Parkville Mayor Kathy Dusenbery is used to people gushing about her Northland ’burb. It has a quaint downtown, lakefront homes and a riverfront park.
So she was perplexed and perturbed when she learned Parkville ended up smack in the middle of The Kansas City Star’s rankings of suburbs, at No. 20.
"Twentieth? Are you serious?" the mayor asked. "When I go places, I have people pulling me aside and complimenting me on our city."
That was merely one of the surprises that emerged from The Star’s analysis of suburban quality of life. Some far-flung cities outdid some well-known inner suburbs. Yet not all growing cities performed well. And while some ’burbs lived up to their lofty reputations in real estate circles, several did not.
In Parkville’s case, its top score among all suburbs in community charm could not make up for its increasing crime, high property taxes and lack of recreational amenities.
Overall, The Star’s comparison of suburbs provided answers to some long-burning questions and some unexpected rankings. Consider:
Is the Northland an emerging oasis?
Sure looks like it.
Clay and Platte counties had eight cities included in the rankings, and six of them ended up in the top half. Smithville was the top Missouri-side city, Platte City came close to cracking the top 10, and No. 6 Liberty had the area’s best overall elementary school test scores.
"I think there are many Kansas Citians who’ll go, `Hmmmmm,’" said Sheila Tracy, president of the Northland Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Actually, Dusenbery is OK with her city’s ranking because she figures it means Parkville will remain a well-kept secret a little longer.
Does Johnson County deserve its reputation as a highly desirable place?
In a word, yes.
Johnson County communities earned a dozen of the top 17 overall scores, including seven of the top 10 rankings. Johnson County cities generally dominated the statistics related to safety and education. But they hardly "have it all." Places like Prairie Village and Fairway have few recreational facilities, for instance.
Still, the county’s performance makes sense to some government officials, who consider community quality tied to household income. After all, wealth generates greater tax revenue, which allows cities to afford better services. There is not a perfect correlation, or else Mission Hills would have been No. 1.
Does Raytown still deserve to be the brunt of jokes?
Two decades ago, blue-collar Raytown was the fictional setting for a TV show called "Mama’s Family" about squabbling rednecks. That image has been hard to live down. Even today when Mayor Sue Frank makes presentations about her city’s progress, she still hears skeptical comments like, "You’re talking about Raytown?"
But Raytown finished 24th in the rankings, about average, and above such places as De Soto, Independence and Raymore. Raytown proved to have an efficient city government and good housing appreciation. Plus, it offers recreational amenities like a BMX bike track and a Super Splash water park that few other suburbs have.
"Honestly, I would have rated us in the bottom third 10 years ago. We didn’t have a sense of direction," Frank said.
In recent years, Raytown has professionalized its government.
"Now many people look at our community as being on the comeback," the mayor said.
Speaking of comebacks, has the Kansas City, Kan., building boom out west elevated it to the upper echelon of suburbs?
Kansas City, Kan., finished fifth from the bottom. Even with Village West and its Nebraska Furniture Mart and Cabela’s, the city ranked below average in retail sales per capita, based on figures from last year. And the city still has the highest total property taxes and some of the worst school test scores. But Kansas City, Kan.’s, crime is going down, and its western boom shows no signs of stopping.
"I think we’re doing a lot of great things in our community, and we have great momentum," said Mayor Joe Reardon. "I’m never satisfied with where we are, and we have a great deal to do. But we’re on the move in the right direction."
How did older, closer-in suburbs generally stack up against newer, farther-out ’burbs?
Eight out of 11 built-out inner ’burbs, ranging from Roeland Park to Gladstone, finished above average in the rankings. Meanwhile, 15 out of 17 far-flung suburbs, from Excelsior Springs to Spring Hill, finished below average.
This trend shows that closer-in cities offer more services, from retailers to community centers, because they can take advantage of their proximity to a larger population surrounding them. A place like Merriam, for instance, is able to lure big-box retailers, while Gardner - a larger city farther down Interstate 35 - can’t.
"We look to upgrade and maintain and enhance what we have, instead of having to divide our attention between new and old areas," said Merriam City Administrator Quinn Bennion.
What’s up with Cass County?
It still has more growing up to do.
All four Cass County cities in The Star’s analysis ended up in the bottom half of the rankings. The best was Pleasant Hill at 26th. All four scored low almost across the board in education test scores.
"I’m surprised the education ratings were down because I thought we had pretty good schools," said County Commissioner Gary Mallory, a former Belton mayor. "We are going through a growth period that’s phenomenal, and maybe we haven’t caught up with some of the other communities yet in terms of amenities we can offer."
How did Lee’s Summit end up 10th in The Star’s rankings when it was the second-best local city in Money magazine’s rankings?
Well, The Star’s methodology was more comprehensive than Money’s.
Money did not incorporate crime trends, property taxes, government spending, parkland or traffic safety. The Star did, because those measures provide a more well-rounded glimpse of a community. Lee’s Summit, however, ended up performing poorly in most of those measures.
Still, as Lee’s Summit resident Scott Rader noted, "Give me a break. ... I have lived in the KC area for 35 years and I have lived in almost every (part of the metropolitan area), and I can tell you that Lee’s Summit has the highest quality of life without exception."
Why did Grain Valley end up at the bottom?
After all, it’s a city with the motto "What a place to grow," as its population has almost doubled so far this decade.
It’s also one of the few suburbs where affordable new housing is being built for first-time homebuyers. And it is a headquarters town, home of a truck drivers association.
In The Star’s rankings, Grain Valley placed in the top 10 in housing permits and its range of housing prices.
But it is also a place where a race-car track is near neighborhoods, where homes and an auto-body shop stand side by side, and where an environmental cleanup business occupies a prime spot at the end of a residential cul-de-sac.
Also in the rankings, Grain Valley had the worst rising crime, the fourth-worst elementary school reading scores and the sixth-worst retail services.
"We’re going to have to change that," said City Clerk Carol Branson.
Might other rankings change in the future?
Many cities do have improvements on the drawing board. Gladstone is planning a community center. Raytown wants to redevelop its downtown strip. Bonner Springs is building a swimming pool. Shawnee is adding a skate park. Kansas City, Kan., has been reforming its schools.
"Cities and suburbs are never finished," said David Warm, executive director of the Mid-America Regional Council, an association of area governments. "They’re constantly striving to improve."