Midwest Voices

Spencer Hardwick: Kansas City offers fun and opportunities for millennials

The Power & Light District in downtown Kansas City provides a year-round setting for fun and get-togethers for millennials, such as Royals celebrations.
The Power & Light District in downtown Kansas City provides a year-round setting for fun and get-togethers for millennials, such as Royals celebrations. along@kcstar.com

Growing up in Kansas City as a millennial means that, at some point, you were likely subject to “the oath” — the solemn vow that “when I grow up, I’ll never live in KC.”

Through the eyes of a teenager, it’s easy to see why living in New York, Chicago and similar big cities might be more alluring than putting down long-term stakes in Kansas City. But after residing in Boston, Dallas and Manhattan, I’m reassessing that perspective.

Let’s examine why. I often get asked by friends in the Big Apple, “So what do you guys even do in Kansas City for fun?”

Brushing aside the East Coast elitism, my standard response invites this exchange:

“Well, what do we do here in New York?” I ask.

“Go to clubs,” they say.

“Same in KC,” I say.

“Hang at bars,” they say.

“Same in KC,” I note.

“Restaurants, movies, live music and foodie events,” they say.

“All the same in KC. But do you guys have a rodeo?” I add.

This theme is confirmed when I check my friends’ social media newsfeeds on the weekends. My initial fear of missing out (“#FOMO”) dissipates when I see that my Friday night outing looks a lot like theirs but with cheaper options and easier logistics. Besides, a key lesson for people in their 20s is that a good time is less about the venue and more about the people who make up the party.

Even something as simple as transportation can make big cities less palatable. You’ll take three times as long to find a decent parking spot in Manhattan and pay four times as much for the privilege.

While I’m a big fan of the multicultural subway experience, there’s an underappreciated ease to jumping in my Jeep and avoiding armpits in the face on a packed commuter train. But millennials are drawn to the mega metropolises in search of incomparable career opportunities and exposure to the biggest media, tech and business markets, right? Beware. The perks of proximity can obscure a key part of a career equation: mastery of your craft.

Being excellent at one’s chosen profession will yield a more fruitful network of support over time than strategically camping out in San Francisco to build a bigger Rolodex. Kansas City provides fertile ground for millennials to focus on being exceptional while giving more opportunities to be lauded for it. The Internet also helps to democratize the recognition of talent and quality. You can be found anywhere these days. Just be good.

In today’s Kansas City, there’s a certain vitality that can undermine millennials’ collective sense of wanderlust. It’s an energy that runs through venues like Char Bar in Westport on a Friday night, percolates on Saturday morning at Blip Roasters in the West Bottoms and simmers on a Saturday afternoon at entrepreneurial retailers like Charlie Hustle and Baldwin on the Plaza.

It reverberates and ricochets from the Legends, Zona Rosa, Prairiefire, and the Power & Light District on a Saturday night before it crescendos at Arrowhead Stadium on a cool fall Sunday. It’s an energy that’s distinct — large enough to be shared by its savvy catalysts in an emerging Midwestern city, yet small enough to escape dissipation by borough, subway or suburb.

For Kansas City millennials, there’ll always be viable reasons to uphold “the oath” that yearned to see our hometown as more than just a place to head for the holidays. But for every vow to flee, there’s an equally powerful reason to pledge our allegiance to a city that’s now more livable, professionally advantageous, convenient and …wait for it… uncommonly cool in its own way.

Spencer Hardwick, formerly an institutional sales analyst for Goldman Sachs in New York, now teaches fifth grade at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School. Reach him at oped@kcstar.com.