When I visit other cities, I tend to keep a running mental scorecard comparing them with Kansas City. One of the very first things you notice when you exit Interstate 64 into Louisville, Kentucky, is the city's downtown arena, home to the University of Louisville men's and women's basketball teams. It sits on the banks of the Ohio River, and its name is writ large and bright on the facility's gray exterior: the KFC Yum! Center. Kansas City 1, Louisville 0.
In addition to boasting the headquarters of the nastiest fast-food chain in the United States, Louisville is also home to a downtown district operated by Cordish, the same Baltimore real-estate developer that brought Kansas City the heavily subsidized, underperforming chainborhood we call the Power & Light District. (Theirs is known as Fourth Street Live.) We'll call that one a wash.
But the occasion of my visit to Louisville was Forecastle, a three-day music and arts festival that I am chagrined to report is far superior to any festival in the Greater Kansas City metropolitan area. This year, its 10th anniversary, upward of 35,000 people attended Forecastle. Louisville heroes My Morning Jacket curated the fest; Wilco, Bassnectar, Neko Case, Beach House and Girl Talk were among the other 75 acts that performed over the weekend.
Forecastle is a homegrown event that bounced around other venues in the city before landing at the Louisville Waterfront Park, a perfectly central downtown location that maximizes the economic impact of the festival on the city in the same way Lollapalooza does for Chicago. Forecastle's finances were at the front of my mind this past weekend, after a week of driving and walking around Kansas City searching in vain for evidence of the crowds and revenues promised us by the All-Star Game. The official numbers aren't yet in, but it's safe by now to say that despite the reported $1.8 million the city spent readying for its big national close-up, the ASG had an underwhelming financial effect on the city's non-barbecue businesses. It was largely coastal media types and father-and-son duos from Wichita and Des Moines who came in for the ASG, and they stayed at hotels by the airport for a night or two, maybe hit up FanFest, watched a boring baseball game, and took off Wednesday morning. Most of them will never return.
It was a different scene in Louisville, a city about half the size of Kansas City, where the downtown streets were gridlocked and packed with festivalgoers for Forecastle. These are the types of visitors, it seems to me, that a city should spend money hoping to attract. They stay in the city and they spend money, and if they have fun, they return the next year. With my expenses for hotel, food, drink, and shopping around the Highlands (Louisville's Westport, if Westport were four times as large and laid out along one street, like Massachusetts Street in Lawrence), I alone dumped about $500 into the local economy. There were no special welcome signs painted on the pavement, and there was none of the desperate, maniacal cheerleading you observe in Kansas City whenever local groups or individuals put on a larger-than-average cultural event. Ironically, the fact that nobody in Louisville tried to sell me on Louisville is a big part of what sold me on Louisville. It's a vibrant, weird, historical city, and its charm speaks for itself.
This is the part where belligerent homers will start to accuse me of not being supportive enough of the festivals currently incubating in Kansas City. So let's have a look at what's going on festivalwise here in KC. According to a recent post on its Facebook page, Kanrocksas might return in 2013 after its money-losing inaugural run at the Kansas Speedway in 2011. I wish it the best. But even if Kanrocksas figures out a way to make its own math work, it'll hardly be a boon to the local economy. The hotels and the Target by the Legends might get some extra business, but it's a camping-centric event, held 30 minutes from downtown KC.
Dancefestopia was held earlier this summer in the Richard L. Berkley Riverfront Park, a location more advantageous for local businesses and more likely to expose tourists to the restaurants, districts, parks and other civic treasures of which we're most proud. But like Kanrocksas, it lacks a community element. The organizers of these fests can bring in all the local food trucks they want, but it doesn't change the fact that the events were created basically out of thin air by a couple of rich guys. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But festivals are like babies: A city likes to watch them grow, to root for them, to feel connected to them.
I know, I know — Middle of the Map. We're all rooting for Middle of the Map to become a thing, a reason for people from other cities to come to KC and experience the cool things we have going on here. And even though it's organized by a weekly publication attempting to lowest-common-denominator my weekly publication out of business, I am also rooting for Middle of the Map. I live here, after all.
But in the same way Dancefestopia catered too much to a hip-hop and pop demographic (Wiz Khalifa, 3OH!3), Middle of the Map — I can already hear the clacking keyboards of outraged Web commenters — has thus far skewed far too indie. Mission of Burma, Fucked Up, and Acid Mothers Temple are all cool national acts, but they don't draw hordes of casual music fans from surrounding states. Yes, Fun played MOTM, and it's popular. But Fun is a terrible band. (I'm sorry, Fun.) To convince casual music fans to come to KC — and those are exactly the people you need for a large, successful fest — you need a Bassnectar or a Black Keys or a Wilco or a Jack White.
These are tough acts to book, and MOTM is only two years in. But facts are facts: Many major cities that we claim to compete with host superior music festivals. Girl Talk, Flaming Lips, Dr. Dog and Dinosaur Jr. will play LouFest in St. Louis' Forest Park this August. Denver's Mile High lineup includes My Morning Jacket, Weezer, Phoenix and Bassnectar.
KC keeps pumping millions into entertainment districts, stadiums, arts centers. Now we're talking about dropping $100 million on an idiotic, two-mile, just-for-looks streetcar line downtown. The idea seems to be that if we build enough shit, people will come and visit. That's the wrong way of thinking about it. We've got enough cool stuff already. We need to give people a reason to come here and experience it. Here's a suggestion: Maybe next year, instead of spending $1.8 million bulldozing abandoned houses that officials were afraid All-Star Game tourists would spot from the highway, perhaps the city could instead budget some money for a music and arts festival. Partner with local businesses; hire an experienced company like AC Entertainment (which produces Bonnaroo and Forecastle) to attract talent and organize the thing; appoint a small board of local, in-the-know folks to ensure that the fest highlights what is special about this city. It'd be more complicated than that, of course — but not much.