Kansas City plots lo-tech course to economic growth

Perched on a cluster of hills smack in the center of the world's most productive farmland, Kansas City believes in basics. ''As long as people need to eat,'' notes the city's low-key Chamber of Commerce, ''Kansas City will continue to grow and prosper.''

But growth takes on a very distinctive flavor here in this 1.3 million-population metropolitan area that sprawls from western Missouri into eastern Kansas. While growth-hungry cities coast to coast struggle to keep all the high-tech plums from falling into Texas and California laps, Kansas City counts on achieving slower, steadier growth based on agriculture and related industries.

Business and civic leaders from Boston and Atlanta to New Orleans and Albuquerque boast of netting new computer and telecommunications corporate headquarters. Kansas City has its share of such clean, capital intensive newcomers. But here in a town calling itself ''the world's food capital,'' where most skyscrapers come complete with a view of the Kansas City stockyards, boosterism begins with reciting the litany that '' . . . this region produces 53 percent of the nation's wheat, 69 percent of its corn, 94 percent of its grain sorghum, 51 percent of its soybeans, 58 percent of its hogs, and 51 percent of its cattle.''

City leaders say the grain and livestock that built this city remain a sound foundation for future growth. Here's where to build modern steel mills

Former Kansas City Mayor Charles Wheeler, running for another four-year term in the city's mayoral campaign, goes a step further. He points to the area's central location, unlimited clean water supply, abundant low-sulfur coal, low utility costs, immense underground storage caverns, and free trade zones as ideal reasons for establishing major new heavy industries here. He wants to attract the steel plants and oil refineries that other cities scorn.

''If we seriously intend to compete internationally with the Europeans, the Japanese, and others,'' Dr. Wheeler says, ''then somewhere in this country we've got to build modernized steel plants, refineries, and heavy manufacturing facilities.'' Along with such currently unglamorous basics, he also wants a rail transit system, a bullet train linking St. Louis with Topeka, and a world's fair.

Chamber of Commerce president Robert MacGregor shares many of the same goals. With his downtown office windows overlooking traffic-free streets, he admits that ''we sometimes wish we had more traffic here.'' But he is content to let other cities ''chase the same rabbits, the high-tech industries,'' while Kansas City goes after ''the long-term, enduring industries.''

Kansas City publisher Morton Sosland is convinced that the international grain industry will endure and prosper. From his editorial offices above the Board of Trade's busy grain trading pits, Mr. Sosland keeps the world informed about food issues through magazines such as the influential Milling & Baking News and his latest venture, the London-based World Grain. At a time when grain is in oversupply and underpriced, Sosland says that ''the real issue remains how can the world raise enough food?''

Explaining that recession and artificial trade barriers have ''bottled up demand temporarily,'' he says that the world must find ways to link America's tremendous grain-producing ability with the developing world's tremendous grain needs.

William Johnson, special-projects director for Hallmark Cards, a Kansas City landmark and major employer, says he is glad to work in a town built on grain because grain doesn't have oil's booms - or busts. Growth that preserves quality of life

''We've never taken off with oil or the aerospace industry, but we've seen what can happen in Houston,'' he adds, ''and we want to grow in a way that doesn't endanger our quality of life.'' Mr. Johnson says Kansas City wants to keep its city services running smoothly by sticking with ''manageable . . . single-digit growth.'' Slow but enduring growth, he says, is the key to avoiding such Houston problems as its ''gridlock life style'' and ''having the migratory population that comes in for jobs and then stays on long after the jobs are gone.''

Kansas City has had unemployment problems, with its jobless rate peaking at just over 10 percent last autumn. A large factor has been Kansas City's position as the nation's second largest producer of automobiles. But unemployment has dropped back below 8 percent as auto plants here have recalled laid-off workers. The city's public-private partnership focus on remedial action has helped, too.

A community response to community problems is nothing new, says Johnson. Hallmark Cards, he points out, earmarked $115 million in 1967 to redevelop a decaying 25-block area around its Kansas City headquarters as its contribution to preserving a livable, manageable city. The result today is a gleaming collection of four-star hotels, office and condominium towers, and prestige shopping arcades. He says the alternative ''would have represented double blight by pulling out to leave behind a jobless neighborhood with a devastated tax base while chewing up a nice farm and covering it over with acres of asphalt parking lots.'' Pooling funds for redevelopment

Kansas City's city manager, Robert Kipp, says that Hallmark and a score of other corporations have pooled their money and expertise in a series of redevelopment and education projects ''which couldn't have been undertaken otherwise.''

Chamber president MacGregor says Kansas City's record of public-private partnership achievements has helped both parties because ''this city has drawn on the private sector to discover more efficient ways for delivering city services.''

Hallmark executive William Hall says that working closely with the city on such projects as providing summer jobs for the unemployed and weatherizing homes for the poor has proved so successful that ''we've signed up 80 companies that have pledged to donate at least 2 percent of their pretax profits.''

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