Embrace Kansas City’s low costs to attract people and jobs

04/24/2014 1:28 PM

04/24/2014 1:28 PM

When you’re in a big, boisterous and proud city like this one, it’s easy to see why many people who live on the East Coast think of Kansas City as flyover country.

Wait. Don’t grit your teeth too hard. I also dislike that phrase and the air of superiority that goes along with it, too.

But my trip here to run in Monday’s Boston Marathon provided these lessons.

• Kansas City often can’t compete with much of what Boston — and other elites such as New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. — can offer.

Boston has embraced development along its waterways and has a sprawling, integrated mass transit system. The downtown parks and trails system is amazing. The city practically oozes history. And don’t forget all the Boston-based colleges, kids and the positive energy they bring.

• More optimistically, Kansas City

can

compete for new residents and jobs on issues that are extremely important to people in general and millennials specifically.

Let’s embrace the fact that Kansas City is still a pretty inexpensive place to live, with lots of housing for the money. Kansas City also offers very solid school systems, a revived downtown, and big-city perks such as a world-class museum and performing arts center plus major league sports teams.

And by “Kansas City” in these discussions, I’m talking about not just the city of 460,000 people but also the entire metropolitan area of 2.04 million people.

It’s always positive to point out that — between 1990 and 2010 — the city of Kansas City added 25,000 residents, which reversed decades of population decline. It also defied expectations that the flow out of the core would be the city’s death knell.

But note this: In that same 20-year period, the area’s population elsewhere grew by almost

375,000 residents,

adding residents in Overland Park, Olathe, Lee’s Summit, Shawnee, Liberty and other cities such as Gardner, Raymore and Grain Valley.

Why does this matter so much in 2014?

Consider the recent attention paid to millennials, people born between the early 1980s to the early 2000s. Star colleague Kevin Collison this week

offered an expansive view of why they like this area

.

They noted the low cost of living, the burgeoning arts scene, the streetcar starter line, the community’s friendliness — then talked even more about this region being an inexpensive place to put down roots.

That affordability is even more important today when so many college graduates are saddled with large amounts of debt, into the tens of thousands of dollars.

If young people can get a job in a city where apartments or first-time homes aren’t too costly, that gives Kansas City a leg up on regions where the salaries might be higher but housing costs are through the roof and downtown parking spots can cost an absurd $325 a month (as one I observed in downtown Boston charges).

Kansas City’s suburbs are very important because they are likely landing spots for many millennials taking jobs at Cerner’s major offices, the Sprint campus and two of the region’s big three engineering firms.

Fast forward a few years, and many of these young adults will be married, have children in school and will be key leaders in their companies, on civic groups and in various elected offices.

Kansas City’s real competition for new residents often comes from our fellow affordable Midwestern cities in other parts of “flyover country.” Finding ways to make our region more attractive than Oklahoma City, Omaha, Indianapolis, Minneapolis and other peers is essential.

It’s great that Kansas City’s core is getting stronger, with new housing and modern mass transit. But it’s crucial to continue providing a high quality of life in the suburbs. After all, that’s where most people who move to this area will end up living.

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