The Merc starts $320,000 renovation project; city writes letter opposing election changes; charging city inmates for jail time to be debated
Increasing competition in Lawrence’s natural grocery market has us all reacting in different ways. I’m undergoing training to make sure I don’t accidentally end up at a sample station for tofu bacon. The Merc, the city’s longest running natural grocery store is preparing a bit differently. It is undertaking its second major renovation in the last year.
The Merc, 901 Iowa St., began an approximately $320,000 renovation project this week that is expected to last into April. The store remains open during the project, and much of the work will be done at night after the store has closed for the day.
Among the planned upgrades:
— Wider aisles and new interior signage.
— Improved energy efficient LED lighting in the store and in the parking lot.
— A reorganized and updated meat and seafood department.
— Relocation and expansion of the bulk foods section.
— An expansion and relocation of the Main Street Credit Union branch that is located inside the store.
— Energy efficiency upgrades to the store’s heating and cooling systems.
— An updated community classroom area.
The latest project comes on the heels of a $500,000 renovation The Merc undertook in late 2014. That project included improvements to the coffee and juice bars, check out lanes and other areas of the store. Store leaders had said at the time that they planned to do a phase II renovation.
The renovation work comes as a new competitor is set to enter the market. As we previously have reported, Sprouts is set to open its Lawrence store near Wakarusa and Overland drives in the second quarter of this year. There certainly has been speculation that another natural grocery chain is eyeing Lawrence. The development group for a proposed retail area south of the SLT and Iowa street interchange has said a specialty grocer would like to be part of that project. It is far from certain whether that retail development will ever get off the ground, but it may be that the specialty chain still has an interest in Lawrence regardless. There’s been no official word on which company is interested in the market. Whole Foods always gets thought of, but I’ve heard some talk of a different chain — The Fresh Market, which has expanded into Kansas with stores in Overland Park and Wichita.
As for The Merc’s latest project, expect some refinement of the store’s product mix and pricing structure, company officials have said. I’ve got a call into store general manager Rita York Hennecke to find out more details about that and other planned improvements at the store.
The Merc said it is financing the $320,000 project from loans through its Owner Loan Program. The Merc is a cooperative that is owned by more than 7,000 community members, although the store is open to both members and nonmembers.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The Lawrence City Commission is officially weighing in on the statehouse debate about whether local elections should become partisan affairs. There is talk in Topeka of making city and school board elections partisan races that would be on the November ballots, along with races for governor, senator and legislators and other such races.
Mayor Mike Amyx has written a letter opposing the idea and has submitted the letter as testimony for a hearing today by the Senate Committee on Ethics and Elections. Amyx cites a host of reasons for opposing a change in the local election cycle, which currently takes place in the spring and on a ballot that doesn’t feature statewide or partisan races. Among the reasons cited by Amyx:
— “Voters will focus on state and national races, and may not devote sufficient time to educate and inform themselves on local candidates and local issues,” Amyx wrote.
— “We don’t need or want our local elections to be partisan,” he wrote. “We prefer the voters focus on issues and individuals, not political party labels.”
— He questions whether the change to a partisan system would preclude active duty military personnel and other federal employees from seeking local office. He cites regulations from the Hatch Act and a Department of Defense Directive that both place restrictions on when government employees can serve in partisan positions.
Supporters of the proposed change have argued that combining local elections with state and national elections will produce higher voter turnout. Voter turnout in local city and school elections in Lawrence often is less than 20 percent.
• When Lawrence police officers arrest someone for a municipal crime that ultimately involves serving time at the Douglas County Jail, the city gets charged about $70 a day by the county for the cost of housing those inmates. For the last three years, the city has had a program where it tries to recoup those jail costs from the inmates who served the time. That policy is set to get a second look.
Commissioner Jeremy Farmer at Tuesday evening’s City Commission meeting said he wanted to discuss rescinding that policy. He said the city’s collections efforts haven’t been overly successful, and he is concerned it is placing a financial burden on people who have served their time and are trying to get their lives back in order.
It looks like the issue will come up for discussion by the commission in the next week or two. The topic had started to become an issue in some City Commission campaigns. Cori Viola, a KU law student who has filed for a seat on the commission, has been highlighting the issue on the campaign trail.
The Merc plans major renovation at Ninth and Iowa; city wins grant for riverside trail; Color Run returning to downtown Lawrence
Fresh juice, fine coffee, surrounded by local produce: It sounds just like my daily breakfast because I’m almost certain mini-powdered doughnuts, Cap’n Crunch and Nutter Butters are all grown locally. Well, regardless, get ready for an upgrade in the world of coffee and juice establishments, as The Merc has plans for a new shop as part of a major renovation project.
The Merc is in the beginning stages of an approximately $500,000 renovation at its grocery at Ninth and Iowa streets. A new coffee and juice shop will be one of the more visible changes shoppers will notice. General Manager Rita York Hennecke says The Merc will be expanding the coffee and smoothie program and will be adding organic juices to the menu. Currently, the store’s espresso bar is kind of tucked away in a corner of the building. Hennecke said the location will change to a spot that is much more visible to shoppers.
“You won’t have to be in the know anymore to get your coffee,” she said.
Hennecke said the new coffee/juice bar also will have an expanded seating area, will offer an expanded line of baked goods from The Merc’s in-store bakery, and will put a greater emphasis on a quick-service menu.
“We want people to be able to stop by on their way to work and get a cup of coffee,” she said.
Other improvements in the renovation project include a new express check-out lane and a relocation and upgrade to the store’s customer service desk. The desk will be more visible and will be a great place to tout The Merc’s cooperative ownership structure, Hennecke said. The Merc has about 7,000 co-op members who are owners of the store, although you do not have to be an owner of the store to shop there.
Some renovations to the office area and receiving area also are on tap for phase I of the renovation. Work is expected to begin Sept. 29 and last through Nov. 11. The store will remain open throughout the renovation.
The store also is planning a phase II renovation that would begin one early 2015, pending approval of the co-op’s board of directors. That will include a new ceiling and new energy efficient lighting system for the grocery.
Hennecke said the renovations are a sign that The Merc recognizes it needs to continue investing in itself in order to thrive in what is becoming a much more competitive grocery market. Sprouts, a farmers' market-style grocer, is under construction near Wakarusa and Overland Drive in West Lawrence, and Natural Grocers on 23rd Street has come to the Lawrence market since The Merc’s last major renovation in 2007. Plus traditional grocery stores are expanding their health, organic and locally grown departments, which has long been the calling card of The Merc.
“We are preparing for increased competition,” Hennecke said. “We understand we have to step up our game in so many ways. We have started to do that with our pricing strategy, our sampling program, and now this renovation. We want to be strong. We don’t just want to survive competition.”
The timing of the renovation also is good in another way: The Merc is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, which is amazing. But not as amazing as the fact that apparently Nutter Butters aren’t grown anywhere. How can that be? They look like a giant peanut.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If you eat enough Nutter Butters and Cap’n Crunch, I’ve found that you may want to take a bit of a walk before your midmorning nap. Soon, Lawrence residents will have a new trail to walk on. City Hall has been notified it has received a grant to build a new riverside trail that will connect Constant Park near Sixth and Tennessee streets with Burcham Park near Second and Indiana streets.
The Sunflower Foundation has provided a $53,460 grant. The city will provide an equal amount in matching funds to build the trail that will be a little more than a half-mile long. Its path will be along the banks of the Kansas River, which means Lawrence kind of will have a river walk adjacent to downtown Lawrence. (If you see me in a flat-bottom boat with my guitar and my big sombrero, you’ll know I’m likely just trying to re-create the San Antonio river walk scene.) There is a makeshift trail through the area now, but this one will be an improved trail that also won’t face the risk of washing away as the river rises.
The new trail will tie into the Outside for a Better Inside Trail, which is a hike and bike trail that goes around the large pond that is behind the former VFW property. That property has been donated to the city by the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. The property is being converted into the city’s newest park, the Sandra J. Shaw Community Health Park. The Outside for a Better Inside Trail is complete. Once the riverside trail is complete, users basically will have a continuous path from about Lawrence Memorial Hospital to downtown.
• If your style of walking or running involves being sprayed with colored corn starch, you are in luck. The Color Run is making a return to downtown Lawrence. The event has filed for the necessary permits to run in the downtown area on Oct. 18. The Saturday race is expected to draw about 4,000 participants to downtown.
If you are not familiar with the event, which has been run in Lawrence since 2012, participants wear white clothing to start the race, then run through several color zones where people spray colored cornstarch on them.
The city is proposing that the event, since it is a for-profit operation, fully reimburse the city for any money it spends on staffing or cleaning up afterward. The city also is requiring the event to have volunteers available to direct traffic at each intersection affected by the race. That is designed to cut down on the number of police officers needed to staff the event.
As for the route, click here to see a map.
The phrase “warm up the bus” may become a frequent one at Kansas University’s Memorial Stadium, and it has nothing to do with the improving — or declining — fortunes of the KU football team.
A new City Hall report lists a site on the grounds of Memorial Stadium as a leading contender to house a multmillion dollar transit center.
The report says a site just northeast of the stadium — where the shot put and discus rings are now — may be the best location to build a nearly $3 million transit center that would serve both the city and KU’s public transit buses.
As currently envisioned, the transit center would hold a specially-designed parking lot to accommodate upwards of 10 buses. It also would include a small building with public restrooms and a break room for bus drivers.
The option would involve relocating a portion of Fambrough Drive so that it no longer is part of an offset intersection where it connects with Mississippi Street. The portion of Illinois Street that runs onto the stadium property also would be relocated.
As for the discus, shot put and javelin areas, they would be relocated to the Rock Chalk Park complex in northwest Lawrence, where a state-of-the-art track and field stadium is being constructed.
The project is expected to cost about $2.8 million, including about an extra $100,000 per year in operational costs required to reroute the buses to the center.
The consulting firm Olsson Associates recommends that the city also seriously consider two other sites: 2029 Becker Drive, which is the KU Park and Ride Lot on West Campus; and 925 Iowa, which is part of the parking system behind The Merc grocery store at Ninth and Iowa.
The site at the stadium, however, has the lowest costs of the three. The Park and Ride Lot has an estimated $3.7 million price tag, including an annual additional operational expense of about $535,000 to route the buses through the center. The Ninth and Iowa location has a price tag of $3.2 million, including an extra $366,000 of annual operational expenses.
It will be interesting to think through how large numbers of buses will impact the thousands of people who show up on KU game days to tailgate around Memorial Stadium. There are already a large number of buses that arrive at the stadium on game day as part of the shuttle system the city operates from downtown to the stadium. But those buses are confined to parking spaces on Mississippi Street.
These buses — which I assume would be in addition the shuttle buses — would be on the stadium grounds themselves. And, a very key point here, they would be on a portion of the grounds that currently is prime tailgating space.
We may be setting the stage to find out how important tailgating is to the KU game day experience. Let’s face it, the last couple of years, it has been more important than the games. (If the city needs a consultant to advise it on KU tailgating matters, I certainly could form a corporation, so to speak. Of course, any good study will require a large quantity of a certain beverage, several pounds of prime beef, and probably a mobile flat screen television just to be thorough.)
City commissioners will get their first look at the study at their 6:35 p.m. meeting Tuesday at City Hall.
If talk of this issue has left you confused, don’t feel bad. (The thought of a mobile, flat-screen television leaves me discombobulated too.) No, more than likely it is that you thought this issue already was decided. Transit center talk has been in the news a lot lately, with commissioners just last week agreeing to locate a transit hub in the 700 block of Vermont Street. What’s important to remember about that hub, however, is it designed to be temporary.
The city soon will have to move its transit hub from Ninth and New Hampshire streets, once construction work begins on the new hotel at that intersection. It now has been decided that the 700 block of Vermont Street — across from the library project — will be the temporary location.
But city officials all along have said they need to find a better permanent home for the transit hub. It had become increasingly obvious that finding one in downtown may be difficult.
It will be interesting, however, to see how much the city’s bus system routes must change once the main hub is no longer located downtown. It's possible that some routes that come downtown today may not in the future. The report doesn’t provide details about route changes, but it assumes “service to downtown would continue where feasible for specific routes.” It also notes that the city may be able to reduce some of the estimated operating expenses, if it chooses to rethink the number of buses that it sends through downtown.
It all may create quite the discussion. In the meantime, I think I’ll do a little “professional development” for my career in tailgate consulting.