One of KC’s leading Black women in tech leased a vacant city building for $1 and made $20K+ in improvements for her workforce development program — now the city wants to sell it, kicking WeCode KC to the curb
A local nonprofit is asking for community support as the KCMO city council makes a move that could push its youth-focused STEM program out of a city-owned building.
“We are providing jobs. We’re providing certifications for our students — and making sure that they are getting skilled up in these areas of technology so that they can have livable wage jobs,” Tammy Buckner, CEO and cofounder of WeCode KC, told council members in an appeal last week during a meeting of the city’s finance, governance, and public safety committee.
Buckner’s comments came as the committee debated city ordinance 220128 — a measure that seeks to declare city-owned buildings at 2524, 2526, 2528, 2530, 2534, and 2536 Prospect Avenue as surplus and available for sale. The ordinance followed one passed unanimously by the full council last year, which prioritized the sale of surplus properties in an effort to cut city maintenance costs.
WeCode KC currently occupies 2534 Prospect through a program that aims to fill vacant buildings owned by the city with nonprofit tenants and at a reduced rate, often as low as a single dollar, the committee noted. The space is a former Animal Health Public Safety facility — and the defunct KCMO fire station No. 18 before that — just north of the KCMO Police East Patrol campus.
Tenants assume full responsibility for upkeep and maintenance on such buildings. WeCode KC is believed to have invested more than $20,000 in the Prospect property since it took occupancy last year, members of the committee noted.
Despite comments from Buckner and the support of Melissa Robinson, councilwoman from the city’s third district, committee members approved the measure for a full vote by the city council — putting the future of WeCode KC in jeopardy, Buckner said.
“[Voting yes] would disrupt WeCode KC’s operations and the forward momentum of the organization during a critical time of growth,” Buckner told Startland News.
“Should the city move forward with this plan, it would require the organization to redirect critical programming resources to — in less than six months — find a new home, secure funding, and relocate offices. It would also bring to a screeching halt the collaboration between two corporate supporters and WeCode to bring workforce development programs, a maker space, and a tech hub to the third district community — an area of town where the digital divide is so significant.”
Buckner — a staunch supporter and fixture of the city’s entrepreneurial community and a leader within its tech ecosystem — went on to note the city’s pursuit of the property “comes as a total surprise” and could be viewed as a contradiction to the mission of its digital equity strategic plan.
“Prior to now, the city of Kansas City has been a great partner and its generous lease program that is offered to many other nonprofits has enabled us to stretch limited funds to increase our impact within the community,” she said.
“One would have to wonder what message the city is sending to Kansas Citians in the tech and entrepreneurial space when decisions such as this and a multi-million dollar cut from the city budget for [entrepreneur support efforts] are being made,” Buckner continued, noting recent decisions by the city to cut funding for a variety of entrepreneurial support programs, organizations, and initiatives.
Prior to the committee’s discussion, Buckner believed WeCode KC would meet requirements outlined by the city for a two-year extension of its lease. Robinson and Brandon Ellington, third district councilman at-large, have expressed support for a renewal.
Should the council vote yes on the measure, WeCode KC will be forced to relocate in August. The city reserves the right to list and market the building before then and must notify the organization within 90 days if it is to seek early termination of the lease, officials noted during the meeting.
“At the end of 2019, when this [property] became available, I started working with the city staff to make sure that the facility was not vacant. We didn’t want it to continue to cause a situation of blight,” Robinson told her peers in defense of the organization and its impact.
“I don’t understand what the urgency to sell the building is. That’s what I’m trying to get from my colleagues. Why is there urgency to sell it? We are well within our rights as council people to say we don’t want to sell the building. We want to allow [WeCode KC] to be there for three years.”
Because WeCode KC has maintained and improved the space, displacing the program from the building under the guise of the previously passed ordinance wouldn’t make sense, Robinson argued.
“This [property] is not on the city’s balance sheet,” she said, rebuffing comments from Lee Barnes Jr., councilman from the fifth district at-large, and Heather Hall, first district councilwoman. Both argued the space should be sold.
“My mind is always on the fact that we should surplus, sell, get rid of things. If there are people out there who want to buy them or if someone has something that they want to lease — I still think that they need to be responsible for that and they need to pay a fair market value for the lease if we’re going to keep it or if we’re going to own it. We can’t just give it to somebody to pay a dollar a month for rent,” Hall said.
“The city of Kansas City should not be in the business of being a real estate agent or a landlord. We are [a] government.”
Committee members said they’d be happy to sell the property to WeCode KC in the event the measure holds up during a full vote by the council. Buckner said they’d like to pursue the option to purchase it, but recognize the ability to do so would require a significant capital campaign.
Fiscal support for WeCode KC is the best way community members can help the organization sustain its goals, she added.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.