Barnes' downtown saviors are waiting, too. Since February, she's been meeting monthly with the 25 lawyers, real-estate moguls, philanthropists and bureaucrats she named to be the city's Greater Downtown Development Authority. They're being patient until her "downtown economic stimulus act" clears the Missouri legislature, which could be this week. That would let them siphon some new state revenues for things like parking garages, so big companies can move in all of their employees. But some folks in Jefferson City don't like the idea, so each month Barnes has exhorted her posse to put the muscle on their friends at the statehouse. Last week, though, her group was beginning to cogitate about its raison d'être if the bill doesn't pass. (Its members agreed there was lots they could still do, but exactly what remains a topic for future discussions.)
What's been troubling from the beginning is that the mayor seemed to lack some vision -- hell, a basic clue. One big reason people are excited about downtown is that a handful of art galleries have settled in the Crossroads over the years. On warm-weather opening nights, 20th and Baltimore erupts in a makeshift streetfest with a crowd ranging from rich art collectors to students who need a free fruit-and-cheese dinner. (It feels like Paris!) Artists created this scene, but the mayor didn't name one artist to her group of downtown gurus.
"Mayor Barnes would be really smart if she would involve more creative people -- people who can really bring attention very quickly and inexpensively to downtown," says Jim Leedy, who moved his Leedy-Voulkos Art Center to 2012 Baltimore almost two decades ago. Leedy, who looks a little like Willie Nelson, might seem out of place in the mayor's crowd, but he knows how to make things happen downtown.
"You know, I think sometimes artists are not taken too seriously as businesspeople -- but we are businesspeople," he says. Leedy pauses, contemplating the role of developers who come in and make their profits after artists have made a place cool. "We're the developers of civilization," he says, "and we should be taken seriously."
Earlier this year, city leaders congratulated themselves for putting up easy-to-read signs telling tourists how to navigate the streets surrounding Bartle Hall. But even then, the city missed a cheap opportunity. "Several people in the arts community lobbied for the convention district to be named the 'convention and arts district,'" says Kent Barnhart, who runs the Quality Hill Playhouse, near 10th and Central. "Why would a person look for the Folly Theater, the Lyric Opera, the Music Hall, the Midland and Quality Hill Playhouse in the 'convention district'?" Barnhart's 150-seat theater brings 30,000 people downtown every year -- and 60 percent of them drive all the way from Kansas! Though Barnhart appreciates "the focus on new development," he says city leaders tend to show "a lack of support and respect" for existing cultural contributions downtown.
Barnes says the members of her group have lots of respect for the arts. "Many of the people are involved with individuals and groups in the cultural community," she says. "Linkages are there in more substantive ways than you might be able to see by looking at the faces of the individuals." She remembers walking around the Crossroads with some gallery owners who advised her not to make downtown's streetscapes too suburban and sanitized. "You would find a surprising sensitivity to those kinds of issues in this group," she says.
But that's not the same as having an artist in the group.
Late Night Theatre's Ron Megee knows it wouldn't take the sympathy of some ol' boy from the Bootheel to help downtown. He and his comrades have turned a talent for campy send-ups of bad Hollywood classics into a company so successful it's desperate to lease its own building. Late Night spent a few months in the Old Chelsea, a former porn house in the River Market, before settling on its latest hoped-for home: a small former bank at 1531 Grand, a few doors down from the Temptations strip club. "That nudie bar is phenomenally clean, and they have real bouncers," Megee marvels. "Next door there's a restaurant with the best Reubens in town. Up above that is a photography studio, and next door a travel agency where they fly your pets around the world! It's a great little eclectic group -- a great 'photo' of what this town can achieve."
But City Hall isn't helping. "The codes man came and told us what we needed to do to become a theater," Megee says. Late Night was happy to update the plumbing and add handicapped bathrooms -- but it might also have to spend precious start-up money leasing neighbors' parking lots. "We asked him, 'Since we're in the new SoLo district, which Kay Barnes has said so much about, do we get any breaks?' The codes guy said, 'No. All it is is a name, a really bad name. No breaks for you.' He's a really nice guy, but he was blunt. This parking situation -- it's hard. Who knew?"
Barnes knows. Besides, that stretch of Grand is lined with parking spaces, and its crowd will only be there after dark, so Late Night ought to qualify for a parking pardon -- and voila! One more business downtown, no tax break necessary.
"I think they would be really surprised if they gave people a chance," Megee says. "If you're going to preach that you want this area to be a certain thing, then you're going to have to follow through. Shit or get off the pot."
Pardon his French, Mayor Barnes, but that's what the people on the streets are saying.