Wednesday, August 09, 2017

DEVELOPMENT DONE RIGHT

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On Saturday morning I took a pleasant morning stroll around Kansas City's River Market with our pups. While they concentrated on the scents left by other neighborhood dogs, I focused on all the changes that have taken place in the River Market since we bought our loft in an old industrial building about 10 years ago.

As Nancy and I were considering a second place in Kansas City, we explored Westport, the Plaza, and Crown Center. While each area had its charms and appeal, we eventually decided on the River Market, in part because the price was right and in part because we were offered a fifteen year tax abatement to buy our loft. It just made sense. The planners understood that if the incentives are given to homebuyers rather than developers and other speculators, a thriving community will spring up and businesses, almost exclusively small ones with good paying jobs, will follow the people who have moved into the neighborhood.  

When we first bought our loft, there wasn't a l ot of neighborhood activity. There were what you might call the old staples of the River Market– the Steamboat Arabia, Planter's Seed, the Al Dente Café, Carollo's Italian Market. But, my, how things have changed. As the dogs and I strolled along, we passed Houundstooth, a small specialty tailor's shop, Nature's Own, a health food/grocery store, The Farm House, a delightful eatery where all the food served comes from local vendors, small restaurants like A Taste of Brazil , Beignet, Bloom Baking, the Opera House. We passed a new loft development being built on the corner of Fifth and Grand and a recently completed loft complex a block north of that. A bit further east, there's a new condominium complex.

At 6:15 A.M. I heard the clang of the streetcar making its first daily stop.  It's become a familiar sound in the River Market for a over a year now. While some residents weren't sure about the streetcar project when the issue was being debated, the referendum passed and residents and business owners have now seen that the service has been a roaring success. It's given local residents free transportation to the Power and Light District, the Crossroads and Arts districts, Union Station and Crown Center. It's also given residents from other parts of Kansas City free transportation to enjoy the River Market vibe. The project has been so successful that the residents of the city south of the River Market have just voted to approve extending the streetcar service south all the way to U.M.K.C.  

Toward the end of our walk, we went west. The development is omnipresent there as well. At the far west end of the River Market district there's a huge apartment complex and a small convenience store. As we got back to our place on Second and Main, I looked across the street at one loft complex that was completed a few years ago and another that is under construction. When it's completed, it will be totally "green," including rooftop gardens.

Ten years ago, the River Market was struggling in the aftermath of rampant crime and mafia influence. Today, it's the place to be in Kansas City. The area is overflowing with life.  The shops, cafés, and bistros are full to the gunwales.  How did that happen in such a short time? It was simply economic development done right. Incentives were given to homebuyers rather than developers and residents got to vote on other issues as development moved along. The result of this "development done right" has been beneficial for everyone – residents, the city, business owners, and even developers.  
When we got back to Emporia on Sunday evening I took the dogs for a walk downtown and spotted some hopeful signs. Lofts, with what will be small shops on the lower levels, are being built, thanks to Cory Haag, a young entrepreneur who seems to get the concept of people first. It's development done right in the right place.  

On Monday I drove  to Wal-Mart and couldn't help but notice the Hobby Lobby project in its final stages. It's a testament to what I believe is old school economic development, where few profit and many pay. Pretty soon now we'll have another big box retailer and more westward sprawl, thanks to a combination of an incentive-seeking developer and readily available land. The developer will profit, as will the landowners who sold to the developer. What will the rest of us get? A one percent bump in sales tax on any purchases we make at Hobby Lobby.  

While it's good to see a few encouraging signs in downtown Emporia, it's discouraging to see that too many of the old ways still persist. It makes me wonder if we'll ever learn.