It Is Hip To Be Square
Kansas City leaders have sacrificed much at the altar of cool. But arguably the coolest thing to happen to the region was not a result of government stepping forward, but of government stepping back.
Urban planners and politicians scramble to build things they think will attract the so-called creative class. In remarks extolling Kansas City, Mayor Sly James has said, “Young creative people want to be in a vibrant area. We’re the vibrant area. They want to be where things are going on downtown — that’s us. They want to be in a place where there are creative minds and arts — that’s us.”
While some point to a slight increase in people living in Kansas City’s downtown, the overwhelming evidence suggests that jobs and residents are moving elsewhere. The Kansas City Star reported on April 18 that the downtown core is still losing jobs to the suburbs. The article stated: “A report to be released today by the Brookings Institution said that in 2010 just 16.9 percent of the area’s jobs were in the core, defined as within three miles of Kansas City’s downtown. That’s down from 20.5 percent in 2000.”
City officials are still bent on spending taxpayer dollars to build things aimed at attracting the creative class. The downtown streetcar is chief among them. So, too, was the Power and Light District, which remains a drain on city finances. While voters have rejected rail transit time and again, city leaders want it because they think it is hip and cool.
James likes to say that Google would not have come to Kansas City, Mo., were they not bullish on us. But he forgets that Google rejected our offer and instead settled down next door. They certainly did not choose a location based on how cool it is. When Google announced that it had chosen Kansas City, Kan., the March 11, 2011, Kansas City Star reported: “More than 1,000 cities across the United States campaigned to be Google’s first site. [Google Vice President Milo] Medin said Kansas City, Kan., stood out for its infrastructure and for a unified leadership with county, city and utility services combined, but also for the state’s attitude toward business. . . . We wanted to find a location where we could build quickly and efficiently. Kansas City has great infrastructure and Kansas has a great business-friendly environment for us to deploy a service in.”
Missouri’s bid was predictably heavy on taxpayer subsidies. “Across the state line, Kansas City, Mo., courted Google by coupling its proposal to the company with applications for $10 million in federal grants to improve broadband access in public buildings,” according to the article.
Google did what any business could be expected to do: chose a city that was business-friendly over one that was not. Kansas City, Mo., is saddled with some of the highest taxes in the region and large financial commitments because leaders are eager to kowtow to developers. The city is not keeping up on infrastructure maintenance and is cutting important services while paying out more for entertainment districts. Spending on streetcars and airports and convention hotels will only make this worse.
Instead, officials in Kansas City, Mo., should embrace an idea whose time has come and do the things that helped Kansas win Google: streamline government, reduce bureaucracy, and make sure we have a good business environment for everyone. Even the unhip.
Patrick Tuohey is the western Missouri field manager at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.