Tuesday, June 16, 2015

What Gladstone Missouri Needs To Do If It Wants To Thrive Not Fade

Background - 
The last straw: 
Two years ago I set up a Christmas benefit performance of our Nutcracker School Tour to be done at the gymnasium in the Gladstone Community Center. ALL collections would go to the city, we'd perform as a pure charity effort. Two city officials were involved in this - as soon as one made a move to tell the local paper about it and generate publicity for it the other canceled it due to, supposedly, a POSSIBLE lack of TWO gymnasium staff people - we were even going to bring all the needed folding chairs and set it all up ourselves! That person who canceled it was the head of the Gladstone Parks and Recreation Department who was always in league with another dance school (you know which one) in Gladstone and now I am just totally fed up with the whole situation. Gladstone finds itself fading out due to onerous behavior like this. This article is my best attempt to lay out a much better future for Gladstone. Operating in a city that periodically wants to suppress or even ruin your organization is no fun - perhaps now that Gladstone realizes it is close to having troubles of it's own it will listen to this. I mean it is totally ridiculous, we are the only non-profit ballet company in the Northland and accomplish things every year that normally require multi-million dollar arts organizations to attempt, yet Gladstone has treated Ballet North like a persona non grata for over 20 years. If I wasn't so ticked off at this it would be kind of ironical and funny. In the 21st century let's stop with the insider personal favors and nepotism shall we?

June 16, 2015

Do you want to just sort of survive, or would you like to thrive?

The city of Gladstone has spent the last many decades attempting to find a place in the Northland and in truth it has faced many challenges both of it's own making and from recent events like the Great Recession, but under it all the essential problem Gladstone faces is the fact it cannot expand at all because Kansas City Missouri completely surrounds it.  This means that the acreage from which Gladstone can grow a tax base to support itself is permanently fixed and cannot be expanded.  In order to keep ahead of costs and expensive trends like the increasing cost of law enforcement and maintenance of roads and infrastructure, the city needs to make sure Gladstone is an upward moving area that attracts at least slightly more people to it than it has room for.  The best way to do this is to make Gladstone a destination of interest not just for an evening of drinking or partying or pawning a Rolex but for living and working in.

Can Gladstone build a mountain or create a giant lake or grow an epic forest for eco-tourism?  Obviously not.  Can it get in giant legal battles with Kansas City and expand it's geographic size?  Definitely no chance of that.

This is exactly where the arts come in to play and not just free summer events, but rather the full gamut of arts from a music scene all the way into real ballet and theatrical events that people might actually want to pay to see.  The key to making this happen is a real, technically correct performing arts theater like the Lied Center in Lawrence, KS or the unusually good performing arts theater that is part of the new Liberty North High School complex - both of which have large parking areas right by them and meet recognized technical stagecraft standards.  (Why does that matter?  Because meeting these standards lets National and even International acts get spec sheets for the theater by email letting them know they can use the theater and therefore book the facility for events year-round.  Typical community center theaters like the original Liberty Community Center don't meet standards and are never used by the type of acts that can make a community a thriving arts destination.  The Lied Center in Lawrence, due to meeting these standards, has been booked 2 years in advance by acts from New York, the Netherlands, Japan, and more ever since it opened in 1995 and which has zero to do with the proximity of KU.) Right now the only viable theater in the entire Northland and Liberty region of Kansas City that can support any scale of performing arts event is the Liberty North Theater, Gladstone has no facility in it to host performing arts events of any size, the Oak Park High School auditorium is run down, ill-equipped, too small, and not available unless school is in session.

This type of resource along with a city government that at the very least stops creating the appearance of capricious behavior subject to the whims of city bureaucrats who pick favorites and put the city on the side of one business against all others not so lucky as to have city bureaucrats decide they like it can turn the tide for Gladstone.  Even in big cities that sort of behavior causes major problems; in a small city like Gladstone it spells ruin as any business or organization that experiences the "unfavored" situation while watching the "favored" enterprise thrive will decide at first chance to leave that city and never look back.  Does that scenario s\ound familiar?  Over the last 15 years Gladstone has placed expensive and onerous requirements on my organization when we built our facility, the construction of which actually did take down a house used for drugs and questionable activities - which you'd think would be welcomed with open, cooperative arms by any city - whereas right next door to the south an illegal travel accounting business with no permit or zoning had operated for years and to this day the gravel side drive and rear parking area still exist on that lot.  The city has told us "they have a tendency to litigate" to explain why they were enforcing requirements on us (we had gotten the required permits for everything which means the city already had full control over us) but were unable to enforce anything on our next door neighbor.  This all came to a head when we were discussing parking requirements and pointed to the next door business as an example of someone not doing what the city said needed to be done, at which point the city said "what business?", obviously Gladstone had been unable to detect this illegal operation for at least 10 years and the funny part is that it's an accounting firm.  That type of arbitrary rule enforcement directly contributed to the portion of Antioch Road we are on continuing to decline in value and appeal.  We had to go through numerous planning meetings to make sure our finished structure would look "nice enough" and then were told late in the project we also had to bury an $80,000 storm water retention system under the front yard which no budget had been created for.  Now look at Bargain Barn furniture on 72nd Street which went in at the same time literally looks like a weird red barn and their storm water system is literally a ditch open to the air right in front of their building.  How any of that represented fair, unbiased city governance and even handed application of the same rules for everyone I really don't know.  Perhaps Gladstone has learned from this but once capricious governance takes place it can almost never be undone.  What it looked like to us is that someone was friends with the owner of Bargain Barn and so made their requirements cost almost nil whereas they tried to saddle us with as much cost as possible.

Local papers and magazines need to start covering things besides what city officials give them the 'scoop' on.  It would help immensely if Northland papers actually had a few reporters rather than only article writers waiting for a call from city hall.

What many successful small towns have done after being backed into a corner is to create a local culture of arts, innovations, and the reality of a city government that stops getting in the way actively or passively by way of curbing the arbitrary authority placed in un-elected city officials who call the shots right under the noses of the city council - this includes the influencing what the local paper and magazines publish in their coverage of the area.  Obviously it must be a huge power trip to know your office in the government is responsible for what gets published in the "free" local press.  It looks like Gladstone has perhaps turned the corner on one of these, as the departure of many of the previous city bureaucrats, particularly the previous Parks and Recreation administrator, was very long overdue and the origin of much of the problem Gladstone now faces.  There is still no sign of any change in what the local paper and magazine will cover in their stories, so that is worrisome and indicates way too close a relationship between the people in power and people running the presses.  However, without the construction of a real, usable and technically correct theater facility, and all the insider dealings notwithstanding, Gladstone is still going to shrink and fade because there is just nothing else left to attract new, affluent people from the outside world to it.

The arts - specifically the performing arts - naturally inspire everyone but most especially children; children create the future market for all businesses and organizations; any community that attracts people and families who want to stay and raise their children in that community because the local culture stimulates and sustains them has guaranteed it's future - any community that has families in it only because there's no where else they can be at the time, that offers no arts or culture depth because it has been driven away or even suppressed through nepotistic behavior of public officials, and is left with nothing to attract people that choose to deliberately move in to it, has no long term future except perhaps a just-getting-by existence.  This is not just an argument of mine, this is historically proven over and over again and the ultimate example is the Renaissance itself: in the aftermath of the Black Death killing 40% of everyone in Europe, society started pursuing arts from painting and sculpture to music and dance, indeed the origin of Ballet itself happens just after the Black Death ended in the late 1300's in Italy.  This focus on arts and the cultural, educational, philosophical and then scientific development the arts lead into lifted an entire continent from near oblivion to global dominance in just 200 years.  That is incredible and demonstrates the deep, lasting and transformative power of a vibrant arts scene.  Gladstone does not face any worse a situation than post-Plague Europe did, indeed it is no where near as bad off as that, hence my firm conviction that the arts are Gladstone's path to the future as described here assuming it stays away from it's petty, insider and provincial behaviors of the past.

Gladstone needs to never ever return to it's previous Hazard County - Boss Hogg days, it needs to head in the total opposite direction and encourage local print to cover all aspects of the community, going forward it needs to have the same rules for everyone to follow and better still make those rules easy to accommodate and attractive for people to want to engage in, and it needs to build a facility from which a viable, sustainable arts scene can be anchored otherwise a faded existence under Kansas City's shadow is all that the future will hold for it.  Some swimming pools, rowdy sports/biker bars and a sex toy shop might fascinate teenagers or the like but are not the things that build a vibrant, interesting community upwardly mobile families choose to move into and bring their money for.

The one question that, if interesting and compelling answers are valid for it, could reliably guide Gladstone forward into a strong future is this:

Why would anyone want to move into Gladstone?  

Answers like "they have cheap this" or "there's some affordable that" or "they have free blank" can be part of it, but there absolutely needs to also be very resounding answers of "because there's this scene going on I want myself or my family to be part of", or "because these events regularly happen I want to get a ticket to see".

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