Noland Road still draws entrepreneurs in Independence

As Noland Road goes, so goes Independence.

Few measures of the city’s economic health may seem as easily readable as the principal north-south commercial artery of Missouri’s fourth-largest city, where about 28,000 vehicles travel each day.

The retail vacancy rate on Noland Road commercial corridor is now about 6 percent, said Tom Lesnak, Independence Economic Development Council president. That compares to an approximately 9 or 10 percent vacancy rate across Independence.

“There’s a lot of interest in Noland Road right now,” adds Ann Smith-Tate, Independence economic development manager.

It hasn’t always been that way.

Back in the 1990s, some people criticized the city, saying it concentrated too heavily on developing the southeast part of the city near Independence Center — at the expense of Noland Road and other older areas. They contended that city-subsidized developments in newer areas induced businesses to move or made it hard for them to compete.

But now the city has taken steps to jumpstart redevelopment on Noland, most recently around 23rd Street.

Noland Road, especially that stretch from U.S. 40 north to 23rd Street, is home to a vast variety of small shops, big stores and fast-food outlets. The comparative health of the corridor, measured by the vacancy rate, is part of a larger uptick in the city’s economic activity, Lesnak said.

For the last five years, Lesnak said, new investment by businesses in Independence have averaged about $30 million to $35 million a year.

So far through 2013, the Independence number now stands closer to $45 million, said Lesnak. And that does not include Stoney Creek Inn Lodge and Conference Center, a $20 million project scheduled to open a year from now just east of the Bass Pro Shops store in The Falls at Crackerneck Creek.

“Some of this is pent-up demand on the part of companies that have held off on capital investment in recent years,” said Lesnak. Some Independence manufacturers, he said, finally are following through on long-deferred equipment upgrades.

But some of that investment also is manifesting itself along Noland Road.

Occasionally it is arriving on a spot-by-spot basis. One creative re-use of existing space is the installation of a new Subway store in the former Enterprise Rental Car outlet on the northwest corner of Noland Road and East 39th Street.

The city did not use any incentives to attract that project, Smith-Tate said.

But some new investment has come with assistance from city officials, through tax increment financing. A TIF is a development tool that allows tax revenues generated by a project to reimburse developers for infrastructure costs, and Noland Road has benefitted from several such agreements, officials believe.

A Hy-Vee Center TIF agreement, approved in 2002 and which led to a new grocery store on the northeast corner of Noland Road and U.S. 40, closed out last year, a decade before schedule.

The TIF also led to improved traffic signals at the intersection, as well as upgrades to water lines and sanitary and storm sewers. The assessed value of the property, which stood at $638,000 in 2001, is about $1.3 million today.

A Noland Road auto plaza TIF, also adopted in 2002, has been closed out as well.

That year former Independence mayor Dick King argued in favor of a tax increment financing agreement to build a redeveloped auto plaza along Noland Road and secure the commercial stability of the “Miracle Mile” of Independence car dealerships. This was all the more important, King said, when car manufacturers were insisting that dealers relocate to new modern buildings, often near interstates.

That TIF made easier an upgraded Honda dealership at 3151 S. Noland Road.

About a year ago, city officials approved a new TIF, devoted to three of the four corners at the intersection of Noland Road and 23rd Street.

In 2010 property owners along Noland Road asked city staff to assist them in improving certain key areas from 23rd Street to U.S. 40. One idea that emerged was a redevelopment area at 23rd and Noland.

While many TIF agreements concern larger neighborhoods or districts, Independence officials wanted to make TIF benefits available to property owners invested in the intersection, which John Pinch, deputy city manager, said is considered the “gateway” to the Independence Square area.

“We didn’t want it to be a ‘force’ thing,” said Pinch. “The owners of the three corners were ready potentially to do something.”

A large QuikTrip store has been built on the southeast corner, replacing a former pharmacy that later operated as a Big Lots store before finally sitting vacant. On the northeast corner, a car repair shop is scheduled to be expanded. The third corner included, the former location of Shamrock Tire on the northwest corner, will have to be brought up to code if it is redeveloped, Pinch said.

One undeniable stretch of vacant windows can be seen at the Gaslight Square shopping center at the northeast corner of Noland Road and East 35th Street, just south of Truman High School.

Discussions are ongoing with a possible national tenant regarding a future use for that space, said Smith-Tate.

City officials also have pondered various strategies to address aesthetics along the road, but nothing has been formalized, she added.

One challenge of economic development, Lesnak said, is that as established commerical corridors like Noland Road fill with tenants, there is that much less available built space to offer other possible tenants.

“Sometimes we lose opportunity because we have been successful in filling spaces,” said Lesnak, before adding “I would rather have a low vacancy rate.”