A promising engineering firm and its 65 high-paying jobs are leaving Lawrence for Olathe after local leaders weren’t able to put together a deal to keep the company.
Economic development leaders confirmed that EN Engineering — formerly known as Wheatland Systems — is close to signing a deal to leave its longtime offices at 2110 Del. for an office building in Olathe.
Lawrence Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Tom Kern said the loss was a disappointment for a community that is trying to attract more high-paying jobs.
“These are the type of jobs we want to attract to Lawrence and they certainly are the type of jobs we want to keep in Lawrence,” Kern said.
The company has 65 employees, with many of the positions — sources said — paying between $60,000 to $100,000 per year. But the company was looking for new space because it expects significant new hiring — perhaps 20 to 30 employees — in the coming years.
Leaders with the city, county, chamber of commerce and private developers worked on several deals to keep the company in town. Proposals to expand the company’s existing offices on Delaware Street and to build a new 20,000-square-foot building either in East Hills Business Park or in the Fairfield Farms development at 23rd and were presented to the company, which insisted on a location on the east edge of Lawrence because some employees commute from the Kansas City area. The company also looked at the vacant downtown Borders location.
But then late in the process, Lawrence leaders were told the company had decided to sign a lease for a vacant building in Olathe.
“I think the chamber, the city and the county all were trying to find ways to enable them to stay in Lawrence, but unfortunately we never were really given the opportunity to work out a specific deal,” Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said.
There is some disagreement in the private sector about whether economic development leaders did enough to strike a deal. Longtime Lawrence businessman Duane Schwada is a landlord for the company at its Delaware Street offices. Schwada said a key element in the project was extending EN Engineering’s lease — which expires in October — in order to give the company enough time to construct an office building in Lawrence.
Schwada said he offered to extend the company’s lease for two years to ensure it had enough time to get the building project through the city’s planning process and constructed.
According to multiple sources, EN Engineering officials wanted a shorter lease. A deal for a shorter lease wasn’t struck, but Schwada said he alerted local economic development leaders that a deal possibly could be helped along if the city, county or chamber — or some partnership — would agree to buy the company out of its Delaware lease, if necessary.
Sources said that a buyout of the lease likely would have been in the $30,000 range.
But Weinaug said the economic development team was never asked by EN Engineering to consider such a lease buyout provision, and Weinaug said he was uncertain whether he could recommend it to elected leaders.
“I personally couldn’t come up with a justification to pay a landlord for a lease for a purpose that wasn’t a public purpose,” Weinaug said.
Lack of communication
Some economic development leaders involved in the negotiations said they would have considered the deal, but by the time the option came into play, EN Engineering’s leadership — which is based near Chicago — already had decided to go in a different direction.
Some city commissioners, however, said they were disappointed they weren’t given the opportunity to make a stronger push on the deal. Both commissioners Mike Amyx and Mike Dever said they were never made aware that a lease buyout provision might have kept the company in Lawrence.
“When a business that has been in Lawrence for more than 15 years is considering leaving, we need to be made aware of what might be necessary to solidify their long-term relationship with the city,” Dever said.
Amyx and Dever said they were made aware that economic development leaders were working to keep EN Engineering, but both said they would have liked more information about how elected leaders could have stepped forward to seal a deal. Both said they would have given serious consideration to a lease buyout, especially if the amount was in the tens of thousands of dollars range.
“We work hard all the time to attract businesses from out of town,” Dever said. “The same effort needs to be put into retaining businesses, too. That means creative packages sometimes need to be put together.”
EN Engineering designs automation systems for industries nationwide. The business has been growing, in part, because it has strong footholds in the lucrative oil and natural gas industries. The company was known as Wheatland Systems until mid-2010 when it was purchased by Illinois-based EN Engineering.