Perched where I sit in Johnson County, I can only marvel at how downtown Kansas City has been resurrected. All that is missing is a statue of Kay Barnes, the former mayor who pushed through its renaissance.
We in the suburbs can take great pride in watching this vital part of the metropolitan area become a place that draws visitors to our city and provides attractions for residents of the metro. It’s a new Mecca.
It wasn’t that long ago, in 1996, when residents of south and west Johnson County were asked in focus groups what they thought of Crown Center, and what they thought of downtown.
I watched through a two-way mirror.
As someone who has lived here my entire life, I remember taking the streetcar downtown with my grandfather. I remember going downtown to shop and to eat. It was a vital part of my childhood.
So I was stunned when so many Johnson County residents proclaimed they did not know where Crown Center was, and they had either never been downtown, or had only been there once or twice.
There was little recognition that a decaying Union Station, or a decaying downtown, had any effect on Johnson County.
Had anyone asked me back then I probably would have said that having a vibrant downtown, where people would actually choose to live, was a fanciful idea and not realistic.
Haunted houses and blight consumed much of central downtown. Not exactly a source of pride. It seemed much of downtown was lost as a magnet for much of anything except crime.
Thousands of Johnson Countians and others who live far outside the downtown loop visit the spectacular Sprint Center for concerts and other events. They dine in the nearby restaurants or go for drinks at a downtown bar.
Above all, they feel safe.
Recalling the 1996 focus groups, there was a near-unanimous sentiment expressed that they would “never go downtown at night” under any circumstances. They weren’t crazy. It was not safe.
I can only imagine what a focus group of out-of-town visitors to Kansas City might have said about downtown. Nothing to do. Nowhere safe to go. A dead zone.
That was the impression conventioneers and other visitors took home after staying downtown. Kansas City was a place to avoid.
Yes, I know Kansas City taxpayers unfortunately have to subsidize the Power & Light District. It’s not my tax money, but I can tell you it’s a bargain.
It is like building an interstate highway system. It doesn’t ever pay for itself, but look at what it spawns economically. Today, Kansas City not only has a nationally renowned arena, but it has an entertainment district which, in turn, has spawned apartment living downtown. Important amenities like a high-quality grocery store and fitness club add to the sense that you can live in a self-contained downtown without constant trips required for day-to-day living. In addition, office buildings are starting to fill up, thanks to a new mindset about working downtown.
A controversial downtown streetcar corridor, inevitably to be expanded south, could be a real asset to downtown. We hope so.
Few of us in the suburbs would have ever dreamed that downtown could actually become hip.
Even with too few good public schools nearby, thousands of Kansas City residents are flocking to live downtown. It goes against what those in the suburbs imagined, but the phenomenon is real.
If those focus groups from 1996 were put together today, and people were asked what they think of downtown, I would be shocked if they wouldn’t say positive things. I would be surprised to see anything less than a consensus that the well-being of the entire metropolitan area depends on a rejuvenation of our downtown — the heart of the city.
To reach Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.