100 years after its founding at KU, National League of Cities to kick off centennial roadshow in Lawrence

photo by: National League of Cities

The National League of Cities' founding charter shows the members who attended the organization's first meeting on the University of Kansas campus in 1924. Now based in Washington, D.C., the NLC is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year.

While a lot has changed in the past 100 years, in some ways the issues cities were navigating then aren’t all that different than the issues of today.

That much is true to Clarence Anthony, the CEO and executive director of the National League of Cities. For Anthony, the similarities between now and a century ago really hit home when he reads the minutes of his organization’s very first meeting in 1924. That gathering just so happened to take place in a familiar location for Lawrence locals — Fraser Hall on the University of Kansas campus.

The NLC was founded right here in Lawrence by John Stutz, who in 1924 was the executive director of the Kansas Municipal League, with a goal of connecting and providing services to city officials across the U.S. Stutz brought together 10 state leagues to create the new national organization that would serve as a clearinghouse for information about municipal government, and 2024 is its centennial.

photo by: National League of Cities

John Stutz

Anthony expanded on the parallels between then and now in a post on the NLC’s website in December 2023. There are examples like the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, which is still a fresh — and ongoing — memory in much the same way the Spanish flu of 1918 was by the time the NLC was founded. Anthony also referred to present-day city leaders’ efforts to bridge the digital divide and expand broadband access, which mirrors how leaders in the 1920s were experimenting with wireless telegraphs and commercial radio.

“As they talked, they talked about the networking, the training and education, being able to really share best practices with each other,” Anthony told the Journal-World Thursday. “And those are the same things that we work hard to do at the National League of Cities today.”

photo by: Jason Dixson Photography

Clarence Anthony

Anthony and other leaders with the NLC will soon celebrate that history, kicking things off where it all started. The NLC, KU’s School of Public Affairs and Administration, the League of Kansas Municipalities and the City of Lawrence will convene at KU for a daylong celebration of the centennial anniversary on Feb. 29 — the first stop on a roadshow that will see the NLC visiting 100 cities across the country between now and November. The next day, the NLC will visit the League of Kansas Municipalities in Topeka.

Being stop number one on the cross country tour is just one indicator of Lawrence’s significance to the NLC’s history, a notion that’s not been lost on either Anthony or Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens. Both of them spoke with the Journal-World about those roots Thursday, as well as the ways the NLC works directly with cities like Lawrence.

The mission carries on

In the century the organization has been around, “I believe we have stayed true to the mission and the founding principles that the founders were talking about,” Anthony said.

That mission, he said, is to “relentlessly advocate for, and protect the interests of, cities, towns and villages” by influencing federal policy, strengthening local leadership and driving innovative solutions. The verbiage may be a little different than it was in 1924, he said, but the guiding principles are all the same. Today, there are more than 2,700 NLC member cities across the nation.

photo by: Jason Dixson Photography

The National League of Cities’ current leadership team celebrates at the organization’s centennial anniversary kickoff event in November 2023.

That work manifests in a number of ways. Sometimes it’s in the form of initiatives like the NLC’s City Inclusive Entrepreneurship program, which the City of Lawrence recently committed to join in an effort to increase opportunities for economic advancement for underrepresented entrepreneurs.

But perhaps the most impactful examples are the public policies the NLC has helped to shape on a national level. The organization had a role in the passage or creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, the American Rescue Plan Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Navigating the COVID-19 pandemic was one case Owens highlighted to explain the more tangible ways that cities work with the NLC, in part because it’s a good example of why cities are better positioned to address challenges when they can pool their resources and share ideas.

That was especially important during the height of the pandemic, he said, “where everything was upside-down and every city was in some form of crisis.”

“The voice of local government being represented at the national level — and especially with Congress and the U.S. government — continues to be a really important role,” Owens said. “… And I know that the federal government relied heavily on the consolidated and coordinated voice of the National League of Cities as it was developing strategies to help and assist cities in their recovery at the local level, which is where almost everything really occurs.”

photo by: City of Lawrence

Craig Owens

And that goes beyond just deploying resources through the passage of ARPA, he said. The NLC was also providing cities with information about best practices, especially the lessons learned by cities that were running ahead of the rest of the pack and on the cutting edge of navigating the disease.

The idea of the NLC being a resource for information that is “evidence-based” or based on “best practices” also extends to what Owens called the number one issue in Lawrence — housing and homelessness. He said the city has been able to tap into resources, both online and at in-person conventions, that help leaders learn what has and hasn’t worked for other member cities across the nation, about elements from program development to funding sources.

“… You know that we’ve had a steep learning curve to try and address this very important issue in our community,” Owens said. “We know we are not alone. We know that this is happening in every community in the country, and we’re all learning together and learning from those that are ahead of us.”

That type of collaboration is something Owens has plenty of experience with, even beyond Lawrence’s affiliation with the NLC. As a reminder, Owens has been working in the field of city management for about 30 years at this point, having previously held positions in the cities of Rowlett, Texas; O’Fallon, Illinois; and Hazelwood, Missouri.

He told the Journal-World that he’s found over the years that the nature of local government is truly “open source,” to the extent that he’s often found himself reconnecting with former colleagues after pinpointing a viable solution to an old, unresolved challenge facing their communities.

“A special place”

Getting out on the road will give NLC leaders the chance to learn more directly about what city officials need, Anthony said. Often, those officials might feel something of a disconnect with the organization since it’s now based in Washington, D.C. But Anthony said he always tries to impart to people that no matter where it’s located, the NLC wants the same things for America as its member communities.

“As we embark on the roadshow, we’re embarking on getting outside of Washington, D.C.,” Anthony said. “To be able to visit cities that are rural or small in nature, to be able to visit suburban communities and urban communities, and be able to talk to our local leaders and say ‘What is happening in your community and how can we uplift some of the best practices that you are doing?'”

During the organization’s visit to Lawrence, Anthony said he’s especially looking forward to walking KU’s campus and “imagining those that were there” — that is, putting himself in the shoes of the NLC’s founding members and picturing what they were thinking when they came together.

Anthony’s also looking forward to connecting with stakeholders in the downtown area to hear how they’re dealing with issues like housing, job creation, economic development, inclusion and more.

“I just think we want to let your community know where we were born, what impact we’ve had on Lawrence, Kansas, KU, to Washington, D.C.,” Anthony said. “… I hope that what we can share while we’re there is this is a special place for the National League of Cities and municipal leaders, and we want to recognize that. That’s our ultimate goal.”


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