Fat City traveled to Lawrence yesterday to see what was going on in the restaurant scene on busy Massachusetts Street -- including the still-closed Jefferson's Restaurant -- and noted more empty restaurant storefronts than we recall seeing in a long time. The casualties included the Teapouro Tea & Espresso shop, above, and a burger joint, Jo Schmo's, among others.
So are there more vacancies than usual on Lawrence's most popular -- for Kansas City diners, anyway -- destination street?
Yes, says Tom Kern, president of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce: "There's a higher vacancy level than usual, but it reflects national trends. The economy is having an impact here, like every other city in the United States, including Kansas City. Our main employment base is education, and the University of Kansas currently has 200 unfilled positions. That obviously is going to affect pocketbooks and dining trends."
The retail vacancy rate on the main drag seems higher than it is, Kern says, because the long-vacant Masonic Temple at the corner of 10th Street and Massachusetts has 15,000 square feet of unoccupied retail space. "If you take that out," Kern says, "there's only a 5 to 7 percent vacancy rate."
Cathy Hamilton, the new executive director of Downtown Lawrence, Inc., has lived in the college town for 22 years and sees the vacancy rate as "a cyclical thing."
"I've seen restaurants come and go here over the years. This isn't a trend," Hamilton says. "I get a feeling that Lawrence was one of the last places in the country to feel the recession. The downturn came late here, and we're only now rebounding."
Hamilton would love to see a few Kansas City restaurateurs start to look at some of the vacant restaurant spaces in Lawrence.
"I'd love to see a La Bodega here. That would be a great thing," she says.