Preparing for growth from Panasonic and beyond

Rendering of Panasonic electric vehicle battery plant

“I am thrilled to welcome Panasonic Energy to De Soto. The scale of Panasonic Energy’s investment in our community will usher in unprecedented generational economic prosperity for the state and region, and we are honored to be part of it.”

These words were spoken by city of De Soto Mayor Rick Walker on July 13, 2022, at an event where Governor Laura Kelly announced that Panasonic Energy would build one of the largest electric vehicle battery manufacturing facilities of its kind in De Soto, Kansas. The facility will employ thousands of people, with thousands more indirect jobs. While a huge economic win for the county, region and state, Panasonic represents one piece of a very collaborative puzzle.

Attracting new economic development to Northwest Johnson County, including the largest single investment in the history of Kansas, doesn’t just happen. It takes a huge amount of collaboration from public and private partners, including all levels of government, education, workforce development and the business community. The outcomes and benefits to the community, region and state are numerous, thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars in new payroll, improvements to roads, expansion of utilities and new workforce training, just to name a few.

History repeating itself

Panasonic electric vehicle battery plant construction site

This isn’t the first time this exact location in Johnson County has created new jobs, growth and opportunities. Established in the early 1940s, the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant (originally known as Sunflower Ordnance Works) was the world’s largest smokeless powder plant. At its peak, it had 15,000 employees.

“There is something poetic about a second iteration of economic growth, new jobs and excitement occurring eight decades later in the same spot,” said Johnson County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Mike Kelly. “It takes strategic planning, sound policy and funding decisions, and cooperation from all levels of government, the business community and workforce development partners to plan for the growth that is happening, with a priority on the benefits to our community.”

Creating spaces for new businesses

The city of De Soto and the De Soto Economic Development Council were working on economic development prior to the Panasonic Energy announcement. Several years of work culminated with the Flint Commerce Center, which sits on 370 acres at Edgerton Road and 103rd Street. This industrial park is expected to house 5 to 6 million square feet of businesses performing light assembly, manufacturing, warehousing and distribution.

Flint Commerce Center is adjacent to the northwest corner of Astra Enterprise Park, 9,000 acres and 14 square miles, and home to the Panasonic facility. De Soto annexed this land in 2022 and 2023.

What else is planned for Astra Enterprise Park? De Soto has approved zoning regulations for a future large-scale solar project up to 3,000 acres, making it the largest in Kansas. Surrounding much of the park is nearly 2,100 acres that will be transferred to Johnson County Park and Recreation District once the United States Army completes cleanup of the former Sunflower plant property.

Paving the way for growth

Government officials shovel dirt at the groundbreaking for the Panasonic electric vehicle battery plant

The city of De Soto, Johnson County Government and the state of Kansas have collaborated on the infrastructure needed to support this new economic development, while Unified School District No. 232 is also preparing for growth.

“Relating to infrastructure, it was important for De Soto to bring our various partners together to align our resources, leverage our collaborative expertise and avoid redundancies,” said De Soto City Administrator Mike Brungardt, P.E.

De Soto is currently investing nearly $180 million in infrastructure improvements. This includes $60 million for road updates and extensions, $47 million in water treatment improvements, a new $9 million water tower and $30 million in sewer treatment improvements.

Johnson County, De Soto, the Northwest Consolidated Fire District and Panasonic Energy are collaborating on the design, funding and operations of a new fire station, including a $7.5 million dollar allocation from the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners. The project is currently in the design phase.

Due to the planned heavy industrial use on nearby roads, De Soto and Johnson County worked with the state of Kansas to provide the needed road infrastructure. A groundbreaking ceremony on June 29 kicked off improvements of a 4.5- mile stretch of 103rd Street between Evening Star Road and the Lexington Avenue/K-10 interchange. It will expand the current two-lane asphalt road to a divided four-lane road with curbs, gutters and sidewalks. The state committed $26 million of economic development funds to the improvement of road infrastructure, with local matches provided by Johnson County ($7.5 million) and De Soto.

“In addition to the BOCC’s multi-million dollar investment in crucial infrastructure, Johnson County is supporting the economic development in northwest Johnson County with our work on an Area Development Plan that will address traditional land use. We are also involved in conversations about transit, transportation and broadband infrastructure,” said County Manager Penny Postoak Ferguson.

Planning is also top of mind for USD No. 232, who estimates economic growth will increase student enrollment by 550 students within the next five years. The Board of Education is already taking steps in preparation by purchasing 150 acres in the southern area of the school district, near 127th and Waverly Road in Olathe and is in the process of purchasing 38 acres near 83rd Street and Cedar Niles Road in Lenexa.

“While it may be several years before the district will need the land to build schools, these acquisitions support the district’s long-range planning goals, anticipating school needs aligned with economic growth tied to Panasonic development, Astra Enterprise Park and other exciting projects happening in our district,” said Dr. Cory Gibson, USD 232 Superintendent of Schools.

Panasonic…making progress, joining the community and focusing on sustainability

A yellow electric vehicle charging at a charging station

This April, Panasonic Energy and its partners celebrated officially going vertical. Long before that, company leaders report having experienced the warmth, kindness and hospitality of the residents of De Soto and new neighbors throughout Johnson County and the KC region. One important way the company wants to invest in the community is through sustainability.

Panasonic Energy’s focus on creating a cleaner, healthier environment isn’t just found in the product itself…batteries to power electric vehicles…but also in how the batteries themselves are produced. Panasonic Energy is committed to sourcing renewable energy and reaching net zero by 2028. Kansas’ abundant wind resources and potential for additional renewables development provides a strong base for ensuring the company’s manufacturing presence helps maintain the environment where they operate.

Even as the plant itself won’t open until 2025, Panasonic Energy is already assessing community needs, getting to know new neighbors and building critical partnership.

Educating and training a future workforce

As a first step in Panasonic Energy’s commitment to the De Soto community, November 2022’s ground-breaking included a donation to USD 232, and the work together has already started to support educational opportunities for students.

USD 232 provides Real World Learning opportunities to prepare high school students for college and careers. Its Career and Technical Education Professional Studies Internship Program is an example of how business, community and public education can partner to produce personalized learning experiences that educate tomorrow’s workforce. In the future, this type of programming could be made available to even younger students.

Later this year, Panasonic Energy will partner with Johnson County Community College and other area colleges to collaborate on relevant courses to prepare students to work in advanced manufacturing. A four-year college degree isn’t necessary for many of the high-paying jobs, and a strong work ethic, desire to learn and job training can prepare potential employees for jobs created by economic development.

“When we talk about workforce development, it’s not just creating new jobs,” said Allan Swan, President of Panasonic Energy of North America. “We’re working with area high schools and colleges to create pathways to those jobs for anyone who is interested and excited about being part of what we’re building. Whether it’s training new hires at one of our facilities or getting the next generation of high school and college graduates excited about clean technology and manufacturing, we’re eager to broaden, deepen and strengthen the talent pool here in the Kansas City region.”