Twenty years ago, Wyandotte County was a community in decline.
Residents were fleeing for other parts of the metropolitan area. Especially worrisome was the loss of young, college-educated adults, a coveted demographic essential for growth and stability.
Property values were declining, yet the city had become dependent on raising property taxes to meet its budget obligations. The murder rate hit a high. And old school patronage, along with clashes between county and city officials often derailed even the best of intentions.
Carol Marinovich, then the mayor of Kansas City, Kan., became convinced that consolidating the city and county governments would be the answer.
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The Unified Government’s track record is worth celebrating. Legends Outlets Kansas City, the Kansas Speedway and Sporting KC have made the western part of the county a top destination for Kansas tourism.
Before 1997, the land near I-70 and I-435 was largely empty, generating negligible sales tax revenue. Today, those developments are valued at $127 million. They bring $700 million in annual retail sales.
Now, the prosperity must spread east. Older neighborhoods and the downtown business district must be revitalized while still preserving the area’s diversity and culture. The mayor’s plan for a healthy campus on the west side of downtown, anchored by a grocery and a community center, must come to fruition.
Staff is embarking on a full-fledged assault on blight, identifying absentee landlords, addressing delinquent taxes and properties that need to be upgraded or demolished. This must be paired with street revitalization, new housing and small business development to build on the current momentum.
The Unified Government represents a large swath of the Kansas City area. But too often, it gets short shrift, wielding less influence than its Missouri counterpart city or Johnson County. Effective leadership will be essential to ensuring that the Unified Government is viewed as an equal player in that triumvirate.
Those who were involved in the consolidation effort are quick to credit a wide range of organizations and leaders who committed to backing the new government. Financial help from bi-state civic leadership provided the campaign with a shot of adrenaline. The Legislature approved the plan, and influential clergy and longtime residents were essential to winning public support.
The Unified Government must continue to cultivate partnerships and refine an ambitious vision for the community to kick off another 20 years of progress.