Checking in on whether Lawrence plans to submit Amazon bid, and dreaming of what it would look like just east of here
As Amazon looks for a new corporate headquarters, what the giant retailer needs to know about Lawrence is that we are here to help, the city’s top economic development official told me recently.
I already understand helping Amazon, although I’m still not sure it was a good idea to make Alexa my financial adviser. (She swears these 100,000 DVD copies of the “Baywatch” movie will be a good investment.)
But, of course, we’re talking about a project with much higher stakes. Amazon is looking for a site for a second headquarters that could employ up to 50,000 people in a few years. Both Kansas City and state of Kansas economic development officials have said they are going after the project aggressively.
What caught my eye, though, was St. Joseph, Mo. Much like Lawrence, it is on the edge of the Kansas City region. Economic development officials there recently made a big deal out of having a pair of sites that it wants Amazon to consider for its headquarters location.
I think the tech world might start checking the warranties of a few microchips if St. Joe becomes the headquarters for one of the world’s most powerful tech companies. (St. Joe should already be the economic king of the world. It makes the world’s best candy: Chase’s Cherry Mash.)
But I got to thinking that if St. Joe is submitting sites, I wonder if Lawrence is, too. Steve Kelly, vice president of economic development for the Lawrence chamber of commerce, said Lawrence isn’t doing anything that formal. But the community is very much interested in Amazon coming to the Kansas City region. He thinks KU would play a large role in that project and so too might Lawrence’s housing market.
“Lawrence is the type of town that can produce the employees Amazon needs,” Kelly said. “I see Amazon employees as bright, youthful, technology savvy. Those are the types of people who are attracted to Lawrence.”
KU, of course, could end up being a major resource for training engineers and other tech workers for the company. Kelly, who previously worked on landing big projects with the Kansas Department of Commerce, said the labor issue is most likely the top issue on the mind of Amazon leaders.
Technically, Amazon has said it is willing to consider sites as small as 100 acres for the project. That seems really small for such a large project. The thought that has gone through my mind is I wonder if the company would consider a site as large as 9,000 acres? The area kind of, sort of has one to offer: the former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant, which is just on the other side of the Douglas County line near De Soto.
No one I have talked to has any insight into what sites Kansas City or Kansas economic development leaders may submit to Amazon. But it would be hard to think of one more unique than the Sunflower site. It is so large that Amazon could actually build its city of the future on the property. (Think drones delivering bags of Doritos and Cherry Mashes.) Amazon leader Jeff Bezos is an innovative and futuristic guy. I wonder if that type of canvas would be enticing to him?
For what it is worth, a De Soto leader said he’s gotten no wind that any such proposal is in the works.
“But if Amazon is asking about us, give them my number,” De Soto City Administrator Mike Brungardt said. “I have a red carpet in the closet that I could roll out real quick.”
But Brungardt said developing on Sunflower property is still pretty complicated. Parts of the property have major environmental cleanup issues, and the amount of federal red tape involved with that cleanup has been tough for the property’s owner, Sunflower Redevelopment LLC, to deal with since it purchased the site in 2005.
Large amounts of the property are clean. Many of those sites are on the northern edge along Kansas Highway 10. But as leaders planned for the redevelopment of the property years ago, they put a condition on future development: The entire site must be cleaned up before any of the property can be developed.
Brungardt said he can see some logic in that. You don’t want a developer cherry-picking all the good sites and never cleaning up the bad sites. But Brungardt said it might be time to rethink that strategy, as it becomes clear that the Sunflower property may still be more than a decade away from being cleaned.
“We want to quit the hand-wringing and try to enact some change there,” Brungardt said.
A 9,000-acre site, all controlled by one entity, in prosperous western Johnson County is the type of asset that could be a game-changer, even for a community as far away as Lawrence. (It is about 15 miles from downtown Lawrence.)
Johnson County officials have a plan for a “Community in a Park” to develop at the site. Think houses, research facilities, high-tech firms, some commercial development all surrounded by a large ring of green space. Brungardt said it may be time to look at that plan too.
“It is a fine plan, and we wouldn’t have a problem with it,” Brungardt said. “But there is a reason the Army built an industrial complex there. It is good industrial property.”
As for Lawrence and Amazon, Kelly said his office would continue to stay in contact with officials at the Kansas City Area Development Council and the Kansas Department of Commerce, which are expected to play key roles in any proposal that is submitted to Amazon.
Kids don’t watch TV anymore, and the reason is obvious: You can’t fit a 52-inch flatscreen in your pocket. Given that, there may be a whole generation confused about those “As Seen on TV” stores in the mall. What the younger generation may understand, though, is a “As Seen on Amazon” store. Lawrence is getting such a store.
The store won’t be named “As Seen on Amazon,” but that is the concept behind the soon-to-open UniDoor store, which will be located in The Malls Shopping Center near 23rd and Louisiana. Operators of the store will monitor what are popular sellers on Amazon and then stock those items in their store.
I’m not sure I completely understand how the retailer operates, but it appears that the key to the business is the ownership group has deep connections with a a host of companies in mainland China. Here’s a news flash for you, a lot of stuff sold on Amazon comes from China.
Rice Cheng is one of the chief buyers for the company, and was at the store when I stopped by earlier this week.
“We have strong connections with thousands of sellers on Amazon,” Cheng said.
UniDoor often creates consignment arrangements with the sellers, meaning UniDoor doesn’t have to buy all the inventory, which means it can stock a wide range of items. And talk about wide ranging. I could buy a hover board, decorate it with LED light strands, get a pair of new shoes, and buy a makeup kit to cover the inevitable scars from the hover board crash without ever leaving one corner of the store.
In other words, the store has an eclectic mix of items. There are a number of electronics, including Bluedio earphones, high-tech digital watches, computer cables and accessories, and other such items. But the store on this particular day also had some clothing, shoes, purses, toys, hover boards, LED lighting, makeup kits and a bunch of other items.
What items the store will have in the future is tough to know. Cheng said the inventory will change significantly with the season and with what is popular on Amazon.
As for how the store ended up in Lawrence, I’m not entirely sure. Cheng said Lawrence was deemed to be a good community and that the store hopefully will appeal to the large college-age population.
If you are like me and have read how Amazon is eating the lunch of brick-and-mortar retailers, you may be wondering why Amazon sellers are interested in having their products in a brick-and-mortar store. Cheng said there are a surprising number of companies that don’t want to put all their eggs in the Amazon basket. Selling on Amazon isn’t necessarily cheap, with some of the fees, commissions and other items that retailers must pay. Plus, some companies remain convinced that some consumers want to touch and see an item for themselves before they buy it.
Plus, it is worth noting that Amazon is building brick-and-mortar stores. They aren’t anything like UniDoor, and I don’t think we’ll see an Amazon store in The Malls shopping center anytime soon, even though there is space available. But the idea that brick and mortar retail is dying may not be quite right. Rather, it may be that the industry — courtesy of giants like Amazon — may be preparing to completely change it through technology. This relatively recent article by The New York Times quotes several sources about what Amazon is working on. Think of stores with so much technology that cashiers aren’t even needed. That would change the viability of brick and mortar retail in a big way, plus create a lot of new questions for the employment market.
The company is exploring the idea of creating stores to sell furniture and home appliances, like refrigerators - the kinds of products that shoppers are reluctant to buy over the internet sight unseen, said one of several people with knowledge of the discussions who, in conversations with The New York Times, spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans were confidential.
But look what has happened: The idea of a store run by robots has gotten me off topic. (It won’t work, by the way. The robots and the cash registers will spend all their time flirting, and the lines will get way too long.) As for UniDoor, look for the store to open in the next week or two, Cheng said. Much of the store was stocked while I was there, but some interior sprucing up was still underway. The store is in the far southwest corner of the shopping center, where Hume Music used to be years ago.