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It's Big Sister Lives Across the River : 'Other' Kansas City Lives in a Shadow

December 06, 1987|CRAIG HORST | Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The city saved itself by selling everything but its soul to General Motors.

Typically, the sacrifices were overlooked.

Kansas City closed its airport and gave the land to GM, issued millions of dollars' worth of bonds, deferred taxes, relocated industries to free more space--all to persuade the auto maker that it should build a new plant here rather than elsewhere. More than 4,000 jobs were at stake.

When it was all over, GM put up billboards thanking the state of Kansas and the auto workers' union for their cooperation. There was no mention of the city.

So it goes in the Kansas City that lies, quite literally, in the shadow of the bigger and better known Kansas City on the Missouri side of the line.

The 160,000 residents of the Kansas community--most of whom wear blue collars--do not even make it the largest city in a state known for wheat fields. That honor is claimed by Wichita, which is almost twice as big.

One could live a lifetime in Kansas City, Mo., without ever thinking that it might be nice to see what's on the other side of State Line Road.

'Not Much on Our Side'

"I'm as bad as anyone else," said Mayor Joseph E. Steineger. "If you want to go to a nice place for dinner, you go to Kansas City, Mo. We don't have a lot to offer people. If you look at Starlight (Theater), if you want to go to a ballgame, it's over there. There is not much on our side of the river at this time."

Promotional material put out by the city boasts of cultural and recreational activities--all on the Missouri side. The brochure makes no mention of wrestling at Memorial Hall, where the likes of Hustler Rick Rogers grapple with the likes of Bulldog Bob Brown.

Yet it's a place that prompts movie actress Dee Wallace to stand up and cheer. "Hip, hip! Thrill, thrill! This is our centennial!" the former Wyandotte High School cheerleader chanted at the city's 100th birthday celebration last year. "Everybody give a cheer to KCK throughout the year!"

The city stands where the Kansas and Missouri rivers meet. The Mighty Mo, of course, is the larger and more storied of the two.

From the bridge over the Missouri, the skyscrapers of Kansas City, Mo., loom on the hill to the north. The drive to downtown Kansas City, Kan., passes huge concrete pillars that will one day support a leg of Interstate 435 that the city hopes will lead to new industry on its undeveloped western side.

Downtown Skyline

And on past City Hall, where Steineger has his office on the 18th floor, past the county building, past the federal building, past a few square blocks of downtown and the modest convention center and pretty soon comes the Fairfax Industrial District where GM is just about finished with its new plant.

"It's state of the art and it's in Kansas City, Kan.," Steineger said proudly, pointing to the 68-acre site of the auto factory.

"There were some things that the (former) mayor had to do, that the City Council had to do, that were questionable, but I think any mayor or any city council would do anything they had to do to save those 4,200 jobs at that plant. I don't know if anyone really knows what it cost."

It's a city of ethnic neighborhoods filled with hard-working, honest people who believe in family, said Steineger, who lives on land his grandfather farmed after he came over from Switzerland.

Per capita income in Wyandotte County is about $11,500, about $2,000 less than the average in the four other counties around the area.

Ed Asner's Hometown

"This city is a gem," said actor Ed Asner, another Kansas City native. "My appreciation for my hometown grows. And the older I get, the more it grows."

Steineger was on the school board for many years before he ran against longtime incumbent Mayor Jack Reardon.

"I was wanting to give this mayor's job a shot, because I was working with kids and I would see them go off to college strong, healthy and intelligent and then see them go off somewhere else to live," Steineger said.

He would like to work with Kansas City, Mo., on common issues, but he and Mayor Richard Berkley have not yet found time to have lunch.

"I would like to take a sister-city approach," Steineger said. "We're not close enough."

The economic future, according to Steineger, hinges on dog racing, horse racing or both. The people of Kansas approved a constitutional amendment last year to allow pari-mutuel betting, and Steineger sees the open land on the west as ideal for a track.

He also thinks about the car GM is going to make in that new plant.

"What if it doesn't sell? That is what we all have to worry about."

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