BrightFarms Brightens Riverfront’s Future


Kansas City is gaining an innovative asset: a hydroponic greenhouse farm

Michael Collins, president & CEO of the Port Authority of Kansas City

The initial stage of the Berkeley Riverfront Development is ready to begin, and it might surprise you that the first stage is an urban farm—technically, a hydroponic greenhouse farm operated by BrightFarms. This 100,000-square-foot facility will grow lettuce, tomatoes and herbs in water in a climate-controlled setting.

KC Business sat down with Michael Collins, president and CEO of the Port Authority of Kansas City, to talk about the project and what it means for the area.

KCB: What is a hydroponic greenhouse farm?

Collins: Hydroponic farming is an inorganic hydroculture system of growing produce. It’s not grown in a soil-based system. The nutrients are infused into a water-based system. What BrightFarms will be able to do best is grow something in Kansas City on a year-round basis and sell it to local markets. If it’s grown in California it can be picked up to two weeks earlier, where this produce likely was picked the day or two before. The nutrients won’t be wasted because of travel time.

KCB: Was the partnership with BrightFarms a result of the Riverfront Development project or did they bring it to the table?

Collins: We worked with a few people in City Hall, the City Manager’s office, as well as Councilman (Scott) Wagner. They brought this project to Kansas City. I have to thank Councilman Wagner because he spearheaded this project. BrightFarms is doing this in other cities, but Kansas City has the largest facility by square footage, by quite a bit.

KCB: How will the project fit into the rest of the riverfront development?

Collins: Is it a normal riverfront development parcel? Not exactly. But we asked the private development community, “What can we put here that helps catapult dense development? Would a greenhouse help or hinder our opportunity to develop more?” They absolutely said it would help because you’d have a project that is not multi-family-housing based. It’s not office or retail. What BrightFarms has done is take a parcel that works effectively for them and even allows them to grow, without taking it away from the other developable property that we are putting forward for investment to create a dense urban village. Because of that, we have seen an increase in interest in Berkeley Riverfront Development.

I love Kansas City. I love where we’re going. There’s a great opportunity. However, I want us to be very careful about not alienating what we have done in the past. I think a lot of times that gets discredited. We must focus on our core competencies: logistics and transportation.~ Michael Collins, CEO, Port Authority of Kansas City

KCB: How much of the motivating factor is the uniqueness, rather than just the efficient use of the land?

Collins: Look at the downtown central business district (CBD) and the River Market area. Berkeley Riverfront Park needs to tie in those needs. We see that urban village concept, dense as it may be, as having the ability to link the river to the downtown CBD. Urban farming is unique and something that sets us apart. There is sustainability because it is along the river. It’s not so much the uniqueness as the driving force; it fits so well with this overall project. I would hope that the city is very proud of this project because it’s very innovative. It underscores that this is a good project, and it fits with our desire to create that urban village.

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KCB: What types of agricultural products will be grown there and where will they be marketed? 

Collins: They’ll grow lettuce, tomatoes and herbs. Consumers will know that if they pick them at their local grocer that it’s grown right where they live and/or work. It will be marketed throughout the Kansas City area. It doesn’t mean they can meet the demand of a population of 2 million. But if you want BrightFarms products that are grown right in KC, they will be available here.

KCB: This is part of a 55-acre redevelopment project. What else is already built?

Collins: This is actually the first stage of the project. They haven’t broken ground yet. We’ve pretty much completed our negotiations. The devil is in the details, and we’ve gotten 95 percent of the details done. We also are finalizing a market-rate, 10-year lease.

KCB: Why is a farm the best choice for the first part of the development?

Collins: We go by what is economically feasible. I’m not saying anything goes there; it has to have the ability to attract investment. Why a farm? It fit the need for that parcel of land, a very difficult parcel of land for very many uses. It also fits the culture of the area.

KCB: What else will be built?

Collins: We have to find out what works. To tell Kansas City that we’re going to build a 55-acre development, we would be remiss if we didn’t consider the future. We need to do a phased development. While the riverfront is unique, bankers and financiers don’t see it as much. It will be a market-driven focus on what types of development to do first. We have seen from studies by the downtown council that multi-family, market-rate housing is one of the first phases. Market-rate is based on what people have the ability to pay and with what the market is not already over-saturated.

KCB: For the Port Authority, it’s job security. You’ve got a lot of work to do in the next five to 10 years. 

Collins: We had a lot of work to get it to the point where it could be developed. Then, we had an economic downturn, which hurt a lot. But it didn’t stop our ability to plan. Where we are today is putting those plans into action. We need to focus on multi-family housing and hydro farms. But what else does the Port Authority need to do to attract that investment? We need to provide the utilities and the infrastructure to make it ready on day one. That’s what we’re telling developers. We want their feedback, but more importantly, we want their interest.

I love Kansas City. I love where we’re going. There’s a great opportunity. However, I want us to be very careful about not alienating what we have done in the past. I think a lot of times that gets discredited. We must focus on our core competencies: logistics and transportation. We’re No. 1 nationally in rail tonnage. That is a bread-and-butter piece. We have to move forward but with a correct vision. I think we’re moving forward, meshing those visions with our core competencies. We have to make sure we’re not a boom-or-bust town.