Stimulus Stalls in Kansas City

A 'Green Impact Zone' has prepared poor and working class residents for the promise of electrics cars. But it doesn't seem to have done much to generate the jobs they need to pay for new law-carbon buggies

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There was a fascinating story on the front page of the Kansas City Star earlier this week. Reporter Rick Montgomery took a long look at one of the fruits of the 2009 economic stimulus package, the Green Impact Zone of Missouri.

A lot has been written lately about the success or failure of the stimulus five years after it passed into law. For example, my friend and colleague Michael Grunwald, an eloquent advocate for the stimulus, credits the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) with jump-starting an alternative energy revolution and getting the ball rolling on electronic medical records, among other laudable achievements. James Freeman in the Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, blames the $800 billion-plus package for driving up debt and muffling economic growth.

Montgomery’s article avoids such broad brushstrokes, instead documenting the observable results of one distinctive ARRA project. At the urging of Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), stimulus money destined for Kansas City was concentrated in one section of town. The goal was to transform the area into an environmental showcase while catalyzing a burst of green jobs. Covering five neighborhoods and 150 square blocks, the zone encompasses a troubled section of town where abandoned buildings share streetscapes with the well-tended homes of obviously loving owners. In other words, it is typical of struggling sections found in every great American city—sliding in the wrong direction, but not too far gone to imagine a renaissance.

I’ve seen similar neighborhoods turn around in places as diverse as South Beach, Harlem, and Washington’s Logan Circle. In Denver, marginal neighborhoods around the old Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center are steadily gaining momentum from the new medical complex plopped into their midst. So I was intrigued to see what could be done with a projected $200 million infusion in what was—once upon a time—a thriving section of KC.

The answer: less than folks had hoped.

ARRA has equipped the Green Zone with charging stations for electric cars that residents don’t own. Of the 1,000 or more homes targeted for energy efficiency upgrades, fewer than 200—20 percent—received new windows, insulation and weather-stripping (at an average cost of more than $13,000 per home).  The local utility launched a pilot project in the zone to install “smart” meters that allow homeowners to better regulate their electricity use. An unused school building was given new life, and 11 miles of new sidewalks were built.

But as Montgomery reports, the project has, so far, failed to generate its own momentum. Congressman Cleaver, a former Kansas City mayor, sounded sheepish when he acknowledged that he and other zone backers failed to execute their ideas efficiently enough to get all the money spent. “We left tens of millions of federal dollars on the table,” he told the Star. When funding for the Impact Zone staff ran out, no agency stepped in to keep the office open.

As I try to do every few months, I took a drive through the zone after reading Montgomery’s report. The sidewalk-building construction teams that used to be the most tangible sign of stimulus spending are long gone, and in their wake things look much as before. ARRA has left the Green Impact Zone ready for the day when poor and working class Kansas Citians start driving electric cars. But it doesn’t seem to have done much to generate the jobs they need to pay for new low-carbon buggies. Instead, residents continue to drive what they can afford—like the 20-year-old sedan belching smoke in front of me on the once magnificent Paseo parkway.

ARRA pumped money into the Green Impact Zone as fast as local agencies could push it out the door—more than $1 million per city block on average. Perhaps this prevented things from getting worse. But it’s not the transformation that was touted.