May 27, 2014

Former Mayor Kay Barnes deserves greater recognition for downtown revival

While other past mayors have airports, important streets and major parks named after them, the Kansas City leader who arguably did more to revive downtown since Boss Pendergast was running this town in the 1930s has nothing but a big sidewalk bearing her name.

It’s time for former Mayor Kay Barnes to receive the recognition she deserves for pushing downtown Kansas City into the 21st century and restoring its relevance.

That’s what Mayor Sly James strongly believes. I couldn’t agree more, and I have a hunch many other people feel that way too.

Right now, it’s a travesty that the visionary mayor who spearheaded the South Loop redevelopment 10 years ago — including the Sprint Center, Power & Light District and H&R Block headquarters — has nothing more than the ho-hum plaza in front of the arena named after her, essentially a big sidewalk.

Remember how that area looked at the beginning of the new century? Haunted houses, crumbling parking lots, a porno shop, broken booze bottles — an urban wasteland.

“What she did downtown was Herculean in a lot of ways,” James said, “and I have a fuller and better appreciation for that now. When I look at all the people and resources she had to pull together, it’s amazing.”

Back in 2002, The Star did a scientific poll of metropolitan residents as part of our series on the importance of having a healthy downtown. Half the respondents said they didn’t go downtown more than once or twice a year. Why? “Nothing that interests me,” most responded.

Ask them now.

The Sprint Center has been one of the top-ranked arenas in the country since its opening in 2007; the Power & Light District is packed when there are big events; the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is a gem; and thousands of new residents live in dozens of restored buildings.

A few weeks ago, James saluted Barnes at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new 25-story Cordish apartment tower at 13th and Walnut.

“None of this would be here if it weren’t for Kay Barnes,” he told the crowd.

So what does James have in mind for honoring Barnes?

“What it is, I don’t know,” he said. “It ought to be something that captures the essence of the entire downtown area, the Kay Barnes District perhaps. She’s entitled to it and deserves something more than a sidewalk.

“I’d like to do it tomorrow, but want to do it before I leave.”

An idea that appeals to me is renaming 14th Street from Grand to Broadway, a stretch that runs through the heart of the South Loop.

“It’ll probably come down to a street or piece of land, but it has to be substantial, and relates to somebody viewing it and walking it and realizing it’s here because of her,” James said.

Herb Kohn, the attorney who assisted Barnes on the downtown redevelopment push, said her perseverance was inspiring.

“We had so many negotiations going on at the same time with H&R Block, the Sprint Center and Cordish,” Kohn said. “There were many opportunities for her to say forget about it. That never crossed her mind.

“She knew what she wanted to do and kept at it.”

Steve Glorioso, a close former aide to Barnes, believes sexism may be one reason recognition has come slowly.

“During her campaign for mayor in 1999 in which she won and became the first female mayor in Kansas City history, she ran against several men,” he said.

“Without naming the opponent by name, he said out loud at one point, ‘Women cannot do economic development.’ Kay was furious and never forgot that comment even to this day.

“I do believe … part of the reason she has not received the honor former mayors received is underlying sexism.”

Barnes enjoys the fruits of her labor often because of her job teaching at the Park University facility in Commerce Tower. Her favorite times out in the new downtown have been basketball games at the Sprint Center and attending a “fabulous” Paul McCartney concert there in 2010.

“What pleases me about the downtown revitalization is it’s had so many ancillary effects as far as all the new businesses and venues in all four directions from the South Loop,” she said.

“Seeing all the people enjoy all the activities, going to the Sprint Center, have dinner at the President Hotel, working at H&R Block … that first year with the Big 12 and the Power & Light District, seeing all the people having a good time and all the synergy.”

Then the former mayor pushed the selfless button.

“As for recognizing me, I don’t think in those terms,” Barnes said.

“The important thing for me was to do whatever I could to work with the hundreds and even thousands of people who wanted to accomplish the same goal.”

There should be one more goal for that crowd, honoring her appropriately for her leadership.

To reach Kevin Collison, call 816-234-4289 or send email to Follow him on Twitter @kckansascity.

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