New cheese shop opens in west Lawrence; home sales gain steam in April, but shortage of houses persists
I have news of cheese and also news of people buying new homes. And though it may sound like it, this isn’t a follow-up to the wild cheese party that ended up with Gouda in places that was no Gouda.
First, the cheese news. Look for a new store inside the Dillons at Sixth and Wakarusa. The longtime New York-based purveyor Murray’s Cheese has signed a deal with Dillons’ parent company to open cheese shops across the country. Lawrence has landed one of them.
The Murray’s Cheese shop at the Dillons at 4701 W. Sixth St. opened last weekend. According to information from Dillons, the cheese shop will stock more than 175 varieties of cheese, plus it will carry other items such as local honey and preserves, olives, crackers and charcuterie.
That is right, charcuterie. My, how far we have come in a short time. I honestly had never heard of the word before late 2013 when I wrote about plans for Hank Charcuterie to open at 19th and Massachusetts. I thought it was a critter that we may find the fellows on "Swamp People" chasing down. But now I have learned that charcuterie is French for “too expensive to serve to my friends.” (Don’t let that dissuade you, though. That’s more of a commentary on my friends than the prices.) In case you somehow don’t know what charcuterie is, it refers to sausages, pates and other specialty meat products that go well with cheeses and other appetizers.
To be honest, I also hadn’t heard much about Murray’s Cheese shop before, but that's mainly because I have tried to cut way down on the number of cheese conversations I have during the course of a day. According to Dillons, though, Murray’s is one of the more famous cheese shops in New York. It has been open since 1940, and has drawn large crowds to its original location in Greenwich Village.
The deal with Dillons calls for Murray’s to stock its most popular cheeses at Dillons. Looking at the store’s website, it appears varieties include: Parmigiano-Reggiano; English Cheddar; Irish Cheddar; Roquefort blue cheese; Havarti, Alpine style Grand Cru cheese; a variety of BellaVitano cheeses; marinated mozzarella; and more than a half dozen styles of Gouda, including smoked, aged, farmhouse, double cream and others. They even have a cheese platter called “Life is Gouda.” (Wait a minute. I thought I had the market cornered on Gouda puns.)
One other point to note about the new cheese shop: It encourages people to sample a different variety of cheese on each visit.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If I took Murray’s up on that offer, I may need to buy a house with wider doors. Maybe that is what is going on with other folks in town. Whatever the case, Lawrence home sales were up in the important month of April.
Home sales in Lawrence grew by 10.5 percent in April, compared with April 2015 totals, according to the latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors. I’m sure that was a welcome site for Lawrence real estate agents because 2016 sales had started off a bit sluggish. During the first quarter of the year, sales were down by 1.1 percent.
But with April’s strong showing, homes sales are now up for the year. Through April, sales are up 3.7 percent compared with the same period a year ago.
The report, though, does provide reason for concern. The number of homes on the market in Lawrence continues to decline significantly. At the end of April, 250 homes were on the market, which is down from 346 in April 2015 and 429 in April 2014. Real estate agents believe a small supply of homes ultimately will lead to a reduction in sales and also an increase in home prices. At the moment, it is making for a seller’s market.
The result is homes are not sitting on the market for long. Thus far in 2016, the median number of days a home sits on the market before selling is 28. That’s down from 43 in 2015 and 60 in 2014.
“The pace of this market can be challenging for everyone,” said Carl Cline, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
Other statistics from the recent report include:
— Sales of newly constructed homes were up slightly in April, totaling nine versus seven in April 2015. For the year, sales of newly constructed homes are up 37 percent, totaling 22.
— The median selling prices of homes this year is $167,565, up 5.4 percent from the same period a year ago.
— The total dollar value of homes sold in Lawrence thus far in 2016 is $61.1 million, up 6.7 percent compared with the same period a year ago.
New study says Lawrence below average in managing money, above average in mortgage debt; local home sales off to sluggish start
If I weren’t so busy gold-plating random items in my house, I would take offense at a finding of a new study: Lawrence residents are below-average at managing their money.
The financial website WalletHub ranks Lawrence 1,505th out of about 2,500 U.S. communities in its 2016 study titled Best and Worst Cities at Money Management. We’re ranked in the 41st percentile, meaning we’re about 10 percent below average when it comes to money management.
Honestly, I wouldn’t sweat the ranking much. As I’ve mentioned before, these rankings are very subjective, and this is one where Lawrence’s status as a college town probably works against us. We have a lot of young people living in Lawrence who previously thought money management simply involved telling Daddy that it looks like he’s lost some weight.
But I’m passing along the information because some of the data the WalletHub folks used is interesting. The financial website created a partnership with the financial services firm TransUnion to get a host of financial data that we normally don’t see. Some of that data serves as a good reminder of just how different we are from our neighbors. Here’s a look:
— More of our money goes to paying off credit card debt. On average, the ratio of credit credit card debt to income for Lawrence residents is about 29 percent. In the Johnson County communities of Olathe, Overland Park and Shawnee, it is 15 to 17 percent. In Topeka it is 20 percent. (A quick note about the ratios: The Lawrence ratio would suggest that a person who has $40,000 a year in income would have $11,000 in credit card debt. But don’t get too caught up in trying to do that type of math. What WalletHub did, according to a spokeswoman, is take the credit card debt data from TransUnion, break it down to a per capita basis, then compare that to the median earnings of individuals, as measured by the Census Bureau. What’s important is that they used the same methodology for each community, so it does give a good look at how the communities differ.)
— More of our money goes to paying off car loans. The amount of car loan debt to income is 81 percent in Lawrence. In the Johnson County communities, it is closer to 40 to 50 percent. In Topeka, it is 59 percent.
— A lot more of our money goes to paying off mortgages. On average the ratio of mortgage debt to income for Lawrence residents is 847 percent. That’s far higher than most Kansas communities included in the survey. Here’s a look at several:
— Hutchinson: 341 percent
— Topeka: 384 percent
— Salina: 386 percent
— Wichita: 407 percent
— Shawnee 416 percent
— Olathe: 446 percent
— Overland Park: 468 percent
— Emporia: 483 percent
But when you look at Lawrence compared with other college communities, we fare much better. Here are nine other college communities in the central part of the U.S. that I chose for comparison purposes:
— Waco, Texas: 520 percent
— Norman, Okla.: 599 percent
— Columbia, Mo.: 783 percent
— Lawrence: 847 percent
— Iowa City: 906 percent
— Manhattan: 983 percent
— Stillwater, Okla.: 1,100 percent
— Ames, Iowa: 1,276 percent
— Boulder, Colo.: 1,648 percent
In that list, Lawrence is pretty middle of the pack, but it is interesting to note how much higher all the college communities are than noncollege communities. There probably is some bias against college communities in the methodology of this particular study. But the numbers also may suggest there is something to the idea that college communities are inherently more expensive places to live. Certainly the strong rental market of a college community sucks up some housing supply that otherwise would be available for homeowners. Are there other factors too? Why does a place like Norman, for example, have housing that appears to be quite a bit more affordable than Lawrence? And conversely, does every home in Ames have a gold-plated commode? (If so, can I get the name of your guy? My guy doesn’t do commodes.)
Lawrence leaders are beginning to spend more time on the issue of affordable housing. A pilot project for a new affordable housing trust fund has been selected. That’s good. But as the community continues to address the issue, I wonder whether part of the process will be for community leaders to do a deeper dive of why Lawrence’s housing market functions the way it does, and conduct a broader examination of how some other college communities have dealt with this issue. I understand people get tired of paying consultants, but trying to change something as complex as a housing market is going to take some expertise.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The Lawrence real estate market will be trying to improve upon what was a pretty good year in 2015. It has not gotten off to a great start, but it is still early. Lawrence home sales for January fell by 23 percent from the same time period a year ago, according to the latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
Agents sold 40 homes during the month, down from 52 in January 2015. One bright spot in the report is that five newly constructed homes sold in the month. That’s a far better start than last January, when none sold. The new home market is one that still hasn’t gained as much traction as industry leaders would like in Lawrence.
One number that likely is still creating concern for real estate agents is the number of homes on the market. The number of active listings on the market in January was 260. That’s down from 286 in January 2015 and down from 320 in January 2014. Real estate agents have expressed concern that the declining inventory of homes will depress sales because, well, you can’t sell what you don’t have.
Another number that is worth watching is pending contract. The number of pending contracts in January was down about 9 percent compared to a year ago. That’s normally a sign of weaker sales numbers to come.
But keep in my mind that this is only one month, and January normally is not a make or break month for home sales in Lawrence.
I probably need to spend more time reading comic books. As the "Star Wars" fever rises, some in my household are becoming frustrated that I keep confusing Count Dooku with Count Chocula. But fear not, we don’t have to be confused for long because the world of comics (yes, there are "Star Wars" comic books), board games and fantasy is becoming big business in Lawrence.
A new three-story comic and gaming store is opening in downtown Lawrence. Well, sort of. The Game Nut and Astrokitty Comics & More have merged, and an expansion project is underway at Game Nut’s longtime home at 844 Massachusetts.
Astrokitty recently vacated its longtime space at 15 E. Seventh St. when owner Joel Pfannenstiel sold Astrokitty to Game Nut. Joel, though, continues to be a part of the business. He’s helping design the expansion that will end up occupying all three floors of the Game Nut building at Ninth and Massachusetts.
“We plan to be the largest gaming store in Lawrence and really one of the largest ones in the Kansas City area,” Joel said.
The space already is occupying two of the three floors. The top floor of the building houses the comic book shop — now known as Astrokitty @ Game Nut — and it also includes the store’s action figure department. The main floor of the building continues to house the electronic video games. Work is underway to expand the shop into the basement level. It will include the board game selection, role playing games, the store’s High Score video game lounge, and a large area that can house up to 60 people who want to get together to play tabletop games.
“We want to create space where the community can meet and play,” Joel said.
The space, which is expected to be open in February, will be called The Dungeon, complete with the old stone walls of the basement that will be left exposed. Getting together to play board games or other tabletop games has become an emerging trend.
“There’s just a camaraderie and social aspect of it that you don’t really get as much with the video games,” Joel said. “We’re really going to push the aspect of community and interaction and people coming together.”
Video games, though, will remain a large part of the business. Joel said the number of people who play both video and tabletop games and read comic books is large. Television shows — everything from "Game of Thrones" to the multitude of zombie stuff — has led to greater interest in games and literature related to fantasy and other genres.
“There has been a huge upswing,” Joel said. “All this stuff that I’ve immersed myself in all my life, other people are doing it too. It is very cool.”
The Lawrence business community is certainly betting on the trend. This is the third major comic/gaming project I’ve reported on this year. Boom Comics opened an approximately 15,000 square-foot comic and gaming store earlier this year in the former Kief’s Audio Video space at 2429 Iowa St. In west Lawrence, Rolling Gnome Games — a store that focuses on a variety of board, tabletop and card games — opened at 3727 W. Sixth St.
Game Nut and Astrokitty, though, are two of the longer-term players in the Lawrence market. Both are celebrating their 10-year anniversaries this year, Joel said.
It sounds like the expansion in the industry isn’t quite done. Joel said Game Nut owner Gene Nutt is undertaking an expansion of his south Iowa Street store. Plans call for the amount of space for the south Iowa Game Nut, which is at 2540 Iowa, to approximately double. Work is likely to be completed in February, Joel said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If I’m going to start reading lots of comic books, I’ll probably need a new house with an extra room to keep all my Count Chocula costumes. (Sorry, I’m still getting confused.) Regardless, I do have the latest figures on home sales in Lawrence.
For October, home sales in Lawrence were basically flat. (I didn’t say I had exciting figures. Why do you think I’m still making Count Chocula jokes?) Sales totaled 83 units, down from 84 in October 2014.
The numbers for the year to date are more exciting. The October numbers pushed Lawrence above the 1,000 homes sold mark for 2015. For the year, home sales in Lawrence are up 15 percent compared with 2014. Last year, the real estate market took a little dip in Lawrence, but it seems clear that 2015 will reverse that trend. Last year, home sales declined by about 0.2 percent. That was compared with a 17 percent increase in 2013 and a 28 percent increase in 2012. So, 2015 is on pace to return the market to more recent norms.
Here are some other numbers from the report put out by the Lawrence Board of Realtors:
• The number of newly constructed homes sold for the year have rebounded in 2015. New homes sales total 73, up from 60 at this time in 2014. However, sales of newly constructed homes continue to lag 2013 totals, when 86 had been sold at this time.
• The type of new home being constructed in Lawrence is slightly more expensive than in past years. The median selling price for a newly constructed home is $309,400, up about 1.5 percent from a year ago. It is up about $9,000 from 2013, when the median selling price was $300,620.
• The total dollar value of homes sold in Lawrence is up about 18 percent to $212.8 million.
• The median number of days a home sits on the market before it sells continues to fall. The median is now at 24 days, down from 33 last year and 42 in 2013.
• The number of homes on the market continues to fall, which real estate agents have said is depressing home sales in the city. The number of active listings stands at 317, down about 15 percent from last year and about 13 percent from 2013.
I also have one figure on real estate values. This one comes from the Douglas County Appraiser’s Office, instead of the Board of Realtors. The latest data from the appraiser’s office shows the average sale price for existing homes in Lawrence and Douglas County is $213,992 thus far in 2015. That’s up about 1.5 percent from a year ago. So, the real estate market is seeing some appreciation but isn’t going gangbusters, based on those numbers.
Lawrence home sales surge in April; new report finds local housing value growth lagging region; new sights coming to downtown sidewalks
Perhaps I need to fire my Leavenworth-based tax preparer (his motto: I wish I had an open door policy) because it sure looks like a lot of people’s tax refunds in April were bigger than mine. Or at least something spurred a surge in home buying in Lawrence, according to the latest figures from the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
Lawrence real estate agents sold 113 homes in April, which is an increase of 25 percent from April 2014. April is a key month in the home-buying market as many buyers are on the market in the spring looking to get settled into a new home during the summer.
The strong April numbers are the latest sign Lawrence’s real estate market is in full bounce-back mode. For the year-to-date, Lawrence’s home sales are up 18 percent from the same period a year ago. Last year, the Lawrence market ended the year with home sales down slightly from 2013 totals. The city’s real estate market, though, experienced growth in 2013 and 2012, so the latest numbers are indicating that last year’s slowdown may end up being just a small road bump rather than the beginning of a new trend.
In fact, the most recent figures include several signs that buyers are back in a big way. Here’s a look:
— Sales of newly constructed homes entered positive territory in April. Real estate agents sold seven newly built homes in April, up from four in April 2014. For the year-to-date, sales of newly constructed homes total 16, which is up from 13 in the same time period a year ago. Those numbers aren’t great — they’re still down by 10 homes from 2013 figures — but any type of bounce-back would be welcome by homebuilders. The sale of newly constructed homes was the weakest part of the market last year. Sales in that category fell by 19 percent in 2014.
— The median number of days a home sits on the market unsold has fallen significantly. Thus far in 2015, the median is at 43 days, down from 60 days in 2014.
— The number of pending contracts at the end of April totaled 257, which is up 29 percent from April 2014. That likely is a sign that sale numbers in May and June also should be strong.
— The number of active listings on the market in April totaled 346, which is down nearly 20 percent from April 2014 totals. The declining number of active listings, and the declining number of days a home sits on the market are indicators that there’s been an influx of buyers.
One thing we haven’t seen, however, is an increase in home prices in Lawrence. The numbers from the Lawrence Board of Realtors show the median sale price thus far in 2015 is $158,900, which is basically unchanged from the $158,500 mark at this time last year. The median selling price of newly constructed homes is up significantly. It checks in at $337,495, which is a 10 percent increase from a year ago.
It has been interesting to watch what has happened to the selling prices of newly constructed homes in Lawrence over the last several years. At the end of 2011, the median selling price for a newly built home was $245,000. We’ve seen an increase of 37 percent in median price in less than four years. Back in 2011, the gap between the median selling price of an existing home and a new home was about 45 percent. Thus far in 2015, the gap is about 110 percent. As I’ve been known to say when my key no longer works in my home lock: I don’t know exactly what this means, but it seems significant.
• On the subject of housing prices, there’s an even better set of numbers that have been recently released for the Lawrence market. They show an even more pronounced stagnation of housing prices in Lawrence.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency has released its first quarter numbers for home prices in metro areas across the country. These numbers give a better indication of whether home values are rising or falling than the Board of Realtor numbers. That’s because the Board of Realtor numbers simply look at all the homes sold in a given time period, compute and average and then compares that average to the same period in previous years. That, however, doesn’t take into account the type of homes being sold. If in 2015, 40 percent of the home sales in Lawrence consisted of five-bedroom homes while in 2014 they only accounted for 30 percent of sales, it is likely the average selling price is going to be higher. But that doesn’t mean home values in general are rising. It just means the mix of housing sales is different than it used to be. The Federal Housing Finance Agency has access to more detailed mortgage information, and it is able to account for such factors and conduct a more apples-to-apples comparison.
The latest numbers show that Lawrence home values in the first quarter of 2015 actually declined slightly. Prices dropped by 0.2 percent in the first quarter of the year. For the last 12 months, home values in Lawrence have risen by 2.43 percent. Compared to other metro markets, that’s not a lot. Lawrence ranks 237th out of the approximately 275 metro markets that are measured.
The agency also provides information on housing values over the last five years. Here’s a look at how Lawrence stacks up compared to some other regional markets:
— Lawrence: down 0.2 percent (1Q); up 2.4 percent (1yr); up 3 percent (5yr)
— Boulder, Colo.: up 0.4 percent; up 7.5 percent; up 20.7 percent
— Columbia, Mo.: up 0.2 percent; up 4.6 percent; up 6.8 percent
— Fort Collins, Colo.: up 1.4 percent; up 9 percent; up 22.3 percent
— Greeley, Colo: up 2 percent, up 9.2 percent; up 23.2 percent
— Iowa City: up 0.9 percent; up 2.3 percent; up 6.6 percent
— Joplin, Mo.: up 3.1 percent; up 3.4 percent; up 9 percent
— Kansas City, Mo.-Ka.n: up 0.6 percent; up 5.1 percent; up 3.1 percent
— Lincoln, Neb.: up 1 percent; up 4.1 percent; up 12.4 percent
— Topeka: down 1.9 percent; up 1.8 percent; down 0.8 percent
— Wichita: up 2 percent; up 5.7 percent; up 3.8 percent
So, looking at those numbers, there are two obvious conclusions: 1. We need more mountains; and 2. The beautiful Kaw River isn’t the selling point it used to be.
The mountains are easy to see. Over the last five years, the Colorado communities have seen their home values soar by about 4 percent to 5 percent a year. Back in the 1990s, such appreciation of home values was fairly common in Lawrence too. Clearly, someone has stolen our mountains.
In terms of the Kaw, I say that because look at the three communities that line the Kansas River. Lawrence, Topeka and Kansas City all have seen pretty stagnant home values over the last five years. When you average the growth rates for the three communities, it comes out to 1.7 percent for the five-year period. Not 1.7 percent per year, but 1.7 percent cumulative.
How fast housing values should grow in a community is a matter of debate. Grow too fast and you can price a lot of people out of your market. But grow too slowly, and some people may take a pass on your market because they want their home to be somewhat of an investment in addition to a place that provides shelter. Maybe Lawrence’s growth rate is just right, but it does appear to be slower than a lot of other communities in the region. It would be interesting to know what that says about our community.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I’ve had some people ask what is going into the former Yellow House building at 1904 Massachusetts Street. Construction work is underway to renovate the building. Well, according to documents filed at City Hall, a tattoo parlor is opening in the location. A business called Miller Tattoo has filed for a sign permit at the location.
• Funny things are set to happen on Lawrence’s downtown sidewalks, and I’m not even talking about what happens to them after happy hour becomes a bit too happy. The Free State Festival — the big arts, culture and entertainment event set for June 22-28 — plans to get creative in how it promotes the event.
That means you’ll start seeing some advertisements and art show up on city sidewalks. The festival has requested city permission to place vinyl lettering and signs on sidewalks and parking lots across town. The festival organizers list about 25 different locations across town, but primarily concentrated in downtown, where they would like to use the vinyl lettering and signs. Organizers say the letter is non-slip, so it should not create any safety issues. The lettering and signs would be removed from the sidewalks once the festival is over.
But there may be an even funkier item coming to downtown sidewalks. Festival organizers are seeking permission to use “GOBO” lights to project images onto downtown sidewalks. The plans calls for each intersection on Massachusetts Street from Seventh to 10th streets to have at least one GOBO display. To be clear, the display would be on one of the adjacent sidewalks next to the intersection, not in the intersection itself.
What is a GOBO, you ask? Well, a GOBO is a stencil that is placed over the lens of a light. The result is the light emits a certain pattern. Probably the most famous GOBO is the bat signal that is used to call Batman in times of need. Unlike the bat signal, these GOBOs will be used to project light down onto the sidewalk rather than up in the sky.
But don’t let that difference fool you. I’m almost certain that this means Batman will be making an appearance at the Free State Festival. I strongly suggest you all get your Robin costumes ready.
Work to begin soon on new river trail near downtown; home sales fall in February; Board of Realtors endorses three for City Hall
I already have a guitar and a straw hat — and really, how hard can a gondola be to make? — so it looks like things are finally falling into place for my secondary career as the Crooner of the Kaw. I’ll start practicing, but in the meantime there is news about Lawrence getting its own version of a river walk.
No, it won’t be as elaborate as the famed river walk in San Antonio, but construction is set to begin soon on a new riverside trail just north of downtown. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday are set to approve a nearly $108,000 bid to build a new trail running along the south bank of the Kansas River connecting Constant Park and Burcham Park.
In case you absent-mindedly left your Lawrence parks guide on your bedside table, Constant Park is the piece of green space just north of Sixth and Kentucky streets. Burcham Park is the long park in Pinckney neighborhood that runs all the way down to Second and Indiana streets.
There already is a make-shift trail that runs through the woods along the river, but plans call for this new trail to be highly improved. Parts of the trail will be concrete, while others portions will be crushed asphalt. When completed, it is expected to be appropriate for both walkers and bikers. The trail will connect with one in the Sandra Shaw Park, the new park near Second and Maine streets on the site of the former VFW property.
As we previously have reported, the Sunflower Foundation is providing about $50,000 in grant money for the project. The city will use sales tax dollars to pay for the rest. Lawrence-based R.D. Johnson Excavation submitted the low bid. In what is becoming a bit of a concerning trend, the city project only attracted two bidders.
The city’s Parks and Recreation Department hasn’t released a timeline for the project, but usually work begins shortly after a bid is awarded. So, look for construction along the river this summer. It will be interesting to see how the trail becomes a part of downtown. Obviously, it won’t be a full-fledged riverwalk lined with shops and such. But there have been leaders who talk about making the river a larger part of Lawrence’s attractions. We’ll see if this trail ends up being opening to do that.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe you are like me and are looking for a new house with a gondola workshop. (My wife says a soundproof guitar room also would be nice.) Well, apparently not many were on the Lawrence market in February. The latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors shows Lawrence home sales in February were down nearly 12 percent compared to February 2014.
But local real estate agents had a strong January, so year-to-date numbers are still up about 3 percent. January and February aren’t really make-or-break months for the local real estate market. But we are entering a critical period. April, May and June are really big months for the industry, so we’ll see whether the housing market can regain some momentum. The market wasn’t bad last year, but it was down slightly from 2013 totals.
Other statistics from the latest report:
— The median number of days on market for a home is 64 thus far in 2015. That’s down from 84 during the same time period a year ago.
— The number of contracts written thus far in 2015 is up nearly 25 percent. Contracts written don’t show up as sales until the deal is finalized, but that number may be a good sign for sale numbers.
— The number of homes on the market is down to 324. That’s down about 6 percent from a year ago.
— Builders closely watch the number of newly-constructed homes that sell. Thus far, that segment of the market hasn’t gained much momentum. Six new homes have sold year-to-date, which is the same number as had been sold at this point in 2014. The new home market is looking for a bounce-back year. Sales of newly-constructed homes fell by 19 percent in 2014.
• My message to you about these last 10 days or so before election day is the same as I give my gondola passengers: Buckle up. The number of political flyers in your mailboxes and advertisements on your web pages will increase quite a bit as candidates sprint to the finish line.
You’ll also start hearing about political endorsements. The Lawrence Board of Realtors has gotten that process started. It has announced that it is endorsing Stan Rasmussen, Matthew Herbert, and incumbent Terry Riordan in this year’s election.
How much endorsements help or hurt candidates in Lawrence races has been an open question. The Realtor group has been running ads on behalf of the candidates, and my understanding is has sent some postcards out as well.
As far as other endorsements, I try to pass on the endorsements I hear of from legitimate groups. So, if your group is legitimate, and you’ve made an endorsement in the City Commission race, send me your information, and I’ll make mention of it.
In terms of how this race is shaping up, it is always a bit of guesswork. As a reminder, Leslie Soden finished first in the primary, Ramussen was second, Stuart Boley third, Riordan fourth, Herbert fifth and incumbent Bob Schumm was sixth. Only three will win seats.
History is on the side of Soden and is against Schumm. In my 20 years of covering city elections, I recall only one first-place finisher in a primary failing to win a seat in the general election. I don’t remember any sixth-place finisher in the primary winning a seat in the general election. Schumm, however, does have more name recognition than most sixth-place finishers. There have been plenty of examples of No. 4 finishers moving into a top 3 spot, and few examples of No. 5 doing that as well. So, it is a real race. We’ll see how many folks show up at the polls, and how many twists and turns the candidates offer between now and April 7.
Downtown business of 25 years closing on Sunday; local home sales fall in August; Wicked Broadband owner considering run for city commission
I often have had shoppers at a garage sale I’ve hosted tell me I have a particular item priced too high. (I don’t care what they say, my portrait of dogs playing pool is at least a $10,000 piece of art.) But I’ve never had someone like Gary Strong come up to me and say that I need to raise the price of an item. Strong is the owner of downtown Lawrence’s Strong’s Antiques, and he’s been known to do that when he sees someone inadvertently giving away a valuable item.
But Lawrence residents may not be able to rely on such kindness for much longer. Strong is getting out of the antique business. After 25 years in Lawrence, Strong’s Antiques will close for good on Sunday. Strong and his wife will continue to own the building, but they’ve signed a deal with Lawrence-based Lucky Dog Outfitters to locate in the storefront at 1025 Massachusetts St.
Strong said he was simply ready to give retirement a try, and a certain event convinced him of that. In December a stray vehicle from Massachusetts Street drove through the storefront in a strange accident. The accident damaged thousands of dollars worth of antiques, involved hassles with numerous insurance companies, and required eight months worth of construction.
“I began to realize that maybe retiring isn’t such a bad concept,” Strong said.
Strong said the interest in antiques has declined over the past 10 years, but that business at the shop remained solid, in part because the business had gained a regional reputation for clock repair, music box repair and other speciality services.
Strong even made house calls to repair people’s grandfather clocks and other such large items. During the years, he also got to deal with Hollywood types by providing set pieces to productions such as The Day After and other movies that have shot in the area. All in all, it has been a good business to meet a lot of people, Strong said.
“I probably will miss communicating with so many people,” Strong said. “It is nice when people are happy when they get something they have been looking for.”
Strong said garage sale people also like it when he tells them that what they think is an ugly vase that perhaps should sell for $5 actually is a beautiful antique worth quite a bit more. Strong said he’s come across that situation several times in his career.
“I always tried to make them aware of it because I didn’t want them to come into my shop someday and see their vase selling for $375 or something like that,” Strong said.
I’ll see to bring you more information in the coming days about the plans Lucky Dog Outfitters has for the space. The Strongs also also own the space that houses Aimee’s Cafe and Coffeehouse, which is run by their son. Strong said Aimee’s will remain in business.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As I become an even more prodigious collector of fine canine billiards art, I probably at some time will have to buy a bigger house to display it all. But that time was not in August, and according to the latest statistics from the Lawrence Board of Realtors, I wasn’t alone in putting off a home purchase.
Lawrence home sales in August were down about 15 percent compared to the same period a year ago. Real estate agents sold 90 units in August, down from 106 in August 2013.
For the year, home sales have totaled 759 units through August, and are down 5.7 percent compared to the same period a year ago. It is beginning to look like 2013 was the peak of the housing rebound in Lawrence. But it also is good to keep the 2014 numbers in perspective: Home sales are still about 16 percent ahead of 2012 totals. The industry is not in a bad place right now.
Other numbers of note from the monthly report include:
— The total value of residential real estate sold in Lawrence in 2014 thus far is $146.8 million, down 11 percent from the same period a year ago, but up 18 percent from 2012 levels.
— The median selling price in Lawrence in 2014 has been $164,000, down from $170,000 in 2013.
— The median number of days a home sits on the market is down to 33. That’s down from 42 in 2013 and 63 in 2012.
— The number of homes on the market has fallen to 414, down from 441 in 2013 and 479 in 2012.
– Sales of newly constructed homes continue to be the most troubling part of the Lawrence real estate market. Only 47 newly constructed homes have sold thus far in 2014. That’s down 35 percent from 2013 levels and is down nearly 13 percent from 2012 levels.
• Tonight — Thursday, that is — I will be covering a campaign event for the Nov. 4 sales tax election to fund a police headquarters project. The event is the public forum hosted by the city at 7 p.m. at the police department’s Investigations and Training Center at Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive. But before that campaign is even done, I’m required to keep my ear to the ground about possible candidates for the following campaign — the Lawrence City Commission races in April.
I had heard speculation that Lawrence school board member Kris Adair is considering a run for the City Commission. Well, Adair confirmed to me that she indeed is seriously considering running for the commission. She hasn’t made a decision yet, but she said she’s been talking to numerous people about a campaign. (If this were presidential politics, I think we could it an exploratory effort, and Adair would be doing lots of photo opportunities with ethanol, corn on the cob, corn-on-the-cob art and whatever else it takes to suck up to the fine folks of Iowa.)
Adair is an owner of Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband, and as such has had quite a few dealings with Lawrence City Hall. Wicked — formerly Lawrence Freeneet — currently is awaiting a decision from the commission on a $1 million loan guarantee that would spur a pilot project to bring gigabit service to parts of Lawrence. A decision on that issue is expected to be made by mid-November.
In addition to the broadband issue, Adair has been active in lobbying for changes in how the city approaches economic development. In particular, she has called for a greater emphasis on fostering start-up companies and expansion of smaller local businesses.
Adair still has two years left on her term as a Lawrence school board member. She said if she does run for the City Commission and does win a seat, she likely would resign her seat as a school board member. I’m not sure what the law allows in terms of holding multiple elected offices, but regardless, Adair said she thinks it would be too difficult to do both jobs simultaneously.
In case you don’t yet have your Lawrence City Commission smartphone election app (that app almost certainly will void your warranty on your new iPhone), here is a rundown: Three of the five seats will be up for election in April. The seats held by Mike Dever, Terry Riordan and Bob Schumm are up for election. None of the three have officially said what their plans are for the future, although Schumm has said some things that indicate he’ll likely run again. I believe Leslie Soden, who narrowly missed out on a seat two years ago, also will likely run. And I’m certain there will be others.
QuikTrip moving into restaurant business at 23rd and Haskell; home sales fall in May; area businessman in running for national entrepreneur of the year
There is a major new player coming to the restaurant business on East 23rd Street, and its familiar name may surprise you: QuikTrip.
Just like Da Vinci didn't stop painting after the Mona Lisa, QuikTrip isn't going to let its culinary creations end with the masterpiece known as a roller grill full of hot dogs and polish sausages.
The QuikTrip at 23rd and Haskell recently has received a building permit for $135,000 worth of renovations at the store to install a full service kitchen. QT spokesman Mike Thornbrugh said the kitchen will allow the store to serve items like pizzas, sandwiches, flatbreads and other items that are made-to-order on site. Currently, most of QuikTrip's food offerings are made off-site and shipped to the store pre-packaged.
The renovations will move QuikTrip in the fast-food restaurant industry, in addition to its gasoline and convenience store items.
"The two main sellers in convenience stores have been gasoline and tobacco products," Thornbrugh said. "Those are two products that we don't really believe are going to grow. We've been working very hard to make the switch to the fresh food side."
QT is in the process of installing kitchens in most of its nearly 700 stores across the country. Reports out of Tulsa, which is where QT has its headquarters, give a better idea of the menu the revamped stores will offer. In that market, personal pizzas are made-to-order from a choice of six toppings, flatbread sandwiches come in chicken bacon ranch, chicken quesadilla, and spicy barbecue steak, toasted sandwiches include grilled cheese, American bacon cheddar, three-cheese Italian, BLT with cheese and bacon, egg and cheese.
For those of you who want to take the European vacation without the trip to Europe, the store also will offer something called kolaches, a European breakfast pastry that features a sweet dough but savory fillings such as sausage and bacon.
Also on on the menu are speciality coffee drinks that will be made by a barista, frozen lemonades, smoothies and soft serve ice cream.
According to the Tulsa World article, the company is adding about 2,000 employees nationwide to staff the full-service kitchens. Thornbrugh said work at the Lawrence store was in its final stages and should be completed within a week or so.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Homes in Lawrence would sell at a much greater rate if they were all equipped with roller grills and polish sausage air fresheners. But they aren't, and thus far 2014 is showing a slowdown in local home sales.
Home sales in Lawrence totaled 133 in May, down about 7.5 percent from the activity levels in May 2013. The slowdown continues a trend that has taken hold in 2014. For the year, home sales in Lawrence totaled 380 through the end of May, a decrease of about 7 percent during the same time period a year ago.
At this pace, it is looking more likely that Lawrence's two-year streak of increasing homes sales will come to an end in 2014. But leaders with the Lawrence Board of Realtors are trying to put the numbers in perspective. This year's totals are still much better than just a few years ago when the housing market in Lawrence and across the country was really struggling. The 380 homes sold thus far in 2014 represents an increase of 31 percent compared to the same period in 2012 and 46 percent from 2011.
Susan Bonham, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors, also noted that the market isn't down across the board. She said sales of homes priced below $200,000 are ahead of last year's pace, but homes above the $200,000 mark are lagging past totals.
Other numbers from the recent report include:
— 13 newly constructed homes sold in May, down from 15 in May 2014. While not positive, that number is an improvement in the trend. Through May, year-to-date sales of newly constructed homes total just 26 units. That's down nearly 37 percent from the same period a year ago.
— $159,350 is the median selling price of a Lawrence home, year-to-date. That's down 5.7 percent from the same period a year ago.
— The median number of days a home sits on the market before selling is 40 in 2014, compared to 57 through the same time period a year ago.
— 451 homes were on the market at the end of May, up nearly 15 percent from May 2013. Real estate agents have said that increase is a positive sign for the market because an increase in inventory is expected to bring more buyers into the market.
— At least one measure is indicating the slowdown in sales may continue for the short term. The number of pending contracts in May totaled 212, down from 242 in May 2013.
• A longtime area businessman is in the running for a prestigious national entrepreneur of the year award.
Smitty Belcher, chief executive officer of P1 Group Inc., has been named a regional winner in the Entrepreneur of the Year contest organized by the business consulting firm Ernst & Young.
P1 Group is one of the region's larger mechanical contractors, and it has deep ties to Lawrence. The company is an outgrowth of Huxtable & Associates, which was founded in Lawrence in the 1920s. P1 Group continues to have a large operations center in Lawrence near 23rd and Haskell.
Belcher has been an active member of the Lawrence business community and area philanthropist. As one of 10 winners in the midwest region of the competition, Belcher now is a finalist for the national entrepreneur of the year award, which will be announced in November.
Lawrence home sales and prices fall in April; new numbers suggest local tax base is growing; city to be featured in True West magazine
Lawrence's spring real estate market is a bit like my lawn this season: There are a few dandelions out there, but you still can convince yourself that those are just pretty flowers.
The most recent report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors confirms a trend that has been developing over the last few months: Home sales in Lawrence are on the decline. Home sales in April, usually one of the busier months of the year, were down 12.6 percent compared with the same period a year ago.
The latest numbers pushed the year-to-date numbers further into negative territory. For the year, home sales are down 6.8 percent, totaling 247 compared with 265 through April 2013.
But as I frequently tell my neighbor, you have to keep these dandelions in perspective. Lawrence's housing market is still performing significantly better than it did in 2012, and it is much healthier than it was during the dark days following the housing bubble. Home sales in 2014 are about 25 percent higher than they were at this point in 2012.
But sales will have to pick up in a hurry if Lawrence is to post its third straight year of increasing home sales, after hitting bottom in 2011. A similar theme is being struck across the country. After gaining strength in recent years, U.S. home sales began to slow in mid-2013. Economists, ever the two-handed beasts, are split on where sales are headed in the future.
Susan Bonham, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors, said the local market is mixed right now. She said homes in the $100,000 to $300,000 range are still selling reasonably well, but homes outside that price range have struggled.
The latest numbers do create a couple of questions about what lies ahead, particularly when it comes to home prices and the amount of new home construction.
With four months in the books, the median selling price of homes in Lawrence is down about 5 percent to $159,000. These numbers are tough to interpret. It could mean that buyers are simply interested in different types and sizes of houses than they have been in the past, or it could mean that housing prices in general are starting to fall in the city. It is an issue to keep an eye on.
Lawrence homebuilders also will be keeping a close eye on the demand for new houses in the city. Thus far, it has been a poor year in terms of people buying newly constructed homes. In fact, those may be the most disappointing numbers in the report. Through April, only 13 newly constructed homes have been sold. That's down from 26 at the same point in 2013. It also is down from 17 sales at this point in 2012. Sales of newly constructed homes are important because they can provide a real boost to the local economy. Historically, some of Lawrence's best economic years have come when builders are constructing a significant number of new homes.
Other numbers from the report included:
— The total dollar volume of homes sold in the Lawrence area is down 11.8 percent to $47.7 million.
— The number of homes on the market has grown slightly to 429, up from 418 at this point in 2013. The number is down significantly from the 613 listing in April 2012.
— The median number of days a home is on the market has fallen to 59, down from 65 a year earlier. Usually, such a decline would point to market where buyers are becoming more active.
— The number of pending contracts has fallen significantly from a year ago. At the end of April there were 199 pending contracts in the system, down nearly 20 percent from April 2013 totals. That may be an indicator that home sale numbers are unlikely to bounce back in the next month or two.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There is a set of new numbers that do point to a recovery of sorts in the Lawrence economy. Douglas County officials are in the process of tallying the assessed valuation for the city of Lawrence, meaning the taxable value of all property in the city limits.
The preliminary numbers show 2014 is set to post the largest increase since 2007. But be warned, that is a bit like me bragging that the brown spots in my yard are no longer toxic. (Long story, but as I've told the EPA, I really did think it was fertilizer in that bag.) The point is, assessed valuation growth in Lawrence has been pretty anemic since 2007. In fact in 2009, 2010, and 2012 it actually declined.
But the estimate for 2014 shows that it has increased by 1.6 percent. For comparison purposes, during the late 1990s and even into the early 2000s, the city was experiencing growth in its tax base 5 percent to 8 percent fairly regularly. But the 1.6 percent growth rate is welcome news at City Hall because if the tax base grows, the city's property tax revenue automatically increases, unless the City Commission decides to reduce the property tax mill levy. In case you are wondering, I've seen no indication that a property tax mill levy reduction is in the offing for the city's next budget.
The assessed valuation also is important to watch because it is a reasonable indicator of economic health. Tax bases usually grow either because property values are rising or significant new construction is occurring in the community. This latest increase likely is a result of a little bit of both.
• I don't know about you, but I'm always looking for an opportunity to get out my chaps, my 10-gallon and my best rootin-tootin outfit. Perhaps we'll all have an opportunity soon. I've been told by the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau that Lawrence's Old West and frontier history is going to be in the national spotlight.
True West magazine has chosen Lawrence as the community it will feature in its August 2014 edition. I don't have details yet on exactly what elements of our history will be featured, but local tourism leaders are hopeful that recognition will spur some new visitors to check out the community. True West touts that it reaches about 300,000 "heritage travelers."
More LJWorld City Coverage
Real estate sales, home building off to decent start in 2014; new numbers about county’s housing values, tax base released
Perhaps you are like me, and this winter weather has you in the market for a very specific type of home: one with a heated driveway and sidewalks. (Or I would even settle for one equipped with a 10-year old son who doesn't feel faint at the sight of a snow shovel.)
I'm not sure any of those types of homes have sold recently, but the latest series of real estate and building reports indicate that 2014 got off to a decent start for home builders and real estate agents.
Here's a look at a few reports:
• Although January is one of the slower months for local real estate agents, home sales increased by a little more than 10 percent, compared with January 2013 totals, according to a new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors. Home sales totaled 41 for the month, including five sales for newly constructed homes. The most important number of the report, however, may be the number of homes on the market. Active listings in Lawrence are down 320 homes, which is a decline from 380 in January 2013 and 460 from January 2012. That's a positive sign for the market. More homes are selling, but if the number of listings doesn't move upward, look for prices to rise.
• Lawrence home builders took out permits for nine new homes in January, compared with eight in January 2013. January obviously isn't a big month for starting new home construction, but, for what it is worth, the nine is the highest January total in at least the last five years. The five-year average for January home starts is 5.4 new homes. (Rumor has it, the guy who lived in the 0.4 of a home, spent all his money on heated sidewalks.)
• When it comes to numbers, the one homeowners usually care most about should be arriving in the mailbox at any moment. The Douglas County Appraiser's Office sent out change of value notices on Friday. The notices tell homeowners how much the appraiser's office thinks their property is worth. That number, of course, is key in determining how much a homeowner pays in property taxes. I haven't yet got an update from the appraiser on what most homeowners should expect. When I get that information, I'll pass it along. But his most recent report did include some other interesting numbers:
— The total value of real estate in Douglas County is on the rise. Total assessed valuation — that's the taxable value, not the fair market value — was $1.04 billion dollars on Jan. 1. That's up 2.2 percent from Jan. 1, 2013. Appraiser Steve Miles said most of the increase was due to new construction and an increase in the value of agricultural land in the county. If that number holds — it generally goes down a bit as people appeal their tax values — it will be good news for local governments who use the tax base to help build their budgets.
— The median value of all residential property in the county — excluding big apartment complexes — was $161,700 in 2014. That's up 2.9 percent from the $157,000 median in 2013. The median value had declined in 2013, 2012 and 2009. The report shows that median values still have a ways to climb before they reach the levels seen during the housing boom. In 2008, the median value of residential property in the county was $164,900.
— The report provides a median residential value for each of the four communities in the county, plus the rural area. Those values: Baldwin City, $140,000, up 5.5 percent; Eudora, $137,900, up 9 percent; Lecompton, up $109,860, up 30.8 percent; Lawrence, $160,200, up 0.3 percent; $199,800, up 30.2 percent.
— Housing, of course, is just one part of the county's real estate tax base. Commercial real estate, agricultural land and a few other miscellaneous categories also make up the tax base. But residential property is certainly the giant among the bunch, which has been a bit of a concern to economic development leaders for a long time. The idea is that commercial real estate produces more jobs and pays a higher tax rate. So, having more commercial, job-producing real estate in the community has been a goal.
Well, I've done some figuring. (It wasn't pretty. Those were really big numbers, so I had to call on my neighbors to take off their shoes as well.) Regardless, here's a look: In 2014, residential property made up 68.5 percent of the tax base compared with 68.1 percent in 2013. Commercial real estate made up 25.6 percent in 2014 compared with 25.7 percent in 2013. So, we didn't go in the right direction.
Just for fun, I also went back to 2004 to see how the numbers have changed. In 2004, residential made up 67 percent of the tax base and commercial made up 25.9 percent. These really are big numbers, so you shouldn't expect big swings. But it is telling that for an entire decade we lost ground on the goal of strengthening our commercial tax base.
In other news around town:
• Maybe all these numbers have made you want to be a renter. If so, you might have some questions about the city's proposed rental licensing and inspection program. Whether you are a renter, a landlord or just an interested resident, we want your questions about the program. City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer will participate in an online chat at 11 a.m. Thursday. Click here to submit some questions in advance.
More LJWorld City Coverage
A new Lawrence park and a new Lawrence trail are beginning to look more likely all the time.
A grant totaling up to $55,000 has been awarded to the local nonprofit group Outside for a Better Inside, group founder John McGrew has told me. The grant, from the Topeka-based Sunflower Foundation, will be used to help build a nature trail on the central Lawrence property that used to house the Lawrence VFW.
The trail is a key part of a plan to convert 8 acres in the Pinckney neighborhood into a nature park that will be donated to the city. City officials last month preliminarily agreed to accept the donation of the property, once private funding arrangements could be made for the trail.
The Sunflower grant is a key cog in the funding of the trail. McGrew has estimated the paved trail will cost a little more than $100,000 to build. McGrew — who is a longtime Lawrence real estate executive — has said he is confident the Outside for a Better Inside organization can successfully conduct private fundraising to complete the project.
McGrew believes the trail can be completed by Spring of 2014. I haven't yet talked with city officials since word of the grant, so we'll see what their timelines are. Previously they had expressed optimism that the park, which is around Second and Alabama streets, could be open by late 2014.
Plans call for the trail to go through a hardwood forest and partially around a small lake that used to be a clay pit for an old-time brick factory. As we recently reported, the site has an old cabin and an interesting history as a Lawrence zoo.
The property is owned by the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. Bert Nash plans to donate the back half of the property to the city, but still has long-range plans to develop the front half of the site with a new building that could house medical offices for Bert Nash and the Heartland Community Health Clinic.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Some people sing Home for the Holidays, while other people buy a home for the holidays. Lawrence home sales in November were relatively strong, according to the latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
Lawrence home sales in Novembers were up almost 13 percent compared to November 2012 totals, according to the report. For the month, 53 homes were sold.
November's showing continues what has been a real good year for the Lawrence real estate market. In fact, November's sales pushed the market past a key milestone: Total sales for the year stood at 1,001 at the end of November. Lawrence has tried to break the 1,000 home sale barrier for a few years now.
Through November, Lawrence home sales for the year were up 20 percent compared to the same period a year ago. Compared to the same period in 2011, sales are up a remarkable 53 percent. The rebound in the Lawrence real estate market really has been one of the more important business stories of the last couple of years.
It is not only sales that have rebounded, but prices are up too. The median selling price thus far in 2013 is $170,000, up 7.3 percent from the same period a year ago. That's a change from what we saw in 2012. Basically what happened in 2012 is that the local real estate market started to pick up steam, in part, because selling prices of homes had dropped. At this point last year, home prices were down by almost 6.5 percent. But it seems clear that price correction was a one year event. It will be interesting to see how the county appraiser values people's homes here in the next few months. This is a key time for the appraiser's office. State law requires him to set a value for every home as of Jan. 1 of each year. We usually get those change in value notices mailed to us in March.
As for other statistics from this month's report:
— The number of listings on the Lawrence market is down to 380. That's down nearly 17 percent from the same period a year ago. If that trend holds, that also likely will put upward pressure on home prices.
— The median number of days a home stays on the market before selling is now down to 42. That's compared to 60 days in 2012.
— The number of newly constructed homes sold thus far in 2013 is 92. That's up nearly 18 percent from the same period a year ago.
More LJWorld City Coverage