Yael T. Abouhalkah

Sleepy Independence gets Mayor Eileen Weir’s wake-up call

Independence Mayor Eileen Weir joined Lamar Hunt Jr. earlier this month when he became the new owner of the Missouri Mavericks hockey team, which plays at the Independence Events Center.
Independence Mayor Eileen Weir joined Lamar Hunt Jr. earlier this month when he became the new owner of the Missouri Mavericks hockey team, which plays at the Independence Events Center. The Kansas City Star

Independence Mayor Eileen Weir wants others to think of her city as a great place to buy a house, raise children and work.

“People are kind of rediscovering Independence as a good place to live,” says Weir, the city’s hard-charging leader since her election last April.

However, the blunt reality is that plenty of people don’t pay a lot of attention to Independence, even though it has 117,000 residents, is the area’s fifth largest city and has a rich, Harry Truman-based history. It’s not part of fast-growing Johnson County. On the Missouri side, Kansas City soaks up most of the public’s attention.

Concedes one top city official about Independence: “Our reputation has kind of been as the flyover (part) of Jackson County.” People don’t have a negative view of the city, the official maintains, but “they just don’t think of us at all.”

Oh, that’s also Weir, just being candid during an hourlong interview Wednesday in her office about the challenges and opportunities in Independence’s future.

The mayor points out in a burst of positive messages that Independence has “land that’s ready to develop,” the Independence School District is on the right track in providing a modern education that will lead to good jobs for students, and the city “needs to stay a strong union town.”

But the mayor also doesn’t sugarcoat what the city must do to get stronger.

The city needs a better mix of single-family housing that will bring in more residents to support the acres of retail along 39th Street and at the often-bustling Independence Center.

Local labor unions need to “step up to the plate” to help kids find the right trades.

And Weir says a top priority “isn’t the sexiest” one out there, but she wants to focus on bringing in more big industrial employers that Riverside and a few other cities do a great job of nabbing right now. She’s actively talking to the development community, trying to compete for those projects and the jobs they bring.

One of the best things Weir has going for her is an approach that more public officials really need to share: She’s working closely with others on both sides of the state line to build a stronger region.

She’s already involved with KC Rising, the fledgling project promoted by top civic leaders to breathe new life into the metropolitan area’s struggling economy, which has trailed far too many other regions in gaining jobs after the Great Recession.

“I think (others) are excited that Independence is stepping up to the plate,” she says. “I’m there so Independence will get a piece of the action.”

Weir also will attract deserved attention because she’s the lone woman at the helm of a large local government. Gone are the days when women led most county governments plus several large cities.

The mayor downplays some of the gender-based attention. But she’s also spot-on in saying an “energetic young woman doesn’t fit the image of Independence,” which had been led by older, male mayors for the prior quarter-century.

Hurdles loom on the path to getting things done and becoming a stronger challenger to Kansas City, Johnson County cities and others when it comes to being an economic powerhouse in this area.

Weir’s direct style might irritate more than a few of the old guard and block some of her initiatives. Wooing lots of new residents and jobs could be more difficult and time-consuming than hoped.

The mayor also can’t make progress on her own. Weir will have to work and compromise with plenty of others to change Independence’s image as a large, sleepy suburb.

A dynamic mayor could create a more positive future for Independence’s future. As always, though, results will matter the most when it comes to evaluating Weir’s true skills in leading the city.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Twitter: @YaelTAbouhalkah.