May 30, 2023

Kansas City’s Urban Growth, Economic Impact, and the Power of Partnerships

For our seventh episode, President & CCO Ethan Whitehill chats with Jon Copaken, Principal at Copaken Brooks. Jon discusses the impact of urban growth in Kansas City, the elements of quality development, and the legacy of Copaken Brooks.

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Episode Transcript

Ethan Whitehill: Welcome to our podcast. I’m Ethan Whitehill, president and Chief Creative Officer at Crux, the un-agency that fuels business growth. Here on “To the Point” we get to the point with entrepreneurs and marketers who have transformed organizations by elevating brands and amplifying missions. We have a great podcast in store for you today.

My guest is John Copaken. Principal at Copaken Brooks, where he is instrumental in the commercial real estate firm’s leadership and strategic planning, a well-rounded leader and advisor. John is active in the entire development process, including major tenant office and retail leasing, financing, land acquisition, zoning, and construction.

He’s also an expert in forming public and private partnerships. John, welcome to the show.

Jon Copaken: Thanks for having me.

Ethan Whitehill: First off, you and I were just talking earlier, we were at a downtown council meeting and that was a fabulous event. I think there’s always stuff I take away in terms of the growth of our city. I want to start there, if I could. For those who aren’t aware, explain what urban growth and density look like for Kansas City. What appeals to you about Kansas City’s downtown and crossroads areas in particular?

Jon Copaken: Sure.

Well, urban growth and density, I think are the most important pieces of development.

In Kansas City we have a unique position where there’s a lot of space, there’s a lot of areas that still need development, and one or two or three key projects can really make a difference. It’s important to me that no block is left empty in between the exciting new developments or renovations and that density creates a walkable, exciting environment that people want to be part of.

Ethan Whitehill: Thinking about people being out and about, thank goodness we can do that again. A lot of folks that might be considering office spaces are also wondering what is the future of work? With hybrid work environments, remote employees, what are you seeing on your radar?

Jon Copaken: Yeah. The future of work is the question on everybody’s mind, but definitely people are slowly coming back to work.

Some companies more than others, but there are companies that have gone completely virtual. It seems like for the most part, if you can generalize, people are in a hybrid mode and will be for some foreseeable future. They might not be there five days a week, they might be three or four days a week.

I do think for companies that are wanting to build culture and are wanting to be successful and be around each other, they cannot viably compete if they’re in the office zero days or one day or maybe even two days. There are companies that are successful being totally remote, but I think for the vast majority people need to be around each other, collaborate in person, and have their meetings together.

Ethan Whitehill: Clearly, the world of work has changed, and you’ve been on top of those trends, not just through Covid, but your firm has been doing this for a long time. In fact, you celebrated a hundred years last year. Talk about that legacy.

Jon Copaken: It’s a great achievement to be part of not only an organization that’s been around that long, but a really third generation of family involvement. It’s not a hundred percent family owned anymore. We have two non-family partners, Bill Crandall and Bucky Brooks, along with my brother Keith Copaken, but still maintains much of a family atmosphere and dynamic. I remember the statistics of one generation to the next, I think are about 30%.

And the statistics going the next generation are like 10% of that 30%. Even if those are off a little bit, the odds are definitely stacked against us. But it’s exciting to be part of something that’s working really well.

Ethan Whitehill: So, with such a great track record over such a long history, it’s hard to improve on that.

What do you do next? How do you think about expansion in the future and where you go?

Jon Copaken: Yeah. Everybody’s always wanting to improve, but I don’t think of it so much as improving upon that legacy as doing different things and doing innovative, cool landscape changing and profitable projects.

For example, the previous generation was very much regional mall-based development with some high-rise office. The mall business was a one generation business, if you really think about it. People mixed use for thousands of years, then people separated use and in the early nineties. There were a hundred malls being built every year.

You’re lucky to maybe have one enclosed mall in a year. That’s a format that doesn’t exist. So, what are the things we’re doing now? We’re doing several multi-family developments, we’ve done some industrial, logistics developments, we are invested in some underground storage areas, we’re looking at building a self-storage above ground, but we still have our retail and office to boot. We go where the demand is and we use our skills and our relationships to build that. Back to your original question, I don’t know if that’s improving or not, but it’s being a vital part of the real estate landscape in different ways than we did before.

Ethan Whitehill: Thinking about those projects that you’re investing in and you’re involving your team on, what are some of the projects that stand out in your mind as great examples of positive growth and economic impact?

Jon Copaken: Sure. One that’s all of a sudden now, 15 years old or a little bit older is, the Plaza Colonnade on the Country Club Plaza, where the library district owned a building that was falling apart. They went out for an RFP to put together. They didn’t know quite what it would be, but they wanted a new library. We successfully won the beauty contest to figure out what we were going to do. What it turned into was office retail, mixed use and library. What’s truly unique about it, is it’s a public-private partnership that really ended up building a public library where they didn’t have to tax the library district more. In terms of public-private, that’s unique because you really got an asset out of it. We have other public-private partnerships, where incentives and other things help create the project and there’s public benefits, but that was unique and there’s a real public asset created, so that is a little bit historic.

We’re very active while a lot of our intentions in downtown Kansas City were also very active in other places in the metro. Out at City Center Lenexa at 87th and 4-35, where we’ve helped spur and create a new downtown that was a cornfield 10 years ago. A lot of other players and developers are doing development in and around there, but that was a cornfield on the way to three and two baseball most of all of our lives.

That’s multi-family, that’s office, that’s headquarter office like Kiwit, and that’s Johnson County Library, that’s a swimming complex, that’s a joint venture between the city and Shawnee Mission School District. It’s a real town that emerged out of nowhere as Lenexa’s downtown. Now you have hospital being built, hotels, apartments and other things that some we’re involved in and some we’re not.

That’s a dense urban environment in a suburban setting, but it’s great, nonetheless.

Ethan Whitehill: I just love the vision to see that opportunity to begin with. I wonder how does that even happen? Who comes together and has those conversations? That actually leads to the idea that is the inception of all that.

Jon Copaken: Sure. On that particular project that’s been my brother Keith’s main project while he’s done other things, but over the last really 15 years in helping achieve that vision. The original vision really came from the city. The city wanted to create a new downtown, a new area in Lenexa to compete with the Overland Parks and Kansas City, etc.

So, they started taxing and putting in the infrastructure and putting in the roads really ahead of demand. That’s hard to do, period, but in any political climate, taxing the public for projects to be done later, and hopefully people will come, credit the city people, mayor Boehm and all the rest for doing that.

They really set the original vision and then our company really led with Keith, came together and continues to help achieve that vision for Lenexa.

Ethan Whitehill: That’s fantastic. I think about the vision that Kansas City has and some of the things that are coming to fruition in general for our town, in the metropolitan area.

We’ve been on fire it feels like lately. We have the streetcar; the NFL draft is going to be in town next week. We’ve got the upcoming World Cup. How should Kansas City take advantage of all this really cool momentum?

Jon Copaken: Yeah, there is no doubt. You mentioned several of the things going on. We really got to keep the foot on the gas and on the pedal, and make sure that we don’t get in our way and be complacent. What I really mean by that is I don’t know that it’s unique to Kansas City, but it seems like it happens a lot, where we do have a lot of momentum and therefore, we think we we’re done. We’ve achieved it, and everything’s just going to flow from there. I think especially, Downtown, where there have been neat and interesting projects over the years, but up until really power and light, the previous 30 years have seen a drain of our particular style of downtown. That’s 30 years of growth and investment that carried on elsewhere.

It may be good for those areas, but we had a big hole to dig out of. In my mind, you’re never really done, and you never really stop reinvesting and rebuilding and trying to create that density that we’re gaining. You think of downtown now versus 15 years ago; it’s a totally different world, but we have a generation more of work to do.

Which to some may be like “oh my God another 30 years or something.” tome is really exciting because firms like ours can be part of achieving that success and changing the landscape here.

Ethan Whitehill: As landscape changes, and you mentioned this, we are going to get denser. We are going to have growth in other ways.

What are the things we need to prepare for as that happens? As we start seeing that population increase?

Jon Copaken: Yeah. I think we’re in a good position in certain ways because what seems to constrain a lot of cities and there’s a lot of things to be jealous about Nashville and Austin, and there’s other cities, but they often don’t have the infrastructure that can come along with that growth. We used Lenexa as an example. So, bedroom community may be a little bit easier to deal with the growth, but they invested ahead of the growth in their infrastructure and it’s paying off now. What tends to happen is it’s politically hard to invest in roads and curbs and gutters and things like that.

In our example, you know, we have a downtown where all the highways connect. We have a downtown where a lot of the major thoroughfares that aren’t highways, there’s so many ways in and out in the infrastructure is really created, at least in a car sense, for a population that’s maybe twice what we have now.

I don’t want to say you don’t have to worry about it, or we can do everything without any improvements, road improvements, but we’re in a really good position to have a lot of projects happen. Yes, if somebody has to wait three or four minutes or five minutes more, that’s a big deal in Kansas City.

That’s okay, but that’s not the be all, end all. What I was going to say too is that’s talking about the car. There’s been a lot of other forms of transportation, whether it be bike or bus improvements that are necessary, or the streetcar, which I’m really involved in is a major piece of the public transportation beyond just figuring out how to get as many cars in and out.

There’s a lot of exciting pieces that I think we’re on top of, but we got to make sure we don’t get in our way of finishing ’em off.

Ethan Whitehill: In terms of some of those big projects that could be game changing for the downtown area, came up today actually at the downtown council event, the downtown ballpark.

I know a lot of people have had conversations about what could be, should be in that space. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the impact is of something like that, a move like that. Why is that important to a city? Why would somebody consider that?

Jon Copaken: Right. Well, so that’s an issue that I started being involved in probably 16 or 18 years ago when I was chair of the downtown council.

Just was coincidental that at the time I was chair there was a decision to be made about renovations, things of that nature. It’s been kind of a long time coming versus something that’s just appearing now. The importance of it is that if you want to create density and you want an urban type lifestyle, and not everybody wants that, but for the health of a city in general, I think it needs that.

If the public’s going to help invest in a major project like that, and everybody would love to say “oh yeah, wealthy sports owners, just do that yourself” but, that’s not the world, when you’re talking about wealth, but close to billion dollar big public infrastructure investments like stadiums, it generally need some help. Cities and states generally help because they covet the idea of major league sports. The real importance is helping to create that urban environment, but it’s beyond the stadium. So, it’s residential, it’s additional office, it’s additional bar and restaurant opportunities that tend to be around these facilities.

Almost every city that has built a new stadium in the last generation, has put ’em downtown. There’s a lot of different reasons, but I would say from the public standpoint, if you’re going to help invest in this, you want your highest return on investment. If it’s a standalone project in the middle of a highway intersection, the public’s not going to get the return.

I think we have some good examples of where there’s stadiums that have been built that are great in themselves, but they don’t create any spinoff. I think we have a whole generation of examples where people have done ’em, where there is spinoff and public and cities might as well gain those benefits if they’re going to invest.

Ethan Whitehill: In thinking about how you invest and I think a lot of that takes coalition, you’ve got to build, probably a groundswell of support with folks. Where does that start? How does one actually get that momentum? Obviously, the ballpark has been a conversation for a while, but it takes politicians, it takes developers, it takes business, and citizens that are active and engaged. Where does that begin?

Jon Copaken: Well in our business, like a lot of businesses, it starts with relationships, and it really does start with a relationship combined with sensing demand. Whether it’s multi-family, whether it’s a new retail center or office. You can run all the studies you want, and we end up doing the studies, but it starts with seeing trends, seeing demand, seeing where you think people want to be, where they want to live, where they want to work, are they coming back to work and doing a lot of guesswork because nobody knows all those answers. You take that demand and then you work with the relationships you have, so you do need neighbors, you do need lenders, you do need tenants. And very importantly, you need governmental bodies at cities, whether there’s incentives or other public investment involved, or you just need zoning type approval. From our standpoint, we spend a lot of time working on those relationships when we don’t have anything in there to ask for. Meaning lunches or just things outside or boards or involvement in things that have nothing to do with your project. There’s a different feeling and a different reception that you get when you’re not meeting somebody for the first time when you’re asking them to do something for you.

Those relationships are really important to a lot of businesses, as I mentioned, but really important to what we do and how we go about doing projects.

Ethan Whitehill: Yeah, I think about those conversations that are required and those relationships that are developed and it’s all in service of a bigger goal.

If I think about what’s the why, part of the why is because we have to compete as a city. When you think about Kansas City competing with other markets, which frankly from a talent perspective we do, what do you think we’re missing? What does Kansas City need next?

I think we just need more. Back to the density issue, back to the projects. One project, one office building or something around here takes on an inordinate amount of attention and discussion and everything. That’s because there’s only one or two of those things. We need a lot more so that the focus isn’t just on the one project. People positively and negatively pick it apart, but we have multiple projects and multiple things going on. I think we need more, but we also need a functioning city, government state that wants to foster doing more versus again. Like we talked about, the feeling that we’ve done enough, and things are just going to happen on their own.

You got to have the right people and attitudes put together. I actually think that Kansas City’s in a good place right now, but we have to have people with attitudes that want to make things easier rather than harder.

Thinking about the progress of the city, and I know that you’re always thinking about the progress of your own company as well, and that makes me think a little bit about a recent merger.

With CBC Real Estate Group and Copaken Brooks, what inspired that?

Jon Copaken: From CBC, one of the three principals there is a guy named Bill Crandall. Bill and I met in the centurion’s leadership program of the Chamber about 25 years ago. We’ve actually collaborated when Applebee’s built their headquarters out in Lenexa.

Dating me now, but probably 15 years ago or so. With Bill Crandle, who was at Zimmer Real Estate at the time, collaborated to get that development done. Over the years, we’ve talked about working together. Bill is good at a lot of different things, but one of his main strengths is in the owner’s rep business, which means representing the city.

He’s representing on the aquarium project that’s going on in the zoo now. He worked on behalf when he was at Zimmer, on behalf of Wyandotte County in relation to the whole legends development. We now might not be a direct investor, but we’re acting like owners and working for owners who aren’t necessarily us like a municipality or whatever.

He’s very strong. He’s really the go-to guy in that. Honestly, whenever we were competing against him for some of those jobs, he’d be the winner. So, it was good to pull together the winner with us and continue to build our firm that now has some more expertise in that particular world.

Ethan Whitehill: Well, that gets us to my mystery question. That’s the next question. I have this 20-sided die, and I have 20 questions, so it’s going to be totally random. This is the fun, surprising part of the conversation. Oh, we rolled a 20, let’s see what that is. What was your first job?

Jon Copaken: My first job was working at an ice cream shop in Ward Parkway called Swenson’s that used to exist as a mini chain. That’s what I did for my first job.

Ethan Whitehill: That’s awesome. I think my first job was ice cream also, or Ellis Scooping Deli in Manchester, Connecticut. We can share ice cream war stories at some point.

This has been absolutely fantastic. I do have one more question. How can our listeners learn more about Copaken Brooks?

Jon Copaken: Well, like most companies in the world these days, we do have a website. That’s one way to learn. Honestly, if people have projects or ideas, we’re very accessible.

People can reach out to any of us. Call us and just ask questions. The easy way is website and doing research and looking back at some of the projects. That’s probably the easy way. Glad to talk to any of the listeners who might have something to say.

Ethan Whitehill: Thank you, John.

Jon Copaken: Yes, thanks for having me.

Ethan Whitehill: Appreciate the conversation.

Hosted by Ethan Whitehill

ethan-whitehill-cruxEthan has made a career out of building agencies and growing brands. He founded the firm Two West in 1997, running it as an independent shop for nearly 20 years before combining his firm with an AdAge Top 100 Agency, where he served as CMO. As an agency founder and entrepreneur, Ethan brings a business owner’s mindset to marketing, working on a host of diverse brands, from packaged goods and professional services to hospitality and healthcare.

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