Midwest Voices

Hampton Stevens: For Kansas City, 2015 should be the year of back to basics

Creating a more mobile citizenry is one of the best things we can do to keep our city moving ahead.
Creating a more mobile citizenry is one of the best things we can do to keep our city moving ahead.

The life of a city, like those who live in it, must have balance. The soul must be nourished, but so must the body. For a long time, people in Kansas City have focused on our collective soul.

We have cultivated our cultural life, high and low. We built the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the Power & Light District, Sprint Center, Sporting Park and refurbished the Truman Sports Complex.

We have trumpeted our visual and performing arts, and bragged about our fine food and drink. That’s all to the good, and those efforts have paid off handsomely in new national and international acclaim.

Going into 2015, though, it is time to focus on the basics. To keep our city booming, we can’t just think about glitzy, highly visible projects. We have to focus on boring stuff, too. We have to take care of our body.

Wouldn’t it be fun, for instance, to brag about our city’s fabulous sewers? Wouldn’t it be cool to show off our silky roads and exemplary animal control? How about having the nation’s best snow removal services? Can you imagine Kansas City making some magazine’s “10 best cities” list because of gloriously efficient garbage collection?

Probably not. But people should get excited about those things. A great city has soul, of course. But every soul needs a healthy body to thrive, and this town has neglected its physical well-being for far too long.

Consider transit. The new downtown streetcar may garner lots of attention, but the simple fact is that buses work better. The bus is more flexible, less expensive, and requires no new infrastructure. Let’s not get so excited about our little downtown loop that we forget why mass transit exists — to move large numbers of people from one place to another. For a fraction of what a full-scale light-rail network would cost, Kansas City could build a truly unique, world-class bus service.

No one gets excited about bus service. The bus isn’t flashy. Buses aren’t photogenic. They don’t win media attention or have powerful advocacy groups. Buses, however, work for people who have no other way to get around. And creating a more mobile citizenry is one of the best things we can do to keep our city moving — pun intended.

Those buses, of course, need good roads to drive on. Again, there is nothing glamorous about fixing potholes and repairing our crumbling curbs. Yet nothing matters more to the life of a city. Repairing our roads, while adding abundant bikes lanes, is one of the smartest, most cost-effective investments we can make for the metro’s long-term well-being.

Under those bumpy roads lies an even bigger problem — and perhaps the least glamorous. Our pipes are a mess. Kansas City’s first water and sewer lines were laid in 1874. Remarkably, some of that pipe is still in use. A massive effort toward improving this badly aged infrastructure would be a huge boost for the city’s long-term health.

There’s more. Snow removal, garbage collection, animal control and parks maintenance. Kansas City has a host of city services badly in need of upgrading.

Be assured, boring or not, investment in infrastructure and city services will do wonders to spur some of the other, more visible changes Kansas City needs. You want more development east of Troost Avenue? You want to continue creating a more vibrant downtown?

Nothing will encourage entrepreneurs to move into an area like good roads and transit. You want to help Kansas City Public Schools? Better city services will encourage young families to stay in, or move to, the district. That will help build stronger neighborhoods and increase the tax base.

In the coming year, we will no doubt see vociferous campaigns for any number of high-dollar projects. We will see calls to expand the streetcar project and build a new airport. Those things matter. But less flashy projects matter, too. They deserve our attention.

Frankly, those issues can’t be addressed by anything so quick and simple. Making our city work better will demand long-term thinking, with cooperation among citizens, city planners, local, state and federal officials, venture capitalists, educators and businesspeople, all working for the greater good. But it will be worth it.

New buses and repaved roads won’t garner international press, and no one gets excited about garbage collection. That’s a shame.

Because nothing matters more in the day-to-day lives of citizens. For cities, just like people, sometimes fixing the body is the best way to nurture the soul.

Hampton Stevens of Kansas City is a national and regional freelance writer. Reach him at oped@kcstar.com.