THE HIGHLINE LOWDOWN
The Transformational Impact of Public Service
The buzzword of the 2000's was "disruption" -- which is just blowing something up without restoring anything better. At Highline, we believe in transformation, which is disruption then rebuilding with something better.
It’s our goal to work with people who are making a transformational impact – whether in their community, at their organization or more broadly across the region.
There's no better example than Katherine Carttar, the Executive Director of ULI Kansas City. Prior to ULI, Kathrine’s resume includes various stops around the KC region – including serving in Edwardsville, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/KCK, and KCMO. She’s been involved in public service since the very start of her career, where she served in the Peace Corps, and where we begin our conversation.
Brett: You began your career in the Peace Corps after deciding that investment banking wasn’t for you. How did the Peace Corps change you?
Katherine: A lot of ways. The Peace Corps seems like this really altruistic thing from the outside. But for those of us on the inside, you know that you are the one affected most of all. Yes, you’re helping folks and making a valuable contribution to the community, but really this is about you and learning about who you are and what is important.
Honestly, some of the larger lesson I learned have carried over into literally every job I’ve had since , mainly because I stayed in the public sector. For me, public service has not been about trying to change people, but rather, meeting people where they are and slowly and intentionally progressing together. There are so many examples.
Brett: Post-Peace Corps you kicked off your career in Edwardsville, got your MPA from the University of Kansas, were awarded the prestigious Cookingham Fellowship in Kansas City Missouri, and were the Director of Economic Development in the Unified Governments of Wyandotte County / Kansas City, Kansas. So with all of this experience, is there a secret sauce for economic development?
Katherine: It depends on what kind.
Katherine: This has shifted over time. When I was implementing the KCMO Advance KC Economic Development Strategic Plan, everything was bifurcated into jobs or real estate. We’re trying to attract you to KC because you’re bringing a lot of jobs to the city, or you’re going to build something. Either way we were selling the high quality of life and workforce available in KC. The scale of these projects is exciting. There are incentives and officials get to cut the ribbons on big projects. But over time I’ve come to enjoy the impact of smaller scale, community development
Brett: On the community development side, is there a secret sauce? Are there things that you are like, “I know these will work if they’re implemented well”?
Katherine: The secret to getting a successful project at the neighborhood scale is finding consensus with the community. It’s really hard and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t always work and it takes a lot of time, but when it does work, there’s nothing better. Change is scary, even when you want it. The projects that have been the most successful have taken the time to listen to what the neighborhood wants, while also discussing the realities of the market. If done correctly, the project that is built in the end does not look like either the neighborhood or the developer was envisioning at the beginning of the process. Both sides have given a little, or sometimes a lot, to make a project that everyone can live with and hopefully overtime will all experience a benefit.
Brett: ULI is a forward-looking organization and works to push the boundaries and while KC has made progress over the years, how can ULI help KC do even more?
Katherine: The sky is the limit. Looking at the difference between where KC was when I moved here in 2008 to today – it’s night and day. The long time KC inferiority complex has disappeared. No one wonders why I want to live here after living on both coast as they did ten years ago. Now the feeling is an affirmative, “Of course you want to live here. Kansas City is awesome!” But I think we all recognize that there is a lot of work still to be done. ULI has a unique position as a conduit and convener to help push the development community forward. Our membership includes every aspect of the development field which allows us to tackle big challenges from a variety of angles. Additionally we have the education and research being done by ULI national and connections to every city in the country for case studies. We are learning from the mistakes and successes of cities around the country and continuing to blaze our own trail. The challenges of sustainability, equitable development, women and BIPOC representation in the development industry are part of every conversation, every program we have at ULI. If we tackle these challenges head-on, then Kansas City will be the beneficiary.
Brett: I could either say what advice would you give the 22-year-old Katherine or what advice would you give to a younger woman who wants to get into the industry? It’s funny. I say the industry because I don’t know exactly what I mean because you’re both in public service and real estate. You can pick whatever that means to you.
Katherine: I’d say “You don’t have to have your whole path figured out.” Just be open to following your passions and accepting that your career path won’t be linear. I look at 22-year-old women today and I’m so impressed by their passion and desire to speak up. It’s amazing and I encourage them to keep it up. Being comfortable in your own skin and putting yourself in positions to learn and ask questions is vital. ULI has a lot of education and networking opportunities, like the REDI Program (Real Estate Diversity Initiative) and Emerging Leaders Program. There were 45 industry leaders that either served as advisors or panelists in our REDI program last year. That’s a massive network for someone wanting to grow in the development industry. I told the women in the class to take advantage of this network – “You can now call up any of these people.” That is such a huge thing.
Brett: OK, what are three things Kansas City is getting right.
Katherine: Ok, number 1: I think the newer focus on infill development is huge. Both for KCK and KCMO – recognizing that there is a lot of rehabbing to do, even new infill buildings, particularly single family. This may seem small, but it can have a big impact.
Number two, things that make downtown KCMO a real destination and draw people together more, especially post-COVID, like the cap on I-670. I think that’s 1000% in the right direction.
Number three: keep doing things that make it easier for women and people of color to succeed in the development industry. We’ve got a long way to go but continuing the focus on -- and appreciation of -- small-scale development will pay dividends.
Brett: What are we getting wrong?
Katherine: The constant focus on parking. As someone who has analyzed literally hundreds of requests for incentives, and the vast majority of them is a financial gap because of parking.
Brett: So if we remove some of these parking concerns or parking requirements, we might not need as many incentives.
Brett: What can we do better?
Katherine: First, we need to do a better job of matching development to where the where the workforce is. When development is built on the edges of a massive metro area and your workforce is in the middle, the potential benefits won’t be realized by either side.
Second, I know we’ve have historic lows in unemployment, but the number of people that are underemployed is staggering. So, yes, they’re going to a minimum wage job every day, but if they were able to go to any of our great community colleges to earn one of a number of certifications, they’ll increase their earning potential in a huge way.
I think we’re not telling that story well to employers or employees alike. We constantly hear about the shortage in skilled labor but people can’t just take off nine months and not get paid while earning a certification or doing an apprenticeship program when they have a family to support. There are so many challenges there and I think we can do a lot more as a metro area to bridge that gap.
Brett: Okay, last question. KC has an aversion to density – is there a city that KC should look to as an example of density done right?
Katherine: No city is perfect but there are a lot of great examples that we can learn from. So many cities have transformed their waterfronts from industrial to dense mixed use, residential and entertainment. Louisville, D.C., Boston, Oklahoma City. The list goes on and on. In KC we are making great strides on the riverfronts in KCMO and KCK but we need to continually lean into the density question. Similarly, other cities are doing exceptional work in neighborhood scale infill. Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, to name a few. These cities have recognized their vacant lots are an asset and have found ways to rebuild community and tax base in a massive way by encouraging infill development. The big takeaway is that we need to embrace density to become a world class city.