Crediting Trump tax cuts, Lawrence businessman gives bonuses to employees and takes his story national
President Donald Trump doesn’t have his portrait on any U.S. currency — yet — but about 200 Lawrence employees have $500 that basically is courtesy of Trump and his fellow Republicans. So says Justin Hill Jr., president of the Lawrence Paper Company. The maker of cardboard boxes gave all of its employees a $500 bonus, and Hill said it absolutely is the result of the Republican-led tax cuts.
Hill went to the company’s three plants — Lawrence, Hutchinson and Fremont, Neb. — to deliver the news that each employee would receive a $500 bonus this week. He said the tax cut recently passed by Congress and signed by Trump spurred him to do so.
As elections every two years seem to confirm, Lawrence is not a big Republican town. (Trump received only 28 percent of the vote in Douglas County.) But Hill told me the news of $500 bonuses was well-received by all.
“For some strange reason, they all liked that,” Hill said.
Hill is convinced the tax cuts — which include cuts for individuals, but also a cut to the corporate tax rate — is going to result in an increase in business for his box-making company.
“I think the outlook for the economy is very positive,” Hill said. “We tend to grow in step with the economy.”
Critics of the tax cuts do not agree with his outlook. While some concede the economy may see a boost, others contend that most of the benefits accrued go to the wealthiest, and there is no guarantee that the wealthy will spend more money simply because they have more money.
I’ll leave that debate to others, but Hill said his company is spending money as a result of the tax cuts. In addition to the bonuses — there were 300 of them companywide — he’s also announced a $9 million expansion project. Before local economic development leaders get too excited, the expansion is at the company’s Fremont, Neb. plant. The company plans to build a 60,000-square-foot addition to the plant and invest about $5 million in new equipment.
Hill told me the Nebraska plant was chosen for the expansion because it is near capacity and the Nebraska location made the most sense to serve some of its customers. But Hill said he thinks expansion at the Lawrence and Hutchinson plants are possible, if the economy grows like he thinks it will. (He thinks the economy will grow at an additional 1 percent to 2 percent a year because of the tax cuts.)
In the meantime, Hill said the company has added about six employees to the Lawrence plant, as it adds a second shift on some machines to compensate for an uptick in customer orders.
And, yes, Hill has made a conscious decision to tout what he is doing. Lawrence Paper Company, while one of the oldest businesses in Lawrence, usually isn’t very public with its affairs. But Hill had the Kansas Chamber of Commerce send out word of the bonuses, with special emphasis on the role that the tax cut bill played in his decision.
Plus, Hill is going to soon take his story national. He told me he is scheduled to be interviewed Monday by Stuart Varney on the Fox Business Network.
“We are just very excited about what this (tax cut) is going to do for the economy,” Hill said. “We thought if we got a chance to generate some excitement and get other people thinking about doing what we’ve done, get them thinking about making an investment, then we should do it. And, thus far, it has been a lot of fun.”
Lawrence tied for tops in the state for population growth; most Kansas communities continue to shrink
While many parts of Kansas continue to see population declines, Lawrence is tied to be the fastest growing community in the state, according to new Census Bureau numbers.
From July 1, 2015, to July 1, 2016, a little more than 1,400 people moved to Lawrence. The city had a growth rate of 1.5 percent for the year, which represents a significant increase from what the community experienced during much of the decade of the 2000s. During that 10-year period, Lawrence averaged population growth of a little less than 1 percent per year.
Do you remember the “shot of adrenaline,” i.e., state tax and economic policies, that were supposed to create growth of all sorts across Kansas? Well, these numbers don’t show that. If anything, folks from across the state may be thinking that the hippies and the soccer moms are hogging all the adrenaline. That’s because Overland Park is the other community tied with Lawrence for the fastest growth rate in the state. Overland Park is a longtime, prosperous suburban Johnson County community. It is kind of interesting. Lawrence and Overland Park share some similar geography but are different in many other ways.
The new Census estimates show that small towns in the state generally got smaller, while larger cities mainly got larger, with a couple of notable exceptions. Plus, growth rates of the cities varied widely. Out of the 13 cities with a population of 30,000 or more, only four posted growth rates of 1 percent or better. Here’s a look how the state’s largest cities fared:
• Overland Park: 188,966, up 2,915 people or 1.5 percent.
• Lawrence: 95,358, up 1,468 people or 1.5 percent.
• Olathe: 135,473, up 1,473 people or 1.1 percent.
• Lenexa: 52,902, up 542 people or 1.0 percent.
• Leavenworth: 36,154, up 209 people or 0.5 percent.
• Kansas City: 151,709, up 658 people or 0.4 percent.
• Shawnee: 65,194, up 304 people or 0.4 percent.
• Wichita: 389,902, up 842 people or 0.2 percent.
• Leawood: 34,565, up 75 people or 0.2 percent.
• Topeka: 126,808, down 485 people or 0.3 percent.
• Hutchinson: 41,310, down 219 people or 0.5 percent.
• Salina: 47,336, down 327 people or 0.6 percent.
• Manhattan: 54,983, down 1,370 people or 2.4 percent.
When you look at how communities have grown since the 2010 Census, the order changes a bit, but Lawrence still is faring pretty well. It is the fastest growing community not in Johnson County. Here’s a look at those numbers, again for the 13 communities of 30,000 or more.
• Lenexa: up 9.7 percent
• Overland Park: up 8.9 percent
• Lawrence: up 8.8 percent
• Leawood: up 8.4 percent
• Olathe: up 7.6 percent
• Manhattan: up 5.1 percent
• Shawnee: up 4.8 percent
• Kansas City: up 4.0 percent
• Leavenworth: up 2.5 percent
• Wichita: up 1.9 percent.
• Topeka: down 0.5 percent
• Salina: down 0.7 percent
• Hutchinson: down 1.8 percent
Perhaps the most important part of the report is what’s said about everywhere else. Not that population is the only measure of prosperity, but it is one measure. Without population it is hard for a community to support basic services such as grocery stores, health care and a host of other businesses. These numbers show that prosperity is really unevenly distributed in the state.
The small towns around Lawrence are a mixed bag. Here’s a look at 2016 population totals:
• Baldwin City: 4,677, up 13 people
• Basehor: 5,651, up 259 people
• Bonner Springs: 7,665, up 71 people
• De Soto: 6,071, up 11 people
• Eudora: 6,379, up 3 people
• Gardner: 21,110, up 290 people
• Lecompton: 638, down 1 person
• Oskaloosa: 1,078, down 6 people
• Ottawa: 12,356, down 8 people
• Perry: 906, down 1 person
• Tonganoxie: 5,326, up 88 people
It is one thing to see really small towns — places of just a few hundred people get smaller — but now we also are seeing traditional centers of commerce for western, central or southern Kansas shrink as well. For example, Garden City has seen population declines for five straight years. Great Bend has lost nearly 3 percent of its population since 2010. Liberal, in far western Kansas, has lost population six years in a row.
By my count from the numbers released Thursday, only 97 Kansas communities — out of 627 measured — posted a population gain. The rest all declined or held steady. That sure seems like a significant long-term problem for the state.
It also seems like a responsibility for Lawrence. We’re one of the fortunate ones to have growth. Given that what we have is so rare, it seems more important than ever to capitalize off of it all we can.
• One housekeeping note. Town Talk didn't appear for a few days because I was on an assignment for work. Now the column won't appear until Tuesday because I'm on an assignment that will involve a hammock, a fishing pole and probably misfortune with both. Regardless, have a happy and safe Memorial Day weekend.
I’ve long joked that everybody who enters Lawrence Memorial Hospital has high blood pressure not because they are ill but because they’ve tried to find a parking space. The hospital has filed plans at City Hall to help address the parking shortage at LMH, but it will involve tearing down a half-dozen homes in the surrounding neighborhood.
LMH leaders are seeking a variety of zoning and special use permits to convert a large portion of residential property along Michigan Street into a parking lot that will accommodate about 100 cars. The new parking lot would begin near the northeast corner of Fourth and Michigan streets and would stretch to the southeast corner of Third and Michigan streets. The new parking lot would be adjacent to an existing parking lot that runs along Arkansas Street between Fourth and Third streets.
The new parking lot, though, won’t take up the entire block along Michigan Street. There are two property owners along the east side of Michigan Street that evidently are not interested in selling to the hospital. As a result, those two homes will be surrounded on three sides by a parking lot. (Insert your own Joni Mitchell joke here.) One of the property owners is listed as the City of Lawrence. I confirmed it is a property managed by the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority and is part of its affordable housing rental program. The other house appears to just be a traditional single-family home owned by a couple.
If there is a sticking point on this LMH parking plan, it likely will be the demolition of the other six single-family homes on the block. Tearing down existing housing stock — especially as the city has a goal of promoting more affordable housing — can be tricky in Lawrence. I haven’t yet heard back from a hospital official, but it appears that five of the six houses are occupied. The hospital does own all the houses at this point, according to the plans filed at City Hall.
Affordable housing is an important goal, but so too is having a functional hospital. The current parking situation at LMH doesn’t grind functions at LMH to a halt, but it is an issue that I’ve heard hospital leaders express concern about for a number of years. It is not uncommon for hospital visitors to park on residential streets around the hospital.
I haven’t yet gotten a definitive number from LMH, but by reading through plans it appears the project will add about 190 new parking spaces to the area around the hospital. The new lot along Michigan Street would be the largest contributor with 97 new spaces. But the hospital also proposes to add some angled parking spaces along a couple of major roads near the hospital.
LMH plans to add angled parking stalls along the east side of Arkansas Street, on the portion of the street that is near the northern end of the hospital. Currently, 24 angled parking stalls are there, but the number would grow to 62 if the plan is approved. The hospital also plans to begin using angled parking stalls along Maine Street, which is the busy city street that runs along the eastern edge of the hospital. Plans call for 34 angled stalls to be built along the west side of Maine Street.
The hospital will need to win a variety of approvals from City Hall before it can go ahead with the project. The plans are scheduled to go before the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission on May 24. The hospital is seeking approval of a special use permit for the parking lot and is requesting that the property be rezoned from single-family to a special hospital zoning designation. If approved by the Planning Commission, the plans would need to win approval from the City Commission before work could begin.
We’ll see how the request goes. The larger question may be what the hospital’s long-range plans are for parking. It is not uncommon for hospitals to have a parking garage. LMH does not, but conceivably it could convert a surface parking lot into one. Understanding whether a parking garage is part of LMH’s future or whether expanding surface parking lots into the surrounding area is in the cards are issues that may interest planners.
I’ll let you know if I hear more from the hospital.
Let’s be honest: We members of the public sometimes can be annoying.
After having covered Lawrence City Commission meetings for more than two decades, I saw that firsthand on many Tuesday evenings. So many public comments about so many different topics. Even though the length of those public comments, or their tone, or their repetitive nature could become annoying, they are a very important part of the process. They help ensure that public officials don’t govern in an echo chamber.
One public government that receives little public feedback is the Lawrence school board. The amount of public participation in a Lawrence school board meeting pales in comparison to the amount of participation at a Lawrence City Commission meeting. Think about it: There have been far more public debates about roundabouts and stop sign placements than there have been about how our children are educated. Granted, the school board does get public comment. Talk about closing a school, and the meeting room is packed. But on a week-in-week-out basis, public participation in a school board meeting is negligible compared to a City Commission meeting.
I’ve been thinking about why that is. It could be that everybody agrees the board is doing a great job, so no need to come say anything at a meeting. I do think the school district does a good job at many things — as the city does, as well — but I don’t think that is the answer. I believe it is because the public often has a hard time knowing what the school board is talking about.
Recently, the newspaper opined about the lack of notice the public received regarding the school board’s decision to allow condoms to be available through the health offices of Lawrence High and Free State High. The public received no meaningful notice that issue was going to be discussed at that board meeting. When the agenda was posted, and when the Journal-World reported on that agenda, the condom issue wasn’t on it. It was added after the fact with no notice to the public that the topic had been added. Regardless of how you feel about the condom issue, it is unfortunate the public wasn’t better notified.
Another example occurred at Monday’s school board meeting. The school board was scheduled to receive a report, which is a big part of what the school board does. This one was on the district’s efforts to have a more racially diverse staff. The agenda listed that the board would receive such a report, but, as is often the case with the school board, the report itself was not included on the agenda. That is far different from how the city operates. If the City Commission is to receive a report, the public almost always has the benefit of seeing the report at the time the agenda is released.
The Journal-World’s K-12 education reporter on Friday contacted a district official to find out what the report said because she knows her editor is a stickler for such things. I’m a big believer in providing details before a meeting so that the public can make an informed decision about whether it wants to add its opinion to the topic.
Based on that interview, we wrote an article about how the data shows a 25 percent increase in the number of people of color employed by the district in the last two years. But that is a broad number that includes everything from cooks to janitors to teachers. Parents may be more interested in how the district is doing at attracting teachers or principals of color. The article included a caveat that those numbers weren’t yet available.
By Monday’s meeting they were, and they didn’t sound quite as good as the 25 percent growth rate that was the headline of our article. The report found that of the district’s classroom, or certified, staff there were: 965 who are white, 32 who are Hispanic; 20 who are black; 11 who are American Indian; five who are Asian and two who are Pacific Islander.
To their credit, district leaders aren’t saying these numbers are good. But it would have been good for the public to see them in advance. Members of the public could have decided whether they wanted to come hear the discussion for themselves and offer opinion. Certainly matters of race, equity and diversity have been known to draw large amounts of public opinion.
Perhaps more importantly, it would have been good for school board members to see the numbers in advance. School board members receive the numbers the same time the public does. To give school board members exclusive access to the numbers would be a violation of open government laws. If school board members have the full report ahead of time, they could come to the meeting better prepared with questions.
There has got to be a way to improve upon this situation. Many governments figure out how to supply adequate information to the public before their meetings. It will just take a bit of planning and commitment to do so.
It will be well worth the time, because an engaged public can be a valuable asset for any government. There is no government in Douglas County more in need of a valuable asset than the Lawrence Public School District. Public schools are facing a funding crisis. To avert it will require the political will of legislators and the governor.
The body that forges political will is the public — also known as the people who don’t attend school board meetings.
Any time I go to an upscale golf course, I always check the clubhouse’s dining room before I begin. On average, I’ll play at least four shots from the dining room, and if I’m going to have to hit off Berber, I need to prepare for that. Well, golfers, if you haven’t been in the dining room of Lawrence Country Club for a while, get ready for quite a few changes.
As the country club competition heats up in Lawrence, the Lawrence Country Club has just completed a major renovation of its first floor.
“It is a complete facelift and modernization of our dining facilities,” said Rheanne Etken, general manager for the club.
Gone are most of the small rooms that divided up the dining and bar area. Now the area is much more of an an open expanse, with new furniture, flooring and a new style that features lots of natural stone accents.
The new design also highlights the dining room’s large windows, giving diners a better view of the golf course and the horizon of northern and west Lawrence.
“We feel like we have really opened it up to the most gorgeous views you will find in Lawrence,” Etken said. “That was one of our big goals.”
In addition, the renovations included a new bar area and a new bar menu that features dishes such as noodle bowls, a charcuterie plate from Lawrence’s Hank’s Charcuterie, potato dumplings, and a country club classic: shrimp cocktail.
Even if you are not a country club member, you may notice some of the changes. The country club is used frequently by the general public for a variety of club meetings and events. Those of you who have been to those meetings perhaps recall the cold cut, salad and soup bar that was a staple for lunches at LCC. (Hopefully I never ran you over with my wagon that I used to carry my plate back to the table.) Well, that food bar is gone and has been replaced with a made-to-order lunch menu. The dining makeover by executive chef Todd Schneekloth includes salads, soups and sandwiches that range from Philly cheesesteaks to salmon. The dinner menu includes a variety of steaks, pasta, fried chicken and one dish that Etken said will always be a mainstay on the LCC menu.
“You will never see liver and onions leave our menu,” Etken said.
The renovations come at a time when the competition between the city’s two country clubs is likely to heat up. As we’ve previously reported, Alvamar Golf & Country Club has been purchased by a local group led by businessman Thomas Fritzel. Alvamar’s private clubhouse is currently under renovation, and plans have been filed with City Hall to add more housing around the course.
Etken said industrywide country club business has begun to bounce back from a sharp downturn during the recession. At LCC, she said a new generation of residents are now starting country club memberships.
“Our average age of members is 50, but the average age of new members is 42,” she said. “In the industry we have a pretty young membership. As a result, we’re trying to do more family events at the club. We want the club to match our members’ lives.”
The club currently is in a period of community outreach. The club will have an open house from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on April 15 where the general public can tour the club and sample some of its appetizers and cocktails. On April 11, the club also is opening up its 18-hole golf course for play by the general public.
As for future plans, Etken said the club — which is owned by its members — is considering other renovations, with a plan to improve the outdoor deck space of the clubhouse high on the list of possible projects.
Lawrence company begins manufacturing of specialty bicycles; Douglas County ranks as state’s best retirement community
The sport of bike polo always has confused me and frustrated my horse. (I don’t know if he’s madder about where I put the handlebars or how I lube the chain.) But the sport is becoming a big deal for a Lawrence-based company.
Lawrence-based Fixcraft has begun manufacturing a new bicycle that is specifically designed for bike polo players. Fixcraft — which is a division of Lawrence’s Blue Collar Press — went to market earlier this month with the bike, which it has branded Ad Astra.
What’s different about a bike polo bicycle? Well, it has some special features, like a system that allows both the front and back brakes to be operated with one hand — so the other hand can hold a mallet — and a shorter wheelbase that allows for quicker turns. But the main characteristic is just a heavy-duty design.
“It is a super-strong, overbuilt bike for anyone,” said Sean Ingram, president of Blue Collar. “It is just that bike polo people are notorious for breaking everything. A lot of folks get an old 10-speed and then rip it into pieces. We wanted to provide a bike that will last.”
Ingram said the design work for the Ad Astra occurred both in Lawrence and St. Louis, the headquarters for Tree Bicycle Company, whose founder has been a partner on the project. Sales and shipping operations, however, are based entirely in Lawrence, out of the company’s warehouse and headquarters in the 2200 block of Delaware Street.
Thus far, Ingram said he’s pleased with the early results of the effort. The bike sells for $499 online, and the company also has worked a deal to have it sold in 15 dealer locations across the United States, plus through a network in Germany.
The bicycle is the biggest bike polo venture for Fixcraft, but not the first. The company has been manufacturing a host of apparel and bike polo gear for quite some time. It produces uniforms, mallets, grips, and even is a partner in creating the official ball for the sport.
“We used to say we made everything but the bike, but now we do that too,” Ingram said.
Ingram got into the business after he started playing bike polo about six years ago. If you have never seen the sport, Journal-World photographer and writer Nick Krug did a recent article on it.
Ingram is not just having great fun with the sport, but thinks there’s a chance to grow it into a successful venture. In January, he organized a professional bike polo match in the Expo Center in Topeka. He’s in negotiations with a sports network to broadcast the match.
The bike polo venture has been an interesting evolution for Blue Collar, which primarily has been known as a T-shirt company. But the company has developed a niche as a supplier of a variety of goods for multiple Internet-based retailers. Now, Ingram thinks bike polo has a chance to be a significant part of the company too, once the sport develops a bit bigger following.
“For us, the future is to grow the sport, and we think Lawrence will become the home base of professional bike polo,” Ingram said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It has been my experience that nothing attract retirees in greater numbers than an activity that allows you to legally wield a mallet. Perhaps that is why Lawrence and Douglas County have fared so well in a new ranking of retirement communities.
Douglas County has been named the top retirement community in Kansas, according to a new study published on MSN.com and conducted by its partner FindTheHome.com. The real estate website looked at counties across the country, and then picked the best retirement community in each state based off of factors such as quality of healthcare, housing, entertainment options and other factors. Of the 50 top communities chosen, Douglas County ended up having the 11th best score.
Douglas County scored really well in the quality of healthcare category. It received a score of 92 out of 100, which helped move it up in the rankings. Here’s a look at Douglas County’s full score sheet, with 100 being the top score in each category:
— Care Score (quality of local hospitals, nursing homes and care centers): 92
— Housing Score (median sale prices, percentage of properties with rent under $1,500 per month): 82.5
— Convenience Score (walkability of the community and number of grocery stores and restaurants per capita): 86.7
— Entertainment Score (amount of universities, recreational facilities, libraries and parks per capita): 64.6
— Community Score (percent of the population over age 65 with college degrees): 84
I though you might be interested in seeing how some of our neighbors compare. Here’s a look at the top destinations in our border states. Note, I’m identifying them by the largest city in the county that was ranked because unless you are a geography nerd, you don’t know your counties:
— No. 39 Steamboat Springs, Colo. Care index: 40.5; Housing 85.1; Convenience: 88.6; Entertainment 76; Community 83.7
— No. 36 Stillwater, Okla.: Care index 82.6; Housing 82.8; Convenience 86.9; Entertainment 55.2; Community 81.9
— No. 33 Nebraska City, Neb.: Care index 88.1; Housing 80.4; Convenience 85.1; Entertainment 64.6; Community 81.2
— No. 23 Columbia, Mo.: Care index 91.7; Housing 84.8; Convenience 88.4; Entertainment 50.6; Community 83.7.
You’ll notice with Lawrence and Columbia, the two college towns were pretty close in every category except entertainment. Lawrence’s higher score in that category pushed Lawrence above Columbia in the rankings.
Poor Columbia. And soon basketball season will start, and there really will be a dearth of entertainment.
Local businessman files plans to open indoor firing range, gun shop; questions about when police headquarters debate will start again; signs an eco devo deal may be brewing
Gun enthusiasts in Lawrence may have a new reason to get excited in the near future. A longtime Lawrence businessman is working on plans to open an indoor firing range and gun shop.
Rick Sells, the former owner of Lawrence Athletic Club, has filed plans at City Hall for a new gun business to be located in an industrial building near the new intersection of 31st and Haskell.
The deal isn’t done yet, and Sells declined to discuss his plans, but he’s filed paperwork with the planning department seeking a zoning change that would accommodate the business. Plans call for the business to be located at 1021 E. 31st St., although my understanding is he’s also evaluating another location in town for the business.
According to the details provided in the plan, the “Shooters Gun Club” would provide an indoor shooting range, gun sales and a repair shop. Sells is seeking to go into a vacant industrial building, but its current general industrial zoning doesn’t allow for retail gun sales. He and the building’s owner are seeking rezoning to a lesser industrial zoning that would allow for retail gun sales.
Gun sales certainly have been big business in the U.S. economy the last few years. The trend has started to come to Lawrence. As we previously reported, a new gun shop and “tactical supply store,” opened in west Lawrence in late 2013. A gun shop and supply retailers also has opened on Kansas Highway 10 near Eudora’s Church Street interchange.
But the idea of a business with an indoor shooting range is new in Lawrence. The idea of a firing range open to the public is not. The city of Lawrence actually owns one. It is in the basement of the Community Building at 11th and Vermont streets. The nonprofit Douglas County Rifle/Pistol Club operates the range. It generally is open Monday through Friday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The range — I’ve shot there once — does give you a chance to practice, but it is limited in what it can offer. It has five shooting stations, and is limited to target shooting of no greater than 50 feet. Sells didn’t provide any details of what he hopes his range will include, but I’m assuming it will be more substantial than what the city currently has to offer.
It will be interesting to see if the range will be designed to accommodate some of the needs of the Lawrence Police Department. An indoor firing range was part of the approximately $25 million police headquarters plan that ultimately was rejected by voters. In his application, Sells alludes to the police needs. “The community would gain a safe, confined shooting range for local police, fire and military people to maintain their gun training requirements,” he wrote in the application materials.
The project will have to win several approvals to proceed at the 31st and Haskell location. The project will need to go before both the Planning Commission and City Commission. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, it is possible that Sells may pursue the business at another location. I’ll let you know of any updates.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Speaking of a new police headquarters, how many of you had forgotten about that project? When you talk about collateral damage from Jeremy Farmer’s alleged misdeeds at Just Food, the police project ranks high on the list of those that have been hurt.
Following the November election where voters rejected the sales tax proposal for the police HQ plan, all the talk in City Hall was about how the commission was going to regroup and find another path forward on that project.
Fast forward to today, and it has been quite awhile since the commission has even had a significant discussion about the project. Granted, the commission has plenty of other items to talk about: the search for a new city manager, and Farmer’s bombshell. So, it is understandable why the issue hasn’t moved forward in recent weeks.
But it also is noteworthy that the project hasn’t gotten much discussion as part of the vacancy process. In other words, there hasn’t been a lot of focus on what views the candidates have on the police headquarters issues. But the new commissioner certainly could have a large impact on the issue. (UPDATE: I've been reminded that there was one question about police headquarters during the VEC forum for candidates. So, there has been some discussion, although perhaps not real detailed discussion.)
From where I sat, it appeared the commission was pretty split on the police issue when it was last discussed. All seem to agree that the department has some real needs, but how to address those appears to have divided the commission. I think there are two commissioners — Mike Amyx and Matthew Herbert — who want to stay focused on facility needs related to the police department. I think the remaining two commissioners — Stuart Boley and Leslie Soden — want to take a broader look at the police department as a whole. That would include facility, personnel and other issues. That broader look likely would be more time consuming and may create more resource challenges.
Between now and Tuesday’s meeting, we will try to report on what views the finalists — Lisa Larsen and Scott Morgan — have on the issue.
But the larger question may be whether this new commission decides to tackle the issue anytime soon. Finding a city manager will take some time. Is the police headquarters issue next on the list after that? I had one respected City Hall observer tell me shortly after the Farmer resignation that the police headquarters issue would be a moot at City Hall for two to three years. I wasn’t sure I believed that at the time, but he may end up being right after all.
• It might be time for us to keep our eyes open again on a possible economic development announcement. City commissioners have an unusual executive session scheduled for Tuesday evening’s meeting. They’ll meet in a closed-door session to “discuss confidential data relating to the financial affairs or trade secrets of a corporation.” That explanation doesn’t do much to explain why the City Commission would be discussing such matters, but one assumption is because they are learning about a company that they may want to offer financial incentives to.
I don’t have any direct knowledge of what commissioners will be discussing on Tuesday, but we previously have reported that they are working to land a major new tenant for Lawrence VenturePark, the new industrial park on the eastern edge of the city. Perhaps this is a sign that deal is getting closer.
I know many folks are hoping the VenturePark deal materializes. We’ve previously reported a VenturePark site was on the “short list” for a manufacturing company that would employ about 125 people over the next five years, and invest about $20 million into the site. That has been the status of that project since late 2014, however.
I’ll keep you posted if I hear of any new developments.
Lawrence home sales rise for sixth consecutive month; update on housing values; more on Free State Festival funding
The stock market has been lousy for the last few months, so maybe Lawrence residents are putting their money into real estate. New homes with cry rooms, so you can read your 401(k) statements, perhaps are the rage. Whatever the case, Lawrence’s home buying market remains hot.
Home sales are up 18.5 percent for the year, according to the latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors. The latest report tracked sales in August, and they were up nearly 18 percent from August 2014. That marked the sixth straight month of increasing home sales in Lawrence.
The market is hot enough that some real estate agents now have concerns about having enough homes to sell. The report shows the number of contracts written in August was down about 15 percent. That’s an indication that home sale numbers may fall in future months.
The number of active listings on the market fell to 322, down about 22 percent from levels a year ago. Crystal Swearingen, president of the local board of Realtors, said the declining inventory levels are putting pressure on the market.
“Inventory levels continue to be a concern and may very well be the lone reason for a decrease in the number of contracts written during August,” she said in the report.
The low inventory levels, though, have been a boon to home sellers. Homes are not staying on the market long. The median number of days a home is on the market is down to 23. That’s down from 34 a year ago and 42 days in 2013.
Swearingen said current inventory levels also will start producing upward pressure on prices. Pricing issues are more difficult to gauge from the board’s report because it only looks at overall pricing trends rather than a comparison of prices for similar homes. The overall pricing trend shows the median selling price is about $166,000, which is up about 1.5 percent from a year ago, but is still below the $170,000 median in 2013.
The August report also continues to show that sales of newly constructed homes are bouncing back somewhat in 2015. In August, 11 newly constructed homes were sold, up from nine in August 2014. For the year-to-date, newly constructed home sales are up to 57 sales, an increase of about 21 percent from the same time period a year ago. But new home sales continue to lag 2013’s pace by about 20 percent.
In other news and notes from around town:
• When it comes to tracking the price of homes in Lawrence, nobody does it more often than the Douglas County Appraiser’s office, the government agency responsible for setting a property tax value on your home.
The latest report from that office indicates homes prices are up just a bit in Lawrence and Douglas County. Through late August, the appraiser’s office has reviewed 870 home sales. The average price is up 1.8 percent compared with last year.
While that is not a huge gain, it is a turnaround of sorts for the market. At this point in 2014, the average selling price was down by about 1 percent.
The numbers from the appraiser’s office are always good to watch because that data is used to determine the tax value of your home. It is too early to guess whether home owners will see their property tax values rise much for the coming year. One number to watch is a measurement called the “median sales ratio.” (I know, it brings back memories of a back row of a high school math class.) The ratio measures how much a home sold for versus how much the county appraiser had it valued. The ratio currently stands at 96.7 percent. That means the value that the appraiser has on a piece of property is, on average, about 3 percent lower than what the property actually sold for.
When that ratio starts to get too low, that’s generally when the appraiser starts raising the tax values on homes. The goal is for the ratio to be 100 percent. At 96.7 percent, that’s still pretty close, although people who play horseshoes with me tell me my definition of close is flawed.
We still have a ways to go before we learn of any changes to the tax values of properties. Change of value notices will be sent out in early 2016.
• You will have to make of this one whatever you will. I had a reader ask me to check on whether the wife of City Commissioner Matthew Herbert works at the Lawrence Arts Center. Herbert told me she does, but only two hours a week as an instructor in a jewelry-making class.
The issue came up after the City Commission was fairly sharply divided last month over whether to provide $100,000 in funding to the Arts Center for the upcoming Free State Festival. Commissioners ended up giving the group $60,000, after the four-members of the commission couldn’t reach a consensus on the $100,000 request. Herbert advocated for the $100,000 request.
The issue will kind of come back up again tonight. Commissioners will be interviewing the six finalists to fill the vacant seat on the City Commission. Each commissioner gets to ask two questions of the candidates. They disclose their questions in advance. Herbert is using one of his two questions to ask candidates how they would have voted on this $100,000 issue.
The money is not much in the city’s overall budget — it also is worth noting the money would come from the city’s guest tax fund that is charged to hotel users, rather than from a general tax fund — but the issue has been contentious.
Following the meeting where commissioners failed to fund the $100,000 request, Herbert took to his Twitter account and said “Tonight was a sad night for Free State Fest. I never thought the Lawrence CC would wage war on Culture.”
I’m pretty sure the two commissioners who opposed the $100,000 request — but supported $60,000 in funding — didn’t think they were waging a war on culture. (They are Commissioners Stuart Boley and Leslie Soden, for the record.)
Herbert’s comments and his questioning tonight may open up a debate worth having at City Hall: What’s the right amount of funding for the arts in Lawrence? The city in recent years has made a push to fund more with the hiring of a new director of arts and culture position. The arts community also has been a strong advocate for greater arts funding, often noting the arts have positive spin-off benefits for the economy.
Whether the general public wants to see more arts funding is less clear. As part of its Citizen Survey, the city this year asked residents what three priorities they think the city should spend money on as part of its Capital Improvement Plan. The category of “support for arts and culture” was included as a top three priority by only 29 percent of respondents. That was the lowest score of the six priorities listed by the city. That is just one answer, though. Maintaining a high quality of life also scored high in the survey, and certainly the arts can play into quality of life issues.
So, like I said, it is unclear. But it seems like it is a debate that may be shaping up at City Hall.
As for the issue of Herbert’s wife working for the Arts Center, I think it is worth noting, but also worth keeping in perspective. It is two hours a week. It also is worth noting that Herbert hasn’t tried to conceal the fact that his wife is a full-time artist. That was known throughout the campaign, and he has mentioned it otherwise during his tenure on the commission. In a town the size of Lawrence, it is not uncommon for commissioners to have to vote on items that they have some tangential connection to. Downtown business owners, for example, vote on downtown items all the time. In the past, we have noted those connections, and moved on.
Consider this one now noted.
City set to approve 120-foot cell phone tower in eastern Lawrence; study finds Kansas among the top states in U.S. for teachers
Well, we have all heard about the dangers of talking on our cell phones while driving. Or about texting while driving. But for some reason, there is one cell phone-related driving danger that rarely ever gets discussed — a cell phone tower falling in front of your car. Fear not, Lawrence city commissioners will tackle that one tonight.
Commissioners will consider giving final approval for Verizon to build a 120-foot tall tower at 2001 Moodie Road, which is the site of the Ottawa Coop grain elevators. Commissioners gave the plans preliminary approval in July, but at that time asked Verizon to make a few changes to the exact location of the tower.
Commissioners at the time wanted to change the location of the tower to provide greater distance between the tower and a nearby building. Changes were made, but Verizon hasn’t been able to come up with a location that meets all the standard requirements for towers in the city.
Plans for towers are required to show where a tower would land in the unlikely event that a tower collapses. Standard city regulations call for the “fall zone” of a tower to be contained on the property where the tower is located. That’s not the case with these plans. The city’s planning staff has calculated that the fall zone for the proposed tower would extend five feet into the southbound lane of Moodie Road.
The issue, however, may not play much of a role in whether the tower wins approval. The city’s planning department, in a memo to commissioners, said “the risk of the tower falling into the southbound driving lane is very small in staff’s opinion.” The city can issue a waiver from the standard requirements, and that is staff’s recommendation on this project.
The Brook Creek Neighborhood Association also is recommending approval of the project. It likes this site much better than the previously proposed site at 1725 Bullene Avenue. City commissioners rejected that site after multiple concerns were expressed that the tower would be too near homes. Verizon has sued the city in federal court over that denial, but it is expected that case will be dropped if this location is approved.
So, while the chances of a cell phone tower falling in front of your car while driving are rare, I felt I should at least make you aware of the situation so you can have a plan. I know what my plan is: I’ll slow down to 45 mph and immediately take a picture and text “OMG!” and “WTF!” (which of course stands for “Why Tower Fall”) to everyone I know.
Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. tonight at City Hall.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There has to be a lot of teachers in Lawrence — the education capital of Kansas — feeling mighty good these days. After all, Kansas is one of the better places in the country to be a teacher. Maybe you have been too busy watching cell towers to notice, but Kansas has been ranked the 9th best state in the country for teachers, according to a new study by the financial website WalletHub.
The website looked at a variety of factors to compile their rankings. Here’s where Kansas ranked on the various metrics:
— 16th for average starting salary for teachers
— 25th for median annual salary for teachers
— 27th for the projected number of teachers per student by year 2020
— 11th for unemployment rate
— 17th for the 10-year change in teacher salaries
— 3rd for pupil to teacher ratio. The study found that only Vermont and North Dakota have better pupil-to-teacher ratios than Kansas.
The website used data from the Census Bureau, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Education Association, the National Center for Educational Statistics, among others to compile its findings.
Kansas fared better than any other state in middle America. Here’s a look at how others around the region performed:
— Nebraska: 18
— Missouri: 24
— Colorado: 28
— Oklahoma: 41
The latest study continues a trend – at least from WalletHub — of good marks for the state’s school system. Earlier this year, WalletHub ranked the state’s school system as the 12th best in the country. The website examined a host of federal statistics on test scores, pupil-to-teacher ratios, incidents of violence, dropout rates and other metrics. Kansas was the second ranked state in middle America in that study. Colorado beat Kansas by finishing as the No. 2 ranked system in the country. Other border states were Nebraska, 17th; Missouri, 28th; Oklahoma, 33rd.
See who the leaders are in the Journal-World poll of the six finalists for the vacant Lawrence City Commission seat
When it comes to filling the vacant seat on the Lawrence City Commission, a pair of past elected officials seem to have captured the attention of Lawrence residents, according to a new poll of 1,000 registered voters in the city.
Former City Commissioner Terry Riordan and former school board member Scott Morgan were the two candidates who received the most support in the poll, which was conducted by the Journal-World through Google Consumer Surveys. The poll isn’t an exact scientific sample of all of Lawrence’s population, but scientific sampling was done to collect the results. Margins of error for the individual results range from about 1.6 percent to 2.9 percent, and Google Consumer Surveys has certified the results as being statistically significant to a 95 percent confidence level, meaning if the poll was conducted 100 times, Riordan would come out on top 95 times.
Now, none of this means that Riordan and Morgan are the two front runners for the position. That’s because there won’t be a public election to fill the seat. Instead, the four remaining city commissioners will vote on their favorite candidates at the commission’s Oct. 6 meeting. In case you have forgotten, commissioners are filling the seat left vacant by Jeremy Farmer, who resigned after a host of financial concerns developed around his previous tenure as executive director of Just Food.
Despite the fact voters won’t be deciding this, the Journal-World thought it would be an interesting exercise to poll registered voters on their thoughts nonetheless. Here’s what we found when we asked 1,031 registered voters the following question: “The Lawrence City Commission has named six finalists to replace Jeremy Farmer on the commission. Who would be your choice?”
— Terry Riordan: 32.3 percent
— Scott Morgan: 27.6 percent
— Lisa Ann Larsen: 19.3 percent
— Joe O’Brien: 7.7 percent
— David Schauner: 7.3 percent
— Karl Watson: 5.8 percent
It is tough to say what these poll results mean at the moment. It could be that respondents have made some decisions based off the issues, or it could be more of a name-recognition factor at this point. Riordan and Morgan are the two finalists who have been in the news most often most recently.
Riordan finished a two-year term on the commission in April, but lost a re-election bid. He finished a distant fourth among six candidates in the general election. Morgan was on the school board as recently as 2011, and he ran for Kansas secretary of state in 2014. But he lost in the Republican primary to Kris Kobach.
Being a former elected official didn’t guarantee success in the poll. David Schauner served on the City Commission from 2003 to 2007, but he finished fifth in the poll and registered in the single digits. Though, if these results were mainly about name recognition, he probably has less of it because it has been awhile since his name has been in the news on a regular basis.
Riordan’s candidacy has been an interesting one to follow. There have been a significant number of supporters who say he should get the appointment because he finished fourth in the most recent election. Supporters say since the top three in that election won a seat on the commission, Riordan is rightfully next in line. I have heard opponents, however, say Riordan shouldn’t be selected because voters had the chance to elect him in April and chose not to do so.
Both positions seem a bit unfair to me. When people vote for somebody, they are choosing from a slate of candidates. Unless the slate of candidates is exactly the same, it doesn’t seem too relevant what the results of the last election were. You start the process over and determine who is best among those on the ballot now. Just because you lost an election a few months ago doesn’t mean you aren’t the best choice out of today’s slate. Conversely, just because you were runner-up a few months ago doesn’t mean you are the best among those who now are vying for the spot.
I’ll be interested to see if public opinion changes as the candidates are asked to explain their positions more thoroughly. J-W City Hall reporter Nikki Wentling will have a more in-depth look at each of the candidates in tomorrow’s Journal-World and on LJWorld.com. City commissioners at a special meeting on Thursday will interview their list of finalists, which may include all six candidates, or commissioners can choose to narrow the list prior to the interviews. On Oct. 6, commissioners will vote to fill the vacant term, which runs until January 2018.
I like numbers, so I suspect we’ll do another poll to see if people’s opinions change any as they learn more.
• Some of you may be interested in how we conducted this poll. Users of LJWorld and KUsports.com are familiar with the survey questions that sometimes pop up before you gain access to an article on the websites. Those are surveys run by Google Consumer Surveys, and, as a partners, we here at the J-W have the ability to create our own local surveys.
I know what some of you are thinking: You just click a name as quickly as you can to get done with the survey and on to the article. But it is pretty clear that these results are more significant than that. The reason I say so is because the list of six candidates did not appear in the same order for every person who took the survey. The list was randomized, so if people were just clicking on a random name, it doesn’t seem that Riordan and Morgan would have gotten the response levels they did.
Plus, if people really were just trying to get done with the survey, they probably were smart enough to answer ‘no’ to the first question that was asked, which was inquiring whether you are a registered voter in Lawrence. If you answered no, you weren’t asked the second question. About 3,000 people answered ‘no’ to that question. But a little more than 1,000 people answered ‘yes,’ and the responses from those people produced these survey results.
Bottom line, I think this is a far more accurate way of polling people than what the Journal-World has done in the past. Previously, we used to have online polls where anybody and everybody could vote and state their opinion. It was possible for people to vote more than once, and it was possible for people to call their friends and tell them to vote too.
The Google Consumer Surveys don’t work that way. You either get presented the question when you log onto our websites, or you don’t. In other words, the survey selects you. You don’t select the survey.
Mechanisms also are in place so that multiple votes from the same computer IP address aren’t allowed. Google’s technology also does its best to find a representative sample of respondents. It is no surprise that Google knows a lot about you based on your web searching history. It uses that information and the location of your IP address to “infer” a lot of demographic information about you. Those inferred demographics are used to try to create a representative sample.
The responses from this survey, though, did not produce what we would consider a fully representative sample. We had some success in the age category in terms of age ranges, but the survey was more heavily-weighted toward male respondents than the population as a whole would have been.
So, make whatever you want of the results, but the idea of locally produced surveys on Lawrence issues has piqued my interest. We may make a regular feature out of it. Would readers be interested in getting feedback on how people feel about a “road diet” for portions of Kasold Drive? Or whether people think the City Commission should approve a proposed retail development south of the South Lawrence Trafficway? Or maybe thoughts on Kris Kobach and his voter registration policies? The list of interesting survey questions is long.
I certainly don’t want to help create a community where all decisions are made based off of whatever is polling well. Polls are imperfect, and even when they are accurate, the general public can make some awful decisions. (See 1980s hairstyles, excluding my mullet, of course.) But getting more information about how Lawrence residents are thinking seems valuable.
So, keep your eyes open — and your clicking finger limber — for more local surveys.