KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Four former mayors of Kansas City, Missouri reflected on their time in office and what still needs to be done on Thursday. Those mayors served Kansas City from 1991 to 2019.
It is the first time that the four have taken the same stage. The historic event was held at the Kansas City Plaza Library.
Before the Chiefs hosted five consecutive AFC championships, there were streetcars and the T-Mobile Center or Kansas City was ready to cut the ribbon on a single airport terminal; they were the leaders of Kansas City.
“It was a cesspool, it was strip clubs, it was haunted houses,” described former Mayor Sly James in downtown Kansas City before former Mayor Kay Barnes took office in 1999 until 2007.
Barnes is credited with sparking the downtown redevelopment. He says he’d like to see it make its way to the east side of the city as well, but that requires developers willing to take the risk.
In the event co-presented by the Citizens Association of Kansas City and Kansas City PBS each was asked what issues Kansas City faced when they were mayor that the city still faces today.
“The affordable housing issue was an issue my first day, last day, and it’s an issue this day,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver appearing virtually from Washington DC
Cleaver served as mayor of Kansas City from 1991 to 1999 before moving on to several terms as a U.S. Congressman from Missouri’s 5th district.
“The main issue was and is public safety and crime,” said former Mayor Mark Funkhouser, Kansas City mayor from 2007 to 2011.
Funkhouser said that to better fight 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 work but weren’t repeated.
Several city leaders were in attendance to hear the mayors’ advice, including former Kay Barnes intern, now current Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas.
Despite its challenges, these mayors believe Kansas City is in a better position than when they took office.
“The one thing I’m going to tell everyone is you can’t be afraid of change because change is coming and it’s going to come the easy way or the hard way, we have to embrace change and make it work for us,” James said.
“I am 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.
As for the return to office of another sitting MP, Cleaver, James may have had the better answer.
“I have an announcement to make. There’s no way in hell,” James joked.
Several of the former mayors were also asked about the likelihood of a new downtown Kansas City Royals stadium. Barnes said it’s worth discussing seriously. James advised to be careful what you wish for, reminding the crowded auditorium that the other occupant of the Truman Sports Complex could also leave. Funkhouser said a downtown stadium won’t solve Kansas City’s biggest problems.
The presentation will air February 3 at 7:30 pm on Kansas City PBS.