With a hole in the budget for the line, Jase Wilson may be the streetcar's savior. Wilson's new company, Neighbor.ly, plans to pay for a large portion of the streetcar through relatively small donations. Think of it as Kickstarter for City Hall: People who want a streetcar can donate money and receive a perk in return. Donations can be made from all over the world, tapping into what Wilson calls the "Kansas City Diaspora."
The key to raising millions of dollars for the line is offering charitable Kansas Citians a visible reminder of their contributions, says Wilson, who works out of a bedroom-sized office in OfficePort's shared work space in the Crossroads District. He pulls up a graphic of streetcars, in colorful advertising wraps, on his computer screen and holds a Post-it Note to the screen, explaining his theory that donors would feel a sense of ownership seeing their names or special messages on the side of a streetcar.
"It will be very much our streetcar," Wilson says. He adds that major advertisers could also buy space on the cars. But most of the cash Neighbor.ly raises, he says, will come from individuals.
"We're leaning toward this 3-by-3 Post-it Note size being the basis," says Wilson, who studied city planning at UMKC and MIT. "And, at that size, I can't honestly say what the price will be. But it should be between $10 and $100."
It will take a lot of Post-its to get there, though. The cost of the wrap itself is $10,000. Wilson says the naming rights on stops and individual seats in the cars, in addition to the squares on the cars, could be revenue generators. The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts offers the model: Contributors can put a name plaque on a chair in the theaters for a donation of $2,500-$10,000.
Neighbor.ly also plans to sell rides before the streetcar is even built.
"[Riders can] get a huge discount if you buy 100 rides today or a year's worth of rides," Wilson says. "There's even going to be a perk level that's going to be a lifetime supply of rides."
Neighbor.ly, which city officials have already publicly supported, will take a cut of about 5 percent of the money raised. The company, which is funded by Crossroads business and property owners whom Wilson won't name, is planning to launch a guerrilla marketing campaign to coincide with the July 10 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
The TIGER rejection has filled Wilson with the same defiance that Mayor Sly James showed in a statement released following last week's rejection. James declared, "Kansas City is not giving up on this project."
"We think that with the $25 million that we were counting on from TIGER, that $25 million becomes a really sensible goal," Wilson says. "It's justifiable. And that's a really healthy down payment. Even if we only get half of that, even if we only get a 10th of that, it's still a victory that shows there are other ways."
In his statement, James mentioned another way to pay: "We move forward immediately by applying for an [sic] grant under the revised Small Starts program of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and will continue to get our local financing package firmly in place. We may not have gotten this grant, but we will keep working to make this a reality in the very near term."
Then James hedged.
"It is increasingly clear in today's political and economic climate in Washington, if we want something done, we will need to do it ourselves," James said. "We can and will make this happen."
Now Neighbor.ly finds itself in what could be the perfect atmosphere for a launch. With the mayor promoting a rah-rah, who-needs-Washington attitude combined with a temporary baseball-induced sense of civic pride, Neighbor.ly's coffers might soon swell.
Though Wilson and city officials are hopeful that Kansas Citians will unite with open wallets to fund the streetcar, there are reasons for skepticism.
Saying the city can eschew federal funds - while planning to apply for a different federal grant - sounds nice. But the reality is, cities that build streetcar lines need federal money. Streetcar lines in Atlanta ($47 million), Cincinnati ($40 million) and Portland, Oregon ($75 million), all received influxes of federal cash in the last four years.
And the Small Start grant that James cited appears to be a long shot. None of the 29 Small Start (and the similar Smart Start) grants that the FTA approved for fiscal year 2013 went toward streetcar development. However, there were at least eight light-rail projects approved. An April 2011 article in Mass Transit magazine called out Small Start grants as being particularly averse to streetcars.
"[T]he pressure to address future federal spending and disputes over defining the federal interest in transit in general, and streetcars in particular, heighten the challenges for securing sustainable federal funding," the magazine reported.
Furthermore, the fate of the taxing district that would pay for $73 million of the project is being voted on by just 555 of the approximately 6,000 downtown residents who would be affected most by the taxes and the streetcar's proximity. That indicates a low level of interest in the line. Countywide voting on a tax increase to fund the Kansas City Zoo had a higher turnout.
Given all of these issues, is Wilson really confident that he can get Kansas Citians to pony up for the streetcar?
"Well, that's a really damn good question," Wilson says. He says voting by a mail-in ballot might not excite streetcar supporters enough to advocate for the cause. Checking a box on a two-page ballot filled with legalese isn't as enticing as seeing your square on the car as it whirs up Main Street, he points out.
"It's very different from when there's a chance to be a part of something and to be visually recognized for being a part of something, or to get something of value in return," he says.
Furthermore, Wilson says the streetcar could be a forerunner to finally getting a citywide light-rail system built in Kansas City. "Maybe you can't get from Waldo to the airport on it, but it's a start," he says.
If Neighbor.ly doesn't meet Wilson's expectations with the streetcar, he'll have plenty of chances to tweak his business model. He says officials from other cities have already contacted him, hoping to use Neighbor.ly to start their own fund drives.
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