Editorial: Background of incoming city manager could create exciting times for downtown, community as a whole

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Lawrence residents should be excited to welcome Craig Owens as the community’s next city manager.

Owens will begin his new job as the city’s top nonelected leader on July 1, after city commissioners approved his hiring last week. Of course, Lawrence barely knows Owens, and despite growing up in Overland Park and getting his master’s degree from KU, Owens surely has much to learn about Lawrence.

But at first glance, Owens has a background that is intriguing and could be useful in helping move Lawrence into a new era of prosperity. For nearly the last 11 years, Owens has been the city manager of Clayton, Mo. Clayton often calls itself the second downtown of St. Louis. It is a relatively small community both in population — about 16,000 people — and in geography. But it is big in other ways. For example, its downtown currently is undergoing $780 million worth of expansion projects, according to the City of Clayton’s website. To put that in perspective, that is probably about five years worth of private construction in Lawrence.

Here’s another big number for you: $91,531. That is the median household income in Clayton, according to the latest Census Bureau figures. You have already figured out that Lawrence’s median household income isn’t nearly that high. It is $49,297. Even when you factor in that Lawrence has a ton of college students who drive the income averages down, the difference is still stark. For example, the median earnings for employees who work full-time, year-round — which is a way to factor out college students — are $42,700 in Lawrence. In Clayton they are $79,148.

Lawrence has hired a city manager from a rich community. Guaranteed that makes some Lawrence residents nervous. In an age where the problems of income disparities are being highlighted, there is a natural concern about certain parts of a community being served while others get left behind.

But Lawrence shouldn’t be nervous that it is has a leader who knows what prosperity looks like. Simply put, Lawrence incomes need to grow. It may be the most pressing issue facing the community. Perhaps Clayton simply has lucked into its good fortune. Perhaps, though, it has become a wealthy community because it understands how to recognize and maximize its advantages. Lawrence is struggling to do either. It too often says its vision is to be a great place to live, which is like a business saying its goal is to be profitable. Both are self-evident but neither is self-fulfilling. The Lawrence community has to reach some sort of consensus on what its competitive advantages are and how we will use them to be more prosperous.

Clayton seems to have centered on its downtown — which is full of tall urban-scale buildings — as a competitive advantage that it has used to create prosperity. Does that sound like a story that could be written in Lawrence?

While growing incomes in Lawrence will be a long-term project, a vision for Lawrence’s downtown could come more quickly. A new master plan is being created for downtown currently. We talk about wanting to have a more urban downtown, where more people live and work. It will be a great asset to not only have someone who has planned for that but who has also lived it.

Certainly Clayton and Lawrence have many differences. Lawrence does not have some of the advantages — nor problems — of being in a major metro area like St. Louis. Whatever path Lawrence takes into the future will be uniquely Lawrence, and surely Owens is wise enough to know that. But there is reason to believe that Owens’ service in a prosperous, urban community will serve us well. He’s from a town of big buildings and big incomes. You can make a strong argument that both need to grow in Lawrence.

It is exciting to think about the possibilities.

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