Lots of good things have happened to and in our city in the last 2 ½ years. We are quickly re-asserting ourselves as one of America’s premiere cities. We have experienced a string of successes with Google Fiber, streetcar, Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, Major League Soccer’s All-Star Game, Sporting KC Soccer Championship, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Turn the Page KC, significant investments in East side housing, the East Patrol Station and Lab, disbanding federal housing receivership, downtown residential housing revitalizations, summer youth programming, multiple recognitions by national media for entrepreneurism, a dedicated tax for Parks & Recreation, a soon-to-be live, state of the art, and user friendly city website, road maintenance, and more.
Perhaps the most significant change of all has been in our civic attitude. In the span of a few years, we have gone from moribund and stagnant to dynamic and progressive. Attitude often leads to action. The big question now is whether we will continue to aggressively move forward or duck back into a shell and plod along. Will we “go big or go home?”
2014 will present both challenges and opportunities. Some of our challenges—gun violence, education—have been decades in the making. Some of our opportunities—entrepreneurism, streetcars, arts and culture—can transform us for decades to come.
We must become a safer city. Without a safer environment, we will be unable to transform our neighborhoods and increase our population base. However, we cannot talk about increasing safety and ignore the fact that 90 of 106 homicides in 2013 were perpetrated with handguns. Keeping handguns out of the hands of people who, for whatever reason—mental instability, history of violence, felony convictions, prior domestic violence charges—should never have access to an instrument that can kill is a reasonable goal. This is something we should want and do. Because, however, our legislature totally controls the law in this area we, as a City, cannot impose on the right of any idiot to own any sort of a gun when most rational people know that is simply a bad idea.
Although I will continue to argue for some ability to address illegal handguns and those who use them in this City, I hold no illusions that things will change on the state level. Therefore, I will continue to work with the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, KC NoVA, to identify and neutralize those in the City mostly likely to perpetrate violence. KC NoVA is still a relatively new and unprecedented collaboration between the Police Department, Jackson County Prosecutor, Mayor’s Office, US Attorney, FBI, ATF, Probation and Parole, UMKC, and Social Services. Despite its youth, the program has serious potential to reduce violence and homicides in Kansas City if we stay focused on the mission and follow through on the goal of taking the primary perpetrators off the street.
One aspect of KC NoVA that is already showing extraordinary success is the social service component. KC NoVA, you see, doesn’t simply use the stick of law enforcement and incarceration to change the landscape of violence, but also the carrot of a way out of a lifestyle of risk that could lead to violence.
KC NoVA’s social service outreach program, skillfully operated by Angela Gravino, Anti-Drug Program Administrator at COMBAT has already assessed 76 individuals for social service needs on condition that they use this opportunity to get off the path they were on. KC NoVA has provided 12 individuals with housing assistance, 8 with educational opportunities, 4 with anger management help, 9 with mental health access, 15 with employment training and jobs, and many others with other services. These numbers are increasing as we continue to build the programs and identify those most likely to be engaged in violence in our community.
Incarceration and social services are only part of the matrix of approaches to address crime and violence. If we are going to make long term progress against crime in this City, we must provide more quality seats in education. I know that I’m getting old and nobody likes to hear a statement that starts “When I was a kid…,” but, when I was a kid living at 44th and Montgall, I walked to school—first to Henry Kumpf School at 45th and Wabash, and then later to Immaculate Heart of Mary on Swope Parkway about a block west of Prospect. I walked with my friends from the neighborhood—Jay, “Sweet Eddie,” Larry, and others. Our parents knew each other and had carte blanche to discipline us and/or rat us out if we misbehaved. We had neighbors watching out for neighbors and our neighborhoods.
The discussions at that time seemed to be focused on grade cards, respect for our teachers and PTA meetings, rather than what we hear a lot about these days. It seems that we now spend more public time arguing about contracts, teacher tenure and other adult issues rather than engaging in meaningful public discussion of how to provide every child in every neighborhood with a high quality education. In order to sidestep distracting arguments and stay focused on kids, my office is focused on third grade reading proficiency with our Turn the Page KC reading program. We work directly with our partner schools and organizations to improve the dismal statistic of only 33.89% for third graders reading proficiently in the city.
If, during the brief time I have in this job that I love, we can start to reduce the challenge of violence and change the perception of poor education into a reality of exceptional educational outcomes, I will consider our time in this office a success.
While we continue to work on these challenges, we must aggressively pursue opportunities that can have a profound impact on the future of this city. We must discuss the reality, not just the convenience of KCI. Additionally, we must expand our streetcar system into a modern transportation system.
The Airport Commission I appointed will complete its work this spring and offer recommendations regarding our 40-year-old, pre-9/11 airport. One important task the Commission has is to clear up the multitude of public misperceptions about the options. Many people argue, for example, that money that could be spent on the airport would be better spent on schools or roads. The reality is, however, that money for airports is generated by airport and ticket fees, parking charges and other revenue generated directly by airline travel. That money can be only used for airport-related issues cannot be used for other public purposes. The challenges related to the KCI conversation will be to get the facts out and avoid reactionary responses. If we can simply look at the facts and data, that will go a long way towards guiding actions.
I have no idea what those recommendations will be. I do have faith that the Commissioners, who represent the four corners of the region and great diversity of opinion, will make fact-based recommendations about how to proceed. As we move forward, I will do whatever I can to act in the best interests of our city so that we continue to progress.
In the late 50s, Kansas City had a complete streetcar system and the second-most miles of street rails of any place in the country. Downtown then, though racially segregated, was vibrant and the center of business activity. We allowed ourselves to be seduced by the lure of automobiles and buses and abandoned streetcars. That was a mistake.
About 25 years ago, the federal government was almost giving away transportation dollars and back then we did not “miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” No more! We will have a modern streetcar line running down Main Street in downtown by the end of 2015. Economic development in the form of new businesses, hotels and residential units is already lining the route in anticipation of the return of rail to our city. Over 30 new or renovation projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars are already in process or planning phases. More is on the way.
The downtown streetcar line is just that—a start! We must expand the system and the economic development opportunities expansion can generate. Extensive public input and discussion has narrowed the possible expansion routes and engineering analysis is in progress along the proposed expansion routes—Independence Ave. east, either 31st Street or Linwood east and Union Station south to at least UMKC and perhaps further south into Brookside or Waldo. All three routes would be built simultaneously if the necessary Transportation Development Districts (TDDs) can be established this year and then only if and when we can secure the necessary federal funds.
Addressing KCI and expanding the streetcar system is vital to building a city for the next 40 years. These efforts won’t be easy and they won’t be cheap, but they are worth it.
We are facing choices that will chart our course for decades. We can get weak in the knees, doubt our ability and accept second or third tier status, or we can focus, assert our will, and succeed. I vote for option 2. In short, we can “Go Big or Go Home!”