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Lawrence firm has connection to company on ABC’s “Shark Tank” tonight; a guide to Haskell Avenue’s pending closure

My wife used to really encourage me to try out for the ABC television program "Shark Tank" — until she realized there aren't any actual sharks. Regardless, a Lawrence company is going to be watching the program with great interest tonight.

Lawrence-based Western International has partnered with a Prairie Village-based company that will be featured on the program at 8 p.m. on ABC. For those of you unfamiliar with the program, it's a contest-based show where young companies make presentations in front of venture capitalists, a.k.a. the sharks.

The folks over at Western International, based in East Lawrence, won't be in the tank tonight, but they'll be rooting hard for the Johnson County company SwimZip. Officials from SwimZip will be on the program trying to gain funding to expand the reach of its line of specialty swimwear. The Lawrence connection is that SwimZip's warehouse and shipping facility recently moved to Lawrence. Western International late last year signed a deal to operate the facility for SwimZip out of its building near 19th and Delaware streets.

"It is going to be fun to see what it does for sales," Todd Stauffer, vice president of Western International, told me.

We'll have to wait until tonight to find out whether the company was successful in gaining funding, but Betsy Johnson, one of the founders and owners of SwimZip, told me she's confident the company is going to benefit either way.

"It is going to be awesome," Johnson said. "It is the type of exposure you can't buy."

The company has been in business for a little more than three years. Johnson founded it with her brother, Berry Wanless, after Johnson was diagnosed with skin cancer at 26. After researching skin cancer, she realized it probably was her time out in the sun as a child that put her most at risk.

So she and her brother designed a line of swimwear that blocks 98 percent of the UVA and cancer causing rays. A big part of the system is a special swim shirt that provides protection for the shoulders and back. That's also where the "zip" part of the company comes from. The shirts use a special no-pinch zipper that makes them easier to put on and take off than traditional swim shirts.

As for Western International, SwimZip is just the beginning of what it hopes will be a significant expansion. Western International's main line of business has been as a wholesaler of farm and ranch books. It stores about 8,000 titles at its warehouse and ships them to farm and ranch stores around the world.

But Stauffer said one of the company's areas of expertise is in shipping and warehousing, which got company officials thinking of how they might be able to help other firms.

"There are a lot of small start-ups out there that get started in their garages, and then realize they've grown to the point that they are too big for the garage or the basement," Stauffer said. "We see a niche out there to help smaller companies that are growing and need a mid-size warehouse, but don't want to operate it themselves."

The company employs six people and has room to house the shipping operations of additional companies. Stauffer said the company is in discussions with a Canadian company that wants a U.S.-based location.

"Being in this part of the country is a plus for us," Stauffer said. "We basically have equal shipping times to both coasts."

UPDATE AND SPOILER ALERT: SwimZip on Friday was offered and accepted a $60,000 investment from one of the "sharks" on the program. The company's new partner, "QVC Queen" Lori Greiner, mentioned on the show that she thought SwimZip had potential to get into stores such as Target and other major retailers. So, as they say, stay tuned.

In other news and notes from around town:

• As we've previously reported, there is going to be a hassle on Haskell on Monday. And you had better get used to it because it's going to be around for a long time. Construction work on the South Lawrence Trafficway will close Haskell Avenue between 27th and 29th streets through Spring of 2015.

There are several businesses along that stretch, and it hasn't been real clear how people will get to them. Well, let's clarify: Motorists still will be able to access both 27th Street and 29th Street off of Haskell Avenue. In other words, the closure begins just beyond those intersections.

But here's the trick: You are going to have to plan ahead. If you are trying to access a business at or south of 29th Street, you are going to have to come at it from the south. If you are trying to access a business at or north of 28th Street, you are going to have to come at it from the north. And you also are going to have to turn on 27th Street and wind your way through an industrial park to get to 28th Street.

Here's the thing to remember: There's no side street west of Haskell that runs all the way through from 27th Street to 29th Street. Oregon Street runs from 27th Street to 28th Street, but it dead ends there. So, if you are hoping to take just a little one-block detour to skirt around the construction zone, that is not going to work too well. Louisiana Street to the west is going to get busier during this time period because it is the first major road west of the construction zone that connects 23rd Street to 31st Street. Truck traffic, however, is not supposed to be on Louisiana Street. Technically, a truck coming from the east and needing to deliver to an industrial business near 31st and Haskell, would need to go all the way to Iowa Street, then connect with 31st Street and head back east until it reaches Haskell.

It will be interesting to watch what unofficial shortcuts get developed over the next 18 months or so. Previously, the city's public works director told me that a temporary road will be built west of Haskell Avenue. It basically will use a portion of the Haskell Rail Trail that runs behind the old E&E Display building that is between 28th and 29th Streets. That would create a through route for trucks and other delivery vehicles needing to access businesses in that area. But the road definitely won't be designed to serve as a detour for all the traffic trying to go down Haskell Avenue.

I'm sure there will be some complaints early on, and then people will get used to it. I actually was one of the few people looking forward to it, because I thought it would slow my wife's regular path to the stores on South Iowa Street. I thought I would save some money. Then she went and bought an expensive hovercraft on eBay. I can't win.

• Soon, I'll also be losing another free place to park in downtown Lawrence. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday will consider setting the rates for the new Vermont Street parking garage. The garage has been open for a couple of months, but parking has been free while the city determines rates.

City Manager David Corliss is recommending that the rates be basically the same as those in the New Hampshire Street garage. That means the lower level will be two-hour free parking, while the upper levels will charge $1 to park for up to 10 hours. Motorists will pay at self-serve pay stations. Despite previous discussions, there won't be a gate system on the garage.

Corliss also is recommending that the roof level of the garage be used for free 10-hour parking. That's similar to what has been done at the New Hampshire Street garage. But Corliss now is recommending that the free designation on the roof level of the New Hampshire Street garage be discontinued. It would start charging a $1 fee for 10 hours of parking. Corliss said demand for the New Hampshire Street garage has increased significantly and people no longer need an incentive to use it.

Commissioners will discuss the proposed parking rates at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday.

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    Proposed budget would reduce free parking downtown, limit funding for retiree marketing

    In my household, July means the start of two seasons: This is about the time that my wife’s refusal to turn on the air conditioner causes the kids and I to set up Gatorade stations throughout the house, and it is when city officials really start to dive into their budgeting process.

    Fortunately, the weather has been cool this week, so there’s been plenty of time to focus on the budget. We’ve already reported that City Manager David Corliss’ recommended budget for 2014 calls for a 0.4 mill increase, which amounts to about $9.20 per year in extra taxes on a $200,000 home.

    But the budget has a lot more details in it than just the bottomline. Here’s a look at a few other items of interest:

    • There may be one fewer place for downtown motorists to park for free. As part of his budget, Corliss is proposing that the top level of the public parking garage in the 900 block of New Hampshire Street no longer be available for free parking. City officials several years ago agreed to make the top level of the garage free to park as a way to encourage more use of the garage. Usage of the garage, however, is not expected to be a problem in the future. Already, demand is up because of the multi-story apartment building at 901 New Hampshire, and more motorists are expected to be in the area as a new hotel/retail building gets built on the southeast corner of the intersection. By the way, hotel developer Doug Compton has told me he expects to get started on construction of the hotel around July 10.

    • Perhaps we won’t get to make those fun commercials to attract retirees to Lawrence after all. Corliss’ budget does not recommend funding $30,000 for an annual marketing campaign to attract more retirees to the community. This will be an interesting one to watch because the city and county already have spent good money to get the ball rolling on retiree attraction. In January, commissioners agreed, along with the county, to award a $34,500 contract to Lawrence-based Kern Group to develop a comprehensive marketing strategy to attract higher-end retirees to the area. The contract calls for the group to create a title/slogan, a logo, a Web site, a package for marketing materials, and concepts for various print, broadcast and online advertising. Kern was up-front with officials that he expected it would take an advertising budget of about $60,000 to $80,000 a year to get the message out. If city officials don’t chip in $30,000 for the effort, I’m not sure where that leaves the commitment from the county or private stakeholders who may have made donations. We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, a fantastic advertising campaign hangs in the balance. I can see the commercial now: Retirees doing keg stands and streaking down Jayhawk Boulevard, followed by the tag line of “Lawrence: Where you are never old enough to know better.”

    • Of all the books in the Lawrence Public Library, there must not be one entitled: How to Get Your Budget Request Fully-Funded at City Hall. Corliss is recommending a $100,000 increase in funding for the library as it prepares to move into its expanded facility downtown. But library leaders had asked for $175,000 increase. It is not unusual for agencies not to get everything they ask for, but how Corliss is proposing to fund this $100,000 increase is unusual. He recommends that the library fund dip into its rather paltry cash reserves to fund the $100,000 increase rather than raising the mill levy to do so. The library fund has about $235,000 in cash reserves, so this increase will eat up a good part of it. The strategy goes against the grain of one of Corliss’ long-held budget philosophies that permanent expenses need to be funded by permanent revenue sources. But in talking with Corliss, I think he is just hoping to buy time until the 2015 budget. The library’s first full year in its new facility will be 2015, and Corliss has said he has not forgotten what city officials told voters when they approved the $19 million expansion of the library. Officials told voters that they would provide the library additional money to operate the larger library. It was estimated a 0.5 mill increase would be needed for additional operational expenses. Thus far, the city only has funded a 0.2 mill increase for library operations. My crystal ball tells me to be on the lookout for a 0.3 mill increase in the 2015 budget.

    • The new Rock Chalk Park recreation center will have a goal to shoot for — sort of. The 2014 recommended budget calls for the recreation center to generate about $715,000 in revenue, if it were to be open for a full year. But it won’t be open for a full year in 2014, so it won’t generate that much revenue. But that’s the number the city is shooting for once it is open full-time. As city officials said all along, the amount of revenue the center generates won’t be enough to cover its expenses. The 2014 budget — once again assuming a full year of operation — projects expenses for the center will be about $350,000 more than revenues. I believe revenues for the center will include things such as gym rental fees, class fees generated by the center, tournament and league revenue and concessions.

    Ah, concessions. Maybe they’ll have a good deal on Gatorade. My kids and I sure hope so.

    Reply 23 comments from Cheeseburger Fredthemechanic1213 Foxli Repaste Steven Gaudreau David Holroyd Curveball 20yrtransplant Kate Rogge George_braziller and 10 others

    City commissioners now will consider 700 block of Vermont as home for downtown transit hub

    Buses, builders and bulldozers, oh my.

    It is not the latest elaborate act for Lawrence’s Busker Fest. Instead, it may be the newest solution to finding a location to temporarily house downtown Lawrence’s public transit hub.

    Commissioners at their meeting tonight will consider a new option for the transfer point: the 700 block of Vermont Street. For those of you who have forgotten your downtown geography, that’s where construction crews are building a $19 million expansion to the Lawrence Public Library.

    The latest bus proposal calls for using the east side of the 700 block of Vermont Street for bus parking, and loading and unloading. That is the opposite side of where the construction work for the library is happening. (We’re basically talking about in front of the AT&T building and the vacant Local Burger building.) City transit officials have evaluated the site and haven’t come out against it, but they expressed several concerns. Transit staff believes there is a “high potential” for service disruptions or delays due to the library construction under way across the street. Construction vehicles often use the center lane of Vermont Street to make deliveries to the site. Transit officials also note the large number of buses that will be turning onto westbound Seventh Street may create problems for motorists trying to back out of the parking spaces in front of the post office.

    But the new location was suggested by City Commissioner Mike Amyx, who is trying to find a location that doesn’t upset the parking balance downtown. City commissioners late last year agreed to move the transit hub to the 800 block of Vermont Street, but as the time came closer for the move, several merchants objected to the 13 long-term parking spaces that would be lost from the 800 block of Vermont. This new proposal for the 700 block of Vermont Street also will eliminate parking spaces. Transit staff estimates 12 to 16 spaces will need to be removed from the street. But I guess the thinking is the loss of parking in that area will be less objectionable because the new multi-level parking garage next to the library is expected to open this fall. We’ll see whether that theory holds. Thus far complaints about loss of parking haven’t emerged with this proposal, but that may be just because many folks in the area don’t know about it yet. (The proposal showed up on the city’s agenda late yesterday.)

    Staff members have countered the new proposal with additional ideas on how they could mitigate parking problems in the 800 block of Vermont. They think they can place six five-hour parking meters on the north side of the 100 block of W. Ninth Street to partially offset the loss of the 13 meters in the 800 block of Vermont. In addition there are eight existing short-term spaces in the 200 block of W. Ninth Street that could be made into five-hour metered spaces. Staff members also believe about 20 two-hour spaces in the public parking lot near Ninth and Vermont could be signed so that people with 10-hour parking permits could use the spaces.

    With all those changes, the number of long-term parking spaces near the 800 block of Vermont would nearly double. Merchants have said the need for the long-term spaces is critical because the area is used by downtown employees.

    In case you have forgotten what started all this, the city is seeking a temporary home for its transit hub because its current location will become unworkable once construction begins on a new hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire streets. Word around town is that work on the hotel is expected to begin by the end of the month. City officials already have commissioned a consultant to help find a permanent home for the transit hub. It is likely that hub will be outside of downtown, but it may take a year or more to make the necessary improvements and route changes to accommodate a new transit hub. City commissioners later this month are expected to receive information from the consultant.

    As for tonight, it is hard to say where the transit hub may land. Staff members thought the issue was settled months ago when they first presented the 800 Vermont proposal.

    But this process has kind of turned into one of those complicated home improvement projects. You know they type: You remove, by hand, 20 cubic yards of soil for your new swimming pool only to have your spouse walk out the back, give the dreaded shake of the head and suggest a bird bath and herb garden instead. (The home improvement analogy is appropriate because as we’ve previously reported, the big item at tonight’s meeting is consideration of Menards’ plan to build a home improvement center near 31st and Iowa streets.)

    We’ll have to wait and see how the transit hub debate plays out. In the meantime, I’m going to rest up for tonight’s meeting by doing the backstroke . . . in my birdbath.

    Reply 17 comments from Pr0digy Gccs14r Kmon Ontheright James  Kaberline Fan4kufootball Jack22 Gadhelyn George_braziller Bornherelongago and 5 others