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Dave Helling | Balancing the nice and the necessary

Dave Helling
Dave Helling

The Royals are to play in Oakland against the Athletics this afternoon, which always quickens the pulse of Kansas Citians of a certain age.

The Athletics used to play their home games at 22nd and Brooklyn. After 1967 they abandoned Kansas City, taking owner Charlie Finley and his mule to the West Coast, turning 1968 here into the summer without baseball.

Looking back, losing a baseball team seems pretty trivial. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were murdered that year. Riots erupted in Kansas City and dozens of other cities. The Democrats’ Chicago convention imploded.

But losing a major league franchise, then or now, isn’t meaningless either. At their best, sports teams can unify a community, giving residents a rare chance to actually talk to one another, a skill we could use here. The Royals and Chiefs have become so embedded in our consciousness it’s hard to appreciate what their disappearance might mean to our

enjoyment

of living in Kansas City.

Civic boosters rarely talk about this. All of the chat surrounding this summer’s All-Star Game has centered on its economic utility: how many visitors, how many hotel rooms, how many meals. Sports are good business, we’re told.

But the late city councilman Bob Lewellen, who once ran for mayor, used to say taxpayer support for stadiums and arenas could be justified by more than just their economic benefits. Sometimes, he would say, you should build things just because they’re good to have.

In one sense he was right. No one would want to live in a community that had police and streetlights but no art, no music, no parks, no libraries, no baseball.

At the same time, no one would want to live in a community that

only

provided those things. And Kansas Citians, it must be said, have been extraordinarily generous in supporting other public amenities — the Sprint Center, the Power Light District, the zoo, parks in Missouri and Kansas, Union Station, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and more. At a time when firefighters and cops are getting squeezed, it’s tough to justify major spending on yet another nice thing to have.

Later this year, downtowners may be asked to consider tax increases to pay the local cost of a $100 million streetcar system. A big people mover downtown would undoubtedly be nice to have, an amenity that most other major cities already possess.

It’s my guess, though, that transit backers will have a tougher hurdle to clear: a case that streetcars aren’t just nice but essential, such as police protection or good sewers. If they can’t make that case, local rail may whiff, much like those A’s teams did years ago.

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