By Kevin Collison
The resurgence of downtown Kansas City, from its dark days 20 years ago to a vibrant place that was “Amazon’s loss,” was celebrated last week at events hosted by the Downtown Council.
About 1,000 people attended the organization’s annual luncheon Friday at the Bartle Hall Grand Ballroom. Four Urban Heroes were honored and the Hall Family Foundation and Crown Center received the annual J. Philip Kirk Jr. Award for their dedication to downtown.
“It’s been a labor of love for us for 108 years since my grandfather was drawn here because he had heard about the Kansas City Spirit,” Don Hall Jr. told the audience.
“Phil Kirk always believed a healthy downtown was essential, was crucial for the health of the region. That’s why this award means so much.”
During the program, Mayor Sly James was joined by attorney Nate Orr, chairman of the Downtown Council, and rapper Kemet the Phantom in a Jimmy Fallon-style slow jam celebrating the accomplishments of the past year.
The keynote speaker was T.J. Costello, director at Cisco Smart Cities for the Americas.
Earlier in the week, the 2017 Urban Hero Award winners were celebrated at a reception on the 42nd floor of One Kansas City Place, where the local office of California-based Suitable Technologies is located.
Visitors were greeted by robots made by the firm called “Beam.” The roving five-foot tall machines, referred to as “mobile tele-presence devices” carried a video screen that allowed employees based in Louisiana to interact in real time with people in the room.
It was a high-tech introduction to heartfelt stories told by this year’s Urban Heroes: Paul Masao Matsuoka of the Kansas City Rescue Mission; Cydney Millstein, an architectural historian; Butch Rigby, a developer, and artist Phil ‘Sike Style’ Shafer.
Matsuoka told the group he was homeless when he arrived in Kansas City years ago.
“I watched downtown go dark and the locks turned and the downward decline,” he said. “It’s amazing to be here now on the 42nd floor and see all this development that’s come to this area.”
He thanked the Downtown Council for its “innovative and holistic approach” to helping the homeless.
Rigby bought his first building to redevelop in the Film Row historic district of the Crossroads and opened the original Screenland Theater in a former garage.
“We live in the greatest city in the U.S., we really do,” he said. “I’ve had the privilege of watching the lights come back on.”
Millstein helped document that revival, providing the research needed by developers to revitalize scores of old buildings with the help of state and federal historic tax credits.
“In the course of 35 years of research, hundreds of buildings throughout the U.S. and Missouri have been documented and saved,” she said.
And Shafer, who described himself as a “street propaganda artist,” has brightened the downtown streetscape with his vivid murals.
It was up to City Manager Troy Schulte to sum up the accomplishments of both the Urban Heroes and the Downtown Council.
“When you look at what’s happening downtown, where we’ve come and where we’re going, the work of all these honorees, both in terms of physical development and human development, makes Kansas City the place to be in the 21st Century and 22nd Century,” Schulte said.
Then he took a home-pride dig at Amazon, which didn’t include Kansas City among the 20 semi-finalists for its massive new headquarters project.
“I can’t think of a better place to be than Kansas City, Missouri,” he said. “It’s Amazon’s loss.”
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