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Robert Kipp, former city manager and Hallmark executive, dies at age 89

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KCUR 89.3
Kipp ran city government during a golden age of development in Kansas City, with the opening of Kemper Arena, Bartle Hall and other projects.

Bob Kipp was one of the most consequential city managers in Kansas City history. He was praised for his humble approach as a government official and, later, corporate executive.

Kansas City civic leader and power broker Robert Kipp died Nov. 30 in Overland Park at the age of 89.

Kipp was one of the most influential city managers in Kansas City history and then served as a longtime executive with Hallmark.

He led City Hall administration from 1974 to 1983, overseeing a major public building boom, guiding the city through two difficult firefighter strikes, and elevating Kansas City’s national standing when he served as president of the International City Management Association for the 1977-78 term.

“He was outstanding in his political skills,” said Charles Wheeler, who was Kansas City’s mayor when Kipp was named city manager. In a July 2019 interview with KCUR, Wheeler said Kipp did an excellent job running the city departments and getting council members to work well together, freeing Wheeler up to push his pet projects with other civic leaders and the public.

“He and I never quarreled,” Wheeler said of Kipp. “He ran the government and I kind of tried to work with Washington and Jefferson City.”

The Kansas City Symphony posted a tribute to Kipp after his death, praising his civic accomplishments and his dedication to the arts and music in Kansas City.

Kansas City had something of a golden age of development while Kipp was city manager, with the opening of Kemper Arena in 1974 and completion of the initial Bartle Hall convention and exhibition space in 1976. Those developments, plus the opening of Kansas City International Airport in 1972, helped bring the Republican National Convention to Kansas City in 1976.

During the 1970s, the community also saw the development of Worlds of Fun, Crown Center and the Truman Sports Complex.

A September 1979 Kansas City Star article said Kipp’s peers in government viewed him as one of the best city managers in the country. He was also seen as one of Kansas City’s most influential leaders, although he told The Star, “I don’t think of myself as powerful at all.”

He took pains to work behind the scenes and stay out of the limelight, while forging strong ties with the business community and crafting every major decision in city government.

“Bob comes very close to being the perfect city manager,” Councilman Harold Hamil told The Star in 1979. “He keeps a low profile and he is a master of avoiding commitment on an issue until he knows what the council is thinking.”

Others said Kipp had the diplomatic skill to persuade council members to propose his ideas as their own.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Kipp clashed with the firefighters union during two contentious strikes in 1975 and 1980. He tried but failed to keep the professional basketball franchise, the Kings, in town.

And he was city manager when the city endured one of its worst disasters ever, the collapse of the Hyatt Regency skywalks in 1981. In the aftermath, Kipp concentrated on keeping government running while then-Mayor Dick Berkley led the city through the investigations and recovery process.

Kipp was still in good standing with the city council in 1983, but he was lured away that summer to become president of Crown Center Redevelopment Corp., the real estate development subsidiary of Hallmark Cards Inc.

It was his first private sector job after 28 years in municipal government work.

“It’s management and it still has the public service element,” Kipp said at the time.

Donald Hall, then-Hallmark president and CEO who had recruited Kipp for the job, said he was pleased to find a way to keep Kipp in Kansas City. “As our city manager he was too valuable a community asset to lose,” Hall said in 1983.

In a 1995 speech about urban development in Kansas City, Kipp candidly discussed the challenges of managing an 85-acre mixed-use property, combining retail, residential, office and hotel uses at a time when suburbia was booming.

“To bolster retail, we shifted to an entertainment-oriented strategy,” he said, describing the concerts, festivals and attractions that were needed to continue the development’s vitality as a downtown destination.

Civic leaders praised Kipp’s vision for Crown Center’s growth and for ensuring it remained a strong cultural and commercial center.

Kipp went on to become vice president of Hallmark Cards from 1997 until his retirement in 2006. He also served on the Hall Family Foundation board from 1986 to 2018.

In 2000 he was named “Kansas Citian of the Year,” by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, which recognized him for service on countless civic boards, including stints as chairman of the Chamber and of the Civic Council.

A December 2000 article in Kansas City Business, a chamber publication, commended Kipp for bolstering economic development opportunities in the Kansas City region.

Specifically, the article cited Kipp’s foresight in promoting Interstate 35 as a key trade corridor from Mexico to Canada, while he was chamber chair in 1992, even before the 1994 signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In 1998, Kipp led a successful campaign to raise the sales tax to restore Liberty Memorial, which had been closed in 1994 because of structural flaws and deterioration.

Kipp also devoted his energies to Kansas City’s cultural amenities, serving as board president of the Starlight Theatre Association from 1985 to 1987 and later on the Kansas City Symphony board. Other passions included the area’s life sciences initiatives and early childhood education.

Kipp was born on May 21, 1932 in Lincoln, Nebraska, and grew up in Lawrence, graduating from Lawrence High School in 1948. He earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Kansas in 1952, served in the U.S. Air Force and got a master’s degree in public administration from KU in 1956.

He married Deborah Graves and is survived by his wife and two sons, Steven and David.

Kipp worked in government in various cities before he was hired as the director of city development for Kansas City in 1970. In 1972 he became deputy city manager under John Taylor, and then was promoted to city manager in January 1974 after Taylor was ousted from that job.

In 2018, the Hall Family Foundation made a donation to KU’s School of Public Affairs and Administration, to create the Robert Kipp Professorship of Practice in City Management. The gift was made in honor of Kipp’s lifetime of public service and his leadership in urban development and civic affairs.

Lynn Horsley is a freelance writer in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.
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