March 24, 2014

Latest words from Sprint chairman Masayoshi Son should set off alarms in KC area

SoftBank Corp. CEO Masayoshi Son’s recent reference to Overland Park-based Sprint Corp. being a “daimyo” in Kansas — a big fish in a small pond — while shifting key tech operations to Silicon Valley should be a warning to the region that there is a big world beyond the Border War.

Here’s how the 21st century has been playing out so far in the metropolitan Kansas City area: While we’ve been preoccupied with our zero-sum Border War poaching, it appears we’ve taken our eye off the big picture — how this region stacks up in the national and global economy when it comes to attracting investment and talent.

Guess what? The world doesn’t share our local boosterism if Kansas City merely outdoes St. Louis in prosperity.

It looks at the fact that our economy was ranked 241st out of 363 American metro areas in terms of its annual growth rate over the first decade of the century, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. That trails our regional peers Oklahoma City, Omaha, Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The world also doesn’t care about how convenient our 1970s vintage airport is to local leisure travelers. It wants to know how connected this area is to Frankfurt, Tokyo, Beijing and London. And the world certainly isn’t interested in whether Johnson County scores another company from Kansas City or vice versa.

Masayoshi Son, chairman of Sprint Corp. and CEO of Tokyo-based SoftBank Corp., was brutally candid recently in describing his new American holding as a “daimyo” in Kansas, and his words should be a red flag to the region as well.

A daimyo, according to a March 7 article in The Wall Street Journal about Son and Sprint, was a feudal warlord in old Japan who wielded great power on his turf but little influence elsewhere. The American translation could be considered being a big fish in a small pond.

“Sprint is a daimyo in Kansas,” a SoftBank executive quoted his boss as saying. “That’s not enough.”

And he’s backing his words with actions. Son has established a shadow headquarters for his American operations in Silicon Valley, according to The Journal, planning to eventually bring about 1,000 employees from Japan and flying Sprint executives there for several days each month. The new facility is focused on developing the technology to propel Sprint’s strategy moving forward.

If that doesn’t send alarm bells off locally, it should. We’ve made a big deal about promoting Kansas City as an entrepreneurial and tech hub, and Son apparently isn’t buying.

There is some very good news when it comes to Cerner Corp., Garmin and our two largest engineering firms, Burns & McDonnell and Black & Veatch. They are engaged and prospering in the global economy and bringing new talent — and wealth — to our area.

But again, when you look at the 21st-century tea leaves, Kansas City’s future prosperity is far from assured.

The American Planning Association held its regional conference here in 2012, and one of the predictions was where the job growth by 2050 would be concentrated in 11 “mega-regions.”

Kansas City and other metro areas in the middle of the country were not among them. The closest were regions anchored by Denver, Chicago and the Texas triangle of Dallas, Austin and Houston.

The Civic Council of Greater Kansas City has been working on an initiative called the Heartland Civic Collaborative to try to create a mini-region that includes Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines and St. Louis. The hope is to forge greater collaboration so the area doesn’t get left behind.

For decades these four cities prospered, largely in part because they were attractive places for all the talented young people living in the small towns and farms of their states. But that population pool has pretty much been tapped out.

The competition now is for the talented 20-somethings who are free to go anywhere in the United States. That’s why places such as Denver, Portland, Austin and Seattle have been the hot spots of the past 20 years.

To compete, Kansas City needs to continue to build on the initiatives that make it more appealing to young adults, its revitalized downtown and its lively art and music scene, a category that includes such institutions as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City Symphony and Kansas City Ballet.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James gets it. His streetcar push is as much about psychology as anything else. Rail transit is a common ingredient to progressive cities, and we’ve got to have it. One can debate how we’re going about doing it, but it’s long overdue.

The mayor also is a cheerleader for tech startups and entrepreneurs, and though it’s uncertain about how much real economic there is there, it’s setting a tone of Kansas City being a hip place to live.

And finally, the airport. I was on the fence until my colleague Mike Hendricks wrote an insightful article March 9 called “The Why of KCI.” Turns out our three-ring airport, designed for a futuristic world of supersonic travel and no security checks, was obsolete the day it opened.

It is time to design a new facility that will put this region’s best foot forward to the world in the 21st century and maximize our opportunities to improve air service.

Let’s take a clue from Union Station, which is celebrating its centennial this year. It was designed to impress people arriving here that this was a confident, progressive place in the early 20th century.

That’s the message Kansas City needs to send again today.

And maybe we can find some money to subsidize a regular flight to Tokyo for Son or encourage Air Canada to offer more flights to Pearson International in Toronto and the world beyond.

If it also woos some of that youthful brainpower from Silicon Valley, that would be great, too.

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