All Eyes on Kansas City

From high-visibility sporting events to advanced manufacturing, from high tech to excellence in logistics, the KC region is dramatically raising its national profile.

By Dennis Boone

Half a century ago, Kansas Citians stepped back from a flurry of big-ticket developments and awarded themselves a round of applause. They had good reason to:

• Kansas City International Airport had just broken the mold in airport design with its easily accessible configuration of three horseshoe-shaped terminals when it opened in 1972. 

• That same year, the Chiefs took the wrappings off Arrowhead Stadium.

• The following April saw the first Royals game across the sprawling lot in the Truman Sports Complex at what is now Kauffman Stadium. 

• A year later, Kemper Arena opened in the West Bottoms, just in time to secure the city’s place in political history as the site of the 1976 Republican National Convention.

All were signs of a vibrant community poised to claim a place closer to the front of the national stage. More than once, the question has been raised: Will Kansas City ever again see this level of renaissance in infrastructure?

Skip ahead to 2023, and we’re no longer pondering the future. We’re there.

It’s been a hard slog through the first part of the 21st century, but the outlines of progress have been drawn, and we continue to fill in the details. 

In 2007, the Power & Light District opened, creating something Downtown Kansas City lacked for decades—a viable retail and entertainment core. That included the former Sprint Center, now T-Mobile Center, as a major sporting and entertainment venue. Over the past generation, an estimated $7 billion has gone into Downtown revitalization.

A big part has been the resurgence of living spaces—thousands of new market-rate apartments that leverage those entertainment assets to create a critical mass of customers for Downtown retailers, restaurants, bars, and others.

The Kansas City streetcar began service in 2014 on a 2.2-mile run between the River Market and Union Station, and today is smack dab in the middle of a $350 million expansion that will run to the Country Club Plaza and University of Missouri-Kansas City.

In February, the first flights arrived at the new single-terminal KCI, a glittering $1.5 billion facility built on the footprint of the former airport’s Terminal A.

Over the past year, we’ve witnessed the ground-breaking Panasonic Energy’s $4 billion electric-vehicle battery plant in Johnson County, the emergence of multi-billion-dollar data center farms, earned host city status for the NFL’s 2023 draft this month, as well as the prized host city status for the FIFA World Cup in 2026, an event already regarded as potentially the biggest sporting event in the city’s history, and one that will truly thrust Kansas City onto a world stage.

“Kansas City has no idea of the incredible impact that the 2026 FIFA World Cup will have on our region,” says Tim Cowden, CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council. “It will be the most impactful event in our city’s long and storied history. This is KC’s moment to create a legacy of how we want to be known to the world for generations to come. It really is that big and with those stakes at play.”

Most recently, Downtown has been the focus of attention as the Kansas City Royals consider locations in their quest to replace Kauffman Stadium.

On an impressive number of levels, then, all eyes are indeed on Kansas City. Like those in charge back in the early ’70s, civic and business leaders would be well within its rights to pause for a moment of self congratulation.

With the new KCI up and running, Cowden says, new opportunities beckon to attract companies that increasingly are looking for new homes in high-tax, high-regulation states.

“We know that KCI and robust commercial flight options are a key factor in our ability to attract new companies to the region and for those here to grow,” Cowden said.

The airport’s opening, coming just weeks before the NFL draft, creates additional civic momentum.

“The draft,” Cowden said, “is another huge moment and opportunity for Kansas City. While we already enjoy a lot of attention because of the success of the Chiefs, the eyes of the NFL and sports world will be fixed solely on our region. Our region’s star is going to shine brightly as we show the thousands who will be here in person or the millions watching the telecast what an amazing place KC is to live and work.” 

To that end, he said, the KCADC team is hosting a number of customers here around the draft. “We can’t wait to showcase the excitement that our region has for the event and allow them to see first-hand the transformation that KC is experiencing,” Cowden said. 

The only missed opportunity among this embarrassment of riches might be the disruption along Main Street that visitors will have to circumnavigate as the streetcar expansion continues. A functioning system during draft week would have been icing on a very big cake, but an extended line still holds additional development promise.

Since the streetcar began operations in 2014, Downtown has seen more than $2 billion invested across housing, leisure, hospitality, entertainment, arts, and more. Those driving the civic agenda believe that the growth will continue—and may even accelerate—when the track is completed.

On the business side, the region is gaining attention from all the right places as a center of advanced manufacturing and as a market for data centers. That will further diversify a local economy that, over the past decade, has been transformed by the logistics center and tens of millions of square feet of Class A warehousing and distribution facilities. Within that span, in fact, Amazon by itself has become one of the largest private employers in the region, with multiple distribution centers and more than 6,000 employees.

At the same time, the tech sector is bursting with potential, even as the national scene has been hard-hit with layoffs over the past year. The addition of the Golden Plains Technology Park and its development-ready sites affords the region more opportunity to attract not only more data centers but other high-value tech operations. “When global brands like Meta (parent of Facebook) invest in our market, other global tech enterprises start looking as well,” Cowden said. “Our project activity in this sector continues to be strong, and I don’t anticipate any slowdown, even with some macroeconomic uncertainty facing the tech industry. Kansas City is a great long-term play, and these technology companies understand this clearly.”

On the manufacturing side, Cowden said that boating a marlin like Panasonic Energy will create critical mass that can help make growth in that sector self-sustaining. 

“It was imperative that Kansas City secure one of the established companies that is an undeniable global leader in this revolutionary economic transformation,” he said. “Panasonic’s investment in our region is the gift that keeps on giving. Other major advanced manufacturers have taken note of Panasonic’s decision, and that bodes well for our efforts to help attract them to the region.”