Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s alone.
I get it. I do.
Many of you moved to Kansas City from small Midwestern towns to get away. Kansas City is the big city. You are tired of the fly-over jokes, the rolling prairie, the Casey’s General Store.
You want hip, cool, modern. You want to live in an Instagram-worthy apartment that is taller than the grain elevator back home.
But guess what? Kansas City is a cowtown.
We are a damned proud cowtown. It’s time to stop being so self-conscious. Quit putting down everything that couldn’t be found in Brooklyn. It’s time to stop running from the reputation and start embracing it. In fact, our future as an innovation center might just depend upon it.
Our city is one of authenticity. We are real. That is why I’m not worried about a bunch of horn logos and trite sunflower references. Being a cowtown is a far cry from marketing ourselves as one. Everyone comes from somewhere, everyplace started as something small; a trading town, a cattle town, a fishing village.
It’s time we embrace our past and start using it to grow our future.
We are the capital of the Animal Health Corridor. More than 300 businesses call it home. That’s 56 percent of all the worldwide animal health, diagnostic and pet food production. It works, because it’s authentic. We embrace it and use it to spin off other industry.
Translational medicine is a key example of an authentic industry spun from our heritage. Let’s consider other opportunities.
The American Royal has become something of an afterthought to Kansas Citians; an anachronistic concept that is fading fast into history save for the barbecue competition that continues as its own, odd party event.
“As we seek to compete with Boston, Austin and Nashville, having a truly unique starting point is only an advantage.” – Jon Stephens
But what if we accepted our past and looked to make the American Royal something of the present and future? Why shouldn’t the Royal be a global leader in seed-to-table, urban growing, brewing, distilling and food education? It could if we simply embraced the heritage and merged it with the future. Put on some boots and meet the women and men who actually grow the food we eat in the hip spots along the streetcar line. I promise you that our Beard Award-winning chefs already do. Go milk a cow. Learn how to make cheese. Share a laugh with a real farmer. That’s authentic, and something many other places can’t replicate.
New York City is desperately trying to build what they call “MOFAD,” or the Museum of Food and Drink. But Kansas City could and should be the home of that venue. If only we would grow up and yell to the world that “Yes we are the middle of the Breadbasket! We grow, raise and ship more food than most anywhere else in the world. Fresh food is our thing. We get it, we love it and we want to show everyone.” Just imagine the startup opportunities. CB Insights estimates that the food tech sector generated more than $2 billion in venture funding in 2015.
But what about our larger tech and innovation scene? Our arts movement? Our street cred? Having a foundation as a cowtown works. As we seek to compete with Boston, Austin and Nashville, having a truly unique starting point is only an advantage. Health, translational medicine and engineering all can and have grown out of our heritage. We can and must be a real prairie and the Silicon Prairie simultaneously. Art, music, architecture all benefit and thrive in a place that is authentic and unique to itself. That is Kansas City.
Kansas City becoming a thriving cowtown is mostly about you.
Be yourself. Stop being an apologist for Kansas City and be a cheerleader. Celebrate that our Midwestern heritage also means hard work, dedication and caring for each other. Most importantly, it’s time that we stop being an “us too” city. You know what that is. “We are cool like Portland because the Crossroads is kind of like the Pearl.” Or “We have a cool brewing scene that is almost as cool as Austin.”
It’s time for us to just be us. We are Kansas City, in all of our glory. Let’s leave the comparisons to others.
Jon is president of Rockhill Strategic, an executive management and communications firm. In his role with Rockhill, he has served as the interim CEO of Visit KC and the KCK Chamber of Commerce. He is passionate about building better communities and entrepreneurship.