Risk is a four-letter word that Kansas Citys politicians like to use when they want to spend other peoples money.
By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH
The Kansas City Star
As in, lets take a risk and build light rail.
Except that didnt work out well for Kansas City mayors Kay Barnes and Mark Funkhouser. Both backed transit plans that voters defeated at the polls in the past decade.
Yet despite the widely held view that Kansas Citians dont like taking risks, plenty of other examples show were open to doing exactly that.
It gets rather tiresome beating back the story line promoted by elected officials, some in the business sector and too many residents that this city cant become a world-class one because its too conservative.
Over 25 years and five mayoral administrations, plenty of elected officials promoted risky plans. Granted, some were more successful than others.
But good things dont just magically happen. People have to make bold decisions to try to make them happen.
• The City Council in the late 1980s approved a $100-million-plus plan to rebuild the American Royal Complex, build the jazz and baseball museums at 18th and Vine, and complete the Brush Creek flood control project. The new building saved the Royal, and the wider and deeper Brush Creek has prevented damaging floods that used to occur near the Country Club Plaza and points east. Unfortunately, the public subsidies to redevelop 18th and Vine havent created the hoped-for investment by the private sector there.
• In 1992 then-City Council member Jim Glover began promoting a plan to tear down blighted buildings near Linwood Boulevard and Main Street to make way for a shopping center. It took years of frustrating efforts to cobble together the funds and the tenants willing to take a risk that they could make money serving urban core shoppers. But thats how Costco and Home Depot landed at the intersection almost a decade later.
• Barnes in 2004 boldly decided to go forward with long-discussed plans to build a downtown arena. Voters approved funds to erect Sprint Center, which has played a big role in bringing new vitality to the core. Meanwhile, the older Kemper Arena is now a drag on taxpayers.
Other success stories involved risk-taking, such as building a new Liberty Memorial museum and expanding the Kansas City Zoo.
Beyond the light-rail failures, some other proposals havent paid off as hoped.
Remember all the hype about the potential construction of several million square feet of offices and rental units along the downtown riverfront? All we have to show for it now is a too-little-used Richard L. Berkley Riverfront Park.
City planners also had great hopes that construction of Bruce Watkins Drive in the 1990s would help revitalize stretches of the urban core. Hasnt happened.
Today, Mayor Sly James and others are tapping into the lets take a risk strategy.
James recently exhorted voters to take the plunge on spending more for a better parks system and on paving more roads. Despite the recession, voters overwhelmingly agreed to a half-cent sales tax increase.
City Council member Russ Johnson is one of the leaders in the fight to build a two-mile downtown streetcar line, a $100 million project many people think is not a high priority. But as Johnson and other backers argue, with merit, the city has to take a calculated risk when it comes to bolstering transit and making downtown more attractive to new businesses and residents.
Of course, politicians with big ambitions can take on too much risk, at least in the minds of voters.
Thats when the message gets sent that they arent willing to go that far. Its happened on light rail and a few other issues in recent decades.
Overall, though, Kansas Citians are bigger risk takers than often thought. Thats a good thing for this entire metropolitan area.