Jose Montanez can tell you about the difference between eastern and western Wyandotte County.
By STEVE KRASKE
The Kansas City Star
“This part of town versus the west part is completely different,” the owner of Jose’s Barber Shop said last week at his shop at Sixth Street and Central Avenue. “In this part of town, it feels that they’re not putting that much into it.”
East versus west in Wyandotte County. Old, dilapidated homes and rundown neighborhoods versus the gleaming new soccer stadium, the race track, the still-under-construction Cerner Corp. office complex and all those big stores drawing shoppers from across the Midwest.
As Montanez cuts hair, the words pour out.
“It would be nice if they would do something to make the streets look better,” he said. “It feels like we’re stuck.”
The need to boost the fortunes of eastern Wyandotte County is a key issue in the race for mayor/CEO of the county’s Unified Government. The five candidates have their platforms, but they also express doubts over just how much impact they can have given the enormousness of the challenge.
One candidate, veteran 3rd District Commissioner Ann Murguia, sometimes displays a county map plotting properties where owners have fallen so far behind on taxes that they’ve forfeited their homes or lots. Hundreds of red dots crowd the northeastern corner of the county, home to downtown Kansas City, Kan. In the west and southern regions, there are far fewer delinquent properties.
Even the promise of western Wyandotte, which is generating millions in tax dollars that could pay for new curbs and sidewalks or housing programs in the east in just a few years, may not be enough, Murguia said. The problems in the east are stockpiling too fast. And they’re competing with a countywide desire to lower property taxes.
“Delinquent property and land bank property are growing at a much faster rate than the economic development in western Wyandotte County,” she said.
Past mayors have tried to stanch the bleeding. Both Carol Marinovich and her successor, Joe Reardon, who opted last month not to seek a third term, pushed strategically placed projects aimed at attracting other businesses and new residents.
Neighborhoods that have lacked grocery stores for decades have gotten them, such as the new Sun Fresh market at 18th Street and Interstate 70. A new retail/hotel complex in the 39th Street and Rainbow Boulevard neighborhood adjacent to the University of Kansas Medical Center is stabilizing nearby home values.
But those are mere pockets in a sprawling county that stretches 13 miles from City Hall to Kansas Speedway and covers 155 square miles. What’s been happening isn’t nearly enough, residents say.
“I tell my husband that I wish our area would look at least half as good (as the Legends),” said Claudia Bradford, owner of Angel’s Dream Boutique at 541 Central Ave.
Another mayoral candidate, 1st District Commissioner Nathan Barnes — who has served on the board since the mid-1990s — describes his frustration as “an 11” on a one-to-10 scale.
“It’s been this unwillingness to invest in the urban core when we’ve sacrificed our taxes to make the Legends work,” he said.
Census numbers outline the next mayor’s challenge. The per capita income for those living east of the Interstate 635 dividing line was $13,340, according to the 2010 census. For those west of I-635, it was $21,393.
More than 17 percent of households east of I-635 reported annual incomes under $10,000. In the west, it was 6.7 percent. Fewer than 11 percent of residents east of I-635 have at least a college degree. In the west, the number approaches 19 percent.
“Truly, it has been ignored,” a third candidate, Janice Witt, said of eastern Wyandotte County. “I lay it squarely at the feet of our leadership.”
What follows are the platforms for each of the five mayoral candidates for how to aid eastern Wyandotte County. Most call for continuing a policy that emphasizes public subsidies in strategically targeted locations.
Nathan Barnes would commit the Unified Government to develop the urban core “while preserving and expanding our current success we’re having out west.” Such a policy has never been set down, Barnes said.
“This is about a balancing act,” he said. “We’re going to continue to feed the golden goose and have the goose lay an extra egg to help the urban core.”
Barnes wants to attract developers who specialize in urban development. He also wants to push what he calls “lifecycle” housing developments where residents can buy a starter home, an apartment, a dream home or live in an assisted-living center all within a few miles of each other.
That, he said, will help the county stem what he called the “midtown meltdown” that’s seen thousands of residents move out of the city.
“People will move back into the community if they have available housing, and that housing stock needs to be diverse,” Barnes said.
He also pledged to oversee the redevelopment of the long-neglected Indian Springs Shopping Center.
Mark Holland would continue Reardon’s focus of finding anchors for distressed parts of town and using public-private partnerships to spur development.
“You give a higher level of incentive to the more challenging project,” said Holland, one of the county’s two at-large commissioners. “The tougher the area, the more leverage we have to give.”
For the Sun Fresh grocery store in the distressed 18th Street and I-70 neighborhood, for example, the Unified Government guaranteed the development with city-backed bonds much as Kansas City did with the Downtown Entertainment District.
“We’ve done that on a very limited basis,” Holland said.
Cities, he said, are facing a new reality in that they must work more closely than ever with private developers.
“The private sector is not interested,” he said, “unless we help them get interested.”
Cordell Meeks also pledges to focus on the eastern part of the county and wants to see more retail shops and entertainment venues as well as new streets, sidewalks and parks.
The goal: to have people in the western part of the county driving to spend time in the east as much as east-side residents drive west.
“They’ve spent millions on improving the urban core, but just not as much as they have out west,” he said. “So many times, there are people in those areas who feel … their concerns are not being heard.”
A continuing focus on infrastructure and public safety will lead more people to move to the urban core, and that will trigger more private-sector investment, Meeks said.
Ann Murguia wants to take the work she’s done as executive director of the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association to the entire city. That association has worked to bring millions of dollars in housing and new curbs and sidewalks to the southeast Wyandotte County area, she said.
The key is leveraging government dollars to attract private investment, and all-out hustle, she said. At one point, Murguia said she made cold calls to attract a new grocery store, a task scheduled to culminate this week in a groundbreaking for the new Save-A-Lot store at 2100 Metropolitan Ave.
She bemoans the spending of millions of taxpayer dollars in northeast Wyandotte County, “with really no strategy in mind over the last six years.”
Murguia said the growing needs of the urban core threaten to soak up the entire windfall due the county from the repayment of bonds for development of the Legends and other attractions out west. Some $12 million to $15 million a year is expected to flow to the county general fund in 2016 once the debts are paid off.
“We’re all saying we want to spend it on property tax reduction,” Murguia said. “But the reality is, until somebody gets this (east side decay) under control, that’s not even feasible.”
Janice Witt said the key to development of the east side lies in building a more transparent government that more closely listens to the needs of its citizens. She said that, by itself, will spur more interest in helping the east side.
Witt pledged to emphasize customer service and “complete access” that begins with the mayor returning phone calls from constituents and televising all commission meetings on a cable government channel.
“My goal is to open up this process to the people,” Witt said. “The self-interests need to go. This is about the people of Wyandotte County.”
The five mayoral candidates face off Tuesday in a primary, with the two winners going on to the April 2 general election.
To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.