The Kansas City Council is expected to vote Thursday on a measure directing the city manager to figure out how to pay for up to $18 million in improvements to the 18th and Vine Jazz District.
A joint council committee gave preliminary approval to the request Wednesday following a three-hour discussion about how the jazz district is what Kansas City is known for worldwide and yet how it’s failed over the past 25 years to recapture its historic glory days.
Supporters argued the additional city investment is vital for the cultural district to reach its full potential, while skeptics want assurances the money will be wisely spent.
Both sides noted that Thursday’s resolution doesn’t bind the city to any actual spending. It just calls for the city manager to refine project costs and develop a financing plan over the next 60 days, exploring both public and private funding sources and how it would be managed.
“This serves as an additional boost for where we should be,” said Councilman Jermaine Reed, who has worked for months with other city officials and 18th and Vine advocates on a proposed list of projects.
An original list totaled $7 million, but other improvements have since been added.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver testified at length Wednesday, saying 18th and Vine is the third most recognized street in the U.S., after Broadway in New York and Hollywood Boulevard. He cited Memphis’ popular Beale Street as an example of what can happen when a city embraces and invests in its cultural history, and he said Kansas City has a jazz heritage that no other city can duplicate.
The project lists includes preliminary cost estimates of $820,000 for a new western entrance plaza and fountain; $2.8 million for a new headquarters and performing arts space for the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, including preserving the Boone Theater facade; $1.3 million to upgrade the American Jazz Museum and add a cafe; $1 million to complete the Buck O’Neil center, the former Paseo YMCA; $3.9 million for new buildings and parking on the corner of 18th and Vine, with first-floor retail and second-floor apartment and office space; $5.3 million to replace dangerous buildings on Vine Street with mixed-use development; and $1.14 million for a new surface parking lot west of Paseo.
Some supporters suggested $18 million is not a big request, especially when compared to how much money the city has invested in downtown and other areas west of Troost.
But Councilman Scott Wagner, chairman of the finance committee, said he still has lots of questions about how the city’s money would be spent and how that taxpayer cost would be a catalyst for major private investment.
Comedian and actor Bobby Coleman said the city has to make sure any improvements appeal to young people and provide ongoing entertainment, so the district isn’t just a place for visitors to sample once and not come back.
Others urged the council to make sure historic preservation is a priority, since many buildings in the area have already been lost to decay and neglect.