Government & Politics

USDA confirms downtown Kansas City as site for controversial relocation of agencies

The U.S. Department of Agriculture officially informed employees Thursday of plans to move two research agencies to a building in downtown Kansas City after considering locations on both sides of the state line.

Missouri and Kansas political leaders applauded the announcement as a win for regional cooperation on economic development after the two states submitted a joint bid to bring the Economic Research Service and National Institute for Food and Agriculture to the Kansas City region.

The agencies will be housed at 805 Pennsylvania Avenue, the USDA announced. The downtown Kansas City building beat out Sprint’s campus in Overland Park, among other locations considered by President Donald Trump’s administration.

“This is a great day for the entire Kansas City region. I’ve been proud to advocate for the USDA move and finalizing the site selection marks a huge step forward,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, a member of Senate GOP leadership. “Bringing these two important ag research agencies closer to the people they serve and the leading research institutions that support their mission is the right move.”

Employees of the agencies were set to be briefed on the decision Thursday morning.

Opponents of the move, including many of the agencies’ D.C.-based staff, have decried it as an attack on science and an attempt to hinder the study of politically sensitive issues, like climate change, by forcing experienced researchers to quit.

“This administration willingly and knowingly fired hundreds of highly qualified staff by creating an unnecessary and malicious relocation. The agency has suffered the loss of thousands of staff years of expertise that will ultimately harm the very people this relocation was supposed to benefit, the American people,” said Laura Dodson, the steward for the union which represents ERS employees.

“It will not be easy to restaff ERS, especially when the agency still remains in the cross-hairs of this administration.”

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue informed employees Thursday morning that the General Services Administration had signed a lease on the building in Kansas City.

“For our Kansas City-based employees, and those who will join them in the coming months, I hope the announcement of the lease location provides you clarity. I’m confident Kansas City will continue to be a great home for the future of ERS and NIFA,” he said in the email to employees.

Perdue is expected to travel to Kansas City in November to meet with employees who have already made the move to the region.

As of Oct. 12, only 125 of the roughly 550 eligible employees had moved or planned to relocate to Kansas City. USDA has hired 26 more people in Kansas City, a spokesperson said, and is currently recruiting more than 100 people to fill positions.

The two agencies have relied on short-term contractors, brought back retirees for temporary work and tapped workers in other agencies to help in the interim. USDA is looking to fill some of the hundreds of vacancies created by the move with local hires. The Department will host a career expo on Nov. 6 at Kansas State University’s Olathe campus.

“We’ve already had tremendous interest from applicants who are eager to join our USDA family in Kansas City, and we’re eager to recruit from the large talent pool in the heartland,” said Deputy Under Secretary Scott Hutchins, contending that the Department has already received 500 applications for openings at NIFA.

House Democratic leadership has been outspoken in its opposition to move because of the staff turnover, but Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, dismissed concerns that the relocation was an effort by the Trump administration to undermine scientific research.

“I think the USDA is going to hire professionals whether they hire them in the Washington, D.C. area or hire them in Kansas City,” Cleaver said. “We’ve got excellent math and science programs at KU and UMKC, K-State, Rockhurst. They’re all around. The word on the street is that this may be inspired by some resistance to science. I don’t think we ought to let that bother us.”

Cleaver, a former Kansas City mayor, said that it was “worthy of a celebration when you bring people into what we now consider the central business district. It means that the downtown area becomes infinitely more healthy.”

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas applauded the regional cooperation that landed the roughly 500 federal jobs in the city.

“As an essential part of the animal health corridor, and with several high-caliber research universities and institutions nearby, I know that our regional workforce stands ready to assist these agencies in their vital research efforts. I look forward to welcoming these employees to Kansas City,” Lucas said.

The city could redirect up to $6 million in local taxes to support the relocation pending a city council vote on the plan.

On top of that, the state-funded Port of Authority of Kansas City has already moved forward with a plan to provide $19.7 million in incentives to the USDA’s landlord over a 15-year period.

Neither Lucas, nor Missouri Gov. Mike Parson referred to the incentives in their statements praising the move.

Parson said the investment from the USDA would benefit both sides of the border for years to come and praised the collaboration from Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly.

Parson’s administration did not immediately answer a question about why state tax dollars were needed to bring a federal agency to the state.

Despite the selection of a Missouri site, Kansas lawmakers said the move to Kansas City would benefit the economies of both states.

“I’ve long advocated that USDA’s ERS and NIFA relocate to the Kansas City metropolitan area, knowing that regardless of what side of border these facilities would land, it would be a positive development for the regional economy and so many institutions across Kansas and Missouri,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, the Senate Agriculture chair, said he was glad to see the USDA recognize the “rich resources the heartland provides.”

The Kansas City Star’s Allison Kite and Steve Vockrodt contributed to this report.

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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