Destination Kansas City

While Downtown Kansas City’s $4-billion-plus revival has drawn national attention, the region’s suburban and rural communities exhibit considerable health of their own.

Led by perennial economic powerhouses Johnson County, Ks. and Jackson County, Mo., a majority of the region’s suburban and outlying areas display solid, even spectacular growth. Their strength is an indication of the metropolitan area’s overall vitality, and a result of a local economy that is typified by diverse industries in widespread locations.

The greater KC area is not impeded by growth in any direction and the city is surrounded by established neighborhoods, suburbs and expansion communities.

Johnson County, Ks., is the good example. Its economy and residential markets position it among the nation’s leading growth counties. In the most recent year with compiled records, Johnson County had the seventh highest median household income in the nation, behind only counties such as Howard County, Md., and Fort Bend County, Texas.

Development pioneer J.C. Nichols built on the fringes of an early 20th Century Kansas City, and set trends that continue into the 21st. The region took post-WW II suburban trends and created a new, virtual city. Development on College Boulevard nearly rivaled downtown Kansas City’s commercial focus, while the region’s largest residential building boom was Johnson County.

This remarkable pattern continues today with some of the area’s most dramatic growth. The south and westward push remains Johnson County’s strongest trend, with communities such as Gardner ranking among the fastest growing municipalities in the state of Kansas. Older cities such as Leawood and Overland Park continue to build on their history of upper bracket housing and dynamic retail development.

Averaging more than 10,000 new residents each year, Johnson County’s medical and financial categories provided the most dramatic recent growth. Nearly two dozen new developments totaling more than $200 million were announced or completed in 2005. These developments were spread throughout the county, another indication of the region’s widespread health.

Geography figures into Johnson County’s development in other ways. Its most significant area for the future is likely to be the Highway K-10 Corridor, which connects western Johnson County with Lawrence and the University of Kansas. The K-10 community of DeSoto already is experiencing dramatic development.

A related development is likely to impact not only the K-10 corridor, but also the entire region. After years of discussion, ownership of the former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant was recently transferred to the development firm Kessinger/Hunter & Co. While still in the beginning of a long-term planning process, the eventual fate of this 9,000-acre property will likely become one of the most dramatic stories in Kansas City, offering the opportunity to master plan the largest single property in metropolitan Kansas City history.

Johnson County is far from the only suburban portion of metropolitan Kansas City to experience successful growth. Major development trends are expanding and new ones evolving in Clay and Platte counties, in established regions such as Jackson and Wyandotte counties, as well as more outlying regions from Johnson County, Mo., to Shawnee County, Ks.

Just north of Johnson County, Ks., Wyandotte has produced a remarkable story with its Kansas Speedway attraction. Through careful planning, that development provided a springboard for unprecedented retail and commercial development in nearby Village West. Now one of the largest retail destinations in the Midwest, Village West continues to grow while providing impetus for development in nearby portions of Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties.

In Missouri, the Northland area of Clay and Platte counties are achieving what many believe to be the start of the region’s potential. Clay County is rapidly becoming a residential and commercial powerhouse, recently ranking as the 4th largest economy in Missouri. Platte County has carved out a niche for upscale housing with several developments, and promises to expand its commercial progress with continued growth at locations such as the multi-use Zona Rosa lifestyle center.

Also in Platte County, Kansas City International Airport is moving to expand its role in nearby commercial development. Although surrounding office and especially light industrial development has occurred since KCI was opened in 1972, Kansas City last year unveiled an aggressive plan to maximize its economic impact and utilize the airport’s undeveloped 8,000 acres as a regional economic sparkplug. The city is currently working on infrastructure development to open the first phase of this effort, a high-speed air cargo center and surrounding development.

Development in Jackson County is widespread, but three strategic areas include the Independence area near I-470 and I-70, several portions of Lee’s Summit and the very southern section, which holds the former Richards Gebaur Air Force Base.

One of the oldest cities in the region, Independence has seen new and dramatic growth near the I-70/I-470 intersection, especially near the new Little Blue Parkway. A decades-old plan to create a major north-south corridor with the parkway has begun to take shape with one of the region’s most dynamic retail area’s already spanning much of the 10 block area.

Lee’s Summit has for years been among Missouri’s fastest growing communities, but the city of more than 80,000 today is adding significant commercial development, including a major lifestyle center  and another large hospital project.

The most dramatic area of Jackson may be the extreme southern end where a former Air Force base is being converted in to the International Freight Gateway. With Kansas City located on the NAFTA Highway, I-35, and rail connection to Mexican ocean ports already established, the $250 million redevelopment plan is under way. The final groundwork was laid when developer CenterPoint Realty Services purchased the 1,400-acre property. Nearby areas of Jackson and Cass counties are already seeing plans in anticipation of the development.

Other regional communities are fairing well. From Topeka, Ks., to Johnson County, Mo., examples of the area’s diverse economy have also brought steady and sometimes dramatic growth. In St. Joseph, Mo., a more focused development of animal and pet sciences has resulted in robust economic growth.