Archive for Sunday, February 3, 2008

Lawrence progress depends on finding middle ground

February 3, 2008


"At long last, KC is getting a little love," was the understated boast of a recent headline in the Kansas City Star. "Convention planners are noticing as Top 10 lists rave:" A blossoming of major new projects has attracted national attention to Kansas City and elevated the town from a "modest metropolis" to "most underrated" in the span of about a year.

I grew up in Kansas City and watched its downtown dwindle from civic center and shopping magnet to a razed wasteland of parking lots, boarded up hotels and vacant storefronts. It became a forlorn ghost town after dark. Now, after numerous false starts, downtown KC has been reborn.

Dazzling new high rises have sprung up, along with a jazzy-looking new sports arena, the World War I museum at Liberty Memorial and prospects of the Power & Light entertainment district and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The Crossroads arts district is bustling. The Nelson Gallery's Bloch addition to the south has attracted international acclaim. Internet travel sites tout Cowtown as "most intriguing," among the top 10 cities offering "the best combination of strong value and a great vacation experience."

I made my escape from Kansas City 30 years ago and found "an asylum for my affections" in Lawrence. Today, I observe both towns from a distance and can't help being struck by their varying fortunes. Kansas City never mounted a serious campaign to protect its downtown from suburban competition comparable to Lawrence's resistance to the "cornfield mall." Flight to the suburbs transformed KC into a sprawling collection of tenuously related satellite towns. The loss of the airport's hub status contributed to its decline. Racial division has handicapped the city and bedeviled its public schools.

In some ways, Lawrence has more potential for greatness. Modest size ought to make it more manageable, coherent and amenable to the quality of "community," to which so much lip service is paid. Physical division by State Line deals Kansas City a unique set of problems that Lawrence doesn't have to face. And yet, Lawrence suffers from an ideological polarization that may undermine its future. The argument between growth and preservation is prosecuted in bitter, extremist rhetoric - the philistines of rampant development versus the nannies of preventionism. No outstanding leadership has come forward to promote compromise, discover common ground and articulate an exciting vision of the future.

Kansas University is an enormous asset, but the university and the town seem to have little positive connection. The success of KU's basketball and football teams ought to give a powerful boost to the town's spirit. But the athletic department's ruthless gouging of season ticketholders has alienated many diehard fans. The staging of the KU-MU football game in Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium suggested indifference to the local economy.

Growth is necessary to the vitality of a town, and preservation of heritage is fundamental to its character. If Kansas City had saved half of the great buildings it possessed a hundred years ago, it would be a world-class architectural attraction today. It remains to be seen whether there will be an economic payoff for Kansas City's revitalized downtown, much of it financed by tax giveaways. No doubt there are some in Lawrence who would fight to defeat the kind of developments which are giving Kansas City a shot in the arm.

There are tradeoffs to every economic action. The job of intelligent planning is to understand them and to weigh the pluses and minuses. Lawrence's quest to protect itself from the vulgar effects of growth has left it short of funds for infrastructure and civic projects such as a new library. Its economic ventures such as the bus line and the golf course have been of dubious success. Not long ago, Lawrence was the hottest city in Kansas. Today, it's losing population, and growth has come to a halt. Even Lawrence's prized downtown seems down at the heels.

Advocates of growth lament that Lawrence is falling behind other towns in the competition to lure promising companies. Losing that battle is an expression of Lawrence's status as the most "enlightened" city in Kansas, from the anti-growth point of view. Some say that Lawrence has so much to offer that it doesn't need to compete.

At one extreme are the dour souls who oppose a proposed industrial park because it would use farmland we'll need when global warming drives us back to a subsistence, Stone Age existence. Lawrence needs more bike paths, not more taxable properties, according to their view. On the other hand, conflict of interest and open meetings issues surrounding the Deciphera imbroglio have given the pro-growth agenda a black eye.

Lawrence ought to be pumped up, exuberant, full of big ideas and confident of its future. Instead, it seems sluggish, dispirited, possessed by pessimism and acrimony. There must be an alternative to its becoming either a museum to the charms of yesteryear or a paved over monument to commercialism. Much matter to brood upon for the citizens of Athens on the Kaw.

- George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


toefungus 10 years, 1 month ago

Leadership is about challenging the status quo. But, we have confused leadership with followship in an effort to find like-mindedness and comfort. Lawrence is in danger of closed mindedness instead of enlightenment. Look for leadership in places you do not expect it, and you may find it.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 10 years, 1 month ago

"Instead, it seems sluggish, dispirited, possessed by pessimism and acrimony."

And George is clearly one of our "leaders" in that spirit.

Kookamooka 10 years, 1 month ago

Well put. An economic recession isn't going to make things easier. We'll all have to accept the failures of our community , the bad decisions of our leaders for a few years, maybe a decade, then we'll rise like a Phoenix like we always do. But how do we weather the storm until there is a better day?

WilburM 10 years, 1 month ago

George, always ready to occupy the morally superior high ground from his rural expatriate point of view. A hell of a contributor, you've been, Georgie, to either KC or Lawrence!!

BigPrune 10 years, 1 month ago

The problem with Lawrence is its been trying for years to find middle ground with the people who want to drive us back into the stone age. Enough with the finding middle ground talk. The bicycle path people need to be sent to the back of the room. Then, Lawrence will prosper.

mytake 10 years, 1 month ago

I have spoken to many potential students that considered coming to KU. However, they all commented on how trashy the town is and it felt dirty. That was a major determining factor considered by both students and their parents. They all chose to go somewhere else. It's unfortunate. Hope it can change.

Godot 10 years, 1 month ago

It is good to see someone summarize, with such balance, the problems Lawrence faces.

I am one of those who will oppose TIF development projects in Lawrence because TIF is meant to be used as a last resort to give developers an incentive to revitalize economically blighted areas that they would otherwise avoid. There is, at this time, virtually no area in Lawrence that meets that criteria, least of all downtown or the area adjacent to KU.

Meatwad 10 years, 1 month ago

I will trade getting a new library for keeping Lawrence from becoming a, ugly, boring, sprawling, lowest common denominator, chain-filled suburb like what you see in Johnson County. Sadly, people who want sprawling growth at any cost will probably win. They want to kill our downtown and build more big box stores. Our pathetic 14% voter turnout will ensure this. Money wins. Why can't we grow by improving areas or filling in? Probably because it costs the millionaire developers more to fill in and buy those areas. Poor millionaires. Boo hoo. Thanks for ruining our city. Why can't we learn from Kansas City's TIF disasters?? I wish the millionaires would put their money toward improving Lawrence instead of ruining it with sprawl. But that wouldn't earn them as much. I have heard of at least one of the developers who DOES seem to put improving Lawrence before making money, but he's only one (that I know of). I wish they would look at the long term and see that in the big picture, if they ruin Lawrence, that's not really great for their bottom line after all. I don't think they see it that way, they want instant gratification.

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