Recruiting Businesses and Industry
| 2015 Q4 | story by BOB LUDER | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
It might not look like much now. Three hundred acres resting on the eastern edge of Lawrence, which, at this point, are merely plowed lots of dirt with a few pipes, electrical boxes and streets in the midst of it all. To the out-of-town passerby, it could be the beginnings of just another suburban subdivision.
Larry McElwain looks at it and sees the largest growth of industrial business in the city in decades, perhaps ever. In fact, the mere mention of VenturePark visibly raises McElwain’s excitement and enthusiasm as he discusses future economic development in the city he’s called home for nearly 50 years.
“We’re approaching a big announcement on our first major tenant in VenturePark,” says McElwain, president and CEO of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce as well as president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC). “It used to be we went and tried to find these businesses. But that model has changed.”
With its amenities, quality infrastructure and proximity to adjacent East Hills Business Park, which has close to 10 businesses already in place, McElwain believes good-quality, high-tech companies will seek Lawrence out and discover what it has to offer as a place to relocate.
“I think we’re in a great place right now,” says McElwain, who started his term as Chamber president in June 2014. “We had a decade of no growth here, and we have to broaden the tax base. For a long time, we didn’t have any inventory [of land] to work with.”
That all changed when, in 2010, Farmland Industries donated land that once was used for a nitrogen plant to the city, along with a trust fund to help with environmental cleanup of the property. That gave Lawrence a golden opportunity to develop a second premiere business park adjacent to the one it already had, East Hills. The city has made significant investments in the site to maximize opportunities for industrial residency and expansion of the business park.
McElwain, a businessman in Lawrence the last 43 years who has served on the Chamber board four times before taking the reigns as president/CEO, says VenturePark is the largest development project the city has undertaken since the powers that be adopted a strategy of cooperation, taking care of existing business, retention and expansion, entrepreneurship and workforce development before trying to attract new businesses to town.
“One of the problems economic development had here was we had an emphasis of attracting outside businesses to Lawrence,” McElwain says. “We changed that emphasis to business expansion and retention and start-ups. That’s made everyone around town happier.
“The base of everything we do is economic partnership with the city,[Douglas] county, EDC, Chamber and (University of Kansas).”
That partnership already has brought noticeable dividends with the redevelopment that’s taken place at Ninth and New Hampshire streets, which included a new hotel, parking facility and refurbished Lawrence Arts Center. The Eldridge Hotel is about to undergo a major expansion, as well. There’s the new Rock Chalk Park sports facility out near west Sixth Street, and retail development is expected to be underway in that area soon. Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard says the city currently is constructing a wastewater plant, “the largest project of its type ever undertaken.”
“Since I started here [with the city] in 2007 … ,” she says, “comparing that time to now, we’re very busy. We had our biggest year in dollar amount in permits this year.”
The community partners with private business through a variety of economic and community-development programs to help fuel economic growth. According to the city’s “Annual Report: Economic Development Support and Compliance,” compiled by Economic Development Coordinator Britt Crum-Cano, for every $1 of public-sector investment for the year, approximately $5.40 in private-sector capital investment was realized. Projects that participated in the city’s tax-abatement program outperformed all compliance targets. Real property investment was 28 percent above projected target. Job creation nearly doubled what was projected, and wages were 23 percent above projected amounts.
The community provided assistance to projects such as 9 Del Lofts and Cedarwood Senior Cottages to increase affordable housing options.
“There’s been a big uptick in current business expansions,” Crum-Cano says. “And, we’re not any less busy with attraction efforts.”
Also, new retail development already has begun on south Iowa Street in anticipation of the opening next year of a major highway artery that will further connect the southern part of Lawrence to I-70.
“When the South Lawrence Trafficway opens in 2016, I think it’s going to explode here,” McElwain says.
Silicon Valley Midwest
Perhaps the most significant development resulting from the newly formed partnership among city, state, county, business community and university occurred in 2007 with the founding of the Bioscience and Technology Business Center (BTBC), located on KU’s West Campus.
The BTBC offers an infrastructure of modern facilities, business guidance and a network of value-added connections to support bioscience and technology industries in northeastern Kansas. Its stated mission is to create, recruit, grow and retain technology businesses that create high-paying jobs and grow the tax base and wealth in the local community and state.
A total of $7.5 million was raised initially to build Phase 1 of the center, which consisted of a 20,000-square-foot building. That phase was filled ahead of its projected time, and Phase 2 was completed last summer in the form of a second building adjacent and connected to the first. That gives the BTBC 51,400 square feet of space in its main facility. It also occupies 20,000 square feet of space at the KU Medical Center, in Kansas City, Kan.
“What we are is a life sciences incubator that serves start-ups,” says G.R. Underwood, BTBC president and chief operating officer. “We have companies from New Zealand, Ireland and Australia that have moved to the U.S. We have Fortune 500 companies—Archer Daniels Midland, Garmin. They all want access to the top science kids at KU.
“Most companies are here because they want to be close to KU for one reason or another,” he continues.
Currently, the BTBC has 35 active companies containing 180 employees operating at one of its facilities, and those businesses generate $10 million in annual payroll. They also have six graduate programs—those that became established, outgrew the facilities and moved on. According to Underwood, all six of those graduate programs have kept their companies in Lawrence.
“If we fill the building by next year, we’ll have 46 companies and more than 200 employees,” Underwood says.
What might come as a surprise to some, especially with one of the most highly regarded veterinary programs in the country just 70 miles down I-70 to the west, in Manhattan, is that six of the companies at the BTBC deal in animal health. The others focus on human health issues and software.
Underwood says the BTBC has another key partner in the University of Kansas Innovation and Collaboration (KUIC), housed in the West Campus facility and which partners with corporations to bring KU innovation into the marketplace. KUIC also facilitates faculty education.
“We use KU to identify potential private-sector candidates, researchers and innovators,” Underwood says. “We try to start adding value right away, telling them how to tap into our network to help them attain their goals. Half the time, our meetings turn into strategy sessions.”
Underwood says eventually, he envisions expanding the West Campus presence into a mini version of central California’s Silicon Valley.
An Educated Workforce
McElwain says another major step forward in making Lawrence a player in economic development came back in August with the opening of The Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center. “Peaslee Tech” was another combined effort of city, county, KU, Chamber and EDC, and filled a great need in the city for technical training in everything from carpenter to construction to manufacturing.
“Having an educated workforce and a desire to work with companies is as important as anything,” McElwain says. “We now have in Lawrence two assets we didn’t have before, workforce training and VenturePark.”
As for VenturePark, city water, sewer and storm water infrastructures are in place, as are other utilities such as electricity. The site can be readily served by a number of telecommunications providers and city-owned fiber optic cable adjacent to VenturePark.
In addition to its proximity to East Hills, McElwain says perks to lure businesses to VenturePark are as vast as the land itself. Start with logistics: The park has quick access to four interstates and three U.S. highways in addition to highly trafficked K-10, which links directly to the Kansas City area. It also will be within 30 minutes of the BNSF Railway intermodal facility, near Edgerton, Kan., with rail access nationally.
“I think distribution and logistics are big attractions for this facility,” McElwain says.
It’s McElwain’s personal dream to find a way to broaden the spectrum of jobs available in the Lawrence and Douglas County area so that it can retain a brain trust that’s already considerable given it’s home to one of the foremost and highly regarded universities in the Midwest.
“We’re always trying to think of the greater whole,” he says. “The bottom line is, you have to have power, water, sewer capacity, land, workforce, incentives … . And, you must have cooperation among all the various governing and organizing bodies. I believe we have all of that here.”
Only time will tell if it all works out and results in a bigger and better Lawrence.
“It’s a different model, and the jury is still out,” McElwain says. “But, in my heart of hearts, I believe it’s going to work.”