As Overland Park marks its 60th anniversary, Mayor Carl Gerlach gave a decidedly upbeat assessment Thursday, touting downtown’s renaissance and record construction investment in recent years as proof of the suburb’s success.
In his “State of the City” address to more than 500 people at the Overland Park Convention Center, Gerlach said creating one of the nation’s most livable communities hasn’t happened by accident but from shrewd, forward-thinking “intentional leadership.”
The mayor outlined a vision for a welcoming, prosperous and family friendly city. It would build on a long-range plan called Forward OP that is designed to make it less “Johnson County beige” and more appealing to young professionals and people of all ages and income levels.
Gerlach said the Forward OP implementation strategy is beginning, but he offered no specifics for how to provide more affordable housing, more transit or more community event spaces.
He also acknowledged big challenges, including the need to keep attracting and retaining jobs in a highly competitive economic environment.
And he said the city and state of Kansas must deal with the problem of U.S. 69 Highway, the most congested four-lane highway in Kansas. It is even more heavily traveled than Interstates 70 and 35, with more than 80,000 cars per day.
“We all get it,” Gerlach told the audience, many of whom fight U.S. 69 traffic jams every day. “It’s a top priority for you and us.”
City officials are pushing hard to add a lane in each direction from 103rd Street to 151st Street. Such a project would cost an estimated $300 million.
They are also exploring funding sources, including turning the new lanes into express toll lanes.
Gerlach’s speech followed by one day another State of the City Speech by Kansas City’s new mayor, Quinton Lucas. Lucas said Wednesday night that his priorities will be addressing that city’s homicide and violent crime crisis, doing a better job fixing potholes, providing fare-free bus service and improving affordable housing options.
In contrast to Kansas City, Overland Park remains a mostly white, affluent, highly educated community but is confronting growing demographic changes that could bring more big-city challenges.
Gerlach was first elected in 2005 and is in his fourth term in office. He has presided over a period of tremendous growth, with new apartments and offices sprawling ever southward, an urban-style revival of Overland Park’s downtown area, and new shopping and entertainment amenities cropping up.
Overland Park is the metro area’s second largest city and the second largest city in Kansas after Wichita. Its population has increased from 173,000 in the 2010 Census to an estimate of more than 192,000 in 2019.
Its pro-growth emphasis may now be tempered by several newly elected council members and some incumbents who are starting to question the impact of all that change on density, traffic and slower-paced suburban lifestyles. Plus, skeptics question the tax incentives granted to make it happen.
“Obviously we know that we live in a beautiful city with high achievements in terms of quality of life,” said Faris Farassati, a cancer scientist and city councilman who is considering running for mayor in 2021.
He said he wants evidenced-based scrutiny of development incentives and doesn’t want them going for luxury apartments or corporate office towers. “I would like to see these tax incentives be reserved for blighted and socially deserving areas and public amenities,” he said Thursday.
Farassati argued that if the city adopts that approach, it can pay for its share of U.S. 69 Highway without collecting tolls for a road that should be free to travel on.
Still, Councilman Paul Lyons spoke Thursday in support of all the new apartments, restaurants, offices and other downtown changes, much of which occurred with incentives.
“I think once it’s done, a lot of people who have concerns about what we’ve done downtown I think will come to the realization, hey this is pretty good stuff,” he said.
Gerlach said the new downtown is the result of lots of careful planning going back two decades, when the neighborhood was in a slump. He said the modern development gives people “options between a traditional quality suburban lifestyle or this new level of achievement with everything in one location.”
Gerlach also touted business development that he said brought $700 million in construction to the city in 2019, the second highest year for public and private investments after $800 million in 2018.
He said Overland Park has seen more than 7,000 additional jobs in the past five years and has more than 33,000 jobs within a one-mile radius of College Boulevard and Metcalf Ave., making Overland Park and Kansas City the metro area’s prevailing job centers.
“New jobs and new residents also increase our tax base,” he said, “which helps everyone, including our schools, Johnson County, the state and Overland Park.”
But Gerlach’s speech also came the same week as a federal judge cleared the way for T-Mobile’s merger with Sprint, creating an uncertain future for the Overland Park-based telecom giant.
Still, Gerlach told the crowd Thursday he remains optimistic about the Sprint merger.
“They are talking about bringing 1,000 new jobs to the Overland park campus,” he said. “They’re talking about reinvesting in the millions to upgrade the buildings. But most importantly they bring 5G. With the combination of T-Mobile and Sprint, we get 5G expanded, hopefully here in town and across the entire country. Those are all very good positives and that’s why I’m very comfortable with Sprint.”
Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist and was a veteran reporter for The Kansas City Star. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.