Here's a tiny yet classic example of how arrogance fuels paranoia. And how that paranoia can spur a handful of regular joes to whip up so much mistrust of City Hall that it paralyzes the whole freaking town.
It starts on December 9, in a downtown boardroom. The mayor presides over her once-a-month gathering of the Greater Downtown Development Authority, a collective of development attorneys, real-estate moguls and other power players. She's excited because her staff has put together a gigantic three-ring binder filled with color photos of all the projects that will make Kansas City rock: Thousands of new lofts and condos! A performing arts center! A new arena! Parking garages!
"I'm the daughter of a football coach," she tells her team. "And I want to make an analogy comparing this document to football. We're not talking about getting an NFL team in five years. We're not even at training camp. We're in season, and we need a playbook."
The binder contains an overwhelming number of big-ticket and small-scale dreams, but Barnes isn't fazed. "We can do it all," she says forcefully. "We will do it all."
A reporter for The Kansas City Star dutifully writes all of this down, and there's a story in the next day's paper breaking news about some of the previously unknown projects listed in the mayor's playbook. A few readers choke on their Cheerios when they learn of a $200 million, 20-acre condo project that would eat up 10 acres of a hillside in Penn Valley Park, just south of the old main post office. Holy crap, they think.
These aren't just any readers. They're neighborhood activists, the kind who send out e-mails urging residents to vote against anything City Hall asks for -- ultimately killing light rail and trashing an update to the antique city charter. When they read about condos in Penn Valley Park, they start a slow burn. After all, they're still fuming about R.H. Sailors' proposal to put a golf course in the park. First the city was thinking about letting the developer make his profits on the people's land. Now it's giving the green light to condos. Adding insult to injury is that they'll be expensive ones, lording over one of the best views in town -- essentially the one depicted on Scout postcards.
So the neighborhood guard dogs call a January 9 meeting at the Roanoke Community Center. A dozen people show up to bitch.
"Who has $200 million to build condos when people have no jobs?" one person grouses.
"That golf course was just a smoke screen so Sailors could figure out who was going to sell out," another surmises.
"If they get any of this park, the next place with a good view is up in the Northeast, at Indian Mound. We either say no now or we give away the rest of the city," scoffs one guy.
"The Park and Rec Department is facing a $3 million to $5 million budget cut. If a developer says, 'We'll give you this many million and we'll take a ball diamond,' Parks could use that money for maintenance," figures someone else.
They have to do something fast. There are phone calls to make. Troops to mobilize. A slogan to write.
"We could make it part of the City Council election, saying, 'Save the Park Land' -- like 'Save the Park Lane,' only one letter different!" one person says gleefully.
The problem is, there's no development slated for that hillside.
Workers at City Hall's planning department haven't heard of it. They refer me to the Parks Department, where I leave messages asking for any document proposing condos at Penn Valley Park. No one calls back. I assume that's not because they're rude but because they don't know what I'm talking about. Finally, I call the mayor's office.
"I have not seen a document or a developer that you would be able to point to saying, 'This is the project,'" says Joe Serviss, her chief of staff. "The project has conceptually been talked about by everybody from the park board to private developers to the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation," Serviss explains, adding that the Parks Board would have to lease out the land, or voters would have to approve an outright sale. "It's universally agreed that it's a good idea because of the location. Those numbers are gleaned from a number of different meetings we've had with people, but there's no developer in particular, and no concept in particular."
But what about the mayor's playbook? Aren't we way beyond training camp -- aren't we in the middle of the game? The mayor has listed this project among the many that we can and will do.
"Nothing is going to happen in the next six or eight months or even a year," Serviss says. "In the future, there could be some people trying to work with the Westside neighborhood or the Parks Department, and the mayor encourages that. It's not like one or two people are going to say yes or no. It's going to be worked on by hundreds of people. If [the development isn't completed], that's OK, too."
Actually, that probably wouldn't be OK, based on the mayor's high hopes for her game plan. Besides, the condo development probably will happen. The neighborhood folks at the Roanoke Center know that rumored proposals tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies. The activists may be paranoid, but they're not hallucinating.
The same day I got Serviss on the phone last week, Barnes was filing her petitions for re-election -- a formality given that she's certain to pummel her challengers. In her next term, she'll try to convince voters to pay for a downtown arena.
And for neighborhood activists who wasted a weeknight organizing against a $200 million, 20-acre project that doesn't yet exist, it may be game-on.