Sly James Talks Economic Development Philosophy to LSEDC Investors

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Rick McDowell, Joni Wickham & Sly James

When Sly James took over as the mayor of Kansas City he vowed to make one change in the city government – To take action.

Whether it was creating a rolling stadium roof or beginning streetcar construction decades sooner than 2014, “We never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” James said.

On Wednesday, the former Kansas City Mayor spoke to Lee’s Summit Economic Development Council investors about leadership, his economic development philosophy and the significance of suburbs to the Kansas City metropolitan area. He told LSEDC investors that the recognition of the costly mistake of past inaction was the catalyst for major changes when he took office.

History of success

As mayor of the city from 2011-2019, James was involved in a renaissance of sorts in Kansas City. The revival included the construction of the Kansas City Streetcar, passage of an $800 million voter-approved infrastructure package, the debut of Google Fiber, approval of the Loews convention hotel, the approval of a new single-terminal KCI and the evolution to becoming a Smart City. But the strides did not come overnight, nor were they result of his labor alone, James said.

“Sometimes as the leader you get to play quarterback, sometimes you have to be guard, sometimes you have to sit on the bench and let somebody else take over. But part of being a leader is recognizing how to make sure that you put people in a position where they are likely to succeed,” said James.

The former KC mayor also stressed the importance of thinking ahead.

“One thing we always have to remember is we build cities for the future. We build cities for our children. If we build cities for us, by the time it’s done it’s too late already,” said James.

While that includes cutting-edge additions like the Kansas City Streetcar and the high-tech resources that are part of being a Smart City, James said it also should include safeguarding and supporting more basic needs, such as education.

In his entire time as mayor, James said the accomplishment he is most proud of is the founding of Turn the Page KC. The non-profit, which James founded in 2011, seeks to increase the reading proficiency for 3rd graders in the city.

Most of all, James said, Economic Development work is never finished.

Since leaving office in 2019, James began a consulting firm with his former Chief of Staff, Joni Wickham. Wickham James Strategies & Solutions advises on public policy, infrastructure, economic development campaigns and more.