Urban Youth Academy Hopes To Bolster Baseball, 18th And Vine District

May 4, 2016

Parade Park in the 18th and Vine district will get a new look next year with the completion of the Major League Baseball’s Urban Youth Academy. It’s aimed at motivating more kids to play baseball and softball, but some are hoping it along with a proposed $27 million investment from the city could revitalize the historic area.  

The Kansas City Royals and city leaders broke ground for the Urban Youth Academy on April 20.
Credit Greg Echlin / KCUR 89.3

Finding the next Lorenzo Cain

“We’re not naïve enough to think that every kid that comes we can make into the next Lorenzo Cain,” says Kyle Vena, Royals director of baseball administration and the behind-the-scenes guy on the project.  “But what we can do is make sure we can provide for them.”

While growing up in Florida, Kansas City Royals outfielder Lorenzo didn’t play baseball until high school, and that’s what the Kansas City Royals want to change with the construction of the academy.

The academy will have indoor facilities, equipment and four outdoor diamonds to provide not just a place to pay but instruction to inner city kids. The best part of the deal? It’ll be free of charge.

From experiences with his own family, Kansas City Mayor Sly James recognizes the obstacles to picking up a ball and bat.

“My son played competitive baseball. Very competitive. He was playing on Mac--Seitz teams,” says James, referring to private teams run by two ex-Royals. “Mike MacFarlane and Kevin Seitzer had teams for every age group. It was extremely competitive. It was also expensive.”

Since Dayton Moore’s arrival ten years ago as the Royals general manager, he’s been focused on fielding a championship team. That, of course, happened last year when the Royals won the World Series. But all along, Moore also envisioned an academy like this.

To be able to represent baseball in this way, (in) a very historical part of our city, through the game of baseball we are going to enrich the lives of young people and grow the game,” says Moore. “This facility is going to be special. There’s no doubt about it.”

It will be the seventh academy built around the country with the sponsorship and some funding from Major League Baseball.

The Urban Youth Academy will cost $14 million and will include one softball and three baseball fields.
Credit Courtesy of Populous

A lack of inclusion?

But there are some who feel excluded from the planning process. Marvin Lyman, president of the Black Economic Union which is housed is in the Lincoln Building at 18th and Vine, says his office didn’t receive an invitation to the groundbreaking.

“When you look at how things happen, we’re not on that A-list and we have to wonder, ‘Why are we not on that A-list?’” asks Lyman, who says the omission underscores his opinion that the African American community has not been properly informed.

He adds, “To have something named in our area without our input, it’s really a slap in the face and total disregard for our culture, our heritage and our commitment to stay in the area and to build it.”

An increase in foot traffic

The question surrounding the academy is its potential to increase businesses and drive retail traffic toward the area.

The 18th and Vine district is where Kansas City Councilman Jermaine Reed grew up and now represents it. Reed says it’s time to pay more attention to its rebirth.

“We have to do everything that we possibly can,” says Reed. “Every Kansas Citian. If you don’t think this way, shame on you! Shame on you! Because we should be proud of that rich history that we have in Kansas City and preserve that history.”

With the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum nearby, the hope is to entice more visitors to stick around more. If this were a mall, the baseball museum, the American Jazz Museum and the Gem Theater across 18th Street would be the anchor tenants. The problem has been too much turnover in the other businesses.

Councilman Reed says the city is well aware of the problem.

“If we don’t increase the foot traffic in the area, we are just failing ourselves,” says Reed. “We just can’t have an area where folks come in 18th and Vine and they say, ‘Hey! I’ve got to go because there’s nothing else for me to do here.’”

The Royals actually had three sites in mind for the academy, according to Kyle Vena. But Parade Park as its final choice was a no-brainer. In his opinion, it will not only help grow the game, it will fulfill the hopes of those who want to inject more commerce into the area.

“There’s really nothing that can compete with that, with the history and education elements,” says Vena. “The transportation functionality of just being right off I-70 and allowing some ties to KCK and from up north to come down and promote what the city’s been so direct in creating and promoting regionalism. It was a natural fit.”

Starting from the top with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, baseball is swinging for the fences in its attempt to revive the game in the urban core. Kansas City hopes that all forces can eventually unite for what can result in a homerun for the 18th & Vine district.

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.

Greg Echlin is a sports reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter, @GregEchlin.