Yael T. Abouhalkah

How do you spell a more vibrant Kansas City region? J-O-B-S

Sure, the Kansas City skyline featuring a renovated Union Station is beautiful. But the entire metropolitan area has plenty of warts when it comes to attracting new jobs.
Sure, the Kansas City skyline featuring a renovated Union Station is beautiful. But the entire metropolitan area has plenty of warts when it comes to attracting new jobs. The Kansas City Star

Here are the upbeat claims about the Kansas City area’s current job market: Johnson County is sizzling, the Northland is surging, downtown Kansas City is once again vibrant and Cerner is the Southland’s savior.

Now focus on the sobering facts: Even with all the good things happening in this region, they are not occurring as robustly as they are for our biggest competitors.

Other metro areas are eating our lunch. Austin, Fort Worth, Nashville, Oklahoma City, Seattle, Charlotte, Omaha, Denver, Indianapolis, Tulsa, Raleigh, San Antonio, Columbus, Portland, Louisville, Tulsa, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and even a few more areas have had stronger job growth in recent years.

The Kansas City region’s stagnant situation is perhaps the biggest obstacle to making this a truly thriving community for decades to come.

▪ In mid-2012, former Kauffman Foundation CEO Carl Schramm pugnaciously claimed that Kansas City is “America’s least dynamic town — it won’t grow and it won’t shrink.” My research at the time showed he was right. Comparing the Kansas City region with 17 benchmark areas, it was in the bottom four metro areas of job growth over a 10-year period.

▪ Last summer delivered an alarming report titled “Prosperity at a crossroads,” from the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings and the Mid-America Regional Council. It said the Kansas City area’s rate of growth in jobs, wages and output had fallen behind the rest of the nation from basically 2000-2012. “Who has the guts to make big changes KC region needs?” I asked in a column at the time.

Not some in the Kansas City business community, it turned out. They claimed that the Kansas City Area Development Council and other groups were doing a bang-up job of getting people to this region. My research showed that wasn’t true. The Kansas City metropolitan area was 21st lowest of 25 cities in its job growth rate from June 2011 to June 2014.

This not-so-merry trip down memory lane is to emphasize that, while the problem has been identified, it hasn’t received the kind of attention it deserves.

Until now, vow a growing number of business leaders.

Take KC Rising. It’s a nascent effort to strengthen the regional economy by finding ways for existing companies to thrive but also to lure new businesses to town. It’s supported by MARC, KCADC and the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City. Meetings are being held, benchmarks are going to be set. Eventually, KC Rising will need to be rolled out in some form that Kansas Citians can understand, and then hold the business community accountable for fulfilling the program’s goals.

Earlier this month, the Kansas City area was chosen to join the Global Cities Initiative’s Exchange, which could help local companies build their export markets.

Other job-creating initiatives are still puttering along, such as the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s Big 5.

Big obstacles to progress exist. The border war over jobs has pumped tens of millions of taxpayer dollars into private companies, but not created much added employment on either side of the state line.

Just this week came troubling reports that major civic players, led by Polsinelli Chairman and CEO Russ Welsh, were upset that other law firms were moving to Kansas City from the West Coast, creating competition for talented employees.

Whoa. When moving 375 jobs to this region is actually considered a “problem” by some who should know better, no wonder corporate executives in other parts of the country look at slow-growth Kansas City and wonder what’s wrong with us.

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