Jon Stephens is a highly experienced CEO and executive management expert. Previously a senior communications, and marketing professional with a diverse portfolio of client success. Passionate trend spotter, communicator and problem solver who serves in high-profile CEO roles while maintaining a creative vision. Extensive senior-level governmental relations, social media and communications strategy experience. Expert in message creation and management.
Frequent speaker on economic development, civic leadership and trends, public relations, government affairs, urban planning and development, and tourism marketing. Specialties: Executive Leadership, Economic Development, Media Strategy, Governmental Affairs, Brand Strategy, Marketing, Communications, Consulting, Sponsorship Management, Advertising, Public Relations, Urban Development and trends.



Brad Burrow: Welcome to In a World with Real Media. I’m your host, Brad Burrow. In this podcast, we’ll dive into the lives of the most successful people in business. We’ll learn how they overcame adversity, took advantage of opportunities and learn from their experiences. Learn from our experts, get inspired, then go live your story. It’s In a World with Real Media. Hello and welcome to In a World with Real Media. I’m Brad Burrow. Thanks for joining us today. I have special guest today, Jon Stephens. So the president and CEO of Port KC.
Jon, thanks for joining us today. Really appreciate it. We were talking a little bit before we got started here and I want to get into your background and talk about some of the really incredible things that are happening in Kansas City and your involvement, but you’ve been really involved in… How would I say it really? Cheerleader’s not the right word, but really, really pushing through some really awesome things in Kansas City.

Jon Stephens: Thanks.

Brad Burrow: Where is that love from Kansas City come from?

Jon Stephens: Yeah. No. Well, I don’t have the legs to be a cheerleader, but I-

Brad Burrow: We need the video podcast for that one.

Jon Stephens: Exactly. No, I really am. Somebody described me not long ago as the Ted Lasso of promoting Kansas City and I took that as a huge compliment because I’m a Kansas City native, grew up in south Kansas City, Hickman Mills area.

Brad Burrow: Is that right? Hickman Mills, huh? Wow.

Jon Stephens: Hickman Mills and went two hours away for college. And at the time thought, “Wow, I’ll go to law school, head out to the coast somewhere and probably not come back.” And ended up coming back. And now everything in my wild and crazy career path has always circled back to promoting Kansas City and building Kansas City and trying to build connections in Kansas City to help our city thrive and do what we do best as a city.

Brad Burrow: Really is a great place. I think it’s interesting. So my dad was the director of HR at Marion Labs.

Jon Stephens: Oh, wow. Yeah.

Brad Burrow: And so he worked for Mr. K. And he would always comment to me on how when people moved here from… They’d bring people in from the East Coast and West Coast and how much people loved it. And that was what? 25, 30 years ago.

Jon Stephens: Oh, yeah.

Brad Burrow: But that’s still true today, isn’t it? It’s a place people want to come.

Jon Stephens: It absolutely is. And we used to talk a lot about Kansas City being undiscovered place. And I think we don’t want to be undiscovered. We want to be discovered, but we want to do it in our own way and grow and continue to thrive. But I do think once people come here and they really meet the people, see the community, see the diversity of the community, of the neighborhoods and the quality of life, I think it sells people.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. In this podcast I want to get to where we’re talking about the Riverfront and some of the really cool things that are happening down there, but let’s start by talking a little bit about your background. So you have an advertising background. I mean, you worked in the agency side for… Is that how you started your career?

Jon Stephens: It is. Yeah. Journalism, history and political science, undergrads and-

Brad Burrow: Political science, huh?

Jon Stephens: Political science. Yeah.

Brad Burrow: Wow.

Jon Stephens: And then deferred law school. And wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and my father said, “Well, your LSAT scores are good for a year or three years or whatever. That’s great. Just don’t expect to be living in our basement. Go figure something out.”

Brad Burrow: Yeah.

Jon Stephens: So I stayed at Mizzou where I’d done my undergrad and worked there in alumni relations, alumni tours. Did international travel there and really fell in love in the art history program with urban planning, spatial design, public design, public space, and then decided that I couldn’t stay a career student in a college town anymore. And brief trip to Chicago for some work and then an ad agency here in Kansas City, I hooked up with them, came in and just fell in love with the agency world and the environment. And not long after [crosstalk]-

Brad Burrow: What was it that you liked about the agency world? I’m curious to…

Jon Stephens: The diversity of it. Yeah, coming-

Brad Burrow: Working with different companies and different projects and that type thing?

Jon Stephens: Yeah. I would say growing up I was always the kid that started 50 projects every week and wanted to learn about everything. And my mom, she always nicknamed me the sponge because she was like, “Your one big strength is you just love learning.” And there’s nothing quite like the ad agency world to jump from jewelry, to banking, to airlines and just absolutely love that. And then I was lucky enough with that group, they spun off a sports marketing spin off. And that really made me realize that there was a lot of quantitative work within the agency world where I thought, “Gosh, this was all about just coming up with creative ideas and cool ideas and using the right naming and branding and words.”
And in sports marketing realized that there’s a lot of data and analytics. And I found that I actually mostly because I was willing to raise my hand and say, “Sure, I’ll do that.” When you’re young, you don’t know. So I learned it and found out later that I was piecing together this unique expertise of working with retail experiences, having the urban planning background, the experience of what people respond to in the marketplace and then added in the business financial. And then was lucky enough with Kansas City being a hub of advertising and creativity here, thanks to Hallmark. And everybody else over the years, over the decades, got the opportunity to go help run an agency for a while. And that gave me some more of the business acumen that I needed. And then left and went to the development world full-time and never came back.

Brad Burrow: Was that with the convention and visitors bureau or was that before that?

Jon Stephens: No, that was before. So I left the agency world to go work for The Cordish Companies actually.

Brad Burrow: Oh, okay. Yeah.

Jon Stephens: The Cordish Family was… And the company was building the Power & Light District. So I went there originally as their director of marketing communications, kind of catchall. And then stepped in as the president of the Power & Light District and then started working on multiple other projects, including Ballpark Village and the planning of that in St. Louis and most the West Coast of helping lay the groundwork for all of those things. And just truly an experience of a lifetime playing a part of seeing our downtown just come back to life after really being on death door economically.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. It’s so awesome seeing it happen too. Well, used to be the Sprint Center, T-Mobile Center.

Jon Stephens: The T-Mobile. Right.

Brad Burrow: But seeing that happen and you’re seeing… It’s like spring, downtown’s starting to come alive. Well, it is alive, but even with the Riverfront area and that’s just cool seeing that all come alive again.

Jon Stephens: It really is. And I think it was a perfect storm, but I have to give incredible credit to Mayor Barnes, Kay Barnes. She spent the first four years of her eight years in office as mayor really laying the groundwork, building the case for what we need to do, how we need to approach it. And she was the one I think that coined the term if the heart isn’t strong, the body doesn’t do well. And it’s not about competition of downtown versus anywhere else in the metro. It’s about you have to have a strong downtown and a strong core if everywhere else is going to thrive. And she’s still one of my mentors and heroes of what she was able to do. And [crosstalk]-

Brad Burrow: You keep in touch with her?

Jon Stephens: I do.

Brad Burrow: That’s awesome.

Jon Stephens: Yeah. And she’s just fantastic.

Brad Burrow: How is she doing then?

Jon Stephens: She’s doing really well. She’s been at Park and is I think infusing a next generation of future leaders in Kansas City through Park University and pretty excited to see. And we’ve been lucky with that and it also caught lightning in a bottle that right about the time that the investments were coming in with Power & Light and all of that, was also that return to younger wanting… Folks wanting to move back to downtowns and live in lofts and live in apartments. And that really kicked into high gear. And we were lucky, I would say.

Brad Burrow: The timing was perfect.

Jon Stephens: The timing was pretty perfect, but we were lucky in a way that we wouldn’t have wanted to be lucky. And that was that we hadn’t built a lot of new office buildings. And so we had a lot of old office buildings downtown that were class B, class C quality, and we hadn’t torn them down like a lot of other cities. And so we were ripe for conversion of those into the first few. And in 2006, I think was about 2006, there were I think around 3,500 residents in the greater downtown. And now we’re more than 35,000 residents and on the way to 50,000 in the next couple years. So it’s big change.

Brad Burrow: Wow. And that’s only going to increase, I mean, obviously 50,000, but you think about… I have three boys and my oldest son is getting married in July and it’s going to be hard to buy a house right now.

Jon Stephens: It is.

Brad Burrow: So [crosstalk] what are they going to do? So they’re actually going to move downtown. So that’s going to be happening a lot. Don’t you think? I mean, that’s-

Jon Stephens: Yeah, it really is. And we have to learn from other cities that have priced themselves out of younger generations being able to afford things, but at the same time stopping growth or slowing growth doesn’t lower costs. So we have to find that balance. And I do think that adding more downtown, more apartments, more quality things and then putting in some cost controls and some things for folks, we’re getting there and we’re learning. We’re learning on the fly. And we’re trying to do that because we’re… Kansas City added… I haven’t seen the new numbers, but over the last census we’ve added about 14,000 net new people moving into Kansas City every year and we’ve got to accommodate that because I think that’s only going to accelerate, especially with where we are in the world right now. And people can work remotely, globally anymore. And people want to find great places and great experiences and be there. And we have that luckily.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. You got a new airport. That’s [crosstalk] going to help that too, right?

Jon Stephens: It’s a big one. Yeah, it’s a real big one.

Brad Burrow: So yeah, exciting time. So let’s transition. I was going to ask you about Rockhill Strategic. Tell me what that is real quick and then we’ll transition to Port KC.

Jon Stephens: Yeah. So there was a little real estate crash in 2008. You may have heard of it.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. That’s actually right when I bought this building [crosstalk], believe it or not.

Jon Stephens: Wow. So I think it was the end of 2008, right around there. I just saw an opportunity to try something new. And through adversity comes opportunity I think, and-

Brad Burrow: That’s very true.

Jon Stephens: … I had a great experience at Cordish. I really enjoyed doing that, but I thought it was time to try my own thing. So I announced that I was leaving and started Rockhill Strategic consulting firm, and I saw a need in the world really to have interim and part-time, and fractal CEO, CMO work, and it fit some of the diverse skillset. I think my dad would say I’m a mile wide and an inch deep, but it fit my skillset of being able to plug and play into a lot of different industries. And it’s been fun.
I built it out for a while and then was lucky enough to step into some opportunities with VisitKC and Convention Visitors Association, where they needed support during a leadership transition. And that ended up being an interim position for 18 months where I was president and CEO and helped really reframe the brand and conventions and tourism for the metro. And those kind of experiences are great and was able to do it with the KCK Chamber. My experience with KCK, two different stops, has been amazing. It’s such an underappreciated part of our community, I think.

Brad Burrow: KCK?

Jon Stephens: KCK.

Brad Burrow: Yeah.

Jon Stephens: Yeah. And I just really fell in love with the opportunity of working with them. And then all through that was able to still do national consulting projects and projects with other companies quietly behind the scenes and be that supportive element. And that’s fun, but also as you get older, [crosstalk] the juggling act of being on a plane and having an interim position here and lining up another interim position and then jumping on planes to go meet with executive teams or training, running board of directors, media, crisis com training and all these other things, that takes a toll. So I made the promise to myself and my family that I would look at the later part, we cast [inaudible].
We said, “We’re not leaving Kansas City. We’re going to build everything here.” And so decided to step full-time in KCK and economic development. And then was approached to look at Port KC and I’d always appreciated what the Riverfront opportunity holds and just the… It really ended up being very fortuitous because the supply chain disruptions and all of the things that have happened really joined right before that and have hopefully been able to make some positive changes there.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. I was looking at the Port KC at the website and doing a little research and I actually… Boy, I’m trying to think how long ago this… We’ve been in business 25 years. And I used to do a lot of work with Kansas City Chamber. And so we did a video on Richards-Gebaur when they were first changing that over to a port. And I shot out there a lot. And that was when it was really in the beginning stages of becoming an intermodal hub. And I don’t know that actually happened as fast as they wanted it to.

Jon Stephens: No, none of it happened as fast as I think anybody wanted to over the last 15 plus years.

Brad Burrow: But it’s starting to happen, right? I mean, that what’s happening.

Jon Stephens: It’s accelerating fast. There’s about 4 million square feet that’ll be going under construction this year.

Brad Burrow: At Richards-Gebaur?

Jon Stephens: At Richards-Gebaur.

Brad Burrow: Wow.

Jon Stephens: And with the CP, the proposed CP-KCS merger, there’s a lot of opportunity there with rails [inaudible], a new development. Almost every month through this year they’ll be another announcement out at the old Richards-Gebaur, which is now 49 Crossing. We rebranded, repositioned it with the new north, south, the old 71 becoming 49.

Brad Burrow: Right. Yeah.

Jon Stephens: And that’s one of the benefits of having a port authority and the enabling support port authorities, is we’re able to take opportunities like that, a bracked air force base that used to be a great economic generator for south Kansas City. Take on the environmental remediation, take on bringing it back into economic use and private use. And at the same time, we’re able to juggle that while we’re working with private developers and partners to bring new manufacturing jobs and all of these new things there. We’re also building out the infrastructure and not doing it… We’re doing it as part of the project. We’re not asking the city or the county to fund those things through taxes.
And then we’re able to leverage federal grants and state grants to build out infrastructure. And at the same time, one of the things I’m most proud of is we’re also able to… We’ve maintained the majority of the old hanger buildings and converted those at least in an interim way into being small… There’s so many tech startup incubators and tech things. But if you’re starting a company that does hydraulics or refinishes brake pads, or you want to be a startup in an industry like that, there’s not a lot of opportunity and-

Brad Burrow: There’s no space available.

Jon Stephens: … there’s no [crosstalk] space available, especially when you’re trying to get in at a price point that’s lower. So we are 100% leased out there with, I think it’s 22 small local businesses. And our goal there is to hopefully give them that opportunity through really low lease rates and support to let them grow, and then hopefully move into their own buildings and their own facility.

Brad Burrow: That’s awesome. That’s your old stomping ground.

Jon Stephens: That’s my old stomping ground. Yeah. Used to watch the 810s fly out as a kid. You could see those.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. So I have my pilot’s license and I remember when I was learning to fly, so we’d go over to Richards-Gebaur and I’d do three touch-and-goes on that runaway, because it was so long. You land, get up in the air, land, get up in the air and that’s a fast way to learn how to land an airplane. Ain’t that interesting?

Jon Stephens: Yeah. That is fascinating.

Brad Burrow: It’s a really neat area out there too. I’m wondering how long it’s going to be for us to build an interstate just south of there all the way over to I-35. On the I-35 side, you’ve got all these huge warehousing companies going in there. I mean, Kansas city’s becoming a really, really strong hub for shipping and warehousing and all that, right?

Jon Stephens: Yeah. So we just hosted two representatives, both by state, Representative Davids and Representative Cleaver both in our office yesterday. And they were announcing at our office an additional $450 million for port supply chain infrastructure grants and rolling that out. And I made a point of highlighting to them the work we’re doing in the Blue River Corridor or the Old Arm coastal area. And the value of M-29, which is actually the official designation of the lower Missouri, it’s a maritime highway.
And so we’re focused on advancing that and investing in that because it may not solve some of the supply chain issues today, but it’s going to help prevent them and lower the cost of moving of goods for the next 50 years. And we have to have rail truck and barge and waterborne commerce if we’re going to do it right. And you mentioned we’re growing. Yeah. I mean, you drive anywhere out in a circle, Kansas City metro last year was the fourth fastest growing supply chain hub in America by square footage added. And we are now the 15th largest hub for supply chain logistics, manufacturing. 15th.

Brad Burrow: Wow.

Jon Stephens: And we’re the what? The 31st, 32nd largest metro, but we’re the 15th in supply chain logistics. So we truly are the crossroads of America. Congressman Cleaver said, “If you make the crossroads here faster and easier, everybody in America does better. If you clog it up here, everybody in America is going to pay more for what they buy and it’s going to take longer to get it there.”

Brad Burrow: That’s exactly right. It’s funny. We just put a new server in our server room and it’s 128 terabytes, huge, huge server for us.

Jon Stephens: Wow. Yeah.

Brad Burrow: And it’s super fast and it’s amazing how much more efficient we’re going to be as a company because we have that server. It’s the same thing.

Jon Stephens: Absolutely.

Brad Burrow: That data can move faster. It’s moving supplies in with less resistance and quicker turnarounds and all that stuff. We’ve got to be thinking that way, right?

Jon Stephens: It really is. I think the shutdown and the COVID, the supply chain issues with COVID really revealed the fragile nature of our global infrastructure that businesses were… And I get their rationale. They had been spending years investing in just-in-time delivery models, right? It’s cheaper to have less inventory and you get stuff there and it goes straight to the market and it’s out the door. And when factories started shutting down and ports started getting slowed down, you started realizing and these companies realized, the big retail companies, the Home Depots and Lowe’s, they realized that it’s going to cost a heck of a lot more to not have the products on the shelves for potentially weeks or months than it would be to invest in warehousing and to invest in having the inventory.
So we’ve seen a just in case model now, which is where the majority of those warehouses that are going up or are going into. It’s a model that almost every industry wants to have. Before they were 30 days of supply or 60 days supply, now they’re four to six months of supply in their high-demand products. And now they’ve got to rebuild that. And I pointed out yesterday, I was on a… I’m on a national Waterways Council, and we’re talking about Long Beach and the port of Long Beach. And you look out and you see the super shippers sitting out there waiting to come in because [crosstalk] there’s no place to backlog, there’s no place to go. And somebody said, “Well, what does that impact? How does that really impact people?” And well, it’s time, but it’s also cost because each one of those ships, the daily operating cost that it sits there is $150,000-

Brad Burrow: Is that right?

Jon Stephens: … for each ship.

Brad Burrow: Wow.

Jon Stephens: So some of them are sitting there for 20 days. I mean, you’re talking [crosstalk] millions of dollars of just sitting and waiting and burning fuel and paying the crew to sit there to just take care of the ship. And then you wonder why. Okay. Well, why are costs on these things rising? There’s a big piece of it there.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. And who’s absorbing that cost? That’s-

Jon Stephens: We are.

Brad Burrow: Yes, exactly. That’s exactly right. Well, very exciting. I mean, there’s some really neat things happening in Kansas City. I don’t think most people even realize that these things are happening. So you’re on the front line of all that. That’s really, really cool. Let’s switch over to Port KC. We talked about a little bit, but the Berkeley Riverfront areas, to me, I don’t know if it was just forgotten or what happened? Some great things are happening. I was watching some videos on the website. You know Sioux chief?

Jon Stephens: Yeah.

Brad Burrow: They’re from out south, right? So they’re moving their headquarters downtown basically. Is that what’s happening or is there manufacturing or something?

Jon Stephens: There’s manufacturing and some other things. Yeah.

Brad Burrow: But really cool things happening down there. The Current-

Jon Stephens: Yes, KC Current. It’s really exciting.

Brad Burrow: That’s going to be really cool. I mean, and what they’re building is phenomenal. They’re setting the standard for women’s soccer it looks like to me.

Jon Stephens: They really are. We were so excited to be able to announce that. We started with Chris and Angie Long, who are… Angie is actually Kansas City native and met her now husband and had a family and moved back to Kansas City to build their business. And they’ve been incredibly successful in Kansas City. But she has a passion for the city just like many of us do. And I connected with them just almost immediately after they bought the team. And they announced that they were moving women’s soccer back to Kansas City and we worked…
It seems like an eternity, but in the development life cycle, it was a split second that we worked and in nine months we put together jointly this entire plan. But I’ve got to say, Chris and Angie Long from day one they said… I made the joke one time. I said, “When you close your eyes and you think about what you want in your team and your stadium, what do you see?” And she said, “I see it downtown on the river. I see it being-

Brad Burrow: She already had that vision, huh?

Jon Stephens: Yeah. She goes, “I don’t know how, I don’t know why, I’m not sure how it all comes together, but I think if women’s soccer’s going to be successful and be at the heart where Kansas Citians can really be passionate about the quality of play and the experience, it needs to be downtown somewhere. It needs to be in the heart of where everybody can come from all corners of the metro.” And we were knock on wood. We were able to put that deal together and it’s going to be something special. It received global, global coverage when we announced it, mostly because it is the first professional stadium built for a women’s professional team in the world. This will be setting a new standard of equity for these athletes.
And I had to say, I mean, women’s soccer in United States, it is elite, elite. I mean, these are incredible, incredible athletes. And a really fun game day experience. And the KC Current are building something special. The stadium is going to be, I think around 11,500 seats. We’ve built in from day one working with them to say, this needs to be nested right at the base of the Bond Bridge. People will be able to stand at one end of the stadium and look down on the river. You can walk to it. You’ll be able to ride the Streetcar to it. It’s right there in the park. It’s on the edge of the park. It’s going to be an experience unlike any other, even beyond the league, but the actual stadium experience is going to be pretty remarkable.

Brad Burrow: It’s almost like fate.

Jon Stephens: It is.

Brad Burrow: I mean, that land, there’s never really been anything there, right?

Jon Stephens: No. No. So that’s, yeah, a little bit of history and it is funny that then Mayor Cleaver was the one that really… When Emanuel Cleaver was mayor of Kansas City, he actually was the one that said, “Okay, our Riverfront in downtown is an embarrassment.”

Brad Burrow: Yeah.

Jon Stephens: So a couple really interesting facts about the Berkeley Riverfront area, being a Kansas City native I find these fascinating, it’s really main street right where the Town of Kansas, the Pedestrian Bridge is, that’s where Kansas City started with the economy and the main street-

Brad Burrow: Most people probably don’t even know that. Do they?

Jon Stephens: Main street was dug out. It was indigenous peoples. Our ancestors are indigenous, forefathers. They saw this. There was a low slung rock outcropping of limestone on the Missouri River, right? Basically at what is now main street. And they used it for centuries. And then the fur trappers came and then everything grew and it became… This was the river point. You then built the rail across it on the river crossing. And all of that became where Kansas City grew from. And then we turned our back on it for decades and decades and decades. And the Riverfront was home to a coal gasification plant. They dumped the coal ash on the Riverfront and it was a tow lot. And finally, my favorite was when the original Kemper Arena roof collapsed. They didn’t know what to do with it so they dumped it on the Riverfront. What is now my office.

Brad Burrow: Is that right? Wow.

Jon Stephens: And all that was just dumped there. And Mayor Cleaver saw it, leveraged it and said, “We have to clean this up.” And so he really laid the groundwork with federal dollars. And we were able to take 55 acres and actually build all of what is now the Berkeley Park area above the levee. So that’s why you don’t have a levee wall when you’re in the park. You look down on the river because the entire area was cleaned up and they

Brad Burrow: So flooding will never be an issue or anything like that?

Jon Stephens: No. It’s above a 500-year flood plain and we have Crawford storm detention and pumps and the whole thing. So we never have to worry about that. But even after that, it was amazing how while the rest of the world saw rivers as catalysts for development, even after all that cleanup, it still took eight years before the first project came in. And the Union Berkeley apartments, where Port KC’s headquarters is, that was the first residential development built on the Missouri River in 105 years.

Brad Burrow: Wow.

Jon Stephens: So that’s 410 units. There’s about 550 residents, 560 residents. And between that and the dog park Bar K and now the stadium and the Streetcar, and actually next week, 353 more residential units are opening. I am not overselling it when I say that the density and the workability and the uniqueness of the development, there will be 3,000 to 5,000 residents in the next 24 to 36 months living on the Riverfront. And it’s going to be a dynamic neighborhood of shops and restaurants. And we’re focused on some income affordability too, because you can’t just all be luxury, right? You have to have a mix of people and a mix of the community. And so we’re excited about that.

Brad Burrow: Do you have people contacting you about wanting to move businesses down there? When you think about it from a… Well, just serving those residents, there’s got to be ancillary businesses around there that are going to do well, restaurants, things like that, but that’s pretty easy to get anywhere from there. You get on the highway and you got I-35, you head out, I-70.

Jon Stephens: Yeah. Yeah. It’s really convenient. It’s interesting when we survey the residents down there that how many of them talk about the easy access to the airport, the easy access, but then they also love the fact that all they have to do is just walk down the street to the River Market and they have 20 restaurants and this great [crosstalk]-

Brad Burrow: Is it walking distance from the River Market?

Jon Stephens: It is. And we’re actually breaking ground first quarter of next year on a new bike, pedestrian bridge connector.

Brad Burrow: To the River Market?

Jon Stephens: To the River Market.

Brad Burrow: Oh, awesome. Yeah.

Jon Stephens: The Streetcar is breaking ground late this year with the extension. So you’ll be able to ride the Streetcar from UMKC all the way through downtown and all the way down right to the center of the park. And we’re going to have the main stop right at the center of Berkeley Park that will make it even more conducive for easy access for folks.

Brad Burrow: Very exciting.

Jon Stephens: Yeah.

Brad Burrow: One of the things I wanted to ask you about, we had John Sherman out here for an event in the pandemic and he had just started, but it was interesting when he came out and said, “We’re looking at baseball in downtown.” What are your thoughts on that? I mean, you’ve got to be probably the foremost experts on if that would work. What do you think about that?

Jon Stephens: I think it’s time. I do. I’ve looked at it a lot of different ways. I’ve thought about it. I grew up a baseball player, baseball fan. My mom was a Royals super fan from the very beginning. And so I spent most of my formative years sitting eight rows behind the dugout down the first baseline, cheering on the Royals.

Brad Burrow: Awesome.

Jon Stephens: I love that stadium. It is a gorgeous stadium, but when you really look at it thoughtfully of a team like the Royals with a great ownership group now, I think John is truly a committed guy who wants to leave a legacy. [crosstalk]-

Brad Burrow: Really enjoyed being with him. He’s a really great guy.

Jon Stephens: He’s a great guy. And he’s a business man, and you need to have business people running sports franchises. But that being said, I do think at the heart of it, he is a Kansas Citian who looks to Ewing Kauffman and others as models of how you leave a legacy for the next generation in a city. And with baseball, I think there’s an opportunity for a real win, win, win of building the economic case of the value of 81 games a year in a downtown environment where people are eating and drinking and staying in hotels. And then that’s a benefit to the city and to the community where you’re not getting as much of that now with driving in and out at Truman Sports Complex. And it also gives an opportunity to the Chiefs. The football economic model is so much more conducive to be out in a big area like that [crosstalk]-

Brad Burrow: Explain what you mean by that.

Jon Stephens: So they have fewer games a year. It’s a larger capacity. So to build downtown football, now some cities can do it, but I think in a city like Kansas City and even other cities, they don’t generate that weekly, weekly, weekly activity that you need. And you have to build so much infrastructure to accommodate 75,000, [crosstalk] 38,000 people. If they make this decision and it happens, this would give Arrowhead the opportunity to build a true experience around their incredible… I think that Arrowhead Stadium is on its way to being the soldier field.
It has a potential to be that 100-year historic modernized version of something that is really a national register worthy. And in baseball, just the economics and how people attend baseball, it really works well in downtowns. And it works well with transit and it works well with restaurants. You go and you hang out on the rooftop and you have a bite to eat, then you go to the game and you invite friends in and they stay in the hotels and they can walk over and meet you. It just works.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. There’s something poetic, I guess, about… Our family went to Chicago. We go to Chicago on occasion and we stay downtown and take the L out to watch the Cubs. There’s something just romantic about that. I don’t know what it is, but it’s real cool getting on the train, going out, getting off the train, going to the game.

Jon Stephens: It is. Yeah.

Brad Burrow: Things like that, that I could see really being beneficial with our city as well.

Jon Stephens: Absolutely. And I trust. I really do believe that our sports architects here are second to none.

Brad Burrow: Oh, we have the best in the world, right?

Jon Stephens: And I really believe that when that opportunity presents itself, the architects and the creatives in this city will create something as special as their predecessors did with the Sports Complex,

Brad Burrow: You know that when they’re working on their own hometown stadium it’s going to be-

Jon Stephens: It’s special.

Brad Burrow: … epic.

Jon Stephens: It’s special.

Brad Burrow: Yeah.

Jon Stephens: And it really would help. You’ve seen it in San Diego and other places, it allows significant new development, businesses, multi-family, all of those areas start generating. It generates a buzz.

Brad Burrow: Yeah.

Jon Stephens: And Kansas City is still challenged with, I think, office and some headquarter attraction and headquarters growth and things like that. We’re a little spread out in some of what we do with the office positioning. I think a stadium just adds another component to that sort of why people need to be in an office or why people want to be in an office in a downtown environment. There’s been a lot of questions about that, do we need offices anymore? And I do think that people having spots to gather an experience is something that people are going to want.

Brad Burrow: The pendulum has swung so far.

Jon Stephens: Absolutely.

Brad Burrow: Hopefully it comes back. I don’t know. Personally, I think there’s a lot to being together with people in a creative industry.

Jon Stephens: Absolutely.

Brad Burrow: I tell people all the time, the best creative comes when I can sit down with a client, they say something, then I think of something and then they think of something. That never would’ve happened had we not been face-to-face.

Jon Stephens: Right. Absolutely.

Brad Burrow: So better results come from the relationship and the communication and all those things.

Jon Stephens: Well, the old adage used to be water cooler, the water cooler conversations.

Brad Burrow: Yeah.

Jon Stephens: I think we’ve learned that Zoom and email and digital communication, it can be very effective, but there’s still something that’s lost. And I think what it’s lost is that real building of trust and communication and creativity and the spontaneous creativity. The collision density of ideas is something that I think you can’t have when you just have little boxes on a screen. People approach their communication differently and a little more stilted versus being in an office environment and grabbing a coffee, or walking down the hall, or popping in and asking about a vacation or whatever, that then it turns into something really important that can be transformative for the business.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. There’s something about the relationship aspect that it’s lost in that, but it is amazing. This server I was telling you about, we had a… It’s a Dell, but somebody oversees is logging in, setting up the whole thing, updating it. Has got it working perfectly. They’re sitting probably at home doing that and it’s just amazing, the things that are happening now.

Jon Stephens: It is. We’re a small, but mighty team of professionals. It’s 15 people at Port KC and they’re all very highly skilled, lawyers and economic development and logistics experts. But we found that we invested pretty heavily in technology to be able to have everybody work remotely and we did for months. I even opened it up and I let everybody say, “Okay, let’s start…” Over the last few months, “Come in when you feel you need to be in the office,” and we let it organically move. And what has happened is almost every single person wants to be back in the office. But what we’ve also found is most of them, and I think this is where we might shift as a society, is almost everybody says, “I can be productive in the office three or four days a week. I don’t need to be in the office five days a week. So let’s find a way.”
And so we’re really starting to look at flexibility of Friday is your home day, it’s your coffee shop day. It’s your prepare for the next week, get caught up on all of the lists that you have in your job that you don’t get to. So don’t schedule a lot of meetings on Fridays. Don’t come into the office. If you need to go run errands and do other stuff, do that, but you still be connected to the office. And I’m finding that at least thus far we’re seeing that Monday through Thursdays are a heck of a lot more productive because people aren’t worried about trying to squeeze in all the little things, because they know they have Friday where they’re not going to be booked with meetings all day.

Brad Burrow: It’s very interesting.

Jon Stephens: And I think that it’s subtle changes like that. I don’t always believe that everything’s going to change and like you said, that the offices will no longer exist kind of thing. I don’t believe that, but I do think that we can learn subtle learnings from things with COVID or pandemic or the economy. We can always learn and come out stronger with little changes and incremental changes sometimes that really people respond to.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. Yeah. I think you’re exactly right. Want to wrap up here. We’re just about finished, but I want to talk about the future of Port KC. Is there anything that you can share with us without killing us?

Jon Stephens: Yeah, without.

Brad Burrow: I [crosstalk] can tell you that I got to kill you.

Jon Stephens: Yeah. Yeah. Sorry. No, there’s a lot we can talk about and I’ll try to sum it up that we’re focused. Our mission is on advancing the economic opportunity for all in Kansas City. And it’s not a marketing line. That’s really something that we believe in. So I think what you’re going to see is significant growth in the Riverfront, significant announcements in the Riverfront, continued supply chain and manufacturing work throughout the metro, throughout KCMO from the Northland. We just helped bring a second Niagara Bottling plant, Bubly flavored waters that are very popular. That was a $200 million capital investment by Niagara to choose Kansas City.

Brad Burrow: In the Northland?

Jon Stephens: In the Northland, in the airport. So you’re going to see significant more projects like that, that are all… We’re really working to make them transit connected and jobs connected because in manufacturing and logistics and warehousing, we’ve got to have access, the work. The workforce needs to be closer to those jobs as opposed to driving 40 minutes each way kind of thing to get to their jobs. So we got to build more in the community and part of that is reclaiming some of the land. And then the big one that I can announce here is the Blue River Corridor and the Missouri River terminal. This year we are formally announcing we have 420 acres of land on the Missouri River next to Bayer Crop Sciences on the Blue River and-

Brad Burrow: Where is that exactly?

Jon Stephens: It’s between Independence and Northeast Kansas City.

Brad Burrow: Okay.

Jon Stephens: If you think about [crosstalk].

Brad Burrow: It’s the bottoms there.

Jon Stephens: Yeah. It’s the east bottom. If you think of 435 coming up the east side of Kansas City. It’s just off, right before you cross the Missouri River into the north line. So it’s on the south of the river and we-

Brad Burrow: So that land’s all open right there, right?

Jon Stephens: Yeah. So that was a former steel mill site that had been cleaned up and it was a liability sitting on their books that they were never going to use again. And we were able to take it ownership, take possession, work through it. We were awarded a $9.88 million federal grant to plan a new intermodal waterborne transit called Missouri River Terminal. It’s Marine Rail Truck. It will be about a $500 million project that will be announced later this year that will build out a full intermodal. So think of shipping containers, TEUs, 20-foot equivalent units, shipping containers. Kansas City by 2040 is going to double the amount of shipping containers in and out of Kansas City. Our highways alone can’t accommodate a million more trucks a year, [crosstalk] which is not.
So we are going to be developing this project with all of the Class 1 rail, mayors, the global shipping companies. And they’re building out a new hub in port of Plaquemines, Louisiana that will come through the Panama Canal, offload shipping containers filled with goods onto ships, bring them up to Kansas City. And we will be the most northern and western port within the continental United States for transit and offloading of goods. And then we completed a market study and there’s four-state region where shipping particularly high-quality, high-finished food products, GMO or non-GMO, soy and wheat to the European markets particularly.
This is going to make the exports of goods significantly more efficient for America and for farmers and our manufacturers in the Midwest. So we’re really excited about that. It’s something that if somebody had said years ago, “Hey, will you just be passionate about a port on a river?” I would’ve said, “Yeah, I don’t think so.”

Brad Burrow: Doesn’t sound very sexy. Does it?

Jon Stephens: But this is amazing. And it’s something that will really revitalize that corridor, the first Ford plant outside of Detroit was built in the Blue River Corridor. You had Armco Steel. You had almost 50,000-

Brad Burrow: Claycomo and all that.

Jon Stephens: Claycomo. You had almost 50,000 great jobs, generational working manufacturing jobs there. And there are a fewer than 5,000 now. And we are committed to building infrastructure that bring that opportunity back to the east side of Kansas City.

Brad Burrow: The other thing I notice about that is just east of there, there’s a lot of land to build.

Jon Stephens: There is.

Brad Burrow: So the opportunity to expand is huge right there.

Jon Stephens: Yeah. And that corridor, people forget that 435 Corridor runs really from the Ford plant, which is just thriving. I mean, their delivery of F-150 and the conversion to EV and their… People don’t even talk about this, but they have a 20,000 back order of their delivery, those sprinter vans. And they’ve started delivering the EV version of those. They have 20,000 orders already in-

Brad Burrow: Is that right?

Jon Stephens: … on that vehicle. That’s going to keep those lines running around the clock. And I think that’s only going to accelerate and Ford employs… Last time I checked the numbers, it’s 7,100 folks are employed at that facility. And by giving that corridor more ability to grow and bring in suppliers and bring in battery suppliers and manufacturers and all of the other tools, that’s going to-

Brad Burrow: That’s just going to explode [crosstalk] right there.

Jon Stephens: And it’s going to set up Kansas City for some real, real quality generational job opportunities, which then I think leads to helping to restore those neighborhoods. Those were great working class neighborhoods. And I think it helps bring them back. And we’re excited about that and reinvesting in the workforce and how we partner with folks to make sure that people have the training and the education to have access to those jobs.

Brad Burrow: Maybe that’s another podcast-

Jon Stephens: It is. It is.

Brad Burrow: … we can talk about, but getting people right now is challenging even for a little small business like us.

Jon Stephens: It is. Yeah.

Brad Burrow: And so you think about Ford, 7,100 people, how are they doing it? That’s going to be maybe an area that you are going to have to focus on maybe.

Jon Stephens: Yeah. We really do. And we’re starting with what we can do, which is helping to support full employment council and funding and metropolitan community colleges, and try to get people into welding courses and certification courses for various things, because those jobs are great jobs. I mean, really great jobs. And if you’ve had a pipe break and you need to find a plumber or an HVAC person right now, good luck, right? The demand is there for folks to really get into these really high quality jobs and continue to grow in the industry. And we’ve just got to find the pathways for folks that maybe don’t have access to that, or don’t know that they’re qualified or don’t hear about these opportunities and get those people into programs that sets them on a path to an incredible life, incredible career.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. I don’t think people realize that as a welder you can make over $100,000.

Jon Stephens: Exactly. Exactly. They don’t. They don’t. We look at Honeywell and they have 4,400 employees and 1,100 engineers, but the other folks are incredibly valuable. I mean, they are doing advanced welding and they’re doing all of these other components, advanced hydraulics and advanced welding, and electronic certification. And you don’t have to have a four-year, six-year, eight-year advanced degrees to really do something. In six months or a year, you could get some pretty high quality certifications that set you on a path to continue to advance.

Brad Burrow: Without college debt too by the way.

Jon Stephens: Yeah. Without some big college debt.

Brad Burrow: Well, Jon, I really appreciate this. I’m really intrigued by all this. It’s very exciting. It’s cool to hear what’s happening in Kansas City. We have a bright future here.

Jon Stephens: I believe it. I believe we’re on the path to really something special in Kansas City and building a future here that we can all be proud of leaving behind. And I love the partners. I think we have such great people. It really is the Kansas City spirit. And I appreciate you having me on and sharing it and talking about it.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. Well, no problem. So want to wrap up, but I have to ask every guest to do the In a World… You’ve got to do the movie voice. So this could be your most famous time in history right here.

Jon Stephens: All right. Let’s try it here.

Brad Burrow: All right.

Jon Stephens: In a world.

Brad Burrow: Perfect. All right. One day I’m going to put together everybody saying that.

Jon Stephens: Yeah, just have it over and over and over. That would be great.

Brad Burrow: Well, I really appreciate it. Thank you for listening, everybody. Be sure to share this and subscribe. We love sharing what’s happening in Kansas City and get that out there with everybody. So we’re on Spotify and iTunes and all the major podcast platforms, also on our website at Tell me the website for Port KC if somebody wanted to follow the news on that.

Jon Stephens: Yeah, it’s very simple. It’s portkc, P-O-R-T, We’re also on Twitter and Instagram @portKC.

Brad Burrow: Okay. There we have it. Well, I really appreciate your time and man, you’re going to have to come back again.

Jon Stephens: I’d love to do it anytime. You just let me know.

Brad Burrow: Okay. Thank you.

Jon Stephens: Thanks.

Brad Burrow: This has been In a World with Real Media. Thanks for joining us and be sure to subscribe on iTunes and follow Real Media on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn so you never miss an episode.