KC Mayor Sly James took office in 2011 proclaiming the city was “open for business.” James appeared on Power Lunch to talk economic development, the bi-state border war, the region’s startup culture, the future of KCI and the streetcar line.
Krista Klaus: It has been an incredibly busy couple of years since you took office.
Mayor Sly James: We are in a competitive environment not just regionally, but internationally. If we are not being aggressive in pursuing opportunities to enhance business opportunities, to create more jobs, to build more wealth in this area and region and city, then we’re not doing what we should do.
KK: Let’s talk a little about the MO/KS economic “border war.” We’re hearing about some kind of a truce. Do you see that happening?
SJ: Practically, no. I think it’s always good to try to work toward some kind of a solution, but I don’t see, frankly, the great desire to get that done. I think one side thinks it’s winning, when I don’t think they are, and it’s not. And it’s not something you can do unilaterally. The sad thing isn’t just that we are wasting money and time. The sad thing is that we are missing a real opportunity to do something that could be special.
We as a city – Kansas City, Mo. – cannot compete with India or England or Chicago. We as a region can compete. But it takes a regional effort and recognizing that type of effort [will be] to the benefit of [us] all. We have a lot of resources here, but we seem to be more intent on holding them under our arm rather than using them to build a bigger, better economy for this region.
Part 1 of the Mayor Sly James interview – click this link if no sound plays
Part 2 of the Mayor Sly James interview – click this link if no sound plays
KK: There’s a lot buzz about the startup culture in Kansas City. How do you feel about growth opportunities here?
SJ: I think that is the salvation rather than moving all these businesses around. Smokestacks don’t move anymore. If you want to get a Boeing, look what happened with Missouri’s bid for Boeing. What you had to offer to get them to even think about coming and then they still didn’t come.
The way now is to look at what’s going on realistically with the people who are going to be running the city, region and country in the next 25 years. These folks leave college, and they go to a place they want to live and create their jobs. It used to be you went to a place where found a job and you found a way to live there. Good examples are Hallmark, Cerner, DST, H&R Block, all sorts of companies were started here entrepreneurially and then spun off tons of other companies that are now growing and creating other jobs. That’s the wave of the future and the way it should be.
KK: Recently a San Francisco law firm (Sedgwick) decided to locate a tech center in downtown KC, picking Silicon Prairie over Silicon Valley. Do you expect more of these kinds of moves?
SJ: We are gaining an international reputation. Right now, the fastest-growing tech job center in the country is in Missouri, and the fastest growing place in Missouri is Kansas City. Kansas City has 400 tech jobs located in the downtown loop alone, and it’s growing all the time. That’s where we are headed, and we are making a name for ourselves. We want to get that name out not just here locally, but around the world, and people are starting to know that Kansas City is a player.
KK: How big of an impact did Google Fiber have on our brand?
SJ: It had a huge impact on our image. It gave everybody around the country a name they immediately knew and associated with Kansas City, both KCK and KCMO. It was a great effort. The reality is Google Fiber is still at the infancy stage. You know it does a lot more than high-def television. We are waiting for the next wave—the business applications that will take this to the next level.
KK: What are some of your top goals for 2014?
SJ: Pressing issues will be KCI and also the streetcar expansion, which is a huge issue. It will require two votes this year, one in August and one in November. Both issues are important not only to building our city for two, three or four years, but for the next 75 years.
KK: What are the plans for the expansion of the streetcar line?
SJ: We have to look at our mass transit options. We had an opportunity 20 years ago, and we blew it. Now we’re going to pay more for it. I don’t want us to miss the opportunity to do it right this time. It’s important to help us attract new talent. Young people say they’d rather have an Internet connection than a car.
We want to move south from Union Station to at least UMKC. We want to move east and west, and we want to move east on Independence Avenue so we can finally start connecting the city. To complete the whole transportation matrix, we are also looking at adding a MAX line on Prospect from the beginning to the end and hook up to the streetcar.
KK: How do you see the debate over a one-terminal plan at KCI playing out?
SJ: There’s a big gap between doing absolute nothing and doing everything. Someplace between those extremes, there is a comfort point we probably can agree on. We can’t do anything with a 400-year-old, pre-9/11, three-terminal airport where we are using one-and-a-half terminals. The mere fact that we are using half our capacity shows that something has to change in some regard. If nothing else, what do you do with the building space you are not using?
We’ll have to make some [kind of] decision. Do you want to spend X number of dollars to do this? Or do you want to spend X-plus dollars to do that? I want an answer to the question, “Is KCI as currently configured the best airport for this city at this time and for the future?” If it is, fine. If it isn’t, what are our options?