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Ollie Gates took the name Gates & Son and opened a place at 12th and Highland. He also opened his own nightclub, O.G.'s, in 1961, a year after his father's death. He told a Star reporter in 1970 that he wanted to establish a successful business "so that the public wouldn't think I'm existing only on my dad's name."
After O.G.'s closed, Gates bought a drive-in at 47th and the Paseo. Restaurants in Leawood and Kansas City, Kansas, followed. By 1975, Gates was selling sauce in groceries and training workers at the College of Barbecue Knowledge, also known as Rib Tech. Lolis Eric Elie, author of the barbecue book Smokestack Lightning, wrote that Gates had eclipsed Arthur Bryant "in expanse if not in mythology."
Gates eventually reclaimed the 12th and Brooklyn location he had built with borrowed construction materials. It had passed to his mother after his father's death.
"My mother's store had turned to junk," Gates tells The Pitch. "She said, 'Ollie, would you come down here and help me?' I said, 'Mom, let's tear it down and go someplace else.' She said, 'You aren't tearing my business down.' So she sold it to me. And so there I went."
Gates built a small shopping center around the remodeled restaurant. Gates Plaza now touches all four corners of 12th and Brooklyn. Along with barbecue, area residents — most live in subsidized housing — have access to a hardware store, a mini-mart, a bar, a nail salon and the flower shop Divine Floral Designs.
Desta Watson, who runs Divine Floral Designs with her husband, Robert, says the duty-free Black Heritage District would allow Gates Plaza to build on its success. "It gives the people of Kansas City an opportunity to see what this area has come to be," she says.
Gates loves the area. In 1984, he helped found the Twelfth Street Heritage Development Corporation, which provides affordable housing. Inspired by a trip to San Francisco, Gates and Twelfth Street Heritage recently developed six colorful townhomes on Woodland Avenue.
Commercial development along 12th Street doesn't make Gates a lot of money. He says it costs the same amount to build on the East Side as it does in other parts of the city, yet he can charge only a third of the rent.
Gates says he is not finished, however.
"What do you call it when you get that urge in you to keep doing something? Whatever that is, that's what it is. Twelfth Street has gotten into my bones, and I want to see that mature."
Other development efforts by Gates have not produced the same level of personal satisfaction or community benefit.
Around the time that Gates began to redevelop 12th Street, former Mayor Richard Berkley named him to the city's Parks and Recreation Board. As a commissioner, he picked up a reputation for abusing his authority.
Toward the end of his board service, Star columnist Barbara Shelly called Gates the "lord of the fief" who "oversaw the kingdom and its golf privileges with a courtly vengeance."
Shelly based this view partly on a leaked parks department memo that gave instructions on how Gates, the parks director and their guests should be treated when they played Swope Memorial Golf Course (appropriate greeting: "Good morning, gentlemen").
A more insidious charge emerged from the Brush Creek flood-control project.
In the early 1990s, the city moved to condemn Gates' restaurant at 1411 Swope Parkway and other property along Brush Creek in order to accommodate a new design that was less prone to flooding. Gates looked to rebuild on the other side of the water. He envisioned a retail center between Troost and the Paseo and began buying homes in a small, creekside neighborhood.