A Look At The Past 30 Years In Kansas City, Through The Lens Of Two Veteran Journalists

Apr 25, 2016

In many ways, Kansas City is a different city than it was 30 years ago. But in some ways, it’s the same.

Take it from two people whose job has been to write about it for the last three decades or so.

Editorial page writers Barbara Shelly and Steve Paul recently took buyouts at The Kansas City Star after 32 and 41-year-careers at the paper, respectively.

They’ve been watching the city’s evolution through the decades, from massive suburban sprawl — which both agree has gotten out of control — to the transformation of downtown from decrepit city center to hub of activity.

They reflected on what they think of the city’s progress, at a moment where excitement about its future is at a high.

Thirty years ago, Kansas Citians were talking about the airport, and tax breaks for developers.

When Barb Shelly started at the star 32 years ago, she was assigned to the Northland bureau — yes, The Star had several bureaus back then — and even then, we were talking about KCI airport.

Although people praised the three-terminal setup back then, she says that there were concerns about parking, and whether Kansas City could attract the traffic they wanted. Now, as the city faces a critical decision about the future of the airport, Shelly is holding fast to the opinion she formed when she started at her first assignment.

“I have been from the very start saying, you know, we need to go to a modern airport and a single terminal,” she told Steve Kraske on KCUR's Up To Date.

She acknowledges that many people still love the three-horseshoe model.

“I just don't think it's a good face for the city,” she says.

Shelly also remembers a series of stories she wrote about the 353 Tax Abatement, an incentive that can be utilized by cities to encourage the redevelopment of blighted areas by providing real property tax abatement.

Back in 1985, city council members were arguing about whether a development project by R.H. Sailors & Co. should receive tax breaks for a project in the Plaza area. The argument back then was about whether the project would undercut needed development downtown.

“It was the same issue, you know, when is too much, what is a blighted area?” says Shelly.

Sound familiar? As the city council debates the usage of Tax Increment Financing, similar arguments are being made today, and Shelly thinks that 30 years from now we’ll be tackling the very same issues.

Although much of the government-side of Kansas City has stayed the same, there are regions of the metro that have seen new life over the last few decades.

Much of Kansas City’s arts scene has flourished, but it’s time to re-visit 18th and Vine.

Although Paul was once the editor of the city desk, around 1986 he transitioned to covering the arts , and kept an eye on Kansas City’s cultural growth.

He says the arts scene was bubbling in the late '80s, and the '90s saw growth of a Crossroads Arts District, the start of First Fridays and an expansion of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 1999 — which Paul says was a turning point for Kansas City’s arts scene.

“I made a lot of people angry because I kind of liked it ... But as a project, that helped put Kansas City on kind of an international map,” Paul says.

Another critical project for the city was the building of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which took 16 years before it opened its doors in 2011.

One area that has been a struggle for the city, despite efforts over the last three decades, has been the 18th and Vine Jazz District. 

In October 1999, when the city was breaking ground on a commercial redevelopment project in the district, former Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver was quoted in  The Star:

"This day is one we've wanted to come for a long time, but the rebirth won't be complete until this area is populated with throngs walking up and down the entire district.''

Seventeen years later, we're still not there.

“There has been a leadership and vision problem,” Paul says.

He says when Kay Barnes was first elected mayor, she pushed hard for a River-Crown-Plaza concept, which promoted activity and development in greater downtown.

“Why couldn't we have called it River-Crown-Vine-Plaza? Bringing that in as an act of vision that says this is important, let’s make this part of greater downtown,” Paul says.

He hopes new leadership at the American Jazz Museum helps bring more activity to the area, as well as the new MLB Urban Youth Academy.

But he says the council needs to look closely at some of the ideas being discussed for an $28 million infusion in the district, like a new entry plaza, which he thinks is unnecessary.

One thing that both journalists agree is a major turning point for Kansas City is the expansion of the streetcar line. If Kansas City can grow and make that accessible to more of its citizens, then they think we’ll still be talking about about it 30 years from now.

Well, that and the Royals.

This story is part of KCUR’s series called 30/30 Vision, in which we’re examining Kansas City’s past to reimagine its future.

Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and producer at KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter,@larodrig.