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WOW to increase many cable bills by more than $15 a month; Eudora bests Lawrence in young families ranking

Wow may not be the first word that pops to mind when you get your cable television bills in 2015. WOW — also known as Wide Open West — has announced rate increases that will add $15 to $20 per month to bills of many cable, Internet and telephone subscribers in the area.

Here’s a summary of the rate and fee increases that WOW plans to implement on Jan. 1:

— The company will begin charging a $2 per month “sports surcharge fee.” The fee is designed to help offset some of the money the cable company must pay stations like ESPN and Fox Sports to broadcast their popular channels. Everybody who has cable television service with WOW will pay that fee.

– A $1 per month “local origination programming fee” also will be added to bills.That fee will recover a portion of the costs to produce “community-based” local content. That fee will help offset a portion of the production costs for the local news, weather and sports programming on Channel 6. All cable customers will pay that fee.

— A $5 per month “broadcast TV fee” will be added to bills. That money will help pay the fees WOW pays to local televisions stations such as FOX, ABC, NBC and CBS affiliates in Kansas City. Even though those stations are available for free to anyone who has television antennae, federal law requires cable companies to pay for the right to include those stations on their cable systems. Everyone who has cable service will pay that fee.

In case your abacus is broken, that’s $8 a month in new fees for all WOW cable subscribers. Some of you may be thinking that you are sure glad you got a “rate guarantee” from WOW that will forestall those increases. Think again on that point. Debra Schmidt, system manager for WOW’s Lawrence operations, confirmed that these new charges are fees, not rates. That means, she said, people with rate guarantees will see those increases on their bills beginning in January.

There are a couple of other fees that people will pay, depending on what type of service they have. They include:

— A $1.61 per month carrier service fee. That fee helps pay administrative costs related to phone service. Only customers with WOW phone service will pay that fee.

— A $1 per month increase in the cable modem lease fee. Internet subscribers have the option of using their own cable modem or leasing one from WOW. Only Internet subscribers who lease a modem will pay this fee.

— The FCC Network Access Charge will increase $1.30 per month. Only telephone subscribers will pay this fee.

Thus far, everything we have listed has been fee increases. But rates also are going up. This is where it will come in handy to know whether you have a rate guarantee from WOW. As an incentive to sign up, some customers were promised their rates would not increase for a certain number of months. Schmidt said WOW will honor those rate guarantees. But for those of us without a guarantee, we’ll see the following rate increases in January:

— For customers with basic broadcast cable, rates will increase $6 per month.

— For customers with the Apartment Pak/Family Pak cable, rates will increase $7 per month.

— For customers with the Bronze cable, Internet and phone bundle package, rates will increase $8 per month.

— For customers with the Preferred/Silver/Gold bundle package, rates will increase $10 per month.

— For customers who only subscribe to Internet services, rates will increase by $2 per month.

I know, this is a lot like programming your VCR — confusing. The best way for you to know how much your monthly bill is set to increase is to call WOW customer service at 785-841-2100. But I’ll do my best here to present a couple of scenarios.

My understanding is most WOW customers have some sort of bundled plan. If you have the bronze plan, which includes television, phone and Internet service, it looks like you will be paying $8 more per month in rates and $10.91 more per month in fees. That’s an increase of $18.91 per month or just over $225 a year.

If you have a gold or silver plan, it looks like your increase would be $20.91 per month.

“We certainly empathize with our customers,” Schmidt said. “We hate to increase rates.”

Schmidt said this is one of the larger rate increases in recent memory. She said most of the increase is being driven by the tremendous increases in programming fees being charged by sports networks and other cable and broadcast channels. She said sports programming fees last year increased at a rate seven times greater than inflation.

“Our single biggest cost is the one we have the least control over: programming costs,” Schmidt said. “I know that people are sick of hearing that, but it is true.”

She said the cable industry continues to push for some national reforms that would rein in programming costs.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Eudora has reason to pound its chest a little bit today. A new study has found that Eudora is the sixth best city in Kansas for young families. The financial Web site NerdWallet has released its annual ranking, and found that Eudora’s combination of schools, housing prices and income growth make it an attractive place to raise a young family. (Hopefully having cheap access to the Disney Channel isn’t part of the calculations. WOW is the dominant cable provider in Eudora, as well.)

Regardless, as a resident of Eudora, I can tell you the city does well when it comes to young families, if doing well means a pack of 11-year-old boys devouring your food pantry after school and a herd of 8-year-old girls regularly busting windows with their daily shrill sessions.

Here’s a look at the top 10:

  1. Andover

  2. Spring Hill

  3. Mulvane

  4. Hays

  5. Gardner

  6. Eudora

  7. Abilene

  8. Arkansas City

  9. De Soto

  10. Overland Park

This is one list that Lawrence did not score well on. Lawrence ranked No. 36 out of the 48 cities included in the study. You might be asking how the six miles between Eudora and Lawrence can equate to 30 places in the survey. In a nutshell, the answer seems to be a combination of cheaper housing, higher incomes and slightly better ranked schools made the difference for Eudora.

Eudora schools received a “Great Schools” rating of 6 out of 10, while Lawrence schools were rated a 5. Median home values in Eudora came in at $145,800 compared with $176,500 in Lawrence. Median monthly homeowner costs were $1,394 in Eudora versus $1,461 in Lawrence. Median household income was $62,576 versus $44,713 in Lawrence. And finally, incomes from 1999 to 2012 grew by 50 percent in Eudora compared with only 28 percent in Lawrence. That’s the one that keeps some Lawrence community leaders up at night, although there were certainly cities that had lower growth rates. Wichita was at 15 percent, Topeka at 12 percent, and Kansas City at 14 percent. None of those cities ranked well as a good place for young families, by the way. Wichita was No. 46, Topeka was No. 41 and Kansas City was last at No. 48.

But one thing that does make Lawrence’s situation a bit unique is the difference between housing costs and incomes. Lawrence had the ninth highest monthly housing costs in the study, but had only the 26th highest income levels. Average Lawrence homeowners are paying 39 percent of their annual incomes in housing costs. In Eudora, for example, the level drops to 26 percent.

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Plans for downtown grocery store at former Borders site hit a snag; Just Food celebrates 5-year anniversary; WOW announces another plan to boost Internet speeds

Forget about the hundreds of zombies that will roam downtown Lawrence on Thursday night. (It is the zombie walk, not Royals fans still comatose from Tuesday’s late game.) The really scary sight in downtown Lawrence is the new Halloween store in the former Borders bookstore at Seventh and New Hampshire streets. It is scaring the stuffing out of people who have hoped that the former Borders building would become home to a much-wanted downtown grocery store.

If you remember, we reported about a month ago that the owners of the Lawrence-based Checkers grocery store were in negotiations to open a full-service grocery store in the Borders location. The Halloween store doesn’t kill that possibility — it is only a temporary, seasonal store — but it is a sign that negotiations for a grocery store aren’t progressing like people had hoped.

“We have made several offers to buy or lease the building, but we can’t seem to come to any common ground,” Jim Lewis, the owner of Checkers, told me. “I’ve told our real estate agent that the ball is basically in (the building’s owners') court.”

In other words, the two sides can’t agree on a price or terms for the building. I certainly had heard that Lewis was most interested in buying the building, but I’ve also heard that the ownership group out of Michigan was more interested in a lease.

Lewis said he hasn’t given up on the idea of a downtown grocery store.

“I’m still optimistic, but I can’t tell you a location at this point,” Lewis said. “But my son and I are committed to making something happen down there.”

Lewis said he’s also not giving up on the possibility of striking a deal for the Borders location.

“We’re not saying no on Borders,” Lewis said. “They just haven’t made a decent proposal, in our opinion.”

Lewis said he has begun to look at other locations, but declined to give details on where those might be. Finding another location in downtown is probably not impossible, but it will be difficult. Lewis said he must have a site that can provide ample parking.

“You’re not going to make it just relying on walk-in traffic,” he said.

I have no idea where Lewis may be looking, but one site that comes to mind is 11th and New Hampshire. Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Rand Allen have said they want to redevelop the former Allen Press property. Compton previously has said he wants to build a multistory apartment building with retail on the ground floor. At one point, Compton thought he was close to signing a deal with a national drug store chain — CVS was the likely tenant, I believe — but that was months ago. I’m still hoping to get an update from Compton, but it seems like that project has lost some momentum. Whether a downtown grocery store would work there, I don’t know. The project would have below-ground parking, but whether enough parking could be built to satisfy the needs of apartment residents and a grocery store is unclear to me.

I also think the East Lawrence Warehouse Arts District might be an area to keep an eye on. Lawrence businessman Tony Krsnich has a significant amount of property in the district, and he has talked about drawing businesses that would provide more amenities to the growing number of residents in the district. That area isn’t quite downtown, but perhaps it is close enough to satisfy those wanting a downtown grocery store.

I don’t have a good timeline on when Lewis will make some decisions on this issue, so I’ll just keep an ear out.

As for the Halloween store, it is called Halloween Express, and it looks like it has all things Halloween related. You still have plenty of time to become a zombie for tonight’s zombie walk, or even better, perhaps it can help us prepare for the Royals’ playoff games with the Los Angeles Angels. I’m thinking a voodoo doll of Mike Trout would be helpful.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Zombie costumes won’t be the only reason to dress up in downtown Lawrence on Thursday. The folks at the Douglas County food bank Just Food are celebrating their five-year anniversary with a special dinner and fundraising event at Abe & Jake’s Landing. The event also will be celebrating the life of Just Food founder and former dean of the renowned KU School of Social Welfare Ann Weick. Weick died this summer.

Just Food is run by Lawrence City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, and he told me that about 26,000 different Douglas County residents will receive food from the organization in 2014. That’s about 25 percent of Douglas County’s entire population.

“There are a lot of people who are falling through the cracks,” Farmer said.

Farmer said about 60 percent of Just Food’s clients are people who make more money than is allowed for food stamps and other such government assistance. He said Thursday's event, which is sold out, is meant in part to help people better understand the people who need help putting food on the table.

“There are a lot of false perceptions out there about people who need some assistance,” Farmer said. “These people a lot of times are working two or three jobs.”

Farmer said the event also is meant to honor the role that Weick had in founding Just Food. Farmer said he’s learned that Weick had the idea of a locally run food bank on her mind for a good 20 years before the opportunity every arose to get the organization started.

“She was an incredibly resilient and calm leader who exercised her leadership for 20 years before her vision became a reality,” Farmer said. “She is our true north. Our true north is to help people get out of the system because that is always what Ann envisioned.”

As part of the event on Thursday evening, Just Food also will announce the winner of its first leadership award, which it has named the Ann Weick Leadership Award.

• This news is just in: WOW has announced additional plans to upgrade Internet speeds in the city. As we recently reported, the cable and telephone provider in Lawrence will start offering Internet download speeds of 110 Mbps in January, which is a little more than double the speed of its fastest Internet packages.

But at the time, WOW officials said they expected to make additional announcements during the course of the next year about service upgrades. Well, this morning the company said “additional investments are now planned for 2015” to support a new tier that will allow for download speeds of 200 Mbps and upload speeds of 15 Mbps. That’s nearly another doubling of Internet download speeds, and about a tripling of upload speeds. The upload speed issue — which refers to how fast you can post files, photos and other such objects onto the internet or file-sharing services — had been a question with WOW’s previous proposal. Currently, upload speeds are limited to 5 Mbps.

The latest announcement from WOW still does not give any information on pricing plans for the programs. The announcements come right before Lawrence city commissioners are scheduled to again discuss whether to give Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband a $1 million loan guarantee and other incentives to start a pilot project in Lawrence to bring gigabit service to downtown, East Lawrence and a couple other pockets of town. Gigabit service is the same super-fast Internet service being provided by Google Fiber in Kansas City. The Wicked proposal would provide the gigabit speeds for both downloads and uploads, which Wicked officials say is particularly important for business users. City commissioners are scheduled to discuss the Wicked proposal at their Tuesday evening meeting.

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Plans in works for West Lawrence bar that will let patrons create artwork while they drink

The only question now is whether I become the next Picasso or the next Van Gogh. (My wife says I already remind her of Van Gogh. I only hear about half of what she says.) But surely my art skills are destined to soar because Lawrence soon will have a new business that combines making art and drinking liquor.

Painted Kanvas, a new paint party studio and bar, is set to open this spring in the shopping center at Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive. But perhaps you are like me and think that when you combine paint and liquor, it usually either leads to a free mug shot courtesy of Douglas County or an awkward conversation about how a self-portrait of your derriere ended up on the living room wall.

But Painted Kanvas co-owner Chelsea Rose told me this concept is different. Area artists will lead patrons of the establishment in creating a painting over the course of about two to three hours. Patrons will be able to purchase fine Kansas wines and beers and other beverages while they create their own personal masterpiece.

"They don't have to have ever picked up a paint brush or a drawing pencil," said Rose, who co-owns the business with Dan Rose. "The artist will go stroke by stroke, and there will be plenty of time for the artist to assist people individually."

Plans call for all the artists to be local, and Rose already has begun to select some of the artwork that will be created. The business has a website where its patrons can see what painting is scheduled to be taught on any particular night.

Rose said current plans call for patrons to pay a $35 to $40 instruction fee, depending on the painting, plus whatever drinks people choose to purchase. Patrons get to keep the artwork they create.

The concept of guided art parties has begun to take off in many cities, including Kansas City and even Topeka. But Rose said Painted Kanvas — the 'K' is to emphasize the Kansas theme of the business — will be unique because it has a liquor license. Many other art party establishments don't serve liquor but instead allow you to bring your own bottle of wine, for instance.

"I went to one of the places in Kansas City, and I just thought Lawrence would eat this up," Rose said.

The business plans to be open Tuesday through Saturday for events open to the public, but Rose said she also wants to host a variety of themed events and private parties. She said she will work to attract corporate outings, and also can arrange for a kid-friendly painting for a birthday party, for example. Catering services also can be arranged, she said.

An opening date hasn't been set, but construction is underway. Rose said she hopes to have the business open sometime in March.

That's fine. That will give me time to practice — and also to scrub on this living room wall.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Even when there is not painting involved, Lawrence loves a good gathering built around beer. As I reported earlier this week, tickets for the third annual Kansas Craft Brewers Exposition in downtown Lawrence went on sale Wednesday evening. Last year, tickets for the event sold out in about 45 minutes. But organizers made some changes to the event for this year, including adding a second session, which essentially doubled the number of tickets available. Event organizers recently provided me an update on ticket sales: This year they sold out in 40 minutes. (To clarify, that's how long it took to sell out online, where the majority of the tickets were available. There may be a ticket or two left at one of the several breweries in the area selling tickets. No guarantees on that, but the worst that happens is you end up at a brewery.)

There are worse problems to have than your event selling out within a matter of minutes, but expo organizer Chuck Magerl of Free State Brewery said organizers are looking for ways to make it easier to buy tickets in the future.

• UPDATE: Make what you will of this, but a WOW spokeswoman got back in touch with me this afternoon and said the paid legal notice that ran in yesterday's paper was premature on WOW's part. "WOW is negotiating retransmission renewal with KSNT's owner," spokeswoman Erica Stull told me in an e-mail. Negotiations are ongoing." So, it sounds like an issue to keep an eye on, but not one that has been settled.

It looks like Lawrence residents soon will have one less opportunity to keep up on our friends in Topeka. A small notice appeared in the classified section of the Journal-World yesterday announcing that in March WOW will stop carrying the Topeka NBC affiliate KSNT on the cable system. (To be clear, the notice doesn't say who is announcing this — WOW, KSNT or some other party — but I'm reaching out to the officials at WOW.) KSNT is channel 8 and channel 208 on the cable dial. That will leave Kansas City's KSHB — channel 14 and 214 on the cable dial — as the only NBC affiliate on WOW's system. It also means that of the three big network affiliates in Topeka, only the CBS affiliate of WIBW remains on the Lawrence cable system.(Topeka's PBS station is also on the system.) I haven't yet received word from WOW on the reasons behind the pending change, but nationally cable operators and local television stations have sparred frequently over the fees cable operators pay the stations for the right to carry the stations on their systems. According to the notice, March 4 is set to be the last day for KSNT on the WOW system. It is worth noting, though, that it has been announced before that KSNT was going to be dropped from the system, and then negotiations led to it staying on the system. So, we'll see what happens. I'll let you know when I hear more.

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    Knology changes its name to WOW!; lifts usage caps on Internet service

    The changes keep on coming in the Lawrence Internet market.

    The largest Internet service provider in Lawrence has just announced that it is removing all of its usage caps from its Internet service packages, as the company changes its name from Knology to WOW! That means customers no longer will be charged for going over their usage limits, according to a press release by the company.

    Englewood, Colo.-based WOW purchased Knology back in July, but it had not converted Knology over to the WOW brand until today. Signs for the company around town are being changed today, according to WOW.

    But the changes related to Internet usage caps are likely to garner more attention from hard-core Internet users. The caps had generated concern among many users because customers’ standard monthly rates could rise depending on how much Internet usage they had in a particular month.

    The change in the cap policy comes at a time when both private and public officials have been talking about shaking up the city’s Internet service provider market.

    A city-hired consultant recently completed a report that found that current broadband offerings in Lawrence generally are “costlier, slower and more limited than in other comparable communities.” City officials had the report commissioned because they have been interested in possibly allowing private companies to have access to a growing ring of fiber optic cable owned by the city.

    On the private front, Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband — formerly known as Lawrence Freenet — has made a proposal to the city to further tap into that ring of fiber. (Ring of Fiber: Johnny Cash used to sing that song in his old age.)

    At their meeting tonight, city commissioners will receive a request from Wicked for low-cost fiber leases with the city, and a one-time $500,000 grant to help the company build new broadband infrastructure in the city. The request is part of a pilot project Wicked is launching to bring to one Lawrence neighborhood the same type of superfast Internet service that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City. If successful, Wicked Broadband wants to extend the high-speed broadband project to all of the city.

    So, we’ll see what cards the folks at WOW start playing in what appears to be an increasingly competitive game in Lawrence. Consumers, I suspect, will be keeping an eye on whether the competition starts having an impact on rates.

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