Yael T. Abouhalkah

With apron strings gone, KC area needs savvy leaders

Updated: 2013-10-03T00:01:04Z

By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH

The Kansas City Star

This week’s federal government shutdown emphasizes a point that Kansas City area business leaders, politicians and private foundation officials know quite well by now.

You’re pretty much on your own.

You’re pretty much on your own when it comes to building a better local economy, pushing through city or county taxes for needed public services, and promoting other initiatives to upgrade the region.

Oh, sure, the U.S. government still matters a great deal. The feds — as well as Missouri and Kansas state governments — supply money for a variety of local priorities such as roads and public education.

But the sequester and other long-term funding cutbacks in Washington — added to the tax-cutting, conservative Republican majorities in both states — are making it clearer than ever that the Kansas City area really holds its own future in its hands.

So who’s going to lead the way in a positive direction?

• Kansas City’s business community tops the list.

If thousands of jobs are created in coming years by the high-tech startups and giant industries already here, the region is going to be all right economically.

Cerner is probably the best example of a local business with dreams of gigantic growth. If they come true, areas such as the Bannister Mall site in southeast Kansas City could be radically transformed, along with nearby neighborhoods.

If the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce really keeps at its Big 5 initiative to provide a more vibrant entrepreneurial environment, that would be a great victory for corporate Kansas City.

And here’s a mantra for every local company: Stop focusing so much on scrambling to get tax incentives and start focusing a lot more on creating great products.

• Local governments must set the right priorities, especially given resistance to taxes going much higher.

Blue Springs Mayor Carson Ross, for instance, told me this week the city is building a good case for a half-cent sales tax increase to fund a new community center and park improvements. But will voters agree on Nov. 5?

Olathe City Manager Michael Wilkes said the city requires a three-eighths-cent tax increase to repair more roads. Voters will seal the tax’s fate this fall.

In Jackson County, promoters of the $800 million, half-cent tax for medical research are running up against plenty of legitimate obstacles. Voters on Nov. 5 will accept or reject using a sales tax for this work.

Going forward, elected officials have to double-down with laser-like focus on what they really want to accomplish with a limited amount of taxpayer revenue.

• Local foundations remain a goldmine of funding for worthy causes.

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation ($1.9 billion in assets) does a lot of good in the fields of education and entrepreneurship. But under new CEO Tom McDonnell, plenty of Kansas Citians reasonably expect that the foundation will be more loyal to local projects and programs in the future.

The Greater Kansas City Community Foundation ($1.8 billion) is the sixth largest of its kind in the country. The organization funds lots of causes, but donors and foundation advisers must try to key in on the area’s most important needs. Will that happen better in the future?

The Hall Family Foundation ($820 million), Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City ($480 million) and William T. Kemper Foundation $250 million) round out the top five groups, which have a total of more than $5.2 billion in assets.

Combine savvy investments by the business community, taxpayers and foundations, and there’s no telling how high the Kansas City region can soar.

The ugly alternative is a stagnant area economy caused by choosing the wrong priorities and by the unwise use of public and private funds.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/YaelTAbouhalkah. He appears on “Ruckus” at 7 p.m. Thursday on KCPT, Channel 19.

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