An East Hills site that used to house the largest private employer in Lawrence is on the market; a look at the county’s largest employers
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World
Don’t hang up on me. I feel like I should make that request because I’m getting ready to talk about call centers. The main message is: There are fewer of them in Lawrence than there used to be.
Unless you enjoy talking about your car’s extended warranty, or lack thereof, you probably think that is good news. Maybe, maybe not. The industry has employed a lot of people in Lawrence over the years, and most of the time it has been for work far different from the annoying calls you get during dinner time. Among other projects, Lawrence call center workers have been the voices behind the helplines for federal student loans and federal health insurance programs, among other big topics.
In fact, a call center company that has had more names than my F150 has had denied warranty claims was the largest private employer in Lawrence for many years. The company, which has operated under the names NCS, Pearson, General Dynamics, Vangent and likely others that I have forgotten, has long occupied two large buildings in the East Hills Business Park. At various times, those entities employed more than 1,000 people in Lawrence.
But now, one of those buildings is vacant and on the market. The ‘for lease’ sign has gone up in front of the 105,000 square-foot building at 2201 Noria Road, which is on the eastern edge of the East Hills Business Park. The building next door to it is occupied by Maximus, which is the call center company that took over for the NCS/Pearson/General Dynamics, etc. etc. organization. In the past, whatever call center was operating that space leased both buildings, as the company frequently won government contracts that would boost the workforce to a size that it could no longer fit all the employees into a single building.
Those days, though, might be gone for the Lawrence center. A Kansas City-based commercial real estate firm is seeking an entirely new tenant for the second building, which is owned by the publicly traded real estate investment firm Orion Office REIT.
For a mere $70,000 a month, you can lease the space and the row after row after row of cubicles inside the building, according to the commercial real estate listing online. The building is now one of the largest office spaces available in Lawrence.
However, it certainly isn’t the only example of a big, empty call center space in town. The I-70 Business Center — where the Journal-World is located in North Lawrence — has seen three large call center spaces vacated in the last year or so. (One has since been filled by what I call my walk-in vending machine, also known as Family Dollar.)
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World
Another space of particular note is a 50,000 square-foot office building near the intersection of Sixth and Iowa streets. It has been a call center location and customer service location for a variety of companies including SS&C Technologies, DST Systems, and Boston Financial Data Services in recent years. Longtime residents, though, may still associate the site, 2000 Bluffs Drive, with its original tenant: Sallie Mae, which used the Lawrence site as a major processing center for federal student loans.
According to the commercial real estate listing online, that building is now empty and is for sale, with an asking price of $5.9 million.
At this point in the article you may be hoping for a phone call to discuss your extended warranty, if it gives you a reason to stop hearing about call centers. In other words, why does any of this matter?
Jobs are the main reason any of this is of community concern.
If you recall, I mentioned that the call center complex at East Hills Business Park often employed more than 1,000 people. According to the latest job figures compiled by the Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence & Douglas County, the complex has 450 employees. For some comparison, local economic development statistics dating back to 2012 showed that call center complex had 1,500 employees. As recently as 2021, Maximus was employing 1,000 people at the site, according to the statistics. But that number fell greatly in 2022 and has not recovered.
As recently as 2020, the old Sallie Mae property had nearly 360 employees, according to the same economic development statistics. So, just those two properties alone have seen a decline of about 1,000 employees in recent years.
Whether they now can be used to attract new major employers in the future will be an important question for the Lawrence economy.
I did some digging for historic job numbers for this article, so let me throw a couple of leftover findings your way. The numbers, which I partially got from the city of Lawrence’s annual financial statements that list the top 10 employers of the community, provide a glimpse at how much the local job scene has changed over the decade.
Call center jobs certainly aren’t the only ones that have have declined. But you also might be surprised to know that the community has had a big uptick in jobs at some key manufacturers. Here’s a look at some notable gainers and losers:
• University of Kansas: 2013: 9,881 employees; 2023: 8,845 employees. That’s a 10% decline in the KU workforce, or a loss of more than 1,000 jobs in Lawrence.
• City of Lawrence: 2013: 1,455; 2023: 860 employees. Take those numbers with a grain of salt. The lists are imperfect, which is why I don’t often report on them. I’m unsure whether one list is reporting all employees regardless of full-time vs. part-time status, while another list may be reporting full-time equivalent positions. However, I am confident the city has reduced its workforce over the decade, although I’m not sure it has reduced it by 40%.
• Berry Global: 2013: 740 employees; 2023: 1,550. The maker of plastic cups and other such products has more than doubled its local workforce.
• Hallmark: 2013: 525 employees; 2023: 885 employees. The company continues to use its Lawrence plant to manufacture the bulk of its North American greeting cards. Employee totals have grown as some other Hallmark plants have closed in recent years.
• Amarr Garage Doors: 2013: 460 employees; 2023: 730 employees.
• LMH Health: 2013: 1,322; 2023: 1,945 employees.
The numbers are interesting, but I would caution you to look at them broadly. Jobs numbers at these entities change frequently, and the entities often don’t publicly release those totals. So, these are the best numbers we have, but they are still subject to being out of date.