Earlier Reports Evaluating the Competitiveness
of the Kansas City Region

In 2001 and 2002, three independent reports about Metropolitan Kansas City were released in relatively quick succession, each examining regional competitiveness from a slightly different angle.

1. Metro Outlook

The first report was Metro Outlook (1.7MB pdf), published by the Mid-America Regional Council in August 2001. Metro Outlook took the view that in an information-based economy, the most important resource is talented people. But such people can choose to live anywhere, so why should they choose to live in metropolitan Kansas City, an area without mountains, oceans, or mild weather? Metro Outlook answered that this region must simply work better than other regions blessed with higher levels of amenities. In short, what attracts talent is the prospect of a higher and continuously improving quality of life, where this is broadly defined to include a strong economy, and smoothly functioning society and a healthy natural environment.

Metro Outlook collected a wide variety of indicators to evaluate the region's quality of life and developed the following analysis:

  1. Concentrated poverty, which primarily afflicts African-Americans in this region, creates problems in the urban core that push those who can afford it elsewhere in search of safer neighborhoods with better schools.
  2. This demand for a higher quality of life produces a suburban expansion that is costly to everyone — to the urban core, first-ring suburbs, developing suburbs and our natural environment.
  3. The public spending required to build new infrastructure while maintaining all the old infrastructure makes it difficult to find dollars to invest in improving the region's relatively weak innovative capacity.
  4. Ultimately, such investments are needed if the region is to be economically competitive. Without them, the report concluded, the outlook for metropolitan Kansas City (i.e, the Metro Outlook) was “cloudy.”

2. The Citistates Report

In early 2002, Many Communities—One Region (pdf), written by the Citistates Group and more commonly referred to as the Citistates report, was published in The Kansas City Star. This report reminded area residents that from the outside perspective, we all live in a single place — the “citistate” of Kansas City — rather than in multiple communities. We also all live in an era where there is ferocious competition among citistates for new markets, university faculty, research labs and quality arts and sports.

In such an environment, a vital urban center is essential because it serves as the region's symbol, its brand or calling card. Such centers of activity excel at bringing people together to exchange and mix ideas.Without a lively urban center, the region may have difficulty luring fresh talent. Transforming downtown into a “people place” is at the heart of the report's recommendations.

Other urban-oriented recommendations include expanding the region's transit system, facing the issue of race as part of efforts to remediate schools and neighborhoods, and continuing to expand the region's child-advocacy agenda. The report concludes with an essay on race as the area's biggest divide, one holding the region back in a 21st century world where “diversity will be at the center of global communications and commerce.”

The Citistates report also suggests that the Stowers Institute and the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute are once-in-a-century opportunities that will only pay off if the region finds a way to pour investment into area higher educational institutions, particularly the University of Missouri–Kansas City and the University of Kansas. The report calls the lack of a top-ranked university “the weak link in the Kansas City area's competitive chain.”

3. Growth in the Heartland

The final report, Growth in the Heartland also published in 2002 by the Brookings Institution, documented growth patterns in the state of Missouri. It examined each part of the state individually and found that they all grew in the 1990s — rural areas, the four smaller metros and the two larger ones.

However, the manner in which they grew — decentralized, low-density development — has unintended consequences. It increases the costs governments incur when they provide infrastructure, schools and police and fire services. It eats into rural areas and high quality natural areas that the state depends upon for tourism dollars. It strains transportation systems with increasing travel times and costs. It isolates low-income and minority Missourians from opportunity.

Finally, the pattern of growth hurts Missouri's competitiveness by eroding its quality of life, depriving the state of the urban vitality, convenience and preservation of natural amenities increasingly valued by leading companies and workers.

The report suggests that all states must pursue three general sets of strategies to be truly competitive.

  • They must invest in making their metropolitan areas true economic engines through spending on schools, higher education, downtown redevelopment, neighborhood revitalization and enhancement of natural and built amenities.
  • They must bolster the assets and opportunities of low-income and working families throughout the state.
  • They must promote healthy growth patterns to ensure development does not undercut the health of existing localities, create new costs or harm precious land and amenities.

Investment in all three strategy areas is necessary for competitiveness. Essentially, by focusing on the third area, the report argues that better management of growth patterns can reduce costs and increase opportunities to attract residents and visitors. This then frees up and increases the state revenues available for investment in education, assets, amenities and families necessary to improve economic competitiveness.

Conclusions from the three reports

Clearly, a high degree of overlap is found in these reports. All see:

  1. The economy as running on innovation.
  2. The region's current innovative capacity as weak.
  3. The region in competition with other regions in the U.S. and, indeed, the entire world.
  4. The future economy as dependent upon attracting and retaining talented people.
  5. Decentralizing land-use patterns as an obstacle to attracting talent for one or more of these reasons:
    1. They inhibit the development of vital urban centers that inherently attract talented people due to their diversity and density of opportunities.
    2. They are costly to build and maintain, requiring the expenditure of public dollars that reduce their availability to fund basic research and technology transfer.
    3. They damage the natural environment that is increasingly seen as an important amenity by talented people.
  6. Issues of race and poverty as important obstacles to wider acceptance of more efficient land-use patterns, to the region's ability to act strategically, and therefore to optimize its investment so it can become more globally competitive.

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