Kansas City’s open spaces — and open mindset — quickly expose the region’s potential, said Brian Platt, eagerly rolling up his sleeves as the new KCMO city manager.
“In a sense, it reminds me a lot of downtown Jersey City from a decade ago, give or take, in that there are plenty of new developments — tall skyscrapers, diversity of building structures and amenities and offerings,” said Platt, who began the Kansas City job Dec. 7 after serving as city manager and business administrator for Jersey City, New Jersey.
“But there’s a lot of unused land here,” he continued. “There’s a lot of surface parking, a lot of just grassy fields, which have the potential to meet so many different needs. … Most mid-size and large cities don’t have that luxury of available space with such high potential.”
The key is looking at a community’s assets to solve for a city’s problems, rather than just focusing on what it might lack, Platt told Startland News, pointing to his work as Jersey City’s first chief innovation officer.
He established the first Jersey City Office of Innovation in 2015 after the city received a $2.2 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, he said.
“It was a seven-person team — the first of its kind in New Jersey — and something that we were excited about; just to be able to solve the city’s most complex challenges in a more meaningful and thoughtful way,” Platt said, emphasizing previous strategies tended to be highly reactionary and often kicked the can down the road year after year. “You didn’t see a lot of real progress on things like addressing Jersey City’s small business community until you looked for bold solutions to achieve big, bold improvements.”
Design thinking processes allowed the team to embrace fully inclusive, community-based, collaborative decision-making — with more informed discussions and ideas coming directly from residents, he said, noting the opportunity for similar tactics in exploring Kansas City challenges.
Kansas City has not had a chief innovation officer since December 2019 with the departure of Alex Braszko from the position — a change that coincided with then-new Mayor Quinton Lucas shifting gears on Kansas City’s approach to small business, emerging technology and smart city efforts.
Click here to watch Brian Platt’s Oct. 2 meet-and-greet with KCMO city council members during the city manager finalist process.
“What’s interesting about Kansas City is we have six to 10 — depending upon how you look at it — commercial corridors throughout the city, all with a unique flair and vibe and demographic that patronizes those areas,” Platt said. “The challenges faced by each of them will be very different and complex. So it’s always going to require more than just throwing money at the problem.”
Likewise, while cities across the country might be dealing with the same basic problems — from affordable housing and transportation to COVID-19 era budgeting — solutions won’t be simple, obvious or universal, he said, though communities can still learn from and be inspired by each other.
“The caveat is that what we’ve done in Jersey City is not necessarily something that fits neatly into Kansas City and is right for the people of Kansas City,” Platt said of specific tactics deployed in his home state. “But I’m excited to bring a fresh perspective to some issues that Kansas City maybe has been facing for many years without much movement or progress.”
Budgeting for COVID
One of Platt’s first challenges, however, is a new one: budgeting for a city that knows an ongoing pandemic will impact its ability to operate — but with uncertainty surrounding how long and how harsh COVID-19 will hit in 2021.
“Innovative thinking is crucial to solving the most complex problems and challenges the city faces, particularly when funding is a driving factor,” Platt said. “I always tell people it is easy to solve problems with unlimited funds; the biggest hurdle is trying to expand and improve services while reducing cost. Thinking outside the box … will be tremendously important when dealing with the COVID budget crisis.”
Lucas emphasized Platt’s readiness to attack the city manager’s role in crafting the incoming budget.
“Due to the economic impact of COVID-19, Mr. Platt this year led Jersey City in reducing its city budget mid-year by $70 million, making creative, targeted reductions without imposing mass furloughs, layoffs, or disrupting the delivery of vital city services,” Lucas told Startland News. “Mr. Platt is a bold and innovative leader, and I know he will — as our City has done for years — continue to partner with the Kansas City startup and entrepreneurship community to strengthen Kansas City’s status as one of the best places in the country to start a business.”
Developing a new home
At 35, Platt is Kansas City’s youngest-ever city manager, filling a role left vacant after the retirement of Troy Schulte, who served as city manager for 10 years and now is county administrator for Jackson County.
Click here to read the Kansas City Star’s primer on Brian Platt: “Young and green, but energetic and effective; Who is Kansas City’s new city manager?”
A husband and father, the New Jersey native arrived in Kansas City with significant local connections, he said.
“My wife, Margo, has a long history of family in Kansas City,” Platt said, noting her father graduated from Center High School and her grandmother graduated from Paseo High School. “We still have some aunts, uncles, and cousins in Kansas City.”
Click here to read about Platt’s link to Kansas City’s Jewish community in the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle.
“I’ve been multiple times to visit — and I regularly receive Jack Stack Barbecue in the mail on my birthday,” he added, laughing.
Perhaps even more appetizing than getting fresh-made burnt ends for his 36th birthday?
“I don’t know if I can pick just one example, but Kansas City already has a lot of positive momentum that I’m excited to be part of,” Platt said. “The airport project, transportation initiatives and economic development in parts of Kansas City that haven’t seen it in a while — it’s exciting to think about those and how I can dig into city operations to help the projects go more smoothly and efficiently.”
Click here to read more about Brian Platt’s education and professional background, including an early stint as a kindergarten teacher with Teach For America.