Civic leaders must keep vision for Kansas City

11/16/2013 5:00 PM

11/16/2013 5:43 PM

One troubling outcome of the health research tax initiative on Nov. 5 — that was ultimately opposed by the vast majority of voters in Jackson County — is the gleeful attitude by many that the electorate stomped on the “elite” and showed them who runs this town.

The “elite” are business and civic leaders who had a particular vision that turned into a debacle. But it is not like they had anything to personally gain. They brought to the voters, admittedly, a clumsy proposal, with good intentions, to help make this a better city.

Jackson County has been bleeding tens of thousands of jobs. The whole metropolitan area is stagnating. And a group of corporate leaders saw an opportunity to turn things around.

The idea for this proposal may have germinated from a comprehensive report in 2005 commissioned by the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation called “Time to Get It Right,” a study of what this community can do to become more competitive.

In that 87-page report, there was an entire chapter headlined “Translational Research and the Biotechnology Pipeline.”

One of the underlying themes in the report is that Kansas City could build on what it has accomplished in the life sciences, leveraging that to become a biotechnology center.

A sentence stands out as summary of the chapter: “The experience of other cities shows the need to build, as well, a strong translational enterprise”

Never mind that voters would have a difficult time connecting to something as esoteric as “translational research.” The visionaries who operate in something of a think tank latched on to a dream of making Kansas City world-class, and translational research seemed like a worthy and do-able path to that goal.

The urgency of finding new niches for Kansas City in this competitive world cannot be overestimated. In many ways, this area is being left behind. And our lack of solid job growth proves the point.

To find out whether the idea of a half-cent sales tax for translational research would be popular, the leaders commissioned an independent poll, as well as conducted focus groups run by professionals.

The early polling indicated a 63 percent approval of such an initiative. The focus groups seemed to back that up. The leaders thought they had a winner.

On that basis, eventually more than $2 million was raised to wage a campaign to explain and sell the idea to the public and to staunch the inevitable opposition that arises in almost every tax-increase initiative.

Little did the proponents realize that their proposal had disastrous, gaping holes in it, and that opponents would, with clarity and persistence, point out those holes. The opposition turned the 63 percent approval into an almost unprecedented 84 percent disapproval.

What is important now are not the recriminations. The finger-pointing could last a lifetime.

The challenge of growing this city is still before us, which requires creativity and grand ideas.

We cannot afford to send our business and civic leaders into retreat, to withdraw from the glaring need of their leadership, because they may feel humiliated and defeated.

There are, indeed, other needs that require attention — violence, poverty, blight, crumbling sidewalks, sewers that need repair, and other urban crises.

Those are critical issues that our elected political leaders primarily must address.

But when it comes to bringing Kansas City more into the 21st century, to explore our deficiencies, our challenges and our opportunities, we desperately need the “elite” leadership to provide that kind of vision.

So, there were no good guys and bad guys in the Nov. 5 landslide. There were only people with different views and different priorities, all of whom want metropolitan Kansas City to be a magnet for economic prosperity.

Our civic and business leaders need to continue to think big.

There still is “time to get it right,” but that time is running out.

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