What distinguishes one city from its municipal peers? Lots of things: Quality-of-life factors. The business climate. Infrastructure, tax policies, local schools.
In the end though, all of those characteristics flow from one attribute: Leadership. Within each of the communities profiled for Ingram’s 2013 Cities of Distinction Awards, you’ll see the thread of leadership woven into those success stories.
From throughout the metropolitan area, officials stated their case for what they believe makes their community a City of Distinction. We asked them to speak not just in platitudes, but to argue with facts about how they promote business growth, how their taxes are structured, how they maintain and provide an infrastructure that works, how they relate to their school systems, and how their financial fundamentals and long-term outlook shaped up. We separated cities by size, ranking one community of more than 50,000 people, two in the 20,000–50,000 range, and two below 20,000 population.
By recognizing these five communities, we don’t intend to diminish the achievements of other cities that made powerful arguments in their own right. We do, however, salute these cities for seizing the opportunities that lay before them, managing the challenges that confronted them, and strengthening the overall fabric of life for the greater Kansas City region.
Decades ago—just like a good business would—the city of Lenexa settled on a growth strategy, then applied a laser focus to the details that would make it happen. From the initial vision has sprung one of the region’s most dynamic, economically stable and attractive communities to call home.
That vision was grounded in balance: Building a solid industrial and commercial tax base that could leverage the infrastructure assets of interstate highway access and heavy rail line. That would ease the property tax load on homeowners, keeping down the overall cost of housing, and it would distinguish Lenexa from the bedroom-community suburbs clustered in northeast Johnson County.
But Lenexa had something else going for it: Wide open spaces that ran west the small town of DeSoto, and a new interstate loop defining its southern border. After a few years of battling southern neighbor Olathe in a series of annexation skirmishes, Len-exa emerged with a land mass nearly twice its original size. And it began filling in with a strategic approach.
One consequence of that is the Renner Boulevard business corridor, which has attracted large employers like Omaha-based Kiewit Corp., with roughly 1,000 employees at a spark-ling headquarters for both its power engineering and construction operations, the home offices of CommunityAmerica Credit Union, the region’s largest, and J.C. Penney with a distribution center. The city is also home to some of the biggest private companies in the region, including BATS Global Markets, the world’s second-largest equities trading platform, construction-sector players P1 Group and
Performance Contracting, Westlake Hardware’s corporate headquarters, Plattform Advertising, and SKC Communications Products.
All have added heft to the city’s diversification strategy by locating in sites that include Lenexa Industrial Park, covering 260 acres (and including Southlake Technology Park); Pine Ridge Business Park, a sprawling two-phased operation with offices and industrial settings over 240 acres that straddle Interstate 35; and College Crossing Business Park, more than 450,000 square feet of light industrial, warehousing and retail space along College Boulevard.
In and around those anchors and other sites, the city has filled with high-quality multifamily housing developments and a wide range of single-family developments that range from affordable starters homes to high-end residences with all the bells and whistles. And that growing residential base, abetted by a flat fee of $750 for permits and plan review on up to 300 new single-family homes, has in turn encouraged additional retail and commercial development.
Mayor Mike Boehm attributed the city’s success, in part, to the shared vision within its leadership. “We’ve been fortunate to have many members of the Lenexa City Council serve our community for a considerable number of years,” he said. “This stability gives them great insight into the issues and challenges Lenexa faces and the vision to meet those long-term goals in a strategic way.”
Since 1980, the city’s population has gone from roughly 15,000 to nearly 50,000. At that rate, Lenexa will be competing in the Large City category the next time it’s considered for Cities of Distinction honors. Along the way, Lenexa has picked up accolades as one of Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s “Best Places to Raise Kids 2013” and CNN Money Magazine’s “100 Best Places to Live.”
One part of Lenexa’s appeal to residents is its fortuitous location in a K-12 education Triangle of Excellence: parents can send their children to schools in the high-performing Shawnee Mission, Olathe or DeSoto school districts. In addition, Johnson County Community College is just a few blocks from the southeastern corner of town, with the University of Kansas’ Edwards Campus just a few blocks further south on Quivira Road.
Even with the commitments made to that growth, the city’s financial position is strong: Moody’s has bestowed a Aaa credit rating, its highest, and fewer than 200 U.S. cities can make that boast. Short-term debt is a manageable $4.8 million, and the $104 million in long-term debt is easily serviced with the consistent growth in both population and tax base.
The Next Big Thing coming is Lenexa City Center, a mixed-use project covering 200 acres along Renner Boulevard, and one that will eventually add 3 million square feet of retail and office space. Though smack in the center of this suburban community, it promises to infuse urban living characteristics that bring retail, residential and recreational all together in a high-density setting.
The 200-acre commercial and residential hub, Boehm said, “is emerging as an extraordinary place to live, work and play. Feedback from our residents continues to guide thedevelopment’s strategy and we believe Lenexa City Center’s amenities and convenience will truly enhance our residents’ quality of life.”
Because the city is able to invest heavily in recreational services, he said, the Civic Center at the heart of that project “will be a dynamic community destination, combining civic, recreation, fitness, aquatics, education and retail components.”
History and progress. Two very different concepts that don’t always work well
together, but the city of Independence is managing that trick nicely, thank you. The home of a former U.S. president and a presidential library—fewer than 43 cities can make that claim—Independence has flexed new municipal muscle over the past decade, and stands as the fourth-biggest economy among Missouri cities.
St. Louis and Springfield are bigger, as is Kansas City, which makes Jackson County a formidable economic force in the state.
Anyone who drives Interstate 70 into eastern Jackson County has had a front-row seat for the kinds of changes that have marked the city’s progress. Remember when the I-70/470/M-291 interchange was a gateway to the Independence Center mall—and almost nothing else? Those days are gone.
That area has become a booming retail corridor featuring developments to the southwest (the Crackerneck Creek project, anchored by the Bass Pro Shops store); to the south (the Eastland Center, anchored by the multi-use Independence Events Center), and to the east (the Hartman Heritage project, rich with dining options and other retail).
Flipping a commercial realty dictum that says retail follows rooftops, those developments have preceded a massive mixed-use project just getting off the ground in the city’s Little Blue Valley, an area that makes up nearly half the city’s 78.25 square miles. Dubbed New Town at Harmony, the first phase of a 25-year build-out calls for up to 750 homes and apartments on a 130-acre plot at Fisher and Truman roads. By the time Harmony is complete, developers plan to have added an astonishing 16,000 homes and 4 million square feet of retail.
“During the next decade, Independence expects to see tremendous growth in the Little Blue Valley,” said City Manager Robert Heacock. “Completion of the Little Blue Parkway has opened 38 square miles for development of new housing, industrial and office product,” and in that area, he said, the city plans to develop a new 300-acre business park.
So where did the impetus for all this originate? In large part, from a commitment to business growth within the city’s leadership. That means practicing business development, not just preaching it, and the city’s staff actively engages business owners to gain a real-time understanding of opportunities for new businesses as well as challenges to existing ones. And entrepreneurship isn’t just talked about at City Hall; the 3-year-old Independence Regional Ennovation Center was founded to inspire start-ups and lend support to those dreamers, and a robust set of public-private partnerships was put in place with the same goals.
Tax Increment Financing plans, twinned with Chapter 353 Urban Redevelopment areas, incentive programs for franchise assistance and commercial reinvestment, and liberal uses of Enhanced Enterprise Zone opportunities have all been factors, as has the city’s effort to help businesses navigate regulations and codes. No-cost predevelopment meetings, in fact, help shorten permit-approval times, ranked by UMKC’s Lewis White Real Estate Center as the shortest in the region.
The cherry on top of all that is the level of general-obligation bond debt. That figure: Zero.
Independence boasts one of the lowest city real-estate levies in the metro area, $7.28 per $1,000 of assessed valuation—fully a third less than another 100,000-plus population center (Overland Park, and more than two-thirds less than Olathe’s, both on the Kansas side). Other big-city counterparts in Jackson County—Kansas City and Lee’s Summit—have municipal levies more than twice those of Independence.
Unlike most cities, Independence is large enough to own operations for both electrical and water systems that supply homes and businesses, a decided advantage in terms of being able to control the expenses for utility service. But, as Heacock noted, there is additional exposure there, too, with the EPA’s interest in coal plants and water systems.
“By staying in the forefront of regulatory changes,” he said, “Independence can strategize to meet those challenges and be ready to move ahead.”
The foundation for business growth, then, is solid. But what about quality of life?
Well, let’s start with an issue front and center in public life these days: Health care. Less than a decade ago, the city’s two older hospitals gave way to Centerpoint Medical Center, a new 221-bed facility that specializes (among other things) in acute care and cardiovascular services, plus boasts a Level II trauma center. More recently, Children’s Mercy Hospitals & Clinics thought highly enough of Independence to make it home for Children’s Mercy East, that KC-based growing hospital system’s newest location.
“The uniqueness in Independence lies in its ability to offer diverse lifestyle or ‘quality of life’ opportunities to its citizens,” said Heacock. “The historic neighborhoods and quaint shopping districts of western Independence, combined with the very modern housing, as well as the shopping and entertainment options of eastern Independence, ensure there is something for everyone.”
How can you tell when a city is well-positioned for growth? One measure is the transportation infrastructure it has laid down to attract new business. And in Belton, the rubber indeed meets the road with that metric.
• The city has two new interchanges, at 163rd Street and at North Cass Parkway, to access I-49, the former U.S. 71 that has become one of the nation’s newest stretches of interstate highway.
• Those connections, in addition to a collaboration with Jackson and Cass counties, Grandview and Kansas City for a replacement of the 155th Street interchange, soon will give Belton four interchanges with the interstate, making most of its run through the city limits prime for development.
• The city is putting in Markey Parkway, a new four-lane road that will connect 163rd Street to Missouri 58 when work is finished in June 2014, and eventually connecting 163rd Street and North Cass Parkway along I-49. The new road is part of a Transportation Development District flush with commercial space directly adjacent to and readily visible from I-49.
That workload been keeping folks busy at the Public Works Department, one of only 87 organizations accredited by the American Public Works Association, out of more than 2,000 municipalities nationwide with populations exceeding 20,000.
But it’s a sign of Belton’s commitment to growing right. Mayor Jeff Davis spelled out many of the factors for the city’s success, some of which included the leadership shown by City Manager Ron Trivitt, along with the consistency Trivitt has provided by serving in that role for 26 years, a forward-thinking City Council, strong schools, engaged citizens and more recently, a new spirit of cooperation with nearby Raymore—“competitive but friendly,” Davis says. That last item is key, because the population of Cass County is projected to grow by 60 percent over the next quarter-century, and those communities will no longer be isolated from each other.
Belton also has created an Enhan-ced Enterprise Zone to attract businesses and select industries by offering tax abatements and other competitive incentives. In addition to that framework for growth, the city has restructured its economic development strategy, bringing those tasks in-house Economic Development Department, complete with a new Web site: www.belton.org/ecodevo. That move, officials say, has streamlined the process by creating a single point of contact from initial introduction and consultation, all the way through permitting and construction. The goal: Making Belton the city of choice for new development by marketing itself to the Kansas City metropolitan area and beyond.
As with many suburban communities, education is a centerpiece for success, and that shows up in the classroom: Belton High School ranked No. 5 among Missouri public school districts with its average ACT score last year. But the commitment to ed-ucation doesn’t stop with the high school diploma: City leaders have worked with Metropolitan Community College, the school district and Cass County secure college-level instruction at MCC–Cass County, in the Belton High School Freshman Center. Last year, its first, the new site lived up to its post-secondary promise; 38 percent of students there were of non-traditional age.
That educational component is key for community leaders anticipating a 21 percent increase in employment in the 2010–2020 decade.
Among the quality of life factors that define Belton are:
• Seven city parks and a trail system that links neighborhoods.
• A wellness center with more than 11,000 members.
• An outdoor water park.
• The area’s first all-inclusive public play-ground for children of all ages and abilities.
• And this year, the Park Department built a new state of the art events center in Memorial Park, instantly creating a gathering place for the community.
The city is also big enough to support Belton Regional Medical Center, which completed a $39.2 million dollar renovation and expansion project, complete with a new medical office building, just last year.
Residents enjoy a comparatively modest property tax rate of $1.90 per $100 of assessed valuation. By comparison, just across the state line to the west in Johnson County, communities of roughly comparable size levy at rates that would translate to roughly $2.70 in Belton’s terms. And the city’s sales tax rate of 2.75 percent, combined with state and county levies, comes to 8.725 percent.
“We have made great strides in the past,” Davis said. “We must keep thinking about the future, not only of Belton and Cass County, but how we fit into the Kansas City Metro.”
Crisp autumn air, falling leaves, homecoming parades and crowds roaring in a packed stadium or jammed arena—is there anything better than life in a small college town? You’d be hard-pressed to get a “yes” to that question if the town is Warrensburg, home to University of Central Missouri.
It’s tough to overstate the impact that a university with more than 12,000 students can have on life in a town with fewer than 20,000 residents. Outside influences, though, don’t stop at the campus boundaries. Just 10 miles away is Whiteman Air Force Base, the only permanent station for the nation’s B-2 Stealth bomber fleet. Thousands of Air Force personnel and civilian workers at Whiteman, and many of them live in Warrensburg or take advantage of the post-secondary instruction at UCM.
But make no mistake: Warrensburg is a university town. If you had to put a face on the relationship between the university and the city, it might look at lot like Charlie Rutt. He’s not only the sitting mayor and 10-year veteran of the City Council, but a 34-year employee of UCM who manages its bookstore operations and teaches retail management courses there. Given those roles, his perspective on running a business is probably as refined as you’ll find on a state-university campus, and he applies that to his work with the council.
“I think our challenge in Warrensburg is to grow our own economy,” Rutt said. “There’s something to be said for stability, but also for being receptive to change.” It’s key, he said, for the city to remain responsive to changes in the marketplace. “We like to capitalize on the experiences of others, and have committed a significant amount of time in the last three years, particularly in our economic development efforts, to look at those successful practices employed in other communities,” but always with one question framing the examination: Is it good for the community?
Paula Hertwig Hopkins, the city manage, likewise sees business growth as vital. Surprisingly, Warrensburg boasts the highest median household income among this year’s Cities of Distinction—and officials would like to see more of that dis-posable income staying closer to home. That’s a challenge when the outskirts of Kansas City are less than 40 miles away.
“From retail standpoint, there is a need and a strong desire for additional opportunities,” she said. “Retail, entertainment venues, restaurants, shopping experiences—those are the kinds of things I hear coming from the community.”
That’s what prompted the city to take part in a regional effort to market itself at the International Council of Shopping Centers’ conference in Chicago this year. “We had a lot of leads an feedback,” Hopkins Hertwig said, “and I think we established oursleves as a special, unique, vibrant community—not suburban, but in very close proximity to Kansas City.”
So what makes Warrensburg click? For one, a rich embrace of business incentives. From tax-increment, neighborhood improvement, transportation development, special business and community improvement districts to state preservation programming, sale-tax sharing and cost-share development agreements, the city actively engages developers and redevelopment specialists, pursuing both the new and retaining the historic.
It supplements all that with a permitting and licensing process that officials say is both fast and friendly, and an in-house committee of City Hall staffers is tasked with identifying ordinances that can be updated to make zoning and permit processes easier.
For the residents, benefits abound:
• A deep network of 12 city parks, including a skate park, indoor and outdoor aquatic centers, and planned dog park, summons people off the couch, as does the three-mile Spirit Trail, currently being extended to a 10-mile stretch that accommodates pedestrians, runners and bikers alike.
• Health-care needs that are met by Western Missouri Medical Center, a full-service hospital undergoing a major expansion this year.
• Reflective of the stability that pervades economic life in Warrensburg, housing prices that never really bought into that real-estate downturn thing: Between 2008 and 2011, the average listing price of a home varied by less than $2,500, according to Multiple Listing Service.
• And for a college town, rents that remain quite reasonable—the median rent was just $647, according to the 2010 census, a figure that grew just 3 percent a year since 2000.
The city has one other powerful economic tool going for it: The university owns the Max B. Swisher Skyhaven Airport outside of town, a facility that has become the second-busiest in the region in terms daily flight operations, surpassing even the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in Kansas City.
The local economy received a diversifying boost when city and county officials collaborated to sell Enbridge Energy Co. on making War-rensburg a staging area for the Flanagan South Pipeline Project, a 600-mile line that will add to the nation’s ability to produce and trans-port crude oil. The impact of that project both in-creased employment in the
area and improved incomes for businesses.
The city’s finances continue to improve, with long-term debt falling by nearly a million dollars from 2011 to 2012, and the city carries no general obligation bond debt. Overall, Warrensburg has a current, stable Standard & Poors A+ bond rating.
As Hertwig Hopkins likes to say, “we have good bones—our downtown, our streets, our institutions. We have a great story to tell.”
A popular adjective used to describe many a small town in Kansas is “sleepy,” but trust us: There is no snooze button in Lansing—the city is up and at ’em. Just shy of 12,000 residents, this community best known for lending its name to the state’s biggest prison is now asserting itself as another forward-thinking suburb in the Kansas City region.
Case in point: The local school district, which broke ground in September on a new high school, scheduled to open for the 2015–16 school year. The centerpiece of a $73 million bond issue approved last year, the high school will be among the most advanced facilities of its kind, home to a student body that already ranks near the top of the region’s public school systems in ACT test scores. Those students are served by 144 classroom teachers and certified staff, nearly half of whom hold a master’s degree or higher.
On the development side, the city has positioned itself for long-term growth expected to move up the K-7 corridor, the town’s main north-south artery. Just a few miles to the south, neighboring Wyandotte County has touched off a developmental blast that has sent shock waves into Leavenworth County, and retail is following the rooftops. Site work has been completed for the 34-acre Lansing Towne Center, whose developers are negotiating for the big box anchors that have shown renewed interest after a long downturn following the recession.
The growth issues facing Lansing demonstrate the challenges that city leaders face in balancing various demands. A new high school may indeed be a point of pride, but it implies other needs, they say. “It is important that expanded roads, sewers and other needs are met near the school as well as in other areas of commercial and residential growth,” said Mayor Billy Blackwell.
Similarly, considerations related to the city’s largest employer—Lansing Correctional Facility, with nearly 700 people on the payroll—run deep.
“All planning must include consideration for the needs of the Lansing Correctional Facility,” Blackwell said. “It is important for Lansing to work closely with the state of Kansas,” he said. Both “have enjoyed a good relationship over the years, and what is good for one entity is usually good for the other.”
To deal with the influx of traffic and infrastructure for long-term growth, the city has completed a widening of K-7 that can accommodate a projected doubling of traffic, to 50,000 vehicles a day, by 2033. And it’s now pursuing funding for a K-5 corridor study, with a vision of taking the southeastern approach to the city and rerouting it to connect with the Interstate 435 ring around Kansas City. That will improve access to Kansas City International Airport, which is just 25 minutes away with the existing connections.
The city has addressed quality-of-life issues with the new 127-acre Kenneth W. Barnard Park, named after the former mayor and featuring a 2.8-mile mountain bike/walking trail through a woodsy natural setting. Since its first phase opened in 2011, the park has become a community gathering place as site of the city’s annual Fourth of July celebration and fireworks show. And Lansing continues to expand its 10-mile Citywide Trail System, a network of bike-pedestrian trails connecting parks, schools, commercial and residential areas.
Residents enjoy one of the region’s lowest overall sales tax rates; in addition to the county’s 1 percent rate, the city levies a 1-cent local option sales tax that, combined with the state’s 6.15 percent levy, yields an 8.15 rate in the checkout line.
And infrastructure needs have prompted improvements throughout the street and waste-water networks in the northwest and southwest parts of the city, which will accommodate growth near the new high school and planned residential development. The city’s waste-water treatment facility was named the Class V Plant of the Year by the Kansas Water Environment Association, and officials have contracted with the consultancy Confluence to develop the next comprehensive plan that will guide future growth.
That kind of peeking over the horizon has served the city well in the past, Blackwell said.
“The city of Lansing has been fortunate to have leadership that thoroughly studies growth opportunities and then spends public funds carefully to achieve well thought-out goals,” he said. Lansing, for example, did not suffer as greatly as many other communities during the downturn of 2008–09. “It had been frugal in its spending and did not succumb to providing large incentives to developers, which would have left the city in dire straits when the resulting economic troubles became reality,” Blackwell said, and in part for that reason, the city’s mill levy has remained nearly flat for the past five years.
“Successfully weathering those challenging times has Lansing primed to now take advantage of the current economic uptick,” Blackwell said, pointing to expansion of the residential and retail base and adding to health-care and senior-living options.