January 18, 2019

Johnson County, Kansas: A Midwest hub for industry and innovation

— By Joe Caldwell, Industrial Market Leader, Bartlett & West. This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Heartland Real Estate Business magazine and is available online at https://rebusinessonline.com/johnson-county-kansas-a-midwest-hub-for-industry-and-innovation/.

Once referred to by developers as a “well-kept secret,” the Kansas City metro area is quickly developing a global reputation for skilled workforce, strong infrastructure, affordable housing and competitive overhead costs like transportation and utilities. 

“Kansas City is a region rising. We are dispelling the notion that Kansas City is a well-kept secret,” says Tim Cowden, president and CEO of Kansas City Area Development Council. “There is growing recognition among site locators and corporate executives that the Kansas City region is an excellent option for any number of business types, including financial services, technology centers, animal health, e-commerce or industrial.” 

I-35 corridor

As one of the most populous counties in the metro area, Johnson County, Kansas, appeals particularly to business and industry seeking to locate outside the downtown Kansas City core. The county has added an average of 6,500 residents each year for the past decade, and private development is keeping pace. 

Residential and retail projects dot the I-35 corridor northeast of Olathe, Kansas, the Johnson County seat. Southwest Johnson County, meanwhile, has become an industrial heavyweight with two parks located just off the interstate. 

“Johnson County has a formula for success with the quality of the workforce, infrastructure that’s relatively new and dependable, good schools, good jobs and good quality of life,” says Aaron Otto, acting assistant county manager. “Plus, we’ve got low utility rates and the lowest property tax rates in the state.” 

Industrial revolution

The 2,500-acre New Century AirCenter is one of the Kansas City area’s fastest-growing industrial parks after recently increasing developable acreage by nearly 700 acres — room for about 7 million square feet of new buildings.

The multi-modal park offers more than 12,000 feet in two runways, 86 hangars, three fixed-based operators, water operation services and six miles of short line rail connected to BNSF’s main line. Just over 400 acres are under long-term, full-service lease to nearly 70 tenants. Examples include an Amazon fulfillment center, CenturyLink corporate headquarters and manufacturing facilities for Upfield Foods, Garmin and DuPont. 

Located along the I-35 corridor, New Century AirCenter is generating such strong interest that it’s poised to grow by nearly 700 additional acres in the coming months. 

“A lot of good things have happened at the right time to drive this success,” says Greg Martinette, president of the Southwest Johnson County Economic Development Corp., crediting the inter-agency collaboration throughout the region. “It’s about teamwork and getting all the partners to the table.”

Located a little further southwest along I-35, the 1,700-acre Logistics Park Kansas City is home to businesses like Kubota Tractor Corp. and Flexsteel Industries, as well as BNSF Railway’s third-largest intermodal facility in terms of size.

“This intermodal facility is designed for efficiency, with eight wide-span electric cranes that produce zero emissions on-site, and automated gate systems that reduce truck idling time,” says Cary Hutchings, director of BNSF Economic Development. “Consumer demand, led by growth in e-commerce, combined with tight capacity for truckload transport has led to strong growth in the domestic segment of BNSF’s intermodal network.”

Retention strategy

Johnson County leaders recognize recruitment is only half of the ballgame. They are equally focused on retaining companies and workers through initiatives like the Workforce Solutions Roundtable. The strategy group meets regularly, with county officials working alongside businesses and educators. 

Many local businesses and employees turn to Johnson County Community College for everything from forklift training or sign language classes to certification through the National Academy of Railroad Sciences, a partnership with BNSF Railway. 

“Training rail’s workforce by preparing new employees, ensuring higher levels of technical skill and retraining and recertifying experienced employees is as important as ever,” says Hutchings, adding that America’s largest railroad training facility serves multiple railroads and about 500 students each year. “Courses are taught by career railroad professionals and are designed to incorporate real-life scenarios.”

Another recent collaborative success launched transit options like van pools and bus lines to help workers commute from downtown Kansas City into Johnson County. 

“We’ve got to continue to find creative ways to attract and retain employees,” says Martinette. “It’s job fairs, transportation solutions, it’s mixing and matching seasonal employees, and we’re looking at child care solutions as well.” 

The collaborative, team-oriented approach has proven effective for the Kansas City metro region, where the industrial market has posted 28 consecutive quarters of positive net absorption. 

“There’s a cohesive movement through our collaborative approach,” says Chris Gutierrez, president of KC SmartPort, the economic development group for logistics. “The livable environment and the speed-to-market are advantages. We make it easy to move things forward.”