Government & Politics

Can Overland Park transcend ‘Johnson County beige’ image? Long-range plan holds hope

Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of Johnson County’s Resurrection mega-church, would like nothing better than for his two grown daughters to live in Overland Park.

But he says 29-year-old Rebecca is intent on starting a small business in a hip Kansas City neighborhood, and Danielle, a 33-year-old public defender in Olathe, prefers her home in Lawrence to Overland Park.

“They both think diversity is really important,” Hamilton told the Overland Park City Council on Feb. 4. “They start talking about ‘Johnson County beige’ and that’s not just the color of our houses but it’s often the color of our skin and the way we do things. It’s all sort of the same, and they say, ‘Dad, we don’t want to live where it’s all the same.’^”

Overland Park frequently ranks as one of the most successful, desirable places to live in the U.S. But it must adapt to changing times and become even more appealing to young professionals and families, minorities, and people of all ages and income levels to remain a thriving community through the year 2045, Hamilton told the council.

That was a key takeaway from a long-range visioning effort, dubbed Forward OP, that the City Council and dozens of civic organizations have just endorsed as a road map to guide the city over the next 25 years.

Hamilton was part of the Forward OP steering committee than engaged more than 1,000 residents over the past 18 months to create the plan.

“We need to be forward-thinking, innovative and welcoming if we are going to be a great city in 2030, 2040 or 2050,” Greg Musil, steering committee co-chair and a former city councilman, said at the formal presentation Feb. 4.

To achieve its ambitious goals, the plan included numerous action steps to be implemented in the short, medium and long-term. They included:

Creating affordable housing options and new types of neighborhoods, with smaller homes and shared common spaces.

Creating large, signature gathering spaces and events that give Overland Park a distinct identity and make it a destination apart from Kansas City.

Promoting and growing outstanding educational opportunities as well as giving priority to business innovation and entrepreneurship.

Fostering better mental health and social services resources and wellness centers to guard against suicide and social isolation.

Developing better transit and transportation options, including connections to Kansas City’s streetcar system.

Developing a culinary arts initiative plus many more arts and cultural opportunities.

Enhancing recreational, youth sports and other entertainment offerings along with bolstering the city’s trails system.

“This is not a city effort and it cannot be dependent upon the city government,” Musil told the city council. “This is an effort of the business community, the hospitality and entertainment community and the city. It is a community-wide effort and it must continue to do that.”

Musil said Overland Park has had forward-thinking leadership ever since it was formally incorporated in 1960 with about 28,000 residents. Visionaries back then helped create Johnson County Community College, a flourishing business scene and family-friendly neighborhoods. But Musil said the city, which now has about 195,000 residents, has to stay creative and progressive “if we want our children and grandchildren to come back to Overland Park.”

The ideas for the future bubbled up from numerous community visioning exercises, including an event that drew nearly 600 residents to the Overland Park Convention Center in January 2018. At that time, many residents said they wanted a welcoming city with world-class schools and businesses, neighborhoods where people could “age in place,” and an environment rich with cultural and recreational amenities.

Musil praised those who participated and said ideas “flooded in,” demonstrating the creativity, caring and passion that people have for their city.

No budget numbers are attached to the ideas, but the steering committee is adamant that this report not just sit on a shelf.

The plan recommends hiring an implementation manager to oversee its initiatives. Over the next 90-120 days, key supporters of the plan will work on that job description and how to get the project manager hired and paid.

Committee co-chair Brenda Sharpe, president and CEO of the REACH Healthcare Foundation, said it’s not envisioned as a city government job and may be funded by various private partners.

Sharpe said she recently helped present the plan to economic development leaders and was pleased with their support and interest in turning the plan into reality, to make Overland Park more competitive.

“They were very hungry for this kind of vision,” she told The Star. “Most people in economic development, especially in larger firms, they have locations across the country. They know what makes those areas cool.”

City Council members praised the planning effort over the past 18 months but said the real work starts now.

“Keep your foot on the gas,” Councilman Chris Newlin urged supporters of the plan.

Councilman Dave White said he had initially feared the process would be consultant-driven. He was “pleasantly surprised” at its broad-based energy and community commitment. Still, he said young leaders of tomorrow will have to step up to make it happen.

Councilman Rick Collins said the city will have to engage developers and others to fulfill the action steps.

“The work is still to be done,” he said, “and it’s going to be a monumental effort.”

Lynn Horsley reports on Johnson County for the Kansas City Star, focusing on government, politics, business development and battles over growth and change in the county. She previously covered City Hall in Kansas City for 19 years and has a passion for helping readers understand how government affects their lives.