Kansas City grocery company signs deal to locate store in downtown Lawrence; lawsuit could still derail project
A full-service downtown grocery store — complete with a pharmacy and a Mongolian grill — is now closer to becoming a reality than ever before. But a Douglas County court case could still deal the project a major blow.
As expected, Queen’s Price Chopper of Kansas City has signed a letter of intent to locate a Price Chopper grocery store at Seventh and New Hampshire streets, on the site of the former Borders bookstore.
A development group led by Lawrence businessmen Mike Treanor and Doug Compton have filed plans at City Hall to tear down the old Borders bookstore and replace it with a three-story building that would include the ground-floor grocery store and two levels of apartments above. The filing of formal plans — an incentive request also will be filed — marks the largest step yet in a multiyear effort to bring a grocery store to downtown. But the project is still in jeopardy of receiving a major setback from a Douglas County lawsuit.
As we reported in December, a pair of condo owners in the adjacent Hobbs Taylor Loft building have filed a lawsuit alleging that the development group is seeking to do an end run around a set of covenants that prohibit a large grocery store from being built on the Borders property. The development group disagrees. The development group filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. A hearing was held at the end of March, and now the parties await a decision from Douglas County District Court Judge Kay Huff. If the lawsuit isn’t dismissed, it is presumed Huff will issue an injunction that will stop work on the project. That makes the stakes of her decision high.
“If there is a ruling that says we are under an injunction, it probably will be close to a death knell,” said Bill Fleming, an attorney who represents the development group.
The injunction wouldn’t stop the development group and the two residents — Brian Russell and Brent Flanders — from settling the lawsuit, but it is unclear to me whether such a settlement is likely. As for the timing of the court’s decision, that is anyone’s guess, although it has moved fairly quickly thus far by judicial standards.
Absent the lawsuit, excitement levels are high for the project. The development will need to win several city approvals, and the developers are making no secret about the fact that they will be asking for incentives. Those will include a tax increment finance district that will rebate back large portions of property and sales taxes to the project, plus a low or no-interest loan that will help equip the new store.
But developers say the community will be getting what it long has asked for: a downtown grocery store that is big enough to serve not just the downtown but surrounding neighborhoods like North and East Lawrence.
“There will not be anything lacking from the grocery side,” said Dennis Reilly, chief financial officer for Queen’s Price Chopper. “It will be one-stop shopping.”
Here’s a look at some the of the details from the latest plans:
• The approximately 20,000 square-foot Borders building would be demolished and would be replaced with a three-story building that would have a footprint of about 40,000 square feet. The ground floor would house the grocery store.The second and third floors would house 82 apartments that would include a mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. Fifteen percent of the apartments would rent at rates that meet the city’s new affordability standards.
• The project would include a two-level, underground parking garage built beneath the new building. The garage would have 182 spaces. The lowest level of the garage would be gated and reserved for the use of apartment tenants. The other level — about 91 spaces — would be available for grocery store customers. In addition, the project would have about 80 above-ground parking spaces around the store. About 60 of them would be in the existing lot just south of the current building. About 15 angled parking stalls would be added on New Hampshire Street and about five angled stalls would be added on Seventh Street. All the above ground parking is anticipated to be public parking that would be managed by the city, which means it could be metered spaces or could be two-hour free parking.
• In case you are wondering how you get your grocery cart to your car in the below-ground parking garage, the store’s design includes an escalator specifically built for grocery carts. The store would have a standard escalator, and next to it is one that is designed to grasp a grocery cart.
“You can stay with your cart, but you can’t ride in the cart,” Fleming said. “At least I don’t think you can.” (We’ll see about that.)
• The store will have many of the same features as the Queen’s Price Chopper at 151st and Metcalf in Overland Park, Reilly said. That store is twice as large — at 80,000 square feet — but the Lawrence store will be designed in a way to accommodate the same basic features. At 40,000 square feet, the Lawrence Price Chopper will be similar in size to the Dillons store on Massachusetts Street.
• Among the features the store will have is a drive-thru pharmacy. The drive-thru will be on the south side of the building. The store also will have a sushi bar, a Mongolian-style Asian grill, an American grill, cold sandwiches, a coffee shop, a large indoor dining area and a patio seating area. The store also will have a floral shop, a bakery, a full meat counter and all the grocery items you would expect. Reilly said the store’s produce department is being given special attention. The store will be designed so that the produce department is visible from the street.
“Produce is a real emphasis for us,” Reilly said.
• The project will need to win multiple approvals from City Hall in order to move forward.
“The project is going to need some help,” Fleming said.
The project will have to go through the historic resources review process, since downtown is part of a historic district. The Borders building only dates back to the 1990s, but the site includes an old wall from a livery station that used to occupy the site long ago. Keeping that wall was part of a compromise reached with historic preservationists who objected to the construction of the Borders building in the 1990s.
• City Hall approval of an incentives package will be critical, Fleming said. He said the project will ask for tax increment financing, which is a mechanism that allows the development to receive a rebate on new property and sales taxes generated by the development. Fleming said the TIF is needed to help pay for an estimated $7 million worth of expenses that will be incurred to build the underground parking garage. Fleming, though, said the project is not currently expected to ask for a transportation development district tax. That’s significant because a TDD would impose a special 1 percent sales tax on the grocery store.
“We want to keep the groceries as affordable as possible,” Fleming said. “There already is a concern about how regressive sales taxes are on groceries, so we want to avoid that special tax.”
The project also is expected to ask for about a $2.25 million no-interest or low-interest loan that would be used to equip the grocery store with items such as freezers, shelving and other items needed to make the store functional. The loan would be repaid to the city as long as the grocery store hit certain sales targets.
• A key piece of federal assistance also will be needed. The project will apply for federal new market tax credits. Those tax credits will be used to help finance the project, which is expected to have a total private price tag of more than $20 million.
Those tax credits are awarded through a competitive process. If the project were not awarded the tax credits, Fleming said the project would be in jeopardy. The development group should know in about a month whether it has won any tax credits this year. Fleming believes the project stands a good chance of winning tax credits.
“I think the odds are high that we will get the credits, but it is not a simple process,” Fleming said.
He said the fact that the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods are part of a “food desert” should go a long way in securing the tax credits. The food desert designation refers to residents needing to travel a good distance to have access to fresh food. Both the North Lawrence and East Lawrence neighborhoods have been advocating for a downtown grocery store to address the food desert issue.
If approved, this will be the sixth store for Queen’s Price Chopper. It operates stores in Overland Park, Paola, Spring Hill and Bonner Springs.
Reilly said demolishing the Borders building to allow for a larger store to be built is a key part of the plan. He said the company explored using the existing Borders building but didn’t feel comfortable that it would be large enough to act as the full-service grocery store that he believes community members want.
“This will allow us to have the full variety of offerings that will make it a destination for shoppers,” Reilly said. “You want a store that the community can be proud of, and we know the store has to have what the customer wants.”
City set to approve 120-foot cell phone tower in eastern Lawrence; study finds Kansas among the top states in U.S. for teachers
Well, we have all heard about the dangers of talking on our cell phones while driving. Or about texting while driving. But for some reason, there is one cell phone-related driving danger that rarely ever gets discussed — a cell phone tower falling in front of your car. Fear not, Lawrence city commissioners will tackle that one tonight.
Commissioners will consider giving final approval for Verizon to build a 120-foot tall tower at 2001 Moodie Road, which is the site of the Ottawa Coop grain elevators. Commissioners gave the plans preliminary approval in July, but at that time asked Verizon to make a few changes to the exact location of the tower.
Commissioners at the time wanted to change the location of the tower to provide greater distance between the tower and a nearby building. Changes were made, but Verizon hasn’t been able to come up with a location that meets all the standard requirements for towers in the city.
Plans for towers are required to show where a tower would land in the unlikely event that a tower collapses. Standard city regulations call for the “fall zone” of a tower to be contained on the property where the tower is located. That’s not the case with these plans. The city’s planning staff has calculated that the fall zone for the proposed tower would extend five feet into the southbound lane of Moodie Road.
The issue, however, may not play much of a role in whether the tower wins approval. The city’s planning department, in a memo to commissioners, said “the risk of the tower falling into the southbound driving lane is very small in staff’s opinion.” The city can issue a waiver from the standard requirements, and that is staff’s recommendation on this project.
The Brook Creek Neighborhood Association also is recommending approval of the project. It likes this site much better than the previously proposed site at 1725 Bullene Avenue. City commissioners rejected that site after multiple concerns were expressed that the tower would be too near homes. Verizon has sued the city in federal court over that denial, but it is expected that case will be dropped if this location is approved.
So, while the chances of a cell phone tower falling in front of your car while driving are rare, I felt I should at least make you aware of the situation so you can have a plan. I know what my plan is: I’ll slow down to 45 mph and immediately take a picture and text “OMG!” and “WTF!” (which of course stands for “Why Tower Fall”) to everyone I know.
Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. tonight at City Hall.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There has to be a lot of teachers in Lawrence — the education capital of Kansas — feeling mighty good these days. After all, Kansas is one of the better places in the country to be a teacher. Maybe you have been too busy watching cell towers to notice, but Kansas has been ranked the 9th best state in the country for teachers, according to a new study by the financial website WalletHub.
The website looked at a variety of factors to compile their rankings. Here’s where Kansas ranked on the various metrics:
— 16th for average starting salary for teachers
— 25th for median annual salary for teachers
— 27th for the projected number of teachers per student by year 2020
— 11th for unemployment rate
— 17th for the 10-year change in teacher salaries
— 3rd for pupil to teacher ratio. The study found that only Vermont and North Dakota have better pupil-to-teacher ratios than Kansas.
The website used data from the Census Bureau, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Education Association, the National Center for Educational Statistics, among others to compile its findings.
Kansas fared better than any other state in middle America. Here’s a look at how others around the region performed:
— Nebraska: 18
— Missouri: 24
— Colorado: 28
— Oklahoma: 41
The latest study continues a trend – at least from WalletHub — of good marks for the state’s school system. Earlier this year, WalletHub ranked the state’s school system as the 12th best in the country. The website examined a host of federal statistics on test scores, pupil-to-teacher ratios, incidents of violence, dropout rates and other metrics. Kansas was the second ranked state in middle America in that study. Colorado beat Kansas by finishing as the No. 2 ranked system in the country. Other border states were Nebraska, 17th; Missouri, 28th; Oklahoma, 33rd.
More details emerge on pending west Lawrence retirement community; city set to tackle bus hub question; major changes to 21st Street possible
Plans for a proposed multimillion dollar senior living complex in West Lawrence are becoming clearer. The developer of the property has confirmed it has entered into a contract for an approximately four-acre site near Sixth and Queens Road.
We reported earlier this week that a Minnesota-based development firm was planning to develop a retirement cooperative that would include 52 living units, underground parking and other such amenities at a west Lawrence site. But at the time, the company — Village Cooperative — wasn’t yet ready to disclose the specific location.
Well, the company has now confirmed it has a contract to purchase a 4.1 acre vacant piece of property that is just south of Sixth Street where Queens Road would be if Queens Road extended south of Sixth Street. The property is the vacant piece on the southwest corner of the intersection, not the rural single-family home that sits on the southeast corner of the intersection.
It you want to get even more technical, the property is just north of where Branchwood Drive ends, which creates interesting questions. When the intersection is fully developed, will we have Queens Road on one side of Sixth Street and Branchwood Drive on the other, kind of like the confusion known as 15th Street and Bob Billings Parkway? Or like Legends Drive and Inverness Drive? Will my GPS explode on my dash? Will pizza delivery drivers simply throw boxes of pepperoni pizza in the ditch because they can’t find their intended address? Maybe there is an upside to this. Regardless, such issues are a ways off. Shane Wright, project manager for the co-op project has estimated construction won’t likely begin until next summer, and that is dependent upon the project pre-selling at least half of its units. He’s optimistic, though.
“Lawrence is a community people love living in,” Wright said. “There is pent-up demand for maintenance-free living options. You can find some, but they probably aren’t this type of ownership structure, and they maybe aren’t age restricted. The options in Lawrence right now are pretty limited.”
The company also has released a rendering of what the Lawrence project is expected to look like.
The development group — which is controlled by Minnesota-based Real Estate Equities Development, LLC — has develop about $235 million worth of residential projects, primarily in the Midwest. The company particularly has focused on senior living and the cooperative style of ownership. It has one development open in Johnson County and two more projects planned for construction in the KC metro area.
As we reported earlier this week, the cooperative style of ownership is a bit different for the Lawrence market. Instead of owning your individual unit, like you would in a condo development, you own a share of the entire housing complex. In the case of the Lawrence project — since it would have 52 living units — each owner would own a 1/52 share of the the entire complex. Wright said an advantage of that ownership structure is that the cooperative is responsible for all the maintenance of the property, even for the items that need fixing inside your unit. For example, if the dishwasher breaks, it will be the responsibility of the cooperative to fix or replace it since technically the cooperative owns it.
It will be interesting to see how the development — which will be limited to residents 62 and older — is received in Lawrence. The city certainly is interested in becoming more of a destination for retirees, and that likely will mean developments will have to be designed in ways far different than how we house thousands of students across town. It will be interesting to watch what the market comes up with.
As for these units, Village Cooperative plans to offer units ranging in size from about 870 feet to about 1,500 square feet. Prices, Wright said, likely will be about $75,000 to $125,000 per share. Residents then will pay a monthly fee of about $900 to $1,500 a month, with that fee covering property taxes, maintenance, some utilities and other such items.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It is getting close to decision time for Lawrence city commissioners when it comes to a major bus issue. Commissioners need to figure out where the city’s main bus hub is going to be. The decision involves a multimillion dollar construction project, and perhaps more importantly, could go a long way in determining whether voters will be ready to extend a sales tax in coming years to continue funding the transit system.
Commissioners will talk about the subject at their Tuesday evening meeting. At issue will be whether the city should move forward with placing the transit hub — basically the place where most of the buses congregate and transfers are made — near 21st and Iowa streets. Commissioners Stuart Boley and Matthew Herbert both have expressed concerns about that location. But commissioners at their weekly meeting will receive a report that says transit leaders still believe that is the best location for the approximately $4 million project.
Boley and Herbert both wanted the city to take a harder look at a site near Ninth and Iowa streets, specifically a site in the parking lot behind The Merc. Transit leaders looked at that site once, and liked it, but then talks broke down with the property owner. The new report says they’ve reached out to the property owner again, but the ownership group stated clearly that it doesn’t have an interest in putting a transit hub at the site.
“The owner states the proposed site for the transit center would not be available because of ongoing leases and plans for future development,” the memo stated.
We’ll keep our eyes open for future development plans near Ninth and Iowa.
Meanwhile, that leaves the site near 21st and Iowa streets as the only one the city has on the table for the transit hub. Technically, the site is at 2021 Stewart Ave., which is just south of Fire Station No. 5 along Iowa Street.
If commissioners move forward with that site, though, they’ll likely have to approve some significant changes to 21st Street. Neighbors are concerned the transit hub will create more cut-through traffic on 21st Street. That’s because the bus hub project would require a traffic signal be installed at 21st and Iowa streets. A traffic signal would make 21st Street a pretty handy way to avoid large parts of 23rd Street.
To combat that, the city is contemplating installing a “traffic diverter” device that would stop motorists from turning off Iowa Street and heading east on 21st Street. The diverter would be placed at the intersection of 21st and Stewart Avenue, which means buses could still turn off Iowa Street and get to the transit hub, but no eastbound traffic would get past Stewart Avenue. Motorists wanting to access the portion of 21st Street east of Stewart Avenue would have to detour over to 19th or 23rd Streets and then cut back to 21st Street.
To be clear, though, 21st Street east of Stewart Avenue would continue to be a two-lane street, and westbound traffic on 21st Street would be able to continue on to Iowa Street. The diverter, though, should eliminate any reason for motorists looking for a shortcut to to turn off of Iowa Street onto 21st Street, said Robert Nugent, the city’s transit administrator.
A couple of other traffic-calming devices are planned for 21st Street as well. Nugent said two to three chicanes would be added to the street. Chicanes are basically a place in the road that becomes narrower for a stretch. The intent is the narrowness of the street slows traffic down. Those chicanes would be built at locations east of Stewart Avenue.
We’ll see what commissioners think of the plans. Boley likely will hear a lot about the subject because he lives in the neighborhood near the proposed transit hub. The hub issue has been on the City Commission’s radar for more than a year. A sense of urgency is building for the project, however. The city’s transit system is funded by a pair of sales taxes that were approved by voters in 2008. Those taxes have a 10-year sunset clause, meaning there will need to be another election in 2018, in order to renew the taxes.
Having the transit hub location in place well ahead of that election is desirable. When the city chooses a new transit hub location — currently it is in downtown, which transit leaders say has become too congested — it will have to make major changes to all of its current routes. Transit leaders want to make sure they have all that ironed out and working smoothly before they ask voters to renew a sales tax to fund the system.
The transit sales taxes in 2008 won by a landslide, so you would think that voters would look favorably on them again. But never assume too much. The state is increasing its sales tax rate, and perhaps voters will see a no vote on a transit sales tax as a chance to give themselves a tax cut. Plus, there are some people who still feel the bus service is not convenient enough. Commissioner Matthew Herbert has expressed that concern several times. If that sentiment starts to take hold in the community, that too will affect a sales tax vote.
We’ll see what commissioners do with all this. At this point, it looks like staff is seeking approval for the 21st and Iowa location, but commissioners could choose to open up another search for sites, or decide to keep the bus hub in downtown, despite concerns about the congestion problems the big buses are facing.
Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday.
Dog treat business eyes East Lawrence for headquarters; roundabout talk at City Hall; city manager search update
Dogs around the country may end up getting a taste of East Lawrence, which may cause you to wonder whether canines soon will start creating funky art, hosting wild kickball games and forming their own powerful neighborhood association. But that’s not what I”m talking about. Instead, I have news of a business that plans to use an East Lawrence building to distribute dog treats across the country.
Lawrence businessman Gary Rexroad has confirmed that he and his wife, Angie, have purchased the long vacant building at the northwest corner of 11th and Pennsylvania streets to house a new dog treat venture. The Rexroads have been running a dog food business called Love Grub for the last couple of years. Its dog food is on the shelves of grocery and pet stores throughout the Lawrence, Topeka and Kansas City area.
But about three months ago, the couple purchased the rights to Lucky Paws dog treats, which was created by Lawrence entrepreneur Raven Rajani. Rajani was looking to exit the business, and Rexroad purchased the recipes and the rights to market the product.
Rexroad said the dog treat business was appealing because dog treats are lightweight. Bags of dog food, on the other hand, are heavy. It costs a lot of money to ship bags of dog food to stores around the country, but shipping dog treats nationwide is much more feasible for a small company. Rexroad said the plan is to make the dog treat business a national one through deals with retailers and through online sales.
That’s where the East Lawrence building at 1045 Pennsylvania St. comes into play. Rexroad has filed plans at City Hall that would allow for the dog treats to be “manufactured” inside the building.
“Manufacturing is such a big word though,” Rexroad said. “It is not smokestacks or rendering plants or anything like that. It is just a commercial oven. Right now we are doing it out of our kitchen, but there is only so much volume you can do that way.”
Rexroad said the business already is having difficulty keeping up with the demand for the product. The company has negotiated a deal to be in Natural Grocer stores across the country. He said Lucky Paws seems to be filling a niche in the treat market because it is grain free, gluten free, and made in small batches.
“We’re selling it as a product produced by a small company that gives you a healthy alternative that you can trust,” Rexroad said. “The company’s phone number is on every bag, and that number rings to my wife’s cellphone. It is not like it goes to a big switchboard.”
Rexroad said if plans are approved, the company likely would add a couple of employees to assist in the production of the dog treats, which are made from ingredients such as potato flour, whole rice flour, peanut butter, eggs, ground turkey, and even real salmon filets.
“It is a real high-end treat,” Rexroad said. “The ingredients are people-food quality.”
I’ll be honest, this is the point where I became a bit nervous. The last time I wrote an article about a dog treat business — a nonprofit venture by the Lawrence Community Shelter — I ended up being persuaded to eat a dog treat because they “taste a lot like a cookie.” I have no doubt that the dog treat was very high quality, but I will say that dogs are not the best judge of cookies. (Although, I’m sure dogs all over town talk behind my back about how my coat is lacking in sheen.)
Rexroad did not offer me a sample, but if plans are approved, you likely will be able to go to the business and buy some for yourself. In addition to the production and warehousing operations, plans call for the 2,200 square-foot building to also house a pet supplies and grooming retailer. Rexroad said an existing company in town would run that portion of the business.
Rexroad said he’s begun having meetings with the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association and other residents in the area to talk about plans for the building, which several years ago operated as a store that sold used items for home improvement projects.
“We want to be great neighbors in East Lawrence,” Rexroad said. “We want to be part of that neighborhood. It is such an awesome part of town.”
The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission is scheduled to make a recommendation on the special use permit for the business at its July 22 meeting. City commissioners would hear the issue a few weeks later.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It is a busy night at City Hall this evening. Commissioners meet at 3 p.m. to go over the recommended 2016 budget from Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard. Then, commissioners have a long list of topics they’ll discuss. Here’s a look at some of the larger ones:
— The Lawrence Community Shelter on Monday made its plea for increased funding from the Douglas County Commission to help the homeless shelter address a shortfall in funding this year. Tonight, the shelter will make its request to the City Commission. It is seeking $200,000 total from the city and the county, and has warned of staffing and service cuts if it does not receive the funding this month. City commissioners are expected to hear the item tonight but not make a final decision on any funding, Mayor Jeremy Farmer told me.
— We’ll learn something about roundabouts and city commissioners this evening. The three commissioners who took office in April will have their first decision to make about a roundabout. The commission is being asked to accept a $600,000 federal grant that would fund the construction of a roundabout at Harvard Road and Wakarusa Drive. The past commission had gotten back on the roundabout bandwagon after construction of the devices had slowed somewhat in recent years. That group approved the construction of the new dual lane roundabout at Wakarusa and Legends/Inverness Drive. At the time, engineers said they likely would recommend one for Harvard and Wakarusa, which has been the site of 18 crashes from 2011 through 2014. We’ll see whether this commission continues to support roundabout projects. This grant will require the city to come up with $60,000 in matching funds.
— In case you have forgotten, the city is searching for a new city manager. That process hasn’t come out of the gates blazing, but rather commissioners have taken their time to find a search firm to help with the process. Tonight, commissioners will consider a $26,200 contract to hire Ralph Andersen and Associates to oversee the city’s search process. According to the contract, the firm expects the process to take about 75 to 90 days. No word yet on other details of the search process. For example, commissioners will need to decide whether they want to host public meetings with two or three finalists for the position. That has become a more common practice with high-profile hires in governmental organizations. I’ve heard some commissioners express interest in that idea, but the commission hasn’t yet committed to the process.
— Property tax breaks for the rest of us. That’s one way to look at a discussion that is expected at City Hall tonight. Commissioners will discuss how to use the Neighborhood Revitalization Act in the future. The act is a method where property owners can get a rebate on a portion of their property taxes, if they make improvements to their properties that cause the value of their properties to increase. For example, I tear down the ramshackle garage on my house, and replace it with something more befitting my scholarly nature, like a library that just happens to have an 85-inch flatscreen television and a chair with a built-in cooler. (For like Shakespeare on PBS and such.) That may cause the value of my house to go up, say $40,000. The Neighborhood Revitalization Act would allow me to receive at least a partial tax rebate on the property taxes I would pay on that $40,000 addition.
But commissioners haven’t used the act in that way. Instead it has been approved to provide a tax rebate for an expansion of The Eldridge Hotel, for an architecture office, for the rehabilitation of an abandoned historic property, apartment projects, improvements in the Warehouse Arts District and several other projects. Plus, commissioners have struggled with the policy that currently is in place. The policy recommends that the standard NRA tax rebate should be for no more than 50 percent of the new taxes. But thus far, every NRA rebate the city has approved has been greater than 50 percent, often checking in at the 85 to 95 percent level.
Commissioners will discuss whether they want to shift gears a bit by declaring a few neighborhoods in need of revitalization, and then letting property owners know that their improvements would be eligible for a partial tax rebate. There also will be discussion about whether the city wants to continue to use the act to provide an incentive to larger commercial projects as well. But all indications are that the three new commissioners — Stuart Boley, Matthew Herbert and Leslie Soden — are going to have a different set of criteria for determining when such projects should receive an incentive. If you are in the business of developing multimillion dollar developments in town, the discussion tonight and in future days will be one to follow.
Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. tonight at City Hall.
The Lawrence construction industry may be getting a little more competitive. There’s news of a Eudora-based company expanding through a merger and opening up a new headquarters to accommodate an expected growth in employees.
Leaders with Benchmark construction have confirmed they’ve completed a deal to purchase Ron Fowles Construction Management Services, a Manhattan-based firm that has done significant construction work for Kansas State University and other large projects in the Manhattan area.
In addition, Benchmark also has struck a deal for a new corporate headquarters building in Eudora. The company has purchased the former Carquest Auto Parts building at 10th and Ash streets in Eudora. Tim Bruce, the CEO of the combined companies, said the company currently has its six executive and administrative positions in a small Eudora office along Kansas Highway 10. He said the company needed a larger office space that would allow the company to accommodate the 10 to 15 new executive and administrative employees that he anticipates over the next three to five years.
“It gives us the room we’re going to need for project managers, operations managers, a safety office and other positions,” Bruce said. “It also gives us some good warehouse space.”
Bruce said he sees good growth potential in the area’s construction market, and he thinks Benchmark is well positioned to compete with large Lawrence-based construction firms such as B.A. Green Construction, First Construction and others for commercial building projects such as office buildings, mixed-used buildings, and educational buildings both for school districts and universities.
Bruce said the new company will operate under two names. Benchmark and RF Construction, and will continue to maintain an office in Manhattan. Bruce, however, said the Eudora office will serve as the corporate headquarters for the new entity.
Bruce said Eudora made good sense for the company in part because the community of about 6,000 people is well positioned for companies that are looking to do business in the Lawrence, Topeka and Kansas City areas. The town is located right along Kansas Highway 10, and a relatively new interchange on the Kansas Turnpike is just a few minutes north of Eudora.
“It makes for really good transportation access,” said Bruce, who also is a member of the Eudora City Council and a leader in the city’s chamber of commerce.
It will be interesting to watch in the coming years whether Eudora is able to take advantage of the new Kansas Turnpike interchange, which is probably five minutes or so from its downtown. The city has an industrial park on the eastern edge of the city, right along K-10, and the community has significant amounts of undeveloped frontage property along the highway. But it also is just down the road from the new Lawrence Venture Park, which is expected to be the property that area economic development leaders focus on filling for awhile.
• That’s it for today on Town Talk. I’m going to be participating as a “victim” in today’s emergency management exercise that is taking place in the Lied Center parking lot and also at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. Rumor has it that a terrible hazardous materials accident may befall me. I’m not sure if that will happen at the exercise or as I finish making breakfast here. Stay on the lookout this weekend for a Lawhorn’s Lawrence for a behind-the-scenes look at what happens when a fake disaster hits the city.
Lawrence construction totals on pace for record year; more details on costs of large apartment project; eco devo leaders confirm details of new manufacturer
It is time to keep our eyes open for a possible Lawrence record in 2015, and it involves the use of hammers and saws, which is usually the type of record that causes my insurance agent to lose his job. But no worries here because the record in question is whether Lawrence will have its best building year in history.
The latest figures from Lawrence City Hall show that city building inspectors have issued permits for $89.3 million worth of projects through the end of April. That puts Lawrence within striking distance of the all-time record of $175.03 million worth of projects built in 2000. (Granted, the 2000 numbers aren’t adjusted for inflation, but for those of you hung up on that, I suggest you spend the rest of this column playing with your pocket protectors.)
It is probably a bit of a long shot that the record will fall in 2015 because two of the larger projects expected this year are already included in the $89 million total — a $45 million permit for the HERE at Kansas apartment project across the street from KU’s Memorial Stadium, and an $18.7 million permit for the new multistory apartment and office building under construction at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets.
We’ll have to see whether there are another $86 million worth of construction projects that materialize in the final eight months of the year. Regardless, it looks like Lawrence is poised to have a building year that is well-above average. To put the numbers in perspective, Lawrence in the first four months of the year had almost as many projects underway as it had for the entire 12 months of 2014. The city issued permits for $99.7 million worth of projects in 2014. For further perspective, look at the downturn Lawrence was in during the depths of the recession. For all of 2009, the city issued permits for only $75 million worth of projects.
Here’s a look at some other facts and figures from the latest building permit report from City Hall:
— The number of single family and duplex units under construction is up slightly in 2015. The city has issued permits for 49 single-family or duplex units thus far in 2014. That’s up from 42 at the same time period last year.
— Apartment construction is back with a bang. The city has issued permits for 351 new units of apartments. The HERE project and the Ninth and New Hampshire project have been major drivers of those numbers.
— April was a busy month for new construction. During the month, city inspectors issued permits for $8 million worth of work. Among the larger projects were $1 million for renovations at the new Peaslee Technical Training Center at 2920 Haskell; $700,000 for the new Chick-fil-A building near 27th and Iowa; $600,000 for a new Ulta Beauty at 27th and Iowa; $540,000 for a new grain storage bin at the Ottawa Co-op at 2001 Moodie Road; and $500,000 for renovations for Port Fonda restaurant, which will be on the ground floor of the new Marriott hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Perhaps some of you remember that during the debate over whether the City Commission should approve financial incentives for the HERE at Kansas project, the development was frequently described as a $75 million project. So, perhaps you are confused why the building permit for the project has come in about $30 million less than that.
It did catch my eye, but city officials have provided me an explanation. They said that the $45 million is the estimated cost of building the actual structure. The rest of the costs are for other items related to the development. Britt Crum-Cano, the city's economic development coordinator, said the developer of the project provided these estimates on the other project costs: $420,000 in utility connection fees; $1,000,000 in public improvements that are being paid for by the developer; $7.9 million to acquire the land; $2.7 million in architectural, engineering and legal fees; $2.1 million for fixtures, furnishings and equipment; $4.4 million for equipment to run the automated parking garage; $1.6 million in interest costs; $2.4 million for contingencies; and $6.7 million in other soft costs.
Those soft costs include items such as demolition, asbestos abatement, specialty engineering; renderings, insurance, marketing, travel, developer overhead, loan fees and a host of other items.
I’m not saying any of this was done wrong here. I’ve never given much thought to how the city determines the value of a project for building permit purposes. But I do watch permits fairly closely, and many times the value listed on a building permit is pretty close to the dollar value that is presented to city commissioners when they are considering issues such as incentives and such. The most recent project I’m thinking of is the hotel development at Ninth and New Hampshire. That was frequently discussed as being about a $12 million to $14 million project. In the end, the city issued a building permit for $13.8 million. The county appraiser lists the fair market value of the project in 2015 at about $13 million.
The only real consequence of the value listed on the permit is the value is used to determine the building permit fee due to the city. If another $30 million were added to the permit value, the developer’s building permit fee would have increased by about $30,000.
The bigger question probably relates to what the project ultimately will be valued at by the county appraiser. The City Commission approved an 85 percent, 10-year tax rebate for the project, in part, based on the idea that the project was going to go on the tax rolls somewhere near $75 million. Once the tax rebate period expires, a $75 million building produces a lot of property tax. I’m assuming that the expectation is that the building will go on the tax rolls at $75 million or so, but I’m double checking on that.
• Last week we reported that an Iowa-based company has filed plans to open a foam manufacturing plant along Haskell Avenue. Well, I’ve gotten a few more details about that project.
As we previously reported, EPS Products plans to locate in 60,000 square feet of space in the former E&E Display building at 910 E. 29th St. I had been told that the project likely would include about 20 jobs. Now, an official with the Lawrence chamber of commerce is confirming that information. Brady Pollington, economic development project manager for The Chamber, said at a chamber event this morning that he expects 15 to 20 jobs with an average wage of about $15 per hour.
Pollington also confirmed another piece of information I had heard. The company is coming to Lawrence to be closer to Amarr Garage Door’s Lawrence manufacturing facility. The new EPS facility will manufacture foam that is used as interior insulation for garage doors.
Look for the project to take shape in the next few months.
Plans filed for meat-smoking business in rural Douglas County; large apartment complex near KU tweaks plans; long list of appointments to city boards
Perhaps your barbecue experiments this long, rainy, holiday weekend have left you looking for a new place to buy smoked meats. (As I’ve said multiple times, I didn’t know we used the laundry room that much, and in my defense, I did fully open the window.) Well, plans are in the works for a new Douglas County business to become a regional supplier of smoked meats.
Brian Strecker, a former chef at the now-defunct Pachamamas, has filed plans to open The Burning Barrel on the site of a former Christmas tree farm west of Lecompton. Strecker plans to produce a variety of bacons, hams, sausages and other products that will be sold to restaurants and grocery stores throughout eastern Kansas. Most of the products will be produced from livestock raised right here in the area.
“My main focus is to provide people with a product that is from Kansas, processed in Kansas and that stays in Kansas,” Strecker said.
The idea of farm-to-table is a popular one with the the restaurant industry. Strecker said he has had good response from restaurants thus far. He said The Roost in downtown Lawrence has expressed a strong interest in buying its breakfast meats from The Burning Barrel. Bacon and sausage is expected to be a big seller, but Strecker said the possibilities for products are numerous. He said he’s talking with one restaurant that is interested in a variety of pizza toppings.
Strecker thinks hams will be a big part of the business. He said the large number of smoke and spice combinations offers possibilities for unique hams. He said in addition to traditional hams, he’s been perfecting an Asian-inspired ham that is smoked with green tea leaves and is infused with ginger, soy and Asian-varieties of peppercorns. Other varieties also will be offered.
Strecker plans to use “heritage” breeds of hogs for many of his products. The breeds, such as Durocs, are significantly different from the breeds used by the major pork producers. Strecker said the heritage breeds often produce a darker, more flavorful cut of meat.
Pork products are expected to be the bulk of the company’s offerings, but Strecker said he plans to have some beef products as well.
Strecker’s business plans, however, still need to win approval from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission and the Douglas County Commission. Strecker is seeking a conditional use permit for the property at 292 North 2100 Road. Strecker is only seeking approval to process meat at the facility. There will not be any slaughtering of animals at the location. Strecker has a supplier that provides the local meat already slaughtered.
Strecker hopes to have the approval process completed in August, and the business open sometime in September. The business won’t do any retail sales at the location, but Strecker said he does expect to participate in farmers markets, and reach some retail deals with some area grocers. Strecker said he plans to sell to restaurants throughout eastern Kansas and as far west as Wichita.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Plans are changing slightly for the large apartment complex under construction at the southwest corner of 11th and Mississippi streets. The project, known as HERE at Kansas, has submitted new building elevations for the city to approve. According to an analysis by the city’s planning staff, the major change is that about two-thirds of the building becomes about one story shorter. The number of living units in the project — 237 living units — and the number of bedrooms — 624 bedrooms — are not changing as a result of the design. The project also is not changing its number of parking spaces, which is 577. So, I’m not sure if the height of each story is changing, or how the project is able to reduce its height without reducing its unit count.
Other changes noted by planning staff include a reduction in the number of windows in the parking garage portion of the project, replacement of some brick with cement-fiber panels, and minor revisions to windows and doors on the exterior of the project.
Here’s a look at a before and after version of the plans. This is for the west elevation, which is the part of the building that faces Mississippi Street. Click here to see the elevations for the other sides of the building.
• City commissioners at their meeting this evening will make a host of appointments, including a couple of people who are frequent City Hall participants. Former City Commissioner Aron Cromwell is slated to be appointed to the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee, which provides recommendations on tax abatements and other such issues. Melinda Henderson, who was once active in the Progressive Lawrence Campaign and has been a frequent advocate for neighborhood issues around town, is slated to be appointed to the Joint Economic Development Council, which makes recommendations on eco devo matters for both the city and the county.
Mayor Jeremy Farmer also has submitted a list of names for the new Pedestrian-Bicycle Issues Task Force. Those include: Dee Boeck, Carol Bowen, Charlie Bryan, Clint Idol, Marilyn Hull, Mike Kelly, Erin Paden, Bonnie Uffman, Marianne Melling, Patricia Weaver and Adam Weigel.
• Here is perhaps the number of the day: From Jan. 1 to April 30, the city’s police department responded to approximately 750 calls that were “suicide-related or requests to check on an individual’s welfare.” That’s a little more than six per day.
The number is part of a memo city commissioners will be studying as part of a 3 p.m. study session today. Commissioners are holding the first in a series of study sessions related to setting goals for the city. Today they will focus on public safety and mental health issues. As the number above suggests, there is some crossover between the two.
We’ll see how the discussion proceeds, though. There is a growing debate in City Hall about whether the city’s efforts to build a new police headquarters facility should be linked to the community’s efforts to address mental health care.
On the one hand, a complete review of the police department, including how it can be part of the mental health care system, might be helpful in planning how the department should be structured in the future. But on the other hand, advocates for a new police facility say that the facility needs are immediate. It is uncertain how long a complete review of the department may take.
I’ll be at today’s study session and will report back on the discussion that ensues.
New center for business startups opens near Ninth and Iowa; city plans to discuss gigabit Internet again
Figuring out how to help Lawrence residents build new companies is the big talk in local economic development circles these days. Now, there is a new private effort underway to help budding entrepreneurs as well. The Lawrence Center for Entrepreneurship has recently opened near Ninth and Iowa streets.
If you remember, we reported back in October that Lawrence school board member Kristie Adair was opening the new venture. Adair, who also is a co-owner of Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband, said construction work has been completed and the center is fully operational.
The center, which is in one of the office buildings west of The Merc, offers both office space and access to a workshop that is stocked with several specialized tools that can help in the creation of prototype products. We’re talking about devices like 3-D printers that meld plastic material together to create new objects and a CNC machine that uses computer-generated designs to cut and shape material into new objects. Plus, there’s traditional woodworking tools, an electronics repair station and other such tools. The center also offers classes in how to use some of the more advanced equipment. (That sounds handy because I can’t get my 3-D printer to work. But I suspect I’m just wearing the glasses wrong.)
On the office side of the business, there are shared worked spaces, a conference room, a lounge, desktop publishing software and, importantly, high-speed gigabit Internet service. That means businesses have the same type of ballyhooed Internet speeds that are being offered by Google Fiber in Kansas City. The center sells memberships to businesses for $50 a month, which gives members 24-hour access to the facility, Adair said.
The center also offers a secure computer server room that companies can rent space in to house their own servers or back-up servers.
Adair is serving as executive director of the new center, which is a private venture owned by Adair and her husband, Joshua Montgomery. Adair said it is important for communities to have centers like this one, if communities are serious about being friendly to new startups.
“We really remember what it is like to start out in a small business,” Adair said. “It was challenging, and one of our bigger challenges was finding space.”
Adair said she’s come to learn that sharing space with other startup businesses also can be beneficial.
“You realize you need space, but you don’t always realize that you need somebody to bounce some ideas off to and talk shop with,” Adair said. “Starting a business can be a lonely venture.”
While the center is geared toward business startups, Adair said membership also is available to people who haven’t yet gotten to that stage, but are interested in learning more about 3-D printers and some of the other “maker space” technology.
The Center for Entrepreneurship isn’t alone in trying to reach out to Lawrence startups or home-based businesses that are looking to make the transition into office space. We’ve previously reported on Lawrence Creates, a nonprofit venture in East Lawrence, that offers some of the same types of services but also does more outreach to the artist community as well. The Cider Gallery in East Lawrence’s Warehouse Arts District also offers shared office space and other business services for startups. Adair, though, said she thought the various business centers all would carve out their unique niches in the marketplace.
“I think people are really starting to see the need in Lawrence for this type of service,” Adair said. “Businesses that build jobs one or two at a time really are the backbone of an economy.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• While we’re speaking of high-tech things, there’s an update on Lawrence’s quest to get widespread gigabit Internet service in Lawrence. Perhaps you recall that last week I reported that Eudora was about to jump ahead of Lawrence in its efforts to get the super fast Internet service that is similar to Google Fiber in Kansas City. Eudora is close to signing an agreement with Baldwin City-based RG Fiber that would bring the service to that Douglas County community just east of Lawrence. If the Eudora project proceeds, RG’s leader has said it likely would delay the company’s plans to install the service in parts of Lawrence.
RG Fiber has been interested in installing service in parts of Lawrence for more than a year, but the City Commission has been slow in approving a “fiber policy.” (This one is different from the standard three bowls of Shredded Wheat per morning.) This fiber policy would allow companies like RG to lease unused portions of city-owned fiber optic cable to help complete a network in the city.
Well, perhaps it is all just coincidence, but shortly after Lawrence officials learned that RG was talking with Eudora, city commissioners are now saying they’re ready to pass this fiber policy. Expect it to be on Tuesday’s agenda. New Commissioner Matthew Herbert also forecast that the policy shouldn’t have any problem winning approval.
“I think it is pretty close to just needing a rubber stamp,” Herbert said. “People in the industry are happy with it.”
We’ll see whether Lawrence’s approval of the policy causes RG Fiber to reconsider its timing for entering the Lawrence market.
75th Anniversary of The Duke and 75,000 fans in Lawrence; police officers association endorses three for City Commission
Well, Pilgrim, cinch up your saddle, pull your hat down tight and mosey over to to the popcorn trough. There’s a new excuse for Lawrence residents to watch a John Wayne movie in the coming days. (As a bonus, we also can walk around saying words like pilgrim, sarsaparilla and boy-howdy without people looking at us odd. Why are you still looking at me odd?)
Saturday marks the 75th anniversary of John Wayne coming to Lawrence as part of the world premier of his 1940 motion picture "Dark Command." The movie wasn’t filmed in Lawrence — if you have ever watched it, you’ll get a kick out of the scenery around Lawrence — but the plot was based in Lawrence. The movie is loosely based on Quantrill’s Raid of the city. The villain and John Wayne’s nemesis in the film is a fellow by the name of William Cantrell.
To hear some people tell it, the 1940 event is one of the standout pre-war memories people have of Lawrence. A Journal-World staff writer reminisced on the event in a 1998 Journal-World article. It was estimated that more than 75,000 people turned out in downtown Lawrence for the festivities surrounding the world premiere. There was a parade that was estimated to be “more than two miles long as hundreds of local horse fanciers and motorcade fans” joined in the festivities. Both John Wayne and Gene Autry were in town for the event. Wayne was the star of the film. Autry was not in the film but was in town for the event. Roy Rogers, however, was in the movie, although he did not sing in the film. (Cantrell surely would have been brought to justice earlier if there had been more song and dance.)
The Eldridge Hotel hosted many of the film’s stars and had banners draped all over it, including one that read “Lawrence Welcomes Hollywood.”
It is an interesting piece of Lawrence history, and you can learn more about it at the Watkins Museum of History. The museum at 11th and Massachusetts will unveil an exhibit about the movie and the world premier event on April 18. However, the museum has a small display up now. On April 18, the museum will host three screenings of "Dark Command" at 10:30, 12:30 and 2:30.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The Lawrence City Commission race is really in the homestretch now, which means more groups and organizations are announcing their endorsement of candidates. The latest group is the Lawrence Police Officers Association Political Action Committee. It has endorsed candidates Stan Rasmussen, Matthew Herbert and Terry Riordan. That is the same trio of candidates that recently won the endorsement of the Lawrence Board of Realtors. It is always unclear how much these endorsements help a candidate, but two of these three certainly were left with some work to do after March’s primary election. Riordan finished fourth in the primary and Herbert finished fifth. Only the top three vote winners in the General Election will win a seat on the City Commission.
The General Election is on Tuesday.
• I’m getting lots of questions these days about the election and also a lot of questions about the future of City Manager David Corliss. As you may remember, we reported a couple of weeks ago, Corliss is a finalist for the town manager job in Castle Rock, Colo. That’s still the case. The town of about 50,000 people outside of Denver has not yet made an announcement. But I’m expecting one soon. I suspect we’ll have an answer on Corliss’ future before we have an answer on who the next city commissioners will be. I’ve received no definitive word on what will happen in Castle Rock, but just reading the tea leaves around City Hall, I think city commissioners are preparing as if they’ll soon be searching for a new city manager. But perhaps we’ll all be surprised. It should become much clearer soon.
The auto business in Lawrence is booming, and its latest expansion is set for 23rd Street and Haskell Avenue. Lawrence-based Auto Exchange has filed plans to open a new dealership at the intersection.
Auto Exchange has reached a deal to take over the northwest corner of the intersection, the spot that previously housed the Hertz rental car business. Matt Heidrich, managing partner for the business, said the company plans to keep its existing location at 33rd and Iowa streets open as well. He hopes to have the new location at 23rd and Haskell open in 60 to 90 days.
“Our No. 1 problem has been keeping enough inventory,” Heidrich said. “The additional location will allow us to really expand our inventory.”
The deal represents a return to 23rd Street for Auto Exchange. It previously operated at the location down the street that now houses the Lawrence Kia dealership. The new location will be significantly smaller than that spot, but Heidrich said smaller locations are a part of Auto Exchange’s business strategy. The smaller locations allow for significantly lower overhead costs, he said.
“We figured out that bigger isn’t always better,” Heidrich said.
The strategy also works well with the company’s online strategy. Heidrich said the Internet has caused major changes in the dealership industry. He said about 90 percent of his dealership’s business is done online.
“The Internet has increased our business exponentially” he said.
Look for some construction to occur at the 23rd and Haskell site. Plans call for a remodel of the existing building, and the addition of a car wash bay to the site.
In case you are wondering about Hertz, it has moved to 845 Iowa St. It is now located inside The Selection auto dealership.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I know when I go to buy a new car, I always check my bank account first (assuming my wife has told me which bank the money’s at.) Well, there’s a new report out that shows how Kansans did in 2014 when it comes to incomes.
The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis has released its per capita income numbers for each state in 2014. It wasn’t a great year for Kansas. Per capita income grew in the state — as it did every state — but Kansas’ growth rate was in the bottom quintile. (‘Quintile’ is left over from the days when I had enough money to buy a fancy word dictionary. Otherwise, I would just say the bottom fifth.)
Kansas’ per capita income grew by 2.9 percent in 2014. That’s compared to the national average of 3.9 percent. But a lot of Kansas’ neighbors are keeping us company in terms of lower-than-average income growth. The report notes that states that depend a lot on agriculture suffered some in 2014, especially if they didn’t have large amounts of oil and gas revenues to help their economies.
Here’s a look at the per capita incomes and growth rates for the seven states that make up the Plains Region:
— Iowa: $45,115, up 1.3 percent
— Kansas: $45,546, up 2.9 percent
— Minnesota: $48,711, up 3.2 percent
— Missouri: $41,613, up 2.7 percent
— Nebraska: $47,073, up 0.5 percent
— North Dakota: $54,951, up 5.6 percent
— South Dakota: $46,345, up 1.7 percent
As for our two neighboring states that aren’t included in that list: Colorado has per capita income of $48,730, which grew by 5.6 percent in 2014; Oklahoma checks in at $43,138, and grew at 3.8 percent last year.
In case you are wondering, the fastest growing incomes were: 1. Alaska; 2. Oregon; 3. Colorado; 4. North Dakota; 5. Texas.
In case you missed Wednesday's post: Work planned for Iowa Street this summer; roundabout for Bob Billings?