If you make your way to the Legends in Kansas City, Kan., or even take a stroll through my former neighborhood on the city’s Strawberry Hill, you’ll see a fair number of young adults from across the region having fun. When I see those young adults and parents with their children, I often wonder: Do they know that at one time people like them would not have had much reason to come here?
On Oct. 1, 1997, not many people were coming to Wyandotte County. Our population had plummeted from a high of more than 180,000 in 1970 to just around 153,000. Businesses had fled with them. Our county and city governments were beset with scandals and dysfunction. You couldn’t find a movie theater or even a shoe store anywhere in our community.
But on that October day 20 years ago, the seeds were officially sown for change when 11 elected officials were sworn in as commissioners of the newly-created Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan. I was among those officials, proud to serve as the body’s first mayor and CEO.
With its ethics reforms and a strong-mayor structure, consolidation created a stable government. Our governing body had the ability to speak with one voice. We, as a government, had a vision of high quality, well-planned development to provide services to our residents, diversify the tax base and attract visitors. And that has happened. Our community has now seen billions of dollars in economic development, a near doubling of our valuation and an upturn in population. It has become the top tourist draw in Kansas.
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Most of the metropolitan region is by now familiar with the success of our development out west, and our vision of development moving eastward is happening. But fewer are familiar with the story of how a handful of citizens with a bold idea came to transform our community. The leaders of that movement, businessmen Mike Jacobi and Kevin Kelly, approached me in 1995 when I was running for mayor of Kansas City, Kan. They wanted to know if I would sign a pledge to campaign for consolidation.
I did. But not until giving it serious thought and performing my own research. I even visited Columbus, Georgia, that had previously consolidated its government. While there, I asked a cab driver about consolidation. He motioned to a skyline of new development and said, “If not for consolidation, none of this would be here.”
Once elected mayor, I made it a priority to do what we could to push consolidation across the finish line. With help from my tireless chief of staff, Kathy Wolfe Moore, and moderate Republican legislators such as Mark Parkinson, consolidation was placed on the ballot. After a vigorous campaign led by the Citizens For Consolidation, voters approved the measure on April 1, 1997.
I could tell many political war stories from those days. But today is not a time to simply bask in that amazing accomplishment. It is not simply a time to feel the pride that comes with knowing that our community is now recognized as a serious player on a regional and state level.
Today is also a time to sow more seeds, to tell our story so we can inspire a new generation of leaders to build on the foundation that consolidation has created. Today is a time to show the world what all of those involved in the consolidation movement know: When change is desperately needed, it can happen. And it can happen when citizens are actively engaged with commitment and passion.
Carol Marinovich is senior vice president and partner at Fleishman Hillard. She served as mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County.