Plans filed for John Deere dealership to rebuild on 23rd Street

photo by: Conner Mitchell

Firefighters respond to a fire at Heritage Tractor, 1110 E. 23rd St., on Saturday, May 5, 2018.

This post was update at 5:05 p.m. on Sept. 19, 2018

On May 5, Ken Wagner stood on the lot of a defunct farm implement dealership while he watched a fire on the other side of 23rd Street consume his successful John Deere dealership.

It already was clear the Saturday afternoon fire was going to put the more than 60-year old business out of business for quite some time. But while the black smoke was still swallowing the John Deere green, something unexpected happened.

Roger Johnson, the Lawrence businessman who owned the property Wagner was standing on, came by the scene.

“When that building was burning and I was watching it burn from his property, he just came over and told me to open up on his property Monday morning, and we’d work out the details later,” said Wagner, owner and CEO of Heritage Tractor.

Heritage indeed did open up on the site of the former Kaw Valley Industrial property. Wagner said he was amazed at how quickly his company — which has 18 locations in Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas — was able to overcome the fire. But he said he was particularly gratified at the outpouring of support.

“I definitely learned there are still people out there to help you when you need it, and I told all of our people that when we can return that, we need to return it,” Wagner said.

Heritage announced shortly after the fire that it would rebuild on the site at 1110 E. 23rd St. Those plans now have been filed with Lawrence City Hall, but a reopening on the site likely will take longer than Wagner once envisioned. He had hoped to have the new dealership ready to open in the spring of 2019, but now thinks it will be mid-to-late summer of 2019.

Wagner learned that the John Deere dealership, which has been on the site since at least 1955, never had been platted by the city. Building permits and other approvals can’t be granted on unplatted property, and creating the plat is adding weeks to the development process.

But Wagner said plans already have been developed for the new building, and he’s excited about the prospect of having a modern retail and service center to replace the 1950s-era building.

“For years, our employees have wanted a new building there, but we didn’t want to go about it the way it happened,” Wagner said.

Plans call for the new building to have a 4,200-square foot showroom that will be about twice the size of the old showroom. Wagner said that will be one of the larger changes customers will notice. The extra space will allow the dealership to put a greater focus on lawn and garden equipment, small tractors and other smaller implements that are aimed more at the residential market rather than the large farm operators.

Heritage has nearby dealerships in Baldwin City and Topeka, and it makes more sense to store a lot of the really large equipment at those locations rather than the more crowded area of 23rd Street. But Wagner stressed the Lawrence location still will have a full-line service center that can provide repairs and parts to all of the larger equipment. Sales staff at the Lawrence dealership also will be able to help area farmers with their larger equipment needs.

The plans also call for the site to be significantly different. The proposed 18,600-square foot retail and service building would be located along the western edge of the property instead of in the center of the lot like the old building. The dealership also would close one of its two curb cuts off 23rd Street. It hopes to enlarge the easternmost curb cut on the property to make it easier to get in and out of the site. He said the changes are designed to provide more convenient customer parking and easier navigation.

“We’re doing everything we can to maximize the use of the property out there,” he said.

Wagner said before the fire he had considered moving the dealership off of 23rd Street. After the fire, though, he said he was focused on rebuilding at the existing site. He said the completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway has made a big difference for his business. The road has reduced traffic on 23rd Street, which he said was actually beneficial to his business because it made for easier deliveries to the site.

“The traffic was really a concern for us,” Wagner said. “Relieving some of that traffic made it a lot easier for us to say ‘let’s rebuild here.'”

As for other issues related to the May 5 fire, I have asked Westar Energy for an update on what the utility company has found about why an electrical pole fell on the building and sparked the fire.

The fire ended up causing about $4 million in damage. I’ll let you know when I hear an update from Westar.

UPDATE: Gina Penzig, a spokeswoman for Westar Energy, said the company has hired outside engineering consultants to evaluate what might have caused the power pole to break. Penzig, though, said via email that the engineers have reviewed the data but have not yet delivered conclusions to Westar.


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