Lee's Summit resident Michael VanBuskirk offers a unique perspective on economic development in Lee's Summit's historic downtown district. VanBuskirk, a commercial realtor and developer, is a Senior Vice President and Principal at Newmark Grubb Zimmer and has played a role in the recent evolution of the downtown district both as a realtor and as a member of several civic organizations, committees and task forces. Recently, he helped negotiate the sale of the former Hartley's building at the corner of Third and Douglas streets to Llewellyn's Irish Pub, which opened Feb. 24. VanBuskirk and his company currently list and manage more than 65,000 square feet of space in the downtown district and more than 2.0 million square feet in Eastern Jackson County. Last week, he sat down with your Link 2 Lee's Summit for a short Q&A session, offering his perspective on the district, its role, and its future.
Link 2 Lee's Summit: Taking a big picture look, what role does the downtown district play in both business attraction and retention for the City?
Mr. VanBuskirk: Having a vibrant downtown is critical as it serves as a front door to any companies looking at relocating to our community. Having access to quality employees is very important to companies today. What attracts good employees to live in a community is a great quality of life which we have in Lee's Summit from our award winning schools to our vibrant downtown.
Link 2 Lee's Summit: When presenting downtown Lee's Summit to both investors or businesses looking for space, what do you list as the major strengths and weaknesses of the district?
Mr. VanBuskirk: Lee's Summit has done a great job of improving Downtown. I served on the citizens task force that recommended keeping City Hall in Downtown. Looking back now I can really see how important that was to this community. In addition to providing an anchor for Downtown it lead to the implementation of the streetscape and infrastructure upgrades that were needed. Through the efforts of the Lee's Summit Downtown Main Street organization we always have something going on from festivals to ladies nights out. I am excited about the next step of having a Community Improvement District (CID) in place which will allow us to further expand upon the efforts of this organization. The major challenge we have is that because of our success in Downtown we are starting to have a public parking problem. Having access to public parking for office, retail and residential tenants is important, but most critical is having easily accessible free parking available for clients and customers.
Link 2 Lee's Summit: You recently sold the old Hartley building to the group who has brought Llywelyn's Irish Pub to the prime corner of Third and Douglas streets. Filling this vacancy was not a quick or easy job. Can you tell us what went into marketing this property and why it was so important to find the "right occupant" for this space?
Mr. VanBuskirk: This is a very important building and literally is known to most of us as the heart of downtown. The major challenge to finding a new tenant was the size of the space at over 8,000 square feet and the fact that two other restaurants had already failed in this location. It was very important to us that we leased or sold the building to someone that could succeed. Because of the size of the space and the lack of parking at its front door it was rejected as a location by most of the larger restaurant chains. Most of the interest we had was from the regional chains and local operators. Through some research we ran across Llywellyn's pub which has multiple locations in the St. Louis market and typically locates in historic buildings. We reached out to them and met the local franchisee who had opened their first location in an historic building in the south Overland Park/Stanley area. That initial meeting lead to Llewellyn's purchasing the building and I am very excited that they had their grand opening last week. The City and Downtown Lee's Summit Main Street were both critical in the process of making this happen.
Link 2 Lee's Summit: How is listing/marketing space in a district like downtown Lee's Summit different from other commercial listings?
Mr. VanBuskirk: It is very different dealing with large companies vs. the small retailers who typically have located in our downtown. We spend a lot of time talking to people about new concepts and reviewing their business plans. If they don't have a business plan we recommend they develop one immediately as well as obtain a banking relationship, accountant and legal advice. It does not do our downtown, the building owners or the tenants any good when a business fails. As a community we need to do a better job of mentoring small business owners so that they start with a good foundation.
Link 2 Lee's Summit: What kinds of businesses look at districts like downtown Lee's Summit?
Mr. VanBuskirk: What businesses should be looking at locations such as this? When my company became active in marketing Downtown we completed a demand study to determine what types of new businesses we needed. That study noted some specific gaps but we have filled several of those already (such as the need for a great Celtic restaurant and bar!). The most important thing for a vibrant Downtown is to have a good diverse mix of retailers, service providers, restaurants/bars, offices and residents.
Link 2 Lee's Summit: What type of investor/owner do you look for when selling buildings in downtown Lee's Summit?
Mr. VanBuskirk: Is it important they be local? We have a large amount good local owners but you would be surprised of how many are from outside of our area. I completed a sale of an investment property to an out of town couple that liked historic buildings and fell in love with our downtown. Having local property management and leasing is pretty important to those owners as it insures that the properties are being properly maintained.
Link 2 Lee's Summit: There has been a lot of talk about a need for more residential, specifically multi-family housing, in the downtown district. What would be the impact of such a development?
Mr. VanBuskirk: The recently completed downtown residential study is very interesting and a good resource on this topic. I can say from my personal experience that there appears to be a substantial demand for downtown housing from multiple age demographics. As we have seen in downtown Kansas City, the more people you have living in a downtown area leads to increased success for everybody.