A multibillion-dollar development bonanza is haunted by decades-old land concerns 

A multibillion-dollar battery plant is energizing development in a town just a stone’s throw west of Olathe. But despite this behemoth project’s developers promising monetary benefits in the billions for the region, there are detractors. 

On the outskirts of DeSoto, Kansas, construction of a $4 billion, 4.7 million square-foot Panasonic Energy lithium-ion electric vehicle battery manufacturing plant is well underway. The 300-acre plant project is projected to generate $2.5 billion annually in economic activity throughout the region, says Mike Brungardt, DeSoto city administrator.

The Panasonic plant is part of a development known as Astra Enterprise Park, located within the 9,035 acres of the former Sunflower Army Ammunition plant. Along with the Panasonic plant, housing developments and municipal infrastructure projects are planned. “We’ve been busy with a number of the public infrastructure projects, and we also have water distribution, sewer collection system improvements and treatment plant improvements,” Brungardt says.

The ammunition plant closed in 1992, according to Johnson County documents, and in 1997, the Army began looking for buyers. The plant was transferred to the Sunflower Redevelopment LLC in August 2005 and was then annexed by DeSoto in 2022.

But the history of ammunition production at the Sunflower plant is causing ongoing concern among developers and residents. Between 1943 and 1947, explosives were produced at the plant. Later, beginning in March 1951, propellants were produced there.

During its ammunition production heyday, any excess propellant waste was simply washed into drains that fed into nearby creeks, according to Army cleanup documents. Other soil and water contaminant wastes the Army has found at the site include arsenic, mercury, chromium, asbestos, traces of nitroglycerin and lots of lead. Although most of the soil contaminants are cleaned up, many remain in the groundwater.

“There are approximately 2,800 acres, or 17 sites, potentially containing munitions constituents that pose a potential explosive hazard,” the Army Environmental Command reported in 2020. There are 35 sites that are still in active remediation status in some form or another of the 97 sites that the Army is tracking for corrective action, according to Scott Smith, the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant’s site manager on the ground overseeing day-to-day operations. That means that there is still the likelihood cleanup work will continue around the Panasonic plant even after it is operational. “For some of those sites, the work is being completed right now,” Smith says. Soil decontamination efforts should be concluded by 2028, Smith says, but cleaning the ground water is a little trickier.

“If there’s something in the groundwater that is considered a contaminant, it’s coming from the soil source,” Smith says. “As a general rule, the Army tries to clean up the source while continuing to monitor the groundwater. If there were contaminants in the groundwater, usually they biodegrade over time. Or once the source has gone, then they eventually go away.”

Panasonic’s acres have been cleared by the Army for development. Once the battery plant is operational, the general consensus is it will present a huge economic boost to not only DeSoto, but the state in general. According to the Kansas Department of Commerce, the battery manufacturing plant is expected to create approximately 8,000 total jobs (around 4,000 with Panasonic Energy, paying on average $30 an hour, and 4,000 indirect jobs with suppliers), as well as 16,500 construction jobs. Batteries will be made primarily for Tesla cars.

“We are in talks with other suppliers who will provide additional growth and opportunities to the region,” Allan Swan, president of Panasonic Energy of North America, wrote in response to emailed questions.

Evidence of that prediction came on March 20, when H&T Recharge—one of the largest battery component manufacturers in the world—announced it will invest $110 million in a building co-located with the battery plant, mass-producing cylindrical battery cans used to encase the components of Panasonic’s lithium batteries.

Meanwhile, the investigation about the exact location of the contaminated groundwater that needs to be cleaned up is continuing. “We’re not at that point yet to work with different remedies for addressing whatever contamination is found in the groundwater,” says Ian Thomas, the Army’s Base Realignment and Closure project manager. The Army does expect to do long-term monitoring of the site, Thomas says.

“The Army no longer owns any of the property,” Smith says. “So we’re just finishing our obligation here on the property.”

The battery plant is on target to begin operations in early 2025, with the expectation that soil and groundwater remediation efforts around the plant will still be active. But Smith addressed whether or not residential housing can be safely accommodated on land near the battery plant during a public meeting with DeSoto residents in June 2023. He said it’s a question the Army can’t answer, citing differences in approved levels of cleanup between industrial sites like Sunflower and residential development sites.

“I think we had one person that was a bit perturbed about the contamination that is there and the potential for it going into the groundwater and into the rivers,” Thomas says. “We are monitoring and investigating all sources on site, and we have yet to see anything that was produced on site that has gone outside of the boundaries of Sunflower.” 

The Kansas City metro is a hotbed of development right now

The $150 million Margaritaville Hotel Kansas City, featuring 229 rooms in a resort-like setting, is now under construction. It’s slated to open Spring 2025.

The $486 million Mattel Adventure Park, featuring a Barbie beach town, a Big Wheels ride and more Mattel toy- and game-themed attractions, is coming sometime in 2026.

Kansas’ Rising Star

Since 2019, Kansas has attracted more than $18 billion in private-sector investment. For the second quarter of 2023, Kansas had the second-strongest growth in real gross domestic product in the country, at 7.4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis. There are projects in 85 of the state’s 105 counties.

Source: Kansas Department of Commerce. 

1941: The Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant was originally known as the Sunflower Ordnance Works, the world’s largest smokeless power plant. Construction began immediately and was followed by the first production of propellant 10 months later.

1941–1945: During World War II, the Sunflower Ordnance Works produced more than 200 million pounds of propellants and employed as many as 12,067 people.

June 1948: The plant was placed on full inactive status.

1951: The Sunflower Ordnance Works was reactivated due to the Korean War. This time, the plant produced more than 166 million pounds of propellants, with a peak employment of 5,374 workers.

June 1960:The plant was inactivated.

August 1, 1963: 

The name of the plant was changed from the Sunflower Ordnance Works to Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant.

August 1965: The plant was reactivated to support the Vietnam War and produced more than 145 million pounds of propellants, with a peak employment of 4,056 workers.

August 1967: A major facility modernization program was started.

1975: A facility for the production of nitroguanidine was added. This facility was the first of its kind in North America.

1992: The plant was inactivated.

1997: Sunflower AAP was declared excess by the U.S. Army, and the General Services Administration began the process of selling the site.

October 2002: Army responsibility for disposal of the property was transferred from the Army Materiel Command to the Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management, Base Realignment and Closure Division.

October 2004: The Army, in consultation with the General Services Administration, conveyed Sunflower AAP to an entity selected by the Johnson County Board of Commissioners.

July 2005: The Army submitted the transfer documentation to the governor of Kansas for approval and signature. Pursuant to the enacted legislation and the governor’s approval, Johnson County approved Sunflower Redevelopment, LLC (SRL) as the redeveloper.

August 31, 2005: All 9,065 acres were conveyed to SRL.

2022: The site was annexed by the city of DeSoto.

Source: U.S. Army Environmental Command.

Social Media

Get The Latest Updates

Subscribe to our newsletters

Kansas City magazine keeps readers updated on the latest news in twice-weekly newsletter. 

On Tuesdays, Dish brings you food news and our critic picks. 

On Thursdays, The Loop offers exclusive news reports and our curated events picks.