The Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture will be moving into new office space in downtown Kansas City, Mo., Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue announced.

The General Services Administration notified USDA Thursday morning that a $25.6 million contract had been awarded for a 15-year lease of about 115,000 square feet on the west side of the downtown area at 805 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"Now, both of your agencies have an opportunity to not only be closer to our customers, but also save valuable taxpayer dollars that can be reinvested into critical research and our employees,” Perdue told employees in an email.

Also on Thursday, the Senate passed a fiscal 2020 spending package that includes $25 million requested by USDA to pay for the relocation. 

Missouri and Kansas lawmakers who had lobbied for the Kansas City region to be the new home for the two agencies applauded the announcement of the lease. 

“Together these institutions and their employees will bolster the agricultural research sector in the Greater Kansas City region to the benefit of the entire nation,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo.

“A move like this is never easy on employees or their families; however, as the congressional representative from Kansas City, I can assure you that Kansas Citians stand ready to make your transition as seamless as possible. We are ecstatic to have you here, and we look forward to your commendable research continuing in the Show-Me state.”

In Congress, the House and Senate have taken differing stances in the bill funding USDA. The House version would prohibit USDA spending any money on the relocation, while the Senate bill includes the funding for it. That disagreement will have to be resolved in conference committee, but Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has told Agri-Pulse he expects the final bill will include the funding.

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said she was "deeply disappointed that the bill supports the relocation of USDA research agencies, which has delayed important work that helps our farmers and rural communities. As this bill moves forward, I urge the conference committee to reject this destructive proposal.”

Kansas City already is home to many USDA employees; ERS and NIFA staff who are now in the city have been sharing space with Risk Management Agency and Farm Service Agency employees.

Perdue said in a news release that ERS and NIFA employees "have been hard at work in the Beacon Center after relocating to the region over a month ago, and signing this lease is an important next step to facilitate their long-term efficiency, effectiveness, and service to our customers.” 

Because of federal security and other requirements, it could be up to a year before the agencies actually take residence in the new building, according to bid documents. 

The relocation has been controversial since Perdue surprised the ag research community and ERS and NIFA employees by announcing in August 2018 that the agencies would be relocated. USDA has maintained since that announcement and through the site selection process that it was moving more than 500 employees — while still leaving some in Washington — so they could be closer to ag producers and land-grant institutions.

Currently, ERS has 30 employees in Kansas City, with 69 employees permanently remaining in D.C., the USDA spokesperson said. NIFA has 62 employees in Kansas City, with 18 permanently remaining in D.C. ERS also has 16 employees and NIFA has 17 employees in Kansas City-based positions whose relocation dates have been extended to Dec. 9, 2019, and March 30, 2020, respectively.

"In addition to these employees, both agencies are utilizing re-employed annuitants, short-term contractor support, and employees on detail from other agencies as a part of the department’s strategy to help ensure mission continuity through the transition," the spokesperson said. "Additionally, we have well over a hundred active recruitments in process between both agencies. In total, ERS has 118 positions occupied and NIFA has 88 positions occupied.” Full staffing levels for fiscal 2019 are 329 employees for ERS and 344 for NIFA.

But critics, including former ERS administrators and NIFA directors, called the move counterproductive, predicting many researchers would retire or find other jobs rather than moving.

That prediction has come true, as most employees elected not to make the move, forcing USDA to allow some workers who had declined to relocate to keep working, and to bring some retirees back to work. The staff reductions have delayed NIFA’s distribution of grant funds, causing some consternation at universities waiting on them. ERS has said it would delay or eliminate dozens of reports.

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