High-society types in this town love to get dolled up and give to a favorite cause: themselves.
Polite society welcomes a new batch of debutantes every June at the Jewel Ball, which raises money for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Kansas City Symphony. The symphony takes another crack at the well-to-do during a cocktails-and-dancing soiree in September. A ticket to the Symphony Ball requires a $1,000 donation.
The Kemper Museum Gala, in October, charges $150 a well-coiffed head. This year's event had a James Bond theme.
The rich aren't the only ones who enjoy classical music and fine art, of course. Even gallery-averse Kansas Citians can take pride in all of those international accolades for the Nelson's expansion — it makes the whole town look good.
But, boy, the calendar is packed with affairs where people in gowns and tuxedos support institutions appealing to people who wear gowns and tuxedos.
I started thinking about the inclinations of our betters after a conversation with someone who lives in Columbus Park. Frustrated by the beggars and broken syringes in her neighborhood, she asked me what had happened to plans for a homeless day center that people were talking about a few years ago.
The answer, I found out, was pretty simple.
First, some background.
Sean O'Byrne is executive director of the Downtown Community Improvement District. He supervises those helpful folks in yellow-and-black jackets who sweep the streets and greet library visitors. A few years ago, after getting acquainted with the needs and habits of street people, O'Byrne proposed building a center where they could spend the daylight hours. (Shelters close each morning.) The idea was to create a one-stop shop where the down and out could get services, take showers and use computers.
O'Byrne was acting out of enlightened self-interest. In addition to making things easier on the homeless, a day center could reduce the number of scruffy characters roaming the streets. O'Byrne told The Pitch in 2004 that Kansas City puts its homeless "on parade" (No Free Lunch February 12, 2004).
The Kansas City parks board agreed to put the day center in Margaret Kemp Park, a popular squatting ground for drug users and prostitutes. Essentially a jungle gym overlooking a freeway, the park awaited a greater purpose.
The "compassion zone," as O'Byrne liked to call it, had momentum. The Greater Kansas City Community Foundation came up with some money to hire a project coordinator. Architects sketched a design pro bono.
"We had a lot of nice drawings," recalls Evelyn Craig, the executive director of ReStart, a homeless agency across the street from the park.
Naturally, business and property owners near Kemp Park opposed the plan. No neighborhood, after all, likes to lose green space and gain homeless people.
In the end, though, it wasn't neighborhood opposition that stopped the day center. It was the fact that no one stepped forward to raise the necessary $16 million to $20 million.
"We didn't have a Julia Irene [Kauffman]. We didn't have a Shirley Helzberg, God bless 'em," Craig says, referring to the well-known arts benefactors.
It goes without saying that conductors and curators are an easier sell than Larry the Schizophrenic. But Kansas City's donor community appears to have lost a sense of proportion. The performing-arts center and the Nelson-Atkins expansion are each $300 million fundraising endeavors. The homeless center, meanwhile, was canceled for lack of interest.
Around the time that the Downtown Community Task Force endorsed the day-center idea in 2006, then-Mayor Kay Barnes said she was forming a 12-person commission on homelessness. But with no project to oversee, the mayor's commission never got past the announcement stage.
Lynda Callon, who runs the Westside CAN Center, says the philanthropic community has "bailed" on street-level charities. The CAN Center occupies an old machine shop off Southwest Boulevard, near a spot under Interstate 35 where day laborers wait for work. Since 2002, the Westside CAN Center has offered those workers, mostly immigrants, a place to use the toilet and play dominoes.
The building's previous owner leased space to the CAN Center at no cost. In the spring, a new landlord will begin charging rent. Callon is trying to figure out how she's going to pay.
"Most small, grass-roots nonprofits are struggling," she tells me.
The CAN Center and the homeless campus are similar in that they offer structure to people who otherwise might be harassing pedestrians or taking outdoor dumps. As Callon says, "It's really less about the men than the children who live around here."
O'Byrne tells me that the day center is making a comeback, though he's not ready to offer details. But why couldn't it have worked in the first place? One would think that the proud investors in Kansas City's new downtown would thrill to the idea of sending the drunk and unstable over a bridge to a day center outside the loop.
Of course, at times, it doesn't seem like our gown-and-tuxedo crowd is really that bright.
The Kansas City Business Journal recently published the names of the 50 highest-paid executives at public companies. The list of lords is underwhelming. Five H&R Block officers made the top 50, including CEO Mark Ernst, who recently resigned amid plummeting net worth. H&R Block lost big in the subprime mortgage racket, which is also the main business of NovaStar Financial, which placed two executives in the top 50.
Lloyd Hill, the former CEO of Applebee's, who used the company jet to commute to a beach house and was accused by dissident shareholder Richard Breeden of mismanagement, came in at No. 5. Richard Green, the CEO of Aquila, which suffered an Enron-like meltdown, is hanging on at No. 50. For some reason, former Sprint Nextel chief executive Gary Forsee didn't make the list, though he banked $21 million in compensation last year. The architect of a clumsy merger with Nextel, Forsee left the wireless company with a reported $54 million severance package.
Kansas City's largest companies may infuriate investors, devolve into acquisition targets and fall into bankruptcy. But at least the city's most powerful men and women have some nice toys to play with.
The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is scheduled to open in 2009. In a few weeks, the Kansas City, Missouri, City Council will try to figure out how to pay for the accompanying parking garage, pledged by a previous council. The price tag: $47 million.
The city doesn't have the money. Maybe a street person can offer some panhandling tips.