Prairie Grass Headquarters

In the 1800s, you could see thousands of buffalo roaming the plains south of the Missouri River in what is now suburban Kansas City. Yet roaming among the buffalograss these days are 14,000 Sprint employees who enjoy a large and lush corporate campus.

Sprint World Headquarters in Overland Park, Kan., has 13 acres of stampede-free buffalograss surrounding an inner-ring of collegiate buildings. Of course, buffalo-grass isn't the only natural plains feature on the 240-acre campus. You could canoe down a stretch of class A rapids (with the water pumps going all out), take a walk around a serene pond or sit by a waterfall. History lovers can experience yesteryear while walking among one of the Midwest's finest areas of native prairie grass surrounding the entire campus.

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But in the end, the landscape and amenities are all about providing a high-caliber facility for employees and visitors, says Robert Mayer, senior facility manager for landscape services. The Sprint campus has everything employees could need — it's similar to a college campus in that sense. There are convenience stores, coffee shops and cash machines. Employees can stay on campus and still take care of dry cleaning, buying stamps or flowers and of course, lunch. Whether you like Chinese food, Mediterranean, Italian or Mexican, you can probably find it on campus any day of the week. The dining halls are scattered throughout the 18 office buildings. The buildings themselves were named after famous Kansans such as Amelia Earhart, Walt Disney and Dwight Eisenhower. Satchel Paige Field gives employees room to play during team builders and other special events.

ON THE PRAIRIE

The campus is so large and has so much green space that turfgrass was quickly ruled out for the bulk of the space. It would have required too much time and money to maintain. Beyond that, the 5,200 sprinkler heads on the property now would have been multiplied several fold if high-maintenance turfgrass had been employed rather than natural prairie grasses. While lower costs and reduced water consumption were clearly pros in the decision, the cons sprang up quicker than quackgrass. People in the surrounding community were apprehensive, Mayer says, because as the land went through the transition process, all they saw was weeds. To help educate people about the efforts to establish natural grass on the property, Sprint put up signs on prairie grass restoration. Once people understood the goal: grow prairie grass in a commercial suburban area, they respected it, he says.

“People started to rave about how great it looked, and they started to see the prairie flowers and the switchgrass,” Mayer adds. “All of those things became an acquired taste.” A public broadcasting film crew even made a visit to capture views of the 60 acres of prairie grass, which took three to five years to mature.

HYBRID MANAGEMENT

As the grass matured, so did Mayer's staffing plan. Mayer, who has a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Wisconsin, began his career in landscape construction, so dealing with the $1 billion campus construction project came naturally. His background also allowed him to plan for the maturing facility's growing employee population as well as the nuances of staffing the landscape services department long-term.

“Now,” Mayer says, “we've got what we consider to be a very strong program … what I consider to be a hybrid of both in-house programs along with vendor support.” He looks at factors that influence specialization such as tree care, which requires technical expertise and special equipment. Cost of services is evaluated as is having a staff with diverse skills to handle various needs.

“When I use the term hybrid in describing the Sprint campus landscape management strategy,” says Mayer, “I'm referring to a combination of in-house subject-matter experts in partnership with vendor support.” The approach has allowed the relatively small staff to maintain a large property that has changed every year since construction began in 1999.

“As the Sprint Landscaping Service department has transitioned from campus construction to phased grow-in and, finally, to asset protection, we have consistently evaluated our blend of in-house- vs. outsource-organization for maximum efficiencies and cost-based value,” says Mayer. “As an example, we have been in a grown-in mode for the last three years, focusing our energies on establishing the landscape.”

For the future, asset protection and horticultural management are the key themes. Turfgrass mowing is now handled by an outside company so Mayer's team can focus on improving the landscape.

WATER WORKS

One of the areas of focus is the numerous water features on the site. Near the center of campus is a multi-section waterfall spanning about 100 feet.

“Originally, there were no water quality capabilities built into the fountains' mechanicals, so over the past four years we have been automating the pump rooms to reduce labor, increase water quality and eliminate the handling of chemicals,” Mayer says. Currently, there are filtration systems, automated water-quality chemical injection systems and monitoring capabilities.

“Eventually, we will add all campus water features to the campus building automation system to gain Web-based accessibility for system monitoring and management,” he adds.

The nearly 240-acre watershed on the campus and surrounding properties all leads to a large lake that holds water for all the features on campus. For example, the man-made creek that meanders through a section of the campus has 132,000 gallons of water flowing through it each day in a closed-loop recycling system with the lake.

“We have to really watch and be conscious of chemicals we put down, whether it's the kind of salts we put down in the wintertime or the type of fertilizer,” says Mayer. “Eventually, it's going to migrate into that lake system and be picked back up by our irrigation system and be redistributed.”

Other water features include a series of waterfalls outside one of the main dining halls. The water cascades down about 12 feet of rock. The ambiance is soothing and you can carry on a conversation at the tables in the area. The Winter Garden at the other end of the campus is home to some of the most colorful plants on the campus. The plant selections vary from year to year. All the plants on campus, mostly indigenous, fit into the local hardiness zone: 5b-6a.

WALK THIS WAY

Not far from the quiet waterfalls is an amphitheater that will hold 3,000 people. It is used for rallies and large team events or celebrations. The area is semi-circular and tiered to allow good acoustics and visibility for a large crowd.

It's in this large area that some upgrades were added in recent years. When the natural development of a cattle trail highlighted the need for an additional walkway between two buildings, Mayer looked to a nearby brick walkway for inspiration.

“That was one of those design features where we didn't want to put in the traditional formal walkway,” he says. “We wanted to go ahead and pick up on the brick-paver walkway that we had done (perpendicular to that). We took that design element and modified it slightly.” The new walkway has crushed granite in an elongated stair layout.

DIGGING IN

When improvements require digging, the Sprint crew is especially careful of the numerous fiber cables below ground, Mayer says.

“All utilities, including the fiber optics network … the only challenge that creates is when we have to excavate. We actually work with a local engineering firm getting support locating utilities.” The network is the lifeblood of Sprint, Mayer says, so that territory is handled cautiously.

While excavation brings an added measure of caution, Sprint's campus is already an environmentally friendly facility. Many people in the community get to see the campus on Earth Day and have a chance to appreciate the efforts toward good stewardship. This year, 5,000 seedlings were given away to visitors and employees. A hybrid auto show, with eight local dealers involved, showcased some fuel-efficient vehicles capable of running on electricity. The bio-diesel association displayed a truck that burns vegetable oil for fuel. About 60 groups arrive on Earth Day and showcase what they do for areas like wetlands, for instance.

EARTH DAY, EVERY DAY

While Earth Day is a chance for Sprint to respond to the call for ecological protection, many people can relate to Mayer's view on water's role in the campus ecosystem. He believes managing a key water resource is critical because of its impact on the health and vigor of plants and wildlife.

“We have to be vigilant,” Mayer says.

Michael Coleman is a freelance writer who resides in Olathe, Kan. He was recently awarded first place in general feature writing by the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association. Grounds Maintenance published his winning feature, “Sinking In,” last October.

SHAYLA'S GIANT BACKYARD

Shayla's ears perk up. Her tail stops moving. Eyes focus. The blood starts pumping and just before raw canine instinct kicks in her premium training takes over.

Hustling over a hundred feet of pristine turfgrass, the Border collie intercepts a wayward Canada goose that has wandered into the central ring of the campus she patrols. As she closes in, the lost bird retreats toward the pond at the southeast corner of the Sprint World Headquarters in Overland Park, Kan.

Shayla, a specially-trained Border collie from Flyaway Farms in Chadbourn, N.C., is a favorite around the campus. Schooled in Canada geese management, she has trained the geese to remain near the lake on campus. Supervisor of Horticulture and Hardscapes Larry Fries has been the lead handler for Shayla since her arrival on the campus in 2001. She was a quick study when it came to managing the geese.

“Shayla figured out pretty quick that the wetlands were the place they were supposed to be,” Fries says. In the morning she patrols the shoreline of the lake and barks a bit to remind the geese where they belong. She also keeps rabbits in check because Fries has trained her to approach rabbit control with the same commands as she follows with geese.

“When you build this incredible facility that has all these qualities and characteristics, needless to say, wildlife is going to come, both beneficial and nuisance,” says Robert Mayer, senior facility manager for landscape services. Early on, Sprint had issues with the federally protected Canada geese on the walkways and high-traffic areas of the campus. “Once we brought Shayla on board, that problem went away,” Mayer says. The cost for Shayla was $3,500 and was worth every dime, Mayer says.

“Her presence sent such a powerful signal,” he says. “She's been incredibly effective in helping us manage the Canada geese.”

“We allow them to populate the lakes area, the wetlands area where they need to be,” Mayer adds. “We encourage beneficial wildlife, but it has to be within our framework of doing business here within a corporate setting.”

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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