Kansas City’s Golden Jubilee is about to happen.
Some 50 years after the opening of its airport, as well as a sparkling football stadium-baseball park sports complex named after native son and former President Harry S. Truman, the city is ready for a long overdue makeover.
The crown jewel of the renaissance is the $1.5 billion Kansas City International airport to open in March 2023, just in time for the NCAA Regionals that month and the NFL Draft mega-party a month later.
On Thursday, Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc.
announced plans for an $800 million data center at Golden Plains Technology Park, a 1 million-square-foot facility near the airport. A $351 million extension of the city’s street car line should be complete by 2025. An 11,000-seat, soccer-only stadium for the KC Current – the first in North America for a professional women’s team – is scheduled to open in 2024 for $70 million. There are even murmurs of a downtown ballpark for the Kansas City Royals.
Meta’s planned data center is “another example of Missouri being on the right track in attracting tech,” Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson told MarketWatch. “There are opportunities outside of the two coasts, and as our automobile, agriculture and animal health corridor are driven by tech, investments and business will expand.”
Improvements in transportation infrastructure, meanwhile, should draw more visitors to the region, Parson and others say.
“It will be a game changer. It will reset a lot of opinions” among business visitors, Tim Cowden, CEO of Kansas City Area Development Council,said of the new airport, which will replace the badly outdated current one. “In Kansas City, we only get so many swings, so many at-bats.”
The current airport, opened in 1972, had an inauspicious debut: There was an attempted skyjacking to Cuba.
Construction is seemingly sprouting everywhere downtown as the city prepares to host the NFL Draft in April 2023, welcomes a continuous influx of technology workers from across the country, and – city officials are confident – is named one of 11 host cities in North America for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
They’re following in the path of Oracle Corp.
which is nearing closure of its proposed $28.3 billion acquisition of Cerner Corp., the largest private employer in the Kansas City area and a top player in the world of healthcare IT. Cybersecurity, architecture and engineering tech and animal agricultural tech also highlight a region of 2.65 million people that LinkedIn ranks as No. 8 in net in-migration since the pandemic, as well as among the top-15 metropolitan areas for tech jobs per capita.
Kansas City, with more than 100,000 net-tech employment, grew 1.7% year-over-year in 2020, ranking it third in tech job growth after Austin and San Francisco, according to CompTIA Cyberstates 2021 report. And Missouri is expanding: It is the seventh-fastest growing state in the U.S.
The Brookings Institute recently found that tech jobs in nine cities including nearby St. Louis, Denver and Dallas initially declined in the early days of Covid-19 but by the end of 2020 rose at least 3% on average.
“Why are people migrating for work? Well, people are motivated by predictable costs and regulation,” Ryan Weber, CEO of KC Tech Council, said. “Usually, it is a mid-career person with a family who wants to afford a home.”
“I prefer to think of this area as Silicon Prairie,” Tom Herzog, chief operating officer of Netsmart Technologies Inc., which develops and sells health-information technology such as electronic health records. “The health tech ecosystem sits in the middle of the heartland.”
The 54-year-old company relocated from New York in 2011 to tap the region’s IT talent and access to nearby universities in Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Arkansas.
“It is a wonderful location to do heavy and heady work,” says Philip Gaskin, vice president of entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffmann Foundation, one of the nation’s largest private foundations, with more than $2.5 billion. “The last great asset class is hiding in plain sight.”
Enduring lifestyle appeal
The region’s traits have proved to be of enduring appeal to tech workers who have returned after stints in Silicon Valley.
“It is a dream boat of an environment, with cheaper costs and a lot of talent,” says Lisa Tamayo, CEO of Scollar Inc., an animal tech company with operations in Kansas City. It moved from Santa Rosa, Calif., in late 2019 to be near the heart of its market. “The whole world has made this incredible evolution by working from home. We can do so much from wherever.”
A self-described “military brat,” Jannae Gammage, 35, works with tech startups in Kansas City. She decided on the destination in June 2019 after considering California and Atlanta because of KC’s fertile small-business community. “This is the best tech ecosystem startup environment I’ve ever been in,” she said.
Joe O’Connor, 25, is a Kansas City native who came home in 2020 after working at a San Francisco tech startup. He now works at Chisel Labs, another San Francisco-based tech startup run by a former Microsoft Corp.
executive. “After college [University of Kansas], I wanted to be part of the startup scene in San Francisco, and came back for family and growing opportunities in the Kansas City startup scene,” he said. “It seems like a really exciting time, now with being able to work from home.”
This is not to suggest that Kansas City is the default option for tech workers seeking a change in scenery and lifestyle. Stereotypes and misperceptions remain for what some still consider “flyover country.”
“Kansas is a big small town,” says Darcy Howe, a former Merrill Lynch executive who as managing director of KCRise Fund has raised $60 million in its first two funding rounds (2019-20). “What could really accelerate the market, she says, are big ideas in ag tech, which so far are lacking.”
“KC has no focus. It is our Achilles heel and our strength,” Howe said.
But changes in infrastructure like the airport and street car line are likely to help accelerate a surge in the local tech economy, says longtime tech residents.
“In the late ‘90s, early 2000s, trucking and telecom were big here,” says Jason Delker, a former Sprint employee who is now chief product officer at Torch.AI, which uses artificial intelligence to process data. “But over the last 15 years, software industry for health care have led the way.”
The 90-person company plans to hire 300 people in 2022, making it one of the city’s fastest-growing tech businesses.