A look at the big building under construction at VenturePark in eastern Lawrence

photo by: Chad Lawhorn

A rendering of a proposed industrial building at VenturePark.

Motorists in eastern Lawrence have noticed the bulldozers and the dump trucks, and soon will start asking what new company is going into the VenturePark business center near 23rd and O’Connell. The answer: We don’t know yet.

We’ve been reporting for months that Kansas City-based VanTrust Real Estate plans to construct a large industrial building on the property in hopes of attracting a tenant. But those have just been plans. And, as I remind my wife whenever I start talking about a home-improvement project, it is just talk until I rent a bulldozer.

Well, the bulldozers are out on the site, preparing the property for an approximately 153,000-square-foot building. But in terms of a new business that is ready to go into the building, that search is still underway. The building is a “spec” building, meaning it is being built before a tenant has been found, with the hope that a ready-to-move-into building will help attract tenants.

“We are very excited,” said Marilyn Bittenbender, a senior vice president with Colliers International, which is marketing the property. “We’re hopeful it will be a job generator and really help grow our economy.”

Bittenbender has been a leading broker of industrial development deals in Lawrence for well over 20 years, and she said VanTrust’s decision to build the spec building in Lawrence is one of the more significant developments in recent memory.

“We really haven’t had an opportunity like this in a couple of decades,” she said.

As for the building, here are a few details:

• It is estimated to be a $7 million construction project, according to the plans filed at Lawrence City Hall. Construction is expected to last until late October or early November, Bittenbender said.

• The building has been designed to serve as either manufacturing space or warehouse space. But it is not going to be a giant building the likes of what’s being constructed near the intermodal rail facility at Gardner/Edgerton. The really big distribution centers — think about Amazon — aren’t going to choose Lawrence over the intermodal facility, Bittenbender said. But Bittenbender said the market for smaller to mid-size manufacturers who want a space that can house both production and warehousing is strong. However, she also noted it would be “helpful” if the country doesn’t find itself in a full-blown trade war in the coming months.

• The building has been designed to be subdivided to house up to four tenants. Plus, it will have room for about 335 parking spaces, which will give the project enough spaces to appeal to a number of users. Manufacturers usually need quite a bit more parking than warehouse companies, for instance.

• The excavation work will ready the property for a potential second building that could be constructed at the site. Plans for the second building are more preliminary, but they show the property could house another 185,000-square-foot building. The first building will be right at the northeast corner of O’Connell Road and East 23rd Street. The second building would be just east of that site.

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VanTrust is getting a significant amount of financial incentives from City Hall for the project. The project received both a property tax abatement and free land to move forward with the project. City officials also expedited the review and approval process for the project. City leaders have become aggressive to get a tenant at Lawrence VenturePark, which is the site of the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant. The business park opened more than three years ago but is still seeking its first tenant.

The community thought it had landed a commitment from Menards to build a warehouse and manufacturing facility for trusses, landscape blocks and other materials. But Menards put that project on hold before construction ever began, and the company has given the city no indication of when, or whether, it will restart the Lawrence development.

Lawrence has had varying degrees of luck with industrial spec buildings in the past. Some have filled up quickly, while others have sat vacant for years. However, this is the first one to be constructed since the completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway, which makes it easier for business to get to Interstate 70.

Past City Hall leaders told a story of how one site selector ended his Lawrence visit in the middle of a tour when he learned that his company’s trucks would have to go down 23rd Street in order to get to I-70.

“The trafficway is a game changer in trying to attract these types of companies,” Bittenbender said. “I think we are in a stronger place than ever. I think we are on the cusp of an opportunity.”