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Signs grow that Obamacare adding several hundred new jobs in Lawrence, job fairs today through Saturday; East Lawrence project wins national award

One of Lawrence’s larger economic development victories may be going on right underneath our noses at the moment. I’m guessing you have seen or heard the ads for new positions at the General Dynamics call center in the East Hills Business Park. Well, it is becoming clearer all the time that the company isn’t just trying to hire a few college students at the beginning of the school year. I’ve had some people tell me the company may be adding about 400 customer service jobs to its Lawrence operations.

The company has announced that it is hosting five job fairs between today and Saturday to help get the positions filled. A spokesman with a marketing company hired by General Dynamics said the company didn’t yet want to announce the number of new jobs it is adding in Lawrence, but he said it was significant.

“This is not 10 jobs we’re talking about,” said Brad Wills with Wills & Associates Public Relations. “It is a big hire.”

I’ve heard from one person familiar with the details of the project that about 400 jobs are expected to be added to the call center. I believe that number, however, is probably subject to change. But I’m comfortable saying we’re talking about a few hundred jobs being added to the center, which is at 3833 Greenway Drive in the facility formerly known as NCS Pearson and a whole bunch of other names. If the total approaches anywhere near 400 jobs, it would be one of the larger single job announcement hirings for a Lawrence employer in the last several years.

An announcement of 400 new jobs in Lawrence normally would be the type of thing that causes chamber of commerce types to put on their best suits, City Hall types to get out their best speech writing pens, and they all agree to meet at some event where some guy will come out of the woodwork with an enormous pair of scissors to cut a ribbon. That probably won’t happen in this case, and that’s a shame, and not just because our mayor happens to be a barber who could probably really handle a giant pair of scissors. It is a shame because Lawrence’s mood could benefit from having a large job announcement to celebrate.

But General Dynamics, in my experience, tends to be a very quiet company. It is almost like it comes from a culture of making secret weapon systems for the military. Oh, wait. That is kind of the business it is in.

But that’s not what it does at its Lawrence facility. The Lawrence operations are part of General Dynamics’ information technology business. The company does a lot of database and customer service work via telephone and computer for government agencies. The press release by the company says these new positions are related to “rapidly growing contact center operations for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.” At one point, I was told the jobs were related to the Affordable Care Act — aka Obamacare — but I haven’t been able to get any confirmation from the company on that.

If you remember, we last reported in November that the Lawrence General Dynamics center was likely one of the locations that was going to be a major beneficiary of Obamacare. General Dynamics in May 2013 was awarded a $530 million contract to provide customer support for the Affordable Care Act. There were indications at the time that Lawrence was one of 14 centers that was expected to house a share of the 7,000 to 9,000 jobs that were expected to be created as part of the contract. If those numbers are still accurate, it is easy to see how we could be talking about some big job numbers in Lawrence. In fact, at one point, I was hearing up to 900 new positions in Lawrence. I haven’t heard that number lately, but I’m unclear on how many jobs perhaps have already been added at the center since the contract was awarded in May. It is possible this latest hiring is in addition to a previous round of new jobs that already have been added.

Wills, the company spokesman, is working to get me a current estimate on the number of people who work at General Dynamics’ Lawrence center. The last estimate I had seen through city documents, put the workforce total at 1,500 employees, which would make it the city’s largest private employer.

What many of you probably want to know is how much these new jobs will pay. Well, if I knew that, I would have told you already. Wills is working to get me information about salary and wages, and more detailed job descriptions for the positions. But since the work is tied to a government contract, the wages may be better than what you would think for customer service positions. I’ll pass along what information I receive. The press release, however, does state that the company is looking to fill full-time positions. The release also says the positions come with “full benefits,” and it also states the positions will pay an extra 10 percent for people who are fluent in both English and Spanish.

As for the job fairs, here are the details on those:

— 9 a.m. to noon today at General Dynamics offices, 3833 Greenway Drive.

— 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. today at Haskell Indian Nations University’s Stidham Union, 155 Indian Ave.

— 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday at General Dynamics, 3833 Greenway Drive.

— 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday at the Johnson County Workforce Center, Overland Park.

— 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at General Dynamics, 2833 Greenway Drive.

In other news and notes from around town:

• It probably is not an excuse for us to get out a pair of enormous scissors, but perhaps we can find some other oversized piece of office equipment to celebrate news that an East Lawrence project has won a major award.

Lawrence developer Tony Krsnich has sent me word that the Cider Gallery at Eighth and Pennsylvania streets has been named a winner in one of the country’s more prestigious historic preservation award programs. The project, which includes an art gallery and low-cost office space in a former cider vinegar factory, has been named a winner in the “Best Commercial/Retail/Non-Residential Project” category in the 2014 J. Timothy Anderson Awards for Excellence in Historic Rehabilitation. The award program is run by the National Housing & Rehabilitation Association. In addition, the project is a finalist in four of the competition’s other major categories: Best Historic Mill or Factory Rehabilitation, Most Innovative Adaptive Reuse, Achievement in Sustainability, and Most Advanced Financial Structure.

The area around Eighth and Pennsylvania continues to be an area to keep an eye on. Krsnich’s group has begun construction on a multistory loft-style apartment project at Ninth and Delaware streets. But that project is expected to get one more round of discussion at City Hall because Krsnich has decided to apply for financial incentives. Krsnich is seeking a 15-year, 95 percent property tax rebate for the project under the Neighborhood Revitalization Act. That request is still in its early stages of consideration. It will have to go through the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee, and then back to the City Commission for final consideration. We’ll keep you updated as that moves along. It will restart the discussion about whether the city should provide financial incentives for new apartment construction. Unlike the large apartment project near KU’s Memorial Stadium that received an 85 percent tax rebate recently, Krsnich’s project will have a large low-income component to it. Krsnich’s project is expected to have 43 apartments, and 34 of them are planned to be rent-controlled and reserved for low-to-moderate income tenants under the auspices of a state housing program.

Reply 23 comments from James Howlette Fred St. Aubyn Lee Saylor Fred_mertz Rick Masters Dorothy Hoyt-Reed Michelle Reynolds Merrill Amy Elliott Leslie Swearingen and 1 others

Signs indicate that Obamacare may be creating several hundred new jobs for Lawrence call center

The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, has gotten so much positive press lately, I can understand why the government may not have taken the time to highlight the good news the act has created here in Lawrence.

I'm obviously being facetious about the positive press that has come Obamacare's way lately, but I'm being serious about the boost the act may be giving to the Lawrence economy.

Thanks to the General Dynamics call center in the East Hills Business Park, it appears Lawrence may have several hundred new jobs as a direct result of the Affordable Care Act.

If you remember, we reported back in May that General Dynamics was awarded a $530 million contract to provide customer support for the Affordable Care Act. It was confirmed at the time that the Lawrence call center, which previously has operated under the names Vangent, Pearson, and NCS, would receive new positions as part of the contract. But it wasn't known how many.

I still don't know how many positions have been or will be added at the center, but I've talked to several local leaders who have been led to believe that the impact is very significant.

I've heard estimates range from "more than 500" to approximately 900 new positions at the Lawrence call center. An announcement of 900 new jobs easily would be one of the larger single job announcements in recent Lawrence history.

I've reached out to both General Dynamics and also to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees the contract. But thus far I haven't been able to get any confirmation on the new jobs. So, take the numbers with a grain of salt at the moment.

But there certainly are reasons to think the number of new jobs at the center is substantial. The press release announcing the contract in May estimated 7,000 to 9,000 jobs would be created nationwide by the contract. It estimated the jobs would be housed at about 14 call centers. That would be an average of 500 to 600 new jobs per center, if the jobs are evenly distributed.

An even distribution is probably not the case. One of the few articles I've been able to find about call center hiring was from the newspaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where a U.S. congressman was making a big deal out of 120 new jobs that were added to a General Dynamics call center in Iowa. That article indicated there would be "several thousand jobs" added to General Dynamics call centers in other states.

Another reason to think Lawrence may be a landing spot for a significant number of the new jobs is that the company has the space for them here in Lawrence. According to my understanding, one of General Dynamics' two buildings at East Hills was largely vacant at the time of the contract award.

The final reason to suspect the contract has had a big local impact, though, is more obvious. Drive by the company's parking lot in East Hills, and it sure appears to be a lot fuller than it used to be. In May, General Dynamics had about 650 employees in Lawrence, down from a high of about 1,500 in 2011.

As for the quality of any new jobs at the center, the local leaders I talked to were optimistic they were good middle-level positions for the community. They indicated that because this contract is funded by the federal government that General Dynamics would have to meet certain wage and benefit levels set by the federal government.

There's also optimism that the contract could provide some long-term work. The contract was awarded for one year, but it is renewable for up to nine more years, according to the information released in May.

Based on the current national news, it seems like there should be some good job security with a contract that is responsible for answering questions about Obamacare.

Obviously, I'll let you know if I get any official information from either the company or the federal government.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Mark your calendar for 6 p.m. on Dec. 2 if you are interested in the future of a new transit hub for the city and the university's public transit system. City officials will host a meeting at Fire Station No. 5 at 19th and Iowa to discuss a new proposal to locate the hub near 21st and Iowa streets.

As we reported last month, a new proposal has emerged to place the hub, which will be the main transfer point for the two bus systems, at the northeast corner of 21st and Iowa streets. Originally, city officials were focusing on a site near Ninth and Iowa streets near the The Merc. But I had heard KU officials were more interested in a site closer to campus, and it now appears City Hall officials are ready to adopt that line of thinking as well.

The Dec. 2 meeting is mainly geared toward neighbors of the site, but eventually the decision will affect the entire community, or at least everyone who uses the transit system. Transit officials have told me that a move to 21st and Iowawill require a significant rerouting of buses, and likely will mean a significant change in the amount of service provided to downtown Lawrence.

I'm not sure all those details will be figured out by the Dec. 2 meeting, but it is something to keep an ear open for.

• Another item to keep an eye on with public transit is the idea of compressed natural gas buses. As we reported in August, city commissioners directed staff members to do more research on the feasibility of CNG buses. I believe that research is still underway, but I was at a transit meeting a few weeks ago where the subject came up. It appears staff members believe the challenges of converting the fleet — even gradually — to CNG are significant. The latest estimate for a CNG fueling station that could quickly fill the city's buses now stands at about $2 million, up from a previous estimate of about $1 million. Plus transit officials expressed concern that switching to CNG would be a financial gamble. Even though CNG is significantly cheaper than diesel fuel today, there is a concern that as demand grows for CNG, so too will the price. Ultimately, city commissioners will have to weigh in on this issue too because the transit system will need to replace buses one way or another. I'll keep you posted.

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