New auto business to locate along Iowa Street; Menards plans small expansion, but talk of larger project reemerges
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo
News and notes from around town:
• It used to be if you wanted to be a delivery driver, a Yugo and your mother’s heating pad to keep the pizza warm was about all you needed. But now, thanks to Amazon and other retailers, everything big and small is getting delivered to your house. That’s probably good news for fleet vehicle companies, which sell those white cargo vans and other such automobiles.
One such company is landing in Lawrence. You might remember that Johnny I’s used car lot at 814 Iowa St. closed earlier this year after a long run in Lawrence. In February we wrote about that husband and wife team closing up shop after 27 years of selling cars there.
Well, it is now clear what is going into that spot. Topeka-based Foust Fleet Leasing has filed plans to build a pair of new buildings on the site.
The location will remain an auto dealership, but it will be one focused more on serving businesses than individuals. Owner and operator Owen Foust said the company focuses on providing light-duty trucks and vans to a variety of businesses along the I-70 corridor and in several other states.
The company does sell or lease some cars and other vehicles to individuals too, and Foust said there will be some of that activity at the new location. But the company currently is focusing on getting two new buildings constructed at the site. Plans filed at City Hall call for the small, old used car building to come down and be replaced by a 4,000-square-foot leasing office and a 2,000-square-foot auto shop.
The company will keep its location in Topeka also, Foust said.
“The Lawrence location will be our second location right now, but we might make it our main location someday,” he said.
Foust lives in Lawrence, and said he was looking to commute less between the two towns. While Topeka still has more commercial activity that feeds his business, Foust said Lawrence has an advantage over Topeka in that it is still posting healthy population growth.
“I definitely like that Lawrence is growing,” he said.
The Lawrence location also returns the business to its roots. The company was started by the former Lawrence auto dealer Jim Clark in the 1950s. The business for decades was known as Jim Clark Leasing. The Foust family, which is related to Clark, became involved in the business in the 1970s and eventually changed its name.
• Yes, I can fit an 8-foot-long two-by-four in a Yugo — but it takes a lot of glue to put it back together. I mention this because perhaps some of you have heard rumblings of an expansion at one of Lawrence’s larger two-by-four sellers. Indeed expansion plans have been filed for Menards near 31st and Iowa streets. But, like the Yugo, those plans are tiny. The company has filed plans to add another drive-thru lane to get motorists in and out of its outdoor lumberyard, which is behind the store.
While that project isn’t particularly exciting, the area is worth keeping an eye on. It could be the next area for some new retail activity. Menards bought much of the property surrounding its Lawrence store, and is seeking other retailers to locate at the site. Menards, though, hasn’t landed any new businesses to locate next to its store, which opened in late 2015. But the latest filing with the city does keep those lots intact and available for new businesses. In total, the Menards development could house up to six more businesses of varying sizes. The largest available lot has about 225,000 square feet of space, while the smallest has about 50,000 square feet of space.
Perhaps the more interesting Menards news dates back to a story from 2016. You may remember that Menard Inc. had chosen Lawrence VenturePark to build a manufacturing facility that would create 100 to 150 full-time jobs. The city even approved a tax abatement and other incentives totaling about $2.3 million for the project.
Then, the project never got built. Worries about the economy, worries about the election, or some other set of unspoken worries resulted in the project being put in perpetual delay mode.
At a recent economic development gathering, Steve Kelly, vice president of economic development for The Chamber, said his office once again has had some meaningful conversations with Menard Inc. The company again is expressing interest in placing a manufacturing facility in the city, but certainly hasn’t made any commitments to do so.
But it looks like the company is inching its way back into expansion mode for its manufacturing operations — the Lawrence facility was scheduled to make concrete blocks and roof trusses. Since the company already has done a lot of due diligence on Lawrence, the community may fare well in its evaluation process.
Kelly said something to the group that led me to believe that Menard Inc. may be looking at local sites that are different than the 90-acre site it had identified at Lawrence VenturePark. But when I pressed Kelly on that issue, he said he couldn’t comment further on any sites the company may be considering.
One thing that is clear is the city didn’t provide any of the $2.3 million in incentive money to Menard Inc., since the project never materialized. Kelly also confirmed that the approvals for the incentive package have expired. The company would have to start the incentive process over in Lawrence.