Prairiefire Development Fosters Growth in JoCo

Prairiefire is set to bring education, interest and innovation to the Kansas City metropolitan area.

The greatest natural asset in Kansas has always been its prairie. Even today, the prairie still offers room to roam, establish a homestead, build businesses and ignite dreams. Prairiefire, a mixed-use 58-acre development located between Nall and Lamar Avenues on the south side of 135th Street, offers the innate promise of the prairie in a suburban setting.

Merrill Companies, LLC is the developer behind the $430 million project. Principal Fred Merrill identifies three key factors in choosing Prairiefire’s location in the area of south Johnson County. “This area’s demographics in terms of income and education levels, which were important for support of the Museum, and accessibility of the site,” he says. “135th Street will continue to be a major artery through south Johnson County for at least the next 20 years, and accessibility on all four sides of the development make it very convenient for both residents and visitors.”

Merrill Company’s World-Class Vision

John Merrill meets with his development team over the next phase of Prairiefire.

Construction began in early 2013 on the initial phase of the major development. The project’s signature 41,000-square-foot attraction, the Museum of Prairiefire, will engage visitors and area students with world-class exhibitions of the world’s largest dinosaurs and significant educational opportunities. This museum will also be the first venue outside of New York to continually host traveling exhibitions from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

Notably, Prairiefire has a 300-mile exclusive for American Museum of Natural History Exhibitions. More than 50 million people are within a one-day drive of Prairiefire––a greater potential population available to draw from than either Disneyland or Disneyworld. Merrill says, “We will promote the Museum exhibitions in Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma, and expect to draw a significant number of visitors from that five-state region.”

Other features of the development will include 300 luxury apartment homes and an interpretive hiking/biking trail winding through an educational wetlands park and around the entire development. A boutique hotel, an outdoor arbor plaza, about 280,000 square feet of office and approximately 150,000 square feet of additional retail space are planned in the second phase.

Already, outdoor retailer REI and gourmet grocer The Fresh Market have committed to open at Prairiefire in October 2013. Other dining and entertainment venues new to the area and expected to open in spring 2014 include Cinetopia, Pinstripes Bowling/Bocce/Bistro, Gene Simmons’ Rock & Brews, Wasabi SushiBar and CoCoBolos Wood-Fired Grill.

Museum of Prairiefire

The museum’s connection with the AMNH will enable it to feature innovative, original exhibitions and offer ample learning opportunities for visitors of all ages, especially children. “The Museum of Prairiefire will present a wide range of exhibition topics. Following the success of AMNH’s programming, similar activities will be offered here,” says Linda Segebrecht, Museum of Prairiefire executive director.

Each exhibition will be accompanied by classroom guides, outreach workshops, on-site activities, expert lectures, professional development for educators, online content and Science Bulletins, a video program with the latest developments in the sciences.

“The Prairiefire Discovery Room, designed specifically for the three- to 10-year-old audience, will encourage curiosity and discovery through engagement with the natural sciences,” Segebrecht says. “The operating budget includes bus transportation to accommodate community groups that might otherwise not be able to come to the Museum. The Main Hall will serve as Overland Park’s front porch, with ongoing community gatherings and events.”

Gene Simmons’ Rock and Brews Beer Garden will be part of the Pairiefire retail and entertainment attraction in 2014.

The museum’s high-profile collaboration with the AMNH began with a phone call. “As we were envisioning this mixed-use community, it was always our intention to have a civic component,” Merrill says. “One of the Prairiefire project designers had a contact at the American Museum. We made a cold call to that contact which initiated the discussions. With that concept in place, we were able to build the development around it.”

Sustainable Design The museum’s design will use modern technology in its operations for energy efficiency and economical operating costs, including build-out as a LEED silver certifiable facility. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) refers to a voluntary, market-driven program that provides third-party verification of green buildings.

“We’ve designed the building from the start with operating expenses in mind, so operating costs will be more economical in the short term and more sustainable in the long run,” Merrill says.

Verner Johnson Architects was selected to design the LEED facility in collaboration with Rees Masillionis Turley Architects, Project Ignite and CAPS students.

“Our desire for this level of LEED certification mirrors the American Museum’s philosophy regarding sustainability,” Merrill says. “Since the building will house a natural history museum, we’re sensitive to the clear tie to protecting the environment.”

Developing Interest As the development began to take shape, the economy presented a challenge to realize a vision of this scope. “No question, the economy presented the biggest hurdle,” Merrill says. “For two years it was hard to get anyone to talk about the development of this property.”

Yet, the project has moved forward with mixed-use plans to build a community around a major cultural attraction, retail, offices and residences. First-floor retail space and second- and third-floor office space will surround Arbor Plaza. For-rent luxury apartments will reside at the southeast and southwest corners of the site. The golf cottage units, on which construction will begin late this year, will start at about $650,000.

The process of attracting anchor retailers that are first-in-the-area, such as REI and Cinetopia, also adds to Prairiefire’s critical mass. Merrill’s company worked avidly to make the retail proposition appealing.

“The process is a never-ending siege of contact and follow-up. Area residents have helped us to identify significant retailers who have a presence in Phoenix, Dallas and other cities but have been absent from Kansas City,” Merrill says.

“After identifying interesting retailers who would contribute to Prairiefire’s excitement and ambience, we’ve worked––sometimes for two or more years––to educate them about the area’s demographics. Retailers are looking for something very special before they are attracted and willing to commit to a specific development,” he continues.

“Many people say that the area’s retail space is overbuilt, but really, it’s under-demolished. There was so much ill-conceived development the last 10 years that retailers are more careful than they used to be. We continued to educate retailers we wanted throughout the recession so we were at the forefront for consideration as the economy improved.”


Facing The Future of Prairiefire

Continued development in the surrounding area is important to Prairiefire’s success. Merrill views the location and area resources as a key economic advantage. “Our location in the middle of the country gives Kansas City an incredible…

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