KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Four former Kansas City, Missouri mayors reflected on their time in office and what still needs to be done Thursday. Those mayors served Kansas City from 1991 to 2019.
It’s the first time the four have ever been on the same stage. The landmark event was held at the Kansas City Plaza Library.
Before the Chiefs were hosting five straight AFC Championships, there were streetcars and T-Mobile Center or Kansas City was ready to cut the ribbon on a single terminal airport; they were the leaders of Kansas City.
“It was a cesspool, it was strip clubs, it was haunted houses,” former Mayor Sly James described downtown Kansas City before former Mayor Kay Barnes took office in 1999 serving until 2007.
Barnes is credited with sparking downtown redevelopment. She says she’d like to see that also make its way to the city’s East side, but that takes developers willing to take on the risk.
In the event co-presented by the Citizens Association of Kansas City and Kansas City PBS each was asked what issues plagued Kansas City when they were mayor the city still faces today.
“The problem of affordable housing was a problem on my first day, last day, and it’s a problem on this day,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said appearing virtually from Washington D.C.
Cleaver served as Kansas City’s Mayor from 1991 until 1999 before moving on to several terms as Missouri’s 5th District U.S. Congressman.
“The major issue was and is public safety and crime,” former Mayor Mark Funkhouser, Kansas City mayor from 2007-2011, said.
Funkhouser said to better combat crime, the city needs sustained and well-funded programs. James, who served from 2011 to 2019, pointed to efforts like KC NOVA that he said seemed to be working but haven’t been repeated.
Several city leaders were in attendance to hear the mayors’ advice including Kay Barnes former intern, now current Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas.
Despite its challenges, these mayors believe Kansas City is in a better place than when they took office.
“The one thing I’ll say to everybody is you can’t be afraid of change because change is coming and it’s going to come easy way or hard way we have to embrace change and make it work for us,” James said.
“I’m very proud of where the city is at this point. I also know you can’t rest on your laurels because there are many other cities our size that are competitors,” Barnes said.
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As for whether any other than sitting Congressman Cleaver will return to office, James may have had the best response.
“I do have an announcement to make. There’s no way in hell,” James joked.
Many of the former mayors were also asked about the likelihood of a new Kansas City Royals downtown stadium. Barnes said it’s worth serious discussion. James advised to be careful what you wish for, reminding the crowded auditorium the Truman Sports Complex’s other occupant could then leave as well. Funkhouser said a downtown stadium won’t solve Kansas City’s biggest problems.
The presentation will air Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m. on Kansas City PBS.