Boosted by grocery store beer sales, Lawrence firm undertakes $13 million expansion; city now has three major industrial projects under construction

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Construction crews work in the background on a nearly 120,000 square foot expansion project for Lawrence liquor distributor Standard Beverage. Shovels await in the foreground for a groundbreaking ceremony that took place on Tuesday, March 9, 2021.

It was a good day for liquor in Lawrence on Tuesday. In fact, liquor was the latest sign that Lawrence’s job market might have better days in the future.

First was the big news that public health officials have lifted some COVID-19 restrictions that once again will allow bars and restaurants to stay open until 2 a.m. That should provide a boost to wait staff and bartenders across the city.

But just an hour or so after that announcement, there was another big liquor event being celebrated. Standard Beverage, one of the state’s largest liquor distributors, officially broke ground on a new warehouse expansion. The approximately $13 million project will add about 120,000 square feet of warehouse space to the company’s Lawrence facility at 2300 Lakeview Road in northern Lawrence. The project, as we’ve reported, is expected to add 16 warehouse jobs at wages near $20 an hour shortly after completion.

Mayor Brad Finkeldei, who made remarks at a groundbreaking ceremony, said the jobs were a positive sign for Lawrence. The community needs to see more job growth from companies that have a lot of their sales occur outside of Lawrence. While Standard Beverage certainly sells plenty of liquor — some of its biggest brands include Bacardi, Jim Beam, Corona and a whole host of wines — to Lawrence bars, restaurants, and liquor stores, it also distributes statewide.

“These are jobs that will help bring money into the community from the outside,” Finkeldei said. “These are the type of jobs we need more of.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

A display board shows plans for a new Standard Beverage warehouse expansion at 2300 Lakeview Road in northern Lawrence.

And actually, Lawrence is slated to get more of them. Lawrence has something happening currently that hasn’t happened much, if at all, over the last decade or so: Three large industrial projects are under construction all at once. The Standard Beverage project actually is the smallest of the three. Construction work is underway on brand new plants at Lawrence VenturePark for snack food maker Pretzels Inc. and a metal fabrication facility for U.S. Engineering Metalworks. With these three companies, Lawrence is expected to add about 375 industrial or factory jobs over the next four to five years. The three projects are expected to produce about $55 million in construction and equipment spending, according to past figures provided to the city.

All three projects did receive property tax abatements and other incentives. In fact, all of them used the city’s Catalyst program, which aims to speed up the approval process for projects that are bringing new jobs to the community that help attract new dollars. Finkeldei said that was worth noting.

“Sometimes we struggle with process in Lawrence, and we’re seeing signs this program helps move that along,” Finkeldei said.

The company expects the project to be done in late 2021 or early 2022. While the warehouse expansion is expected to add 16 new jobs upon completion, the company has been on a hiring spree that has added about 100 new jobs companywide since 2017. That is when Kansas law changed to allow grocery and convenience stores to begin selling full-strength beer. As the distributor for many beers like Corona, Heineken, and Guinness, that has meant a big business opportunity. Standard Beverage has added about 1,500 delivery locations since 2017, company officials said.

“Business has been good,” said Trent Glass, senior vice president of operations for Standard Beverage. “We’ve been fortunate with COVID that alcohol consumption has remained steadfast. It actually has probably gone up overall.”

Upon completion, Standard Beverage — which has had a distribution center in Lawrence since 1989 — will have about 300,000 square feet of space on its 24-acre site in Lawrence. While the company used to have distribution centers in Wichita and Lenexa, Lawrence has been the company’s sole distribution center for several years. Trucks from the Lawrence plant deliver liquor across the state. Glass estimated that since the 2017 law change, the Lawrence facility has added 35 to 40 new jobs. It now has about 140 employees.

As for the other two projects underway in town, work on the Pretzels Inc. building may surprise some people if they haven’t been on east 23rd Street in recent weeks. The company is using a construction method that allows crews to stand up concrete walls for the building very quickly. That meant the site went from a graded lot to one that has much of the exterior walls for the 146,000-square-foot building erect.

“They believe by late summer the entire building will be up,” Steve Kelly, vice president of economic development for the Lawrence chamber of commerce, said. “They are on a very aggressive timeline, and that is great.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Work is progressing quickly on a $24 million building for Pretzels Inc. in Lawrence Venture Park in eastern Lawrence. The snack food manufacturer hopes to have construction work largely completed by late summer.

Work at U.S. Engineering Metalworks, which is expected to have the highest-paying jobs of the three projects at about $72,000 a year for specialized metal fabricators, is in the dirt work stage. Unlike the Pretzels Inc. building, which is highly visible from the 23rd and O’Connell intersection, the U.S. Engineering project is located on the northern portions of VenturePark, farther away from 23rd Street.

Kelly said his office is also in conversations with a couple of other companies that are considering expansion projects in Lawrence. While the pandemic certainly has hurt a number of Lawrence businesses, it almost counterintuitively has been a time that some companies have looked hard at expansion. Companies with strong balance sheets are able to get business loans at low interest rates, and some companies see new potential with changing market conditions. An influx of new money coming into the economy through federal stimulus programs also may be helping to fuel confidence, Kelly said.

“There is a portion of the market that is able to look at these times as an opportunity to build for the future,” he said. “If you have the capital and have a good product for the future, this can be a real good time to invest.”

Not every business is in that situation currently, but Kelly said these new projects should be uplifting to the broader Lawrence business market as well.

“With all we have been through, we just need some good news, and this is really good news,” Kelly said.

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