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Former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes Reflects On Doubts, Successes From Her Time In Office

Image of a Kay Barnes, a woman with white hair, against a dark background.
Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes is Park University's newly named senior director for university engagement.

Kansas City's first female mayor might only vaguely remember her first day on the job, but she does remember knowing people had some doubts about her because she was a woman.

“I knew that there were comments behind my back about, 'Well, she might be OK as mayor in some ways, but she's not going to be able to do much with economic development,'”former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes told Steve Kraske, host of KCUR's Up To Date.

Barnes served in the city's highest office for two consecutive terms from 1999 to 2007 and is credited with helping to kickstart the downtown economic rejuvenation that continues today.

To get there, though, she not only had to secure the office, she had to secure the right people for the anchor projects. Barnes and other city officials had to convince Cordish Company, the developer of the Power and Light District, and AEG Worldwide, the force behind the Sprint Center, to take on projects in Kansas City.

“The initial answer with both was, ‘No, we're not interested,’ and yet we kept pushing,” she said.

It worked.

Both projects are often touted as two of her biggest accomplishments.

"What I feel best about is the combination of large projects that we were all able to move forward at the same time," she said. "We didn’t have the luxury of doing one project and then two years later doing another one."

Despite the big changes that came during her years in office, she's says surprised by how little the downtown of today resembles the one of 20 years ago.

“The ancillary mushrooming effect of some of the larger projects has been exciting to see.”

While there has been some criticism about the city’s continued subsidization in the downtown and Crossroads area, Barnes said she’s “very comfortable” with what’s continuing to happen.

“It’s not a disappointment because that investment, that ongoing investment on the part of the city, has reaped enormous rewards,” she said.

But Barnes did agree that the city should have funneled more money and improvements into economically disadvantaged neighborhoods on the east side of the city.

“Although I would only qualify it by saying there has been a lot of effort over the last 20, 30 years to make more investments on the east side, she said, “I agree though that not enough has been done.”

Barnes has stayed busy since leaving the mayor's office. Having taught in Park University's graduate school for public affairs (and holding a bachelor's and a master's degree in education), she is now the face of the institution and focuses on connecting the university to the broader community as the senior director for university engagement.

Earlier this summer, she was honored at the Kansas City Convention Center, where a grand ballroom now bears her name. But she said she’s not too concerned over how she’s remembered.

“When you're mayor, you get over that quickly because you know a lot of what people are thinking is not necessarily positive,” she said. “I'm just hopeful that whatever legacy there is is one that enables people to feel good about themselves, feel good about their community and be willing to participate in the future of Kansas City."

These interviews were conducted as part of a Up To Date conversation hosted by Steve Kraske. Listen to the entire conversation here

Kathleen Pointer is a digital and associate producer for KCUR's talk shows, Up To Date and Central Standard. Reach out to her at kathleenp@kcur.org or find her on Twitter @kathleenpointer