Kansas City: Ripe For Change

By Jenn Bates

When I was working in television in Wichita I got the opportunity to talk to NY Times columnist Joe Drape.  He was writing a book on Smith Center football and we somehow convinced him to drop by our newsroom to talk to the sports department.  One thing he said about his experience in the Midwest stuck with me. “The best way I could describe people here,” said Drape, “is they’re friendly, but not too familiar.”

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Kansas City wasn’t really on my “big city” radar growing up in small-town Florida.   My first Kansas City experience was driving through on my way from Florida to Washington State for my first job.  Even in my 9 years in Wichita I wasn’t aware of all that Kansas City had and the ways it was growing.  It seems the city itself has been much like Joe Drape’s Midwesterners:  friendly, but not too familiar.  Or in this case, we know what we have, but we are content keeping it to ourselves.

Fast forward to today where Kansas City is about to lose a big piece of national influence.  The recent deal between Sprint and T-Mobile will strip the city of one of its biggest and most recognizable brands.  T-Mobile says they’ll keep a headquarters here but we all know it won’t be the same.  It’s understandable to immediately take a Chicken Little the sky is falling approach to this news, but it appears the City of Fountains is fertile ground for the big-name brands of the future.

Just a few days ago the Kansas City Area Economic Development Council sent out it’s annual business satisfaction survey.  It’s rare for a city to be so honest in a self-critique, if they even do one at all, so seeing the data from honest feedback is refreshing.  It may not be eye-popping but over the last three years it’s been consistent.  “We are not striving for average so it is good to see that we have consistently had 70 percent of respondents rate the city as an excellent or good as a place to do business over the last three years,” said Kate Bender, senior management analyst with the City of Kansas City, Missouri. 

The businesses we talk to on a regular basis absolutely agree.  DEG Digital CEO Neal Sharma called Kansas City a ‘Goldilocks situation’ for his business, Mr. Goodcents founder Joe Bisogno says no business on either coast can compete with him when it comes to shipping costs and Creative Planning’s Peter Mallouk had this to say about KC:

Slowly but surely the word is spreading about Kansas City’s business-friendly environment as well as its livability.  The Daily Beast columnist Joel Kotkin wrote about KC in a recent article discussing the Millenial influx in the Midwest.  He writes, “Over the past three years, for example, Kansas City expanded its business service employment by 15.7 percent, faster than San Francisco or New York, three times faster than Los Angeles, and six times Chicago.”  He included a link in his article to a study done by Apartment List where they looked at how long a person would have to save up  to be able to put a down payment on a home.  For Kansas City it’s around 3 years or less compared to about 28 years in San Francisco.  
It’s also great to see the growth for Kansas City when it comes to gender equality in jobs.  If you look at STEM growth (which we did in 2017) and also realize that KC once again was named one of the best cities for Women in Technology (we covered that, too) you realize the diversity of business we have.  We aren’t just H&R Block, J.E. Dunn, Hallmark or Shook, Hardy Bacon anymore.  We are now the companies that will become those name brands.  Just today Wallet Hub ranked Kansas City as 30th on a list of 180 ‘Best Large Cities To Start a Business‘  with Overland Park noted as one of the top 5 cities with the most educated population.   
 There is always evidence to the contrary.  Just this past January at our Industry Outlook meeting about construction we learned about how hard it is to attract and retain skilled workers and that’s a problem across a lot of industries.  KC Rising, a group put together to analyze current industry situations and to help local businesses realize their potential, even said the city is lacking when it comes to attraction and retention.  The data showed we ranked second to last among our peer cities.  Then when you factor in the departure of Harley Davidson and now the acquisition/merger of Sprint, it may seem like KC is stagnant or slipping down the productive hill.  But perhaps it’s just the creative destruction that Kansas City needs to make room for the future.  
Over the last two months I’ve been able to get to know 40 of the top young leaders in Kansas City.  Whenever I asked them why they decided to stay in Kansas City, come back to Kansas City or choose to relocate to Kansas City for work the response was nearly unanimous:  Where else can you have a casual networking conversation with a CEO or founder of a company?  Accessibility is what KC has that makes it unique.  Accessibility to leaders, to opportunity and to quality of life.  Probably the only negative to that is now the secret is out, and more and more people are getting familiar with all the friendliness we have to offer.  
Addendum:  To speak to the accessibility of Kansas City leaders, I called KCADC President and CEO Tim Cowden this morning around 10AM and left a message.  He called me back, a few hours later, and answered all of my questions for this article.  You don’t find that many places but you get it in KC.  If you have a drive to succeed here you can make it.  

About the author

Jenn is the Digital Manager and Online Content Coordinator for Ingram's.  

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