Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas buys News Center building in downtown Lawrence

photo by: Mike Yoder

The Lawrence Journal-World News Center, 645 New Hampshire, is pictured in this photo from December 2014. The Simons family of Lawrence, which has owned the paper for 125 years, is in the process of selling the paper to Ogden Newspapers Inc., a family-owned company based in Wheeling, W.Va. The newspaper is expected to remain in the News Center as part of an agreement with the Simons family.

As we reported last month, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas has been looking for a corporate presence in downtown Lawrence, and the company has now confirmed it has signed a deal to buy one of the larger buildings in downtown. But before you get ideas of hundreds of new employees for downtown, the health insurance giant doesn’t have those type of plans in the works right now.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas has completed a deal to purchase the News Center building at 645 New Hampshire St., which currently houses the offices of the Journal-World. We reported in January that a purchase of the News Center building was a distinct possibility. The company took over ownership of the building earlier this week, but the Journal-World continues to operate out of the building. The Journal-World has a lease to stay in the space until May 1, but the newspaper is close to announcing a deal of its own for new office space in Lawrence.

Posts on social media have talked about how 120 Blue Cross Blue Shield employees could be based in the new downtown Lawrence location. However, I chatted with Mary Beth Chambers, a spokeswoman for the Topeka-based insurance company, this morning. She said that number is not accurate.

While the space could accommodate that number of employees, plans don’t currently call for it. Instead, the only full-time employees that will be based in the center day-in-and-day-out likely will be the three existing employees who currently staff a small Lawrence office that primarily does sales work. But the company plans to use the three-floor, 30,000-square-foot building as “flex space.”

“Our plan is not to have employees permanently located there,” Chambers said. “We want to be able to use it as as a flexible workspace. That means having conference space available. It also could mean when we have people in Topeka who regularly work with vendors in Kansas City, instead of having them drive to us or us to them, we could meet in Lawrence.”

Chambers said the space also might be used for some special project work when teams of Blue Cross Blue Shield employees feel like they need to get away from the company’s main campus in downtown Topeka.

With the flexible nature of the space, Chambers said it was difficult to estimate how many employees will be in downtown on a regular basis. Regardless, Chambers said the company is thrilled to have found a downtown property that meets its needs.

“We definitely are excited to have a larger presence in Lawrence and be a larger part of the Lawrence business community,” Chambers said.

The building was owned by members of the Simons family, the former owners of the Journal-World. The Journal-World has been in the space since 2001. The building served as Lawrence’s post office for years, and largely was vacant or underutilized in the late 1990s. The deal does not include the former Journal-World printing plant, which is on the northern half of the block. The Simons family continues to own that property and market it for redevelopment.

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence Journal-World News Center, 645 New Hampshire

“We were thrilled and blessed to be part of that building’s history,” Dan Simons said of the 645 New Hampshire building. “When we first got it, it needed quite a bit of work. We think we did a good job of giving it the upgrades it needed. We are really pleased it will be going to a company that will do good things for downtown.”

If you are thinking that the Lawrence building seems awfully big to be used just as flex space, Chambers said there is another element to Blue Cross Blue Shield’s plans. The company has to ensure that it could continue operating in the case of a disaster, which means it must have redundant IT systems and other such functions.

The company currently has a building near 29th Street and Topeka Boulevard in Topeka that serves as the location that could function as a temporary headquarters if its main campus in downtown Topeka became inoperable. But Chambers said the company has rethought that location because it is so close to the main Topeka office.

“We felt like we needed something further away from that office,” Chambers said. She said that Topeka building is currently being sold.

Chambers said the company feels confident that it ultimately will put the Lawrence building to good use. In addition to the uses mentioned above, she said the company would look to open up the building for some community meeting space, especially to organizations in the health and wellness arenas. She also said the company may use the space to accommodate employees who may live in Lawrence or Kansas City, but need to occasionally work closer to home on a particular day.

No matter what the employee totals are in the near term, the purchase of the building probably is a long-term positive for downtown. It gives one of the largest corporations in the state — Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas is the largest health insurance provider in Kansas — a much larger stake in Lawrence.

Chambers said the company, which has Lawrence resident Matthew All as its president and CEO, will look for opportunities to increase its corporate partnership activities in Lawrence.

“I would say there is potential for that,” Chambers said. “There is nothing in the works right now, but we will be anxious to explore them. We want to put deeper roots down in the community and see what happens.”

However, the move shouldn’t be seen as a sign that the company has some plan to eventually move its headquarters from Topeka to Lawrence. First, the building isn’t anywhere close to the right size. Blue Cross Blue Shield has about 1,450 people at its Topeka campus. Plus, Chambers said the company is very committed to keeping its headquarters in Topeka.

“That is not changing. We have been at this corner in Topeka since the mid-1950s,” Chambers said. “We have grown our footprint here and we remain dedicated to our headquarters remaining in Topeka.”

As for the future offices of the Journal-World, I expect to have news to share on that soon.

While we love being in the News Center building, we also are pleased to have Blue Cross Blue Shield expanding its presence in Lawrence. The Journal-World had a lease that would have allowed it to stay in the News Center building longer, but we were asked to negotiate an early exit to help make the Blue Cross Blue Shield deal happen. We did that, but it has created a tight timeline for us to find space that is in a ready-made condition to allow for a smooth transition. We have a basic agreement for such space, but since the deal hasn’t yet been finalized, I’ll wait to make any final announcements about it. But we will keep all our readers and customers informed.


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