Is Kansas City going to be the city Version 2.0 of Seattle, Austin or Boston, attracting gobs of young people eager to live an urban lifestyle in or near a hip downtown while creating lots of cool high-tech companies?
By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH
The Kansas City Star
Maybe. And maybe not.
Take that as a challenge to all the ardent believers in Kansas Citys future, not as a cranky never-going-to-happen statement.
Yes, several reasons exist to be excited about this crucial issue.
• Start with the over-the-top hype about Google Fiber coming to this area. Today the company is scheduled to make the key announcement of which residential neighborhoods will first get access to super-fast Internet connections.
• Earlier this week Mayor Sly James and economic development officials announced LaunchKC, an ambitious attempt to support information technology industries in Kansas City, especially in downtown and the Crossroads Arts District.
• The University of Missouri-Kansas Citys bid to create a downtown campus anchored by its Conservatory of Music and Dance could bring hundreds of new residents there and renew the positive arts buzz in the area.
• Kansas City recently has received good vibes in a few polls and from some national writers for the creativity of its young people.
However, one big thing is missing from this flurry of words and actions.
Seattle, Austin, Boston and other tech-friendly cities in other parts of the country have a big head start on Kansas City in creating a stronger economy with lots of high-tech jobs.
So while its great to be talking about Google Fiber and its attributes; while its encouraging that some really savvy social media users are promoting the city, and while its a great time to be upbeat about our high-tech future, theres another reality.
Kansas City has barely scratched the surface yet of whats possible in this essential endeavor.
UMB Bank Chairman and CEO Peter de Silva explored a few of the challenges while giving an update at a Wednesday luncheon regarding the Big 5 initiatives led by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
De Silva is the champion of the Big 5 idea to transform Kansas City into Americas most entrepreneurial city. He talked enthusiastically about the strengths of that effort such as this city being home to the Ewing Kauffman Foundation and UMKCs Bloch School of Business and Administration.
But he was also upfront about a few problems.
Its tough to get young entrepreneurs set up in business when this region doesnt have the people or established companies who will cough up adequate start-up capital to help them. De Silva was also blunt in saying that, right now, Kansas City does not have a positive identity as a great place to start or grow a business.
Take a look at another less-than-positive indicator.
The Downtown Council recently reported that the population in downtown core neighborhoods is just 11,000 people. Add in the outer neighborhoods that stretch downtowns boundaries, and the population reaches almost 20,000.
Thats up by many thousands of residents since a decade or so ago. Yet its still far short of the kind of thriving downtown population that will be needed to support even more shops, grocery stores and fun-filled events in the urban core.
On Monday, after James kicked off the LaunchKC initiative at 18th and Main streets, I took a stroll along several blocks east of that site.
Dozens of buildings are empty, undeveloped. Some have been cleared out and made ready for new occupants. But others are simply barren of activity, hardly the kind of happening place that Kansas City would hope to show off to attract more young entrepreneurs here.
So, which high-tech, digital-world oriented companies in, say, 10 years, will have filled some of those buildings and created hundreds if not thousands of jobs, thus becoming powerful forces in this citys future?
Even Google cant answer that question.