Joco Opinion

Bob Sigman — 2013 has seen positive signs for development, economy

In a few weeks, the holiday season will wind down and we will be asking ourselves that thought-provoking, end-of-the year question: How will 2013 be remembered?

For one thing, Johnson County reached an impressive milestone in its economic development this year. For another, our economy continued to trend upward.

The milestone was the opening of the $250 million, 440-acre BNSF intermodal facility in Edgerton, along with the $250 million Logistics Park Kansas City, the facility’s 1,550-acre warehouse and distribution operation.

Informal estimates on the investment run well past the $500 million mark and could be much higher as the project develops. It is, without question, one of the largest economic development outlays in the county’s history.

“It is a real work in progress,’’ said Tom Riederer, president of the Southwest Johnson County Economic Development Corp., adding that there could be as many as 7,000 new jobs in the two operations and more employment by companies that provide support services.

The BNSF transcontinental railroad route, which runs between West Coast ports and Chicago, provides regional businesses with importing and exporting access to global markets, including China and the Pacific Rim.

The intermodal facility is a key transfer point. Products from the West are unloaded from the rails to trucks for delivery to the final destination in this part of the country. Conversely, cargo can be loaded on trains for shipment to California and beyond.

Logistics Park Kansas City was developed by NorthPoint Development, a partner of BNSF in the intermodal enterprise. Currently NorthPoint is working on a speculative 500,000- square-foot warehouse.

The intermodal facility and warehouse developments have had their critics, to the point of litigation. The projects moved forward, however.

Governmental collaboration was an important part of the construction process.

Edgerton, Gardner, the county, the state of Kansas and the federal government have been involved. Some of the governmental development: Edgerton and Gardner have cooperated to build a wastewater plant for the new operation. The state of Kansas has built a new interchange at Interstate 35 and Homestead Lane to help accommodate increased traffic. Johnson County has improved Homestead.

Meanwhile, the county’s economic condition is encouraging.

“A year of continued improvement,’’ observed Doug Davidson, president of CERI, the organization that tracks economic affairs in Johnson County.

All principal economic indicators are up. This is not, for the most part, the knock-your-socks-off growth of past decades.

But employment is looking better. Unemployment is down. Building permits for single-family housing are on the rise. And a large increase in multi-family housing permits prompted Davidson to discuss its ramifications.

Multi-family permits are up 165 percent in the first 10 months of the year compared with a 33.4 percent increase in single-family permits.

At least two factors come into play in the multi-family residential growth, Davidson said in an interview.

Younger generations are turning to apartments and other multi-family housing because more stringent regulation of home mortgages are making it difficult for them to acquire single-family residences.

The second factor involves employment. People are changing jobs more frequently than in the past. This can lead to the need to move, either in this region or to other parts of the country.

Selling a home can complicate a job move. So younger people tend to seek the simplicity of apartment life, Davidson concluded.

Barring a national downturn, Davidson said the upward climb should continue in 2014.