September 25, 2023

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Who Calls The Shots?

Years ago, Lawrence and the University of Kansas were looked to as having one of the nation’s best examples of a healthy, workable “town and gown” relationship.  City and university officials from throughout the country came to Lawrence seeking answers to, “What’s the secret?”  “How do you do it here in Lawrence?”  “How did you create such a great and cooperative relationship?”

The answer was “Lawrence.”  We had top city officials with outstanding and successful individuals serving as city commissioners.  The make-up of this body represented a good balance of city and university leaders who merited the respect of those they served and represented.

The unspoken attitude was, “What’s best for the city and the university?” rather than “What’s best for me?”

On Mt. Oread, the chancellors were committed to doing what they could to build the university into one of the nation’s truly outstanding state-aided educational institutions.  They recruited the best students and the best faculty.  The emphasis was on excellence, not to bend to political pressures or the latest trends.

They were also interested, and personally involved, in trying to help Downtown Lawrence and the entire city.  Chancellors didn’t hide their desire to help and cooperate with city officials and they took an active, vocal role in community challenges and opportunities – as did their spouses.

It was an ideal combination.

Unfortunately, it’s a different story today.

There isn’t the leadership, vision, or courage, in city hall and among the commissioners.  There isn’t the same spirit of cooperation, of being a part of the community, coming from Mt. Oread.

Fairly soon, downtown Lawrence merchants and property owners are going to ask: “What’s happening to our downtown?  All we have are restaurants, bars, and novelty shops, hardly any solid retails operations.  If it wasn’t for Weaver’s, what would we have?”

There are many answers as to how this has happened or evolved, but the number one factor is the City Commission, and the lack of leadership in City Hall.  There have been developers, builders, business executives and members of site selection teams who have expressed a deep interest in building and/or expanding their operations in Lawrence, but they have been given the cold shoulder by City Hall.

Consequently, the city was soon looked to as one of the country’s most difficult, and least cooperative places in which to start, enlarge or improve a business.  One major developer half-jokingly said large billboards should be set up at all major entrances to Lawrence with the message, “WELCOME TO LAWRENCE…THE HOME OF LITTLE HITTERS.”

Too many commissioners, apparently with the approval of the city manager, have made it clear they are not going to allow any downtown development to change the environment, feeling and architectural specialness of “Beautiful Downtown Lawrence.”

Also, there has been little, if any, solid, public evidence of university leaders trying to help strengthen and improve the future and vitality of downtown Lawrence.

Some time ago, this writer called attention to this situation and noted that university and KU Endowment officials were planning several major developments on the school’s West Campus.  These plans were likely to call for improved or higher quality housing, retail stores, entertainment outlets and probably some health care facilities.

More recently, KU and KUEA officials have announced plans for major developments adjacent and north of KU’s Memorial Stadium including a conference center, hotel, retail businesses, a health care facility and expanded parking areas.  Telling neighbors they don’t intend to invade current private property, although many adjacent property owners are now expecting sizable changes in property ownership.

Major earthwork is now underway on the West Campus project and soon the size and potential impact of this project will be shocking at most all local, private businesses.  Some of their questions will probably include: “Can I build my business in this park?  What will the taxes be? Can I receive the same tax incentives for my project that the KU-KUEA promoters are offering to new businesses?  How about the same structural building restrictions other Lawrence businesses have to observe, etc.?  Will the KU-KUEA development have their own set of rules different from what non KU-KUEA businesses will be allowed?”

To an “outsider,” and certainly to many Lawrence residents and business owners, it probably looks like KU and KUEA officials, along with developers involved in the project, have effectively and relatively quietly assumed the roles as master puppeteers pulling the strings, making the puppets in city hall, commissioners and many downtown merchants dance to their direction

The damage has been done, and there is probably more to come.  Not much can be done.  It started some years ago when KU hired outside consultants to tell them how to operate more effectively, make more money and eliminate courses which don’t pay their way.

By the way, the warfare between the Regent schools has already started relative to the above-mentioned study on the duplication of academic programs among the universities.  This will target many schools and departments.  For example, who gets the number one, or only, School of Engineering, KU or Kansas State?  This fight will impact and anger many and KU officials may wish they had made more of an effort to gain the support and loyalty of Lawrence residents and KU alumni.

Far too many in the off-campus arena were asleep at the switch, complacent and comfortable with… a lack of vision.  This all has combined and likely shattered what once was an outstanding example of the perfect “town and gown” relationship.

It’s unfortunate that current Lawrence residents can’t use some magical potion to allow them to look back 20 to 50 years ago and see how much fun and satisfaction it was to live in the exciting, forward-looking, and stimulating environment that tied Lawrence and the University into a tight knot of excellence.

So much could have been done to avoid this situation.  The game of finger-pointing is about to become intense.