Plans being developed for former Sunrise Garden Center in eastern Lawrence; sales tax numbers show local holiday spending down slightly
Plans are in the works between a new nonprofit and a private business to take over the vacant eastern Lawrence property that formerly housed the Sunrise Garden Center.
This spring will be another season that Lawrence green thumbs won’t be able to go to Sunrise Garden Center for bulbs, plants or just advice on what this green stuff is on their thumbs. If you remember, Sunrise closed its doors in late 2013, and the 3.5 acre site at 15th and New York streets has been vacant ever since.
But a new nonprofit is putting together a plan to buy the property, along with a Lawrence-based business that manufactures tofu. Melissa Freiburger is the co-founder of The Sunrise Project. She said her nonprofit has teamed up with Central Soy Foods in an effort to purchase the site. Central Soy Foods would use the site to manufacture its tofu and tempeh products, and the nonprofit would use the greenhouses and other assets to host youth programs and other events that educate about the importance of locally grown foods and other issues of sustainability. Freiburger envisions the site serving as a community greenhouse and also hosting cooking, gardening and similar workshops.
“We really just want to create a very vibrant green space in the community,” Freiburger said.
Central Soy Foods is led by longtime Lawrence businessman David Millstein. If you remember, we reported back in August that Millstein was seeking a new location for the company’s production plant. But a plan to move the operation to a rural homestead didn’t win the necessary approvals. Currently, the company — which has been around since 1978 — operates on a fairly small scale. It produces about 2,000 pounds of tofu and tempeh per week. It primarily sells its products in local grocery stores and a few chains in the Kansas City area.
Millstein told me he thought the site would work very well for the project. He’s proposing to keep the two gabled greenhouses, in part, because he considers those structures to have historical value. Millstein has been a longtime historic preservationist with several buildings in downtown Lawrence. He said he’s contemplating removing the one hoop greenhouse on the site and replacing it with a production facility. He said one other food producer in the area has expressed an interest in sharing the space. He also said he thinks there could be someone who would want to operate the greenhouses to sell micro greens or other such products to area restaurants and grocery stores.
“It has a chance to be a really symbiotic green project,” Millstein said.
The project, though, does have to win some approvals from City Hall. Millstein said he is hopeful neighbors will find the project compatible with the neighborhood.
“I think there probably would be less commotion with this project than when it was Sunrise,” said Millstein, who said the most of the time the site would have fewer than 10 employees at it.
The project also still has some financial questions. Freiburger said the nonprofit is seeking to raise $250,000 to meet its share of the purchase price of the property. The nonprofit — whose legal 501(c)3 name is Lawrence Community Food Alliance — has started a fundraising drive. Freiburger said one neighbor of the site already has pledged $25,000 to the project.
“We feel like it really can become something amazing for the neighborhood,” said Freiburger, who lives near the property. “And the longer the site sits vacant, I know there is a fear that it will become apartments or something like that.”
People can find out more information about how to donate at the group’s website, sunriseprojectks.org.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have much tofu in my stocking this past holiday season. (I once did ruin a good pair of shoes, though, trying to hide tofu in my stockings at a dinner party.) Regardless, there are new numbers out about retail sales in Lawrence during the holiday season, and they suggest stockings may have been a touch light this year.
The city has received its latest sales tax report from the Kansas Department of Revenue. Technically, the report is the first one for the 2015 calendar year, but since sales taxes are paid in arrears, the numbers provide a picture of sales activity during the holiday season. This report generally shows sales from about mid-November to mid-December.
The report found sales tax collections in Lawrence fell by 1.4 percent, compared with the same period a year ago. Lawrence seemed to be on the wrong side of the trend this past season. Of the other large retail markets in the state, only one other posted a decline. Here’s a look:
— Kansas City: up 1.8 percent
— Lenexa: up 2.2 percent
— Manhattan: up 2.3 percent
— Overland Park: down 3.5 percent
— Salina: up 5.1 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 0.4 percent
— Topeka: up 0.8 percent
But we don’t yet have a full picture of the holiday spending. The next report will more fully capture that last two weeks before Christmas, so perhaps here in Lawrence we were just later in getting our holiday shopping started.
As always, City Hall officials will keep a close eye on sales tax collections this year. Healthy sales tax growth is an important part of the city’s budget. It will become an even more important aspect if commissioners are serious about trying to figure out how to build a new police headquarters without increasing taxes.
Sales tax revenues in 2014 grew by a very healthy 4.1 percent. One month isn’t anything to fret about, but if Lawrence wants to match or exceed that pace in 2015, it won’t want many more reports like this most recent one.
East Lawrence’s Sunrise Garden Center set to close doors; Lawrence home building up nearly 30 percent for year
The sun is setting on the longtime East Lawrence business Sunrise Garden Center.
Owner Greg McDonald told me that the business' last day of operation is planned to be Christmas Eve. As we reported in June, McDonald put the business and its 3.5 acres at 15th and New York streets up for sale.
A buyer hasn't yet been found for the site, but McDonald said having a business up for sale and trying to continue to operate it is difficult, especially for a garden center that must start growing some of its inventory well before it is ready for sale.
McDonald said he knows one rumor that is floating around town is that the corner property will be converted into an apartment complex. He said that's not in the plans.
"This is a single family area," McDonald said. "I don't think that will be happening."
McDonald has owned the business for the past 14 years, but the location has served as a nursery since the 1920s, he said. Longtime florist Jim Owens operated it for many years, and early on it served as the nursery that supplied flowers to local shops, long before flowers were routinely flown or trucked in from other locations. (The business also has a long history as Pence's Garden Center.)
McDonald said he still thinks the best use for the property is as a greenhouse. He said if a new owner doesn't want to operate it as a retail center, the size of the greenhouse — there is about a football field under glass — makes it viable for other types of growing operations.
"I think it could make a very good incubator location for local, urban farmers," McDonald said. "I think it would work well for somebody who wanted to gain contracts growing local produce for area restaurants and markets. But I haven't had that person walk through the door yet."
Veteran commercial real estate agent Doug Brown of McGrew Commercial Real Estate is marketing the property. McDonald said the asking price has been reduced to $725,000.
McDonald said he's selling the business because he wants more time to pursue other interests. The business employs anywhere from about nine to 24 people, depending on the season. McDonald said there are mixed emotions about the decision to close.
"If I had a quarter for every person who told me they were sad that we were closing, it would be enough to make a mortgage payment," McDonald said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• A business on the upswing in Lawrence is homebuilding. While it is still not booming, the latest report from City Hall continues to show it is rebounding.
Lawrence builders pulled permits for 20 new homes in November, making it the second busiest month of the year for single-family construction.
For the year, Lawrence builders have been issued permits for 156 single family or duplex units. That's up nearly 29 percent from the same period a year ago. The 156 total is the highest in at least the last five years.
The really big numbers in the Lawrence construction world, however, have come on the commercial and apartment side of the industry. The city has issued permits for 374 new apartment units, also a five-year high. Many of those apartment projects have run in the tens of millions of dollars, which has helped push the total value of construction projects in the city to a new five-year high as well. The city has issued permits for $163.3 million worth of projects thus far in 2013. That's up 77 percent from the same period a year ago. It also well surpasses the previous five-year high of $108.5 million, which was set in 2011.
As a reminder, some of the big projects of the past year have included about $41 million at Rock Chalk Park and the city's recreation center, $13.8 million for a downtown hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire, $13 million for apartments near Sixth and Congressional Drive, and $10 million for the expansion of the Lawrence Public Library.
• I'm going to have to fire my agent. (Actually, I'm going to have to find an agent, so I can then fire him. But you get the point.) Apparently a production company was in Lawrence earlier this year to shoot a pilot episode for a new television series. And somehow I didn't receive a casting call. Well, now there is word that the program has been picked up by MTV, and the Lawrence episode will air sometime in March 2014.
Patti McCormick, a former Los Angeles television producer who now is a Lawrence marketing executive, is my source on this. She said she helped the production company find a filming location in Lawrence this summer. The spot ended up being at the private residence of Thomas and Dru Fritzel. The production company was in search of a gazebo area to shoot, but all the gazebos in city parks were reserved on the day of the shoot, so the Fritzels provided an area that worked.
McCormick said the crew also spent quite a bit of time taking shots of downtown Lawrence to work into the pilot episode. Other details about the show — I don't know if it is a reality program, drama, comedy or what — haven't been released. But McCormick said the production company told her the pilot episode includes several shots of Lawrence and that the city looks "amazing." I'll keep an ear open for more details as the air date gets closer.
• I will be spending the next week or so preparing for my close up. In other words, Town Talk will be on hiatus for a few days. It will appear again after the New Year. Thank you all for your readership and tips over the past year. Best wishes to all of you for a safe and happy holiday season.
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If there is one thing I know about gardening, it is that change is inevitable. For instance, I’ve observed that plants in my yard are green for about a week and then brown for much longer.
Well, change is in store for Sunrise Garden Center, the popular nursery and landscaping center at 15th and New York streets. But we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see exactly what the changes mean.
Longtime Sunrise owner Greg McDonald confirmed that he is retiring from the business and has placed the nearly three-acre property up for sale.
McDonald plans to keep the business open until he finds a buyer for the property and he hopes that the eventual buyer will want to keep the garden and nursery business open. But there are no guarantees on that.
“I think it can be very successful doing what it does today, but I think there are a lot of possibilities for people who have new ideas,” said McDonald.
The centerpiece of the property is a large greenhouse that McDonald said is about the size of a football field under glass. That’s enough space that if someone wanted to do some truck farming or shift the business over to more a specialty wholesale operation, it could do so, McDonald said.
Veteran commercial real estate broker Doug Brown of Lawrence’s McGrew Commercial is listing the property, and plans to market it to both retail and wholesale interests. But Brown said he plans to focus on marketing the property to people who want to use the greenhouse as a greenhouse in some way, shape or form. In other words, the plan isn’t to completely redevelop the site.
“We think that is the way to go with the success the business has had over the years,” Brown said. “It would be an attractive business for somebody to get into. It is a good business for Lawrence because it certainly has the green factor.”
As for McDonald, he has owned the business for the last 14 years, and he is ready to have more time to spend on other pursuits. But he said business at the garden center remains strong and that gardening remains very popular in the Lawrence area.
“This Mother’s Day was probably one of the best weekends we have ever had, and I know Memorial Day was the best Memorial Day weekend we’ve ever had,” McDonald said. “There are just so many people who enjoy doing things with the products that we sell.”
My neighbor tells me that some people even enjoy watering their plant products after they buy them. She reminds me of that frequently, for some reason.