"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.