Ed Forman had been warned about downtown Lawrence.
It was about 2005 when Forman began looking for a spot in an idyllic downtown where he and his wife could work together in a sweet shop, share some smiles and maybe create a few too. But those in the regional business community had cautioned Forman about downtown Lawrence. They told him two factors consistently drove businesses out of business in downtown: high rents and a City Hall that was terrible to work with.
By 2012, Forman and his wife took the leap. They opened the TCBY frozen yogurt shop at Ninth and Massachusetts. In the last few days, they closed it. The couple no longer could make the TCBY franchise work. Forman said he had a plan to open a business called Free State Frozen Coffee and Desserts, but a noncompete clause with TCBY won’t allow it. For the moment, the building sits empty while Forman works to find a new idea or someone to take over his lease.
Another downtown business out of business. Remember the warning? Come to find out, it wasn’t accurate. Yes, the result was the same — a closed business — but the reasons behind the closure weren’t high rents and a difficult city government.
Forman, who has a business in Branson, Mo., and has owned businesses in more than a half-dozen other cities, said Lawrence City Hall was among the best he has worked with. He also had no complaints with the rent or his landlord, the late George Paley and his family.
When Forman spoke to me, he was insistent that people understand those old, familiar reasons weren’t behind this closure. Instead, he thinks it is important for Lawrence residents to hear something that he knows several merchants in downtown think but aren’t always comfortable saying.
“The people of Lawrence,” Forman said when asked about what needs to change with downtown. “The west-siders need to reinvest in downtown Lawrence.”
Forman said he believes downtown is becoming a bit like The Strip in Las Vegas. He said the last place residents of Las Vegas want to go on a regular basis is The Strip. They go when they have visitors from out of town or when there is a special event, but many other times they avoid it.
Forman said it always was surprising how many of his shop’s customers were from out of town — many Johnson County residents coming over for a weekend outing. That’s good. Lawrence will take all the Johnson County money it can get. But unlike Las Vegas, Lawrence doesn’t yet have a tourism industry large enough to entirely support the downtown that we want to have.
A bit of perspective is probably important here. There has been a lot of new building in downtown in the last several years. Vacancy rates are not particularly high in the district. Downtown is not in crisis. And there probably are a multitude of reasons why the TCBY shop didn’t work, including the fact that a Kansas winter doesn’t always put a fellow in the mood for frozen yogurt.
But I’ve certainly heard the concerns whispered before that Lawrence consumers don’t support their downtown businesses like they used to. Worse yet, Forman thinks Lawrence residents have become a bit blasé about it.
“I think too many Lawrence people are content with the idea that businesses come and go in downtown, but that is not how you build a strong downtown,” Forman said.
Certainly there are Lawrence residents concerned about the long-term health of downtown. A certain subset of that group likely have a predictable response to this issue: Don’t allow frozen yogurt shops to locate anywhere but downtown. One possible strategy has always been to protect downtown at the expense of all other areas of town. Going that path, however, puts the community at odds with perhaps the most prevalent trend in America: the need for everything to be convenient. For that reason, the strategy might not work. If a frozen yogurt place wasn’t allowed to open at Sixth and Wakarusa, for instance, I’m not sure whether TCBY would have sold more frozen yogurt or whether Lawrence would have just eaten less frozen yogurt.
Another option is to embrace the idea of downtown Lawrence retail being supported primarily by visitors. If that is the case, though, Lawrence’s tourism industry is likely going to have to grow substantially.
The strategy that it seemed like the city had settled on was to encourage more people to live downtown, which in turn would be good for downtown retailers. The most convenient place for people who live downtown to shop would be downtown.
But as the apartment development along New Hampshire Street has illustrated, such a strategy relies on the city providing financial incentives, especially to address the parking issues that are caused by more people living downtown. It is less clear whether the current City Commission believes in that strategy. It rejected incentives for Bob Schumm’s apartment project on Vermont Street, and it seems the new incentives policy passed by the commission will make the use of incentives more difficult in downtown.
What to do? Hard to say. Downtown, like many beautiful things, is complex.
But Forman — who said he still loves downtown and may open a future business in the district — contends that Lawrence residents could make the situation better by doing something very simple: Find more reasons to go downtown and spend.
“We do wish the people of Lawrence would invest as much in downtown as the merchants do,” he said.
Maybe the folks at 3 Spoons Yogurt know something we don’t — that winter is never really going to end.
Whatever the case, the frozen yogurt business at 732 Massachusetts Street has closed its doors, and an employee there confirmed to me that the company has no plans to reopen elsewhere in Lawrence.
I didn’t get any official word on why the company decided to close. I suppose you could assume that it was just a decision based on the amount of sales the company was doing in Lawrence, although the store had nearly 3,000 likes on its Facebook page. (And that’s all you need to get rich in America anymore, isn’t it?) I will say that on my many patrols of downtown, it seemed to me the store had a good following, especially with the sorority crowd. (I’ll tell you what I tell my wife when she asks me why I know so much about where sorority members hang out: It is my job to be observant.)
3 Spoons, which has been in Lawrence for a little more than two years, is part of a franchise that was started in College Station, Texas in 2009, according to the company's Web site. In case you are curious, the nearest store to Lawrence now appears to be Waco, Texas. (It might melt before you get back.)
What isn’t the case, it appears, is that some other business came and took the space away from Three Spoons. Bob Sarna — an executive with First Management, the company that serves as the landlord for the downtown building — confirmed to me he doesn’t yet have another business lined up for the space.
The frozen yogurt business downtown certainly got more competitive in recent months with the opening of TCBY at Ninth and Massachusetts in the former Penny Annies location. Both operated with the same philosophy of serve yourself and then take your yogurt up to be weighed. (Dangerous business trying to gauge the weight of food. Lawrence Memorial Hospital once had a spaghetti bar that operated like that. One of the more important lessons I’ve learned in life: Spaghetti is heavy, although it was the best $22 hospital lunch I’ve ever had.)
TCBY, though, also has the added advantage of being a Mrs. Fields Cookie retailer as well. (Because of the observant nature of my job, I have observed they do give free samples of that product.)
I’ll keep an ear out for word of what may be heading into the 3 Spoons location. As for people who have a gift certificate to the 3 Spoons location in Lawrence, the company is asking you to e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org find out the details for a refund.