The fund — about $800,000 has been collected since October — has not yet been touched.
Those debating how to get the most development for those dollars seem hyper-aware of their responsibility as stewards of the one-eighth-cent citywide sales tax increase that Kansas City voters approved last April.
They know that it’s not a lot of money — $8 million a year, over the next decade, to prime the economic pump — and that with the need so great, it’s got to be made to count.
That might have been the only point of agreement at this week’s community meeting with the Central City Economic Development Sales Tax Board.
I can’t think of anything more important to the success of the project than the edge they brought to the meeting at the Samuel Rodgers Health Center.
The disagreements, though, were even more intense.
And after decades of disregard and strata of betrayals, stakeholders saw no reason to veil either their anxiety or their racial distrust as they talked about what to do now.
Pat Clarke, of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association, vividly described the Prospect Avenue corridor as it is today: “All you can buy on Prospect is drugs, prostitution and liquor. Nobody wants to clean up our neighborhood, not even us,” and certainly not the city.
He begged the board not to let City Hall commandeer the process. “Don’t put it in the hands of people who are not doing anything for us.” And please God spend the money well, because “there’s a lot of people counting on this.”
Every member of the board grew up on the East Side, and has to know all that’s riding on how well they work with the community to turn relatively little money into the biggest possible investment.
That kind of pressure can cause some explosions, of course, and did.
After several speakers from the Urban Land Institute offered those who’d come with questions and ideas whatever technical support they might need in developing proposals, the crowd responded with skepticism and even animus.
Board member Melissa Patterson Hazley came right out and said that any white person wandering into the room should come in knowing that he or she would be doubted.
“It’s not personal,” she said. “You might not have sowed the seeds of distrust; it might have been your ancestor. But there is racial distrust in Kansas City. That’s the Gospel. You have these tools that you haven’t wanted to give us, so why do you want to give them to us now? What’s in it for you?”
An African-American member of the Urban Land Institute team, Michael Collins, of J.E. Dunn Construction, showed some heat and some hurt at that slap: “If you want our resources, we’re here. If you don’t, we’ll leave.”
And at that, the room erupted. Clarke told Collins to go on and leave then, since everyone in the room was so accustomed to disappearing acts that they expected them. “It broke my heart,” to hear Collins say he’d walk away, Clarke told the others at the meeting. “And you say you don’t know any black people? What color are you, brother?”
Collins protested that he hadn’t said anything of the kind, and he had not.
“I heard something different,” Clarke said, backing off.
Voices from the past, maybe, that keep old hurts so close to the surface still, and that make the exorcism of those ghosts such a necessary part of the process.
Mayoral appointee Herb Hardwick, who led the meeting, told Clarke, “I need you, and I need him, too,” he said, motioning toward Collins. “I need everybody in the room to try to help us get this done.”
Those who’d come with questions about how to present proposals said they were in, and a UMKC real estate student, Bill Kimble, said he was walking away “inspired” rather than put off. “We don’t have to agree. There’s some people in my family I don’t even like.”
As the meeting broke up, Patterson Hazley crossed the room to hug Collins, and Collins called after Clarke.
“That was a real conversation,” Hardwick said. One of many that has to happen in a community that’s never had a chance like this, and knows that maybe a little too well.