Kansas City Attracts Startups With Smart City Pitch

April 10, 2018
sly james kc startups

Tech startup SafetyCulture moved from San Francisco to Kansas City, Mo., last year. The company, a maker of a workplace safety app, set up modern offices in a massive revamped middle school on the city’s west side.

The school, Westport Junior High, had sat empty before a $20 million renovation and addition created Plexpod Westport, a flexible work and collaboration space.

Plexpod was perfect for SafetyCulture’s planned growth–from five workers to 100 over the next year.

“You can rent here for a day or a week or a year,” says Ross, SafetyCulture President for North America . “We love it.”

Engineers and designers can easily collaborate with peers from other startups working on hot new tech like Artificial Intelligence and blockchain, he said.

The building complex also offers many of the hip features that startups and young workers want. There’s a gym and a relaxed café that serves draft beer, including the Boulevard brand, popular with KC’s brew culture. Wi-Fi seems to work everywhere.

Upstairs in the old school building, a striking wrap-around mural adorns the walls of a spacious, high-ceilinged conference room with tall windows overlooking a city park. The murals, painted by students decades ago, were kept as part of a $20 million renovation.

In a way, the project is a miracle, befitting a city fighting to escape urban blight and chronic problems with crime, housing and jobs. The school had sat empty for two decades before its rescue.

Rick Usher, an assistant city manager for KCMO, patiently guided me on a tour through Plexpod. We climbed high flights of stairs to the fourth floor to see the restored murals. Students captured a style similar to the famous KC muralist Thomas Hart Benton.

“He was one of us,” Usher said, with a modest smile.

Usher is the kind of public servant every city wants. He’s worked for 30 years for KC, plugging holes and patiently crafting long term plans. “We want to make KC America’s most entrepreneurial city,” he said.  I believe him. Still, it’s a long bet.

KC is using its pitch for entrepreneurs like SafetyCulture to help correct decades of problems. It’s an admirable goal, one that places tech and especially smart city tech with its sensors and data collection squarely in the middle of city planners, business leaders, civic groups and more.

Downstairs at Plexpod, builders have restored the school’s auditorium to former grandeur. Mayor Sly James recently delivered his seventh State of the City address to a full house there. He called Plexpod an example of a renaissance going on in the city of 487,000 residents.

But the mayor also spent 45 minutes describing a laundry list of major headaches like the high murder rate (149 died in 2017) and improving, but still deficient, reading scores for the city’s public school third graders. The city’s inability to create sensible gun laws regularly wins much of his ire.

James also put in a plug for an extension of KC Streetcar southward from Union Station to the campus of UMKC. The existing 2.2-mile line opened two years ago and reached its first year goal of 1 million passengers in just nine months. The mayor also set his sights on building a new airport to replace the old one at KC International. The project will be essential to wooing soccer’s World Cup in 2026, he added.

In a news conference afterwards, the mayor called tech startups like those at Plexpod “part of the city’s business fabric.” Entrepreneurs can be makers of “bowties and clothing” and “people of color or women,” he said. “A lot aren’t tech entrepreneurs.”

KC has plenty of inventiveness and creativity, especially in an artsy neighborhood called Crossroads south of downtown and within an easy walk of the streetcar line. In a funkier part of town, tall and decaying warehouses make up the West Bottoms. Bars and furniture auction joints dot that neighborhood. To the east, the city boasts the Kaufman Center for the Performing Arts and to the south, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, within walking distance of the UMKC campus and the famous Plaza shopping and restaurant area.

Back to the north near I-70, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum sits within walking distance of one of the most famous barbecue joints in America, Arthur Bryant’s, a competitor to Gates Barbecue. Bob Bennett, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer, extolled the city’s variety of barbecue joints, offering flavors from all over America.

“The one barbecue KC has that nobody else has is burnt tips,” Bennett said during remarks to open the Smart Cities Connect conference at the city’s convention center, attended by 1,500 mayors and city CIOs from across the nation during the last week of March.

Over the past two years, Bennett has helped shepherd a number of smart city and Internet of Things (IoT) innovations, including a free Wi-Fi zone across 54 square blocks along the streetcar route. Sensors and cameras in the zone are used to improve parking and help curb crime. The city’s data platform is now being used to help predict where potholes will crop up for early maintenance.

“IoT is now seen as a revolution, but will be as boring as the flush toilet in 10 years,” Bennett told the tech leaders from other cities. “If we don’t build smart cities now, people are going to leave.”

Matt Hamblen is a journalist covering Smart City issues. He served as the senior editor for Computerworld for over 20 years. His current site is Smart City Scout.

Matt Hamblen

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