KC mayoral candidates, startup leaders address key business concerns

Months of candidate forums are complete. Door bells have been rung. Selfies taken. As Kansas City voters head to the polls Tuesday, both mayoral candidates have courted the startup community’s vote.

Jolie Justus — who has branded herself as the next “neighborhood mayor” — and Quinton Lucas — a Kansas City native who has been cultivating hometown support for years — have hammered entrepreneur pain points: issues like access to capital, tax incentives, infrastructure and attracting talent to Kansas City.

“At the end of the day, the mayor is the protector of the city’s interests,” said Eze Redwood, a Kansas City entrepreneur and community builder.

But where do the interests of the city, the next mayor and the startup community align?

Tech talent

Technology companies are constantly searching for talent to help them survive in Kansas City, said Ryan Weber, president of the KC Tech Council. And tech leaders are watching for whether the new mayor will continue to support initiatives like Kansas City’s Smart City project, Weber said.

“I think the next mayor plays a critical role in supporting the future of the tech industry. … We need someone who can continue to collaborate with business while building consensus among other members of the city council,” Weber said.

Though he is not in favor of giving tax incentives to large tech companies like Amazon, entrepreneur and startup attorney Chris Brown said that attracting large tech firms is crucial to rejuvenating the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Kansas City.

“Local tech employers are not able to attract top tech talent because Kansas City lacks the perception of being a tech town,” Brown said.

Refocusing incentives

Justus and Lucas have outlined different plans for the future of development incentives in the city, KCUR reports.

Lucas said he wants to see tax incentives channelled to benefit Kansas City’s poorer east side. He has also said the Kansas City Streetcar needs to run an east-west route in addition to the existing north-south route, so that impoverished areas are brought into the loop of progress.

Lucas said areas like the Country Club Plaza shouldn’t be eligible for the greatest incentive packages, according to KCUR.

Justus’ campaign emphasizes considering tax incentive issues on a case-by case basis, specifically awarding tax breaks to projects with the greatest potential to drive economic growth.

“One of the things I will be doing is looking for opportunities to make small investments that have huge returns for the folks who are needing that capital the most,” Justus said.

She went on to mention the possibility of introducing an angel investor tax credit at a local level.

Awarding tax incentives in Kansas City is a tricky ordeal, Redwood said, since they reduce tax revenue that could go be going to public schools and other important municipal institutions.

Tax incentives given to large corporations shrink the budget from which money would otherwise be invested in small companies that drive the economy, he added.

“Every project that has that receives tax incentives, (needs to have) community benefit agreements, where they’re going to be bettering the community and helping spur more small businesses,” Redwood said.

Bringing down barriers

Justus and Lucas have promised to support minority-owned businesses and reduce barriers to make funding more accessible to entrepreneurs.

“Every pocket of success that I’ve seen in Kansas City has a component of entrepreneurs that are a part of the success,” Justus said.

Lucas has spoken about reducing barriers and removing red tape to speed up business growth, Startland News reports. He has called for the city to purchase goods and services from small businesses instead of contracting with large corporations.

According to his campaign website, Lucas wants to create a liaison at City Hall and the Economic Development Corp. to support minority and women entrepreneurs.

Communication is key

The city must do a better job of giving small business owners a voice in making decisions that impact them, Brown said, recalling issues that arose four years ago when Uber first tried to bring its ride-hailing service to Kansas City. The tech business community was not involved in the early stages of drafting regulations, which reflected a lack of focus on innovation, he said.

“The city should take a more active role of getting out into the business community to hear from us where we are,” Brown said, “because we can’t always just take off two hours of our day to go sit in a in a hearing downtown.”

Lack of communication and coordination between city officials and the entrepreneurial and business community is an issue that has shown up in talking points of both candidates.

“I have suggested that it would be a great idea to create sort of a startup council that has folks that have been in kind of every phase of entrepreneurship, who can be the advisers to the city to make sure that we’re making smart decisions,” Justus said.

Lucas has also spoken out about bridging the disconnect so that innovators feel more comfortable taking risks in Kansas City.

“One of the biggest things I want (startups) to not worry about is that City Hall is unfriendly to innovation or that City Hall is creating regulations without working with you,” Lucas said.

The next mayor will play a pivotal role in the entrepreneurial community, Brown said.

“It’s really easy for us to focus on our business and not think about the local government,” he said. “We have to be engaged with the people who are running our city, because they need our input.”

This story was produced through a collaboration between Missouri Business Alert and Startland News.

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