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Kansas City Targets Zone For Stimulus Relief

Green Zone resident Hazel Baldwin.
Frank Morris
Green Zone resident Hazel Baldwin.

Kansas City, MO – This summer, federal stimulus money will likely fund tens of thousands of projects across the country. Most of them will have very little to do with each other.

But Kansas City, Mo., is trying hard to coordinate its stimulus spending by targeting a particularly violent and blighted part of its urban core -- the part it has dubbed the "Green Impact Zone of Missouri."

View From A Porch

The view from Hazel Baldwin's front porch is green and lush this time of year, but it's not pretty. Across the street, it's all vacant lots. Her side isn't much better.

"Use to be a nice big house over there," she says. "But the people lost their house. And then, they vandalized the house, they broke the windows and stole stuff out of it, so they eventually tore it down,"

If Baldwin's block was a mouth, half the teeth would be missing. The rest would be ground down and decaying.

Bad Plumbing

This is Kansas City's Green Impact Zone. The small area is located in the middle of the city. Some parts are very nice, but Baldwin's block is more typical. Her zip code has produced more than 100 convicted murders.

The plan to bring the area back though, has a lot to do what's inside the basement of Baldwin's old bungalow.

"Now this is my old gravity furnace -- been here over 40 years. That's why my gas bill be $300 and some dollars, you know, during the cold months," Baldwin says referring to the enormous furnace occupying the better part of her basement.

Baldwin makes roughly $22,000 a year working as a janitor. She can't afford to fix her leaky roof or her bad plumbing, let alone buy a new furnace. But, she may get one anyway.

New Work Opportunities

Nearby, home maintenance contractors are studying to become teachers. They'll be put to work training dozens of unemployed residents of the Green Impact Zone for jobs weatherizing houses.

Bob Housh, who runs the training program, says it's a good example of how stimulus funded programs can complement each other.

"Boy, it is just such a huge opportunity," he says. "You know, we've just got to be able to take advantage of this and do it right, that's so important."

For one thing, planners here intend to focus spending in a way that avoids the government's typical shotgun approach to allocating funds, according to Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, (D-MO), the architect of the Green Impact Zone plan.

"That is let's spend $1000 down the street here, $10,000 down the street there, and at the end nothing has changed," he says.

Cleaver says his plan will channel at least $50 million of federal stimulus money into this small part of town.

"We think that there are enough federal resources to make this area as nice and as safe as any suburban area in America. And, on top of that we're going to make it green," he says.

A Green Plan

Cleaver envisions solar panels going up on the schools and housing projects. The plan also includes weatherizing nearly ever house in the zone, building a fancy new bridge, purchasing deluxe busses and maybe a new power grid.

"We believe that an area that has become infamous for the number of homicides, will now become famous for the quality of living," Cleaver says.

City elected leaders are unified -- a rare thing in Kansas City these days -- in support of the stimulus spending plan. But many private citizens grumble about the plan. A conservative talk radio host named Chris Stigall is, as much as anyone, leading the dissent.

"Boy oh boy! It's Christmas come early if you live in the 150 block area of Manny's Green Impact Zone!" Stigall said on his morning program recently.

Stigall doesn't see how new windows and furnaces will address the enormous crime problem in the impact zone. And, like many living outside it, he doesn't like the boundaries.

"I have no idea how they deem that as fair to anyone else in the city, who doesn't get a new heater or get their home weatherized because they're outside of that square block area," Stigall says.

He is not alone. Many hard-pressed neighborhoods lie outside the Green Impact Zone. Many people living in those neighborhoods worry that they'll miss out entirely.

David Warm, with the Mid America Regional Council, says the impact zone isn't likely going to receive that much extra money. But he says that the focus and coordination in the zone will make the money it does get go much further.

"The stimulus money will come and the stimulus money will go. And our goal is to make sure it has as much impact as possible while it's here, and most importantly that it sets up the community for long-term sustained change over time," Warm says.

Supporters say that if everything goes as planned, the attention -- and money -- lavished on this one small dot on the map will spark a revival that will become a model for urban areas across the nation.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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