Summit to Examine Missing Ingredient in Downtown Kansas City’s Revival: Private Sector Jobs

H&R Block was the last major employer to come downtown in 2003.

By Kevin Collison

Downtown Kansas City has experienced a strong rebound over the past 15 years with thousands of new residents and scores more entertainment venues, restaurants and bars.

What’s been missing in its renaissance are businesses willing to locate their offices and employees there. This Wednesday, the Downtown Council is hosting a Downtown KC Office Summit on the future of office development downtown at Corrigan Station.

“We want to advance the goal of attracting new businesses to downtown,” Gib Kerr, a vice president at Cushman & Wakefield, told Downtown Council board members last week.

“The first wave of downtown’s revival has been residential, there are now 25,000 people living downtown. The second wave has been hotel development with an expected 2,000 rooms coming over the next couple years.

“We believe we’re in the third wave, office redevelopment. The purpose of the symposium is to explore the challenges and opportunities and what it will take to bring more offices downtown.”

So far in the 21st C, private companies have been a relative no show to the downtown Kansas City party.

Between 2001 and 2011, a time when major public investments were being made downtown including the Sprint Center and Power & Light District, and dozens of buildings were redeveloped as apartments, the downtown Kansas City actually lost more than 16,000 private jobs, a 19.6 percent decline.

The last major office employer to relocate downtown was H&R Block in 2003. It’s CEO at the time, Mark Ernst, said a major reason for coming downtown was to provide a work environment that would help the firm hire and retain talented employees, particularly young adults.

That’s been the mantra in other major cities in recent years. For example, General Electric is leaving a suburban Connecticut location for downtown Boston, and McDonald’s is vacating the suburbs of Chicago for downtown.

In Seattle, Amazon has made a huge bet on that city’s downtown and is expected to occupy 10 million square feet of office space by the end of this decade.

Meantime, in downtown Kansas City, there’s been one silver lining to the lackluster market for office tenants. The office vacancy rate has declined because many of the older office buildings have been converted to apartments as part of the residential boom.

There have been a few new tenants too, but not magnitude of H&R Block.

Andrews McMeel Publishing relocated its 215 employees to the historic Boley Clothing Co. building in 2008; DSI, a software company, relocated its 150 employees from Overland Park to the Town Pavilion in 2011; Larson Binkley engineering brought 40 employees from Overland Park to the Crossroads in 2012; and Sporting Innovations renovated the historic Hanna Rubber building in the Crossroads for its new offices.

The Corrigan Building, where the office summit will be held, is the first new multi-tenant office project to open in downtown since the 1201 Walnut office tower opened in 1991. The project landed a major tenant when New York-based WeWork leased 44,000 square feet, joining Hollis + Miller architects, and Holmes Murphy.

The panel discussion will include Jon Copaken of Copaken Brooks; Dave Harrison, president of VanTrust Real Estate; Bryan Johnson, CEO of Colliers International, and City Manager Troy Schulte. Mayor Sly James will deliver the opening remarks and Steve Vockrodt, a reporter at The Kansas City Star, will be the moderator.

The Corrigan Station redevelopment was first new multi-tenant downtown office project since 1991.