Thursday, December 11, 2014

‘Healthy campus’ in downtown KCK another step closer to reality

By Jim McLean
KHI News Service

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A multimillion-dollar plan to transform this city’s downtown into a national model is one step closer to reality.

The Unified Government Board of Commissioners last week unanimously approved a new master development plan designed to help improve the health of Kansas City and other Wyandotte County residents by providing a state-of-the-art community center, more green space in which to exercise and access to healthy foods at a 30,000- to 35,000-square-foot urban grocery store.

The 8-0 vote to approve the Downtown Central Parkway Plan and its signature “healthy campus” occurred only six months after a public forum where city and county residents were openly skeptical that UG officials could move the ambitious plan from concept to reality.

“Trust was a big concern,” said Gordon Criswell, assistant county administrator. At the time of the May forum, he summarized the sentiment expressed as: “We have been let down time and time again, and so … don’t set us up to fail again.”

After the forum, Mayor Mark Holland said, “There’s no shortcut to trust.”

Building trust

Last week, Holland said he viewed the commission’s pro-forma vote to move the project forward as an indication of more trust.

“We’ve had six months of public process, the commissioners have all been engaged in that, and the public has been engaged,” Holland said. “We’ve reached out to every neighborhood group, every stakeholder.”

Still, Holland said, finalizing the plan is one thing; making the vision real with bricks and mortar is another.

“Our challenge now is to go raise the money,” he said.

But even there, much progress already has been made. Revenue generated by the Hollywood Casino at Village West and a $1 million grant from the Wyandotte Health Foundation will provide approximately half of the $12 million to $14 million needed to build the community center, which will be owned by the city/county but managed by the YMCA.

Cathy Harding, CEO of the Wyandotte Health Foundation, said she’s excited to be a partner in the project.

“When the mayor of a large metropolitan area — like Wyandotte County is — says that his top priorities are public works, public safety and public health, with health being one of the three priorities, that is really amazing,” Harding said. “It just says a lot about the leadership there.”

Asked during a recent appearance on KCUR’s “Up to Date” how confident he was that the city/county could raise the additional funds needed from foundations, Holland said: “I’m very confident that we’re going to be able to get this done. And we’re going to get it done because it has to get done.”

Holland said the goal is to have the “funding nailed down” by late spring or early summer of next year.

The plan to revitalize downtown Kansas City, Kan., in ways that help residents improve their health is rooted in a 2009 report that ranked Wyandotte County as the least healthy county in Kansas. The report was a wake-up call for then-Mayor Joe Reardon and other UG officials.

A couple of years later, the Reardon-led effort to improve Wyandotte County’s health ranking attracted national attention from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

If anything, Holland has intensified the health improvement effort since winning election in April 2013 after Reardon’s retirement from politics. He believes the campus at the heart of the downtown redevelopment project can serve as a model for other cities struggling to reverse generations of poverty and physical neglect.

“The vision we have for the healthy campus downtown is nothing short of a national model for healthy living in an urban area,” Holland said on “Up to Date.” “We’re going into the hardest-hit area and we’re going to move the needle. We’re going to change the environment. We’re going to tear down crummy buildings. We’re going to build new. We’re going to build first-class.”

Access to healthy food

After four years, negotiations to acquire land across the street from the proposed community center and convince the Charles Ball Sunfresh Market to build a $15 million to $18 million grocery store in what Holland calls the downtown “food desert” have reached a critical stage.

“We have a financial gap that we haven’t resolved,” Holland said. “But I’m confident we will resolve that.”

The store will be a partnership between the UG and the company, Holland said, meaning that tax-increment financing will generate some of the funds.

“We’re certainly willing to partner … because the tax that we receive from that store is far less important than the stabilization of the neighborhood around it,” he said.

The project, Holland said, will elevate property values downtown, provide jobs and give people living in or near downtown access to a full-service grocery store for the first time in decades. A study was done to ensure that a downtown location was financially viable, Holland said.

“Remarkably, as it turns out, people in Kansas City, Kansas, buy groceries; they’re just not buying them in Kansas City, Kansas,” he said. “They’re finding a ride or driving to Missouri or Johnson County or somewhere else where there is a nice grocery store. People don’t want to buy groceries in a place that’s run-down.”