Mission Mayor Laura McConwell, who’s progressive leadership elected her three times and earned her statewide recognition, has decided to step down this April when her term expires after serving since 2002.
McConwell was a 30-something mom who believed Mission needed more family-friendly officials when she ran for City Council in 2000. Two years later, she succeeded the popular, multi-term Mayor Sylvester Powell after his death.
Over the next 12 years, she helped lead her inner-ring suburb to a more proactive vision for its future; introduced an innovative revenue-raising measure dubbed by its opponents the “driveway tax,’ and began an ambitious revitalization effort, yet to be fulfilled, for the former Mission Center mall site.
Along the way, McConwell, a Republican, also was named Kansas Mayor of the Year in 2008 for her “optimism, enthusiasm and vision.”
“When you create a vision for the community, you have a more thoughtful approach to development and a more thoughtful approach to where the community wants to be heading,” McConwell, 50, said this week. “It’s been an honor and privilege to be mayor.”
The mayor, who is a practicing attorney, was not without her critics. Two sales tax increases, a quarter-cent for roads and three-eighths cent for repairing the community pool, were approved during her tenure, and the city took on millions in debt for infrastructure projects.
Bill Nichols, who started a web page called SaveMission.net, said McConwell saddled the community with $17 million in debt, including money spent to rebuild the storm sewer beneath the Mission Gateway project.
“We’re a small city of 9,5000 and are in debt up to our eyeballs,” he said. “She is the one who brought us to this point.”
Nichols is running for City Council and also supports Councilman Steven Schowengerdt who is running for mayor. At this point, the other candidate is Councilman David Shepard.
“I’m sorry our candidate Steve Schowengerdt will not be running against her,” Nichols said, “but we’re running against her right-hand man, David Shepard, so beating him would be beating her.”
McConwell said Mission needed to upgrade its infrastructure and attract new investment to remain a vital community.
“Projects are getting completed, and we’re investing the dollars where we said we would and we have the dollars to pay for those projects,” she said.
The most high-profile project has been the 26-acre Mission Gateway development planned for the site of the former shopping center at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Roe Avenue. The plan calls for the retail, residential and office development to be anchored by a 150,000 square-foot Wal-Mart.
The Cameron Group of Syracuse, N.Y., has been pursuing the $165 million development after purchasing and demolishing the former Mission Center property in 2005. Site work finally began last summer, but was suspended in December.
Developer Tom Valenti said more time was needed to expand the retail portion and obtain suitable construction bids, but anticipated work would resume in March. He also said more financial help might be sought from Mission, which already has approved a $37 million incentive package.
“I’m disappointed Gateway is not up and running, but having vacant ground is not the worst scenario for Mission,” McConwell said. “A blighted building would have been.”
As for her future, McConwell wants to concentrate on her law practice and continue serving on boards. She did not rule out a return to politics.
“I’m concerned about our state,” she said. “There is an animosity among some legislators for local units of government.”