Fried chicken or flowers. Barbecue, baseball or volleyball. Most people in the Kansas City area know Martin City for something, maybe just navigating potholes on a bumpy stretch of 135th Street to get to the post office.
But people who haven’t been to the south Kansas City area lately might not be aware of the transformation underway.
Beyond the longtime restaurants, “the whole face of Martin City is changing,” said Karyn Brooke, chair of the Martin City Business and Community Association, a nonprofit organization. “I call it an ‘urbanburb,’ a mix of the charming old and fresh new.”
The new includes sidewalks and customers walking among businesses on 135th Street — something Brooke, owner of the Sidelines floral and gift shop since 1986, said she hadn’t seen before. The new also includes more high-tech and light industrial businesses.
Growth has a lot to do with Martin City’s Community Improvement District, or CID. The district, which dates to 2005, was expanded in 2009 to a 300-acre area encompassing about 85 businesses. Only recently can visitors detect the results of levying a half-cent sales tax and special property taxes within the district to finance economic development.
CID tax revenue and other incentives obtained through Kansas City economic development agencies and City Hall are funding the facelift of 135th Street east from Holmes Road toward Missouri 150. Upgrades include a new 60-inch stormwater drainage system to cure flooding woes, as well as road, curb and sidewalk improvements.
It’s the kind of civic effort fueling concentrated improvements in downtown Kansas City, the River Market, the Crossroads, Westport, 39th Street, and 18th and Vine, said Bob Langenkamp, president of the Economic Development Corp. of Kansas City, a nonprofit agency that manages six redevelopment agencies that work with property owners.
“Where the Country Club Plaza has a single property owner, for example, CIDs in the other areas cover multiple owners,” Langenkamp said. “The CIDs typically fund cleanup, promotion, marketing, security and other things for the whole group.”
CID designation also allows individual property owners in Martin City to apply for public subsidies to help meet the cost of their own improvements.
Just off 135th at 13800 Wyandotte, MMC Contractors has begun site work on a $3 million building addition expected to add 42 jobs at the company specializing in mechanical equipment design, fabrication and installation. Because of its planned job creation — average wage estimated at $94,000 — and financial impact, the company obtained a 10-year, 100 percent property tax abatement through Missouri’s Enhanced Enterprise Zone program.
“It’s an exciting time to be operating in south Kansas City,” said Keith Andrews, president of MMC Contractors, in announcing the incentive. “The area is booming.”
Nearby, at 13333 Holmes, entrepreneur Gary Fish sought similar tax breaks on a $10.2 million facility for his newest company, FishTech Labs. His smart-home technology company aims to create 48 high-tech jobs with an average salary of $119,000. To make that happen, Fish intends to raze a vacant bank building on the site and build a two-story, 20,000-square-foot home for his “next-generation IT” work.
The Kansas City Council voted to approve the FishTech incentives on Thursday.
The marquee expansions hardly tell the whole commercial story. Some of Martin City’s businesses have developed an international customer base.
“People don’t have to come to Martin City to do business with Martin City,” said Missy Wilson, executive director of the Martin City Community Improvement District.
KC Running Co., for example, provides race management services all over the map. MMC Contractors does mechanical equipment work in more than 30 states. Infinite Energy Construction, an SBA award winner, has multiple federal and military site contracts.
Also in the district are two car dealerships; a retail strip mall; a brewery; two landscaping and garden supply companies; two gas stations, including one of QuikTrip’s largest in the area, with 22 bays; the post office; and an array of medical, dental and veterinarian offices, professional services, retail, manufacturing and industrial operations.
The area is also home to a baseball training academy, a gymnastics company, a driving range, outdoor/indoor volleyball courts, a paintball course and a few other businesses that sell to or serve the sports-minded. Then there are the well-known restaurants, RC’s Chicken, Jess & Jim’s Steakhouse, Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, Margarita’s and the newer Martin City Brewing Company Pub.
That’s not to say everything is blossoming. The area also has properties on the market for redevelopment, including a closed Sutherland home improvement and building supply store, prominent at the corner of 135th and Holmes. And there are vacant tracts along the railroad tracks east of Holmes and to the south end of the district. A few properties remain in need of renovation.
A 102,660-square-foot building at 13700 Wyandotte, the former site of Barton Nelson Inc., which made sticky notes and other products, needs a new tenant after the company’s assets were acquired in 2014 by Gill Studios Inc. and production moved to a Gill property in Lenexa.
The district itself is just midway through its infrastructure improvements, most noticeable in roadwork ongoing between Oak and Wornall. The Wornall-to-Missouri 150 stage awaits future funding. The mostly completed first phase, between Holmes and Oak, shows what’s planned all along 135th — fancy lampposts and hanging baskets decorate new sidewalks on both sides of the street.
Martin City hasn’t been an official city since 1963, when it was annexed by Kansas City. It still has the feel, though, of a stand-alone town. The site, initially platted in 1887, was named Tilden after a U.S. presidential candidate who had lost in 1886 to Rutherford B. Hayes.
Perhaps to avoid confusion with another Missouri town named Tilden, the name was changed in 1895 to honor one of the town’s founders, Edward L. Martin. Martin, a wholesale liquor distributor, also was a former mayor of Kansas City, a former school board member and a partner with Arthur Stilwell in the railway company that eventually evolved to Kansas City Southern.
By the early 1900s, Martin City had a train station, a hotel, a general store and a blacksmith shop. A bank opened in 1911 but closed during the Depression; its building on 135th Street still stands and is used by its current owner, Pat Cocherl.
One notable structure is a former church building at 135th and Holmes. Dedicated in 1890, it was rebuilt after a massive 1957 tornado tore through a part of southeast Kansas City. Reports said 30 people survived in the basement while the sanctuary above was blown away. After rebuilding, the site was home for 16 years to the Martin City Melodrama, which retains that name even after three theater relocations.
Martin City built a school in 1910, razed it and built a new one in 1955, and expanded it in 1999. It’s now part of the Grandview School District and houses elementary and middle school grades.
CID executive director Wilson said it’s a point of pride for the community to have retained a post office, decorated with historic Martin City photographs and murals, despite office consolidations that have shuttered many sites.
CID executive director Wilson credits Barb Engel, her predecessor in the CID executive director’s job, for doing much of “the heavy lifting” that’s propelled the district to this point.
That included helping property owners work through Kansas City’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority and Economic Development Corp. to seek property tax abatements. Investors in the CID also are able to use the federal New Markets Tax Credit program, which provides credit against federal income taxes for qualified equity investments.
Wilson said the district also seems to enjoy a business boost from two nearby developments: large-scale redevelopment of the former Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base as an inland port and intermodal industrial park and the new 1.5 million-square-foot Honeywell National Security Campus headquarters at Missouri 150 and Botts Road, which has about 2,600 workers.
“Martin City can be the center of amenities for them,” Wilson said, adding that a Kansas City trails study also aims to channel walking or biking paths through the area.
Meanwhile, she hopes more people — especially Johnson Countians — will venture across the state line and check out Martin City’s “Third Thursdays,” when retail shops stay open in the evening along with the restaurants. Third Thursdays was the idea of Brooke, the longtime Sidelines owner.
Debbie Van Noy, whose extended family is behind RC’s, Jess & Jim’s and the newer brewpub, has had a front row seat for decades to watch the street’s ups and downs.
“It just looks so much more inviting now, with the sidewalks,” Van Noy said. “And especially in the summer, with music on the outdoor patios, we’re seeing people walk back and forth.”
For Van Noy, a missing ingredient in Martin City’s rehabilitation is the lack of high-end multitenant housing. She eyes the Sutherland corner or the paintball complex on Holmes as prime sites for new condominium development or maybe nice apartments atop ground floor retail.
Even the best Martin City boosters, though, admit redevelopment isn’t full-flowered yet. Their advice: Just be patient with the ongoing street work.
▪ Initially platted in 1887, the area was named Tilden after a U.S. presidential candidate who had lost in 1876 to Rutherford B. Hayes.
▪ Perhaps to avoid confusion with another Missouri town named Tilden, the name was changed in 1895 to honor one of the town’s founders, Edward L. Martin.