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Former Mayor Kay Barnes, Downtown Champion, Honored for Legacy

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2 minute read

By Kevin Collison

Former Mayor Kay Barnes now has the Convention Center Grand Ballroom named after her, but her lasting legacy was on display beyond the windows of the ballroom lobby where the event was held last week.

From its vantage point above the South Loop freeway, the Sprint Center, H&R Block office tower and Power & Light District were clearly visible.

“Look out the window and you’ll see what Kay did,” Mayor Sly James told the audience. “I have a sense of what that took. People don’t like the way things are, but they hate change.

“Kay Barnes set the stage for this city’s revival that we see continuing to flourish today.”

A view of the South Loop area of downtown in June 2003 before the revitalization effort led by former Mayor Kay Barnes began. The chair sets in the middle of where the Sprint Center is now located. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bruning)

Barnes became mayor in 1999 when much of the south third of the central business district was in shambles after decades of neglect. Attorney Herb Kohn, who was master of ceremony at the ballroom dedication ceremony, checked off the sad list.

“Downtown consisted of a wig shop, a dirty bookstore, a massage parlor and lots of empty office buildings,” he said, adding a couple of those buildings were used as haunted houses a few weeks out of the year.

“Kay’s vision was clear,” Kohn said. “I want to rebuild downtown.”

The first step was persuading H&R Block to relocate its headquarters from Main Street near the Country Club Plaza to 13th and Main. At the same time, Baltimore-based Cordish Co. was approached about creating an entertainment district on the surrounding eight blocks.

The third critical piece of the revival puzzle was when Barnes used her friendship with Tim Leiweke, then a top executive at Los Angles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) to partner on a new arena at Truman Road and Grand.

The Power & Light District and Sprint Center replaced a blighted area of parking lots, haunted houses and massage parlors.

It didn’t hurt that Barnes had met Phil Anschutz, the founder, while both attended the University of Kansas.

Throughout those major new projects, historic buildings were being renovated into new residences, several of them affordable housing.

Barnes was a strong advocate for those projects, writing letters of support to state officials in charge of the low-income housing tax credit program.

As she came up to the stage in the lobby, the former mayor was heralded with the KU fight song, and then the Heartland Men’s Chorus sang “I Sing Out.”

Dr. Linda Moore Ed.D, a psychologist and longtime friend, explained to the audience how Barnes managed to persuade Kansas City’s often fractious city and business leadership to work together renewing downtown.

Mayor Sly James praises former Mayor Kay Barnes accomplishments.

She noted Barnes professional background was in psychology, education and conflict resolution training.

“She’s able to bring people along and help them understand how they benefit along with everybody else,” Moore said.

As for Barnes, who left office in 2007 after being term-limited out, her remarks were brief and customarily modest.

“We have all created something we can feel good about together,” the former mayor said.

Barnes, who is now the senior director for university engagement at Park University, was then honored with a sculpture entitled ‘Woman Walking Tall” by artist Tom Corbin that will be displayed in the ballroom lobby.

And finally, the Heartland Men’s Chorus serenaded her, appropriately enough, with “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City:”

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