Copaken: How to fuel downtown KC’s fire

Jon Copaken addresses more than a thousand attendees at the Downtown Council’s annual luncheon on Friday.

Jon Copaken addresses more than a thousand attendees at the Downtown Council’s annual luncheon on Friday.

It’s no secret that downtown Kansas City is on fire. The stats from 2015 paint an optimistic picture: 350,000 square feet were absorbed and 2,000 new workers flocked to the central business district last year alone, according to the Downtown Council, which dissected the city’s progress at the group’s annual luncheon on Friday. But Jon Copaken, principal at Copaken Brooks and outgoing Downtown Council chair, had a careful warning for local leaders and residents.

“Most of us recognize that forward progress can be killed by one misstep from the public or private side, or just a bit of complacency, which so often occurs in our city,” he said. “The progress we’ve made could be derailed in no time.”

For example, consider the fact that the central business district represents one ninetieth of the mass of Kansas City, but provides 25 percent of the tax base for the entire city. However, too often residents and leaders alike become “bogged down” by specific areas of investment, at the risk of stifling the increased tax base, which benefits all, Copaken said.

Public incentives are a critical piece of the puzzle, he adds.

“We must recognize that public incentives are investments by the public directly into jobs that benefit all walks of life,” he said. “The public sector builds roads, shelters, parks and infrastructure, but sometimes it chooses to invest directly into jobs by incenting good projects. Where there is demand, smart public and private investment will follow. In my opinion, the public is being very wise to help fuel demand.”

He argues that Kansas City should be taking full advantage of that demand we’ve worked hard to create, using the tools within our reach to take “throw lighter fluid” on that fire.

“As good as we are and as great as we’re becoming, we’re just at the starting line, and the trend is real but fragile,” he said. “These moves have taken years to come to fruition, and refining a work environment is not a one-and-done challenge. Public and private leadership and investment are needed to be deliberate and focused for multiple years.”