One after another, speakers with fingertips that lighted up stepped to the lectern at Lawrence City Hall last night. It was like a herd of E.T.’s had come to watch the City Commission meeting.
I’ve seen odder things at City Hall, but, no, there wasn’t an extraterrestrial presence at Tuesday night’s commission meeting. These lighted fingers could only mean one thing: The contentious issue of lighted tennis courts in the Centennial neighborhood is back.
More than a dozen members of the Lawrence Tennis Association showed up at the meeting to lobby commissioners to reconsider the idea of placing lights at the Lawrence Tennis Center near Lawrence High School. (The fingertip lights are a device players use to play on unlit courts.)
And simply put, the game is back on. Commissioners agreed to put the lighting issue on a future City Commission agenda for discussion.
That’s despite the fact that it appeared for the last several months that the issue was done and decided. City commissioners have agreed to spend about $640,000 to build eight, lighted, outdoor tennis courts as part of the city’s recreation center at Rock Chalk Park.
The lights have been controversial because neighbors near the site — which is basically on the grounds of the former Centennial Elementary school at 2145 Louisiana Street — have objected to the amount of light the court lights would spill onto their properties.
But members of the Lawrence Tennis Association have been equally adamant that the city needs to follow through on a promise to light the courts. Renovations at nearby Lawrence High School caused the city to lose eight lighted tennis courts several years ago. The school rebuilt the courts in a new location, but when it came time to add the lights, neighbors voiced concerns and city officials backed off.
Some city officials thought they had solved the issue with the Rock Chalk Park project. On Tuesday, members of the tennis association said they were appreciative of the future courts at Rock Chalk Park, but said they still want lighted courts in the central part of town. Plus, they said a city of Lawrence’s size could support lighted courts both at Rock Chalk Park and the Lawrence Tennis Center. That argument upset at least one commissioner.
“When we started all of this, it always has been about the need for eight illuminated courts,” City Commissioner Bob Schumm said. “Now we have the conversation up to 16, and I’m not buying that.”
But the other four commissioners said they were fine with having a formal discussion about the idea at a future meeting. Two new members have joined the commission — Jeremy Farmer and Terry Riordan — since the commission last discussed the issue. Neither Farmer nor Riordan indicated a position on the idea Tuesday.
“But I had a meeting with the neighborhood group a few weeks ago, and it seems to be pretty adamantly opposed to this,” Farmer said. “I think the tennis court lights are the straw that is breaking the camel’s back, it seems.”
A date for the commission to discuss the issue hasn’t been set. When one is, I’ll pass it along. And when it does, forget “E.T. phone home.” It will be: Chad, phone home. It will be a late night.
Here’s one company that won’t be sad at all if it rains on its ribbon cutting.
The folks at the Bowersock Mills and Power Company will be celebrating the opening of its $25 million hydroelectric power plant on the north bank of the Kansas River at 4 p.m. Friday.
The public is welcome at the event, and so is rain. The company opened the plant — located near the north end of the downtown Kansas River bridges — in late November. But it wasn’t until early April that the plant started producing any meaningful amount of electricity.
“There was just no flow in the river,” said Sarah Hill-Nelson, an owner of Lawrence-based Bowersock Mills and Power Company. “We were in the middle of this epic drought, but since then, we have had good continued rains.”
Hill-Nelson even can remember the exact day the plant had enough water flowing through it to really crank up the turbines: April 10, her birthday. (Man, I need her to teach me how she blows out her candles. Thanks to my wife’s stubbornness, it appears a birthday wish is the only way I’m going to get a lifetime supply of Doritos and a new Lazy Boy recliner.)
The project, in case you have forgotten, has more than tripled the amount of electricity the Bowersock Mills and Power Company can produce on the Kansas River. The new plant can produce 4.65 megawatts of electricity, while the company’s turn-of-the century hydroelectric plant on the south bank of the Kaw produces 2.35 megawatts.
All of the power produced by the plant is sold to the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities, which uses it to power homes in the metro area and receive credit for having a green energy source as part of its portfolio. I know the fact that all of the power is shipped to Kansas City has bummed out some people. They thought it would be cool if Lawrence residents could use the green power that is produced in Lawrence. But the fact the power is shipped to Kansas City is one of the greater parts of the project, in my opinion. If Lawrence residents buy the power, we’re just trading money that already is in the community. If Kansas City residents buy the power, that is new money coming to a truly Lawrence-based company — and thus into the Lawrence community — on a daily basis. That’s economic development.
But my favorite part of the project is it gives us all a reason to root for dreary, rainy, muddy days in Manhattan on a regular basis. Bowersock officials keep a close eye on the weather in the Manhattan area because when it rains there, it will mean increased flows through the power plant in another day or so.
There is good news on that front, Hill-Nelson said. (No, Willie the Wildcat hasn't permanently gotten stuck in a mud wrestling pit, as far as I know.) She said Tuttle Creek Reservoir near Manhattan recently reached conservation pool stage, meaning the lake’s water level is basically back up to normal. As more spring rains come, Tuttle Creek will be able to release more water into the Kaw, which will benefit the power plant. But more rain would be helpful for a variety of reasons. Both Perry and Milford, two other reservoirs that help feed the Kaw, are still several feet below normal levels. (The latest readings I have show Perry down by about 2 feet, and Milford down by about 4.5 feet. Of course, I may be off. You try carrying that measuring stick around.)
As for Friday’s event, it runs from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., and will include tours of the new plant. Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism Secretary Robin Jennison will make remarks about the project, and so will an official from the national hydroelectric power association. The Lawrence Chamber of Commerce is hosting the ribbon cutting, but Hill-Nelson said the event is open to both chamber and non-chamber members. She asks that members of the public who want to attend send an RSVP to RSVP@bowersockpower.com.
City to use eminent domain to take over dilapidated East Lawrence property; Just Food seeks $25,000 in CDBG funding to expand dairy, meat offerings
Well, Town Talk is playing catch-up today. As I previously reported, I was off on Friday to help park cars at the annual Lawrence Auto Swap Meet. And I was off on Monday to clean mud out of places that I didn’t know I had. So, that leaves us with several items of note on tonight’s Lawrence City Commission agenda to update you on. Here’s a look:
• The city is continuing to move down an unusual road in its efforts to see that a piece of East Lawrence property is cleaned up. The city is going through the process of using eminent domain to take over ownership of the property at 1106 Rhode Island St.
For those of you trying to picture the location, it is just east of the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. Or perhaps some of you remember it as the property that for years had multiple old Packard automobiles stored in its overgrown backyard.
The property — owned by the Barland family, which once owned the city’s Packard dealership — has a house and a barn. The house hasn’t been lived in for years, and its condition has been deteriorating.
The city has taken code enforcement action against the Barlands, but the city finds itself in an odd situation. Usually, the big hammer in a code enforcement case of this nature is that ultimately the city can declare the property unsafe and order it to be demolished. But in this case, the property is of a historic nature. The house dates back to 1871, and was owned by one of the city’s more prominent Irish businessmen — Rhody Delahunty, who operated his successful dray wagon business from the site.
Such history makes it likely that the city’s Historic Resources Commission would balk at tearing down the structures. The city has asked the Barland family to come up with ideas to either refurbish/redevelop the property or sell it to someone who is willing to do so. The family hired an architect to come up with proposals, but it hasn’t committed to any of the ideas. It also hasn’t been willing to sell the property, although it has attracted interest from the Lawrence Preservation Alliance.
So, commissioners in February started the process to use eminent domain to acquire the property. At tonight’s meeting, commissioners are being asked to take the next step: authorizing staff members to file a petition with Douglas County District Court that would start the legal proceedings.
The way the process works is that the court will come up with a price that the city must pay for the property. The process can be stopped at any time, if the Barlands and the city come to an agreement on the future of the property.
As for what the city would do with this deteriorating piece of property, that’s not entirely clear. City officials have said their plan would be to accept proposals from parties interested in restoring the property. The most common ideas have been for the property to be restored as a residence, and the barn perhaps as an artist studio or some other type of work space.
We’ll see how the process goes. The city certainly uses eminent domain to purchase easements for roads and utility projects where it can agree on a price with a landowner. But in my 20 years of covering City Hall, this is the first time I remember eminent domain being used to purchase a rundown piece of property. It will be interesting to see if this is the beginning of a new trend because there’s certainly more than one rundown piece of property in the city.
• Here’s a case where eminent domain wasn’t needed. The city is beginning to purchase easements to run a major water line from the Kaw Water Treatment Plant, across the Kansas River and into North Lawrence.
On tonight’s agenda, the city commission is set to approve paying $80,600 for 25,530 square feet of property. The property is vacant commercial property at 1000 N. Third Street, which is just south of the I-70 Business Center. The property is owned by a trust controlled by Lawrence businessman Samih Staitieh.
The price for the property — it pencils out to $3.15 per square foot — was based on independent appraisals. More purchases for the water line project are expected. The multimillion-dollar project is designed to provide an additional main water line to North Lawrence.
• The recent election of City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer has created an extra piece of paper work for Lawrence City Hall. Commissioners tonight are being asked to approve a conflict of interest waiver that will allow Farmer’s employer to apply for Community Development Block Grant Funding.
Farmer is the CEO of Just Food, the not-for-profit food bank that serves the county. A city advisory board is recommending that Just Food be awarded $25,000 in CDBG funding to buy a refrigerated food truck. But in order for the organization to receive the funding, the city must send a form to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development disclosing the conflict of interest and why the money should be awarded to the agency.
The more interesting part is what the truck will allow Just Food to do. Farmer told me the truck will be used to go to grocery stores, restaurants, convenience stores and other locations that often have to dispose of aging meat, dairy and produce.
Currently, Just Food doesn’t have a way to transport refrigerated material from the stores to its distribution center in East Lawrence. Consequently, Farmer estimates grocers and other are throwing away “thousands of dollars of food per week.” Most of the perishable items are pulled off the shelves several days before their expiration dates, which gives Just Food time to distribute it to needy families.
Farmer said the program is expected to significantly increase Just Food’s ability to provide milk, eggs, butter, meat and some produce to families.
“This is going to be a huge, huge deal for us,” Farmer said. “I haven’t seen butter and eggs down here in a long time.”
Farmer hopes to have the truck later this summer, but he said the timeline is dependent upon Washington, D.C.. Administrators with the CDBG program are watching to see if the sequestration delays or cuts the amount of funding available to the CDBG program.
City commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. tonight at City Hall.
The Lawrence real estate community hit a significant milestone in March. It was the 12th straight month that the Lawrence real estate market has posted year-over-year sales gains.
According to the new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors, there were 76 homes sales in March, up nearly 29 percent from the 59 sales made in March 2012.
Those numbers helped make for a strong first quarter. During the first three months of the year, 159 homes sales were recorded in the city, a 24 percent increase from the same time period a year ago.
It was about this time last year that the real estate market started making an upward climb, but back then the market was being fueled, in part, by sellers lowering their pricing expectations.
Now, the numbers indicate homes prices are on the rise as well. The median sale price on Lawrence homes in the first quarter was $165,000, up about 7 percent from the same period a year ago. Average sale prices should be taken with a grain of salt, because they are pretty dependent on the particular types of home being sold at the time. But still it is a number still worth watching.
Another number showing signs of a rebound is the average number of days a home sits on the market before it sells. The median days on market in March dropped to 68 days, down from 94 during March of 2012.
Several Realtors report the number is dropping because many homes have sold in just a matter of days. That must be the forces of supply and demand kicking in, because the supply of homes for sale on the Lawrence market is now at a two-year low.
The report found the number of active listings in Lawrence fell to 408, down from 578 in March 2012 and from 615 in March 2011.
All in all, local real estate agents seem to be genuinely pleased with the numbers.
“We need more new-construction homes and resale home listings to satisfy the demand,” said John Esau, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors and an agent with Keller Williams Realty. “It has been a long time since we could say that.”
Now, we’ll wait and see how the rest of the important spring and summer buying season plays out. We'll see whether local agents can expand upon their streak of consecutive months of sales increases. But the report indicated that sales were going well in April. Real estate agents had written contracts for 123 homes sales in April, up from 98 in April 2012.
Let me take care of a quick housekeeping matter here. (My wife’s ears just perked up. She would tell you my idea of housekeeping is making sure I put a chip clip on the bag of Doritos I keep next to my La-Z-Boy.) Town Talk will be off for the next couple of days. It will return on Tuesday.
Feel free to find me on Friday. I’ll be parking cars as part of a Eudora 4-H project at the Lawrence Auto Swap Meet at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. (It runs Friday through Sunday.) Then you can help me find a fender for a ‘66 T-Bird.
You can also try to find me on Monday, if you want. I would look in a dog house. That’s where I 'm usually forced to keep house in the days following the swap meet.
Duo has plan to convert Teller’s into gastropub with heavy emphasis on craft beers; Papa Murphy’s opens with special event for Boys and Girls Club today
In Lawrence, beer is art. If you don’t believe me, drive through certain neighborhoods and behold the beer-bottle pyramids erected on many a front porch.
Well, it looks like Lawrence beer lovers may soon have another way to express their love for the beverage: a gastropub.
A deal is in the works to convert the longtime, downtown, upscale restaurant Teller’s into a gastropub that focuses on Midwest food and an extensive list of libations, led by a large lineup of craft beers.
The idea for the new restaurant comes from T.K. Peterson, the former executive chef of The Oread, and Philip Wilson, the operating manager of Teller’s.
Peterson left his position at The Oread last week, and if all goes as planned, he’ll join Wilson at Teller’s next month.
“It is a concept that I’m passionate about,” Peterson told me. “We feel like Lawrence needs a new restaurant concept like this, but really why it comes down to this is the type of food I like to cook.”
What type of food will that be? I don’t know. My mind was still on the beer. (What can I say? I’m a dedicated patron of the arts.) Peterson said the plan is for the restaurant to work with the usual brewers and develop relationships with many small-batch breweries, and perhaps even have some special batch brews created just for the restaurant.
Notice that I have used the word “plan” quite a bit here. Some details are still being worked out on this deal, but Peterson and Wilson agreed to share a few details with me because the rumor mill had started to crank up about the future of Teller’s and whether it was set to close.
As it is currently envisioned, Teller’s, 746 Massachusetts St., is scheduled to close temporarily for a major renovation. Wilson said the closing likely would take place around July 1 and the business would reopen in its new form before the students arrive in late August.
As for whether the new restaurant will keep the Teller’s name, Peterson said that hadn’t been decided. “We don’t know on that yet, but it is hard to ignore the kind of name recognition Teller’s has, not only locally but really with alumni across the country.”
The project will be a bit of a homecoming for Peterson. He worked at Teller’s while attending the Culinary Institute at Johnson County. In total, Peterson has about 12 years on the Lawrence food scene, including stints at the former upscale French restaurant Bleu Jacket at The Eldridge and for the last 17 months as the executive chef at The Oread.
It sounds like this project will be one to watch in the coming months. I’ll update you as a I get more information.
On another restaurant note, those of you who want some pizza and don’t want to get out of the car to get it are in luck. As we previously reported, Papa Murphy’s Take ‘N’ Bake Pizza is one of the tenants opening in the new retail building at 650 Congressional Drive, which is just west of the Famous Dave’s BBQ location at Sixth and Wakarusa.
Well, Papa Murphy’s is now open at the location. (Wireless Zone, a Verizon Wireless phone dealer, is also open at that site. Other tenants for the location will include Prime Martial Arts and Meritrust Credit Union.) But back to pizza. Papa Murphy’s is hosting a special event today, where 20 percent of all sales made at the shop will go to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence.
As for the part about having the pizza placed right in your car, the location has a drive-through, which is a new concept for Papa Murphy’s in Lawrence. But hopefully you realize the “Take ‘N’ Bake” in Papa Murphy’s name means you have to cook the pizza yourself.
I don’t know about your vehicle, but my old F-150 doesn’t have an oven (or a working cassette player or a rear view mirror or brakes), so you may still have to get out of your vehicle to enjoy the pizza.
Or maybe not. I’ll ponder on it a bit. It is a beautiful May day. Perhaps I’ll do some pondering with a piece of pizza and a healthy dose of art, if you know what I mean.
Call it a rankings rut, and this one is pretty deep for the city of Lawrence.
A new national study has ranked Lawrence as the second-worst-performing small metropolitan area in the nation, based on a variety of economic measures. The Milken Institute ranked Lawrence 178 out of 179 metro areas in its most recent Best Performing Cities index. A web site for The Atlantic this week had an article analyzing the results.
This latest report adds onto the negative news released earlier this month by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis about Lawrence’s gross domestic product. It ranked 339th out of 366 metro areas, and was shrinking.
The Milken report uses some of the same types of economic numbers to create its index. But it places a particular emphasis on an area in which Lawrence is supposed to be positioned to excel: high-tech, knowledge-based jobs.
Simply put, the report found we aren’t excelling in that area. In fact, Lawrence didn’t excel in any area.
Over the course of the past year, Lawrence’s ranking in the report fell 79 spots, from No. 99 in the 2011 report to No. 178 in the most recent index. Only three other cities — Ithaca, N.Y., Great Falls, Mont., and Hot Springs, Ark. — had sharper declines than Lawrence’s.
The report takes a look at nine different categories, and Lawrence didn’t crack the top 100 in any of them. Here’s a look:
• Five-year job growth: No. 107
• One-year job growth: No. 172
• Five-year wage growth: No. 101
• One-year wage growth: No. 158
• One-year job growth percentage: No. 156
• Five-year high-tech GDP growth: No. 170
• One-year high-tech GDP growth: No. 151
• High-tech GDP as part of overall GDP: No. 164
• Concentration of high-tech companies: No. 148
I know how you all like comparisons, so I have gathered the rankings for several regional communities. I would ask for a drumroll, but the drama already has been sucked from this. Since Lawrence is second to last — last place was Carson City, Nev. — I’m guessing you’ve already deduced that every city in the region ranked ahead of us.
On a positive note, Manhattan, which has been on a roll in these type of rankings, wasn’t included in this index, likely because its population wasn’t quite large enough to qualify. But fear not, here is something for you to gnash your teeth over: Columbia, Mo., ranked No. 10 on the small cities list. Here’s a look at others:
• Iowa City, Iowa: No. 16
• St. Joseph, Mo.: No. 29
• Waco, Texas: No. 31
• Joplin, Mo.: No. 44
• Ames, Iowa: No. 61
• Topeka: No. 144
Several of the cities Lawrence often compares itself to, or at least watches, were included in the list of 200 large cities. Here’s how some of those cities fared in the rankings:
• Fort Collins, Colo.: No. 12
• Boulder, Colo.: No. 15
• Lubbock, Texas: No. 20
• Oklahoma City: No. 32
• Madison, Wis.: No. 71
• Lincoln, Neb.: No. 81
• Kansas City: No. 104
• Tulsa, Okla.: No. 118
• Springfield, Mo.: No. 144
• Wichita: No. 146
Take these rankings for whatever you think they’re worth. These indexes all have their own biases about what they think are the most important economic indicators. This one seems to be heavily focused on wages and high-tech business indicators. For what it is worth, those are two areas I hear local leaders emphasize a lot as well.
Another factor to remember is that this index — like all of them — is based on data that sometimes has some age to it. Most of the job growth numbers date back to 2011, and some of the wage numbers date back to 2010. It was no secret that Lawrence struggled during those periods. It also is worth remembering that Lawrence basically has entirely revamped its economic development team since that point.
Plus, some recent indicators have been more positive. Retail sales tax collections in 2012 had their best growth since the mid-1990s, there’s been a significant decline in Massachusetts Street vacancies, Hallmark Cards is in the process of shifting about 200 workers to its Lawrence plant, and even home sales and building permits have showed signs of a rebound.
Yes, I’m trying to put a little cheer in your Kool-Aid. But only for a moment. I’ll leave you with a finding from the report that ought to leave Lawrence leaders scratching their heads. The authors of the report noted that there were two types of communities most likely to do well in this year’s index: communities benefiting from the country’s new natural gas and oil exploration; and communities with “high concentrations of public-sector employees, especially in prominent universities.”
That second one sure sounds like us. But maybe our definition of prominent is a bit different from others. The top ranked small city, for the second year in a row, was Logan, Utah, home to Utah State University. Prominent? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure our basketball team can beat theirs.
Costlier, slower, more limited: It is bringing back memories of the teacher comment section on my report cards.
Well, this is a report card of sorts, and "costlier, slower, more limited" is the key phrase in a new study of the city’s Internet broadband market. A consulting team hired by Lawrence City Hall found that the current broadband offerings in Lawrence generally are “costlier, slower and more limited than in other comparable communities.”
Fixing that situation, however, won’t be easy. Every once in a while the idea of the city owning and operating its own high-speed Internet broadband network is brought up. In other words, the city would jump into the Internet service provider market, and compete with the likes of Knology, AT&T and others. But the city would do it with high-speed, fiber-optic cable that runs directly to homes and businesses, as opposed to the slower, more traditional copper telephone and cable lines that serve much of Lawrence.
The idea is a recurring dream for technology geeks. But the latest numbers indicate it may be nothing more than a dream for quite some time. The consultants, CTC Technology & Energy, estimate that it will cost upwards of $70 million to build and deploy such a system in the city. That’s not an impossible number — it's about $25 million more than what the city is spending for a library and a recreation center — but the consultants are urging caution in the matter. Their analysis indicates the city would have to capture at least 50 percent of the entire market share in Lawrence to break even. That would be a tough number to reach, the consultants predict.
But there are other ways the city can make itself a more desirable high-speed Internet city – which not surprisingly, the consultants said will be very important in the future. Here’s a look at some of the recommendations:
• The city could spend around $320,000 to $640,000 to complete a 17-mile ring of fiber-optic cable around the city. The fiber would allow city, county, school and university facilities access to higher-speed Internet connections. The consultants say that alone is worth the cost of the project. But if built in the right way, excess capacity on the fiber ring could be leased out to private companies that have an interest in competing against the two large Internet providers in the city — AT&T and Knology. The report found there are at least three companies that have expressed an interest in such an idea: Level 3, Kansas Fiber Network and Wicked Broadband, which already leases some fiber from the city.
• New development regulations could be written that would require builders to install more fiber-optic infrastructure as a part of their projects. Loma Linda, Calif., has created development regulations that require “cable pathways, fiber connections and internal fiber wiring” be installed as part of any major residential or commercial building project. Sandy, Ore., goes even further. It requires developers to install conduit all the way from the public right-of-way to the home, and then deed that conduit to the city. The idea is that when fiber-optic projects reach a neighborhood, the most expensive part of the process already will be complete, courtesy of developers. The report estimates any new regulations would be a “small burden” to developers. We would see about that, but usually new regulations for developers produce something a bit larger than a “small debate” at City Hall.
• Sucking up to Google may be a good idea. The Google Fiber project in Kansas City is all the buzz in the tech world. The consultants said the city should at least make a more serious effort to have Google consider expanding the project to Lawrence. Google recently did announce that it was expanding the service to Olathe. The consultants reached out to the community manager for the Google Fiber project, and she asked that the city send a formal letter of interest to enter into discussions with Google about an expansion.
As for what the report had to say about Lawrence’s existing broadband providers, it wasn’t much different than what many ordinary folks say. The report found AT&T’s offerings are more limited than in several other comparable communities. With Knology, the consultants found the company’s base pricing is reasonably competitive with other markets, but its use of data caps on many plans makes it less competitive. The report didn’t provide any analysis of the recently-announced pilot project by Wicked Broadband to extend fiber to at least one neighborhood in Lawrence.
The report made several other recommendations and findings, but they were of a technical nature that went beyond my “costlier, slower and more limited” mind.
City commissioners will get a chance to digest the report soon. The City Commission is expected to formally receive the report and discuss possible next steps in the next several weeks.
Lawrence home builders have best first quarter since 2010, according to new report; Hallmark undertakes another $3.3 million in construction
Shine that hammer and sharpen that saw. There are signs that the Lawrence homebuilding industry is getting busier.
According to a new report released by City Hall, builders started 23 new single-family or duplex homes in Lawrence during March. That brings the total number of single-family and duplex permits to 42, which is the highest first-quarter total since 2010.
For decades, single-family home construction has been the bread and butter of the Lawrence construction industry, and a major driver in the overall Lawrence economy. But the industry has hit hard times. In 2011, only 95 single family building permits were issued for the entire year, snapping a 55-year streak of the city issuing at least 100 new single-family building permits annually.
Since then, the industry has been creeping back. But this latest report is the best sign yet that the industry is getting a new footing. The first-quarter single-family and duplex numbers are 40 percent higher than the 2012 first-quarter numbers and are double the 2011 first-quarter totals.
The latest report also had strong numbers for several other parts of the local construction industry. Here’s a look at other figures from the March report:
• The city issued permits for $12.1 million worth of projects in March, the highest March total since 2009.
• For the year, the city has issued permits for $34.9 million worth of projects, the highest first-quarter total in the past five years.
• As we’ve previously reported, Hallmark Cards is moving all of its U.S. greeting card production to its Lawrence plant as part of a reorganization. That project is continuing to pay dividends for the local construction industry. Hallmark took out a $3.3 million building permit to make interior renovations to the plant. That’s in addition to $1.2 million worth of permits Hallmark already had received for the project earlier this year. If your abacus is a bit rusty, that means Hallmark now has undertaken $4.5 million worth of work at the plant during the first three months of the year.
• The city didn’t issue any permits for new apartment construction in March, but for the first quarter, that sector has been busy. Through the first three months of the year, the city has issued permits for 286 apartment units, the highest first-quarter total of the past five years.
There are a few survival tips I’ve learned in nature: Never stare a feral hog in the eye; don’t get between a bear and her cub; and don’t block a Lawrence resident from his French toast.
That last one is courtesy of David Lewis, the former owner of the one-time downtown breakfast institution Milton’s. (I won’t tell you where the first one came from.)
Lewis confirmed to me that he’s bringing back Milton’s and all its old menu favorites, but it will be in Lewis’s new restaurant location in the ground floor of the 901 Building at Ninth and New Hampshire streets. That restaurant currently is called Loopy’s, but not for long. Lewis said he will rebrand the restaurant to Milton’s, as soon as he can get the details on signs and such worked out.
In November, Lewis closed Milton’s — which had operated for 15 years at 920 Massachusetts Street — and began focusing on the new Loopy’s concept.
Unlike Milton’s, Loopy's was a breakfast, lunch and dinner place that stayed open until 11 p.m. But there was a problem: Breakfast wasn’t what it used to be. It was frittatas, quiches and other similar dishes rather than hashbrowns, over-easy eggs and French toast.
“Our plan is to build on our old menu and really go with the things that have worked for us in the past,” Lewis said. “A lot of customers really missed it. We heard about it everyday since we opened.”
The new menu — which is basically the old menu — is already back in place. Lewis said the new Milton’s is serving breakfast seven days a week, and until 2 p.m. each day.
Unlike the past Milton’s, this location will stay open until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, and Lewis said the restaurant is keeping the liquor license it received to operate Loopy’s.
One of the bigger differences with the new Milton’s will be its size. The 901 location has just 28 seats inside, but it has a large patio area than can seat another 32.
“I love the space that we have with the windows and the light,” Lewis said. “We would like to get some nice weather, though, to take advantage of the outdoor seating. I think folks are really going to like that.”
Other changes include removing the pizza oven from the restaurant in order to accommodate the kitchen equipment to cook a full breakfast. The ownership of the operation also has changed. Lawrence chef Sula Teller and her husband, Lawrence marketing executive Billy Pilgrim, are no longer involved with the restaurant.
What hasn’t changed though, is all the old Milton’s recipes. Lewis said 20 of the 22 employees at the restaurant were former Milton’s employees, so the transition to the old dishes has not been difficult.
He said crowds have picked up at the location since the menu was implemented about a week ago.
“The Loopy’s concept just didn’t seem to resonate with a lot of people,” Lewis said. “When we were closing Milton’s, I started to see the sentiment and feelings people had for it. It was really pretty emotional.”
And many people would tell you pretty addictive too. Since its closing, we've heard from many people who seem to be having breakfast food withdrawals. Lewis said that might have something to do with the little bit of brandy that is a key ingredient in the French toast.
Yes, the return of Milton’s may mean downtown Lawrence becomes even more competitive on the breakfast scene. As we previously reported, a former manager of Milton’s is set to open up a breakfast restaurant called The Roost in the former Milton’s location on Massachusetts Street. I haven’t received an update on those efforts in awhile, so I’ll check in and report back.
In the meantime, I need to get my dose of breakfast brandy. Sure, I probably could go for some French toast too.
City seeking grant money to improve 23rd and Haskell intersection in preparation for increased traffic from SLT
If there is a special set of scissors out there that have been put aside to cut the ribbon on the completed South Lawrence Trafficway, it may be time to get them out and limber them up. You’ll probably have to knock the rust off of them too. After all, they’ve been sitting unused for more than 20 years.
Obviously, a ribbon cutting for the final leg of the SLT isn’t imminent, but there are more and more signs all the time that people now understand the day is coming. Construction is set to begin this fall, and the road could be open by the Fall of 2016.
The latest signs of preparations for the project are coming out of Lawrence City Hall. Commissioners at their meeting tonight will have three items on their agenda related to the SLT.
The largest is an item to begin the planning of significant upgrades to the 23rd Street and Haskell Avenue intersection.
Commissioners are being asked to submit a grant application to the Kansas Department of Transportation for $1.2 million worth of improvements to the intersection.
The project would include rebuilding the entire intersection with concrete and adding right-turn lanes on 23rd street to accommodate traffic turning both north and south onto Haskell. New traffic signals, storm sewer improvements and sidewalk ramps also would be installed.
The project also would include a widening of Haskell Avenue for the first several feet south of 23rd Street. That widening would make it easier for all of Haskell Avenue to be widened in the future, if traffic demand calls for it. Haskell likely will become a busier road once the trafficway is completed. The SLT plans call for an interchange to be built where Haskell and the SLT intersect. It will be one of the few places for motorists in eastern Lawrence to get onto the trafficway. The only other two interchanges for the SLT will be at Iowa Street and at the ending point for the SLT, which will be near Noria Road on the far eastern edge of the city.
The city is seeking $900,000 in state grant funding for the project. The city at-large would pay the other $300,000 for the improvements. The city should find out this summer whether it has been awarded the grant. Construction likely would occur in the summer or fall of 2015.
The second project is just a simple repaving of 23rd Street from Iowa to Ousdahl. At first glance, that may not seem to have much to do with the South Lawrence Trafficway, but it does. City officials are trying to get as much work done on 23rd Street as possible because currently 23rd Street also is designated as Kansas Highway 10. That designation means it is eligible for state funding for repaving or other similar work.
But once the South Lawrence Trafficway is completed in 2016, 23rd Street no longer will be designated as Kansas Highway 10, and the full cost of maintaining 23rd Street will fall on the city. At their meeting tonight, commissioners will apply for $200,000 in state funds to help repave the section of 23rd Street. If approved, construction work would take place in the summer of 2014.
That would tie in well with a larger project that already has been approved. A major rebuilding of the 23rd and Iowa street intersection is scheduled for 2014.
The third SLT project on tonight’s agenda is a wetland project. That perked up some ears in this town. One part of the SLT project that some people may have forgotten about is that a whole new east-west city street will be constructed at the same time the SLT is being built.
As most people know, 31st Street will move to the south a bit and become a new four-lane city street. But it no longer will stop at Haskell Avenue. Local officials will build the new 31st Street (it actually may be called 32nd Street) eastward all the way to O’Connell Road.
As part of that project, it is estimated about 4 acres of wetlands on the east side of Haskell Avenue will be disturbed by the construction. If you have followed the history of the SLT, perhaps you have heard that if you disturb wetlands you have to create new wetlands to mitigate the effects.
At tonight’s meeting, city commissioners are set to approve an approximately $25,000 contract with Wilson & Co. to begin creating the plan to mitigate the wetland damage. The working plan is that the city will buy 4 acres of excess property in the area from KDOT and turn the land over to Baker University to create new wetlands. But Wilson & Co. will hold a series of public meetings to get feedback on the issue.
Tonight’s City Commission meeting is set for 6:35 p.m. at City Hall.