Passion for repurposing & supporting local entrepreneurs breathing life into former downtown post office

Ben Rao's new vision includes co-working & event space catering to Lee's Summit's business community

This isn't a new idea for Ben Rao. The Lee's Summit entrepreneur has been tinkering with this idea for a while, but the availability of more than 12,000 square-feet of space in the heart of downtown is helping the vision come to life.

His vision — turning the former United States Post Office building into a a co-working space for local entrepreneurs and small business owners, as well as a support system for Lee's Summit's evolving business community. Cowork Lee's Summit will offer a range of work space for small business owners and remote workers in need of office space and professional office services. Additionally, the business will offer meeting rooms and event space designed specifically for business-centered presentations and entertainment.

Ben Rao

Ben Rao

"I firmly believe this will not only be successful for downtown Lee's Summit, but for our community as whole," Rao said. "I've considered doing a co-working space before, but this just seems to be the right time with the right space available for redevelopment."

Donnie Rodgers, executive director for Downtown Lee's Summit Main Street, said he looks forward to the role Cowork Lee's Summit will play in the continued economic growth of the downtown business district.

"One of the things that makes downtown special is the sense of community," Rodgers said. "Co-working spaces help to build upon this sense of community with a unique space that helps to foster collaboration and innovation between startups and entrepreneurs. Having additional office space downtown will help to bring the next generation of entrepreneurs to the heart of our community."

The US Post Office closed the downtown location early in 2016 and consolidated its local services in the southwest portion of the city. Since its closing, much of the talk in the local economic development circles dwelled on plans to redevelop the property, and surrounding block into a mixed-use project featuring new multi-family, retail and office space. One such plan reached early stages of pre-development, but public uncertainty over the plan, as well as public incentives, stalled the project before any momentum really started. 

"I definitely wasn't the first to think about redeveloping this property," Rao said. "A lot of developers were looking at that space, as well as the rest of the block. And like everyone else, I was curious, so I called the listing agent to ask what was going on.

"There were rumors of a landscaping company wanting to purchase the property and move there, an electrical contractor, too. Not only did I think those were ugly as far as beautification in our downtown district, but also those just didn't seem like the best fit with our (Downtown Master) plan. As it turned out, I called at the right time."

Rao said he quickly learned from the listing agent, CBRE Vice President Brian Bacon, he had only 6 days before final offers for the property were due. From there, he worked to put a plan together to enact the vision that had been in his head for quite some time.

"This project has always been a dream. It's been the next thing on my list for a while," said Rao, who founded downtown-based Community Buying Group in 2010. "I truly believe this type of project needed to be done in downtown Lee's Summit and that's a big part of the passion behind it. I love starting up new businesses and I love entrepreneurship, this not only fits those passions, but its a great way to support our local community."

Cowork Lee's Summit will offer memberships, giving members access to office space, meeting rooms and even a planned deli and coffee shop to be located at the front of the building. Rao said the building will house approximately 30 office spaces broken into three sizes: the mini, which is approximately 60 square feet of space for one person; the small, which offers 100 square feet of space for a desk and chair; and the team space, which will have between 120-140 square feet of space, allowing for small teams of up to 5 people to have standing desks. He said the team space will have doors that lock, as well as a sign for the business on the door. Five meeting rooms are also included in the design, which will be reservable for both Cowork members, as well as the general public. Additionally, Rao's plans call for a larger meeting space accommodating approximately 200 people for business meetings or events.

In addition to providing support to the local small business community, Cowork Lee's Summit hits on another passion of Rao's, reuse and sustainability. Last week, Rao secured a partnership with Lee's Summit based MC Power Companies. Rao said one of the reasons for this partnership was to make a large portion of the building powered by solar energy.

"There is a whole slice of this project that is all about sustainability and reuse," he said. "Our goal is to get about 75 percent of this building powered by solar energy. On top of that, we're reusing an existing building, we're reusing some old doors I managed to get from the old Lee's Summit hospital. We're reusing wood in the finish that we got from another former Lee's Summit company and then you add on our use of efficient LED lighting and now soar energy. I'm really hoping this is going to be the start of a great story for Lee's Summit. Not just a story about a successful small business, but a story about what we can do in this community and the development that comes after this one."