UPDATED — There’s another twist on the possible Department for Children and Families lease at 2601 S. Oliver, which has been a remote encoding center for the U.S. Postal Service.
The postal service is winding down those operations – its lease expires in September 2015 – but now it’s planning a call center for the space.
“The U.S. Postal Service has completed its posting process and is now training the first group of hires for the new Customer Care Center that will go on line in Wichita, KS in July 2014,” postal spokesman Brian Sperry said in an e-mail statement.
The center, which will be one of four the postal service has nationally, will answer customers’ inquiries via phone and e-mail.
The remote encoding center has been at the space for two decades. At one time there were more than 1,000 employees there. Now, there are 251 career employees left, meaning employees who are guaranteed jobs.
“Through a memorandum of understanding with union representatives, 251 jobs were posted through a senior bidding process with all Remote Encoding Center employees eligible to submit for the available positions and no external recruitment was conducted,” Sperry wrote. “The newest Customer Care Center will operate out of the former Remote Encoding Center site.”
Sperry wouldn’t say if the postal service is trying to renegotiate for a longer lease or if it’s looking for a possible new site for the call center.
“The statement is all we have to report.”
Jan Manlove, the secretary and treasurer of the American Postal Workers Union Area Local 735, says the union’s “business agent had been working long and hard to get a call center.”
She says on the same day the postal service signed the call center agreement, it measured space at Hutchinson and Ponca City post offices to see if the call center could locate at either one.
“Our union, No. 1, wants to keep the jobs here in Wichita,” Manlove says.
She and another union representative wrote to Mayor for help.
Manlove says she hopes he or someone else can work “to stop the state of Kansas from poaching our building.”
“I just didn’t know what his office might be able to do to keep the jobs in Wichita,” she says.
“I don’t think we’re fully informed at this point,” says Dale Goter, a spokesman for the mayor’s office.
“I think he’s waiting for more information,” Goter says. “We don’t know the particulars of the contract negotiation.”
Nor is anyone with DCF discussing the contract.
“We consider it under negotiation, and we can’t comment,” says Todd Fertig, a spokesman for the state Department of Administration.
Another state official had said the DCF lease was “at the goal line” in February. Fertig won’t discuss what the holdup is.
“It’s just the ongoing negotiation just takes time.”
According to information previously obtained by Have You Heard? through the Joint Committee on State Building Construction, the new lease would cost DCF $13.14 a square foot, or about $1.28 million a year.
That compares to a slashed rate of $6 a square foot that the city is offering DCF to remain downtown in the Finney State Office Building, which DCF says does not meet its needs.
It also compares to $375,074, or almost $3.85 a square foot, the postal service is paying for the South Oliver space. However, according to a listing on LoopNet, the postal service has invested at least $12 million in the building in the time it’s been there.
“I am a little irritated that the state of Kansas is willing to pay a fortune to get that building,” Manlove says.
She says she’s concerned the landlord isn’t interested in renewing the lease with the postal center since the state lease price is significantly higher.
Manlove says, though, “I doubt at this point they need a building that big.”
The South Oliver space is 97,532 square feet.
“Here’s the fear that the postal workers have,” says state Rep. Jim Ward, who has been a vocal critic of the state moving DCF and other agencies from the Finney building.
“If they don’t have this building,” he says of the South Oliver space, “then the option is to move to Hutchinson.”
Ward says he spoke with a postal representative in Denver who says the postal service is open to finding other Wichita space for the call center.
“That is not consistent with what the postal worker employees tell me,” Ward says.
He adds, “They were excited and surprised they got the (call center) contract. Their argument is the fewer waves we make, the more secure our contract is.”
He says postal facilities try to save costs by consolidating.
“My fear is we’ll lose the jobs,” Ward says. “I hate to lose these jobs. These are good jobs.”
Though she doesn’t want to lose the jobs either, Manlove says she’s OK with the call center being somewhere other than the South Oliver site.
“As long as it’s in Wichita, so be it.”