Kansas City firm seeking financial incentives from City Hall to construct industrial buildings at VenturePark

A Kansas City real estate company is seeking city tax abatements and free land to construct up to $31 million of industrial buildings aimed at luring the first tenant to Lawrence VenturePark.

Officials with VanTrust Real Estate have filed an application seeking up to a 70 percent property tax break and up to six free parcels of land in the city-owned industrial park on the eastern edge of Lawrence. VanTrust doesn’t have a tenant for any of the proposed industrial space, but rather it would be built on speculation.

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“Spec” industrial buildings have become a trend in the Kansas City market, and involve a developer constructing a large building and hoping that the presence of the building will entice companies to consider the area for their next project.

“I think this building would open people’s eyes,” Steve Kelly, vice president of economic development for the Lawrence chamber of commerce, said. “I think it will get us a lot more looks. We get a lot of requests from companies who want to see existing space, and in this market that doesn’t exist right now.”

City of Lawrence officials have sought to capitalize off the speculative building trend in Kansas City to spur development at Lawrence VenturePark, which continues to be vacant nearly three years after its opening. The City Commission recently approved an incentives program — called the Catalyst Program — that would offer several financial incentives to qualified companies who would build a spec industrial building in VenturePark or adjacent East Hills Business Park. VanTrust is the first applicant seeking to use the program.

The program offers a 50 percent, 10-year tax abatement for the construction of a standard industrial buildings or a 70 percent, 10-year tax abatement for the construction of a building that meets certain environmental and energy-efficiency guidelines. Importantly, the incentive program also would provide free land to the developers, as long as they follow through on the project.

According to the application filed at City Hall, VanTrust would like to build three industrial buildings at VenturePark. The first would be a 152,000 square-foot building located at the northeast corner of 23rd Street and O’Connell Road, which is at the entrance to the business park. The second building also would be 152,000 square feet in size and would be located just east of the first building. The third building would be about 250,000 square feet and would be built on four smaller lots that are north and west of 23rd and O’Connell.

The application indicated the buildings would be built in phases, perhaps meaning that the second and third buildings would not be built until a tenant had been secured for the first building.

I’ve got calls into VanTrust and to city economic development officials. I’ll let you know when I hear more about the project.

City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday will be asked to accept the application for incentives, and set a date of July 11 to consider granting the incentives. The incentive process will be an unusual one for the city. Typically, the key determinant in whether the city grants a tax break has been the number of jobs and the quality of jobs that a company is proposing to bring to town. In this case, commissioners will be asked to approve the tax abatement before knowing what company may occupy the building.

Instead, commissioners will have to evaluate VanTrust and its ability to bring high-quality tenants to the facility. VanTrust is based in Kansas City but has developments across the country, including retail and apartment developments. The company has about 11 million square feet of industrial developments, according to its application.

Kelly said the company has been successful at constructing and leasing industrial buildings.

“I think they are well-respected, and they are well-positioned to do a quality project,” Kelly said. “They also should have a good pipeline of potential tenants.

The company has attracted some high-profile tenants to other industrial buildings that it has constructed on spec. According to its website, the company landed UPS as a tenant for a 275,000 square-foot warehouse near Cincinnati. It also landed Tower International, an automotive parts manufacturer, as a tenant in a 500,000 square-foot warehouse near Louisville. Closer to Lawrence, the company owns the Woodend Industrial Building in Edwardsville that houses Alphabroder, a distributor of sportswear and accessories.

According to VanTrust’s website, the company has about a half dozen industrial sites under development across the country, including in Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Indiana.

VanTrust’s Lawrence project is potentially asking for about 45 acres of free property in VenturePark, which is located on the former site of the Farmland Industries fertilizer plant. If the project was approved, there would still be 11 additional lots — totaling about 210 acres — that would still be available for other development.

While VenturePark doesn’t yet have a tenant, Menards previously had committed to build a warehouse and distribution center that would employ about 100 people at the park. The home improvement retailer, however, has put those plan on indefinite hold. Kelly said there has been no new information from Menards on whether it may again consider the Lawrence project. However, Kelly noted that the VanTrust project is not seeking any of the lots that Menards has sought.