Kansas City companies could learn a lot from Amazon’s dedication to downtown Seattle

09/03/2013 5:53 PM

09/03/2013 5:53 PM

First off, congratulations to Cerner Corp. and its recent announcement that it plans to build an office park for 15,000 people on the desolate site once occupied by the Bannister Mall.

Would that Kansas City had a dozen such companies with that kind of expected growth. Nothing that follows is intended to diminish that good news.

But a recent article in The New York Times about Amazon’s big development plans for downtown Seattle again raises the question, Where’s the similar corporate commitment to our city’s heart?

Amazon has 15,000 employees in Seattle, and the three new towers downtown will accommodate 12,000 more. Amazon also plans to buy a new streetcar line to serve its project and pay for a bike lane.

Why?

“The energy and excitement from employees being in an urban environment, I hear it daily,” Amazon’s real estate director told the Times. “A lot of people don’t even have a car. They want that urban experience.”

Cerner employs 9,000 people in the Kansas City area and is adding several thousand to its new suburban location in western Wyandotte County. The company has projected it will have 20,000 employees in the area by 2020.

Imagine what it would have meant to downtown Kansas City if those 15,000 Cerner employees were coming there. Or if Sprint, Garmin, Burns & McDonnell, Black & Veatch, Perceptive Software or any one of several growing suburban companies put major operations downtown.

Unfortunately, our downtown is going the opposite direction when it comes to private employers and is in real danger of losing its role as a major office center, just as it lost its place as a retail center in the 1970s.

It was recently reported that downtown Kansas City has lost 16,000 private jobs over the last 10 years, a 19.6 percent drop in its workforce. That occurred at the same time the city invested billions to make downtown a more vital place.

Of all the local corporations, only H&R Block, during the initial phase of the downtown revival boom of the last decade, made the plunge —albeit with the carrot of huge tax breaks.

“We will have the opportunity to retain and recruit the best and the brightest talent for many years to come — highly educated people who value the diversity that an urban workplace offers,” H&R Block executive Mark Ernst said at the time.

One would think that Cerner, Sprint, Garmin, the local engineering firms and others also have many creative workers who might share their Amazon peers’ pleasure in the energy of a vibrant downtown.

Furthermore, the response by local leaders to the hemorrhaging of private jobs from downtown has been less than desirable.

Both the Downtown Council, who’s primary mission is to promote downtown’s health, and Mayor Sly James, who certainly embraces downtown, subscribe to the notion that big employers are a thing of the past, and downtown’s future lies with young, entrepreneurial start-up companies.

The Downtown Council published a map showing the locations of 400 “brain-powered or creative businesses” downtown, many in the Crossroads Arts District. How many people actually are employed by them was not included, but it’s a safe bet most are very small.

Nothing against those kinds of start-ups and entrepreneurs; they are part of the mix that makes for a vibrant downtown. The recent news the historic seven-story Globe Building at 1712 Main St. is being renovated into a loft-style office space for small, hip firms is great stuff.

But it’s not the space-gobbling use that will fill the big vacancies in downtown’s skyline office towers and add traffic to sidewalks. In fact, two of them, the 20-story Traders on Grand building and 30-story Commerce Tower, are reportedly being studied for conversion to apartments.

Downtown has made tremendous strides the past 10 years when it comes to living and playing. There are thousands more apartments and lofts than ever, and dozens of new restaurants and bars have opened.

But without a substantial presence of private employees, Kansas City risks having a boutique downtown where more and more people are only coming to live and play, and the jobs have been shipped out to the suburbs.

Downtown will look impressive and, of course, there will still be government workers, bankers and some lawyers working there, but it will no longer be the business heart of the metropolitan area.

Amazon is one savvy company. Maybe it’s onto something?

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