Lawrence lands on more national lists; a bike repair station at City Hall; details on city’s latest affordable housing project
I am woefully behind on telling you how much other people like us. In short: Quite a lot. That’s my way of saying that Lawrence and some Lawrence businesses have landed on more national lists.
We’ll start in the world of restaurants. The travel website The Culture Trip has put together a list of the “10 Best Restaurants in Kansas.” Downtown Lawrence is home to four of the 10. This is a sign of one of two things: 1. Downtown Lawrence truly is the culinary capital of Kansas. 2. A Culture Trip editor had one too many Ad Astra Ales at Free State and never made it to any other city. (Raise your hand if that has happened to you.)
Regardless, Free State Brewery is on the list. The article also touts The Burger Stand, 715 Restaurant and Merchants Pub and Plate. Restaurants in Manhattan, Council Grove, Wichita, and Kansas City all made the list as well. The one that sounded the most interesting, though, was in Assaria, a town of about 400 people in Saline County. The Renaissance Cafe operates in the former Assaria High School. According to the article, tables are arranged on the old gym floor, and stocked bookshelves are a fixture of the restaurant. Hopefully, it still has a place to hang up heavily adorned letter jackets because this sounds like a place I need to visit.
In terms of Lawrence’s other ranking, the website CollegeRanker has Lawrence ranked as No. 2 on its 50 Best College Towns to Live in Forever. I suspect this also has something to do with Free State beer, although the article doesn’t own up to it. Instead, it lists Lawrence’s thriving music scene, and mentioned a 2007 ranking that listed The Replay Lounge as one of the top 25 bars in America. When you are talking about forever, it is very important to have a good bar nearby.
Manhattan also made the list at No. 26. I’m not really sure what criteria was used to rank these towns, but Lawrence finished one spot ahead of Ft. Collins, Colo., and one spot behind our arch rival . . . St. Augustine, Fla., home to Flagler College.
In other news and notes around town:
• If I were creating a list of the best places to get a flat tire on your bike in Lawrence (I know, there’s already an online list for that, but play along), Lawrence City Hall would be near the top of it. Why? Because the city has recently installed a bicycle repair station outside the east entrance.
In case you think I’m jesting, here's a picture.
The repair station has several hand tools secured via cables. Tightening a loose nut or making chain repairs, brake adjustments and that sort of thing can be done at the bike station. It also has an air pump, and despite it being located at City Hall, it does not dispense hot air. (Calm down, people. It’s all right. I’m sure politicians make good-natured jokes about journalists from time to time.)
The bike repair station is actually something to keep an eye on. There has been a lot of talk about making Lawrence more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. This bike station is meant as a pilot project. City staff members will monitor use and feedback from the bicycle community. If bikers find it useful, there may be others installed along frequent bike routes and trails.
• Another big topic in the city is affordable housing and attracting retirees. Commissioners at their meeting Tuesday night provided a boost to both efforts. As we reported, the city provided about $100,000 in incentives via fee rebates and some in-kind infrastructure work for Tenants to Homeowners’ Cedarwood Senior Cottages project at 2525 Cedarwood Ave. in south Lawrence.
Now that the project has the key city approval, Rebecca Buford, executive director of the not-for-profit Tenants to Homeowners, said she hopes the 14-unit townhome project will be ready for tenants this time next year. Dirt work already has begun on the site, which is behind the United Way building.
Buford also gave me some details about rent rates. Nine units will serve low-income seniors, and they’ll rent from $527 to $687 per month, depending on whether it is a one-bedroom or two-bedroom unit. Five units will be reserved for low-to-moderate income seniors, and they’ll rent for about $795 per month.
Buford estimates that the units — which have garages, front and back porches, fiber optic wiring, a community center and shared gardens — will rent for about $200 to $300 less than standard market rates in Lawrence.
Seniors will have to meet income guidelines to qualify. Buford said her organization is putting together an information packet for prospective tenants, but already she has a list of more than 50 people who are interested. If you want to be added to the list, call the Tenants to Homeowners office at 842-5494.
Buford said she hopes the Cedarwood Project will serve as template for Tenants to Homeowners to build other such senior, affordable housing in other neighborhoods.
“The demand for this type of housing is very strong,” Buford said.
New numbers out on Lawrence job growth; City Commission to consider $100K in incentives for affordable housing project
Usually in Lawrence, talk of a streak involves KU basketball, or that unfortunate incident that has you doing community service. But there is another streak we ought to talk about: Lawrence’s winning streak when it comes to jobs.
The latest federal report is out, and the Lawrence metro area in 2014 posted job gains every single month. The new numbers show that job totals in Lawrence were up for January 2015, as well. In fact, I did a little digging to figure out when the last month was that Lawrence saw a dip in jobs. The numbers show it was all the way back in Sept. 2013. That’s 16 straight months of year-over-year job growth.
If you remember, we have reported a few times over the last year about some job numbers that have looked good for Lawrence. There was a time when a report came out that said the Lawrence metro area had the highest job growth rate of any metro in the country in August 2014. (The number ultimately got revised downward, and that is why I have an only half-finished bust of the Chamber CEO in my living room.)
But the numbers have been impressive nonetheless. All these numbers, by the way, are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and its monthly Metropolitan Area Employment and Unemployment report. When I say Lawrence had job growth in a month, I mean that it had more jobs in that month than it did in the same month a year ago. Here’s a look at our year-over-year job growth rate by percentage in 2014:
— January: 1.4 percent
— February: 2.7 percent
— March: 3.1 percent
— April: 4.6 percent
— May: 4.0 percent
— June: 5.4 percent
— July: 7.1 percent
— August: 4.6 percent
— September: 2.2 percent
— October: 3.9 percent
— November: 1.3 percent
— December: 1.5 percent
Usually in Lawrence, the question of “What did you do last summer?” will cause you to worry greatly about your kids becoming college-age. But in 2014, it appears the answer was that a lot of people got a job. It looks like Lawrence’s job growth resurgence peaked in July.
It also is worth nothing that in most of the months of 2014, Lawrence posted the largest job growth rate of any city in Kansas. (Note: The BLS counts Kansas City as a Missouri metro area, so Lawrence was competing against Manhattan, Topeka and Wichita.)
The latest report gives us our first peek at 2015. So far, so good. The report shows there were 51,300 jobs located in Douglas County in January. That’s up from 49,800 in January 2014. That’s a 3 percent growth rate, which is better than several other regional communities. Here’s a look at the preliminary numbers:
— Kansas City: up 3.2 percent
— Manhattan: up 1.7 percent
— Topeka: up 1.7 percent
— Wichita: up 0.9 percent
— Ames, Iowa: up 4.9 percent
— Columbia, Mo.: up 1.7 percent
— Joplin, Mo.: up 2.0 percent
— St. Joseph: up 0.3 percent
Now, it is not all Champagne and roses yet when it comes to Lawrence job numbers. First, we don’t know much about these new jobs. Are they full time, good-paying jobs, or have we just seen an increase in part-time jobs in the service sector? At this point, it would just be a guess. On the job front, the two largest developments over the last year have been Hallmark Cards growing the workforce total at its Lawrence production plant, and General Dynamics adding significant numbers of people to its call center in East Hills Business Park.
The other thing to keep in mind is that Lawrence really has been stagnant on the job growth front for quite awhile. In other words, we’ve got a lot of time to make up for. I did an article in November, where I looked at our job growth performance over the last 10 years. I found that Douglas County’s job growth rate was negative 1.1 percent. During that same time period Johnson County had job growth of 10.6 percent, Riley County 15.6 percent, Wyandotte County 10.8 percent, and Sedgwick County 1.3 percent. The only metro area with negative job growth — other than Douglas County — was Shawnee County. It had negative job growth of 1 percent, which was a bit better than’ Douglas County’s showing.
But as each month passes, those numbers become a little more dated. A new narrative may be forming, and we all may soon have a new story to tell about a streak.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Both incentives and affordable housing have been a buzzword topics on the City Commission election trail. On Tuesday night, it will be a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup moment at the City Commission meeting. (Your peanut butter got into my chocolate, or maybe it was the other way around.) Regardless, what I’m trying to say is that affordable housing and incentives are wrapped up in a single issue.
City commissioners will consider approving about $100,000 worth of incentives for a Tenants to Homeowners project that will provide affordable housing to people 55 and older. As we’ve previously reported, Tenants to Homeowners has plans to build the Cedarwood Senior Cottages project at 125 Cedarwood Ave., which is behind the United Way building in south Lawrence. The $2.1 million project is expected to have 14 affordably priced town homes for seniors, along with some other amenities.
But leaders of the project say it needs some help in meeting all the costs related to city-required infrastructure and permit fees. In total, the project is asking for $101,975 worth of city assistance. About $61,000 would come in the form of city rebates of utility “impact fees” and meter installation fees. The rest includes some city assistance with sidewalk construction, storm water work, and fire hydrant installation.
City staff members are recommending approval of the incentive request. Money for the incentives would come from the city’s Community Development Block Grant funds, utility funds, and the city’s storm water fund.
Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
Publicly traded firm buys Lawrence-based engineering company; Holiday Inn closing banquet area for renovations; city to consider adding police dogs to force
Lawrence’s efforts to become an engineering hub may have received a significant boost. A publicly traded company has completed a multimillion dollar deal to purchase a rapidly growing Lawrence-based engineering firm.
Willdan Group Inc. — an Anaheim, Calif.-based firm that is traded on the NASDAQ — has bought Lawrence-based 360 Energy Engineers. 360 Energy Engineers is a 5-year-old company that spent many of its years in the Bioscience and Technology Business Center on KU’s West Campus, but recently moved into office space in the Hobbs Taylor Loft building in downtown Lawrence.
360 Energy had been posting double-digit growth rates for the last several years as it has focused on designing projects to save school districts, hospitals, municipalities and other organizations money on their energy bills. But the sale to Willdan is expected to provide even more growth opportunities, said Joe Hurla, who was one of three co-owners of 360 Energy and is staying on with Willdan.
“We looked at it as a great opportunity,” Hurla said. “We have been growing steadily and profitably, but Willdan brings a lot of capabilities and a lot of resources that we just didn’t have.”
There may be reason for area engineers to celebrate too. (In the engineering world, that means they’ll throw a party and do crazy things with all the function keys on a graphing calculator.) Hurla said Willdan’s plans are to keep the operations in Lawrence and ultimately grow them.
“We’re here for the long term,” Hurla said.
Hurla said Willdan is very interested in expanding into the Midwest market. Plus, the company likes the availability of engineers in the area, and the lower cost of operations in the Midwest.
“The idea is for it to become the Midwest hub, and the idea is to bring more engineering jobs to this market,” Hurla said. “They’ll be good-paying jobs for this market, but it is a lot more affordable to have engineers based in Lawrence than in California or New York.”
360 Energy has about 15 employees in Lawrence, plus has offices in Denver and Little Rock, Ark. The company has engineered a variety of projects related to heating and cooling upgrades, high-efficiency lighting projects, building envelope improvements, and other projects that would cause us nonengineers to hurt ourselves with a slide rule. The company uses performance contracting, which allows organizations to finance the projects through the future energy savings that will result.
Hurla said that’s a market that Willdan has wanted to become a larger player in. Willdan — the name is the combination of the first names of its two founders — announced it purchased 360 Energy and a smaller Oregon-based engineering firm for a total of $21.2 million.
In other news and notes from around town:
• First President Obama registers as a guest, and now there is news that Lawrence’s Holiday Inn and Convention center is set to get a major renovation.
Stephen Horton, general manager of the facility at 200 McDonald Drive, confirmed renovations of several rooms already are underway. But the bigger work is set to begin this summer when the hotel’s banquet and convention space will be shut down for about 10 weeks for upgrades.
I learned of the pending work because some large events that were scheduled for the Holiday Inn are now scrambling to find other locations this summer. Horton declined to provide details about how many functions — think weddings, think nonprofit fundraisers, and a host of other events — will be affected by the temporary closure. It also wasn’t clear to me when the decision to close the banquet facilities was made.
There’s a rumor going around town that all the inspections and such that were related to President Obama’s stay found something that hotel officials decided needed to be fixed sooner rather than later. Horton, though, said that’s not the case.
“I have no idea where that came from,” Horton said.
(Indeed, people have crazy ideas about what happened with the president. I heard one person who thought the presidential motorcade rented limousines from an area vendor. That also isn’t true, although I’m sure the president would occasionally enjoy the amenities in a nice prom limo.)
Details about the renovation are still being developed by architects, Horton said. But the general idea is to make the entire hotel more “fashionable, modern and contemporary.”
“We are certainly going to do all of that,” Horton said.
There has been a lot of hotel development in Lawrence in recent years, but the Holiday Inn is still the largest hotel in Lawrence with 192 rooms. It also has the largest convention/banquet space with about 15,000 square feet. Horton said the project won’t add any rooms or meeting space, but rather will upgrade the existing space.
“It will make us absolutely a lot more marketable,” Horton said. “It will make us a destination spot for some groups that maybe have been going to Kansas City in the past.”
Horton said the entire set of renovations likely will take most of 2015 to complete.
• Lawrence’s newest crime fighters may have four legs. The Lawrence Police Department is requesting funding to start a police service dog program. The department currently relies on police dogs from Topeka or other jurisdictions to help in cases involving search and recovery, narcotics and other such issues.
A new report from the department details just how often Lawrence officers are in need of dogs. The department asked two officers who are assigned to criminal interdiction to track how often they request a police dog from another department. From April 2014 to November 2014, they requested a police dog on 211 occasions. They received a police dog from other jurisdictions just 53 times. The report notes that police dogs helped seize large amounts of illegal narcotics, and even assisted in discovering a financial scheme that involved about $100,000 in fraudulent gift cards. The department said a police dog also would be invaluable in helping track a missing child or an at-risk adult.
City commissioners will consider the issue at their Tuesday evening meeting. A police dog costs about $9,500 to purchase, and there are other startup and operational expenses as well. The department has presented several funding scenarios. On the low end, the department could start a program with two police dogs for $36,000, if it used existing vehicles and personnel. On the high end, a program with two dogs, new vehicles and new personnel would cost about $270,000.
City commissioners meet at 5:45 on Tuesday at City Hall to discuss the issue.
• We’ve been telling you for months about a planned senior, affordable housing project behind the United Way building in southern Lawrence. Well, the project is ready to begin construction, but first the nonprofit group that is developing the housing is seeking $100,000 in assistance from City Hall.
Lawrence-based Tenants to Homeowners is requesting $100,000 in city funds to help pay for several city-required infrastructure improvements to the site at 2525 Cedarwood Avenue. The project will include 14 duplex living units with a total of 23 bedrooms. The project also will include a community center for the neighborhood, which will have a “telehealth” kiosk that would allow residents to take vital signs and communicate with their doctors.
“This development will be a showpiece for residential infill, innovative senior affordable housing and community partnerships,” Rebecca Buford, executive director of Tenants to Homeowners told city commissioners in a letter.
Tenants to Homeowners is estimating the entire project will cost about $1.9 million to build. It will use grant money and rental income from the units to finance the project, but it still has a gap of about $135,000. It is seeking $100,000 from the city. It notes that Douglas County already has made a significant donation to the project. Douglas County gave the property for the project, a donation valued at about $260,000.
City commissioners will receive the request at their Tuesday evening meeting, but are not expected to decide the issue until receiving a staff report in future weeks.
• A little housekeeping: Town Talk will be off for the next week while I get my batteries recharged in advance of what will be a busy City Commission election season. That process involves jumper cables, a city code book and a mayoral gavel, so hopefully I’ll return to action in a week.
If Lawrence really wants to become a destination for retirees, Rebecca Buford, executive director of Lawrence's Tenants to Homeowners, believes there is an issue community leaders might want to think about: an affordable place for retirees to live.
"If we really want seniors to come live here, we should think about this," Buford said. "We don't want them locking up all their money in housing. We want them to have money available to spend in Lawrence."
Buford and her not-for-profit agency have filed plans to build a 14-unit, rent-controlled, senior living housing development on property just behind the United Way building in south Lawrence.
Tenants to Homeowners has filed a request to rezone about 2 acres of vacant property at 2518 Ridge Court to RM-12 multi-family zoning. The property currently is zoned for RS-7 single family development.
Buford said concept plans call for the property to be developed with a mix of one-bedroom and two-bedroom townhouses that will be limited to seniors 55 and older.
Buford said a group of retirees or soon-to-be retirees approached Tenants to Homeowners about the project, saying that Lawrence needed more retirement housing that "felt like a neighborhood instead of a high-rise apartment complex."
Buford said current plans call for Tenants to Homeowners to rent the properties to seniors rather than sell the townhouses. Buford said feedback from several retirees indicated they would rather rent than own.
"Seniors don't want to lock all their equity up into their homes," Buford said. "They usually need access to their equity for health care and other expenses."
The units will rent for below-market rates, and seniors must meet certain income guidelines to qualify for a unit. Buford said the project will be geared at those seniors who make 80 percent or less of the area's median income. For a family size of two, that means an annual income of $45,350 or less.
The property currently is owned by Douglas County. It was part of the old Valley View Nursing Home that the county operated decades ago. Buford said plans call for the county to donate the property to Tenants to Homeowners, which will help the project offer below-market rates. Buford said she also is working to secure grants and other financing for the approximately $2 million project.
If the City Hall land use approvals come through in a timely fashion, Buford hopes to break ground next spring and be ready to open by late 2014.
Buford acknowledges the project may face opposition from a few neighbors, which is often the case when vacant ground in an established neighborhood is proposed to be developed. This one comes with the added hurdle that Tenants to Homeowners is asking for a zoning category that often is used to build apartments. But Buford said Tenants to Homeowners is committed to the idea of townhouse development rather than a traditional apartment complex. And she said the development will place restrictions on the land to ensure that it always remains limited to senior housing.
But this may be one project that hits City Hall with a lot of momentum. It is combining two trends that have been getting a lot of talk locally: affordable housing and attracting retirees. There was an entire joint city-county task force on attracting retirees to the city.
And this is the third affordable housing project to surface in recent months, joining the public-private proposal by the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority at 23rd and O'Connell, and plans for a new four-story development near the Poehler Lofts building in East Lawrence. By the way, Buford confirmed to me that Tenants to Homeowners has agreed to be a partner in that project, which will feature 43 units in a newly-constructed building at the southeast corner of Ninth and Delaware streets.