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Former Pachamamas building to become event gallery; downtown landlords looking at solar project for Mass. Street rooftops; park near 19th and Haskell set to honor firefighters, former Chief McSwain

• Let me just start with this: If I hit a golf ball into your wedding party, I’m sorry. But I hope you’ll let me play through. (I also hope you’re distracted enough that I’ll be able to steal a piece of cake.)

A wedding party along a beautiful Lawrence golf course is a service the country clubs in town have been offering forever and a day. But soon there will be another player in that market.

Longtime Lawrence financial planner Wayne McDaniel has finalized a deal to purchase the former Pachamamas restaurant building at 2161 Quail Creek Drive.

If you remember, before Pachamamas moved to its current downtown location on New Hampshire Street several years ago, it got started in a unique building behind the Hy-Vee at Clinton Parkway and Kasold.

The building backs up to part of the Alvamar Golf Course. (I think it backs up to the public course, but I get confused because with my swing I sometimes inadvertently play both courses in the same round.)

McDaniel plans to convert the building into Arterra Event Gallery. McDaniel said the business will host weddings, receptions, corporate events and anything else of that nature.

Work is starting now to remodel the inside to make it a bit more of a wide open space. Once that is completed, McDaniel said he expects the venue will be able to accommodate events of about 250 people.

McDaniel — who will continue to operate his McDaniel Knutson Financial Partners business — has hired a manager to run the day-to-day operations of the event gallery. He expects the facility will start hosting events in March.

McDaniel said the building, which has been empty for at least six years, has long intrigued him.

“I have always loved architecture and I have looked at that building for three or four years,” McDaniel said. “I would tell myself that I love that building, but I wish I could figure out some way to use it.”

McDaniel said upon some reflection he thought an event business would do well because the location is easy to get to, it has its own parking, and the building has a “rustic elegance” to it that should create a good ambiance for a variety of events.

I can only think of one potential downside to the location: It may cause my wife to start caddying my golf games. If she thinks there is a chance for cake, she’ll be there.

• An interesting place to be in future months may be atop the roof of Sunflower Bike Shop or Liberty Hall in downtown Lawrence. Both buildings are owned by groups led by longtime downtown landlords David and Susan Millstein.

The couple is working on an idea to put a large number of solar panels on their two buildings. Plans have been filed at City Hall for the Sunflower Bike and Outdoor Shop building, 804 Massachusetts St., and Susan confirmed to me that the Liberty Hall building also may be in the works.

According to the plans at City Hall, the Sunflower building could house about 60 solar panels on the roof. The only thing I know about electricity is that I’m not going to touch the red wire again, but I think that is a fairly sizable solar project.

Susan Millstein said David had more of the details and that the plans were still a bit in flux. But I hope to hear from him, and will pass along more details when I get them.

But it could be an interesting project for downtown. With the new hydroelectric power plant on the northern edge of downtown on the Kansas River, the area may have the makings to start marketing itself as a green energy district. (I’m not sure what a green energy district is, but it sure sounds like something you would market in today’s age.)

I’ve long thought the roofs of downtown buildings are destined to get more attention. I’ve thought it would be as rooftop dining areas, but perhaps it will be as solar panel fields. Or maybe they can be both. I could get a tan while I sip my cocktail.

• Town Talk will take a couple of days off for the Thanksgiving holiday and will return on Monday. But while we’re in the Thanksgiving mood, here is a brief item about how the city is getting closer to approving a project that would thank a group of public servants: firefighters.

Leaders with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department are set to forward a recommendation to city commissioners to use the park at 19th and Haskell to remember area firefighters.

The park currently doesn’t have a name, but rather is just a bit of an open field with some playground equipment and a basketball goal.

But the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board is now recommending it be named Firefighters Remembrance Park. The idea came from Rachel McSwain, the widow of longtime Lawrence fire chief Jim McSwain.

The park is adjacent to the city’s firefighting training facility. Rachel McSwain said current Lawrence fire chief Mark Bradford had mentioned the idea to her at Chief McSwain’s funeral in 2008.

The plan is the park would have a plaque recognizing McSwain and his contributions to the city after serving 27 years as the city’s fire chief.

But in addition, other people will be allowed to make donations to the parks department to sponsor benches, trees or other park amenities in memory or recognition of firefighters. Each donation likely would come with its own plaque naming the firefighters being honored.

Parks leaders are finalizing some of those types of details and then plan to forward the recommendation for final approval by city commissioners.

Originally Rachel McSwain and her family had suggested naming the park after Chief McSwain. Parks and Recreation officials, however, pitched this broader idea to the family. When the city’s parks board recently gave its recommendation, a tearful McSwain said she was “thrilled” with the idea.

“All of the McSwain family has been very supportive of the idea,” Rachel said. “It is going to be great.”

Here’s hoping you all have a great and safe Thanksgiving, and that you get to thank everyone who is important to you.

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City asked to provide monthly funding for arts coordinator; new report recommends water/sewer bill increases; city set to approve longevity bonuses

News and notes from around town:

• You might notice that Town Talk looks a bit different today. (Why is there a slightly shaven man staring at you, for instance?) Well, that’s progress folks. We’re switching this column and others over to our blogging platform. Hopefully, it will provide you an easier way to click on Town Talk and catch up on the posts that you may have missed. It also will provide us a better platform to build some new gizmos and gadgets in the future.

But all of this is a work in progress, so I hope you’ll bear with us. Case in point: On this page currently you’ll see some really old Town Talks. That’s a glitchy thing. (Sorry to get so technical on you.) Soon enough, those old Town Talks will be replaced by newer Town Talks, and then you’ll be able to click on one page and scroll from top to bottom and see the newest Town Talk and ones from the past several days. In the meantime, take advantage of our free time machine and catch up on what was going on back in 2010.

Case in point No. 2 in the glitchy category: A few hundred of you have signed up to have Town Talk delivered to your inbox each weekday. For the time being, those daily e-mails will be replaced by a couple of e-mails per week reminding you that you can find all the Town Talks on this page. We hope to get the daily e-mail feature back up and running in the future. Another option for those who are interested is to friend me on Facebook. I plan to be more faithful in posting a daily link to Town Talk on that page each day at noon.

• In honor of the Mona Lisa-like portrait that now adorns this page (wait a minute, that might not be as flattering a description as I had hoped), let’s talk a little art.

City commissioners at their meeting tonight will be asked to spend a few thousand dollars on a couple of art projects. Here’s a look: — The Lawrence Arts Center is asking the city to come up with $300 per month to help fund a part-time coordinator for the Final Fridays arts events that takes place the last Friday of each month in downtown. The city’s Cultural Arts Commission has been providing $300 a month for the coordinator position for the last couple of years, using some essentially leftover funding in its budget. But that pot of money has dried up, and now city commissioners are being asked to come up with the $300 out of the city’s general till. Susan Tate, executive director of the Lawrence Arts Center, told me it is “absolutely vital” to have a coordinator for the monthly events. That’s because many of the art showings for the events happen at non-traditional gallery spaces, such as coffee shops, retail stores, or vacant buildings. Connecting artists with those spaces takes, well, coordination.

The Lawrence Arts Center and Downtown Lawrence Inc. already each provide $300 per month for the coordinator position. That funding arrangement will continue, Tate said.

— The second project is a more speculative venture, but one that arts leaders think could produce a big bang. The city is being asked to provide $2,000 in funding for a grant writer to prepare an application to the National Endowment of the Arts.

The Lawrence Arts Center is hoping to win up to $200,000 in funding to start a program that would create a new digital media education program. The project would bring in as an artist-in-residence R. Luke DuBois, a notable New York-based artist who specializes in new media.

The program also would reach out to East Lawrence’s New York Elementary School to provide new media education for students.

The end result, arts leaders hope, is an explosion of creativity in the world of new media. That could mean multiple short film projects, animation projects, computer-generated artistic projections, live music with digital effects, and all sorts of other things that would require me to break out high-tech words such as gizmos and doo-dads.

The project would culminate with a bulked up Free State Film and Music Festival. The Arts Center has hosted the Free State festival the last two years, but with more funding, leaders believe they could take it to a whole other level of national prestige.

Lawrence will face stiff competition for the NEA grant dollars. Tate said the city won’t learn whether it has received any funding until September.

• Perhaps there is a way the digital animators can make your yard look green through the heat of the Kansas summer. Right now that takes lots of water, and a new report out of City Hall is recommending that you’ll need to pay more for that water in the future.

This report is new — as in just a few hours old — so I haven’t fully digested the nearly 80-page report yet. But it appears the report holds strong to the city staff’s previous recommendation that water and sewer rates need to go up in order to provide the type of service residents have come to expect.

If you remember, city commissioners during their budget deliberations this summer took the unusual step of deferring action on the city’s water and sewer rates for 2013. Staff members had recommended rate increases of between 4 percent to 6 percent for most customers.

This new report is recommending what looks to be a 28.6 percent rate increase phased in over the next five years for the average water user — which the city considers to be a household that uses about 4,000 gallons of water per month.

In other words, the typical water and sewer bill is estimated to be $47.64 per month currently. In 2017, that typical bill would be $61.30 per month.

The extra revenue would help fund many maintenance projects, but most notably it also would allow the city to build the long-talked about multi-million dollar sewage treatment plant south of the Wakarusa River by 2018. I suspect that will be a major point of discussion. That project easily could cost $70 million, and I’m not sure city commissioners are convinced the city’s population is growing fast enough to justify the expense.

But delaying the project is risky business because if the city’s population growth does pick back up, the city will need several years to complete the project. City planners want to avoid a situation of having a shortage of sewage treatment capacity to meet growth needs.

As I said, there is a lot of information in the report, and several additional rate scenarios. Keep an eye on this space for future updates.

• One last City Hall item before commissioners meet tonight: City commissioners are expected to approve about $425,000 worth of year-end bonuses for city employees.

As has become the practice, the city is set to provide a year-end bonus to employees who have at least five years of service with the city. City leaders don’t like it when the program is referred to as a bonus, but it largely meets the definition because the payment is a one-time event, and whether the payment is made is entirely up to the discretion of the City Commission. The city however has made the annual payment every year since at least 1997, so many city employees have come to count on the year-end payment.

City officials call the program its longevity payment program. It pays all employees with at least five years of service with the city $4 for every month they have served with the city, or $48 for each year of service. This year, a record 599 employees qualify for the program. That tops last year’s record of 583 employees. The city’s workforce has shrunk over the last few years, but I believe its turnover rate also has declined. That means there are more longtime employees at the city.

The city is set to pay $424,380 as part of the program this year, which represents about a 3 percent increase from what was paid a year ago.

In past years, tight budgets have caused city commissioners to debate about whether to make the year end payments. But the city’s budget outlook has improved some in 2012, and I’ve heard no concerns from commissioners about the year-end program. Commissioners are scheduled to approve the payments as part of their consent agenda at their 6:35 p.m. meeting tonight.

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