Edgerton: Boomtown, but angst for rural neighbors
Update: The Edgerton City Council on Thursday voted 3-0 to approve the rezoning of about 256 acres at the northwest corner of 207th Street and Waverly Road from rural residential land to industrial warehouse district zoning for Logistics Park Kansas City.
For 43 years, Pat Peer and her husband, Carl, have cherished their rural property near Edgerton, with its restored 1904 farmhouse, giant oak and tree house in the front yard. Their grandchildren fish in a pond on the property, and deer and turkeys wander 30 acres of rolling hills.
"It’s just absolutely beautiful,” Peer said, describing a recent gathering where the couple’s friends were awed by the sight of does grazing at the pond.
But not far away, huge trucks roar along gravel roads and a hayfield is being cleared to expand Edgerton’s Logistics Park Kansas City, which opened in 2013.
Logistics has turned the tiny farm community of Edgerton, 40 miles south of Kansas City, into a metro area boomtown in less than five years. Vast warehouses dot the landscape near Interstate 35 at one of the fastest-growing business parks in the country, attracting cargo-filled trains and thousands of trucks daily.
And Edgerton’s logistics park, four times the size of the Truman Sports Complex, is poised to get even bigger, adding 575 acres south of I-35 to the existing 1,700 acres north of the interstate.
Several rural neighbors, like Peer, who live south of the freeway feel especially blindsided by the rapid growth plus the annexation and planned warehouse expansion.
They point out that Edgerton’s comprehensive plan and Mid-American Regional Council maps called for rural residential development south of I-35. They complain they had no notice until early December of the annexation, which the City Council swiftly approved Dec. 28.
“It’s not going to feel like the country anymore,” says Jennifer Whitlow, who moved with her husband and four children last year from Gardner to a six-bedroom home on 11 acres with mature trees, a pool and a volleyball pit south of I-35.
The couple owns a business and works from home. Their property may soon border the industrial district.
The park’s master developer is Riverside-based NorthPoint, a major industrial developer nationwide. CEO Nathaniel Hagedorn says the project is first-rate and that Kansas City was lagging other cities across the U.S. until Logistics Park.
“These are opportunities that go all over the Midwest. We’re either in the game or not,” he said. “Kansas City has finally put itself in a position to compete.”
The feverish growth has astonished Edgerton Mayor Don Roberts, whose council colleagues recently boosted his salary from $1,000 to $90,000 because he’s been the town’s leader in spearheading this $1 billion investment.
“It’s been a lot faster than what we were originally anticipating,” he said, citing more warehouse development in four years than he expected in 15 to 20 years.
Roberts says he sees “huge positive impacts” for the community.
The project has created 3,900 jobs in a town of just 1,700 residents. It’s generating several million dollars annually for nearby schools, parks, road repaving and other services, while lowering Edgerton residents’ property tax bills by hundreds of dollars.
It’s home to BNSF Railway’s huge intermodal cargo facility, plus distribution centers for Amazon, Jet.com, UPS and other companies, putting Kansas City on the national map as an “inland port” to swiftly ship goods all over the country. The intermodal process involves a giant container being moved from train to truck and then possibly to a nearby Logistics Park warehouse, or by truck back to train.
Some things in town haven't changed. While Logistics Park has sprawled over four years, drawing workers from the metro area, Edgerton’s population hasn’t grown at all. Its downtown has remained remarkably untouched, with one main street of old-fashioned brick buildings, including City Hall, a bank, post office, library, church and one new business, Pattie’s hair salon.
The town's latest dust-up, just this week, involved a property owner who complained he was being forced to remove an admittedly junky "half" car that has served as a whimsical monument on Highway 56 for years.
Edgerton is also the kind of place where the opening of a new Dollar General store is a big deal. On a frigid morning in early April, about 50 people showed up to a ribbon cutting for the store on 56 Highway. It’s Edgerton’s first new retail construction in nearly 40 years and the closest thing the town has to a grocery store.
But for residents who bought their dream homes in what has always been pastoral Johnson County farmland, Logistics Park's success is a wrenching change and the end of an idyllic way of life.
“I understand growth, but this is a different kind of growth,” Whitlow said. “It’s not families and smaller businesses that are going to benefit the local community. It is large warehouses that run 24/7.”
How it started
Ironically, it was an effort to shut down BNSF's original rail intermodal plans for Gardner that paved the way for the huge development in Edgerton.
Voters in nearby Gardner, a city with nearly 20,000 residents, had agreed in 2006 to annex the intermodal land and negotiate with BNSF. But the proposal attracted fierce opponents who worried about the impact on roads, sewers and the environment. In June 2009, the Gardner City Council voted 3-2 to rescind all railroad agreements.
That opened the door for Edgerton to take control. It also meant folks in Gardner and unincorporated Johnson County had no vote on how the development evolved.
Some opponents say Edgerton, whose government has just 18 employees, has let NorthPoint call all the shots, and its pro-growth, minimal regulation approach has meant the development has outpaced the capacity of the roads, leading to traffic jams, accidents and other disruptions.
They say Gardner has gotten all the negative effects without the tax revenue to address them. Gardner’s mayor and city officials declined to comment about Logistics Park’s impact on their community.
Elected Edgerton’s mayor in April 2009, Roberts recalls how he initially thought his role would be like the town’s “dog catcher.” But he and other Edgerton officials swiftly began discussions with BNSF that culminated in a September 2009 annexation vote and the intermodal deal.
“There was a large crowd in City Hall at that time, and they actually gave us a standing ovation for annexing,” Roberts now says.
BNSF’s $250 million, 400-acre cargo facility opened in October 2013 and took off, with the entire Logistics Park growing in a few years from 1,000 acres to 1,700, doubling Edgerton’s size from 2009.
Jet.com opened in 2015, growing from six employees to 1,200. More multinational businesses followed in 2016, including Amazon, with 1,000 jobs that has potential to grow to 2,000. Spectrum Brands and UPS arrived in 2017, helping bring the total investment to nearly $1 billion and warehouse development to 11 million square feet. The metro’s next biggest industrial park, in Riverside, is 1.8 million square feet.
CBRE, a firm specializing in commercial real estate, cited $500 million worth of investment in Kansas City’s industrial market in 2017, with much of that attributable to 10 fully leased buildings at Logistics Park, “one of the largest commercial real estate deals in Kansas City history.”
Hagedorn insists NorthPoint is a good neighbor, with high-quality construction and a pristine privately funded road network within Logistics Park.
Million-square-foot warehouses and light-industrial facilities are not old-style metal buildings. The beige, white and gray tones resemble office buildings.
“It’s modern. It’s not noisy, smelly, sooty,” Hagedorn said.
The district’s employment jumped from 250 jobs in 2013 to 3,900 by the end of 2017, averaging $12 to $15 per hour plus benefits.
Frank Lenk, chief researcher for the Mid-America Regional Council, says that job growth ranks high in the metro area, although high-tech companies like Cerner also add 1,000 jobs or more per year at much higher salaries.
What’s striking about Logistics Park, he said, is these warehouse developments consume a lot more land.
“It’s 4,000 jobs coming out of what was a field,” he said. “It’s a big change from the type of lifestyle that had been out there for a very long time.”
It’s exploded because of the central U.S. location, proximity to the rail yard and I-35, reliable workforce, and because Edgerton and NorthPoint build and lease these buildings at a record pace, said Chris Gutierrez, president of Kansas City SmartPort, which attracts distribution centers to the bi-state area.
Roberts says it’s been a huge success because of its ideal location. “I would call us oceanfront property,” he said.
Heavy traffic, unhappy residents
That’s small consolation to longtime Edgerton residents like Bill LaFalce, who wishes the growth were in high-tech or professional services, like Silicon Valley, rather than warehouse industrial with lots of trucking activity.
“We’re going to be the little town surrounded by truck traffic, noise pollution, air pollution and who knows what else,” he said. “A smaller high-tech park would’ve been a better deal that can blend into the rural nature of the community.”
The project is a blow for Carol Welsh and her husband, who have lived since 2001 on 10 acres perfect for their horses, just across the two-lane gravel road from where the warehouse district is expanding at 207th Street. Pre-development work is already underway, creating dust, diesel fumes and blasting that shakes the windows.
Welsh had checked on area plans but was always assured this land was supposed to remain rural residential. She doesn’t know what the future holds.
Peer, a retired teacher who lives not far from Welsh, said she and her neighbors agonize over the prospect of living near huge warehouses. She wonders whether this is really what Johnson County wants for its future.
“Johnson County is one of the richest counties in the state. It’s always had this good feel to it, a good place to live and work,” she said.
“You’re going to be in the middle of a warehouse district like you would find in Armourdale or someplace like that. To me, that’s not the vision that I think most people who live in Johnson County have or want.”
County Commissioner Mike Brown, a developer and construction manager who represents south Johnson County, says the benefits far outweigh the negatives.
“I have been contacted a couple of times relative to concerns and hesitancy, complaints about how fast it’s all growing,” he said. “I empathize with them, but I don’t sympathize. Not only do I think it’s a good thing, I’ll do anything I can to keep it going.”
Economic development promoters say this is the wave of the future and Kansas City’s best opportunity to compete nationally. Traditional shopping malls and retailers are giving way to e-commerce companies and other direct-to-consumer businesses. They now view Edgerton as one of the top distribution centers in the western two-thirds of the U.S.
“It is among the fastest-growing industrial parks in the country and among the best performing in the country,” said Jason Tolliver, an industrial development expert with Cushman Wakefield in Indianapolis. Tolliver says these giant business parks represent a structural, long-term development trend, and Edgerton “pound for pound is a clear leader.”
By railcar and truck, goods from Edgerton can get to almost any U.S. destination in two days, besting Dallas, St. Louis, Indianapolis and other competitors.
“It’s how we shop,” Tolliver said. “In the past, we were going to the mall. Now, I want the mall brought to me.”
Edgerton, Johnson County and the state of Kansas have invested $95 million in new roads leading to Logistics Park, including an interchange at I-35 and Homestead south of 199th Street.
The Homestead interchange and I-35 have plenty of capacity, according to the Kansas Department of Transportation. But KDOT data shows I-35 daily traffic counts between Gardner Road and Homestead have jumped from about 24,000 vehicles (including 5,000 trucks) in 2013 to 33,100 vehicles (including nearly 11,000 trucks) in 2017.
Since 2013, the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office has tallied 122 accidents on Interstate 35 and other roads near Logistics Park, including 70 in just the past two years.
Residents say the narrow intersection of Gardner Road at I-35 and other streets like 199th Street are overwhelmed with trucks, which sometimes run people off the road and cause other serious safety hazards.
The emotional nature of the project’s expansion was on full display at an April 10 meeting where the Edgerton Planning Commission considered rezoning about 200 of the 575 newly annexed acres for what’s obliquely called “Project Mustang.” A press release points to an $87 million Kubota Tractor expansion.
Peer, Whitlow and more than a dozen other residents pleaded with the city to slow down the pace and argued the north side of the park should fill up first, before it jumps the highway.
“You must balance the needs of all the landowners, not just NorthPoint,” Whitlow urged. “I would ask you to not rush.”
But John Thomas with NorthPoint told the commission that the existing Logistics Park is about 80 percent leased and doesn’t have enough contiguous warehouse spaces for the desired use.
One of the five planning commissioners, Katee Smith, openly asked why the city was moving so quickly. Another commissioner, Andrew Merriman, sympathized with the concerns.
“It really does pluck the heartstrings,” he said.
Still, after more than an hour of testimony, the five-member plan commission unanimously supported the rezoning. The City Council was expected to follow suit at its meeting Thursday night.
Mayor Roberts says that at some point, economic development will slow, but for now, the city needs to seize the window of opportunity. It's about the future and what's best for the city and the region.
Hagedorn agrees and says residents should realize this is the long-term trend for the south I-35 corridor.
“You’re in Johnson County. This is where the development has continued to grow, down I-35. ... This will all be developed,” he said. “It’s just the march of progress.”