Overland Park’s downtown has gone from quaint to contemporary. Lenexa built a downtown from the ground up. And while the hearts of other Johnson County cities are transforming, Shawnee’s downtown has remained stagnant.
But many say that’s starting to change.
Millions of dollars of new investment — from private developers, business owners and the city — are breathing new life into the area that many said has been depressed for decades.
“Shawnee is much different than Lenexa or Overland Park. Being a small town forever, Shawnee has a residual part of the culture that came with the town,” said Mike McVey, founder of Transport Brewery, one of two breweries that opened in downtown Shawnee this year. “But I think the downtown has been a backwater for years. And fortunately, it’s survived long enough where now, 50 years later, it’s finally starting to rejuvenate itself.”
Shawnee has launched its largest public project ever, a roughly $40 million reconstruction of Nieman Road at the center of downtown. And for the first time, developers are building multimillion-dollar, modern mixed-use office buildings and high-end apartment complexes.
While work is slow moving, community leaders said the excitement heralds a new era for Shawnee.
“I think most people probably never thought much about downtown Shawnee or couldn’t even point it out on a map. But now people are taking notice,” said Shawnee Chamber of Commerce CEO Ann Smith-Tate. “I think in the last couple of decades we’ve never had the amount of interest we’ve had in the last six to eight months. So it’s been wonderful.”
Enthusiasm is building
One of the oldest towns in Johnson County, Shawnee has held true to its historic roots, locals said. Stone buildings dating back to the late 1800s still make up much of the downtown. The annual Old Shawnee Days is the town’s signature event.
“I think the cool thing about this is it’s an authentic downtown,” Smith-Tate said. “I think people connect with that history and authenticity. It’s not perfect. It’s not shiny and new. But it’s true to who we are.”
McVey explained his passion for the town’s history while standing in a 110-year-old building on Johnson Drive that’s now home to his new brewery. Nearby, new restaurants just opened, including taco joint Sancho StreetSide. And crews are transforming old buildings: The historic Aztec Theater is under renovation, a piano bar is set to open nearby and the former O.K. Garage will be a new McLain’s Market.
When looking for a place to open his brewery, McVey said he was mostly targeting northeast Johnson County. But he landed on Shawnee because it’s affordable.
The downtown, for example, sits within a Federal Opportunity Zone, which, in general, provides tax benefits to investors building in census tracts where the poverty rate is 20%.
“Many people told me to open up in Leawood or somewhere else. But breweries go in because they can afford to go in, so there was an opportunity for us here,” he said. “So I think it’s a sign of rejuvenation that the breweries can come in because they think it’s a good place to be, but it’s still affordable. You want to get in at a rising place, not a declining place.”
McVey attributes the new investment pouring into Shawnee to the improved economy. And Kevin Tubbesing, a developer who is building some of Shawnee’s first modern office and apartment buildings, said public improvements over the past couple of decades also have made a difference.
Neighborhood Planner Lauren Grashoff said efforts began in 2002 to rechannel Turkey Creek, improve streetscapes and repair the stormwater system, turning flood plains into developable land. Following the infrastructure improvements, Tubbesing said he felt comfortable investing millions into Shawnee.
He transformed a blighted commercial area on the eastern edge of Shawnee along Shawnee Mission Parkway into a $15 million, three-story office building, called Stag’s Creek. The contemporary steel building, with large windows letting in natural light, has a vastly different look than the old structures downtown. And many say it’s a sign of what’s to come.
“That project really kind of woke up the gateway to Shawnee,” Tubbesing said. “Before, if you drove into town on Shawnee Mission Parkway, you’d be greeted with the pawn shop, abandoned stores and essentially junk. But with cleaning that up, it really created an attractive entrance to that part of the city.”
Smith-Tate said the office is now full, and 90 employees moved in this summer.
Community leaders said Shawnee’s greatest need is housing, especially as it welcomes new employees.
Shawnee has been touted as one of the most affordable cities in Johnson County, gaining praise this summer from a national real estate website, realtor.com, which ranked it as one of the country’s “hottest ZIP codes.” The site placed downtown Shawnee high on the list because of its affordable housing stock, attracting young adults and families.
But apartments are in short supply.
Now that he’s had success with his office development, Tubbesing is planning a 67-unit luxury apartment complex downtown, on the northeast corner of Roger and Nieman roads. He is requesting more than $3 million in tax increment financing reimbursements to build the $16 million housing development.
“These will be apartments on the higher end of the market. Once they’re finished, they’ll be the largest and most expensive in that northern Johnson County area,” he said. “Right now there’s no option for that quality. So we think the market will respond.”
If the City Council approves the incentive agreement, Tubbesing hopes to break ground on the project next month. At a recent city meeting, council candidate Kris Durbin warned the city not to take on the risk of offering millions in incentives for the project, but the Council agreed to hold a public hearing on it.
Next door, on the southeast corner of Roger and Nieman roads, the city has sold land to a developer proposing another high-end apartment building, but this one will also feature office space.
Box Real Estate Development is proposing a three-and-a-half story project, with around 16 apartments and 12 first-floor work spaces, a mixed-use development that would be a first for downtown Shawnee.
The city has called the two-acre plot the “Nieman Catalyst Site,” hoping once it is developed, more investors will want to launch projects downtown. Smith-Tate said the city is also working with developers looking to build 200 more apartments in the area.
Many hope the apartment buildings will bring in more residents to support existing businesses, plus attract a new nightlife and social scene.
And once Nieman Road construction is done, the city hopes interest will continue to build. The project, which includes significant stormwater and utility work, is one year behind schedule. And that hasn’t made residents or business owners happy.
City spokeswoman Julie Breithaupt said harsh weather pushed back utility work, and the entire project, one year.
“We understand people are frustrated,” she said. “But we also truly feel when this is all finished, it’s really going to invite more people into the downtown, to grab a bite to eat, visit the theater or walk to a new brewery. We think it’s going to be an exciting area to come down to, and it’ll be much more pedestrian friendly. We have our eyes on that goal.”
Nieman Road construction is slated to be completed by the end of the year, with some additional amenities to be added in the spring. The project includes adding “pocket parks” along the roadway and other features for walkers and cyclists.
And while most agreed the construction work has been a pain, many feel once it’s completed, it will dramatically change the look of the downtown.
“I think it will help a ton. I think it’ll change the whole perception for people,” McVey said. “People are going to drive through and wonder why it’s all auto shops and old buildings, and they’re going to realize they could do something great here.”
Leaders are excited about the addition of new apartments, offices, bars and restaurants — especially the Kansas City staple McLain’s. But many agreed downtown Shawnee is just now on the cusp of transformation.
“This is where Shawnee started, in our downtown,” said Grashoff, the neighborhood planner. “We have a lot of history here. And we don’t want to wipe that out. We want to keep the core of our small-town feel, but add greater density and amenities. We think all of this will build up and really start to draw people’s attention.”