Overland Park development has ties to KSU, Manhattan

By Bethany Knipp

Modern, upscale and a little bit whimsical, a natural history museum in the new Prairiefire Overland Park development opened this month, and the whole thing has plenty of ties to Manhattan and Kansas State University.

The south Overland Park mixed-use Prairiefire project was developed by K-State supporter and alumnus Fred Merrill Jr., the owner and president of Merrill Companies.

Merrill had been a known football and track star at K-State and earned his bachelor’s degree in political science in 1974. He later earned a master’s degree in business administration and became a developer in Dallas.

“We’ve only been open a couple weeks and have just been flooded with people,” Merrill said about his $450 million development at W. 135th Street and Nall Avenue.

The 60-acre project features Cinetopia Theaters, an 18-screen movie theater from a company based in Portland, Ore., multiple restaurants and retail shops, 300 residential apartments and a giant natural history museum partnered with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

That’s just Phase 1.

Merrill said in Phase 2, which will be completed by the fall of 2016, there will be a boutique hotel, more apartments, fashion retail stores and office space.

Merrill isn’t the only tie to the Little Apple at Prairiefire. Some of the connections are quite apparent.

Along a row of businesses are two Manhattan favorites: Varney’s and Coco Bolo’s.Steve Levin’s new Varney’s sportswear store will include both Wildcat and Jayhawk gear. And Merrill said the new Coco Bolo’s will offer some menu items from its original Manhattan location. The Prairiefire location replaces the restaurant’s former Leawood incarnation, which closed in 2008.

Prairiefire also features chocolate store Cocoa Dolce, based in Wichita, and a restaurant owned by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS called Rock and Brews.

Despite some of the more local connections, Merrill said he made it a point to get restaurants and shops from around the country to bring something different to the middle of it in Overland Park.

“It was really our intention to bring experiences in from outside the area,” Merrill said. “I think the people here really wanted some new and different type stores.”

The biggest attraction is the Museum at Prairiefire. “That gives more reason for people to come and more reason to stay,” Merrill said.

“The museum’s mission is to get people excited about natural history and science,” museum director Uli Sailer Das said.

The New York natural history museum will send its Overland Park partner two exhibitions a year, she said.

Currently, an interactive exhibit about the world’s water resources and uses is open at the Prairiefire museum.

“People will be able to see first-class content right here in Overland Park,” Sailer Das said.

The museum building was designed by Jonathan Kharfen of Verner Johnson Museum Architects and Planners in Boston, the same company that designed Manhattan’s Flint Hills Discovery Center.

The museum is aesthetically different in that the building’s front portion displays giant pieces of multicolored glass, resembling a modern megachurch.

The panes are diachroic, which means that they reflect different colors depending on the lighting conditions.

Sailer Das said the museum became a part of the Prairiefire project when Merrill Companies was looking for a cultural component for Prairiefire about eight years ago. She said a designer with the company suggested that it should contact American Museum of Natural History, and from there the project blossomed.

But there were some tough points during the recession.

“Everything just came to a screeching halt,” Merrill said.

He said banks were unwilling to give loans, but the project eventually picked up again along with the economy.

The museum is not without its own Manhattan and K-State connections. K-State football coach Bill Snyder is on the museum’s board of directors, Merrill said, and so is K-State’s Ted Cable, the interim department head of horticulture, forestry and recreation resources.

Cable said he wrote the text for the museum’s wetlands area and trails outside of the building.

“I was just thrilled that [Merrill] asked me to be involved,” Cable said. He said he did the same thing for the Flint Hills Discovery Center.

Though undeveloped at this point with impending construction, the Overland Park museum will feature “Natural Neighborhoods,” Cable said, which include information about prairie and woods along with the wetlands.

He said he wants visitors to leave the museum with the understanding that the wetlands are wonderful.

“I think (the museum) is going to be a real asset to not only the Johnson County area, but to the whole state of Kansas.”

In addition to Cable and Snyder as Manhattan ties, the museum itself often references the Flint Hills. And it features fossils from the San Diego Natural History Museum that were collected by another K-State alumnus, Charles Sternberg, the amateur paleontologist and fossil collector for whom the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays is named.

Though it’s still in the making, Merrill said he’s glad to finally see Prairiefire come together after such a long period of time.

“It’s very rewarding to have been involved with this so long,” he said.

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