Downtown has come back to life after the slow decline that started decades ago. But it re-emerges in a Kansas City that is vastly more spread out since the launch of Ingram’s magazine in December of 1974.
Within a year of Ingram’s founding, one of Greater Kansas City’s most important developments sprung up from the cornfields of Johnson County. Along a gravel lane then called 110th Street, College Boulevard and Corporate Woods took shape in 1975. The increased ability to live and work in Johnson County was significant and helped create what would become the region’s most dynamic economic engine.
Although College Boulevard was named for the then-new Johnson County Community College, the corridor’s most significant development began farther east. Starting in the 1960s, developers had began assembling property in the area and, in 1975, planners Sasaki, Walker & Associates conceived a unique, “wooded suburban” setting for an office park. The result was Corporate Woods, an upscale office center that quickly became the anchor for much of southern Johnson County’s growth—growth that would eclipse that of the metro’s urban core for several decades. Today, the development includes more than two dozen office buildings totaling more than 2 million square feet, with countless more offices and commercial development adjacent and nearby.
The biggest impact of this commercial development was probably in surrounding areas of Johnson County. With the establishment of this new and growing employment base on College Boulevard, the region gained a momentum that has continued to this day. Later developments from the Sprint Campus to recent retail developments still farther south were made possible by the success of College Boulevard and Corporate Woods.
The value of the development was underscored over the past decade or so as Corporate Woods changed owners twice. A 2006 deal involved 2.2 million square feet of office space purchased by Stoltz Real Estate Partners and Urdang Capital Management, both of suburban Philadelphia. The sale price—$290 million—represented the largest real estate deal ever in the metropolitan area. Stolz eventually sold 22 of the buildings on the campus to RMC Group Corp., a Canadian company, for what industry insiders said could have been about $300 million in 2017.
The 1977 opening of Oak Park Mall—just north of College Boulevard—was another major catalyst for growth in central and southern Johnson County. Located just a few miles from the firmly entrenched Metcalf South Mall, it was anchored by an unheard-of four department stores—Macy’s, JC Penney, Montgomery Ward and Stix Baer & Fuller—and a number of smaller shops for a total of 1.2 million square feet. Now with 1.6 million square feet, the sheer size and continued success of the center makes it stand out among the region’s retail developments, especially in light of the decline—and demise—of nearly every other enclosed mall in the region. The center’s continued value was illustrated in 2005 when owners Copaken White & Britt sold Oak Park and two other centers for $516.9 million to CBL & Associates Properties Inc. of Chattanooga, Tenn.
The biggest deal of all for Johnson County—and one of the biggest in the entire metropolitan area the past three decades—came in June 1997 with groundbreaking for the Sprint world headquarters, which would consolidate most of the 20,000 local employees who were spread out throughout the metro area. In many ways the ultimate culmination of the College Boulevard and Corporate Woods trend, the Sprint campus had a price tag of $429 million and solidified Sprint as the area’s biggest employer. As with Corporate Woods 20 years earlier, some of the most dramatic impact of the Sprint campus was on nearby retail, residential and other commercial development that were drawn by this massive project.
But Sprint’s presence hasn’t been without problems. The year 2004 saw completion of Sprint’s $35 billion merger with Nextel, a move that threatened to dilute the company’s local presence by moving part of the headquarters function to Reston, Va. With a combined value of approximately $70 billion and some 40 million subscribers, the two companies hoped the partnership would add horsepower in an increasingly competitive market. Instead, it has continually lost market share, and thousands of people lost their jobs as the payroll has continued to shrink.
In 2006, Sprint Nextel spun off its local landline business into a new company, Embarq, as part of a strategy to allow the larger corporation to better focus on its wireless and Internet market. At the time, it was the largest move following the Sprint-Nextel merger. In late 2008, Embarq was sold for $12 billion to a Louisiana company half its size, CenturyTel.
That news was balanced by word in February 2008 that Sprint-Nextel would move its corporate headquarters back to Overland Park, reversing a decision in the 2005 merger. The good news, however, couldn’t hold up to profound change in the telecom sector.
Japanese conglomerate SoftBank provided much-needed capital by acquiring 70 percent of Sprint in 2013, but the company was already shedding manpower. From 13,300 workers in this region in 2007, Sprint is only about half that large today, and has surrendered its status as the region’s largest private-sector employer to Cerner Corp., the health-care IT giant.
All of that set the stage for Sprint’s 2018 agreement to be acquired by telecom rival T-Mobile, a $28 billion deal that is still navigating regulatory approval at the dawn of 2019. T-Mobile has indicated that it will continue to operate the Overland Park campus as a co-headquarters, but the loss of a Fortune 500 company headquarters still stings civic pride in the business community.
While Johnson County’s growth was racing along in the 1970s and into the 1980s, the metro area’s northern suburbs were growing more slowly. Clay and Platte counties each year could point to a long list of potential advantages, but major development was slow to materialize. Big deals were almost nonexistent.
The most disappointing area may have been in Platte County surrounding Kansas City International Airport. Although KCI had opened in 1972, little complementary development had occurred. One significant exception involved the 1975 opening of AirWorld Center, a combination office, distribution and light industrial development along I-29.
Another big step occurred in Clay County during 1981. At the time, few noticed the sale of several parcels totaling more than 5,300 acres by the Curry Investment Co. to an investment wing of the Mormon Church. Located generally west of Liberty, the property included the future Shoal Creek Valley Development. Comprising three residential developments and two commercial areas, the Shoal Creek Development today is among Greater Kansas City’s most consistent growth areas.
In eastern Jackson County, Blue Springs and Lee’s Summit have enjoyed dramatic residential and commercial growth since the 1970s, and Lee’s Summit is on the precipice of becoming the region’s sixth municipality of at least 100,000 residents. Population in nearby Independence remained comparatively stagnant, and for years, commercial growth had especially been slow in Harry Truman’s old town. A major break began in 1993 when Simon Properties purchased the under-performing Independence Center, a major mall at the intersection of two major interstates that had failed to spur much ancillary development. With that deal, the mall itself began to revive dramatically, with the impact spreading beyond the center.
Another large commercial area was developed north of Independence Center and, to the south, the old Jesse James hideout once called “Crackerneck” became home to several new commercial areas including the Eastland Center, Hartman Heritage and Crackerneck Plaza. In less than five years, some $450 million in investment created one of the region’s most active retail areas, finally realizing the potential created by Independence Center several decades earlier.
One of the key steps involved an initiative by the city of Independence in the form of building a new I-70 interchange, which opened the Little Blue Parkway and helped link Highway 40 via Crackerneck Parkway. West of I-470, a public/private agreement brought two projects—a new Independence Bass Pro Shops costing $70 million, and The Falls, a separate 465,000 square-foot retail center. A third led to an event center that today is known as Silverstein Eye Care Center, home to the minor-league Missouri Mavericks hockey team.
The biggest regional development over the past half-century, it turns out, is also the biggest development in Missouri’s history: Cerner Corp.’s acquisition of the former Bannister Mall site in south Kansas City paved the way for construction of its Innovations Campus. That $4.5 billion project, at buildout in 2025, is expected to yield 25,000 jobs for the health informatics provider. The massive project saw its first two office towers open in 2018, and the infusion of comparatively high-paying jobs to the region is expected to stimulate retail in that part of South Kansas City.
Among the biggest stories of the 1990s was the statewide decision by Missouri voters to allow riverboat gambling. The 1993 voter approval opened the doors for a significant new tourism business and a large funding source for area municipalities. Greater Kansas City would eventually host the largest concentration of casinos in Missouri. The initial industry pitch of quaint paddle wheelers on the Missouri River never materialized. Only one of the five initial riverboats actually cruised on the Missouri River, the other four remained docked. A few weren’t really on the river, but sat in man-made moats alongside the river. Nonetheless, the new casino business brought dramatic results, notably a requirement for significant local tax payments by the casinos. Three of the casinos were in Kansas City, but one [Sam’s Town] didn’t survive, and the other [Flamingo-turned-Isle of Capri] is the smallest of the four survivors. The big winners were the smaller communities of Riverside and North Kansas City which enjoyed a proportionally dramatic inflow of revenue. The most spectacular case was Argosy’s impact on the town of Riverside. With barely 3,000 in population and little local revenue, Riverside almost immediately found itself relatively flush with income. Unsure how long the cash inflow would last, the city largely invested in long-term infrastructure to effectively rebuild the community. Although new streets, parks and a community center were impressive, by far the most lasting impact is likely to come from the city’s help building a Corps of Engineers levee that had been discussed for more than 50 years. The result was nearly 2,000 acres of prime property for development and within sight of Downtown Kansas City and adjacent to an interstate highway. North Kansas City, St. Joseph and even Kansas City saw similar impact, although the larger communities generally experienced a proportionally smaller result. North Kansas City used its funding to install a $10 million fiber optic network that brought some of the fastest connectivity in the country and increasing prospects for re-use of that city’s large inventory of older commercial buildings. Casino-style gambling also came to the Kansas side, with the 2012 opening of the Hollywood Casino at Kansas Speedway. By that point, western Wyandotte County had already established itself as the biggest economic turn-around in the region’s history. That was the direct consequence of a 1997 public vote to merge the two governments of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., into the Unified Government. Shortly thereafter, the governing body of NASCAR selected Wyandotte County over Platte County, Mo., for the development of a new motor speedway to operate under the sanction of the International Speedway Corp. With this national affiliation, Wyandotte landed a new, major league venue. The $200 million construction that resulted near the intersection of I-435 and I-70 soon generated more than $300 million annually. Savvy planning by civic and business leaders set the stage for retail and other development nearly equal to the Speedway itself. Adjacent development included Village West, which became home to Cabela’s, the Nebraska Furniture Mart, a minor league ball team and stadium, several hotels and restaurants. Then came the addition of “lifestyle” center Legends at Village West, featuring upscale shopping, plenty of restaurants and entertainment options. Among those is what is now Children’s Mercy Park, the $200 million stadium completed in 2011 as home for the Sporting Kansas City professional soccer team. Within a few short years, KCK and western Wyandotte County became one of the hottest growth areas of the region.
For much of the past 45 years, Downtown Kansas City has been most notable for what hadn’t happened. In the mid 1970s, Kansas City considered itself a major league town [and was, in fact, briefly home to pro teams in all four major league sports], having recently built a modern new airport, convention center, sports arena and a one-of-a-kind sports complex with side-by-side baseball and football stadiums. With the exception of the convention center, none of these developments were Downtown.
The 1974 opening of Kemper Arena may best epitomize how that early 1970s euphoria gave way to three decades of Downtown decline. Built in the West Bottoms as part of the American Royal complex, Kemper never spurred development nearby, and visitors to Kemper generally bypassed Downtown on their visits. The same could be said for Truman Sports Complex in eastern Jackson County. While both entities were successes in their own right, they not only failed to set off economic development, but some saw them as a further drain on an already languishing Downtown.
Of the city’s new facilities in the 1970s, Bartle Hall was the only one built in Downtown Kansas City. For a while, Kansas City was listed in the top five convention facilities nationally, but that didn’t last as other cities built bigger convention halls and added more hotel rooms.
Several years passed after Bartle’s opening before Downtown had a convention hotel to complement the convention center. That came in 1985 with opening of the Vista International. The Vista, now operated by Marriott, was a big deal in the fullest sense. No fewer than 32 banks, insurance companies and charities lent $35 million to pay for its construction. Labeled “Miracle on 12th Street,” the $54 million project not only gave Downtown much-needed first-class hotel rooms, but it replaced a block of seedy bars and old strip joints. The deal had some detractors, but the effort may have set a record for collaboration by area civic leaders, bankers and municipal planners.
In 2015, a new convention hotel was proposed, but the 1,000-room venue ran into a wave of criticism over use of public incentives. Scaled back to 800 rooms and eventually earning a Loew’s hotel chain flag, the project finally advanced to construction in 2018, and is projected to be operational by 2020.
Most people recall the 1980s and 90s as a period of decline for Downtown, but it wasn’t without its successes. Downtown was home to nearly $300 million in construction of three major landmarks: One Kansas City Place, the Commerce Bank Building and the AT&T Town Pavilion. The Town Pavilion deal alone involved 1 million square feet, plus the 2,000-car parking structure.
Still, Downtown was suffering. It was, for the most part, an 8-to-5 operation. There was little to do after hours and little reason for anyone to visit downtown unless they worked there.
That started to change at the beginning of this century. Downtown boosters renovated the old First National Bank building and made it the home to the library’s Central Branch. Forward-looking entrepreneurs quietly started converting abandoned-but-historic Downtown and River Market buildings into lofts and apartments. Artists were buying and moving into cheap buildings in the derelict Crossroads District.
City leaders seized on this quiet momentum and pushed through two massive projects—a new arena [the Sprint Center], and the adjacent retail and entertainment complex [the Power & Light District]. Bartle Hall expanded again, this time with a bold, new state-of-the-art ballroom. Several old abandoned hotels re-opened as boutique hotels. H&R Block moved its world headquarters Downtown into the Power & Light district.
The trickle of loft conversions became a torrent that eventually prompted construction of apartment towers One Light and Two Light, with two more additions still possible. And after years of effort, the architecturally stunning new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts opened in 2011. That $414 million project connected Downtown to the now-burgeoning Crossroads Arts District, where apartment conversions and new construction have continued, most notably with the fall 2018 opening of the 12-story ARTerra luxury apartment tower.
Technically Downtown but just south of the loop, Crown Center continues to prosper, the Internal Revenue Service located its massive regional service center across from Union Station, and the Federal Reserve Bank built its new $175 million headquarters near 29th and Main.
Back inside the loop, J.E. Dunn Construction built its beautiful new $50 million headquarters to house more than 600 employees, a project designed to anchor the East Village Development, a 12-block blend of several hundred residential units, retail and commercial construction that was promoted to bring Quality Hill-style success to the east side of Downtown.
When all is said and done, more than $7 billion has been invested in Downtown’s renaissance—not including several projects well underway, including the new 800-room convention hotel.
Away from Downtown, the rest of Kansas City has had its share of deals and developments the past 45 years. One of the biggest, truly changing the urban core’s landscape, traces its roots to a tragedy—the 1977 Plaza flood. While the Country Club Plaza has always been a source of civic pride, it wasn’t always considered an upscale retail center. Prior to the 1977 flood, ritzy stores like Halls, Tivol and Swansons shared real estate with Sears, Woolworth’s and a bowling alley. The cleanup and reconstruction after the flooding marked the beginning of the Plaza’s image as the Rodeo Drive of KC.
And the source of that flood, the generally serene trickle of water known as Brush Creek, would eventually get a dramatic makeover. Beginning in 1991, in what became known as the Cleaver Plan, the city worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reconstruct the creek with flood-prevention measures, while upgrading it with cosmetic amenities such as fountains, concrete walkways and plenty of creek-side green space east of the Plaza. The Brush Creek Corridor today is the setting for one of the urban core’s best development areas, including the $48 million Kauffman Foundation and the $85 million Stowers Institute.
Stowers played a major role in the development of a region-wide biosciences movement. Several deals, agreements and arrangements have been part of the more than 20-year development of that field, a trend that is gaining momentum on both sides of the state line.
Almost 10 years after the opening of the new Brush Creek Corridor, the Stowers Institute became a reality, representing a tangible investment in what had long seemed a fanciful dream. Other steps included formation of both Kansas and Missouri life-science organizations, Missouri voter approval of a bill defining and protecting stem cell research, and an influx of private funds. Equally significant have been the expansion of research and related facilities at locations such as the University of Kansas in Lawrence and the KU Medical Center.
The year 2008 saw several life-science steps that would prove important. The Stowers Institute continued investment here with the purchase of an office and industrial complex in south Kansas City. The 280,000 square foot facility serves as headquarters for the institute’s commercialization partner, BioMed Valley Discoveries, and provides storage and support functions for the institute on nearly 15 acres at 8333 Hickman Mills Road. Renovation of the facilities began immediately, and construction costs were projected at more than $20 million.
In March 2008, an unrelated purchase illustrated the value of the bioscience industry. Leawood-based Enturia Inc., a manufacturer of antiseptic applicators, agreed to a $490 million purchase offer by Cardinal Health of Dublin, Ohio, further elevating the region’s life-sciences profile.
Also in 2008, Johnson County voters gave their approval to the continued growth of the life sciences movement when they approved a ballot issue establishing the Johnson County Education Research Triangle. The effort hopes to make Kansas City a top 20 bioscience research hub nationally. The tax generates $15 million a year and won’t expire. The Johnson County Education Research Triangle Authority distributes the money to fund cancer clinical trials, food safety studies and expended high-tech education opportunities. And farther west, land adjacent to the Kansas State University was designated as the new home of the federal government’s National Bio and Agro Defense Facility, a $2 billion project that, when completed in 2022, will cement the region’s growing status as a center for the life and biosciences. That project, and K-State’s own bioscience-facilities expansion on nearby acreage, is expected to generate scientific advances that will lead to commercialization and business creation.
The past 45 years haven’t always been kind to basic, traditional manufacturing, but several bright spots have occurred. One involves the automobile industry. The area has used strengths such as tax incentive packages and high productivity to maintain a direct work force of more than 10,000 at two major manufacturing sites. Currently, the support and other work force here related to the automotive industry is estimated at more than 30,000.
The foundation for all of this are the GM Fairfax plant and Ford’s Kansas City assembly plant in Claycomo, both of which began operation shortly after World War II. Since the mid-1980s, however, the pace and size of investments have risen dramatically. One of the largest installments occurred in April 1985 when General Motors opened a new $750 million Fairfax Plant near an earlier location. Adjacent to a World War II bomber assembly facility, the new GM plant was created to build a new GM vehicle and secured the Kansas City area a major automotive manufacturing region.
The long-lasting result of these investments was still evident 20 years later. In 2003 and 2004, the automotive companies again made major investments in their local manufacturing plants. Ford spent more than $400 million in Claycomo while GM invested $500 million in Fairfax.
Energy to operate these plants, or simply warm homes, is sometimes taken for granted in this relatively well-supplied area. However, several key deals have occurred in that area. One of the biggest was the 2005 decision that saw Missouri and Kansas agree to Kansas City Power & Light’s planned coal-fired power plant north of Weston. The $1 billion Iatan 2 power plant features state-of-the-art pollution equipment.
In 2015, KCP&L parent Great Plains Energy moved to acquire Westar Energy of Topeka, a deal that ran into multiple regulatory hurdles before the Kansas Corporation Commission signed off on it in 2017. Remade as a merger, rather than acquisition, the union took place in 2018, creating a $5 billion entity now branding itself as Evergy, Inc.
In recent years, the region has taken advantage of its location in the center of the country by focusing on the transportation and distribution industry. In a metro area dotted with large warehouses and historically strong in rail and trucking, the truly global scale of this field may have been lost to many: Kansas City is poised to become an inland port that could compete with some of the world’s busiest harbors.
The reasons range from the increase in catalogs and online ordering, to fuel prices and globalization. And while the region’s focus on this industry isn’t new, recent spikes in fuel prices and even the current economy motivate corporations to value metropolitan Kansas City’s position near the center of the country. Add in rail lines that in some cases connect directly to ocean ports, and the formula begins to become obvious.
Several deals have been involved in moving this trend forward. One occurred at the end of 2003 when Hunt Midwest Real Estate Enterprises and CenterPoint Properties Trust of suburban Chicago were named as developers of the first of several major intermodal hubs to be developed in the region. This one, located on the former Richards-Gebaur Air Base, came with a projected cost of $500 million and the potential for 4,000 jobs in a complex that would involve inter-modal facilities [basically, the transfer facilities at the convergence of highway and rail transportation corridors] and, ultimately, industrial and commercial development.
Construction began in 2008 following the formal sale of 1,400 acres by the city of Kansas City and the Port Authority to CenterPoint. With that $10 million deal, construction began and some operations began a decade ago.
The wheels of truly transformative change in the logistics sector started turning in 2006, when voters in Gardner, Kan., approved annexation of land for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway’s $1 billion transportation facility and warehouse park. The next year, BNSF completed the purchase of the 997-acre site and gave exclusive development rights on 579 acres to a Dallas-based industrial developer, the Allen Group.
BNSF retained the remaining 418 acres for its intermodal facility, which opened in 2009. The Allen Group, which had planned to build approximately 7 million square feet of warehousing and distribution center space on the site, signed those rights over to a startup with a bold agenda. NorthPoint Development took on the logistics park oversight, and has turned it into 17 million square feet of warehousing and distribution space, with more still in the works, and thousands of jobs in place and still on the way.
The third leg of what is being called Kansas City’s logistics triangle was set in 2006. Kansas City Aviation officials struck a deal with Dallas-based Trammell Crow Company as master developer for the Kansas City International Business Airpark. The Aviation Department bought the vacant Farmland Industries headquarters as part of its concerted effort to spur economic development on massive tracts of unused land on and around the airport.