Steve Rose

R. Crosby Kemper is blinded by rage over Kansas City hotel deal

Kansas City Public Library director R. Crosby Kemper III (upper right) should not use his acclaimed forums to promote a personal agenda.
Kansas City Public Library director R. Crosby Kemper III (upper right) should not use his acclaimed forums to promote a personal agenda. The Kansas City Star

The director of the Kansas City Public Library, R. Crosby Kemper III, is an angry man. No, make that furious.

Furious men sometimes do things that are over the top. Kemper is about to do just that.

On Wednesday, the library is sponsoring a lecture titled “Convention Center Follies.” The blurb in the library’s brochure promoting upcoming events contained this not-so-subtle description:

“Can an 800-room Hyatt hotel, scheduled to open in 2018, boost Kansas City’s prospects when it opens? The city has invested heavily in its downtown convention center…and yet business has lagged.”

Speaking at the lecture will be Heywood T. Sanders, who, as Kemper describes him, “is one of the country’s foremost experts on urban development.” The author’s book is titled: “Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power and Public Investment in American Cities.” (An Op-Ed piece by Sanders appeared in The Star last Wednesday.)

Kemper, whose library lecture series are nationally acclaimed, usually does a good job of balancing views. I am a regular attendee of the lectures, and they are generally outstanding. He has hosted liberals, conservatives and libertarians.

But in this case, Kemper is not bashful about his efforts to present only the anti side of the city-subsidized hotel issue.

Kemper, in somewhat of a tirade, told me he intends to present “honesty and to get the facts on the ground.”

“The city won’t put the facts out there. Nobody at City Hall wants to tell the truth anymore. They have hired a consultant who said what they wanted to hear,” he said sternly.

“Up until now, the city has been cheerleading. I’m angry with the untruths at the city level.”

One would expect a public library, funded by taxpayers, to present both sides of the controversial issue.

Kemper doesn’t see it that way.

“The city has had all the forums,” he said.

As if Kemper were not angry enough over the prospect of a city tax-supported downtown convention hotel, he also is plenty angry that tax subsidies take money out of library funding.

“We depend on the property tax for our funding,” Kemper said. “And this (tax subsidy) just robs us of our funding.”

Kemper, a self-proclaimed libertarian, is opposed to almost all taxes and tax subsidies. He has been an outspoken critic of the city’s new airport proposals, the streetcar and projects using tax increment financing.

Kemper has every right to speak his mind on any and all issues facing the city.

He can give speeches, publish essays, appear on radio or television to air his views. There should be no censorship, even though Kemper works for a publicly financed institution.

But presenting a one-sided lecture critical of the hotel project is over the top. He is using the library to espouse his personal views, and that is inappropriate.

I asked him repeatedly if he would consider presenting the other view.

Kemper said he might try to put together a roundtable of city leaders, and by late last week he’d invited City Council members to have breakfast with his speaker the following morning in an open forum.

In an earlier email, Kemper offered this:

“If Mike Burke (an attorney spearheading the hotel development) or the Mayor or the City Manager can come up with a similar independent analyst on their side, we will happily have them speak.”

“But,” he concluded, “I also reserve the right to protect the money the voters believe they have twice voted to us in levy elections and do not understand that the city takes over our objections.”

I don’t agree that the city should have to come up with an independent source to rebut. It would be fair enough if a well-versed proponent were given the opportunity to speak at the library.

Kemper is so passionate about this topic, he has convinced himself he is acting in the public’s best interest. He is not. The library should never be a vehicle for any given agenda.

To reach Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to srose@kc.rr.com.

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