A proposal to privatize part of the Westport entertainment district’s streets has been indefinitely postponed, prompting outrage from some business owners who warn that public safety is at risk.
The Kansas City Plan Commission was scheduled Tuesday to debate the proposal, but at the last minute the group agreed to hold the measure “off the docket,” meaning postpone it indefinitely, at the request of an attorney for the Westport Business League.
But Westport business owner Bill Nigro and several other business owners were outraged, saying they had come to testify Tuesday and they want the measure considered for implementation. They argued it’s the best way to ensure police can screen for guns and protect the crowds that gather in Westport on busy weekend nights.
“This is a matter of public safety, and they just jeopardized the safety of not only our employees but our customers,” Nigro said. “This is the third time we’ve been shelved.”
The plan had been scheduled for debate at the Plan Commission in June but was postponed to July, then postponed again to Tuesday. Any recommendation from the plan commission, a citizens advisory group, still must be approved by the City Council.
City Councilwoman Jolie Justus, who represents the council district that includes Westport, said she doesn’t support privatizing public property and there’s considerable community opposition to the Westport privatization idea.
She said the issue may be revisited next spring but meanwhile the city will keep working with Westport and the community to find solutions.
Justus noted that a similar request surfaced in 2001 but was rejected.
The proposal calls for privatizing Pennsylvania Avenue from West 40th Street to Archibald Street, and Westport Road from Broadway to Mill Street.
The streets would be closed during the late night hours, 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. on weekends and during large special events like St. Patrick’s Day, to allow police and security to screen for weapons.
Under a recent Missouri law, carrying concealed firearms is legal on public streets, so privatizing them allows for screening and disallowing guns and other weapons.
“If another legal way to keep guns out of the large crowds that gather in Westport several nights each week existed, the businesses and property owners in Westport would readily embrace it,” Westport Regional Business League executive director Franklin Kimbrough wrote in an opinion piece in Tuesday’s Kansas City Star. “Unfortunately, no other option has been found.”
Justus questioned whether the city of Kansas City has to give up public property to enable Westport’s business model, which relies on a concentration of 3 a.m. bars that draw large and sometimes unruly crowds to a compressed area during weekend predawn hours.
She said the screenings can also push the weapons and problems to the perimeter of Westport’s core, although she agreed that Westport’s new practice of charging for parking in some lots appears to be helping.
Nigro said it’s not fair for the city to try to alter Westport’s 3 a.m. liquor licenses.
“Why would we close early and let the criminals win?” he said. Nigro pointed out that the stadiums and even City Hall can wand for weapons, but the city won’t let Westport do it.
He said the police officers he’s talked to support this move as a way to protect public safety in the busy entertainment district. He said privatizing the streets also allows the police to require people to leave at the end of the night, thus dispersing the crowds in an orderly way, while they can resist being made to move off public streets.
Assistant City Manager Rick Usher, who has been working with Westport on this issue, said the public participation in the conversations needs to be broadened so people understand all the steps Westport businesses have already taken to address public safety, and why this may be the next needed step.