Once again, city leaders are trying to find a groove at 18th & Vine

This week the Kansas City, Missouri, City Council may consider a measure to spend $27 million on a series of projects in the historic 18th & Vine Jazz District. The proposal represents a reboot for the district, inevitably described as “struggling” in spite of the tens of millions in local, state and federal funds it has received over the years.

Third District Councilmen Jermaine Reed and Quinton Lucas are the plan’s sponsors. Introducing a preliminary wish list of district improvements last December, Reed called the Jazz District both a “crown jewel” and “an area of town that cannot be forgotten.”

Therein lies the dilemma. The Jazz District is both an asset and a dependent. With their votes, city leaders will decide whether the proposed spending plan is a momentum-turning investment or a treasury-draining exercise in folly. Informing their choice are a handful of truths about 18th & Vine that are hard to reconcile:

The Jazz District was troubled from the start
Once the cradle of black life in Kansas City, 18th & Vine went into decline when segregation lifted and cities began catering to automobile traffic. The race riots in 1968 quickened the exodus. What city planners call the Black Heritage District — a 2-square-mile area east of downtown — lost 84 percent of its population between 1950 and 2007.

An effort to revive the community as well as celebrate the city’s contribution to jazz took shape in the 1980s. In 1989, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II, then a city councilman, led an initiative to borrow $114 million and spend the money on Brush Creek beautification and flood control, a new arena for the American Royal and a jazz hall of fame.

Pushing the spending plan through the City Council was the easy part. The Cleaver plan earmarked just $20 million for the 18th & Vine, and it quickly became evident that both the money and the planning were inadequate. In 1993, two years after becoming mayor and before ground had been broken on the East Side, Cleaver acknowledged the setbacks. “It was hope unborn,” he said.

The jazz museum, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the Gem Theater finally opened in 1997, at a budget of $26 million. But the project could not stand on its own. From the beginning, 18th & Vine has relied on subsidies from City Hall. Earlier this year, The Pitch asked the city for a list of spending in and around 18th & Vine. The list exceeded $100 million.

City leaders tried to do too much with too little
A dissertation in public policy and management could be written about the mistakes that have been made at 18th & Vine. At one time, for instance, two different organizations had redevelopment authority. Cleaver later admitted this was “insane.”

The short explanation is that city leaders tried to do too much with too little. Consider the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, which opened in 1995. The cost was $92 million, and it did not carry the additional burden of lifting a neighborhood that had suffered decades of disinvestment and depopulation.

One of 18th & Vine’s biggest challenges is its geography. It’s on an island, cut off from other neighborhoods by freeways and railroad tracks. The new plan puts money into streetscaping along 18th Street in an effort to create a better connection to the Crossroads. But the distance between Grand Boulevard and the Paseo, the western gateway to the Jazz District, is nearly a mile. It feels even longer because of the U.S. 71 underpass, salvage yards and other elements of inhospitality. New streetlights may not be able to remove the vibe of cheap muffler work.

Jazz District proponents have credibility issues
Earlier this year, Cleaver returned to City Hall to voice support for the 18th & Vine spending plan. Appearing before the council, he claimed that Jazz District boosters had not come back to the city for money since the ribbon cutting. This was absurd.

Confronted with the $100 million list, Cleaver disputed some of the items, saying they fell outside the Jazz District. Still, it’s a lot of money. In 2013, City Manager Troy Schulte said the city had invested $70 million in 18th & Vine.

Cleaver also recently testified that 18th & Vine is the third most recognized street in the United States, after Broadway and Hollywood Boulevard. The statement requires one to disregard the existence of Beale Street, Bourbon Street, Michigan Avenue, Rodeo Drive, the Las Vegas Strip and other A-list attractions. This doesn’t help the impression that Cleaver and other Jazz District boosters live under a Truman Show–type dome.

The city does indeed spend a lot on other similar projects
Jazz District supporters have noted that 18th & Vine is not the only would-be tourist destination that relies on City Hall for help. The Power & Light District, for instance, receives a subsidy each year of between $12 million and $15 million. The American Royal Center, a fellow beneficiary of the Cleaver plan, will receive $2 million this year from the city’s convention and tourism tax.

The Kansas City Museum at Corinthian Hall is supported directly by a property-tax levy that generates $1.5 million a year, and the city has spent about $10 million to refurbish the hall and surrounding buildings. Museum officials last week unveiled a plan to spend an additional $12 million on renovations, to be paid by the levy as well as by public and private sources.

In 2004, voters in Kansas City approved a $20 million bond issue to pay for the World War I museum under Liberty Memorial, itself the beneficiary of a temporary sales tax passed in 1998. That tax set aside a $15 million endowment. But, like 18th & Vine, Liberty Memorial is essentially a ward of the people. This year’s annual subsidy is $672,250, far more than the income from the endowment ($105,000).

Even the Royals and the Chiefs get a taste. The city sends $2 million each year to the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority, in good seasons and bad. Of course, baseball and football are more popular than jazz.

You can’t talk about 18th & Vine without talking about race
In the early ’90s, as city leaders put together the project list for 18th & Vine, some black leaders chafed at the scrutiny. Carol Coe, who represented the 3rd District on the City Council at the time, asked why overruns at the American Royal did not seem to be causing the same anguish. “When we try to change the level of participation, we get a lot of questions that ordinarily aren’t asked,” she said.

Coe was a loose cannon, but the new generation of black leaders may have similar thoughts when they hear critics share their misgivings about the current 18th & Vine proposal. Councilman Scott Wagner, chairman of the finance committee, has talked about the perception that the 18th & Vine project list is based on want, not need. But it’s hard to argue Kansas City needed a World War I museum or 2.2-mile streetcar line, either.

The 18th & Vine spending plan stalled in a joint council committee on June 8, when a vote to move the proposal to the full council ended in a 4-4 tie. All the “no” votes were cast by white council members.

There is no easy answer here
Skepticism is not racism, of course. The arguments for rejecting the 18th & Vine spending plan are solid. It’s a lot of money, and no private investment has been secured. Even after all this time, nobody seems to have figured out what 18th & Vine should be. Is it an entertainment district, or a cultural heritage site? A neighborhood to be gentrified, or an international tourist destination? The array of ideas in the $27 million spending plan does not bring much clarity.

Jazz District proponents argue that the spending plan presents a chance to leverage the money already invested at 18th & Vine. The difference now is that money is not arriving piecemeal, as it has in recent years. Another change is that City Hall will take ownership of most of the properties in an effort to eliminate turf battles and centralize decision-making. Beale Street in Memphis is run this way.

Critics say they worry about the precedent, that other neighborhoods and groups will come forward with their own lists of spending priorities. The problem is, 18th & Vine has nowhere else to go. It’s not the American Royal, with its CEO patrons. It’s not Loose Park, which benefits from the wealth and attention of neighbors in Brookside and the Country Club Plaza. It’s not the Kansas City Zoo, whose mainstream appeal enables it to ask for voters to approve a special sales tax. Kansas City, Missouri, is majority-white. A jazz district on the East Side is a nonstarter at the polls.

This is how you end up with imperfect plans and legislative maneuvers, such as Reed’s decision to pull the ordinance from the committee where it stalled and bring it before the full council. (The vote may take place July 7.)

The process is messy. The spending plan may not work. But the City Council may decide the Jazz District’s song can’t end now.

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