I walked out of the Sprint Center Friday to an interesting sight.
Not the crowded Power Light District, filled with basketball fans. It looked like fun for people of a certain age, but I’m not that age.
And not the flying videos, which still seem weird.
But Kansas City’s downtown sparkled — the Performing Arts Center, the Bartle Hall pylons, the Block building. The Star’s own glass-encased printing plant glowed. Streetlights swayed. Cabbies honked.
The time was right, it seemed, for dancing in the streets.
It was striking, because someone standing in that spot 10 years ago would have seen something quite different.
Shuttered hotels and a boarded-up movie house. Haunted houses and pawn shops. Deserted parking lots.
Downtown has clearly changed, dramatically. Yet that change, one remembers, came at an enormous public cost.
Tax breaks, subsidies, abatements and public improvements were essential for virtually every structure in view. Multimillion dollar subsidies for the Power Light District will be on the books for decades. Smaller businesses and employers disappeared, moved out through eminent domain. Hotel rooms are more expensive, car rental fees are up, and the taxes on a hamburger are higher.
Some think the improvements are worth that added cost. Others believe the millions would have been better spent on streets and schools and police and other things cities are supposed to do. Some say the cash should have been left in taxpayers’ pockets.
Yet the downtown improvements today seem strangely inevitable, the end result of decades of discussion and dispute .
Kansas City’s political class grinds the change wheel slowly, but grinds it nonetheless.
Now it’s grinding again, this time for improvements at the airport and a streetcar system.
Opponents think they can turn back both. Perhaps they can, in the short term. Their long-term prospects for success are cloudier.
The Power Light District was debated for 25 years, but supporters — including many who stood to make a buck from the project — outlasted the opposition. Bonds were sold and shovels went into the ground.
Both the airport and rail transit have been argued for decades, too. Now, their time may be near.
Both carry a big public price tag. But a visit downtown, and history, suggest the Kansas City view 25 years from now will be quite different from the view today.