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Retail sales grow for sixth consecutive month in Lawrence; KU launches 25th startup company; city receives another incentive request

March Madness. You all remember those days in Lawrence. We were all mad. Stupid doctors who can't fix Joel Embiid's back. Stupid Stanford mascot. Stupid television screen that can't withstand a platter of 23 pounds of bean dip being thrown at it.

Well, evidently we weren't so mad that it stopped us from shopping. In fact, perhaps nothing in 2014 will stop us from spending our dollars in Lawrence. The latest sales tax report from City Hall shows that spending for the period from mid-March to mid-April was up nearly 4 percent compared with the same period a year ago. The bigger news is that this is the sixth consecutive report that has shown an increase in spending by Lawrence consumers.

For the year, sales tax collections are up 3.8 percent. That's a welcome sight to those who watch the Lawrence economy. The 3.8 percent growth rate is better than the 2.1 percent growth rate posted in 2013. Retail sales activity in 2013 began to show some signs of slowing, but the 2014 numbers should be easing those concerns.

Even though state revenue figures have been less-than-stellar lately, the sales tax numbers show a retail rebound is underway in several of the state's larger communities. Lawrence's 3.8 percent growth rate is just middle-of-the-pack compared with several other communities. Here's a look at the growth rates in other major shopping areas in Kansas:

• Emporia: 5.1 percent

• Garden City: 5.7 percent

• Hays: down 23.4 percent

• Hutchinson: 2.4 percent

• Junction City: down 0.3 percent

• Kansas City: 4.2 percent

• Leawood: down 1 percent

• Lenexa: 5.1 percent

• Manhattan: 0.8 percent

• Ottawa: 6.3 percent

• Overland Park: 5.5 percent

• Salina: 2.1 percent

• City of Shawnee: 3.9 percent

• Topeka: 1.5 percent

• Sedgwick County: 3.1 percent

So, the numbers are good, but it is important to keep them in perspective. Two other closely watched sets of numbers haven't gotten off to as strong of a start in 2014: home sales and local building permits. We'll have an update on the latest numbers from those sectors in the coming days.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Here is another Lawrence number to take note of: 25. Kansas University has recently announced that its 25th startup company has been formed. This one is all about protein. Yes, I have a platter of bean dip that would seem to make me an expert on protein. (Well, I have pieces of the platter.) Regardless, that's not really the type of protein we're talking about.

KanPro Research is a company that produces laboratory proteins that are used by other research companies. KU biochemist Philip Gao is the founder of the company. The firm currently has two employees and is located in the Bioscience & Technology Business Center on KU's West Campus. Gao said he believes the company could grow to 10 employees by 2017.

The company expects to sell its proteins — it specializes in hard-to-produce proteins — to other universities and to the private sector. In particular, Gao expects the large and growing animal health sciences industry that is centered on the Kansas City area to be a major source of industrial companies.

Currently, the company is producing smaller, laboratory-scale batches of proteins, but Gao said he thinks there's potential to grow into a larger regional facility that would produce large batches for manufacturing purposes.

"Our goals are long-term," Gao said. "We want to create a lasting company in Lawrence with a focus on serving regional scientists and benefiting the biotech community."

• Yesterday we told you about a financial incentives request city commissioners have received for a $75 million apartment project. Commissioners also have received another request for a smaller scale project.

As expected, local architect Stan Hernly is requesting a partial property tax rebate and fee waivers to facilitate the rehabilitation of an old home and barn at 1106 Rhode Island St.

In case you have forgotten, 1106 Rhode Island St. is the property the city bought through the eminent domain process earlier this year. The house and barn are historic structures that had fallen into disrepair under previous ownership. The city's plan was to purchase the property and then make it available for redevelopment by the private sector.

Hernly's group has proposed renovating the structures to accommodate residential and office uses. But Hernly sad the numbers clearly show that project isn't feasible without financial incentives. Hernly is asking for the city to waive about $26,000 in development fees, such as building permit fees and utility connection fees.

As for tax incentives, Hernly is asking for a property tax rebate through the Neighborhood Revitalization Act. The project is seeking an 85 percent abatement on new property taxes generated by the project for a 10-year period.

City staff members are recommending that the request be forwarded to the Public Incentives Review Committee for study and recommendation.

Reply 1 comment from Merrill Terrylee

Retail sales in the city up 3 percent for the year; SLT opponents organizing “occupation” event at the wetlands

There must have been a lot of families with back-to-school shopping lists this season much like mine: pencils, erasers, notebooks, diamond earrings. (What's that? I was told it is a necessity that mothers looks stylish at PTO meetings.)

Regardless, the latest sales tax report from Lawrence City Hall shows that something caused a spike in sales during that back-to-school season. The city's September sales tax report — which actually includes sales data from the mid-July to mid-August time period — shows taxable sales in the city were up a whopping 17 percent from September 2012.

I never make too much of one month's worth of data because statistical anomalies can pop up, but the bigger picture also is looking more positive than it did for the city just a few months ago. With nine months of sales tax checks in the bank, retail sales in the city are up 3 percent from the same period a year ago.

Bottomline: Retail sales are growing at a decent clip in Lawrence, but not nearly as fast as they did in 2012. At this time last year, retail sales were up 6 percent. But I can tell you that City Hall officials who rely on sales tax collections for a big part of their budgets are breathing a little easier now. At the midway point of 2013, retail sales were up just 1.7 percent for the year, and it was uncertain whether the city's sales tax collection would meet budget for the year.

It appears more likely that the city will make its budget at this point. With just three more checks to collect in 2013, collections in the city's largest sales tax fund are about 1 percent over budget projections. So, the fourth quarter still will be key, but City Hall budget-makers feel better about their chances than they did a few months ago.

As for how Lawrence stacks up with other cities, it is a mixed bag. The data indicates Lawrence's retail sales growth may be a little bit behind the statewide average. For all jurisdictions that collect a local sales tax, the average growth rate thus far for 2013 has been 3.7 percent compared to 3.0 percent for Lawrence. Here's a look at how some of the larger retail markets in the state have fared year-to-date:

• Emporia: up 3.6 percent

• Hays: down 8.3 percent

• Kansas City: up 5.7 percent

• Manhattan: down 0.1 percent

• Olathe: up 4.5 percent

• Overland Park: up 3.2 percent

• Salina: up 2.9 percent

• Shawnee: up 5.1 percent

• Topeka: up 1.7 percent

Here's a look at some of the smaller markets around Lawrence. The sales totals in these communities are much smaller, so wilder swings are possible. But with nine months in the books, most are having a strong year:

• Baldwin City: up 1.4 percent

• Basehor: up 16 percent

• Eudora: up 14.2 percent

• Ottawa: up 6.9 percent

• Tonganoxie: up 10.0 percent

And finally, here's a look at how Lawrence's retail sales totals year-to-date compare to the same period in past years, and how they have been growing once adjusted for inflation. The number in parenthesis is the inflation-adjusted total for the year:

2013: $1.03 billion 2012: $1.00 billion ($1.02B) 2011: $947.9 million ($985.5M) 2010: $916.5 million ($983.0M) 2009: $930.7 million ($1.01B) 2008: $966.2 million ($1.04B)

So, once adjusted for inflation, Lawrence's retail sales are up about 1 percent for the year, and we're still lagging behind where we were before the economic downturn that hit in late 2008. But don't worry, we'll catch up. I think there is another PTO meeting coming up.

In other news and notes from around town:

• From PTO to WPO — the Wetlands Preservation Organization. As I've been telling you, get ready for some protests out at the Baker Wetlands as roadwork on the South Lawrence Trafficway likely will begin in the wetlands next month. Well, the WPO — which includes a lot of students from Haskell Indian Nations University — is beginning to show its hand in that regard. The organization's Facebook page is advertising an "Occupy the Wakarusa Wetlands" event on Oct. 25 and Oct. 26. According to a flier on the site, the group is encouraging people to camp at the wetlands and "help us protest this atrocity." The website also says the group is trying to "organize resistance and awareness in any way possible," and it even makes reference to the large protests that have gripped the Arab world. "There is an Indian Summer coming this fall," an organizer wrote on the page. "It looks a lot like an Arab Spring."

It will be interesting to watch the changing of the seasons at the wetlands in the coming weeks.

• In the category of notable commercial sales: It looks like one of Lawrence's more renowned music venues has taken a step to secure its future in downtown Lawrence. According to a filing at the Douglas County Register of Deeds, a company led by Brett Mosiman, owner of The Bottleneck, has purchased the building at 737 New Hampshire, which houses the The Bottleneck. The building was owned by a trust in the name of longtime Lawrence attorney Lance Burr.

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