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Emprise Bank to sell its south Iowa branch, talk of larger redevelopment ensues; Schumm floats idea of $250K challenge grant to bring super-fast Internet to Lawrence

A movement is afoot along south Iowa Street, and it involves more than the normal logistics of semi-trailers to accommodate my wife’s post-Halloween shopping. Instead, a development group has reached a deal to purchase another key south Iowa Street property, seemingly with redevelopment on its mind.

Officials with Emprise Bank confirmed they have agreed to sell their bank branch at 2435 Iowa St. to a development group. The bank will cease operations at the Iowa Street branch, likely in February. The Wichita-based bank will continue to operate its main Lawrence branch along Wakarusa Drive.

“We were not planning to close that bank,” Cindy Yulich, Lawrence president for Emprise, told me. “We were approached by a developer, and a contract was signed. We are committed to serving Lawrence and committed to being here. We’re thrilled with how our business is going statewide, and particularly with how it is going in Lawrence.”

(UPDATE: I got a little more specific information from Emprise this morning. The bank plans to remain open on south Iowa Street until Feb. 27, and it expects employees at the south Iowa branch to be reassigned to the bank's branch at 1121 Wakarusa Drive.)

Banks have shown a willingness lately to make do with fewer branches as online and mobile banking have become bigger parts of their business. Intrust Bank earlier this year agreed to sell its branch on Wakarusa Drive to a credit union. Emprise has operated that south Iowa location since 1991, Yulich said.

Yulich said she’s confident Emprise will be able to serve its customer base from its one location on Wakarusa. She said the bank may look for a second location in Lawrence, but she said no decision had been made on that.

As for the development group that is purchasing the property, Yulich declined to name it, but I’ve confirmed that it involves a group that includes Lawrence businessman Jeff Hatfield. That makes sense because Hatfield is involved in the group that owns the adjacent Holiday Plaza shopping center.

“It just makes sense,” Hatfield said of the purchase. “You hate to have a mouthful of teeth with one tooth missing.”

He confirmed that Emprise wasn’t looking to sell the location, but rather was approached by his group. He said his group doesn’t have any immediate plans to redevelop the property, but wants to keep its options open for the future.

“The piece is poised to change its complexion at some point,” Hatfield said. “Whether it is a retrofit or a complete change, I’m not really at liberty to say. We have had people approach us. It is a location where a lot of retailers and boxes would like to be.”

The development group includes Christian Ablah, a noted Wichita commercial real estate broker who has been involved in bringing Dick’s Sporting Goods, Best Buy and Home Depot to Lawrence. Ablah also is part of a group that involves Lawrence businesswoman Susan Hatfield that recently purchased the shopping center that includes Office Depot and the soon-to-close Discovery Furniture on south Iowa Street.

That’s a site that certainly seems poised for redevelopment and could attract a lot of interest from larger, national retailers. Jeff Hatfield, who is a longtime real estate appraiser in Lawrence, said momentum just seems to be building for south Iowa Street. He said he expects the momentum to build now that Menards has actually started construction on its store near 31st and Iowa streets.

“Ten years ago, I never would have thought we would be seeing this,” Hatfield said. “But it is interesting how timing works. It is interesting to see how retailers really want to build off the synergy of other retailers.”

We’ll see how far the south Iowa Street momentum theme gets at Lawrence City Hall. I’m still hearing that the group proposing to develop property south of the Iowa Street and SLT interchange wants a hearing with city commissioners this month. As I reported a few weeks ago, there is a lot of speculation that they’re going to present new information to City Hall that Sam’s Club wants to locate in their proposed development. Previously, the development group has said Old Navy, Academy sports, Ulta Beauty, and Designer Shoe Warehouse all are interested in the site.

The project, though, has failed to win a positive recommendation from the city’s planning commission. But that was back in July when the planning commission heard the issue, and because of some logistical problems only six of the 10 planning commissioners heard the issue. City commissioners haven't yet had a hearing on the proposal.

In other news and notes from around town:

• City commissioners next week are expected to have a hearing on whether to provide Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband a $300,000 loan guarantee as part of a pilot project to bring super-fast, gigabit Internet service to 300 homes and businesses in the downtown area.

Well, City Commissioner Bob Schumm is adding a twist to that debate. He’s said that he plans to float the idea of providing a $250,000 grant to any company who successfully delivers gigabit service to 500 Lawrence addresses by the end of 2015. In case your dial-up modem is acting up, gigabit service is the same super-fast Internet that Google Fiber is installing in Kansas City.

Schumm’s idea is kind of like a challenge grant. You only get the money if you successfully deliver the product in a timely manner. It will be interesting to see what type of traction the idea gets. Thus far, two companies have been vying to bring gigabit service to Lawrence: Wicked Broadband and Baldwin City-based RG Fiber. Wicked officials have said they need the loan guarantee to secure the private financing to start its pilot project. RG Fiber has not asked for a loan guarantee from the city.

Schumm said he likes the challenge grant idea better than a loan guarantee. He said he doesn’t like being in the position of picking a winner or a loser between two companies interested in the community. Nothing technically would stop both companies from pursuing their projects, but conventional thinking is that only one gigabit service is going to be feasible in Lawrence. RG Fiber officials have said they won’t offer the service in Lawrence if the city provides a loan guarantee to one of its competitors.

Schumm said he also likes the idea of the city not paying until a company delivers results. He said if a company can bring the service to 500 addresses by the end of 2015, he is confident the company can successfully expand the service to large areas of the city.

It will be interesting to see what traction Schumm’s idea gets at City Hall. Commissioners have really been struggling with how to land on the issue of a loan guarantee to Wicked.

Reply 6 comments from Leslie Swearingen David Holroyd Brendan Long Kingfisher Eric MacDonald Clara Westphal

Commissioners to consider plans for new multifamily development along O’Connell Road

Here's a chance to play with the crayons in your desk drawer. Take out your Brick Red (or, heck, even your Razzmatazz or Razzle Dazzle Rose) and circle all the Lawrence neighborhoods that will have easy access to Johnson County, Topeka and the South Iowa Street shopping district once the South Lawrence Trafficway is completed.

There will be several areas circled, but none should be circled more brightly than the Prairie Park neighborhood in southeast Lawrence. We're already getting a glimpse of the changes a completed SLT may bring to the area.

If you remember, we reported in August that a pair of Lawrence businessmen had filed preliminary plans for a new multifamily complex near 28th Street and O'Connell Road in the Prairie Park neighborhood.

Well, those plans have advanced and are now up for a round of approval at Lawrence City Hall tonight. City commissioners are set to approve an annexation of about 11 acres of ground just north and east of the roundabout at 28th and O'Connell. Commissioners also are set to approve a request to rezone the property to RM-15 multifamily zoning.

Jeff Hatfield and Heath Seitz are the developers of the new project, and Hatfield recently gave me some details. Plans call for the project to be built in two phases. Phase one would start work soon on building 38 to 40 one-bedroom apartments on the site. Phase 2 would come later and would accommodate about 60 to 65 additional apartments on the site. Whether they would be one-, two- or three-bedroom units hasn't yet been determined.

Not surprisingly, the completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway in the next couple of years is one of the factors Hatfield is citing in moving forward with the project. The eastern interchange for the South Lawrence Trafficway will be just a minute or two east of the 23rd and O'Connell intersection. Once the trafficway is built, Prairie Park suddenly becomes a convenient home for commuters not only to Johnson County, but also to Topeka. As part of the South Lawrence Trafficway project, the city also is extending 31st Street from Haskell Avenue to O'Connell Road. That means Prairie Park residents will have an easy new route into the South Iowa Street retail district as well.

But Prairie Park also has another factor going for it. It is the closest neighborhood to the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant, which is being converted into Lawrence VenturePark, the city's next big business park. Developers are betting that new companies will locate in that park, and workers at the companies will jump at the chance to live in a neighborhood that is just a stone's throw from the office.

Hatfield, who is a real estate appraiser and a veteran in the local housing and apartment markets, envisions a gradual 10-year transformation of the area out there.

"I think what really will control the growth out there is the number of new businesses that locate in the business park," Hatfield said. "If we get some employers out there, then the rooftops will follow, and then I'm really hopeful a grocery store will say this is where we need to be."

Property at the southeast corner of 23rd and O'Connell already is zoned for retail uses, including a grocery store, but a company hasn't yet stepped forward.

As for the apartment development, Hatfield and Seitz have drawn up a plan that uses single-story four-plex units that are designed to look more like houses than an apartment complex. Hatfield said the design is trying to create an "Aspen craftsman" type of look that features lots of stone, exposed wooden beams and rough-sawn lumber. As currently designed, about half the units will come with garages. You can see one of the proposed renderings below.

Hatfield said he expects the development's target market to be either young couples who don't yet need a larger unit, or single professionals who either are working in the area or want a convenient home to commute to either Kansas City or Topeka.

As we have previously reported, look for other activity in the area as well. The Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority has partnered with a private development group led by Lawrence businessman Bill Newsome to develop about 125 rent-controlled apartment units near the southwest corner of 23rd and O'Connell Road.

So, you may want to keep those crayons out. There may be more to circle in this area in the future. Now, where did I put my Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown and my Mango Tango? I've got serious work to do.

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  • A rendering of what the units will look like in a proposed multifamily complex near 28th and O'Connell in southeast Lawrence

    A rendering of what the units will look like in a proposed multifamily complex near 28th and O'Connell in southeast Lawrence by Chad Lawhorn

    Reply 7 comments from Kingfisher Merrill Gregdivilbiss Barbaragordon Andrew Dufour