KCTV5 investigates the 18th & Vine Jazz District redevelopment - KCTV5 News

KCTV5 investigates the 18th & Vine Jazz District redevelopment

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On a Saturday afternoon outside Antonio's Barbershop on Vine Street, inside the 18th & Vine Jazz District, a big white sandwich board reads "OPEN" in large block red letters.

The faded red, white and blue ribbons of a barber's pole spiral and twist upward. Inside, the buzzing sound of hair clippers bounce off the walls as owner Antonio Bradshaw trims the neckline of a customer.

"I've been having this business for 12 years," Bradshaw said. "But I had to open another business next door that doesn't have nothing to do with the district just to make it seem like my barber shop is here."

That second business is a small restaurant, serving catfish, chicken and other fried foods. During a recent visit, about a half-dozen customers were at the restaurant during the busiest part of the lunch hour.

Directly across the street from Bradshaw's businesses sit two structures with boarded up windows and painted on fake store fronts. One of the buildings is abandoned. The other is actually just a brick façade, propped up in the back by steel girders.

"It's not a good look," Bradshaw said. "If I'm a tourist or someone who's not from the area, I'm not going to walk up no block at night that looks like it's boarded up and abandoned."

Bradshaw is among a growing number of small business owners, who set up shop years ago close to the intersection of 18th and Vine, now frustrated with the pace of redevelopment in the historic district.

"It's false hope when you come to the district," said Bradshaw during the time of day he thinks the sidewalk outside his barber shop should be streaming with tourists. "They open a dance theater, the Full Employment Council, the Kauffman Foundation has an office on 18th Street. These are good businesses, but not for the district. That's prime real estate. None of these businesses are bringing money and people to the district."

Sitting at a table outside Danny's Big Easy, a Cajun-themed restaurant on the main strip of Vine Street, Kevin Morris echoes Bradshaw's frustration with the way city leaders have managed redevelopment in recent years.

"We're sitting here and ain't nobody here," Morris said, twisting back and forth in his chair to get a better look at the empty sidewalks on both sides of Vine. "You should see color. You should see street performers down here, a saxophonist on the corner."

Pointing to the dark tint on businesses windows along Vine Street and the lack of colorful signs and street performers, Morris complained the district has no energy or vibrancy and that's what keeps visitors away during the day.

"It's drab, it's uninteresting, and it's uninformative. It's not telling me anything is coming here. It's telling me drive by slow and get the hell out," he said.

Morris, as it turns out, is the former marketing director for the American Jazz Museum. In his opinion the city operates the neighborhood more like a museum instead of an entertainment district.

He advocates that the city and not-for-profit organizations like the Jazz District Redevelopment Corp. sell off their interests in most of the property they own or manage on Vine Street. He suggests that they give the responsibility of developing and marketing both new and existing businesses to private entrepreneurs.

"We have to be business minded, have an entrepreneurial approach, as opposed to let the city do it." Morris said. "Thankfully we don't have to say, ‘Wouldn't it be nice to put a museum and a night club and a theater down here and really organize a district?' That's been done. So the initial investment is here in place. Now it's time for private enterprise to take that seed corn and make it grow."

Denise Gilmore is president and chief executive officer of the Jazz District Redevelopment Corp., the not-for-profit organization tasked by the city to oversee the redevelopment of much of the district. 

"We recognize the dynamic has changed," Gilmore said. "We are looking for private investment in order to complete the rest of the district, attract new tenants and take the district to its next phase."

But when people like Morris and Bradshaw criticize the pace or direction of redevelopment in the Jazz District, Gilmore points out what she feels some people forget.

Following desegregation, most African Americans left this neighborhood for different opportunities. As a result the jazz clubs, juke joints, stores and restaurants that helped this area flourish closed their doors. Eventually the internationally known neighborhood, that gave birth to swing music and helped Charlie Parker rise to fame, fell into decay.

"I don't think that people realize really what it would take to redevelop an area that had been allowed to deteriorate for 40 years," Gilmore said.

While redevelopment started 15 years ago, Gilmore explained it isn't fair to compare the jazz district with Kansas City's other major, tax-funded entertainment district: the Kansas City  Power and Light. She said the amount of investment in 18th and Vine is nowhere near the investment in the downtown district.

"The total amount I would approximate around $70 million, Power and Light is what about $500 million?" Gilmore said. "A lot of times people will say ‘$70 million where is it?' Well, it's in ground. It's in the lighting, the sidewalks, the curbing."

The district also is home to the newly relaunched Black Archives of Mid-America and has residential housing, including apartments.

"We did everything we said we were going to do," U.S. Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Kansas City, said while standing outside the museum complex on Vine Street.

As then-Kansas City's mayor, Cleaver was instrumental in getting the redevelopment of the jazz district launched.

"We opened up an American Jazz Museum. We opened up the Negro Leagues Museum. We have an entertainment venue in the Gem Theater and we've been able to attract restaurants," he said.

Cleaver calls the jazz district a success, but admits city leaders, businesses and others have not done the best job of marketing 18th and Vine.

"It's clearly time for new ideas," Cleaver said. "Part of the whole plan should include how do we get people down here who somehow believe that this is a dangerous area. Crime statistics would show they are much higher on the Country Club Plaza than they are in this area."

Like Gilmore, Cleaver agrees redevelopment in the 18th & Vine Jazz District still has a ways to go before the renaissance is complete.

For his part, Bradshaw isn't convinced he will ever see the tourists and customers city leaders once promised would flock into this area. According to him, if you can't execute a plan to knock down all the abandoned buildings in the neighborhood, how can you attract enough businesses to make the district thrive?

"Kind of get it together a little bit," Bradshaw urged. "Make me want to walk up the block. Put some things up the block that make me not afraid to walk around the whole district, not just up Vine."

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