A sign in front of the old Paseo YMCA announces the coming Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center. But the wooden board offers a clue that the project has run into problems: The sign bears the logo of Douglass National Bank, which failed two years ago.
Barbecue king Ollie Gates recently stepped forward to take the lead on the project. His task is enormous. Gates will need to raise at least $10 million for an effort in a part of town that corporate Kansas City tends to ignore. Already, the Sprint Foundation has indicated that a $100,000 donation, made in 2007, represents the limit of its generosity.
Gates has business sense and a strong will. But the fact remains that the Buck ONeil Education and Research Center is a concept that is 10 years old and has made only minimal progress. Even a guy as indomitable as Gates faces long odds.
I happen to think that the O'Neil Center will not get done. And even if it does, it's not a great idea.
But that's not the point. Instead, I want to use this space to challenge people to put some more thought into what they're trying to achieve.
Recently, I wrote a column about the effort to revive 18th Street and Vine, the hub of black Kansas City during segregation ("Empty Vine," February 4). Tens of millions of dollars in government aid have flowed into the district. Attractions went up. But the streets are still empty, and the area will probably always rely on public support.
My column pointed fingers, and pointing fingers is easy when there's a mess on the floor. Wreck a car outside my window, and I can tell you what aspect of your driving needs improvement.
The main idea I wanted to communicate is that 18th and Vine's problems stem largely from over-optimism. A section of town flattened by out-migration and disinvestment was not going to snap back to life with the arrival of Charlie Parker's plastic saxophone.
Only a cold heart or a bigot would argue with the intentions behind the effort to restore 18th and Vine to glory. The initial $20 million pledge, made by the City Council in 1989, represented an inexcusably rare commitment to spend money east of Troost.
I'm not sorry the money went there. I just wish it had been spent differently.
Similarly, only a jerk would look at the plans for the O'Neil Center and think, "Now why would anyone want to do that?"
But in one sense, that's the question that needs to be asked.
How we got here:
Bob Kendrick and Ray Doswell, officials at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, began speaking publicly in 2000 about reopening the Paseo YMCA.
The building figures prominently in Negro leagues history. Rube Foster, who owned the Chicago American Giants, and other operators of independent black baseball teams formed the Negro National League in a room at the Y in 1920.
Padlocks secured the doors of the five-story building in the 1970s. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum acquired it in 2005. The old Y is four times the size of the baseball museum. Kendrick and Doswell talked about using the space to archive materials, create more exhibits, and build classrooms and office space.
The Environmental Protection Agency provided a $165,047 grant to clean up the asbestos and other hazardous material at the Y. At a presentation ceremony, Buck O'Neil, the beloved former Negro leagues player and manager, joked about putting the check in his pocket. He died a year later, in 2006, at age 94.