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Two retail projects drive construction totals to new high in 2014; another good report on Lawrence job numbers

A little more than $9 million is being added to the Lawrence economy as we speak, and that is not even counting the spending my wife is doing on the post-Halloween candy that is on sale. Instead, I’m talking about two new retail construction projects underway in the city.

Construction work is underway on a Menards home improvement center near 31st and Iowa and on a Sprouts grocery store near Sixth and Wakarusa. The latest building permit reports from City Hall show the Menards project has a construction value of $5.5 million, while the Sprouts project checks in at $3.75 million.

Those two projects led the way in September, and the month ended up being the busiest one yet in 2014 for the local construction industry. The city issued permits for $17.1 million worth of construction work in September. That topped the $14.8 million worth of permits the city issued in June.

For the year, the city has issued building permits for $78.56 million worth of construction projects. That’s well below the $152.9 million worth of projects that were started through the end of September 2013. But last year was one of the larger construction years on record for the city, which included tens of millions of dollars for work at the Rock Chalk Park sports complex. In 2012, the city had issued permits for $75.4 million worth of construction, so 2014 is shaping up to be on par with an average building year in Lawrence.

One area of the Lawrence construction industry that has been below average is single-family home construction. City officials have issued permits for 65 single-family homes thus far in 2014. During the same period a year ago, the city had issued 121 single-family permits. At this point, that number should be of some concern. At 65 permits, single-family home construction is below the pace in 2011, when the city hit a new low for single-family permits issued. In fact, this year’s construction is significantly below that pace. Through September of 2011, the city had issued 76 single-family permits, or about 17 percent more than this year’s total. We’ll see what the final three reports of the year bring, but builders will need to start 30 new homes before the end of the year to avoid setting a new low.

As for when Menards and Sprouts may open, Menards officials previously have said they expect construction to take about 10 months. I suspect that will be pretty dependent upon the weather cooperating this season. Sprouts officials have not said when they expect to open, but it is a significantly smaller project than the Menards store, so I think it might be the first to open.

In other news and notes from around town:

• While we are talking about construction projects near Sixth and Wakarusa, I know some of you have been wondering what the construction is on a pad site just east of the Walmart store. As we previously have reported, plans filed with the city say it is a medical office building. But I haven’t yet had any luck confirming what type of medical professional plans to locate there.

• While we are on the subject of specialty grocery stores, I will tell you I’m hearing the same things about Trader Joe’s that some of you are: Some employees of the Leawood store have been telling Lawrence customers that Trader Joe’s may soon come to Lawrence. I called over to Trader Joe’s and tried to get an official there to tell me the same thing, but she stopped short of that. She said there’s been talk around the store of such a project, but no announcements or anything that indicates that the idea is more than just talk, at the moment.

But it is worth keeping an eye on. As we have previously reported, the large retail project proposed for the area south of the Iowa Street and SLT interchange has drawn strong interest from a specialty grocer, the development group for the proposed project has said. I don’t have any insight into whether the grocer is Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or some other player.

• And while we’re talking about numbers, here’s one last set of them: monthly job totals for the Lawrence metro area. Putting stock in one month’s worth of numbers is never too wise (as a set of lottery numbers from my fortune teller proved), but recently we reported that Lawrence in August had the highest job growth of any metro area in the country.

So, I wanted to see how September’s numbers came in for Lawrence. The latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the numbers aren’t the best in the country, but they aren’t too bad. The report found the number of jobs in Lawrence and Douglas County grew by 1.5 percent — or 800 jobs — in September, compared with September 2013. That was better than the 0.7 percent average for Kansas as a whole. Lawrence ended up having the second highest job growth rate of any metro area in the state, although it is worth noting that the numbers are still preliminary.

— Manhattan: 2.1 percent

— Lawrence: 1.5 percent

—Topeka: 1.2 percent

— Kansas City, Kan./Mo: 0.5 percent

— Wichita: 0.3 percent

Lawrence also is outperforming the state when it comes to its unemployment rate. Lawrence’s unemployment rate in September was 4 percent, which is down from 4.7 percent in September 2013. That’s a significant drop. Lawrence’s unemployment rate in September was better than the statewide average of 4.4 percent, and tied Manhattan for the lowest unemployment rate of any metro area in the state.

As for Lawrence having the fastest job growth rate of any metro area in the country in August, hopefully you can get a refund on the 15-foot plaque you had ordered for the occasion. As we reported last month, the August numbers were preliminary. The August numbers have now been finalized, and Lawrence’s job growth total were adjusted downward a bit. The new figures show Lawrence jobs grew by 4.6 percent instead of the 5.9 percent originally thought.

That adjustment was enough to drop Lawrence from the No. 1 spot. Midland, Texas, topped us, and a few other cities may have as well. But the 4.6 percent figure was still a very strong showing for the local economy.

Reply 2 comments from Chris Jeter Keith Richards Daniel Sondreal

Burger King begins work to reopen on Sixth Street; Menards receives building permit from city; large apartment project near KU lacks financing

It really is safe for all of us to get out our bibs, our paper crowns, our mobile thrones and all the other accoutrements required for a proper trip to Burger King. The Burger King on Sixth Street is going to reopen. Really.

There have been a few false starts and false hopes when it comes to the reopening of the Burger King at 1107 W. Sixth St., which has been closed since August 2013 because of a fire on the roof. Burger King officials previously had told me they expected the store to open sometime in April. But that date came and went, and I began to feel a tad silly arriving at the empty restaurant each morning in my crushed velvet bathrobe and scepter. And my son certainly was getting tired of wearing the jester’s outfit.

But Burger King officials now tell me they have everything they need to begin the project, and hiring for the store has begun. I’m more confident than I have been that the store is indeed on the path to reopening because City Hall officials have confirmed they’ve issued the project a building permit. There also appears to be work crews at the site.

“We have the building permit, and we’re ready to start throwing hammers and stuff,” said Lance Zach, regional manager for Burger King.

Zach said he hopes to have the store reopened by the end of October. I’m not sure I would write that date in stone just yet because there is a significant amount of remodeling that will be done at the site. Zach said the store will end up looking a lot more like the modern Burger King that is near Sixth and Wakarusa. The inside also will have a more modern look, with a lot more emphasis on areas for people to use their wireless devices while they dine. (That is good because the King needs to be in constant communication to deal with important matters in the realm, such as his kingdom’s fantasy football team.)

As for why the project has taken so long, I’m not entirely sure. Zach said he wasn’t either but is just happy to be moving forward. My understanding is that it may have taken the restaurant longer than anticipated to get its insurance check after the fire, and then the building permit process has taken quite a bit longer. City officials confirmed they received the application in March. There are always two sides to these types of stories about delays from City Hall. The city really doesn’t have a motive to unnecessarily delay a project, and sometimes projects are more complicated than property owners envision. For example, this property was old enough that I think it has to make some changes to its parking lot, and that type of work triggers a review from the Kansas Department of Transportation to review the property’s entrance onto Sixth Street, which also is U.S. Highway 40.

Regardless, the project is on the move, and Zach said the company is conducting interviews for restaurant positions each Wednesday. Zach said he plans to hire six to seven managers for the location, and a crew of about 40 people. Interviews are taking place at Burger King’s other two Lawrence locations, which are near Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive and in North Lawrence. Look for information on the interview process at the stores.

“We’re comfortable with where we’re headed with this now,” Zach said. “I’m glad because I couldn’t walk through this town without somebody asking me about it.”

In other news and notes from around town:

• City officials also have confirmed they’ve issued a building permit for the Menards home improvement center near 31st and Iowa streets. I don’t have word from Menards officials about when the store may open, but they previously have said construction should take nine to 10 months. Depending on how much the winter slows them down, I would say it is a good bet that the store will be open by the time the 2015 holiday shopping season rolls around.

It will be interesting to watch the project come out of the ground. It also will be interesting to watch whether Menards’ neighbor, Home Depot, makes any effort to expand its store. As construction begins at Menards, it will become obvious how much bigger Menards will be than the Home Depot store. According to documents filed at City Hall, Menards will have about 250,000 square feet of space under the roof. Home Depot has about 94,000 square feet. In addition, Menards will have an outdoor lumber yard that is about 150,000 square feet. If you remember, Home Depot wanted a larger store, but was unable to win approval from the City Commission in the early 2000s for the project.

• There is news — or at least questions — about one other large project in town. It is still not clear when or if work will begin on a major apartment/retail building planned for a site across the street from KU’s Memorial Stadium.

At Tuesday evening’s meeting, city commissioners delayed taking action on a requested parking variance for a proposed multi-story building that will have about 240 apartments with a total of about 625 bedrooms. The developers want to reduce the required parking for the project by 100 spaces, which would leave the project with fewer parking spaces than there are bedrooms in the project. Commissioners said they wanted more information, such as how many students bring cars to campus, before they act on the request.

But what did become clear at Tuesday’s meeting is that the Chicago-based development group proposing the project doesn’t have the financing in place to build it.

“We have had several capital sources tell us they are not interested,” said Jim Heffernan, a manager with HERE Kansas LLC.

The project already has received from city commissioners — on a 3-2 vote — a 10-year, 85 percent property tax rebate. But Heffernan told commissioners that even with that incentive, the city’s parking requirements have made it difficult for the project to pencil out from a financial perspective.

Heffernan didn’t directly say whether the project would be discontinued if the parking exemption isn’t granted, but it is becoming clear that the project is still in a pretty speculative stage.

• One other last note: Mark your calendars for Thursday evening, if you are interested in the police headquarters issue. The city will host a forum from 7 to 8 p.m. at the police’s Investigations and Training Center at 4820 Bob Billings Parkway. A second forum sponsored by the city will take place from 7 to 8 p.m. Oct. 16, also at the Investigations and Training Center.

Also worth putting on your calendar is an event to be hosted by the Voter Education Coalition. The group plans to hold a forum from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 14 at the Lawrence Public Library. My understanding is that forum will have representatives from both the advocacy group and opposition group that have formed around this issue. The two forums hosted by the city mainly will feature the chief of police and city commissioners.

Reply 12 comments from Beth Ennis Betty Bartholomew Merrill Littlefuzzy Wayne Kerr Fred St. Aubyn Mark Rainey Brad Hightower Dorothy Hoyt-Reed Foodboy and 2 others

The first neighborly dispute between Menards and Home Depot; city set to increase water and sewer rates

Don't get your tool belt all in a bunch. The proposed Menards store near 31st and Iowa streets indeed is still on track to happen, even though it has been a year since the project was approved and construction still hasn't begun.

I know the delay has some of you fidgeting like you've dropped fiberglass insulation down your knickers. But, really, Menards is oh so close to pulling a building permit for the project.

First, though, there is a little matter of a handyman fight. (And I'm not talking about two men in sweat-soaked flannel in the middle of 31st Street using tape measures as light sabers. Really, I'm not talking about that. My attorney said to take the Fifth.)

In case you hadn't noticed, Home Depot is right next door to the proposed Menards site. At their Tuesday evening meeting, city commissioners will hear from the Chicago-based development group that owns the Home Depot site. The development group is not pleased with the proposed site plan for Menards because it looks like a stormwater issue would limit the ability of Home Depot to expand, if it chose to do so in the future.

The next time you go to Home Depot, notice that there is quite a bit of open land just to the east of the store. Part of the land is used to temporarily detain stormwater runoff before it is released into nearby Naismith Creek. Once Menards is built, the stormwater will run to the Home Depot detention site, then to the Menards detention site, and then to Naismith Creek. The group that owns the Home Depot site would like for it to run directly to the Menards detention site. That would then provide flexibility for additional development to occur on the Home Depot site.

"Certainly there are a couple of acres of land there that could be developed," said Dan Watkins, the Lawrence attorney for the Chicago development company.

The group that owns the Home Depot site thought it had a deal worked out with Menards, but that has fallen through. City commissioners will have to decide whether to force Menards to make the stormwater change. The city's planning staff is recommending against forcing the change because they cannot find any code language that requires it.

Whether any of this is a sign that Home Depot would like to expand in Lawrence isn't clear, but you could understand why it would want to. I'm not sure the average Joe understand how much larger Menards is going to be than Home Depot.

According to the documents filed at City Hall, Menards will have about 250,000 square feet of space under roof. Home Depot has about 94,000 square feet of building. In addition, Menards will have an outdoor lumber yard that is about 150,000 square feet.

If you have been in Lawrence for the last 15 years or so, you know that Home Depot didn't want to build its store this small. But city officials in the early 2000s, had quite a debate about how much retail development should be allowed at that corner. The current configuration of Home Depot and the adjacent Best Buy is the compromise that emerged.

But that was then and this is now, and don't think that the Home Depot folks haven't noticed.

"There was a big change in City Hall policy when they allowed Menards," Watkins said.

Indeed, there is going to be a lot more retail near the 31st and Iowa intersection. In addition to Menards, the latest site plan shows a concept that would accommodate seven other retail buildings. The plan doesn't get specific on how big those buildings could be, but based on the amount of parking set aside for the various lots, it appears three of the buildings could be about 20,000 to 30,000 square feet in size. Those could accommodate significant national retailers. The other four buildings shown on the plan are smaller buildings sized for restaurant or specialty retailers.

Tenants for those buildings haven't been found yet, and Menards has said they won't build any of the buildings on speculation. Menards has enough to do to get its own building constructed. The good news on that front is that planning department officials tell me that this site plan issue is really the last item to resolve before a building permit can be issued. Menards already has filed for the building permit, so it is possible that one could be issued in the next few days.

Previously, Menards officials have said it will take about nine to 10 months to build the store.

In other news and notes from around town:

• I don't know about your neighborhood, but in mine this is the time of year when approximately 15 dozen kids use a lawn sprinkler to turn my backyard into a high-speed water slide. (Just like a certain water park in K.C., I would prefer not to talk about what happened to our test dummies.)

Well, in Lawrence, you may want to start charging admission to such backyard fun. Water and sewer rates are both set to go up. As we reported in May, commissioners gave preliminary approval to a new rate plan. At their Tuesday evening meeting, commissioners are set to give final approval and order city officials to begin collecting the higher rates in November.

How much your water and sewer bill will increase depends on who you are. Here's a look at some common scenarios:

— A single-family house that uses 4,000 gallons of water per month will see an increase of $2.62 per month, or a 4.9 percent increase over existing rates.

— A single family house that uses 20,000 gallons per month will see an increase of $11.26 per month, an increase of 5.4 percent.

— An apartment resident who uses 4,000 gallons of water per month will see an increase of 86 cents per month, an increase of 1.8 percent.

— A business that uses 100,000 gallons of water per month will see an increase of $61.56 per month, an increase of 6.9 percent.

— An industrial user that uses 2.5 million gallons of water per month will see an increase of $1,201 per month, an increase of 5.7 percent.

The rate increases will fund a variety of projects, including about $5.8 million worth of improvements to address taste and odor issues that occur in the city's drinking water when algae levels are high at Clinton Lake or the Kansas River.

The higher rates come at a time when other increases are expected to find property owners. The city already has predicted the 2015 budget will include at least a 1.5 mill increase in the city's property tax rate. Black Hills Energy, the predominant natural gas provider in the city, is asking state regulators to approve new rates that would increase the average residential bill by at least $5.70 per month, but likely more depending on how much gas you use. Still unresolved is what new sales or property taxes city commissioners may propose to fund a new police headquarters building. Plus, the county and the school districts may have their own needs for additional funding that could affect taxes.

It is not as much fun as what we did with the test dummy, but let's do some quick math to see what the average person may be facing thus far:

— Property taxes on a $170,000 home: Up $29 a year.

— Average 6,000 gallon water and sewer bill: Up $44 a year.

— Minimum Black Hills natural gas increase: Up $68.

That's an increase of $141 for the year, or a little less than $12 per month. Again, though, this doesn't include anything for the police department or other taxing jurisdictions. Plus, I think it is possible that when the city's recommended budget is released in the coming days that it will include a property tax increase greater than 1.5 mills.

Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall.

Reply 12 comments from Merrill Keith Richards Fred St. Aubyn Elizabeth Newman Kingfisher John Sheppard Lee Saylor Cille_king

Menards says plans for Lawrence store still on track, but no date for construction announced

Maybe Menards has gotten busy plowing a garden, building a potpourri room or connecting a back-up generator to the chocolate fountain. I know those are all projects that have caused me delay in completing the real work I would like to get done around the house. So, maybe that's why work hasn't yet started on a new Menards store near 31st and Iowa streets.

Whatever the case, construction work hasn't started and doesn't appear likely to start in the next few weeks. But a Menards official told me in recent days the store project is still moving forward, and I tend to believe him because Menards has actually purchased all the property needed for the development. If there were a chance they weren't going to build the store, I think it would be more likely they simply would have the ground under option to purchase.

But I don't have a good explanation on why it is taking this much time to get the project started. As a reminder, Menards won its zoning approval from the City Commission in June. At that point, the project just became a matter of a few technical approvals before a building permit could be issued.

"Nothing is changing," said Tyler Edwards, the Menards official who has been securing the approvals for the Lawrence project. "We're just getting through all the little technical details."

A planning department official told me that is the case. The department is waiting to receive the public improvement plans for the project. Those are the plans that show the designs and other technical specifications of streets, utility lines, storm sewers and other pieces of infrastructure. I've been told by city officials that there are no big challenges that Menards faces with those plans. Rather, the city simply is waiting to receive them so that they can be reviewed. In other words, I don't think it is the city that is holding this project up.

That being said, it will take a little bit of time for city officials to review the necessary plans before a building permit can be issued. These things vary, but it easily could take four weeks from the time the plans are received to the time they are reviewed and approved by the various departments. So those of you, like me, who thought Menards would surely want to get started this spring, may be wrong.

I couldn't get Edwards to offer a date — or a season — when construction is likely to begin on the project. (He, too, evidently has read the essential guide for married handymen, "I'll $%!# Get to It, Dear." Rule No. 3: Never, ever, ever commit to a date. If you are pressured, immediately begin talking about an idea you have to remove a wall, and that usually will result in a subject change.)

Edwards previously has said the store likely will take nine to 10 months to build. One would think Menards would want to be open by next spring to take advantage of all the home improvement purchases that happen during that season. If so, it would seem construction would need to start in the next two to three months. But, as I've been told on many a home improvement project, I should leave the thinking to someone else.

If you remember, the last news we reported on the project was that the design of the store had been changed. Most significantly, Menards changed the location of its outdoor lumberyard and reduced it size from 90,000 square feet to 40,000 square feet. The speculation is that was done to allow for more room for other retailers on the development site. In addition to Menards, there is room for about a half dozen other buildings. But the reduction in lumberyard space has caused some to worry that Menards has decided to put in a scaled-down store in Lawrence. But Edwards insisted that wasn't the case, although I didn't get any details about why Menards decided to make the changes.

"It will be a 100 percent normal Menards," Edwards said.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Lawrence Memorial Hospital has landed on another best-of list. This time the financial healthcare website NerdWallet Health has ranked LMH as the third-most affordable hospital in the state of Kansas. The website says it ranked 54 Kansas hospitals based the 100 most common procedures performed at hospitals. It got its cost information from CMS Medicare Provider Charge Data.

The results found that Galichia Heart Hospital in Wichita was ranked No. 1 in affordability, while Topeka's St. Francis Health Center was ranked No. 2. LMH was No. 3. In terms of other area hospitals in the Top 10, Olathe Medical Center was No. 7 and Shawnee Mission Medical Center was No. 10.

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  • Reply 2 comments from Richard Andrade Merrill

    An update on Menards and other retail and restaurant rumblings

    I have just come to expect that it will happen on every home improvement project: last-minute changes dictated by a higher power. You know, a potpourri station here, a chocolate fountain there, a 30-by-40 walk-in shoe vault around the corner. Those sorts of things. But I didn't know that the people who build home improvement stores have to deal with such last-minute tweaks as well.

    But that's what is going on currently with plans for a Menards home improvement store near 31st and Iowa streets. (Put your marshmallows away. I didn't mean Menards is adding a chocolate fountain.) But designers are still making some changes to the project, which is one of the reasons construction hasn't yet started on the site that is just east of Home Depot.

    Bottomline: There's still not a firm date for when the project will start construction.

    At the moment, it appears most of the major changes are coming from Menards officials, not from city planners who are reviewing the site plan for the store. The biggest change is the store's outdoor storage yard is being reduced by more than half. That seems significant because, unlike Home Depot, Menards uses a covered, outdoor storage area to house most of its lumber and other building materials. Menards is proposing to reduce the size of the storage yard to 40,000 square feet, down from the original plan of 90,000 square feet.

    I know that is going to create worry among some that Lawrence is going to get a smaller-than-average Menards store. There are people who feel like the Home Depot store is undersized compared with what's available in Topeka and Kansas City, and they don't want that to happen with Menards. It is worth noting that the size of the actual building hasn't changed, only the size of the storage yard.

    I'm hoping to get someone from Menards to talk to me about what the change in size means for the store's future offerings. It is possible, though, that it may not be that big of a deal. Menards is moving its outdoor storage yard from the east side of its building to the west side of the building. That changes the traffic flow significantly and the amount of pavement needed to accommodate the traffic. People who have looked at the plans more closely than I have said it appears that the actual amount of area to store goods is about the same as originally proposed, but the amount of pavement to accommodate vehicles has shrunk considerably.

    What's more interesting is what Menards is proposing to do with that saved space. As we hinted in November, Menards is trying to increase the size of one of its six outlying retail lots that will surround the home improvement center. The latest plans call for the retail lot immediately east of the Menards store to grow to 5 acres, up from about 1 acre. Obviously, that would allow for a significantly larger retailer to locate on the site.

    What would be interesting to know is if Menards has somebody on the hook for the site, or if it is just speculating that this will make it more attractive to users in the future. Under the new configuration, two of the six proposed lots are pretty decent size. In addition to the one just east of the Menards store, there is an 8-acre lot right along 31st Street. It is commonly known as the Snodgrass tract, which was the single-family home that was just east of the Gaslight Mobile Home Village. It appears it can accommodate a decent size store. It has been a little tough to determine how big of a retailer could locate on either lot because there are some floodplain areas that make portions of the property tough to build on. But I've had some people in the business tell me that a 20,000 to 30,000 square-foot building may be possible on the site.

    There are a host of major national retailers that occupy 20,000 to 30,000 square-foot buildings. But I haven't heard much talk of who may be interested in locating at the Menards project. As far as major retail speculation goes, the most recent retail rumbling I've heard is that PetSmart may have an interest in a Lawrence location. I certainly don't have anything confirmed on that, but it is worth noting that PetSmart and Dick's Sporting Goods have located next to each other in quite a few developments around the country. Dick's, of course, is under construction in the former Sears building at 27th and Iowa. The building has space for two more retail tenants, plus an outlying restaurant lot. As we reported in December, Chick-fil-A has made some inquiries about that site, but no deal has been struck yet.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • If you have taken on the awesome task of keeping up with the city's Mexican food restaurant scene, get out your scorecards. There are changes on two fronts. The El Mezcal at 804 Iowa St. is gone, and a Mexican restaurant called Pueblo has replaced it. Pueblo is owned by a longtime employee of El Mezcal, which has operated Mexican restaurants throughout the area. Felipe Avila had worked in various jobs for El Mezcal for about 15 years, and jumped at the chance to buy the 804 location when El Mezcal decided to sell recently. The menu at the location is very similar to what El Mezcal offered, but Avila said he plans to put his own touches on the business as well.

    "Lawrence does love Mexican food," Avila told me. "There are probably too many places in town, but I really like this location, and we will offer good food and good service."

    West Lawrence also is getting in on the act of new Mexican restaurants. A sign is up for El Sol in the shopping center at Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive. If you remember, an El Mezcal used to operate in that shopping center, but it closed several months ago. I've reached out to the folks at El Sol and will report back when I hear more. There is an El Sol Mexican restaurant in Ottawa, although I'm not certain the two are connected.

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  • Reply 8 comments from William Enick Bob Forer Gary Anderson Bailey Perkins Mike George Kingfisher Eric Ryan Keith Richards

    Hostel and banquet hall proposed for site near North Lawrence; updates on Menards and other commercial real estate sales

    A little bit of Europe may be coming to rural Lawrence. My wife is rooting for a Cadillac-sized chunk of Swiss chocolate. I'm rooting for a meet and greet with the women's Swiss ski team. (Big fan of skiing.) But some of you are rooting for the European idea of a hostel. You are the apparent winners.

    Your prize is that you may be able to sleep in a small bunkhouse with people you don't know, but do so for a very low price. That's what a hostel basically is, for those of you who aren't as steeped in European culture as I am.

    Plans have been filed for a new banquet facility and hostel to be located near the Lawrence Municipal Airport in North Lawrence. Work already has begun to remodel portions of the old farmhouse that used to house University Photography at 1804 E. 1500 Road, which is along U.S. Highway 24-40 and caddy-corner from the Airport Motel.

    Lawrence resident Shane Powers is the man behind the project. He said his first priority for the business, which will be called The Fete, will be to get established as a banquet and reception facility. But the conditional use permit that he has filed for from the county also would give the property the ability to function as a hostel, and he said he hopes work can begin on that part of the project in about a year.

    "I don't think Americans, in general, are really used to the hostel concept yet," Powers said. "But I know a lot of people who travel around Europe or really the rest of the world, and it is common for people to open up their homes to travelers or at least rent a room out."

    Powers said his plan is to remodel a second-story portion of the property for use as a hostel. Plans call for a bunkhouse room that could house up to five people, plus a separate room that would house a queen-sized bed that could be rented by a couple.

    Not all the details have been worked out on the pricing for the hostel, but Powers said it likely would be in the $15 per person range.

    "We're not trying to make it like a bed and breakfast," Powers said. "The idea is to provide some cheap lodging."

    Powers — whom I've written about before when he was running a pedicab business in downtown Lawrence — thinks the location will work well. The property is just off of the Kansas Turnpike, and Powers hopes the location becomes popular with some of the touring musicians and such who travel through Lawrence and may be looking for a cheap place to stay.

    Powers thinks the location also will serve the banquet and reception business well. The property is technically outside the city limits, and Powers and his girlfriend plan to raise chickens at the site and have some other agricultural elements on the property. Powers thinks the location will fill a bit of a niche for people who want to have a country setting for a wedding reception, but don't want to travel far outside the city.

    The business also will focus on smaller receptions and events. The facility will have space for about 85 people indoors, plus will offer an outdoor reception area.

    "We would love to have it where people could have a wedding on the lawn and then retreat indoors for a reception," Powers said.

    The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will consider the project's conditional use permit later this month. The Douglas County Commission ultimately will be responsible for granting final approval to the project.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • Perhaps you have seen the sign already, but it looks like a former funeral home is going to become the site for an expanded veterinarian clinic. Gentle Care Animal Hospital has plans to move from its longtime location in the Westridge Shopping Center at 601 Kasold Drive into the former Lawrence Funeral Chapel space at the corner of Sixth and Monterrey Way. I had seen recently in the land transfers where a group led by veterinarian Marguerite Ermeling had purchased the building. A group involving Ermerling and longtime businessman George Paley also have bought the vacant lot between the funeral chapel building and the old Stone Canyon restaurant buidling as well. When I talked with Paley about the purchase, he said there were no immediate plans for development of that lot.

    • While we're talking about land transfers, here are some other commercial real estate transactions that have accumulated recently, according to the listings from the Douglas County Register of Deeds.

    — For those of you nervous that the proposed Menards home improvement store really isn't going to happen, rest easy. Menard Inc. recently finalized the purchase of the old Gaslight Mobile Home Village and also of the Snodgrass property just to the east of the mobile home park. As we've previously reported, the project won its major zoning approvals from City Hall. Now it officially owns the real estate too, so I would think we'll start seeing work at that site sooner rather than later.

    — It looks like folks connected with the Runza fast food restaurant have bought the restaurant's site at 2700 Iowa St. Land transfers show a Lincoln, Neb.-based land holding company — Lawrence Properties LLC — bought the site from a Lawrence-based company led by local businessman Doug Compton. Lawrence Properties LLC is run by a member of the founding family of Runza, according to documents on file with the Kansas Secretary of State's Office.

    — There is a good chance that Luminous Neon, the sign company in the 600 block of Vermont Street — may be moving out of downtown and onto 23rd Street. The commercial building at 801 E. 23rd St. — it used to house the G-Force gymnastics academy — has sold. A Hutchinson company, 801-23rd, LLC, has bought the property. Ron Sellers, the president of Luminous Neon, which is based in Hutchinson, confirmed to me recently that he had an option to buy the property. He said Luminous Neon has been looking for better configured space in Lawrence. No word on what may go into Luminous Neon's downtown space. I'll do some more checking and report back.

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  • Reply 2 comments from Mommatocharlie Terrylee Merrill

    Store that specializes in e-cigarettes opens on 23rd Street; update on Menards project

    I'm not a smoker, and as my struggles to operate my VCR remote demonstrate, I'm not always a whiz with electronic gizmos either. So, although I have heard of electronic cigarettes, I figured they weren't for me.

    Jack Tran, owner of a new Lawrence store that specializes in selling e-cigarettes, agrees. But he is betting that the store will be just the ticket for thousands of smokers in the area.

    "I'm not recommending this to people who don't smoke already," said Tran. "But I think it will be great for people who do smoke and are looking for a healthier alternative."

    Tran earlier this month opened up Juice-E-Vapes, a store that sells only e-cigarettes and e-cigarette supplies, at 1216 E. 23rd St. For those of you trying to picture the location, it is in the building that houses the Avis car rental company.

    Perhaps you are like me — a perpetually confused parent — who thinks Juice-E-Vapes sounds like a $2 juice box that my kids will insist on having in their lunch sacks. (That's right, no high tech lunch boxes for my kids.) But Tran explains that Vapes is short for vaping, which is the term that has become associated with the act of "smoking" an e-cigarette. As for the Juice, well, the e-cigarettes are filled with a juice-like liquid that creates a vapor when heated by a battery-powered element.

    The store stocks more than 100 different flavors of the juices. Some simulate tobacco flavors, while others mimic the taste of fruit juices, snacks, candies, or your favorite drinks. The juices can be purchased with or without nicotine. People trying to quit smoking can gradually reduce the nicotine mixture.

    "What really made me decide to start this store is that I used to smoke cigarettes," Tran said. "About two years ago, I quit cigarettes because I started vaping instead. It helped me a lot in quitting."

    Plus, it appears to be a growing business. I found an interesting article written deep in the heart of tobacco country by The Charlotte Observer. It reports that e-cigarette sales are expected to hit the $1 billion mark in 2013, up from $500 million in 2012.

    Offshoots of the big tobacco companies such as R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris are in the process of releasing their own e-cigarettes. Their rapid rise in popularity has created questions about whether scientists understand enough about the health effects of the e-cigarettes and how the product fits in with a host of smoking bans that have been adopted across the country.

    The Observer describes the liquid that is heated by the e-cigarette as a mixture of propylene glycol (a common chemical used in many food products), vegetable glycerin, flavorings and nicotine. The article notes that little research has been done on the health effects of inhaling a nicotine-laced vapor.

    But anti-tobacco advocates have been hesitant to deride the e-cigarettes because it does appear that a water vapor-based product would create fewer health effects than the traditional tobacco-based cigarettes.

    As for how the products fit in with local smoking bans, it appears the bans don't restrict the use of e-cigarettes. The Kansas Attorney General issued an opinion in 2011 that said the use of e-cigarettes was allowed under the statewide smoking ban because the product doesn't involve tobacco or the use of a flame. Lawrence has its own smoking ban, but it is similar to the state ban and Tran says the Lawrence ban allows e-cigarettes too. (I've got an e-mail into the city attorney to confirm that. UPDATE: I heard back from the city attorney's office, and indeed, e-cigarettes are not subject to the city's smoking ban. )

    Kansas law does prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to people under 18-years old, which Tran said he completely agrees with.

    E-cigarettes have been in the Lawrence market for awhile now, but Tran said many times the product is sold alongside traditional cigarettes. Tran said he wanted to open a store that sold only the e-cigarettes because he believes smokers become too tempted when they enter a tobacco store.

    "My goal is to help people quit smoking," Tran said. "I'm against tobacco 100 percent. It really is killing people."

    The store is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • When I'm smoking, it usually is the result of me touching a wrong wire as part of a home improvement project. And when it comes to home improvement projects, everybody seemingly wants to know the latest on Menards' plans to build a store in Lawrence.

    In short, the project is still moving along, but is likely still a few months from pulling a building permit. Menards has filed its site plan application to build the previously-approved store on the site of the former Gaslight Mobile Home Park, just east of the Home Depot at 31st and Iowa streets.

    As we've previously reported, the store has won its necessary zoning approvals from the Lawrence City Commission. Now the project is going through the administrative review that takes place at the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department.

    From what I have heard, Menards officials are looking at tweaking some parts of the plan related to how traffic accesses the site. Now that Mendards has reached a deal to acquire the Snodgrass property immediately east of the mobile home park, the site has two main roads to serve the property — Ousdahl to the west and a new street on the eastern edge that will be named Michigan. The purchase of the Snodgrass property will allow for the construction of Michigan Street north of 31st Street.

    The Planning Department has to review all those access issues before it can approve a site plan. I've also been told Menards officials are considering rearranging some of the other retail lots that are part of the project. The preliminary plans call for six other retail stores or restaurants to locate around the Menards store. There has been talk that Menards may seek to rearrange how the lot lines are drawn to convert an approximately one-acre pad site into about a five-acre pad site, which would allow the project to accommodate a secondary anchor tenant. No word yet on whether Menards is in discussion with possible tenants.

    The bottom line is that the project must still get a preliminary plat, a final plat and a site plan approved before it can pull a building permit to start construction on the approximately 175,000-square-foot store. All those approvals are largely technical in nature and are not the types that typically derail a project. But they still may take a couple of months to get through the approval process, folks at City Hall tell me.

    I talked to Menards' project manager for the location when he was in town last week, and he said that once a building permit is issued, it likely will take nine to 10 months to build the store.

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  • Reply 16 comments from Merrill Jack Tran Chad Lawhorn Roland Gunslinger Terrylee Dwardf Joshua Montgomery Bhall87 Krichards Kevin Kohls and 1 others

    Menards files plans to add another 8 acres to development near 31st and Iowa

    The same "architect" who "designs" my home "improvement" projects must be in charge of the new Menards project near 31st and Iowa streets. The project is growing before it even gets started.

    But unlike the addition of a knitting cabinet in my game room, this addition was expected.

    Menards officials have a filed a new annexation and rezoning request at City Hall to add 8.4 acres to their development, which is just east of the Home Depot on 31st Street. The land is part of what is known as the Snodgrass property, but perhaps you recognize it as that ranch-style house that sits next to a nice pond just east of where the Gaslight Mobile Home Village used to be. (Or, if you are some sort of postal freak, maybe we'll just call it 1352 N. 1300 Road.)

    Menards has a contract to purchase the westernmost portion of the property, and it plans to create another commercial lot to supplement its Menards store. The pending land purchase won't change the size of the planned store. It still is designed to check in at about 175,000 square feet.

    But the purchase will mean that there will now be room for six additional retailers, restaurants or other similar users on the property surrounding the Menards store. The new purchase will allow for a fairly large store to locate on the site. According to a traffic study submitted to City Hall, the lot can accommodate about a 60,000-square-foot store. For comparison purposes, the Hobby Lobby store on 23rd Street is about 50,000 square feet, according to county records.

    If you want to compare to some stores that aren't currently in Lawrence, places like Burlington Coat Factory, Toys 'R Us and several major theater chains often open in buildings around the 60,000-square-foot size, according to the industry publications I read. (Since my wife nearly bent her knitting needles due to excitement, perhaps I should clarify: Those names are just for comparision purposes. There's nothing to indicate any of those are coming to Lawrence.)

    In fact, Menards said in its application that it expects the lot to sit vacant for awhile. Menards has said it does not plan to build any buildings on speculation - which means building then hoping to find a tenant. Instead, it will wait for a solid deal — or in this case, deals — to emerge.

    Menards will have space to offer to several retailers. In total, the development will have space for 296,966 square feet of retail and commercial development. Menard's takes up about 175,000 square feet of that and the Snodgrass property will accommodate another 60,000. That means the remaining five lots likely will house stores or restaurants in the 5,000- to 15,000-square-foot range. There are a lot of players that can fit into that space.

    The Snodgrass deal still has to win the necessary land use approvals from City Hall, but planners have been expecting this application. When city commissioners approved the Menards deal in June, store officials said they were looking at the Snodgrass property then. Menards successfully lobbied the commission to change the city's area plan for the 31st Street corridor to show this portion of the Snodgrass property as being slated for commercial development in the future. The annexation and rezoning appear to have a clear path to approval at City Hall, but the weather has been known to change rapidly at the corner of Sixth and Massachusetts. So, we'll see.

    Regardless, the property is bound to change. After construction of the South Lawrence Trafficway, the property will be at a new intersection, the corner of Michigan and 31st streets. Michigan Street will be the name of the new street that will be built about a 1,000 to 1,500 feet east of 31st and Ousdahl. Michigan Street basically will replace the portion of Louisiana Street that is south of 31st Street. That portion of Louisiana will be removed as part of the SLT construction. Menards plans to build Michigan Street a few hundred feet north of 31st Street to serve as an additional access point to its development.

    In a few months, the world will look quite a bit different along 31st Street. Heaven help me if the new look includes a knitting store.

    Reply 19 comments from Chootspa Merrill Liberty275 Minimadoff Tolawdjk Jack22 Average Perses Tomatogrower Notwhatyouthink and 10 others

    As planners debate Menards project, new study finds retail vacancy rate at 7.2 percent citywide

    Let the number games begin. As we’ve previously reported, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission is set to debate a proposal by Menards to locate a new store adjacent to Home Depot near 31st and Iowa streets.

    As we’ve also reported, one of the factors that planners are supposed to take into consideration when considering such large retail projects is the city’s retail vacancy rate.

    But at the time Menards filed its plans with City Hall, the last time the city had conducted a retail vacancy rate study was in 2010.

    Well, there are now new numbers. The city recently has completed its most recent Retail Market Report, which looks at vacancy rates as they were in December 2012. Here’s a look at some of the findings:

    • Citywide, the retail vacancy rate was 7.2 percent, down from the 7.3 percent found in the city’s 2010 report and up from the 6.9 percent found in the 2006 report. In other words, there hasn’t been much change in the overall number.

    • Downtown had a vacancy rate of 9.4 percent, up from 9.1 percent in 2010; South Iowa had a vacancy rate of 7.8 percent, up from 2.7 percent; East 23rd had a vacancy rate of 10.4 percent, down from 13.6 percent; West 23rd Street had a vacancy rate of 6.1 percent, down from 6.7 percent.

    • The 19th and Haskell area had the highest vacancy rate in the city at 30.2 percent. North Lawrence was second at 16.4 percent, although the numbers indicate a turnaround is happening in the area. In 2010, it had a vacancy rate of 27.5 percent.

    • Turnarounds happened in a couple of other areas too. The Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa area has a vacancy rate of 7.8 percent, down from 26.4 percent in 2010.

    • The report also provides information about the type of retail uses in downtown. The report found 116 merchant-based retail businesses in downtown, which is down from 126 in 2006. Restaurant and beverage oriented uses grew to 83, up from 68 establishments, during the same time period.

    The report is an interesting one for people who watch Lawrence’s commercial real estate market. Perhaps the most interesting part about it, though, is how different it is from a private report that was put together during roughly the same time period.

    The Lawrence office of Colliers International released a report in January that measured vacancy rates for late 2012. It found an overall retail vacancy rate of 5.4 percent, compared to 7.2 percent in the city’s report.

    In downtown, Colliers found a vacancy rate of 4.4 percent compared to 9.4 percent in the city report.

    The differences, I believe, come down to the methodology of the two reports. I don’t know all the differences but I think a lot of it comes from how the two studies define retail space. For example, the city study counts some industrially zoned space as potential retail space because the city’s development code would allow for retail to be located in the space. Also, there are places like the former Riverfront Mall building. Whether that space is counted as retail space, which is what it was built for, or office space, which is how it is pretty much being marketed now, makes a difference in the vacancy rate calculations.

    Vacancy rates: They’re like my kids saying they’ve “cleaned” their rooms. It is a subject where interpretations and definitions matter.

    As far as the Menards project goes, we’ll see how much weight planners, and ultimately city commissioners, give to the vacancy rate subject.

    The city’s comprehensive plan, Horizon 2020, says large retail projects shouldn’t be approved, if there is evidence the project will push the city’s overall retail vacancy rate above 8 percent.

    If the 190,000 square foot Menards store and the 65,000 square feet of outlying parcels — restaurants and other smaller retailers surrounding the store — were built and then were entirely vacant, the city’s vacancy rate would rise to 9.7 percent. It would be odd, however, for Menards to build a store and then not occupy it, but technically that is the assumption city planners are supposed to make under the rules of Horizon 2020.

    Several planning commissioners the last time they considered this issue, however, indicated concern with making that type of assumption. The city also is in the process of rewriting that portion of Horizon 2020, but those changes haven’t yet been made. So, it is possible that planners may discard the idea that they should assume the new Menards building will be vacant after it is built.

    Staff members put together another calculation that shows what would happen if the Menards building is occupied but all of the 65,000 square feet of surrounding retail is vacant. The result would be the citywide vacancy rate would rise to 7.7 percent, which is still below the 8 percent threshold that Horizon 2020 says is critical.

    So, we’ll see what comes of all this. I’m not sure how much this retail market study is going to play into the Menards decision, but this report likely will play into future debates about whether Lawrence has too much or too little retail space for a community its size.

    The Menards discussion will take place at 6:30 tonight at City Hall.

    Reply 22 comments from David Holroyd Number_1_grandma Mark Currie Krichards Merrill George_braziller Oletimer Logicman Just_another_bozo_on_this_bus Shane Garrett and 6 others

    Planning Commission to debate Menards project Monday amid signs momentum may be turning

    Strap on your tool belt, it is time to talk again about Menards’ proposal to build a big box store just east of Home Depot near 31st and Iowa streets.

    The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will debate the project again at its Monday evening meeting. The Planning Commission debated it last month and failed to reach consensus on whether the plan should be recommended for approval by the City Commission. I know that left some of you feeling like I feel after completing an electrical-oriented home improvement project — a bit dazed. (My wife promised me she had turned off the circuit breaker. She never said she wouldn’t turn it back on, though.)

    If you remember, the Menards project hit a snag, even though there was no groundswell of opposition from neighbors in the area. Instead, it was the city’s planning staff that expressed concern about changing a portion of the city’s comprehensive plan, known as Horizon 2020, to accommodate the project.

    There have been some new developments on that front. The city’s planning staff hasn’t officially changed its recommendation for denial, but it has created a new staff report that provides a clear set of reasons Planning Commissioners can use to approve the project, if they so choose.

    That may prove to be important. For what it is worth, I felt like the Planning Commission last month was interested in recommending the project for approval, but was reluctant to do so because they hold the planning staff’s professional opinion in high regard.

    The new memo from the planning staff, however, makes it clear that there is a reasonable argument to be made for why Horizon 2020 could be changed to accommodate the project. The main point of contention here is that Horizon 2020 calls for the proposed Menards site, the former Gaslight Mobile Home Village, to be used for apartment development in the future. A map in Horizon 2020 needs to be changed to show the property is slated for commercial development.

    The memo lists the following reasons why a change could be prudent:

    • It is now clear the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway will be completed, which will alleviate the need for traffic to travel through neighborhoods to reach the new commercial area.

    • Public testimony from neighbors has indicated that there is a significant number of residents who may prefer retail development at the site rather than a large apartment complex.

    • Even though the city has other retail zoned areas in the city, sites that can accommodate big-box development remain limited.

    Planning staff members also are pointing out that it is unlikely that commercial development would extend all the way down the north side of 31st Street to Louisiana Street, if Menards is approved. Staff members confirmed the city is close to finalizing a deal to purchase the nearly six acres of property near the northwest corner of 31st and Louisiana streets. The city needs the property for a new utility pump station. City ownership means the corner wouldn’t ever develop as a retail site.

    So we’ll see what planning commissioners do on Monday. That meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.

    But remember, planning commissioners only recommend things. It will be up to the City Commission to make a final decision on the project. It still is too early to tell how city commissioners may vote on this project, but there are indications Menards has a fighting chance.

    When I was speaking recently with City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer about economic matters, he brought up the need for the city to really update its comprehensive plan. He pointed to the Menards project as an example. Farmer said much of the underlying work to create the city’s comprehensive plan was done more than 20 years ago, and it probably is time to recognize that several factors in the city have changed since then.

    “Menards is a great example of that,” Farmer says. “Our comprehensive plan says no, and the community seems to be saying it doesn’t want more housing there.

    “I look at that and say ‘gosh, a Menards would be great in bringing some commercial taxes to a community that is going to have shrinking property tax revenues.'”

    So, while Farmer stopped short of saying he would vote for the specific proposal Menards currently has brought forward, it sounds like he’ll have an open mind.

    Privately, I have heard one other commissioners indicate he is going to give strong consideration to approving the project as well. It will be interesting to watch. Probably the biggest factor will be whether residents in the Indian Hills Neighborhood continue to either support the project or at least not vigorously oppose it. A large number of neighbors opposing the project could change things.

    At the moment though, it is safe to assume the Menards project won’t be dead on arrival when it comes to the City Commission. Which, that reminds me: I still have to rewire the kitchen light. Oh, boy.

    Reply 35 comments from Workinghard Irony401 Calitony Optimist Flloyd Chootspa Bike Logicman True_patriot Deec and 15 others

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