Foreseeing an economic boom, Manhattan, Kan., opens its arms to new lab

Ground was broken Wednesday for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan. This is an artist’s rendering of the project, which will take five years to build.
Ground was broken Wednesday for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan. This is an artist’s rendering of the project, which will take five years to build. Department of Homeland Security

When caravans of construction crew trucks rolled up Tuttle Creek Boulevard earlier this month, heading for a nearly 50-acre plot on the north end of Kansas State University’s campus, the owner of Bob’s Diner heard the rumble of engines and the ringing of his cash register.

That’s because Bob Iacobellis’ place is just the kind of spot construction workers are likely to go for breakfast or lunch while building the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, better known as NBAF. Price tag: $1.2 billion.

By comparison, Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium just two blocks away is the most expensive facility on the K-State campus, and its cost, including three major enhancements, totaled $160 million.

Over 20 years, officials expect the lab’s economic impact to reach $3.6 billion.

“The NBAF is the biggest thing ever and it is going to change us significantly, there is no question about that,” Mayor Karen McCulloh said.

The economic impact, she said, will boost business owners, real estate agents, developers, the K-State campus, the Aggieville entertainment district, public schools — basically, the entire city.

“A lot of people are going to benefit from this project,” said Iacobellis, who has run the popular diner just off one of Manhattan’s main drags for 17 years. “We all will. It’s going to bring in more people, more jobs, more money.”

At the height of NBAF’s construction over the next five years, Manhattan officials expect 800 to 1,000 workers a day on site. When it opens, some 400 researchers and others will work there, averaging $77,000 a year in salary and benefits. City officials expect it to spawn thousands more jobs throughout the city.

The first dirt was turned Wednesday. When construction is complete and after a year or two of testing, the bio-safety laboratory will replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York.

The 713,000-square-foot NBAF will be a Level 4 facility, the highest containment rating. Inside, scientists will work to protect the nation’s food sources by developing vaccines and countermeasures against the threat of large-animal diseases.

“It’s poised to put the United States on the front line of livestock animal health research,” the Department of Homeland Security says.

Clients will include livestock producers, the FBI, the Department of Agriculture and other ag agencies, private industry and academia. Diseases to be studied could include foot and mouth disease, classical swine fever, African swine fever, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia and Japanese encephalitis virus.

When word first broke in 2008 that the high security containment lab might locate in Manhattan, not everyone in town was for the idea. Some worried about safety. Others were concerned about traffic. Iacobellis recalled attending town meetings and said he and his neighbors left convinced “all those problems would be worked out.”

“We are for it,” he said. “When all the scientists move here to work high-end jobs there, it will probably raise the average income in town. You’ve got to look at the upside.”

The numbers

To project the economic benefits to the Manhattan area from NBAF’s construction alone, K-State hired an Austin, Texas, consulting firm called Impact DataSource.

It came up with $679 million over five years.

▪ Direct economic impact, including revenue to development and construction firms: $422 million. That includes $169 million in pay for construction workers.

▪ Indirect impact, including sales, jobs and salaries at local businesses supplying equipment and supplies, plus “induced” impact — jobs at restaurants, grocery stores, banks and other businesses that serve construction workers and their families — $257 million.

Ross Cunningham is counting on seeing some of that money at MHK iRepair, a business the 23-year-old K-State senior and his friend Ben Warta opened less than a year ago on Manhattan Avenue, across the street from the campus’s main entrance.

“I figure construction workers are likely to break a lot of phones in their line of work … and when they do they will bring them here,” Cunningham said. He’s already planning to expand the business.

Expansion is a common theme in conversations with city officials and Manhattan business owners when talking about how the town will accommodate NBAF.

“The city has already spent millions of dollars,” McCulloh said, to expand its airport, upgrade public transportation, widen roads, expand utilities and develop a new land-use plan.

“Our population is 56,000 right now,” the mayor said. “If it grows to 80,000 as we suspect in the next 10 to 20 years, we have to find more affordable housing.”

Why Manhattan?

Federal officials chose the Manhattan location for NBAF in 2009 from 17 proposed sites after a three-year selection process.

Building the federal facility on the K-State campus puts it close to the veterinary, agricultural and bio-security research expertise at the university. Its neighbor on the campus is Pat Roberts Hall, home to K-State’s Bio-Security Research Institute, where “farm to fork” infectious disease research is done to address threats to plant, animal and human health.

Government and university officials see the area around the site becoming a major hub of the veterinary pharmaceutical industry, said Ron Trewyn, a former K-State administrator who now serves as a liaison for the government, the school and the community.

“Back when we were first named the site for NBAF, calls came in from hundreds around the country wanting to know what was available as office space near NBAF,” Trewyn said.

K-State University Foundation already is building an $11.5 million office park on 14 acres catercorner to the NBAF site to provide corporate office and commercial lab space for bio-defense and animal health product companies, Trewyn said.

The developing area around the lab at Denison and Kimball avenues even has a new name.

“The North Campus Corridor is an exciting area of development that is going to offer huge advantages to the city of Manhattan and the university,” said K-State president Kirk Schulz.

Moving in

NBAF isn’t the only construction project in town. Hotels and apartment complexes are popping up, and K-State has $500 million in campus construction under way.

With hundreds more workers coming to build NBAF, “I think every hotel room we can get in the area and every campground … is going to be packed for the next five to eight years,” Trewyn said.

At the busy intersection of Bluemont and Manhattan avenues, a bright blue neon sign announces the Bluemont Hotel, which opened last fall, following a new Hilton Gardens, a Holiday Inn Express and the locally owned Parkwood Inn and Suites.

“We are definitely excited about NBAF,” said Andrew Suber, co-owner of Blue Mountain Capital Inc., the developer and construction company behind the Bluemont.

“We think the impact on lodging long term will come from the companies that come here to do business with NBAF,” Suber said. “We are talking about the guys supplying the syringes and the Petri dishes.”

But construction workers will need daily lodging for months, some for years. Lyle Butler, president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, compares it to the early 2000s, when billions of dollars worth of construction — barracks and hangars, housing and a hospital — were going up at Fort Riley, about 16 miles west of Manhattan.

Construction supervisors, project managers and foremen working on those projects bought homes in Manhattan and sent their children to school there. But when work at Fort Riley wound down, people like Butler’s neighbors, who had worked for years on hospital construction at the fort, moved on.

“Now again we are starting to see houses being bought or permanently leased as NBAF construction ramps up,” Butler said. “And our school superintendent is beginning to ask how many of these workers will bring children. We don’t have those numbers yet.”

Some NBAF crews will bring mobile homes to Manhattan.

Dave Karnowski, co-owner of Calvin’s RV Park, about 15 miles east of the NBAF site, already is seeing an uptick in business.

“We think it is going to have a huge impact,” Karnowski said. “In fact, we are expanding.”

In addition to the demand for housing, contractors on “the big job” have already been calling around town hunting for warehouse space to store supplies and equipment, said Daryn Soldan, consultant with the Kansas Small Business Development Center in Manhattan.

“That is a scarce commodity in Manhattan,” he said.

People with land to sell, Soldan said, can get “high dollar” from contractors looking to erect storage buildings.

Iacobellis, the diner owner, said he did pretty well on a piece of land that he sold recently for warehouse construction.

And now he’s hoping to meet a slew of new regulars he can call by name as they walk through his door.

To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send email to mdwilliams@kcstar.com.