Where There's Smoke … There's (Prairie) Fire

Can you hear it? The rumblings are there.

It’s the sound of bulldozers, excavators, backhoes and other heavy-duty equipment. Listen closely and you’ll find those rumblings are hinting of what’s to come.

Distinct dining establishments, luxury apartments and coveted retail and entertainment destinations. Names like Gene Simmons’ Rock & Brews, Wasabi Sushi Bar, Pinstripes Bowling Bocce Bistro, The Fresh Market, CoCoBolos, Recreational Equipment Inc. and Cinetopia will coexist with cordial office space, high-end apartments, a boutique hotel (Phase II) and recreational trails winding through a wetlands park.

But the signature linchpin of this exciting development will be the $25 million Museum of Prairiefire. Representing a one-of-a-kind arrangement with New York City’s famed American Museum of Natural History, the 41,000-square-foot heartland outpost will bring traveling exhibitions, a life-size T. rex, a children’s discovery room and vast education and programming centered around human cultures, the natural world and the universe.

All of these elements will collectively fuse into an unparalleled suburban living, dining and entertainment experience in the heart of Overland Park, one of the nation’s most celebrated suburban communities.

This is Prairiefire.


The Spark of Inspiration

Six years ago, this ambitious project was but an inkling for developer Fred Merrill Jr., of Overland Park-based Merrill Companies.

He and his wife, Candy, were well-traveled and had lived in other parts of the United States, but it was an innate fascination with the region that gave rise to Prairiefire’s novel concept.

“Candy and I spent 25 years living in other parts of the country, but as a native Kansan, I’ve always had an appreciation for this state and for the Midwest — not just for the terrain and geography, but also for the people and our quality of life,” says Fred. “Even though Candy is originally from the Northwest, she has always felt the same way. The idea for Prairiefire grew from our appreciation of the beauty of this area. When we moved back to Kansas City, we were particularly reminded of the beauty of waving prairie grasses. We started thinking about a project that would celebrate and put on exhibit the Midwestern geography, people and way of life.”

But the economy would have other plans for the project. Securing financing and tenants proved challenging. Tough times across the nation put Prairiefire on the back burner as residential and commercial development everywhere slowed to a crawl.

Yet Fred and his team pursued the vision and continued to pitch Prairiefire and its concepts to potential partners. The project continued to simmer.

Meanwhile, the vast 60 acres situated along the south side of 135th Street between Lamar and Roe avenues sat patiently idle … waiting for its day to come.


Fueling the Flames

Seeking to create a substantial civic-cultural cornerstone for the project, the Merrills connected with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 2007.

The two entities began piecing ideas together one by one, and the Merrills signed an agreement with the American Museum of Natural History in 2008 to host two traveling exhibitions a year and incorporate the New York museum’s Discovery Room as well as Science Bulletins and T. rex at the Museum of Prairiefire.

Through diligent research and recommendations, the Merrills then began assembling a team of experts who could help bring Prairiefire to fruition.

“As we began talking about the vision for Prairiefire, people became convinced one by one that this was a singular project,” says Fred. “As people outside the area joined our team, they saw this beautiful area and our great way of life, and it opened their eyes to all there is to celebrate in the Midwest. Many were from the East and West coasts, where they’re used to working on unique and exciting projects. When they visited Kansas City, however, they found it easy to see how we could create a fabulous, one-of-a-kind project in Prairiefire, right here.”

The stars finally aligned in summer 2012 when, after six years on the drawing boards, Stifel Nicolaus and PNC Bank found a way to finance the project.

The project is also receiving assistance through the STAR Bond program in Kansas due to the museum and other unique-to-market attractions.

Additionally, Overland Park approved Prairiefire as a community improvement district or CID, which will collect a 1.5 percent sales tax to help pay for improvements.

Construction on the $160 million, 35-acre first phase of Prairiefire — which will include upscale apartments, retail space (of which 80 percent is pre-leased) and the museum — is currently underway.


Burning Bright

On a chilly, dark, drizzly day in early January, spirits could not be hampered as shovels ceremoniously turned dirt at the official Prairiefire

Prairiefire At-A-Glance

Total project development value upon
completion: $427 million

Project to unfold in three phases across nearly 60 acres

Anchor attraction will be Museum of Prairiefire,
a collaborative venture with New York City’s
American Museum of Natural History

Construction on first phase began in January 2013

Key project features: culture, shopping, dining,
entertainment, residences, golf, wetland trail and fitness path

Prairiefire expected to bring more than
2 million visitors annually

Prairiefire Behind The Scenes

Project developer / Merrill Companies, Overland Park, Kan.

Museum collaborator / American Museum of Natural History, New York

Retail leasing / Jack Breard, UCR Urban, Dallas

Museum architecture / Verner Johnson, Boston, Mass.

Museum landscaping / Ken Boone, Ochsner Hare & Hare, Kansas City, Mo.

Architecture / Rob Anderson, Field Paoli, San Francisco, Calif., and Matt Masilionis, Rees Masilionis  Turley Architecture, Kansas City, Mo.

Landscaping / Bill Milsap, Studio Outside, Dallas, Texas

Signage / Suzanne Redmond Schwartz, RSM Design, San Clemente, Calif.

Museum experience / Thinkwell, Burbank, Calif.

Lighting design / T. Kondos Associates, New York

STAR Bonds / Stifel Nicolaus, St. Louis, Mo.

Bank financing / PNC Bank (with The Private Bank), Pittsburgh, Penn.


Energy and enthusiasm were rampant throughout a captive crowd of dignitaries and other state and local officials and guests.

In his remarks at the groundbreaking, Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach said that Prairiefire signified a monumental moment for the nationally-recognized city.

“Prairiefire could have happened in very few places in the United States,” said Gerlach in his speech. “And it’s happening here in Overland Park. Not Chicago, Denver or elsewhere.”

He noted that the project is a result of community commitment by key decision makers, a passion for the project and an exceptional level of creativity.

“Its impact will be felt for years,” said Gerlach.

Indeed, Prairiefire is one of the few mixed-use developments happening anywhere in the country at this time, especially of this magnitude.
Merrill and others contend that the unique characteristics of Overland Park and Johnson County offer the optimal environment for such a special project.

“The demographics of this community are strong,” says Fred. “Because people have disposable income and a commitment to the arts and education, they’re motivated to participate in projects at a much higher level than in most other areas of the country. They’re willing to pay for and patronize a project that delivers unique components.”

He added that for Prairiefire to happen here required state and local governments that strive to create an environment where business can expand and flourish.

“We are very fortunate, because all of these elements exist here, in one place,” said Fred.

When all is said and done, not only will Overland Park residents and regional visitors have a remarkable living and entertainment district to enjoy, but the resulting long-term state and local economic benefits will echo for years to come.

In fact, the Prairiefire project is estimated to create roughly 4,000 new jobs upon completion of both phases, and 2,000 temporary jobs during construction.

To be sure, unflinching tenacity, successful city partnerships, unwavering community support and creative coast-to-coast collaboration define the steadfast pillars of this dynamic project.

But above all, Prairiefire is a genuine testament to all that makes Overland Park the award-winning community it is today.

Can you hear it? The rumblings are growing louder.

Categories: People