Mayors usually give their annual State of the City speeches to a crowd of movers and shakers and City Hall insiders.
But Kansas City Mayor Sly James departed from that script Monday and delivered his speech to a very different audience — the young people he hopes will be the city’s future leaders.
He spoke directly to about 400 juniors and seniors at Park Hill High School, and with the speech streaming live on KCPT.org, he aimed his remarks to the next generation. James pointed out that they will live with the results of many of the crucial decisions being made today on projects like the streetcar and the airport.
The speech was part pep talk, part policy discourse and part recruitment effort — he urged the young people to help the city solve problems, such as what to do with unruly crowds of teens at the Country Club Plaza and the Kansas City Zoo.
He asked them to sign up for his Youth Commission on leadership and to volunteer for his third-grade literacy initiative, Turn the Page.
Several students said afterward they had no idea about all the ways to get involved, and they appreciated the mayor’s invitation. Cody Van Hooser, editor in chief of Park Hill’s TV news, said coming to the school was the perfect way for the mayor to make his pitch.
“By doing this, it’s also advertising things for young students to do in the city,” he said.
James predicted some in the audience would be the next great entrepreneurs, possibly creating the startup that becomes the next Google or Twitter.
This is the third year of James’ four-year term in office, and it will be pivotal, he said.
“2014 will be the year Kansas City decides if we’re going to go big or go home,” he said. “My preference is that we decide to make our home a big-time, world-class, first-tier city.”
He didn’t hide his frustration with those who have opposed bold projects in the past, dubbing them “CAVE people,” or Citizens Against Virtually Everything, and urging residents not to succumb to that attitude.
James called the current state of the city “dynamic,” following a year in which the city added 54 economic development projects and 2,889 jobs, and finally managed to build a new grocery store at 39th Street and Prospect Avenue.
Citizen satisfaction scores are higher than they have been in years, and exciting economic development projects are on the drawing boards, including Cerner Corp.’s plans to redevelop the Bannister Mall site, and expansion plans by Freightquote, Catalent and Burns & McDonnell.
But James also acknowledged the city’s two biggest failings: a horrendous homicide rate and struggling urban schools.
To dramatize the crime rate, he invited students to look under their seats. Of those, 106 found cards and stood to symbolize the 106 people murdered last year. Of those, 90 were killed by handguns.
James said he would continue to support innovative anti-violence initiatives and stricter handgun regulations, despite resistance to the latter by the Missouri General Assembly.
He said he would also be more engaged in education initiatives than any other Kansas City mayor because it was crucial to the city’s survival.
After the speech, Park Hill senior Blake Nave said she had no idea how busy the mayor was.
“I knew there was a lot for a mayor to do, but I didn’t know how much it was exactly. It’s basically like a mini-president, “ she said.
Nave also saw the speech as a call to action for her and her peers, especially to tackle violent crime and the city’s other challenges.
“I think it’ll inspire them to pay attention,” she said, “and to want to change something.”