Harvesters Community Food Network to move Kansas distribution facility from Topeka to northwest Lawrence

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Harvesters Community Food Network's main facility in Kansas City, Missouri, is pictured Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. The nonprofit is relocating its smaller distribution facility in Topeka to Lawrence.

Harvesters Community Food Network is moving its Topeka distribution facility to northwest Lawrence.

Harvesters, a regional Feeding America food bank, is purchasing a property at 1220 Timberedge Road and plans to begin operating there by June of 2024; the nonprofit’s president and CEO, Stephen Davis, told the Journal-World last week that he expected to close the sale by late December. The property is in the industrial area just north of the Kansas Turnpike, across from Standard Beverage Corporation’s facility.

Harvesters is based out of Kansas City, Missouri, and serves a 26-county area across northwestern Missouri and northeastern Kansas, including Douglas and Shawnee counties. The nonprofit provides food and household products to more than 760 nonprofit agencies across that service area, and 53 of them — such as agencies like Just Food — are in Douglas County. It operates two distribution facilities: the one moving from Topeka, and a larger-scale facility in Kansas City.

“We’re thrilled,” Davis said. “We’re excited. We have deep, deep relationships in Lawrence with almost 50 agencies. We have a super great relationship with Just Food, that we have a very, very tight partnership and great relationship. We have a regional focus, but we see this being a win also for Douglas County, because we’ll be closer to those agencies.”

Harvesters’ current Topeka facility is right off the I-70 Polk-Quincy Viaduct. The Kansas Department of Transportation announced about a year ago that the bridge would be expanded in a multiphase project that would culminate with a reconstruction and replacement phase scheduled for early 2025. Davis said KDOT approached Harvesters about the project ahead of last year’s announcement to let it know that the bridge work would likely affect the Topeka facility.

It turns out that the viaduct wouldn’t just be rebuilt. It would be redesigned, and it would run right through the middle of the facility, along with dozens of other properties currently located in that area of downtown Topeka. Davis said Harvesters’ leadership understood the need for that project and didn’t have any hard feelings, but that meant it obviously wouldn’t be viable to stay put.

“We have a responsibility to serve this part of our region, so we have to find a solution forward to serve this part of our region,” Davis said. “After we finally realized, ‘OK, this is exactly what’s going to happen,’ that put us on, about a year ago, a path of trying to find our path forward, for what our new building situation is going to be.”

That means leaving a facility Harvesters has been in for more than a decade. Until 2010, the nonprofit’s only facility was its more than 200,000-square-foot flagship distribution center in Kansas City. Harvesters initially was leasing the Topeka facility until it purchased the building outright and renovated it in 2017. Davis said the agency had hoped that facility would meet Harvesters’ needs for the next decade. Instead, it’ll have to be out of the building by June of 2024, when the building will be demolished.

So the search began. Davis said that initially Harvesters was hoping to stay in Topeka or Shawnee County, but found after looking into dozens of properties that the search area needed to be expanded. That’s because some specific elements are required for the agency’s distribution facilities.

For one, the building needs easy freeway access — ideally I-70, Davis said — given the volume of semitrailers visiting to drop off or pick up food for distribution. And inside the building, it’s not just square footage that matters, but also cubic footage. The interior needs the added verticality to account for the multitiered shelves that fill the warehouse space.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Trucks can back their trailers up right to the Topeka building for loading or unloading in Harvesters’ refrigerated space.

“We need something that’s tall so we can do multilevel racking,” Davis said. “Fifty-thousand square feet of flat building is not the same as 50,000 square feet where you can do multiple levels high, right?”

Being able to move into a building that’s already zoned properly was also an important consideration, Davis said, as was the cost of the project overall since Harvesters is a nonprofit. The agency will be compensated for the Topeka property either through a sale or via eminent domain, but Davis said it was especially important to be mindful of how much Harvesters was spending to acquire property. That meant building something new was out of the question, both on that front and because of the time it would take to finish.

That led Harvesters to the property at 1220 Timberedge Road. It isn’t vacant, though; it’s the current home of Reuter Organ Company, which has been in Lawrence for more than a century and began operating out of the Wilder Bros. Shirt Factory building at 612 New Hampshire St. in 1919. But since 2001, the company has been at the location Harvesters is buying, a 78,000-square-foot corporate facility built and designed expressly for building pipe organs.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

The property at 1220 Timberedge Road in northwest Lawrence, currently occupied by Reuter Organ Company, is pictured Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022.

The company’s president and CEO, Albert Neutel Jr., told the Journal-World Tuesday that for now, it’s up in the air what exactly Reuter’s next steps would be. Neutel said the company was investigating a number of options, including bringing on new ownership and relocating the company to somewhere in Lawrence or the surrounding area. For example, he said Topeka was on the table. They’ll have to make that decision soon; Neutel said the company would have to be moved out of the current building ahead of the closing date in December.

“I don’t have any firm answers at this point,” Neutel said. “We’re working furiously toward figuring it out.”

The facility will be expanded by about 10,000 square feet, Davis said, to add freezer space and loading docks. It’ll ultimately be nearly double the size of the 45,000-square-foot Topeka facility. The larger space may mean the Lawrence facility would have more volunteer capacity than the one in Topeka, Davis said. That space has the capacity for 25 to 30 volunteers at any given time, doing jobs like sorting food or packing produce.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

In the main volunteer space at Harvesters’ Topeka distribution facility, volunteers might sort food or pack produce to be distributed to the nonprofit’s more than 700 partner agencies.

Davis said the nonprofit aimed to start work on the expansion early next year and ideally would be finished by April or May of 2024, with a goal of experiencing “zero disruptions” in its service as it moves between facilities. It isn’t clear what the impact on Harvesters’ workforce will be, but it doesn’t seem that it’ll add or eliminate any jobs. Davis said the nonprofit has 18 staff members — plus some Americorps volunteers — who work out of the Topeka facility and who he hopes will stay on board.

Though Just Food is a Feeding America-affiliated food bank, the two agencies’ work is different, Davis said. Harvesters acquires, stores and distributes food to its network, while network banks like Just Food then do the important work in the community to get those donations to people in need in their communities.

Folks who don’t work in the nonprofit industry often don’t understand the differences in that work, Davis said. They’re not competitors but collaborators.

“We work in collaboration; we’re not doing the same thing,” Davis said. “… There is great work being done in Douglas County already. This is in no way reflective of ‘Oh, there should be more work done.’ For us, it’s just geographic, like where can we find a building? The agencies doing work in Douglas County are doing fantastic work.”

That’s a sentiment the president of Just Food’s board, James Walden, echoed in a phone call with the Journal-World Tuesday. Walden said Harvesters’ move wasn’t likely to change much as far as either agency’s work was concerned, and that it was overall a positive development.

“Over the past few years, Harvesters has been a great partner of Just Food’s as we work to mitigate food insecurity in Douglas County,” Walden said.


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