Chamber Shocker:
Its ‘Big Ideas’ Are Good Ideas


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© Jack Cashill
Published in Ingramsonline.com - October 2011

After years of wandering in the wilderness, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has found its way to a project that is not only logical, but also doable.

The change of direction is refreshing. Although the Chamber’s mission is to promote entrepreneurship and “help you grow your business,” in years past the Chamber has seemed hell-bent on doing the opposite.

About a decade ago, for instance, the Chamber cloned from the side of Ingram’s a business magazine designed to compete with Ingram’s, a Chamber member. Huh? So much for “helping you grow your business.” Happily, the magazine failed.

Under the old leadership, the Chamber had a weakness for cloning of all sorts. Just a few years ago, the Chamber spawned several political action committees to promote the still-shaky science of embryonic stem cell research.

With Teamster-like guile, PAC leaders decided that the best way to promote such research was to unseat the Kansas legislators who might oppose it, or, as Jimmy Hoffa the Younger might have put it, to “take these SOBs out.”

Hoffa, however, knew something the Chamber seemed to have overlooked: these same social conservatives were the most consistent champions of the Chamber’s mission, namely, promoting entrepreneurship and growing business.

One can understand Hoffa’s anxiety about free enterprise, but the Chamber’s? Fortunately, at least judging by the 2010 Kansas election results, the Chamber proved no abler at politics than it had at publishing.

Given its history, I was not optimistic when the Chamber set out to identify five “Big Ideas” that would shape the region’s future. The Chamber assured the participating civic and business leaders that there was no such thing as a bad idea. The Chamber was wrong. Some of the preliminary 182 ideas were astonishingly bad, even criminally bad. Let me cite my personal favorites:

Least fun: Creating a “fun destination venue” where kids can learn to eat healthy foods.

Least ambitious: Making Kansas City the Frisbee golf capital of the United States.

Dumbest-green: Subsidizing rain barrels so locals can reduce water consumption.

Dumbest-dumb: Studying the feasibility of a subway system.

Most tongue-in-cheek (I hope): Bulldozing unused parts of the Crossroads District to create “a petting zoo of animals that no American has petted before.”

These did not worry me. In a brainstorming session you expect a few oddball suggestions. What did worry me were the three seemingly serious ideas that the Chamber chose to feature in its July news release.

The first was an initiative drive to “triple Missouri’s existing cigarette tax.” Now, if my mission were to grow business, the last thing I would do is raise a sales tax, let alone triple it. Instead, I would exploit Missouri’s low tax and promote the state as the cigarette—and Frisbee golf—capital of America.

The second big idea was to create a “coalition” to solve the social problem du jour, the “urban food desert.” In the real world, alas, “coalition building” is a happy euphemism for “crony capitalism,” the net result of which is that taxpayers subsidize the cron-ies—unless or until they go to jail (and then the subsidy merely drops).

And finally, the Chamber resurrected the ultimate zombie-idea of our time, light rail. Just when we thought we had killed this mother of all pointless extravagance, it returned from the dead even less attractive than when last seen stalking City Hall.

Business as usual—or so I thought. Then, this September, something nearly miraculous happened. Best guess as to what: either an entrepreneurial race from outer space quietly assumed the bodies of the Chamber’s staff, or the new leadership asserted itself.

Whatever the dynamic, when Chamber CEO Jim Heeter and Chairman Greg Graves rolled out their official Big Five, the ideas actually made sense. Our favorite at Ingram’s is one that we have been promoting through our economic assemblies for the past decade: “The making of America’s most entrepreneurial city.” Spearheading this is UMB’s Peter deSilva, a good choice.

The presence of the Kauffman Foundation and the ambitious Bloch School of Management at UMKC make this a realistic positioning strategy for Kansas City—and a much more potentially fruitful one than, say, the Frisbee golf capital. The obstacle that deSilva will face is the creeping nannyism from state and local jurisdictions, much of it “green” in its origins and lethal in its effects.

Perhaps the boldest of the ideas—and the most essential—is Terry Dunn’s “Urban Core Neighborhood Initiative.” Although most people choose not to see, there are vast, post-apocalyptic swaths of real estate within a mile or two of Downtown that look like the set of a Mad Max movie.

The problem that Dunn, CEO of J.E. Dunn Construction Group, will face is that whatever actions are taken as part of this initiative, a whole lot of people will queue up for a piece. Someone has to step up and say “No.”

Perhaps the most natural idea and the (relatively) easiest to execute is the staging of a world symposium on animal health in Kansas City. As the Chamber notes, the Columbia-to-Manhattan animal-health corridor “already boasts the single largest concentration of animal-health interests in the world.”

The problem here is in the word “boast.” The area may have the goods, but it has yet to start boasting, and that, of course, is the rationale for the proposed global symposium. Heading this up is Gary Forsee, most recently the president of the University of Missouri system.

The other two ideas are less ambitious but no less sensible. One initiative, to be headed by UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton, is to move the “renowned” UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, to take advantage of Downtown’s new Kaufmann Performing Arts Center and the Crossroads Art District (unless leveled for a petting zoo.)

Again, there is a semantic issue here. The UMKC Conservatory is very good—I have used its students myself on video projects—but it will not be “renowned” until everyone knows it is very good. The move will help that.

Finally, there is an initiative to make Kansas City a nationally recognized center for translational research. Leading this effort is Patrick James of Quest Diagnostics. This, too, could succeed if researchers remember where they live and understand that citizens may oppose certain medical research for reasons other than ignorance.

Indeed, what makes all these ideas viable is that they are grounded in the reality of a mid-size, mid-American city. The planners, in other words, did not let the fountains fool them.

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