When the sparkling Power & Light District opened six years ago, many heralded it as the rebirth of the long-dormant downtown.
But over in midtown, many of Westport’s bar and restaurant owners weren’t so happy.
They said it would draw customers away and dilute their revenues, and it did. That, combined with the faltering economy and increasing reports of crime, had the Westport area struggling to remain vibrant.
But Westport, which first prospered in the mid-1800s as the “eastern portal of the western trails,” is undergoing a renaissance.
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A dozen locally owned restaurants and bars — some that had their pick of locations all over town — have opened in the last few months or are planning to join the lineup. Westport hasn’t seen so many new tenants in such a short span for nearly two decades.
These more gentrified establishments are focusing on chef-driven menus and craft cocktails and beers. One stylish venue specializes in champagne, another whiskey cocktails. Another new operation has a certified cicerone to oversee beer and food pairings.
“Westport is definitely changing, and we are going to push it in that direction,” said Howard Hanna, a partner in the new Westport champagne bar Ça Va. “We aren’t going to hurt anyone; we are going to complement what is already here. There is a need for something a little bit subdued, a little quieter, unique and approachable.”
An image makeover
Westport has long been the metro’s entertainment draw for its rowdy party scene, central location and walkability.
But in the last few years, it has had to compete with the Power & Light District, built on the doorstep of the Sprint Center, and with urban and suburban neighborhood entertainment areas.
Areas such as Martini Corner in the 31st Street and Gillham Road area, Brookside, Waldo and the new Prairiefire center in south Johnson County allow consumers to go out for a drink closer to home.
So Westport’s leaders have worked to change the district’s image.
Some of the groundwork was laid a decade ago when property owners created a community improvement tax district. Those funds have been used to beef up security and spruce up the aesthetics through landscaping, decorative benches and trash cans. More office and residential tenants have moved in, providing a deeper base of customers who spend money in the area’s shops, bars and restaurants.
And to further address safety concerns, Westport merchants this summer are spending about $100,000 to improve the district’s camera security system.
Merchants think the dozen new restaurants and bars will make the area a destination for the “foodie” generation that wants to savor the best in food and drink.
The James Beard award-winning Bluestem helped kick off the movement when it opened a decade ago. Now it is reinvesting in the area. It temporarily shut down in late March for a major renovation and reopened in June.
“I’ve always considered Westport one of the most important areas of the city,” said Colby Garrelts, who owns Bluestem with his wife, Megan. “It wasn’t built by a flush of investment. It happened naturally, and that gives it an authenticity. You go in and you can just feel that someone put their heart and soul into their spaces, pounded the nails, painted the walls.”
In the last few years, other more food-driven venues have joined Bluestem, including the Beer Kitchen, the modern French restaurant Westport Cafe and Bar, and the popular Port Fonda. The most recent crop of local bar and restaurant entrepreneurs wants to be near these like-minded operators in the historic Westport setting.
Westport Ale House — a twist on the traditional sports bar — offers American beers and beer cocktails, along with items such as Maryland crab tater tots and hamburgers with pecan-smoked bacon. The owners are adding a rooftop deck, with an early fall opening scheduled.
Bridger’s Bottle Shop, which sells more than 600 cold beers for drinking on the premises or taking home, and its shop within a shop, Preservation Market, which sells Local Pig meats, craft cheeses and pickled vegetables.
Char Bar Smoked Meats & Amusements, set to open this fall in part of the former Beaumont Club, will have one of Kansas City’s “largest and best beer gardens” with a dining area, croquet court, table tennis and more.
The new investment goes beyond food and drink establishments.
The owner of Volume 1ne, a new sneaker and street fashion boutique, spent several months creating a contemporary retail space in the heart of Westport.
New owners also converted the Westport Holiday Inn Express on the west end of Westport to 816 Hotel with a historic Kansas City theme. Across the street, new owners also closed Q Hotel + Spa in June for an extensive renovation, to be completed in October. It will then reopen as AC Hotels by Marriott Kansas City Westport.
Hits, misses, concerns
Over the last three decades, sections of Westport have been redeveloped with mixed results.
The former Manor Baking Co. became Manor Square in the mid to late 1980s with the hope of bringing more retail to the entertainment district. After a promising start, sluggish sales forced several shops and food operations to close.
Today, Manor Square is a mixed-use center that’s home to such tenants as the Tivoli Cinemas, the new Bridger’s Bottle Shop/Preservation Market, Gold’s Gym and office tenants. Occupancy is at 92 percent.
Nearby, Mill Street Station, which opened in 1996 with the 65,000-square-foot Marsh’s Sun Fresh grocery store as an anchor, has had more success but some turnover in smaller spaces.
Councilman Jim Glover, who has long advocated for commercial development in Westport, said the area needed residential and office tenants who would serve as its core customers.
Now it has such new additions as 41 Penn, a five-story complex at 4141 Pennsylvania Ave., that is home to 32 condos, as well as a new upscale whiskey lounge called Julep, the Port Fonda restaurant, the Shine Spa and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s Kansas City office.
Another critical component in Westport’s recent rebirth was the establishment of a community improvement district a decade ago, officials said. Its annual $1.4 million budget is financed by a property tax surcharge that the landlords imposed on themselves, along with a half-cent additional charge on sales in the district.
Westport has used the funds to spiff up its streetscape. The funds also pay several contract employees to maintain the area. But the majority of the funds are used to pay a Westport security staff, as well as off-duty police officers patrolling the area.
“We work very closely with the Kansas City Police Department on a plan for public safety and how that plan will be implemented,” said Jon Engelman, executive director of the Westport Regional Business League, a group of local business and property owners.
The community improvement district also is updating its security camera system so it can allow the police to remotely access Westport’s cameras. The new system will be rolled out in phases this summer and be fully installed by spring 2015.
Some crimes have declined. Westport had 26 robberies in 2009 and 22 in 2013, according to police records. Stealing reports dropped from 299 in 2009 to 235 in 2013, and aggravated assaults from 17 in 2009 to 14 in 2013.
For the first four months of 2014, only three robberies occurred, according to the police. There were also 77 stealing offenses and six aggravated assaults. But then, in the early morning hours of May 11, there was a double shooting that injured two men in the heart of Westport.
“Anytime you have that many people in a district drinking, you are going to have some issues,” said Sgt. Greg Williams of the Kansas City Police Department, who has worked in Westport for five years. “But in general, it is safer. They have filled most of their big vacancies, and it is getting popular again, very popular. So you will see a strong police presence.”
Late-night Westport patrons might see the return of another crowd control tactic this weekend. By midnight Friday and Saturday nights, barricades are scheduled to go up around the heart of the area, allowing only those 21 and older to enter, Williams said.
In the past, some Westport business owners competed for the same customers. If one had a successful “margarita night,” a neighboring bar would start offering one too.
But instead of competing, the current entrepreneurs consider themselves on the same Westport team and can often be found patronizing area venues.
“As Westport goes, so goes our business,” one merchant said.
Still, with a dozen new venues in the mix, can they all survive?
“I hope they can all make it,” said Aaron Confessori, co-owner of Westport Cafe and Bar. “At the same time, it’s a good mix. Some doing food, some doing mostly cocktails, most complementary rather than competitive.”
The new venues have also created a buzz for the district that benefits existing businesses.
Westport Cafe and Bar reported that its sales were up 30 percent in the first quarter compared with the same period in 2013. Kelly’s Westport Inn, which opened in 1947, went from “horrible” sales for the two years following the Power & Light District’s opening to record years in 2012 and 2013, according to the owners. This year is setting up to be another good one.
“We’ve had our highs and lows — mobs and mobs and mobs of people that would gather on the weekend; crime was really bad,” Garrelts of Bluestem said. “But that has completely changed. It’s not just a bar neighborhood anymore. You are seeing BMWs, Mercedes and Johnson County people coming down.”