How KC is welcoming reluctant transplants as the USDA moves some employees from DC

In June, the Department of Agriculture announced that it was moving the offices of two agencies from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City. One of the agencies does statistical analysis on farming trends for lawmakers; the other divvys up federal research funding.

USDA employees were reportedly not happy about their impending move to the heartland. According to CNN, they turned their backs to USDA boss Sonny Perdue during an all-hands meeting in an act of silent protest.

“I don’t need to be near a cornfield to study agricultural policy,” an anonymous federal employee told MSNBC. “If they thought that moving us was the best way to achieve our mission of a lower cost, they would do this over the course of years.”

Nevertheless, the USDA is pushing forward. Reports from The Kansas City Star say that 145 employees of the total 547 had committed to the move. On August 1, the USDA will name the site of the new office.

Kansas City is doing its best to embrace the reluctant newcomers.

Bob Petersen, who leads the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City, made an identical move from the Beltway to the Barbecue Belt. He says the initial reaction is “very understandable.”

“Any time you have a move — whether it’s a government agency or a corporate move — is very disruptive,” he says. “It puts you out of your comfort zone and gives you a whole new set of circumstances to deal with.”

Petersen and his family moved to Kansas City two decades ago for a job after spending 20 years in D.C. “We’ve been thrilled with the move, obviously,” he says. “I’m still here.”

Petersen wrote an open letter to USDA employees addressing everything from public schools to the Chiefs to Martini Corner.

“While I am thinking food and drink, we seem to have a new brewery opening every weekend,” he wrote. “And the distilling scene is pretty cool, too. Stop at Tom’s Town Distillery on your next trip. For music, well, Knuckleheads Saloon by the railroad tracks is where a lot of name acts stop.”

According to the USDA, Kansas City was chosen for the site because it’s in the heart of American agriculture and surrounded by 13 land-grant universities with strong agricultural programs. It also offers federal employees a lower cost of living and shorter commutes.

Jessica Palm, who works for the local development council’s TeamKC, has been charged with smoothing the transition.

“If you’re not from here, you don’t understand what the 435 loop is, you don’t have a dentist, you maybe don’t understand the commute time or just lay of the land of our region,” she says. “That can cause a lot of stress to any person.”

Palm’s crew is meeting one-on-one with USDA movers to help them find a home, enroll their kids in school and help spouses find jobs. It’s all worth the effort, says Tim Cowden, who leads the Kansas City Area Development Council.

“They’re the DNA of the USDA,” Cowden says. “Winning such a high-profile, high-stakes, economic development project or sweepstakes is going to help us change the way Kansas City is viewed in some circles.”

Although there was a rough start with the agency’s workers, Cowden hopes it’s the start of a solid partnership. When the USDA visited in June, he pledged to “walk side-by-side with them throughout the entire process.”

“We will be with them tomorrow, next month, next year, 10 years from now,” he says.

By the numbers:

550 jobs to be relocated to KC

35,000 federal employees currently live in KC

$50,000 median single-person income of Kansas City

$82,000 median single-person income of Washington, D.C.

$90,000 average salary of USDA employees

$300 million estimated savings for the USDA over the next 15 years

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