Why Cerner’s Announcement of Expansion at Bannister Site Bodes Well for KCK

I am sure you read or heard last week that Cerner is going to purchase the former Bannister Mall site with the intention of building in excess of 1 million square feet of new office to house up to 15,000 employees.  It’s a great win for that part of Kansas City and it means success for KCK, too.

Far too often in the context of this “border war”  we tend to frame a new development as a gain for one local jurisdiction as a loss for another.  Don’t get me wrong, that can and does happen.  This is not an example of such a deal.

Cerner is clearly a hometown success story.  A business that is on the cutting edge, a leader in it’s field, and rapidly expanding with high paying jobs.  It is the exact kind of company that other city’s economic development departments would try to re-locate and steal away from KC.

Instead, the local founders of this company have made a commitment to expand and stay in Kansas City.  While that may seem logical to someone from here, the pressure to look for a new headquarters location has to be immense.  Cerner needs the best and brightest minds, not just from the Midwest but from all over the country.  Arguably, they would want to attract the best minds from throughout the world.  Their competitive advantage in business is the knowledge and innovation they bring to the table.  I can only imagine they are told frequently that recruitment and hiring would be easier if they moved to “greener” pastures.

But, this Fortune 500 company is committed to Kansas City – all of Kansas City.  As such, their growth in jobs will provide the fuel that every region wants and needs to grow.  Such a presence also gives us a wider reach for other businesses both large and small to be attracted to our region.  It creates not just buildings but momentum and real growth in our regional economy.

Cerner’s further commitment in KCMO means lasting commitment in KCK.  Cerner’s new buildings at Bannister and the new jobs and people that will come means a lasting impact on the cultural, neighborhood and community assets we all hold dear from Sporting Park to the KC Zoo to the soccer fields in Overland Park.

KCK and KCMO, for that matter all of Kansas City, need to align our resources around economic development and growth to capitalize on just this sort of economic activity.  Yes, a win for the Bannister area but more so a big boost for the region.  The question:  How do we take this opportunity to the next step and put this Kansas City region even more on the map for it’s innovative and business friendly environment?  When we do that, we all win!

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St. Patrick’s March Down 5th – Irish on Strawberry Hill

The fifth Annual March Down 5th Street went off perfectly despite the cold weather last Saturday morning. It has become our own unique St. Patrick’s Day event.

Mike Caldwell kicked it off by the firing of his rifle.  He was in period dress to commemorate Lewis and Clark.  Bagpipers from the KCK Police Department were kind enough to lead us down the hill from Old St. Mary’s Church to 5th and Elizabeth near Bobby Breitenstein’s place.  About 100 people made it out for the March.

photo (5)This KCK St. Patrick’s Day event is purposefully unique.  It’s not a parade but instead a march.  We want everyone to march not to watch.  It lasts about 10 minutes total.  It is a completely informal event.  And it celebrates not just the Irish in KCK but the wonderful history that enriches this medium sized city in the midwest.

St. Mary’s church, which has long ago been closed, was originally an Irish parish and one of the first Catholic parishes in Kansas.  It sits on Strawberry Hill which is best know for the Croatian immigrants who later populated the small work-force houses that were built for those that found employment in the West Bottoms packing houses.

Bobby Breitenstein resurrected an old neighborhood bar and reopened it 10 years ago as Breit’s Stein and Deli.  The inside faithfully depicts what one of the Croatian immigrants would have found when he entered after a hard day’s work in the packing houses.

And so it goes in KCK.  A wonderful melting pot of immigrants that came here to find new opportunity and the American Dream.  Our neighborhoods reflect this fact.  In addition to Strawberry Hill nearby is Russian Hill and Polish Hill.  The area around St. Peter’s Cathedral was known for the cluster of Irish families that settled there.  Areas like Argentine farther south were defined by the Mexican immigrants who made that neighborhood their home.

Recently, there is a resurgence of interest in our ethnic neighborhoods.  This is most evident in the Strawberry Hill area and around Central Avenue.  Scores of small businesses have opened up or have expanded recently and are adding a character and flavor that hasn’t existed there in some time.

Breit’s is a great example but not the only one.  We have an excellent small bistro on 6th Street, Jay WaLe.  Flywheel is a new coffee shop near 6th and Central that not only serves great drinks but is also a place to experience art and live performances.  A group of young new business owners have  done a wonderful job of restoring an old tavern at the now re-opened Chicago’s bar.  It compliments the  403 Club where there is a great collection of pinball machines.  Krisman’s sausage, a mainstay of Strawberry Hill, recently opened an expanded store.  A nonprofit bike shop Revolve KC  that is dedicated to getting people out on bikes and healthy recently opened on Central Avenue.  And I haven’t mentioned nearly all of the great small businesses in the area.  Importantly, more new businesses are in the works.

As I think about the potential around Strawberry Hill, I couldn’t help but connect it to a recent visit I made to Chinatown in San Francisco.  I had the honor of travelling with Donny Smith and Steve Curtis of CHWC to experience what the Chinatown Community Development Corporation was doing to enliven its unique neighborhood and serve the residents there.

Donny Smith, Steve Curtis, myself, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Executive Director of Chinatown CDC Norman Fong

Donny Smith, Steve Curtis, myself, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Executive Director of Chinatown CDC Norman Fong

If you’ve been to Chinatown you know it is a unique and fascinating area of San Francisco.  One of the my takeaways was that there was a careful stewardship of assisting the residents of Chinatown while enhancing the cultural and historical aspects of that part of the City.  The Chinatown CDC had done an amazing job of recruiting young people to work on projects in the area.  In fact, our tour of Chinatown was given by several young people from the CDC.

When we sat down and talked to these young people we quickly learned how proud they were of Chinatown.  They were passionate about it.  We also learned that none of them lived in Chinatown or had grown up there.  Their dedication to the district was rooted in the historical and ethnic pride they had.  Chinatown has developed such a strong cultural identity that it was attracting young people from all over the area to it — even if they didn’t live close by.

I think that same cultural magnet can be developed on Strawberry Hill.  It’s already starting to happen: the new small businesses; younger people and artists moving there and opening studio space;  a burgeoning nightlife that pays tribute to the working class roots of the district. Strawberry Hill is developing an identity that is reaching far beyond KCK.  But, it’s at a critical juncture.  If what we are seeing happen isn’t properly cultivated, the momentum could quickly stall.

As I noted in my State of the Government Speech a few weeks ago, economic development and redevelopment should tie itself to the unique characteristics of our neighborhoods.  For Strawberry Hill that would mean taking  the street improvements we installed on 5th Street  and replicating them on 6th Street all the way to Central Avenue.  In improving the streetscape and adding extra parking we would enhance the quality of life for the residents of those neighborhoods while supporting business needs for increased parking and a friendly environment at the front of their stores.  That becomes true economic development and neighborhood improvement.

It’s not just about the physical improvements.  Local government needs to more directly engage in the work of making it easy for small businesses to get up and running and to develop a support program for these districts.  This includes helping to support publicity of the district and businesses.  Our CDC’s need to continue to focus on quality of life issues and housing that enhances the unique nature of this place.

And all of us need to get on board, too.  Those of us that know and enjoy Strawberry Hill need to start talking it up.  We need to frequent the businesses.  We need to tell the unique story of Strawberry Hill.  In so doing, we help to cultivate this potential cultural magnet.

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A Big Check for A Healthier Community

What does a $1.1 million dollar check feel like?  Well, last Thursday I was presented with one at the Hollywood Casino.  No, I didn’t win a big payout.  The casino was making the first of its annual donations to our community and I received the ceremonial check — it was large.  (The real one was also presented).

This donation represents a significant benefit to our citizens that approved casino gaming by over 80% in 2007.  It means that the 3 school districts in the county that don’t receive property tax from the casino will share in $500,000 every year.  And the Unified Government Parks System will receive $100,000 annually to improve our public parks system.

The remaining $500,000 will be devoted to our Health Communities Wyandotte Initiative.  This collaborative formed over 2 years ago is dedicated to improving the health condition of Wyandotte County residents through programming, policy and other activities.  It was my response to our low county health rankings and it brought together so many dedicated individuals resulting in a thoughtful approach to bettering our community.

The Unified Government adopted the Healthy Communities Wyandotte Initiative as the framework to distribute $500,000 annually.  The focus this year is on healthy eating and active living.  So we are looking for strong partners who are willing to address these issues and make a difference.  See the grant details for the Unified Government-Hollywood Casino Grant Fund.

For Healthy Communities Wyandotte it means that a sustainable source of funding for our initiatives is now in place.  From the inception of the collaborative we knew it would be critically important to have a funding source we could count on.  It enforces the hard work and thoughtfulness of the individuals and entities within Wyandotte County that have dedicated themselves to improving health conditions in our community.

So, the real check felt no heavier than any other check when Bob Sheldon the general manager of Hollywood Casino handed it to me.  But, the real weight of that check will be measured in the lasting benefits it will provide to our citizens – starting today and going forward — A Healthier Community in Wyandotte County.

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New Citizens

One of the benefits of not running for office:  you are eligible to be a speaker at a Naturalization Ceremony.  That’s where I found myself almost 10 days ago.  I was the guest speaker at the Naturalization Ceremony at the Bob Dole Federal Courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas.  What an amazing experience.  I was filled with emotions and with the pride of being an American in this wonderful country of opportunity.

I had never attended one of these ceremonies, as I am sure most of you haven’t either.  I didn’t realize they are held monthly at our federal courthouse.  At the February 25th ceremony that I attended more than 90 new citizens took the oath.  They represented over 30 different countries.  But they all had one thing in common:  a strong belief in the potential and promise of our country.  More on that in a minute.

We were in the large ceremonial courtroom at the federal courthouse.  Too few residents of our city have had a chance to see this great building.  It contains a great display on the immigrant experience in Kansas that I would recommend to anyone.  More information can be found here:  http://www.ksd.uscourts.gov/americans-by-choice-the-story-of-immigration-citizenship-in-kansas/

The courtroom was packed.  An overflow room had to be used to accommodate everyone.  These ceremonies are open to the public and I would highly recommend attending one.  You will not forget it.

Federal Magistrate Judge Rushfelt presided.  Our own District Court Judges Bill Mahoney and Dan Duncan also attended.  In fact, our Wyandotte County Bar Association coordinates these ceremonies every other month.  They trade off with the Johnson County Bar.  Judge Mahoney had invited me to speak.  Other groups also assist with the ceremony by providing a reception and ceremonial touches.  It makes the event special.

I wish I could tell you that my speech was the most moving part of the ceremony, but that was not it by a long shot.  My text was completely and appropriately overshadowed.  The best part was when the clerk announces each candidate.  The candidate stands, states their country of origin and the clerk indicates their occupation.   As I said, at my ceremony over 30 countries were represented:  China, Bosnia, Jordan, Mexico, South Africa and the list went on.  How appropriate this ceremony was being held in Kansas City, Kansas which has reflected the rich diversity of the world in its residents over time.  I felt so much at home.

And then the oath is taken and in that moment we are all citizens of this great country.  In that moment the candidates, now citizens, are welcomed to their home; our home.

I was honored to speak and attend the nice reception afterward.   And I must say, along with my pride, I realized that we not only had new citizens to celebrate but we were celebrating our country becoming that much stronger and better.  There is no doubt that each one of my new fellow citizens possessed the drive, passion and commitment that we find in the best of our fellow countrymen.  In many ways, their energy renewed me.  I know for many it would do the same.

So maybe you’re like me and when you switch on the TV and watch the news you wonder if our federal government can ever get its act back together and move us forward.  I listen to some of the pundits about how we are so divided and we can’t see eye to eye as Americans.  I don’t believe it but it gets me depressed at times.  Well, I can assure you a Friday afternoon at our federal courthouse witnessing a Naturalization Ceremony is just the prescription to get you back on track.  It certainly worked for me.

So here is my plea.  If you have kids in school or even if you don’t,  let’s suggest they take a field trip to our federal courthouse and witness a Naturalization Ceremony.  It might just be the best civics lesson they get all year.  And by the way, volunteer to be parent chaperon.  You won’t regret it.

More information on Naturalization Ceremonies in Kansas can be found here:


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