Mike Gouddou has gotten a fire going downtown, but the Kempers want to douse it.

It Only Takes a Spark 

Mike Gouddou has gotten a fire going downtown, but the Kempers want to douse it.

Know the one about downtown Kansas City?

Mike Gouddou first heard the sad joke less than two years ago. He was inside Nickol's Store Fixtures and Equipment, a West Bottoms warehouse of used pots and pans, glasses and utensils -- a cemetery of sorts for Kansas City's failed bars and restaurants. Gus Nickols had even said, "Welcome to the graveyard," as Gouddou strode in. But that wasn't the joke.

Gouddou explained that he needed to outfit a nightclub. He'd already signed a lease. "Where?" Nickols asked. When Gouddou told him he planned to open a bar downtown, Nickols frowned. Shouldn't do that, he said. And then he let Gouddou in on the joke. You could take a shotgun, he said, and you could fire it up and down the streets of downtown Kansas City at night, and you wouldn't hit anyone.

Gouddou smiled. I get it, he thought; no one goes downtown. He planned to change that.

Tonight, at Ninth and Walnut, Gouddou stands at the end of a bar he built with his own hands and looks over his nightclub. Between him and the DJ spinning house music at the other end of the bar, a solid row of twentysomethings sips beers and cocktails. Others sit at tables and booths scattered around the room. Jackie Chan kicks tail on four silent televisions above the bar. In a lower-level back room, another DJ provides a darker ambience in which the Revolting Cocks' sinister take on Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" pulls a handful of people onto a small dance floor.

At 1 a.m., the bartender announces last call, and Gouddou grimaces. By 1:30, his customers are heading out to their cars parked along Walnut Street, perhaps thinking about all the other bars outside downtown that are open later, perhaps wondering why they bothered with this corner of the city tonight. The Spark's doorman retreats back into the bar, and suddenly there is no sign of life for blocks. No cars, no footsteps, no voices. Just empty buildings, empty streets, empty sidewalks and wind.

Load the shotgun.

But here's where the joke almost gets funny: The neighbors, supposedly some of the city's biggest business boosters, are strangling this neighborhood-friendly bar. Just a block from the Spark is the Commerce Tower, home of Commerce Bank, run by Jonathan and David Kemper, whose family name adorns the city arena and its modern-art museum. Another Kemper company, Tower Properties, has prevented City Hall from giving the Spark a 3 a.m. liquor license that would make Gouddou's bar worth the trip downtown. Tower Properties, which manages millions of square feet in office and parking space downtown and controls $77 million in tax money earmarked for economic development in the neighborhood, is about to put Gouddou's privately funded little economic development out of business.

As nightclubs go, Spark Bar aspires to be a low-key social club rather than a typical Kansas City warehouse-sized dance party. Gouddou brings in a diverse lineup of DJs to play anything from acid jazz to techno, but the music is a backdrop. Those inclined to dance do so, but more reserved patrons sit at the bar and talk. The place seems the perfect catalyst for the sort of 24-hour downtown leaders say they want: a vibrant city core where urban-minded Kansas Citians can eat, sleep, work and play.

Such a downtown would presumably have bars and restaurants that are open late, and indeed, Kansas City has a few 3 a.m. downtown bars, such as neighborhood hangouts the Quaff and Tanners near Quality Hill.

But late-night bars are more common outside downtown: The Plaza has Tomfooleries, O'Dowd's and Granfaloon serving posh crowds until 3 a.m. In Westport, the Hurricane, XO, Buzzard Beach, America's Pub, Stanford and Sons, Blayney's, Harry's and the Beaumont Club stay open until 3. There are also the Brooksider in Brookside, Club Cabaret south of the Plaza, and Davey's Uptown, the Empire Room and the Velvet Dog in Midtown.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that while each of these areas thrives into the night, much of downtown, with its bleak and haunted streets, resembles a sci-fi nightmare after sundown. Gouddou just wants to compete with bars elsewhere in the city under rules that don't give anyone a particular advantage. In Overland Park, all bars are licensed to operate until 2 a.m., regardless of whether an owner chooses to stay open that late; a Johnson County bar's failure won't be the result of a competitor's later hours. But minutes after Gouddou's patrons make their forced exit from the Spark, they could be sitting at another bar in Kansas City. "By the time they get settled here, they get kicked out," Gouddou says. "So they go someplace where they can stay longer."

In 1998, the city appeared to have made it easier for bars and restaurants to open downtown by no longer requiring neighboring property owners to approve of such businesses. But one old rule remained: To stay open past 1:30 a.m., bar owners who wanted to compete with the 3 a.m. spots throughout the city still needed the blessing of at least half of their downtown neighbors.

If the change wasn't as sweet for bars, at least it was democratic; after all, bar owners still had the opportunity to persuade their neighboring business owners that a late-night spot a few doors away wouldn't send the area to hell. That's exactly what Mike Gouddou wanted to do in spring 2001, as soon as Spark Bar qualified to apply for a later license.

One trip to the city's liquor department showed Gouddou how the face of democracy can change. Tower Properties controlled more than 51 percent of property in the area. The Kemper company alone would decide whether he could stay open late -- and whether he could compete in his market.

A decade ago, Mike Gouddou was trying to save lives on urban subways, not save a bar from rapid extinction or save downtown from itself. Gouddou, an electrical engineer by way of Louisville University, designed high-tech gadgetry. In August 1991, he received the greatest challenge of his engineering career when a New York City subway conductor named Robert Ray showed up for work after guzzling booze all day. Ray fell asleep at the controls, letting the train hurtle toward a switch at more than three times the safe speed for a track transfer. The first car made the turn but broke in half because of its extraordinary speed. Those that followed slammed into more than twenty steel beams.

Five people died, and more than 200 others suffered injuries. In the process, Robert Ray set a record of sorts; the accident was the worst in New York since 1928.

At the time, Gouddou worked in Florida for the transportation-technology company Harmon Industries. He helped design a system that would prevent drunk or sleepy conductors from crashing their passengers into subway walls. In the years since, the type of train-control system that Gouddou helped create has become a standard feature in rail systems around the world. Now when conductors fail to slow before a track transfer, a microprocessor halts the train and waits for a new engineer to take over. "That's my biggest contribution," he says. "It's something I'm proud to have done. It saves people's lives."

As good as it felt to save lives, the Moroccan-born Gouddou, now forty, had always entertained thoughts of a career outside engineering. "I always thought it would be cool to own a bar," he says. "I don't think I'm alone on that. I think a lot of people have that dream."

In the mid-'90s, Harmon Industries moved Gouddou to its Blue Springs headquarters, where he worked as manager of the company's international sales and marketing division. For three weeks of every month, he traveled to such locations as Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Melbourne, Australia, to peddle the company's safety technology. The work was enjoyable, the pay even better, but Gouddou continued to envision himself standing at his own bar.

In the cities he has lived in and visited, downtowns always held an allure. The storied troubles of downtown Kansas City, choked by a freeway loop and starved for nightlife, did nothing to dull his spirits. Where others saw empty streets, Gouddou saw potential. "People were always complaining that there's nothing to do downtown," he says. "I thought this might be my chance."

Downtown Kansas City may have gained a reputation as a nightlife repellent, an area that even those who sell bar supplies scoff at, but Gouddou would help change that. He would do his part to spark activity downtown. He would even give his bar a corny name based on that ideal.

In late 1999, Gouddou found an empty office building at 823 Walnut. Homeless people were sleeping out front. Inside, water stood ankle-deep. Gouddou envisioned a club stocked with alcohol, soundtracked by talented DJs and filled with a crowd of hip, diverse regulars. Eventually, he thought, the club could even expand to the second floor. And when things really took off, he might even lease the third floor and turn that into a penthouse.

Now when Mike Gouddou thinks of these dreams, he blushes. "If I knew then what I know today, I wouldn't have picked downtown," he says.

When Gouddou leased the first floor, he was obligated to provide a detailed schematic showing how he planned to renovate the space to the plans-review division of the city's codes-administration office. Gouddou hired local architect Allan Present to draw up the required plans and submitted them in December 1999 with a project-cost estimate of $54,000 to $68,000 -- all of which would be financed by Gouddou and his limited partner, Mark Landregan. Gouddou expected that the process -- from lease to renovation to opening night -- would take abut four months. As it turns out, it would take longer than that just for the plans-review division to sign off on the proposed improvements.

Present, who has moved much larger works through City Hall, now believes Gouddou was shortchanged by a process made needlessly difficult. "The city is understaffed, overworked and not very responsive," he says. Present stops short of saying that Gouddou was singled out. "But this did bridge on ethical issues. In terms of business development, small businesses like Mike Gouddou's are not treated very well by city government," he says.

Gouddou complied with each request made by the plans-review division, paid several months' rent for a space he couldn't use and spent hours at City Hall waiting for responses to his proposals. He was frustrated that the city asked him to resubmit some applications (with a new fee for each) with only minor adjustments. "For God sakes, I'm an engineer," he says. "I have worked on subway systems in major cities. To me, you don't need [that many] reviews. We're not designing the Taj Mahal. It was an existing building.

"It was ridiculous," Gouddou adds. "It was like I was begging them to see me. It should never be like that. It was very unprofessional."

Even when the plans-review division finally approved the project, Gouddou had to cancel the opening weekend he had advertised because city officials would not issue an occupancy license on a Friday afternoon. Gouddou had to wait until the following Monday to pick up the license.

The entire experience of opening the bar, which took six months longer than he had expected, left Gouddou annoyed but resolute. "I was determined," he says. "I put my money into it; I put my sweat into it; I put my heart into it. I wasn't going to let anything kill my dream."

Then Tower Properties -- the real-estate powerhouse owned by Kansas City icons the Kempers and Commerce Bank -- killed his dream.

In May 2001, the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City released the Sasaki Plan, a downtown-improvement report prepared over seven months by a team of consultants. It is primarily an ode to the miracles that big business could unleash downtown if given enough incentive, but the report also notes that for downtown to crawl out of its current slump, the city should spur growth that produces activity during those times when streetlights shine. "[Kansas City should] diversify downtown to create a place for culture, the arts and living, not just business," the plan reads. "Many U.S. cities are transforming their economies to reflect changing transportation and business decisions, and to capture the unique advantages of a central location that offers historic character and an urban lifestyle with arts, housing and entertainment."

As of spring 2001, the Spark was drawing crowds weekly Tuesday through Saturday nights, and the nightclub hadn't elicited even one complaint since opening the previous September. Having generated more than $100,000 in cover charges and drink sales, Gouddou was eligible to apply for the 3 a.m. license. Officials with the city's liquor division supplied Gouddou with consent letters -- permission slips, basically, for Spark to stay open until 3 a.m. -- addressed to all property owners within 500 feet of Spark Bar's front door and told him he needed the owners of at least 51 percent of the surrounding property to sign.

Of course, it was pointless for Gouddou to distribute all the letters because Tower Properties owned more than half of the real estate. So he walked one block to the Commerce Tower and delivered the packet of consent letters for each parcel of property the company owned. He had no reason to believe he would be turned down.

Nonetheless, Tower Properties projects a daunting presence in the area, controlling so much property and directing a sizable portion of business growth downtown. Placed in control of "tax-increment financing" expenditures in 1995, Tower Properties wields tremendous power over development within a 20-acre district that wraps around the largely vacant eleven-story office building housing Spark Bar. When another real-estate company, Dallas-based Simbol Commercial Inc., requested $3 million in TIF money in April 2001 for its own plan to refurbish an office building at Ninth and Walnut, the company had to first seek approval from Tower. In that case, Tower gave its blessing to Simbol, which sought to renovate the building and bring more than 800 jobs to the area.

Spark Bar, which sought to bring nighttime merrymakers to the area, did not score as favorably. When Gouddou returned to the Commerce Tower a few days later to retrieve the consents and discuss the situation if need be, a receptionist handed them all back, unsigned.

The final say fell to Tower's property management director, Chris Erdley, who decided that regardless of Gouddou's character and intentions, a 3 a.m. nightclub was not the downtown neighbor Tower Properties desired. The decision left the Spark Bar owner looking up at a multimillion dollar corporation with a seat on the Downtown Council's board of directors. Things did not look good for Gouddou.

But as with earlier obstacles, he wasn't ready to give up. He and Landregan fired off calls, e-mails and letters to Erdley, urging him to reconsider the decision. When that didn't work, and it looked as though the two sides had reached an impasse, Gouddou let his customers in on the situation. He invited them to sign a symbolic but legally powerless petition and to sign form letters addressed to Tower Properties. He posted a sign just inside the Spark's front door in an attempt to rally patrons to his defense: "NOTICE TO OUR CUSTOMERS: We have tried unsuccessfully to get consent from Commerce Bank to stay open until 3 a.m. They are against us being here at all. Please sign our petition in support of your bar and let's send a message that we aren't going away. It's our downtown, not theirs!"

None of it made a dent. Frustrated, Gouddou asked his attorney to continue lobbying Tower Properties. But the move proved counterproductive. "All it did was cost me more money," he says. In the end, Gouddou's only available retaliation against his powerful foe was minor: He closed his Commerce Bank accounts.

About eighty letters from upset Spark customers arrived on Chris Erdley's desk this fall, and the Tower representative responded to each with a note thanking them for their input but explaining the consensus among downtown business owners was that there is "limited, if any, long-term benefit to the downtown area by allowing 3 a.m. business licenses."

Erdley, who arrived at Tower in January 1999, admits that Tower Properties has not experienced any specific problem with Spark Bar. But he fears the potential for vandalism increases wherever 3 a.m. licenses are granted. He also points out that Tower Properties has acted within city law.

Tower alone thwarted Spark's 3 a.m. license, but Erdley claims the decision reflects a widespread attitude downtown that late-night bars have minimal positive effect on the area. "Downtown is a pretty tight-knit community," he says. "And that's a recurring sentiment for all of them. It's not an adversarial position on our side. I wish them luck." Tight-knit may be an understatement; after Tower, the biggest landowner in the area is the UMB Financial Corporation, and its CEO, R. Crosby Kemper III, is cousin to the Kempers. (The competitive yet chummy relationship between Crosby and Jonathan Kemper was featured on the cover of Kansas City Business, a monthly magazine published by the chamber of commerce.)

Adversarial or not, Tower Properties is preventing Gouddou from competing with bars elsewhere in the city, and the real-estate company can't be unaware that the Spark's downtown location puts it at a disadvantage in the first place. "For one company to have that much power is ridiculous," Gouddou says.

After losing almost all hope, Gouddou wrote to Mayor Kay Barnes. It might not change the situation, he thought, but it would at least inform her of the type of difficulties a small businessman can have downtown. He included his correspondence with Tower Properties and a stack of his patrons' letters. In November, Gouddou received the mayor's reply.

"Though it appears you have significant support in your quest to obtain the 3 a.m. license, I as Mayor do not have a say in the matter," Barnes wrote. "The issuance of liquor licenses is done through an administrative process without Mayor and City Council approval."

Though technically correct, the bland suggestion that such an issue -- particularly such a downtown issue -- was so completely out of the mayor's hands astonished Gouddou. "It confirmed my whole idea that nothing was going to happen," he says. "That was my last hope. She could have at least BSed me with something flowery. I'm from the corporate world, I can handle that. But to say it's not her division?"

A few weeks later, on November 30, Barnes appeared at the downtown Marriott to unveil her attempt at a legacy: a $1.8 billion blueprint for revitalization that, among other things, includes the construction of a new downtown arena and the formation of a new civic council to oversee downtown projects. The mayor's strategy emphasizes making downtown an attractive place to live. On December 10, Barnes showcased her concept for an elaborate twenty-block district south of 12th Street called SoLo. Theoretically, the development would coincide with the several million dollars in private investment Barnes anticipates for the downtown community in coming years.

But the hype might overshadow obvious needs. Gouddou moved downtown when he opened the Spark, and he knows something important is missing there: a grocery store. "People who live in the City Market and Quality Hill, they don't even have a place to buy bread and milk," he says. And naturally, nightlife-friendly laws would help, too.

Despite Gouddou¹s plea that a 3 a.m. license is vital to his business' success, Erdley says its unlikely that Tower Properties will reconsider its position. "Realistically, I don't see that happening," he says. "It's not our responsibility to keep them in business by allowing them to stay open until 3 a.m."

As a result, nothing short of an act by the City Council will save Spark Bar, which Gouddou doubts will survive past its current lease. But according to Councilman Paul Danaher, Gouddou shouldn't wait for City Hall leaders to come to the rescue. "It's very hard to engender sympathy for bar owners," he says. "It's kind of like trying to promote First Amendment speech protection for the Ku Klux Klan."

Even so, Danaher questions why city law creates such a lopsided conflict. "If one property owner has veto power, than I don't think that's fair to anybody," he says.

Councilman Jim Rowland notes that there is a stigma commonly associated with 3 a.m. bars -- a stigma arguably created by the law itself -- but he also recognizes that the most logical location for late night bars, if anywhere, is downtown. "That seems to make sense," he says.

Downtown business owner Daryl Penner, whose American Formal Wear shop on Main Street thrives beside the Gold Mine strip club (open until 3 a.m.), says City Hall should act on its pro-downtown rhetoric. "If our mayor, convention bureau and chamber of commerce want to compare our downtown to other 24-hour downtowns -- Chicago, Dallas-Forth Worth, Atlanta and New York -- as they always do, then the rules should be comparable," he says.

"One corporation should not be able to stand in the way of a 24-hour downtown Kansas City, or any businessperson's right to prosper," Penner adds. "As long as your patrons are law-abiding, you shouldn't have to ask for your neighbors' consent for anything, especially staying open a few more hours."

Gouddou now finds himself operating his club under the limits placed on him by another commercial entity, and the reality of that situation never fails to astound him. He sees no way out of his current situation with Tower Properties, and he's already started scaling back as a result. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, he's the sole bartender on duty.

The bar may continue to support itself, he says, but the incentive to keep it going will be minimal. "It's good to fight," he says. "But there's a point when it's too much. I don't have the capital or the energy. I'm not some big guy."

The problem, Gouddou points out, is not a lack of business. He continues to bring in a variety of DJs. He has a solid group of regulars who arrive from all over the city. They like the atmosphere, so they support the bar. It's precisely the symbiosis Gouddou dreamed of -- that is until the clock strikes 1:30 a.m., and a Tower Properties mandate drives all his customers home, or worse, to other bars scattered across the metro. "People are coming downtown," Gouddou says. "But they're just as frustrated as me. They see me getting shafted. They see me getting shut down."

And when he does get shut down, at 1:30 a.m., the area goes quiet. On Saturday nights, the effect is particularly chilling because downtown snoozes until early Monday morning, when businesspeople arrive with the sun and load into the surrounding buildings. Despite a lack of retail stores and only a smattering of lunch options, people still roam the sidewalks throughout the day, and coins fill the parking meters all morning and afternoon. Though scant compared with other cities, downtown Kansas City in the daytime wheezes a sort of potential, a sense of promise that inevitably dissipates each evening, when the streetlights come on and chase everyone away.

"I don't want to be sarcastic," Gouddou says. "You need the kind of [large-scale] projects [Barnes has proposed], but you cannot ignore the small businesses. You need to do both. But the city always seems to be waiting for that big savior."

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