‘We want development.’ KCK approves new downtown project with hopes of revitalization.

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A long-delayed plan to redevelop a key property in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, has been given another opportunity — though it might be the last.

The Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, on Thursday unanimously approved a development agreement with Willie Lanier Jr., who plans to demolish the now-closed Jack Reardon Convention Center. In its place, he aims at building a new apartment complex with ground-floor retail space and a small meeting space.

The UG’s Board of Commissioners actually approved a previous version of the project in 2020. But its fate was uncertain after the 2021 election of Mayor Tyrone Garner, who opposed the project then because it would not fully replace the conference space previously offered at the now-shuttered convention center at 510 Minnesota Ave.

Garner, who has repeatedly found himself at odds with other commissioners, used his power to hold the project off of commission agendas for months, delaying and threatening its progress.

While the mayor voiced no objection to the project on Thursday, commissioners alluded to the previous obstacles Lanier faced.

“I want to give you my deepest apologies for all of the hoops and unnecessary barriers that you had to go through that no other developers had to go through just to get here today…,” said commissioner Christian Ramirez. “So I wanted to give you my deepest apologies for that, because that is unfair.”

Exterior of the Jack Reardon Convention Center in downtown Kansas City, Kansas.

Ramirez, who represents the county’s 3rd district, said other developers should not be afraid of investing in Wyandotte County.

“We want development,” he said. “We want development in our most disinvested area of our community. And you’re bringing a project that’s going to be a potential catalytic project for our community, for the downtown area, where we can finally compete with KCMO, with Johnson County. So I thank you for staying strong.”

Lanier, who is the son of Chiefs Hall of Famer Willie Lanier, plans to build 85 to 100 market-rate apartments with 7,000 square feet of retail space and at least 7,500-square feet of meeting space.

The project is expected to cost about $25 million. As part of the agreement approved Thursday, Lanier will receive about $9.5 million in local incentives and subsidies toward the effort.

But he won’t have much time to get the project off the ground.

Because the project has been delayed and amended over the last three years, the developer was given a strict deadline, said Todd LaSala, a lawyer working for the county.

Along with other conditions, Lanier must provide evidence of private financing and receive final site plan approval before closing on the project — which must be done within 270 days.

“If we don’t get there in 270 days, satisfy all the conditions and close, this development agreement automatically terminates and goes away,” LaSala said. “And that’s unique. That’s different for us.”

The mayor isn’t the only one who has objected to the project.

Earlier this month, several members of the public told a commission committee that churches and other groups in Wyandotte County need large meeting spaces. Lanier’s project is slated to bring back only 7,500 square feet of meeting space — a fraction compared to the defunct Reardon Center, which touted a 30,000-square-foot ballroom.

But some officials argued that the convention center was unsustainable, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. One commissioner suggested the facility was too big when it opened.

“We have a building that we own that doesn’t generate any taxpayer dollars, has been money going out the door and is currently not open,” said Andrew Davis, who represents the county’s 8th district.

On Thursday, Lanier told the commission that the need for meeting spaces has changed in recent years. Groups aren’t always looking for massive spaces like those found across the river at the Kansas City Convention Center, he said.

“We will right size this facility for today’s marketplace,” Lanier said.

Downtown KCK has long been a top priority for local policy makers, who aim at steering investment to the eastern portion of Wyandotte County.

The area, just across the river from Kansas City, Missouri, has benefited from a new Merc grocery store and a new branch of the University of Kansas Hospital in recent years. But it has not enjoyed anything close to the rapid development found on the other side of the county, where the success of the Kansas Speedway, Village West and other attractions continue to lure major development projects.

The mayor, who didn’t voice any opposition to Lanier’s project on Thursday, called the downtown area “the gateway to our community.”

“That can be an iconic site that Wyandotte County can be known for and be proud of,” Garner said. “So thank you for your patience, your resilience and your commitment.”

In a statement Friday morning, Garner noted that Lanier’s previous development agreement with the county had expired. He said he was trying to ensure all options were considered for the crucial downtown site, but said he was “extremely excited” for the project and all other economic development opportunities across Wyandotte County.

“Because of the proximity of the Jack Reardon Center being at the gateway to Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, and the historical significance of the Reardon site, I wanted to make sure there was more than one option for the commission to consider within Mr. Lanier’s project,” Garner said. “It is important to me that the commission was able to make an informed decision for such an iconic site.”

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