Sam Mellinger

A conversation about Westport and the streetcar. No, seriously — an actual conversation

A streetcar makes its way down Main Street to the River Market.
A streetcar makes its way down Main Street to the River Market. Star file photo

The conversation started the way far too many conversations start these days — with snark on the Internet.

The conversation continued the way far too few conversations continue these days — with humility, an honest exchange of perspectives and an earnest effort to see the other side.

On the surface, this is a story about the Kansas City Streetcar, Westport bars, progress, generational divides and a million other things we could explore. But just below that surface, this is about two sides with fundamentally different priorities and perspectives willing to hear the other out.

This began with all the markings of the ugliness and divide of our current times but ended with an example of how we can be better. All of us, corny as it may sound.

Let's back up, just a little bit, to a story by The Star's Bill Turque centered around Westport landlord Bill Nigro's concern that the KC Streetcar's proposed extension route is too far from the bar-and-restaurant district to justify the cost and additional taxes.

The message that came through aggravated my bones, Nigro essentially whining that civic progress wasn't coming close enough to his front door, topped with the (at best) paternalistic stance that women won't walk four blocks at night "in any urban core." Nigro is Westport's non-spokesman, with a remarkable ability to say the wrong thing, and privately many who work and own businesses there wish he'd stop talking.

So the snark, I must admit, was mine:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-cards="hidden" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Do other cities actively oppose progress like this? Also, Bill Nigro should sit a few out. <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Sam Mellinger (@mellinger) <a href="">May 3, 2018</a></blockquote>

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The humility, and offer to exchange perspectives, came from the management of Kelly's Westport Inn, an institution in Kansas City for 70 years:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">While we appreciate Twitter for it’s real time interactions, we don’t view it as an arena for a meaningful, productive convo. If <a href="">@downtownkc</a> , <a href="">@mellinger</a>, <a href="">@cdotharrison</a> <a href="">@aaronronel</a> <a href="">@staubio</a> would like to meet with us, we’d love to share our concerns with you all in person.</p>&mdash; Kelly&#39;s Westport Inn (@KellysBarKC) <a href="">May 3, 2018</a></blockquote>

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That led to an email exchange, which led to a lunch with Mitch Kelly, part of the family ownership of Kelly's, and Matt Staub of the Streetcar Authority. We ate wings, asked questions, disagreed and listened.

"We're in favor of the expansion," Kelly said. "We're not thrilled about the manner in which the whole process went down. We feel like we weren't part of the conversation."

The reasons for this are complicated. Technically, Kelly and other merchants could've been part of the conversation. But the route and proposed stops are based more on data than opinion in a process that felt all-encompassing to those doing it but largely unknown outside that circle.

"Could we have messaged or timed or talked about it better?" Staub said. "Probably. That's a good hindsight question."

Many businesses in Westport oppose the streetcar extension because they believe the taxes would outweigh the benefits to the entertainment district. They believe the walk from stops along the Main Street route would be too far.

Kelly's points were genuine and pure of heart. Westport businesses are already heavily taxed and with moderate growth would be contributing $60 million to $80 million to the $220 million-plus project. Why shouldn't their concerns be heard?

Kansas City's walkability is improving, but we're behind the national curve. Kelly hears complaints from some patrons about a two-block walk from the parking garage. Now he's supposed to think a half-mile from a streetcar stop is nothing?

Besides, nothing happens in a vacuum. Westport is full of unique and locally owned businesses that struggled when the Power & Light District opened with loads of local subsidies backing national interests. There is a heavy amount of distrust here.

"It's money we don't have control over," Kelly said. "It's putting a lot of faith in ridership and a lot of things we don't have control over."

Staub talked about growth. He talked about a lot of things, but largely about growth. Connecting downtown to midtown to the Plaza can only help everyone, you know, rising tides and all of that. If the stop ends up being at 39th and Main, with the southbound train needing to clear 39th and the way Westport Road angles it would only be a four-block walk.

There's also a bigger game at play here. The streetcar has been criticized as a tourist's toy or a joyride for people on the way to or from bars. Running it through Westport would add to that criticism and, besides, the real point is to connect the city. Turns are expensive and slow, which affects how government grants are awarded, and the more expansion we see, the more marketable our city becomes to outside business.

Westport merchants are concerned with the stop location. The streetcar authority is concerned with where people live and work and want to go, as efficiently as possible.

"I understand why you want it closer," Staub said. "But the question is, are you still better off with it being four blocks away?"

The point of all this was not to convince the other side. Kelly knew he could not get the route changed, and Staub knew he could not guarantee the added traffic would be worth the added tax for every business in the district.

But none of that mattered nearly as much as the conversation. The opportunity to compromise, or at least to hear the other side.

Kelly wondered whether the tax could be implemented only on additional revenue, so it didn't feel like the city was taking a piece of the money already generated in Westport. Staub wondered how much the city could help by branding it the Westport stop, advertising for businesses there, and streetscaping the walk to make it more inviting.

KC Streetcar officials are in the planning stages of the 3.5-mile extension from Union Station down Main Street to the UMKC.

Look, the streetcar is a relatively small thing. The extension will happen or it won't, and businesses like Kelly's will be fine either way. Even for those of us with strong opinions, the future of Kansas City does not hang in the balance.

But I walked away from that meeting thinking less about connecting the Plaza and downtown than I did about connecting so many Americans who've stopped listening to each other. These steps are so simple. We should take them more often. I'm so glad Kelly did here.

"I can see every single side of your argument," he said to Staub.

"And I can see yours, too," Staub said.

"That's all I wanted out of this," Kelly said.