‘Either we prepare for it or we get run over by it’: Douglas County leaders begin to plan for Panasonic battery plant

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Eudora expects to see a significant increase new home construction as work begins in the coming years on a $4 billion Panasonic battery plant in nearby De Soto.

Imagine the Energizer Bunny with a turbo charger. Plans in De Soto for a new $4 billion, 4,000-job plant that makes batteries for electric vehicles may get growth moving at that type of speed in Eudora — and perhaps Lawrence.

The EDC of Lawrence and Douglas County — a countywide economic development corporation — brought together leaders from communities across the county on Thursday afternoon to begin discussing what the announced Panasonic battery plant in De Soto might mean for Douglas County.

“Either we prepare for it or we get run over by it,” Bonnie Lowe, president and CEO of the Lawrence chamber, told the group. “It is a mega opportunity.”

Steve Kelly, vice president of economic development for The Chamber and a leader of the EDC, said the Panasonic project is so large that it “can almost overwhelm you,” if communities aren’t prepared for it.

In addition to the 4,000 jobs that are expected to be located at the Panasonic plant, suppliers for the facility are expected to add another 4,000 jobs. The construction of the various facilities and infrastructure for the plant and related developments is expected to produce about 16,000 construction jobs, state leaders have said.

All of that would happen on a portion of the former Sunflower Army Ammunition plant, which is only about 5 miles from Eudora and the eastern border of Douglas County.

“It is important for us to figure out how we are going to deal with it and take advantage of it in a positive way,” Kelly said.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Aged water towers that are still left from the former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant between De Soto and Eudora are shown on Aug. 5, 2022.

Here’s a look at several details and conversations from Thursday’s meeting:

• It appears that Kevin Kelley, CEO of Lawrence-based Peaslee Tech, has been more involved with the Panasonic project than most area leaders. Kelley confirmed that he visited Panasonic’s Nevada battery plant that serves a Tesla factory in that state. The Kansas plant is expected to be similar and serve Tesla’s Texas vehicle plant.

“They are good-paying jobs,” Kelley said of the Nevada positions. “When I looked at all the jobs in Nevada, there was not one job that was making less than $50,000 a year. That was all levels. There weren’t custodians making less than $50,000 a year.”

Kelley said he didn’t have specific knowledge about what the wages would be at the Kansas plant.

Kelley has been involved in the project because Peaslee Tech and various community colleges in the region are expected to be major providers of required training for new Panasonic employees.

Kelley said early indications are that the company hopes to have 500 people hired by the third quarter of 2024. He said he’s working on how Peaslee Tech can serve many of those employees, who will be required to go through a 60-hour training course, and perhaps will receive additional training depending on their positions.

Steve Kelly said state officials have said that Panasonic hopes to have operations underway at the plant within two years, which he said is a very aggressive timeline for a project of this size.

While the project already has been announced, it still requires final approval from the Panasonic board. Steve Kelly said that approval is expected in October.

• Various leaders said the Panasonic plant will locate on about 300 acres of the approximately 6,000-acre former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant, which motorists on K-10 may know as the property that has the row of prominent water towers near De Soto. However, in a sign of how significant other development around the plant may be, an additional 300 acres adjacent to the Panasonic plant has been spoken for to house a key supplier.

“I think we can anticipate there will be a lot of training and a lot of companies rushing to get in place,” Kevin Kelley said.

Johnson County developers already are at work to woo those supplier companies. Motorists on K-10 may have noticed significant amounts of dirt work underway at the K-10 and Evening Star Road intersection. That work is not for the Panasonic plant itself, but rather for a business and warehouse park that is expected to support the Panasonic project.

The Evening Star Road interchange is only about 1 mile east of the Douglas County line, which is just outside of Eudora.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Construction crews are clearing more than a mile long stretch of property between Evening Star Road and Edgerton Road along Kansas Highway 10 in preparation for businesses that are expected to come to the area as part of the Panasonic battery plant in De Soto.

• The Evening Star Road work should serve as a good reminder that Eudora — a Douglas County community of about 6,500 people — is on the front lines of this Panasonic development. An even better reminder is the ringing phone.

“Since the announcement, we have had a lot of calls and interests,” said Barack Matite, city manager of Eudora.

He said those calls have included everybody from local developers to national developers, and they primarily have been calling about land that is available for housing.

“It has been all types of housing, single family and multifamily,” he said.

Matite said Eudora does have some vacant land that the city could provide infrastructure to relatively soon. As I reported, a group led by one of Johnson County’s more active residential developers — Clay Blair of Prime Development — owns about 130 acres of vacant land at the northwest corner of K-10 and Winchester Road on the western edge of Eudora. If you’re a K-10 motorist but unfamiliar with Eudora street names, Winchester Road is the bridge over K-10 right next to the prominent Eudora United Methodist Church that is located along K-10. The land in question is on the other side of the highway, across from the church.

Depending on how the development is planned, a 130-acre site could accommodate 300 to 400 new homes fairly easily.

Another large site already close to city infrastructure is an approximately 90-acre farm field that is directly west of Eudora High School in south Eudora. That property also is already adjacent to an existing neighborhood, Shadow Ridge, which currently has about a 50-home expansion underway, led by Lawrence developer Roger Johnson.

That farm field property conceivably could accommodate another 200 or so homes, depending on how the development was planned (and assuming that its owners are open to development). Several other sizable pieces of vacant ground exist just east of Eudora High School and Eudora Middle School, both of which are along Church Street or County Route 1061 in south Eudora.

But the big question is how many new homes Eudora leaders think the town needs or can reasonably accommodate. Will Eudora become a 10,000- or 15,000-population town at some point in the foreseeable future as a result of the Panasonic development?

Matite was hesitant to put a population number on Eudora’s future size. Instead, he said Eudora previously has been planning on population growth of about 2% per year, meaning between 100 and 200 new residents a year.

“But that is going to change,” Matite said, without offering an estimate of what type of new growth rate the community might expect.

Those estimates will come as the city continues to evaluate a number of factors related to infrastructure and the specific type of plans developers may have for the area. Eudora Mayor Tim Reazin told the group that he thinks Eudora is ahead of the curve in planning for what is to come. He said he could envision Eudora getting significantly larger in population. However, he predicted the community was going to approach development in a particular way.

“I’ve said for years that it is going to be positive and purposeful,” Reazin said. “We are not just going to build some houses so we can pay some bills.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Eudora is a town of about 6,500 people in eastern Douglas County, near the former Sunflower Army Ammunition plant where Panasonic plans to build a $4 billion battery plant for electric vehicles.

• Housing isn’t the only topic on the mind of Eudora leaders, though. Reazin and Matite told the group that the city of Eudora is in the early stages of planning for a destination type of development at the southeast corner of the K-10 and Church Street interchange. LMH Health currently operates a medical facility near that corner, but there is much undeveloped land around the health care building.

Ideas thus far include sports fields, an indoor sports fieldhouse and room for other community amenities, plus commercial development and maybe even some multifamily development.

The project is far from a certainty, and the city hasn’t taken any steps to secure the property. Matite said any project likely would require significant help from the state of Kansas, most likely through a STAR bond initiative. A STAR bond would allow any sales taxes collected in the development — both the local sales tax and the state sales tax — to be kept by the developing entity to help pay for the cost of constructing the project.

While the project would have many hurdles to clear, Matite said it is worth exploring because the city wants to take steps to ensure it is more than a bedroom community for the Panasonic plant or other communities. The idea behind the Eudora development would be to attract visitors and customers from outside of Eudora to spend money in the district, diversifying the city’s tax base.

• As for Lawrence and how it may be impacted by the Panasonic project, the simple answer may be a slight tilt to the east for the city, which for decades has directed much of its growth to the west.

The city’s primary business parks — East Hills and VenturePark — are both on the east side of town, but Steve Kelly told the group that those parks likely won’t have enough land to accommodate future interest from companies that want to be in the general region of the Panasonic project.

He said the largest industrial parcel currently available is 65 acres. Kelly said that more recently — as companies bring manufacturing back to America from overseas locations — firms have been seeking much larger pieces of property. He said 150- to 200-acre sites aren’t uncommon requests.

In the past, economic development leaders have looked for new industrial property on the western edge of the city, near Interstate 70. While that area still has strong potential, Kelly said the city also needs to look at more eastern sites because “that is the natural flow,” currently.

Lawrence City Commissioner Lisa Larsen said she could envision the city spending more time considering growth to the east and southeast, although there will be some environmental hurdles, she predicted.

“Now that we have something we can target like a Panasonic, I think that will help us focus on how and where it can happen,” Larsen said.

The Panasonic project could spur more demand not only for industrial space in Lawrence but also for housing. The plant will be about a 20-minute drive from the eastern edge of Lawrence.

There was some brief discussion among the group about what Lawrence may have to do to get single-family home developers more interested in building in Lawrence. The city currently has a very tight housing market, yet builders have not been constructing new homes in large numbers.

Some in the room said Lawrence had gained a reputation as a community that wasn’t overly interested in growth, and thus single-family home developers are taking their projects elsewhere.

Both Larsen and Lawrence Mayor Courtney Shipley said the perception that Lawrence wasn’t interested in growth was unfair. However, Shipley said she understands how some may come to that conclusion.

“The people (developers) who have been coming to us want to do it the same old way they have done it in the past, and they aren’t interested in innovating …” Shipley said, mentioning how neighborhoods needed to be more walkable and closer to daily living needs. “The message is, show us something new.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Earth moving machines are lined up waiting for another day’s work at a large construction site along Kansas Highway 10 between Eudora and De Soto.


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