Developer Chris Payne gets busy in Raytown without expecting handouts

Developers are not fighting to get into Raytown, an integrated, inner-ring suburb lacking what a city development plan describes as “imageability.”

Enlivening the city’s downtown is an ongoing struggle. In 2001, the city acquired a building that First Baptist Church of Raytown left when it relocated to a site along Missouri 350, the divided highway that makes the city feel like a big drive-thru. Later, in an effort to create a blank canvas for a future developer, the city used a federal grant to demolish the church and smooth the ground.

Today, the land is still vacant.

Raytown Plaza stands across from that empty acreage. Clinging to life after the recession, the strip center was purchased by developer Chris Payne in 2012. His company, Monopoly Acquisitions, finished a renovation that had stalled under a previous owner, then signed up a flooring store, a family-owned diner and other tenants. Today, Raytown Plaza is not a high-end retail destination — a tattoo parlor is a few doors down from a slot-car racing track — but it’s not a graffiti-streaked husk, either.

For Payne, Raytown is like a stock that other investors have undervalued. Raytown Plaza is one of four shopping centers he now owns in that suburb. A gymnastics academy is going to fill one of two anchor slots at the most recent acquisition, a strip center along Raytown Trafficway, purchased last December. (The price was $1.76 million, according to county records.)

Retail is not his only investment. In 2012, Payne bought Raytown’s tallest building, an apartment tower for seniors, and raised the occupancy rate from 60 percent to 100 percent. A group in California purchased the building from him in 2014 for $3.65 million. “I have to occasionally sell something,” Payne, who is quiet-spoken, says.

Buying or selling, Payne is a hero to city leaders. The mayor, Mike McDonough, recently chose Payne and his wife, Stacey, to share an outstanding-citizen award presented by the Truman Heartland Community Foundation. “He’s done so much for this town,” McDonough says.

The Paynes do not hail from or live in Raytown. Their investment in the community reflects a strategy. Payne, 47, decided to concentrate in office and commercial real estate in eastern Jackson County about six years ago, when he began to believe that his real-estate business was too fragmented. “Anything that comes for sale in Raytown, we’ll look at,” he says.

In 2014, Payne bought a six-story building on 63rd Street that GE had emptied when it moved an air-filtration unit to the Sprint campus in Overland Park. A friend who owned a software company leased one of the floors. But Payne was not exactly sure what he was going to do with rest of the building, which has 64,000 square feet of office space. “I usually have a game plan,” he says.

A deal emerged. Payne sold the building last summer to the State of Missouri for $1.75 million. The state plans to move 200 workers into the building, eliminating five leases that cost more than $629,000 each year, according to the Office of Administration.

Payne has also done business with the Raytown School District. Last year, he bought a former YMCA on Missouri 350 that had closed in 2013. The purchase sprang from a discussion Payne had with Allen Markley, the district’s superintendent. Markley told Payne he was looking for space to open a health clinic for district employees. An idea was hatched to put the clinic in the YMCA and resurrect its use as a fitness center for district employees and retirees.

The Raytown Schools Wellness Center opened in January. (Residents may also buy monthly memberships.) The district leased the building before purchasing it from Payne in February.

Markley says Payne spent $3.6 million renovating the former Y. “He’s not one of those guys who just has a business here. He’s bought into the community. He knows how important it is for the community to thrive for his business to thrive.”

Payne has not sought tax incentives for his projects. In fact, when he owned the senior apartment building, city officials offered to include it in a tax-increment-financing district being contemplated for the site of the old church building. (Wal-Mart was interested in building one of its Neighborhood Market stores; the deal collapsed.) TIF captures new tax revenue to repay developers for improvements they make. Payne says he felt uneasy about the arrangement. “I can’t take money from the school district and the fire department,” he says.

Markley says Payne understands that the schools and other taxing jurisdictions need resources to function properly. “Everybody wants to make money. But he doesn’t have to make money above and beyond. He knows the importance of the other services that make everything work.”

Payne says that if something is good for the community, it should be good for his business, too. He says he appreciates that the city lives within its means and that the school district is managed well. Payne and his wife endow a scholarship for students in the Raytown schools. “There was no doubt which school district we were going to give it to,” he says.

Payne does not confine himself to Raytown. He owned the Kansas City International Raceway before the city bought and closed the track in 2011. Last year, he and a partner bought Heartland Park Topeka, a 650-acre facility that hosts an event in the premier national drag racing series.

This spring, Payne asked Shawnee County to lower Heartland Park’s tax bill. He argued that the taxes did not accurately reflect the track’s value and would keep from making necessary improvements.

Payne doesn’t chase incentives, but he’s not a pushover.

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