Kansas City, MO, has a notorious East/West divide. East of Troost is Black and West of Troost is East.
Kansas City, KS, also has an East/West divide. Western Wyandotte County is prosperous and flourishing while Eastern Wyandotte County is poor, stagnant and dying.
It’s a divide that’s left East KCK residents – mostly Black, Brown and poor – feeling frustrated and ignored.
In November 2021, this coalition went to the polls and elected a mayor whom they believed would finally make their needs a priority.
They went to the polls to elect a change agent, a mayor who would finally prioritize the needs of the people. They elected Mayor Tyrone Garner.
Just two years earlier, Garner had retired after a more-than-30-year career in the KCK Police Dept. During his years in the department, he’d risen through the ranks up to deputy chief.
During his years with the city, he learned a lot about the good and not-so-good in KCK. He learned about politics inside and outside City Hall and saw enough to know that things could be better for some groups that he says were too often ignored.
“I knew things could be better for these disenfranchised areas with the right leadership and the right vision,” said Garner. So even though he didn’t have to step up, he did.
“I’m here because I care about Wyandotte County,” says Garner. “I’ve lived here and I want better.”
Garner says many people probably didn’t think he could get elected. But he went door-to-door talking to the people, hearing about the change they wanted and he promised to deliver change if they helped get him elected.
It’s the things the people told him they wanted that he’s committed to delivering on.
He calls it the People’s Agenda, and it’s big on changing the status quo.
“The people of Wyandotte County voted me in to be a change agent and what I found in the first year … is that a lot of the change that people voted me to change is still here in this building which is the politics of things.
What the mayor has found is that people in power and in positions of authority are very supportive of the status quo, and his agenda doesn’t reflect the status quo.
“My vision is slightly different. I talk about disenfranchised, disinvested and redlined communities, and the poor working, as well as Black and Brown folks and empowering them in a way so that there’s equity in the delivery of goods and services and economic development,” says the mayor. “I don’t believe that’s always been the case coming from a mayor’s office and so I’ve realigned a new vision and I’m reimagining things in a way that doesn’t align with the status quo that has been in the building. So, there is some political friction.”
The mayor is right. There’s been a year of political friction in KCK that finally blew up last month.
As the last item of their last meeting of 2021, the Wyandotte County Commissioners surprised the mayor.
They used their power to suspend the rules, bringing to the floor a proposal that would strip away a lot of the mayor’s political power.
The proposal was to implement a rule change that would require the mayor to advance to the full commission agenda for consideration any item that is approved by one of the city’s four standing committees.
One of the mayor’s biggest powers is his ability to control what makes it to the commission agenda for their consideration, and this rule changed significantly decreased his power.
The proposed change was a complete surprise to Garner, but as the discussion got underway, it quickly became obvious the majority of the commissioners were aware of, and on board with, the proposed change.
The procedural change passed by a vote of 9-1, including support from all three African-American members of the commission.
“This right here is some political backstabbing,” Garner said during the meeting. He went on to call the action “an unacceptable, unknown, backdoor and, to me, shady way to do business.”
The vote definitely reflected the commissioners’ frustration with the mayor, whom they say kept things they worked on and improved in committees from advancing to the commission agenda for a vote. Doing that, commissioners say, diminishes their power to deliver for their constituents.
Only Four Items
Of the many items the commissioners voted favorably out of a standing committee, Mayor Garner says there were only four items he didn’t advance immediately to the commission agenda. In general, Garner said he sent the items back for additional information or details.
Two of the items: a work-from-home policy for city employees and the allocation of the balance of American Rescue Plan Act funds have come back through the full commission and passed favorably. The third item, establishment of a historic preservation district in downtown Kansas City, is still being worked on by the staff and the standing committee.
The Lanier Development Project
The fourth item the mayor didn’t put on the agenda after it was approved by a standing committee was the Lanier Development Project: a development agreement started under Garner’s predecessor, former KCK Mayor David Alvey.
Developer Willie Lanier Jr. and the county’s economic development team had pulled together a creatively packaged agreement for a development to be located on the northwest corner of 5th and Minnesota, the current site of the Jack Reardon Convention Center.
The planned development would demolish the existing convention center and replace it with a four- to five-story mixed-use residential building with first-floor retail and commercial space. The project was to include a fitness center and 85 to 90 apartments, with five reserved for “workforce housing tenants” who earn less than 70% of KCK median income.
The project also included a new “right-sized” Reardon Center, approximately 10,000 sq.ft.
A Different Vision
“My preference was to keep the Reardon Center, but it wasn’t predicated just on what I wanted,” said Garner. Instead, he reached out to individuals, businesses and community organizations to get their feel and everyone said it was important for KCK to keep and maintain a convention center.
“As the mayor, I’d like to be able to sustain a convention center that really is state of the art and that can help promote Wyandotte County in a positive way and allow people to have conferences right here in Wyandotte County.”
Advantages he sees for a downtown KCK convention center are that it’s conveniently located to get some of the overflow from KCMO and it’s closer to the airport than Johnson County.
While the Reardon Center may not be “state of the art,” the mayor says it has a new roof that was installed less than three years ago at a cost of $1 million, and that there’s $5 million between two different funds set aside for Reardon maintenance and renovation that could be used to help upgrade the center.
Lanier Project Status
Earlier this month, Lanier and his team presented an alternative development idea to members of the standing committee. The presentation was put on the committee’s agenda by Mayor Garner to get some direction from them on how they wanted to proceed.
Early on, the mayor had asked Lanier if he could develop a project that maintained the Reardon Center.
They explored two ideas: One on the original site that kept the Reardon Center and a second proposal that moved the development project to the south side of Minnesota between 5th and 6th streets in what is now a city-owned parking lot.
Phase 1 of the project called for a five- or six-floor building with first- and second-floor commercial with approximately 90 apartments on the upper floors. A second similar building was also proposed for the second phase of the project.
LaVert Murray, economic development advisor and business liaison to the mayor, said he was surprised when Lanier only presented the south side of 6th Street project to the committee.
After seeing the presentation, committee members said their preference was to move forward with the original project that tears down the Reardon Center.
Mayor’s Downtown Vision
Mayor Garner sees visions of the development of what he calls the triangle, the lots off the Lewis and Clark Viaduct on both sides of Minnesota to 6th Street, being developed as a dynamic entry to downtown KCK and as an impetus for additional growth that will expand north into KCK.
He says developers have expressed an interest in building apartments in the land right off the viaduct. With the eventual development of both sides of Minnesota between 5th and 6th streets, the revitalized convention center, the new KCCC campus just north on State Street. and a potential new library, KCK will be off to a great start.
“We could do something profound for our downtown,” said Mayor Garner.
The Power Grab Compromise
At the first Wyandotte Commission meeting of this year, the Mayor’s supporters were ready and so was the Mayor. The supporters were equipped with signs of support for the mayor and few not so pleasant signs directed at the rest of the commissioners.
The Mayor was equipped with a very long, but well researched article on the legality of the vote that grabbed his power. This time, it was the mayor who appeared to have done some coalition building ahead of the meeting and after some further negotiation that required a 30 minute recess of the meeting, a compromise was reached.
Mayor Garner can’t indefinitely keep items approved in the standing committees off the full commission agenda. However, he can send an item back to a committee one time for a review. If the committee approves the item again, the mayor must put it on the full commission agenda.