If you turn the corner on East 18th Street and walk south on Vine, past Danny’s Big Easy, past Knockout Chicken and Fish, past the languishing false store fronts built for Robert Altman’s 1996 movie, “Kansas City,” past the two-story building that once housed the original Gates barbecue restaurant, you come to a bridge over 20th Street.
The bridge, Vewiser (“VEE-wiser” or V, as his friends call him) Dixon explains as we walk across it, is where what he calls the New Promised Land begins.
For the past several years Dixon, a native son, born and raised in the 18th & Vine neighborhood, has been quietly acquiring land in the 17.5-acre South Vine Corridor directly south of the Historic Jazz District.
The neighborhood stretches from 20th Street south to 25th Street, and from Paseo Boulevard east to Woodland Avenue.
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It encompasses Lincoln College Preparatory Academy (Missouri’s top-ranked high school), Lincoln College Prep Middle School and Wendell Phillips Elementary School, so families moving into the housing developments sketched out on Dixon’s colorful plans would have K-12 schools within walking distance.
Dixon would like to expand the educational range from “cradle to college” by adding an early childhood center and perhaps a satellite campus of Lincoln University in Jefferson City.
Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Dixon knows, has provided funding to historically black colleges such as Lincoln to do exactly that.
Dixon owns or controls 144 properties in the neighborhood, including its most famous landmark, the Castle at 20th and Vine. The former men’s prison and women’s workhouse built in 1897 has been empty since 1972.
Dixon envisions the Castle as a community technology center and event space anchoring his proposed Enterprise Village Ecosystem.
“I want to build a black Silicon Valley,” Dixon says. “Technology jobs are the new promised land for minorities. I want to create a startup village similar to what Magic Johnson is doing with Tech Town in Detroit and go beyond that by providing education, housing and retail so people have everything they need to live, work and play here.”
It’s a lofty goal, but Dixon has a track record of success with his own businesses and, more importantly, with helping new business owners get started.
He started a successful restaurant, Wings ’N Things, next door to Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue at 18th Street and Brooklyn Avenue, then put $100,000 of his own money into an incubator that helped launch 16 black businesses in the neighborhood in the 1980s and dozens more since.
One of his success stories is Lucy McFadden. Dixon gave McFadden two private rooms in a hair salon he owned near Wings ’N Things when she got her license. When her sister, who had been in the second room, moved to Hawaii, she couldn’t afford the rent on the open room and Dixon let her stay anyway.
“ ‘Just pay what you can,’ he told me. V was always like that,” she says. Ultimately he rented her the whole building and then the building next door with no down payments on the same pay-what-you-can plan.
“I tell people that and they ask what his angle is. I’m always having to explain to people that Vewiser doesn’t have an angle. He just likes helping people. That’s just who he is,” McFadden says.
Even more valuable to her ultimate business success — McFadden now owns two Studio 12 beauty salons and two Peacock barbershops — were lessons he taught her about how to run a business.
The most important one, she said, was counterintuitive. “V taught me to not worry about the money and focus on the people. If you treat people well, employees and customers, the business will thrive.”
Dixon’s wife, Cathleen Brodhurst Lopez, said her husband’s generosity took some getting used to.
The couple met in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands when he went there to help a friend dying of cancer straighten out his business and finances. Dixon ultimately stayed 10 years to do mission work and pursue a spiritual calling before returning to Kansas City in 2004.
“I have seen him give people almost everything he has, practically down to his shoes and shirt. He would tell me, ‘They needed that and I can get another one,’ ” Lopez said. “His mindset about money is that it’s here for him to do good with, not to enrich himself.”
But he constantly looks to enrich his mind, Lopez says. “You can be sitting across the room from someone that has knowledge that you need and you never talk to them. V is the type of person who will always walk across the room and talk to a stranger.”
When Dixon and Lopez returned to Kansas City, they bought a home in Bonner Springs, where the rural landscape reminded Lopez more of her island home. But when Dixon saw what he viewed as a stalling out of revitalization efforts in his home neighborhood, he felt compelled to jump in with both feet.
Dixon’s willingness to take on such a large project doesn’t surprise his sister, Kansas City singer and actress Nedra Dixon.
“From the time he was little bitty, he was always extremely headstrong but also visionary. He always kind of marched to his own drummer,” Nedra Dixon says.
She sees her brother’s commitment to South Vine as an extension of their parents’ values of education and achievement. Their father was a doctor, their mother a nurse.
“Growing up in a black family whose ultimate goal was to make sure their children had opportunity and who taught their children that they could change the world if they wanted to, that has stayed with him. That is part of his core,” Nedra Dixon says.
One of Dixon’s oldest friends from the neighborhood is Charlie Parker (no relation to the late Kansas City saxophonist).
Parker says Dixon was a little sheltered growing up.
“His family was socially mobile, so for me to be able to hang out with the crowd he hung out with was an advantage, and I was an athlete, playing every sport, and I was able to bring him into that world, which was new to him. We double-dated a lot.”
His senior year at Lincoln High, Dixon’s parents gave him a new 1969 Mustang Mach 1. “It was fire engine red and supercharged. You talk about a chick magnet — whatever friendship we had at that point, we became even closer after that car,” Parker said, laughing.
The Lincoln High Class of 1969 was close. They were Missouri high school basketball champions (and third in the metro behind Sumner and Wyandotte on the Kansas side) and they’ve stayed close, holding frequent reunions. They include the 1969 classes from Central, Paseo, Manual and Southeast in their social activities as well.
“It’s not often you see a class stay that close even with its rivals,” Parker says.
Former Royals second baseman Frank White, now a Jackson County legislator for the 1st District at large, graduated from Lincoln a year ahead of Parker and Dixon and remains a friend.
Parker and Dixon visited each other in college as Dixon earned an engineering degree at University of Missouri-Rolla and Parker graduated from Tarkio College in Tarkio, Mo., with a degree in accounting.
Parker still owns a Wings ’N Things on 58th Street and Troost Avenue that Dixon helped him open in 1990 when he left his job as a bank examiner for the Comptroller of the Currency.
Today Parker sits on the board of the Black Economic Union and works with Dixon on planning for the enterprise village, which he sees as a logical extension of the incubator Dixon set up on 18th Street in the ’80s. “He had people sharing offices and personnel to save on the overhead costs that usually kill startups. He has always been a visionary.”
Dixon believes his ambitious revitalization comes at an auspicious moment.
“You’ve got to have entertainment and dining for people to want to live and work in a place. That’s already here in the Jazz District, and people coming to live and start businesses in South Vine will provide more customers for 18th & Vine,” he says.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver sees Dixon’s planned enterprise village as part of what he says is a gigantic boost coming to the area, which has seen its share of struggles.
“With the Royals youth baseball academy that was just announced and Ollie Gates’ housing project and some other things that will be announced shortly that we are planning with (3rd District Councilman) Jermaine Reed’s leadership on 18th Street, it’s going to be, finally, after lo these many years, a spot in Kansas City that will become a destination for many tourists,” Cleaver said.
“And how cool to have education, housing and professional offices in the mix. What Vewiser is doing is creating something that will be unique to this country, which is to have a high-tech community right in the urban core.”
Dixon expects to break ground on the first phase of the village in 2016. He is interviewing potential co-developers this month, and he already has some big names backing him, including developer Troy Nash of the real estate group Newmark Grubb Zimmer and Black Economic Union President Chester Thompson Jr.
He has letters of support from Turner Construction and Associated Wholesale Grocers, which has agreed to back a locally owned grocery store in the enterprise zone. Dixon is in talks with a potential owner with a long family history in the grocery business.
The Black Economic Union is working with Google for Entrepreneurs to provide community Internet access in the current EVE headquarters in the historic Lincoln Building at 18th & Vine, a relationship Dixon hopes to build on with hundreds of prospective homes and offices that will be wired for Internet.
And longtime friend and former NBA player Clay Johnson, who returned to his hometown of Kansas City after his basketball career, has spoken to his close friend and former teammate on the world champion 1982 Los Angeles Lakers, Magic Johnson (no relation), about getting involved with Dixon’s project.
“With Vewiser, if it’s in his mind, if he has a vision, he’s going to make it happen. He’s brought together like-minded people who all have a track record of accomplishing things,” Clay Johnson said.
“People bring me so-called opportunities every day, tell me they want to meet with Magic every day. With V, I can’t wait to introduce him to Magic because I know the impact it’s going to have on this city and on the country,” Johnson said.
Magic Johnson has leveraged his sports fame to bring venture capitalists and big companies into urban neighborhoods in several cities including Detroit, Oakland and Atlanta, to set up businesses.
One of the many fat ring binders in Dixon’s office is filled with names of big national companies with diversity goals they are not meeting. Part of his strategy is courting them to open businesses and franchises in his enterprise village.
Dixon is an ordained minister. He sees no conflict between his deep spirituality and his grand development plans.
“My ministry is helping people achieve self-sufficiency and economic independence. I think you can reach more people and do more good in the marketplace than in church,” he said.
Clay Johnson, who went to Lincoln Jr. High and remembers walking after school to a cafe his mom and aunt ran at 18th and Brooklyn when the South Vine corridor still buzzed with homes, shopping and offices, echoes the feeling many of Dixon’s friends have about his mission: “Man, I would love to see that neighborhood come back.”