Cindy Frewen Wuellner: Can-do spirit is still needed in Kansas City

08/15/2014 12:00 PM

08/15/2014 5:30 PM

A few years ago, when I was in the thick of Kansas City downtown development, which was blasting forward at a frenetic pace, a colleague asked me, “Why now?” For decades, we had labored on failed plans and visions.

Now the civic center surrounding Davis Park, the Power & Light District and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts are transforming the city. Downtown was reborn.

Why? We had the ideal mix of need, plans and champions. Kansas City created a couple of key plans that were in sync, one from the private sector called the Sasaki Plan, and one from the mayor’s office known as the River-Crown-Plaza.

These plans had gumption. They coupled a bold vision with urgency.

They were simple enough to be viable and to capture our collective imagination. An energized coalition of leaders transformed downtown through sheer will.

In a recent report on economic growth, the Brookings Institute says Kansas City’s prosperity has gone flat. We are operating in disconnected silos and lack innovation. That results in weaker job and wage growth, lower productivity and fewer start-ups. While other cities are pushing ahead, we are in a lull.

Do we have to wait another two decades before we take action? There are no plans that tie together a whole vision for the city.

Never the greenest, no longer family friendly or most affordable, and short on major corporate headquarters and start-ups. Kansas City does top lists for inequality and crime, which are because of failings in jobs, transportation, and community-building.

Where will we be in 2030? Will we still be in a holding pattern? The same entrenched arguments, the same tired voices? People say, “We are meeting and talking. We are solving the city’s problems.” I don’t think so.

Sure, people meet. It’s all nice chatter, but we are not addressing the hardest issues. No Lyndon B. Johnsons live here to knock heads around. Not even another Mayor Kay Barnes who threw her weight behind downtown’s revitalization. Or Jim Leedy who instigated the turn-around of the Crossroads District into an arts community.

Substantial visions require all three — urgent needs, inspiring plans and champions, that is, people who get (stuff) done. Champions are not just one-hit-wonders. They persist during evening, weekend, 365-days-a-year battles because the naysayers come from all sides.

They say: “That will never work.” “We don’t need (or care about) that.” “That’s not our problem.”

Champions keep pounding away until people benefit. Then they keep moving forward with new ideas, ready to tackle the next mountains.

When Joyce Hall commissioned Norman Rockwell to paint “The Spirit of Kansas City,” he said, “This is a story of a big man rolling up his sleeves and going to work — without whimpering and crying.”

That’s Kansas City. It’s a Can-Do place, where entrepreneurs and artists mingle. Where you can love your neighbors, family, job and lifestyle. Kansas City is a regional powerhouse where rural and urban collaborate and where we do business with Shanghai, Mumbai or Rio.

If we live in the most pragmatic, creative, productive, livable place on earth, then let’s make opportunities for all. Erase the boundaries! Provincialism and protectionism are bringing down the whole city. Step up, Champions! Unite — and ignite Kansas City!

To reach Cindy Frewen Wuellner of Leawood, an architect and urban futurist, send email to oped@kcstar.com.

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