Kansas City Plans to Develop Its Large Land Holdings

The focus is to use the airport's expansive real estate holdings -- 12.5 square miles, not its air service, as the primary engine for growth.

Jan. 16--Kansas City International Airport is a relatively inexpensive place to fly and, with 8,000 acres of surplus land, a great place to raise cattle and corn.

Airport officials, at the urging of City Manager Wayne Cauthen, want to change that formula. Not the affordable air travel part, but the crops and cows side of the equation.

Economic development is the priority at KCI these days, and the airport has been making some aggressive moves, starting 2½ years ago with the hiring of Mark VanLoh as director of the City Aviation Department.

"Wayne brought me aside," VanLoh recalled, "and said, 'Mark, when I fly into KCI at night, I don't see anything, and during the days, I see cows. We have a big asset there, and nothing's happened in 30 years.' "

VanLoh was hired to make things happen. And in a big switch from previous thinking, he is focusing on using the airport's expansive real estate holdings, not its air service, as the primary engine for growth.

Last August, the airport signed a contract with Dallas-based Trammell Crow Co. to be the master developer of a 640-acre parcel in the southeast corner of its property. The company, which was purchased recently by CB Richard Ellis, is planning to break ground later this year on a distribution center of more than 300,000 square feet.

A few days after the Trammell Crow deal was signed, the airport made another move that surprised even VanLoh. It successfully bid on the mostly vacant, 260,000-square-foot former headquarters of Farmland Industries. For $18.1 million, the airport bought a six-story building that cost Farmland $35 million to build and equip five years ago.

"That was one of those way-out-in-left-field things," VanLoh said. "Some of our commercial development people suggested buying it and people laughed. But our financial people analyzed it and said this could work."

Now the airport has launched fully into the office-leasing and land-development business.

For the first time, it's willing to pay commissions to private brokers for signing tenants. Perhaps more importantly, after years of trying to land a mega-development related to air service, it's going after smaller users more interested in the airport's access to Interstates 29 and 35.

"We're leaning toward over-the-road ground transportation because of our good road access," VanLoh said. "We're an airport, but we're not holding everything for aviation use."

Michael Webber, Kansas City-based air cargo consultant with global clients, said the airport is unusual because of its size. Airport officials believe only the airports at Denver and Dallas-Fort Worth are larger when it comes to territory.

"You can't distinguish between trucking operations and air operations, because all cargo comes and goes by truck," Webber said. "The idea is airports will be the ones that can accommodate both trucking and airport operations, and only a small subset of airports can do that.

"It's hard to do anything wrong out there, because you have so much land you can make up for any errors."

A recent tour around the wide-open property underscored Webber's observation. The scenery could have been anywhere in rural Missouri or Kansas, not land belonging to the nation's 35th-busiest airport.

Cattle -- the latest census counted 580 -- grazed in the pastures. The stubble of last fall's corn harvest -- 130 bushels per acre -- remained in the fields. Throughout the rolling property, small groves of trees indicated where farmhouses once stood.

The area of land not used for airport operations covers 12.5 square miles, about the same size as Belton.

Webber said VanLoh is the right man to begin bringing industry to that pastoral scene.

"I think the world of him," he said. "I still can't get over the fact Kansas City hired somebody so competent."

Trammell Crow executives say they're in the early stages of determining what might work at KCI.

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