Who has the guts to make big changes KC region needs?

07/09/2014 5:11 PM

07/09/2014 5:41 PM

The most important issue facing the Kansas City metropolitan area is its stagnating economy.

Many other regions are doing better in creating jobs and boosting wages for their residents. These and other sobering facts are laid out in a recent report from the Mid-America Regional Council and Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings.

For many years, this area’s political and business leaders have lacked the political will and leadership to get out of their silos and come together to pursue the big, systemic changes needed to bolster anything more than adequate job and wage growth.

By all means, if we want this region to continue falling behind its peers and the rest of the nation, let’s keep doing what we’re doing.

Keep fighting the costly economic border war. Keep using taxpayer handouts to poach companies from one side of the state line to the other.

Keep the Kansas City Area Development Council and its current mission, which has been in place as the region has lost ground. Keep all the cities’ competing economic development agencies the way they are.

Keep all the same public incentives in place so development lawyers know where to go to get tens of millions of dollars in corporate welfare for their clients.

Keep trying to fool ourselves by saying, well, at least Johnson County is an economic powerhouse, ignoring the fact the county’s job and wage expansion often aren’t national-class these days. True, the Johnson County economy looks buff — standing next to the 98-pound weakling that represents too much of the rest of the metropolitan area.

Finally, keep ignoring reports like the one that came out Wednesday from Good Jobs First, a group that has evaluated the financially inane moves many communities around the nation make to supposedly grow jobs. By now, Kansas City’s border war has become a poster child for the rest of the country in what not to do if you want to actually build a stronger economy.

If the Kansas City region really is serious about stepping up its game in fostering a more vibrant economy that attracts new businesses and new employees, we must take big moves in that direction.

The most essential one is to dramatically overhaul the Kansas City Area Development Council. Find better ways for communities to work together to attract companies and jobs to this area, and to help local businesses find the best possible places to relocate, if they want.

As Good Jobs First’s new study points out, other cities have learned to work together and thrive. One example is the Denver region, which has a binding code of ethics that “requires transparency, respect and cooperation by member localities that work together for regional prosperity.” By the way, the Denver area ranked ahead of Kansas City’s in all five key metrics examined in the MARC/Brookings report.

Another example is in Montgomery County in Ohio, home of Dayton, where mutual respect is practiced and there is “a shared economic development fund for region-focused projects.”

Unfortunately, these kinds of game-changing plans won’t sit well with politicians, business executives, lawyers and others who have built their livelihood on contending that economic development is a war that has to be waged, with the spoils going to the victor — even though all this fighting has emptied large parts of the core, fueled sprawl, and drained hundreds of millions of tax dollars from schools, roads, parks and other public services.

A glimmer of hope exists in the continued efforts by 17 top local business leaders to end the border war. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has signed a bill to move in that direction. In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback and — unfortunately — many Johnson County officials are resistant.

OK, hang on to that attitude. Just don’t expect much to change. The region will simply fall further behind others in job and wage growth rates. Mission accomplished.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com.

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