Streetcars, entertainment districts, new airport terminals, Republican confabs, Super Bowls, creative-class millennials, and convention hotels all have grabbed headlines in recent months in Kansas City. Certainly they are evidence that city leaders think they can spend, spend, spend their way into wealth. But they are also evidence that Kansas City has embraced something my colleague at the Show-Me Institute dubbed “Baristanomics.” Baristanomics is the theory that lifestyle spending can revitalize an urban economy.
It doesn’t work.
Richard Florida first proposed the idea that cities need to attract the so-called creative class in order to survive. His prediction was not borne out by time. But like all good economic theories, zealous adherents aren’t swayed by plain evidence. Here in Kansas City, leaders still talk about attracting this creative class with streetcars despite the fact that the evidence tells us that even the millennial-age cohort is no less likely to own cars than their peers in past generations. They act the same way any group does: They move to regions that offer jobs.
A study of successful innovation hubs even demonstrated that among those that have been successful there is no winning government strategy—success does not lend itself to a simple formula.
Boosters of Baristanomics point to the slight growth of downtown residents to show the success of the city’s profligate spending. As another high rise is proposed for downtown—and subsidized with taxpayer dollars—the high availability no doubt will drive prices into the basement. Laying aside the question of whether such modest growth is worth the huge cost to taxpayers, it is clear that Baristanomics has not produced the jobs necessary to keep people downtown. Downtown residents commute out of the core for work—something that writers elsewheredubbed Urban Inversion. Basically, Kansas City is turning itself inside out.
Without jobs—baristas, hotel concierges, and restaurant staff notwithstanding—any measure of success will be short lived if Kansas City isn’t attracting jobs. In fact, the growth of residential development is coming at the cost of commercial and industrial growth potential as one-time office buildings and warehouses are converted into trendy lofts. Furthermore, many of those living spaces were built or renovated with tax abatements or subsidies that will make them much less attractive in 25 years when they end.
Cities do not form around coffeeshops and large entertainment venues. (If they did, where is the development around the Truman Sports Complex? There are barely hotels over there.) People generally live where they work, and if Kansas City continues to be an unattractive place to build a business, all the hip speakeasies and entertainment subsidies will amount to nothing more than curious finds for future archeologists.