Government & Politics

Panel supports naming new KCI airport for MLK, offers 63rd Street as second option

A citizens group voiced strong support Sunday for naming Kansas City's new airport terminal after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but stopped short of an unconditional recommendation.

The 11-member panel, appointed by Mayor Sly James last month to determine how the city should best honor the slain civil rights icon, agreed to also present the option of 63rd Street, which travels east-west through some of the city's wealthiest and most impoverished communities.

Supporters said it would affirm that King's message of nonviolence and social justice belongs to all citizens.

Kansas City is one of the nation's largest cities without a street named in honor of King.

The panel, which held a series of four public hearings across the city to solicit ideas, had intended to provide the mayor with a single choice. But members said Sunday that while there was strong public sentiment for an airport bearing King's name, support for an east-west street proved too difficult to ignore.

"We have clear support for the airport," said the Rev. Donna Simon, a pastor at St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church who is the panel's co-chair. "We continue to have support for a street."

James is scheduled to discuss the recommendations Monday afternoon at a press conference. A final decision will be made by the City Council.

Sunday's outcome leaves the naming process in something of a muddle. James' panel essentially dropped two choices in his lap. At the same time, east-side ministers who favor The Paseo have indicated they will continue to gather the 1,708 valid signatures needed to put the question on the citywide ballot.

Their target was originally the August election, but organizers said a November ballot gives them more time to secure signatures and build support.

James could attempt to move forward by sending one of the panel's recommendations to the council prior to the fall election. Or he could wait for the results of the citywide vote on The Paseo, an option that lost out to other choices in the civic conversation he initiated.

"Clearly there will be more conversations," said Laura Swinford, James' communications director. "There are a lot of different paths from here."

The new airport terminal emerged early in the panel's deliberations as a nontraditional, out-of-the box option, since the majority of King commemorations have been in the form of renamed streets.

Many group members and speakers at public hearings said it offered a bold statement — not only to Kansas City residents but also to the millions of travelers who will pass through the new billion-dollar terminal each year. It is scheduled to open in early 2021, unless delays push back the timetable.

"It's big, it's bold, it's beautiful," said the Rev. Bob Hill, minister emeritus of Community Christian Church.

One last piece of public input left a strong impression on members leaning toward the airport. On Wednesday night, several of them met high school students in Generation Rap, a leadership program sponsored by Carter Broadcasting Group, which owns radio station KPRS. The meeting was arranged by Eric Wesson, editor of The Call and a member of the mayor's panel who also serves as mentor for the program.

Advisory group members said the 50 or so teens overwhelmingly favored the airport. They urged the panel to retain historic street names such as The Paseo.

When the group began its work, it was widely assumed that The Paseo, the boulevard that runs 10 miles north-to-south through the heart of the city's predominantly African-American east side, had the weight of history and politics in its favor.

It was the choice of the Kansas City branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization for which King served as president after its founding in 1957.

Congressman and former Mayor Emanuel Cleaver II, who founded the SCLC's Kansas City branch, began advocating for the renaming in the early 1980s from the pulpit of St. James United Methodist Church at 55th and The Paseo, where he was pastor.

But when Simon, the co-chair, opened Sunday's meeting at the Brush Creek Community Center by asking group members to voice their first and second choices, a weighted counting method showed 15 votes for the airport, eight for 63rd Street and seven for The Paseo. In another tally, 63rd Street prevailed 6-3 (only nine members were present, two others voted in the initial round by proxy).

An airport named for King faces several obstacles, starting with the city's own Aviation Department. Director Pat Klein told James in a May 10 email that dropping Kansas City from the airport name "would remove the airport's critical geographic indicator, create confusion among the traveling public and would hinder the Aviation Department's ability to effectively market Kansas City both nationally and internationally."

There are no major airports named for King. Placing his name on the new air terminal is likely to require permission from the King estate, and payment of a licensing fee. Intellectual Properties Management, an Atlanta-based firm, is the exclusive licenser of the King estate. The family has come under criticism for fees it has charged for the use of King's speeches and other materials.

In 2007, the foundation building the King monument on the National Mall paid $760,000 to the firm.

The name change would also need a sign-off from the Federal Aviation Administration. Such renamings are routinely granted once the local governing body, in Kansas City's case the City Council, approves. An agency spokeswoman said it would require several months to update websites, documents and other materials.

In October 2016, for example, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved the renaming — more of a wording swap — of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport as St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Officials said it was a marketing decision to more closely identify the city with the airport. It was approved by the FAA in February 2017.

In April 2015, the Wichita City Council approved Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport as the new name for Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. The name was approved in November 2015.

"It was surprisingly simple," said airport director Victor White.

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