John Miller Jr. has one wish — for his dad to be around in 20 years to see what North Kansas City becomes.
In the last several years, the longtime hub for industrial activity has undergone a renaissance as new businesses move into old warehouses and repurpose them.
“In and around downtown, there’s new energy and new activity,” said Sarah Copeland, North Kansas City’s community development director.
The latest example can be found at 1501 Burlington St., where crews are renovating a self-storage facility into North Kansas City’s first business incubator.
Called iWerx, the small-business training ground will operate out of a 33,000-square-foot space on Burlington Road. The building dates back to the 1930s, when it was Kroger’s regional grocery distribution center.
IWerx is the brainchild of Bob Martin and Robert Curland. The two started EnCorps45, a group that supports people over 45 who are starting their own businesses. They since have partnered with Miller and David Teeman, the co-founder of Innovation Cafe, another co-working space.
IWerx is expected to open in July. The developers have rented out about 25 percent of the space, which costs from $175 to $2,500 to rent.
Miller and his father, John Miller Sr., own several properties in North Kansas City, including the Burlington building. Miller has a knack for seeing potential where others see ugly warehouses. One of his tenants recently opened an indoor rock-climbing gym in an old warehouse.
Miller and his father are among the drivers behind North Kansas City’s renaissance.
“We’re almost being forced into this because we’ve got to be creative,” said Miller about repurposing the warehouses.
The incubator is making good use of its space. The plan calls for 38 office spaces and three conference rooms.
It’s also a tech-friendly space that taps into North Kansas City’s high-speed internet called liNKCity, which has a 10-gigabit capacity. What Google Fiber is to Kansas City, liNKCity is to North Kansas City. Martin said the internet capabilities have interested video production companies and tech startups.
“Nobody knows what 10 gig is and what you can do with it,” Miller said. “I have a feeling that we’re going to find out in the first six months because of the video companies.”
The Kansas City area is home to 10 incubators and co-working spaces, said Jenny Miller from KC Sourcelink, a local organization that helps startups and small businesses. The changing workforce and Kansas City’s push toward becoming “America’s most entrepreneurial city” are making these incubators and co-working spaces more common.
Why is this necessary? Because, Miller said, “a lot more people have the ability to work from anywhere.”
Martin estimates that by 2020, 50 percent of all Americans in the labor market will work for themselves or be working in companies of five employees or less.
That’s where these incubators come in. An incubator is essentially a collection of office spaces. Small businesses can rent space and work alongside other entrepreneurs. And the iWerx partners are there to offer advice and potential access to investors.
They are also crafting a entrepreneur-centric curriculum to help the businesses grow and enable the iWerx team to help the companies individually. Martin said they have partnered with Metropolitan Community College and the Kauffman Foundation to build the curriculum on how to successfully launch a startup.
North Kansas City might lure some businesses to set up shop there when they’ve outgrown the incubator.
To get the space ready for iWerx, the partners have poured more than $1 million into the renovation. Like most renovations, the process has taken longer than expected. The old building has thrown the construction crews curveballs along the way.
But as crews carried out the old storage units, they found pleasant surprises along the way. When the storage units came out, they found the brick walls and a wood ceiling that was part of the refrigeration area for Kroger. Before iWerx, the building was a self-storage facility for 20 or so years. Before that, it was home to an antique car museum and a company that sold yachts.
Curland said the developers embraced the history of the building, recycling as much as they can. An old electrical box, for example, is going to become a conference room table.
The partners all cited the help of the North Kansas City government in getting iWerx off the ground.
Curland said he can’t wait to see people moving in.
Martin has been a part of several other startups, and he is confident in his latest venture.
The small-business startup center “is risky,” Miller said. “We are putting a lot of money into this space to make this work. We always used to say, ‘We hope this works.’ But I don’t think that’s even a question anymore.”