Government & Politics

At 18th and Vine, a tiny church tries to stem the flow of alcohol

Kansas City’s jazz legacy was made at 18th and Vine

Here's a brief look at the important names in the history of Kansas City jazz.
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Here's a brief look at the important names in the history of Kansas City jazz.

From the pulpit of his small, century-old church in the heart of the 18th and Vine District, the Rev. Demean Ellis says he's seen nothing good come from the alcohol sold in neighborhood restaurants and clubs, especially during what he calls "the wee hours."

Those are the hours of broken windows, noise, trash and sometimes violent crime. "How is this helping the people who live in an impoverished neighborhood?" asked Ellis, pastor of Grace Temple Nondenominational Church on Highland Avenue.

These days, Ellis, 41, is more than just another clergyman inveighing against the dangers of drinking. A long-standing city ordinance gives him and his congregation of 50 or so the power to veto a liquor license for any new business within 300 feet of a church or a school.

Rev. Demean Ellis, pastor of Grace Temple Nondenominational Church in the 18th & Vine District, wants to invoke his veto power under the law to bar any alcohol serving businesses within 300 feet of his church.

This puts him squarely in the path of City Councilman and 2019 mayoral candidate Jermaine Reed, who is determined to enliven the historic area located in the Third District he represents. It has depended on public subsidies of $80 million to $100 million (depending on the tally) since 1989, when then-Councilman Emanuel Cleaver launched the redevelopment effort.

An ordinance sponsored by Reed, up for final council action on Thursday, would strip churches in the 18th and Vine District of their traditional veto, clearing the way for a new jazz club and two restaurants that want to lease space.

"This policy change moves 18th and Vine in the right direction," said Reed, who has teamed with developers, consultants and investors who want to make the district, with a legacy steeped in jazz, food and good times, more of a destination.

There have been bright spots, including the American Jazz and Negro Leagues Baseball museums, the Blue Room and, just last week, the opening of the $20 million Urban Youth Baseball Academy. But the sector has yet to prove itself a sustainable, viable entertainment area.

It is not without places to drink. There's the Blue Room, the Kansas City Blues & Juke House, Mutual Musicians Foundation and Bayou on the Vine among other places. But supporters of the Reed ordinance say it is not enough.

"Quite frankly, people coming to 18th and Vine District want to come for blues, they want to come for jazz, and they want to come for barbecue. They don't want to come for tofu and spring water," attorney Dick Bryant, who represents many club owners, told a council committee in February.

Grace Temple is one of four churches in the district. The others, Centennial United Methodist, Holy Ghost New Testament and Faith Deliverance, have not taken official positions. Leaders at the three did not respond to requests for comment. Centennial is expected to support the new businesses, because one of its members, Leonard Graham, is president of an engineering firm (Taliaferro & Browne) that is active in the redevelopment effort.

But Reed has gotten pushback from other members of the politically influential African-American clergy, not necessarily a healthy thing for a mayoral aspirant.

"I believe churches and schools should have the right to decide what businesses come within 300 feet," said Pastor Cassandra Wainwright, president of the Concerned Clergy Coalition, which represents about two dozen churches.

"I do believe this will definitely impact Councilman Reed's relationship with the black community."

Donald Akers, pastor and founder of Lift Him Up Ministries Family Worship Center, said it was his expectation that 18th and Vine would try for a family-oriented atmosphere, given the museums and new baseball academy.

"I don't see how more liquor contributes to that," Akers said at a Feb. 28 council committee hearing on Reed's ordinance.

Reed said those opposed are a "handful of individuals." On Tuesday, he released letters from nearly 60 businesses and residents in support.

"Wherever we go, the consensus of #LetMoreMusicPlay is what we hear," Reed said in his statement. He added that he was not concerned that the issue would hinder his mayoral candidacy.

"I have always proactively worked with the various stakeholders of Kansas City," he said. "While we may not always agree, we always attempt to find solutions on the most difficult of issues. We have undergone the same process with this matter."

Reed has had a tough time getting traction with his council colleagues. After two lengthy hearings, the council's Neighborhood and Public Safety committee did not pass it on to the full council, triggering a series of tense exchanges between Reed and chair Alissia Canady.

Reed invoked a provision in council by-laws to call the stalled ordinance out of committee and bring it to the council floor, where its fate Thursday remains uncertain.

Canady said she objects to denying churches and schools their prerogative in the matter. "I am very hesitant to support legislation that takes away the voice of the base of the black community."

She also said that more of an effort needs to be made to draw a diverse range of businesses to the district.

"You see what's happened to Westport," she said, referring to problems with alcohol-fueled crime and disorder. "A full entertainment district and no business."

Others, including Mayor Sly James, are hoping for some kind of compromise by Thursday that can keep the district moving forward.

"I've never been to an entertainment district where there wasn't much liquor," he said at Tuesday's council work session.

Ellis, who grew up at Charlie Parker Square, doesn't sound like he's ready to relinquish the veto. He said he's seen too much damage done by alcohol and can't be complicit in causing more.

"We all have to stand and give account someday."