Government & Politics

Ahead of Negro Leagues anniversary, Kansas City takes on restoration of its birthplace

With just months until the 100th anniversary of the Negro National League’s founding, Kansas City is preparing to restore the historic building where it was born, near the 18th and Vine Jazz District.

The Kansas City Council fast-tracked an ordinance Thursday to take over the Buck O’Neil Research and Education Center, known as the Paseo YMCA when independent baseball team owners met there in 1920 to establish what became the Negro Leagues.

Councilman Jermaine Reed, 3rd District, a major proponent of development at 18th and Vine, pushed for the ordinance’s passage Thursday and said he was “thrilled” to see it.

“We as a community have, I think, an obligation to help preserve and restore that facility, and it’s also part of our phased approach for $27 million for 18th and Vine,” Reed said.

Council members voted 10-1 in favor of the proposal with Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, 1st District at-large, voting against and Mayor Sly James and Councilman Scott Taylor, 6th District at-large, absent.

Under the ordinance, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum will donate the building to the city, which will spend $1 million from the city’s one-cent sales tax for public improvements and more than $283,000 in state tax credits to restore the basement and ground level.

The city already authorized a $217,000 loan to help clean up the building after vandals cut a water pipe last year, flooding parts of the building that had already been renovated.

The ordinance leaves the door open for the city to issue another $2 million in general obligation bonds, which voters approved in 2017, or special obligation bonds to renovate the upper floors and rent them out as office space. Officials believe that’s necessary to make the project break even.

The proposal’s route to passage was unusual.

Wagner’s Finance and Governance Committee heard the proposal earlier this month and held it because of concerns about the deal.

Reed, tired of waiting, introduced an identical ordinance on Thursday and pushed for its adoption, bypassing typical council procedure. Wagner was the only council member who voted against waiving procedure and who voted against the deal.

On the floor, Reed accused Wagner of being “disingenuous” about his intent in holding it.

Wagner said he did so because he learned from City Manager Troy Schulte that the council wasn’t facing an immediate deadline to pass an ordinance or risk losing the state tax credits the project had been awarded.

In committee, Wagner and fellow council members Kevin McManus, 6th District, and Lee Barnes, 5th District at-large, were cautious about the deal. The center, Wagner said, is expected to break even in its 7th year of operation — but only if the city renovates the upper floors and rents them.

“I do not believe it is in the best interest of the city to accept something that will never cash flow,” Wagner said in that committee meeting.

He predicted in an interview Thursday that the council would see an ordinance in the near future obligating $2 million to the project through general obligation bonds.

“Usually I rely on Darth Vader here,” Wagner said, pulling a talking Darth Vader toy from the desk in his council office. “So I could ask Darth Vader will there be an ordinance obligating us for $2 million — advance appropriating it and then making sure on the list that we will bond out next year when I’m long gone?”

The toy responded: “You will meet your destiny.”

Wagner and Reed both leave office in July after unsuccessful primary bids for mayor.

Reed said in an interview that Wagner was putting up road blocks to “stall progress in the heart of our community.”

He said the upper floors could be renovated through a public-private partnership and hoped a tenant would contribute to the project.

“I think the scare tactic of, ‘’Of we’re not being transparent with our resources’ is just that,” Reed said.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Allison Kite reports on City Hall and local politics for The Star. She joined the paper in February 2018 and covered Midterm election races on both sides of the state line. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with minors in economics and public policy from the University of Kansas.