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Banking on KC – Mary Birch of Lathrop GPM

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Mary Birch, the Government Relations Coordinator for Lathrop GPM. She was also the president of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce for more than 18 years during a critical period of development for that city. Welcome to the show, Mary.

Mary Birch:

Hello Kelly. Thanks for having me.

Kelly Scanlon:

In your role as government relations coordinator at Lathrop, what do you do?

Mary Birch:

Well, there are a lot of things involved with business and individuals that are impacted by government. And my 20 years at the Chamber, working in government relations for business has been helpful to our clients. Oftentimes some of the things that clients need can be solved by some of the relationships that we have built with appointed and elected officials. So government impacts businesses lives every single day as we have seen most recently.

Kelly Scanlon:

You were president of the Overland Park Chamber for nearly two decades during the mid-eighties to the early two thousands and you really must've seen it all during that time. I mean, you essentially started at the Chamber back when much of the area was still farmland and then when you left, there were projects like the Sprint campus in Nordstrom standing where cows literally once grazed. Those must've been some really heady times along with probably some of the political challenges and the development challenges. They still had to have been invigorating times for you. So tell us about those years and what you remember most about them.

Mary Birch:

Well, what I remember most about them was the involvement of leadership in our community. It was extremely exciting to work with the best and the brightest in our community, both on the public side and the private side. There's no doubt that because Overland Park's a very young city, that unusual for chambers of commerce, the quality of life in Overland Park came first. And that made for a really successful partnership with the city between the city and the business community, because the business community supported quality of life components, because the type of businesses that we attracted wanted to be near a very highly educated, successful talent pool. So over those years, we had about 20 years of pretty extensive growth, but again, a lot of it was preplanned by leaders in the sixties prior to my time. They made decisions that impacted us 20 to 30 years into our lifetime.

Mary Birch:

We also had a lot of opportunities that came our way because businesses were growing and we had selected the corporate service type businesses as one of our major targets. And so it was important to us, we were kind of new to that. So we brought that to the state of Kansas and brought that to the midwest. And many things happened around that such as public policy, that happened at the local and the state level. So it an exciting time, but I would have to say courageous decisions by leaders and their discipline to stick to the decisions. You know, we said no to a lot of groups and organizations that wanted to come because it didn't quite fit what the vision of Overland Park was. So I think that leadership is really the key to what happened that couple of decades.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. That's a good point that you make there about the leadership because one group of leaders can take office or hold the positions and then another group comes in and everything changes. What do you think sustained that vision through various administrations, through various city councils and other leadership changeovers?

Mary Birch:

That's a really good question. I think a lot of that was that we had a consistency of leadership. We had a city manager for our first 30 years who had a vision for the community and he had a lot of leaders like myself and others to follow him. We had a mayor for 24 years. We had a pretty consistent city council of business people who cared about the community and cared about the development that was occurring. I think some of that is being consistent with your leaders and having consistent leadership, both at the elected and appointed level. And then secondarily, some of that, when we started becoming a little bit more dependent on what was going on at the national level, it certainly became an opportunity for us in the midwest to access some of the benefits that we shared in the Kansas City area, as it relates to just the metropolitan area, our central location. And again, our labor force that had a very high level of output.

Kelly Scanlon:

Some of the projects that were occurring during that time. I mean, the Sprint campus was developed. There was the construction of the Johnson County Courthouse, the creation of, very importantly, of the Johnson County Education Research Triangle, and all of this resulted in over 60,000 jobs that were created during that period, 4,000 new companies, probably could have been more, as you said, you had to say no to some who wanted to relocate or locate in Overland Park because it just didn't fit the vision. But where I'm going with this question is this phenomenal growth that you experienced. Yes, it shaped Overland Park, but what was its larger impact on the region, on the Kansas City metro area?

Mary Birch:

Well, I think it had an impact on many things. As I mentioned, it was kind of the first corporate office corridor in the state of Kansas and in the metropolitan area. But the economic impact served the county well, served the state of Kansas well and serve the metropolitan area. Well, we became an importer of workers from some 13 counties around Overland Park. I think Overland Park also, in its early years, because of its leadership and its aggressiveness, became a leader in and of itself because of the successes we have seen since that are occurring in this county and look at the 20 year labor of love in Lenexa for Lenexa City Center or Shawnee for what they've got going on, on K7 or Olatha for what's going on, on K10. So a lot of communities in Johnson County have become very vibrant and growing based on a lot of the history that occurred back in the eighties and the nineties that set the tone.

Kelly Scanlon:

What were some of, or what was your favorite project or most interesting project that you worked on?

Mary Birch:

Oh my.

Kelly Scanlon:

There were a lot of them.

Mary Birch:

There were a lot of them, obviously the largest one at the time was the Sprint campus there. At the time it was built, it was the largest global headquarters in the world, 4 million square feet of office. It was like our second or third abatement and incentives project. They received 50%, which left still a lot of tax dollars flowing for the next 20 years, to the next 10 years, to the city and the state. But it was such a great partnership because it required a job training bill and an income tax bill from the state of Kansas. It required Overland Park to make a commitment to build that many square feet in five years, which they did. It came in on time and under budget and that was an amazing partnership between the city and the company. So there were a lot of moving parts and pieces to it, which made it very complicated and yet very rewarding for the opportunity to have such a facility in our community, which is, to this day, a very fine place to work.

Kelly Scanlon:

Another area of special interest that you have is transportation, many forms of transportation. What are some of the transportation projects that you've been personally involved with and how have they shaped the region?

Mary Birch:

Well, there was a local project that the Overland Park Chamber did a poll and a survey throughout the city of Overland Park several years ago when we needed to up the ante as it relates to finishing old streets and curbs and gutters in the northern part of our city. We had about 40 miles that needed to be done there. And then it was quite obvious that this was before Sprint came, but quite obvious that we needed to make sure that we continued building thoroughfares in Overland Park to accommodate both business and residential. And so we put in a quarter cent sales tax that has been there since, and it gets renewed every five or 10 years and all of that money goes directly to infrastructure in all parts of our community.

Mary Birch:

I had the privilege of serving on a transportation plan group for the state of Kansas, for both Governor Graves and Governor Sebelius and most recently, Governor Finney, those efforts resulted in three transportation plans that have been of help. And so the widening of I435, the widening of Nall, the Nall interchange, the Antioch interchange. And as of now, the number one project in the state of Kansas, for need as it relates to economic impact is the widening of Highway 69, which is kind of the backbone of our entire community.

Kelly Scanlon:

When we talked earlier, you had mentioned the foresight of some of the leadership, and I know one of those was years and years ago, making the decision to widen College Boulevard, which really created a major corridor that contributes to the vibrancy and the mobility of the community.

Mary Birch:

This was before my time. So as a legend that has some truth, Tom Congleton who had the vision for Corporate Woods worked with the Chamber and the city of Overland Park and a lot of citizens were not happy with the fact that the council might vote on widening College Boulevard because there was never going to be anything out there and it was a dumb place for the community college to go. And so it was a really difficult evening at city council and early morning, about 1:30, 2:30 in the morning, a decision to widen College Boulevard four-lane, ready to go six was decided by one vote. And that's what happens when you're trying to train new leaders, that the significance of public policy decisions. That did change the economy of our city, our County, and our state.

Kelly Scanlon:

As changes occur and challenges occur in transportation, whether they're environmentally related, whether it's congestion, whether it's just people's different habits of movement, as you see those coming along, what do you see as the changes for transportation industry to respond to those kinds of changes? What does the future of transportation look like?

Mary Birch:

That's a great question, Kelly. It certainly is ever changing, particularly at this point. It comes from several ways electric cars or hybrid cars means that less gasoline will be purchased. And in many states, particularly Kansas, a lot of our highways and roads and transportation is funded by gas tax. So there is a decision that has to be made there about how you're going to fund, usually maintenance, there's not going to be lots of new highways built, but just the maintenance for the state of Kansas is about $500 million a year.

Mary Birch:

I think, secondly, you're seeing a big change in what's happening in transit. I think as Johnson County redevelops, as Kansas City's had such a great success in its downtown recently, you're seeing more eyes towards improving transit in making it more efficient, in making it more convenient. And I think that's going to be really important. And even as of late, even though we have the four seasons here, I think I heard from somebody yesterday that one of the results of the virus is, you can no longer find a bicycle to buy right now because they all got bought up.

Kelly Scanlon:

No kidding. That is amazing. So more bicycle riders, more cyclists. So we'll be seeing more of bicycle lanes, you think?

Mary Birch:

I think so. I think a couple of things, I think you can put bicycle lanes where you've enough street to do that. And I think that's starting to happen in Johnson County quite a bit and will happen across the rest of the metro. But I think the other thing that people forget about from a transportation perspective is our amazing bike and hike trails that have happened in this county and are now happening across the metro area. I think it's going to be such a great connector when lifestyle is the key point at attracting future employees. One of our lifestyle characteristics is our bike and hike trails.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes, that's very true. And they go across Missouri, they go across Kansas and it strikes me sometimes when I hear people talk about them. We harken back to our pioneer history where we had the different trails and in modern day, a lot of these smaller towns, especially in the region, can be developed based on if those trails really take off and attract even more cyclists in the future, that could do a lot for their economic development, attract tourists that are involved in the biking industry or bike enthusiasts and their families.

Mary Birch:

It is truly a major component of our most recent effort partnered by the greater Kansas City Chamber and the Civic Council and the Kansas City Area Development Council and the Mid-America Regional Council and it's called KC Rising. And one of the major components of KC Rising is creating a lifestyle here that people will want to move here, but also will want to stay after they'd been raised here. And the best way for them to stay is not only have a great place for them to raise their families. One that is safe, that has great schools and great amenities like bike and hike trails, but also, so that they'll have a job and they can stay if they have a job. So it takes a while, it takes patience and hopefully the community will have enough patience to see it through.

Kelly Scanlon:

One of the other things that you're very passionate about, it's one of your responsibilities at Lathrop is leadership development. You've talked about the importance of having good strong leaders to make the tough decisions and the importance of training those leaders. So talk to us about why leadership development is your personal passion and what your role in that is.

Mary Birch:

You know, I think my passion was developed from my passion for education at all levels. And I think we can never stop learning, but I also think that a lot of what happens in our everyday lives can be taken for granted because it's just part of living. So you wake up in the morning and you're able to take a shower because you have water or you're able to drive on a street because there's a street or you can walk through the parking lot safely because there's a policeman. And I think a lot of those kinds of decisions are public policy decisions that get made every single day. And whether it's on the government side or on the nonprofit side, one of the reasons that I decided to accept the position at Lathrop GPM is because of their huge community heart. And when I look at that, they have always encouraged and funded their attorneys to go through leadership development programs in the various communities.

Mary Birch:

They have always had participants in the Centurions Group and also in the Kansas City Tomorrow Group. And so we started Leadership Overland Park in the early eighties and part of it was that a bunch of leaders who had been around in the sixties, came to me and said, "Mary, we're getting tired and we're getting run down and somebody's got to step up. And so they need to understand what it takes to build a community, what it takes to move the needle, what it takes to make things happen."

Mary Birch:

And I think leadership development, it's one of those things of helping people find what they care about and then also connecting them and mentoring them and helping them engage at whatever level they want to because some people are good at governance and want to be on boards. And some people might want to run for office, but oh, other people might want to help somebody run for office or be a volunteer on a board of a nonprofit. So it's very, very important to the future of this metropolitan area and to every community that the next generation of leaders gets trained. And then at the time, they'll start pushing on us old folks to get out of the way so they can do their thing.

Kelly Scanlon:

You talked about the decisions that are made at 1:30 in the morning and plans that are 30 years in the works. Working with entrepreneurs myself, I think sometimes it's fun to discover an overnight success that's really 20 years old when it comes to a business, But that's true in communities too, as you said. Some of the things that we are benefiting from now were decisions that were made years and years ago. So with that said, what are some of the decisions that are being made now, or that you think should be being made now in this metropolitan area to put us in good steed, 30 years, 20 years into the future?

Mary Birch:

Wow, that's a big question. I think we're already doing a couple of things, which I commend our community for. One is obviously the new airport. I believe it is going to serve us very well from an economic development perspective, as far as keeping companies here and attracting companies and jobs and moving people. And I think those kinds of efforts bode well for our future. It appears that there will be a conversation in our metropolitan area about a baseball stadium as to if Kauffman remains, or if we go downtown with a baseball stadium. Those are really, really big decisions going forward. I think probably the biggest decisions being made right now is, how do you maintain the infrastructure that you have? The citizens like bright, shiny buildings or new schools or new Kauffman performing arts centers or new hotels or new convention centers in Overland Park.

Mary Birch:

But then you tell them that a water line or a sewer line or only lasts 50 years. Well, that was fine when we all live to be 50, but it's not fine when everybody's going to live to be a hundred and you need to pay for two water lines, you need to pay for two sewer lines or two schools or et cetera. So I think that's probably our biggest challenge going forward in every community is our ability to convince the voters that we must maintain, because if we let it crumble, we'll be right back where we were a long time ago. I think success is based upon the diligence and being very disciplined at maintaining what you've got as you go forward.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, Mary, you have certainly been diligent about moving the needle for the area for Overland Park, for the greater area of Kansas City for many, many years now, often behind the scenes.

Mary Birch:

I prefer it that way. It's kind of an opportunity to see what a community needs or see what would work in a community. And so, you mentioned the Johnson County Education Research Triangle, and that effort is only 10 years old. And I won't live to see its ultimate impact as to what it's going to do for the metropolitan area. But we're seeing some of it right now with the cancer center. That's where my heart is, is to promote that cancer center and to get comprehensive designation for the cancer center, because it helps so many people here. And then nobody has to go anywhere else to be treated for cancer. But also it has a huge economic impact and a lot of people are going to have cancer, unfortunately, and this is our opportunity to develop cures and treatments and have those kinds of high paying jobs stay in our community.

Kelly Scanlon:

Mary, thank you again for being with us on this episode of Banking on KC. It's been a pleasure to talk with you and take a few trips down memory lane too.

Mary Birch:

Thank you, Kelly. I enjoyed it.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Mary Birch for being a guest on this episode of Banking on KC. A visionary leader, Mary not only sees the possibilities for our Kansas City communities, she acts on them. As President of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce during a critical period in that city's growth, Mary worked with city officials, business people and others in the community to build a vibrant city that continues to be recognized nationally for its quality of life and family friendly environment.

Joe Close:

Today, she continues to advocate for the region and to train current and future leaders who share a vision for a better Kansas City. At Country Club Bank, we share that vision of a better Kansas City, too. We're here to help you reach new heights as well. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.