No longer a ‘one-crop’ economy
Business growth helps Leavenworth County project new image
To many outsiders, Leavenworth County evokes two images: prisons and the military.
But increasingly, local officials say, people are realizing Leavenworth County also means affordable homes, steady industry and growing business opportunity.
It wasn't that long ago that roughly 50 percent of the county's population held a government job -- whether it be in the prisons, Fort Leavenworth, Veterans Affairs, the local school districts, or in city and county government -- said Charlie Gregor, executive vice president of the Leavenworth-Lansing Chamber of Commerce.
"Now that figure is in the low- to mid-30s," he said. "That shows that we're coming off a one-crop economy and that we're growing."
Certainly, Fort Leavenworth and the four prisons in the county still are a driving force for the county's economy.
According to Gregor, construction of the new U.S. Disciplinary Barracks on post in 2002 added several hundred soldiers to the fort, and plans for a new federal prison adjacent to the U.S. Penitentiary could bring in several hundred more "good-paying, steady jobs."
"We would have a medium-, maximum- and minimum-security facility all on the same real estate," Gregor said. "You'd have certain economies of scale, with a single staff running all three prisons."
Recent trends indicate rapid growth also has occurred in the private sector and with residential development though, too.
"The advantage of having the fort, the prisons, the VA and other government-focused jobs does create economic stability," said Steve Jack, executive director of the Leavenworth County Development Corp. "But you need more than just that. The county is realizing that exporting products outside the area to bring back revenues is a good thing for everyone."
Jack pointed to several "small- and medium-sized manufacturers that Leavenworth is appealing to," though he declined to mention any specifics until any deals are completed.
An $18 million renovation project to a four-building industrial complex that currently houses Tire Town at the intersection of Second Street and Choctaw will bring a boutique hotel, condominiums and possible retail space to downtown Leavenworth said Leavenworth spokeswoman Megan Scheidt.
The Tire Town renovations, a "streetscape" project on Delaware Street and a new Three-Mile Creek Bike Trail are helping to "create a livable, walkable, friendly area in our downtown," Scheidt said.
Business growth has been most evident in the city of Lansing, where commercial property value nearly doubled last year. And with plans for Towne Center development, more retail space could be on its way.
"(Towne Center) will be a place to stop where you won't have to drive to Kansas City," Lansing City Administrator Mike Smith said, adding that completion of the funding mechanisms for the project should be made by June 7.
Other larger-scale projects within the county, including the proposed National Bio and Agro-defense Facility (NBAF) and the possibility of a regional airport, are on tap as well.
"I think NBAF could be the greatest possible boon that our area has ever had," Leavenworth County Commissioner Clyde Graeber said of the proposed 500,000-square-foot, $451 million federal laboratory that would be used to study animal and zoonotic diseases.
"It could bring about 400 top jobs," Graeber said. "And 1,500 to 1,800 people would be involved in specialized types of construction."
Leavenworth is one of 17 sites in 11 states being considered by the Department of Homeland Security. The field will be narrowed to three to five candidates within the next month.
Greg Kaaz, chairman of the city of Leavenworth's Airport Advisory Board, said preliminary talks with municipalities in the county, LCDC and the Port Authority have begun to "explore the option of a regional airport."
Area officials are on board, Kaaz said, and the next step is to schedule a joint meeting to further discuss the issue. Kaaz said a specific location for an airport has not yet been determined.
With the increase in commercial property comes more housing as well, particularly in southern parts of the county.
In Basehor for instance, large residential developments like High Point Downs off 155th Street and the Cedar Lakes subdivision have drawn homeowners to Leavenworth County.
"It's part of the urban sprawl that's coming out here," said Basehor City Administrator Carl Slaugh, who pointed to inexpensive land values and good schools as reasons for the trend.
"I see (growth) as an extension of the KC metro area and the Lawrence area," Tonganoxie City Administrator Mike Yanez said. "You can buy more house for your money here, and you can get to where you need to go quickly."
Building adequate roads and infrastructure might just be the most important catalyst for new development in Leavenworth County.
"Growth is a reflection of infrastructure," Gregor said. "If you don't have the roads to transport people through the county, you won't have economic growth."
Projects like the U.S. Highway 24-40 corridor study, the expansion of County Road 1 leading to an interchange with Interstate 70 and work on Kansas Highway 7 in Lansing all are trying to accomplish just that.
"(K-7) will be a blessing for the 30,000 cars traveling up and down Main Street every day," Smith said. "It will provide new turn lanes for people getting into the businesses there and a safety factor, too."
Improvements to County Road 1 will give county residents their first direct access to an interstate highway and could spur commercial development in the area.
Plans to install necessary sewer lines and utilities in the area if growth occurs are being formulated as well.
"We should see significant improvements in Leavenworth County in the next 20 or 30 years," County Planning and Zoning Director Chris Dunn said. "The market will determine where development will occur and where people want to move.
"Our job is not to hold change back but to make sure change is well managed and doesn't have an undue impact on the residents of Leavenworth County," Dunn said.