For Mayors, Problem-Solving Must Trump Politics

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- “We build cities for the future,” according to Kansas City Mayor Sly James. And that means finding sustainable solutions to cities’ problems. But formulating such policies, the mayor said at a recent AARP-RealClearMedia event in his town, requires thinking beyond the next election cycle; it requires listening to all sides and making compromises in order to find the best solutions possible. 

That seems less and less likely to happen in the halls of Congress nowadays. But it’s precisely what’s demanded of mayors, day in day out, as they confront a panoply of problems — from crime and safety to infrastructure, education, and employment — that cannot wait until after the next campaign. Mayors live many of the same problems as their constituents, and they are directly accountable to them in ways that lawmakers at the national and even state levels are not. This means problem-solving has to come before political party. 

The event also featured David Alvey, mayor of Kansas City, Kan., who echoed this message at the gathering Tuesday. The event focused on creating “livable communities” from a variety of perspectives — infrastructure, safety and law enforcement, education, parks and recreation, public health, and public-private partnerships — and included an array of community leaders. The mayors’ message is also one that resonates in our era of polarization and dysfunction, when localism appears to more and more Americans as an attractive alternative to our fractious and exhausting national politics. 

Though they traded some light-hearted jabs, the two mayors shared their experiences as leaders of the twin cities during a period of marked growth and change. They emphasized the importance of thinking regionally — understanding Kansas City as a metropolitan area, not two distinct towns — and the role this concept has played in the area’s recent economic growth. “We are a region,” Alvey declared, noting that the two cities are “connected by default,” thanks to their shared geography, economies, populations, and history. 

The region is not without its problems, including crime, budgetary constraints, aging infrastructure, and high unemployment among minority populations. But the mayors sounded optimistic about the growing potential of their communities to overcome these challenges. This means “caring for the place,” said Alvey. That point echoes the central insight of AARP’s livable communities imitative: In order to be an attractive and vibrant place for both new and longtime residents, communities must be affordable and safe and provide the services and infrastructure that allow the young to flourish and the elderly to retire with dignity — and without having to leave. 

For lawmakers, this requires getting out into the neighborhoods and listening to residents’ needs. “You can get a feel for a neighborhood when you walk it, just going door to door,” Alvey observed. It also requires money. Hence the importance of “building wealth” and investing it locally. Moreover, he pointed out, as the population in urban areas grows, thanks especially to immigration, so will the tax base. New populations open up opportunities to build vibrant neighborhoods and “communities around religious and ethnic groups” — precisely what Kansas City has always done throughout its history. “That’s still our strength,” Alvey said. 

His counterpart James emphasized the need to attract businesses to Kansas City and to train the local workforce for the jobs of the 21st-century economy. He touted the economic growth in the region and hit on the importance of early childhood education for combating inequality and expanding opportunities. 

Public-private partnerships are also key, according to James. Government is not,  and cannot, be  like a business, he said, because it doesn’t specialize in just one thing: 

If the city only had to do water, we could do it well. But we have to do water and police and roads and fire and chase dogs around town and make sure other people who don’t cut their grass cut their grass and hey, by the way, the people over there need to get to the hospital, and all the other stuff that has to get done. 

Nevertheless, he insisted, government can and should leverage private entities to help accomplish its goals. This is especially important when resources are scarce. “When you can’t find any more money to do stuff and you still have to get stuff done … you have to be inventive and innovative about how you do it.” 

The panels following the mayors’ remarks homed in on specific initiatives and partnerships that highlight how Kansas City is fast becoming one of the country’s most vibrant communities. On the first panel, Rachel Hack Merlo, community impact manager at Google, described what went into the company’s widely anticipated decision to launch Google Fiber in Kansas City. The discussion also touched on how to keep housing affordable, maintain and build infrastructure, and encourage new businesses and residents while also keeping the city livable for longtime residents. 

The last panel featured representatives from the Kansas City Royals, UMKC’s School of Nursing and Health Studies, the Kauffman Foundation, and Children’s Mercy Hospital. They discussed how “community assets” and “people assets” in these sectors can contribute to livability through partnerships with local organizations and philanthropic institutions. Kyle Vena of the Royals described the recently launched Kansas City Urban Youth Academy, which uses baseball as a way to expose underserved youth to a variety of sports-related careers in the region. 

In his remarks, James said that action follows attitude, and that his goal when he took office was first to improve Kansas City’s attitude, to encourage its residents to appreciate the region on its own terms and for its own strengths — similar to Alvey’s injunction to “care for the place.” This, James hoped, would enable residents to act in ways that change their community for the better. Judging by Tuesday’s event, the mayors were onto something.

M. Anthony Mills is the managing editor of RealClear Media Group.

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