The owner of a politically connected excavation company is set to foist his unused ranch land onto the city.
Two weeks ago, Cindy Circo and Terry Riley, who represent Kansas City's 5th District on the City Council, asked for $500,000 from the city's Capital Improvements Fund. The request said the money would be used for "park improvements" in the district.
The ordinance provided no additional detail. I've learned that the money will be used to build a park on land co-owned by Jim Kissick, the president of Kissick Construction. The city, Kissick tells me, recently agreed to pay $1,110,000 for 100 acres that he and his partners own. "It's a gorgeous piece of ground," he says.
It looks pretty from the road. Kissick's property abuts 75th Street in the portion of Kansas City that sits between Raytown and Lee's Summit. The area, split by Noland Road, is agrarian in character and in practice. People actually grow crops, keep horses and raise goats in this part of town.
Kissick and his two partners bought the property in 2006. The sellers, Clarence and Louise Butler, had intended to build a house on the rolling terrain, which reminds Kissick of Loose Park's graceful curves. The Butlers built a security gate but not the house.
The Butlers picked a fine spot to enjoy country living that didn't require a 15-mile drive to the closest gas station. But is the land a little too remote to be a good park?
In addition to being sparsely populated, the area is served by narrow, winding roads. The approach to Kissick's land from the west tapers to one lane as 75th Street passes under an old Rock Island Railroad bridge. Going east, the lane bends at sharp angles before it joins Noland Road.
Logistics isn't the only problem. The park, it turns out, doesn't have the overwhelming support of people who live in the Little Blue River valley. Last week, resident and neighborhood leader Dan Porrevecchio told the parks board that buying the Kissick property would be a "gross misuse of tax dollars."
Still, city officials are pressing ahead.
Circo says the east side of the 5th District has needed a park for a long time. "There's been no money spent in the Little Blue valley for decades," she tells me.
In Circo's explanation, the city is identifying land for the installation of a "park system" that would complement Jackson County's vision of a trail connecting Longview Lake with the Little Blue Trace Nature Preserve in Sugar Creek.
As for the purchase itself, Circo is vague. She says she doesn't know the acreage that the city would buy — she calls it "the 75th Street piece" — and she doesn't describe what the "park system" would look like or how it would function.
Instead, she speaks of land "being prepared for an opportunity," whatever that means.
The $500,000 represents money that has been allocated to the 5th District for capital improvements but hasn't been spent. Circo says the money accumulated when projects in her district came in under budget. Money to purchase the Kissick site will come from the fees that developers pay into the park system.
Circo says she's trying to give the community what it wants, and that's a park.
Residents in the Little Blue River valley would like the city to build a park. But not necessarily on Kissick's land.
Porrevecchio and others have asked the city to buy the Kansas City International Raceway. Porrevecchio says the drag strip, which is located near the intersection of Noland Road and Highway 50, is an ideal location for ball fields or some other recreational space.
But I get the sense that Porrevecchio and his neighbors really want the racetrack and its revving engines to disappear. Any kicking of soccer balls that takes place in the future is incidental.
Acquiring the racetrack remains a top priority, Circo says. But the city hasn't been able to meet the owner's demands. "I can't buy the racetrack if the owners of the racetrack aren't willing to sell the racetrack," she says.
Instead, Circo has found a seller who also happens to contribute to local officials' political campaigns.
Kissick stays on top of city affairs. His company's equipment can often be found on public-project sites. Kissick Construction buried pipes beneath the Kansas City Power & Light District and helped with Bartle Hall's expansion.
Kissick himself is a former president of the Heavy Constructors Association of the Greater Kansas City Area, a group known in political circles as the "Heavies" — shorthand that speaks to the group's identity as well as its clout.
Kissick Construction donated $3,125 to candidates in the 2007 city election. The giving continues. Circo's campaign received a total of $750 from Kissick in 2008 and 2009. Kissick donated $1,500 to Riley in July, when the councilman made an unsuccessful bid to slide from the City Council to the Jackson County Legislature.
Construction interests give money to local elected officials as a matter of course. Politicians, after all, are the ones who approve and campaign for some of the city's largest construction projects. But it isn't every day that a man who runs bulldozers also happens to own property that the city's parks department is being encouraged to buy.
Kissick says the city is getting a good deal. "We came down quite a bit [on the price]," he says. At the same time, he acknowledges that he and his partners were unable to subdivide the land, as they had intended when they bought the property. This means that if the city relieves Kissick of his land, it would add 100 acres to an inventory of underused, insufficiently maintained parks.
Austere city budgets have forced the city to close community centers, eliminate programs and reduce mowing schedules. Last year, parks officials even considered shutting off the city's fountains in order to save a measly $160,000. This past summer, the entrance to Swope Park resembled a meadow for much of the season.
A parks department that has lost 20 percent of its work force over the past decade can't even keep up with undesirable shrubs. To remove invasive bush honeysuckle from parkland, the city relies on volunteers. "You see it everywhere," says Dona Boley, board president of the Kessler Society of Kansas City, a group named for George Kessler, the park system's original architect.
Other important functions are being neglected amid the cutbacks. Boley says she is concerned about the loss of forest cover. "You don't see much tree planting occurring in the parks," she says. "So when the trees die and are gone, that's it."
Parks officials have not held much public discussion about Kissick's property and their possible plans for it. Porrevecchio made his comment about the "gross misuse of tax dollars" during the section of the parks board meeting reserved for public comment. Porrevecchio argued that the city should make a play for the racetrack. He presented copies of e-mails that he said indicated the track owner's willingness to come to the table.
Porrevecchio stepped out of the meeting to take a phone call. When that conversation ended, he said it was the owner of the racetrack who had called. Porrevecchio said the two had scheduled a meeting for the following week.