In his sixth year in office, Kansas City Mayor Sly James has struggled to sell the public on his vision for the airport and clashed at times with his City Council and Missouri legislators.
But in his sixth State of the City Speech in the auditorium at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art on Tuesday night, James resolutely chose to accentuate the positive.
He recalled that when he took office in 2011, “our city felt stuck in neutral” and lacked a cohesive vision.
He said he wanted to recapture the “Kansas City Spirit” of resilience and momentum that Norman Rockwell celebrated in a painting commissioned by Joyce Hall, founder of Hallmark Cards.
That spirit is now reborn, and “the state of our city is strong,” James said. But he urged his audience of about 450 people, plus all those watching online, not to let it falter.
“I’m calling on all of us tonight to renew this spirit of service,” James said. “Because we know that all of our progress and momentum can vanish overnight, unless we commit to action.”
Since James’ last address in March 2016, Kansas City has marked a number of milestones, including the successful launch of the downtown streetcar; tech innovations; initiatives benefiting youth and entrepreneurs; the Cerner Innovations Campus opening; the funding of a much-needed mental health assessment and triage center; and Turn the Page’s progress in boosting third-grade literacy.
More progress is on the horizon this year, including this fall’s opening of Major League Baseball’s Urban Youth Academy near 18th and Vine, and a major push this summer to expand the Hire KC Youth program beyond City Hall to citywide. James applauded the Kansas City Restaurant Association for providing 50 jobs this summer to Manual Tech students interested in the culinary arts.
But James could not avoid mentioning the most vexing problem that continues to plague the city — the ongoing violence that claims too many lives and ruins too many families.
The city tallied 128 homicides in 2016, the most since 2008. And this year’s total of 27 homicides so far is already worse than last year’s pace at the same time.
“I carry the weight of this with me every single day, and I am not satisfied,” James said. He applauded the efforts of the KC No Violence Alliance in trying to reduce group-related violence and thanked outgoing U.S. Attorney Tammy Dickinson for her commitment to that initiative.
But James said much more is needed. To that end, he said the final recommendations and action steps will be announced in two weeks from an anti-violence task force appointed more than a year ago. James will join City Councilwoman Jolie Justus in presenting that long-awaited report.
A recent poll showed 66 percent of frequent voters approve of James’ job performance, which is down somewhat from his popularity with more than 70 percent of residents last year. But James still is generally seen as a strong leader for the city, and he took advantage of that standing Tuesday night to put in one more plug for one of his biggest initiatives.
He once again urged voter support next Tuesday for the city’s $800 million infrastructure bond proposal, which would require a gradual property tax increase over the next 20 years.
“Bottom line, when it comes to sharing the investment, this is the lowest, slowest tax increase we could put forward that still ensures the investment needed to tackle long-standing needs in all corners of the city,” James said.
As the speech ended, James invited the audience to “get involved” by visiting with numerous volunteers waiting just outside the auditorium to talk about a host of beneficial community programs.
“We are writing a new chapter in our city’s history,” he said. “I want each of us to have a role in it. ... Let’s make our mark on the years ahead.”