Activist works against governments’ sleight of hand

Phil Klein is a harried, excited man. As manager of U.S. Toy’s magic and entertainment divisions, he has a big job. And he is hands-on, working with customers, purchasing inventory, riding herd on employees — sometimes in the space of minutes.

The U.S. Toy Co. Magic Shop is in what used to be a tennis and racquetball club. The 10,000-square-foot business is the mother lode for magicians and people interested in magic — books, monographs, magazines, tricks, and even clothes. Thousands of items line the glass display case and counter, which surround three sides of the shop, and the walls behind them.

At work in the cavernous magic shop, nothing about Klein reveals him to be the alternately loved and hated community activist. But he has made a name for himself opposing tax-subsidized development — from the Power & Light District in downtown Kansas City, Mo., to the Wonderful World of Oz in DeSoto, Kan. He exasperates public and elected officials, who sigh when they see him coming. Neighborhood activists keep their distance but like having him around.

“Phil brings to light issues people are hesitant to talk about and get mixed up in,” says Daryl Penner, whose American Formal Wear is located within the Power & Light District boundaries. Penner, Klein, and other business owners threatened by the development worked on a petition drive to put public subsidies and zoning changes on the ballot in February 1998. Penner later ran for city council.

“Phil is the bulldog that will go in and mix it up,” Penner says. “He is the underdog who never quits. Sometimes his style might rub people the wrong way. In the end, all he cares about is the city. He spends hundreds of hours, perhaps thousands, to help communities and neighborhoods and businesspeople gain an equal voice with the power brokers who can afford lawyers. He doesn’t receive a dime…. The ‘haves’ have more resources to get things done. Phil exhausts himself to try to even the score. Every community should have a Phil Klein.”

Nascent activist Klein became involved in local politics when he went to bat to save the President Hotel from being razed for the Power & Light District redevelopment. His interest came from working as a production intern in the late 1980s on the movie Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. During the movie shoot, Klein set scenes and worked as an overnight security guard in the abandoned hotel.

“I love the President — I fell in love with it during the movie shoot and dreamed of it after,” he says. “The Power & Light fight got me started in politics because I wanted to save the President. It was then I began to understand how corrupt local politics can be. (Politics are) like Robin Hood in reverse — taking from the poor to give to the rich.”

Klein joined a coalition of downtown business owners threatened by the Power & Light District redevelopment plans. Klein argued the President should be preserved and that taxpayer dollars should not fund a private, profit-oriented venture. The district’s redevelopers argued that restoring the President Hotel was too costly. Public officials, including members of the Kansas City, Mo., Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Commission and the city council, backed taxpayer subsidies for the project based on the public good that might come of it.

Klein and the downtown business owners ran a successful petition initiative that put the district’s tax subsidies and zoning changes on the ballot in February 1998. Power & Light supporters spent $1 million to get voters to approve the changes. Klein and the business owners spent about $20,000 in opposition. Voters approved $176 million in public subsidies for the then-$454 million project along with a massive zoning change in a 59 percent-to-41 percent vote. The cost of project has since ballooned to an estimated $628 million.

The project stalled after AMC founder Stan Durwood’s death in 1999. Last year, the development’s driving force, Nick Bashkiroff, quit and left Kansas City. Business owners in the area, along with everyone else, wait for Power & Light District developers to secure leases and financing for their project.

Although voters supported the district, Klein scored a personal victory. Redevelopment plans have changed to include restoration of the once-doomed President Hotel.

All the way Klein believes nothing is worth doing if it is worth doing only halfway. He has worked for U.S. Toy for 20 years. A magician for 35 of his 40 years, Klein traveled the country as part of a comedy/magic team in the early 1990s. In 1991, he graduated from the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Clown College in Florida.

Clown college and an associate’s degree in equine and stable management were the only interests Klein ever pursued outside of magic. He spends his workweek before of a wall of sponge balls, top hats, trick cards, and finger choppers. His world is filled with obsessive men and women who pursue their hobbies in private and emerge after work and on weekends to become the center of attention at weddings, children’s birthday parties, and backyard gatherings.

“Magic is the greatest hobby in the world — and one of the most educational,” Klein says. “People can argue with me, but it is fascinating to see how it covers all the bases of science. It demonstrates and depends upon the very fundamentals of physics, mathematics, and chemistry.”

Klein asks for a dollar bill. He lays the bill on the counter and turns his back a moment, talking the whole time. Clearly, he is up to something. When he turns, he picks up the bill, rubs it on his head, and crushes it in his palm. Then he takes his index finger and lightly touches the top of the bill. It rises off his palm about a half inch under his finger. Soon the bill is floating. He moves his hands all around the bill to demonstrate there are no strings attached.

He’s savvy. After the trick, he walks away to answer the phone, never making another move that would reveal the secret of the floating money.

Hobby and vocation blur with Klein. He knows he has to work, but he spends hours working on other causes — so many hours that some neighborhood activists and public officials believe he is independently wealthy.

During the Power & Light fight, Klein was also a vocal opponent of tax subsidies on the ill-fated Van Tuyl project at 48th Street and Belleview on the Plaza. He has worked for months opposing a TIF proposal for development by the Marriott Corp. in his home community of Prairie Village. He joined Merriam residents in a failed attempt to fight the expansion of Baron BMW at I-35 and Shawnee Mission Parkway, which had the city taking another business owner’s land.

Most recently, Klein was active with residents who opposed a Shawnee redevelopment that would have destroyed people’s homes. He now works hours outside his job digging up documents on the proposed Wonderful World of Oz on the site of the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant, which he also opposes. The federal land will be transferred through the state of Kansas to Oz Entertainment Co., as long as Oz cleans up environmental hazards on the land. Klein trusts neither Oz nor the federal or state governments in the deal.

“What happens with these taxpayer-financed development schemes,” he says, “is private businesspeople and homeowners lose their land, taxpayers are on the hook with bonds and subsidies, and the deals never work. The public as an investor is never allowed the same information a private investor would be given as a matter of course before they invest, particularly in the Oz issue, where there are still so many questions. Then, most of the time, the public has no control over what the development does or how it’s run.”

Klein says he is a libertarian. He has been associated with a number of local conservative activists, such as newspaper owner Richard Nadler, Jackson County Libertarian Party chair Grant Stauffer, and perennial anti-tax activist Richard Tolbert.

But he distinguishes himself from these activists. “I don’t hate government,” Klein says. “I don’t mind paying taxes. But I think government needs to be efficient, and smaller government ensures better efficiency in the use of taxpayer money.

“But I just don’t trust government. And I don’t trust business in government, particularly big business. It comes down to big business always winning and the little guy losing. That’s why people have to get involved — not just in elections but in the politics of running government with referendum and petitions. If we don’t trust the guys, we can vote them out or we can kick them out with recall.

“It is working toward government that is fair and honest and accountable.”

Agitator Usually well-behaved and armed with charts and supporting information, Klein has been confrontational. He handed the Kansas City, Mo., City Council 3-D glasses and suckers at one Power & Light hearing — “glasses to help see the truth, and … well … suckers, you know,” he says.

Klein has also hung in council chambers banners emblazoned with not-too-subtle cartoons. One portrayed former Kansas City, Mo., Councilmember Ken Bacchus as a lapdog to development lawyer Mike White. Another was of a pig sitting on taxpayers with public officials scaling a ladder to feed the pig taxpayer dollars. Klein is particularly proud of the Corporate Welfare Pig, a big, pink pig with “TIF,” “corporate welfare,” and “abatements” written on the side, with “Insert campaign contributions here” above the pig’s tail.

Klein has cultivated rancor in his single-minded and sometimes caustic opposition to taxpayer-funded development. Mayor of Merriam, Kan., Irene French says, “I have always believed in good lobbyists and people who take on causes.” But she says what Klein does in vocalizing his criticisms is harmful to the democratic process. “He doesn’t always have the facts,” she says. “I think the majority highly resents his being from outside and trying to tell them what to do.

“He has lost credibility here and doesn’t make a difference either way in this city. His behavior before our governing body (in the Baron BMW expansion issue) has been less than complimentary to him and the governing body.”

Shawnee Councilmember Tracy Thomas refers to Klein as an “agitator.” Klein attended public meetings on a redevelopment for Shawnee Mission Parkway and spoke on behalf of residents whose homes were threatened with destruction.

“I got involved because some of the residents called me and wanted to know what to do to organize,” Klein says. “I feel like the work I do is important. I am doing this to help people, people who would not otherwise have options.”

Some people Klein has opposed have also gained respect for him. Aaron March, attorney for Polsinelli White Vardeman & Shalton, represented the developer in the Power & Light District during the ballot initiative. “Phil reminds us that everything in Kansas City affects Johnson County,” he says. “Phil is passionate about downtown and about Kansas City, Mo., although he doesn’t live here. But he does not limit his work to downtown — he has a wider view that goes beyond the state line. It is refreshing to see someone take on interest in the entire community rather than fight for a territorial interest. It is vital. The suburbs can’t forget the heart and core of city.

“He has shown the little guy can make a difference just from persistence. I can’t tell you I agreed with all his positions or about the information he had. But I can tell you he is not doing this for sport. I do not question his sincerity. He wanted to save the President, and directly or indirectly, by his badgering, the President is in the Power & Light District.”

Kansas City attorney John Loss is a present TIF Commission member and was on the commission when the Van Tuyl and Power & Light project developers asked for public subsidies. “I think Phil is helpful to the process,” he says. “I admire his persistence, and I enjoy him. Sometimes he comes at things from an angle you don’t understand, but the fact is, he presents his side in a way that is not disruptive. He always has charts and diagrams to show us and is deadly serious. I don’t question his sincerity one bit.”

Loss says he cannot speak for other jurisdictions, such as Shawnee and Merriam, but says, “In our venue, he cannot stop things. There may be other places where he can. But when I see him in the audience, I always look forward to what he has to say. He is the one asking the questions.”

Good guy, bad guy Klein has earned the esteem of neighborhood groups fighting development they see planned and financed with little public input. But his brash and aggressive method has some wary of connecting themselves too closely with him.

Paul Minto was president of the West Plaza Neighborhood Association while the Van Tuyl project was debated at the TIF Commission and by the city council in 1996 and 1997. He says Klein took an interest in the neighborhood’s cause. Minto and other neighborhood representatives sought to reduce the project’s size and objected to taxpayer subsidies for it. “He was not necessarily working with us,” Minto says. “But he was pursuing a similar goal from a parallel perspective. He was willing to take the time and energy and put forth the effort. If someone shares the end with him, he is a worthwhile person to have around.

“But sometimes the issues get blurred. Not to fault him or his causes, but people sometimes read something into the issues that is not there. That drive is a sword that cuts both ways. But bottom line is: Like him or not, democracy is healthier when people take time to voice an opinion. I give him credit for that.”

Bill Sheldon of Taxpayers Opposed to Oz, a citizens group fighting development and public subsidies for the Wonderful World of Oz, says Klein is an aggressive, energetic person “who’s willing to do whatever he can come across doing. He can produce a wide variety of interesting documents and probably has a box of conspiracy theory for breakfast every morning. He is an intense young guy who thinks the system is screwy and is well-motivated for some reason.”

Sheldon says he gets along with Klein but is cautious about taking his advice. “It’s a stylistic thing,” he says. “Phil’s nature is to get into people’s faces and make accusations on certain things he believes to be factual. Our style is to be quieter and more certain of facts. We don’t go around confronting people. He makes as many enemies as friends, and I am sure that is all right with him. I wouldn’t want him nipping at my heels. He does it really well.”

Contact Patrick Dobson at 816-218-6777 or

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