Yael T. Abouhalkah

Twists and turns occur in Kansas City’s naming rights game

Ilus W. Davis Park has been the site of many public events, including this one for people voicing their views on U.S. immigration policies.
Ilus W. Davis Park has been the site of many public events, including this one for people voicing their views on U.S. immigration policies. The Kansas City Star

Kansas City likes to name buildings, streets, parks, libraries and other public amenities after local politicians and civic leaders.

For example, Mayor Sly James has appointed a task force to look into honoring former Mayor Kay Barnes with something more than the small “Kay Barnes Plaza” in front of Sprint Center’s entrance. Lawyer Herb Kohn is leading that effort. He said Wednesday the group is looking at doing something in or near the Power & Light District. That would be appropriate, given Barnes’ roles in reviving downtown.

Almost all governments participate in this naming rights game. It can make great sense when it rewards people for their services to the community or for their achievements in certain professions.

But this process also can be flawed, leading to some oddities.

▪ At a City Council meeting today, members are scheduled to approve naming the Police Department’s East Patrol campus after Leon Jordan, a long-ago slain civil rights leader.

That’s an improvement from the original idea. It would have broken with law enforcement tradition in this city and named the actual police station after Jordan. Instead, it will remain East Patrol.

There’s a case to be made for honoring Jordan, partly given his resume as a former police detective here but even more so as one of the original leaders of Freedom Inc. The political club 50 years ago gave blacks a much bigger voice in city politics.

But there also were legitimate questions about placing Jordan’s name on a building that police officers would walk into every day, given Jordan’s association with mob figures and still-lingering questions about why he was killed in 1970.

Naming the campus after Jordan should take care of the concerns among many in the black community that the city had not properly honored him.

▪ It took too many years for city officials to duly recognize Ilus Davis, who was a progressive mayor from 1963 to 1971.

The civic mall that was created north of City Hall more than 30 years later was named Ilus W. Davis Park in 1994 and finally dedicated in 2001. Given Davis’ association with the clean local government movement, it’s a good place for that amenity.

▪ And it can take very little time to bestow honorifics, as in former mayor Emanuel Cleaver’s case.

The Board of Parks and Recreation in March 1999, weeks before the mayor ended his impressive second term, approved renaming parts of Brush Creek Boulevard as Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard.

But the idea of rewarding still-living persons comes with drawbacks, such as if the person runs into problems later. Cleaver — now a recently re-elected five-term member of Congress — has had his wages garnished to help pay more than $1 million he and his wife owe for a car wash business they owned and sold in Grandview.

▪ Sometimes the first way to pay homage to someone doesn’t work out well.

In 1995, the City Council passed a resolution praising the parks board for naming the newly created amphitheater in Theis Park after Charles Wheeler, who was mayor from 1971 to 1979.

Unfortunately, use of the amphitheater didn’t take off as once predicted.

Six years later, the council approved renaming the Downtown Airport as the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport.

Being mayor is one good to eventually get something named after you. Kansas City has had just eight mayors over the last 60 years. In addition to the three listed above, H. Roe Bartle has a convention hall named after him and Richard Berkley has a riverfront park.

That leaves spots for the names of Barnes and Mark Funkhouser on some public amenities, and James waits in the wings.

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