On Monday, Jim Heeter will attend a public policy meeting at noon and an economic development event in the afternoon — a typical day for the CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
Typical except for this: Monday will end Heeter’s six years in the chamber’s top job. On Tuesday, Joe Reardon will settle in to that corner office at Union Station.
Reardon plans to spend Tuesday meeting with chamber staff. Even after multiple transition meetings with Heeter, he expects a learning curve. But he’s no stranger to transitions: He was recruited away from the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority after only 11 months in the ATA’s top job.
Heeter, 67, intends to spend more time traveling and being with grandchildren and have fewer civic or professional commitments.
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Reardon, 47, is extending his civic service career into a third major venue, a chamber with 33 full-time employees, an annual budget of about $5.7 million and about 2,250 member companies and multiple boards, advisory committees and subgroups.
In separate interviews, Heeter and Reardon reflected on challenges and opportunities inherent in managing the metro area’s largest chamber, charged with helping businesses, cities and the economy on both sides of the state line.
Reardon, mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., from 2005 to 2013, said he’s lived a mantra: It takes the entire region for any single part of it to succeed.
“To deliver a broad promise of job growth and economic development, we need regional initiatives … we need a bistate vision,” Reardon said.
Both men emphasized “rising above the state line,” especially when it pits area cities against one another. Heeter was frank.
“A week hardly goes by that Kansas City doesn’t appear on some kind of top 10 list,” Heeter said. “We’re on a roll. But compare our region to our peer cities and we’re at the bottom in job growth. That needs to change. We need to identify the issues behind lagging job growth and fix it, not just move our existing jobs.”
Heeter said he learned that chamber goals are more likely to succeed if leaders don’t expect answers to come from Jefferson City or Topeka but rather walk careful paths to get matching funds or legislative support for key local projects.
Reardon said his experience with the introduction of Google Fiber and new developments in western Wyandotte County solidified the value of regional cooperation.
“Whether you’re talking about the American Royal or the airport or the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, West Village or the transportation system, they’re important to the region, not just where they’re located,” Reardon said. “They need regional support to prosper, and the chamber is the vehicle to encourage that.”
Reardon also intends to continue Heeter’s emphasis on diversifying the chamber’s membership.
“The dynamics of our business community have changed,” Heeter said. “It has been very important to me to get small businesses more actively engaged in chamber leadership. We also need diversity in gender, race and age.”
Reardon said he is especially passionate about encouraging entrepreneurs.
“We need to provide mentoring relationships, to develop venture capital funds, to leverage the expertise of the Kauffman Foundation, to promote the Sprint Accelerator, the Digital Sandbox and all the other entrepreneurial support groups,” Reardon said. “We need to partner with KC Rising, with the Kansas City Area Development Council, with International Trade Center. We need to collaborate to grow more jobs than we have today.”
Reardon will continue to be guided by the chamber’s Big 5 program established during Heeter’s tenure to focus civic action on ongoing priorities despite rotating chamber boards or staff changes.
Reardon said he is most energized by the Big 5 goal to become “America’s most entrepreneurial city.” Heeter admitted fondness for the Big 5 aim to help move the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s performing arts facilities to a campus site near the Kauffman Center. Fundraising continues for that.
The three other continuing Big 5 initiatives are upgrading early childhood education metrowide; improving housing, jobs and schools in an area of Kansas City east of Troost; and moving forward with the National Cancer Center at the University of Kansas Cancer Center.