A jamboree of urban experts, including more than a dozen U.S. mayors, rolled into Kansas City on Monday to discuss "The New American City" and agreed cities will be where the action is, whether assuming burdens from Washington or powering global economic growth.
The two-day conference at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts began with a light breakfast in the soaring atrium with its sweeping views of Crown Center, followed by a soulful version of "America" by local saxophone legend Bobby Watson.
Mayor Sly James continued that jazz theme in his opening remarks.
"This is a jam session for great minds to get together and improvise and improve," James told the more than 400 people in Helzberg Hall. "I'm delighted to have you here to talk about building the great American city and the new American city."
The night before, James had entertained some of his fellow mayors from Houston, Charlotte and Chattanooga at J.J.'s restaurant near the Plaza, where they dined on Kansas City strip steaks, and was eager to show off the Kauffman Center, a venue he'd like to see hosting the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
"People can't stop talking about the venue," James said. "They were blown away."
But during the first panel that looked at "catalyst cities" and their role in reviving the national economy, the mayors of Houston and Charlotte, along with senior officials from Chicago and San Diego, demonstrated their cities haven't been idle in recent years.
In Houston, Mayor Annise Parker said, the city recently launched a $200 million plan to dramatically expand its bicycle and walking path system. And as part of a theme about the greater need for public-private partnerships, she said half the money came from private sources.
Charlotte is tackling the task of reducing the carbon footprint of its downtown by 20 percent and recently raised $55 million with the help of the private sector to improve its public schools, said Mayor Anthony Foxx.
In San Diego, that city is building a new downtown library that also will host a charter high school, according to Bill Anderson, a former city planning director who is president-elect of the American Planning Association.
And Chicago, which raised $75 million privately for its recent unsuccessful Olympic Games bid, has reinvented itself over the past generation to become a more attractive place to live, said Lori Healey, CEO of Turley Equity Partners and a longtime aide to former mayor Richard Daley.
"It's all about attracting talent, and to attract talent, you need to be a place where talent wants to be," Healey said.
"Chicago is a beautiful city, but it was not always like that. We've made substantial investments the past 20 years to improve the quality of life. Young talent wants to be where they can live, work and get to work in a short time."
Parker said Houston decided to build on its strengths, including its energy industry, major freight harbor, and home of NASA and a large aerospace industry. When NASA started downsizing following the end of the space shuttle program, engineers found work in the oil and gas industry.
"Too many cities want a silver bullet," she said. "You need to find your strengths and figure out your assets."
Cities are projected to play an increasingly big role in the world economy, according to Jaana Remes, a senior fellow at the McKinsey Global Institute, who provided the morning address.
"The U.S. economic growth is fueled by medium-sized metros," Remes said. "That's where 80 percent of the U.S. population is and 85 percent of its gross domestic product."
But Remes also observed the global economy is swinging east toward China and India. Not that the United States will decline in coming years, but those regions are growing rapidly.
"It's important for cities to be connected to the rest of the world," she said.
One important ingredient in the success of cities will be strong mayors, said Ronald Bogle, president of the American Architectural Foundation.
"Mayors are critical leaders in the future of our cities," he said.
That kind of leadership will be even more important as the federal government cuts back its traditional role of providing financial help to cities, observed Foxx, the mayor of Charlotte.
"I believe local government will increasingly shoulder the burden of budget cuts," he said. "When the federal government disinvests, it will put pressure on states, and as it rolls downhill, the buck stops with local government."
During the conference, representatives from Burns & McDonnell, a Kansas City engineering firm that is co-sponsoring the event, showed off a new software system that provides a snapshot of public works activity. It can be displayed on a video screen using a Google Earth map.
The software was designed initially to assist Kansas City with its $4.5 billion sewer project, but Burns & Mac believes it will be attractive to other governments trying to manage and coordinate public works projects. Other sponsors of the event include the Kauffman Foundation, Populous, Cerner and Black & Veatch.
The New American City conference, which continues through today, was organized by CityAge, a Canadian partnership between a former journalist, Miro Cernetig, and Marc Andrew, who once led the Energy Roundtable in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Kansas City is only the third place, and the first U.S. city, where CityAge (www.cityage.org) has held a conference. The first was in Vancouver in February. This week's event wound up attracting more than 550 people from 259 organizations and 73 cities. Not to mention all the mayors.
Cernetig attributed the interest his CityAge events have managed to generate in such a short time to the "vacuum" of anything similar.
"I have a journalist's mindset," he said. "We try to create a panel where you have mayors and interesting people, and that makes an interesting story."
The partners decided to hold their first U.S. event in Kansas City after being impressed with a presentation James and a Google executive made at the first conference in Vancouver.
With Google choosing Kansas City to be the first served by its ultrafast fiber network, it was a natural choice to host the new American city event.
James said he picked up good information from his fellow mayors about how local governments can manage to absorb the cost of providing more services.
"What we're hearing is, we know we have these issues," he said. "How do we pay for them?"