The squat strip along 39th Street between Kensington and Elmwood boasts a laundromat, a barbershop and salon, and a liquor store, along with its anchor, Leon's Thriftway grocery store.
Until recently, though, Leon's and its neighboring businesses faced extinction. The Kansas City Neighborhood Alliance had proposed to tear down the whole strip to make way for new, affordable housing and a community center. But with its plan, the KCNA, a generally respected community-development corporation, betrayed its name and made more enemies than alliances.
Despite the results of a KCNA-ordered "blight study," which found it plagued by unsanitary and unsafe conditions, the shopping center is a scene of constant motion: Cars with spinning, platinum hubcaps glide past beaters as their drivers pull in to get their hair done or their clothes cleaned or to pick up something from Leon's. In the aisles of the grocery store, men wearing shined, two-toned shoes pass women wearing house slippers. The place is busy at 3 p.m. On a weekday.
Leon Stapleton opened Leon's Thriftway in the summer of 1969, after riots followed Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and Kansas City's Black Economic Union started demanding more opportunities for African-American entrepreneurs. Stapleton and his wife had five girls and two boys, and the store was intended to secure the family's future. Vernon Stapleton and his sister Alfreda run the place now, but when the 79-year-old Leon says he's retired, his children laugh. He's at the store every day.
Unlike now-standard 60,000-square-foot Price Choppers, Leon's takes up just 18,000 square feet, prevailing among an aging but loyal customer base because it's the only grocery store for miles on Kansas City's east side. Though it's not the rotting wasteland described in the KCNA's blight study, the strip's parking lot is crumbling, the building's façade is shabby, and refrigerators in Leon's meat and frozen food aisles are antiquated. Stapleton and his landlord, James Houston Jr., knew it was time to spruce up the place.
Houston says that in November 2003, he presented the city with plans for a complete renovation and expansion of the center.
Not long afterward, Houston says, he and Stapleton discovered that the KCNA, along with Swope Community Builders and the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority (a quasi-public board with powers of eminent domain), also had plans for the Seven Oaks Shopping Center -- but they had neglected to tell Houston.
Stapleton learned of the KCNA's plan from Marilyn Simmons, a Kansas City, Missouri, School Board representative and a one-time member of the Vineyard Neighborhood Association. Simmons, a longtime Leon's shopper, had been invited to a meeting at the office of Swope Community Builders back in 2001, when the KCNA outlined its vision for the block. Simmons says she was surprised when a map of the proposal showed a new housing development and community center on the land occupied by Leon's Thriftway. Simmons recalls that someone at the meeting referred to Houston as a "slumlord," and says Leon's was shrugged off as a store that sold "green meat and brown vegetables" and generated its main income from liquor sales.
"I said, 'That's just not true,'" Simmons recalls. "The project, I felt, was mean-spirited, and plus it represented no profit for my community."
KCNA Executive Director Gloria Eurotas tells the Pitch that her agency first became involved in the Oak Pointe Development in order to bail out another community development corporation, the CDC of KC, which owned the crime-plagued Seven Oaks Apartments behind Leon's. The federal department of Housing and Urban Development held the mortgage insurance, and the complex faced foreclosure, so HUD sold the apartments to the KCNA for $10 on the condition that the KCNA handle their demolition.