a significant decline in Massachusetts Street vacancies, Hallmark Cards is in the process of shifting about 200 workers to its Lawrence plant, and even home sales and building permits have showed signs of a rebound.
Yes, I’m trying to put a little cheer in your Kool-Aid. But only for a moment. I’ll leave you with a finding from the report that ought to leave Lawrence leaders scratching their heads. The authors of the report noted that there were two types of communities most likely to do well in this year’s index: communities benefiting from the country’s new natural gas and oil exploration; and communities with “high concentrations of public-sector employees, especially in prominent universities.”
That second one sure sounds like us. But maybe our definition of prominent is a bit different from others. The top ranked small city, for the second year in a row, was Logan, Utah, home to Utah State University. Prominent? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure our basketball team can beat theirs.
Strap on your tool belt, it is time to talk again about Menards’ proposal to build a big box store just east of Home Depot near 31st and Iowa streets.
The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will debate the project again at its Monday evening meeting. The Planning Commission debated it last month and failed to reach consensus on whether the plan should be recommended for approval by the City Commission. I know that left some of you feeling like I feel after completing an electrical-oriented home improvement project — a bit dazed. (My wife promised me she had turned off the circuit breaker. She never said she wouldn’t turn it back on, though.)
If you remember, the Menards project hit a snag, even though there was no groundswell of opposition from neighbors in the area. Instead, it was the city’s planning staff that expressed concern about changing a portion of the city’s comprehensive plan, known as Horizon 2020, to accommodate the project.
There have been some new developments on that front. The city’s planning staff hasn’t officially changed its recommendation for denial, but it has created a new staff report that provides a clear set of reasons Planning Commissioners can use to approve the project, if they so choose.
That may prove to be important. For what it is worth, I felt like the Planning Commission last month was interested in recommending the project for approval, but was reluctant to do so because they hold the planning staff’s professional opinion in high regard.
The new memo from the planning staff, however, makes it clear that there is a reasonable argument to be made for why Horizon 2020 could be changed to accommodate the project. The main point of contention here is that Horizon 2020 calls for the proposed Menards site, the former Gaslight Mobile Home Village, to be used for apartment development in the future. A map in Horizon 2020 needs to be changed to show the property is slated for commercial development.
The memo lists the following reasons why a change could be prudent:
• It is now clear the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway will be completed, which will alleviate the need for traffic to travel through neighborhoods to reach the new commercial area.
• Public testimony from neighbors has indicated that there is a significant number of residents who may prefer retail development at the site rather than a large apartment complex.
• Even though the city has other retail zoned areas in the city, sites that can accommodate big-box development remain limited.
Planning staff members also are pointing out that it is unlikely that commercial development would extend all the way down the north side of 31st Street to Louisiana Street, if Menards is approved. Staff members confirmed the city is close to finalizing a deal to purchase the nearly six acres of property near the northwest corner of 31st and Louisiana streets. The city needs the property for a new utility pump station. City ownership means the corner wouldn’t ever develop as a retail site.
So we’ll see what planning commissioners do on Monday. That meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.
But remember, planning commissioners only recommend things. It will be up to the City Commission to make a final decision on the project. It still is too early to tell how city commissioners may vote on this project, but there are indications Menards has a fighting chance.
When I was speaking recently with City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer about economic matters, he brought up the need for the city to really update its comprehensive plan. He pointed to the Menards project as an example. Farmer said much of the underlying work to create the city’s comprehensive plan was done more than 20 years ago, and it probably is time to recognize that several factors in the city have changed since then.
“Menards is a great example of that,” Farmer says. “Our comprehensive plan says no, and the community seems to be saying it doesn’t want more housing there.
“I look at that and say ‘gosh, a Menards would be great in bringing some commercial taxes to a community that is going to have shrinking property tax revenues.'”
So, while Farmer stopped short of saying he would vote for the specific proposal Menards currently has brought forward, it sounds like he’ll have an open mind.
Privately, I have heard one other commissioners indicate he is going to give strong consideration to approving the project as well. It will be interesting to watch. Probably the biggest factor will be whether residents in the Indian Hills Neighborhood continue to either support the project or at least not vigorously oppose it. A large number of neighbors opposing the project could change things.
At the moment though, it is safe to assume the Menards project won’t be dead on arrival when it comes to the City Commission. Which, that reminds me: I still have to rewire the kitchen light. Oh, boy.
One after another, speakers with fingertips that lighted up stepped to the lectern at Lawrence City Hall last night. It was like a herd of E.T.’s had come to watch the City Commission meeting.
I’ve seen odder things at City Hall, but, no, there wasn’t an extraterrestrial presence at Tuesday night’s commission meeting. These lighted fingers could only mean one thing: The contentious issue of lighted tennis courts in the Centennial neighborhood is back.
More than a dozen members of the Lawrence Tennis Association showed up at the meeting to lobby commissioners to reconsider the idea of placing lights at the Lawrence Tennis Center near Lawrence High School. (The fingertip lights are a device players use to play on unlit courts.)
And simply put, the game is back on. Commissioners agreed to put the lighting issue on a future City Commission agenda for discussion.
That’s despite the fact that it appeared for the last several months that the issue was done and decided. City commissioners have agreed to spend about $640,000 to build eight, lighted, outdoor tennis courts as part of the city’s recreation center at Rock Chalk Park.
The lights have been controversial because neighbors near the site — which is basically on the grounds of the former Centennial Elementary school at 2145 Louisiana Street — have objected to the amount of light the court lights would spill onto their properties.
But members of the Lawrence Tennis Association have been equally adamant that the city needs to follow through on a promise to light the courts. Renovations at nearby Lawrence High School caused the city to lose eight lighted tennis courts several years ago. The school rebuilt the courts in a new location, but when it came time to add the lights, neighbors voiced concerns and city officials backed off.
Some city officials thought they had solved the issue with the Rock Chalk Park project. On Tuesday, members of the tennis association said they were appreciative of the future courts at Rock Chalk Park, but said they still want lighted courts in the central part of town. Plus, they said a city of Lawrence’s size could support lighted courts both at Rock Chalk Park and the Lawrence Tennis Center. That argument upset at least one commissioner.
“When we started all of this, it always has been about the need for eight illuminated courts,” City Commissioner Bob Schumm said. “Now we have the conversation up to 16, and I’m not buying that.”
But the other four commissioners said they were fine with having a formal discussion about the idea at a future meeting. Two new members have joined the commission — Jeremy Farmer and Terry Riordan — since the commission last discussed the issue. Neither Farmer nor Riordan indicated a position on the idea Tuesday.
“But I had a meeting with the neighborhood group a few weeks ago, and it seems to be pretty adamantly opposed to this,” Farmer said. “I think the tennis court lights are the straw that is breaking the camel’s back, it seems.”
A date for the commission to discuss the issue hasn’t been set. When one is, I’ll pass it along. And when it does, forget “E.T. phone home.” It will be: Chad, phone home. It will be a late night.
Here’s a tip for you: Make sure your stock portfolio includes plenty of exposure to cheap snack food and elastic waist bands. I may be providing a serious boost to both products.
There are at least two efforts underway to bring a full-fledged convenience store — minus the gasoline — to downtown Lawrence.
The largest effort comes from Scott Zaremba, an owner of the Lawrence-based Zarco convenience store chain. As we reported last week, Zaremba and his partners are opening up a Sandbar Sub shop at 745 New Hampshire, the former spot of the Mirth Cafe.
But Zaremba has confirmed to me it will be much more than a sandwich shop. Zaremba plans to use the approximately 3,500 square foot space to create what he calls a “24-hour destination for downtown.” There will be restaurant food — the sub sandwiches and the Sandbar’s hot breakfast menu will lead the way — but there also will be all the items you would expect to find at a Zarco convenience store. That means fountain drinks, basic grocery items, bottles of Advil (not that you would ever need one of those at work), and . . . well, this is going to get really long if I list everything a convenience store sells.
It won’t be the full-fledged grocery store that many downtown leaders have been clamoring for, but it seems like it will be a significant step in that direction. Zaremba said he sees a need to provide convenience items to the growing number of people who are living downtown. Plus, he said he thinks the large number of office workers in downtown will appreciate the store too.
“Really, where can you go downtown and just get a fountain drink and get in and out without standing in a large food line?” Zaremba said.
Another feature not often found in downtown: The store will be open 24 hours a day. Zaremba said he hopes to have the business up and running before Aug. 10. That’s the date of the anniversary party for The Sandbar — the downtown tavern, not the sub shop. Longtime Sandbar leader Peach Madl is a partner in the Sandbar Sub Shop chain.
Last week we also reported that Peoples Bank was going to have a presence at the location. I haven’t yet had heard back from Peoples officials, but Zaremba confirmed the bank will have a quick service banking operation inside the Sandbar business, which Zaremba said he will brand as Sandbar World Headquarters.
But I mentioned there are two efforts underway to bring convenience items to downtown. The other one is smaller but already underway. Tobacco Bazaar has moved from its location at 19th and Massachusetts to 14 E. Eighth Street in downtown. In addition to selling all sorts of cigarette, tobacco and pipe items, the store also sells an assortment of convenience items. That includes candy, sodas and energy drinks, batteries, and — wait for it — beef jerky. To top it off, the business is setting up a chip section too.
Beef jerky and Doritos in one location, and just steps away from my office: Perhaps now you understand why I’m in the market for an elastic waistband.
In case you're trying to picture where 14 E. Eighth Street is in downtown, it's basically right around the corner from the old Mirth Cafe location. So, these two businesses will be neighbors. It will be interesting to watch how that plays out.
Tobacco Bazaar currently is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on most days, except it is open to 11 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
There is one question unanswered about the two businesses: Will either have slushies? My waistband was afraid to ask.