A conversation with Lawrence’s tourism leader; city set to give $150K to local events; advocate selling KU basketball tickets for affordable housing cause
When about 1,000 clarinetists descended upon Lawrence this summer for ClarinetFest 2016, they left more than $800,000 in the Lawrence economy.
When Lawrence CVB director Michael Davidson told me that figure, my first thought was I knew I should have followed through on that vision of opening a store that sells nothing but clarinet reeds. Then I realized most of the spending came from items like food, gasoline, lodging and maybe some retail spending, such as T-shirts with the slogan “Where clarinets go . . . Treble follows.”
What I mainly realized, though, is there are a lot of different ways Lawrence can attract visitors.
“Sporting events are great, and they have a high profile, but they are just one of the types of events we should be trying to bring into the community,” said Davidson, who began his job as director of ExploreLawrence in April.
In some ways, a clarinet festival may be an even bigger boon to the economy than some of the sporting events. That’s because the festival took place on weekdays, while many sporting events are limited to the weekends. Lawrence hotel operators love both types of business, but generally local hotels don’t have much trouble filling their rooms on an ordinary weekend. Filling rooms on an ordinary weekday, however, can be a struggle.
That’s why Davidson thinks a major strategy for Lawrence tourism needs to be working with KU, Baker and Haskell to bring more academic conferences and events to the community. Davidson said the lack of a true conference center limits the size of conferences the community can attract, but he said places like the renovated DoubleTree and other hotels in town can still accommodate sizable events.
“I think KU may have some low-hanging fruit,” Davidson said of the potential for conference business.
That was one takeaway I got from my recent conversation with Davidson. And that is the purpose of today’s article: To share a few takeaways from a relatively new community leader. I hope this becomes a semi-regular feature of Town Talk in 2017. I get a chance to chat with a lot of community leaders, and I hope to share some of those conversations with you. Here’s a look at a few other takeaways from Davidson:
— Lawrence will need to get comfortable with the idea of creating partnerships with Topeka, Overland Park and other area communities, if we ever want Rock Chalk Park to be all that it can be. Davidson — who previously led convention and tourism operations in Newark, N.J., and Walla Walla, Wash. — said Rock Chalk Park has great sporting facilities, but the Lawrence hotel market is not always in the best position to take full advantage of it. That goes back to the idea that hotels generally didn’t have high amounts of weekend vacancy prior to Rock Chalk Park’s construction. But, the park can still be a great host for large events, if some participants are willing to stay in other nearby communities.
“To take full advantage of Rock Chalk, we need to build regional partnerships because we don’t have enough rooms, and we shouldn’t build new rooms just for that because it is a seasonal business,” Davidson said.
But make no mistake, Davidson is impressed with the facility. He said the track at Rock Chalk Park particularly could be a national selling point for the community. He believes the facility is of high enough quality to host Olympic trials, but even with area partnerships we may be hard pressed to provide enough rooms for such an event. However, as a reminder, big time events already are booked for the track facility, including the U.S. Junior Olympics in July 2017, and the Big 12 Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Track and Field Championships in May.
— Davidson said he would love to have a major attraction like the outdoor adventure park and whitewater rafting facility proposed for a portion of Clinton Lake State Park. He said he’s talked with friends in the Charlotte area — where the proposed developers operate the U.S. National Whitewater Center — and they attest to the quality of that facility, although also noted some of the financial challenges the development had early on.
“I would love to have a destination attraction to market,” Davidson said.
But, like many other people, he’s not sure whether all the details will work out to make a good deal for the community. The project easily could be $70 million or more, and what amount would come from government assistance is unclear at the moment.
“Is Lawrence prepared for a project like this?” Davidson asked. “I don’t know. It is a lot of money. But we definitely should look at it.”
— Expect Downtown Lawrence’s monthly art event Final Fridays to get a marketing boost. ExploreLawrence has taken over the marketing of the art walk event. Plans for 2017 include an interactive map of artists that will be on the ExploreLawrence website, a program to promote Final Fridays in Topeka and Kansas City during those communities’ First Fridays art events, and high tech online marketing.
Davidson said ExploreLawrence will start using “geo fence” marketing techniques. That is where people who click on a Final Fridays online advertisement would have a cookie installed on their phone. That cookie would allow ExploreLawrence to see how many people who viewed their advertisement actually came to the downtown area during a Final Fridays event. Davidson admitted it all sounds a little Big Brotherish, but it is becoming a more common marketing device. He said he’s interested in it because he understands the local tourism industry needs good data to grow.
“We know we have to show a return on our investment,” said Davidson, whose agency relies heavily on transient guest tax revenues generated by hotel stays. “We want to try to do a better job of quantifying how much visitor spending we’re creating.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• Speaking of events, the city sets aside $150,000 from the transient guest taxes it collects from local hotel stays. It uses the $150,000 to fund local events. At their meeting on Tuesday, city commissioners are scheduled to approve the list of events to receive funding for 2017. Here’s a look at the events slated to get grant funding from the city, and a look at those that lost out:
— Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade (Dec. 1-2): $10,000
— Dedication of the Haskell Stadium and Arch (May 25-28): $15,000
— BuskerFest 2017 (May 25-28): $15,000
— Free State Foundations (unspecified): $15,000
— Lied Center: First Nations Student Association Pow Wow (April 1-2): $5,000
— The Lawrence Art Guild Art in the Park (May 7): $6,325
— Lawrence Downtown Olympic Shot Put (April 21): $15,000
— Theatre Lawrence 2017 Holiday Show (December): $15,000
— Lawrence Children’s Choir Concerts (April 2 and Nov. 19): $8,000
— Live on Mass concert event (Summer 2017): $15,000
— Roger Hill Memorial Invitational swimming meet (June 17-18): $5,000
— Lawrence Opera Theatre 2017 season: $9,000
— Spencer Museum’s Power and Pleasures of Possessions exhibit (April-June): $7,000
— Lawrence Art Walk 2017 (Oct. 21-22): $7,950
— Experience Haskell: Native Lawrence event (Oct. 15): $1,725
Events that didn’t get funded include:
— African American Quilt Conference, July 12-15
— Tails and Traditions event, Dec. 2
— St. John’s Mexican Fiesta, June 23-24
— Civil War on the Western Frontier, Aug. 19
— 2017 Lawrence Festival of Trees, Nov. 27-30
Apparently Lawrence also was in the running to host the Young Democrats of America Spring 2017 National Conference. The advisory board had recommended the conference get a $15,000 grant, but it was learned earlier this month that Phoenix was chosen as the host site for the conference.
Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
• I’ve gotten word of a way to go to a KU basketball game and make a donation to the city’s efforts to improve affordable housing options.
Longtime affordable housing advocate Steve Ozark once again has donated a pair of his KU basketball tickets to an online auction that begins today and runs through Christmas. Ozark is using eBay to auction off two home basketball tickets. The winner of the auction can select two tickets to any of KU’s home basketball games this season. Ozark said 100 percent of the proceeds from the auction will be donated to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Ozark is active with the city’s affordable housing advisory board, which is working to provide recommendations for how the city could spend approximately $1.65 million worth of city funding on affordable housing over the next several years.
“In most every single conversation and meeting I’ve been involved with over the past 17 years, the lack of safe and permanent affordable housing is the central reason people's lives continue in crisis,” Ozark said. “If you think about it, we can’t have a true community without the people who work here being able to afford to live here.”
This concept may sound familiar to you. Ozark last year donated his tickets to the KU vs. Kentucky game for the same cause.
In case you are curious, the tickets this year are in Section 3, Row 7, Seats 12 and 13. The auction is being conducted here. When I last checked, the winning bid was at $150.
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.