The warning came in mid-2014. A report used worrisome phrases such as “weaker job and wage growth,” “less competitive” and “distracted focus” in criticizing the Kansas City area economy.
Some complacent business leaders waved off the report’s alarming statistics, which showed our region trailing many of its peers in growth of employment and productivity.
Fortunately, a larger group of business and civic officials disagreed. They began an effort that’s now called KC Rising.
On Monday, supporters kicked off the public portion of their extremely important bid to boost the region’s economic growth over the next 10 years.
If KC Rising is successful, the Kansas City region will catch up and surpass some of its peers in three areas. It will gain a lot more high quality jobs, boost median household income and increase the gross regional product.
Some keys to progress include attracting a better-educated workforce; getting high schools and colleges to offer the “right” kind of education and degrees to build that workforce; and attracting more investors in innovative ideas.
Make no mistake. If this civic effort just leads to feel-good news conferences, this area will continue to lag in the race for new jobs and residents while competing with others in the region, around the nation and even the world. Cities elsewhere are after the same things, after all, especially corporations, entrepreneurs and millennials willing to put down roots.
It’s also essential to remember this is a bistate project. Sure, Kansas City, as the region’s largest city, must continue pushing for more economic development downtown, in the urban core and north of the Missouri River. But this area also needs more aggressive job growth in Johnson, Wyandotte, Clay, Cass, Platte and other nearby counties.
It’s good to see that major players are involved up front, putting public pressure on them to deliver tangible results. That includes the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the Mid-America Regional Council.
Key longtime leaders in these organizations plus a few hundred volunteers took that 2014 report, which was produced by MARC and the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, and decided it wouldn’t just sit on the shelf.
In the months since then, KC Rising officials have developed several ways to focus on what needs to happen next. Three stand out, as announced on Monday.
▪ Build on local strengths in the life sciences industry and in architecture and engineering — the Kansas City area already counts numerous successful firms in those fields. These companies in particular need to find ways to collaborate when possible in everything from expanding the kinds of work they do to offering more summer internships to engineering students, hoping to keep them in the area when they graduate.
▪ Begin the KC Rise Fund with about $20 million to invest in entrepreneurial ideas. The fund would tap into the deeper pockets of national venture capital firms by matching a portion of what those firms decide to invest in local ideas. And KC Rise Fund backers would try to connect entrepreneurs with investors who’d be most interested in the breakthrough products or services they’re on the verge of developing.
▪ Develop partnerships between educators and the private sector to prepare students for highly skilled jobs. KC Rising supporters correctly point out that colleges and universities in this region need to offer more degrees in science, technology and compatible fields.
The Cerner Corp.’s hopes of growing by 16,000 employees over the next 15 or so years to fill its new south Kansas City campus depend on being able to find job applicants with the right skills.
The civic officials behind KC Rising promise to update the public on its progress toward these and other goals. They want to move into the top 10 of 30 peer metros when it comes to high-quality jobs, median household income and gross regional product. Right now, the region is 12th, 12th and 14th in those rankings, respectively.
That’s not good enough. Around this time next year, KC Rising should report on how things are going to change those uninspiring numbers.