Dave Helling

As losses mount, are taverns the answer in the 18th & Vine District?

Kansas City taxpayers may provide almost $1.5 million to the American Jazz Museum this year. Can more bars and taverns rescue the struggling 18th and Vine District?
Kansas City taxpayers may provide almost $1.5 million to the American Jazz Museum this year. Can more bars and taverns rescue the struggling 18th and Vine District? File photo

The 18th & Vine District is at a crossroads — literally, yes, but metaphorically too.

The struggles of the district are well documented and decades old. The museum complex, built by taxpayers, had required public subsidies for years. By one accounting, the city has spent more than $100 million on the district since 1990.

The City Council has already coughed up $725,000 for the American Jazz Museum this fiscal year. In a few weeks, city officials tell me, the council will consider spending another $730,000 to bail out the operation.

These subsidies frustrate taxpayers, but let’s be real: The City Council won’t ever abandon the district or allow the facilities to close. Shutting down 18th and Vine isn’t politically tenable.

At the same time, some council members would like to reduce the city’s financial exposure by bringing more paying customers into the district. Which is where the crossroads part comes in.

Last week, councilman Jermaine Reed introduced ordinances that would make it easier to get liquor licenses around 18th and Vine.

“The business case at work here is the city is doing all it can to demonstrate … we support our business owners, which will include new restaurants and clubs,” Reed told me.

Under one current ordinance, by-the-drink bars are generally limited to one license for every 1,500 residents within 3,000 feet of an establishment. Reed’s plan would waive that restriction for 18th and Vine.

Another ordinance prohibits a bar license within 300 feet of a church or school unless they give permission. Reed wants to end that requirement at 18th and Vine too.

A hearing on the plan is set for next week.

Supporters think a few more taverns are just what 18th and Vine needs. It is, after all, an entertainment district — no different from Westport, or the Power & Light District.

And the East Crossroads district at 18th and Locust, with its own set of popular bars and entertainment venues, is inching toward 18th and Vine. The wisdom of linking the two areas seems obvious.

Except 18th and Vine isn’t just about drinking. For now.

The Negro Leagues and American Jazz museums are permanent attractions, meant for families and fans more interested in bats and brass than booze. The new Urban Youth Academy baseball fields nearby are also family-centered.

Adding several bars to the district might increase traffic, but it would present its own set of challenges. It’s easy to get a drink in Westport, for example, and lots of people go there. It can also be dangerous at times.

None of this suggests Reed’s plan should be rejected out-of-hand. It’s clear the current framework hasn’t worked, necessitating taxpayer bailouts. Perhaps a few more bars would change that.

But Kansas City should be clear: Turning 18th and Vine into a drinking destination will change the nature of the district. That might mean more people for drinks but fewer for youth baseball and museums.

It’s a difficult decision. It puts district boosters at — yes — a crossroads. They must decide what 18th and Vine should be.

That choice was never really made decades ago, when the famous district was rebuilt. Reed’s proposal, for good or for ill, may finally force an answer.