"I caught the wind."
The manager of the Hobbs Building has been waiting, standing at the loading dock. He's used to this.
The wind has just pulled up in a black Ford F-150, 20 minutes late. The truck's front fender curls like a cartoon villain's mustache. The engine coughs like a coal miner.
The wind steps out of the vehicle, 133 pounds in a Lewis Library T-shirt and carpenter pants.
Adam Jones breezes into the West Bottoms building, which he co-owns with Jeff Krum, CFO of Boulevard Brewing Co. The Hobbs is the seven-story centerpiece of Jones' three decades spent remaking — often with his own hands — buildings and even whole blocks in the West Bottoms, the West Side and the Crossroads.
On the upper floors are 40 art studios, and on the lower floors, a series of high-profile nonprofit nameplates: Ripple Glass, Make It Right, Bridging the Gap, Metropolitan Energy Center. The first floor has been transformed into an event space.
"When we moved down here, it was no man's land," Jones, 53, says of the building he bought with Krum in 1997. "Now, the city has advanced socially and culturally. People understand this place is a lot better and are willing to take risks."
Developer Wayne Reeder is spending $30 million to redevelop three buildings, including a nine-story property at 933 Mulberry that he wants to turn into nearly 200 apartments. The Missouri Department of Transportation replaced the 12th Street bridge viaduct in July. The sidewalks and curbs in front of the Hobbs are among the dozens of blocks bettered by newly poured concrete.
So what does Jones, who has spent his career bringing properties back from the edge, do when he finds that the edge has moved to the middle?
He goes off the map.
Jones points north, past Ninth Street, past a line of trucks steaming by the Woodsweather Café, past the blocks of antique vendors that used to be distributors and warehouses, and the blocks that still hold working distributors and warehouses.
On a forgotten strip of land between the Missouri River and Interstate 70, Jones is developing his concept of what could be Kansas City's first food hub. With poles in the East and West Bottoms and the City Market at the center of what he calls his "food trail," he envisions a network of food producers, supplying restaurants and consumers with sustainable produce, fish, meat and sundries.
"Bells are tolling in our area," Jones says. "Has the city figured it out all yet? No. That's what guys like me do."
On the last Thursday morning in August, Jones slides behind the wheel of his black truck. Mardi Gras beads sway from the rearview mirror as he cranks down his window. He steers up 17th Street toward the West Side, his hands rolling over the wheel like he's helming a boat as he turns onto Summit.
"It was wilder than hell up here on top of the hill," he says. "There were thieves and bad guys and old gandies and nasty vacant lots."
Gandies — that's what he calls the old drunks who occupied the former rooming house that has been his home since he graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1982. It's where he and Noori, his wife of 31 years and a fellow KCAI graduate, raised their son, Navid.
"Good to see you working here. I love it," Jones tells a laborer in overalls who has come to look at a banister on the rental property he owns across the street. Jones pops out of the car and grabs two apples from the trees that he keeps on a lot on the south side of his home.
The West Side is where the bulk of Jones' real-estate holdings are, and it's here that he has formed the friendships that evolved into lasting business partnerships. This is his neighborhood. He sits on the board of the Westside Housing Organization. He's helping guide the renovation of West High.
"He puts people together for conversations," says Boulevard founder John McDonald. "It's all kind of crazy stuff at first. But then, the more you kind of think about it, the more it has a reason and path."
Jones and McDonald have found their paths intertwined since their sons were born a few weeks apart. They have traveled together ("These old Indian women in Peru literally got down on their knees with their rosaries out because I really think they thought he was Jesus Christ come to Cuzco," McDonald recalls), invested in property together (the Carnival Building, at Eighth Street and Broadway) and launched a business together (Ripple Glass). Boulevard keeps its marketing department in one of Jones' buildings, and he's helping renovate the old Heim bottling plant owned by McDonald and Krum in the East Bottoms.
"He can go into a building that literally everyone else looks at and sees as only fit to be demolished," Krum says. He and Jones haven't bought a building together in 15 years, but they still jointly own seven pieces of property. "He sees the essence and is able to strip away everything else in a way that's really remarkable. I just follow behind with a dustpan and broom."
Jones first made his name here with a restaurant, repurposing a shuttered gas station to open the West Side Café on Southwest Boulevard. (That space is now the tattoo shop called Irezumi.)
"They used to call it the postage-stamp restaurant," says former partner Ali Shirazi, who now runs the test kitchen for Original Juan. "It seemed like overnight, it became so popular. It was like a destination for Kansas City."
The tiny restaurant had a menu that changed daily to feature cuisines from around the globe. Jones' gas-station retrofitting predated restaurants that would make the idea fashionable: Oklahoma Joe's, the Filling Station, Pizza 51.
"It's always easier to destroy things," Shirazi says. "It's harder to keep and make things beautiful. But Adam is one of those people. He can make beauty out of trash."
The success of the West Side Café led Jones and his wife to open the adjacent Blvd. Café. (They would also briefly operate Noori's Café, on the first floor of the Marietta Chair Building, at 20th Street and Baltimore.) Jones still owns the building at 703 Southwest Boulevard; La Bodega is the tenant.
"The restaurant caused me to meet up with all these big business people," he says. "I'm not from here. My dad's not from here. But that was my way in."
Jones was born in Texas, where his adoptive dad (Jones' biological father is from Iran, as is his wife) worked as a computer engineer for Texas Instruments. The family briefly lived in the Kansas City area, in a house off Pflumm Road, when he was in junior high, a time he recalls as one of riding a bike through "a neighborhood of 30 houses and cornfields." His parents moved the family again, eventually settling in Dallas. Jones applied to the Art Institute and returned to KC.
At the base of Summit, Jones encounters fellow West Side developer Ryan Gale. They stand in the road and chat briefly before Gale gives Jones an egg from the chickens in his backyard. Jones hands Gale one of the apples he just picked.
The egg rolls around on the cab's bench seat until Jones pulls over at a house on Holly. The roof has recently been reframed by builder Jamie Jeffries, part of what Jones terms a "massive attack" that will lead to the abandoned home's complete rehab over the next four months.
"This will be a bedroom," Jones says as he looks up at blue sky from a roofless room, his feet spread wide on boards soft with rot. "We just can't let shit like this get destroyed."
Jones keeps a workshop in the West Bottoms, a two-story brick building with a bright-green door on Saint Louis Avenue. A railing from his rental property on Summit sits just inside the door, awaiting another coat of paint. The bathroom, made of reclaimed wood, has half walls and is marked only by an exit sign. In the custom-fabrication shop that he calls his lumberyard — because there is a lumberyard here, where wood and architectural salvage are protected from the elements by old vinyl billboards — he's building windows for the Ridge Top Apartments, a residential reimagining of the Civil War–era veterans complex, in Leavenworth.
"I help prepare things for standard construction," Jones says of the vintage doors and windows that he shapes for residential and commercial projects. "You scrape off a bit and you're like, 'My God, this is beautiful.'"
On the move again, Jones swings through downtown, pointing out a live-work art space he's renovating with Jeffries in a pair of buildings at 17th Street and Oak that last served as paper warehouses for The Kansas City Star.
He pulls into an alleyway, cuts off the engine, and walks up a loading dock and into a marble hallway. A few steps later, he's standing in the middle of the bullpen at the architectural firm BNIM.
Jones stops at Steve McDowell's desk. The firm's director of design offers a greeting and springs up to grab an elbow-shaped piece of orange ceramic. McDowell put a piece like this in a corner of the newly completed Henry W. Bloch Executive Hall for Entrepreneurship and Innovation on the University of Missouri–Kansas City campus.
"This is my color stone," McDowell says.
"That is so cool," Jones tells him. The two connect over the architectural detail but don't discuss the other 67,998 square feet of the $32 million project.
"Jones isn't out there on Facebook. He's out there running the streets," says Patrick Ottesen, who with Jones has operated Foundation, an architectural reclamation retail store and event space in the West Bottoms, for the past seven years. "Jones knows everybody, and everybody knows Jones."
"We call it Beirut," Jones says.
Today it's a different ride. He's in the passenger seat of a rented Nissan.
The driver is Kathy Nyquist, a principal with New Venture Advisors, a Chicago business-development group that specializes in launching food hubs. She has turned on the Intercity Viaduct Road, which runs underneath I-70 in the West Bottoms. She steers past concrete barriers set up by the Missouri Department of Transportation in an attempt to stop people from dumping tires under the highway, along the new bike path that follows the Riverfront Heritage Trail.
Nyquist and an associate are on an informal tour of Jones' food trail, along with KC Healthy Kids' Policy & Planning Associate Emily Miller and Don Reck, a former employee of Bridging the Gap and Habitat ReStore who is now working on the food-hub project in the West Bottoms.
Jones and Reck attended a conference the previous afternoon in Lawrence to discuss the kickoff of a feasibility study by the Midwest Regional Food Hub Partnership. New Venture is consulting on the study, due next July, which outlines what a Kansas City area food hub — a centralized connector for producers, consumers, restaurants and markets — might entail.
"When we started looking into the idea of studying a food hub, his name kept coming up," Miller says. "It's almost like six degrees of separation, except with Adam Jones instead of Kevin Bacon."
Jones points to a gap in the barriers, and Nyquist stops the car beside a 3,000-square-foot plastic greenhouse that sits incongruously behind a chain-link fence and next to a concrete-block building that looks bombed out. Jones had it and a second greenhouse at Goode Acres (his partner John Goode's farm in Wathena, Kansas) put up by a team of Amish builders in May. He plans to have spinach growing in raised beds within the next 60 days.
"The idea is to grow food through the winter months," Goode says. "That's the biggest vision, is that this is not just a seasonal thing."
Goode Acres already sells to about two dozen restaurants, making deliveries once a week and offering Saturday pickup at its City Market stall.
"No one is going to corner the market on farming," Goode, 57, says. "But he's a visionary. He's got that yeast to make things rise."
In the rock-strewn ground next to the greenhouse, Jones wants to plant fruit trees. He explains that the gray, hole-pocked building he's pointing toward is the future site of a café, to be run by Noori.
"It's an ugly little building," Jones says. "But this is really about what you can view from here."
He sees a commissary kitchen and a washing station for produce. The sheet metal to repair the building's roof is already waiting in the bed of Jones' truck. A secondary structure with a loading dock could serve as a community-supported agriculture pickup location.
Across the hood of the Nissan, Jones opens a set of plans drawn by BNIM. This is the food hub.
Jones' view also includes a 6-acre plot of land near the Faultless Starch headquarters on West Eighth Street, where Jones has plans for an additional 27,000 square feet of greenhouses, and a nearby 4-acre piece of land that could hold another urban-farm plot. He says one might be staffed by the population of the Kansas City Community Release Center on Mulberry Street. Nyquist asks if he has had problems with theft. Jones' mood briefly darkens.
"Bastards," he says. Some reclaimed items he was storing here — beams, cladding — are gone. With his fingers he traces a week-old graffiti portrait of Spider-Man's Venom along the building's south wall. "They came in the middle of the night, and it's just so sad. That's stuff that can never be replaced, and they'll sell it for scrap. And even worse, people aren't as stupid as they once were. They've learned not to throw those things away.
"The only way to win is through attrition," he says. "You have to show them you're not going anywhere."
"This is just like Fulton Street in Chicago or the Meatpacking District in New York City," Nyquist says as Jones directs her back out of the West Bottoms. She drives through the City Market, where Jones hawks produce on Saturdays for Goode Acres.
"I think I picked him up five or six years ago, and he's been a main part of our success Saturdays at the City Market," Goode says.
The City Market features prominently in Jones' plans for the empty building off Intercity Viaduct Road. For the past few years, he has watched farmers spend the height of tomato season struggling with excess produce. In that commissary kitchen he means to build, farmers or a dedicated staff could can and process tomatoes and other produce, and turn potential waste into a commodity.
The group picks up Jones' food trail again in the East Bottoms on Guinotte Avenue, where seafood vendor Fabulous Fish is tucked between the river and the railroad. Heavy industry and the memory of it give way here to mobile homes until a tiny pocket of development comes into view at the intersection of Guinotte and North Montgall.
Across from the Local Pig butcher shop, Jones enters the former Heim Brewing Co.'s bottling hall and spends a minute sorting out how to silence the alarm. It's a place he's familiar with — he spent last month on the roof to help cut out a 100-foot skylight.
The former warehouse, owned by McDonald and Krum, is mostly empty but tidy. It's being used for brewery storage with kegs, signage and an old company-branded pickup truck parked inside. A small cluster of oak barrels contains test batches of vinegars.
"I think there's a lot we can do with fermentation in the next year or two," McDonald says. "There's scotch and balsamic vinegar and sausage."
"It's this idea of bringing all these local producers together," Krum adds. "Something funky and authentic and gritty where you got sausages and local flowers and vinegar."
Krum has in mind a scaled-down version of New York City's Eataly or one of the McMenamins properties in Oregon. The "adult playground," as he calls it, would likely also include a Boulevard tasting room. As the demand for tours has outstripped the capacity at the brewery's Southwest Boulevard headquarters, the duo has toyed with opening a second "Boulevard experience," a place not to make beer but to serve test and seasonal brews.
"Kansas City needs to play to its strengths," Krum says. "We're not Silicon Valley. We don't have beachfront property. We have an incredibly vibrant food and arts scene. If you could enhance that, you could have something real and sustainable."
Back in the sunshine, Jones introduces the group to Jeffries, the contractor from the house on Holly, who is also Local Pig's landlord. This is how Jones' world works. Krum and McDonald, who were eager to see development in the East Bottoms, knew Jeffries from the West Side and sold him the buildings at 2612 Guinotte and 2618 Guinotte (home to Local Pig).
"After 30 years, I'm realizing more than anything that my real skill has been to build community," Jones says.
Jeffries' workshop is on the first floor of the building next door, and Fungi Business, his fledgling shiitake-mushroom operation, is in the basement. In a 210-square-foot space and climate-controlled walk-in cooler, Jeffries can grow a new batch of fungi every 21 days. Just a few weeks ago, Jones made his first restaurant delivery for Jeffries, dropping off 3 pounds of mushrooms at Anton's Taproom.
Connecting the delivery service, the renovation of the Heim plant in the East Bottoms and the greenhouse in the West Bottoms is, for now, nothing more than Jones' enthusiasm (and the bed of his black Ford). And even if the food trail that would formalize those connections doesn't take shape the way he envisions, Jones has already set a lot of people walking on his path.
That's the thing about the wind. It changes things.