Yael T. Abouhalkah

Emulate Anita Gorman’s longtime commitment to a better Kansas City

Updated: 2014-02-06T00:20:15Z

By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH

The Kansas City Star

Kansas City needs more people like Anita Gorman, the dynamo who has done more than most to improve this community’s quality of life for more than 50 years.

And almost immediately, I can see the eyes rolling among some readers who think Gorman represents the way power sometimes can be abused in the city.

Her non-admirers see a my-way-or-the-highway person working behind the scenes to persuade movers and shakers to support her. Gorman and other, older civic officials get lumped together, blamed for all of Kansas City’s many faults, everything from urban sprawl to the downtown-killing freeway loop built decades ago.

But here’s another, far more important point to make about Gorman: She has staying power.

It’s something I hope the young turks now making their mark in Kansas City eventually emulate as they work on their own excellent priorities — like streetcars, downtown’s revival and upgraded neighborhoods in the years to come.

When I hear criticism of Gorman’s priorities — and I’ve participated in some of it over 26 years of writing about issues she cares about — her ability to take the time needed to champion positive projects and programs trumps all.

She could have rested on her laurels when she helped pass bonds in the 1960s to build Kansas City International Airport.

Many would have been satisfied with being a powerful member of the parks board for more than a decade starting in the late 1970s. That included a stint as president, when voters in 1990 approved bonds to expand the Kansas City Zoo and essentially stop it from shutting down.

Civic leaders who become the “first” at doing something — as Gorman did in 1993 when she was chosen as the first woman to serve on the Missouri Conservation Commission — often laud that label in public. Gorman simply hunkered down and became the most influential commissioner in years, focused on helping urban communities better connect with nature and the importance of conservation.

A Kansas City park down the street from Gorman’s Northland home is named for her — as is a nature nature center on Troost Avenue. Ponder that seeming dichotomy for a moment.

To help low-income residents, she pushed for a free admission program to the zoo in the 1990 bond campaign. And she’s an enthusiastic promoter of Starlight Theatre’s program to hand out tickets to organizations serving the poor.

But again, here’s the valuable lesson in all of this: Gorman stayed involved — something too many people don’t do these days.

Two issues stand out for me.

In 2004, a dozen years removed from the park board, she was tapped to help lead the effort to build a bigger and better Liberty Memorial. The plan included the use of millions more in public funds. I opposed the bond issue, saying taxpayers had done enough by passing a 1998 sales tax to save the memorial. Voters disagreed.

In 2012, Gorman favored a sales tax increase that was part of Mayor Sly James’ effort to better fund the Parks and Recreation Department as well as road repairs. I thought the tax was excessive and rewarded a City Hall that had not made enough progress on pension reform and other matters. Voters, again, disagreed.

One more thing: Gorman’s work basically has involved being a volunteer and not a highly paid spokeswoman or consultant.

Yes, thousands of Kansas Citians volunteer their time and energy every day to build a better city. That’s certainly worth applauding. Gorman has gone the extra mile, working on usually worthwhile projects for not just years but decades.

Get more people to emulate that kind of caring and commitment, and Kansas City’s future will be brighter than ever.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/YaelTAbouhalkah.

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