Mayor Sly James on Monday celebrated a renewed spirit of optimism and said Kansas City has become a positive “part of the national conversation again.”
In delivering his first State of the City speech, Kansas City’s mayor departed from the tradition of delivering that annual message at City Hall and moved it to the Bartle Hall Ballroom. He said he chose that setting because it’s a terrific community asset and overlooks one of the city’s newest and most spectacular venues, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which opened on his watch.
“We are a city finding our voice again and together we are calling for a new day,” James said in his 50-minute speech before an audience of about 300.
He cited the movement of new technology businesses into the city in the past year, such as Screampoint, from Silicon Valley. He pointed to the investment of actor Brad Pitt’s initiative, the Make It Right Foundation, into rebuilding the old Bancroft School. And he championed the importance of partnerships with the City Council, surrounding mayors and energetic community groups to strengthen the whole region.
“There is a hunger in this city to get moving and to hear from their mayor that we are headed in the right direction,” he said.
James did not shy away from some of the city’s biggest challenges.
He called on the firefighters union to accept some wage concessions and help the city balance a serious budget shortfall.
“We have budgeted only $8 million for resurfacing 6,000 miles of road during the next fiscal year while we continue to pay $408,000 a square mile for fire protection,” he said, adding that there must be fair, but shared, sacrifice by all city employees.
About 40 city firefighters attended the mayor’s speech and handed out fliers to audience members opposing the city manager’s proposal to lay off 105 firefighters.
“It’s a matter of public safety, the reduction in manpower,” said firefighter Matt Stigall.
The firefighters had no comment on possible wage givebacks, but union and city negotiators are meeting this week to try to reach an accord before the new city budget is adopted March 29.
James also urged the business community to support a new downtown streetcar system and more comprehensive transit options.
Some influential downtown businesses have questioned the city’s plan to have them bear much of the tax burden for the streetcars. But in his speech, James noted that many of those same businesses have benefited from years of tax breaks.
“With the downtown streetcar, we are asking businesses to invest in this project with us,” James said. “We simply must get this done.”
James also acknowledged that his effort to help Kansas City Public Schools has not seemed to gain much traction.
“Over the last year, I have perhaps unwisely waded into the issues facing the Kansas City school district,” he said.
But he insisted he is not giving up. In fact, he said his top priority over the next three years will be to make sure all third-graders in the city are reading at grade level, in an initiative called “Turn the Page.”
He said he hopes to galvanize people all over the city to donate 750,000 volunteer hours to children’s education.
“This is the most important economic development initiative we can have,” he said.
As a lifelong Kansas City resident, James said, one of the most important things he can do as mayor is inspire the next generation. He said that when he recently visited the neighborhood at 43rd and Tracy, a young boy asked him, “Mayor James, you grew up in a neighborhood just like ours, didn’t you?”
He said he was happy to report to the boy, “Yes, I did.”
“Sometimes this job can be very personal,” James said. “Sometimes we need to make it personal.”
Several people afterward said they were struck by the positive, collaborative tone and outlook of the speech.
“It was very upbeat and inclusive,” said lawyer Mike Burke, who ran against James for mayor in 2011.
Burke praised James’s willingness to rally the community around Kansas City’s educational needs.
“It’s a good initiative.”