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After 8 years as Kansas City’s mayor, Sly James is open, candid and ready to go

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Mayor Sly James can't seem to wait.

In fact, he has the app on his phone to prove it: counting down the days, hours and minutes until his term ends.

"I'm ready to go to be quite honest," the city's 54th mayor admitted. "When you know that the time has come and you prepare for it, then you're ready to execute the plan that you've been working on."

Executing plans has been this mayor's approach since day one.

Elected in 2011, the political newcomer ousted a one-term mayor and entered his 29th-floor office with an agenda.

"I arrived with an agenda because I didn't want to show up and say, 'Hey, now that I'm here, what do you want to do?"

And that agenda included jump-starting progress on downtown development that Mayor Kay Barnes had started with Sprint Center and the Power and Light District.

Cranes went up for luxury high-rise living, a downtown convention hotel and offices. Down below a streetcar starter line opened.

"Downtown is the life blood of any city," James insisted, noting that if the heart of a city dies, so do its extremities, its neighborhoods.

But critics emerged, particularly in his second term, to question why developers needed "incentives" and why neighborhoods were being ignored.

It's a premise the Kansas City native and Marine veteran rejects.

"We did more in neighborhoods than people give us credit for," James said, his voice rising, "but it's not as easy to see because neighborhoods are all over the city."

James said nearly a billion dollars was earmarked for improvements, and inner city property stuck in federal receivership was pulled out, prompting new development in neighborhoods like Beacon Hill.

He also rejected critics who said he bullied and berated his opponents on issues like the airport and its new single terminal.

"I probably was a hard ass with some people, but you know what? At the end of the day I really have a clear idea of not wasting time and not BS'ing around and not playing anything for politics," he said.

Specifically, the suggestion that an airport plan proposed by Burns and McDonnell was a backroom deal.

"This is another one of those things that really chaps me," he said, noting the engineering firm came to him, and he was in the process of sharing the plan with the city council when it was leaked to the media.

The uproar that followed led to a protracted bid process that saw Edgemoor take the reigns as developer -- and voters overwhelmingly approve of the project.

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But in April, voters rejected another James passion: a sales tax for universal Pre-K education.

James championed the cause, saying poor kids are behind when they get to school, and that fuels poverty and crime. He called it one of the darkest days of his 8 years.

So passionate is he about education, in 2011 he launched "Turn the Page KC," a reading resource program designed to boost reading efficiency in third-graders.

"The most prominent reading level in prison is fourth grade," he noted. "The most prominent group of people in prison are black people, and the most prominent overall group of people in prison are poor people."

"Education solves a lot of those problems."

He credits the growing initiative with helping boost third grade reading proficiency in the metro's school districts, with a goal of 70% by 2022. It is, he said, his biggest achievement, in spite of cranes and buildings.

And as he reflects, he's nostalgic.

He'll miss his staff and security detail (he said they've become like family), and he'll miss the pace. But he won't miss the politics, and after a vacation, he plans to build a consulting business with an emphasis on things like education.

As for his critics, he's not worried about his legacy.

"I think if you ask most people, they will tell you this city is better for me having been here, than not."

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