The Chamber of Commerce wanted to see how savvy voters had used special taxes to fuel an arts and entertainment renaissance, raise new sports stadiums and resuscitate the Queen City of the Plains' once-desolate downtown. Kansas City's brightest minds (such bold names as Shirley Helzberg, Al Mauro, Art Brisbane and Steve Rose) landed at Denver International Airport, with its signature canvas snow-capped-mountain roof, designer stores and Wolfgang Puck restaurant. A bus dropped the Kansas Citians off downtown at the gleaming new Pepsi Center, where the Nuggets and the Avalanche play. The arena's state-of-the-art beauty stunned our VIPs.
At the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, our field-trippers encountered children pouring out of buses to spend a day at the theater, ballet, opera or symphony in one of eight theaters under a glass-and-steel sky. Then they joined shoppers, commuters, buskers and gawkers on the crowded free shuttles motoring up and down the 16th Street Mall, which isn't really a mall but an old-fashioned main street with a Nike Town, a Gap, a Virgin Megastore and a Cheesecake Factory. The mall bus was taking them to see Coors Field, the historic-looking 5-year-old home of the Colorado Rockies, before their 6 p.m. flight home.
A cowtowny dust used to blow through Denver's downtown. Not anymore.
Pete Levi, the Chamber president, remembers the trip as "inspirational, but also a very factual and real example of how to get something like this done."
But like the 600 miles of empty prairie between Kansas City and Denver, there's a vast hollowness between what our leaders saw and what they want to do.
In the year since the Chamber's visit, parts of Kansas City's downtown have continued their scrappy, grassroots revival. In more elite circles, "a lot of things are being discussed" (housing, light rail) as ways to energize the area, Levi says. And the board of the Metropolitan Kansas City Performing Arts Center has chosen the internationally renowned Moshe Safdie to design a $300 million downtown performing arts center that undoubtedly will rival Denver's.
But in the next few months, as they push to renew the bistate tax, Kansas City's most influential "thinkers" will start warning that we also need to rehab Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums. And that's where the difference between Denver's "can-do" spirit and Kansas City's "cannot-do" mindset looms -- as big as Coors Field.
Coors Field anchors the northwest corner of downtown Denver, and intelligent people can't ignore its contribution to the city's lively scene. Baseball may be seasonal, but that season lasts from April to October (if a team's good). This year, the Rockies play eighty home games -- that's eighty lazy afternoons or cool evenings when 50,000 people stroll from distant parking lots (where they've paid up to $20 to stow their SUVs), stopping en route to soak up suds at the Wynkoop Brewing Company or eat happy-hour burgers at McCormick's. Afterward, they may saunter over to El Chapultepec for some sweltering jazz or drink margaritas on the LoDo Bar & Grill's rooftop deck. And long after Rockies fans have watched the season's last homer sail out of the park's thin air, people keep coming downtown.
But none of Kansas City's "leaders" wants to seriously discuss building a new baseball stadium downtown. "I think if everyone had it to do over again, the decision as to where to locate Truman Sports Complex might be different," Levi says. "But [the stadiums] are what they are and where they are."
At a recent Chamber "town hall" meeting, "Denver" was invoked three times while panelists spent more than an hour hyping a new bistate tax. Finally, a young Chamber trainee in the audience asked the obvious: What about putting a new baseball stadium downtown? The question made Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields sound weary. "I wish they'd been built downtown," she said. "That would have been a great gift to have given downtown."
But, she said, with the cost of new stadiums approaching $400 million, she couldn't see coming up with that kind of money for two new ones downtown -- even though no one had said anything about two new stadiums. (Let the Chiefs play their eight miserable home games out east.) She referred to discussions she'd had with the Chamber two years ago. "I said we need to come to a conclusion and all be on the same page. The conclusion that was reached is what we're bringing forward tonight."
In other words, Kansas City's leaders don't have the balls to correct a 30-year-old mistake. In a classic example of Kansas City's chronic cheap-seat thinking, they argue it's more practical to spend $150 million on outdated stadiums than $400 million for a new stadium that buys a whole new downtown.
There are ways to come up with the money. Just last Monday, United Missouri Banker Crosby Kemper III wistfully told Star columnist Hearne Christopher Jr. that his resolution for the new year would be "to have something positive happen downtown. Something that's a year-round destination, like an entertainment center ... the kind with restaurants, boutiques, shops, like LoDo in Denver. And my resolution is for UMB to help make that happen."
So, Crosby, finance a stadium.
We'll call it the UMB-K.
If Kemper walks over to talk to his buddies on the Chamber, he'll see a big reproduction of Norman Rockwell's "Kansas City Spirit" -- the painting where the burly, determined man holds the blueprints to the future -- under the words "You have what it takes to be a hometown hero."
But when a leader is willing to keep throwing our money at a 30-year-old error -- and pretending there's no other choice -- "hero" is the last word that comes to mind.