Can the Entrepreneurs
© Jack Cashill
As much as we at Ingram’s applaud the move by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce to make this city America’s entrepreneurial capital—we’ve been beating that drum for years—we wonder whether its leaders will have the heart (and stomach) to take on their most entrenched, if least expected, foes—those wily city planners.
At a recent economic assembly, a participant asked me what it would take for Kansas City to stake out the “entrepreneurial capital” position in a meaningful way. As I explained, the world’s leading foundation dedicated to entrepreneurial research just happens to be located here. That helps. A second major asset, just a half-mile away, is UMKC’s Bloch School of Management and its aggressively entrepreneurial focus.
The third and most elusive factor, I continued, was for the leaders of the various political jurisdictions in the metropolitan area to will themselves to an entrepreneurial frame of mind. This will not be easy. The planners within their midst will resist as impulsively as a moldy potentate in an Arab spring.
Carl Schramm, the Kauffman Foundation’s CEO, has little use for planners—not out of a personal bias, but because Kauffman research shows that planners inevitably muck things up. Entrepreneurial success “grows out of the antithesis of planning,” Schramm told us earlier this year. He elaborated that capitalism is inevitably messy, and that government retards real growth when it tries to pick winners and losers.
City government, Schramm believes, does far more for growth when it removes obstacles—itself among them. Unlike the Chamber, he has no illusions about how hard it is for an elected official to resist an economic development department. Schramm’s solution: “We should imagine a city without one.”
Kansas City’s mayor Sly, James, may have a hard time doing so. For starters, he has inherited what is universally regarded as the most sluggish municipal bureaucracy in the metro. Too many city staff members take a French fonctionnaire’s delight in making customers suffer.
For another, this city is uniquely burdened with an earnings tax. In September, outgoing Kansas City Federal Reserve President Tom Hoenig shocked his Chamber audience when he urged the city to dump it. The same civic leaders that fought so desperately to secure that tax just months earlier gave Hoenig a standing O, which makes one wonder how genuine was their enthusiasm for that tax.
Chamber CEO Jim Heeter was one of the enthusiasts. In fact, we were on opposite sides of a debate on that subject last spring. On the eve of which, Star columnist Yael Abouhalkah commented, “It will be interesting to see what conspiracy theory Cashill trots out to explain why voters should reject the earnings tax on April 5.” I am hoping that Hoenig will clue Yael in on the nature of that conspiracy—maybe even show him our secret handshake.
If Mayor James were not handicapped enough, he received another blow when he was selected to join the 2011–2012 class of fellows for the Urban Land Institute’s Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use. Although this sounds like an honor, it could prove to be the undoing not only of the mayor, but also of the Chamber’s ambitions. Carl Schramm and Daniel Rose do not see eye to eye.
If, at the Kauffman Foundation, the buzzword is “entrepreneurship,” at the Daniel Rose Center it is “public-private partnership.” Its boosters use the phrase about as often as your teenager uses the word “like.”
“Each has much to learn from the other,” Rose says about public people and private people. “The more knowledgeable and better trained people are on both sides of the table, the more effective they are. The most successful projects invariably reflect those relationships.”
Not to be too conspiratorial here, Yael, but the Urban Land Institute participated prominently in the June Sustainability Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The words “sustainability” and “Rio” scare me when used in the same sentence, especially with the word “global” lurking nearby. Word to Sly: Entrepreneurship and public-private whatever do not mix. “Sustainable” is just a nice way of saying “Luddite.” Resist the seduction.
Sly could learn more in Grandview, I suspect, than he could in Rio. A year ago, this majority-minority city elected a Republican mayor, not exactly the norm for such burgs. Since then, Mayor Steve Dennis and City Manager Cory Smith have been quietly applying entrepreneurial principles to local governance.
Dennis is of the opinion that city government can, and should, be run much like a business. Lots of people say that. Dennis means it. This begins in Grandview by training city employees to see their fellow citizens not just as customers, but as bosses. “We try to think backward from what our customer/citizen might need before we hear about it in the form of a complaint,” Dennis tells me.
When it comes to potential new businesses, Dennis and his staff emphasize quick turn-around times in calls returned, requested information sent, and documents drafted. It is not uncommon for the City Council to call a special meeting to expedite matters for a potential developer or business.
Grandview is also working through a hoops-reduction process that will take time to perfect. The less gratuitous jumping required of a new business, says Dennis, the more att-ractive Grandview will seem. When the city feels compelled to reject a proposal, staffers focus on the “why” of it, not on the “no,” and hold the door open for the future.
City staff members also hold weekly pre-development meetings, where those thinking about doing business in Grandview can get face-to-face information on what the venture might cost them in money and time.
On the public-private front, Grandview has shied from promising away the future through financial incentive packages that make little sense down the road. Tightly managed, the city has not had to lay off employees as have others in the metro.
The city, explains Dennis, has as its mission to be “the best business partner” to existing businesses, to transitioning ones, and even to those “wild-eyed, world-changing entrepreneurs” that might want to settle down in Eminem’s rumored home town. Even if Dennis cannot resist punning on the “grand view” that his city embraces, it does indeed offer a more viable view than any Mayor James will learn at the Urban Land Institute.The city’s business and civic leadership must choose: Rio or Grandview; Rose or Schramm. They can’t split this baby down the middle.
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