Yael T. Abouhalkah

Yael T. Abouhalkah: Royals are great, but Kansas City area still lags in jobs, residents

Kansas City’s streetcar line is a new civic asset expected to open in 2016. But that’s years behind systems already operating in some other cities.
Kansas City’s streetcar line is a new civic asset expected to open in 2016. But that’s years behind systems already operating in some other cities.

The Kansas City metropolitan area is a wonderful place to call home. Unfortunately, not enough people are doing that when compared with our peer regions.

It’s great to wear blue and take pride in the Royals. It’s wonderful to show up on “top 10” lists that point out this community’s reasonable cost of living, high quality workforce and friendliness. Kansas Citians enjoy great assets such as the Truman Sports Complex and Kauffman Performing Arts Center plus lots of attractive suburbs and solid school districts.

But enough boasting. The disturbing facts are that not enough people are living here or starting or expanding their businesses here.

The Kansas City metropolitan area grew by 3.1 percent — to 2.071 million people — from 2010 to mid-2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That was good for only 22nd best of the 31 U.S. metro regions of 2 million or more people. More broadly, our area was just the 34th fastest growing region of the 53 in America with 1 million or more people.

Another challenge: Kansas City and its suburbs are stuck in two low-growth states. In their rates of adding people from 2010 to mid-2014, Kansas was 31st of 50 states and Missouri was 38th.

While local elected officials deserve criticism for falling short in many efforts to improve education, public safety and infrastructure problems, this region’s business community shares a big deal of the blame for the lackluster trends.

In recent years, Kansas City has been near the bottom of the list of its peers in job creation.

Yet too many supporters of the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City and the Kansas City Area Development Council have not done nearly enough to shake things up and focus on how to bolster this community as an attractive place to do business. The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s Big 5 effort, unveiled four years ago, has had only modest success in turning these fortunes around.

Finally, an initiative called KC Rising has been put together by the Civic Council, development council, Mid-America Regional Council and area chambers. Its laudable goal is to finally put forward a “regional, collaborative, business community-led effort to develop a path for the KC region to reach its full economic potential.” It’s supposed to be rolling in earnest in 2016.

Time is precious.

A report released Wednesday by the Global Cities Initiative — a joint project of the Brookings Institution and JPMorgan Chase — offered some sobering words about the Kansas City business community’s competitiveness on the world’s stage.

Brookings officials pointed out that generally “smart economic development leaders” are pushing for regional collaborations that in addition to domestic growth focus on doing business globally. How does our region stack up?

Key findings from the report showed that “few area businesses actively engage in export activity, exports have not been a priority for area businesses” and “area businesses are unaware of the numerous export resources available.”

Independence Mayor Eileen Weir, who’s involved in KC Rising, said Wednesday that the region has a big challenge when it comes to perception with many job seekers.

“Kansas City isn’t seen as a place with a lot of opportunity,” she said, pointing out a harsh truth.

Sure, moves are being made to try to change that fact, especially with downtown’s rejuvenation and starter streetcar line. But many other communities took those kinds of actions years ago.

KC Rising needs to be the business community’s best plan in a generation to make this region a more appealing place for people to work, be successful and put down roots.

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