Mayor Sly James delivered his annual State of the City speech a couple of weeks ago, his second since taking office, and unfortunately, its substance was overshadowed by the spectacle of a disgruntled man rushing the stage at the Gem Theater.
By KEVIN COLLISON
The Kansas City Star
To his credit, the mayor handled the brief disruption with confidence and class, two of the hallmarks of his time in office.
But the jarring incident was another unfortunate reminder of one of the biggest challenges facing the city, the perception it’s unsafe, particularly the urban core.
The Gem is the centerpiece of the 18th and Vine area, an ambitious redevelopment effort still very much a work in progress after more than 20 years.
James didn’t ignore public safety in his speech and we’ll get to that in a minute.
The mayor, understandably, emphasized the positive that’s occurred on his watch, particularly the approval of a downtown streetcar line that’s been his major economic priority other than sparring with Kansas in the ongoing border war over business relocation.
In winning the streetcar battle, he captured the hearts and imagination of many of the young urbanites he hopes to attract to the city and downtown. But it did leave a sour taste with some of the major property owners downtown who’ll be footing the bill.
How they’ll respond politically, and what the streetcar’s unique funding mechanism means for its prospect for long-term expansion, remains to be seen.
A couple of specific economic development measures were briefly mentioned.
James said now was the time for a “thoughtful conversation” on whether a major downtown convention hotel makes sense.
After several years of city task force review and more than a half-million dollars spent on consultants, it would seem to many we’ve already had that conversation.
So far, no one has come up with a 1,000-room convention hotel plan that wouldn’t require a significant financial risk by the city. Perhaps it’s time to scrap the mega-plan and encourage developers to pursue doable projects that would add rooms to the downtown mix.
The mayor also continues to pursue the AdvanceKC overhaul of the Kansas City Economic Development Corp. that he inherited from his predecessor. There’s been little evidence that restructuring the EDC will make it any more effective.
Most of the problems pointed out by the AdvanceKC process have nothing to do with the EDC. They include the familiar suspects of an unfriendly City Hall bureaucracy, poor schools and public safety.
The best economic development tool the city has right now is James himself. His confidence and salesmanship is a welcome relief from the former mayor. Perhaps more one-on-one lobbying with a few local CEOs might be a more fruitful recruiting and retaining tool.
James also talked about the ongoing effort to capitalize on introduction of Google Fiber to make the case for Kansas City being a hot spot to encourage young techies to come here with big ideas that will lead to jobs and prosperity.
One note of caution though. In his speech, the mayor described the metropolitan economy as being the eighth strongest in post-recession America, citing numbers from Policom, a Florida economic development consultant.
That’s not what his peers are saying. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, in its most recent report, ranked the metro Kansas City economy as 241st out of 363 metros, when it comes to its annual rate of growth between 2001 and 2011.
In our region, we were outdone by Oklahoma City, Omaha, Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul when it came to annual growth. We beat St. Louis, but that’s not our competition.
The other big achievement the mayor touted was his part in persuading voters to approve major bond issues that will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into improving the city’s parks, streets and sewers.
This is meat and potato stuff, a big way how citizens rate City Hall, and here’s to James seriously tackling what seems to be at least a generation of neglect of our public infrastructure in the city.
Which brings us back to public safety, the other huge area of neglect for many years. The tragic homicide rate in Kansas City over the years has earned it the infamous nickname “Killer City.”
But that’s just a part of the problem.
A few years ago, I was invited to moderate a Fourth District City Council candidate forum. There were about 75 people in the audience, and when one candidate asked how many had been affected or knew someone affected by crime, almost every hand went up.
A quick look at the FBI’s most recent preliminary crime statistics show why. Between January and June of last year, property crimes were up 2.3 percent and burglaries were up 6.3 percent in Kansas City compared to the previous year.
The national numbers for cities with a population between 250,000 and 500,000 — Kansas City is 461,458 — was a 1.9 percent rise in property crimes and a 3.1 percent DECLINE in burglaries.
I recently wrote a column about merchants and residents in the Crossroads Arts District starting their own grassroots anti-crime initiative in response to a rash of break ins. This is the hip area where the city wants to land all these young entrepreneurs.
Not a great reason to stay if your car or apartment’s broken into and your computer’s ripped off.
James is absolutely right in pushing for local control of the Kansas City Police Department. It’s an important first step in demanding more accountability when it comes to reducing crime. A good start would be getting more cruisers and cops patrolling the streets in a visible way.
Several years ago, the Chamber visited Nashville, Tenn. to learn more about how that city worked. The mayor there said his mantra for revitalizing that city was public education, public safety and economic development.
James said much the same thing during his State of the City speech.
“If I were to give an honest assessment of our progress in the last year on the four E’s, I would say efficiency and employment are changing faster than education and enforcement,” he mayor said.
“The city has fare more direct role of over the first two, efficiency and employment. With both education and enforcement, we serve in a support role.
“And yet, we must continue to try’ James said. “Our residents deserve nothing less.”
To reach Kevin Collison, call 816-234-4289 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @kckansascity