Lasers. Fog machines. The crunch of Led Zeppelin.
The prelude to a concert at the Sprint Center? Not quite. A tribute band at the casino? Not even close.
No, the setting is a crowded ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Crown Center. I'm standing against a wall, taking in the thunder and lightning that is the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce's 123rd annual dinner.
Equal parts rock show, awards ceremony and roast, the dinner each year brings together Kansas City's elite on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving — an evening for business and political leaders to gussy up, swig Merlot, and pocket silverware for their respective employee break rooms.
To open the night, the Rev. Thomas Curran, president of Rockhurst University, remembers the hungry in his pre-feast prayer. But from then on, it's a gala of unhinged awesomeness.
Chamber President Jim Heeter takes the stage, backed by a Who song about, perhaps appropriately, fake people snorting cocaine. Four large video screens ensure no bad seats in the house, although some are costlier than others. While individual tickets went for $100, tables for 10 sold for $1,500 — meaning that businesses buying an entire table paid a premium of 50 percent. The more people you bring, the more we charge you! Good thing we have MBAs!
Heeter, a lawyer and former city councilman, has been on the job six months. He tells the bankers, engineers and fellow bar members that the night is not for worrying about potholes and other annoyances. "We're celebrating you, because you are the chamber," he says.
A select few receive extra celebration. U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver gets a nod for being chosen to chair the Congressional Black Caucus. Retiring U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, a politician known for bringing home congressional bacon by the slab, receives a hearty whoop when his name is mentioned. "By the way, I love driving your bridge," Heeter says. He's referring to the Missouri River span that bears Bond's name, thanks to the $50 million earmark he snagged for its construction back when "earmark" wasn't a curse word.
The dazzle and self-congratulations, though, crash against what's happening outside the ballroom. Kansas City's unemployment rate isn't falling as fast as it is elsewhere. St. Louis has more than twice as many Fortune 500 companies. Last spring, consultants came to town and told civic leaders that they were doing a lousy job of creating wealth, new businesses and jobs — you know, that kind-of-important stuff that keeps a city from sucking.
But the momentum is building. Or that's the night's theme, at least: "The Momentum Is Building."
"Our economy is improving," Heeter says, "perhaps not as quickly as we'd like."
"Momentum Is Building Really Slowly, Almost Unnoticeably" would have been a better slogan, really, but it didn't fit on the napkins.
After the chocolate cake, a video flickers on-screen. Chamber board members star in the production, which shows Kansas City as a video game. The imagined narrative consists largely of board members reciting platitudes — "we're expanding the grid," "new horizons" — in front of a green screen. A board member tells a joke about feeding wool to cats and getting ... mittens. The Improv this isn't.
The video offers a reminder that the chamber has had some rough moments since last year's dinner. One of the featured players is Roshann Parris, a local PR guru who was touched by the scandal that brought down Karen Pletz, the former president of the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences. University officials fired Pletz last December and accused her of looting $2.3 million, including money for a bridal shower for Parris' daughter. Parris would later join the university's board of trustees, despite having provided the school with marketing services — a flagrant conflict of interest but apparently business as usual for Pletz's reign.
After the video, Heeter introduces Peter deSilva, the president and chief operating officer of UMB Financial. DeSilva describes the chamber's decision to move from a downtown skyscraper to Union Station as if the two buildings were separated by an alligator-infested moat; in fact, the renovated train station has been signing office tenants for years. DeSilva also gives the chamber props for supporting the Kansas City, Missouri, School District's "right-sizing" plan, which everyone but a few bitter-enders on the school board got behind.
DeSilva introduces his successor, Greg Graves, chairman and CEO of Burns & McDonnell, an engineering firm. After ticking off his favorite things about Kansas City, Graves takes some shots. He describes Kansas City's pension program as "dinosauric" and he bangs on Rex Sinquefield, the billionaire puppeteer who's bankrolling the efforts to repeal the earnings tax in St. Louis and Kansas City. Without identifying Sinquefield by name, Graves tells him to take his "high school civics experiment and go home." Nice line, actually.
But even with the e-tax in peril, it's good to be Graves. During his remarks, he puts a decrepit sewer system on a list of the city's long-term financial challenges, which is convenient for him — his firm is slated to manage the $2.4 billion separation of the city's stormwater and sewer pipes. Later, Graves will tell a joke about sewage's sweet odor, although that's probably the city's money he's smelling.
Like Sinquefield, Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser gets the He Who Shall Not Be Named treatment. Graves says he's looking forward to the mayor's race, which is a polite way of saying he's looking forward to watching Funkhouser go the way of his approval ratings.
Funkhouser has been sniping at the chamber all year, in an attempt to recover some of the populist magic that lifted him into office four years ago. He's not in the ballroom tonight, but he'll hold a press conference the next morning to blast the chamber for endorsing Kansas' incentive program.
The program allows companies that relocate to keep their workers' state-income taxes for up to 10 years — generous, sure, but not an offer likely to stir business owners in Milwaukee or Austin. Instead, Kansas City, Missouri, companies are the ones moving to Kansas, with vacancies at the Sprint campus making relocation a snap.
The metro area doesn't benefit when companies switch area codes from 816 to 913 (or vice versa). Yet the chamber wants to expand the program so that even more businesses qualify.
As for the poaching problem, drafts of the chamber's policy agendas for 2011 advise Missouri to come up with new ways to "incentivize" doing business here. Of course, while all these taxes disappear from the rolls, the chamber also wants schools, sick kids and transit systems to receive proper funding.
Low taxes. High services. If there's a lesson to take away from tonight's show, it's that the chamber lives in the Land of Make-Believe, a place where Something comes at the always reasonable price of Nothing.
Acknowledging the incentive border war, Graves finally tells the audience that he hopes the governors of Kansas and Missouri "secure peace" in the coming year. But the chamber's policy agenda looks more like the blueprint for conducting an arms race.
I know where they can find lasers to guide the missiles.