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Farmland is being readied for a nuclear crop


By KEVIN COLLISON, Kansas City Star

* Bulldozers are rolling on a billion-dollar project that will transform a former soybean field in south Kansas City into America’s only privately developed plant making parts for nuclear weapons.

When it comes to the area economy, there is no question about the importance of the facility being built for Honeywell Federal Manufacturing & Technologies.

With 2,500 workers, the Honeywell plant now in the Bannister Federal Complex is the area’s third-largest manufacturing facility, after the Ford and General Motors factories.

The replacement project will keep 2,100 well-paid Honeywell jobs in Kansas City. About 1,500 construction workers also will be needed to build the five-building, 1.5 million-square-foot campus, the biggest construction project since the Sprint campus was completed a decade ago.

The new plant will be unique in another way.

The current Honeywell operation in the federally owned Bannister complex is tax-exempt. But because the new plant is a private development, it will be on the local tax rolls for the first time. When fully operational in mid-2014, it will generate $5.2 million annually in local property tax revenue, according to the development officials.

“I think it’s huge for Kansas City at a time Kansas City needs good news,” said Brad Scott, a former federal official who helped guide the deal, which was more than four years in the making.

A groundbreaking ceremony set for Wednesday at the 185-acre site at Missouri 150 and Botts Road is expected to attract dignitaries such as Sen. Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican; Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat; and Thomas P. D’Agostino, the top executive with the National Nuclear Security Administration, the federal agency in charge of the Honeywell contract.

Despite the ceremonial fanfare, the project has its critics. Also expected at the groundbreaking are peace activists, some of whom plan to be arrested for trespassing.

“There’s no justification … to the local economy that justifies putting the whole planet at risk,” said Ann Suellentrop, a registered nurse who leads the area chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Opponents of nuclear proliferation had hoped to gain the support of the Obama administration to block the project. But that effort lost traction when the administration supported maintaining the current nuclear arsenal.

When asked to comment about the Kansas City project, a White House aide referred to a statement President Barack Obama issued last April.

“So long as nuclear weapons exist, we will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal,” the president said.

The Kansas City plant is an integral part of the U.S. nuclear arms infrastructure, producing 85 percent of the non-nuclear parts that go into a typical weapon, federal officials said.

Much of its current workload, according to a recent federal report, is extending the life of the W76 missile warhead, a submarine-launched weapon seven times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb.

The development push

The project is being developed by CenterPoint Zimmer LLC for the National Nuclear Security Administration. The construction price is $443 million, but other costs, including $263 million to relocate operations from the Bannister complex, will drive the final cost near $1 billion.

The massive endeavor started in spring 2006 with a rumor that Honeywell wanted out of Bannister. The former World War II defense plant was converted to producing nuclear weapons parts at the dawn of the Cold War in 1949.

The 3.2 million-square-foot plant employed nearly 8,000 people at its peak in the 1980s, but it is down to 2,500 workers. Honeywell wanted something smaller and more efficient.

It costs $400 million annually to operate the current facility, and a new plant would save about $100 million a year, federal officials said. There also was talk of consolidating its operations at a nuclear arms facility in New Mexico.

The key initial challenge was obtaining authorization from Washington.

Persuading Congress to pay for the project up front in the normal federal budget process was considered unlikely, said Scott, who at the time was administrator for the General Services Administration Heartland Region.

Instead, the GSA decided to pursue a private lease deal. In January 2008, Congress authorized a proposal that allowed the agency to lease the project from a private developer. The agency was allowed to pay up to $38 per square foot, or $58.9 million annually over 20 years.

The decision to build the plant privately will make the Kansas City facility an exception among the seven other facilities around the country used to make nuclear weapons, including the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.

All are owned by the U.S. Department of Energy, the parent agency of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

“We are a unique operation within the (National Nuclear Security Administration),” said Mark Holecek, the federal official in charge of the Kansas City plant. “We have no nuclear materials at all here. … This is essentially an aerospace facility.”

Another unusual aspect of the Kansas City project is the participation of local government.

As a private development, half the new property taxes — $2.6 million a year — will be diverted over 25 years to help pay for road improvements and other infrastructure work required for the project.

The biggest public entity that will benefit under the plan is the Grandview School District, with annual property tax revenue from the development site jumping from $652 a year to $1.6 million, development officials said.

Clearing hurdles

The search for the private developer began in late 2007. A short list was identified in April 2008. But that summer, the project experienced a “bid bust” when none of the finalists offered a proposal that came in under the $38-per-square-foot cap.

Scott said the bid bust was the low point in the effort to keep Honeywell in Kansas City. The agency had wanted to have the Kansas City project under way before the Bush administration left office in January 2009.

“I was very concerned,” he said. “The undercurrent was, with a change in administration, what would be the new administration view of our nuclear arsenal?

“There was also a real threat of being consolidated with other operations, Sandia (New Mexico) being one of them.”

But it turned out the election of Obama made no difference.

After the bid bust, Scott said, his agency “fought like crazy” to persuade administrators in Washington to allow changes to the plan and reopen bidding.

In April 2009, CenterPoint Zimmer, a venture between Zimmer Real Estate Services of Kansas City and CenterPoint of Oak Brook, Ill., was chosen as developer. It edged out DST Realty of Kansas City and another group, Quality Lease & Development of Overland Park.

The other area players on the CenterPoint Zimmer team are J.E. Dunn Construction Co., HNTB Architects, both of Kansas City, and Johnson Controls of Lenexa.

Only one major obstacle remained.

Opponents had filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington in October 2008 opposing the plan on environmental grounds. They had argued that the proposal failed to address substantial environmental problems at the Bannister plant and challenged the private development aspect of the deal.

That roadblock was removed in October 2009 when a federal judge dismissed the suit.

Holecek said the Nuclear Security Administration would not leave behind an environmental mess at Bannister.

“It will be ready to be marketed to another user,” he said.

The final public step came in February, when the Kansas City Council approved the tax breaks for the infrastructure improvements.

Councilman Ed Ford cast the lone dissenting vote.

“If they were building widgets, I’d have supported it,” Ford said. “The fact is they’re building components for nuclear weapons and, in good conscious, I could not vote for it.”

Last week, Bishop Robert Finn of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph issued a statement regarding the groundbreaking ceremony. It reiterated the church’s opposition to nuclear weapons because of their massive, indiscriminate destructive power and expressed hope that “one day this facility may be transformed from a producer of weapons into a producer of goods that benefit all mankind.”

But for Jim Cross, the CenterPoint official in charge of the project, the Kansas City plant is a vital element in the defense of the U.S.

“It’s a deterrent,” he said. “When you look at what’s going on all over the world, if this saves our men and women in the armed forces, helps protect them … it’s a wonderful thing.”

Campus-like design

Grading work has begun at the site, and the first concrete is expected to be poured in October. Structural steel should begin rising from the site early next year.

For J.E. Dunn, the project is expected to generate 20 percent of its local revenue over the next three years. The project comes as the area construction industry still struggles with the economic downturn.

“Our work force is about 65 percent of what it was three years ago,” said Dirk Schafer, executive vice president at J.E. Dunn. “This will let it jump 10 to 15 percent.”

The campus will consist of five structures and is being designed to meet the LEED Gold standard set by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Perhaps the most complicated part will be managing the move from the Bannister facility to the new campus. Two-thirds of the equipment at Bannister will be relocated.

“We are a production facility and those products (will) need to be shipped regularly” to avoid too much of a disruption in production, Holecek said.

While the buildings are scheduled to be completed in November 2012, the plant won’t be fully operational until more than 18 months later because of all the inspections, testing and relocation involved.

Don’t expect any armed convoys ferrying the industrial guts of the old plant to its replacement eight miles away.

“We’ll try to be as discrete as possible moving equipment,” Holecek said. “The majority of what we’re moving is commercially available industrial equipment. This will be nothing in the way of a military operation.”

Kansas City plant timeline

1943: The federal government builds a massive plant on Bannister Road during World War II for Pratt & Whitney to produce military aircraft engines.

1949: The plant is converted to manufacture nuclear weapons parts, and Bendix Aviation Corp. wins the contract from the Atomic Energy Commission. (The company name evolves to become Allied Bendix Aerospace, then AlliedSignal and finally Honeywell Federal Manufacturing & Technologies.)

1988: The plant work force peaks at about 7,850.

2006: Honeywell decides it wants a smaller, more efficient facility, and employment dwindles to 2,500.

April 2007: The federal General Services Administration identifies a 185-acre field at Missouri 150 and Botts Road as the location for a new plant.

January 2008: Congress authorizes a leaseback plan to privately develop a 1.5 million-square-foot replacement facility.

April 2009: CenterPoint Zimmer LLC is chosen as the developer.

February 2010: The Kansas City Council approves tax incentives for the project.

July 2010: CenterPoint Zimmer completes its financing.

Sept. 8, 2010: Groundbreaking ceremony.

November 2012: Construction scheduled to be completed.

Mid-2014: New plant expected to be fully operational.

To reach Kevin Collison, call 816-234-4289 or send e-mail to kcollison@kcstar.com.

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