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Kansas City 2020: Part II



On March 27, the longtime chief counsel for the Johnson County Board of Commissioners, Don Jarrett, met with county commissioners in the basement of the county administration building in downtown Olathe. Jarrett was bringing them news and no news at the same time.

He filled in commissioners on the status of the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant: No remediation work was under way to clean up the polluted soil on 9,000 acres of property south of De Soto, along Kansas Highway 10.

The property's owner, Sunflower Redevelopment LLC, occasionally talks with the U.S. military about what to do with the former government property, but no agreement is forthcoming. Hardly any of the property is usable in any way.

Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant today looks more like it did in 1950 than what it was supposed to become.

Men and women by the thousands used to travel to Sunflower each day to work at the plant, which made rocket propellant for the U.S. military. Jobs were plentiful during the decades that encapsulated World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. 

Like a lot of military property, Sunflower outlived its usefulness. By the 1990s, the federal government wanted to get rid of the land.

Robert Kory, a Los Angeles lawyer who claimed to have a large book of celebrity clients but seems to have had a connection only to Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen, became one of many men who came to Kansas City with a big idea and left with nothing to show for it. Kory wanted to build a futuristic Wizard of Oz–themed amusement park in Wyandotte County. But he stiffed government officials for the cost of a study he was supposed to cover and later set his sights on Sunflower in Johnson County.

He almost pulled it off, despite having little in the way of firm financial data about his plans. But enough officials worried that he was just going to try to flip the land and sent him packing back to California.

Later, county leaders thought that if someone could clean up the environmental contamination endemic to the manufacture of war chemicals, the 9,000-acre Sunflower site would make a fine place for a new progressive community along the K-10 corridor. But the property has languished. To the untrained eye, the factory looks as though it could start making smokeless gunpowder again at the flip of a switch.

Kansas City is full of these unrealized dreams, all attached to long-dormant parcels of land.

Last week in this space, The Pitch discussed and displayed what Kansas City might look like in 2020, a time when new developments coming out of the ground now should all be operational (KC 2020, April 10, 2014). Any vision of the future comes with realities, though, and this city's real-estate market is pockmarked by projects that never materialized, long-decaying strips subject to missteps and disagreements among bureaucrats and developers.

You know the spots: the faint-pulsed Great Mall of the Great Plains, the cold, dead Indian Springs Mall, the Walking Dead–looking Citadel. Behind each such structure, a broken promise or 10.

Metcalf South Mall is one example of a place where new ownership might result in a relatively swift reincarnation. The Great Mall is another. But you don't have to be a pessimist to look at the properties listed this week, and see how Kansas City in 2020 could still look a lot like Kansas City in 2014.

Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant
Location: South of De Soto, Kansas
Owner: Sunflower Redevelopment LLC

The Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant greased the U.S. military's wheels during World War II and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. The plant employed more than 14,000 at one point, making rocket propellant and smokeless gun powder. The federal government decommissioned the site in the early 1990s and made plans to sell it. But the man who wanted to buy it was a Los Angeles lawyer who wore out his welcome in Wyandotte County pitching an idea to erect, in the plant's place, a Wizard of Oz–themed amusement park. Kansans weary of being associated with the film proved a tough sell, but Robert Kory nearly convinced Johnson County elected officials to approve his idea before he made them angry, too. The Sunflower site was later sold to a joint venture between Kessinger/Hunter and International Risk Group. Today, no environmental remediation work is being done at the site, and county officials say there's no agreement on the horizon for what to do with what otherwise would be prime real estate along Kansas Highway 10.


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