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Catalytic Change: Developers’ visions for projects can have sweeping impact on communities

SBJ Economic Growth Survey: The Next Peak

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In the southwest corner of Springfield, utilities are in place and site prep is completed for a $500 million development called The Ridge at Ward Branch.

It was announced in mid-2018 by RW Development LLC, led by business partners Phil Williams and Trip Rhodes.

Williams said the project is coming along, and his company has sold quite a few pieces of it already, though he was not ready to make specific announcements of buyers.

“We’re really close to being able to break ground,” he said.

Development is happening in all directions in and around Springfield. Toward the city’s center, the Grant Avenue Parkway is taking shape, and a rezoning approved by Springfield City Council on Aug. 22 will advance plans for a coffee shop and recreation venue, Loose Goose. The newly released draft of the city’s Forward SGF 20-year plan encourages neighborhoods to add commercial hubs as gathering places, and the race is on to see how that will play out.

To the west, an Amazon fulfillment center just marked a year in operation, followed by several projects announced in the city of Republic.

Development changes communities in both large and small ways.

Investors and companies offer a vision for a site, and each new development has the opportunity to serve as a catalyst for what follows.

Respondents to Springfield Business Journal’s 2022 Economic Growth Survey prioritized their own visions of how Springfield needs to grow to be competitive in the next five years. Topping the list was affordable single-family housing, with 84% ranking it among their top two priorities. Affordable multifamily housing came next with 63%, and destination retail came in third with 54%. Respondents also cited a need for office space, a feature of many mixed-use developments, with 39% wanting affordable office space and 22% desiring class A accommodations.

Some developments on the horizon in and around the city look to check more than one of these boxes.

Walkability
The Ridge will have a mixture of retail and housing, a concept that is becoming increasingly popular in cities across the country.

“People are staying home more and they’re working more from home, and there’s the idea that you can live, work and play, all within walking distance,” Williams said.

The Ridge plans to offer access and walkability on the outer reaches of the city. Williams is enthusiastic about capitalizing on the natural beauty of the Ozarks, with a development that will incorporate a trail system for residents.

He also likes keeping revenue in Springfield.

“Right now, we’re losing to Branson, Nixa and other places because we just don’t have the same outdoor amenities that they have in other places,” he said. “We’re trying to be more cognizant of that.”

Williams feels good about the site chosen for The Ridge.

“It’s kind of the epicenter for economic or household income for the area that we’ve seen in our numbers,” he said.

Traffic in the area is already high, with longtime tenants, like Sam’s Club and The Library Center, and Williams just liked the outdoor feel of the place.

“I thought it was a natural fit,” he said.

When a plan comes together
Sometimes development happens that way – naturally, like how when Williams and Rhodes stood among those southwest hills and everything seemed to fall in place.

Even so, Tom Rankin of Rankin Development LLC, which brought Amazon to Republic, credits something that goes beyond nature for development energy in that city.

“I see it as the Lord’s favor,” he said. “It’s true – there’s a lot of favor being bestowed on Republic.”

If, as the saying goes, the Lord works in mysterious ways, one of his methods seems to involve Republic City Administrator David Cameron.

“You can have land and utilities and infrastructure in place. But if you can make it easy and welcoming to developers and owners of businesses that want to expand, it’s just a one-two punch that’s hard to beat,” Rankin said.

He noted companies seek open land, sewer and water infrastructure, and highway access, but having city government as a cooperative component sealed the deal for Amazon.

“Republic is willing to partner – to take some risk,” Rankin said.

At the start of June 2020, Amazon asked that the project be completed by Sept. 15, and doing so required quick work by the city’s Builds Department, according to past reporting.

Large employers like Amazon and Convoy of Hope provide the tent stakes in development in Republic, but retail and housing investment soon follows.

The mixed-use Iron Grain District is being built adjacent to Amazon at the corner of Missouri Highway MM and Sawyer Road.

Its website promises culture, community and commerce, with apartments located within walking distance of dining, shopping and entertainment.

Rankin said people who live in the Iron Grain District apartments will shop and dine there, but he also expects it to be a regional draw.

“The demand is going to be a lot greater than that,” he said. “We’re going to get 2,000-plus employees that work right in that immediate area, and they need services.”

And Rankin knows one thing for sure about economic growth: Retail follows development.

A decade ago, he observed a housing boom taking place in west Springfield.

“We were seeing a lot of growth – a lot of rooftops,” he said.

Rankin Development responded with Springfield Plaza at the corner of West Sunshine Street and West Bypass Avenue to serve the people who were buying homes in the area.

Now in Republic, Rankin said he sees a similar need.

“Up and down that corridor, there’s several thousand employees with really no ancillary services – no place to get gas, get a bite to eat, have apartments,” Rankin said. “It doesn’t take long for developers and people that own businesses to take notice of that and try to fill that void.”

Retail drives more retail 
Amanda Ohlensehlen, director of Economic Vitality for Springfield, said retail itself can also drive other retail development. Costco is a good example, she said.

“Oftentimes, certain retailers, once they choose a location, attract other retailers or development to want to co-locate,” she said. “We want to be ready when those opportunities present themselves, as well as try to attract those type of retailers.”

Ground was broken Aug. 23 on Buc-ee’s, a 53,000-square-foot travel center being built along Interstate 44 in the northeast corner of the city.

Ohlensehlen said Buc-ee’s is another good example of a catalytic development, since it has a proven track record of attracting other retailers.

The project also includes an infrastructure agreement with the city, including sewer, water and road improvements.

The agreement opens up about 1,000 acres of land that otherwise would not have been able to support development without the infrastructure improvements, Ohlensehlen said.

“Buc-ee’s entails adding infrastructure to an area that was otherwise not served,” she said. “That really opens up development opportunities.”

Ohlensehlen said Springfield is a hub of activity for the region.

“Having a really strong and diverse group of companies and industries and retailers just really adds to the vibrancy of the region,” she said.

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