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Banking on KC - Michael Zeller of Flying Truss

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. With us on this episode is Michael Zeller, the CEO of Flying Truss. Michael's vision is to transform an abandoned railroad bridge in the West Bottoms into an event space and food court. Welcome, Michael, thanks for joining us.

Michael Zeller:

Thanks for having me here, Kelly.

Kelly Scanlon:

The bridge you're developing is the Rock Island Railroad Bridge, and I believe it was built in 1905. Give us a bit of its history.

Michael Zeller:

This bridge, which is 705 feet long, it's longer than the St. Louis Arch is tall, was, as you said, built in 1905. It predates radio. It's been there for a long time. It was integral to the stockyards district, shuttling cattle in boxcars back and forth to both sides of the Kansas River there in the stockyards area, and it also handled some interstate freight, as well, being part of a network.

Kelly Scanlon:

And how long was it in use?

Michael Zeller:

It was used from 1905 until the mid-1970s. It was originally built by the Rock Island Railroad, hence the name. But railroad consolidation and bankruptcies in the 20th century, it moved through several hands before being purchased, a bit oddly, by the city of Kansas City, Missouri, because the bridge itself is about 50 feet inside of Kansas. The river there next to Hy-Vee Arena is not the state line. Kansas City, Missouri in the late '70s, the owner of what was then Kemper Arena, bought the railroad bridge from a defunct railroad in St. Louis, who had come into it by then, with the intent of maybe making it a pedestrian connector to surface parking on the other side of the river. Instead, I think many of your listeners know, the city built that two-story parking lot to the north of Kemper Arena, which is now being pressed into service as parking for growing apartments in that area.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right, exactly. So how did you come to acquire it or get involved with it?

Michael Zeller:

Well, I was taking a boat ride with some friends and our wives and I have three little boys, and this was about 10 years ago, and we were just on a small outboard jon boat going up and down the Missouri River admiring the bridges and the city from the water, which is really spectacular if you haven't done that. Seeing Kansas City from water, it's like being in another city.

Michael Zeller:

And I didn't really know much about the Kansas River, so I suggested to my friend who was driving the boat, I said, "Let's go check that out." And as we made our way upstream, I noticed, A, there's a lot of bridges over the Kaw, which is what we call the Kansas River here, locally. Several of them were unused, and as we steamed south, I remember the Rock Island Bridge coming into view. As I recall, all of us getting quiet as we pondered that bridge, trying to figure out in our own minds what the heck it was.

Michael Zeller:

I remember realizing it was a railroad bridge as we got closer. I could tell that it was an unused railroad bridge, and just offhandedly I said, "Man, somebody ought to do something with that. Put a restaurant out there and call it Chicken on a Bridge." And it was just a throwaway line, I was just kidding around. The idea stuck, not so much the Chicken on a Bridge thing, although that's a fun name, but the idea that a bridge, especially a railroad road bridge, which are very robust, could be thought of as land. That was the germ of the idea.

Michael Zeller:

I worked for the PBS station here for many years and a lot of people would come and go, and I would try to persuade Joe Reardon and Sly James to gin up some interest in doing something there, right at the border between the two Kansas cities. I'm remember calling into the public radio station with this notion. And finally, after about five or six years of trying to get somebody else to do it, I just thought, "Well, heck I'll do it," and I've really leaned into this project since then.

Kelly Scanlon:

Was this something very new to you when you decided, hey, if we're going to do it, it's got to be me?

Michael Zeller:

Well, I've never developed a railroad bridge before. I have led many projects as Chief Development and Community Partnerships was my title at Kansas City Public Television; but, as you would imagine, they were more like documentaries and outreach programs, things like that. I was the vice president of a school board too for Academy Lafayette, a local French immersion school, and we bought a couple buildings and fixed them up. But no, I'd never led a project of this nature.

Kelly Scanlon:

Let's talk about your plans. I've seen the renderings and they're just so exciting. So tell us about what people can expect and what your vision is for the bridge.

Michael Zeller:

First off, I should say that while the bridge is in Kansas City, Kansas, it's presently owned, as I mentioned, by Kansas City, Missouri. They have passed an ordinance and this bridge is being conveyed to Kansas City, Kansas, the Unified Government, for $1. KC, MO, really doesn't want to own a railroad bridge in Kansas, that's just a historical quirk. Our partner is the city of Kansas City, Kansas. They will own the bridge and we will lease the bridge from them for 33 years with an option to renew. So for 66 years, my partners, John McGurk, Mike Laddin, and our investors and I will have access to what I think of as some very muscular kiosks in a steel park over a river, approximately 30,000 square foot of improved space, phase one.

Michael Zeller:

Now what's going to happen on their bridge? Really, three things. First off, the bridge is a public crossing. This partnership was proposed by the city of Kansas City, Kansas, to us as a practical solution to their goal of increasing trails equity for the citizens of Eastern Wyandotte County. Of their own measure, residents of Wyandotte County have about 1/27th the linear feet of trails per person as Johnson County-ans next door enjoy.

Michael Zeller:

And so they had started building a trail on top of the levy top there, which is a great place to have a trail, because basically you already have a trail and you're up high and you're overlooking the river. And they realized it would be more convenient and less expensive if that trail crossed the Rock Island Bridge and then carried on north, on the Kansas River we're talking here, to the East West Riverfront Heritage Trail and the confluence with the Missouri River, rather than staying on that far side. So that's the origin of the partnership. And people will always be able to make their way across this bridge, unimpeded, 12 months a year. It is a public crossing. It is a dismount zone; nobody's going to be riding their bike across there, as we'll have many hundreds of people and children out on that bridge doing all kinds of fun things.

Michael Zeller:

You can think of it like you're riding your bike through an Italian city and you come upon a busy piazza with tables and street performers and people eating dinner and drinking wine. It's not a bummer. It's a nice part of your adventure through the city. You get off your bike, and maybe you stop and have a coffee or lunch, and then you get back on and you go. That's what this experience is going to be for bike riders making their way across our metro.

Michael Zeller:

The second piece that the Rock Island Bridge is, it is a community gathering place. You can think of it as a steel park. Everybody is welcome on the Rock Island Bridge. This is about bringing people together. We will have spaces on the bridge that we're making available to groups that are working with kids and families in ways that are going to light up both the trails network and the river. So kayaking and canoeing groups, biking groups... There's a group that we are really eager to work with based in KC, K, called Free Wheels for Kids. They want to have a bench in one of our lightweight buildings out there. And they work with low income kids, they teach them how to repair their own bikes, and then they get to keep the bike; and they also organize bike rides.

Michael Zeller:

This will be a trails nexus, with two trails coming in from both sides, and it will also be America's first trailhead over a river, with 12 public restrooms, drinking fountains, plenty of open seating. If you want to stick around and maybe have a couple of nice craft beers and some Slap's Barbecue, you're welcome to do that too.

Michael Zeller:

That's what's really unique about this project is, once you start thinking of a bridge as land, a lot of things become possible. Railroad bridges, of course, are very robust. They're built to carry locomotives and fully loaded freight trains on the move. This bridge was calculated by our engineers to be able to carry 3,600,000 pounds, so the structures that we're putting out there are really just a flea on this thing. It was inspected by TranSystems, a local engineering company, as part of a MARC Grant, and it was found to be quite robust. It's a battleship, in fact. Interestingly, it was never salted, and that's why railroad bridges are particularly useful for this sort of thing. They're overbuilt to begin with, and unlike automotive bridges, there's never a reason to salt a railroad bridge.

Michael Zeller:

I said the railroad bridge could be thought of as land. We are making more land out there using cantilevers, the big steel beams that extend off of both sides at the center of the river. And we've also gone double decker to create more space for the third element of this public private partnership, and that is the private enterprise that are going to animate this bridge and, ultimately, pay for the new deck's maintenance. And that's where our company comes in, we're called Flying Truss, LLC. And I have two junior partners, John McGurk, who is a local lawyer. He was Sly James' first chief of staff and he leads Milhaus right now. They're building a lot of these big apartment blocks you see in the middle of the metro. And Michael Laddin, who is our CFO.

Michael Zeller:

You can think of our role as, well, we're the instigator for the project, and we will also have the master lease for the shopping mall, if you will. We'll derive our revenues from our tenants, and we have a real set of best-in-category tenants lined up. We'll have two large, high velocity kitchens. The starter tenants are Slap's Barbecue, which is just a sensation based on Central Avenue over in Kansas City, Kansas. They won the Lenexa barbecue competition this year, came in second in the traveling barbecue road show Across America, two years in a row. They're the real thing, and this will be their first expansion out of their home base there, just a couple of miles away. And Buffalo State Pizza, which is another best-in-category Kansas City institution, just fabulous pizza. And our third tenant is Nick Carrol, Bridge Alcohol Sales will be his LLC, and he's going to have the license for all liquor sold on the bridge. He's got a large bar in the round down on the main deck, and then two smaller bars up top.

Michael Zeller:

There is another enterprise and event space, which if you look at the pictures at RockIslandBridgeKC.com, you'll see that there's an event space up top that's rather cathedral-like. It goes to the top of the bridge and holds 300 people for all kinds of events from chess club meetings on a Saturday afternoon, to destination weddings, to corporate retreats.

Kelly Scanlon:

It sounds like it's all really coming together. I've even heard talk of, perhaps, the symphony performing on a boat in the water there, and people on the bridge overlooking it and listening to the symphony.

Michael Zeller:

That was an off the cuff suggestion, but I think it's a fine one. And it points to the possibilities that the bridge and the area around it are going to be a real fun gathering place.

Michael Zeller:

Since we started this project, Hy-Vee Arena was reinvented, reclaimed by Steve Foutch, and is a very busy weekend tournament destination. A lot of people in there every evening, too, playing pickleball and basketball. In fact, I'm going with my son tonight to play pickleball. And also, Flaherty & Collins out of Indianapolis has been building apartment buildings in the Golden Ox parking lot, 230 units. Now they're moving next door and planning to break ground this Spring with another 250 or so, and then yet another phase. So we'll soon have 1200 to 1500 residents living next to us, but Kelly, most exciting is the river fever that this community has caught.

Michael Zeller:

For a couple of years, we've been hosting these Kaw socials with partners, from friends of the Kaw and the trails groups and the biking groups and others, and just getting people down to the river to see one of our two big rivers in a fresh light, and to get out on it in a kayak or canoe, or perhaps take a motorboat ride down to see the downtown Kansas City, Missouri, skyline from the Missouri River, and people just love that.

Michael Zeller:

Of course, there's always lots of bridge tours involved too, but that enthusiasm, I think, has helped the leadership in Kansas City, Kansas, do what I think they were heading towards anyway. We might have accelerated it a bit, and that is to make some investments to create a river district. Now the levies are going up right now. They've broken ground. The Central Industrial Council was successful, after many years of lobbying, at securing nearly a half a billion dollar investment in elevating those levies along the Kansas River from the confluence up about five miles. And they've broken ground last week, right near the bridge, and that's going up two feet, so we'll get new walls and a higher levy there.

Michael Zeller:

But while they're under construction, the city of Kansas City, Kansas, the Unified Government is investing some $5 to $7 million more in, what the core calls, betterments. And they are going to take three trails down to the waterfront that connect with long floating docks. They're going to widen out the levy tops so it'll be more like a promenade, and there's going to be a riverfront park right next to the bridge.

Michael Zeller:

Of course, both sides are connected by the Rock Island Bridge, which is a park in a certain light itself. And when you put it all together, what you have is a place in our metro with a lot of open land, a busy arena, and a calm river with docks on both sides, a 100-foot long dock, maybe, on the Western side the drawings look like, where folks can kayak and canoe. The Kansas City Boat Club has crew rowing that's leaving from one of those docks, and we can really engage with our rivers in our metro's first real river district.

Kelly Scanlon:

Really bring them back into the prominence that they enjoyed a century or so ago. And it's something that's going on around the country, reviving and redeveloping that outmoded or unused infrastructure has really started to become a trend. Why is that? And what are some of the other examples that our listeners might recognize?

Michael Zeller:

One might notice that when you do start with an existing building or a structure that it forces creativity, because you have limitations; and you end up with solutions that are often far more interesting than we would ever draw from scratch. For example, the High Line in New York City, we've just been invited to join them at their annual conference, which is invitation only in Miami in a couple of months from now.

Michael Zeller:

They took a piece of unused elevated railroad track snaking through lower Manhattan, four or five miles, and turned it into a linear park, and it is just a sensation. I believe it has more visitors every year now than any other attraction in the city, including Central Park, and it's credited with releasing billions of dollars of development. Now, of course that's lower Manhattan, but I think it's a good example of how fun these kinds of places can be. Other examples would be Navy Pier in Chicago, that was an industrial wharf at one time, the River Walk in San Antonio, heck, even down the road in St. Louis, the old Brown Shoe factory is now the St. Louis City museum, which is just spectacular.

Kelly Scanlon:

But this is the first railroad bridge in the country that's being repurposed like this, right?

Michael Zeller:

What's fun about these kinds of creative reclamation project, which is a term I've heard, is that often it takes what is, at the time, a negative... The High Line, for example, in New York was just abandoned blight. This bridge in the Kansas City stockyard district was unseen, unloved. So it takes these negatives and it turns them into major positives. And that's quite a spread there, and it can really have an outsized positive impact on a community if it's done right.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've been getting a lot of press lately, including a very recent lengthy writeup that the Wall Street Journal did on this project, but it's really been in the making for several years now. As you might expect with a project like this, you've had some issues, a few hurdles to deal with.

Michael Zeller:

Well, there's not much about this project that isn't unique, for better and for worse. It has slowed us down a bit navigating, we've got two different cities we're dealing with and we're putting a bridge to work in ways that a bridge has never been used, surprisingly. And one of those issues was just, what's the address of this bridge? It doesn't have an address. It doesn't appear on maps. The city of Kansas City, Kansas, we will be applying for liquor licenses, and we don't really have an address yet. We're about to get that.

Michael Zeller:

We went through lengthy conversations and negotiations with the leadership at KC, K, the Unified Government, led by Doug Bach and Mayor Alvey. Really constructive, we've taken this project from the start as partners and tried to understand each other's needs and what we need for this to be successful, and likewise. And one of the things is they need tax dollars, and so we agreed to pay ad valorem taxes, which are renter's taxes, essentially, for about a third of the bridge, which is deemed to be the private use unit. And the rest of the bridge, of course, is public space. That's just one of the issues we've taken on, trying to figure out how to put together a project where both of us can win and the city can win at large, the community.

Kelly Scanlon:

So talk to us a little bit, too, about how the project is being funded, because that in itself is a bit of a unique situation, too. From what I understand, it's a quasi-public, quasi-private, and there's even philanthropic dollars involved.

Michael Zeller:

Yeah, these creative reclamation projects around the country, as I mentioned, can deliver outsized rewards, but it often takes participation from multiple sectors to get them moving; hence, the public private, or what's often called a P3, public-private partnership. In this case, the Unified Government will own the bridge and they are contributing $2 million towards construction. We're getting closer to final numbers and steel prices are moving around, but it's about a $7 to $8 million construction project for phase one.

Michael Zeller:

The Unified Government has offered $2 million from a special tourism promotion fund that they have that's accumulated from guests staying in Wyandotte County and hotel/motel taxes. Also, we are looking at the potential for some federal infrastructure dollars. This is a public crossing, it's part of the transportation system. Local foundations, the Dickinson Family Foundation has raised their hand for support. Others are considering this, and Flying Truss itself is selling equity in our firm to investors to close the remainder of that gap.

Michael Zeller:

I should also mention that many local corporations have been very helpful in teeing up a project of this nature. We are a startup. I would just like to send a shout out to TranSystems for inspecting the bridge and all their advice over the years; Thornton Tomasetti, our engineers; Gould Evans, especially; and Lathrop, doing a lot of legal work and really helping create something special for Kansas City. We couldn't have done it without the goodwill of those companies. It's a real barn raising.

Kelly Scanlon:

Quite a collaboration there. You have a completion date targeted for 2023. How do you see the bridge providing a return on investment, not just on the deal itself but on changing the face of that area of the metro? And what will it mean for the cities involved?

Michael Zeller:

We think this is going to be a big deal for the whole metro. We didn't start with this big idea in mind, it started rather more humbly. But as the idea has grown and we've developed a partnership with Kansas City, Kansas, we've come to realize that this bridge, with its dance floors and kitchens and restaurants and bars and other activities, will become part of the KC metro iconography.

Michael Zeller:

I took Jim Stowers out on a tour a few years ago, and he looked up at me. He'd been to Arrowhead the night before, and he said, "You realize you've been going out here with your twinkly lights and your barbecue smoke and your people dancing. You know what those cameras on that Goodyear blimp would've been pointed at." And that really got John and Mike and I thinking about the role that this bridge will play in helping brand Kansas City as a river city and as a creative city, and, perhaps most importantly, how it will enable hundreds of thousands of people a year to enjoy a quiet evening out on a bridge overlooking the Kansas river, thinking about that river, watching people boat in it, perhaps deciding they'd like to boat in it or walk along it or ride along it, or perhaps invest in things that are going to happen along that river.

Michael Zeller:

The big dream, of course, for both Kansas Cities is to redefine what is now a river that, psychologically as well as physically, divides our two Kansas Cities to over, maybe the next generation, quietly convert that into an attractive connector that unites Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri; and that's going to be good for both of our Kansas cities and for the metro.

Kelly Scanlon:

So much to look forward to here. Michael, thank you so much for taking the time to come on Banking on KC to talk about this. Again, it's going to be open in 2023, and if you want more information, you can go out to the website at RockIslandKC.com. Michael, thank you so much, appreciate it.

Michael Zeller:

Thank you for having us, Kelly. We'll see you out over the river.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Michael Zeller for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Innovators have an ability to see things from a different perspective than most of us. In Michael's case, as he was boating down the Kaw River with his family past the Rock Island Railroad Bridge, viewing Kansas City from a perspective he'd never seen before, he was suddenly inspired by the potential of the bridge.

Joe Close:

The bridge is a metaphor for our community. Yes, the project will create a new entertainment district and Kansas City landmark. It will help to brand Kansas City as a river city and a creative city. More important, it will be a connector that unites Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri. The residents, businesses, and officials of both cities can dream big and work together to invest in other projects along the river. Working toward a shared vision will be good for both Kansas Cities and for our entire metro area.

Joe Close:

Country Club Bank is proud to be working with Michael and his team on this project, and we welcome the opportunity to talk to you about your innovative ideas too. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.

 

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