K.C.-area airport agency strives to spur growth for commerce center, short line

Informally known as the New Century AirCenter Railroad, JCAX operates 6.5 miles of track, serves eight customers and interchanges with BNSF in Olathe, Kansas. Johnson County Airport Commission

By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor 

The metropolitan area surrounding Kansas City, Missouri, continues to steadily grow. The area includes more than 100 municipalities and 10 counties in two states, including Johnson County, Kansas, which is registering the region’s biggest population bump. 

In terms of transportation, the county is unusual because it’s home to two airports, a major business park and a short line in Olathe that are operated and managed by an airport commission. Plus, a major interstate — I-35 — runs through the heart of Johnson County. 

The short line and county’s largest airport date back to 1941, when the U.S. Navy built Olathe Naval Air Station to train pilots for service in World War II. The Navy primarily used the railroad to bring materials and supplies to the massive military installation, which featured three runways, three hangers, a control tower, 44 buildings to train and accommodate personnel, clubs for enlisted personnel and officers, barracks, mess halls, a hospital, chapel, bowling alley and cold storage facility. 

After the station was decommissioned, the Johnson County Airport Commission (JCAC) was formed in 1967 to redevelop and operate the airbase as Johnson County Industrial Airport. The commission also gained control of Morse Outlying Landing Field, one of 14 auxiliary airfields built by the Navy in the 1940s. In 1994, the JCAC changed the name of Johnson County Industrial Airport — the second-largest airport in the state — to New Century AirCenter. 

The New Century Commerce Center The New Century Commerce Center — which continues to attract development and soon will be expanded — earned a Kansas Certified Site designation from the state in February. Johnson County Airport Commission

The Navy’s short line — which had no formal name — was dormant from the 1950s to the late 1980s. The commission restarted it and later dubbed the railroad the New Century AirCenter Railroad (JCAX). The New Century AirCenter Business Park was established in the mid-1990s and in 2021 was rebranded as the New Century Commerce Center. 

Now, the commission aims to spur more growth at its two airports, multimodal commerce center and short line to take advantage of its inherited assets, says JCAC Executive Director Aaron Otto. The state-of-the-art infrastructure within the overall 4,000-acre complex includes air, rail and highway transportation logistics, voice and data transfer capabilities, and electric, water and sewer services for high-tech manufacturing. 

The commerce center is one of only a few U.S. logistics parks that feature three modal options — an advantage JCAC leaders believe can be better exploited. Plus, the K.C. region is a major rail hub. 

“Rail is a valuable commodity in Kansas City,” says Otto. 

To that end, the commission continues to advance a plan to expand the commerce center — which now is home to more than 60 businesses — in several phases involving about 850 acres located north and east of existing runways. New critical infrastructure in the 575-acre eastern portion of the expansion is pegged for completion in early April, Otto says. 

In addition, the commission is trying to give the short line’s branding a boost. JCAX operates 6.5 miles of track, owns two locomotives, interchanges with BNSF Railway Co, and serves eight customers on site and one customer off site.  

Typically, BNSF drops off 20 cars to the short line each day, Otto says. The Class I contracted JCAX to switch cars in the center. 

Much of JCAX’s track features 90-pound rail dating back to 1906. In 2021, the JCAC spent more than $400,000 to install new ballast, ties and switch components with funding help from a Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) grant. Now, the commission is seeking another KDOT grant to replace some of the old rail with new 136-pound rail, Otto says. 

Transportation fees help pay for infrastructure and other improvements, so airport and rail service fees are vital to the JCAC, he says. 

JCAX JCAX dates back to the early 1940s, when the U.S. Navy established Olathe Naval Air Station to train pilots for WWII service. Johnson County Airport Commission

To attract more businesses to the commerce center, certain certification designations are key so it’s easier for potential tenants to develop facilities. Since late 2020, the commission has garnered a BNSF Certified Site designation — one of only three in Kansas — and AEROReady™ Aviation certification for the center. 

But the JCAC has worked for more than three years to gain a crucial Kansas Certified Site designation from the Kansas Department of Commerce, an effort that finally paid off in February. 

The commerce center is the only industrial site in the K.C. metro area and ninth in the state to earn that designation, which means certain properties are deemed prime for development. Now, interested parties no longer need to complete vigorous due diligence efforts to vet a site, says Otto. 

“It cuts down on risks since much of the due diligence has been done,” he says. “There is a lot of information already available on sites.” 

The Kansas Certified Site stamp helps raise the commerce center’s national footprint and serves as a tool to attract new industries, such as manufacturing, distribution, cold storage or dry storage facilities, Otto says. Since a four-acre transload facility has proved successful at the center, he believes similar rail-related facilities that require such small footprints could be ideal tenants, as well. 

“The center also meets the qualities needed to attract and sustain companies in the aerospace industry,” Otto adds.