Porcia Hall didn’t hesitate for a second, and neither did the woman seated to her left, Scarlett Davis.
“A grocery store is my No. 1,” Davis said, echoing Hall.
Seated around a crowded table Tuesday evening, the two women were among roughly 400 area residents who turned out to provide their thoughts on what Kansas City business, nonprofit, neighborhood, and political leaders must do to improve a swath of the inner city.
The ideas from participants did not stop at a grocery store. Some called for an expanded police presence, demolition of vacant buildings, better lighting, and activity centers for youths and seniors.
“I’m going to say urgent care,” said Selma Roland when a discussion facilitator came around seeking additional priorities.
Leaders of the Urban Neighborhood Initiative organized the two-hour forum, held at the Scottish Rite Center, 1330 Linwood Blvd.
The Urban Neighborhood Initiative is one of the Big 5 ideas the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has developed for improving the region.
The chamber unveiled the Big 5 in September. Last month, leaders of the Urban Neighborhood Initiative announced that the efforts first would be focused on the corridor between Troost Avenue and U.S. Highway 71 from 23rd Street to 51st Street.
According to initiative leaders, four of five census tracts with median household incomes below $30,000 in Kansas City, Mo. are east of Troost.
A newly formed nonprofit is overseeing and operating the neighborhood improvement effort. Its governing board includes representatives from the United Way of Greater Kansas City, Truman Medical Centers, Swope Community Enterprises, and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.
The group leaders say they hope to align the neighborhood effort with other Big 5 projects focused on entrepreneurship and commercial investment.
In a show of hands at the outset of the Tuesday forum, many people indicated they lived outside the area targeted through the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, but that they came because they have family ties or other connections to the area.
Organizers had planned for about 300 participants, and the larger-than-expected crowd thrilled Sylvia Robinson, director of the Urban Neighborhood Initiative.
“Oh man, this is wonderful,” she said. “The buzz – it is tremendous.”
Neil Rudisill sat at a table near Robinson. He said access to healthy food also was a priority for him.
He said he and his girlfriend just bought a house in the Ivanhoe Neighborhood at 36th Street and Woodland Avenue. They intend to establish an urban farm on the flat, treeless second lot that is part of the property.
Rudisill said they want to demonstrate to their neighbors that you don’t need to attract a big grocery store to the urban core to eat responsibly.
This is no time to wait for help from others, he said.
“We have to put our boots on the ground,” Rudisill said. “As everyone says, actions speak louder than words.”
Phyllis Farnsworth said her table had another way of building a sense of community. They talked about establishing more front-porch alliances, where neighbors talk and collaborate on issues of concern.
If you know those two young boys walking down the sidewalk, Farnsworth said, you are less likely to worry about what might happen when you cross paths with them.
“We connect,” she said. “I know your parents; you know me.”
The next step in the process, Robinson said, is to develop an action plan based on the comments gathered by the facilitators. Each table leader worked from the same five-question “conversation guide.”
Kansas City Mayor Sly James addressed the participants before they began working.
“We are here to work,” he said, “and we have expectations to get things done.”
Mark Jorgenson was another community leader on hand. He is president of U.S. Bank’s Kansas City region and chairman of the Civic Council.
The initiative will undoubtedly run into some roadblocks, he said later, “but we need to bow our backs and make sure it happens. There is good spirit behind the initiative. Hopefully, it will sustain us.”