By Roland Leiser
Kansas City, MO. sits 262 miles from the nation’s geographic center in Kansas; thus the region is known as the Heartland. What may not be widely known is that the city is undergoing a tourism renaissance. Tourism in Kansas City? Isn’t that the town famous for steak, stockyards and the unforgettable song from Oklahoma?
Well, yes and no. You can still get a good steak in Kansas City plus endless BBQ but the stockyards closed down in 1991.
Today, Kansas City aims to take its place on the tourism map, reclaiming downtown for the arts, upscale restaurants and hotels, entertainment venues and commercial offices. As in other metropolitan areas, the city’s downtown had suffered from neglect and a flight to the suburbs. And what a change has taken place over the years! The city’s main drag, actually named Main Street, seems as if it had once been leveled and a new city center emerged from its place.
But the wrecking ball hasn’t been indiscriminate. The Art Deco Municipal Auditorium and the restored Folly Theater–once the notorious Folly Burlesque–survived as venues for sports events and live entertainment. Developers have adapted historic brick structures near the Missouri River for lofts and offices with an occasional gourmet coffee bar. It’s become tourist-friendly with “way-finding” signs such as we have in downtown Washington, D.C., my adopted city.
For starters, visitors can fly nonstop to Kansas City International airport (MCI in airport code) from 67 U.S. cities. If the designation of “international” is a stretch –there’s one flight to Canada and three to Mexico–the airport maintains the illusion of grandeur with such street names as Bern, Paris, Ottawa, Helsinki and Tel Aviv on the exquisitely landscaped grounds. That said, a new stand-alone building linked by a shuttle from the main terminal sensibly houses all the airport’s car rental agencies. Train buffs, don’t worry. Amtrak operates from St. Louis, Chicago and Los Angeles to Kansas City’s 1914 Union station.
“There’s no shortage of hotel rooms at all price levels,” says Rick Hughes, president of the Kansas City Visitors and Convention Association (KCV&CA). About half of the rooms are economy-priced for budget-minded travelers and 29 percent are deemed high-end with such names as Marriott, Hilton, InterContinental, and Hyatt Regency. The rest are in the mid-range.
Among the one-of-a kind lodgings are the downtown Aladdin Hotel listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the mid-town Raphael Hotel, which offer mid-range and high-end rates, respectively. Both date from the mid-1920s and are fully restored. Then there is the historic Muehlebach Hotel in the city’s center. When President Truman’s mother broke her hip, he moved the White House to the Muehlebach to be near her home in Grandview, MO, says AARP magazine, and it today flies the Marriott flag.
The city has logically organized tourism attractions by districts; thus, we have the Library District, the 18th and Vine Jazz District, Crossroads Arts District and the new Power & Light Entertainment District downtown with its restaurants, bars, live theater and the Sprint Center arena.
If there is an overriding reason to visit, surely the city’s museums would rank at the top. And yes, you read that right…museums…in Kansas City. And what an eclectic mix! For a three-day visitor, the choices are tough.
On my trip, I included the National World War I Museum across from the city’s Union Station, the Harry S. Truman Presidential Museum and Library and the Truman home in nearby Independence and the Bloch wing of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Elsewhere, the Steamboat Arabia exhibit in the River Market area houses a huge collection of pre-Civil War items recovered from a once- buried river vessel.. If you’re really into the unusual, check out Leila’s Hair Museum, also in Independence. I approached my visit skeptically but the owner has assembled a unusual collection of jewelry, wreaths and pictures created with human hair. For the kids, the Union Station’s Science Center will provide endless educational entertainment. Likewise, Hallmark Cards Inc., a revered name in Kansas City’s business establishment, shows tourists how greeting cards are made in an exhibit at its corporate headquarters near the Union Station.
Sports fans will head to two centrally located exhibits. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at 18th and Vine serves up everything needed to know about this shameful chapter of segregated American sports. I had toured it on a previous visit and found it overwhelming in detail and information. The College Basketball Experience and National Collegiate Hall of Fame, which opened last year, honors college stars of which a large percentage are African-American. A 60,000 square foot building of fun, games and education, it chronicles the sport’s history and provides courts where visitors can test their skill in shooting baskets at different height levels. Believe me, those regulation basketballs seem a lot heavier than I remember when I played guard on my high school’s team.
Located in the same building as the Negro Leagues museum, the American Jazz Museum offers exhibits and displays about Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and saxophonist Charlie Parker (a Kansas City, KS native). There are jazz memorabilia plus earphones for listening to classic recordings. Elsewhere, a Historic Garment District Museum gives an insight into local economic history. Set up in an office building lobby, the small exhibit is open by appointment and admission is charged. It’s said that one out of seven women had bought a Kansas City-made garment at one time. Nearby a giant sewing needle commemorates this chapter in the city’s development.
The new Bloch wing of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of the Country Club Plaza is awesome in its design and Time magazine recognized it in 2007 as the top in “New and Upcoming Architectural Marvels.” It was partly funded by Henry and Annette Bloch of Kansas City-based H & R Block . The starkly modern structure co-exists with the original neoclassical building similar to the East Wing and West Wing of the National Gallery in the nation’s capital.
The National World War I Museum should not be missed, which is unrivaled in the U.S., according to the American Association of Museums. Built in 30,000 square feet of space below the iconic Liberty Memorial, it features a replica of a scene depicting “no-man’s land” and trench warfare that is viewed from a 200-foot long balcony.
Opened in December 2006, it hosted more than 171,000 paid visitors during 2007, says Denise Rendina, director of marketing and communications.
After touring the city’s museums, what’s a visitor to do at night? Well, my home town includes four casinos near the Missouri River including three with attached hotels. In order of size, they are Ameristar, Harrah’s, Argosy, and the Isle of Capri, says the KCV&CA. To hear jazz for which the city was once famous, head to the Jazz Museum’s Blue Room.
In 2009, the Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts will open downtown for the city’s opera and ballet companies and symphony.
K.C. boasts of 100 BBQ “joints” as city promoters sometimes call them, a claim that I have not verified. Arthur Bryant’s is considered to be the granddaddy of them all, but a Wall Street Journal story on the best regional BBQ once referred to it as “over-hyped.” But choices abound–many feature handsome interiors–and some of the restaurants have multiple locations around the city.
As for shopping, national chains have taken over the retail trade at major centers just as they have done everywhere else.
Even so, don’t miss the Country Club Plaza for its Seville-inspired architecture and its fountains or the suburban Zona Rosa named for Mexico City’s tourist district. Still, Kansas City’s own Hallmark Cards has a handsome department store on the Plaza and small locally-owned shops dot the city’s various neighborhoods.
Clearly, this isn’t your father’s Kansas City. Heck, it’s not mine either.
For a comprehensive guide, contact the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association, 1-800-767-7700 or at www.VisitKC.com.